November 5, 2021

October Reading Recap

Once again, my reading month was busy, varied, and great:

MATRIX by Lauren Groff: In 1158, young Marie is ejected from Eleanor of Aquitaine's court and made the prioress of a remote, impoverished abbey. Marie has no desire to become a nun, to lead a religious life, or to be separated from the radiant Eleanor. Life at the abbey is terrible at first, and Marie goes hungry with the rest of the nuns and dreams of rescue. But when she accepts that nobody else is coming to save her, Marie takes control, making changes to bring the abbey money and status. She starts having visions that guide her in reshaping the community of nuns into a prosperous, powerful enclave of women.

I loved this beautiful, surprising story of a woman claiming power and wielding it for good. Marie is an excellently complicated character, motivated at different times by lust and love, by selfish and altruistic desires, by revenge and justice. (Groff created her starting from the few details known about the real medieval poet, Marie de France.) The many other women who inhabit the novel receive complex, compassionate portrayals as well. The story spans 50 years, with many events summarized, yet the narrative remains gripping and specific throughout. I wouldn't have guessed that I was going to find a novel about twelfth century nuns this compelling!

NEVER SAY YOU CAN'T SURVIVE by Charlie Jane Anders is a mix of writing inspiration and craft advice on "How To Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories". The book was originally published as a series of essays at that are still available online, but I appreciated having it to read in a single volume. This was definitely the writing guide I needed right now.

Anders talks about why stories are important even in (especially in) circumstances that make writing feel frivolous and pointless—and I found her arguments convincing in a way I often don't when this topic is discussed. She shares personal accounts of how reading and writing helped her through bad times, and she details how her writing changed in response to real world challenges. Interspersed with the encouragement is realistic, practical advice on producing first drafts even when writing is hard. I've long been a fan of Anders's craft advice, and here she focuses on the discrete elements and temporary decisions that can help get something down on the page to be improved later. The book includes some exercises to jumpstart writing sessions. While it's aimed at an audience of speculative fiction writers, most of the material would be equally useful for any genre. If you're feeling stalled or hopeless in your writing, I recommend this book or the individual online essays.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead: Ray Carney is proud to own a legitimate business, a reasonably successful furniture store in 1959 Harlem that will eventually finance a nicer apartment for his growing family. Carney is definitely not a crook like his late father or his cousin Freddie, even if he occasionally moves some merchandise of dubious provenance. When Freddie shows up talking about pulling a heist, Carney wants nothing to do with it, but he ends up involved in the scheme anyway. In the following years, as business thrives thanks to both showroom and back room dealings, there are more schemes, and Carney has to figure out how to exist at the intersection of straight and crooked.

Colson Whitehead has of course written another novel full of impeccable sentences, nuanced characters, and well-considered moments. Because the subject matter of HARLEM SHUFFLE is less grim than his previous two books (THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS), he has more opportunities to focus on the humorous and ridiculous in his characters' situations, and this story is frequently funny. There is also plenty that's serious as Carney deals with racism, colorism, and the changes Harlem faces over time, through the riots of 1964 (in response to the police killing of a Black teen).

The plot of HARLEM SHUFFLE revolves around the details of several crimes, but this is a crime story in the same way that Whitehead's ZONE ONE is zombie story: heavy on digressions and character explorations that often leave the genre element in the background. But I'm a devoted fan of Whitehead's style by now, and I was happy to ride along with Carney even when it took a while to get to the action. I especially enjoyed getting to know all the story's excellent characters and watching Carney's life and the city around him evolve.

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano: A full passenger jet crashes during a transcontinental flight, and the only survivor is 12-year-old Edward. His injured body will heal, but he's emotionally shattered by the loss of his parents and the older brother who was his best friend. Edward is barely functioning when he's taken in by his aunt and uncle, who are consumed by their own grief. The three of them have to figure out how to become a family and find a path out of tragedy, all while dealing with the media attention Edward is receiving as the miraculous sole survivor. The girl next door is the only person Edward encounters who treats him like a kid, not a miracle, and her friendship is the first comfort he finds after the accident. As Edward's life moves forward, another thread details the doomed flight from the perspective of several passengers, each focused on their own problems and planned destinations.

I liked many things about this novel, though others didn't work as well for me. I was most impressed by Napolitano's portrayal of Edward's mental state, which makes use of surprising metaphors and taps into some very raw emotions. In general, I appreciated everything in the story that was unexpected and specific, such as the way Edward's friendship with Shay develops and the nuanced dynamics between Edward and his aunt and uncle. While the characters on the plane have some original flourishes, they struck me as more cliched and not as fully drawn as the characters in the aftermath. I also found the letters somewhat contrived and was disappointed by where they took the plot in the last third of the book. This was a good read, but I didn't love it like many other readers.

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