April 7, 2022

March Reading Recap

Last month's reading took me into many unfamiliar worlds:

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler: The children of Junius Booth grow up in the shadow of their father's fame as both a Shakespearean actor and a drunken eccentric. Most of the sons aspire to a career in the theater, and Edwin will eventually be heralded as a great actor. Rosalie aspires to leave the family home one way or another, but she's needed at her mother's side. Asia aspires to a life of beauty and purpose, and she loves her family with fierce intensity, especially her brother John. As the favored child, John Wilkes is indulged despite getting into frequent trouble, because it's understood within the Booth family that he's destined for greatness.

This novel is a wonderful addition to one of my favorite genres, historical fiction that closely follows the known facts of a person or event, but gets to invent the small moments and interior lives of the characters. The fascinating Booth family provided plenty of material for Fowler to draw on, but she also had plenty of room for invention, and she portrays each family member with care and nuance. As always in Fowler's writing, the narrative is full of sharp observations and dry humor that conveys the humanity of these historical figures, even the infamous assassin. The tension of reading toward a historically inevitable outcome pulled me through the pages, but I also kept wanting to slow down and savor the well-crafted paragraphs. BOOTH was everything I hoped it would be, and then some.

THE ACTUAL STAR by Monica Byrne: Three storylines set millennia apart all converge around a sacred cave in what is today called Belize. In 1012, the young members of a royal family hope to restore prosperity to their declining empire by honoring the gods with proper rituals. In 2012, an American teenager with Mayan ancestry travels to Belize for the turn of the ancient calendar, and she feels drawn to the cave once used for sacrificial ceremonies. In 3012, when most humans have adopted nomadic lives in response to climate disasters, a researcher raises questions that threaten the world's dominant belief system. Life in the far future is shaped by the legends of these long ago young people and their mysterious fates, and as each timeline progresses in the story, the connections proliferate.

I enjoyed this ambitious novel overall, though some elements worked better for me than others. Byrne incorporates an impressive amount of research and creativity into the three story worlds, and while there's a tendency toward long expositional passages especially at the beginning, I did eventually feel immersed in the different time periods. I didn't connect as fully with most of the characters, but I was still invested in finding out what was going to happen to them. The ideas about layers of religions accumulating over time fascinated me, even though I don't share the spiritual pull experienced by the characters. My favorite aspect of the book was watching the pieces of history fall into place, and Byrne structured the novel well to highlight these satisfying connections.

NINEFOX GAMBIT by Yoon Ha Lee: After ordering an unorthodox formation during a bloody battle, Captain Kel Cheris expects her military service to end in disgrace. Instead, she's given the questionable honor of taking on a difficult mission with little information. Cheris's goal is to scour the calendrical rot wreaking havoc on the mathematical forces powering society and technology. Her primary weapon will be an immortal general infamous for his genius and his madness. What nobody warns her is that General Shuos Jedao currently exists only as a ghost, and he'll be anchored to Cheris's mind until they figure out who is behind the rot and how to fix it.

This is a much more military-focused sort of space opera than I generally read, and I wasn't in it for the many battle scenes, but I enjoyed the story pretty well despite that. Cheris and Jedao are both excellent characters, and what kept me engrossed was watching their evolving dynamic as they negotiate working together in strange circumstances. Other characters also get nicely specific depictions, even when they only appear for a few pages. What first drew me to the story was the calendar-based system of magic or science (I'm still not decided on which description fits), and I was disappointed there wasn't a deeper exploration of how and why it works. But the ideas make for some interesting worldbuilding, and the story within the world is an exciting one. There are two more novels in the trilogy, but I found the ending of this one conclusive enough.

WHEN I'M GONE, LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST by Quan Barry: Chuluun, a novice monk in Mongolia, is tasked with helping locate the latest reincarnation of an enlightened Buddhist teacher. He's only been away from the monastery for a day when he somehow gets involved in sheep theft, but he eventually makes it to the capital to meet up with his twin brother. Mun used to be a monk as well, and he's the reincarnation of another old soul, yet he renounced monastic life and now works as a tour guide in the city. Still, he agrees to help Chuluun, and the brothers join a small group to drive across the vastness of Mongolia in search of the child who will carry on the faith.

I knew almost nothing about Mongolia and the Buddhism practiced there, so I was interested in the setting and situation portrayed in the novel. I grew attached to the well-drawn characters, and I appreciated the humor in Chuluun's narration. The book's plot is the journey around Mongolia and the various obstacles and people encountered along the way, but the focus is more on character introspection. Though composed of very short chapters, the story moves slowly, in a meditative way befitting the monk narrator. I would have preferred a different style and pace, but I think the book is well written and that Barry successfully achieved her intended effects.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Matt Bell talks to Hannah Gerson about his new craft book, REFUSE TO BE DONE, in an interview about revision: "I think the second draft is often the one that feels most like what I imagined novel writing to be, before I did it: I'm working from an outline, usually writing more or less linearly through the story, and making the scenes the best they can be before going on. (I couldn't do this without the exploratory, generative first draft, though, or at least haven't so far.) I usually know my characters pretty well by then, and the voice of the book is pretty established. It's the end of this draft that, book after book, feels most like a real accomplishment: at the end of the first draft, I just feel daunted by how much is left to do, where at the end of the second, I feel like I've written a novel."