March 7, 2023

February Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading last month:

MERU by S.B. Divya: Far in the future, the genetic descendants of humans roam the stars. These alloys are designed to survive in the vacuum of space without any spacecraft, and some are large enough to theoretically serve as vessels to transport humans. However, humans are rarely permitted to leave Earth, since centuries ago they caused so much destruction to both their own planet and Mars that their scope and ambition were curbed. Jayanthi is unusual among humans because she was raised by alloy parents, and because she longs to see other planets. She also has a genetic anomaly, sickle cell anemia, that makes her an ideal test subject for the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the newly discovered planet, Meru. When Jayanthi is approved to travel to Meru, she's matched with an alloy pilot, Vaha, to transport her and live with her on the uninhabited planet. The two have little understanding of each other at first, but in time, they grow close, and the trial period on Meru starts out well. But not everyone wants their experiment to succeed, and there are many obstacles ahead for Jayanthi, Vaha, and their hope for a different kind of future.

I really enjoyed this book for the characters, the imaginative worldbuilding, and the exciting, emotional plot. The novel's perspective shifts between Jayanthi, Vaha, and another alloy, and all are complicated characters with different outlooks that evolve believably as events unfold. I was fascinated by alloy biology and culture as well as the many other pieces of this future society that Divya created, and the science behind the fiction felt solid. The story takes many unexpected, tense turns, and I remained invested in what would happen to everybody. While this is the start of a planned series, this book stands alone well by giving the characters resolution for now. I look forward to more time in this story's universe!

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers: After nine years tending the monastery garden, Sibling Dex is overcome with a restless desire to leave the City. They take up a new vocation as a tea monk, traveling from village to village with their wagon to provide comfort and respite along with steaming mugs of tea. But a couple years later, their restlessness returns. Dex sets out into the wilderness that humans ceded back to nature centuries ago, where they hope to be completely alone to find themself. Instead they meet a robot named Mosscap. Dex has never met a robot, and neither has any other human for 200 years, since the robots left humanity behind to retreat into the wild. Dex and Mosscap aren't sure what to make of each other at first, or even once they begin traveling together, but in the course of their journey, they learn a lot about each other and themselves.

This is a gentle, philosophical book with low stakes and little conflict, and I was surprised by how delightful I found it, since I'm often not the right audience for that. What made it work for me was how much I enjoyed Dex and Mosscap and their interactions. I also liked the ideas explored by the story world, where humans and robots have a long history together and apart, and society has adapted to minimize its impact on ecosystems. If the book had been longer, I might have wanted something beyond pleasantness from it -- or maybe not, because I read the sequel immediately for more time with this sweet story.

A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY by Becky Chambers: In the second book of the Monk and Robot series, Sibling Dex and Mosscap leave the wilderness to travel together through the villages of Panga. The route is familiar to Dex from their years providing tea service, but now they're uncertain what role to play as the first human to encounter a robot in centuries. Mosscap starts out confident in its task, to ask as many humans as possible what they need, but in time the question leads to more questions.

This is a satisfying follow-up that provides a similarly gentle read to the first book. I delighted in watching Dex and Mosscap's friendship grow as their time together continues. The trip through human settlements means the reader gets to learn along with Mosscap about how Pangan society functions in different areas, and we also get to meet an array of fun new characters. Whenever Chambers writes more books set in this world, I'll happily read on.

HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron is a funny book about a marriage ending. Rachel is seven months pregnant when she discovers her second husband is having an affair. (At least this time it isn't with her best friend, like her first husband.) Rachel wants to get away from her cheating husband, his lover, and everyone else in Washington, so she takes her toddler son back to New York City. While there, she seeks comfort from her therapy group and friends, leading to some situations that go wildly wrong. She reflects on the history of her marriage and contemplates why she's even considering taking her husband back. And since she's a professional food writer, she offers delicious thoughts about food and occasional recipes.

I chuckled a lot while reading this novel. Rachel is an engaging narrator who is consciously looking for the humor in her unpleasant situation, and it works. Beyond connecting with Rachel's sense of humor, I didn't feel I got to know her very well as a character, but I also didn't feel that was a major detriment. It seems deliberate that the characters and situations are often cartoonish to make this a fun, light read despite the painful subject of infidelity.

It's no secret that Ephron based this story on the ending of her own marriage to Carl Bernstein, and that provides a gossipy extra layer to the reading experience. The book is definitely of its time, which makes for both some cringey moments and an interesting look at a certain segment of the early 80s Washington social scene.

LIBERATION DAY by George Saunders: This collection opens with the title story, a long one that refamiliarized me with Saunders's wonderfully strange concepts and quirky narrative voices. And it really did feel familiar, because while "Liberation Day" is a striking and original story, the core idea seems to extend that of the most memorable story from TENTH OF DECEMBER, "The Semplica Girl Diaries". Both imagine a world where a popular status symbol is living people suspended from hooks, but while in the earlier story the people were merely decorative, in this new one, they've had their memories removed in order to provide entertainment as programmable storytellers and singers. "Liberation Day" is far more complex than the grotesque premise, and I thought it was a great story, but it certainly reminded me that writers are often drawn back to the same areas of fascination.

The rest of the collection continued to remind me of that, and there's nothing wrong with it, but the stories kept feeling familiar. In "Ghoul", the characters are trapped in a bizarre theme park, another Saunders standby. In "Elliott Spencer", once again people's memories are wiped so they can be used for someone else's purposes. And in many of the stories grounded in reality, there's a certain sameness to the way the characters fixate on grievances and mistreat each other. Every story offered something interesting, but for me, none lived up to the first story in the book.

If you haven't read much Saunders, I'd recommend TENTH OF DECEMBER over this collection. While it's possible I simply found those stories more compelling because I was less accustomed to the author's moves, I do think they're a stronger set. There was also more joy to be found in the previous collection. LIBERATION DAY is grimmer at least in part because of when the stories were written. A couple are explicitly about our polarized political landscape, and many are struggling with the question of how to possibly do any good in the world. As I said, there's a lot that's familiar here, but I don't fault Saunders for that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders shares her thoughts about Separating the Art from the Artist: "So I have to start off by confessing that this hypothetical separation of the person from the thing they created always rankles me a little bit — because I don't think marginalized creators, including trans creators, ever quite get that luxury. Our identities are always going to be bound up with the stuff we create, even if we aren't explicitly writing about our own marginalizations, and we're highly dependent on our own communities to support us. Someone like Rowling has a lot more leeway to behave like a jerk in public, because she belongs to most of the default categories: white, cis, straight, abled."