May 4, 2023

April Reading Recap

Another wonderful and varied month of reading:

LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS by Ryka Aoki: Katrina Nguyen has saved up money every way she can to buy a violin, and to run away from home after her father beats her for being trans. She heads to southern California, where Shizuka Satomi has also traveled in search of her next violin student. Shizuka needs to find one more musical genius and deliver their soul to Hell in order to fulfill the deal she made with a demon decades ago. Katrina and Shizuka meet, with some help from the donut shop run by a family of aliens who have come to Earth to live beyond the reach of the Galactic Empire. But all Katrina knows about any of this at first is that Shizuka wants to teach her and offers kindness, not the judgement and disgust she's received from almost everyone else in her life. With Shizuka, and later the aliens, Katrina finds a family, one that might have the power to fight back against hate, demons, and galactic threats.

This novel is so original and so emotional. While the overall story brims with fun and joy, it also unflinchingly portrays the violence, transphobia, and racism that Katrina and other characters face. I felt deeply for all the characters, with their many flaws, as they muddle through the strange set of circumstances they're in. The story is full of musical lore, mouth-watering descriptions of donuts and all the other foods of the San Gabriel Valley, and sheer delight.

LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle: In 1915, Adelaide Henry burns down the farmhouse where she's spent her entire life, incinerating the bodies of her parents, killed in brutal circumstances. Before this point, the Henrys lived among a community of other Black farming families in California's Lucerne Valley, but they always remained separate due to a secret shame. Adelaide must take that burden with her when she leaves, packed inside a heavy steamer trunk. She journeys to Montana, where even a woman on her own can acquire a plot of land to homestead. Montana is relentlessly cold long before winter sets in, and survival is a struggle. But Adelaide meets other lone women who help her out, and for a little while she doesn't have to worry about what she keeps locked up in that trunk. Secrets have a way of getting out, though.

This is an excellent work of historical, feminist fiction with a deep undercurrent of horror. The story is unsettling from the first page and contains many disturbing events, but I wouldn't call it scary, and I'd recommend it even to readers who aren't generally interested in horror. LaValle depicts the characters and their interactions with nuance, and he presents a fascinating rendition of frontier life. At any given moment, the threat might be coming from the steamer trunk, from other people, or from the land that's "trying to kill every single one of us," as another character tells Adelaide early on, and it all makes for a tense and riveting book.

ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews: The narrator, who at first only calls herself S, is lucky to find a job after graduating from college into the recession. She moves to Milwaukee, where the company even provides her an apartment, though it's a miserable situation living above a property manager who sends threatening texts every time S makes the slightest noise. The job also isn't great, but it's improved once S gets a college buddy hired as a coworker. Besides him, S knows nobody else in Milwaukee, and she's oceans away from her parents, who had to move back to India some years ago. For the first time, she feels free to explore dating women, though she tells herself she's only interested in sex, not relationships. She does want friends, however. Gradually, S finds the friends who will be able to support her through the difficult times ahead, if she'll only be honest with them about what she's going through.

I was immediately pulled into this novel by the excellent narrator, who is full of longing for love, friendship, and the trappings of maturity. Early on, the plot is sparse, and I expected the character to mostly meander through the events of early adulthood, but in fact there's much more to this story. As it progresses, the novel unfolds layers I didn't even realize needed unfolding, and I was impressed by the overall effect of the many developments. This is a beautifully crafted book about the complications of love: romantic, familial, and above all the enduring love of friends.

→ In THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion recounts the terrible year that begins with her husband's sudden death while their adult daughter lies comatose in a hospital. In the aftermath of John's fatal heart attack, Didion moves mechanically through the practical tasks to be handled, aware that part of her still believes he's coming back. Only weeks later does daughter Quintana wake up to learn the news, and her medical ordeal continues, leaving Didion caught in uncertainty. Months pass before Didion can fully focus on her grief and accept the finality of her loss, and this memoir meticulously documents that process and the events of the year.

Didion approaches this project as a writer accustomed to researching and revising in order to provide the most accurate portrayal. I have the same tendencies, so I appreciated her methods as she returns to certain moments again and again, questioning her memories and trying to reconcile them with corroborating evidence. In some later sections of the book, the circularity and repetition started to feel tedious, and the whole thing could have been shorter, but that's also an accurate representation of grief. I came to this memoir with little knowledge of Didion's work, and I wished for a bit more context around the books and people she references. She had a fascinating life and a wide ranging career, and it was interesting to learn about parts of these in the course of her effective account of one tragic year.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meaghan Mulholland, writing at Electric Literature, finds connections between The Secret Garden and her life with long COVID: "At the time I began the [hyperbaric oxygen therapy] treatment, I happened to be reading Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden to my six-year-old daughter at bedtime. I'd forgotten much of the plot in the decades since last reading it as a child, but I was struck early on by the book's repeated references to the healing properties of air—specifically that of the moors around Misselthwaite in Yorkshire, where orphaned Mary is sent to live with her uncle at the story's outset."