July 7, 2023

June Reading Recap

Last month's reading was excellent:

TRANSLATION STATE by Ann Leckie: After Enae's grandmother dies, sie has the first opportunity of hir life to travel. In fact, sie has no choice but to travel, because circumstances surrounding Grandmaman's estate mean that Enae is sent away from the family home and given a bizarre diplomatic job. Enae is tasked with traveling to distant systems in search of a fugitive who might be one of the translators for the mysterious alien Presger. Meanwhile, on a station elsewhere, Reet is summoned to a meeting by people who have information about his genetic background. Reet grew up in a loving adoptive family, but he's never felt he fit in anywhere, so he's cautiously intrigued by the claims that he's part of a powerful ancient clan. And somewhere else, Qven is raised under the close supervision of Teachers, learning human language and behavior so they can fulfill the role they were designed for, if they survive into adulthood. The choices all three make will have profound effects on the lives of the others, and potentially on all sentient species.

I always love the characters Leckie creates, and I was immediately fond of these three distinctive protagonists. Enae, Reet, and Qven have lives unlike any reader's, but they also have personal foibles and emotions that provide an element of familiarity. Their three separate stories soon converge into an increasingly tense adventure with ever-greater stakes, playing out in a universe Leckie has developed in rich and inventive detail. Throughout, the individual characters remain the focus as they each figure out who they are, what they want, and who they care about.

This novel takes place in the same universe as Leckie's excellent trilogy that begins with ANCILLARY JUSTICE. Familiarity with those books provides some additional context, but TRANSLATION STATE features different characters and settings, and it stands well on its own. It was as good as I expected, but nothing like I expected, because there was no way to predict this utterly original story.

I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU by Rebecca Makkai: During Bodie's senior year of high school in 1995, a classmate was murdered. Now it's 2018, and she's back at the New Hampshire boarding school to teach a class on podcasting. One of her students wants to make a podcast about the death of the young woman 23 years ago, taking the position that the wrong man was convicted. Bodie has her suspicions as well, and as she reviews her memories through the lens of adulthood and the MeToo movement, she forms new theories about what happened. She's also forced to question the role her actions and inactions may have played in the case, and to wrestle with the ethics of turning true crime into entertainment.

Since this true crime story is actually fiction, it combines the tantalizing thrill of following a real investigation with the promise that the clues will add up to something. Makkai does an excellent job plotting out the novel to keep the characters uncovering new information and interpretations in ways that always feel plausible. The details of the characters and setting are also completely believable throughout. Bodie's reflections on New England boarding school in the early 90s are close enough to my own (murder-free) high school experience that I felt significant nostalgia. That surely contributed to how much I liked the book, but the story also impressed me beginning to end with its complexity and insight.

THE IMMORTAL KING RAO by Vauhini Vara: A boy given the lofty name of King is born in 1951 in a poor Indian village to the Rao family, whose successful coconut business has lifted them above the expectations of their Dalit caste. Over a hundred years later, King Rao's success has reached unimaginable heights before resulting in his downfall, and he dies "the most influential person ever to have lived," according to his daughter, Athena. She writes an account of his life from the prison cell where she has been confined since King's death, revealing the circumstances that led to this point by following multiple timelines. Athena tells of King's childhood in the coconut grove among a large, often feuding family. She recounts how after moving to Seattle as an adult, King and the woman who would become his wife found an early computer company, Coconut. And Athena explains her strange isolated childhood, raised in secret by her father after his retreat from a society dominated by the technologies and algorithms he invented.

I enjoyed this novel and the way it combines my favorite genres by telling a family story that starts off grounded in a specific historical time and place and ends up in a speculative future. In that future, the world has moved beyond nation-states to rule by the impartial Master Algorithm, a supposedly utopian solution that's constantly challenged by the story, which focuses on the perspective of people who've opted out of the system. The book sets up a number of mysteries at the beginning to be explained in the course of the narrative, and this structure mostly worked well, though a few things were left less explored than I expected. It's a fascinating debut, and I look forward to more from Vara.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Patricia Fancher considers why personal writing often ignores the importance of friendship: "I wondered if earlier drafts of these memoirs had included more, if these friends were once complete characters. In my imagination, I saw an editor cutting a friend out in order to simplify the narrative. I have, at least once, cut a friend to get an essay under the word limit. I’ve been in workshops in which someone found the additional 'friend character' confusing. I myself have advised students to write a composite character instead of including a crowd of friends. It’s true: these kinds of revisions can streamline a narrative. A network of friends can muddle a storyline—but I also see it as a sign of a rich life."

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