September 6, 2023

August Reading Recap

Last month's reading included the first couple of books from my long list of anticipated summer releases (which will take me through the fall!):

MOBILITY by Lydia Kiesling: Bunny is an American teen who's grown up all over the world because of her father's job with the Foreign Service. In the summer of 1998, she's living in Baku, Azerbaijan, and everything is boring except for boys. What's available in that department are interesting young men who occasionally treat Bunny as something other than a child and offer glimpses into the complex (but still boring) politics and oil jockeying of the region. Some years later, as a young adult herself, Bunny ends up in a decent but boring job on the fringes of Houston's energy industry. Over time, her work brings her deeper into the world of oil and gas extraction, and she starts to better understand the massive industry. Bunny is finally no longer bored, but now she knows enough that she has to reckon with the complicated baggage of her accidental career.

I am once again impressed by Kiesling's ability to create a gripping story by focusing on the details of a life that's often deeply boring to the character living it. I described THE GOLDEN STATE as "enthralling despite how much of the action is mundane daily logistics," and the same is true of MOBILITY. This time, though, the scale of the logistics eventually expands from one teenager's beauty regimen to the workings of the global energy infrastructure. Frankly, I'd expect to be bored reading about either of those subjects, yet they're fascinating in the context of Bunny's life and family, the extended coming-of-age journey this novel follows her on, and the bigger climate change narrative we're all a part of.

CROOK MANIFESTO by Colson Whitehead: Ray Carney has been on the straight and narrow for four years by 1971, after the events of HARLEM SHUFFLE pulled him deeper into the world of crime. Now he no longer does business with thieves and gangsters, and simply serves the decent people of Harlem by selling well-made furniture at fair prices in his (newly expanded!) store. But when his daughter wants tickets to the sold-out Jackson 5 show, Carney calls up a corrupt cop he knows and agrees to do a favor. That favor becomes a long and violent night as the cop's unwilling sidekick, and that night revives the crooked side of Carney's life.

This sequel gets to the action much faster than the first book, and I enjoyed it as least as much, if not more. This time around, one of Carney's associates becomes a character we spend more time with, and I grew particularly fond of him. As in the original, this installment consists of three adventures set a few years apart, and a big part of the fun is watching the characters and New York City change over the course of the decade. Whitehead's descriptive detail, clearly based on extensive research, brings every aspect of the story world to life, from the siren-filled streets to the criminal underworld to the contents of Carney's furniture showroom. I look forward to the final book in the trilogy, covering the 1980s.

THE TWYFORD CODE by Janice Hallett: After a long stretch in prison, Steve wants to stay out of trouble and reconcile with the adult son he never knew. He starts recording audio files on the old phone his son gave him, explaining his rough childhood, his criminal past, and the mysterious disappearance of a beloved teacher. Steve doesn't clearly remember the events of the day his teacher went missing, so he tracks down classmates and records conversations about their recollections. The story he begins to piece together involves a World War II-era children's book by an author named Edith Twyford and the possibility that the book contains hidden codes. As Steve and his friends attempt to retrace the trail their teacher may have followed decades earlier, the mystery grows stranger, larger, and more dangerous.

This mystery presented entirely as transcripts of audio files is clever and a lot of fun. The structure is unusual, as are the twists and turns, and I could rarely predict where the story was going. Steve is an interesting character to follow, and his portrayal becomes more complex as the story unfolds. This is a good book for fans of word puzzles, though no puzzle solving is required, and I haven't read anything else like it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Esquire, Kate Dwyer examines the growing popularity of shorter books: "Thanks to factors like dwindling attention spans, less leisure time, and price hikes across paperbacks and hardcovers, short texts—novellas, standalone short stories, poetry collections, plays, and experimental cross-genre works—are finally getting their due."

→ Molly Templeton responds at, describing her own recent shift from avoiding to seeking out short books: "There's no room for clutter, in a short book, and while my brain frequently adores narrative clutter—stuff everything in there! Give me the history of some strange corner of the world, Neal Stephenson-style!—it has, of late, wanted something else. Something you might call 'quieter,' even though the stories are not necessarily quiet. Something from which everything unnecessary has been gently removed."

No comments:

Post a Comment