October 6, 2023

September Reading Recap

I spent September reading three recent releases and two book club selections:

HAPPINESS FALLS by Angie Kim: Several months after Mia and her twin brother are forced home from college by the pandemic, the family has settled into a new routine. Every morning, their dad, Adam, goes for a hike with the youngest child, Eugene, who has autism and a rare genetic disorder (mosaic Angelman Syndrome) that leaves him unable to speak or communicate by any other method. One day, Eugene returns alone. He can't explain where Adam is or what's happened, and Mia constructs her own explanations to stave off the growing concern. But by evening, it's clear Adam is a missing person. The police start investigating, search efforts begin, and baffling pieces of information come to light. Mia, her twin, and her mother learn about things happening in Adam's life, and Eugene's as well, that they knew nothing about. The three of them struggle to make sense of these revelations while solving the mystery of Adam's disappearance.

This is a gripping mystery and a nuanced portrayal of challenging family relationships, just like Kim's first book, MIRACLE CREEK (and a few characters show up in both). Mia's narration provides an incisive analysis of the events, her family members, and their past. The story opens with a believable accumulation of details that combine to make a bad situation worse, and the complications just keep coming. I was impressed by the constant introduction of new twists and reversals that all remain realistic. Eugene's communication problems are also handled authentically, rather than merely serving as a convenient plot contrivance. This novel kept me up way too late reading, and I recommend it to anyone else who can afford the missed sleep.

TOM LAKE by Ann Patchett: Lara's three daughters have been fascinated since childhood by the fact that their mother once dated the movie star Peter Duke. The girls are grown women in their twenties now, but the pandemic has brought them all back home to the family's Michigan orchard. During exhausting days picking the cherry harvest, they cajole Lara into telling the story of her long-ago acting career that led to meeting Duke in a summer stock production of Our Town. Lara delights in sharing parts of the past, remembers others only reluctantly, and basks in the joy of having her daughters close, despite the reason.

This is another beautifully crafted novel from Patchett, full of memorable characters and complicated relationships, all threaded with humor and emotion. TOM LAKE is in some ways a simpler story than many of her others, mainly bouncing back and forth between two summers to tell a story that's sometimes deliberately predictable. But deeper into the book, it becomes clear there's more to the story, and then more again, and the eventual unfolding of layers builds to a satisfying conclusion.

THE DEEP SKY by Yume Kitasei: Asuka and the other 79 crew members aboard the Phoenix spent their childhoods preparing for the one-way interstellar journey to a distant planet. They started their training among hundreds more candidates, and Asuka is always conscious that she nearly didn't make the cut. While out on a spacewalk inspecting the ship, Asuka is witness to a mysterious explosion that kills three people and leaves the mission off course. The explosion may not have been an accident, and as mistrust and fear spread among the crew, Asuka is assigned to investigate. If there's a traitor in their midst, the efforts to fix the flight trajectory may also be sabotaged, and Asuka isn't sure she's up to the task of saving the entire mission.

This is an exciting mystery thriller in a cool space setting. It's also an emotional story about human relationships, developed through flashbacks that portray the shifting friend dynamics during training and the family tragedies that left Asuka estranged from her mother. Both aspects of the story kept me turning pages, because I was eager to get to the bottom of the mysteries and to understand the pieces of Asuka's past. The science fiction of the story is well-developed in places but left underexplored in others. There are also certain aspects of the story that stretch credulity, but I was enjoying myself enough to go along for the journey.

PROZAC NATION by Elizabeth Wurtzel recounts the author's experience of living with severe depression that began when she was a preteen. From this early age, Wurtzel is frequently overcome by feelings of despair and lethargy, and she has anxiety that creates obsessive behaviors. She receives therapy, but her divorced parents argue over treatment and medical bills. Wurtzel gets into Harvard, where her studies are interrupted by bouts of depression, relationships she obsesses over, and self-medication with a wide range of substances. Eventually Wurtzel is prescribed the brand new drug Prozac, and it helps more than any other medication she's tried.

This memoir, published in 1994 when Wurtzel was 27, may have been notable when depression was discussed less openly and memoirs weren't as common. I'm surprised it made the list of "essential reading" my book club was using, when now there are so many other mental health memoirs to choose from. I found Wurtzel's account tiresome, repetitive, and not especially successful at conveying her experience beyond the out-of-control episodes she describes ad nauseam.

My fellow book club members were also not fans of PROZAC NATION, and we decided we're done with that reading list. We haven't finalized our new system for choosing books, but the first member pick is THE HATE U GIVE:

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas: Starr was best friends with Khalil when they were younger, but she's lost touch with him now that she attends a private school where she and her brothers are among the few Black students. Starr is happy to run into Khalil at a party, then concerned by the signs that he's dealing drugs and may have joined one of the gangs that control the neighborhood. Before she has a chance to find out, a white cop shoots Khalil during a traffic stop, and Starr watches him die. As a witness to this horrific tragedy, Starr's testimony might be able to win justice for Khalil, but she also fears the attention if her identity as the witness becomes widely known. So at school, far from her neighborhood, she doesn't let on that she even knew the victim of this latest police shooting, and she has to remain silent as people talk about Khalil as a thug who got what he deserved.

The characters come to life right away in this novel, between Starr's narration that's imbued with her personality, the dialogue that captures the way real people talk, and everyone's well developed backstory. There are also realistic complexities in Starr's life that mean she doesn't always know how to feel. For example, she hates the officer who shot Khalil but hesitates over blanket anti-police slogans because her beloved uncle is also a cop. At times I felt things were a little too spelled out for the reader, which might be appropriate for the young adult audience, but overall I found this an engrossing and powerful story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Lauryn Chamberlain calculates the exponential difficulty of juggling many narrative voices: "As I started drafting, I embarked on my familiar exercise: writing a pivotal scene—a group ski trip gone wrong—from each of their four POVs, even as I knew the ultimate perspective I wanted to tell it from. Who knew what? Who would perceive which slights in this interaction, whose secrets would be revealed? And then I realized: Because all four characters are—or had been, at least—close friends, I wasn't simply handling four different views of the world. I was handling somewhere between six and twelve different relationships."

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