February 5, 2024

January Reading Recap

I started off the year with a lot of reading!

THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD AND OTHER STORIES by Ursula K. Le Guin: What Le Guin excels at is imagining a culture and bringing it to life with well-considered, fascinating detail, and the stories in this collection really show off this talent for approaching science fiction anthropologically.

In several of the stories, Le Guin revisits a culture she created earlier and takes the opportunity to explore the implications at leisure. "Coming of Age in Karhide" uses a young person's perspective to explain the practical workings of the Gethenian gender and sexuality established in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. "Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways" are love stories set on the planet O, where marriages involve four people, linked in a specific arrangement. These stories are all light on plot but strong on developing the characters and the complicated dynamics of their relationships.

The world of "Solitude" is one where relationships are nearly forbidden, and the way Le Guin explores that idea with characters from inside and outside the culture is thought-provoking and affecting. In "The Birthday of the World", the narrator is so deep inside a particular religious tradition that the reader only gets to understand it gradually, as Le Guin masterfully unspools the story.

The book ends with a novella, "Paradises Lost", that's just the sort of generation ship story I've been wanting to read. The main characters are the fifth generation born on a ship that left Earth bound for a distant planet. The journey will end in the next generation, when these characters are old, and so they grow up viewing the ship as their entire world and never really understanding the irrelevant concept of a planet. Le Guin depicts life in this limited situation with insight, developing the plot carefully and cleverly. It's a captivating finale to a superb collection.

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula K. Le Guin: Something disturbing happens when George dreams. After particularly vivid dreams, he wakes to discover the world has changed to match whatever he dreamed, and he's the only one who remembers the old reality. Desperate to stop the dreams and their unpredictable consequences, George turns to drugs, and that gets him sent for therapy with Dr. Haber, a specialist in sleep and dream disorders. Haber thinks George's claims sound delusional, but he's eager to put George into a dream state and study the EEG. If Haber can get to the bottom of what in George's dreams is making him so afraid, maybe he can learn something that will do good in the world, and also elevate his status as a researcher.

I really liked this short, smart novel. It was published in 1971, and early on, it felt very of that era to me, especially when Dr. Haber delivers long, expositional monologues. I couldn't find a connection at first to the later Le Guin stories I'd just read, but as the story develops, more of her subtlety and interests emerge. The way the plot unfolds chapter by chapter is so clever, unexpected, and ultimately moving.

JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE by Naomi Kanakia: Tara is the first trans girl to attend Ainsley Academy. On the surface, everyone at the all-girls school is welcoming and supportive, but Tara is finding it hard to fit in. She isn't rich or white like most of the other students, and she's a nerd who loves reading famous speeches but still performs terribly in the debate club. Though she's been able to transition socially at home and school, she hasn't started hormones due to oppressive state laws and her parents' concern that an investigation by child welfare services could endanger their visas. Only when Tara interviews for a spot in the school's elite club, the Sibyls, does she find somewhere to belong, with true friends who fully accept her. But then the school administration questions whether Tara is eligible to become a Sibyl, sparking a controversy that splits the club and soon spreads beyond the school. Tara has to decide if she's willing step into the public spotlight and speak out for herself.

Through Tara's first person narration, Kanakia portrays a realistically complicated character who has mixed feelings about so much in her life, as real people do. I enjoyed the character's honesty and nuance, and I felt for her in the story's joy and pain. Other characters are also well developed, especially Tara's parents, who are supportive and trying hard, but don't always get things right. I wished the dialogue had been smoother, and the plot was a bit unevenly paced. Despite some flaws, I'm happy this book is here.

THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE by James McBride: By 1936, most of the Jewish families of Pottstown, Pennsylvania have moved off of Chicken Hill, but Chona Ludlow convinces her husband that they should stay in what is now a mostly Black neighborhood. Though traditionally the Jewish and Black communities haven't mixed, Chona's grocery store serves everyone, and she intends to keep running it. She also intends to keep speaking out and fighting back against hate and injustice whenever she spots it, no matter how much trouble it causes. So when a Black Deaf boy from the neighborhood is orphaned, Chona is happy to take him in, and to hide him from the state authorities who want to place him in a horrific institution. This leads to whole new levels of trouble, though, with a series of repercussions that involve a wide range of people from in and around Chicken Hill.

I liked so many parts of this novel, but there are so many parts, and I was frustrated they didn't all come together as well as I expected. The book is packed with characters, and it takes some patience to get to know them all, because whenever one is introduced, there's a recounting of their life history, and sometimes that of their ancestors. I mostly didn't mind that digressive style, since McBride is a great, funny storyteller who has imagined a terrific cast. Where the book fell short for me was the plot: While a lot of pieces are set up to connect by the end, I found that ending rushed and unsatisfying, with a number of threads and questions left dangling. Still, these characters will stay with me, as I know they will for so many other readers.

ERASURE by Percival Everett: Thelonious "Monk" Ellison has published a number of novels that have gone largely unread. His work is experimental and difficult, and he's often criticized for choosing subject matter that is anything other than what readers consider representative of Black life. Monk is enraged by the popularity of a new novel, We's Lives in Da Ghetto, praised for authentically depicting the Black experience. After a series of family tragedies, Monk is left caring for his aging mother and strapped for cash. He spends a week writing a parody, My Pafology, a novel full of every infuriating stereotype, and sends it to his agent to distribute under a pseudonym. To Monk's horror, an editor snaps up the manuscript for an outrageous sum, and it's on the way to becoming another runaway success.

I was excited about the premise of this novel, but I didn't enjoy reading it as much as the book I was expecting. Though the novel contains the entire text of My Pafology in all its painful glory, what happens to Monk as a result of publishing it takes up less of the main text, and gets less wild, than I anticipated. Large stretches of the story are about Monk's family, and while his reaction to his mother's decline is emotional, that plot didn't interest me as much as directions I thought the publishing satire might go. The text is also peppered with experimental passages I didn't understand. I'm left thinking that I'm probably repeating all the sins of Monk's critics, and that this book is operating at a higher level of satire than I'm able to appreciate. (As one example, I learned afterwards that familiarity with Native Son would add another layer of understanding.)

I'm interested to watch the new movie adaptation, American Fiction, and to read more of Everett's many and wildly varied books.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Nicholas Dames shares an excerpt from his book about the history of the chapter: "The conventionality of the chapter places it in the middle of a spectrum of form: too ordinary to be easily apparent as a particular aesthetic method or choice, too necessary to eliminate in the name of an antiformal freedom that claims to speak on behalf of pure 'life.' That intermediate position is a place, we might say, where form's deliberate artifice and life's unruly vibrancy mix most intimately. The chapter has one foot in both restriction and freedom, diluting the force of both: a not very severe restriction, a somewhat circumscribed freedom."