Oval

Anja and her boyfriend Louis live in a supposedly sustainable housing enclave in Berlin, all thanks to Anja’s employer, a corporation devoted to science and sustainability (or the appearance of it). Anja, Louis, and their friends spend their evenings partying at Berlin’s clubs and talking about the new innovations they’re working on, such as an app that will commodify personal connections in an obviously misguided attempt to make money less important.

In one way or another, money infiltrates every part of life in Elvia Wilk’s near-future novel, Oval. Corporate interests govern environmental preservation efforts, scientific advancements, artistic pursuits, housing options, and it’s beginning to creep into personal relationships and philanthropic efforts (as if it weren’t there already). As such, the novel serves as a smart satire of capitalism as its worst. When everything is a commodity, what is actually real? If everything we do is part of an exchange, whether of money, connections, or good feelings, can anything we do be treated as sincere? When the novel homes in on these ideas, it’s smart and funny and disturbing.

Unfortunately, the novel spends too much time, especially in its early chapters, on dull relationship angst and seemingly endless partying. It’s meant to set the scene, I suppose, but it’s just not interesting. But even worse, the back cover copy and the novel’s cover art and title put the spotlight on one tiny element of the story, blowing it all up way out of proportion to its place in the novel. It’s significant, but not to the degree we’re led to believe.

I know many people who don’t like to read cover copy or much of anything else, for fear of spoilers. And it is true that sometimes cover copy gives away too much plot. But I like looking at the cover copy because it helps me set my expectations about what I’m reading so I can read it more intelligently. Am I looking at a satire? An experimental structure? Something plot-driven? I read better when I have at least some sense of what’s ahead, and most of the time, cover copy doesn’t give away so much of the story that I know exactly what’s going to happen at every point. (I’m also, I have to admit, someone who doesn’t care much about spoilers, unless a book hinges on the element of surprise in some way.)

In the case of this novel, however, the cover details an event that doesn’t occur until more than halfway into the novel. And even then, it’s not the main focus of the story. When I read the cover copy, I was really intrigued by the development described, as it set up lots of questions about personal morality, motivations behind acts of goodness, and the possibility of making generosity compulsory. Those questions do come up in the plot, but they are just one thread in the overall picture of capitalism and markets that Wilk is painting. The picture that she paints is also intriguing, but I didn’t go into the book primed for those ideas, and so it took me a while to find my footing and get interested in what this book was actually doing, instead of what I was led to believe the book would be doing. It’s a shame, really, because I ended up not enjoying the book very much until I was well past the halfway point. Would I have liked it more had I been given a clearer picture of what Wilk was up to?

I’m afraid that this experience will not stop me from reading cover copy. I still find it useful most of the time. But I’m curious as to what others think? Has cover copy, cover art, and other material meant to pique your interest ended up ruining a book for you? I’m not thinking so much about spoilers (although that’s relevant), but about wrong impressions of what a book is doing. Have you ever felt so misled that you couldn’t enjoy the book in front of you?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Golden State

Imagine if each person was allowed the luxury of claiming their own truth, building a reality of their own in which they can live. Imagine the danger that would pose, how quickly those lies would metastasize, and the extraordinary threat that would pose to the world.

Alas, it’s easy for us to imagine a world where people can build their own reality out of lies, but in Golden State, Ben H. Winters chooses to imagine the opposite, a world where lies are outlawed. It comes with its own set of problems.

The book’s main character is Laszlo Ratesic, a longtime member of the Speculative Service, a sort of “lie detective” unit within a country known as the Golden State. Laszlo and his colleagues have the ability to sense lies and the authority to access the many recording devices and documents that are part of the fabric of their world in order to get at the truth. Those who are caught in a lie are subject to fines, jail, even exile. And people are easy to catch when every moment is on camera and when people are required to document all of their activities and maintain those documents for later reference if needed.

The novel is built around a case involving the death of a roofer who has fallen off a roof. When Laszlo and his new partner, Aysa Paige, are called to the scene, they notice some anomalies that are difficult to pin down but worth pursuing. But the pursuit leads them to bigger mysteries, involving those who are charged with administering Objective Truth in the Golden State.

It’s not hard to imagine how a world like the Golden State could go wrong. Making lies illegal doesn’t make them impossible, nor does making them easy to prove make them impossible to hide. As in our world, where lies are routinely winked at or shrugged off, the people with the power are in fact able to write their own truth. It’s just that in the Golden State, people are oblivious to that possibility. Gaslighting, which is all too easy in a world where we’re on the alert, becomes a cinch in a world where everyone is presumed honest (or easy to catch).

Winters structures the book as a straightforward thriller, with occasional interludes from an outside narrator who comments on the action. We learn about the world by watching Laszlo work his case. It’s an effective way of handling the world building, as a detective will of course have to visit lots of different parts of his world, while explaining what he’s doing to his newbie partner. The book lost a little steam for me as the plot got more labyrinthine, but, for the most part, I enjoyed myself all the way through. It’s a cleverly conceived world, and a well plotted book.

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The Southern Reach Trilogy

Annihilation was one of my favorite movies of last year, which made me curious about Jeff Vandermeer’s book series that inspired it. It has taken a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to reading the 2014 book series: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance.

In a lot of ways reading Annihilation was a completely new experience, as the movie was only loosely based on the book. The setting and general outlines of the story are the same — a team of women scientists go to explore the mysterious region called Area X. The biologist on the team is the wife of man who was on a previous team, and he returned under strange circumstances. There’s a lighthouse. The psychologist who leads the team may have her own agenda. In both versions, the nature of Area X is never fully explained, and the ending leaves open a lot of possibilities. And that’s about it for the similarities. A lot of the specifics regarding what is happening in Area X and how the journey into the area unfolds are different. So I was continually kept off-kilter when reading, as is appropriate.

The second book, Authority, focuses on the Southern Reach, the organization that is in charge of investigating Area X. A man called only Control has taken over the Southern Reach, and he’s trying to get to the bottom of both Area X and the many failed expeditions into Area X. A lot of this book is about organizational politics, which is not nearly as exciting as a bizarre world where the rules of nature seem no longer to apply. Although I suppose any organization has its own set of rules that a new person has to figure out, and Control is trying to figure out the Southern Reach just as the scientists were trying to figure out Area X. I wanted proper weirdness, however, and it didn’t show up until past the halfway point of the book, when it got stranger and more exciting.

As for the final book, Acceptance, it’s all weird, all the time. This book takes place largely inside Area X, both  in the present and the past. We get to see into the lives of most of the major characters from the previous two books. In some cases, we’re following them through Area X as they try to understand the place. In other cases, we’re seeing that same area before the event that changed everything.

One of the things I liked about the series (and the movie) is its commitment to avoiding explanation. Lots of explanations are floated for why nature acts as it does in Area X. Indeed, even the nature of the anomalies isn’t always clear. Animals act strangely, people disappear, there are doubles, time operates differently. There are lots of things going on, and lots of possible reasons: It’s aliens, human interference, natural phenomena … something we’ll never know. At one point, the characters seem to converge on an explanation, but I didn’t find it convincing, and I’m not sure we’re supposed to.

Considering the three books together, I think the series may be less about the cataclysm that brought about Area X and more about people’s responses to it. That’s why we get a second book that devotes so much time to power plays and office schemes. Of course, that kind of thing will affect human response to any disaster, and it affects the Southern Reach. But this isn’t so simple as a parable about how dysfunctional organizations are a threat to humanity in the face of disaster. It takes a broader view to include other responses. Just waiting to see. Giving in. Exploring and understanding. Asking questions. Fighting. Whatever the threat, there’s no end to the possible reactions. And which one is best in this context is just as mysterious as any other question the books pose.

(Interestingly, I think the movie explores these same questions, just over a more compressed storyline.)

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Stories of Your Life and Others

The stories in this collection by Ted Chiang all deal with our perceptions of the world and how those perceptions may be off or incomplete or … just not the only way to see the world. Sometimes that’s a source of wonder, but it’s also almost always unsettling. If you’ve seen the movie The Arrival, which is based on “Story of Your Life,” you’ll know what I mean. In that story, the main character is a linguist who is asked to communicate with an alien species that has come to Earth. Learning their language then alters her to adopt, at least in part, their perception of the world. The result is lovely in a way, but also tragic.

Other stories deal with our notion of space and the construction of the world, the potential of our own minds, the truth (or not) of mathematics, the act of creating life, the nature of love, and the role of beauty in our perceptions of ourselves and others. Through the stories, we’re encouraged to take those ideas that many of us consider absolute and obvious and consider what it would be like if they were a little squishier. How would that knowledge affect us? What would it mean for the world?

I really loved this collection. I tend to like my short stories on the weird side, and although the form of these stories is pretty straightforward, the stories themselves are all strange. Sometimes you know straightaway what kind of though experiment Chiang is engaging in, and in other cases, it takes a while to unfold. Those latter stories, where it isn’t clear, tended to be my favorites, but I liked all these stories in the collection. There wasn’t a complete dud among them.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Great Believers

She opened the album at the beginning, and tried to slide the papers back into the empty slots. A man named Oscar, no one she remembered, had died in 1984. A clipping about Katsu Tatami from 1986. Here was the bulletin for Terrence Robinson, Nico’s Terrence. How odd—she must have put this bulletin together herself, but she didn’t remember it. Jonathan Bird. Dwight Sumner. There were so many of them, so impossibly many.

Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers puts readers in the middle of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and simultaneously lets readers see the long-term aftermath of being caught in the middle of such a tragedy. In alternating chapters, she takes readers from past to present, raising the stakes in both storylines as we learn more about the people involved. In the 1980s, Yale Tishman, who is helping establish an art museum at Northwestern, is watching one friend after another die. And in 2015, Fiona Marcus, the sister of one of Yale’s dead friends, is trying to find her daughter, believed lost to a cult and now fled to Paris.

On the surface, this sounds like so many recent literary novels. Alternating timelines. Doomed characters. Political resonance. A sense of history. But I found this to be a cut above most such novels, many of which are perfectly serviceable without entirely pulling me in. This pulled me in. First, and perhaps most obviously, Makkai puts names, faces, personalities, memories, and lives behind the grim statistics of the AIDS crisis. The early scenes of Yale, Fiona, and their friends in the 1980s show a robust and caring found family, people who stand up for each other and take care of each other, even when they don’t always like each other.

But, as important as that is, I wouldn’t want this book to be dismissed as simply a fictional chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. Makkai pulls in stories from other eras to show that tragedy reverberates across generations. Yale spends a lot of his time with Nora, Fiona’s elderly aunt, who hopes to donate her art collection to Yale’s museum. The collection is made up of sketches and other works given to Nora by the artists she was friends with in Paris before and after World War I. This community of artists, much like the gay men of 1980s Chicago, saw one member after another die, first to war and then to PTSD. Nora is haunted by one man in particular, who never even got a chance to become known. The loss never leaves her.

In 2015, Fiona is similarly haunted by the many men she came to love, before and after her brother’s death. Fiona became sort of a community caregiver, visiting in the hospital, sometimes even taking on the power of attorney. As the book goes on and more of her memories are revealed, we learn before it even happens just how few survivors there will be.

For much of the book, this present-day narrative lacks the same sense of urgency as the 1980s story. This is one woman, chasing one daughter. Not a whole community of men dying one after another. But, especially toward the end of the book, it becomes evident how Fiona’s past brought her to the place she is, how that tragedy that began when she was still a teenager shaped her ability to mother her daughter.

There are at least two different points in the novel where characters talk about how nice it would be to have all the people one loves all together in one community, those who are dead and those who live. But I think the novel shows, in a not at all sappy or sentimental way, that the dead are always with us. For the characters in the book, they live in works of art. But they also live in how they shape us, how loving them shapes us, how losing them shapes us. The dead are never totally gone.

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Song of Solomon

Deep down in that pocket where his heart hid, he felt used. Somehow everybody was using him for something or as something. Working out some scheme of their own on him, making him the subject of their dreams of wealth, or love, or martyrdom. Everything they did seemed to be about him, yet nothing he wanted was part of it. Once he had a long talk with his father, and it ended up with his being driven further from his mother. Now he had had a confidential talk with his moth, only to discover that before he was born, before the first nerve end had formed in his mother’s womb, he was the subject of great controversy and strife. And now the one woman who claimed to love him more than life, more than her life, actually loved him more than his life, for she had spend half a year trying to relieve him of it.

I must confess that I don’t love Toni Morrison’s novels quite as much as I think I’m supposed to. I appreciated Beloved, but didn’t really get Jazz. Home is the first of her books that truly swept me away. But I keep trying, hoping for that magic that so many others experience. And I know that many people love Song of Solomon, so it seemed like a natural choice for me to try.

It was rough going at first. Milkman Dead is not an easy character to like, or to care much about, which is what really matters when it comes to book characters. He just drifts along, letting things happen to him, falling into relationships and into conflicts according to what other expect. He seems to have no will of his own. And so I spent the first half or so of this novel wondering why I was reading about this guy. The main reason I kept reading was because he was surrounded by characters with a little more oomph.

Take, for example, his aunt Pilate. Born without a navel, Pilate is a true eccentric, living life her own way, regardless of what her brother, Macon Dead, thinks of her. She stays loyal to Macon, his wife, and his children, even when they seem to see themselves as above her. Characters like Pilate, plus the general weirdness of the book, kept me reading. I wanted to figure out what was going on.

And then I started to realize that Macon’s bland passivity is part of the story. Quotes like the one at the start of this post show him as being driven by others, not developing an identity of his own. Yet he’s the center of attention. Perhaps it’s because he’s enough of a blank space that anyone can see whatever they want in him, place whatever expectations they want on him. And that’s no way for a man to live.

Eventually, Milkman is sent on a journey — and he is sent, it’s not his journey. However, it becomes his journey. As he follows his family’s path back south and backward into the past, he sheds their expectations and forms his own identity, an identity still rooted in family, but with deeper roots than those he knew. Milkman follows clues embedded in family stories to uncover where he is from, who his people are, and who he is. He sees how, over time, the stories got bent and changed, just as his grandfather’s name got changed as he journeyed north.

It’s interesting to me that the journey south is what frees Milkman. But I think it’s less about the geographical direction than the direction in time, back through his family’s history. Abandoning that history entirely left Milkman without an identity. The Dead family has sought wealth and status in Michigan but left that history behind. (It’s interesting that the person with the strongest personality, Pilate, also journeyed south at one point.)

There’s a lot more going on in this book. I was fascinated by the glimpses of magic, including the images of flight. And the life of Milkman’s sister Corinthians was a rich story in its own right. And then there are the Seven Days vigilantes. This is a rich book, in which even the names feel significant.

As I read more Morrison, I’m getting better at seeing what makes her so great. Her books are dense, and although the stories are easy enough to follow, it takes time to unearth their significance. It’s not the kind of reading I want to do every day, but it is worth doing.

I’m curious, which Toni Morrison novels would you recommend?

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What I Read This Fall: October Edition

Continuing my record of books I read while on blogging break. If you want to chat about any of these, please comment! (There are mostly taken from my Goodreads account because I did manage to make notes there in September.)

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: The central mystery in this book is ingeniously structured, with one revelation following after another so that I had to keep reading so see how it all shook out. But each character’s actions feel engineered to bring about these events, both those that led up to the tragedy and those that led up to the resolution. Many of the nuances around complex issues (mostly involving immigration, disability, and parenting) are presented, which is great, but it felt too tidy somehow, as if the characters are created as representatives of particular points of view on complex issues, rather than themselves being robust, interesting, complex people in their own right. I cared a lot less about them as people than I did about just seeing what was going to happen.

Spring by Ali Smith: In general, I don’t have a lot of patience these days for books that are mostly showcases for great writing without much plot. Ali Smith is an exception, though. I just love the way she writes about our current moment and the ways people are grappling with it. This didn’t punch me in the gut the way Autumn did, but I liked it more than I did Winter, which didn’t make much of an impression on me. It wasn’t entirely clear to me what some of the characters, especially the magical Florence, were up to, but it doesn’t feel like a book where everything is supposed to be clear.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: This story about a mixed-race (Chinese and white) family dealing with the sudden disappearance of the favorite daughter is compelling and highly emotional. But the emotional beats are too obvious to make it a great book. There’s just no subtlety to the storytelling. But, given my preference for straightforward storytelling these days, I was pretty happy to read this, even if it wasn’t entirely satisfying.

Lanny by Max Porter: It took me a while to get interested in this. The first half, which is mostly setting the scene and establishing characters, went on longer than necessary, and I began to worry that there would be little more to the book than Lanny’s oddness and characters’ reactions to it. And a whole book just like that would have been too much. But the book makes two big shifts along the way that kept me interested. Porter’s style works with the possibly magical nature of the plot, but I wouldn’t have wanted this to be any longer than it was.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Tara Jenkins Reid: I enjoy oral histories, so a whole novel that’s a made up oral history was extremely appealing to me, and I ended up enjoying this quite a lot. I especially enjoyed seeing the characters contradict each other. The story itself doesn’t offer any huge surprises, but I appreciated that it didn’t go for the most melodramatic and soapy storyline, choosing instead to focus on commitment and the different forms love takes. There is a bit of a gimmick toward the end that, to me, didn’t add anything to the story. And the supposedly brilliant song lyrics, interspersed throughout the book and collected at the end, didn’t impress me much. Maybe it would have been better to have left more of them to the imagination.

Everything Everything by Nicole Yoon: This was an entertaining, quick read. I especially enjoyed the way Yoon incorporated Maddy’s journal entries, emails, IMs, drawings, etc. It’s the kind of storytelling I frequently enjoy and it’s done well here. I had some minor issues with the premise early on, but most of those were resolved as the story went on; however, the resolution had the effect of also resolving the book’s central problem in a way that felt like a cheat designed to avoid the central problem of the book. 

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich: Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite writers, and I enjoyed this book about Father Damien Modeste. Father Damien is a priest to the Ojibwe, but he was born and woman and adopted his male persona almost by chance. Erdrich does some interesting things with gender here, using both male and female pronouns for Father Damien, depending on the moment and the priest’s state of mind. But Father Damien’s gender really isn’t the focus of the book. Instead, its the relationship the priest forms with the people and how they shape him. I was a little too fatigued when I read this to pick up all all the nuances, but that just gives me reason to revisit it someday.

The Wall by John Lanchester: This was an entertaining but not especially complex book about a world where borders are carefully monitored after a climate disaster (or series of disasters) has made resources scarce. The main character is, like everyone of his generation, assigned to serve as a guard on the wall, which is a tough life, but a temporary one. Despite it being about a Wall, it doesn’t particularly say much that’s new or revelatory about our current moment. People on both sides of the wall are people. Life is hard in a crisis. Etc. It is, however, a pretty decent adventure story, and I liked it on that level.

The Institute by Stephen King: More reliable entertainment from Stephen King. This book is about a group of kids who have telekinetic and telepathic powers are imprisoned in an institute where they are fed and housed and forced to undergo a bunch of tests until they are eventually taken to the “Back Half,” never to return. Luke, the central character, doesn’t have a lot of power, but he’s super-smart, and it’s fun to watch him work out what’s happening and develop a plan. There are some over-the-top moments along the way, but this was still sufficiently entertaining and often extremely suspenseful.

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What I Read This Summer/Fall: September Edition

Continuing my record of books I read while on blogging break. If you want to chat about any of these, please comment!

Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne: This book starts with the July 7 bombing in London and then goes back to Sri Lanka, where a little girl named Alice is growing up. She and her parents eventually flee the violence in Sri Lanka, but they find different kinds of struggles in London. This book didn’t make much of an impression on me, although it was interesting enough reading when I was in the midst of it. I remember being annoyed by the way the character of Simon (a white doctor) and the bombing were brought back into the novel at the end, but I have no recollection of why! (This is why blogging is so helpful.)

The Trespasser by Tana French: I’ve now finished the Dublin Murder Squad books, and they’re all so great. This is not at the top of my list, but I did really like it. In the character of Antoinette, French shows how being persecuted can really mess with your mind, making it impossible to trust anyone.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: I read this sequel to The Shining after seeing the trailer for the movie. King is such a reliable storyteller, and I liked this a lot, although it is very different from The Shining. The grown-up Dan is a fantastic character, as is Abra, the girl with the Shine that he takes under his wing.

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: So quirky. So unbearably quirky. I don’t know why I finished this. It had some funny scenes, and I guess whenever I was ready to quit, another good scene would pop up.

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge: The sequel to The Bird in the Treewhich I read years ago. These are such gentle, pleasant books about decent people striving to be decent. I couldn’t even stay too irritated at the way matriarch Lucilla manipulates the situation because it all turns out so well (but, seriously, don’t be like that). However, I was a little annoyed at time with how Goudge equated being in a forest (and loving being in a forest) with being close to God. I get that many people feel that way about forest, but I find them oppressive. I do, however, feel a lot of what she describes at the sea or the riverside. I think where that feeling comes about is very much a personal thing, but the way Goudge writes about it, it feels absolute, and I simply could not relate.

The Brontes by Juliet Barker: This is a magnificent biography that takes the whole family seriously. I learned so much. Barker does especially well at picking apart some of the myths related to the Brontes, showing how much is speculative and how much is outright unlikely. And she’s up-front about her own speculations, explaining why she comes to particular conclusions. The section about Anne and Charlotte’s simultaneous, but secret spiritual struggles was especially compelling. And the idea that Emily was so close to finishing a second book! My only complaint is that some of the early chapters about Branwell and Charlotte’s juvenalia were way too detailed. The Angria characters are written about as if they were actual people, and I didn’t care enough to even try to keep them straight. The Angria work is important to showing their development as writers and how they bounced off each other, but I did not need that level of detail. (And it made me glad there was less of Anne and Emily’s Gondal juvenalia to delve into in such detail.)

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What I Read This Summer: August Readings

Continuing my record of books I read while on blogging break. If you want to chat about any of these, please comment!

Stranger in the House by Julie Summers: A really informative book about how reuniting families in Great Britain coped after World War II. I especially appreciated the use of first-person narratives (journals, letters, interviews) of people from different walks of life. After a while, though, the stories started to blend together, even though Summers did try to organize the book in a way that set apart the different kinds of stories (sons returning to mothers, husbands returning to wives, etc.).

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman: This is a wonderful book about a nun who experiences visions that have inspired and moved people inside and outside her community. But she also suffers from painful headaches that, it turns out, could be both deadly and the source of her vision. So she has to figure out what this means for her relationship with God. Will removing the pain and saving her life also remove God’s voice?

Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson: First published in 1912, this book about a black man who is light-skinned enough to pass for white takes readers through many different parts of the both the black and the white communities of the early 20th century. A good story, well worth reading.

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Marquez: As 528 pages, this book was too long for me. But I did like how Marquez spun his web of conspiracy theories to pull readers into that mindset.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Horace McCoy. Short and devastating book about a dance marathon during the Great Depression. I saw the film version of this, starring Jane Fonda, years ago, and it always stuck with me. The book really gets into how desperation affects different people differently and how vulnerable people need more support during hard times.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews: A group of Mennonite women gather to decide what to do about the fact that some of the men of their community have been drugging and raping them at night, claiming it was demons. I really wish this book had stuck with me more. I remember that I found their deliberations interesting, but I don’t remember the specific arguments at all!

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: I loved Washington Black so much, and although I liked this, it didn’t quite live up to my hopes. I think I was in the mood for something more straightforward than this turned out to be. I did, however, appreciate the way the story came together at the end. And, like in Washington Black, Edugyan allows the relationships to be complex.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: One of my favorite books I read this summer. I loved it so much I had to give it its own review.

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What I Read This Summer: July Readings

Continuing my record of books I read while on blogging break. If you want to chat about any of these, please comment!

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: There was so much I loved about this book, but it didn’t come together as a whole for me. There was just too much going on, even when the individual elements were great in isolation. The two parts that really lost me were the book within a book and the voice of the 10-year-old character. I did like a lot of individual passages, and I was gripped by the wanderings of the son and daughter in the latter section of the book. But the experimental style tended to keep me at too much of a distance.

Final Payments by Mary Gordon: I really liked this book as I was reading it, but it has hardly stuck with me at all. I remember that it grappled with Catholicism in some interesting ways, and I appreciated that it showed how hard it can be to please yourself after years of pleasing others.

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynn Jones: The final book in the Howl’s Moving Castle series, although Howl and Sophie are not the main characters. Instead, it focuses on Charmain, a young woman who is looking after her great uncle’s cottage. I loved the world of the cottage and its many moving rooms

Ninepins by Rosy Thornton: A very good book about Laura, who rents out a house on her property to Willow, a young woman with a troubled past. As Willow and Beth, Laura’s daughter, become attached, Laura starts to worry about Willow’s influence. What’s great is that this is a story about decent, but imperfect people, all trying their best. They mess up sometimes, but they keep going, together.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson: I mean. It’s Kate Atkinson. It’s Jackson Brodie. And Reggie, a favorite character from When Will There Be Good News! Seeing Reggie again, doing so well, was a highlight. The crimes in this book, involving sex trafficking, are especially dark, but Atkinson manages to balance the horror and her particular brand of dark humor really well.

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol: I wish I liked this book more than I did. I loved getting the glimpse into the history of the Phillipines, and its intersection with the movie industry. But the way the book was structured was too much for my brain. I think it may have been a victim of timing, alas. I read it while my cat, Anya, was very sick (and ultimately put to sleep). I kept thinking I should switch to a different book, but my brain was incapable of making that decision, so I hung on even after I was clearly hopelessly lost.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: Such mixed feelings about this book! First, it gets credit for holding my attention after my cat died. Not many books could do that. And I liked the nature writing. The story itself was pretty absorbing, even so that I didn’t question how preposterous it was. Once I stepped back, I got irritated at the use of dialect to convey characters’ intelligence (or lack thereof). And I got distracted at how often the characters crossed the state to go to Asheville when other cities were much closer. Some frustrating racial stuff, too, with the black characters existing mostly to save the white lady at the center of the book. That part of the story could have been much worse, however, and it didn’t go in the direction that I was fearing toward the end, so that was a relief.

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