Reading Roundup: September 2018

Hello, friends! The world is on fire and I can’t quite catch my breath when I’m in proximity to the news, which is all day at work, but I also can’t quite bring myself to unplug. What I can do is bury myself in books during my commute!

The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder. I picked this book up from my aforementioned favorite bookstore near my workplace, which sets its clearance table out on a highly trafficked sidewalk, like a trap. It looked like a light, humorous read for my plane trip over Labor Day weekend. This was an error on my part: the story is neither light nor funny, but mean-spirited and shallow. I read the whole thing because it is the right length for two legs of my trip and I did want to see how all these unpleasant characters would resolve their largely self-imposed conflicts. (And I didn’t have a backup book because we didn’t stop by my family’s favorite used bookstore as we usually do when I’m home.) I didn’t enjoy it except for the leg of my trip spent cowed into a corner by a tiny, somewhat malodorous seatmate whose in-flight magazine somehow required her to take up the entire middle armrest and some of my airspace as well. I needed the distraction, and the petty misanthropy of the book matched my own feelings during that time.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. Another pickup from the neighborhood clearance table. (I’m not complaining! Most of my books are still in their 12×12 moving boxes, so the occasional $5 treat is very welcome.) I’ve long been a fan of Nnedi Okorafor’s imaginative worlds and vivid writing; this book is not my favorite of hers, but for reasons that other readers might love. Writing partly in response to the film District 9‘s troubling caricatures of black South Africans, Lagoon imagines what would happen if a race of aliens with collective consciousness landed in Nigeria’s biggest city. The story centers around three extraordinary humans, and while most chapters are written from one of their perspectives, other chapters are told by side characters both extraordinary and not, human and not. (For example, the opening chapter is written from the perspective of a swordfish.) Together, these characters tell a complicated, chaotic story of alien invasion and what the inhabitants of Lagos risk losing–or gaining, in some cases. That is very cool, but stylistically not my cup of tea.

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty.  The Kindle edition of this book has been on sale to promote the upcoming sequel, but after I read the free sample I went to my favorite brick-and-mortar to buy a paperback copy (having learned my lesson from Sofia Samatar’s glorious fantasy novels). At 569 pages, this book is a doorstop, but despite a busy schedule of theater outings and dinners one week, I devoured the book between Monday and Friday night. A reimagining of the legends of djinn and Middle Eastern folklore, The City of Brass reminded me of Samatar’s stories in that it is a richly drawn world barely touched by the overfamiliar tropes of Western medieval fantasy. It is less dense and erudite, but all the more accessible for a breathless read–and it is action-packed at a pace you don’t expect from a debut novel. I want simultaneously to re-read this story, see it as a film produced with the same level of polish as Thor: Ragnarok, and read the sequel immediately (it comes out in January).

In progress

Basic Witches by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman. When I was a kid, I had a slim hardback book called Teen Girl Talk: A Guide To Beauty, Fashion, and Health. It was the sort of girl’s manual that offers guidance like how to do simple calisthenics and choose clothing, nothing useful or racy about periods or whathaveyou. But I read and re-read this book throughout my preteen years; I particularly remember a section that explained the four fashion templates a girl could select as her personal style (ingenue, romantic, sporty, and classic), each illustrated with a swatch of fabric typical of the style (lace, lace, bold stripes, pinstripes–no, I still don’t know what the difference between ingenue and romantic was supposed to be). I studied this manual obsessively because I could not see my own girlhood in it. If this book describes what it is to be a girl, which of these four types would I become? What if they all sound boring and centered on things I don’t care about, like sports and boys?
Basic Witches bears some similarities to a girl’s wellness manual, right down to the calisthenics and beauty tips. But it doesn’t care about performing girlhood correctly–in fact, it explicitly invites readers of any gender, and doesn’t specify the reader’s age. Nor does it provide instructions for witchcraft, Wicca, or similar. It does offer recipes, rituals, and mantras for self-care and self-acceptance, with a few callouts to unruly women in history. Thus, I could see this book making a good gift to an adolescent who is trying to figure out how to express their unique spirit; I think it would have meant a lot to me to see something like this when I  was a confused teen who felt like a girl but not like an ingenue, whatever that is supposed to mean. As an adult, I am sorry to say that the book isn’t doing much for me–though I admire both writers a lot, I don’t hear their voices in this prose, and I don’t have much use for the mantras.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Tor Books offered a free ebook edition to promote the author’s next novel. I’d already read the free sample some time ago and felt it was not precisely my jam, but my Twitter feed is full of very smart women who love this book, so I decided to give it another try.
I’m about a third of the way through, and I do plan to finish it, but it’s somewhat painful going for me–the protagonists are children who have all manner of cruelties visited upon them by classmates and relatives and school administrators, and I am so anxious for them in a way that feels fundamentally different from the page-turning anticipation I felt for The Brass City‘s end-of-chapter cliffhangers. Sometimes fictional anxieties are cathartic in this era of uncertainty and terrible news, but for me it is not working this way. It is an imaginative story full of surprises, though, so credit where it is due.

Elsewhere on the Internet

As noted in early installments of Books I Have Loved, I really enjoyed discovering Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, and this piece in the New Yorker may help you feel the same. (Bonus pop culture reference: the author links Gaskell’s fictions to the recent film Sorry to Bother You.)

In other media news, I tweeted about all the Fringe Festival shows I went to see this month. It’s not as epic as the time I did an alimentary analysis of all the Fringe Festival shows I saw in 2014, but I wanted to capture something of the experience. For many years, I’ve browsed the Fringe catalog and curated an email to persuade friends to see some shows with me; revisiting those emails is a little glimpse into artworks and social experiences that were shared once and then carried away by the tide of time. Anyway, this is the start of the thread.

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