Reading Roundup: December 2020

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I loved this book so much I read it twice this month–once to experience it, and again immediately afterward to pull some of my favorite lines for a longer post. Then, unfortunately, I had to return that copy to its owner–but I think I will buy my own. The hardcover is strikingly designed–appropriately so, for a book that absolutely glories in the physicality of architecture and diaries and treasured belongings.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This book is like the prom queen of publishing in 2020: beautiful, popular, everyone has heard of it. I got interested when I heard it described as a dark fairytale and as a novel of passing. It doesn’t really bear out comparison to the former–the only allusion to fairytales is one twin’s Cinderella-like social ascension–and the latter is complicated. The novels of passing I’m familiar with are from the turn of the 20th century: Nella Larsen’s Passing, of course, but Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun is another great example. These novels tend to be mysterious, close, and deeply focused on interiority; they dwell on the unknowability of others as well as the desire not to be known, and explore the psychological impact of taking on a secret identity.

The Vanishing Half dispenses with a certain amount of secrecy by dropping into many different character perspectives, from the light-skinned Vignes twins to their children, their parents, and some of their romantic partners. The effect is less of a deep dive into the psychology of passing and more of a wide view–not only of how different characters are affected by racism and colorism, but how other characters handle having secrets, contemplating the road not taken, and understanding yourself as a self in relation to how others see you. It’s a book very much of this century, just as Larsen and Fauset were very much of their century in their perspective on race and psychology, and I loved being able to reflect on the differences.

My only criticism is this: a few chapters in, I thought “I don’t think the author has lived in Louisiana.” I stand by that judgment.

Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet. This is a simply phenomenal book about dendrochronology, which is the scientific study of tree rings to collect historical information about things like rainfall, temperature, wildfires, and more–it depends on the tree and its location. I loved learning about the hands-on science, which comes across as both rugged and exotic with various trips into remote locations to take core samples from trees. But the angle that really got my attention is how the author describes (reasonably clearly and succinctly) how dendrochronologists work with scientists in other fields to crossdate tree rings with other materials such as stalactites and otoliths. Bit by bit, she walks us through interdisciplinary discoveries that have led to a clearer understanding of past climate–which helps us understand climate change today.

If The Story of More (which I read last month) is a good 101-level overview of climate change and its key concerns, Tree Story is more of an intermediate level look; it’s very accessible (in my opinion) but a little denser and more scientific. As a refresher, it was perfect and gave me a much more concrete understanding of how climate proxies are used–not to mention a better grasp on tree structure and behavior. (I am a volunteer tree tender, so learning about trees is my thing right now.)

Elsewhere on the Internet

The Most Scathing Book Reviews of 2020

What’s Behind the Pandemic Puzzle Craze?

How Sci-Fi Shaped Socialism

Empire of fantasy: “How did fantasy set in pseudo-medieval, roughly British worlds achieve such a cultural status? Ironically, the modern form of this wildly popular genre, so often associated with escapism and childishness, took root in one of the most elite spaces in the academic world.”

I apologize for the luridness of this title, but I have watched Bridgerton and was terribly entertained by most of it and still 100% needed someone to lay down how silly the central conflict is: On God, We’re Gonna Get This Girl Some Jizz

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