Books, June 2018 + halfway through the year

Somehow, the first half of 2018 simultaneously lasted 3 days and 12 years. In six months, I brought to you 7357 pages of 24 books, for an average of about a book a week.

Periodic Tales, Hugh Aldersey-Williams

While the conceit of brief essays each delving into the history and practical uses of different elements is a fun one, this volume got bogged down by the lack of clear theme tying its essays together. Some of them focused on the discovery of the element, especially for rare ones for which there were few other uses to cover. Others were about historic and/or modern uses, or specific applications such as in famous buildings or art, or general anthropology around an element and its uses. Virtually all the titular tales were in Europe, which makes sense given the author’s location in Britain – but while they were spread far enough out over the continent so that it didn’t feel like a British history, they weren’t spread enough to feel truly continental, and certainly not global. If he had framed it as a history of the elements in Britain, or in Europe, I might have been more satisfied. As it was, it needed to choose being either tightly focused or very widely spread in time and space, and it picked neither. If you’re really interested in the anthropology of science, give it a go, but I wish I’d read the similarly-themed Disappearing Spoon instead.

Genre: science, history. Format: essays. Rating: 2/3

Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire *

Hundreds of stories chronicle children unexpectedly falling into fantasy otherworlds. Alice in Wonderland is probably the main source of our modern understanding of the genre, the Narnia books locked in the format, and everyone forgets the best of them all, The Phantom Tollbooth. But what happens when they come home? The later Narnia books show the Pevensie kids struggling to readjust (even though CS Lewis totally slanders Susan in the end, she deserved better), but most of the time the harshness of having to go back to living in “the real world,” after living somewhere special and different (sometimes for years) where they felt they truly belonged, is completely ignored. But these novellas (clocking in at only 150ish pages each) milk the children protagonists’ returns from fantasy world for every bit of heartbreak possible, and then a little more. The characters even directly compare their experiences to Alice and the Pevensies!

SPOILER And then there’s a murder. Yes, in both novellas there’s murder. But the real strength of the series is in its characters – the motives were not obvious in advance, especially in the first book, but are perfectly foreshadowed in retrospect. The best mysteries are obvious in retrospect though, or else they’re just irritating and jerk the reader around.

The series is still being released and the end of the series is not in sight. Novellas are like little bits of popcorn in length, but these are very sad and poignant popcorn.

Genre: character study, thriller, mystery. Setting: fantasy and realism-ish. Format: novellas. Rating: 3/3 for both, #3 will appear in July’s list, #4 releases next year

Eclipsed, Danai Gurira *

You know Danai Gurira from Black Panther, but it turns out she’s also a hot rising star for her playwriting as well. I caught her most recent play Familiar on stage, and scooped up this Tony-nominee to read after the performance. All three works (these two plays and the movie) share themes of African identity, the overlooked and underappreciated role of the continent on the world stage, and young women finding within themselves the ambitions that drive them. Her dialogue is natural, with every scene efficiently furthering plot and character without sacrificing the broader sense of the world – family love and gentle humor (Familiar), or the buffeting forces of war (Eclipsed). While Guirira is known primarily as an actor – and earned her reputation – her writing shouldn’t be ignored for her greater fame. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest theater and/or book source.

Genre: ensemble, character study, issue/commentary. Setting: realism. Format: play. Rating: 3/3, don’t just look at her acting work and think you’ve seen everything she has to offer

A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry *

This classic-for-a-reason is known primarily for its main plot, centered on segregated neighborhoods in Chicago and the black Younger family buying a house in a white area, but that’s not the half of the themes it encompasses. It’s about the importance of carving out a space of your own, finding and seizing opportunities to achieve ambitions (in education, family, identity, and home ownership), building a future for young people through investment in houses or education, unscrupulous or bigoted people who try to undercut all those ambitions, and more. Not only is the play rightly known as an insightful masterpiece of playwriting and key work of American culture, it was the first play by a black playwright produced on Broadway, and was based on Hansberry’s father’s (successful) lawsuit to have a racial restrictive covenant repealed in Chicago under similar circumstances to those she depicts in the play. The characters cuttingly and concisely express their ambitions and dreams, as represented by the life insurance payout that ultimately funds the house, without ever feeling unnatural or forced. The best plays make a statement but also express it through natural, heartfelt dialogue, as this does.

Coming up the reading stack is Clybourne Park, which is set in the same house the Younger family buys and moves into during A Raisin in the Sun, but the first act is the previous owners deciding to sell to the Youngers, and the second act is the same house 50 years later. It is a mark of the influence and ubiquity of A Raisin in the Sun that this sequel of sorts can assume its audience has seen or read the source material (and yet, somehow I got this far without reading it!).

Genre: ensemble, issue/commentary. Setting: realism. Format: play. Rating: 3/3, classic for a reason

Brief Cases, Jim Butcher *

It’s been 4 years since Skin Game, Jim Butcher. You can’t distract us with (mostly) recycled short stories and expect nobody to notice. Come on. I do appreciate having all these stories collected though – while I had read about 2/3 already, it saved me the hassle of running down the hard-to-find few.

That said… the one story that was new for this collection, Zoo Day, was pretty dang great. And that’s not just because of my weakness for the zoo or for Mouse, who is the goodest good boy and, as of Changes, full-time guard dog to SPOILER Harry’s daughter Maggie. We all knew he was smart, but then he got first person narration and is more eloquent than Harry.

Genre: character study, adventure, mystery. Setting: fantasy. Format: short stories. Rating: 3/3, but under duress, because it’s not Peace Talks

* suitable for readers age 13+

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