Books, October 2018

I learned a new word this week: tsundoku. It’s a Japanese word that translates as the practice of buying more books than you can read, purely for the joy of never running out of things to read. Have you ever heard a word that specifically names the core of your being? Because my 200+ title to-read list/shelf and I have now.

Featured book of the month:

All Systems Red and Artificial Condition, Martha Wells

Imagine Robocop, but with an addition to soap operas and crippling social anxiety, and you’ve got Murderbot. The self-named cyborg hacked the governor on its security drone programming and uses that freedom to watch TV all day while still following orders. When Murderbot finds itself drawn into human conflict and fighting corrupt peers, that complacent existence is shattered, and forced to confront issues of free will and duty to others that it was happy to ignore while it could. I can’t say too much about #2 without spoiling all of #1, but both were delights to read. I have #3 and 4 coming to me soon, which closes out the completed series. I

All Systems Red. Genre: character study, thriller, allegory, speculative. Setting: science fiction. Format: novella. Rating: 3/3
Artificial Condition. Genre: character study, relationship, quest. Setting: science fiction. Format: novella. Rating: 3/3

The Poisoner’s Handbook, Deborah Blum

In the 1920s, the miracles of modern chemistry are leading to rapid advances in food, home, medicine, and more. In the NYC coroner’s office, the staff keep receiving bodies of people who have been poisoned, intentionally or accidentally, by all these new chemicals that nobody has bothered to test for safety. Did you know we used to just blast entire buildings with gaseous cyanide to kill rats? And occasionally tenants? It was extremely easy to frame intentional poisonings as accidents, or even natural death, because there was no data on what dose made the poison or even sometimes how to detect it at all.

Poison was historically a murder weapon of choice because many were difficult to detect, and even more difficult to prove that they were intentionally dosed. A few chemists and pathologists, increasingly salty that murderers and negligent businesses kept getting away with it, set out to invent the foundations of modern forensic toxicology. Their frustration with the limitations of science is palpable. As told by Blum, the stakes are sky high, the meticulous process of inventing new science is gripping, and justice is served. I can’t wait to read her new book on the foundation of the FDA and the invention of modern food safety standards.

Subject: history, science. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3, would murder again

Pint of No Return, Ellie Alexander

I thoroughly enjoyed the first installment of the brewery mystery series last year and I was again charmed. Alexander has started tackling deeper family and social issues in her books lately, this time tackling the protagonist’s tough childhood in the foster system and possible cover-up related to why she was in the care of the state. Book three isn’t listed for preorder yet, but I hope I don’t have to wait another whole year for it.

Genre: mystery, relationship, character study. Setting: realism, mystery. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Hag-Seed* and Stone Mattress*, Margaret Atwood

Everyone knows Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale, which is fantastic (and also the first book I finished after I started keeping track of my reads in 2015), but she is not a one-hit wonder. I had read a fair few standalone short stories over the years, but Hag-Seed was only the second novel of hers I’ve gotten to, and it is spectacular. Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series (also: Vinegar Girl), it updates and refracts The Tempest in the modern day. The plot not only hits all the beats and includes equivalents of all the major characters of its source material (including two Miranda analogues), it is in large part set in a prison theater program staging… The Tempest. I enjoyed the first portion thoroughly, but when it wraps around on itself during the performance of the play-within-the-novel-of-the-play in the final third (which is also the reimagining of Prospero’s illusion magic), it becomes truly transcendent. You don’t need to know the play to read this and have it make sense, but you’ll get a LOT more out of it if you do.

I attended a conference in Vancouver last year, wandered into a used bookstore near the convention center, and asked for a book by a prominent Canadian author. The owner handed me Stone Mattress, a story collection, without hesitating. It kicks off with a set of three stories about the intersecting lives of young Canadian literary stars, but my favorite was the title story, which was a slow-burning revenge thriller that I can’t say much about without spoiling it, but suffice to say it’s topical and satisfying.

Hag-Seed. Genre: allegory, character study. Setting: magical realism. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3
Stone Mattress. Genre: character studies, some mystery. Setting: mostly realism, some magical realism. Format: short stories, some interlinked. Rating: 3/3

Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

I like to imagine that this reading/movie experience was how Regency-era ladies experienced reading Pride and Prejudice. They even have a lot of plot commonalities – and, of course, showy and expensive settings and costumes and art. A rom-com starring a smart, grounded protagonist and a super rich, super hot love interest – his friends and family look down on her and play cruel social tricks – we the readers wonder when and how, but not whether, they will end up together despite his jerk relatives – she rejects him but we know not for long – and her good spirit prevails over the family’s judginess and they live happily ever after. The Singaporean setting even explicitly draws inspiration from European, and especially English, country houses of Austen’s time, though the characters’ runaway spending is more out of control than Darcy’s (though he was known to be relatively restrained). It’s not the best written novel I’ve ever read (or read this month), but it’s dishy and ostentatious and catchy fun.

Genre: commentary, relationship. Setting: realism, romance. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks

Through these essays, Oliver Sacks explores the connection between creativity, lateral thinking, and mental illness or neurological conditions. He posits that such conditions cause people to experience the world, and thus creatively express themselves, in unique and valuable ways. I adored The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and many of Sacks’s essays I’ve read over the years, and I love the perspective and insights he brings to this collection of case studies. He sees creativity, heart, and pure humanity in his artistically gifted patients and their caregivers, not just intractable cases to be pitied or feared. That attitude is still far from universal, let alone during his peak period of writing (this was published in 1995). This volume was also among the first to feature Temple Grandin, animal scientist and autism advocate, who has since gone on to a notable writing career in her own right.

That said, I found this particular volume to be slow-paced to the point of plodding – it really required a meditative mindset before I started reading to be able to fully appreciate it, which was hard because I read in order to reach that point, not when I’m already there. Note: some of the terms used to discuss mental illnesses and people with mental illness, while best practice at the time of publication, are no longer considered appropriate. Don’t use it as a guide to currently accepted terms, though the humanizing approach is still relevant today.

Subject: psychology. Format: essays. Rating: 2/3

*Suitable for high school readers and up

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