Books, January 2019

New year, new books. Also, old books. Also, books that are actually plays.

Book of the month: The Detroit Project – Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67, Skeleton Crew, Dominique Morrisseau *

The Detroit Project is a trilogy of plays spaced through arc of Detroit and its citizens in 1949, 1967, and 2008. I had vaguely had Skeleton Crew on my radar, but when Morrisseau was announced with the 2018 MacArthur award cohort, I knew it was time to sit down and read. (Give me some credit for only being 2 months behind on my reading stack on this one.) Her work can be very fairly, and in some ways favorably, compared to August Wilson’s – Detroit instead of Pittsburgh, wider spacing across time, more than one female character at a time. Morrisseau is constantly reminding the audience of the threat of tipping over an edge that you can’t come back from. That edge itself is different for each character and each play in the trilogy – financial, legal, burned bridges and literal buildings. In each one, someone goes over, and the audience knows exactly why they can never return to the way things were. In lesser hands, these downfalls could be melodrama or just pathetic, but instead they’re gut wrenching.

Genre: commentary, issue, ensemble. Setting: realism. Format: trilogy of plays. Rating: 3/3

Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett

And so re-starts my slow, slow journey through the Discworld. These two are the first of the four in the Witches sub-series, and bring my progress through the massive series-made-of-smaller-series to about 12 total (of 41). But then I got hung up because apparently the Witches books are among the few (along with Tiffany Aching and the city watch) Discworld book sets that have to be read in order… and I accidentally ended up with books 1, 2, and 4. Oops. Stay tuned for books 3 and 4 in an upcoming month soon.

Pratchett is rightfully famed for combining whip-smart social commentary – in this case, a feminist angle on wizardry, leadership positions, and community theater – with the zaniest dang comedy. Wyrd Sisters also adds a hefty dose of literary criticism, mostly of Macbeth but also of Shakespeare more general, dressed up as shenanigans. Given this feature, it should be unsurprising that I was more attached to this volume, but both are very strong. Not only does it comment on Macbeth as a story directly, it also comments on themes that Macbeth itself is examining (ambition, fate vs. choice, the power of the witches and their self-fulfilling prophecies) AND on theater and theatrical storytelling. I’m all about applying skills from the theater to other fields (see: my Halloween science talks are basically spooky themed science stand-up comedy), so my heart was warmed by a character learning to apply their performance to leadership. (I am being cagey here because spoilers!)

Bonus points also to Equal Rites for a truly surreal set piece as the finale sees the heroine rescuing a friend and classmate in distress from the Dungeon Dimensions. Most otherworldly planes where physics doesn’t work as it does in our own are just slightly weird Dante’s Infernos, but Pratchett leans into the genuinely unsettling wrongness.

Genre: commentary, adventure, speculative – fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Format: novels. Rating: 3/3

Live and Let Pie, Ellie Alexander

After thoroughly moaning about the last two installments getting off track a bit, as far as I’m concerned, Jules and co. are back! The addition of new supporting bakery staff, the character development brought back to neglected established bakers, Thomas finally back in character, Jules and mom and The Professor in top form. And no Carlos! (Alexander did too good a job in the early books convincing me that Jules and Carlos are fundamentally incompatible and her slow about-face has been so frustrating.) Some installments have done better than others in showcasing their beautiful setting in southern Oregon, and this one takes full advantage. My only sadness is that there is not enough of Lance, the most loving agent of chaos around town, but there will never enough Lance for me. (Concept: Lance gets a spinoff series of short stories or novellas where he solves tiny theater mysteries and is charismatic. I will accept free books as payment for this brilliant idea.)

Genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The Wedding Date, Jasmine Guillory *

I rarely read books these days without a personal recommendation or personal experience indicating that it’s going to be good, because my to-read stack is currently sitting at 77 books, and that’s only counting the ones already in the house. But in reading NPR’s best releases of 2018, this one caught my eye and I just had to read it. (The same list for 2017 was also the source of The Backstagers.) NPR was right! I was charmed! After a meet-cute in a broken elevator, Alexa agrees to be Drew’s fake girlfriend at his best friend’s wedding, but then they genuinely fall in love, each struggle with their own feelings, struggle with talking about their feelings, and eat donuts. Drama is frequently built on bad communication skills (lookin at you, Outlander!) so it’s refreshing to see characters struggle but try and get better and model healthy behavior. Yes, you can have dramatics without leaning on the device of characters failing to talk to each other! Book two coming soon to a website near you. Book three coming to a bookstore near you soon and to a website near you some time after that.

Genre: character study, relationship. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3

Constellations, Nick Payne *

I’m starting to screen scripts for potential directing interest. Hurray! I found this one-act whirlwind engaging, quick, and definitely a candidate – for some day in the future. The play hinges on the critical mechanism of jumping between parallel futures, interrogating potential paths the two characters’ lives and relationship might have taken. At this stage, I can’t count on having the lighting instruments and design support to pull off this effect the way I envision. (Specifically, I want effects you can only do with those fancy new LED robot light things, and those cost literally as much as a crappy car, and so are not available in theaters that I can currently access.) Back to the shelf for this one, but this one might make a reemergence someday.

Genre: relationship, high concept. Setting: realism-ish. Format: play. Rating: 2/3

* books with content or language suitable for high school or older

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