Books, May 2019

You know the feeling of returning a library book, when there’s people in the hold queue after you, and you know they’re about to get the notification their book is ready for them? Especially if it’s an ebook, and they’ll get the book itself literally the instant you return it?

If you don’t, I suggest you dig out your library card and try it!

Book of the month: The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams

The first of Williams’s several masterpieces (also including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), it’s frequently cited as one of the major iconic plays of the 20th century. Having not read or seen the play before, I was vaguely aware of the events of the play, but not the framing device – and while the main plot is a good story, the framing device is what makes it truly noteworthy. The entire story is told through the eyes of Tom, who appears as both narrator and character, presenting the events of the plays as his own memories, with a deeply dreamlike and edited quality perfused throughout the design and structure. While unreliable narrators are hardly uncommon, Tom is unusual for admitting as much right from the start, and his recurring narration is a blatant reminder of the inherent bias in the telling. MINOR SPOILER if, in his own slanted telling, he’s still willing to admit that he abruptly ditched his family to run off and join the merchant marine, then who knows what worse cruelty he edited out?

The particular edition I had included notes from Williams on the original production. Weirdly, in his original script and this edition, he had included projections of text, mostly 2-4 word phrases that describe the emotions of Amanda, that would appear on one of the walls of the set. These are almost comically heavy-handed. Thankfully, Williams writes, the original actor for Amanda was so good that he felt them unnecessary, which is a relief.

Genre: character study, high concept. Setting: remembered realism. Format: play. Reason I read it: going to see it. Rating: 3/3

Warbears, Margaret Atwood (words), Ken Steacy (art)

Margaret Atwood continues in her new calling to graphic novels, which seem to be an outlet for more overt weirdness than her novels (which tend more towards surreal and/or dystopian). This is actually a comic wrapped in a graphic novel. The outer layer tells of a struggling Canadian comics company during WWII, where they only manage to hold onto their market because American publishers were (in real life) not allowed to import comics during the war. The excitable new artist’s passion project that eventually becomes the company’s big seller is the inner Warbear comic, featuring an anthropomorphic Wonder Woman-like bear who fights for Canada. The mix of the inner story of the comic, the outer layer fictional artists, and the real Canadian history make a sweet, but unfortunately rather rushed, story. I would have been happier if it had been half again as long, with added breathing room for character development and setting, and more pages of the comic.

It’s always a nice touch when authors pull in real history as a backdrop, especially obscure or regional history that I otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to encounter because it’s a big world. While I certainly think The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, and iconic for a reason, its setting is in the (former) US, though characters dream of escape to Canada. Most of Atwoood’s work is not only set in Canada, the landscape and culture are so strong as to almost be a character. (Doubly so in Hag-Seed, since the island is also almost a character in its source material, the Tempest.)

Genre: character study, issue. Setting: historical realism. Format: graphic novel. Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 2/3

Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw

So, it turns out that they changed the ending of Pygmalion when it was adapted as My Fair Lady, which was somehow a surprise to me. (Though it’s a 90ish year old play and 60 year old musical, so really, we’re past the point of spoilers.) As was not uncommon at the time, the play’s themes are more overtly moralistic than literary, and the characters are flattened archetypes or mouthpieces for arguments than fully developed people. But Shaw’s enjoyment of and ease with language is obvious in the characters – one has to wonder how much of him is represented in Henry Higgins. (Write what you know!) To my amusement, after being startled by the unexpected ending, Shaw follows up with an author’s note – “people have wondered what happens to these characters after the play ends, and it is of course obvious, but by request, I will detail it”… and the detail is not at all what I would have predicted. Is it My Fair Lady bias? Is it living 100 years after the setting and writing of the play? Is it that Shaw isn’t as obvious as he thinks he is? Probably, yes to all.

Genre: commentary, character study. Setting: historical realism. Format: play. Reason I read it: going to see a different Shaw play. Rating: 2/3

The Black God’s Drums, P Djèlí Clark

In the absence of enough time to read all the Nebula/Hugo/Locus Award nominee novels, I can at least settle for keeping up with the Hot Trends in scifi/fantasy by reading all the nominee novellas. (Or at least I tell myself that I have time to do that.) Unfortunately, the very feature that brought me to read this was also a source of frustration – Clark’s alternate history world-building is deeper and more thoughtful than a brief novella can show, and skimming over the surface of the world was not enough. (I had this same issue with the Forest of Memory.) Set in a precariously independent New Orleans at the mercy of a cold war between the Confederacy and US, Clark also adds steampunk technology, an ascendent Caribbean, and a horrifying method of mind control for slaves – all left mostly to the background. I would not have just read a full novel, I would read a series, just to find out what’s happening outside the confines of the thinly-sketched protagonist.

It seems to be an increasing trend for authors to turn successful novellas with overgrown worlds into novels or series (Calculating Stars/Fated Sky/future sequels started as a novella), and if/when this happens, I’ll gladly come back for more.

Genre: speculative, commentary, quest. Setting: alternate history, fantasy. Setting: steampunk/fantasy. Format: novella. Reason I read it: award nominee. Rating: 2/3

Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I think that Good Omens is probably the book I have re-read the most times in my whole life, so much so that the cover is kind of coming off. It’s not even my first copy, which I loaned out and never got back (this occurs so frequently that it’s actually called out in the book’s introduction). This revisiting was prompted by the new miniseries – I wanted to solidify my mental image before the show tried to jockey into my brain’s production design. It had been probably 7-8 years since the last time, and I remembered much less than I realized. Specifically, it was MUCH more densely funny than my dim recollection (which was hilarious anyway), and as a regular reader of both Gaiman and Pratchett individually, their collaborative work manages to highlight the best of both of them. Gaiman and Pratchett pull no punches when it comes to the terrible things humans are capable of, as well all of our mundane weirdness as individuals and a group. But they also pull no punches with our kindness. (It’s very aggressive kindness.) The fundamental core of the book is that we are all capable of both boundless compassion and terrible depravity, our path comes from our choices and influences. I hope the miniseries’s debut will drive new readers to the book, and a few more people make the choice to be considerate to the people and world around them.

Also, the other day I sat down to watch the first few episodes of said miniseries, and managed to proceed through the entire six episodes in one go. Oops. Gaiman’s adaptation is amazingly faithful to the book (aside from updating it to the modern day, which is a little weird given that cassette tapes and a tape-based answering machine are plot-critical). It’s a bit uneven in the pacing, which wouldn’t be a big deal except that the book is so perfectly paced, but it shines when Aziraphale and Crowley are in charge. Read first, then watch.

Genre: a little bit of literally everything. Setting: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Reason I (re)read it: show came out! Rating: 3/3 and even better than I remembered

The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey

Perveen Mistry returns for her newly-released second adventure! I’m a huge fan of her as a protagonist, and she receives some delightful character development that doesn’t depend on flashbacks to her estranged husband (but doesn’t forget that plot point either). She’s a budding revolutionary (Gandhi is just appearing on the scene at this point in the 1920s), compassionate to the point of putting herself in danger, but simultaneously unwilling to take risks that might affect her family. SPOILER New love interest (I think? I hope!) Colin is a delightful addition. I appreciate that both the narrative and Colin himself address the inherent power in his position as a representative of the imperial British government, and from being white and English, in the eyes of both the government and Indian society. (SPOILER, his privilege is also impacted by his disability, and that balance is smartly explored as well.) Book 3 doesn’t have a release date or title yet.

I’ve become a person who sets up alerts for upcoming releases and I regret NOTHING.

Genre: quest, mystery, relationship, issue. Setting: historical realism. Reason I read it: continuing series. Rating: 3/3

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