Books, July 2019

As you have no doubt heard, local bookstores are on the way out, millennials don’t read, and also libraries are a waste. Of course, common sense is not so common and a citation is needed on those claims.

That said, Amazon controls about 2/3 of book sales and something like 90%+ of ebook sales, and it sure doesn’t do your local bookstore any favors to buy their loss leaders. If your local bookstore or library doesn’t have the book you want, ask them to order it in for you! Or famously expansive independent bookstore Powell’s will ship anywhere in the world for ludicrously cheap and sometimes free.

Book of the month: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

There are some “classic” novels that are so ubiquitous that you already kind of know the plot before you start reading it. (Leaving aside for the moment the discussion of what does and should count as classic.) Whatever I thought I knew about The Picture of Dorian Gray, I was VERY wrong. I knew Wilde regularly got in trouble for marching right up to the line of Victorian propriety and waggling his tongue in the direction of the censors, and this is no exception to his usual MO. But in the pop culture osmosis version, much of what gives the story its thematic impact is minimized in favor of the painting. Dorian’s narcissism and hedonism are just shallowness, instead of the basis for a violent and remorseless personality. It’s glossed over that he personally commits a brutal and violent murder and purposefully drives two more people to suicide. It’s not just a cool painting – Dorian’s immunity from the consequences of his actions enables his shallow, wanton, hair-trigger behavior that grows ever more extreme as he seeks novelty and escape from his few loose ends. Dorian is a true villain protagonist, not one on a path to redemption or an antihero. He’s just a monster whose halfhearted attempt at turning over a new leaf only proves his villainy.

Funnily, I read this exact abridged-for-children version when I was probably 6 or 7. The novel is fundamentally very much for adults! The core themes of Dorian’s vanity and depravity are really not interesting for kids – it requires more life experience and, frankly, cynicism than they have to be really meaningful. But my very vague recollection of reading it back then was that it was just an interesting fantasy premise, probably because they took all the interesting parts out. It occurs to me that such distillations are where the book’s defanged reputation probably come from.

Genre: high concept, character study, commentary, speculative. Setting: magical realism. Format: novel. Reason I read it: I was going to see the play, but then I got snowed out, and then I decided to read it anyway, but only intermittently (yeah, I was snowed out, and I finished it in July). Rating: 3/3

What the Eye Hears, Brian Siebert

I love tap dance. It’s fortunate that it was my favorite back in my dance kid days, because it was also the style I was best at. So of course I’m going to read THE definitive history of tap in the US, the book I wish I had had back when I wrote my longform nonfiction project on tap back in the 11th grade. (It was supposed to be 4-6 pages. Mine was 17. No, you’re not surprised.) And this is truly the definitive history from the earliest origins of the form to the mid-2000s, leaving a window of about five years of retrospection back from publication time.

Unfortunately, because it is a definitive history, it doesn’t particularly take pains to be an accessible one – specifically, Siebert assumes that the audience already knows the mechanics of tap pretty well, and doesn’t stop to explain what any given step or combination entails. This barrier to entry for an uninitiated reader is a real shame, because the story of tap parallels the timeline and themes of American history as a whole: perseverance, racism, creative communities, sexism, Broadway, cultural appropriation, and more racism. Siebert expertly flows from historic cause to artistic effect, with its everyday injustices and outright bigotry, while telling the story of an artistic community that is still driven by sharing and inclusion despite oppressive forces.

However, even a dedicated reader interested in exploring the history of the United States through one of its homegrown art forms like jazz or musical theater would struggle if they weren’t already familiar with what a shuffle is. I wish Siebert had taken the time to explain (or make a glossary/watch list of) basic steps and famous signature or stock routines that were captured on video (though part of his thesis is the fleeting nature of dance and the fact that much was never recorded, and that what was recorded is not necessarily representative of the whole field). If you already know some tap and are interested in the history of the performing arts, and especially the history of race in the performing arts, this is absolutely the book for you. But if you don’t already have that base knowledge of the art, it’s worth spending some time getting there before investing in a long read that will lose you really fast if you’re not prepared.

Subject: history, dance. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read: because I’m always a sucker for tap. Rating: 2/3, 3/3 if you already know and like tap

Dunbar, Edward St Aubyn *

What’s the modern equivalent of an absolute monarch like King Lear? It’s sure not a king anymore, it’s Henry Dunbar, the CEO of a privately held international media conglomerate. Dunbar commands similarly ludicrous money, power, and resources as Lear, on a much larger and more luxurious scale. (A windswept castle is not nearly as sumptuous as a New York penthouse.) Lear’s Regan and Goneril are efficiently corrupt and not personal about it – it’s only accumulating inhuman levels of power. Meanwhile, it’s personal for Dunbar’s Megan and Abby. They’re incompetent enough that their plans could collapse a worldwide company, still effective enough that they might successfully ram them through anyway, and so transparently depraved that they fail to gather any respect and undermine their own plans left and right. King Lear enjoys a deep bench of themes and character arcs. Dunbar is much more tightly focused on Dunbar’s failures as a parent and a leader, especially thanks to the personality changes from Regan and Goneril to Megan and Abby, plus Cordelia figure Florence’s more consistent presence (she basically disappears for acts 2-4 of the play), and the near-complete removal of the Gloucester and Kent plotlines.

A novel enables considerably more room for the inner monologues of the characters than a play does, even one with soliloquies (of which Lear contains relatively few) – we have a direct line to many more characters’ thoughts through alternate POV chapters than is possible in a plan. This is especially for Florence, who is more of a plot point than a character in the play. My one main criticism is that Megan and Abby are little differentiated from each other and their only personality traits are greedy and horny – but as foils to selfless, artistic Florence, they’re extremely effective.

This is the third Hogarth Shakespeare novel I’ve read of the seven out so far. Gotta catch em all!

Genre: character study, ensemble. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Reason: series continuation (Hogarth Shakespeare), plus I magically got it for $1.32 because of sales on sales on sales. Rating: 3/3

Man and Superman and Plays Pleasant, George Bernard Shaw

Shaw was a man with a lot to say, and while he spent time meandering through pamphleteering and essaying, his favored medium was the stage. Critical commentary of Shaw has been done to death, so instead I would like to point out two curious meta-elements of these works that I wish were more common:

1. Man and Superman concerns, in part, the suitability of a young revolutionary as a legal guardian, and later, husband. A mark against him, and part of his own resistance to the role, is his publication of a popular but controversial political pamphlet (not coincidentally, much like Shaw’s own political writing). To my delight, the pamphlet itself appears as an appendix to the play! I wish more stage (and screen) works would take the time to write in-universe documents (and, of course, then release them). I am similarly delighted whenever I am handed a flyer for an in-show protest or a proclamation that’s just been read by the town crier. Or on one occasion – bonked by a crumpled-up letter chucked directly into the fourth row (that actually had a real note on it). Give me more in-universe texts!

2. It is not uncommon for multiple plays by a single playwright to be published together. (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is so cliche that it’s the subject of an entire play itself.) What is unusual is that Shaw selected the works to be included here himself, as well as for the companion volume Plays Unpleasant (coming soon to a month near me), and provided an introduction on the plays, their original performances, and themes. Such commentary is rarely even included in single-play volumes. Not only that, but he took the opportunity to discuss the plays as a group. More plays deserve an author introduction (when possible), but Shaw seized the opportunity to make not one but two truly thematic collections. It’s not always possible or appropriate to compile plays as a volume, but when they are published together, it’s nice to take the opportunity to do it right. (Meanwhile, Ibsen’s works were grouped by prominence, which was… a fine strategy, I guess.)

Genre: all commentary and character study, also allegory for M&S. Setting: realism, except for the bit where they’re randomly in hell for the length of an entire play inside of another, larger play. Format: plays; also, M&S has a political pamphlet as part of the plot, and Shaw thoughtfully wrote that too. Reason I read it: seeing a different Shaw play. Rating: 2/3

The Cloud Roads, Martha Wells

I desperately await the forthcoming Murderbot Diaries novel(s), so I thought I’d read one of Wells’s other works in the meantime. I also deliberately selected a standalone novel since I really don’t have the mental space for more series right now. Unfortunately, I am a doofus, and this is book one of five. Fortunately, the series is complete, so at least I don’t have to keep tabs on when the next book is coming, because in spite of myself, I’m going to read them all.

If I hadn’t come in hot with the high expectations set by Murderbot, which I adored, I would probably have been very happy with this pretty standard fantasy adventure, despite some worldbuilding weirdness. But this book was from ten years ago and Wells has definitely gotten better as a writer. The worldbuilding is especially strange – the fantasy creatures are excessively complex (the good guys and bad guys are bee-like, lizard-like, shapeshifter species – two different species) and the geography (and geology, weirdly) is both plot critical and vague. Unfortunately, POV character Moon is just not as interesting a protagonist as Murderbot, a smartass icon. Sometimes Moon is at the extreme flight end of fight-or-flight, and sometimes he risks life-threatening injury for people he just met and doesn’t really like. Sometimes he finds some rebelliousness in him, and but mostly he’s swept along by the plot whether he likes or even acknowledges it. There’s just not a lot to latch onto with his character. I would rather have read a whole book about the incidental sky-sailor dude with flying boats who’s abruptly ride or die with bee-lizard-shapeshifters he just met. At least he has a sense of humor, unlike the rest of them. He’s probably thinking “if I get out of this, I’ll never have to buy my own drinks again with this one story.”

If you’ve got a teenager in your life looking for swords-and-sorcery adjacent fantasy and you’d like to give them a gift they probably haven’t read, this is a solid option. But if you’re a seasoned fantasy reader, you can not only find better options, you can find better options that are also by Martha Wells.

Genre: speculative, quest. Setting: fantasy. Format: novel. Reason: the Murderbot Diaries are dope as heck and I was hoping this would be too. Rating: 2/3, but honestly, points off mostly because the bar was set really high

* suitable for adult readers

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