Books, August 2019

Seattle Public Library’s summer book bingo 2019 is ended at Labor Day… and I got blackout! It’s not just about reading the 24 books (actually 23 this year) to complete the board: since most books could count for multiple squares, it’s about working out the best placement for each title. I had to fill it out three times to “solve” it, but I also only read three books specifically for bingo – and all of them were books I was planning to read anyway and just pushed up the queue. Try it with your own reads!

Book of the month: Astoria, Peter Stark

Hot on the heels of Lewis and Clark’s successful transcontinental round trip, John Jacob Astor intended to establish a fur empire based at the mouth of the Columbia River. And I do mean empire – John Jacob Astor and his close ally President Jefferson saw Astor’s economic expansion as a key counterpart to Jefferson’s imperial ambitions. (Jefferson apparently saw nothing hypocritical about establishing an empire immediately after successfully winning independence from another empire on the grounds of opposing tyranny.) Astor’s company agents were intended to reach the northwest by land and sea, source furs from all over the region, and collect them at their Pacific coast base (modern-day Astoria, Oregon – yes, the name stuck), where they would kick off a global profit machine from China to New York.

As Astoria is not the economic capital of the northwest coast, you may have already guessed that this plan was not successful. But the story not really about the outcome, which is known from the start, it’s about their journey to failure. Both the land and sea parties completely collapses, mostly for completely avoidable reasons including insufficient research, dictatorial leadership, being horribly racist towards the local people (particularly the sea party captain, whose fate as a result of this bigotry I will not spoil), no backup plans, inflexibility, and much more. It’s a tragic, chaotic mess.

Their misadventures are still very relevant, both literally as an important chapter in the history of the northwest, and thematically as a treatise on failure. Stark lingers on the many, many points where a crucial decision could have saved the venture. It’s very literally a cautionary tale – its closest modern analogue that should (and does) take heed of these perils is space travel. Plus it’s an engaging, action-packed tale! Come for the history, leave with a philosophy of failure.

Subject: history. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read it: recommended, moved up in line to fulfill bingo square “set in the Northwest”. Rating: 3/3

The Bard on the Brain, Paul M Matthews and Jeffrey McQuain

So this neuroscience/Shakespeare mashup is literally the most on brand book for me ever, and I’m very sad that I didn’t get to the concept first (though this was written about 15 years ago, so perhaps it’s time for another go-around). Unfortunately, while I love the concept, the execution just wasn’t there for me. Each chapter explores a different topic in neuroscience or psychology via an anecdote/character analysis from Shakespeare. (Matthews is a neuroscientist and McQuain is a writer.) The Shakespeare is mostly used as just to kick off each neuroscience topic, and some of the links between a character/scene and the neuroscience concept it’s used to illustrate are tenuous at best. They also don’t take advantage of opportunities to connect themes across plays. It has a bit of a high school English essay feel to its cherry-picked quotes, thrown in just often enough to remind us that we’re doing literary analysis here. The scientific analysis is unfortunately no better. (I’m disregarding that it’s outdated – all science books become so sooner or later.) The illustrative figures used throughout are so poorly labeled and explained as to become just eye candy. The figures also focus exclusively on fMRI/PET, which are useful but far from the only techniques out there, and which come with important limitations (as all methods do) that the authors leave unexplained. (When you’ve got a multimillion dollar MRI scanner hammer, everything looks like a functional imaging nail.) On the bright side, the authors’ passion for the project is consistently obvious, which earns it back some (small number of) points, and the Shakespeare production photos used are far more compelling than the scientific figures in shoring up the narrative. If you happen to have these exact two interests I have, it’s fun and quick reading, but otherwise… come see my neuroscience of Macbeth and the witches talk instead!

Subject: science, theater. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read it: literally the most on brand book for me ever. Rating: 1/3

what is not yours is not yours, Helen Oyeyemi

For the square “Seattle Arts and Lectures speaker,” Oyeyemi came to town in 2017. This quirky collection of stories around the theme of keys – no really, it works – are all deep-dive character studies in a world inflected with magical realism. Unfortunately (for me and my taste), a key trait of said magical realism is that the setting and magic are more for establishing atmosphere and for exploring character crises than they are for direct exploration of the magic itself. Oyeyemi’s magical realism world (mostly magical Prague, where she lives, and London, where she’s from) leave more questions than answers, but the moods she evokes has thoroughly stuck with me. I especially can’t stop thinking about the relationships between the puppeteering students and their sentient puppets, who are part His Dark Materials daemons, part therapists, and part ghosts. Who is really creating the art? Who’s in charge? SPOILER If you can kill a puppet, does that mean it’s truly alive?

A few characters cross over between stories, becoming incidental players in someone else’s star turn, and most importantly, establishing that the stories all take place in the same world. This is one of my favorite underused and underappreciated short story collection techniques. While Oyeyemi’s use is subtle but unmissable, I do wish she’d had the characters play more than walk-on roles in their other appearances, because as it was, the only function they really served was to establish the single universe setting.

Genre: high concept, character study, commentary, speculative. Setting: magical realism. Format: short stories. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 2/3

Seven Guitars, August Wilson

The one that sealed the bingo blackout, in the category of “about music or musicians”! I previously covered a burst of August Wilson’s Century Cycle (20s, 30s, and 80s, plus I had read Fences, set in the 50s, many years ago) – this is the 40s (1948) and #5 in my progression. Briefly, Floyd, recently released from the workhouse, is determined to recover his and his band’s instruments from the pawn shop and return to his passion of performance. A running theme through the entire series is unachieved dreams, whether by sacrifice for a loved one, lack of opportunity, or structural barriers to success or even an attempt. For several installments’ protagonists (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, and this, so far from the ones I’ve seen/read), that dream is to be a musician. The arts give us a reason to not just live but strive, and for Wilson’s generations of black Pittsburghers to have their aspiration to create be repeatedly denied is heartbreaking.

Genre: high concept, character study, commentary, speculative. Setting: magical realism. Format: short stories. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 2/3 for the reading of the script in isolation, because the story depends so much on the live music elements. I have no doubt it would be 3/3 on stage.

Time’s Convert, Deborah Harkness

I heard an interview with Harkness on one of my several Shakespeare podcasts (like you’re surprised I listen to several Shakespeare podcasts) and was instantly charmed by the concept of her All Souls series, for which she was being interviewed on the occasion of its TV premiere (under the title of its first book, Discovery of Witches). Because the first book had a lengthy wait time at the library, I grabbed this, her most recent book, while I waited. It was, oops, a prequel. So now I know several characters’ backstories (the bulk of the plot is taken up with flashbacks to the early life of a character I think plays a supporting role in the main series), and I look forward to meeting them properly.

Despite arriving in the middle (because a prequel that draws meaning from the knowledge of later events does not just by fiat become book 1 of a series, looking at you, CS Lewis), I rather enjoyed this anyway. One of my fiction kryptonites is supernatural beings – particularly immortals – living normal lives with normal-ish professions, and that is literally the entire premise here. The main character of All Souls is a semi-immortal witch, but she’s also a history professor, and her vampire husband is a genetics professor who seems to be researching vampire and witch genetics. I suspect I’ll get more information about those AMAZING character bios (and fantasy science?!?) when I read the books where they star. I detect some scholarly influence on Harkness’s fiction writing (she’s a history professor when she’s not writing blockbuster novels), maybe because I am intimately familiar with the creative/academic code-switch myself, but it’s not dry as the academic writing stereotype. It comes through as an attention to detail and word choice that generate a precisely imagined and evoked world. I anticipate that when I read the series proper I might have some character beats accidentally spoiled, but if I cared that much about not knowing how events turn out, I’d just read the news.

Incidentally, my favorite Shakespeare podcast is No Holds Bard, the Shakespeare podcast Shakespeare would have listened to.

Genre: character study, speculative, commentary. Setting: fantasy. Format: novel. Reason I read it: tracked author, but, uh, also the series I wanted. Rating: 2/3

The Bone People, Keri Hulme

I have read a lot of books that could be described as idiosyncratic, but none hold a candle to this. The stream-of-consciousness style, intense stylistic oddities, suddenly spiritual ending (after bleak realism for the 80% of the book up to that point) and frankly unlikable characters make for a challenging read with insufficient reward in the plot or themes. But the biggest issue for me was that I’m still not sure what the author wanted me to feel by the end of the story. Am I supposed to feel sympathy, revulsion, hope, transcendence? But instead I felt very little at all, which is reflective of the characters’ emotional numbing, but not in a good (or probably intentional) way. Though I found the three protagonists to all be frustrating, disagreeable people, I found them compelling and deeply developed. I just couldn’t get invested in their story.

Genre: character study, relationship. Setting: realism until the last 75ish pages, then magical realism. Format: novel. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 1/3

The Wedding Party, Jasmine Guillory, and Crashing the A-List, Summer Heacock

In the last couple of months, the “light” reads that happen to have floated to the top of the list have all been romances, rather than my usual mysteries. The genre gets a bad rap for being shallow (and first of all, what’s wrong with reading shallow books? Sometimes your brain just needs something fun. Trust me, I’m a doctor of brains.), but both of these works make a point of including thoughtful commentary alongside their rollicking romances. Unfortunately, Party is more successful in both the commentary and the romance itself than A-List.

Maddie and Theo (Party) get off on a bad foot long before the events of the book, and have hated each other for years. Their character arcs concentrate on their journeys towards moving past bad first impressions and coming to terms with their own actions not fitting what’s expected of them. Maddie spends almost the entire book agonizing over what would happen if her secret relationship with supposed nemesis Theo is inevitably discovered. Of course, it all turns out just fine – nobody is upset that they grew as people and learned to not hate each other, and everyone already knew about the two of them anyway. Their character development is sweet and genuine, and both protagonists end the book happier and better people.

In contrast, Clara also spends almost the entire book agonizing – in her case, over the consequences of her unwanted pretend relationship – and suffering Caspian’s horrible behavior after he forms an erroneous bad first impression at their first meeting. Unfortunately for Clara, while Maddie and Theo’s bad first impression led to only mutual frostiness, Caspian’s behavior tips over the line from just rude to manipulative and cruel. I was genuinely happy for Maddie and Theo when their ruse was revealed and they got to go public, but I would have been much happier for Clara if she’d dumped him, taken her new confidence and refreshed career, and let him figure out how to move past his bad behavior on his own.

Genre: character study, relationship, commentary. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Reason I read it: series continuation and recommended, respectively. Rating: 2/3 and 1.5/3, respectively

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