Books, September 2019

September’s book bounty leads to October’s challenge: review all these books in just two sentences each. I hoped brevity would be the soul of wit, but instead, just exacerbated my tendency to misuse parentheses.

Book of the month: The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller *

When I say that The Song of Achilles was nearly as good as Circe, please take it only as a rave on Circe and not at all a knock on Achilles. If you know nothing about Greek mythology, read these two masterpieces as your introduction; if you’re an enthusiast or literally a classicist, read them for the best-written versions of the stories you know and love.

Setting genre: mythology. Story genre: relationship. Format: novel. Reason I read it: because Circe was amazing. Rating: 3/3

Book of the month runner up: The Testaments, Margaret Atwood *

Atwood had to thread a needle to satisfy the decades of hopeful anticipation and speculation that were inevitable for the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, a true modern classic, especially given cultural and political context in which it was released this month. And… she absolutely did!

Setting genre: specfic/realism in the future. Story genre: commentary, quest, speculative, allegory. Format: novel. Reason I read it: hot book of the year (update: seriously hot book of the year), Margaret Atwood is a total boss. Rating: 3/3

Book of the month runner up #2: The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

I idly reread this classic in anticipation of giving it as a gift to fulfill a request for “a book with high reread value,” but found myself delighted all over again in the process of renewing my foggy memories. Turtle’s journey as a character over the course of the elaborately unfolding mystery is one of the great coming-of-age stories of the 20th century.

Setting genre: murder (?) mystery. Story genre: mystery, character study. Format: novel. Reason I read it: rereading before giving as gift. Rating: 3/3

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie *, and Antigone, Jean Anouilh, Lewis Galantiere (translator), and also Sophocles, I guess

When I found out my book club assignment Home Fire was a modern retelling of Antigone set in the English Muslim community, of course I had to brush up on the story of Antigone, and of course the best way to do so was to reread the version I was in. (Age 14, the first play that I was in that wasn’t for a theater camp or at school, and I was the one-scene-wonder Nurse.) Home Fire was good novel on its own, but its themes and characters gained more substantial depth and meaning as reflections and commentary on their ancient source, and occasionally the characters’ actions and feelings seemed arbitrary except in light of knowing how the story must end. Anouilh’s Antigone is a particularly famous adaptation, and it’s pretty cerebral, so it gains from being placed alongside Shamsie’s more emotional version. (That’s two sentences each for two books together!)

Setting genre: realism. Story genre: commentary (both), character study (Home Fire). Format: novel (Home Fire), play (Antigone). Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 2/3 and 2/3

Red, White, and Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston *

Adorable, timely, wacky transatlantic romance hijinks between the prince of the UK and the son of the president. It’s a lot to ask of a little romance novel to be an uplifting moment of hope in this time, but McQuiston comes through on both the political and personal sides of the story.

Setting genre: realism/romance. Story genre: relationship, commentary. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 3/3

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed *

Dear Sugar,
I’m looking for heartbreaking compassion that is so beautiful it almost physically hurts, in the form of a collection of letters written to anonymous advice columnist about everything from finding beauty in the world to surviving the loss of a child.

Dear Kaitlyn,
Look no further than the collected best of Strayed’s columns as Sugar, recently adapted into a play, because while it doesn’t seem like a play based on advice columns should work, when those answers are as honest and gentle and tough-love and philosophical as hers, it does.

Genre: advice, memoir. Format: columns/essays. Reason I read it: saw the play. Rating: 3/3

Descendant of the Crane, Joan He

A courtly intrigue that hinges on the long-standing vilification of spellcasters, thought driven to extinction hundreds of years ago… and then mages and traitors start coming out of the woodwork left and right. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding and pacing was muddled, leaving me scratching my head too long at some points and the story essentially gave spoilers for itself at others, but as a debut novel, He shows real promise.

Setting genre: fantasy. Story genre: mystery, speculative, thriller. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 2/3

Macbeth, William Shakespeare

Are the witches in Macbeth 1) foretelling a destined future, 2) magically influencing the events to come, or 3) tempting Macbeth through words alone? You decide how persuasive I am that the correct answer lies behind door #3, October 30!

Setting genre: are the witches actually witches? Magical realism. Are they con artists with the power of persuasion? Murder mystery. Story genre: character study, commentary. Format: play. Reason I read it: duh. Rating: 3/3

God of Vengeance, Sholem Asch, translated by Richard Nelson *

The 1906 God of Vengeance is the nominal subject of Indecent (which is actually about so much more than just this), currently running at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Rep, and quite possibly a theater near you, because it is one of the Hot Plays in American Theater of 2019 for good reason. Vengeance is a little melodramatic for modern tastes, but it was groundbreaking theater, and it gave us the heartbreaking and masterful Indecent, and for that alone it should be thanked.

Setting genre: historical realism. Story genre: commentary. Format: play. Reason I read it: seeing play about the play. Rating: 1/3 due to dated style, 3/3 for Indecent

* best for readers age 13+

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