Books, January 2020

It has rained. 29 days. In January. (No, I do not want to curl up all cozy with a book. I want to sit outside with a book.)

Book of the month: Bad Blood, John Carreyrou

If this was a movie, I’d say the plot was too outlandish and the writers should go back and remove some of the wilder turns of fraud, intimidation, and comically shoddy science and engineering. But truth is stranger than fiction. Theranos was a Silicon Valley startup that purported to have a machine that could test tiny amounts of blood for a wide array of lab tests, faster and cheaper than a traditional lab, founded by once-in-a-generation wunderkind visionary Elizabeth Holmes. The truth is that their machine could do exactly none of the things they claimed, never did, and with the design Holmes demanded, never could have.

The story is deeply dependent on the science and engineering. Carreyrou threads the needle as far as including enough technical detail to explain the misconduct and the scientifically impossible demands of Holmes’ and her close circle, but doesn’t get lost in the weeds and slow down the thriller-like pacing. (And it is a thriller, with all the intrigue, twists, and tragedy that implies.) If you have any interest in science, engineering, business, or the bizarre world of startups and venture capital, this is a must read. If you don’t, read this, and then you will. Carreyrou is a master storyteller (and, to both his and my surprise, memoirist), sharing a sensational tale while maintaining just how deadly serious it was.

Subject: science, business. Reason I read it: recommendation. Format: longform nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates is already one of the best essayists alive, and previously broke into fiction as the writer for a run of Black Panther comics, and this is his first novel. The writing is unsurprisingly gorgeous, and gives thoughtful insight into narrator Hiram’s grappling with balancing his duty to free his fellow slaves against the sacrifices his mission demands, especially of his mental health. The book is anchored in the reality of slavery, but with one big magical realism feature, called conduction – Hiram and a few others can teleport long distances with the power of strong emotional memories (for us Potter-generation readers, he can apparate long distances with the strong emotion that powers a patronus). Be patient through the first few chapters, as the first instance of conduction arrives right off the bat and is somewhat confusing, but all will be answered later. For the moment, Coates is a stronger essayist than novelist, but this was his first novel and he’s been writing essays for decades. I can’t wait to see what he gives us for his next fiction work.

Story genre: high concept, commentary, character study. Story setting: magical realism/historical fiction. Reason I read it: Coates is a genius and no way was I not going to read his first novel. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui

Bui’s memoir traces her early life and her family’s flight from Vietnam in the wake of war to the present day with gorgeous watercolor art and an unflinching eye. Selected as the 2019 Seattle Reads book with the intention of giving a collective touchstone to its participants (of which I am now one, albeit behind schedule), it’s an outstanding example of a work that reveals the universal through examining the specific.

Subject: memoir, history. Reason I read it: recommendation. Format: graphica. Rating: 3/3

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

I’ve never read a novel before that periodically grinds to a halt for a little educational detour, in this case, on methods of electronic surveillance and how to avoid or deter them. Unfortunately, some of the 2008-era internet culture and jokes have… aged poorly. (I think Doctorow is fully aware of this, though, to his credit.) But I wish I had read this back then, and I think it’s an important read now for anyone and especially teens on the less obvious ways you (yes you) are being tracked and what can happen from your data.

Story genre: commentary, thriller, specfic. Story setting: realism/near-future scifi. Reason I read it: recommendation. Format: educational novel. Rating: 2/3

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, vs. The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

It’s NOVEL VS. NOVEL: two classics enter, ONLY ONE EMERGES! Ok, not really, but Sargasso was written as a response to Eyre and clearly considers itself the winner of this particular matchup (I’m not sure there is a winner).

Jane Eyre is one of the core classics of European literature, but it is certainly a problematic fave. To put it mildly… I do not like Mr. Rochester. (I do not like him in a house and I do not like him on with a mouse. I do not like him here or there, I do not like him anywhere.) I think he embodies entitled, predatory behavior that’s been tolerated and even lauded among men and among the gentry/moneyed classes throughout history, and he gets a (mostly) happy ending without having really confronted and atoned for his poor treatment of either Bertha or Jane. We barely get to know Bertha (which is Rhys’s whole point), but Jane we do know quite intimately, and she deserves such a better fate than being his caretaker and his trophy (while the epilogue says they enjoy many happy years together, I don’t believe for a moment that they would have if he hadn’t been injured in the fire. He would have traded her in for another teen governess in 20 years. Ugh,)

Rhys, meanwhile, focuses on Bertha’s backstory. Fortunately for her, I decided to be a book club overachiever and read Eyre immediately before reading Sargasso, or I would have been totally lost. Rhys (like most fanfiction authors, to be fair, and it is with great affection for the entire institution of fanfiction that I label this as such) assumes you know who’s who and especially that Rochester is not a great person. Thus, she doesn’t quite stick the landing on making any character’s decisions feel natural and well motivated. Perhaps because their destinies are preordained (the curse of the prequel), Antoinette/Bertha and Rochester’s active decision-making felt pretty perfunctory. While I appreciate the motivation for Rhys’s take, it didn’t fully humanize Bertha the way it was meant to.

On a side note, though, I knew the plot of Eyre going in. Can you imagine how much it must have BLOWN THE VICTORIANS’ MINDS to read the Bertha reveal for the first time? I like to imagine that.

Story genre, both: character study, commentary (though commentary on very different targets). Story setting, both: realism. Reason I read it: book club (Sargasso), to get more out of book club and also this seemed like as good a reason as any to finally read it (Eyre). Format: novels. Rating: both 2/3

Vengeful, VE Schwab

The sequel to Vicious, which I read nearly two years ago, and which I wished I remembered a lot more clearly going into this. I complained then that Vicious had a too-strong “written right after college” vibe, so I was pleased that Vengeful didn’t return to the college origin story – we are being firmly propelled towards the third and final book. We pick back up with super-healing Eli in prison, pain-controller Victor and his crew on the run, and an expanded role for actual necromancer Sydney. Schwab mostly avoids middle-of-the-trilogy-itis by elevating Sydney to a main character, giving us an excellent short-term antagonist, and, to my great surprise, dropping an extremely unexpected outcome for Eli (is he truly a villain? In Vicious, maybe. Now, definitely). While I’m not as excited about these books as I was about her Shades of Magic, I do very much look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.

Story genre: specfic, character study, commentary. Story setting: fantasy/superhero-ish. Reason I read it: series continuation. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3

Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translation by Olena Bormashenko

Alien stories are most often about first contact (or at least the protagonist’s first contact, if not humanity’s – like Men in Black), or about existing relations becoming strained and leading to war. Never have I encountered an alien story where the whole point was that the aliens were gone, barely cared about us in the first place, and the story is purely about the aftermath. Nobody even wastes breath on wondering whether the aliens will come back, because it’s not the point. Many years before the story, aliens briefly visited six specific sites across Earth (the titular roadside picnic, where the road is a supposed intergalactic highway), which are now dangerously toxic exclusion zones full of valuable junk left behind. Of course there are legal and illegal scavengers, and intriguingly, our protagonist is both (a government salvager by day and a freelance scavenger by night). While there was hardly anything to go on here as far as character development or even plot (or women characters, unfortunately), the point is the incredibly detailed setting, its implications, and its impact on the deteriorating mental health of the main character, especially in light of its writing and publication in the late 60s in the USSR. Fiction about the future is a highly effective means of calling attention to assumptions about the present, in its case, about hypocrisy of people in power, desperate risk-taking, and human ingenuity. Like with Eyre above, I wonder what the reading experience would have been like for its original generation of readers.

Story genre: high concept, specfic, thriller. Story setting: science fiction. Reason I read it: gift. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3

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