Books, February 2020

Spring forward. Land on a pile of books. Read them all.

Book of the month: Beloved, Toni Morrison *

One of the great benefits of book club is that it pushes me to read books I wouldn’t have chosen for myself (or, in this case, pushes a book to the top of my absurdly long to-read list). The other great benefit, and the pertinent one this month, is the club part of book club – getting to discuss and process the book with others. Beloved is a literary masterpiece, with deep and interwoven themes of mother-daughter relationships, the echoes of slavery across generations and even beyond death, isolation, and revenge. That Beloved’s incursion is overcome thanks to the simple act of Denver asking for help especially touched me – it’s not easy to ask for help sometimes, but those are the times help is most needed. But it’s also a famously intense novel, so having the perspective of others and the outlet of discussion was particularly helpful – more so, in fact, than any other book we’ve read since I joined. In fact, there is so much to unpack and digest here that I really struggled with where to start writing this: there’s nothing I can say about Beloved that hasn’t already been said, and which has been said by people who have spent much more time and who have much more relevant lived experience than I do. A few months ago, I wrote about how much I gained from returning to His Dark Materials for the third time at three very different times in my life. I very much look forward to returning to Beloved in ten years as well, for the same reasons.

Story genre: high concept, thriller, commentary. Setting genre: historical, ghost story. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 3/3

Come Tumbling Down, Seanan McGuire

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, McGuire’s premise of what happens to children after Alice in Wonderland-like adventures is marvelous, and one she handles thoughtfully and sympathetically. I particularly enjoy how she jumps around from protagonist to protagonist, with the rest of the cast continuing to appear in supporting roles until it’s their turn to be the focus character or until their stories are concluded and they return to their fantasy homes (at least… so far, everyone written off has gone back to their other world). We’re back to Jack and Jill, whose sister rivalry had previously turned deadly serious as they fell under the patronages of a rival scientist and vampire. And truly, this is the first installment where the deadly stakes have felt truly lethal to me (despite the fact that there have been multiple murders). But Jill is so thoroughly unsympathetic, and Jack’s evolution into sharing her sympathetic aspects more freely, meant that their relationship has lost some steam as a plot device on account of being so obviously unsalvagable. I also kept waiting for the plot to snap back to the supporting cast, especially Christopher and Kade, both of whom are solid contenders to be a next main character. But I’m glad McGuire took the time to wrap up Jack and Jill’s story thoroughly – they got closure, and so did I.

Story genre: high concept, specfic, quest. Setting genre: fantasy. Reason I read it: series continuation. Rating: 2/3

Dear Elizabeth, Sarah Ruhl

While this play is credited to Sarah Ruhl, she actually functions as an adapter, drawing the complete text from the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. They were literary besties whose lifelong friendship was conducted almost entirely through letters, with rare and sporadic windows spent even on the same continent. Ruhl curates their real letters, verbatim, into a series of snapshots of their evolving relationship over decades to assert that a, men and women can have meaningful non-romantic friendships that b, can be among the most important relationships in a person’s life. These don’t feel like they should be radical statements in the 2010s, but a lot of people still subscribe to the When Harry Met Sally answer (which is to say a, no, and b, only if they become romances). It’s really rare for a play’s central theme to be about friendship (or a movie, for that matter, though it seems more common in novels, but this is purely anecdata), so I was delighted to see their friendship not only featured and acknowledged, but the true focus of the piece. I would happily go see it on stage.

Story genre: character study/relationship study. Setting genre: realism. Reason I read it: saw, and am seeing, other plays by Ruhl. Rating: 3/3

Borne, Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer is one of the reigning royalty of the genre unsatisfyingly called new weird. (In fact, when I googled it to grab that explanatory link, the cover of Borne was the image that popped up in the little info pane.) One of the predominant features of new weird is its emphasis on atmosphere and vibe over details and answers. This tendency often leaves me frustrated, especially as new weird often has a major element of mystery and mysteries beg for resolutions that sometimes don’t come. (VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy was especially guilty of this. What the heck is Area X, seriously?)

Anyway, I write all this to say… Borne doesn’t do any of that. Through narrator Rachel’s investigations, we get a very clear and extremely disturbing picture of where Borne (and Mord, and all the other biotech creatures) came from, why, and how. Briefly, they’re engineered life forms designed for a variety of purposes and from a variety of organisms as their bases. Borne is, well, ethically dubious flubber. Mord is a human-bear hybrid the size of a stadium that can fly, and yes, we learn his origin story. And these answers don’t diminish the thematic value of the story one bit! In fact, Borne (and the character Borne itself) makes it utterly and horribly clear that humans are capable of such bad decisions and that our technology could well lead from where we are now to exactly the run-down future the characters inhabit. It’s particularly poignant that while the setting would generically be described as post-apocalyptic, there pointedly is no apocalypse event – just a slow slide into climate catastrophe and irresponsible biotechnology. You know, like the slow slide we’re living in.

At one point, Borne and Rachel find a group of three human remains in what seem to be hazmat suits, which Borne incorrectly identifies as dead astronauts… and a companion novel, Dead Astronauts, recently came out and I have it on my kitchen counter. Stay tuned.

Story genre: high concept, specfic, commentary, thriller, quest, mystery. Setting genre: science fiction/weird. Reason I read it: positive review. Rating: 3/3

* best for readers teen and up, especially if they have a venue to discuss it

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