Books, April 2020

Seattle Public Library book bingo is here! I already picked books off my shelf (and ebook… shelf?) for 18 of the 24 squares. Dilemma: support local bookstores or finally make a dent in the book pile at home? Solution: BOTH. READ EXTRA BOOKS.

Book of the month: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

The central branch of the LA Public Library burned badly in 1986, belching smoke in the middle of downtown LA and taking something like 700,000 books with it. I had no idea, and neither do most people. While an event like this would normally be front page news nationwide, it happened to be… three days after Chernobyl melted down. The story of the fire is far from straightforward (as a possible arson pinned on a serial confabulator, followed by a years-long recovery and the urban planning of LA itself dragged into it), but it is relatively contained. What makes this special is that Orlean takes the fire and turns it into an excuse for a love letter to the history of libraries, the history of the LA library specifically, and to books themselves. The fire itself actually passes by quite quickly, in one heartrending chapter, concluding with hundreds of thousands of books trucked off to freezers to be preserved for restoration and crying librarians on the street. More time is given to investigating the suspected arsonist (and the serious doubts whether he did it), but mostly, it’s about why we should build and rebuild the library, and what libraries mean to society and individual people.

Given that relatively little actually happens in the book, some might find it surprising how gripping it is, but you can tell how much Orlean loves the library and everything it stands for. Libraries are for everyone, and everyone can find a place in the library. This fact shines through on every single page.

I don’t spend a lot of time at my local library branch, even though I’m there often – I almost always just buzz in, pick up the book I put on hold, maybe browse the new arrivals or Peak Picks, and I’m out. Or I just borrow digital materials. But The Library Book really makes me want to exist in the library and enjoy its flow of people and knowledge. (Of course, it makes me want this right when the library is closed, which is actually pretty apropos given the subject matter of a library burning and being closed a while.) While we’re home, the library has done a great job of maintaining access to digital materials and services where they can – which still leaves a lot of people without devices under-served, but it’s far better than nothing. In addition to ebooks, I’m taking advantage of their languages app to relearn my Spanish. Thanks, SPL!

Subject: history, books. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read it: recommended (thanks mom!). Rating: 3/3

Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey *

Magic school? Check. Suspected murder? Check. Nonmagical sister jealous of magical sister? Check? Harry Potter? Name check!

Ivy is a private investigator who has never quite gotten over feeling unspecial in comparison to her sister Tabitha, who has gone on to become teacher and powerful expert in experimental magic. The two are not quite estranged, but certainly closer to that end of the closeness spectrum. When another teacher dies in a both magically and circumstantially suspicious way, the headmaster vaguely recalls that her star teacher’s sister is an investigator, and so Ivy is finally welcomed to her sister’s world… where only Tabitha knows she isn’t magical too. While the setting is fantasy, the book is firmly a mystery (and a prime example of why I now separate story and setting genres!), so I will not reveal more of the plot, because the story is fundamentally about unraveling what happened and who was involved. I am slightly less hesitant to reveal one of the two story reasons for the title (the other reason is part of the solving of the mystery): Ivy gives into the temptation to lie about her lack of magic, first by omission and then outright, just to live a different life for a little while. (It blows up in her face, of course.) Who hasn’t wondered what could have been, if you’d just been a slightly different person or made one different choice or had some other opportunity pan out, instead of what actually happened? But all Ivy gets for her lifelong speculation is bitterness and regret and problematic drinking habits, and now she gets burned bridges for her lying too. It would have been easy for her to be another frustrating, self-deluding first-person narrator. But Gailey sticks the landing for me by not only having Ivy be 1000% aware that she’s making bad choices, but deliberately leaning into the bad choices because she doesn’t have the self-respect to try otherwise.

I got this book for like six bucks in a used bookstore in California a few months ago. Remember when we used to… go places? And sometimes those places… had crowds in them? Nah, that’s just a myth.

Story genre: specfic, mystery, character study. Story setting: fantasy. Traditional genre: fantasy. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 3/3

Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor

Into the lagoon outside Lagos, Nigeria, lands a spaceship of aliens that are basically…. a zillion tiny ball bearings. So the creatures can shapeshift (and take on the form of humans), but the process is noisy! It seems narratively unfair to me when creatures can shapeshift undetected, both when the act of shifting is subtle and the forms they take are indistinguishable from “real” forms – specifically, I’m annoyed by the bait-and-switch when it turns out that a beloved ally was actually an undercover shapeshifter, especially when there was absolutely no foreshadowing that they were an imposter. (Sure, the other characters might not have guessed, but I should get a hint!) So I appreciated that Ayodele, the main alien, never tried to hide her nature or impersonate anyone (other than briefly and very obviously, to make a point).

Unfortunately, after being introduced to such elegant aliens, the story then turns out to be a little overstuffed. There are a LOT of characters – and nearly all the important characters’ names begin with A, which I kept noticing – and the narrative jumps around in time and space rapidly enough to dampen the genuine momentum that the story is trying to build. There’s also a surprisingly large number of supporting characters, which made for a great sense of breadth and chaos and diversity in Lagos, but whose appearances dragged me away from the main first contact story (and unfortunately who mostly met gruesome ends). I was most interested in Ayodele and Adaora, the marine biologist who quickly emerges as the leader of the little crew of humans who make first contact, and I wished for a little more focus on them (and the other main characters), and especially for less jumping around between POVs. Ultimately I loved the concept and the setting, but I was yanked around by the story a little too much for comfort.

Story genre: specfic, quest, thriller, high concept, commentary. Story setting: science fiction. Traditional genre: science fiction. Format: novel. Reason I read it: was reminded of how much I liked Binti. Rating: 2/3

Emma, Jane Austen

The absolutely wonderful people at Seattle Rep put together a temporary virtual book club to read Emma in advance of its adaptation scheduled (fingers crossed) for next spring. I obviously enjoy talking about books (citation: this website) and theater (citation: anyone who’s ever had a conversation with me), so talking about a book through the lens of theater was like, frickin catnip to me. Austen did not write especially dense prose as far as 19th century literature goes, but her work does still require a specific type of attentive reading to get the most out of it, having a group to discuss and reflect on it with helps even more, and discussing it around the themes of how it might adapted and how it’s still relevant today was the best. If any of the other readers or our awesome moderators happen to find your way here – THANK YOU! You brightened my lockdown life and have filled a little bit of the theater-shaped hole in the world. (And I appreciate the awesome members of my regular book club too!)

And besides the delightful reading experience, Emma is also great! Pride and Prejudice gets all the love, but the sharp wit and social/behavioral commentary produced this too. The core theme of the book and Emma’s arc as a character is becoming kinder, more generous of spirit, and less judgmental (one might almost say, less prideful and prejudiced), and it is not a linear journey. Who has ever decided to make a better habit and then actually 100% succeeded without ever slipping? While the set dressing and costumes have changed in the last 200 years, the people haven’t – I’ve met modern people who could have directly inspired all of Emma‘s characters. And on that note, off to watch Clueless.

Story genre: character study, commentary, relationship. Traditional genre: literary fiction/classics. Story setting: realism. Format: novel. Reason I read it: book club! Rating: 3/3

Jitney and Gem of the Ocean, August Wilson *

I’ve now seen or read nine of the ten Pittsburgh plays (only missing the 90s), and all of them quite clearly have one main psychological/relationships-oriented point and one main social/political/historical point to make. The plot of The Piano Lesson, last month’s read, revolved principally around a family drama (sell or don’t sell the piano). The action was set off by the context of conflict between honoring their only few scraps of family history, as embodied by the piano vs. scraping together money from whatever resources possible (in a community literally sidelined for financial support) to pursue an opportunity, but the context is not the focus. In contrast, both Jitney and Gem pull more to the forefront the political and social context that sets up the personal moments. In Jitney, the jitney station is about to be shut down as the neighborhood is slated for redevelopment, but their eviction comes with the full knowledge that the block will likely sit empty for years before any development comes. On top of that, the owner’s son has just finished his sentence for murder, resurfacing an old conversation about opportunities had and lost. In Gem, a man drowns maintaining his innocence of a theft, the actual thief grapples with letting go of the past (in more ways than knowing his role in the drowning), and into this mix, the mystic Esther provides a direct link to the trauma and upheaval of the whole 19th century. By the end, everyone must decide whether to help their fellows or fend for themselves. Anyway, I’m not saying that pushing the context forward or focusing more on the immediate story is better – just different. Though I have to say that of the Pittsburgh plays that I’ve read but not seen, Jitney is the one I most want to see (and not only because I was supposed to have just done so!).

As I said last month, I’m very sorry to have not gotten to Jitney before it had to shut down, but at least I’m sure it’ll come around again (even if not the Tony-winning production that was on tour here). Gem of the Ocean, however, is not among the commonly staged, so I hope that it will be safe for Portland Center Stage’s production to move forward next spring and I get to see it. Incidentally, these two plays are on opposite ends of the cycle’s production history – Jitney was the first to be staged (1982) and the last to make it to Broadway (2017, the production I would have seen), and Gem was the second to last to premiere (2003). I didn’t read them back to back with that intent, it’s just a fun fact.

Story genre: commentary, ensemble. Story setting: realism. Traditional genre: drama. Format: plays. Reason I read it: was meant to have seen it/plan to see it next year. Rating: 3/3

No Exit and Three Other Plays, Jean-Paul Sartre *

This was a weird moment in history to read No Exit, a play that famously declares that “hell is other people,” while barred from seeing other people. But I had grabbed it off my shelf shortly after the finale of The Good Place, which was inspired in part by the play, and by the time I finally picked it up from my bedside table, I figured, fork it. I literally can’t do anything else, so I might as well tackle French existentialism.

No Exit was definitely the star of this collection, both in its main concept and its characters. Before I move on to talk about it, I want to nod to the other three plays. Sartre is a pretty cynical guy (“duh, he wrote ‘hell is other people,'” you say), which made for emotionally difficult reading (“duh, he’s a moral philosopher,” you say). Where No Exit concentrates on individual failures (more in a moment), the other three works are more interested in the corruption and hypocrisy of power, which is (to put it extremely mildly) very relevant right now. Sartre, however, makes no move to approach how the situation or people involved can be improved, and frankly, I think we could all use insight into a practical path towards improvement these days. His cynical view, while validating my baser feelings, has its limits.

Anyway, back to No Exit and The Good Place. It’s not hard to imagine that Michael, in his fascination with humans, ran across a copy of the play (or possibly just ran across Sartre himself in the Bad Place) and took inspiration in constructing the original neighborhood – both stories hinge on the torture concept of putting crummy people together for eternity specifically to bring out the worst in each other. But while Sartre is on board with the idea that hell is in fact other people, The Good Place refuses that concept, and asserts instead that the Bad Place is a lack of opportunity to become a better person, and other people are instead the way up and out. Not to reduce my own field to a bad pop science platitude, but the one truism of neuroscience I can actually get behind is that brains are plastic. Psychologically, this translates to humans are generally capable of outstanding feats of learning and growth – when given the opportunity and resources to do so. Especially in our present global circumstances, I not only believe that The Good Place‘s vision is right, but that it is more important than ever to believe that becoming better is possible and a worthy goal. Anyway thanks for coming to my TED talk

Story genre: high concept (No Exit only), commentary, character study. Setting genre: magical realism (No Exit only), realism (others). Traditional genre: drama. Format: plays. Reason I read it: desperate for The Good Place content. Rating: 2/3

Dead Astronauts, Jeff Vandermeer *

After enjoying Borne in February (…or was it a decade ago? Either feels equally plausible), I really wanted to like this. But everything that I praised Borne for doing – clearly explaining the setting and the threat while maintaining ~the vibe~ of mysterious dread – Dead Astronauts is right back on that weird ol’ vaguebooking train. (See what I did there? It’s a vague… book… I’ll see myself out.) All three of our protagonists – the dead astronauts – have borderline-magical powers, which we do at least learn the origin of, so I was relieved there (again, I’ll take what the heck is Area X for $200, Alex). But neither the story nor the characters themselves engage with the nature or capabilities of their powers that much, except Moss, who has the most interesting power anyway (being literal sentient moss). More importantly, we never really satisfyingly get an explanation of why The Company does anything, let alone randomly mutate or create life forms with no apparent political or economic aim. Because the dead astronauts have much closer personal connections to and deeper knowledge of The Company than Rachel and Borne did, the gaping hole where the corporate motive should be is more obvious. Rachel and Borne didn’t know so I was more ok with not knowing. The dead astronauts’ have made it their core mission to destroy the company because of its’ goals… so we should have a better handle on why it’s evil.

I will admit to being somewhat biased against liking this also because long sections blur into nearly poetry, leaning on shaped text, marginalia, and white space, especially to evoke the mind of a fish. Well, fish-like mutant. For me, poetry in my novel is not a bonus. It’s a fly in my soup. If you don’t feel the same about poetry, you might enjoy this more than I did.

Anyway, I do really love the visual of the dead astronauts, who are not astronauts. The NPR review described it as “kaleidoscopic” and I agree – but for the reviewer, this was praise of the “absorbing confusion”, and for me, it’s infuriatingly fragmented. You might be wondering why I gave it a 2 instead of a 1 – it was because the concept was genuinely intriguing and the dead astronauts were interesting characters, so I was mad that the story didn’t tell me more about them like I wanted it to.

Story genre: high concept, commentary, specfic. Story setting: weird/science fiction. Traditional genre: science fiction seems closest. Reason I read it: companion to Borne. Rating: baaaarely 2/3.

* best for readers teen and up