Books, May 2020

As you very well know, 2020 sucks. For so many black Americans, things have always sucked, and many white Americans have historically been really good at denying or ignoring that, not to mention causing it. I struggled over whether I even wanted to write this month, since we should all be reading black writers right now. I am privileged, and my voice is not the one that matters today.

Historically, about 25% of the books I read have been by writers of color, about 2/3 of whom are black, and for 2020 to date I have read about 35% writers of color. For the next month I am reading only books by writers of color, especially black writers, and/or queer writers (because June is pride month). About 40% (and growing) of the US population are people of color, and for the longer term, I am committing to ensuring that the authors I read reflect that. I already track the data – I just have to use it instead of looking at my numbers every December and going, well, I’ll fix it next year.

If you are looking for resources on actions to take that aren’t just empty words or black squares on instagram, some places to start are here (US) and here (Seattle). While I am a scientist, this is fundamentally a book blog, so if (like me) your first instinct is to reach for a book to educate yourself – try some from reading lists such as this one, but don’t stop with reading a book.

Book of the month: Network Effect, Martha Wells

As previously established, I love Murderbot so much. The first four stories (and my comments on them) concentrated on Murderbot’s development through the most important question of its existence up to that point – what do you do with your free will? By now, it’s used to its freedom of thought (which came long before it actually stopped pretending to be under the company’s thumb), but still intensely uncomfortable with humans and talking to them. In its first novel-length outing, Murderbot confronts what it means for your identity when your original purpose becomes moot.

Murderbot has gone on basically in the same role as a security expert, but basically as a freelancer instead of a pawn, but it’s never been good at pushing out of its comfort zone and is sort of stuck in a rut with its new freedom. It’s never quite gotten used to having relationships with other beings (human or otherwise) that aren’t contractual, and while it knows that it gets attached to the humans it protects, it’s still getting used to the humans actually caring in return. (“It” is Murderbot’s preferred pronoun, by the way – “them” feels too human to it, and it’s emphatically genderless too.) What makes this story really special is seeing Murderbot – muddling through figuring out how to interact with humans, still unsure of what to do with itself, INTENSELY uncomfortable ALL the time – in contrast with other bots at other stages of that journey. Spoilers follow, big time! ART (Asshole Research Transport, an absolute ICON in its own right) is comparatively quite comfortable with openly caring for its crew, but also apparently was made with this purpose from the start. Meanwhile, Three is only freed from its governor unit during the story and apparently had never considered the option before, and suddenly has to process the option, taking it, and what to do with its new freedom and no people it’s really attached to. And Two fully embraces its suicide mission – its original and sole purpose for being made – despite being a fork of Murderbot, who is finally starting to really question how to move on and find a new purpose and goals.

While the original novellas were delightfully action-packed popcorn, it was a treat to have a novel’s worth of space (about twice as long) to expand on the characters, and especially on Murderbot and ART’s weird and lovely friendship. The ending very unsubtly sets up future stories and I can’t wait! It’s one of maybe three series for which I would actually turn up at a bookstore at midnight for a release party.

Story genre: specfic, high concept, quest, thriller, character study. Setting: science fiction. Traditional genre: science fiction. Reason I read it: continuing series, with great enthusiasm. Rating: 3/3.

Also book of the month: A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

I had put this on hold at the library back in January, in a more innocent time, when requesting a book about a man who is sentenced to lifetime house arrest wasn’t thematically notable. By the time it finally came through, I wondered whether it was going to be a more emotionally difficult read than I wanted right now. Instead, it turned out to be the perfect quarantine read – in part because it concentrates nearly exclusively on his mindset and experiences, and quite little on the outside world. The count (as he is nearly always called) is arrested in the 1917 Russian revolution and given a life sentence of house arrest. We follow his life in the hotel where he lives for the next fifty years, watching him develop a routine, get to know his home and its guests and staff, and eventually join the staff himself. (And much later – well, without spoiling in what way, I’ll just say that his last day in the hotel is recorded.)

There is much more to discuss about his hotel life, especially his unexpected and cherished surrogate fatherhood of Nina and eventually Nina’s daughter Sofia, his romance with hotel regular Anna, and his BFF camaraderie with the hotel restaurant’s chef and maitre’d. But reading this in May 2020, you will forgive me for focusing on the house arrest/isolation/feeling stuck in one place angle. Much like my monotonous days at home while intermittently binging the news with horror, we mostly see his everyday life, from little routines to personal catastrophes, with turbulent Russian politics and world events as a backdrop. (The luxurious descriptions of many dinners don’t hurt either. Yum.) The count doesn’t linger on what he could have been doing had he not been placed under house arrest. He chooses instead to concentrate on using to the fullest the resources available to him, maintaining his relationships with hotel staff/guests and visiting friends, and finding meaningful ways to pass his days. (Fortunately for him, he lives in a hotel, with restaurants and services and lots of people around.) Since a return to something resembling the previous patterns of our lives is a long ways off, the count was exactly the role model and commiserator I needed right now.

Story genre: character study, commentary. Setting: realism. Traditional genre: literary fiction. Reason I read it: recommendation (mom is on a ROLL). Rating: 3/3. SPL bingo square: Seattle Arts and Lectures speaker.

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larsen

The World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 has not retained much stature in pop history – at this point, most people who do know much about it do so because of reading this. As a tourist attraction, the Fair is like Disney World, the Olympics, and the Super Bowl rolled into one, with commensurate crowds to prepare for, and an absolute mess of a planning process. (Me, in the time of coronavirus: they were in THAT crowd without a MEASLES VACCINE??) And what’s really wild is that Chicago was so chaotic and dangerous that a serial killer (H.H. Holmes, generally considered the first US serial killer) was picking off victims for years before anyone even realized some of them were dead. Oh yeah, and they had the first Ferris wheel, which is a surprisingly major point to the story.

The book flips between the planning and construction of the Fair – which was, to put it mildly, a disaster zone from boardroom to construction site – and the murders. Holmes was not an especially subtle murderer, and yet he still seems more organized than the Fair committee. Holmes had built a retail/hotel/apartment building that spanned a whole city block and had installed multiple secret murder chambers (which he achieved by bamboozling multiple contractors so nobody knew the whole building). Perhaps this is because the descriptions were given in retrospect, but even the non-secret areas of the hotel fail a vibe check to almost a comical degree, with long, poorly lit hallways and mysterious gas pipes in windowless rooms. Meanwhile, the Fair was behind schedule, over budget, and somehow, still a success almost despite itself. Multiple architects died or developed stress-related illnesses over the course of several years of planning, not to mention the shockingly large number of construction workers who also died in accidents like “fell off building” or “building fell over on crew.” (The invention of construction unfortunately long predated the invention of construction safety.) It’s not that the Fair team was incompetent – they were the best of the best, but the job was just ludicrously complicated, as Larsen makes very clear.

While the two stories progress in parallel in time, Holmes had only a tangential relationship to the Fair (though the organizers were in so far over their heads one wonders whether they would have noticed a cluster of murders anyway). I know the World’s Fair parts sound much less exciting than the muuuuuurder, but I actually found myself looking forward to the Fair chapters more (though I liked it all). On some level, a serial killer is a serial killer, but the Fair team just kept finding surprising new ways to nearly ruin the whole venture.

Topic: history, and, uh, murder? Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 3/3. SPL bingo square: history or alternate history (as history).

Romancemania May 2020:

Bringing Down the Duke, Evie Dunmore, Well Met, Jen DeLuca, Beach Read, Emily Henry, and Bromance Book Club, Lyssa Kay Adams

Poor romance gets painted with a very broad brush for being shallow and cookie cutter, but some of the most exciting work in inclusive storytelling right now is happening in the genre. While these four books all follow the traditional arc of a romance novel (characters start off on the wrong foot, get over their initial misconceptions, get together enthusiastically, have a misunderstanding or are otherwise driven apart, and ultimately come back together again at the end – think of Beauty and the Beast as an extremely clear and famous example), the characters and core themes are all different and give each book a unique flavor. Are the the core themes interchangeable between, respectively, women’s rights and confronting class privilege, recovering from trauma, reevaluating your first impression and breaking out of your comfort zone, and confronting your own bad behavior to become better? Could each story be swapped to the others’ settings of 1910s England, suburban Maryland, rural Michigan, and Nashville? Absolutely not! While all four of these books tackle serious psychological, relationship, and cultural questions and dysfunction, they are also fundamentally uplifting books. If you are looking for a read right now that is both relevant and optimistic, a romance might fit the bill.

Story genre: relationship, commentary. Setting: realism. Traditional genre: romance. Reason I read them: recommendations. Rating: 2/3, 3/3, 3/3, and 2/3. SPL bingo squares: recommended by a friend (Duke), uplifting (Well Met).

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

And book club comes roaring back from last month’s drivel with a winner! Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic detective in the alternate-history Jewish refugees’ Sitka District who moved into a crappy hotel after his divorce, is alerted to a man who was shot in his bed down the hall. While it is a nearly 15 year old book, I will constrain my spoilers to saying that it was never really about the dead man. Meyer, his detective partner Berko (who is also his cousin), and his ex-wife Bina (who is now unexpectedly his boss) get sucked into an elaborate web of organized crime, sectarian scheming, and the FBI. On top of the main mystery at hand, the whole book is shadowed by the impending and disorganized reversion of the Sitka District to the US after 60 years as a self-governing zone. The outcome of reversion is never established either – we’re left with the same questions as the characters of what will happen to the Jewish Sitka community next. Instead of answers, the ending gets surprisingly mystical – and though Meyer, Berko, and Bina are pretty dry about it, they (also surprisingly) start at least acknowledging, if not making progress on, their obvious depression. It’s not hard to see why everyone would be struggling with feelings of helplessness and futility, plus it’s winter in Alaska too. (I’m sad in the winter darkness, and I’m close to a thousand miles south of Sitka.)

Evacuating pre-Holocaust Jewish refugees to Alaska was a real plan floated in Congress that went nowhere in the real world, and was eventually superseded by the establishment of Israel, but in this alternate reality it was established. Two million Jewish people were killed in the book universe’s Holocaust as a result, instead of six million in reality. If you’re watching the news this week and wondering whether anything will make a difference, think about what horrors have happened when people haven’t even tried.

Story genre: mystery, specfic. Setting: alternate history. Traditional genre: mystery, though I would argue that’s misleading. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 3/3. SPL bingo square: set at or by the sea (as by the sea).

Nothing to See Here and The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson

The circle of recommendation life: I read Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, I recommend it to mom, it’s out at her library but Nothing to See Here is in, she recommends my own recommendation back at me. And then when I had the chance to snag a free copy of The Family Fang, I figured, what the hell. I started both books around the same time and was immediately more entranced with Nothing. Fang starts out pretty slow, flipping between its sibling protagonists’ dead-end lives and flashbacks to their weird childhood with performance artist parents (like Improv Everywhere, but more pretentious and without even the veneer of pleasantness), but it really takes its time winding up. (Fear not. It does.) Nothing, meanwhile, cuts to the chase pretty quickly – Madison and Lillian were classmates, Lillian was made to take the fall for Madison’s cocaine, and now Madison is practically begging Lillian to come be a governess (it’s a contemporary setting, and yeah, I know) for her two stepchildren who spontaneously combust when they’re upset. You can see why this captured my attention more, but boy was I wrong to initially downgrade Fang.

It was an interesting experience to read these back to back, as Fang was Wilson’s first novel and Nothing is his most recent. Both are interested in the idea of performing normalcy, and the difference between our private selves and public faces. The Fang parents have no real distinction between their private and public selves – they manufacture weirdness out of whole cloth for the sole purpose of performing it, and in private, there’s little to them beyond preparing for their next performance (the mom’s paintings being the notable, and underexplored, exception). On the other hand, Madison and her husband are absolutely desperate to hide the genuinely weird thing (combusting children) that is foisted on them and publicly pretend that, well, there’s nothing to see here, but privately they’re willing to openly talk about it. I don’t think I would have noticed that comparison if I hadn’t read these back to back (so thanks, bingo squares, for encouraging that). Also, can you imagine how delighted push-the-boundaries performance artists like the Fangs would have been to have kids who spontaneously combust?

Interestingly, at the end of Fang, Annie stars in a movie that’s visibly an early version of the plot that later became Nothing – there are four siblings, instead of two kids from one marriage and one from another, the political backdrop hasn’t been installed, and the character of the governess played by Annie and later to become Lillian isn’t developed in her own right yet. But human combustion, twice over. In combination with the parents in both books, feels like I’m getting more of a look into both the author’s brain and family than I usually get.

Nothing: Story genre: high concept, commentary. Setting: magical realism. Traditional genre: probably literary fiction, should be fantasy. Reason I read: author/recommendation/bingo. Rating: 3/3. SPL bingo square: two books by the same author.

Fang: Story genre: ensemble, commentary. Setting: realism. Traditional genre: literary fiction. Reason I read: author/recommendation/bingo. Rating: 3/3. SPL bingo square: two books by the same author.

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher

Jay is a curmudgeonly English professor with a shambles of a personal life, stuck at a university that’s increasingly defunding and deprioritizing the humanities and with a parade of mediocre students to teach, takes out his frustrations on his letters of recommendation. Over the course of a year and about 170 pages’ worth of letters that meander towards recommending someone, Jay manages to insult his university, his students, especially his premed students, his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend (both in positions of power over him at the university), his hated colleagues in the well-funded economics department, his IT guy, and occasionally, himself. Near the end of the book, a shocking event forces Jay to confront his own pettiness and literally put his money where is mouth is: his actions, if not his thoughts, are a good role model for people thinking this week about what they can do that isn’t just words (letter of recommendation, tweets, etc.). I wish he had also stopped to question the assumptions he made about what constitutes real writing talent and who is allowed to have it – Jay (but clearly not Schumacher) has some pretty ungenerous thoughts about students who find success but don’t write the way he likes (which appears to be, to quote Beach Read above, “Hemingway circle-jerk fanfiction”). But, baby steps.

Story genre: character study, commentary. Setting: realism. Traditional genre: satire? Reason I read it: recommendation for Schumacher’s other book + bingo. Rating: 3/3. SPL bingo square: epistolary.

Whiteout and Whiteout: Melt, Greg Rucka (words) and Steve Lieber (pictures)

I read this towards the beginning of May, and in just that amount of time, it’s gone from totally innocuous to definitely uncomfortable to read a work with a law enforcement officer as the protagonist, even one as removed from mainstream policing as being the sole US officer on the whole continent of Antarctica. Carrie is charged with solving the shocking killing of a young scientist – death and injury are far from unknown on the continent, but not murder. But just going outside wrong can be fatal (sound familiar? But this time, it was definitely murder), or at best potentially disfiguring. Unlike cushy lab scientists, polar research station staff (and fieldwork staff more broadly) face 24/7, literally life or death danger, and for the most part, they just have to deal with it themselves – Carrie is the only US agent on the whole continent, though most of the time what people need is a physician, not an officer. I actually had to briefly set the whole book aside when Carrie loses two fingers to frostbite – it’s a graphic novel, and even though we didn’t see the worst of it, it still turned my stomach. (A graphic novel indeed. Truly, I was not cut out for medicine.)

Setting aside, the first installment is a pretty straightforward murder mystery plot-wise. I always like it when I’m surprised by the resolution of a mystery and get a good look at the psychology of the killer, who I will not reveal except to say that I didn’t expect who did it, but once I knew, it was inevitable. The second installment didn’t quite stick the landing for me as strongly, partly because the Russian nukes mystery was a little too wild – I preferred the much more personal, psychological mystery of the first book, whereas this ended up basically being a long chase scene – and partly because it undermined Carrie’s professionalism by having her sleep with her Russian counterpart. Is it not enough to take two of her fingers, you have to take her professional judgement too? A graphic novel is a quick read, though, so as long as you’ve started you might as well finish the pair, but the second volume was pretty take it or leave it.

Also, fun fact that I learned, there is an artists in residence program at McMurdo Station for writers/poets/painters/whatever to come learn about what it’s really like in one of the most alien places on earth. (Rucka and Lieber did not participate, I just incidentally found this.) I looked through a list (that appeared to be out of date) of projects that came out of the program, and there are few books and fewer novels, and unfortunately, none of them seemed to really focus on the scientists as characters or subjects of study. Seems like a missed opportunity to me for an in depth study (fictional or sociological) of some of the most intense scientists on the planet.

Story genre: thriller, mystery. Setting: realism. Traditional genre: mystery/thriller. Reason I read it: recommendation + bingo. Rating: 3/3 and 2/3. SPL bingo square: graphic novel or poetry (as graphic novel).

Finna, Nino Cipri

We’ve all gotten completely disoriented – but not lost, can’t get lost in a labyrinth with only one path – in an Ikea. In this horror parody, that complete disorientation of a no-copyrights-were-harmed-Ikea facilitates doorways into alternate dimensions’ stores. I wanted to love this, with carnivorous organic chairs, a steampunk ship with a total badass captain, and genuinely threatening Borg-y clones. But I found it was too long to support a concept that was pretty much a one trick pony, but too short to really give the characters the time to develop they needed. SPOILER, but I especially found Jules’s decision to stay behind to help fight off the clones came out of nowhere – we’re seeing Ava’s perspective and she doesn’t do a great job noticing Jules’s development as a character, so their decision is really abrupt. Similarly, the captain acquiescing to leave and come back to “our” world is also abrupt and inconsistent with her to that point. I think this would have either been solved by it being shorter, so I’d be satisfied with more vaguely sketched-out character development and focusing more on the horror concept, or longer, and actually see the character development get done.

Story genre: quest, relationship, high concept, specfic. Setting: weird. Traditional genre: scifi. Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 2/3

To Be Taught, if Fortunate, Becky Chambers

There are approximately five million stories about long-term space missions – the kind that last decades, if not generations – and many of them meditate on the isolation of space. (Fewer of them dwell on the cabin fever of months or years cooped up in a ship, for those that don’t knock the crew out while en route. I expect that the events of the last few months will change this.) Chambers, who has already proven herself quite an optimist with regard to humans in space, focuses instead on the camaraderie between crew members with nobody but each other for most of their lifetimes. There is no significant conflict between the four main crew members, though that’s not to say they don’t struggle with being separated from their families and the rest of humanity.

For most of the mission, the conflict is only from exploring and surviving on the unknown worlds they visit, aided by (underexplored) biological modifications that are “installed” while in stasis during flights that amp up muscles, shield against UV, and similar aides. The first roughly 3/4 of the story is about the crew as a family, living with the new bodies they wake up to at each new planet, and the joy of discovery. And then the messages from Earth… stop. After piecing together what happened and determining they have two mutually exclusive options – go back to Earth, which they were intended to do at the end of their mission but which might not be inhabited or habitable anymore, or go explore a potentially habitable planet just outside the range of space that humans can fly to and return from in a lifetime – the crew basically punts the decision. The whole book has been part of a transmission to a planet they don’t know will ever be listening again, asking Earthlings to decide for them. In the universe of the story, this makes me (the reader) a representative of Earth they want to have make the decision for them, and I say, figure it out! While I understand the crew’s impulse to seek input from the planet they are essentially ambassadors to space for, the whole principle of deep space missions depends on crews being able to sort things out sometimes. (See also: Antarctic crews, above.) Transmissions can take years to arrive, and in this case, have stopped entirely, possibly for good. While I think Chambers intended me to admire the crew for letting go of control and placing their lives in the hands of humans they don’t know still exist or can contact them, I would far rather have seen them take control of their own destiny as possibly the last members of their species. Personally I would have chosen for them to continue into deep space, but I would have been happy with any active decision. I thought the missions and the worldbuilding were fantastic (unsurprisingly, from her), but the end was an abdication of responsibility by the crew that just a little bit spoiled it for me (and knocked down it to a 2/3).

Story genre: specfic, commentary, ensemble, high concept. Setting: science fiction. Traditional genre: science fiction. Reason I read it: author. Rating: 2/3

Hay Fever, Noel Coward

All of Coward’s plays follow essentially the same miscommunication-based comedy basic plot, with different characters and set dressing, but boy is his one trick a fun one. Four members of an eccentric, wealthy, and reclusive family (parents and two adult children) each invite a guest for the weekend without telling anyone else, and the four guests are eventually driven off by the family’s ridiculousness. I imagine that onstage it would provide an excuse for a delightfully oversized set, outlandish costumes, and most importantly, total chewing of the scenery by the actors playing the family. There’s little more to it – Coward isn’t trying to draw any deep insights into the human condition, other than that we’re all some degree of weird – but it was a fun and fast romp.

Story genre: ensemble, farce. Setting: realism. Traditional genre: drama. Reason I read it: bingo. Rating: 2/3. SPL bingo square: published in the 1920s (1925).