Books, November 2020

Remember last month that I said I was up to something and that was why I was actually publishing on time, instead of vaguely in the middle of the month like I usually do? Well, what I was up to was…

Drumroll….

Winning National Novel Writing Month! Yay, me! Participants are challenged to write 50,000 words towards a draft of a novel in thirty days. For most novels, 50k words isn’t going to get you to the end of the story – the usual comparison is that Fahrenheit 451 is about 46k words, and my edition has tiny pages and still only clocks in at about 180. A winner doesn’t necessarily finish their book – I didn’t – but that 50k got me about 2/3 of the way through the planned story. I don’t think I could have pulled this off if I hadn’t been literally forbidden to do anything else. I can’t wait to be able to do other things again, so I’m glad I did this now.

Will you get to read it? I don’t know yet. I might finish it, revise it, read it over, and decide to stick it in a (metaphorical) drawer for 10 years, or forever. Or maybe I’ll decide to try to publish it. But whatever I do, if and when it’s out in the world, I will let you know.

Book of the month: Solutions and Other Problems, Allie Brosh

Brosh had basically dropped off the map for the 10ish years since her first book, Hyperbole and a Half came out, named for her amazing blog of the same name. (Personal favorites: Dogs don’t understand basic concepts like moving, The Alot, The year Kenny Loggins ruined Christmas.) In her first book and her blog, she’d always been about her struggle with depression, and then the publication of Solutions was delayed by like five years, so I’d been hoping she was ok. Turns out she was very much not ok: major medical problems, getting a divorce, her sister’s death, and more. She’s doing better now, so she was finally ready to turn her evocatively crappy art and darkly funny writing on her past decade. Solutions is much darker, slower burning humor than its predecessors’ laugh-out-loud comedy, which tracks with its more serious subject matter (though there are a few segments that are pure comedy, mostly about her pets). While the catharsis of a good laugh is definitely doing me good right now, her honesty about the ways that the last decade affected her mental health, how she dealt with struggle after struggle, and how sometimes she just didn’t deal, was a read I needed in 2020. Veering between heartbreaking and sidesplitting, it’s a perfect combination of a path to mental health resilience + escapism.

Traditional genre: comics, humor, memoir. Format: cartoon essays. Reason I read it: loved Hyperbole and a Half for many years. Rating: 3/3

Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Though I finished them in different months, I read this right on the heels of Nickel Boys. Though they’re set over a hundred years and hundreds of miles apart, they’re visibly concerned with the same themes: unjust systems cracking down on disempowered individuals, dreams of an escape or an end to the cycle, and the immense good that small acts of rebellion can do, even when they come at great risk. Railroad follows the long, winding journey of Cora as she escapes from slavery on a plantation in Georgia and makes her way north to find freedom, as people along the way risk everything to help her, get sucked into providing her aid against their will, or try to catch or kill her. Her journey jumps from location to location through imagining the real-life Underground Railroad, a network of abolition activists, safe houses, and ever-changing routes to the north, as a literal underground railroad. Despite the magical realism device of an underground train, it’s otherwise deeply realistic. My one big wish was that the symbolism of this impossible railroad was explored more – there’s hints about the sacrifices and labor to build it, but little about what it means to have this network of trains that nobody knows where they all are, where they go, who is on them, or even what all the stops are.

Railroad’s writing was considerably less spare than Nickel’s, lingering in detail on the exact brutal violence enacted on the enslaved, those making their escape, free Black people, and white people who help fight the institution of slavery, willingly or not. (For example, among those executed for helping her is the wife of an Underground Railroad volunteer who was against his involvement, but since Cora was found in their house and she clearly knew about her, she was hanged anyway.) Despite the unflinching gaze on violence and general outlook on the frustration of being an individual trying to fight the whole system alone, both books end somewhat hopefully – an outlet is possible, and Cora and Turner-as-Elwood’s escapes erode the systems that tried to hold them down just a little bit more. In the midst of a national upsurge in the conversation about racism and the legacy of slavery, that message of hope is a powerful concept to get behind.

Railroad is due to premiere as a TV show soon, and I will definitely be watching.

Traditional genre: probably historical fiction. Setting: historical magical realism. Story genre: commentary, specfic, quest. Format: novel. Reason I read it: loved The Nickel Boys last month. Rating: 3/3

Binti, the Complete Collection, Nnedi Okorafor

I love it when I have an excuse to reread something, because my to be read stack is so tall that I can rarely justify it to myself to go back when I could be catching up. (There are so many good things waiting for me to get to them! It doesn’t feel like the burden of a to-do list.)

The good news is that I again enjoyed Binti, and hilariously my summary was nearly word-for-word what I wrote about it last time, so I will not repeat myself. (My only addition is to note the parallel of the three additions to Binti’s identity in each of the three volumes.) The bad news is that most of my book club-mates did not agree. I will be the first to concede that Binti is a pretty weird book, so I think it may have partly just been too big a plunge for a group that isn’t accustomed to the genre (for example, a living spaceship fish isn’t particularly strange at all to me but was very off putting to several of them), but several people also complained about the writing style, calling it simplistic. (I’d call it pleasantly straightforward myself.) I’m brainstorming more literary-fiction-friendly scifi or fantasy to pitch at an upcoming round of selection.

A note on the format: This time I read it in the collected edition of all three novellas plus an additional short story. It was nice to not have to wait between segments, but it lent it a deceptive air of repetitiveness that was actually originally a “previously on” reminder for people not reading them back to back. If you read this edition, as opposed to the separate novellas individually, just bear this in mind.

Traditional genre: science fiction. Setting: science fiction. Story genre: specfic, commentary, thriller. Format: collected novellas. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 3/3, eagerly await the TV version

Without a Brew, Ellie Alexander

Sloan is back for another Leavenworth brewery murder, this time involving a surprising ‘coincidental’ meeting between acquaintances with a motive. (Of course it’s not a coincidence, that’s no spoiler.) This was a pretty good murder mystery that I will of course not spoil, but one of the main places where Alexander’s mysteries shine has always been when she brings in current events and themes to ground the (very unrealistic) cozy mystery in a realistic world. In this case, Sloan confronts characters suspected of being Nazi sympathizers (the truth is yet to be confirmed, and I’m glad the book takes it as the serious threat deserving of investigation that it is) and deals with a truly spectacular case of toxic masculinity from the tech industry, who stands in contrast to tech industry exile/series love interest Garrett. This is the fourth Sloan book in as many years, and it’s nice to see what Sloan and her supporting cast have been building through hard work and time – their mini-inn, new beers, a new house, and more. A trip to Leavenworth had already been vaguely on my radar, but I was extra charmed by the vivid depiction of the resort town this time around given that, you know, I can’t go anywhere. I will definitely be going as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Traditional genre: mystery. Setting: realism (and local!). Story genre: mystery. Format: novel. Reason I read it: continuing series. Rating: 3/3

Blanche on the Lam, Barbara Neely

Blanche is a Black domestic worker in North Carolina in the 90s, always on the brink of poverty while she works multiple jobs and cares for her late sister’s children – delightfully not at all the typical cozy mystery protagonist. When she’s slapped with a fine she can’t afford, she makes a break for it from the courthouse, picking up a domestic gig in a remote house by pure luck. She thinks she’s lying low… and then the bodies start turning up, and Blanche (not unreasonably) worries she’ll either be framed for them or become the next victim. I found Blanche a vivid, headstrong, and savvy character. The best parts were when Blanche politely smacks someone down, but since she’s on the lam she spends the majority of the book avoiding talking to people, so those bursts of excellent conversational ping-pong are too few and far between. Unfortunately, her sharp wit and detective skills were also brought down by the narration, which was a little heavy handed. Frustratingly, the mystery was far too convoluted for a book that clocked in under 200 pages: (SPOILER) three murders, a hired imposter, an attempted fake will, a secret relationship, and more. There’s further Blanche books that I’d read if they landed on my stack because I liked the character so much, but probably wouldn’t seek them out, both because of the narration and that there are other mysteries I’ve found more mysterious.

Traditional genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Story genre: mystery, commentary. Format: novel. Reason I read it: loan. Rating: 2/3