Books, February 2021

Hey, spring is coming. Don’t let your covid guard down. Stay inside and read more books until the CDC says otherwise.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

Where to start with Steinbeck’s sprawling epic? It’s anchored but far from bounded by the story of Adam Trask, and heavily features the stories of his family and friends over the course of his entire life. (Steinbeck himself even briefly appears as Adam’s neighbor’s grandson.) While Adam is nominally the main character, his horrible estranged wife Cathy and his housekeeper/right-hand man Lee are the characters I was most interested in throughout. Time and again, every character in the book is faced with decisions where there is a selfish and a selfless option, which Steinbeck tries to capture in the biblical word “timshel,” which Steinbeck translates as “thou mayest” (and which, hilariously for such a serious book, appears to be in error – apparently the real word transliterates as “timshol” and doesn’t remotely translate as “thou mayest”). Most characters make a very human mix of choices they’re proud of and ones they regret, and in fact sometimes the selfish choice is the best one and the selfless one leads to needless sacrifice. But every single time, Cathy chooses the selfish option and embraces her sociopathic nature, while Lee chooses the selfless, often thankless path. There’s other moments that struck me in the moment, but the human power to choose and the dichotomy of selfless vs. selfish, rather than good vs. evil, choices form the core I’ll keep returning to. The loving descriptions of sunny Salinas while I was under a foot of snow didn’t hurt either.

Don’t be put off by the length, as it’s really three books in one: Adam’s youth, his middle age, and his son’s youth. Just pretend it’s a trilogy of very reasonable 200 page volumes.

Traditional genre: literary fiction/classics. Setting: realism. Story genre: character study/ensemble, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson

I was gifted this at my friends’ annual book exchange, which I gave the prompt of “heists” for this year, and the story is fantastic but the heist itself was, interestingly, pretty inept. In 2009, teen classical music student Edwin Rist made off with nearly 300 birds from a natural history museum outside London, which he sold and used himself for Victorian-style fishing-fly tying. Fly tying is now practiced by a niche hobby community, and the products are viewed as art and not generally used for actual fishing. Hardcore practitioners demand rare feathers from the original Victorian fly tie “recipes,” often from endangered or even extinct birds, for “authenticity.” (Everyone else uses lookalikes or dyed/treated dupes from geese and other non-endangered domestic birds.) Edwin was one of these hardcore tiers when he made off with the stash of a lifetime in a clumsy but lucky heist, including birds gathered 200 years ago by Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of natural selection in parallel to Darwin on the strength of those specimens. Johnson dives into the history of human uses of feathers for fly ties and fashion, the revival of fly tying, Wallace’s expeditions, and the modern scientific value of historic bird specimens, all to explain why fly tiers covet birds and how scientists use them for research. I’m fully on the side of the scientists and the scientific and historical value of the birds, as is Johnson. Johnson does his best to understand the fly tiers’ obsession while knowing just how destructive it is, and the craft becomes something of an obsession for him too – but as an outsider, an investigator watching with frustration and horror. The sole interview with Edwin himself is the most fascinating moment, even more so than the thrill of the heist, hinting that his apparent motives, stated remorse, and the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome used to mitigate his sentencing don’t tell the real story.

Makes me, a knitter, glad that gathering the wool for my hobby doesn’t hurt the sheep – in fact, it’s good for them.

Subject: science, crime? Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

The Big Short, Michael Lewis

I thought I understood the subprime mortgage crisis and 2008 financial meltdown it caused… but I didn’t know the half of it, and it turns out that at the time, almost nobody did. Lewis started his career in finance before jumping ship to become a writer chronicling his former industry, so he has an insider’s perspective of the sociology of finance and how people in that world think and act. (Something I often experience in the world of science too – it’s the difference between knowing the material and knowing how the pros think.) His explanation of the financial inventions, decisions, and missed opportunities for course correction that led to the collapse of the market – all of which were bafflingly stupid and totally preventable, if any of the people and organizations charged with regulation had actually done so – were just the right level of detail for an average non-economist, and never condescending despite his expert knowledge and insider connections. I thought I understood that greed toppled the market – it was greed, yes, but also outright fraud to a greater degree than I knew. It’s a great read-alike for Bad Blood, which recounts a similarly grifty scandal, which also could have been caught sooner if anyone had done due diligence.

Subject: finance, history. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, Kevin Kwan

I read (and watched) Crazy Rich Asians approximately a million years ago and finally returned to complete the trilogy. Nick and Rachel remain among the main characters, as the plot shifts from the Young family dramatics surrounding their relationship to multi-family politics about status and old vs. new money. The central cast expands significantly to support this high-society politics beyond a single family, now to encompass a wider range of personalities and financial positions. These two books further develop into main characters and contrast Astrid (born into old money) and Kitty (married into new money twice), both of whom also contrast to established main character Rachel (married into old money but doesn’t participate in its social world much). While the glitziness and dishy gossip are fun at the surface level – and no real people’s privacy is invaded even! – there’s real meat to its psychology of extreme wealth. Kwan paints a fascinating portrait of behavior from performative frugality to very public spending sprees, entitlement, competitiveness, and even just running away from it all.

Following the success of the Crazy Rich Asians movie, the other two were set to be filmed back to back… in 2020. So that didn’t happen. I look forward to watching them (and enjoying their astronomical costume budgets) eventually.

Traditional genre: romance. Setting: realism. Story genre: commentary, ensemble, wonder (at the gossip/excess). Format: novels. Rating: 3/3

Across the Green Grass Fields, Seanan McGuire

Another novella, another child sucked into a fantasy world that matches their personality. Regan means to run away from school for the day after sharing with her judgmental “best friend” that she is intersex, and the friend turns nasty about it. (Have we not all had that person who we wondered why we were friends with in retrospect? Relatable McGuire strikes again.) Her distress manifests a portal and she accidentally runs away from home entirely – to the Hooflands, populated by a variety of horse-adjacent species like centaurs and kelpies, where the appearance of a human is a great and scary portent. The first two thirds are a pretty typical “accepting yourself for who you are” story as she’s nurtured by the centaurs, who teach her to love herself, how to care for their herd of unicorns, and protect her from the dangerous kelpies and perytons. The last third, however… well, I won’t spoil it, but it reveals some of Regan and the centaur’s assumptions are totally wrong in a way that will change the world itself. This volume is marketed as a standalone, not requiring familiarity with the rest of the Wayward Children series, so I hope it whets new readers’ appetites to go read the rest because the interactions between kids in the other books are one of my favorite elements in the story. Also, I don’t know if McGuire was a horse girl as a kid (I find nearly all girls either were or knew a horse girl), but she perfectly and lovingly captures the fascination with horses and the way it seeps into their entire lives.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: commentary, character study, specfic, adventure. Format: novella. Rating: 3/3