Books, April 2021

Join the vaccine club! Price of admission: feeling crappy one time for about 24 hours. Membership benefits: protecting yourself and others from a now-preventable, potentially deadly disease. What a bargain!

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

I had vague but positive memories of reading Their Eyes in high school, including that it had been my favorite book in that year’s curriculum, and it was even better the second time through. Hurston tracks the life of Janie, who redefines herself several times over the course of her life as she moves through towns, marriages, and both great struggles and true happiness. I strongly connected with Janie’s lifelong process of building and rebuilding her identity – and when I excavated my essay from my old files, that was exactly what I wrote about for class back then! (Perhaps I was prompted by the margin notes in my own unearthed copy I read?) Conversely, one thing I didn’t recall noticing as a teenager (and didn’t mention in my marginalia) was just how avoidable Tea Cake’s death was, as a result of unintentionally risky decisions and plain bad luck, making it all the more tragic this time through. Hurston was an anthropologist by training, and her keen ear for oral storytelling and dialect infuses the book with a sense of immediacy. I see why it’s assigned regularly, and am reminded once again that I need to carve out more time to revisit books I’ve read before.

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

Resident Alien, Vol 1-5, Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse

I am currently obsessed with the TV adaptation of Resident Alien, which closed out its first season in early April, and the second season can’t arrive soon enough. I quickly discovered that the show bears fairly little resemblance to the comic series it’s based on. While some things stay basically the same (the small mountain town setting, Harry’s job as doctor, Asta and her dad’s personalities and backstories nearly in full), the show makes a lot of changes around Harry’s mission and identity that then drive other changes. TV Harry murdered and stole the identity of the real Harry, had crashed on earth while on a mission to kill humanity, and is overall pretty sociopathic. Comics Harry fabricated his identity from whole cloth, and is happy to quietly practice medicine and solve murders while hoping to be rescued. The changes are extensive but smart adaptation strategy – giving Harry a murdery rather than helpless situation on earth, expanding the cast, and raising the pressure on being found out. (And weirdly, moving the town’s location from Washington to Colorado… but filming in Vancouver BC. Those are the Cascades, not the Rockies! You can’t pull one over on me!) Both the show and comics are excellent, just very different. Don’t expect season 2 spoilers from the comics, but do expect a good time.

Traditional genre: comics, scifi. Setting: scifi. Story genre: mystery, specfic, thriller, commentary. Format: graphica/collected comics. Rating: 3/3

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

My journey through Steinbeck’s major works concludes. (Minor works perhaps to come!) I mentioned to a few people that I was reading this, and they all commented that it was such a sad book, and they hoped I was ready for a downer. But I didn’t find this tale of migrant workers fleeing the dust bowl (in modern times, one might describe them as climate refugees) sad at all – instead, it’s a profoundly angry book. It’s filled with righteous rage against an economic system that milked the Joads of their labor and humanity so ruthlessly, sprinkled with optimism from the care the downtrodden show each other. (A quick bit of research indicates that Steinbeck was a union organizer and apparently was this close to being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is not in the slightest bit surprising.) Substitute farms for warehouses, and this could have been written today – both the mark of an insightful, long-lasting piece of literature, and a depressing reflection that the more things change the more they stay the same. (I haven’t seen it, but I understand the Oscar-winning film Nomadland hits on a lot of the same points, to further underscore the timeliness.)

Traditional genre: literary. Setting: realism. Story genre: commentary, ensemble, and if you think about it, quest. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett (in French, translated into English by Beckett himself)

Vladimir and Estragon’s warped sense of time, repetitive conversations, memory loss, and struggle with having no purpose, uh, hit a little hard right now. Godot’s reputation for ambiguity and downright strangeness holds true, especially in the segments featuring Pozzo and Lucky, foils to Vladimir and Estragon who don’t figure strongly into the play’s reputation, but whose arrivals are the only significant events in the plot. I for one am absolutely convinced that they’re all in purgatory, which is apparently a frequent though not universal interpretation. Waiting for what? It doesn’t really matter, but it sure feels like I did while waiting for a vaccine.

Traditional genre: drama. Setting: purgatory? Story genre: commentary, allegory. Format: play. Rating: 3/3

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee

Steinbeck set me off on a bit of a mid-century run, and I’ve been trying to read more plays than I did in the last year. It hurts to be missing theater still, and this is no real substitute, but it’s better than nothing. George and Martha invite new-in-town Nick and Honey over for an afterparty following a faculty party at the college where George and Nick work, and things quickly devolve into drunken failures of both impulse control and empathy. Much like Godot, not a lot actually happens in this explosive living room drama, but the long-buried resentments and secrets make cutting words into actions themselves. While the gender politics are thoroughly dated now, they’re dream roles for a lot of actors for a reason.

Traditional genre: drama. Setting: realism. Story genre: relationship. Format: play. Rating: 3/3

The Unhoneymooners, Christina Lauren

Olive’s sister is marrying Ethan’s brother. Olive has hated Ethan since they met, and she knows just how much he hates her in return. So when everyone else gets food poisoning at the wedding, of course who will have to take the free, all-inclusive, sweepstakes-prize honeymoon? The unhoneymooners! And then, of course, it turns out they might not hate each other so much after all – this is a romance, of course. While untangling misunderstandings is a TOP romance trope, Christina Lauren (who is actually a writing team – Christina and Lauren) creates a more complex web of misunderstandings to be untangled by particularly engaging characters, against the excellent backdrop of a Hawaiian vacation precariously balanced on a huge pile of lies. It’s a sweet, easy read that I blasted through in one sitting, which was perfect for my covid brain.

Traditional genre: romance. Setting: realism. Story genre: relationship. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Pride, Ibi Zoboi

A lot of the social commentary and humor of Pride and Prejudice are lost on a casual modern reader (who doesn’t happen to have an annotated copy, or the extremely extra habit of looking up the books they read for fun on Spark Notes. Yes, both of these are me), which is part of why I love modernizations. (This goes for other sources too, like Shakespeare retellings.) Zoboi moves the story to a rapidly gentrifying area of Brooklyn, makes everyone teenagers to make it YA, changes the Benitez (Bennet) sisters’ financial worries to how they’ll pay for college, and reorganizes the Bingley/Darcy families so the Bingley and Darcy analogues are now brothers instead of besties. In both the source and the remix, as Zoboi describes her work, the individual characters’ stories are motivated by their economic situations and options for their futures. Zoboi’s take preserves the charm of the original while placing it into an updated setting that captures the same social commentary as the original, but will be more recognizable and relevant to its target teen audience. A fun read for a teen, an Austen fan, and/or someone who wants a vicarious travel experience to the lovingly described Bushwick setting.

Traditional genre: YA. Setting: realism. Story genre: relationship, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo

I accidentally skipped over the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the original books set in the shared Grisha-verse and the primary basis for a new Netflix adaptation, jumping straight to the follow-up duology that’s essentially a spinoff (and adapted to be part of the series). The stakes start out seemingly low, lower than the world-changing stakes I know the trilogy features. Kaz leads a gang in a fantasy version of Amsterdam in the 1700s merchant era, where there are relatively few Grisha – people with magical powers – but rumors of a drug that can supercharge their magic are starting to rumble. He’s hired by one of those merchants to break into an impenetrable fortress in a fantasy Scandinavian nation and break out the scientist behind the drug, and assembles his heist team from his gang. More obviously than most heist teams, the group members each represent strength one stat in Dungeons and Dragons characters mechanics: Kaz is intelligence, Nina is wisdom, Jesper is charisma, Inej is dexterity, Matthias is strength, and Wylan is – hear me out – constitution, as represented mainly by his emotional resilience (and surprising ability to take a punch). I don’t mean to imply that the characters are simple or reductionist – rather, their strengths are clearly defined (and so are their weaknesses – Kaz’s holding a grudge, Jesper’s impulsiveness, etc.) and that Bardugo clearly shows how the team’s success depends on being a team, because they’d lose a needed specialty without any one of them. By the time the first book ends, the simple heist job has become a mission to stop corruption and the spread of the dangerous drug, and it’s been elevated to an emotional quest for vengeance for the team, collectively and individually. Beautiful worldbuilding,which clearly goes much deeper than we get to hear about in the narrative, underpins a fast, sharp story. Though I’ve been told that I’ll probably like these better than the original trilogy, and there’s none of the same main characters, I want to know more about this world anyway.

Traditional genre: fantasy and YA. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: quest (of the heist variety), ensemble, specfic. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3