Another busy couple of months with travel, and performance, and writing, and interviews. Again, no nonfiction. This month as well as the usual Recommended titles I’ve listed a handful that could be worth your time picking up but about which I have no deep thoughts. Not listed: some other books I finished because I was stuck in circumstances with nothing else but which I found worthless; no titles of the books that seriously pissed me off.
Hopefully next time I’ll be able to report on some lovely, chewy research reading for Menewood. Meanwhile, please see caveats below.
Read and Recommended
Maggie Terry, Sarah Schulman
Set in 2017 Manhattan, Schulman’s latest is day-after noir: the party is over, the neon burnt out, and there’s nothing to drink but cold-pressed kale juice. While you were doing lines and knocking back shots, your wife took your child and left, your partner got himself killed, and you lost your badge. So now you have nothing but 12 steps. And while you weren’t looking, or at least not seeing, someone slowly strangled your community. It’s all gone: the gays have left, the bodegas are shut, and rat-infested tenements all replaced by condos overrun with man-buns.
This is classic Schulman: crime fiction, yes, but the murder that matters is of the urban neighbourhood. Schulman flenses and dissects the human condition, weighs every organ—how we connect, what forms the beating heart of a community—then magically breathes life back into the husk and helps it rise, reborn. Schulman asks, Who are you when you have nothing left? What can you do when you can do nothing? You go on. You learn to see, or see clearly, to tell yourself the truth and accept that truth, and shoulder the responsibility. Maggie Terry is a light shining in the waste, offering hope: Where there are people, there is the possibility of connection, and together we can make it. You should read this.
Disobedience, Naomi Alderman
The Wikipedia plot summary: “The novel is a first-person narrative of Ronit Krushka, a 32-year-old non-practising Orthodox Jew, who is working in New York as a financial analyst and having an affair with her married male boss. The death of her estranged father, a powerful rabbi, brings Ronit back to her childhood home in Hendon, London, where her provocative ways outrage the local Orthodox Jewish community. Discovering that her cousin Dovid, who is also her father’s chosen successor, is married to her former lover, Esti, forces Ronit to rethink what she left behind.”
It took two tries to finish this one. Partly it’s because I started reading on a plane, and the claustrophobia of air travel resonated too strongly with the claustrophobia of a small, inward, restrictive—particularly of women, extremely of queer women—religious community. This is a world I do and do not know. Alderman’s setting is the London suburb of Hendon, while I grew up in the Catholic community of Leeds. In both, everyone knows each other and social mores are iron rules: the congregations are hives of gossip, school reinforces restrictions, and there is zero privacy. Both are stifling. I realised, a few weeks after putting the book down, I was reading for a kind of lesbian vindication, or at least satisfaction, which does not appear to be Alderman’s goal. I wanted Ronit and Esti to end up back together, to kick over the traces and—after hot and satisfying sex—fly over the rainbow to the kind of life they should have had.
It’s obvious very early on that this is not that kind of book but—partly because I so wanted it to be, and partly because Alderman is so very good as a writer—I kept reading anyway. And of course got crosser and crosser and more and more claustrophobic. When I picked it up again last week it was with adjusted expectations, and this time I read it dispassionately to the end. Will I read it again? I doubt it. Am I glad I read it the first time? Yes. And you should, too.
Visible Empire, Hannah Pittard
This book took me completely by surprise. I knew nothing of it, or the author, but something about the title or the cover intrigued me so I downloaded it from NetGalley. And once I started, I was hooked. Like Disobedience, and like Maggie Terry, this is a story of how community works, how it forms, breaks, and reforms. How it faces inequity, and how it changes in the face of events. Like Obedience, Visible Empire is set in a world I do and do not know: this time Atlanta. It’s Atlanta 30 years before I lived there, but many of the underlying structures of wealth and discrimination and mythology have not changed much.
In June 1962, a chartered jet carrying 106 of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens, crashes and burns as it takes off from Orly. It is an earthquake in Atlanta’s cultural community: families, friends, spouses, businesses all left without their anchors and suddenly adrift. Importantly, too, for those involved, established hierarchies are disturbed, with money being inherited, lost, and shifted abruptly, upsetting the city’s equilibrium. The publisher’s blurb reads “An epic novel—based on true events—of love, grief, race, and wealth, charting a single sweltering summer in Atlanta that left no one unchanged… Visible Empire is the story of a husband and wife who can’t begin to understand each other until chaos drives them to clarity. It’s a story of the promise and hope that remain in the wake of crisis.” But I read it as a examination of the mythology a community weaves for itself, that hides its own knowledge of the truth. And what happens when that curtain is twitched aside, even temporarily, and we’re exposed to reality. Reality, of course, always redrapes itself, but sometimes over a slightly different shape. Pittard does a lovely job of showing how much we fool ourselves, how we believe what is convenient, and how we might change for the better. A couple of important white characters felt a little too optimistically drawn in that regard, but I understand the impulse to give the reader an easier experience. On balance, yes, recommended.
The Best Bad Things, Katrina Carrasco
Gritty street fiction set in the lawless 19th century when Port Townsend was the Deadwood of the Pacific Northwest, The Best Bad Things is a bloody brawl of a book. Carrasco uses a whippy structure and flexible prose to play an unsettling shell game as Alma, dressed as Jack, sheds her impulse control along with her corsets, and the plot accelerates into a visceral, unexpected underworld of bare-knuckle fighting, opium smuggling, and genderqueer lust. Both Jack and Alma are creatures not of head—or heart—but gut. In the streets and between the sheets they live for the thud of bone on bone, wrench of muscle, and tear of breath. Neither they nor Carrasco flinch before the bold choice and the result is a jaw-dropping knife-thrust of an ending. Definitely recommended.
Queen of the Unwanted, Jenna Glass
First of a feminist fantasy trilogy with all the main roles played by women ranging from teens to young adult to middle-aged to old. What they all have in common is being, in various ways, unwanted and shut in/shut out of power. This is a patriarchy-has-all-the-power-until-the-worm-turns thought experiment about reproductive rights (and magic, and swords and ponies, and romance) designed to tick a lot of #MeToo, #Resistance, and #prochoice boxes. One of the protagonists is a middle-aged matron, another an astonishingly responsible and wise maiden, another a crone-in-training who’s still young enough to have hot sex with the strong-but-gentle warrior.
The real crone died at the beginning working the magic that sets up the change in the world order around which the plot turns: women gain complete control over their fertility. After this spell that’s generations in the making, women cannot bear a child to term unless, deep down, they really truly want one. (Don’t think too closely about this or logic holes begin to appear.) It doesn’t matter how much a king desperately wants/needs an heir, unless he can make his queen happy in her marriage, he won’t get one. (Just go with it.)
The majority of main characters are women. After the spell, they get to have sex and romance and run countries and make decisions. They move from the periphery to the centre
Queen of the Unwanted is a kinder, gentler, epic fantasy version of The Power—much more #Resistance than #FightBack; women commit no overt violence. But it’s definitely a worthy thought experiment that kept me happily reading in strange hotel rooms. It’s stuffed with fantasy-romance names like Ellin and Alys, and the only sex is straight sex, if I recall correctly—though I read it fast and I read an early bound manuscript so that might not a reliable recollection. I’ll probably pick up Book Two when it comes out and hope that some queer women have been magicked into existence.
Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells
The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal
The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware
Head On, John Scalzi
There were half a dozen novels I’d like to rant about here—ranging from those that grind a promising idea into the dirt then grind some more; to tedious, self-absorbed narrators I’d flee from at any party; to what I at first mistook for a reprint from the 50s the gendered characterisation was so bad; to an overdone noir whinge about the poor choices of badly done-to white men; to the vile tale, disguised as a thriller, of a deluded man tormenting a woman—but I’ll save everyone by stopping there.
These posts are not meant to function as in-depth assessments. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a combination of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood).
The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published, old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get for .99¢ from BookBub, sometimes because they’re old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, sometimes because it’s a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. (This is the kind of book I’d read with flu, or doped up on opiates: it does not require full attention but is a great distraction from discomfort.) The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines. Some of it is also not-yet-published, some ancient and out of date foundational reading, and almost all a combination of fascinating, difficult, annoying, and necessary.
I start many books; I don’t finish most. When that happens, I’m often won’t discuss them. Why? Because in terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prosthesis; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often (the misuse of language; avoidance of specificity, particularly in matters of time and/or place). Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but not always. I’ll make exceptions for a) those for upon whose reputation my comments will have little or no impact (which is, y’know, most of them) and b) if I believe my commentary might prove useful to a potential reader or a new writer.