Sci-Fi


Happy Holidays! Merry almost Christmas, Happy it used to be Hanukkah, Happy almost almost almost New Year. Hard to believe 2019 is nearly upon us! I know it’s not 2018’s fault, but I just really can’t wait for it to be behind me. I hope I don’t have many worse years ahead of me… It was a tough one for sure. But books were such a bright spot. I have loved so many of my reads this year, and I’m so glad that I really prioritized and made time for reading.

What goals are you setting for next year? I’m not sure I’ll intentionally read 100 books again, which is to say that I’m going to keep tracking my reads and keep making time for it, but if I read 85 instead of 100, I’ll be okay with it. My goal last year (2017) was 52 and I did 68, my goal this year was 100 and it looks like I’ll finish around 106 or 107 (I’m currently at 105).

My reads this week were Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture and Limetown which was written by Cote Smith but is based on a podcast created by Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been working on Not That Bad for awhile, not because it’s bad or even slow, but because it is so intense to read. This is collection of many essays, many of them first person accounts of rape and sexual assault, and I found I could read about 3 before I had to take a break. Partially because I didn’t just want to breeze through these deeply personal stories, partly because it just made me so sad about the world we live in.

Despite the intensity of the book, I still recommend it (although if rape and sexual assault are too difficult for you, HUGE trigger warning on this one) as a powerful and well-written collection. The diversity in styles and in stories really makes this a strong book. No one in here is telling exactly the same story, although they are all telling you pieces of a larger story about our culture. I bookmarked A LOT in this book, and I will share a few of the more powerful pieces, but really I had to stop bookmarking because so much of this book feels important.

My first bookmark is a list I intend to come back to should I raise any men in this world – it is the author’s list of what you generally want to convey to your sons (Aubrey Hirsch, “Fragments”):

It’s not okay to hit the girl you like. And it’s not okay to hit the girl you love.

The world around you tells women that they should always nod politely no matter what they’re feeling inside. Don’t ever take a polite nod for an answer. Wait for her to yell it: “Yes!”

Not everyone gets sex when they want it. Not everyone gets love when they want it. This is true for men and for women. A relationship is not your reward for being a nice guy, no matter what the movies tell you.

Birth control is your job too.

Here are some phrases you will need to know. Practice them in the mirror until they come as easy as songs you know by heart: “Do you want to?” “That’s not funny, man.” “Does that feel good?” “I like you, but I think we’re both a little drunk. Here’s my number. Let’s get together another time.”

My feelings about this list should mostly be conveyed in exclamation marks. Another author ends with hopeful notes about the strength of her daughters (Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes, Reaping What Rape Culture Sows), which is a nice bit of optimism.

There’s another piece that is very much an autobiographical account of all the worst things that happened to the author (xTx, “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl”) that plays with how we assign a value to the ‘badness’ of the things that have happened:

My score is low compared to some and high compared to others. The harder the lesson, the higher the points. Some girls would kill for my score. That’s why I don’t talk about my score. I got off easy.

I legitimately think, “I got off easy.” I didn’t get raped … I got fondled at best. Not that bad, right? Lucky, right? Right. Exactly. This is what I’m saying. I got off easy. Why even write this essay?

This is, to me, the central thesis of the book. What has happened so many isn’t okay just because there’s some other person out there who has had it worse, it is that bad. I think V.L. Seek’s essay “Utmost Resistance” (written semi-in the style of a law review article, and about how the law views and has viewed rape) summed things up nicely (if depressingly):

[A] conclusion seems out of reach when we are still stuck debating the facts, deciding whom to trust and what is true. We are trapped in a legal system that has never favored women and has never believed survivors. And we are mired in a circuitous and damning dialogue, so powerful that it invalidates our experiences, our traumas, our truths — a dialogue so powerful that we begin to doubt whether our experience was ever there at all.

Limetown is, thankfully for my mental health, a very different sort of book. It’s pretty much a  prequel novel to the Limetown podcast which just released its second (and I think final) season. This is a sort of mystery-horror story, and the fact that the pieces take a while to fit together and some things aren’t explained is sort of key, so I will try not to ruin it for anyone.

The premise of the podcast is that Lia Haddock is a public radio reporter looking into the mystery of Limetown. Limetown, we’re told, was a planned community doing some kind of secret research, one day things went crazy, and then three days later, all 300 people who lived there had disappeared. The podcast moves forward from Limetown, with Lia trying to unpack what was going on there, what happened, and whether there are survivors.  Lia tells us that she has a personal connection, her uncle Emile was at Limetown and disappeared along with everyone else.

The book is a prequel, and it shifts back and forth between Lia and her uncle Emile’s perspectives as they each grow up (in different decades). It’s an enjoyable enough book, not amazing, not something you definitely must pick up. I think I’d actually recommend listening to the first season of the podcast first, if you like that, pick up the book. I, like many others, didn’t like the second season as much. I love this idea, but I’m not sure it couldn’t have been executed better.

Currently reading: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, When Will It Be Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin and thinking about whether I can make one more trip to the library before the end of the year…

 

 

Hello friends, still not having the best weeks of my life. I’ve never really been a big reader of thrillers, but I seem to be gravitating to them this year (Fever Dream, White Tears, The Haunting) and they certainly do take your mind off of things — I can see why

so many people unwind with thrillers and mysteries.

This week is was The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero. I read it because I LOVED Meddling Kids by Cantero. The book is told in snippets of diary entries, letters, telegrams, transcripts, descriptions of video tape, post cards, and a dream journal. You will either hate this or love it I think. At first, I didn’t really like it, and it made it hard for me to get into the story, but then I stared to enjoy it. There’s also a lot of cryptography – which the book actually does a cool job of explaining how they work. The end was super weird.

THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS BELOW! YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO READ THEM! PART OF THIS BOOK’S CHARM IS THE UNEXPECTED TWISTS!!

Essentially, this is the story of “A.” who writes most of the letters, diary entries, and dream journal entries that are in the book, and his “friend?” Niamh as they live the classic horror trope – inheriting a huge, allegedly haunted, house from a second cousin A. didn’t know, and the cousin belonged to some sort of secret society and killed himself. A. and Niamh are trying to unpack the mysteries of the house and figure out what the second cousin was into.

As they live in the house A. begins to have odd dreams which are incredibly powerful (and horrifying), additionally there is clearly a ghost in the bathroom. Cantero likes to play with, is this supernatural, is it not supernatural in his books — and seems to like to come down on the side of, supernatural things are really happening, but perhaps not as many you thought. There does turn out to be a secret society, and it is super interesting and super weird (it involves an all seeing eye, al la Lord of the Rings, and crystal balls that can transmit memories/dreams). Then things take two additional twists! I didn’t really care for either of them. I think the most common criticism I saw of this book on Goodreads was that the end was sort of jarring, and kind of didn’t fit with the rest of the book, and I will agree with that.

But, I still recommend this because I find the format interesting, I like the cryptography, and I wasn’t too frustrated by all of that. Cantero does tie things up pretty neatly, not everything makes sense, but what’s left hanging isn’t to frustrating. Apparently he is thinking about a sequel or sequels, although apparently he’s just got tons of ideas for novels and isn’t sure when he’ll write it. Oh, and also he wrote this book himself in both English and Spanish. So, he’s not an overachiever or anything.

Oh, also as a reader I loved this:

A.: [Y]ou must know how it works. An artifact containing … raw feelings, unprocessed sights and sounds and pains that the brain interprets – is that too crazy?

Dr. Belknap: No. It has existed for thousands of years. It’s called a book.

Currently reading: Everything Happens For a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved and Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, and off to the library to get the next book in The Broken Earth trilogy.

So, last week was one of the worst weeks of my life — my grandma died and there were two separate ER trips with my Dad. Of course, I looked to books to get me through.

When things were only lightly terrible I tried reading Marrying Up by Wendy Holden, which is, if you like this sort of thing, a perfectly fine escape book. I liked it significantly less than The Royal We or Eligible, but beggars can’t be choosers and I was looking specifically to shut my brain down a big. As you may or may not recall, I’m working on a goal of 100 books this year, I did not count this one, reading it was a totally different thing.

I also read Whiskey and Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith, The Parking Lot Attendant  by Nafkote Tamirat, and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Both Whiskey and Ribbons and The Parking Lot Attendant came from the list of 46 books by women of color in 2018.

And honestly, Whiskey and Ribbons is the second one from this list that I haven’t liked much. Although, considering how many amazing books I’ve read from this list, I still highly recommend the list if you’re looking for something to read. This is the story of Evie, whose husband Eamon is a police officer killed in the line of duty shortly before she gives birth to their son. I don’t think the author of this book could have been influenced by An American Marriage (both books came out in 2018), but the format of the book is very similar, which I think actually made me like Whiskey and Ribbons less because it just doesn’t match up well in the comparison. Like An American Marriage, Whiskey and Ribbons is told from the perspective of a husband, a wife, and another man who is a love interest of the wife.  The different perspectives intersect, with Eamon’s sections taking place from before he met Evie to his death while the other sections are in the future where he’s already died. Evie’s sections mostly take place over the course of one weekend during a snowstorm, although she’s also looking back, and this gives the whole book sort of this small, locked in, snowstorm feel. There’s nothing but this one story for a little bit.

The Parking Lot attendant is a super odd book, but I liked it, I think I should have read it more slowly. This is the story of an unnamed narrator and her unnamed father and it’s a frame novel — the story opens with the two of them living on an island in a strange sort of utopian/cult community, and then flashes back to tell the story of how they came to the island, coming back to the island at the end. The narrator is an American, but her parents were both Ethiopian immigrants and she is very connected to the Ethiopian community in Boston (where the middle of the story takes place). The father/daughter relationship and the narrator reminded me a little bit of Call Me Zebra, although thank goodness it wasn’t quite so meandering and nonsensical. The narrator does a fair amount of musing:

I marvel at people who have made a living out of seamlessly appearing to be someone other than themselves. I haven’t done a particularly bang-up job of being me, and if I can’t manage that, it seems unlikely that I’ll ever do better by taking on someone else. I suspect that on the whole, I am untalented at the art of existence.

I’m not sure what I can tell you of the plot without spoiling it, because the mystery is really most of the book’s allure. I guess, I enjoy how the author sort of messes with your expectations, nothing much happens for so much of the book, then you realize there’s a lot you don’t understand at all, the book turns into a thriller, but leaves you without everything neatly tied up in a bow. Also, I think this was less than 300 pages, so not a long read.

Finally, I read The Fifth Season, which was my favorite of everything this week. It’s a sci-fi book which won the Hugo (I don’t read a ton of sci-fi, but if I hear it won the Hugo, I’m willing to give it a shot), as did EACH of the two sequels in the trilogy. I am pretty excited to read the next two. This was a great escape book, but it also didn’t feel like I was wasting my time reading garbage. The book is set on Earth, but on a super continent called The Stillness, which is anything but still due to lots of geothermic and seismic activity. All this activity creates the fifth season, death — which is what they call it when something happens, like a volcano spews ash into the air so there’s nothing but darkness and cold for years or decades.

The world is somewhat sparsely populated and everyone lives in “comms” or communities and they are sorted into different common use categories based on their skills – so  people who are “resistant” are good at surviving and useful during that fifth season. The story is told from three women’s perspectives, although primarily you have Essun, who on the day the earth splits open for what may be the worst fifth season ever, also finds that her husband has murdered their son and stolen their daughter. I could just summarize the whole book for you, but it’s so good, so fun, so dark, but so interesting, that you should really just go read it. And then let me know what you think. Maybe it will get you through some bad days too.

Currently reading: Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, and getting the next book in The Broken Earth series ASAP…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marrying Up – wendy holden

I have a habit of putting a book on my “To Read” list, and then maybe forgetting what it’s about or why I wanted to read it. I also often resist reading the book jacket once I’ve forgotten what exactly a book will be about. So, Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards threw me for a loop as I was reading it.

Essentially, the book is about Dr. Frankie Burk who, having just won a MacArthur, goes the The Great Ape Foundation to continue her work on understanding mating habits. The story is set just slightly in the future, when humans have become more technology dependent and have implanted bodyware that interacts with all the devices around them. Also, global climate change has resulted in more intense weather — a huge dust storm features prominently. Some of this is not so far removed from us:

Since ok had become the vocab that activated so many devices, the word had fallen out of use in normal human conversation, for fear a nearby oven might click on or a garage door shut.

I have a friend (“friend”?) who is always telling my Alexa to order 10,000 cans of creamed corn. Thankfully, so far he has not succeed.

The book taught me a lot of fascinating things about bonobos — did you know that they are like, the kindest of the animal kingdom? And incredibly smart, some of them understand thousands of English words. I did not. But now I can tell people about fascinating studies of how bonobos will cooperate with one another, how if you lock up two, and put food out, and then let one out, he will let the other bonobo out before then sharing the food. I think I may prefer bonobos to people…

The book also taught me a lot of terrible facts about endometriosis. I sort of knew that it was a really painful disease, but I had no idea how much it could destroy your life, or how life threatening it could become, or how few (none?) treatment options there are. Frankie has severe endometriosis, and just before the book opens she uses part of her MacArthur grant to pay for her hysterectomy, which does finally give her relief. I’m just not going to detail all the fun endometriosis facts here okay?

I should also say, the bastards in this title are literal bastards — Frankie develops a theory about the evolutionary benefit which flows from sex outside marriage and the bastards that result. (Although legally, if the mom is married, those kids aren’t bastards, they’re presumed children of the husband. Also, we should really get beyond putting labels like this on kids, but Frankie is obviously not using the term in a pejorative manner).

SPOILERSSSSS!

The twist comes a little more than halfway through the book, as this turns into more of a sci-fi novel. After the dust storm, things never go back to normal. All the bodyware ceases to work, all the technology. It started to feel a bit like Station Eleven, which I loved. Although Station Eleven also takes place partially decades after the killer flu, when civilization is just beginning to rebuild a bit. Theory of Bastards kind of leaves you in the muck. And of course, Frankie and another scientist are walking through this dystopia with 14 bonobos that they’re very attached to (as will you be dear reader) and trying to keep safe. Which is a fun twist on dystopia to be honest. The bonobos, and all of their personalities, were really what kept me reading the book.

Also Frankie, despite being left by the reader in a dystopian waste land, is pretty upbeat:

Throughout her life she’d been accustomed to waking each day in her own bed, knowing she would be warm and dry, assured of her morning shower and time on the toilet. Now without any certainty, each object she passed became worth noting, worth exploring. … She knew now the experience of loss was a prerequisite to holding anything tight enough to feel it.

I don’t know if I totally agree with this sentiment. Certainly, if you never experienced loss, you might appreciate your blessings less, but sometimes, things are just so terrible it’s hard to feel like, wow this will really help me appreciate things later… I would sort of think this would be especially true in a world without ready access of clean drinking water. Not sure how much I’d be walking around thinking about how great it is to really feel the things I still have. But, the human experience, life it is about adversity on some level. Hearkening back to my Happiness discussion now I guess. I think Frankie and Attila might be friends.

Currently reading: Debating between The Maze at Windemere and A House Full of Females… probably just going to start both.

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch is a weird book… it is another one that I picked up because of The Morning News Tournament of Books (it got knocked out in the first round).  I won’t say that I don’t recommend it, and I think it’s a very interesting book, I just feel like I didn’t get everything the author was doing and I would have actually liked it to be a little longer so I could get a better grasp on this sci-fi dystopian world.

Essenti9780062383273ally, this is a retelling of Joan of Arc, but Joan is a sort of magically powerful young woman (there’s a song in her head that’s the song of the universe? she’s closer to matter than human? I didn’t totally get it) who tried to save earth, but was also kind of an eco terrorist? And she gets burned after all the wars that lead to all the rich people going to live on space stations in the sky while continuing the suck the remaining life from the earth to sustain themselves. The story begins and is told maybe 50/50 with Christine (Christine is also based on a real medieval woman), who is a woman living on one of those space stations, but at age 49 she has only one more year before she’s basically put to death due to like… water shortages and stuff. Through Christine we learn Joan’s story. The book also very quickly builds to a climax, which I won’t really get into or give away.

A lot of the book is about the power of storytelling – in this future, the new literary form is skin grafts, they tell stories literally with their bodies:

[Christine speaking of the two gifts she will give herself for her birthday] The first is a recorded history. Oh, I know, there’s a good chance this won’t attract the epic attention I am shooting for. On the other hand, smaller spectacles have moved epochs. And anyway, I’ve got that gnawing human compulsion to tell what happened.

I am an expert at skin grafting, the new form of storytelling. I intent to leave the wealth of my knowledge and skill behind. And the last of my grafts I intend to be a masterwork.

I didn’t totally get all the references to story telling, but I do agree that people are storytellers, and they stories we tell matter and they shape us and our societies:

At the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, you said that cave life was like an entire epoch made of womb logic. I though about that for an entire year. I decided you were more brilliant than anyone I’d ever known. I decided you meant that Earth carried other meanings than the ones we used to make culture. That we’d misinterpreted ourselves and taken the story in the wrong directions.

She’ll live. She’ll become. Whatever that ends up meaning. Some story we don’t know yet, untied from all the ones that have come before

Ultimately, oddly because at times this book reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale (dystopian futures always seem to come back to the power of women’s bodies!), this book is fairly uplifting. The passage I actually marked is all about devastation though…

Earth is a cemetery. There is nothing to say. Nothing to say about all of this empty. There was no proper eulogy. I think of all the so-called lifeless planets out there floating in space. Was this really the end of our story? To join the galaxies of spinning, floating planets home to nothing, to no one but the elements that comprised us? We deserve it. For what we’ve done to each other. For what we did to this orb we found ourselves inhabiting. This beautiful, godforsaken place where once there was life.

This particular story doesn’t end that way.  Although I sort of very much identify with this as the story of where we as humans may really be going — our current story seems to lead to environmental devastation. But Joan’s story suggests the possibility of re-birth. Of course, without magical people, the best we may be able to hope for is an amazing speciation event (shout out to The Sixth Extinction! The Earth might be really cool and will definitely be different in another 65 million years if we don’t totally blow it up with nuclear weapons!).

Oh and of course, there was a dead mom in this book. There’s always a dead mom:

Joan walked straight back into the fray that day, her hand still bloody with dead mother muck. … Joan put her lips to the earth, almost like she was giving the earth mouth-to-mouth. Then everything everywhere burst into flames. … “There are no more mothers,” Joan said, and in her voice was rage as old as Earth’s canyons, cut by erosion and place tectonics and the force of water. And yet her emotions were still those of a teen , unable to contain what raged inside her body.

As you, I think, can tell, this is sort of an interesting and beautifully written book — I didn’t totally get it. But I love the way this particular moment is written, Joan having lost her mother saying “There are no more mothers.” It resonates with me so much; her innocence and her childhood are gone, and suddenly she sees that everyone’s innocence is gone, and this is how she phrases it.

So, read it if you like dystopian novels of good quality and UNDER 300 pages! Which considering the length of many sci-fi books, makes this one quite unique.

Currently Reading: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar and about to start The Haunting of Hill House. Although I have so many books out of the library right now, who knows what I’ll finish first…

The Morning News Tournament of Books has brought me a lot great reads so far this year, and I’m officially including Exit West among the

new book friends I made as a result of the tournament.

 

Mohsin Hamid’s book is at once a very realistic story about two refugees living in an unstable country and then fleeing that country in search of safety, but it has a magical fable quality to it as well. It actually reminded me a lot of Colton Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, using magical realism to make me look at the treatment of refugees differently. In this case, the magical twist is that suddenly, doors everywhere become doors that go not from the bedroom to the bathroom but too California, London, Greece, etc. Mostly you follow the two refugees, Saeed and Nadia, as they fall in love, leave their country, deal with life in refugee camps, and try to make a life for themselves in a few other places. But you also get a few glimpses of other people trying to make sense of this somewhat borderless world where people from anywhere can suddenly appear by simply walking through a door.

To be clear, the doors aren’t the Tardis, you don’t get to travel through all of space and time, the door still goes from one place to another, but now it goes to California. So, the doors that go to ‘good’ places are guarded once they’re found and Saeed and Nadia don’t immediately get to Europe or America.

It is a beautifully written, fairly sad, modestly hopeful book — SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILERES !!! SERIOUSLY IF IT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU TO BE SURPRISED ABOUT ALL PLOT EVENTS IN THIS BOOK STOP HEEEEREEEE!

For example, Saeed’s mother is killed, for no reason, she’s just in the wrong place, and Saeed’s father is described:

Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend.

Here’s another passage that gives a sense of tone and style (and I bookmarked it because I bookmark everything about people reckoning with mortality okay!):

By the time he entered university, Saeed’s parents prayed more often than they had when he was younger, maybe because they had lost a great many loved ones by that age, or maybe because the transient natures of their own lives were gradually becoming less hidden from them, or maybe because they worried for their son in a country that seemed to worship money above all . . . or maybe simply because their personal relationships with prayer had deepened and become more meaningful over the years.

If there’s a prettier way to say, thinking about mortality than the “transient nature of my life is gradually becoming less hidden from me” I haven’t heard it yet.

The book also plays with language by using the term “native” differently throughout, and pointing out that in a world full of recent door traveling refugees, but also before that, “native” is a debatable term:

And yet it was not quite true to say there were almost no natives, nativeness being a relative matter, and many others considered themselves native to this country [USA], by which they meant that they or their parents or their grandparents or the grandparents of their grandparents had been born on the strip of land that stretched from the mid-northern Pacific to the mid-northern Atlantic, that their existence here did not owe anything to a physical migration that had occurred in their lifetimes.

This isn’t a happy book, but it isn’t an entirely unhappy book, and the magical element adds something special. And, clocking in at just 231 pages, it doesn’t even demand too much of your reading time (although I bet you’ll think about it a lot once you’re done).

Currently reading: STILL SPINELESS. Okay, I would probably finish that faster if I weren’t also reading The Ten Year Nap and I just picked up Zadie Smith’s essay collection (which is a monstrous +500 page book).

*Also – I’m going to make an effort to include a link to Powell’s in case you’re moved to buy the book that I’ve been reading. I also encourage visiting your local library and supporting your local indie bookstore. I’m very guilty of buying books from places that are less kind to writers, publishing house, their employees… but I really want to be reading books in 20 years, and I think Indie bookstores are a big part of that. Also, my local indie bookstore is a magical place, I bet yours is too. And if not, there’s always Powell’s 🙂