Everything I Never Told You

By Celeste Ng

There’s a scene about a third of the way into Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You that just about sums up, for me, the experience of reading it. The family members around whom the narrative revolves are still reeling from the death of the middle daughter, Lydia—I’m not giving anything away here; you find out about Lydia’s death in literally the first sentence of the book—and two police officers have arrived at their home to ask a few more questions. Marilyn Lee, the mother, begins shouting at the police, becoming angry and accusatory. James Lee, her husband, tries to calm her down and apologizes to the officers.

Now, this is a dynamic in family dramas that is familiar almost to the point of cliche—the hysterical mother, the conciliatory father—but reading it in this book was electrifying to me because of one detail that colors every interaction in the story, and which made it all so perfectly tangible for me: James is an Asian-American man, Marilyn is a white woman.

Suddenly the whole thing takes on a whole new dimension. Here’s a man who has spent his entire life being ridiculed and excluded, who wants so desperately to fit in and be “normal” that he’s dedicated his life to teaching college students about cowboy imagery. And here’s a woman who, dreaming of being a doctor in her youth, has spent years sublimating her rage at the condescension of men. I wondered as I read this, would a mainstream audience—and by that I meant a white audience—understand this? Is this something that is only obvious to someone like me?

After the officers leave, though, Marilyn accuses James of kowtowing and all of the subtext becomes text. No one is going to miss that. At least, I hope not.

And so it goes for the book as a whole, as well. In so many ways it is a familiar story. Literary fiction on the whole is thick with themes of family tragedy, of longing, of failed communication, and in that way Everything I Never Told You is perfectly representative of the genre. But by putting that story in the context of interracial marriage, and particularly with this racial mix, it becomes something new, something I can’t recall ever seeing before.

I almost feel a little guilty at how thrilling it was for me to read this book. Almost. But it’s not as though I haven’t also gushed over books where none of the characters looked like me. I recognize bits of myself all the time in other stories, but here it felt like a little whisper, the author saying, “I know you. That thing you felt—I felt it, too.” It’s not something I’m used to. Not this thing.

And there was so much I felt as I read this book. The intimacy of the narrative, the way each member of the Lee family is shaped by each other, by their histories, and by the way the rest of the world treats them, it all had me desperately pulling for them, which made each missed opportunity all the more heartbreaking. And if I saw echoes of myself in James Lee’s longing for inclusion, and then in each of his children’s lives as well, how much more infuriating did that make it when they were small to each other, when they hurt each other, when they were self-absorbed or oblivious? How much did it sting to reckon with the ways I must have failed to be the man I ought to be for my own family, good intentions or not?

It’s only February yet, but if Everything I Never Told You is not my favorite book this year, it will have wound up being an amazing year for me as a reader, because topping this experience is going to take some doing.

Started: 2/18/2016 | Finished: 2/25/2016

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City of Blades

By Robert Jackson Bennett

One of the things I love about science fiction and fantasy—not the only thing, but one of them—is that they are really the genres most suited to exploring big ideas. You want to see what a world would look like where gods walked among us, where religion was not a matter of faith but of unassailable fact? Boom, you can do it. You want to see what would happen when such a world has its gods taken away? No problem. You want to see how people survive and adapt and get stuck and move on in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war? Not only can you do this, but you can make it as broad or as specific as you want. There are no boundaries beyond what you can imagine.

I’d say that Robert Jackson Bennett had a lot to live up to in writing a sequel to his 2014 book City of Stairs. It’s a book whose style and premise were unlike just about anything I’ve read before; a book with ideas that, though big, never overshadowed its wonderful characters; a book that was insightful and imaginitive and also a lot of fun to read. For all that, City of Blades may be even better.

Picking up about five years after the events of City of Stairs, City of Blades leaves the previous book’s protagonist, Shara, and instead follows one of the supporting characters, General Turyin Mulaghesh. Pulled out of retirement, Mulaghesh is sent to find a missing agent, who herself had been sent to investigate some strange occurrences in a city that was once the seat of the deity of war and death. As her mission unfolds, Mulaghesh finds that many things are not as dead as they seem, including her own past.

As before, the detective-story structure of Bennett’s book gives a strong feeling of exploration and discovery, and the world he has imagined lets him grapple with some pretty big concepts. What kind of world is left behind in the wake of huge, earth-shattering change? Where is the line between atrocity and necessity? Can we atone for the sins of our pasts? How much will we sacrifice in order to do what’s right, or what needs to be done, and are those the same things? Do old wounds ever really heal? Yet the book is anything but didactic. Like the best examples of the genre, it manages to be high-concept and fun, alien and familiar, plot-driven and well-characterized all at the same time. I haven’t had a chance to read his older works yet, but with this series Bennett has managed to cement a place as one of my favorite contemporary fantasy writers.

The third book is scheduled to come out next year, and I’m quite looking forward to picking it up. Until then, I’m happy to give this book (and its predecessor) my full-throated recommendation.

Started: 2/10/2016 | Finished: 2/17/2016

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February Book Reviews

Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson: I have to admit that I had never heard of Jacqueline Woodson before the 2014 National Book Awards and what happened before her acceptance speech. This is to my own detriment, because, damn, what a writer. Feathers is a great example of how, done well, YA is a genre that is every bit as resonant and powerful as any other. The story is set in the early 1970’s, the main character, Frannie, is a sixth-grader in an urban middle school who is dealing with a lot of the same issues that we all recognize from that time in our lives: changing relationships with friends; the beginnings of awareness of adult life and concerns, especially with respect to one’s parents; the academic and social challenges of school. These are pretty universal themes, but the story is specific, and this is, I think, the source of its power. Because I obviously have no idea what it would be like to be a young black girl growing up in the 1970’s, attending an all-black middle school in a depressed part of the city. But I do know what it was like to be a young Asian boy growing up in the 1980’s, living in an affluent, mostly white town and being neither affluent nor white. And there are a lot of points of contact between the life I had at that age and Frannie’s life in this book, which helps make the parts where our experiences differed more accessible to me. (And this is to say nothing of the simple power of seeing one’s own experience represented, for those readers whose lives were like Frannie’s.) I’ve got a shelf of books set aside for when my kids are ready for them; this one is on that shelf, and I can’t wait to be able to talk with them about it. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell: It was an interesting experience reading The Bone Clocks relatively soon after Cloud Atlas; I often have trouble retaining details after I’ve finished a book, so if more time had passed I’m not sure if I would have noticed the callbacks and references in the newer book. As it is, I’m sure I missed some. Mitchell has referred to the shared universe of his novels as an “uber-novel,” and I hear that his latest book, Slade House, continues adding chapters to that story. For myself, I’m sort of stuck in between with this book. When I finished Cloud Atlas I was impressed by the ambition of the work but left unsure about whether it actually did anything for me, what it was saying or doing. Now that I’ve read The Bone Clocks and gotten a little more context, I’m starting to get a sense of Mitchell’s concerns, but I still don’t know whether the experience is one that I value a lot. Taken as a high-brow fantasy novel, there’s certainly a lot I could credit here: he builds an interesting world, and I think he does a good job of exploring the consequences of that world for his character, what immortality looks like, how the temptation to evil works, and so on. And the way he gives us such a close perspective on his characters—who are, I think, very well realized—is immersive enough to make me feel that connection with them that is necessary for a good book. Still, there’s something unsatisfying in it, for me at least. Taken together with Cloud Atlas, this book seems to show a certain obsession with mortality, with decay, with dystopia. I can’t say I blame Mitchell there, since my own obsessive nature focuses in that direction, too, but something about the way this book ends makes me wonder what the point of it all is. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie: One of the things about genre fiction that often gets overlooked by a certain type of literary snob is that, in many ways, genre allows a more effective medium for engaging in social commentary than so-called literary fiction. That’s not to say that all genre fiction is great at this—certainly there are many examples of ham-fisted diatribes dressed up in SF or fantasy clothes—but when done right, genre tropes and conventions provide a space for the commentary to operate within without drawing too much explicit attention to itself. That is, socially minded science fiction and fantasy can be more subversive. That’s mostly what I’m thinking about with Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series; here we have what is ostensibly a far-future space opera, but it’s really a very contemporary piece. It’s about a particular political moment that is happening right now, and in telling us a story about sentient starships and incomprehensible aliens and a space emperor whose consciousness is spread across multiple bodies, what Leckie delivers is a cogent and powerful examination of privilege and power dynamics and personhood. This series explores bias and struggle along multiple axes: race, class, gender, culture, and more. And it packages it all up in a story about war and diplomacy in the distant future. This gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while: that the greatest impediment to social justice is the inability for any person to ever live another person’s experience, to really know how someone else feels. And that the true power of art is that it allows us these points of connection, of being able to see things from another perspective. In this series, Leckie will challenge you, challenge the way you think and the things you take for granted, and she will do it in a way that is nonetheless remarkably entertaining. This is vital reading. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)

Updraft, by Fran Wilde: Speaking of Ann Leckie, I heard about Fran Wilde’s book Updraft via a recommendation on Leckie’s blog. So if you don’t trust my judgment, you can at least trust hers. I can say for sure that I wasn’t let down. One of the things that reading this book got me thinking about was the ways in which the human experience can be translated to so many different forms, different places and cultures, and still be recognizable and relatable. In this story, all of humanity (as far as we know) live on towers of living bone, which constantly grow and force people to ascend in order to survive. Below the towers, dense and deadly fogs swirl. Between them lurk invisible monsters that prey on the unwary. Trade and communication and travel between the towers is accomplished by flight using manmade wings. Now, that’s pretty far from the life you and I live, but you take that setting and add in a harsh coming-of-age story, and even though I can’t relate to flying tests or echolocation lessons or glider knife fights, there’s still something in there that I can recognize. I have no idea where this series is going to go from here (this is a self-contained story but the author is planning more in the same setting) but it’ll certainly be interesting to find out. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro: OK, so I have to admit: I have a bit of a crush on Kazuo Ishiguro. I mean, it makes sense, right? Here’s a guy who was born in Japan, raised in England by Japanese parents, who writes stories that are as British as anything Forster or Waugh or McEwan ever wrote. According to his Wikipedia page, in an interview he once said, “If I wrote under a pseudonym and got somebody else to pose for my jacket photographs, I’m sure nobody would think of saying, ‘This guy reminds me of that Japanese writer.’” You can see why this would resonate with me, right? And I love that he’s willing to write stories that blur the lines between lit-fic and genre. With Never Let Me Go he turns what seems to be a story about a boarding school into something science fictional and much darker. Here he writes a fable about a post-Arthurian Britain that reads a bit like Malory but also functions as an allegory for how societies forget the atrocities in their pasts. There’s a pretty powerful message in that allegory, but what I found worked best for me were the little character moments, particularly between the main protagonists, an elderly couple who are traveling to visit their son. Stylistically, The Buried Giant is rather broad, as you’d expect reading the sort of medieval legend this is, but the way Ishiguro manages to show the small intimacies between wife and husband, two people who’ve known each other a lifetime, it’s pretty wonderful. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown has been getting a lot of talk in SFF crowds since it came out last fall, and rightly so. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been comparing it to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or to Jane Austen or Patrick O’Brian, and certainly all of these comparisons are apt. I’d also throw in Stephanie Burgis’s Kat, Incorrigble books, which not only shares the Regency-era English setting, but also the frustrating way that no one ever listens to the protagonist. (In both Burgis’s books and this one there’s a narrative reason for this—in the former case it’s to highlight the unfairness of adolescence and in this one it’s because of racism toward the book’s black main character—but it’s still frustrating.) In any event, I am apparently a total sucker for anything set in this time period, fantasy or not. Those of you who don’t find the idea of English manners and magic spells terribly amusing may not find this up to their tastes, but I had a lot of fun reading Sorcerer to the Crown. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)

Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace: It’s a little difficult for me to describe this book in a way that makes sense, what with the way it blends genres and never fully explains itself. It’s part post-apocalyptic dystopian SF, part ghost story, and (sort of) part Greek myth. And it opens with a knife fight. I mentioned to the people who recommended it to me that I’ve been getting a little exhausted by bleak, brutal fiction lately, and certainly this had some of that same effect on me. The title character, Wasp, is an eighteen-year-old girl who hunts ghosts, a job she was raised for since infancy, which she received by killing her predecessor, and which she only keeps by killing the “upstarts” who would take her place. Bargaining for a way to escape her situation, she agrees to help a ghost enter the underworld and find the ghost of his friend, lost to him for hundreds of years. A lot of stuff is never really explained—why are there ghosts? What exactly happened in the war that destroyed civilization? Why are ghosts attracted to salt, and how does the Archivist’s magic work? Or is it magic?—but even though I was curious about these things, they’re not really the point. What you really have here is a story about struggle, about loyalty, about overcoming, about agency. And, telling that story, it comes to a really beautiful and moving conclusion. It’s an odd story, but it’s worth a look. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)

Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs

By Sally Mann

If you are—as I am—a photographer whose work focuses on your own children, it is more or less impossible to escape the shadow of Sally Mann. Mann was not the first artist to turn her lens on her family, but she was unquestionably one of the best. She is to the family genre what Ansel Adams was to black-and-white landscapes: the progenitor (or at least the catalyst) of a whole family of photographic tropes, an inspiration to generations of following artists, imitated to the point of cliché but seldom equaled, let alone surpassed.

It’s not exactly accurate to say I’m a fan of Sally Mann’s work. Rather let’s say that nearly everything I’ve done photographically is somehow informed by, inspired by, measured against her work. Her family work, of course, but her landscapes as well, her obsession with rootedness, with legacy, with personal history, with connection, with decay. If there’s ever been any single photographer in whose work I most saw my own ideas and emotions reflected, it’s her. (I can feel a slight sneer from an imaginary reviewer at this revelation. Of course some Dad With A Camera, some guy with his portfolio of longing-filled images of beautiful, serious-eyed children, of course he would cite Sally Mann as his biggest influence. Is it a cliché? Perhaps. It doesn’t make it any less true.)

There was never any question that I would read her memoir.

What does one look for when reading the story of one’s hero, told in her own words? (Is that the right word for what she is to me? My hero?) Affirmation, perhaps? Some sign of convergent evolution, some hint that I’m on the right track? Or maybe just the same thing I hold so dear when I look at her photographs: that inkling that someone, somewhere, thinks and feels the way I do. The little spark of recognition that makes me feel a little less isolated.

Did I find that? Did I ever.

On mark-making and legacy:

When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form, but when I gently press my hand into the rabbit’s downy, rounded meuse it makes me wonder: will all the marks I have left on the world someday be tied up in a box?

On the pain of place:

In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.

On self-confidence (or the lack thereof):

Every time it’s the same. It’s easy to prove to myself that good pictures are elusive, but I can never quite believe they’re also inevitable. It would be a lot easier for me to believe they were if I also believed that they came as the result of my obvious talent, that I was extraordinary in some way. Artists go out of their way to reinforce the perception that good art is made by singular people, people with an exceptional gift. But I don’t believe that I am that exceptional, so what is this that I’m making?

On beauty and sadness:

As for me, I see both the beauty and the dark side of things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as well. And I see them at the same time, at once ecstatic at the beauty of things, and chary of that ecstasy. The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means “beauty tinged with sadness,” for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay. For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.

I could go on and on. If I were the type to write in books, my copy of Hold Still would be underlined and highlighted on nearly every page. She says not just the things I would say, but she says them the way I would say them (if I might flatter myself to be nearly the writer she is).

What stands out to me even more than the similarities, though, are the differences. Mann and I both come from a rural area, but she grew up on a Virginia farm while I grew up in a woodsy California neighborhood. She describes herself as a young girl as “feral” and “naked,” while I was straight-laced and buttoned-up. She was raised in relative wealth and privilege; when I was a child, we had to make do much of the time. It was no surprise that she went to school for the arts; it was no surprise that I studied engineering. Somehow, though, we both seem to have arrived at the same set of obsessions. How does that happen? What does it mean?

It’s not a perfect book. Or rather, it didn’t sit perfectly with me. At times when she speaks in defense of her family images she seems to want things both ways. To be sure, I agree when she argues that her children shouldn’t be judged by the photographs, because photographs aren’t people. But then, she also comes close to saying that critics shouldn’t say that her photographs don’t show “mean” or “cold” children because her children aren’t mean or cold.

And though I find it admirable that she tries to reckon with the racial legacy of the South she loves, and with her own history with race and privilege, I can’t help feeling a certain ambivalence about how she approaches the topic. She admits the hypocrisy of the situation, but can’t quite extricate herself from it:

Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raise by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly †insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them. This reflects one side of the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private. Could the feelings exchanged between two individuals so hypocritically divided ever have been honest, untained by guilt or resentment?

I think so. Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me.

She is open in her criticism of the system of racial segregation she grew up in. She acknowledges her part in it, how she benefited from it, how her biases blinded her in her youth. But I’m torn between finding her candor laudable and seeing some bit of self-congratulation in it. At that, though, I felt the same ambivalence in her, a desire to see herself in a good light tempered with a hint of self-loathing in having to make the story about herself. Where that leaves me, I’m not sure. I might squirm a bit at a white, affluent Southerner talking about race from a position of power, but I’d likely find it odd, too, if she simply didn’t bring it up at all. You can draw your own conclusions; I’m sure she’d want no less.

And in that, perhaps it’s no different from the rest of the book. Mann never presents herself as anything other than the same sort of fallible human that we all are. Her art, not to mention the deeply insightful and lyrical writing in this book, might raise expectations for those of us in her audience, and so often those expectations are borne out. But looking for The Answers from any person is on some level a fool’s errand, and what we get from this book is still remarkable and resonant, even if the person painted by its portrait isn’t perfect. Hold Still is an exceptional articulation of the inner life of an artist who, though she wouldn’t admit to it, is a genius. After this book, I continue to labor in her shadow, and I suspect I always will. I hope someday I’ll be able to contribute something half as meaningful.

Started: 10/28/2015 | Finished: 11/21/2015

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The Land Across

By Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe has written some of my favorite books, books that I consider to be among the finest American novels in any genre. Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus are fantastic works that I have returned to many times, each time finding something new. And his three-series, twelve-volume epic starting with The Book of the New Sun is truly a masterpiece. But as much as I love some of his stories, others—like 1984’s Free Live Free or the 2004 duology The Wizard Knight—left me flat. So I always look forward to reading a new Wolfe novel, but I’m also always a little apprehensive about which experience I’m going to get. The Land Across, unfortunately, was in the latter category.

The story follows its narrator—a travel writer whose name is eventually revealed to be Grafton—as he journeys to an obscure Eastern European country, intent on being the first person to write a travel guide about the place. He is immediately taken into custody by the Stasi-esque national police as he crosses the border, and as the book continues he finds himself involved in a cloak-and-dagger plot involving forces both political and apparently supernatural.

Because this is a Wolfe novel, nothing is ever quite spelled out, and it’s clear that Grafton isn’t telling us the whole story. I ended up as impressed as I always am by the technical skill of Wolfe’s writing, but still fairly confused about what the hell actually happened. I haven’t read Kafka before, but that name has been thrown around a lot in other reviews I’ve seen, referencing the style and dialogue and intrigue, and the pervasive feeling of strangeness throughout the book—the writer I was most strongly reminded of was Milan Kundera. (I’ve only read one Kundera novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what happened in that book either.)

But this is how it goes when a Wolfe book doesn’t land for me: I end up assuming that I must have just missed something, or didn’t work hard enough to figure it out. So in terms of a recommendation, I’m not sure where that leaves me. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but it nevertheless still struck me as good. Maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I did.

Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage

By Haruki Murakami

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this book. I’m not sure exactly what I got from it, either. This was my first time reading anything by Murakami, though I have been aware for a while of his enormous popularity in Japan and the high regard in which critics around the world hold him. In the first few sentences of Colorless Tsukuru we are dropped right into the depths of the title character’s depression, a depression brought on by his rejection and ostracization from his group of friends. The reasons for that rejection are not made clear at first, but the effects are: cut off from the closest people in his life, Tsukuru Tazaki is left adrift, feeling no reason to continue existing. It’s a pretty bleak way to start a book, enough so that I put it down after the first page twice before finally getting through it. Was it worth it to put in the effort? Well, I’m not sure. A lot of the dialogue felt very clunky to me, though that could just have been due to the translation. More than that, Tsukuru himself is mostly unappealing, self-deprecating to the point of disappearing, despite the fact that he appears to be held in high regard by just about everyone else in the book—at a certain point, his repeated insistence that he is without color, that he has no special or even noticeable qualities, just comes off as whiny. On top of all of that, I also found the book’s portrayal of women to be uncomfortable, sometimes downright creepy. Still, despite all of that, there were moments—and more than a few—where it felt like the story was right on the verge of something profound. There was a lyrical, haunting quality to it that hinted at some insight which was never quite expressed.

Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015

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How to Be Both

By Ali Smith

It’s a little surprising how well this book worked for me, given how, well, gimmicky I would normally find it. It’s written in two parts, one about an adolescent English girl who is dealing with the loss of her mother, the other about the talents and secrets of an up-and-coming painter during the Italian Renaissance. Both parts are written in a dense, oddly punctuated, stream-of-consciousness style. What’s more, the book was released in two different versions, in which the order of the two parts is switched. Normally, I would find all of that off-putting, and, honestly, it wasn’t easy for me to access the story at first. What drew me in, though, was lines like this: “It is also like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things—as old as those old songs, even as ancient as Latin itself—a kind of new, but a kind that doesn’t dismiss their, what would you call it?” Can you remember what it felt like to be a teenager in love for the first time? The feeling of being given a song and having it speak straight to your soul? How to Be Both is full of richly observed descriptions of the emotions of life. The relationships between a mother and daughter, a father and daughter, a brother and sister, between lovers, between friends. It was really quite breathtaking, and I’m not sure it could have done all it did with a more straightforward style and structure. So, on top of just being a great, emotionally resonant read, How to Be Both also made me re-evaluate some of my positions on what does and doesn’t constitute literary gimmickry. So that’s something.

Started: 9/24/2015 | Finished: 10/1/2015

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Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

Reading Cloud Atlas, I was struck by how structurally and thematically ambitious it was, but mostly what I kept coming back to was that I just can’t believe that anyone ever thought it would make a good movie. I’m not sure what to say about it, really. To be honest, I’m not even really sure I can explain what it was about. Each chapter not only introduces a new cast of characters, but also switches style and even genre. One chapter is an Age of Sail travelogue while another is a 70’s thriller, and still another is a dystopian science fiction. The connections between each are not immediately obvious, and the transitions from one to the next are quite jarring—indeed, the first chapter ends in the middle of a sentence! By the midpoint of the book, though, the complexity comes together and the structure becomes apparent. At the end of it all, I found myself impressed but still somewhat perplexed. Mitchell’s craft certainly can’t be denied, and I’d say I enjoyed the book, but I couldn’t really say what the point of it all was. Sprinkled throughout the book, various characters comment about or ponder the nature of experience, time, and memory, and it does feel as though Mitchell intended Cloud Atlas to provoke questions along those lines. Yet if he had any coherent statement to make, I wasn’t able to figure it out. Perhaps that’s fine. Perhaps it’s enough that the book was well-made and engaging. Not every piece of art has to be about something in order to be worthwhile. Still, I can’t help feeling that there was something I missed here. If you figure it out, let me know.

Started: 9/7/2015 | Finished: 9/23/2015

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Hyperbole and a Half

By Allie Brosh

There was a point at which I was reading Allie Brosh’s highly popular blog, Hyperbole and a Half several times a week. Sadly, those days are over (for now, at least) as she’s only written eight posts in the past five years. Brosh’s blog was one of those wonderful things that seems now like it could only have existed in the late ’00s, back when blogging was still new and shiny. Hilarious, personal, sometimes achingly honest, Brosh had a way of relating (and drawing) her stories and recollections that always felt both singular and familiar. Well, fans of the blog will surely appreciate her 2013 book of the same name, as will, well, most people who aren’t dead inside. The book continues her signature MS Paint cartoon-style and self-deprecating humor, combining some new essays with past hits. I do find myself wishing sometimes that she’d write for her blog again, but from everything I’ve heard, she’s doing well and taking care of herself, so the book will have to be enough for now. And, you know, it does a pretty damn good job at that.

Started: 9/5/2015 | Finished: 9/6/2015

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The Grace of Kings

By Ken Liu

2015 has been, for me, something of a watershed year in terms of race. Not only in how I think about and engage with race and identity and representation, but also in terms of the availability and visibility of diverse art and entertainment. This was the year of Between the World and Me, of Fresh Off the Boat, of #ActualAsianPoet and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It was the year that I realized that despite the fact that I've read hundreds of books since I started this blog, precious few were written by people of color.

I had all that in mind when I picked up a copy of Ken Liu's debut novel, The Grace of Kings. Now, if a desire to read more diverse fiction brings you to this book, as it did for me, that's fine. But it's not the only, nor even the main reason that you should read it. You should read it because it's interesting and well-written, a compelling, different take on epic fantasy.

The overwhelming majority of fantasy stories, particularly epic fantasy, can trace their roots back to the European medieval romance traditions. Springing from Malory's Morte d'Arthur and filtered through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, we've seen all manner of iterations and variations, refinements of and reactions to these concepts, and, to be sure, there have been some real gems produced in the genre. But it's nevertheless refreshing to read a story that clearly has a different cultural basis.

From what I have been able to gather, The Grace of Kings is largely a retelling of the history and legends of the founding of China's Han dynasty in the late third century BCE. As the story opens, the aging Emperor Mapidere is touring the sprawling empire he forged through conquest. Though Mapidere is able to maintain control through reputation and force of arms, the constituent kingdoms he subjugated chafe under his rule, and after his death things fall apart again as his former subjects vie for power. In this context, we're introduced to Kuni Garu, a low-born but charismatic gambler and bandit, and Mata Zyndu, the last son of one of the noble families brought down by Mapidere's wars. At first separately and then together, the two men rise up and lead their followers to overthrow the empire, only to find themselves enemies when it comes time to decide how to establish a new order.

The book has drawn many comparisons to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but as I haven't read Luo Guanzhong's classic (yet) I can't comment on whether the analogy is apt. What I will say is that the style and structure of The Grace of Kings makes it feel more like a fable than a modern novel. Rather than utilizing the close third-person perspective that we've become accustomed to, Liu keeps everything more distant, resulting in a story that feels more narrated than immediate. That may not sound like high praise given the familiar admonishment "show, don't tell" but consider that highly influential texts from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales to Gabriel García Márquez's novels to the Bible all have a similar feel. Here, it works wonderfully, heightening the legendary quality of the story and characters.

This is the first book of an expected trilogy, and here the comparisons to Romance of the Three Kingdoms bring up some interesting possibilities. As I mentioned, The Grace of Kings mirrors the beginnings of the Han dynasty, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms—a book I've long wanted to read but still haven't gotten around to—is set in the end of that period of Chinese history. It may be that Ken Liu has plans to diverge from his historical inspirations, but if not, he's got plenty to work with. I'm certainly curious to find out.

Started: 8/28/2015 | Finished: 9/4/2015

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