Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
by Mira Jacob
2019

This is a very good book. It’s made up of illustrated conversations that the author had with various people in her life — her young son, her aging parents, her brother, her friends, her boyfriends and girlfriends, her husband, her extended family, her in-laws — skipping backward and forward through time. It starts out cute and funny but with heart and then keeps going, right for the heart. It never loses the cute, but it gets pretty serious.

The author is a dark-skinned child of Indian immigrants, born and raised in New Mexico, who moved to NYC to become a writer. She lives in NYC, married to a Jewish man, and with a son just old enough to watch the news as Trump runs for election. The conversations address and illustrate a number of issues — racism and colorism, expectations and dreams, personal identity and political division — from a very personal perspective. The central theme of the book is how can she be honest with her child, preparing him for the world and raising him to be a good person, while also protecting him from the pain of a world that’s not going to be as kind to him as he deserves. In many ways, it reminds me of Coates’ Between the World and Me.

One of the real strengths of this book, that comes from Jacob’s use of dialogue, is how it presents these complex interactions without attempting to simplify or explain them. It’s all friends and family and lived experiences. As she explains to her son on page 85: “We’re in the middle place where sometimes we get treated badly and sometimes we do it to other people. But I mean, that’s not the end of the world, right? Knowing we’ve got room for improvement?” To which her young son Z replies: “I’d rather just be the good guys.” (Me, too, kid. Me, too.)

As the memoir of a living women still very much in her prime, this book doesn’t really come to any conclusions other than the need to continue on, trying to find a way to make the world better than it currently is and trust that loved ones can be better too. It ends with a kind of grim determination to keep trying.

The Chosen and the Beautiful

By Nghi Vo

Nghi Vo must have had this novel in the chamber ready to go, because it was published mere months after The Great Gatsby left copyright in January 2021. So, to brush off my decades-old literature degree, The Great Gatsby is basically a character study of one man, the titular Jay Gatsby, and the character is also more a metaphor for the corrupting deception of the “American Dream” than an fleshed out person. There’s a lot of room to fill out the lives, thoughts, and feelings of all the characters, and Nghi Vo does that very well.

The narrator is Jordan, the thinnest of the central five characters in the original, so with the most room for creative exploration, and Nghi Vo sure takes advantage of that! She’s now Vietnamese, adopted as an infant by a wealthy white missionary, and now in young adulthood doing her best to ignore anything that makes her stand out from the other bright young things. She is also untrained but agile in the Eastern magic of paper cutting, and this magical element is what really diverges from the source.

It is mostly incidental to the plot but fascinating, and there were several times where I wish the novel had thrown out the source plot entirely to just explore this magical and much more diverse world. On the one hand, the multi-dimensional Jordan, Nick, Daisy, and Tom are more interesting to read about in detail (Gatsby remains a bit of an enigma); on the other hand, those details somewhat undo the pivotal central message and theme of the original.

The very act of adding dimension negates the sense of a flat façade that Fitzgerald created, but Nghi Vo also plays with that idea in interesting, and occasionally very literal ways, as with the magical paper cutting creating animated illusions. I think in the end, I found the book more interesting than enjoyable, and not up to the very high standards of her previous two novellas, which Rebecca reviewed last year, but with all that, I still think it is well worth the read.

Clean by Michael De Jong

Clean: the humble art of zen-cleansing
by Michael De Jong
2007

This author reminds me of Marie Kondo in that he is crazy obsessive regarding his particular field of interest but also cheerfully understanding of how few other people share his joy. Luckily, like Kondo, he is happy to share the results of his obsession to help make other people’s lives easier.

He makes the solid argument that there are a lot of chemical cleaners for sale for increasingly specific uses and also increasingly long lists of dangers and side-effects to using them. Instead of spending large quantities of money on a vast assortment of supplies while hoping that you don’t accidentally recreate chlorine gas, it’s better to go back to basics with five essential cleaning ingredients: baking soda, borax, lemon, salt, and white vinegar.

The first 14 pages of the book are cleaning chart and indexing listing, in alphabetic order, all the types of cleaners you might want and which of the five ingredients is best to be used for that role and which page it’s discussed on. The next 14 pages are about the author and his philosophy of cleaning. After that, each ingredient has it’s own two-page spread on history and basic usage, and a slew of suggestions and life tricks on particular uses, each no more than a single short paragraph.

Physically, it’s also a cute little book, only 130 pages.

I got this book out of the library but I’m thinking of buying a copy to have on hand. It was interesting to read straight through, but seems like it would be more useful as a reference. Some of the recommendations seem so miraculous that I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t actually work, but everything seemed good to know and well worth a try.

Not Getting Murdered by Johnson & Cooper

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village
by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper
2021

I got this as a Christmas present right before dinner and finished it within a couple of hours, while also eating vast quantities of good food, hanging out with family. This is not a long or dense book. It is hilarious!

It’s clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and also by the whole genre of murder mysteries set in quaint English villages. Especially the long series’ where the amateur detective solves a murder mystery in their home village for each book, and the deaths sure do add up. In a very light-hearted and dark-humored way, this lists all the stereotypical places, peoples, and events of small quaint villages and how murderous they manage to be. (For example: if there are any vats described in the text of a book, it’s almost certainly because someone drowned in it. For safety: stay away from vats!)

The illustrations are frequent and the text is sparse, and it’s hilarious and morbidly adorable. There are also quizes! What do you do in each situation to survive the events? Each of them like a tiny choose-your-own-adventure! Hahahaha! I love this book so much!

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, by Hannah-Jones, Watson, and Smith

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water
written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson
illustrated by Nikkolas Smith
2021

This is a children’s picture book that was part of The 1619 Project and it is beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated, and addresses a difficult but vitally important topic in an age-appropriate manner.

The framing story starts with a young child being given a class assignment to write out their family tree. However, while their white peers are able to go back many generations and list which countries their families came from, this black student can only list three generations and feels ashamed. The main focus of the book is the history of that student’s family that starts with joy and culture and rich history in Africa, goes through great suffering and hardship with kidnapping and enslavement in America, but still perseveres, fights, and survives to live on in the student today. It gives a message that survival in the face of trauma is to be celebrated. Black Americans have a great deal to be proud of in their African roots and their American survival and their achievements – past, present, and future.

I’m particularly impressed with the way this book shows centuries of American slavery as the middle part of the history of the student’s ancestors. Slavery was long and harsh and transformational, but it was not the start of their history and it was not the end of it.

This is clearly intended for a young audience, but I highly recommend it for adults as well, not just for the pure artistry of the writing and illustrations, but also for the soft discussion of a difficult topic.

Meddling Kids

By Edgar Cantero

Just read the blurb for this and see if you aren’t intrigued! I immediately put a hold on it and was eagerly anticipating its arrival, but upon reading quickly realized that it’s not really my thing. I get what Cantero is trying to do and I think it is really interesting, but for me, it doesn’t quite work. He wants both a winky satire/nostalgia piece and a dark, shocking horror/mystery, and they each undercut the other.

The first 50 pages were a bit of a slog, as Cantero set up the characters and setting. He really, really likes a simile, and I can’t say that I feel the same. Not everything has be like something else! Some things are just themselves! And often the similes got so convoluted, it actually obstructed understanding rather than assisted: “The night was cold but gentle like an X-rated metaphor.” What does that even mean?! “From the mining equipment buried in that station like implausible goodies found inside pyramids and hellgates for the use of video game characters, Andy picked up a few items she deemed useful.” Sigh.

Once the action picks up after about a hundred pages, I started enjoying it more for the plot itself. The characters are likeable enough once the author stops rhapsodizing over their physical and mental attributes. The plot really is a good one, too, flipping the standard cartoon final reveal of a man-in-a-mask to become a façade covering something much darker.

Meddling Kids would make a brilliant movie (with a pretty serious editing job), and the author clearly agrees, painstakingly setting up sequences of physical comedy and Rube Goldberg-like action that would look stellar on the screen, but bog down the pace for the reader. Of course, even those sequences are immensely clichéd – it’s meant to be, that’s part of the joke and the homage – but that also doesn’t prevent it from also being eye-rolling. The writing style very much isn’t for me, but I think a lot of readers would enjoy it much more than I did, as testified by the raving reviews and cover blurbs.* Also, to give credit where it is very much due, Cantero takes incredible care to avoid any serious animal harm: even the literal canary in the goldmine implausibly survives intact.

About midway through the book, I checked whether Edgar Cantero had made an appearance in The Midnight Society (he has not, as far as I know), which is one of my favorite twitter accounts. The author lovingly skewers a wide variety of horror authors in ongoing tweet-length dialogues, and it makes me laugh regularly and introduces me to some new authors and some truly wild details about authors I had thought I’d previously known!

*Though, actually, when I went on GoodReads to confirm this, the majority of reviews sound the same as mine – good premise, weak execution, and they brought up some more serious issues of outdated language referring to intersex, transgender, and lesbian characters, as well as some broad racial stereotyping. I was willing to give some leeway for this since Cantero is Spanish, and Spain and Latin American countries use different terms than we do (even in translation), but readers should definitely be forewarned about that.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
by Nghi Vo
2020

This is a companion novella to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, not a sequel or a prequel, but a companion: another experience of Cleric Chih. It doesn’t have the same calm mood of the other, and I didn’t enjoy it quiet as much, but it’s still really very good and a fascinating story that deals more directly in the magical realism of this world. It’s also another beautifully crafted example of complex story telling with both a framing story and an interior story. It felt like a combination of Scheherazade and Rashomon, as it deals with the use of storytelling as a way to survive the night and with conflicting versions of the same story.

I definitely recommend it.

Also, a minor spoiler:

Continue reading

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

The Empress of Salt and Fortune
by Nghi Vo
2020

I can’t remember how this book got onto my to-read list, and it was there for a while before I got around to starting, but I’m glad I did. It’s lovely. It’s quite short – only 120 pages – but it’s beautifully, almost lyrically written. It’s also really interesting as an example of story crafting. The tone and the content of the book are in such stark contrast.

The tone of the book is very calm and quiet — contemplative, almost dreamlike. The world is a casually magic ancient China: there’s magic and mysticism, but it’s not the point of the story and it’s not particularly relevant, it’s just how the world is. An archivist cleric with a bird companion arrives at an old estate to make records of it, before moving on to their next assignment. The only other person there is an old servant woman. That’s the story.

In contrast, the topic of the book is the Empress of Salt and Fortune. She has recently died after a long and successful reign, but this old estate that the cleric is taking records of is the place of exile where she had lived for six years as a young woman before she came to power. The old servant woman, Rabbit, was her companion in those years. The empress is an amazing character: delightful and complex and ruthless and clever, and her plotting is dangerous and deadly. And the reader and the cleric learn about her from seeing the estate and hearing Rabbit’s stories.

In some ways this book reminds me of The Hands of the Emperor in that all the massive political upheavals happened in the past, all the anxiety gone and all the grief muted by time. In some ways it reminds me of Iron Widow in the way the empress is ruthless and vicious and hurting and victorious. And of course all three of them are about taking power and surviving. But it is also very much it’s own story and a fascinating read. I definitely recommend it.

Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold

Knot of Shadows
a Penric & Desdemona novella, part 11
by Lois McMaster Bujold
October 21, 2021

I check in on Bujold’s Amazon page every few weeks because these novellas she writes drop without any warning or fanfare and are a completely wonderful surprise each time there’s a new one. This one is no exception. I bought and read it as soon as I discovered it.

One of the (many) things I enjoy about Bujold is the range of genres and moods she’s able to write while still staying true to her characters. In a series that delights and fascinates, makes me laugh and blush and wait with baited breath to see how the latest adventure turns out, this is the first to leave me feeling very somber.

It reminds me of her Vorkosigan short stories, “The Flowers of Vashnoi” and “The Mountains of Mourning”. Sometimes our protagonists arrive too late by far to solve the problems but must instead do their best to clean up the results and try to pull together some clarity out of tragedy. This story is wonderful, I adore both Penric and Desdemona, and the world building remains incredible, but the situation is complex and difficult and the best solution is the one that mitigates the harm because there’s no avoiding it.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

The Last Graduate
Lesson Two of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
September 28, 2021

I loved the first book in this series, A Deadly Education, which was listed as book one of two, and I loved this one which is listed as book two of three, and I cannot wait until book three comes out! Because this book was a game changer and then ended immediately after the climax, so there’s none of the fall-out. It’s not exactly a cliff-hanger in the normal sense of it, because it does come to a successful conclusion, but oh man, what happens next???

In the previous book, our main character El, had finally started to make a few rare friends and form alliances. Her magic affinity is for large-scale destruction which makes the growing up process really difficult and in a school with a 1-in-7 survival rate, life is already extremely difficult. But when your school is much coveted for it’s survival rate which is so much higher than the 1-in-100 rate of anywhere else for adolescent magicians, clearly some large scale destruction to change the whole situation would not necessarily be a bad thing, if only it were properly directed.

There’s a pattern that I don’t see nearly often enough in books of having the resolution fundamentally change the world (preferably for the better, but really, at all.) Most conflicts get shown against an encroaching evil that is threatening the status quo, or alternately fighting against an evil that is currently in power so as to revert to a previous status quo. There’s something very freeing for the reader and impressive from the author to saying: the current situation is bad and the previous situation was bad too and we’re going to aim for something entirely new and different and better than anything before.

I imagine it doubles the amount of world-building that the author has to figure out, but it’s worth it! Plus, Novik is absolutely fabulous at world-building both in the large scale issues and in the constant little details of real world living that is both delightful and hilarious. Seeing the characters struggling to figure out how to live in the current situation but also find the space to think about how to change and what to change is so good and inspiring. After years of learning to accept a constant attrition rate of deaths, it’s hard for the students to learn to care again, not to mention embarrassing to admit that caring to a population just as trained against it. But they manage! And it is glorious!

This book is just so good on so many levels and made me so giddy that I had to immediately go back and reread the first book and then reread this one again. Just, so good!