Amnesty for unfinished books

I think we all try to finish the books we start, more out of principle than anything else.*  However, we always have books that just defeat us (you can see the ones that haunt us in our bios). Here, on New Year’s Eve, we say goodbye to those books from 2018:

Confessions of the Fox

By Jody Rosenberg

Confessions_of_the_FoxThis was on all sorts of Best of lists and the description sounded amazing; this was the quote from the New York Times review: “A mind-bending romp through a gender-fluid, eighteenth century London . . . a joyous mash-up of literary genres shot through with queer theory and awash in sex, crime, and revolution.” I like all of these things! This should be awesome! But even after multiple tries, I never made it past the third chapter. It was written in some of Olde Englishe dialect that my brain just wouldn’t parse at all. I feel like if I could have gotten over the hump and into the story I would have liked it, but I guess I’ll never know.

—Kinsey

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Bob Woodward

FearOf course, everyone was reading this book. In DC, naturally, but I think there was a mad scramble for it nation-wide. I don’t really buy books anymore, and the library waitlist was over 900 people, so I figured I’d probably get around to reading it in a couple years once the next big exposé came out. However, at Thanksgiving my dad said that I could borrow his copy, as long as I return it at Christmas. A month! Plenty of time, right?

Whew! The first 50 pages summarize the campaigns, leading up to the election, and just brought back how horrifyingly shocking November 8 was to me. Once we got past that, though, I was actually finding the behind-the-scenes details pretty interesting, similar to Game Change. However, it was still a slow read, and I had just reached Lindsey Graham convincing Trump to hire General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, when the news broke that Mattis was resigning. That was pretty much the last straw for me, and I decided that I just couldn’t handle trying to make sense of everything while it continues to change so frequently. I’m going back to my escapist fiction until at least 2020.

—Anna

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

By Sherman Alexie

lonerangerWith a title like that, how could I not want to read it? Also, the book is a 20th anniversary edition that was being highlighted at my local library as a recommendation from one of the librarians, and it’s about modern life on an Indian reservation. It’s a collection of 24 short stories, most of them only about 10-pages long.

I’m now on my third renewal of the library check-out because I’ve just stalled after the first two and a half stories. There’s no particular reason for me to not like them, I just find myself asking why I’m trying to read these when I’m not getting anything from them and I could be reading something else instead. But I keep on renewing the check-out because the introduction was excellent! It was also written by the author, but 20 years after the rest of the book, which might be why it’s more centered and entertaining. So, I recommend the introduction, and maybe while you’re at it, try out the rest of the stories, but for the new year I’m going to let myself give up on this book and just return it to the library.

—Rebecca

*Though as I get older, I’m more inclined toward the idea that life is too short to waste time on a book you aren’t enjoying.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, by Ben Passmore

yourblackfriendYour Black Friend and Other Strangers
by Ben Passmore
2018

I saw Ben Passmore speak on a panel discussion at the Small Press Expo this year. And he was one of the better speakers about doing nonfiction journalism in graphic novel format. I definitely wanted to read his book, which is twenty short stories in graphic novel format – between 1 and 21 pages each. All twenty combined are 120 pages.

The first story, the titular “Your Black Friend”, was remarkably hard to get through. It was fabulous, but it was also deeply uncomfortable because it pointed out my own problems and how none of us get to opt out of a racist society. We can do our best to try to improve society and make it less racist, but we’re all impacted. Black people don’t get to opt out of being oppressed and white people don’t get to opt out of being the oppressors. And here’s a constant struggle with stereotypes in both directions and from all sides.

When reading it, I could feel myself becoming defensive (“I don’t mean it that way!” the white person’s version of “not all men!” etc.) and that itself was an important realization to have, and a reaction I know to guard against.

Once I got through that one though, the rest were (relatively) smooth sailing. Some of them were more impactful than others, and they tended to deal with just different issues that Passmore had run into during his life and travels, many of them about racial inequality but certainly not all of them, and a few that were pure navel-gazing philosophy.

All the stories are good, but a couple of that I want to call out in particular are:

“It’s Not About You”, which does a hilarious and fantastical job of addressing the fact that we’re all dealing with our own issues and struggles and yet that doesn’t excuse us from acknowledging other people’s issues and struggles.

and

Ally I Need is Love”, which is a hilarious and biographical story from his past as a pedicab driver dealing with intersectionality issues, generational changes, and stereotyping.

Anyway, the art isn’t my usual style preference but it carries the stories well and is distinctly his Passmore’s own style, which I can now semi-reliably recognize in other contexts (such as on The Nib, which I follow on Instgram.)

I definitely recommend this book.

In writing this review and checking some links, I also discovered that “Your Black Friend” (the short story, rather than the whole book) got turned into a 3-minute youtube video available here.)

Artemis by Andy Weir

220px-Artemis-Andy_Weir_(2017)Artemis
by Andy Weir
2017

This book was fine. I enjoyed it. Mostly. But it had a series of flaws, some more serious than others.

For the good parts: it’s got a diverse cast of characters, and it does what most good science fiction novels do and takes some theories of how science could develop and looks into how those developments impact society. The ideas for how a moon colony would operate are fascinating, both from the science side and from the social side.

It’s also a bit of a heist story which is always fun. Where Weir’s first book, The Martian, was man-vs-nature, Artemis is man-vs-man, which opens up some additional opportunities for interesting conflicts.

But the man-vs-man story line generally needs you to like your characters and pick your side, and I was a bit thrown off by it ultimately being a conflict between a ‘good’ billionaire and a ‘bad’ billionaire. I guess the difference is that one kicks puppies and the other doesn’t? (Metaphorically, at least: there were no pets of any kind in this book.) And there’s ongoing commentary about how unions are like protection rackets that hurt the best skilled workers.

The main character, Jazz (short for Jasmine), is a fine point of view character except for the parts where she literally complains about how everyone is always telling her how much potential she has and offering her opportunities to develop her potential. (We should all have such trials and tribulations.) But she doesn’t take any of them up on the offers, and then feels betrayed the one time she can’t get a pass she wants because potential is fine but you actually need achievement to be successful. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the second scene in the book, which is admittedly before she starts complaining about people offering her opportunities, so isn’t quite so jarring until you think back about it.)

In the end, she’s so smart that she can do pretty much everything with just a little extra studying, and everyone is very impressed with it. There’s a level of wish-fulfillment meets entitlement that I find off-putting (also ignoring the difference between intelligence and education.) Weir is flipping a trope by writing it as a female character, at least, since mostly I see that as guys writing guys, but there’s only so much credit for that. Especially when paired with the narration about how she’s slept with so many men, but then the details seem to be that it’s only two men, both while in monogamous relationships (on her part at least.)

It all comes together like warning signs that Andy Weir might be going the way of Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card: talented science fiction writers who went increasingly extreme in being uber-conservative, with a side-order of sexual hang-ups. I grew up reading and enjoying their books, but I’m too old and entitled now myself to deal with that anymore.

Anyway, to sum up: The Martian was amazingly great and any next book of Weir’s would necessarily have a high standard to meet. Artemis didn’t meet that standard, but it’s no worse than many other science fiction novels I’ve read. I’ll keep an eye out for any other books he writes because The Martian was a masterpiece, Artemis was interesting, and two data points is a poor way to predict the future, but I’m not particularly optimistic.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton

Evelyn_HardcastleThis is like Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey: the novel. The book is covered in blurbs raving about how original and fascinating it is, but I’m not sure that I ever got a full grasp of what was happening. Every so often, I’d get a spark of understanding, which was pretty cool, but then it would inevitably lead to even more confusion.

The novel opens with the narrator running through the woods, calling a woman’s name, with no memory of who or where he is. So, the reader starts as lost as the narrator, and it is a slow start as he puts together the pieces of the country house party he is attending. That’s basically as much as I can say without beginning to spoil things, but it isn’t really enough to get anyone interested in reading it. The basic publisher’s description realized this, too, so does provide some additional context.

The young society lady, for whom the party is in honor, dies at the end of the ball, and a mysterious cloaked figure tells our narrator that he must solve her murder. He has eight days to solve it, or rather eight cycles of the same day – the day of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The added twist is that each day, he will wake up in the body of one of the houseguests and he must run the detection through that person’s perspective. Which is really cool, and the author does a great job of showing how each different host affects the narrator (though it does lead to a chapter of some very uncomfortable fat shaming that made me like the book a little less).

It gets even more complicated, of course, with a slew of other houseguests and other strange characters in addition to the narrator and the eight guests he inhabits. Schemes, dangers, and suspicions abound, and I could never have predicted the final conclusion. (Like I said above, I’m not super sure that I understood everything, but I for sure did not anticipate it!)

Jane Steele

By Lyndsay Faye

Adobe Photoshop PDFHave you ever thought Jane Eyre would be improved if the heroine had simply murdered all the villains who cross her? Well, have I got a book for you! The very first sentence sets the tone: “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.”

The whole thing is much improved, actually, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the original. Thornfield (Rochester)*, in particular, is a breath of fresh air, as a soldier returning from East India after having “gone native” in the English army’s estimation, rather than a surly recluse. I always had to suspend disbelief that anyone would fall in love with Jane Eyre’s Rochester; Jane Steele’s Thornfield, of the other hand, has the perfect mix of charm and cynicism.

Like Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes, Lyndsay Faye takes a quintessentially British story and livens it up with a focus on other cultures that were always there historically but tend to be whitewashed out. Thornfield’s ward is the half-Sikh daughter of a fellow soldier, he has staffed his estate entirely with Sikhs, and the Sikh culture is woven throughout. An additional small but significant point that allows this revision to avoid seeming gimmicky is that Jane Eyre (the novel) actually exists in this world, and Jane Steele (the character) is a fan.

A few years ago, I read Jane Slayre, which does some of this – turning Jane into a murderer of vampires, which definitely added interest, but other than the vampires, it stayed pretty close to the original plot and even original prose. Faye, on the other hand, has revitalized the entire plot. Jane Steele retains a very similar feeling to the original, but skillfully updates the plot and characters for more modern sensibilities. (Reading this Jane returning violence against her with extreme prejudice is a real salve to the soul in the midst of the continually unfolding news of sexual exploitation and abuse by powerful men.)

When discussing the book at work, a coworker commented that she never really liked Jane Eyre because it was just so unrelentingly sad, with such terrible things happening to Jane, and I realized that the addition of the murders contrarily brightens everything up. It has quite a bit of sly humor, which kept me amused well after reading it.

*I only later realized that Thornfield is the name of Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre, so a clever little turnaround there.

Tempest & Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

TempestAndSlaughterTempest and Slaughter
by Tamora Pierce
2018

This is a very odd book.

Like many girls in my generation, I grew up reading Tamora Pierce books, and while I don’t read them quite as religiously anymore, there are only a handful I haven’t read. This particular book was making waves before it was even published because not only is it the first time she’s written with a primary male protagonist, it’s also giving the backstory to the powerful and mysterious Numair Salmalin, the love-interest from one of her other series, The Immortals. This book is the first in a series about his youth as young Arram Draper, attending a school for magic.

The problem with any prequel, of course, is that regardless of what happens in the plot, you have a pretty good notion of how everything ends up.

But Pierce seems to have gotten around that by just deciding not to include a plot?

So there’s a lot of world-building (although much of the magic seems more similar to her Emelan universe rather than her Tortall universe where this particular book is set) and a lot of fun character interactions (although no character development), and a whole lot of foreshadowing. But no actual plot.

Like, stuff happens. But nothing ever develops.

I still enjoyed it, because I do love world-building, and Pierce is a talented writer, but… it’s just really odd to read a book without a plot.

Also, Arram was fine enough as a point of view character but he’s a bit of a goody-two-shoes in a way that I found surprisingly off-putting. It wasn’t that his ethics were wrong, in fact, they were very much on-point; it was more that they were unearned. He is a child growing up in a society that keeps slaves, and yet he is alone in wanting to speak out against it? Where did those ethics come from? What made him decide to speak out against what his friends and family who are fine with? And why are there no others that share his opinion? For all that he’s a teenager through most of the book, his ethical perspectives felt a bit like seeing a toddler at a protest rally being cute but clearly not able to truly argue the perspective.

Anyway, to sum up: interesting, but odd, with a few pointed problems. But I’ll definitely read the next book in the series to figure out what (if anything) happens next.

An Age of Barns by Eric Sloane

ageofbarnsAn Age of Barns
by Eric Sloane
1967

It probably says a lot about my general reading habits that my first thought about seeing this was that it was like a fantasy world guide except that what it describes and shows detailed pencil sketches of is all real. It starts with pictures of different tools and then moves on to show different types of boards and logs and different ways of making a wall and the different layouts for the structures and the different purposes for the different structures. (And I have now learned that there are cellars vs ground cellars and dry cellars vs wet cellars; not to mention that those crescent moon cut-outs on out-houses mark those as being women’s privies – they’d be sun cut-outs for men’s privies.)

My second reaction, after I’d actually started to read it, was really thinking about how smart and skilled those early farmers were. They would cut down and then carve these trees into interlinking logs. They really are like Lincoln Logs(TM) except more detailed, more individualistic, and a gazillion times more heavy. They knew how they wanted these logs to connect and then they carved them to slot together just so, all while using a medium that can’t be manipulated by one man on his own. It has to be a massive group project.

My third reaction, after having gone to see a barn that I’d previously seen several times, was that once I started to have an understanding of how a barn was put together, I started to see things that I had completely overlooked before because it didn’t previously hold any meaning for me. Before I had thought, huh, that log has an odd wavy texture to it; now I look at it and go: that was hand hewn using a broad ax. Before I hadn’t even noticed some notches on a banister, and now I look at it and go: that is repurposed wood from a different section because the notches on it were intended for something different.

And a final thought: this was written well-before Wikipedia existed but it is still this deep-dive into an esoteric research rabbit hole and it’s amazing. I love getting to see someone else’s passion about something that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to me as a thing to even really think about.

Anyway, the whole book is only about 90 pages, most of it images and diagrams, and it’s not really intended to be read through the way I did, but it’s still fascinating and I liked it.