Currently Reading: March 2016

You may have noticed that I did not post a Currently Reading post for February 2016. This is because February was so incredibly disappointing books-wise that I could not come up with five books I felt deserved recommendation.

So – I bid a relieved farewell to that month-long book slump and enter March, which held several fun surprises and an easy five books to recommend here. No particular theme to this month’s picks, though three of them are based in some way on other stories, whether that’s folktale like Redemption in Indigo or H.P. Lovecraft like The Ballad of Black Tom.

If anyone is curious about how much I read, my Goodreads 2016 shelf has 34 books on it as of today, which works out to a little over ten books a month.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I picked up this book for two reasons – I’d heard good things about two of Jon Ronson’s other books (The Psychopath Test and Them, both of which I’d like to read) and the subject matter is somewhat personal to me, as I spend a fair amount of time online and have witnessed some of the frankly vicious behavior Ronson describes.

While the critics of this book have a point – that it is more about Ronson than about the victims (and perpetrators) he encounters – I see that as one of the book’s virtues. At no point does So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed feel like a morality tale, or like Ronson is an outsider condemning a community he is not part of. He frequently acknowledges that he has participated and even enjoyed the kind of behavior the book explores – and that he gradually comes to find worrying. More valid, in my opinion, are the critiques that he sometimes betrays a certain cluelessness about sexism, touching only lightly on the disparity of the response to Adria Richards and the “Donglegate” perpetrators. However, while it was a light touch, the awareness still seemed to be there, and I felt that Ronson did acknowledge the more severe responses to women (in public shamings) versus men.

Ronson’s light, humorous voice made what could be – and sometimes was – a terrifying account of how our worse impulses come out on the internet still a compelling read.

A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham. Gorgeously illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, this collection of retold fairy and folk tales brings old stories to life, from the heartbreaking Rumplestiltskin story from his point of view to the lyrical metaphor of a marriage told through the story of the Tin Soldier. Cunningham’s craft spins beautiful stories where the language is as important as the story being woven.

Full disclosure: I am always a sucker for fairy tale retellings. All the same, this collection stands out. The black and white ink drawings by Shimizu are especially delightful, by turns lovely and eerie, and frequently both – just as fairy tales should be.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. This novella has gained a fair amount of buzz  for the way it confronts and plays with the work of famously racist horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Based on one of his stories, “The Horror of Red Hook”, LaValle tells the story of a black hustler in early twentieth century Harlem, Tommy Tester, who finds himself entangled in the dark world of cosmic horror that is Lovecraft’s trademark. LaValle confronts police brutality and systematic racism, contrasting the mundane horror of the life of a black man in a racist society with the horror of what lies beyond human comprehension.

In one remarkable line, after [SPOILERS] Tester’s father is shot by a police officer, he observes that:

a fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naïve… he saw the patrol cars parked in the middle of the road like three great black hounds waiting to pounce on all these gathered sheep. What was indifference compared to malice?

This is the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation we deserve – one that is not afraid to confront and wrestle with the racism of its source material while at the same time working with it to create something new: in NPR’s words, both tribute and critique.

Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord. Another retelling, this short novel doesn’t base itself off any particular story, rather drawing on motifs and themes from Sengalese folktales to spin a story that carries you along from start to finish, somehow feeling both familiar and fresh. Paama leaves her gluttonous husband to return to her family and finds herself in possession of the powerful Chaos Stick, an artifact of the immortal djombi with the ability to manipulate reality. However, the original owner of the Stick, the powerful and cynical Indigo Man, is determined to get it back.

What follows is an adventure that is light-hearted and humorous without being frivolous, showcasing the deft hand of a natural storyteller.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. This book came highly recommended, not only by its sweep of the major sci-fi/fantasy awards (it won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award and Locus Award) but also by a number of friends. I should note that I was not blown away by it – at least not for the first half, and having started the sequel (Ancillary Sword) I can say that I am enjoying the second book right from the start. The flashforward-flashback setup of the first half of Ancillary Justice weakened it, I think, as events in the past caught up to the present – once the two connected, my enthusiasm increased markedly.

That being said – as someone who hardly ever reads science fiction, this book made me feel excited about science fiction. The main character, going by the name of Breq, is the sole remnant of what was once the AI of a ship, occupying several bodies (known as ancillaries) and now trapped in a single human form. Leckie plays with the possible effects of such an existence even as she toys with ideas of gender – and alongside consideration of the consequences of empire. The climax of the book is a little chaotic and confusing, but this book merits a recommendation just the same for the cleverness of the idea and the promise I feel about the continuing series (completed this year with Ancillary Mercy).

For all February’s disappointments, there are two books from the month that do deserve mention:

  1. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, another Lovecraft-influenced novel playing with race, is also excellent, if a little less horror-tinged than I would have liked.
  2. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar is almost more a meditation on literature and language than it is a novel, but the writing is so dense and intensely lovely that I found myself rereading sentences, which isn’t something I do often. Not exactly an easy read, but absolutely rewarding – I look forward to reading her Winged Histories set in the same universe.

And with that, I conclude another month of reading. See you at the end of April for another round.

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