20 Books of Summer 2019: A Retrospective

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20 Books of Summer 2019 is over, and for the first time, I read all of my 20 books!

What did I think of the books I read? [Links are to my reviews]. I’ll group them in the same way as I did in 2018. This time, the absolute standouts were Self-Portrait With BoyThe Nickel Boysand ExhalationAll will be strong contenders for my books of the year.

In the second tier are The Island of Sea Women, Happiness, Inland, Friday Black, The Chalk Artist, Queenie and The Good Immigrant USANone of these absolutely blew me away, but they’re still very good books that I’d strongly recommend.

As before, there were a number of books that I enjoyed but about which I had reservations, ranging from more to less serious. These were A People’s Future of the United States, The Untelling, Free Food for Millionaires, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Memories of the Future and Chemistry.

Finally, there were the outright disappointments: All Is Song, Pulp, Starling Days and Winter Sisters.

Interestingly, I have fewer absolute stand-outs than in 2018, but more books in the second tier and fewer in the third, and I would say that this correlates to my reading experience: I enjoyed the challenge more this year. It continues to present the same conundrums for me, though; the first two times I did it, I concentrated on getting through my TBR pile, but the last two times, I’ve deliberately picked books I don’t already have lined up. This has made the challenge easier (because I have more enthusiasm to read these books!) and more fun, but also more expensive… I’ve spent a LOT on books this summer.

Will I do 20 Books of Summer again next year? Yes, but with a twist; now I’ve FINALLY completed it in its original form, next year, I’ll be restyling it as a re-read challenge, and reading whatever twenty books I like as long as I have read them before! This should save me a lot of money and allow me to fit in time for re-reading, which I always wish that I did more of.

Did you do 20 Books of Summer this year? How did it go?

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20 Books of Summer, #18, #19 and #20: Friday Black, All Is Song and Free Food for Millionaires

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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of short stories, Friday Black, feels both memorable and familiar. In full satirical mode, Adjei-Brenyah’s writing recalls both Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and, perhaps most strongly, some of the stories in Narissa Thompson-Spires’s recent collection, Heads of the Colored People, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer. These stories dial up the violence to eleven to produce vicious vignettes of racism and consumerism in the contemporary United States. ‘Zimmer Land’, in particular, could have made a great addition to Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited anthology of speculative fiction, A People’s Future of the United States. It recalls the Black Mirror episode ‘White Bear’ in its depiction of a young black man working in a simulation where he has to pretend to be a robber and have white people pretend to murder him every day. While, technically, this story does the same thing as some of the more pedestrian stories from the LaValle anthology, imagining a dystopian future where white supremacy is even more dominant than it is today, it’s saved by its sheer weirdness. Similarly, ‘The Finkelstein 5’, which picks up on the same themes by having a white man claim that he needed to behead five black children with his chainsaw to defend his own family, works because of how it forces us to revisit the only slightly less horrific things that happen in our own world.

Three stories deal with retail: ‘Friday Black’, ‘How to Sell A Jacket as Told by IceKing’ and ‘In Retail’. The first two, which take place in the same savage world where customers literally murder each other to get to goods on Black Friday, could perhaps usefully have been combined into one long piece; together, they’re unforgettable. ‘In Retail’ feels a little repetitive after these two, but I liked the opportunity it allowed for Adjei-Brenyah to show a softer side. ‘The Lion and the Spider’, about a father who keeps abandoning his son and the vivid fantasy worlds the son creates in his head, is also a stand-out, but in a totally different mode from most of the collection; more realist, and more optimistic. However, despite its strengths, this collection felt uneven as a whole because there were a number of stories that I felt didn’t work at all: ‘Lark Street’, ‘The Hospital Where’ and ‘Light Splitter’ were all too absurd and jumbled for my tastes, and ‘Through the Flash’ was only redeemed by its ending. Adjei-Brenyah may not be a consistently good writer yet, but I’ll still be watching out for more work from him.

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Samantha Harvey’s second novel, All Is Song, tries to imagine what might happen if Socrates was teaching in this day and age. It’s told from the point of view of the Socrates-figure’s brother, Leonard, who has come to stay with his older brother William after the collapse of a relationship. Leonard witnesses William’s extraordinary hold over some local students, which will eventually lead him into trouble, and closely studies his brother’s ways and motives. I barely made it through a quarter of this novel, which is a bit of a shocker, as I absolutely adored Harvey’s Dear Thief and The Western WindHaving read a number of reviews and interviews about this book, I think that Harvey was trying to pull off something incredibly difficult here; to produce a novel as luminous and moving as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, but centred around a character who is extraordinary, rather than relatively ordinary in the way that John Ames could be said to be. I admire her ambition, but it doesn’t work; William doesn’t seem special in the ways she needs him to be, and rather than achieving Gilead‘s timeless simplicity, the novel feels both chronologically and geographically adrift. However, failing to write as well as Marilynne Robinson is hardly a condemnation of Harvey, and I’m still a huge fan of her later books.

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Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, took her a very long time to write, as she explains in the foreword. And it’s a very long book: following Casey Han, the daughter of Korean immigrants who disapprove of her fecklessness after graduating from Princeton, it expands to encompass the destinies of a number of Casey’s social circle, especially her best friend Ella, who has managed to meet her own Korean parents’ expectations but becomes desperately unhappy. Compared to PachinkoLee’s second novel, which considered the oppression of Korean immigrants in Japan across several generations, this is basically soapy fun. Given its length – 650 pages – I’d expected this to become more of a multi-generational saga as well, delving back into the past of Casey’s parents, but instead it aims for breadth rather than depth. I liked some of the details of Casey’s characterisation, such as her frustration that her most natural talents – sizing people up for clothes at a glance, making elaborate hats from scratch – don’t help her with what she thinks she ought to be doing in life. But on the whole, Lee relies too much on telling us what her characters are thinking and feeling, and the head-hopping is frequently awkward. I’m not sure this was worth sticking with for the amount of time it took me to read; I’d recommend Pachinko instead, despite its also occasionally clunky writing.

For the first time, I read all 20! I’ll be writing a retrospective on my 20 Books of Summer before the challenge ends on September 3rd. If you were also doing this challenge, how did it go?

20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

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Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, is even better than his exhilarating Stories of Your Life and Others (although I’m sad about the UK cover; why can’t we have this beautiful US one, as well as a decently produced hardback?) For me, more of the stories in Exhalation than in Stories of Your Life managed to blend Chiang’s incredible intelligence with a solid emotional core, and when Chiang does this, he’s unbeatable. The opening story, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was, for me, the most satisfying: Chiang effortlessly handles complicated single-timeline time travel and its emotional consequences, while packaging it in a literary form – the nested stories of The Arabian Nights – to which it is absolutely suited. Although, [spoiler] I couldn’t help speculating that the narrator, by travelling back to intercept the comforting news being brought to his former self, had inadvertently condemned his former self to a lifetime of guilt, motivating him to travel back in the first place, which he doesn’t seem to register! [spoilers end]. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to write time travel this elegantly, and I can only applaud (and envy) Chiang.

The two novellas included in the collection are also both fantastic, although for me, not quite as perfect as ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and the ethical issues that this throws up. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. As ever, Chiang thinks about the details: one obstacle the owners face is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. However, this story is particularly notable for the potential parallels it draws. The analogy with human children is somewhat imperfect (digients seem much less capable than children, even when the number of years they’ve been alive is factored in) but works when we start thinking about why we have children: can it ever be right to create something just so we can love it?

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (the title is taken from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety) also dissects a familiar time-travel trope, although it’s not a time travel story: in this novella, humans are able to converse with their ‘paraselves’ who are living in alternative timelines that have split off from the timeline they are living in following quantum events. A lot of time travel novels (including mine…) use this trope, drawn from  Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, to allow time travel between parallel timelines rather than within a single timeline. Chiang stresses that new timelines, in this story, don’t break off whenever anyone makes a decision but only in certain circumstances; however, it is often possible to converse with a paraself in a timeline where a significant decision has turned out differently, whether that’s leaving a marriage, taking a new job, or admitting to a crime. Chiang glosses this story most succinctly in his own ‘Story Notes’ (I could happily read a volume of Chiang’s ‘Story Notes’): ‘Some have pointed out that when Martin Luther defended his actions to the church in 1521, he reportedly said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” i.e. he couldn’t have done anything else. But does that mean we shouldn’t give Luther credit for his actions? Surely we don’t think he would be worthier of praise if he had said, “I could have gone either way.”… If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you’d have to go far afield to find one that didn’t defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.’

These kinds of themes – our relationship with our former or alternative selves, our moral responsibility for the choices we make that could have ‘gone either way’, and whether we are the sum of our choices or our circumstances – are prominent in all of my own fiction, so unsurprisingly, I found the story fascinating, although the ending was a little unsatisfying. Chiang is rightly concerned to demonstrate that the many-worlds interpretation does not mean our choices are meaningless (because there is an alternative universe where we made the opposite choice) and I agree with his take on it; parallel timelines can surely be separated from our own world by various degrees of difference, and some situations are not so neatly reducible to a single individual’s choice.  However, in a particular incident that dogs one character, it seems to be suggested that a choice she regrets made no difference because the friend she betrayed would have taken the same path in life anyway. I would like Chiang to have delved a little deeper into this theme (which he does address in a parallel plotline): how does making selfish choices hurt us and our future selves, even if they have no actual impact? (Coincidentally, while reading background material on Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song, another of my 20 Books of Summer, I came across this interview where she discusses exactly that.)

There are other excellent stories in this collection, such as ‘Omphalos’, which considers what would have happened if God had created the world, and humanity realised we were not at the centre of his universe – but a few of the others fell into the trap I wrote about in my review of Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, lacking emotional commitment and taking place in a blank void: ‘Exhalation’, ‘What’s Expected Of Us’, ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’. Chiang always gives you lots to think about, but he doesn’t always make you feel. Meanwhile, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’, which postulates that interwar American behaviourist child psychologists such as John F. Watson and B.F. Skinner went a step further by designing a mechanical automaton to see to a child’s needs, made me smile, but didn’t feel terribly fresh to me (probably because I’ve written on behaviourism in my historical research, and thought this was a bit of a simplistic take on how childrearing advice developed in the first half of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this collection is stunning, the percentage of hits is higher than in Stories of Your Life, and it’s got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far.

20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Good Immigrant USA and Fruit of the Drunken Tree

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The Good Immigrant USA, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman, is the American follow-up to Shukla’s previous edited collection, The Good Immigrant, which focused on Britain. Both collections feature a range of essays from immigrants to these countries talking about their own experiences and challenging stereotypes, but for me at least, the two books have a very different feel. The Good Immigrant was more personal and more anecdotal, and it was definitely funnier; while there were, of course, essays that didn’t employ humour at all, many other contributors used it to effect to make serious points, such as comedian Nish Kumar’s ‘Is Nish Kumar A Confused Muslim?’, about becoming a racist meme, and actor ‘Miss L’s’ ‘The Wife of A Terrorist’, which explained how, as a brown woman, she’s always typecast as a traditional Middle Eastern wife, often of a terrorist.

In contrast, The Good Immigrant USA takes a more literary and a less journalistic tone, and many of the essays require more sustained effort, although the effort is repaid. It feels also more wide-ranging, reflecting the US’s racial mix, from Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas’s essay about the history of Argentina’s colonial encounters, ‘Juana Azurdy Versus Christopher Columbus’, to Porochista Kapoor’s meditation on becoming pigeonholed by your ethnic identity, ‘How to Write Iranian-American, Or The Last Essay’. There’s also a didactic earnestness in a few of the essays in this collection that’s missing from their British counterparts: for example, Jim St. Germain’s essay on Haiti, ‘Shithole Nation’. None of this makes one collection superior or inferior, but they aren’t simply transatlantic versions of each other. The Good Immigrant had more of an impact on me, but I think this was partly the result of having read much less about race and immigration when I encountered it.

One feature of The Good Immigrant USA which wasn’t present in The Good Immigrant is the inclusion of essays by white or white-passing immigrants as well as ethnic minorities. This perhaps says something about the two countries’ attitudes to immigration, but I also found this a helpful and interesting addition to The Good Immigrant USA, allowing the writers to explicitly reflect on white privilege while also reflecting the experience of growing up caught between two cultures. Maeve Higgins writes well about the long tradition of Irish immigration to the US (‘Luck of the Irish’), but I was particularly captivated by Jean Hannah Edelstein’s ‘An American, Told’ (I also loved her memoir This Really Isn’t About You), which focused on having a British mother and Jewish father, and growing up between Britain and the US. Personally, having also moved between the two countries, I identified with what she said about not really feeling British or American. Although I fall much more on the British side of the equation, I still sometimes fall through those cracks (as a recent discussion about ‘frowns’ on Twitter reminded me; I’m on the Americans’ side with that one!).

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Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is from Bogotá but now lives in San Francisco, could easily have contributed (and I suspect, very interestingly) to The Good Immigrant USA. Her debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, draws on her experience of growing up in a gated community in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It focuses on two children, Chula and her sister Cassandra, and the close relationship they develop with their teenage maid Petrona, who is from what they term the invasión, one of the guerrilla-occupied shanty towns that have grown up on the outskirts of Bogotá. As the girls witness the rise of drug lord Pablo Escobar and the violent incidents that surround them, they cling more tightly to Petrona as an emissary from an outside world they do not understand. But their family’s connection with Petrona will also bring them into danger.

Contreras is obviously a gifted writer, and the afterword of this novel, which explains how it links to her own personal experience, is exceptionally moving. Her website says that ‘She is working on a family memoir about her grandfather, a curandero from Colombia who it was said had the power to move clouds’, and I’d absolutely love to read that. Having read only one other novel set in Colombia (Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Oneswhich also kicks off in the early 1990s) this was refreshingly different, in some ways, from what I usually read. However, it also rehashes some familiar tropes about children encountering a conflict that they don’t understand (I thought the novel would have been much more interesting if narrated by the mother), and the pacing is askew, with virtually everything that happens squashed into the last hundred pages. I found myself wondering if Contreras had been tripped up by trying to translate her own childhood into fictional form, and if her life-writing might work better for me. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is effective page-by-page, but I found the book as a whole frustrating.

20 Books of Summer, #14: A People’s Future of the United States

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Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited collection of speculative fiction, A People’s History of the United States, has a brilliant premise. As LaValle explains in his introduction, the title riffs on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which, in the words of the jacket copy, was the first book ‘to tell America’s story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.’ Whether or not this historiographical claim is true, LaValle and Adams used this famous text as a jumping-off point for this collection. They, LaValle writes, ‘decided to ask a gang of incredible writers to imagine the years, decades, even the centuries, to come. And to have tales told by those, and/or about those, who history often sees fit to forget.’ The jacket copy of this book doubles down on LaValle’s framing, suggesting that: ‘Knowing that imagining a brighter tomorrow has always been an act of resistance, [the editors] asked for narratives that would challenge oppressive American myths, release us from the chokehold of our history, and give us new futures to believe in.’

My disappointment with the majority of this collection, therefore, stems both from the fact that most of the stories here don’t do this, and the fact that the stories that do are almost always head and shoulders above their predictable dystopian counterparts. While many of the snatches of misery here are well-written, do we really need another set of futures that envisage the bureaucratic oppression of trans and non-binary people (A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’), imagine high-tech gay conversion therapy (Violet Allen’s ‘The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves’), allow no access to contraception or abortion (Justina Ireland’s ‘Calendar Girls’) or predict the reinstatement of enslavement (Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘The Referendum’*)? Not only are these stories pessimistic, they are usually unimaginative; it doesn’t take much to think of a future where things are uniformly worse. But history doesn’t usually march towards progress or slide towards despair; realistic futures will be a mix of both. Moreover, these stories usually have very little to say about identity other than that we shouldn’t oppress others; to me, the diversity, especially around LGBT+ identities, often feels tick-box rather than significant (for example, in Seanan MacGuire’s ‘Harmony’).

*I still love Arimah’s writing, though: for better work by her, both realistic and speculative, check out her collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.

These stories, however, still work on some level; for me, the absolute failures in this collection – which were in the minority, but still all too frequent – were the stories where the writer seemed to have misunderstood how fiction functions. These stories spelt out their messages so simplistically that they left no space for creativity. By far the worst was Ashok K. Banker’s ‘By His Bootstraps’, which imagines a future where a president who strongly resembles Donald Trump has used a bioweapon meant to return America to its original genetic purity. In case you can’t guess where this is going, Banker has one of the characters tell you: ‘Mr President, you gave the order to deploy Operation Clean Sweep because you thought – we all did – that it would be a clean sweep of our country’s racial diversity, restoring America to the white Christian nation we all believed it once had been. But that was a myth. America has always been an ethnically diverse myth, a melting pot of races and cultures.’ Not only is this terrible writing, it also seems strikingly naive about how white supremacy functions; as if white supremacists would realise the error of their ways if they attended more history lessons.

Amongst all this, however, are some absolute stars. Malka Older’s ‘Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity (Excerpted)’ is simply brilliant, recalling Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’ in how it plays with tenses to deploy its central concept. Readers may have different interpretations of this story, which is written in the style of an academic monograph, but for me, it seemed to come from a future where time travel has become an accepted research method for historians, leading to this kind of baffling but glorious analysis by ‘futurists’:

“Civil society” will become, in the absence of strong political institutions, just “society”, while without coherent corporations “social media” will become just “media”. While we can describe these transitions, from a distance, as neutral changes or even positive outcomes of creative destruction, it is important to remember that for people living in that time, such drastic shifts are disorienting and frightening.

I loved the idea of getting away from teleological narratives of ‘everything got better’ or ‘everything got worse’ by imagining historians as observers of a range of past and future time periods, able to pity or admire the future as much as the past. Older takes the challenge posed by the editor head on, and her story seems to frame the whole collection.

Similarly, I appreciated Omar El Akkad’s ‘Riverbed’, which envisages a future US making reparations for the forced displacement and internment of its Muslim citizens, because of El Akkad’s willingness to imagine a scenario that isn’t wholly negative or positive. The assertiveness of its main character, Khadija, at the airport and with her taxi driver, subtly makes the point that she’s operating in very different circumstances than Muslim women do today, but the horrors of her past show how easily we could tip into this kind of atrocity. El Akkad’s American War, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, didn’t really work for me, but this story underlined what a promising writer he is. Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out, also strikes an interesting balance.

Finally, the editors irritatingly group a number of the best stories near the end of the collection. Charles Yu’s ‘Good News Bad News’ and N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death’ both use humour to great effect; Yu’s story, in particular, slips between satire and chilling realism as he quotes from invented news stories about racist robots, sentient trees and an automated Congress. Jemisin has fun with a more fantastic tale of dragons who are persuaded not to feed on the populace by being given various spicy vegetable dishes instead. G. Willow Wilson’s ‘ROME’, though not as original as other offerings, tells an enticingly human story about a group of people trying to finish their automated English tests while the street burns around them because voters didn’t want to pay taxes for firefighters.

However, the stand-out entry in A People’s Future of the United States is probably the very last one. Alice Sola Kim’s ‘Now Wait For This Week’ (read it here) flips the familiar Groundhog Day trope to tell the repeating week from the perspective of the time traveller’s perplexed friends. This both works brilliantly on a story level and helps Kim illuminate wider narratives about the endless ‘Me Too’ media cycle that lacks real justice, because it doesn’t tackle the structural causes of men’s behaviour. Kim also trusts her readers to join the dots without having everything spelt out for them, both structurally and thematically. Speculative fiction writers, this is how it’s done: more like this, please?

20 Books of Summer, #12 and #13: Memories of the Future and The Untelling

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Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, is on the face of it an entry in a very familiar genre; young provincial woman goes to New York in 1979 to immerse herself in art, living in a sketchy apartment and working exploitative and/or weird jobs to make ends meet. And as an example of this genre, I’ve read better even just within my 20 Books of Summer (Self-Portrait With Boy is both more interesting on making art and more evocative of a vanished world). However, Memories of the Future is less about the specific content of its narrator’s past, and more about how we interact with our own pasts and futures. And in this, it is superb:

In our plain old human world, the young woman who lifts her eyes when she hears the door open at the Hungarian Pasty Shop in September 1978 becomes the ageing woman who sits here now in September 2016 in her study in a house in Brooklyn and types the sentence you are reading in your own present… But over there in Minkowski spacetime, the still girlish “I” and the much older “I” coexist, and in that startling 4D reality, the two of us can theoretically find each other and shake hands… What is memory if my earlier self is still out there somewhere, unchanged?

As the narrator, called ‘S.H’ in keeping with the autofictional theme, or ‘Minnesota’ by her friends, explores the diaries she kept at the time and riffles through her own memories, she keeps on returning to these paradoxes of time. Hustvedt is especially good on trauma:

I, the old narrator, am asking myself why my former self waited. I am so ashamed of waiting. I have been ashamed of waiting for almost four decades now and my humiliation does not end. No, it burns brightly… It is as if I am still that young woman outside the elevator unable to move… There must be a way to move her from that spot.

This review argues that Memories of the Future is more of an essay than a novel, and I agree; the parts of this book that came closer to fiction, such as S.H.’s relationship with her monologuing neighbour, Lucy Brite, and S.H.’s attempts at a novel, were the parts that worked least well for me. This could have been a much slimmer volume, and I think it would have been the better for it. Nevertheless, when it’s good, it’s really good.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy of Memories of the Future!

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There’s something about Tayari Jones’s writing that really works for me; the stories she’s telling are not always especially captivating, but her prose packs an emotional punch. The Untelling, her second novel, recalls the way Hustvedt writes about trauma by exploring how the relationships between its protagonist, Aria, and her mother and older sister have never really recovered from a devastating car crash which killed both Aria’s father and her baby sister. When Aria, now twenty-five, suspects that she is pregnant, the secrets that the surviving family members have kept from each other begin unravelling, challenging the ‘tellings’ that have become accepted over the intervening years. Aria’s story is juxtaposed with that of Keisha, a teenager who she is tutoring for the GED exam via a local literacy programme, who has also just announced her pregnancy.

In some ways, The Untelling is simplistic and a little melodramatic; in this, it recalls Jones’s An American Marriagewhich I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, more closely than her debut, Leaving Atlantawhich I thought was much more subtle. Nevertheless, Jones gets away with a lot of it because of how real her characters feel and how well she conveys their individual tragedies. The plot is relatively slight, but takes some unexpected twists, and like all Jones’s writing, it’s so readable. (It’s a shame it’s been burdened with such a hideous cover, which also makes it look like it’s set in a nineteenth-century asylum; hopefully, given the huge success of An American Marriage, Jones’s backlist will be reissued, and will also be made available in the UK).

20 Books of Summer, #10 and #11: Chemistry and Inland

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Weike Wang’s Chemistry is a weird little book which I didn’t love as much as I think I was supposed to, but nevertheless enjoyed reading. Our unnamed narrator is pursuing a PhD in organic chemistry at a demanding Boston university and struggling with her relationship with boyfriend Eric, who has asked her to marry him. The novel, however, is really about parental pressure, and about dealing with that in the face of US cultural stereotypes about Chinese parents:

There is a new episode of the cooking show and a Chinese American chef is competing… In between rounds, she talks about her upbringing. Her mother was very quiet. Her father was very strict. They expected certain things of her and cooking was not one of them. But here she is… There is then a round of applause from the judges.

But… my mother is quiet like a lot of Asian mothers. And my father is strict like a lot of Asian fathers. And we are unhappy like a lot of Asian families… 

It was the Chinese roommate who first said to me, We are our own worst propagators of these cliches. We are constantly throwing each other under the bus. But I am also angry at these judges. Why encourage this of us, to constantly rebel, without understanding why some of us do not?

From the blurb, I’d expected this to have more to say about both academia and chemistry, although there’s some nice black humour about the former: 

In Arizona, a PhD advisor dies. Authorities blame the grad student who shot him, but grad students around the world blame the advisor. No student can graduate without the advisor’s approval. This advisor had kept the student in lab for seventeen years, believing him too valuable to be let go or simply having gone insane. I think, Kudos to the student for making it to seventeen years. I would have shot someone at ten.

My adviser is more reasonable than that, which is why he is still alive.

Our narrator often refers to scientific metaphors, but she’s as likely to draw from the physics of light or the science of cell structure than chemistry as such. (I know chemistry is also involved in these things, but from the little we find out about what the protagonist is studying, it does seem to be what a school student might think of as chemistry, with mentions of fume hoods and corrosive chemicals). I’m starting to find this kind of quirky, woman-failing-in-academia narration quite familiar – see also Melissa Broder’s The Pisces and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days – but I got enough of a sense of the quietly resisting, dryly funny narrator to keep me going.

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Téa Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was one of my stand-out novels from the last decade, so I approached her long-awaited second novel, Inland, with both excitement and trepidation. The central plot thread of Inland is set over one long, thirsty day in a small settlement called Amargo in the Arizona Territory in 1893. Nora’s husband has failed to return to their homestead with with fresh water, so she’s watching the level of her household bucket inexorably reduce as she curses her three irritating sons, two of whom are also absent, and her housemaid Josie, who’s insisting she’s seen a strange beast out in the gulch. Josie has a habit of conversing with what she calls ‘the other living’, or ghosts, which also annoys Nora, even though she regularly chats with the spirit of her dead daughter, Evelyn, who she believes is bound to their house. In a second thread, Lurie, a Turkish immigrant on the run from the law, joins up with the Camel Corps to travel through the parched West and narrates his life story to beloved camel Burke. These two stories knot together in the final pages of the book, as Obreht soars into a dazzling, stream-of-consciousness ending.

Inland is a slow, immersive and impressive novel. Obreht is such a talented writer; this is a very different book from The Tiger’s Wife, yet the way she conjures up the mindset of the homesteaders in this parched and lonely land is spot-on. She writes so well about a shifting landscape peopled by settlers of all races, from whites to ‘Arabs’ to Mexicans, by Native Americans, and by ghosts. I sometimes struggle with such an obvious supernatural presence in a novel, but Obreht balances it perfectly; the grit of Nora’s narration is leavened by her matter-of-fact dialogues with Evelyn. The campaign that Nora conducts via her husband’s newspaper to try and stop the county seat being moved from Amargo to Ash River, which would leave the settlement even more isolated, is both humorous and tense. There’s something reminiscent of Eleanor Catton’s New Zealand-set The Luminaries in the way that Obreht explores a tight-knit pioneer community with dark things brewing under the surface. However, the main narrative was undercut for me by Lurie’s sections, which I found much less engaging, although I loved the final resolution of his story. Because of this, Inland was a novel that I appreciated intellectually, but didn’t take to my heart in the same way as The Tiger’s Wife.

Inland was part of my 4.5 Star Challenge: unfortunately, this is another book that’s fallen short, as I only rated it four stars. Will any book ever manage to live up to my expectations?!

I received a free proof copy of Inland from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on August 13th.