What I’ve Been Reading, July 2019

Ah summer break is here at last, the summer break that will never end because I’ve graduated now, Forever Summer—and I’ve been reading a ton of books!

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley — Kid Gloves is the latest graphic novel memoir from Knisley, describing her experience of pregnancy, and everything leading up to it. What’s great is that, in addition to the conception-to-birth pregnancy narrative that we’re all fairly familiar with, Knisley also describes the process of trying to get pregnant, of having miscarriages, and, crucially, her internal state through all of this. Kid Gloves is a very vulnerable, honest book, which spends a great deal of time getting across how Lucy feels about the pregnancy at various stages. Just viewed externally, pregnancy is a pretty dramatic process, but (as Knisley discusses in the book) the experience of the person actually carrying the child is often sidelined in mainstream pregnancy narratives. Not so here.

In addition to her own narrative, Knisley adds in interstitial bits of pregnancy research, trying to debunk some of the misconceptions around pregnancy, and shed light on some lesser known truths. Sometimes this research feels very integral to the personal narrative (the section focusing on miscarriage myths, for instance, spends a lot of time trying to assuage the irrational guilt women who have miscarried often feel), while other sections of research feel kind of inconsequential. Like, pregnancy superstitions or the medicalization of labor might be interesting, but they seem disconnected from the rest of the book in places. Something New had sections like that too, but overall the tone of that book was a lot lighter, so it all felt of a piece.

Which is not to say that Kid Gloves is without levity. There are plenty of humorous moments, but  overall the book is more serious than Something New. (No one undergoes surgery in Something New. No one’s health is at risk if the wedding goes wrong. Etcetera.)

As usual, Knisley’s clean, colorful art is very expressive, and a lot of those humorous moments are sold on her ability to capture an expression, or select a visual metaphor. In this book I was particularly struck by her ability to convey some intense emotions, and some intense physical feelings as well, subverting aspects of her own style to achieve this (her portrayal of labor and later complications is exemplary of this.)

Overall, the book is terrific, a great follow-up to Something New, and I would presume a good read for parents/expecting parents.

The Binti trilogy by Nnedi OkoraforBintiBinti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade is a trilogy of novellas about a Himba girl who runs away from home to go to Oomza University, a prestigious, planet-sized university which hosts all kinds of alien life forms as students and faculty. However, the transport ship to Oomza Uni is attacked by the Meduse, a tribe of jellyfish-like aliens that have been at war with Khoush humans (the dominant ethnic group where Binti lives on Earth) for longer than anyone can remember. Throughout the trilogy, Binti struggles to understand her identity, understand where her home really is and whether she belongs there anymore, and struggles to bring peace between the Khoush and the Meduse. Binti is a master harmonizer, someone meant to bring harmony between different groups, someone who can call up flows of energy called “currents”—but it seems like anywhere she goes, she only brings trouble.

I’m not gonna get too much more into plot than that. Suffice it to say, the books are paced well, and the scope of the story escalates nicely from one novella to the next, and I only got more and more excited to read on as I went.

What I really loved about this trilogy is the way it explores some pretty common coming-of-age themes. Staying home and deepening your understanding of your own people vs. going abroad and learning about the outside world; holding multiple identities within yourself when everyone around you wants you to be just one thing. Like I said, common enough themes, but Okorafor approaches them with such creativity, incorporating real aspects of the Himba people with futuristic technologies and a galactic civilization. Binti’s otjize, a red clay which Himba women wear on their skin and hair, is a focal point throughout the series, and the way she relates to it, how she makes it, when she rubs it off and when she re-applies it, all reveal her changing relationship with her home and her own identity.

As well, we see Binti’s identity grow ever more complex as she encounters different aliens, and discovers more about her own family lineage. Okorafor sets the tone for weirdness with the first novella, and just keeps right on weirding through the next two, right up to the end.

Another thing I really appreciated about this trilogy is that violence is violence. This isn’t a story where the hero runs around mowing down enemies and blowing up starships, this is a story about people who have to live with the consequences of violence, the people who are caught in the middle. The bloody attack on the transport ship in the first novella is constantly referenced throughout the next two books, as Binti copes with PTSD from the incident. This treatment of violence gives everything a real sense of gravity, stakes, and makes each twist in the story that much more dramatic.

Nnedi Okorafor does not miss. This is more fantastic proof of that, and I’d recommend it to anybody.

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss — The sequel to The Name of the Wind, which I reviewed a while ago (take a drink every time I mention that in this review), picks up with Kvothe continuing his studies at the University, and continuing to search for any information he can get on the Chandrian, the strange evil creatures who killed his parents. But that’s just the first third or so of the book. The majority of the book is Kvothe outside the university, taking a sort of gap year in the Kingdom of Vintas, in the court of the Maer, among other places.

There’s not much point in going into plot specifics, because there’s no real big arc to this book. There wasn’t much of an arc to the previous one either, but you at least had Kvothe growing up I guess. Anyway, when I reviewed Name of the Wind I compared it to 19th-century serialized novels, the way it wove together lots of subplots, with something always boiling over and spurring the characters to action, and the reader to keep reading. The Name of the Wind I would more compare to Don Quixote. It is long, yet its length isn’t all spent building to a climax. Rather, it is composed of smaller narrative arcs, each occurring within their own worlds, which feel very complete within themselves, but which don’t really connect to each other all that much (I’d be tempted to call them “sallies,” but Kvothe only really actually sallies forth to fight highwaymen once.) Also reminiscent of the Quixote, there’s lots of stories within stories, which again are quite captivating in their own right. And this is by no means a problem—it just means the novel doesn’t function the way most fantasy novels do.

That said, it’s still a fairly fast-paced book. Though it feels slower than Name of the Wind, that slowness is used to develop new characters and societies—it’s not a bad slowness by any measure. These days I hardly ever read epic fantasy or really long series, and if I do I’m usually tearing through one as an audiobook, trying to finish it before it’s due back at the library, so it was a joy to get immersed in this book, take my time with it, picking it up and putting it down over the course of a year and a half.

And, nice thing about this book, the majority of it is outside the University. While I love the University setting and Rothfuss’s grounded, pragmatic take on the magic school trope, he’s also a terrific world-builder, and it was exciting to be thrust into strange new environments along with Kvothe, steadily learning the norms and nuances of different societies.

Another change of pace is the characterization of Kvothe. He’s still perfect at everything he sets his mind too, but in this book Rothfuss starts to show a darker side to Kvothe that even Kvothe doesn’t seem to be aware of, or able to explain. In my review of Name of the Wind I mentioned that Kvothe’s characterization was kind of flat because anything that could’ve been a revealing tick or a flaw was explicitly acknowledged and presented as a conscious choice rather than an unconscious, inherent characteristic. Here, I started to get more of an impression of Kvothe’s temper, his need for attention, and a certain disconcerting mercilessness—all just evident in his actions and attitude, none of it presented explicitly as if they were logical choices rather than windows into some deeper internal nature.

The book is definitely worth a read if you enjoyed the first one. I should also say, Rothfuss’s writing is wonderful, clear and precise for the most part, with small moments of poeticism and beautiful images throughout. Rothfuss is doing something special with these books, and I’m happy to now join the throng of people eagerly anticipating the conclusion to the trilogy.

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikSpinning Silver is incredible. It takes place in an Eastern-European-inspired medieval empire, Lithvas, and follows Miryem, the daughter of a moneylender. When her mother falls ill and her father’s excessive generosity as a moneylender leaves them penniless, Miryem goes out to collect their debts herself, and quickly gains renown as a hard-hearted and exacting moneylender (her being Jewish contributes significantly to this infamy.) She’s so successful, it is said she can turn silver into gold, a claim which quickly draws the attention of the Staryk, a people who live in a wintery realm, and who steal and hoard the gold of the people of Lithvas. In a Rumplestiltskin-style bargain, Miryem is forced to turn ever larger sums of silver into gold for the Staryk, though she does it by economic means rather than magical.

Pretty cool book, huh?

Aha! I have tricked you! That’s not the plot of the book, that’s just the set up for the plotline of one of the three main characters! The book also follows Wanda, a poor peasant girl, and Irina, the daughter of a duke and potential wife for the tsar. The fates of all three women end up tightly intertwined, and the conflict of the book expands from the scope of a fairytale to the scope of the hefty fantasy novel that it is, with these mortal women caught between the ever-longer winters of the Staryk, and a hungry fire demon desperate to slake its thirst with whatever it can consume. Despite this expanded scope, and twisting, multi-stranded narrative, the book never loses the distinct charm and elegance of a fairy tale. Its full of little fairytale moments and ideas—an old witch’s cottage, a binding chain of silver, bargains upon bargains upon bargains made with the Staryk—and peppered with crisp, bright details that pulled me right in from the beginning. So you get the feel of a fairy tale, with the satisfying grandeur of a fantasy novel. It seems like a paradox, but Novik has done it. Yes I am aware that she wrote another fairy-tale-inspired fantasy novel titled Uprooted, yes I am going to read it the moment I get a chance.

Another great strength of the book is Novik’s writing. As I said, her imagery, the descriptive palette of her world, has a definite fairytale gleam to it which is just irresistible, and its threaded with the constant motifs of ice and fire. The coldness of Miryem’s heart as she demands money from poor peasants, the heat of the tsar’s temper, etc.

There are so many interesting ideas in this book, its hard to unpack. Like I mean okay there’s all the fairytale stuff, twists on old classics and totally new magic, but there’s also these running themes of debt and credit, being owed something, ownership or dominion over people, being an other, being a Jew—there’s enough material for several books here, but its all packed into one, and the book surges along with the energy of all these inventions and questions and conflicts.

This is just such a well-crafted book, uh, read it if you like novels? I read the first several chapters and then listened to the rest on audiobook, read by Lisa Flanagan. Flanagan does a great job, bursting with charisma, though I found the viewpoint switches hard to catch sometimes because of the brevity of the pauses between sections (the book is all in first-person, and typically switches between multiple characters within a chapter.) Enh, maybe it’s because I listened to it at x1.25 speed, but like … you’re not a book! You’re an audio medium! Books use visual cues like section breaks and dinkuses to signal to the reader the end of one section and the start of a new one! Use an audio cue that is more obvious than a pause that is only slightly longer than the pause between paragraphs! It is okay to add stuff that is not in the printed book, you are not a printed book!!!!

… anyway, yeah, audiobook is good other than that minor issue. Check it out.

So that’s what I’ve been reading. I’ve also read a ton of comics lately, like He is a Good Boy and Leaving Richard’s Valley and NonCanon and anything by Kevin Budnik—all great, all worth checking out. Like I said at the top, I’m reading a lot right now, so probably expect another one of these posts pretty soon.

2 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading, July 2019

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