The Starless Sea is a sprawling book full of stories, and it’s about stories too, about how stories work, though for a novel about how stories work I think I prefer Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. As a book in which to lose myself right now, though, The Starless Sea was a total delight. I like Erin Morgenstern’s writing for the lush descriptions, the startling and perfect images: this is definitely more of a setting-driven book than a plot-driven or a character-driven one, and I’m fine with that. I mean, there is also a lot of plot: Zachary, a grad student who studies video games, finds a mysterious book in his university library, and is shocked to find that he’s in the book, though it seems older than he is. The book leads him, eventually, to a vast subterranean library, which used to be full of visitors but is now nearly empty. Figuring out why the library is the way it is leads him to other stories, which interconnect in various ways. There are quest elements and fairy tale elements and video game elements, and there’s danger and romance and humor, but I was really there for things like: a hallway in which doorknobs hang on ribbons from the ceiling; a dumbwaiter that can bring you any kind of food or drink you ask for; a candy that is also somehow a story—that makes you taste/experience a story in some weird synesthetic way; a lavish party in another time in an ornately-decorated ballroom; a whispering hallway that tells stories; a boat that is itself partly made of stories. And oh, sentences like this: “A dense forest of cherry trees in full bloom fills the cavern, all the way up to the edge of the river. Twisting tree roots disappear below the surface of the honey while stray blossoms fall and float downstream” (366).

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl was such a delight to read: it’s a magic-realist picaresque journey from the middle of country to one coast and then the other, set in early-1990s queer social circles, with a protagonist who has the ability to change his body from male to female, and in other ways as well. It’s smart and funny and poignant and I enjoyed following all of Paul’s adventures, from college in Iowa City to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to Provincetown to San Francisco, and I also liked the way that Lawlor intersperses fairy-tale interludes with Paul’s story: a Hansel and Gretel story, a selkie story, a Little Red Riding Hood story, and others. I also love how many great little details there are in this book—the track list of a mix tape Paul makes, how a girl sends Paul a postcard that quotes “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich, how Paul’s friend Jane thinks about writing a paper only using theorists with last names starting with the letter B, how Paul goes on an acid-fueled disquisition about cover songs. And the writing, gah, I’m so into prose like this: “Paul watched the traffic lights change from red to green in the blue-gray dusk. The contrast made him think of Nan Goldin photographs and he wanted to tell someone, to marvel at the beauty with someone at whose beauty he could also marvel” (319). A cold night is described as “the blue night of snow and streetlights, air like paper cuts” (12). And then near the end of the book there’s this, when Paul is walking in San Francisco, “looking up at the attic windows and roofs of renovated Victorians, the treetops, a congregation of pigeons on the web of train wires over Market Street, the big western sky” (353).

Howards End by E.M. Forster

January 25th, 2020

I read Howards End after seeing Matthew Lopez’s play “The Inheritance”—which is in part a homage to this book that uses a lot of the elements of its plot, except transposed to modern New York/with the majority of the characters being gay men. I think seeing the play (which I loved) enhanced my enjoyment of the novel: it was interesting to read the novel already knowing a lot of the plot, and interesting to see the places where Lopez chose to structure his story differently from Forster’s original. As far as the novel itself, there were parts I loved and parts I found to be a slog. I love the moments of humor in Forster’s writing, as when he describes one character as having “one of those moustaches that always droop into teacups” (110) and another character as being “one of those who name animals after the less successful characters of Old Testament history” (120-121). Near the beginning of the book, there’s a great funny description of two of the main characters, the sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, attending a concert with various relatives/other people: the way Forster describes each character’s thoughts and behavior, the way everyone’s inside his or her own head in some way, is perfect. And I like the way Forster considers big themes: what to do about the gulf between rich people and poor people; what to do about the gulfs that can arise between friends or family or partners; what it means to connect, or to fail to connect, with other people or with a place, or what it means to succeed or fail at connecting the disparate elements of a personality or of life; what it looks like to make a life with other people; what we owe to others. (These are themes Lopez explores in his play, too, and it was interesting for me to think about the similarities and differences.) I like other things, too—how Forster describes arguments as “inevitable at the time, incredible afterwards” (18); how Helen fervently proclaims that “personal relations are the real life, for ever and ever” (23) (and how Margaret, later, makes that true in practice); and this, about Helen and Margaret being close again after a period of estrangement: “And all the time their salvation was lying round them—the past sanctifying the present; the present, with wild heart-throb, declaring that there would after all be a future” (255).

Permission by Saskia Vogel

January 15th, 2020

Much of this novel is narrated by Echo, who’s in her mid-twenties and grew up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, though she now has her own apartment in LA. She’s adrift: she started acting as a teen and has been trying to build a career in it, but she’s not been getting any parts lately; she has an ongoing hookup situation with a dude who’s a musician who lives with his parents, but finds herself thinking about her high school best friend, Ana, who she had been hooking up with when they were in school together (until Ana’s dad walked in on them), but from whom she’s now estranged. We don’t get a sense of the shape of Echo’s normal daily life—her routines or lack thereof, her friends or lack thereof—because her life is up-ended near the start of the book by her father’s unexpected death. She goes to stay with her mom in her childhood home, and the two of them are stuck in their grief (not that her parents’ marriage had been particularly happy; not that anyone in the family seems like a particularly easy person). Meanwhile, she meets Orly, who’s in her thirties and has just moved in across the street with a slightly older male housemate, Lonnie, also known as Piggy. It turns out that Orly works as a dominatrix, which intrigues Echo, and a lot of the book ends up being about Orly and Echo’s quick/newfound intimacy, and also the strain that this puts on Piggy, whose normal routines are interrupted by Echo’s presence. The writing is lush and often lovely, but there is a whole lot of unease in this book. I like the descriptions of the coastal California landscape, though: the threat of earthquakes, but the beauty of whales; jasmine and honeysuckle and roses; jacaranda blossoms. And I like how Echo is trying to figure out how to navigate desire and grief, and how part of doing that, for her, is finding comfort in the physical in a way different from what she’s known in the past. Also: the final two pages of this book, in which Echo goes to the beach at night, are so beautiful and so good: such a perfect ending, not a resolution but a sense of possibility, of more.

The True Queen by Zen Cho

January 8th, 2020

I really liked Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown when I read it in 2015, and I think I felt similarly about The True Queen: I felt that the plot took a while to get moving, but once things picked up I was totally there for it. The True Queen starts with two girls, Sakti and Muna, finding themselves washed up on a beach on the island of Janda Baik after a storm. They have no memories of their lives other than their names, and end up living with a witch named Mak Genggang, who has a habit of taking in strays, especially magical ones. Sakti, it turns out, has a lot of magical talent, though Muna doesn’t seem to—though it seems like maybe she used to/maybe it was taken from her. When Sakti wakes up one day with a hole through her body (not a wound, just an absence of flesh), the girls figure they’re cursed, and end up deciding they need to go to England to try to get the curse lifted. But on the way there, Sakti disappears in Fairy/the Unseen Realm, meaning that Muna ends up in England alone, desperate to figure out how to rescue her sister from whatever surely-terrible fate has befallen her. Muna needs help, though, and appeals to Prunella Wythe, the Sorceress Royal, and to Prunella’s friend Henrietta Stapleton, who teaches at the school for magiciennes that Prunella runs. Adventures ensue, along with Fairy-related political intrigue, and I find the setting (Regency England with magic, the Unseen Realm with its Fairy Court and imps and dragons) to be lots of fun. I like, too, the way that the book explores agency and self-determination and questions of loyalty and family and friendship.

I generally like Max Gladstone’s writing, and I like this book’s message of community/collaboration, but space opera as a genre is not particularly my thing. The way the characters escape from one dangerous situation straight into another one sometimes leaves me feeling bored; I don’t particularly care about enormous spaceships and epic battles and deadly robots, which this book has in abundance; it also doesn’t help that a major plot point is way too obvious, way too early. That said, this was a pretty fun vacation read: it starts with Vivian Liao, a tech genius who thinks she’s about to be in trouble with a government that isn’t above torturing its enemies, throwing herself a birthday party only to disappear from it. She heads to a server farm in Boston, as planned, and starts running a script that she thinks will self-optimize to solve all sorts of problems. At that point, things go wrong, and Viv finds herself in a different story entirely, one where she has to defeat the Empress of the book’s title, working together with a cast of characters including a monk, a long-imprisoned pirate queen, a woman born to be a pilot, and a matter-devouring shape-shifting monster (who might be my favorite character of all) to save the galaxy from the Empress’s tyranny. Like I said: not particularly my thing, but I didn’t consider abandoning it, and I like the book’s sense of humor and heart.

I read a few sentences of This Is How You Lose the Time War aloud to my boyfriend because I was liking it so much, and he just looked at me and asked if this book was written for me. It really is full of things I’m into: tea and cities and literary allusions and lush prose and crystalline details; there’s also letter-writing, and the kind of time-travel plot I really enjoy. The book follows two characters we know as Red and Blue: they’re rivals from different futures, each of whom is sent to various points in time to influence the outcome of events in their future’s favor. There’s narrative about them, but we also get letters by them, to each other: letters that start as brags and taunts and shift as the book progresses; letters that are mostly encoded in things, rather than being written on paper: a letter in the flight of a bee or the flow of lava.

It’s a really pleasing conceit, and when it comes with sentences like the ones I read aloud…Yeah, I’m here for this:

London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, filthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving. (55)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

November 13th, 2019

Having never read Dracula before, I didn’t know what kind of reading experience I was in for when I picked it up, in ways good, bad, and funny. The good: I didn’t realize that it was presented as the journal/diary entries and letters of various characters, plus things like newspaper clippings and telegrams, rather than as a single-perspective narrative. I like the way the story is pieced together from all the little bits. The bad: I could have done without all the misogyny. I definitely felt myself scowling as I was reading on the train and reached a sentence about how a female character has a man’s brain and a woman’s heart, ugh. The funny: I obviously knew before I started reading that Dracula is a vampire. But the book’s characters don’t know this at the beginning, which makes for some amusing moments: like, a character gets a letter signed “Your friend, Dracula,” because, you know, that’s just the guy’s name, but it’s as if the letter were signed “Your friend, the vampire,” because we all know that Castle Dracula is not some charming/comfortable place, but of course the character getting the letter doesn’t yet know what he’s in for. Also: I wouldn’t have guessed this book would have so much snow in it, or so many wolves, both of which are excellent additions to the overall mood. There are some extremely creepy moments in this book, and also some passages of tedious narration (there is one character in particular who isn’t a native English speaker whose speech patterns are super-annoying) but also descriptions of things like “the wonderful smoky beauty of a sunset over London, with its lurid lights and inky shadows and all the marvellous tints that come on foul clouds even as on foul water” (120).

I’ve been meaning to read this book for literally a decade, and I’m glad I finally got around to it, even though it didn’t totally click for me. Basically, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a multi-generational family saga, and that is generally not my thing, and this book isn’t really an exception. I like how Díaz uses different chapters to focus on different characters/time periods in a non-linear way, and I like the way the book moves between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, as its characters do, and I like the use of footnotes and the snappy narration, but I also wanted maybe a little more description, maybe a little less plot. Near the end of the book there are a few pages where we get sprawling page-long sentences full of observation, full of detail, and when I got to those parts I was so delighted, and subsequently wished the rest of the book had had more of that. Like this, which is just a short snippet:

after he’d gotten somewhat used to the surreal whirligig that was life in La Capital—the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin’ Donuts, the beggars, the Haitians selling roasted peanuts at the intersections, the mind-boggling poverty, the asshole tourists hogging up all the beaches, the Xica de Silva novelas where homegirl got naked every five seconds that Lola and his female cousins were cracked on, the afternoon walks on the Conde […] (276-277)

But right: “Oscar Wao” is the story of Oscar de León, an overweight Dominican-American nerd from Paterson, NJ, whose mom has raised him and his older sister Lola by herself. It’s also the story of his mom, Beli, and her family: how she ended up in America to begin with, how the brutality of Trujillo’s regime tore her family apart, and whether there might be such a thing as a family curse, and what that might look like. We hear about Oscar’s childhood and his teen years and his college years; we hear about his mom’s teen years and his sister’s teen years, too; we hear about his grandfather and how the family’s troubles all got started. I like how the different pieces of the story fit together, and I like the historical footnotes and the mix of Spanish and English and I like Oscar’s sister Lola a whole lot, and I’ll probably read more by Junot Díaz at some point, but this book wasn’t entirely the book for me.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

September 28th, 2019

At the start of The Goldfinch I felt slightly annoyed by the narrative voice and writing style—just little things, like the way the narrator says “for I’d left New York in a hurry,” or the way “punch-drunk” is used something like three times in the first hundred pages. But as I kept reading, I was won over, and found myself totally engrossed in the story: despite the book’s length, I read it over the course of eleven days, largely on the subway or on breaks at jury duty; I found myself eagerly looking forward to the next time I’d be able to pick it up. There’s a lot of plot, and it’s hard to write about it without spoilers, but OK: our narrator, Theo, is 13 when his mother dies, in an act of violence that he survives, and which changes the course of his life in multiple ways. There’s a painting (the goldfinch of the title), and an interlude in Las Vegas; there are a lot of drugs; there’s a return to New York City, where Theo grew up; there’s a fevered stay in Amsterdam in late December. There are musings about fate, and chance, and luck, and art, and beauty, and obsession, and loss; there are passages that feel over-written and passages that are just gorgeous. Tartt’s style of description leans heavily on lists, which I personally find really really satisfying, but if you don’t, this is probably not the book for you. I mean, I am all about things like these passages about Amsterdam:

Outside, all was activity and cheer. It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles. (5)

the strangeness of the city pressing in all around me, smells of tobacco and malt and nutmeg, café walls the melancholy brown of an old leather-bound book and then beyond, dark passages and brackish water lapping, low skies and old buildings all leaning against each other with a moody, poetic, edge-of-destruction feel (649)

Or this, describing someone’s bedroom:

Cinnamon-colored walls, rain on the windowpanes, vast quiet and a sense of depth and distance, like the varnish over the background of a nineteenth-century painting (150)

And oh, I love some of the book’s descriptions of New York places/moments/moods because I can picture them so clearly—the park near the subway by Canal Street with the pharmacy across the street, the way the streets feel after a spring rainstorm, what it would be like to step out of a movie at Film Forum and into a world turned white with just-fallen snow.