2021 Reading: July update

Back in April, I published an update (Part 1, Part 2) of the books I had read in the first quarter. Compared to the 13 books I finished in the first quarter, I only got through 7 during the past three months. Once again, I managed to incorporate a reasonable mix of non-fiction and fiction, although the genres of fiction were perhaps less varied than in previous months.


Fiction

I kicked off the 2nd quarter with a wonderful book that combined elements of magic realism with social drama, but thereafter returned with a vengeance to the scifi genre.

Red Island House by Andrea Lee (2021): I loved this novel for multiple reasons. As straight-up entertainment, it was a breezy read, detailing the lives of a wealthy western family that returns year after year to vacation at their palatial beach house in the fictional village of Naratrany in Madagascar. But the novel also works on many other levels. It describes the dynamic that exists between the western neo-colonials and their local employees who cook and clean and maintain the house for its few months of occupancy. The locals benefit from the employment and favourable work conditions, but equally they can’t help but be resentful of the entitled way of life exhibited by these foreigners, many of whom are on a steady downward moral spiral, tempted by the freely available delights of the island and loose interpretation of laws, especially as applied to those who are wealthy or white. Adding further complexity to the dynamic is the fact that the mistress of the house is Shay, an African-American who at the start of the novel, has just married the much older Senna, the Italian businessman who owns the house. On her arrival, Shay has to figure out exactly what position she occupies in the social hierarchy between her husband, the white manager of the estate and the African help. The book is an episodic chronicle of Shay’s relationship with the island, the house, with family, friends, employees and other locals, during her return visits every summer. Through Shay’s eyes, the reader gets a ring-side view of rich tapestry of local life – rivalries, love affairs, politics and crime.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer (2017): Jeff VanderMeer came to the widespread attention of scifi fans with his well-received Southern Reach trilogy of novels, all published in 2014. The first of these, Annihilation was adapted by Alex Garland into a critically acclaimed horror/scifi film in 2018 with a high quality ensemble cast including Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson. I tried reading Annihilation soon after it was published, but somehow the writing style didn’t click for me and I had to give it up after the first chapter (I did enjoy the film adaptation, though). When I read a positive review of his latest release Hummingbird Salamander, I decided to give the author another try…this time with his 2017 novel Borne. The novel is set in an indeterminate post-apocalyptic future, on the outskirts of a city destroyed by various examples of biotechnology run amok, particularly a giant flying bear named Mord. Rachel is a young woman living with her ex-scientist boyfriend in a ruined apartment block, who survives by scavenging food and bits of biotech, which her boyfriend studies or experiments on. They are constantly under threat from bands of ravaging bio-transformed children and from Mord which patrols the skies. One day, Rachel finds a tiny sea anemone like creature which she names Borne. She brings Borne back home and cares for it. She soon discovers that it (he) is sentient, with a voracious appetite for knowledge and well…pretty much, everything. The primary focus of the novel is the evolving relationship between Rachel and Borne, which mirrors that of a parent and a precocious child. In due course, the protective roles are reversed, and it is Borne who decides to take on the tyranny of Mord, leading to the mother of all kaiju-type battles. This novel really appealed to me, as much for the worldbuilding as for the entertaining and insightful relationship between Rachel and Borne.

Phase Six by Jim Shepard (2021): Last April, journalist-turned-writer Lawrence Wright published The End of October and earned praise for how closely his portrayal of a global pandemic mirrored what was emerging around the world at that time. It was the first pandemic novel to be released in the Covid era, and a year later we have another one. In fact, Jim Shepard’s novel incorporates Covid-19 into the storyline, taking place “five years after Covid”. A mystery outbreak wipes out a small mining community in Greenland and then spreads globally. A couple of CDC doctors are the heroines of this particular tale as they work against time to understand the cause of the pandemic and find a cure. The only hope is a 11-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of the original outbreak. The story is well-written and fast-paced, but predictable – a cure is eventually found (involving medical science that I didn’t have the energy to understand), but not before many of the characters in the novel succumb to the illness. No doubt there will be more such pandemic thrillers published and in due course once Covid becomes a distant and safe memory, some of these will be adapted into movies or TV shows.

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville (2015): British author Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council) published during 2000-04 are among the most imaginative works of speculative fiction I have ever read. His 2011 whodunnit novel Kraken presented the concept of katachronophlogiston, a fire that burns through time (from which I created the name of this blog). Suffice to say, Mr. Miéville’s stories have had a huge impact on me. In spite of that, I have found some of his other novels to be somewhat abstruse, and so I knew when I picked up this short story collection that it could be a hit-or-miss experience. Indeed, it was mostly “miss”, and of the 28 stories, there were just a handful that appealed to me. But those few “hits” really pack a punch, all recounting strange events that occur in the midst of everyday life — oil rigs that walk onto land, corpses whose feet always point towards the observer, a plague which causes moats to appear around people, icebergs floating through the sky above London, a ‘mystery patient’ who starts presenting symptoms of non-existent diseases, a picture frame that corrupts anything placed within it, a woman terrorized by the spirit of Poena cullei (a bizarre medieval punishment…look it up!) and so on. It took me several weeks to work my way through the collection, and as mentioned, for every worthwhile story, I had to suffer through two or three that were just too weird to even understand.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (2021): After the relative disappointment of his sophomore effort Artemis (at least for me), Andy Weir comes storming back with his latest novel, which like his breakout hit The Martian, is another science textbook masquerading as fiction…a feat he pulls off with elegance and wit. Having said that, I must admit there were a few occasions when I wished the story would just state that the protagonist had taken a certain action, without walking the reader through the entire logic or scientific basis of how he had decided to do so. But one soon gets used to this recurring cadence of theory followed by application. The primary narrative takes place with just two characters and in spite of the ubiquitous science, Mr. Weir imbues these characters with plenty of personality, leading the reader to invest heavily in their fates. The end especially, is superbly crafted and left me with a lump in the throat. Highly recommended if you enjoyed The Martian.


Non-fiction

The two non-fiction books I picked made for heavy reading, and I had to work my way through them in fits and starts:

Island on Fire by Tom Zoellner (2020): This meticulously researched chronicle of the Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-32 makes for difficult reading. It’s not easy to come to terms with the shocking conditions that slaves were subjected to for decades and the moral turpitude prevalent among the British landowners on the island. The descriptions of the brutal manner in which slaves were punished for even minor infractions (or the mere suspicion of one) over the years, let alone the casual and summary executions conducted after the revolt was put down, make for difficult reading. Besides that, the book is also difficult to get through because Mr. Zoellner regularly incorporates quotations from news reports and other memoirs into his accounts, thereby sacrificing the flow of his own prose. Nevertheless, I would say that this is an essential book for all of us to read, to remind ourselves of humanity’s collective capacity for cruelty and the ability of societies to justify this behaviour in the name of commerce or the preservation of a “way of life”.

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes (2020): In addition to the wealth of information that this book provides about Neanderthal life, what I found equally extraordinary was the insight into modern methods of paleolithic study. The patience and exactitude with which researchers comb through Neanderthal sites for the tiniest of artifacts to piece together lifestyles hundreds of centuries ago, is difficult to comprehend. In chapter after chapter, Dr. Sykes reveals to us the different aspects of life of this branch of humanity that lived as hunter-gatherers across most of Europe. She paints a vivid picture of their social units, tool making and hunting methods as well as their attitudes towards concepts such as art and death, which were relatively abstract to the evolving human intellect. I was particularly fascinated by the various systems that emerged among Neanderthal communities to knap stones into tools of varying sizes and functions (and discovered a thriving sub-culture of modern knapping specialists – just google “Neanderthal flint knapping”) and the sheer size of the big game they hunted, using spears to take down deer, elk, horses, wooly rhinos and mammoths. There’s a huge amount of scientific information to get through, so it’s certainly not a book one can read in one or two sittings. The wealth of information presented here paints a picture of a relatively sophisticated branch of humanity, very different to earlier depictions of Neanderthals as dim-witted cavemen.


That brings me to the end of my Q2 update. At the moment, I am reading Mark Harris’ biography of celebrated Hollywood filmmaker Mike Nichols and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer. I attempted to read Arkady Martine’s Hugo Award winning political scifi novel A Memory Called Empire, but after getting a quarter of the way through the book, I just decided it wasn’t worth the effort and it went the same way as C.J. Cherryh’s similarly themed Foreigner that I had failed to get through a few months earlier. Also on my reading list are Niall Williams’ This Is Happiness and Samira Sedira’s People Like Them, as well as Matt Bell’s just released climate-fiction novel Appleseed.

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