Does your inner 1950’s housewife really miss your grandma (an actual 1950’s housewife) telling you what to do in terms of the proper way to create, display, and serve a proper meal on a gorgeous table? This book will fill that void. Susan Spungen makes it her job to be flawless and to help the flawed among us be that way, too. At once a deeply practical and ludicrously formal guide, this is a resource to help us make new magic in our entertaining life and push beyond lazy parties grounded by pizzas and potato chips. Spungen will inspire you to get the good dishware out of the back of the cabinet and actually plan a menu. I’ve always been a big believer in showing a deep respect for guests through artistry and small comforts, and this book was a fascinating look into the many, many ways one can accomplish that. The dinner party is becoming a lost art and I salute Spungen’s old school commitment to resurrecting it. I know I’ll treasure–and use–this handbook for many, many years to come.
Leslie Marmon Silko is one of my literary heroes–her searing, gorgeous novel Ceremony is one of my favorite books of all time. So, I deeply enjoyed this chance to hang out with her in her desert memoir The Turquoise Ledge. The book itself can be repetitive and unremarkable, but it’s less of a book and more of a long sit-down at the kitchen table with your grandmother, as she tells you about the special rocks she saw on her walks and the animals she saw in her garden and what’s been going on with her dogs and parrots and the weather and a little bit of religion and mysticism rolled in because that’s important, you know! I don’t think Silko would mind me saying that I liked this book not because of the book itself, but because of her. (Also, her supernaturally aided feud with her neighbor, because don’t all grandmothers have one of those, too?)
A Darkling Sea is some very weird science fiction, which is ordinarily right in my wheelhouse as a reader. This one didn’t sing for me, though, which I attribute to the fairly limited third person point of view and lean, hard science-focused style of James L. Cambias. This book is pure plot, motivated by action and dialogue, but the emotional arc of the story flatlines early on. For readers who want to see cool aliens and a bunch of action sequences but don’t want to think or feel too hard, it will likely be a fun read. I will say this: bonus point for a great ending.
This novel is an absolute achievement in historical fiction. Griffith’s writing is immersive and physically visceral. Hild’s world is painted in full color. The depiction of the constant anxiety that accompanied the people of this time period, especially women (even those with significant power) breathes reality into the characters. The vying of belief systems as Christianity gains a political foothold in Britain creates a compelling overtone of tension that always lingers above the more personal power struggles at play. The love and fear both feel real. The novel would benefit from some more aggressive editing, as certain phrases and trains of thought were oft-repeated. As many other reviewers have noted, more complete educational tools are also needed to help readers track the many figures at play in the complex war games that span decades. It was enough for me to know that Hild saw the full “warp and weft,” though, and I cannot overstate how transportative the writing is when at its best.
Patti Smith’s M Train inhabits a space so intimate that it’s typically found only inside our own minds–a swirl of dreams, longing, pithy observances, profound confrontations, mad wishes, spontaneous convictions, and ruminations on the tasks and artifacts of life. A place where we make sense of a life’s worth of words consumed. A place where we imagine what we might make and in that imagining make something else. This book is a love story, a catalogue of art, an ode to lost objects, a process journal, a coffee-drinking manifesto, and yet also none of these things. Smith’s voice is that of a woman who transcends definition and is so sure of her own course that she fairly manifests it out of thin air. She comprehends her own power in a way that is staggering. This book is the same: it is impossible to describe, but it makes meaning in its own way, on its own time.
This absorbing oddity of nonfiction starts out as an inquiry into the absurd and even dangerous obsession with a single species and ends up broadening into an exploration of the human view toward categorizing and assigning value to all kinds of species. It is an odd and thrilling amalgam of real-life adventure with an eccentric cast of modern explorers and the retraced steps of some of biology’s defining pioneers of taxonomy. The lengths that Voight undertook to get her story are a testament to the dark power of the quest for near-unobtainable rarity. It is a strange, colorful, and oftentimes quietly sad portrait of the human need to “own” the world around us.
The truth is, the pleasure of finding new species is too great; it is morally dangerous; for it brings with it the temptation to look on the thing found as your own possession all but your own creation… as if all the angels in heaven had not been admiring it, long before you were born or thought of.
Tigana is a sparkling gem of 1990s epic fantasy. The scope of this novel is completely dizzying–one of Kay’s strengths is complexity of, well, everything. The characters are complex in their motivations and ethical moorings. The power structure is complex with its conflicts of religion, economic pressures, and shifting allegiance to shifting rulers. The setting is complex with richly-drawn nuances of distinct regions’ geography and culture. The movement of time is complex with plots literally decades in the making, thousands of small decisions leading to hoped-for outcomes. Oh, and there’s magic, too. And secret identities. And so much more. With that comes a lot of pages: 673 in my edition. It’s not the leanest book in the world, and could probably have come under a more ruthless editing knife, but goodness is it satisfying. Kay explores the question of how deeply rooted the memory of our native lands can be within our sense of identity, and ends up with a politically interesting, romantically engaging beast of an adventure.
The Moth has a way of creating the ideal moment for stories to come out from quiet spaces. In this compilation, the anticipation of a waiting audience and the vulnerability of the speaker in the spotlight is put into the written form, and it’s really as magical as the title implies. The selections here are full of moments that defy disbelief and capture the true serendipity of wandering around the earth as a human. Each one is a once-in-a-lifetime snapshot, and I’m so grateful that the diverse voices assembled here agreed to part with them.
After reading Ted Chiang’s sparkling collection Stories of Your Life and Others, I knew I had to pick up this new volume. These stories are also quite good, solidifying Chiang as an important modern voice in science fiction. His writing is spare and efficient, but packs an incredible punch. His concepts are lofty and complex in a way that will satisfy science fiction classicists. Several of these stories will remain in my mind, predominantly because of the way they approach really important ethical ideas. My favorites were…
“Exhalation”: There’s a reason this is the title story. It’s really gorgeous, melding the concept of body and machine in a fascinating way.
“The Lifecyle of Software Objects”: We are on the threshold of a society that will have new ethical problems concerning the human relationship with AI. This story takes that age-old science fiction trope and explores it in a very personal way.
“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny”: This story was written for a science fiction short story collection based around objects from an imagined museum exhibit. (I’ve since learned that it’s called The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, and I really want to read it.) This story manages to feel historically authentic, be completely heartbreaking, and be a little funny too.
“Omphalos”: The overlap between ardent faith and scientific discovery is one that I find very compelling, and this story explores that idea in a very satisfying way.
For the serious large-scope fiction writer, this guide is a treasure. Lusciously designed, packed with different perspectives, humorous and hyper-serious at turns, it’s a fabulous textbook to turn to when muddling through the task of bringing the fantastical to life through writing. Jeff VanderMeer really lays everything he’s got on the table–generous to a fault with comprehensive inclusion of information on his process and philosophy as a writer.