THE WANDERERS by Meg Howrey

IMG_6195

The Wanderers  is a sci-fi story set in the not-too-distant future where private aerospace tech company wants to put the first humans on Mars. In order to prepare for the long journey, the three Mars astronauts will first spend seventeen months in the most realistic space simulation ever created, as a means of testing their skills before shooting them into space. The challenges don’t just come from the outside space, the fallibility of machinery, zero gravity, and freeze-dried food, but also from within. Similarly, the novel follows the stories of the astronaut’s families and their Prime Space caregivers as they drift through their own spaces, dealing with feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and impulse. The Wanderers reminded me of Andy Weir’s The Martian with the attention to scientific detail, but with as much depth regarding both technical logistics and complex human emotions. In many ways I enjoyed The Wanderers more than The Martian because the characters felt much more fleshed out, even though Howrey tackled a greater number of characters than Weir. Each had equal parts good, bad, and neutral, and had their own kind of interior narrations that made each feel distinct. In all, the novel was both funny and heartfelt, realistic and surreal.

ONE DAY WE’LL ALL BE DEAD AND NONE OF THIS WILL MATTER by Scaachi Koul

IMG_6049

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter reads like a collection of Buzzfeed-style essays, which makes sense given Koul is a Buzzfeed writer. There are lots of parentheticals, all caps dialogue, and the kind of contemporary references that make this a very 2017. This kind of writing may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it’s breeziness and familiar references that make me feel part of the in-crowd. The essays address a range of issues, from fear of flying to racism to sexism to what it’s like writing for sites like Buzzfeed, with a healthy does of Indian cultural perspectives on phenomenons like Indian weddings. None of these essays are especially revolutionary, but that’s not the point. She very much draws up personal experience and observations versus a more research-heavy approach to these subjects, and there’s both drawbacks and merits to her approach. For one, I felt much more emotionally connected to Koul, relating to some of her experiences and ideas, which helped me understand her perspective a little more when she wrote about things outside of my experience, particularly racism and immigrant culture. And some may be put off by the anecdote-heavy and evidence-light narratives, but I enjoyed them. Koul is an engaging writer who isn’t trying to solve prejudice or be the next great Canadian novelist. She’s a woman who’s afraid of flying and loves her niece and wants to fight Internet trolls. She’s authentic in a way that feels authentic, in large part due to the fact that she’s humble. The title suggests that one day we’ll all be dead, so perhaps these essays and the experiences behind them won’t mean anything. And that awareness (bordering on nihilist anxiety) serves to ground these essays. Koul is no omniscient writer; she’s a person trying to make sense of the world we live in together. And perhaps this book will fade from public consciousness. But the key is that it might survive, and with it, Koul’s thoughts about the things that we have trouble talking about. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is a light-hearted yet thoughtful approach to topics both hilarious and serious

 

RED CLOCKS by Leni Zumas

IMG_6034In RED CLOCKS, we follow the story of four women in a small town in Oregon as they wrestle with what it means to be a woman. There is Ro, the high school history teacher who is writing the biography of a female nineteenth-century polar explorer, while trying to conceive on her own. Susan is a stay-at-home mom in a struggling marriage. Mattie is a high-achieving student who finds herself pregnant. And Gin is a forest-dwelling herbalist who finds herself subject to a witch hunt. However, these women live in a not-too-distant future United States where recent legislation has banned abortion, in vitro fertilization is illegal, adoption is only possible for a married man and woman, and every embryo is given full rights of life, liberty, and property.

This was a hard book to put down. The world Zumas creates is a subtle dystopia in an eerily familiar political environment. And yes, the book is political, as any conversation about womanhood and rights inevitably is. Yet, the moves the narrative makes are subtle and nuanced, teasing out the nuances that make these conversations difficult and overwhelmingly necessary. The story explores motherhood, both the joy and the pain, but also challenges the idea that motherhood, or even womanhood, always includes paternity. Throughout the novel, there are few men that these women can trust, and yet these men control much of these women’s lives. Ro is haunted by the death of her brother, a drug-addict to the end, because she feels guilty she couldn’t save him. Mattie’s “boyfriend” pushes her into having sex, but otherwise demonstrates no other affection for her and cheats on her while she is pregnant. Susan’s husband demands too much from her, while contributing little, both physically in caring for the home to emotionally. Even Gin, distant from civilization altogether, mostly treats women. Each of their stories made me want to read more, but what kept me reading was a sense of familiarity. Near the end, Ro ruminates on the political environment that led to the Personhood Amendments, and how no one really expected things to get as far as they did, a startling political prophecy. The prose was also gorgeous, although the beginning and transitions between scenes and characters had me confused at times, but nothing a second-reading couldn’t fix. A strongly feminist and political read, complicated by nuanced exploration and well-crafted storytelling.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

IMG_5938I’ve been trying to diversify my 2018 reading list with this historical non-fiction when I picked it up. I had seen the cover around, which, to my lizard brain, means that it must be kind of good. But I wasn’t expecting how quickly I became invested in the story. Usually history-based novels drag on for me. I checked out The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore last year, but never finished it (admittedly I would read it close to bedtime, which was a mistake).

Killers of the Flower Moon is told in three parts. The first two parts tell about the Osage murders and the trial. In the 1920s, oil was discovered on the Osage reservation, making them rich overnight. But then several Osage are found dead in the course of a few years. Local law enforcement investigations turn up nothing, and mourning families hire private eye investigators who are also unsuccessful. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the new Bureau of Investigation, trying to establish credibility for his organization and a evidence-based methodology, sends Texan Tom White and a small team to pick up the investigation. The story reads like a crime drama as we see the different story lines unfold as White tries to understand the evidence and uncover the deem racism and corruption on the reservation, eventually leading to a publicized trials, compared to the Scopes monkey trials by contemporary newspapers.

Then the third part changes the tone and direction of the book as Grann declares himself the narrator and continues the investigation in our time. Much of the original evidence has been destroyed, but there are still a few pieces of history that linger and suggest the original criminals convicted were only part of a greater, darker system.

The book doesn’t shy away from the atrocities committed against the Osages. Many of them had no control over their own money because the government appointed “guardians” (usually local white males) to take care of their fortunes, often leading to exploitation, and at the trial, a male, white jury had a difficult time sentencing a white male to death, even though the evidence seemed solid. The prejudice the Osage faced is never justified, just displayed for us to contemplate. I’d never heard about these murders before reading Killers of the Flower Moon, but they seem to represent a greater trend of American treatment of Native Americans. Overall, a well-written, well-researched book that never tries to cleanse the history, instead focusing on the victims and their losses.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

IMG_5912I always seem to forget how much I love short story collections until I pick one up and read it in one sitting. I picked up The Refugees from the library under a vague notion that I had heard something good about it and read it first of my stack because its recent release date meant I only had two weeks to read it. I finished it within a day.

In one sense, I love The Refugees because it’s a great short story collection, akin to some of my favorite collections like Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr and In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. Each story is contained and packed with detail and a strong sense of place. However, in a much needed departure from my typical short story reads, Nguyen uses Asian and Asian American narrators to tell complex stories about heritage, culture, family, love, and war, sometimes against a familiar American backdrop made new through refugee eyes, and other times in foreign locales like Vietnam, only mentioned in history courses as an opposition to “Americanness.” And just as America is made new, Asian and Asian Americans are transformed from tired stereotypes movies and TV shows rely on, into complex people that feel authentic. Nguyen’s characters are beautifully flawed in ways that impact the story, rather than are flaunted just for show. And in other ways, Nguyen depicts several kinds of flawed father figures, dictated by masculinity which ultimately blockades themselves from true connections with their children.

I’m going to reread The Refugees again because these stories warrant multiple readings. They explore the quiet racism against the “model” minority, the suffocation of hypermasculinity, the failures of communism and capitalism alike, coming-of-age and coming-out stories alike. Really, it’s something that I think every adult should be reading. 


Do you enjoy short stories, or prefer novel-length literature? What is your favorite short story (singular or collection)? What other books by Asian Americans should I be reading? 

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

IMG_5846For me, few things make winter more tolerable than a curling up with an immersive fantasy, and The City of Brass was a the perfect December read. The novel follows Nahri, a con artist in eighteenth-century Cairo who exploits her marks belief in magic. But it is her lack of superstition that gets her in trouble, when during a con she accidentally summons Dara, a mysterious djinn warrior who reveals to her a hidden magical world of djinn, magical beings of fire and their city of brass, Daevabad, a place she is drawn to because of her own magical heritage. But Daevabad is far from a djinn paradise and instead is a simmering hotbed of tribal dissent and political underworkings. As she learns more about Daevabad, the six tribes, Prince Alizayd, Dara’s history, and her own heritage, she is drawn into a conflict with no easy way out.

Wow. I rarely expect fantasies to get so intricately political, but City of Brass kept surprising me. The narration switches between Nahri and Prince Ali as we come to understand their perspectives on the politics of Daevabad, each with their different biases and experiences that define their ideologies. But neither one of them have the whole story, nor even half. Throughout the novel, we come to see them both as unreliable narrators, not out of bad intention, but out of a lack of information or their own prejudices. The various decisions Nahri and Ali face feel weighty, with ripping consequences that create more choices. The history of Daevabad and the djinn is also similarly intriguing, though I got lost at a few moments among all of the details. But once I hit the middle of this non-Western-centric fantasy, I couldn’t put it down.


What are your favorite winter reads? What new fantasy should I add to my list? What Christmas books do I need to review for next week? 

Artemis by Andy Weir

IMG_5828Written with the same passion for scientific deliberation and detail as The Martian, Weir turns to the science of moon colonies in his new novel Artemis. Though my background isn’t in astrophysics, I still enjoyed reading about smuggler Jasmine Bashara—a woman who grew up on Artemis, the first moon colony, who is pulled into a world of sabotage and political control—because of the care Weir puts into building the world of Artemis. Nearly every aspect of colonizing the moon appears in this novel, from the funding and political dealings that aided the creation of Artemis to how breathable air is manufactured and other necessities are maintained to the class structure and other social elements. And this incredible level of science-based world building is what makes this novel so fun and interesting to read; the scientific explanations are simple and straightforward and serve the plot, rather than just showing off Weir’s scientific knowledge. It’s fascinating to see all the thought and ingenuity that was required to create Artemis, and to see how much we take for granted building anything on earth (air, water, gravity, and even erosion). But I should note that Weir is far from a “literary” writer. His descriptions, though useful, aren’t necessarily elegant, and sometimes his characters feel a little flat and lack character-driven development. There were times he relies on telling the reader what Jasmine is feeling rather than letting the reader draw their own conclusions, which made the emotional arcs a little less impactful for me. The relationships Jasmine builds by the end of the novel don’t really serve a huge emotional climax, and sometimes even felt like unnecessary bits in a wonderfully intricate world. But Jasmine is witty and intelligent observer, which makes it fun to see Artemis through her eyes, even if Weir does break the show-don’t-tell rule. In all, Artemis is a fun, escapist read for those who loved The Martian and always wondered what it would take to build a colony on the moon.


What did you think of Artemis? How did it compare to The Martian to you? What are some of your favorite books that integrate the sciences? Can science and creative writing co-exist in the same piece?

The Power by Naomi Alderman

IMG_5821

The Power by Naomi Alderman is novel centered around a simple premise: what if women and girls could inflict physical pain? In this work of speculative fiction, girls discover an inert, electric power that can hurt and even kill people. Once activated, girls can ignite that power in women as well, the sudden shift of power upending a patriarchal world. A handful of characters show us the shift that takes place in the world through their own transitions: a rich Nigerian teen turns into a renowned freelance reporter; a foster kid ascends to the role of prophetess for the Mother, the feminine side of God; a small-town mother becomes ambitious politician; a tough London girl transforms into ruthless gang leader. The change is slow at first, but what begins as a joke in a nightly news segments explodes into massive social change. Women lead riots as girls are sent to specialized training camps in order to control their electric power. A fervent religious order springs up, claiming that the feminine aspect of God, long ignored, is ready to be worshipped. An entire country of women secedes. The microaggressions women have long been familiar with don’t disappear, but rather are directed to men. And the story is aided by various illustrations of matriarchal artifacts, online forums filled with trollish voices, and other archival documents, exploring this world not just through story but through an anthropological lens. The Power posits that absolute power corrupts absolutely, wrestling with issues surrounding gender, such as religion, politics, parenthood, violence, family, security, and loyalty, a fascinating, if not haunting what if.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

IMG_5776Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is about managing life’s disappointments. Thirty-year-old Ruth, “freshly disengaged” from her fiancé, moves back in with her parents. Nothing seems to be going right. She’s quit her dead-end job, her father is losing his memory, and the family has suffered an immense betrayal. But it is amid Ruth’s seemingly hopeless situation that the novel shines. Ruth tries to find little ways to fix her family’s situation: she helps orchestrate a secret graduate seminar for her father to teach after he’s been put on leave by the university he works for or tries cooking new recipes. And though her efforts don’t always turn out the way she expected (much like her life, if she were being honest), what keeps this novel from feeling melodramatic and tragic is Ruth’s perspective. She’s funny. The day-to-day is elevated with tiny anecdotes such as

“I’m walking to the library to return the DVD when a small child on a scooter shrieks at me: ‘A WOMAN!’ In case, I guess, I’d forgotten.”

Sometimes the anecdotes link up together to form longer stories, sometimes they’re memories or musings, and sometimes they’re nothing like any of those. But it’s the light touches that bring Ruth to life for me: I’m not inundated with her feelings all the time (which may be justified given everything going on her life). Instead, I’m given a strong sense of her personality and sense of humor based on the small things she observes and thinks about. Plus, I think this form is great treatment for the subject material. Throughout the course of the novel, Ruth becomes more concerned about her father’s Alzheimer’s as he forgets more and more. The novel then isn’t just her recounting the ways her life has fallen apart. Instead, it turns into a journal of sorts, either for a father who may not ever really remember, or for her and a time when remembering is easy. And it’s that narrator and those journalistic intentions that I fall in love within a few pages into the novel. Overall, it’s a quick, witty read and a tragicomedy with heart.


Goodbye, Vitamin was one of my favorite summer reads for 2017. What’s a book that never fails to make you laugh out loud? Or what’s a great book with characters with Alzheimers?

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

IMG_5765I made the mistake of reading The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney as I was finishing season two of Arrested Development, wanting some more of my gossip-driven guilty pleasure. After all, Tolstoy says, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The Nest is the unhappy story of the unhappy Plumb family. When the Plumb father died, he invested money into what was supposed to be a modest nest egg for his four children once they reached adulthood, which exploded into a huge fund each of the siblings used as a safety net for unwise financial decisions. But when Leo, the eldest child, gets into a car accident while running off with nineteen year old caterer, the Nest is depleted to keep the debacle quiet. The siblings suddenly have lost the safety net they’ve relied on and have to figure out a way to get Leo to come up with the money or lose the lives they worked to create. There’s also stories of coming-of-age, life as an amputee, literary communities, motherhood, and New York City high life, as the story is told from various perspectives, in and out of the Plumb family. As if the family drama wasn’t enough, there’s even a lost 9-11 artifact sub-plot, but it feels disjointed from the rest of the book (as in it could have been removed from the novel and the main plot would be completely intact).

This isn’t to say I don’t love juicy gossip novels with multiple plots; I just prefer them well-done. What I enjoyed most about Arrested Development was its basis in humor rather than drama. The dysfunctional family, selfish sibling dynamics, and general miscommunication and mischief is served up with comedic effect rather than soap opera hysterics, which is what I feel like this novel relies on.

One of the drawbacks to the novel is the multiple perspectives. Each chapter switches from the various Plumb perspectives, including a handful of other side characters. There are only a handful of books I can remember that manage the multiple POV device well. I find that more skilled writers are able to pick a character (or maybe two) and use the limited perspectives well. Usually the limited perspective means that as a reader, I learn more intimate details about the character by seeing the world through their eyes for an extended period of time.

Also, another weakness of the book is that because the novel takes so much time with a range of characters, I never really feel close to any of them. Instead, it feels like the author relies on the characters identifying their own weaknesses, which lessens the emotional impact than perhaps a more well-crafted moment where a reader observes a moment of vulnerability. There are few redeeming qualities to the Plumb siblings who, despite their father’s intent, have become entitled and dependent on the Nest, but try to absolve themselves of any blame. The chapters present different looks into each of the Plumb’s lives, but it gets boring when each sibling spends their time scheming, mourning the lack of money, spending money they don’t have, and justifying their actions to the readers by blaming someone else. It’s a juicy gossip book that’s less intoxicating and more eye-roll-inducing. One character I felt like I personally was supposed to click with (Bea, the washed-up writer part of the “Glitterary” community of NYC) never gave me much reason to care about her struggles. She was the least financially screwed, but I never found motivation to root for her. Really, I felt like the emphasis of the book was on the gossipy family drama, rather than the craft behind unfolding tangled narrative threads.


I’ve heard The Nest can be divisive. What did you think? Was I too harsh? What are other great books that feature dysfunctional families? What’s the best book you’ve read that featured multiples points of view? Let me know in the comments!