Travel and illness slowed me down a bit this month. I had a lovely trip back to Iowa City, several less lovely trips to doctors’ offices and med labs, and a fully unlovely bout with strep throat and fever. As such, a lot of my downtime was spent on mentally undemanding television rather than books. Thanks to having read nine books last month, and by leaning towards graphic novels and shorter collections, I’m still on pace for 100 for the year. But I’ll have to pick it up in March (which was my best month last year).

  1. Tenth of December by George Saunders – As I expected from how celebrated it was when it came out, this collection is Saunders at the height of his incomparable game. The standout story for me was “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a science fiction tale with as nuanced a look at poverty as any I’ve read. Other memorable pieces were “Escape from Spiderhead,” which I’ve previously quoted on this blog, and the titular “Tenth of December,” which I had read before on it’s initial publication in The New Yorker. I also found myself tearing up occasionally, notably during the story “Exhortation,” which adopts the voice of an abusive person in power exhorting propriety when the request itself is really a plea for absolution, one that carries with it the sense that, just by making the plea, absolution is earned. The subtext, “I’m hurting you, but I know I’m hurting you and I feel bad about it, so that makes it sort of okay, right?” is one that reminds me of some of the more severe times I have found my trust misplaced, and so his fictional evocation of it hit hard.
  2. The Sculptor by Scott McCloud – There are few things I enjoy more than huge, trope-aware graphic novels that use narratives of waxing and waning interpersonal relationships to explore complex, clever themes. Books like Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. This new book by McCloud, his first fiction in 20 years, hits somewhere near the center of that aesthetic target. The main character is David Smith, a down-and-out, nothing-left-to-lose sculptor offered a deal by the personification of death: he can have the power to perfectly sculpt anything in the world using just his imagination and bare hands, but he will die in 200 days. What follows is a story of an artist interrogating what he values about art and life, and how his answers change when their relation to mortality is concrete rather than abstract. The story frequently seems only a step or two away from being overwrought, but for me it avoided ever tumbling over that edge. The art is a consistent pleasure, the story heartfelt. This is a completely earnest book, which redeemed narrative moves that I might have found cliched from another author.
  3. Get In Trouble by Kelly Link – I had read four of the nine stories in this collection before, because I am nowhere near patient enough to wait until the books come out to read Kelly Link. I’ve bought entire anthologies just because they contained a new short story of hers. It’s hard to pick standout stories from this one, because everything Kelly writes is so weird and fascinating. But “The Summer People” is a rare treatment of fairies that I don’t find annoying, “Secret Identity” and “Origin Story” are superhero fiction like nothing you’ve ever read before, and “Light” is basically what Welcome to Night Vale would be if it were exactly as crazy and yet somehow subtle at the same time. This is fiction to get lost in and come back changed. (A funny thing: I write these little capsule reviews after I finish the book, and post them at the end of the month. Since I wrote the preceding, my friend Carmen Machado has published a much more in-depth review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which she expressed an almost identical sentiment to my last one.)
  4. The Deep by John Crowley – Earlier this year I started reading Crowley’s World Fantasy Award-winning novel Little, Big. I got about 80 pages in, and thought the writing was great but the story mildly irritating. It seemed coy, like it was likely to be 500 pages of tiny glimmers of fairyland shining through the worn fabric of the mundane world, which I was not in the mood for. (As mentioned previously, fairies are a hard sell for me.) I’ll likely revisit it someday soon, but decided instead to go back to Crowley’s first novel, something more SFnal and thus more aligned with my aesthetic preferences. My copy of The Deep carries a glowing blurb from Ursula Le Guin, which makes sense; it has a lot structurally in common with Left Hand of Darkness. The writing is crisp and frequently lyrical, and the plot skips along at great velocity. Political schemes and reversals of fortune that would unfurl over 200 pages in, say, Game of Thrones happen in mere paragraphs, and the whole book is less than 200 pages long. Crowley also does a fascinating thing where early in the novel we are introduced to what strikes the reader as a primitive cosmology destined to be overturned by the visitor from space, but in the end, this cosmology is basically correct, and it’s the reader’s assumptions that are unfounded. But while I found this book intellectually interesting, I remain somehow passive to it. I feel the same way about a lot of Le Guin’s work, too: clearly brilliant, inspires great admiration, but fails to enflame my imagination the way my favorite fiction does.
  5. The Wilds by Julia Elliott – I was not previously familiar with Julia Elliott, but this was recommended by Janalyn Guo, who’s a fan of her stories. As am I, now. This is an excellent collection, and one that seems to be mostly off the radar of the Spec Fic community, despite many of these stories being science fiction. (I’d say entirely off the radar except the VanderMeers did publisher her in the inaugural Best American Fantasy.) It’s very “literary” science fiction, by which I mean that these are interiority-driven stories with ambiguous endings that resist plot resolution–cadences that are more common to realist fiction than SF. But here’s an incomplete list of the speculative conceits in this book: powered exoskeletons for the elderly, nanotechnological cures for dementia, urban society overrun by wild dogs, a biological regeneration spa that medicinally afflicts clients with suppurating infections, a mutated form of toxoplasmosis that causes internet addiction, a robot subjected to iterated biochemical simulations of love as its language database is constantly upgraded. She has a novel coming out soon, The New and Improved Romie Futch, which I’ll definitely be reading.
  6. Mail Order Bride by Mark Kalesniko – This graphic novel was bad in ways that make it tempting to psychoanalyze the author. The titular mail order bride is a Korean woman who moves to Canada to marry a 39-year-old, comic book store owning, geek loving, jock hating, virginal manchild. Obviously, he has an Asian fetish too, and spends two-thirds of the book volubly exoticizing her and complimenting her on stereotypical Asian traits she doesn’t actually possess. While his racist fetishizing and disinclination to learn anything personal about his new wife is positioned as a character flaw and the main driver of the book’s conflict, this criticism is undercut by the fact that the narrative never reveals any of his wife’s actual identity. This might work if the story was from the husband’s point of view, but it’s primarily from hers, and while she grows to hate her husband’s blunt objectification, “Doesn’t enjoy being objectified” is very nearly the only thing the reader learns about her that her husband doesn’t. In the end, after a violent confrontation, they are both too cowardly to leave each other, and persist in a loveless marriage. This unambitious, repetitive story is perpetrated at such length and with such little subtlety that I came away feeling like the whole thing was an act of self-flagellation. Looking around online, most of the contemporary reviews of this book are positive, which I can attribute only to the OGN readers of 2001 being so eager to celebrate the “literary” within the medium that even a work this meager–but with nudity and without triumphalism–would be feted as mature.
  7. Trash by Dorothy Allison – I had read about half of this before, and finally finished it. It’s a largely autobiographical collection of stories about poverty, abuse, and 1980s-era lesbian culture. The first story, “River of Names,” about how differences of class and traumatic history separate two women in love, was among the more memorable assigned in my first college creative writing class. My other favorite one was “Violence Against Women Begins At Home,” about schisms within progressive communities and how people grow apart. Some of the stories didn’t strongly grab me narratively, though I understood their importance as part of the thematic and autobiographical project of the whole. Tonally, I was more able to appreciate what Dorothy Allison was doing by having read Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For, the early parts of which depict a contemporaneous community similar to the ones in Trash (and were also published by Firebrand Books).
  8. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard – I’ve now read this book every year for the last three. I guess I like it.