Last Week’s Reading: April 9-15

Honor’s Knight, by Rachel Bach: A solid follow-up to the very entertaining Fortune’s Pawn, which I talked about last week.

Outline, by Rachel Cusk: I enjoyed this unusual novel, which focuses on characterization over plot. The narrator, an English woman teaching a writing course during a hot Athens summer, reveals little about herself directly, instead recounting a series of conversations with friends, students, and acquaintances. Bit by bit, as her interlocutors reveal the details of their histories and surroundings, we piece together the narrator’s own character and experiences–just enough for an outline. The old dictum in writing is to show, not tell, but this book is almost all telling (and stylized; the conversations are unusually detailed and tend to lack context), but somehow Ms. Cusk has found a way to show the emotional truth of her narrator’s life. Outline won’t appeal to all readers, but I recommend it to anyone looking for a thoughtful, slow-paced reading experience.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin: Baldwin’s prose is so good—it just moves the reader along effortlessly, like a swift current. The Fire Next Time reminded me of how I felt reading Baldwin’s earlier Notes of a Native Son and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and though much has changed since The Fire Next Time‘s publication, much, alas, has not. It’s still essential reading on race in the United States.

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Last Week’s Reading: April 2-8

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett: I requested this book on the recommendation of my friend Mary, who owns Newtonville Books, where Ms. Hartnett once worked. Rabbit Cake is narrated by precocious but not precious Elvis Babbitt, who recounts the events after her mother’s untimely death by drowning due to sleepwalking. As Elvis and her sister and her father try to hold their family together, each takes on different coping strategies of varying effectiveness (there’s a talking bird involved, and dozens of cakes). There was potential here to veer into over-stylized Wes Anderson territory (I love Wes Anderson, but I do not think I would care for his work in novel form), but Ms. Hartnett’s assured debut remains grounded in the Babbitt family’s frailties and love. Recommended.

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar: This slim, striking collection whetted my appetite for Kaveh Akbar’s full-length book of poems Calling a Wolf a Wolf, coming this fall. The poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic are intimate and beautiful, a catalogue of desires—for drink, for God, for understanding—fulfilled and unfulfilled.

Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach: I’ve been on the lookout for Fortune’s Pawn ever since Rory recommended it years ago, and after striking out at bookstore after bookstore, I finally requested it from the library. Devi Morris (think Starbuck meets Ripley) is an armored mercenary with a big ego and the skills to match it. Ambition leads her to take a position on the Glorious Fool, a ship that gets into even more trouble than its name suggests. Devi thinks she can handle it, but she has no idea what she’s in for. This is a fun, action-packed sci-fi novel with a bit of romance—a perfect palate cleanser if you’re between more serious reads.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: I’m on a bit of a sci-fi kick, as you see. I adored this novel, which is like a whole season of Firefly packed into a book, only with more aliens. The setup is conventional: Rosemary Harper wants to escape her past, and what better way than be joining the crew of a ship that tunnels wormholes through space? Of course the crew is completely unconventional, from the reptilian pilot Sissix to the friendly AI Lovey and the cook/doctor, six-limbed Dr. Chef. On a long deep-space assignment, the crew faces adventure and loss and meets some of the most interesting sapients in the galaxy. The concerns of the novel are serious—how families are made, what sentience means, how gender and sexuality might look in a galaxy filled with different species, how risk should be valued—but the tone is lighthearted and warm. It’s a delectable book, and highly recommended.

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes: Another entry in the “poets I should have read years ago” category. I’ve run across Terrance Hayes’s poems before, but this is the first time I sat down to read a whole collection. Lighthead is such a good collection: playful, melancholy, and multifaceted. These poems felt full to bursting with the richness of their language. My favorites included “The Golden Shovel,” a riff on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool”; “Carp Poem”; “God Is an American”; and “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Highly recommended.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (not pictured since I read it as an e-book): This 2008 essay collection fell a bit flat for me; I’m used to breaking out into the kind of chortles that alarm small children and passersby when I read David Sedaris, but no one near me was the least bit startled while I read this book. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t worth reading—a few essays are quite moving—but I don’t feel the need to buy it for my own library.

The Great Library Rundown, Part 4: Here Be Black Holes

Space Reads

It may surprise you to learn, Dear Readers, that as a kid I wanted to be not a writer or a historian, but an astrophysicist. My parents gave me a subscription to Astronomy and a telescope, entertained my wild theories about gravity, and  took me out to see Mir and the planets after dark, which I loved.

And then I realized that astronomy and physics are all about math. Valiantly as I might have tried, math never clicked for me, and thus here you find me, an editor and writer.

Still, I love dipping back into the world of spacetime, so to speak. Here are two science-related titles for your consideration.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

IMG_7035I absolutely loved this tiny (81 pages, not counting the index) book. In plain language, Carlo Rovelli discusses the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ greatest discoveries and theories in physics, ranging from relativity to particle physics and back again. The section on heat and the nature of time completely fascinated me. Do note that one isn’t going to completely grasp these concepts after reading; this is more of a mind-opening book, the kind that encourages curiosity and further reading (take this: “The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta stone of physics”).  I will definitely be buying a copy of this book for my shelf at home–it’s the kind of book I want to dip back into from time to time. Highly recommended.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Jana Levin

IMG_6798I requested this book after reading Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) ringing endorsement, but I was, unfortunately, quite disappointed. The book is about the decades-long attempt to record gravitational waves (produced in the collision of black holes)—a worthy,  interesting, and timely topic: LIGO (the laser interferometer gravitational-wave observatory) detected gravitational waves in February, 100 years after Einstein’s prediction of their existence. Jana Levin focuses on the personalities of the original movers and shakers behind the push to build the massive LIGO machines, and while this might have been a good strategy, the execution is problematic. Long sections of interviews are reproduced without commentary, for example, leaving the reader in the dark about the author’s analysis of various points of contention. Throughout the book, crucial scientific terms that a layperson wouldn’t be expected to know aren’t explained, and I found multiple grammatical errors and stylistic infelicities (perhaps the book was rushed through production after the LIGO detection). This is, alas, a book that would have worked better as a long-form magazine story (like the story about earthquakes in the New Yorker that just won the Pulitzer).