To Be Taught, If Fortunate (CBR11 #48)

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I knew what to expect from a Becky Chambers book after reading two of her previous novels in the Wayfarers series (which apparently this novella is not part of… but I swear its in the same universe). To Be Taught, If Fortunate would have some vivid writing, exceptional world-building (seriously, what Chambers can do in a matter of sentences to build an entirely new environment is insane), and diverse characters. I knew nothing else when picking it up, and I’m glad. I didn’t need to.

Like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, this novella is at its heart a road trip story treated in an episodic way, but it’s also so much more. At its core this is a speculative fiction work about where we as a species could be headed in the near future. Our narrator, Ariadne O’Neill is the engineer on OCA spacecraft Merian (crowdsourced space exploration following the defunding of national endeavors) is writing a message sent back to Earth recounting their mission so far. Ariadne is one of four who must balance their mission for exploration of four previously unexplored planets outside our solar system with the domestic dramas of a functional family unit in a small space. Because Chambers is a pro, we do not get caught up in stereotypical space opera style events, even though there is plenty of drama possible.

There is much that I enjoyed about this, including its exploration of somaforming (altering physiology) instead of terraforming to facilitate exploration of far flung planets. Communication is also at the heart of this – how we do it, when we need to, when it can feel like a burden, and what we do when it stops. The ending is one of the most heartbreakingly human things I have read in a long time and presented to me something I hadn’t expected (and also gave me a new fear, which thankfully won’t be something I ever personally have to deal with).

Even if you don’t think solarpunk or speculative fiction are for you, I bet this one is.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

My Brilliant Friend (CBR11 #47)

I really tried with this one. This story should work for me. Check out this Goodreads summary:

“The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.”

But I just couldn’t get into the book. I didn’t develop any concern for the characters and found it dull and repetitive – it felt like watching the same cycle over and over again without having it actually GO anywhere. Ferrante seems to cheerfully tell and not show, abandon all sensible plot structure (I found the writing, or translation, incredibly choppy) and introduce as many characters as she felt like, not really caring whether that whole sprawling cast is in any way necessary or useful. Ferrante hits an autobiographical note that has many people wondering about the identity of Ferrante as it is at least a nom de plume, and some of these attributes line up with that possibility. The stories we tell each other over dinner rattle around and give us too many details and too many side characters. It didn’t work for me in this novel.

Add to the above a lack of flourishes: Ferrante’s prose is bare, the narrative slumps along under its own weight and the craft does little to propel it, and I found myself only reluctantly picking it back up again each time I put it down. It has taken me months to get through it. It seems I just don’t get the hype and by the end was angry at the story for being overlong.

I’m glad this works for others (my lovely friend Ale for example who I’m sure will use her MFA to disagree with me here), but this one wasn’t for me, or at least wasn’t for me right now.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (CBR11 #46)

In setting up the prompts for Cannonball Read’s Sherlock Retellings Book Club I realized one of the parameters I use when deciding if something is a good retelling or remix: a good retelling for its own sake, needs to have enough of the original’s connective tissue without feeling like it’s been made using tracing paper. In the Lady Sherlock series Sherry Thomas split the various characteristics across several characters and I think it worked really well to not have direct analogs for the most part.

Its set in the same historical time-space, but she really broadens the type of characters we see from Arthur Conan Doyle’s. Thomas creates for her readers a female centric worldview, most of our main characters are women, and the machinations surrounding our main mystery and the side ones are also centered on women. Even of male dominated storyline (stupid Inspector Treadles) is focused on his fears surrounding his wife’s own ambitions.

There is plenty of allusions to Doyle’s Holmes – cyphers, lies, Government spies – but the book also suffers from what I don’t think is a Doyle problem: its slow and has at least one too many storylines.  As in A Study in Scarlet Women Thomas uses three voices to tell the story: Charlotte, her sister Livia and Inspector Treadles. While it was always clear which character is delivering the narrative, they didn’t always line up, or feel equally strong. In fact, the storyline surrounding Treadles, which backs up to the main death Charlotte ends up investigating, felt like a serious afterthought. My other problem is that the pace of this novel just died in the second third – there was too much retreading of covered ground and a lack of links to the main narrative.

I do quite enjoy Thomas’s Charlotte Holmes and her cavalcade of Doylesian characters and will continue with the next in the series The Hollow of Fear as I do enjoy a good twisty mystery, even if the twists aren’t always entirely earned.

A Mind of Her Own (CBR11 #45)

A Mind of Her Own

This one was okay and therefore 2 stars. I don’t often rate books 1 or 2 stars, at this point in my Cannonball history my to read list is pretty well-honed in on books that I’m going to have a good response to (making them 3 stars or higher). But, back in the spring when I still had an Audible subscription this was one of their free Originals so I scooped it up.

I’m not sad I chose it, I just wish it knew what it wanted to be.

In 75 minutes of audiobook Paula McLain goes about telling the story of Marie Curie before she accomplished all the things that made her famous, when she was still Maria Sklodowska, a 25-year-old student of physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne.  McLain has several false starts, painting a picture of a stark and withdrawn Marie who has sworn off interpersonal relationships for the single-minded goal of succeeding where so few women were even allowed to be. She also pursues the Marie that excels where others do not. We also get the Marie who still Lived in Warsaw and watched her sister and mother die, and hatched a plan to get her remaining sister and herself the university degrees they would ned to pursue their dreams of medicine and science.

But, McLain never really commits to any of these versiosn of Marie, bouncing between them and overlaying the love story of Marie and Pierre and his steadfastness in contrast to her determination to return to Poland, to work in science, and to succeed. He imagines a life where they can do those things together (short of moving to Poland, but the real Pierre did offer to follow Marie there). She eventually capitulates and they are married, within 8 years they will earn the Nobel Prize.

While A Mind of Her Own didn’t hang together for me, it certainly wasn’t the fault of Hillary Huber’s narration, she did a great job with the material at hand.

Wordslut (CBR11 #44)

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Cannonballer kdm posted on Facebook about reading Wordslut and based on her recommendation and its bright eye-catching cover I immediately requested it from my library. I’ve read my share of feminist books over the past several years, trying to build my own repertoire of experience and knowledge whether it be in the form of a treatise on Single Ladies, the recollections of a self-described Bad Feminist, or feminist geeks, or the story of a heroine of mine the Notorious RBG. Amanda Montell’s Wordslut is a worthy addition to those other books, it covers hundreds of years of linguistic history and today’s cutting-edge research in sociolinguistics.

How often do we really think about language, specifically the language we ourselves use? Thankfully there’s entire fields of scientists studying just that – tracking how language develops and how we use it. Building from her own degree in Linguistics and her interest in feminism and inclusive language Montell gives us 10 chapters exploring how we got to the language we have and suggestions for ways to reclaim certain phrases, find more inclusive alternatives, and generally being comfortable with how our word choices and sentence structures tell the world who we are.

Listen, I have a lot of space to grow myself, just today I was putting some chickens away in their hen house and when speaking to them called them “guys”. They are all laying hens – they are girls. But this book pulls apart why my brain went to “guys” instead of “ladies”, or even better “folks” or “friends”. Montell also gives fantastic, well-researched, and inclusive arguments for the singular they, non-binary pronouns, and using y’all because English is missing a second person plural pronoun.

My two favorite sections of the book marry nicely – the first discussing how words go through the process of amelioration or pejoration, either gaining more positive or more negative meanings over time. The second is all about cursing while female presenting. Apparently, we tend to curse for humor, for emphasis, and in a category almost exclusive to us: as part of our personality. In that way so many of the perjorized words that have become vulgar are feminine we’re actively using them (and others) to express who we see ourselves to be. But, we are also using language differently in single-sex situations, really letting the f-bombs fly to show intimacy and trust. I know I do this, as I got more comfortable with one of my previous coworkers my vulgar language use skyrocketed (as, it should probably be noted, did hers).   

So why for the I Love This Bingo square?  I’m a logophile, a lover of words. I love finding very specific words, I love learning new words, and I really love foul words. I also love a book that takes on a non-fiction topic (in this case language) through an historical lens and isn’t afraid to be humorous while deconstructing social norms. Read this book, won’t you?

Pumpkinheads (CBR11 #43)

I was always going to love this book. If there was a book created for me, this would be it. All its missing to make it absolute perfection is a focus on the color purple. Its set in my favorite season, specifically on my personal high holy day (Halloween), featuring an adventure, some unrequited/unacknowledged love, pumpkins, and a goat on the loose.

Seriously, Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks nailed this delightful story of two friends spending their last night at work together before they head off to their own futures, unsure of what that really means.

Pumpkinheads reminds me in the best possible way of my favorite short story from the collection My True Love Gave to Me by Stephanie Perkins and two of Rainbow Rowell’s previous short stories (one that featured in that collection as well). The Perkins short story, It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown, told the story of Marigold and North and featured a Christmas tree lot and two teenagers who might mean more to each other than they want to admit. On the surface there’s big similarities with Pumpkinheads, we have two teenagers (seniors in high school) working at a Pumpkin Patch whom have a deep and abiding friendship. Rowell has previously explored the themes of capturing an adventure to know you’ve lived (Kindred Spirits) and friends who could be more (Midnights). She revisits those themes here and married with Faith Erin Hicks’ beautiful graphic design, panel layout, and ability to capture moments as each character expresses themselves beautifully without words and we are treated to an exquisitely told story.

Go get this immediately and celebrate the best time of year.

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World (CBR11 #42)

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I love a list, LOVE them. When Cannonball Bingo is unveiled I happily settle in and draft up what books I want to read for what squares, cross-referencing them with my other reading challenges to see which books might cross-pollinate, and finally devise a schedule to try to get a Blackout by the time Bingo wraps up. It worked perfectly last year as I snuck in just under the wire with my 25th review.

This year its been a slightly more bumpy road, two months in and I still don’t have a book picked out for every square, but I’ve also had to upend my initial Cannonballer Says choice because KimMIE”’s review of Quiet Girl in a Noisy World spoke to me and I immediately put it on my library hold list.

In some ways this is a very straightforward, slim, volume. Tung wrote and illustrated a collection of comics that tell the story of her life as an introvert, from being misunderstood as a child and shepherded away from her more solitary interests to her experiences making friends, being social, and marrying her husband. It all comes together pretty well, my only real complaint about the book is that it doesn’t structurally delineate from one comic to the next. They run together without any visual clues that the reader is now in another thought Tung is working through. It made for a slightly bumpy reading experience as there is no set length for Tung’s comics.

However, once I got settled in it was so nice to see a version of myself so clearly rendered on the page and have yet another reminder that I’m not alone in processing the world this way. Tung’s black and white comics – which look like beautiful watercolors at times – captured the truth in a way that many memoirs try to but fall short of. I agree with KimMIE” the only real problem with a book like this is that only introverts are likely to ever read it and that’s a real shame as it serves as a great primer for loving and working with your favorite introvert/social anxiety sufferer/ Myers Briggs INFJ (all three being me!).

Couldn’t Keep it to Myself (CBR11 #41)

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The task list for one of my challenges strikes again. Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge includes a book written in prison. I was struggling to decide what to read for this one, I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a book by the type of criminal who would be the type to get a book deal in the first place. Then a bit of internet research led me to this collection edited by Wally Lamb of the work the women of the writing group he co-facilitates at York Correctional Institute in Connecticut, the state’s only high security prison for women.

The collection features the work of the women of York as they describe in their own words how their true imprisonment started before their entrance to the penitentiary, whether it be by abuse, rejection, or their own self-destructive impulses. These aren’t victimhood tales, instead they are reflections on lives lived, choices made, and consequences endured. I found that Lamb’s introduction did a fantastic job laying out exactly what to expect in the reading, but also all that went into the writing process and how this project found its way to the printing press. Lamb described the journey the women took to authentic expression through their writing. Perhaps most endearing to me from Lamb was when he shared how he ended up working with the program in the first place and how working in this challenging environment as gown him as a teacher and as a fellow author. With his loving and respectful intro I was prepared, or so I thought, to read the women’s work.

Some stories fall into the type of work you might expect, some focus on life before their time at York and while you can see the interstitial tissue connecting their work to their time behind bars it is busy telling a different narrative. (It is important to note that in respect to Connecticut’s Son of Sam law the authors did not write with any specificity about their crimes and profits were shared with Interval House of Hartford who work to end Domestic Violence.) Couldn’t Keep It to Myself becomes a testament to finding oneself and reckoning with what comes next.

Lamb has continued working with the writing program at York Correctional Institute, publishing two more collections with the participants; I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison and You Don’t Know Me: The Incarcerated Women of York Prison Voice Their Truths whose publication date is Tuesday September 3, 2019 – a bit of good timing on my part.