I’ve had a couple of really uncharacteristic reading weeks over the last month. It started back in November when I realized that I could spend basically all of November and December reading whatever I wanted because I was done with reading commitments for the year.
I decided to finish all of the books I’d borrowed from people over the last several months, which I managed to do really quickly because I went unplugged for awhile. Since then, I’ve been on a literary fiction reading kick, which has been really abnormal and a lot of fun. Since finishing Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, I managed to read:
- The City and the City by China Miéville
- The Metropolis Case by Matthew Gallaway
- The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
- Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
I’m not going to talk about The Metropolis Case or The Weird Sisters in this post, since I’m signed up to review them for book tours in January. I’ll just say I was not entirely enamored with The Metropolis Case, but totally in love with The Weird Sisters and am definitely going to recommend that one.
But I am going to tell you about the other two books — The City and the City and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter — which were sort of oddball choices that came up unexpectedly, but in the best way possible.
The City and the City by China Miéville
I borrowed The City and the City by China Miéville from friends back in Minnesota when I was home for Thanksgiving after reading some great reviews of it. I ended up reading it while I was traveling, and fell in love with the odd concept, genre mixing, and really great writing.
The City and the City is the story of two cities — Beszel and Ul Qoma — that exist within the same physical space, but have completely different social and political lives. Citizens of one city are forced to “unsee” and “unhear” citizens, places, and incidents from the other, or risk being in breach. You can go between the cities, but doing so outside special areas is illegal and called “breaching.”
The plot of the story, which exists within that totally odd and difficult premise, is a murder mystery about a young woman from one city found murdered in the other. Our main character, a police inspector called Tyador Borlu is called in to investigate the crime, and gets pulled into a world of nationalist intrigue and political mythology.
In some ways, this book reminded me of the movie Inception, which I thought was awesome. In both cases, the writers use a familiar narrative — in Inception, the idea of a heist movie, and in The City and the City, the idea of a crime procedural — in order to help the reader navigate a complicated fantasy/science fiction premise. Because there’s a sense of “knowing” where the plot is going, it’s easy to sit back and let your mind wander through the ideas the different world has to offer you. That was my favorite part of The City and the City.
Miéville doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how the two cities came to be or about how the logistics of shared physical space happened in the past — you just have to sort of accept the premise and move on from there. But once you do that, the book opens up into all these crazy possibilities that you can just sit back and ponder. It was a very, very good book. For some people who agree with me, check out reviews from Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog and Jackie at Farm Lane Books.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
The second unexpected read from the last month was Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, a surprising Christmas gift from my editor. The book starts in rural Mississippi in the late 1970s with two boys — Larry Ott (a white son of middle class parents) and Silas “32” Jones (a poor black kid), two boys who were friends for a little bit despite their different skin colors.
Tragedy strikes when Larry takes a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, who then disappears. The town blames Larry for her disappearance — assuming he raped and murdered her — and he is ostracized. In contrast, Silas goes on to be a star baseball player who gets out of the small town as a success. Years later, Silas returns home to serve as the constable for his town, where quiet, solitary Larry is under suspicion again after another teenage girl goes missing.
I guess it’s interesting that this is another sort of crime story where the actual crime isn’t really the point. Sure, the plot of the book — what actually happened to Larry and Silas when they were kids and who took the teenage girl now — is interesting, but the best parts were the sort of psychological questions of friendship, betrayal, and loss that Franklin explores.
Neither Silas or Larry are perfect, and it’s their flaws that really make them good characters. And the way they sort of circle around each other, each afraid to face their past, is engaging and sad. But most of all, the book was fun to read because of the beautiful writing. The opening two paragraphs really set the tone of the story:
The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.
It’s stormed the night before over much of the Southeast, flash floods on the news, trees snapped in half and pictures of trailer homes twisted apart. Larry, forty-one years old and single, lived along in rural Mississippi in his parents’ house, though he couldn’t bring himself to think of it that way. He acted more like a curator, keeping the rooms clean, answering the mail and paying bills, turning on the television at the right times and smiling with the laugh tracks, eating his McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken to what the networks presented him and then sitting on his front porch as the day bled out of the trees across the field and the night settled in, each different, each the same.
I just really love the images and sense of character Franklin is able to use in the book, and really admire his way with words. The prose is what makes this particular book worth a chance, not necessarily the story, but not in a bad way at all. For some other thoughts, I suggest these posts at Fizzy Thoughts, Rhapsody in Books, The Literate Housewife Review, and Linus’s Blanket.
As for upcoming reading, it’s going to be all nonfiction all the time. The Indie Lit Awards Short Lists have been figured out, so I’ll be immersed in the five books for the nonfiction list until the end of January:
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
- Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
- At Home by Bill Bryson
- Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
I’m not sure if I’ll be formally reviewing these or not — I’m the judge for the panel, so will serve as a tiebreaker if the rest of my panel doesn’t come to consensus on the winner, and I feel like reviewing all the books might jeopardize that. But I’m excited to talk about the books, maybe in posts like this one, since they’re all nonfiction from 2010 that I’ve been interested in reading.
I just started The Warmth of Other Suns, and I’m hoping to make some really good progress with it today, despite my urge to watch football and cheer on my playoff bound fantasy football teams. Don’t get me started on that… But for now, my roommate Amanda is industriously making a pecan pie, and I am industriously… sitting on the couch and eating Christmas cookies. Yum.
Any books come into your reading unexpectedly over the last few months?