Books I Loved in 2021 (first half)

Previously: 2020, 2019, 2018

Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Intimate Character Portraits

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler.

A young vampire awakes, remembering nothing of who (or what) she is. Gradually, she learns about her past, her people, and the attack that stole her memory.

I really don’t know how Butler is so good.

I’m almost always drawn to fiction with artful sentences, writers with literary flair. That’s just not how Butler wrote. Her sentences are functional. Unassuming. The language never surprises and rarely delights me. Moreover, this book’s plot mixes stuff that doesn’t appeal to me (vampires) with stuff that actively repels me (borderline pedophilic sex scenes) plus stuff that just shouldn’t work (vampire family court).

Yet it all works so beautifully well.

Butler’s gifts mystify me. With most writers I admire, I can point to specific elements on the page. With Butler I can only gesture at her pacing, her sense of economy, her clarity of imagination. She was a master storyteller. But how? What constitutes her mastery? I’ll keep reading, but I don’t expect I’ll ever pin it down.

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

An “artificial friend” named Klara sits in a store window, waiting to be purchased and brought home by a child whom she can love and care for.

All the hallmarks of Ishiguro. A perceptive yet unreliable narrator. A vague sense of dread. Most of all, a protagonist living an existence that’s highly constrained (Klara sees only a few rooms), yet not impoverished in depth or meaning (a single window comes to feel like a whole world). Her days are objectively mundane, yet against that backdrop, even minor breaks from the routine can feel transformative.

Out of the Ishiguro books I’ve read, this is the simplest. The thinnest, you might say. To me, it’s strictly dominated by Never Let Me Go, which I consider a subtler, more gripping, more haunting book. Still, the first half of Klara is compelling, and the whole story is worth reading.

Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess.

A portal opens up in New York City, and through it pour 150,000 refugees from an alternate timeline. We follow the lives of two displaced people, coping in our unfamiliar world.

In reality, this would be the most significant, most shocking, and most bonkers world event of my lifetime. Millions of people (I among them) would drop everything and devote ourselves to learning about the parallel universe, hunting for the precise moment (around 1909) when the timelines diverged.

But that’s not how sci-fi novels work. Characters don’t stand around exclaiming, “Wow, cool, this is just like a sci-fi novel!” Thus, in Chess’s story, no one is especially captivated or obsessed with the visitors. Instead, they’re tolerant at best, and hostile at worst, shrug off the refugees as unwelcome “aliens.”

As a result, the book isn’t really about the contingency of history. It’s about the contingency of life as a refugee. It’s about being torn from your family and your culture, dislocated in time and space (or, in this case, spacetime), and how you cope with the trauma of dislocation.

At times I wanted a more conventional sci-fi plot, and more details on the alternate timeline. (In short, I wanted this book to belong under the “Panoramic Visions” section below.) But that’s not the book Chess was writing. She wanted to tell a story of homesickness and loss. Hope and hopelessness. Coping and failing to cope. It’s a bleaker, rawer, less cerebral tale than the one I anticipated. But deftly told, and affecting.

Ninth House, by Leigh Barduro.

A girl with the ability to see ghosts is recruited by a Yale secret society. She struggles to learn the ways and customs of magical power – and, even more so, the ways and customs of cultural power.

The basic metaphor isn’t hard to grasp. Once pointed out, it’s so obvious I feel silly I didn’t pitch this premise for a novel myself. Ivy League kids wield vast, unearned cultural power. Also, they like to gather in secret societies. Why not make the power literal? Why not make them magic societies?

The cultural commentary works largely because Barduro doesn’t beat you over the head with it. She’s more interested in telling the tale of her protagonist: a recovering addict, the child of a single mother, an archetypal “troubled youth” possessing none of the cultural and financial capital that most Yale students take for granted. I enjoyed looking through her eyes to see not just the magical Yale, but the nonmagical one. Who shows her kindness? Who shows her disdain? Who dresses up their disdain as kindness, or doesn’t notice her long enough to feel either?

Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Panoramic Visions

The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (trans: Ken Liu).

A mysterious conspiracy threatens the world’s scientists. Entangled in the drama is a peculiar computer game about an inhospitable planet – as well as a woman who, during China’s cultural revolution, saw how inhospitable we can make our planet for each other.

The purest experience of science fiction that I’ve had in ages. Exhilarating, conceptual, mind-tickling stuff.

Usually, I consider a novel good if one or two vivid images stick with me. This book has maybe a dozen. A mysterious countdown in the corner of your eye. An atom unfolded across dimensions. A body dehydrated to survive a long winter. A wire invisibly thin. A desperate message relayed off the sun.

Whence such copious originality? Is it because Chinese science fiction is a young genre, fresh and vital, unencumbered by expectations? Or is Liu’s imagination just that fertile?

The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu (trans: Joel Martison).

With the world facing an existential threat, four men are endowed with the power to make secret plans for humanity’s defense. Three are renowned leaders. One is a nobody – and the last, best hope for human survival.

The sequel to Three Body Problem, with most of the same merits: rigorous and inventive sci-fi concepts, vivid and memorable images, and most of all, eye-popping ambition.

However, the book suffers a flaw that its predecessor had escaped: a baffling and distracting gender imbalance. For hundreds of pages, as the world’s fate hangs by a thread, the work of saving humanity all falls to men. We meet zero women of consequence. When a female character finally arrives, she is literally a fantasy, conjured up by the mind of a yearning, horny man.

It reminds me, in a weird way, of West Wing. The merits of the writing are extraordinary. But the treatment of women is so in-your-face terrible that I can’t give it an unqualified recommendation.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

A “hard sci-fi” vision of how the colonization of Mars might unfold.

How do you write a book like this? Robinson imagines a whole future for humans on Mars: science, technology, politics, economics, sociology, religion… and he does it all with a surprisingly small number of simplifying assumptions. He plans a whole planetary colonization more rigorously and fully than I can plan a lunch date.

I wish he spent a little more time on the early stages, rather than leaping ahead to a Mars already spotted with settlements and bristling with factions. Still, the book occupies a nice middle ground between two other Martian classics: the micro-scale survival adventures of Andy Weir’s The Martian, and the macro-scale humanistic probing of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

Is this novel quite up to the standard of those two? Probably not. But then again, what is?

Cruel Miracles, by Orson Scott Card.

Sci-fi and fantasy short stories exploring how religious people find meaning in life.

At the center of Card’s writing is his Mormonism. It’s there not just in books like The Call of Earth (a sci-fi retelling of the Book of Mormon) or Folk of the Fringe (about the Mormon community rebuilding after an apocalyptic event). It’s there in all his writing, from the moral sci-fi of Ender’s Game to American folktale fantasy of Seventh Son to the geopolitics of Shadow of the Hegemon to the historical meditations of Pastwatch. You see it especially in his nonfiction: almost every paragraph conveys his sense of being an outsider to the secular world of U.S. literature.

So of his four collections of short stories, this one perhaps gets closest to the heart of Card. I say that with warmth and praise. Card’s worldview is not my own – and of course, that’s one reason why I read him.

Nonfiction: How to See the World Differently

The 99% Invisible City, by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt.

An exploration of the hidden design choices that shape urban life.

I’m a longtime fan of the 99% Invisible podcast, which does thoughtful highbrow stories on architecture, design, transportation, public art, and other aspects of our designed world that may escape your notice (especially if you are a bumbling, half-blind urban-dweller like me; I could not, with 100% accuracy, tell you the color of the house I live in).

Also, I must note that Roman Mars has one of the great voices in podcasting, plus one of the great names. Roman Mars could be a lost sci-fi classic, with sequels such as The Caesar of the Red Planet and The God of Interplanetary War.

Anyway, the book is just what you’d expect. Meticulously researched mini-profiles of different things found around the city, ranging from manhole covers to skyscrapers to squirrels. Math fans will particularly enjoy the brief chapter on “Null Island.”

The Language God Talks, by Herman Wouk.

Written by the bestselling novelist in 2011, when he was in his nineties, this book draws a contrast between scientific humanism and the author’s own Orthodox Judaism.

I picked this one up because Steven Strogatz talks about it in his calculus book Infinite Powers. For him, Wouk is a touchstone. The famous novelist hears from Richard Feynman that calculus is “the language God talks,” tries to learn that language, and fails.

For Strogatz, that’s a galvanizing disappointment. He wrote his book to reach the Wouks of the world.

Wouk himself shrugs it off, and forges ahead seeking to reconcile his own worldview (as an Orthodox Jew who devoted many hours to reading the Torah) with the scientific humanism of nonreligious Jews like Feynman and Einstein (who invoke “God” only as a metaphor for the mindless operations of the cosmos).

I don’t think Wouk quite achieves the synthesis he’s aiming for. But he gives a respectable pop-science account of 20th-century cosmology, followed by an engaging discussion of his own writing career. I’m not sure how well the two halves hang together, but I’ll count myself damn lucky if I’m writing books 1% this good in my nineties.

Scout Mindset, by Julia Galef.

In “soldier mindset,” we fight to defend our beliefs, blind to contrary evidence; in “scout mindset,” we seek to map the terrain, to understand the world as it is. Galef (a leader in the movement that ambivalently calls itself “rationalism”) offers genial guidance on how to become a better scout.

In today’s world of eroding consensus, we are all forced to become amateur epistemologists. How do you know what you know? Galef gives a clear-eyed, fair-minded, reasonable discussion of how to become more clear-eyed, fair-minded, and reasonable.

To me, her scout/soldier metaphor is (a) brilliant, and (b) sneaky.

The brilliance is that it says, “You don’t need to abandon your army.” We act like soldiers because we’re wary of betraying our causes. Galef’s metaphor reassures us that seeing the world clearly is not betrayal. If your side is making occasional false claims, or failing to recognize counterarguments, then identifying these strategic weaknesses will only serve to strengthen your team.

The sneakiness is that Galef doesn’t really believe that. A good scout, in her view, must be willing to abandon the army. If a belief proves mistaken, cast it aside. She singles out for celebration a pro-chastity advocate who later renounces his own bestselling book, and a climate change skeptic who digs deeper and eventually switches sides. This isn’t “good scouting” in the traditional sense. It’s going AWOL.

Ah well. Galef never said seeing the world with clear eyes is easy, only that it’s better than self-deception. And on the whole, I believe her (though I’m open to contrary evidence).

Nonfiction: Unconventional Memoirs

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, by Sarah Ruhl.

A leading playwright (and overtaxed parent) offers brief, provocative mini-essays on the theater, playwriting, and related topics.

I was expecting a playful collection of half-developed thoughts on scattered topics. (The subtitle mentions umbrellas, sword fights, parades, dogs, fire alarms, and children, before it gets to “theater.”) Am I an ignoramus for not recognizing that Ruhl is a renowned playwright, and that this is a book on the theater?

Well, now I am slightly less of an ignoramus. While reading, I felt immersed in a whole new way of thinking. Ruhl speaks a language of presence, physicality, reality, imagination, communion. She is sensitive to things I don’t usually notice, and organizes the world along different lines than I do. Hearing how a playwright sees life made me realize that I am not very much like a playwright. I’m something closer to a cognitive psychologist, speaking a language of concepts, heuristics, models, and schema.

Reading Ruhl, I came to feel my own worldview lacks magic and mystery, that I have too many glass jars and printed labels. This book gave me the feeling of perceiving forms that I usually miss.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg.

An unconventional memoir, peppered with high-concept comedy pieces and wry biblical exegesis, about the author’s gender transition.

Why does all the promotional copy for this book try to hide the ball?

“A hilarious and stirring collection of essays and cultural observations.” I guess, but that belies the collection’s thematic unity.

“In his most personal work to date, he turns his attention to the essay.” Not wrong, but that description focuses on the form, as if the content were secondary.

“A hilarious and emotionally exhilarating compendium that combines personal history with cultural history.” True enough, but where’s the book’s actual topic?

Ah, there it is, tucked into a subordinate clause, as one of three items in a list, given approximately the same descriptive weight as “the beauty of William Shatner”:

“Gender transition.”

I don’t know why Simon & Schuster strained so hard to make this book sound like it was written by David Rakoff or David Sedaris. It was not written by any such David. It was written by one of the finest parodists of his (and my) generation, whose legendary Two Monks series still makes me laugh aloud, who can leap genres in a single bound, and who has now written a yearning, earnest memoir about his gender transition.

The book is at turns whimsical, warm, and bleak. Biblical passages and parodies abound. The author (who now goes by Daniel Lavery) spent much of his childhood in the church, and the Old and New Testaments give him rich material for exploring gender, queerness, and selfhood. The book can be difficult to read, in the way that good memoirs sometimes are. Again and again, he wrestles with a desire for self-denial: an impulse not to take up space, not to ask for things, not to do something so ostentatious and presumptuous as explore his true gender identity.

In an odd way, the anxious circumlocutions of the back cover mirror this tone. It’s as if the book is smiling a panicked smile, trying to be the life of the party, desperate not to confess too much or take itself too seriously, afraid to tell us that, beneath its covers, it’s a trans memoir.

It’s okay, book! We love you the way you are!

A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, by Alexandra Petri.

A collection of comic essays about Petri’s childhood, early adulthood, and idiosyncratic approach to life.

It’s a risky thing to write a memoir in your twenties. Petri isn’t Malala: she’s a Washington Post columnist, a Harvard grad, a best bud of The Good Place writer Megan Amram, and the daughter of a former congressman. I’m jealous of her already. (I want to write for the Post! I want to be buds with Megan Amram!) When you’ve achieved great things at a young age, thanks to an indeterminate mix of immense talent and unusual privilege, how do you write about yourself for 200 pages without making everyone hate you?

Petri’s solution is to play up the “awkward” angle. It’s an instantiation of the usual strategy of good prose humorists: be self-effacing.

But I don’t totally buy the awkwardness. Mostly she comes across as awesome. She fibs her way into parties, has fun with oddball strangers, and wins national punning awards. She has a knack for wholesome mischief, and seems to create more wacky memories in a typical week than I can muster in a decade.

So what really makes this book work? It’s that Petri is an exceptional humor writer, a demigod of comic timing. Her command of language is so deep it looks effortless; the closest comparison is Dave Barry, and that’s not a comparison I make lightly.

Between You & Me, by Mary Norris.

A longtime New Yorker copy editor shares tips on usage and style, along with anecdotes about her errors, her successes, and the magazine’s distinctive orthography.

I’ve taken a professional interest in a peculiar subgenre: “witty, self-aware books about the minutiae and technicalities of English prose.” The genre ranges from idiosyncratic style guides (Dreyer’s English and Woe Is I) to histories of punctuation (Semicolon) to bestselling hybrids of these two (the bestseller Eats Shoots & Leaves, which launched the whole genre). Each of these books is also a kind of covert memoir, a testament to the writer’s passion for hyphens and apostrophes.

Mary Norris takes the next natural step: writing an overt memoir. The notes on style and usage aren’t really the substance of the book; they’re more like a clothesline, to which Norris can pin fun stories, personal reflections, and other colorful garments.

6 thoughts on “Books I Loved in 2021 (first half)

  1. I absolutely love The Three-Body Problem, and I’ve recommended it to pretty much everyone I know. I didn’t notice the gender thing when I was reading Dark Forest, but now that you’ve pointed it out to me, it’s pretty obvious. Looking back on it, that whole subplot with his wife was really creepy. (Don’t worry about the third book, though–the problem gets fixed.)

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