And here we are again, showing October the door (at last). So, what did I read this month?
The first book I finished in October was Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. This book was a big enough deal five years ago to have gotten a review on NPR’s Fresh Air. It’s another book (like last month’s The Recipe Club) that is written entirely as letters; in this case, all of the letters are written by the same person – Jason Fitger, a professor of creative writing and literature in an English department at what I’m assuming is a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Professor Fitger appears to spend most of his time writing letters of recommendation – for students, for fellow faculty, for former colleagues, etc. Through these letters we get a picture of him, his department, and his university, over the course of a year. An academic year (August to August).
Fitger is a classic curmudgeon, whose letters contain lots of irrelevancies and, I thought, quite a lot of outright slander. We find that he’s unhappy with his career trajectory, that his department is shrinking due to loss of students (and, of course, with the students, resources), and that he doesn’t think much of the aforementioned students, with the notable exception of one clear favorite: Darren Browles, a graduate student who has written a reimagining of Bartleby set in a Nevada brothel. For much of the story, Fitger tries desperately to get Browles funding, or a place at a writing retreat, or a job – SOMETHING to keep the poor kid working on his novel, which Fitger thinks is a work of genius. However, as the novel goes on, it becomes obvious that Fitger actually thinks of Browles as a young version of himself.
Most of Fitger’s letters are more harmful than helpful – and this includes the ones he means to be laudatory. I found myself intensely disliking the character, and that’s hard for me, in a book. The story is meant to be funny, but I find the idea of writing letters that will (deliberately) destroy a student’s life to be incredibly distasteful – and, yes, I know I was supposed to feel that way. Still.
But the book was short, and I persevered.
Ultimately, I came to understand Jason Fitger, if not like him. In particular, the resolution of the Darren Browles story, combined with the deaths of at least one of Fitger’s old friends, gives it more weight and saved it from the “mediocre, meh” pile in the end. Recommended, though with reservations.
Next, I finished Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig. It’s a Star Wars tie-in, set in the months immediately following the destruction of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. The characters are uniformly new, and the story was good. Nevertheless…I may just be “over” tie-in novels entirely. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, because, honestly, I’d have to dig around a lot on the internet to remember enough of the plot to make it worth it. One thing that is worth the read, though: Mister Bones, the revamped B1 battle droid with the really creepy-cute personality. I’m ALMOST willing to read the rest of this trilogy just to get to interact more with Mister Bones.
Almost, but not quite. I’ll pick them up from the library if I have nothing else to read.
Finally, I read Vessel by Lisa Nichols. This one was a Sword and Laser Podcast pick a couple months ago. It’s a first-contact novel, and it’s not, well…novel. The idea of someone going to space and not coming back alone isn’t new. That said, I really enjoyed the story. It’s a fun mystery as well as a creepy space exploration adventure novel.
The story is about Catherine Wells, the sole survivor of the first expedition to land on a planet outside our solar system. A wormhole (Einstein-Rosen Bridge, ERB) has appeared (somewhere near Jupiter, maybe? she does say) and there’s an almost-habitable planet on the other end. Wells was one of the six crew of the first mission to explore the planet…and she’s the only one to come back alive. She returns to Earth alone, nine years after she left, with no memories of most of the time away. In that time, her daughter has grown up, her husband has grieved and moved on, and NASA has prepped a second mission to the ERB.
The story has two prongs: Wells’ relationships with her husband and daughter, and solving the mystery of what happened out there. Did Wells murder her crew? Was there a disaster? Is the crew of the new mission in danger?
Turns out (no surprise) that there was a disaster, and some murders, and that aliens are involved. Turns out further (spoilers) that Wells isn’t the first one to interact with the aliens.
So, I’m gonna say that there aren’t a lot of big surprises in this one. That said, it was still a fun, engaging story that I kept looking forward to picking back up. The most emotionally challenging parts for me were the bits about missing NINE YEARS of her daughter’s life. Oh…and the choice Wells makes at the end. Let’s just say, without spoilers: I was not on board.
Right now, I am reading what if: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Monroe. Monroe is the creator of xkcd, and the book is funny. Questions include: How dangerous is it, really, to be in a pool in a thunderstorm? What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element? and What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light?
I’m also reading Severance, by Ling Ma, and having a little trouble with it. It SHOULD be right up my alley: it’s a post-apocalypse story (world destroying infection), and the reviews I’ve read are good. But the fact remains: I started it October 8, and I have read 38 pages. Some of that was because I was on a plane and had finished the other two books I had with me. I’ve started AND finished a book (Vessel) in the interim.
The issue I think I’m having is that it doesn’t use the convention of quotation marks around dialogue. Dialogue is just…there, and you figure it out. It makes the story feel less real for me, somehow. I’m hoping that, once I get past the beginnings of the apocalypse, it’ll pick up and I’ll stop noticing.
Finally, I just started Children of Men, by P.D. James. You know, it’s a classic. I saw the movie on New Year’s Day 2007. I’m finally getting around to asking how similar the book is to the film. Twelve pages in I can already say: there are differences. Cool. I like the exercise of comparing the source material to a film I really enjoyed. Sometimes it works well (I enjoyed both versions of The Joy Luck Club. Also Crazy Rich Asians.). Sometimes it doesn’t (I really DISLIKED the novel Practical Magic, but dug the movie). I’ll let you know how it goes.
That’s it for now. See you guys in December. Unless I write that post about the dos and don’ts of applying to jobs at PUIs.