What I read last month: October 2017

In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.

Here’s what I read:

Magazines

I sampled a variety of literary magazines online: LitMag, Necessary Fiction, and a few more from the Baltimore Review. I also got way behind on my New Yorker short fiction and have a big stack sitting next to my couch.

Books

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

★★★★

Homegoing is a fascinating novel. Being a sucker for a deep, character-driven novel, I worried I would struggle with the structure of this one. It begins in 18th-century Africa and follows the descendents of two half-sisters, neither of whom knew the other, to present-day United States.

The novel starts out rich and engaging, and I was sad to leave the original characters behind. As I read, I had to make peace with the fact that some characters, I would never see again. There is a built-in lack of closure here, and it would’ve left me wanting more if not for the way everything gets braided together in the end.

That said, by necessity, more characters pile up as the book goes on. In the beginning, it’s easy to see the connections between them. As we near present day, the author must resort to exposition that feels heavy-handed for a close-third POV. For example: in my head, I never think, “my father, John, worked for several years as a truck driver for a nursery in Pennsylvania.” It’d be more like: “I thought back to the years my dad spent driving trucks for the nursery.” But in the context of an epic story, you need to know his name, so you can say, “oooooh, okay, this is John’s daughter we’re meeting here.”

When bits of exposition and connecting details are inserted this way, they can pull the reader out of the zone. We become aware of the fact that we’re reading, as opposed to staying immersed in the POV character’s experience.

In the case of Homegoing, the plot is king, and the story here is really incredible. I loved seeing how everyone’s story played out, and how these two parallel sets of ancestors built upon each other.

I’d also never read an account of slavery, Jim Crow, and beyond that felt quite like this. While we’re occasionally taken out of the story to be told how a new character connects to the ones we know already, we’re also drawn back in by the vividness of their lived experience.

All in all, Homegoing is an important book, and one I had trouble putting down. The ambitious structure required a little bit of flexibility on my part, but I was well rewarded in the end.

Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

★★★

Almost Missed You is pretty heavily plot-driven, and therefore not the first book I’d usually pick. However, after seeing the author speak at several Writers Digest conference sessions, I just had to give her book a read.

I was fascinated by her choices in writing this book. She gives Finn, the runaway husband, several POV chapters. Not only that, his wife Violet is ostensibly the main character here, but she ends up feeling almost secondary to the supporting cast. The plot revolves around her, but we experience her story most vividly through the perspectives of her husband and best friend. The story, really, is both hers and Finn’s.

And isn’t that the case in every marriage?

Because I love uncovering people’s stories, I loved how Almost Missed You’s plot unfolded over time. Strawser reveals just enough in each chapter. In fact, she reveals an entirely natural amount of information given the point of view, so the exposition doesn’t feel clunky. We move from one character to the next, putting the pieces together little by little, until everything comes to a head.

I especially appreciated the somewhat-ambiguous ending, which manages to avoid feeling contrived or insulting to the reader.

My biggest criticism is that many passages feel heavy on telling vs. showing. I would’ve preferred a little more rich detail showing the characters’ internal reactions, and a little less outright telling what characters were feeling. On many occasions, the author doesn’t trust the writer quite enough, and hands us too much straight information.

Even so, I’m glad I read the book, and will probably read Strawser’s second novel as well.

All the Names They Used for God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva

★★★

(Note: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review)

This collection provided everything I look for in a short story: a world that draws me in at once, and a character who takes me on a journey. With each story, we experience a transformation. The writing is what I’d call speculative fiction, but it’s incredibly seamless. Every world the author creates feels like it could exist alongside our own. Sometimes the story’s place in time is clear (e.g. Carnegie’s steel mills). Sometimes it feels like it could be pre-industrial or post-apocalyptic.

Most of all, though, each story stands on its own as a complete journey. While there seems to be a trend toward vignettes and character sketches in modern short fiction, I found these stories refreshing. No story ends on too neat and tidy a note, but neither are we left feeling like we haven’t traveled anywhere. Each story hits the perfect balance with pacing, plot, and character arc.

This book was a delight to read, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good short story collection.

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