Like a lot of people this year, I've availed myself of a few different excellent library systems and gotten a lot of reading done. I thought for an end-of-year treat, I'd share the books I'd recommend and what makes them worth reading. And wouldn't you know it, my reading just happens to sort of self-sift into twelve different subject areas, so it's twelve days of reading! Each day's recommendations newsletter will clock in at 600 words or less, so you can gulp this quick bite when you need a minute to yourself. Enjoy giving your Libby app a vigorous workout or making some independent bookseller very happy.
MAIDEN, MOTHER, MURDERBOT
I recently surprised myself by going into a reverie about the Four Points by Sheraton Orlando International Drive, a hotel which is basically a cylindrical holding facility for corporate nomads. There is nothing remarkable about this place, and I think that was why I kept thinking about it: Sheltering in place since March has created a specific and inescapable sense of place in my house. Right now, an anonymous hotel would offer some refreshing clarity and distance, both physically and existentially
The first novel I read in quarantine, Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel, perfectly captures the emotional disconnect that springs from social and geographic disconnect, then moves into the emotional disconnect that springs from avoiding one's responsibilities to treat others ethically. I am still thinking about the liminal spaces in which all of the book's characters eventually end up, and how uncannily the characters' fates reflect and amplify the sense of precarity that swept through so many segments of the American population in 2020.
That precarity was also percolating through Jill Eisenstadt's Swell. Eisenstadt takes the maiden/mother/crone trope and walks each of those women through an identity crisis in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, NYC. The geographic displacement each woman has experienced is -- you know -- the metaphor for their psychological unmooring. Reading this was like double-dosing on nighttime cough syrup shortly before watching an episode of The Affair. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. One makes one's own fun when sheltering in place.
The question of where home is and how one crafts a sense of belonging is interwoven through all of Becky Chambers' Wayfarer Series -- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. I read them and thought, "It's Tumblr in space!" -- especially after one book's happy ending focuses on the protagonists running their own cozy space-coffee shop. However, it makes sense that the people who grew up doing group projects with classmates on Google Docs would write sci-fi in which the goal was not colonialism and conquest, but collaboration and community. Chambers' series is also laudable for its insistence that the real moral high mark of any culture is the idea that sentient beings deserve the dignity of self-fulfillment.
Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries -- All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy and the novel Network Effect -- also tackle the idea that selfhood is a right, not a privilege, albeit in a universe that is less cozy than the one Chambers created. Wells' books are narrated by a lethally skilled cyborg who is only beginning to understand the scope of their own selfhood, and they're perfect reading for anyone who's felt alienated by the world around them and could use a few good, sharp laughs.
The final recommendation in the fiction list somehow manages to mash together both the "geographic displacement is a metaphor for emotional alienation!" metaphor and the "Does it matter where we are so long as we know who we are?" questions from all my preceding recommendations -- Naomi Kritzer's Catfishing on Catnet. We're all familiar with the AI-becomes-self-aware story, but this AI likes cat pictures and the angsty teens with whom it communes, and the plot's resolution is the kind of gratifying "The bullies and bad guys get theirs" moment that might have been missing too often in our world this year. There's a sequel coming out in April. It is my fervent hope that when I read it, I'm in a placeless hotel room somewhere missing my friends, family and home.
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER:
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers
Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers
Swell, Jill Eisenstadt
Catfishing on Catnet, Naomi Kritzer
The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel
All Systems Red, Martha Wells
Artificial Condition, Martha Wells
Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells
Exit Strategy, Martha Wells
Network Effect, Martha Wells