Two books into 2016 and, damn, but I’m on a roll

My blog, as you may have noticed, ended up on a bit of an unintended holiday hiatus. It’s been a bit of a stressful last few weeks — good stress and bad stress — and I let my writing suffer as a result. I read a lot more. I watched thirty-eight and a half episodes of The Americans. I played Penny Dreadful Clue. I rang in the new year on the West Coast, my first time heading out that way. I forgot to pack a James Bond book for the flight.

But I’ve got plans for 2016 — resolutions, of sorts. And I thought I’d check in here, just to see what was what and to make a few promises. I’ll finish all of Fleming’s Bond books in 2016. I’ll keep up with reviews. I’ll put a dent in the TBR pile that’s been around since 2013.

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City Lights Books, San Francisco

Not to brag, but I’ve kicked off my New Year’s Reading with two pretty damn great titles, one hardback and one paperback I’ve been meaning to read for months. The first book I finished in 2016 actually started in 2015, after picking it up while on my lovely vacation out west. I was in San Francisco visiting friends, and while they both went to work one morning, I was left with a prototypical foggy, gray day of my own to fill. I made for Chinatown first, and then found my way to City Lights, and took them up on their offer to sit and read awhile.

I read Ginsberg’s Howl, 1) because I never had; and 2) because it seemed appropriate, given the setting. But that was still 2015. The book that carried me into 2016, that made me wish I hadn’t quite so much to drink on New Year’s Eve or that I hadn’t walked quite so far while sightseeing, just so I could read another fifty pages before going to bed too late, was Susan Barker’s The Incarnations.

Incarnations-homeThe Incarnations follows Driver Wang through pre-Olympic Beijing, a taxi driver who begins receiving unsettling letters from someone claiming to be his “soul mate.” This mystery mate claims they have been working on writing out the centuries of tangled history the two share, so that Wang might remember their shared past lives. But as we learn about the likes of emperor’s courtesans and fishermen apprehended by pirates at sea, we also read about Wang’s descent into paranoia, his strained relationships with his wife, his young daughter, his ailing father, his truly wicked stepmother, and a presence from his past that Wang cannot keep away from, even as he insists he does not need this person in his life.

This book stood out to me for its vivid, lush prose, and past and present storylines that proved to be equally compelling. I wanted to understand Wang’s past lives; I wanted to know who his soul mate penpal was (though the identity of the letter-writer became clearer in the final quarter of the book, my understanding made the finale no less emotional). I was glad to keep reading and reading to find out, and felt a legitimate pang when I turned a page, 30,000 feet over Pennsylvania, and realized it was over.
The second book of 2016 was also a San Francisco find. I had flown out with some delayed Christmas presents for the friends I was staying with, and ended up flying back with my weight in Ghirardelli chocolate and six new books, because, as I tweeted, the SF indie bookstore game is far too strong. I saw book #2, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, in paperback on a recommended reading shelf in The Booksmith on Haight Street. The friend I was with mentioned that she had enjoyed it, and I figured these were reasons enough to purchase the book. I couldn’t bring myself to let a long-standing TBR slip away again.

polImageStation Eleven opens with the death of a superstar and ends in such a way as to beg a sequel (I’m not sure if there’s one in the works, but I would love it if there were). In the aftermath of a flu pandemic, civilization as we know it collapses, leaving those lucky — or unlucky — enough to have survived to continue their toil in a dark, lonely landscape. The story bounces between timelines and character focus, shifting perspectives from characters like Kirsten, who was a child actor in the time before but has become a warrior on the road; the Hollywood star Arthur, who has the perhaps best luck and dies of a heart attack before the end of the world; and the circles of families, friends, lovers, and loved ones who make up the worlds of both Kirsten and Arthur, both in the time before and the time after.

My favorite part of Station Eleven was the world-building. I appreciated the author’s handling of both the modern, familiar settings and the alien, sometimes appalling landscape of post-apocalypse North America, and the flashbacks to the time before were absolutely necessary to understand the complex web of character connections and crossed paths. But the attention to end of the world detail in the post-flu story was especially fascinating — the loss of running water and electricity, our connection-obsessed world lost in total internet- and cell-darkness.

I also particularly loved the first introduction of the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag band of musicians and actors who travel through the settlements of the new world, urged on by a Star Trek: Voyager quote: “Survival is insufficient.” The very first descriptor that came to mind was “Carnivàle meets The Walking Dead.” And if that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.

On Goodreads, I’ve pledged to read 60 books in 2016. I’d like many of those to be some more of the classics, books I already own, books from the library, and graphic novels. And I’d like to keep sharing my thoughts on those books with the ether, starting here with the first two damn great books of the year, and hopefully continuing with #3 (a re-read of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian). There will be good books and awful, I know, but these two opening titles have given me hope for a new year spent happily, giddily, furiously reading.

Oh, and I guess with some more James Bond.

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