What I've been reading
Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
Total Darby catnip, this one, Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr; I can only describe my experience with this book as being real reader-y. It’s a 600-plus page story layered across three distant but connected timelines, set against the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a small town in modern-day Idaho, and a generational starship several centuries in the future, and yet for being all of that, it also acted as a delightfully energetic palate-cleanser as I wandered, dazed, out of the mental minefield of Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom.
I’m a slow reader, but I rolled this one up in my fist and crushed it. It started out a page-turner and stayed that way right up until it ran out of pages to turn. Good, fun, sad. If I did BookTok, I’d probably have posted a gushy video moments after I finished it. Thank the gods I do not do BookTok.
The only…well, in the interest of trying to find something critical to say about it, I can say the book did keep bringing David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to mind. This book is definitely not that, but it did remind me I’m well overdue for a reread. There’s a little bit of puzzle-box vibe early on, like, it also loosely reminded me of S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, but that’s also not really its intention, either. (But of course if you’re putting together a playlist of books with books in them, throw ‘em all in the pile, right?) With this one you’ll have fun learning how the story lines converge, but it’s not that meta. But it is a book for people who love books. (For all its tricks, come to think of it, the same could be said about S.) If I weren’t lazy, if I weren’t trying to slam this issue out before I go away on vacation from Ohio for a week, I’d figure out what the right “Recommended If You Like” examples would be, but.
This was my first Anthony Doerr book. (Fun fact: he was raised in Cleveland. Huh!) I never got around to reading All the Light We Cannot See, which was one of those books that, one day, it didn’t exist, and then the next day, it existed literally everywhere, on every list and every shelf—check your chair, you might be sitting on a copy right now—and so it perversely and counterintuitively felt like I didn’t really need to read it, like it was doing just fine without me. But maybe I do!
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
I just got The Candy House, the new book by Jennifer Egan, who is the best. The new book is somehow related to A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I hadn’t read since it came out. I don’t know when I’m actually going to read the new one—I’m not taking it on vacation with me—but I was long overdue to revisit the earlier one. And, well, I did.
It’s funny, rereading a book about time, after time has passed, after one has, disturbingly, shockingly, wrongfully, aged. Like, according to my data, I started rereading this exactly twelve years minus one day after I originally finished it. A quarter of a lifetime ago. And so of course I went into it with time on my mind, and my own relation to time, and this book hit differently, today, probably a little harder than I’m sure it did, those two or three eye-blinks ago.
Did I say funny? I meant oh god what how god oh no no no.
When you think about this book today you probably think about the PowerPoint chapter. The book’s still got tricks, sure, but it’s not the postmodern wonderland I dimly recalled. It’s better than that, possibly an apotheosis of the ”linked stories novel,“ not that I’ve read enough to make that judgment, but. She’s using the form to set her prose loose like a camera on a drone, zooming in and out and swerving and swooping across time from character to character. It’s a fun ride.
That said, it’s still not my favorite of hers? I mean, I flipped out hard over Look at Me, the first book of hers I read, but that was ages ago; I’m scared to ever touch it again, for fear of even slightly tarnishing my memory of that experience. More recently, I loved Manhattan Beach; I think I do prefer her playing the story just a bit more straight, lingering with her characters, using her skills to fully submerse herself into and linger within other realities.
Moon Witch, Spider King, by Marlon James
Take a photograph, doesn’t matter of what: that’s a fantasy novel.
Take that photograph, the paper it’s printed on. Repaint the picture on top of it. Get vibrant. Get a little impressionistic. Get a little drunk on paint fumes and thickening mediums. Slather the paint, work it, layer it, thicken it, build up hills in the plains, smooth the sides downward into valleys, carve in roads and paths, ridge the lines and details until each one catches the light and casts its own long shadow. Push toward abstraction. Stop shy.
That painting? That’s a Marlon James fantasy novel.
Reductive metaphor? Sure. Useful? I think so.
See, I love Marlon James’s Dark Star books. I read Black Leopard, Red Wolf in 2020, and now I’ve read Moon Witch, Spider King, which came just recently. I love these books, but I’m not sure I love reading them.
These books offer me a unique view of what fantasy novels can do, providing a newness and strangeness that I crave. Coming off reading Terry Brooks for the first time, James is exploring deeper, richer grounds. There’s parallels, similarities, sure—I mean, there’s a questing fellowship at the heart of these books. But it brings new, subversively un-Tolkien energy to the setting and themes.
That said, actually reading these books can feel like an awful lot of work. This was a much slower affair than I had with, say, Cloud Cuckoo Land; I wasn’t mainlining the joy of being a reader. Getting past my textural-level appreciation is tough, and it distracts me from fully gripping what’s happening and its significance. There’s a weirdness to these books, unfamiliar tones, fracturing narrative strategies—point of view shifts, unspoken assumptions, action bursting ahead of what the action’s about. For a slow reader like me it can be hard to chew on such headwinds.
None of this is a bad thing in itself. Across a 600-plus page novel, read over the course of three weeks, when I got other stuff going on, when I could be playing Dark Souls or Dead Cells, it can make for frustratingly aggravating nights. But on the right day, with the right mood, I’d prefer to be challenged like this, I want this sort of book, the kind that makes me want to shred 1300-plus words into a newsletter because it got me all jazzed up even if I’m doing little more than worrying at and exposing my own shortcomings in the process, ahem, ahem.
It’s worth noting, if you’re unfamiliar, that these two books purport to tell the same story from distinct, conflicting points of view; James has said he wanted to bring more of an African story-telling influence to fantasy, including more of a questioning of truth, like there’s a trickster figure at play, somewhere. He’s suggested the books could be read in any order, that they don’t present themselves as a linear progression, as parts one and two and three.
Which, to that end, I think Moon Witch might make for a better starting point, if you’re interested in these books. This one flowed more easily for me than the first did. The narrative is straight-forward, comparatively; it offers a smoother on-ramp into the world James is constructing.
There is a “main” story at the core of these books—the search for a boy—but both books come at that story from different angles, distinct perspectives. The second book is Sogolon’s narrative, the Moon Witch’s narrative, and she places the story of the search for that boy in the context of her own life, as something that occurs some 170-odd years after her birth. It’s part of something much larger, for her, according to her.
I know for a fact I did not follow Black Leopard well enough to speak even remotely intelligently about it, two years later, but, still, certain moods and moments have lingered, certain details came re-un-lodged as I made my way through Moon Witch. Those moments of connection and relation are energizing; clearly I need to revisit the first book, with Sogolon’s story in tow. Rereading both books together, I’m sure, would help show how the stories echo and reflect and distort my view of them, how much they simultaneously illuminate and confuse each other.
Something I did not expect to happen was to feel my perspective of both Sogolon and the Tracker, from Black Leopard, shift to such a wide degree. I vaguely remember Sogolon feeling…well, like a witch, and not a particularly nice one, in the first book, like she came in with a private, hidden agenda, like someone untrustworthy, as she related to Tracker, where my initial, confused sympathies lay. But the second book deepened my sympathies for both characters even as I learned more about just how separate their worldviews are. Obviously, just hearing the long, broken story of Sogolon’s life was enough to reshape whatever caricature of her I took from the first book. And then on top of that her perspective of Tracker, albeit fractious and limited, is enough to cover him in a new light. As Sogolon put it, he’s just a boy; I’m not sure how clearly that simple fact ever came across in the first book, for me.
Another throw-away point: I think a lot about the so-called divides between genre and non-genre, between various kinds of genre, and whether folks stick to their lanes in their reading or cross borders with ease. I think about this not in a judgmental way—folks like what they like!—but out of curiosity. As someone who does try to jump around, I wonder if there are proper entry points to other realms for folks who might not otherwise try to make those jumps.
To that end I’d loosely suggest without trying to go into to much justification for it that these books, Moon Witch in particular, might be great fantasy novels for folks who tend to stick to literary realism, for folks who crave more complex, nuanced, character-driven drama in their fiction, the kind where prose is treated as an art form in itself as much as a medium for story and idea. Like: if you’ve never read fantasy before, and you picked this book up and read it, I would wonder what you thought, if it would turn you on or off. It might be worth an experiment, I’m saying.
I’ve said a lot of things. I’m not sure I’m right about anything. But I feel like I’m on a path, here, and I like where the path leads, and for being books I said I didn’t love reading, I really do still want to read them again, not that I know when I will. I’m terrible with audiobooks—my mind wanders—and yet I imagine the rhythms of this prose would be swell to experience in that format. These books also call out for a group read, to have a, ahem, fellowship along for the journey, to bounce questions and reactions around. Either way, I want to be maybe a little more caffeinated next time, maybe not quite so ready to flee the state on a many-years-overdue vacation, so I can get a better view of how the books spark off each other. Hell, part of me wants to read the first four parts of Moon Witch, then jump over to Black Leopard, then back to finish off Moon Witch, because I know how to party, don’t I?
And of course oh yeah there’s a third book coming out a couple years from now, too, huh. Well.
Did I mention I’m going on vacation? I’m going on vacation. I’m taking two books (or 2000 pages) by Peter F. Hamilton. I’m not going to say he’s a good or bad writer, but based on past experience, I can say he writes space opera for teenage boys. (Do I devolve into teenage boy status on vacation? Maybe. It’s fine.) I’m not planning on spilling much ink on these books when I get back, so it might be a while before the next issue.
That said, I recently deleted my Twitter account, and, let’s just say, I have things to say about that.
Current Wordle streak: 113 days.
The new Lets Eat Grandma album is great.
The new Hatchie album is great.
The new Melody’s Echo Chamber album is great.
The new Kelly Lee Owens album is great.
I’ve also recently discovered the band Mint Julep. Since I discovered them, they put out a covers album. It’s okay. Their other albums? Pretty great!