Thursday, May 21, 2020

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

She said her goodbyes, one by one. She spoke out loud to them, her voice soft but unwavering. Sharing her memories, thanking them for what they had learned, what they had taught her. If they could speak, would they accept their fate? Or would they beg, plead, fight for the same chance at life?

If you've seen anything about this book, you've likely seen the formula that it's The Handmaid's Tale meets The Martian, and that's a pretty apt pitch. US society has turned so conservative that women have been pushed from their jobs. Earth has been so destroyed that there's urgent need to move to a new planet and one has been found in a "Goldilocks"-zone: not too hot, not too cold.

Goldilocks by Laura Lam
Orbit, 2020
Review copy via publisher
Read Harder reading challenge

Valerie Black, genius inventor, has been building toward this momentous event -- with technology, money, and skilled crew. Her ward, Naomi Lovelace, is to be the crew's biologist. The rest of the crew, all women, are as talented and dedicated, and their launch to start work on their new home planet goes without a hitch. Except for the fact that they've stolen this shuttle.

Told from Naomi's viewpoint, the story slips between the past and present, providing hints and clues toward the variety of mysteries Lam creates: how Earth got to be the way it is; Valerie's meteoric rise and Naomi's painful history. And finally, what happened once they stole the shuttle.

It's an incredible premise and one that just captivated me. If I had a complaint, it's that I wish this book could have been double the length, to give us more time to breathe into the characters and their lives in this increasingly challenging world.

Despite being a very speedy read there are surprisingly deep ethical quandaries presented (although I confess I personally hated how things shook out). Lam grounds the twists and decisions in the personalities of her characters so I can't complain about why things went the way they did -- I just wanted something else. (I suspect the decisions and whatnot will make this a really great book club read -- lots of juicy choices to argue over!)

Lam includes something like five pages of acknowledgments and notes at the end of this book, including details of all the science and law that shaped the story. It stood out to me especially as I finished The Overstory at the same time, another novel loaded with references that ought to have been named -- but weren't. It frustrated me that Powers wasn't asked or expected to prove his inspiration while Lam was/is. That has nothing to do with the content of this novel, but something that stood out to me, especially given this book's focus on unequal treatment of female-identified people.

Apropos of nothing, I am so struck by the book's cover, which I haven't seen in person; my e-reader isn't in color, so I sort of tuned it out, but in finding the color version for this blog post, I can see how perfect it is for this story. I won't say anything else.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.

A book club pick I was pretty unenthusiastic about: prize winners always disappoint me, and I am impatient with fiction by white men. Intellectually I understand the dangers of climate change but find myself unable to connect with stories about it. This book felt like it would be a slog.

The opening vignettes intrigued me -- they were great! -- but I just could not fathom how they would encompass 502 pages when each one was such a brief, and seemingly complete, sliver.

I should be less judgy, I know.

The Overstory by Richard Powers
W.W. Norton & Company, 2019
Personal copy

Powers pulled together these small slivers into a book that hit me with surprising impact, a story that left me breathless and a little teary. As a tween who was obsessed with the radical environmental activists of the 1980s and 1990s who grew into an organizer whose work with Greenpeace was monitored when Ashcroft added them to the terrorist watch list post-9/11, the central plotline of this book resonated (with minor irritations I'll share later).

While I found the arboreal voice lacking -- the blurbs on the book made me think that trees would be actual characters, a la Delicious Foods making cocaine a POV -- I still enjoyed the intimate connection between characters and trees. It was reminded of the kind of popular nonfiction about nature I read in college -- Barry Lopez for example -- and writers like Wendell Barry. Not my favorite, but with enough poetry in description to sate me.

And I loved the characters. I was genuinely surprised and how some of their stories turned out, and it was a delight. The range of passion and pain anchored this and made it far more pleasurable and less preachy than Flight Behavior.

I read this alongside Laura Lam's Goldilocks and noted that Lam has a nearly five-page acknowledgement and sources section for all the people and things that inspired her book. Powers has none. The unfairness of that irritates me because I spotted so much in Powers' book that was clearly drawn from real life -- someone else's research and imagination -- and the co-opting of it for his book, for another reader to possibly mistake as his own original idea -- well, it feels ... not right. Elements I noticed:

The character of Olivia was clearly inspired by Julia Butterfly Hill's actual life -- right down to her experience with death and spiritual rebirth (even Hill's wiki notes that, although flagged for needing a citation since Powers hasn't acknowledged it).

The character of Adam felt strongly shaped by the life and experiences of Bill Ayers. This one I'm less angry about since it didn't feel like Powers took wholesale from Ayers, was just inspired by. Olivia's character and the lack of acknowledgement that she was inspired by Hill is more upsetting to me.

Mimi's therapeutic practice of deep looking is literally Marina Abramović's performance piece 'The Artist Is Present' from 2010. The passage of the experience of the client read to me like one of the reflections from someone who sat across from Abramović.

Neelay's Mastery game seemed very much like Sid Meier's Civilization series, mashed up with World of Warcraft; the expansive, consuming crawlers of Neelay's readers like early go-no-evil Google. As with Adam's character, this was a little more forgivable to me as it feels more general, but still.

I'm sure there were other small nods or characters based on real life that I missed; these jumped at me for their familiarity and it disappointed me to see that Powers doesn't honor them as a source.

In the end, almost no one from book club came to the discussion, but I enjoyed this enough that I'm not betrayed. It did remind me of my yard, to look at the trees a little more closely, and it reminded me of my resistance to considering climate change (despite my passion for justice and societal change) and what I could do to right that.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Weekend reads, or quaran-weekend

How are you doing? I think this is my sixth week of pretty serious social distancing and as an extrovert, I Am Dying. I mean, there's been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Zoom meetings, but I'm also experiencing serious Zoom fatigue. Unabridged Kid is a wicked extrovert to and while he's loving being home with me all the time, he's also missing his farm community.

Our coronahobby has been gardening, in that we're checking daily on the bulbs I planted last fall and buying already established flowers and putting them into the yard. We're addicted. We've also started seeds but that's not going as well and is vastly less satisfying.

Other than mock gardening, I haven't indulged in my hobbies as much as I'd like; I've been too tired and stressed to do more than watch tv. But I'm finally adjusting: I'm dressing up for work, which has actually helped me keep Work Time to work hours, and doing non-work the rest of the time. This weekend I'm starting Laura Lam's Goldilocks, a sci-fi-dystopia-maybe where an all-female space crew steals a shuttle when denied the mission. I feel like it's going to fit my mood of constant low-grade outrage.

What are you reading this weekend? Adopted any new hobbies or brushed off old ones? Hoping all of you are safe and healthy and your loved ones are, too.