As of Tuesday, Yakima County is in Phase 2 of the state’s Safe Start reopening from COVID-19. We worked hard to get here, hunkering down and staying home even though it meant sacrificing our entire in-person social lives.
And that’s for those of us who were lucky. Other people have sacrificed much more: their jobs, their health, their lives or their loved ones. Against that backdrop, “normal” still seems so far away. We won’t be flying home for Christmas this year. We won’t be hugging friends we unexpectedly bump into in crowded restaurants. We won’t be in the stands at high school football games this fall, or in the seats at our favorite music venues.
So, yes, we’re in Phase 2. That provides a glimmer of hope, especially for the small businesses that will be allowed to accommodate more customers. That glimmer is a sign of life. It’s a microorganism flickering to life in the primordial ooze. It’s a shoot poking through barren soil. It’s a spark touching tinder. In other words, it’s just the tiniest beginning; it’s not the end. We’re still in this thing. The virus is Still Out There. We haven’t solved it. Yet.
We’re seven months into a fight, and no one can tell us how long it will last. We have many, many, hopefully not THAT many days, weeks and months ahead of us that will be very far from the normal we used to enjoy. But we can do it. People, we can do it. We just need to stay away from each other as much as we can.
I know that’s not what you want. It’s not what I want either. The virus just doesn’t care. So we’ve got to keep to ourselves and our immediate families for the most part for whoever knows how long.
We might as well pass the time with a few good books. That’s the thinking behind our “Book Picks from Yakima’s Book People” series. Every few weeks we’ll offer a few more recommendations from the literary minded in this community. I’ve solicited their picks and given them broad latitude to write as much or as little as they’d like about those picks.
This week we feature Inklings Bookshop manager Emily Ring, whose writing as part of that store’s (and this section’s) rotating stable of columnists is consistently engaging and thoughtful, and Davis High School English teacher (and erstwhile SCENE music columnist) Kareem James, whose gift with language is rivaled by the compassion and insight with which he wields it.
■ “A Beginning at the End” by Mike Chen
Mike Chen’s exciting and lovely sophomore novel is also creepily prescient. Set six years after a global flu pandemic killed billions, “A Beginning at the End” follows three people who are rebuilding their lives in the strange new world, navigating a crumbling digital infrastructure, a landscape of new laws and an America that is both obsessively orderly and chaotically anarchic. They all have secrets and hidden griefs that set them apart, but when they come together to rescue a runaway child, they set into motion events that will change each of them for the better.
■ “Hench” by Natalie Zina Walschots
If, for some reason, you’d like to read about something OTHER than pandemics, take note of poet Natalie Zina Walschots’ debut novel, “Hench.” Its protagonist, Anna, is a hench-for-hire, trying to get enough temp-work to pay the bills. She’s a whiz at data analysis, but not much else, so it seems like a stroke of luck when she gets a job working for a midlevel villain. But when she is horrifically injured by a hero during an altercation in which she is a (relatively) innocent bystander, her entire life turns upside down. She feverishly sets out to expose the true cost of superheroism, a quest that leads her to find camaraderie and satisfaction in unexpected places. The quirky blend of heart-stopping action, wry wit and office politics in “Hench” will appeal to anyone who loves a good antihero.
■ “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik
If you think “Harry Potter” painted an overly rosy picture of what a school of magic might look like (trolls, giant snakes, maniacal dark wizards and other hazards notwithstanding), have I got the book for you. Naomi Novik’s “A Deadly Education” welcomes us into the Scholomance, a school where magically gifted youth learn to harness their abilities or die trying (but mostly the latter). Its heroine, Galadriel (please call her El) has to contend with all of the same dangers as the other students, but she has a dark prophecy hanging over her head as well. When she bands together with a group of classmates for the good of all the students in the school, it looks like her fate might change for the better. But looks can be deceiving. More “Hunger Games” than “Harry Potter,” this is dark, gripping fantasy-horror you won’t be able to put down.
■ “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells
In 1895, a young experimental writer named H.G. Wells developed his previous serial work, “The Chronic Agronauts,” into a fully realized and first-of-its-kind science fiction novel called “The Time Machine.” In doing so, Wells actually created many of the science fiction and speculative writing tropes we now take for granted.
“The Time Machine” has at least three distinct points of view. We get the on-the-surface action and adventure from the Time Traveler; we get, essentially, our own objective perspective of the spectacular story from the narrative “witness”; and we get Wells’ perspective as a harbinger of new scientific thought, and as a critic of the 19th century class system.
Wells attempted to address issues of class disparity in England, and explore the controversial ideas of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” which was published just 35 years prior. Wells also wanted to create a work of entertainment — an action and adventure story that would captivate an audience — and begin his career as a reputable and profitable voice in literature. He achieved everything he set out to and more. “The Time Machine” is not only considered a classic, but many of Wells’ works that followed — “The Island of Doctor Moreau” (1897), “War of the Worlds” (1898) — have become staples of not only science fiction literature, but literature period.
■ “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Between the World and Me” is a collection of essays written to Coates’ son. Comparable to James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” the essays concern the reality of being Black in America. Coates takes a harrowing look into his past and examines the racism he endured growing up — an indictment of America that isn’t new or stunning, but is so freshly and eloquently presented that it can’t help but awaken insight.
Coates’ writing is immersive, emotional and intimate. Though there is much urgency in his voice, there is also the peaceful demeanor of a father, which is the real power of the book. His examples of racism, from overt displays to microaggressions, are told from the perspective of a father who knows he cannot protect his son, but also knows that he can comfort him when the inevitable happens. It is as poignant as it is real.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most prolific writers working today. “Between the World and Me” is a National Book Award winner that is recommended all over the world. It is a profound work. It is an account of what it’s like to be othered, and it is a call to human decency. I highly recommend everyone read this book.
■ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers
In “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” the incipit happens during the copyright page. Readers are immediately treated to the first-person perspective of an unorthodox, insightful, scarred and scared individual with a story to tell. Eggers’ work is a memoir that transcends and defies the norms of literature. He fills ALL of the pages with his voice, and with a tone that is self-aware, and even aware of the self-indulgence of self-awareness. I think this is incredibly effective. I immediately hear a friend talking to me (or, maybe me talking to myself, which is even more effective and profound). A trust is established before the story even begins. This book is about someone who was forced to take on adult responsibility right when the opportunity to live outside of the nuclear home (and at least dip toes in recklessness) presented itself (his 20s).
In “Reading Novels” by George Hughes, a great ending is observed as, “A suggestion of closure, but also infinity.” “AHWSG” definitely adheres to this. Eggers and his young brother, whom he was forced to raise, end the book playing Frisbee on the beach and contemplating the long road ahead (the beauty of the journey behind, and what’s coming next, and fear, and anger, and absolute contentment, and abject discontent, and love, and hate — all of these emotions weaved together in a simple game of toss).
That’s not really a spoiler. The ending encapsulates what the memoir is about. The first time I read the ending, I cried. I don’t cry from it now, but the emotions still stir. I still feel this sense of peace and terror, and I believe Eggers intentionally and masterfully created that dynamic. It’s what he was feeling, and he accurately translated that feeling to print.
■ “Chemistry” by Weike Wang
In “Chemistry” by Weike Wang, the narrator of the story has a serious aversion to commitment, and I believe the premise is as simple as that. I can give it a stretch (particularly because of the narrator’s scientific aspirations and family background): A second-generation Chinese American doctoral student is thrown way off guard by a marriage proposal from her loving boyfriend. That is the premise and the conflict.
“Chemistry” is definitely a character-driven story. Readers are taken into the narrator’s inner conflict, and we are placed right in the middle of her hilariously idiosyncratic mind. The plot is set up by the beautiful hook of the first three sentences, “The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says, That’s not how this works.” After this, the narrator immediately defuses that tension by providing science-based evidence that diamonds are no longer considered the hardest mineral on the planet. This sort of deflection becomes a trend that plays throughout the entire novel; we realize early on that deflection is a defense mechanism for her. It’s brilliant, and it makes for great laughs and surprisingly rich insights.
The world Wang reveals is inside of the nameless protagonists’ head. I feel like I am experiencing life inside of someone else’s mind, a living environment of unconscious and conscious thoughts. The world created is the protagonist’s perception of the world. It is one wrought with fears and insecurities. But, there’s also humor in the way her thoughts juxtapose.
■ “Wonder Boys” by Michael Chabon
“I say that Albert Vetch was the first real writer I knew not because he was, for a while, able to sell his work to magazines, but because he was the first one to have the midnight disease; to have the rocking chair and the faithful bottle of bourbon and the staring eye, lucid with insomnia even in the daytime.” — Michael Chabon, “Wonder Boys”
I annotated the word “sigh” next to this passage in my copy of Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys.” Chabon is a writer’s writer. I’ve always thought of “Wonder Boys” as the perfect entry point for people interested in reading contemporary realistic literature. There is a plot, but it takes the backseat. The focus of the novel is the likability of its quirky characters, and Chabon’s absolutely masterful use of language.
Again, a plot does exist. Grady Tripp is a professor, a pot enthusiast, and a writer who has struggled to complete his novel, “Wonder Boys,” for over seven years. The aforementioned “midnight disease” affects Tripp more in theory than fact, though trimming down his manuscript is his main issue. The story takes place over a weekend of Pennsylvania academic writers hosting New York editors. A comedy of errors involving stolen property, idiosyncratic characters and a dead dog ensues.
In 2000, a “Wonder Boys” film was released starring Michael Douglass and Tobey Maguire. Though it was a joy to see the characters on screen, nothing compares to spending time with them on the printed page, with Chabon’s gift of words.