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Recent Reading: February 2018

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately: novellas, nonfiction, and plays.

A row of books in a bookshop.
Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire, 2018.

In the subgenre of portal fantasy, children are liable to stumble through a doorway into a world of magic, daring, and adventure. Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas asks the question: What happens to these children after the adventure, once they return to our world? Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school for such children as they attempt to process their fantastic experiences, adjust to life back upon our comparatively mundane planet, and dream of a chance to return to their magical homeland. Beneath the Sugar Sky is Seanan McGuire’s third Wayward Children novella to be published by McGuire’s second book in this series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, was a prequel, and Beneath the Sugar Sky picks up shortly after the events of Every Heart a Doorway, the first book in the series.

I think Beneath the Sugar Sky was my favorite one yet. And that’s saying something, because both Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones were superb.

In the Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire writes likable, delightful, and diverse characters, and I get seriously attached to almost all of them. In Beneath the Sugar Sky, we get introduced to a new character, Cora. She’s the main character, through whose eyes we experience the story. Cora is a new student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, and she’s a mermaid! Or at least, back in her portal fantasy universe, she was. She’s a swimmer and a runner, she’s kind, self-conscious, and brave, and she’s fat. I note that she’s fat because it’s important to her character, and Seanan McGuire writes and characterizes Cora so well. It’s sad and absurd to say it, but it’s unfortunately too rare that writers include fat people in their stories, and it’s even rarer when fat people are the main characters of a story (and even rarer when the story doesn’t centrally focus on the character’s size). Instead, Seanan McGuire writes a developed character through whose eyes I deeply enjoyed experiencing the story, a character whose size is only one fraction of her complex identity.

Although Cora may be the main character, I’m not sure she’s the protagonist. In Beneath the Sugar Sky, we also meet another new character, Rini, who literally falls out of the sky. Rini shows up with a quest: she needs to stop her mother Sumi from being dead so that Rini doesn’t disappear and get erased from existence. Rini’s from a nonsense world, which explains the unique logic behind her quest. Rini is a fun character; she pulses with nonsense, color, and energy, and she has high stakes motivating her to accomplish an impossible quest — if she can’t stop her mom from being dead, she won’t exist! The balance between Cora and Rini works great. Rini drives the story forward, and Rini’s nonsense is all the more strange and enjoyable when seen through Cora’s viewpoint. (Cora herself went to a world of Reason.) To my pleasure, Kade and Christopher, who both originally appeared in Every Heart a Doorway, also join in on Rini’s quest. I loved getting to spend more time with both of them, to learn more about their back-stories, and to see them take on a new challenge.

It has to be said: Seanan McGuire handles diversity so delightfully well. Basically all of her characters have a marginal identity along some axis (or more than one axis), and in the Wayward Children series, McGuire makes space for main characters with identities that are all too rare in fiction: Nancy, the main character in Every Heart a Doorway, is asexual; Jack, the main character in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, is queer; and Cora in Beneath the Sugar Sky is fat. Another character in Beneath the Sugar Sky has a physical disability. Another character is Mexican-American, and another character is transgender. In all cases, Seanan McGuire pays attention to how these identities affect and shape the characters, but she also writes round, developed characters who are so much more than just their marginal identity.

Beneath the Sugar Sky significantly deepened the world-building for the entire Wayward Children series; I think this was my favorite aspect of the book. The first book, Every Heart a Doorway, introduced readers to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children and attempted to categorize fantasy worlds along two axises: Logic and Nonsense, and Virtue and Wickedness. Down Among the Sticks and Bones was a beautiful and moving story, and it dove deeply into the back-story of two of my favorite characters, but it didn’t ultimately contribute much to the greater world-building of the Wayward Children series. Beneath the Sugar Sky does. It examines the connections between worlds and how those connections affect people, inter-world travel, and magic, and in doing so, Beneath the Sugar Sky answered a few questions I had leftover from Every Heart a Doorway.

Moreover, the world-building in this series is outstandingly unique. As Seanan McGuire further develops the universe in which this series takes place, she also deepens my own understanding of the whole subgenre of portal fantasies. After reading Beneath the Sugar Sky, I now swear that McGuire has hidden a dissertation on portal fantasy subgenre within her Wayward Children series. I want more of this series because Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children books are fun stories told in beautiful prose with delightful and diverse characters, but I also want more of this series because I want to read more of McGuire’s developing dissertation on portal fantasies. In the meantime, while I wait for the fourth volume in this series, I find myself already wanting reread the first three volumes, this time in chronological order.

Seanan McGuire has written a fabulous series. If you enjoy portal fantasies, gorgeous prose, or delightfully diverse characters, read Sean McGuire’s Wayward Children series. I recommend you start with either Down Among the Sticks and Bones or Every Heart a Doorway.

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor, 2018.

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up right where Binti: Home left off. So much so, that I recommend reading Binti: The Night Masquerade immediately after reading Binti: Home. I didn’t do this, and consequently I was a bit confused for the first couple chapters.

Binti: The Night Masquerade is delightful and surprising. There were at least two moments in the book that made me pause and ask myself, Wait, did Nnedi Okorafor actually just do that? I wasn’t just surprised, but blindsided. Near the end of the novella, I finally started picking up on what Nnedi Okorafor was actually attempting to do with Binti: The Night Masquerade (and the whole Binti trilogy actually). At that point, I started to have immense fun watching Okorafor put it all together. I’d say more, but I don’t want to risk spoiling a delightfully surprisingly book.

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy of novellas is one of the most unique and surprising things I’ve read, and I want to re-read the whole thing so that I can better understand, appreciate, and savor it.

The Plays of Roswitha translated by Christopher St. John

London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim was a 10th-century German canoness, dramatist, and poet. She’s awesome. She was one of the first, if not the first, person to write drama in the West since classical antiquity. In her plays, Hrotsvitha tries to Christianize the work of Terence, the Roman comic playwright. In a prologue to her work, Hrotsvitha mentions how many of the nuns of Gandersheim Abbey enjoyed the plays of Terence for his beautiful Latin and his comedy despite the immoral content of his plays. Terence’s plays not only offended the sensibilities of medieval nuns — his plays offend modern sensibilities as well. In Terence’s play The Eunuch, a man disguises himself as a eunuch in order to rape a woman whom he lusts after. But it all turns out okay (according to Roman sensibilities) because he marries her at the end of the play. You can imagine why medieval nuns would feel conflicted reading his work. So in her six plays, Hrotsvitha takes the comic disguises and misunderstandings of Terence and reworks them into plays that not only glorify God but also deeply honor women, celibacy, and faith.

Hrotsvitha’s plays are funny. Some of the humor is intended, such as one scene when a man attempts to rape three Christian virgins and instead, through the grace of God, mistakes dirty pots and pans for the women and ends up covering himself in soot. Some of the humor in Hrotsvitha’s plays, however, is created through the act of reading these medieval plays through our modern sensibilities. The characters often seem simple, naive, and overly zealous in their faith (as well as overly excited by the prospect of martyrdom). However, for being so committed to medieval values (especially celibacy) Hrotsvitha is refreshingly contemporary in her call. She values celibacy, yes, but she doesn’t stigmatize or look down upon the prostitutes in her plays. She doesn’t worship a harsh God of rules, as we might imagine of medieval Christianity. In Hrotsvitha’s plays, the paramount sin is despair, losing faith in the immensity of God’s forgiveness, love, and grace. Two of her plays feature prostitutes who convert to Christianity, and while the plays definitely look down upon prostitution generally, Hrotsvitha still treats her women characters with respect and admiration. Indeed, the heroes of Hrotsvitha’s plays are the women, not the men, which is — how to say — fucking awesome, especially considering her historical context.

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. 10th-century German canoness. One of the first, if not the first, person to write drama in the West since classical antiquity. Feminist par excellence. Yeah — I kind of have a crush on her some days.

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It by Richard V. Reeves

Brookings Institution Press, 2017.

In Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves examines the problem of class in America. Although Reeves doesn’t absolve the “one percenters” of their sins, his critique is aimed primarily at the American upper middle class — the top twenty percent. Reeves argues that the upper middle class is not only privileged in general terms, but also engages in unfair “opportunity hoarding,” that is, privileged in ways that directly harm the rest of society. Reeves examines the role meritocracy plays in class stratification and argues that the upper middle class create an unfair “glass floor” to pass their status down through generations, at the cost of true upward mobility for the bottom eighty percent.

The book is written in generally accessible prose, is great on details, and gives the reader a few clear take aways and action items. If you’re in the upper middle class (or think you might be close to it), read this book and think it over carefully.