Friday Finds: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Book Review)

During lockdown last year, a lot of people started developing new hobbies. Some of my friends got on board with the baking sourdough bread trend, some got really into watching make-up tutorials on YouTube, or working out, or revamping their gardens. Some bought pets. My ‘lockdown thing’ (which honestly started a bit before lockdown) was Star Trek. I got really, really into Star Trek. Not just watching the TV series (The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine…) but also reading some of the companion NOVELS and even experimenting with writing sci fi myself (which I’ll tell you more about later, I hope!). I honestly never thought of myself as much of a sci fi person, but Star Trek really opened my eyes. It’s gently idealistic (what if in the future there’s no money, no wars, and humans are part of a ‘federation’ of other species who explore the galaxy together…), it’s an ensemble show with lots of colorful characters with their own unique stories, it’s cozy and fun, it’s been running forever so it has built this rich and complex world, and, at its best, it’s intellectually engaging and even profound. The best science fiction in general, I think, engages with the most interesting questions of all: what is time? what makes a person? what else is out there? what does it mean to be a part of this universe?

I’ve since branched out into other sci fi shows and books. A friend of mine (who also loves Star Trek) recommended The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which is the first book in Chambers’ Wayfarers series. It’s a very popular science fiction series, and this first book was published in 2014 (interestingly, Chambers self-published it and it was later picked up by a traditional publisher). I found it a very enjoyable and ‘cozy’ read (more on that in a second). If you are like me and enjoy Star Trek, then I’d say skip the rest of this review and just read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet because there’s a lot of similarities and I imagine you’ll like it too!

This is a book about ordinary people in space, specifically a group of basically construction workers traveling around trying to ‘punch’ holes in spacetime to make wormholes (fast interstellar highways). It features a motley crew of people aboard this one starship – similar to Star Trek – and it’s quite episodic. They encounter little difficulties here and there on their ‘long way’ to complete a big job, but it’s not about big explosions or major political events. There are long scenes of people eating dinner and chatting. It switches perspectives from all of the characters on the ship, and sometimes intersperses this with documents/letters or pages from the galactic equivalent of Wikipedia, which work well to add texture to the world and feed us info in a not-too-obvious way. Chambers’ focus on the small moments between people made me think of what Natalie Goldberg has to say in Writing down the Bones, on the importance of the everyday:

‘We are important and our lives are important…their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think…Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter…A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter’

I love this focus on small quiet moments and small things in The Long Way. It suggests to me that these ordinary people’s lives do matter (which of course they do). And the writing itself was smooth and solid. I don’t think her primary interest is in the prose, it wasn’t particularly lyrical or poetic or inventive on that front, but it was much better written than most of the Star Trek novels I’ve read thus far and the dialogue especially was lively and fun. There was a lot of attention to detail in terms of the setting and how things worked mechanically which I appreciated (it was never boring or dry, but I just felt she’d done a lot of thinking about these things and the science behind them). And overall it was just a rather nice story about people being friends and hanging out in space.

So I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking to dabble in a bit of sci fi but want something character driven with a big heart, or if you know you like sci fi and you want a gentle story where people are generally decent and tolerant and mean well. At first I wanted this book to be a little edgier or darker than it was, but in the end it was kind of refreshing that it stayed pretty light. (As a side note, I’m halfway through the second book in this series – A Closed and Common Orbit – and it’s very different and definitely darker. And I think I actually like it MORE than The Long Way. I’d recommend it too! It’s about Artificial Intelligence). I plan to read all the books in the series: this is my version of a ‘beach read’! It’s engaging but not stressful and is like a big warm hug (from a giant lizard or a robot).

Have you heard of this series? Do you enjoy sci fi generally? I’d be curious to know your favorites! I’ve just started The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, recommended by many, so I’ll let you know my thoughts once I’m done with the book which seemingly everyone describes as their ‘favorite sci fi’!

Thanks as always for reading, and hope you have a great weekend!

PS the super cool featured image for this blog is a celestial map from 1670 by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit, accessed via Wikimedia. It’s not directly relevant to this book, but it’s got stars and also funky animals and interesting creatures, so I see some overlap.

And here’s an interview with Becky Chambers where she introduces the book and a wee bit more about it if you’re curious!

Friday Finds: How to Give Up Plastic (Book Review)

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life is a parrotfish. I was snorkeling with my dad on a vacation in Cozumel (we lived in Texas, so holidays to Mexico were frequent). I remember there weren’t many fish that day, and it was quite sandy where we were – just some tufts of brownish seaweed, a couple of little fish darting here and there. But then I saw him. He was huge, with a multicolored, almost neon, body and bright blue lips, like he’d smeared on some crazy lipstick. He was swimming slowly and I remember just staring at him: he looked hefty and majestic, gliding through the shallow water. I couldn’t believe how colorful he was – how big and strange and serene. If you don’t know what a parrotfish looks like, these are the little fellows I’m talking about:

A photo of a parrotfish, photo credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble, accessed via the Wikimedia Commons

Seeing such a majestic fish was amazing but not rare. Off the beaches of Mexico and the Bahamas, in the clear water, I saw fish of all shapes and sizes, living amongst the colorful coral reefs. It was a beautiful place and I definitely took it for granted it multiple ways. I didn’t know that we lived close to some of the best coral reefs in the world, some of the most sought after beaches. And I didn’t know that, by the end of my lifetime (or much sooner than that), those reefs and many of those fish might be gone.

Continue reading

Friday Finds: Women & Ghosts by Alison Lurie (Book Review)

Truth be told, I picked this book because of the title. I found it at a favorite outdoor bookstall that sometimes pops up in a nearby park during the weekends, which always has good finds! The cover wasn’t anything remarkable, but I was (of course) drawn to the title: Women & Ghosts. Because, quite simply, I enjoy stories about women…and ghosts. I hadn’t heard of American author Alison Lurie at the time but several quotes on the back promised that this short story collection was ‘funny’ and full of ‘cerebral irony’. Since, in my opinion, not enough ‘literary fiction’ leans into humor and I love things that are both beautifully written and funny, I picked it up.

Continue reading

Friday Finds: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the First World War – about 3 to 6 % of the entire human race died from the disease.

When Emma Donoghue began writing a novel about this pandemic in 2018, inspired by its 100-year anniversary, she didn’t have any clue that, in just a few years time, a modern pandemic of our own would hit. How could she have known that another disease would similarly cripple the world’s health systems, bring economies to their knees and rapidly change the world? So it really was quite spooky that the year her book – The Pull of the Stars – came out, in 2020, we were in the midst of a health crisis of our own! And while I do think that there are some striking parallels between then and now in the novel, in terms of the uncertainties and fear associated with pandemics, the strongest part of the book is actually not its depiction of flu but of birth and birthing practices. It’s set in an early 20th century maternity ward in Dublin, a dangerous and precarious place where, even at the best of times, life and health are fragile things.

Continue reading

Friday Finds: The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry (Poetry Review)

I’m not going to lie: I chose this book because I liked the title and the cover. When I spotted the book at my local Oxfam books, I had vaguely heard the name ‘Wendell Berry’, but I was mostly just drawn to the sparse cover image of the cracked, winter branches. I also liked the title-The Peace of Wild Things-the tension there between ‘peace’ and ‘wild’. And even though I’m not a super outdoorsy person I often enjoy poetry that deals directly with nature and the natural world (for example, I love Mary Oliver). So when I read on the back that Berry is considered ‘the poet laureate of America’s heartland’ and writes (according to a quote from The Washington Post) ‘with calm and sanity out of the wilderness’, I was intrigued.

Continue reading

Friday Finds: Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Lights On, edited by Louise Welsh

‘in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.’ – Tim O’Brien, in ‘The Lives of the Dead’

I love a good ghost story. While I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to scary movies, I feel like ghost stories are perfect reading material for this time of year (or, really, every time of year). And I think books are the perfect place to encounter ghosts. As the quote above says, stories are a ‘kind of dreaming’. They are like the ghosts of either the writer, or the characters, or some combination of the two coming to life in our minds, even if that writer is long gone. We resurrect them.

Continue reading

Friday Finds: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (book review)

Welcome to the first Friday Finds: where I share mostly book recommendations (or recommendations of other cool things I’ve come across). For this week I wanted to chat about American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book came out in 2008 and it’s a novel inspired by the life of the former first lady Laura Bush. A friend of mine handed me the book when I visited York recently and while I was initially a bit unsure – I have no particular interest in Laura Bush and I don’t read a lot of political biographies or autobiographies – once I started it, I was totally swept away. It reminded me more of a sweeping 19th century novel – something like Anna Karenina maybe – that encompasses a coming-of-age story, explorations and reflections on love and marriage, a good bit of melodrama and tragedy, a smattering of politics, and a whole lot else in between.

Continue reading