Books for Pride

I have mixed feelings about designated months to honor specific groups. The con of them is the idea that we only really care or spotlight a group for a particular set time and then move on. Since it’s currently pride month, we’ll focus on LGBTQ+ rights. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a show of support by changing one’s profile frame or corporations suddenly sporting rainbow merch or whatever, just to pull it as soon as the month ends. But on the other hand, even corporate rainbow washing is a better than the full-on assault on LGBTQ+ rights. (And it’s also encouraging that a number of brands see being inclusive as more profitable than being bigoted, even if they will continue to support both sides.) 

So despite my misgivings on joining in on that, I decided to make this a post of mini-reviews of books written by LGBTQ+ authors and/or include LGBTQ+ characters. To be clear, this is not meant to be a “Best Of” list or “Most Popular” or “Most Influential” list.  It’s simply just “hey, here’s what I’ve read relatively recently.” (Nor is it a comprehensive list at that!) 

It should come as no surprise that many of the books currently being banned or challenge focus on race and sexuality.  It’s what a vocal group of people fear most: Our children learning to identify with people who might be different from them, to understand and accept that our history is messy and full of complexity, that our present is full of those messes and complexity. And even worse – learning that people who are different from them are just as worthy of the same rights and experiences and representation as they are.   

I’m a strong believer in the power of fiction. Being able to jump into another person’s mind, to live a life that is similar or different from your own and actually see the world through their eyes – it’s a unique thing that fiction can bring. Don’t get me wrong – non-fiction, scholarly tomes, biographies and autobiographies are vital too.  But as a historian, while I could imagine what a person might be thinking or feeling, if I didn’t have evidence, I couldn’t claim that. Fiction, especially when reading from a diverse source of authors, can give us a glimpse into those lived experiences and hopefully help us broaden our own horizons.  It’s why I try to make a point of bringing in a variety of authors and genres here (including nonfiction from time to time!).  

So without further ado, let’s jump in! 

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

 I forget where I learned of this book, but it’s what brought me over to the Horror section of the bookstore and kept me coming back for more.  Plain Bad Heroines is like getting multiple books in one and I loved all of them. The best way to categorize it is a sapphic gothic horror novel.   One story thread takes place at a girls’ school in Rhode Island, called Brookhants, around the turn of the 20th century. Young girls are mysteriously dying and the deaths seem connected to a scandalous book. In the present day, another young woman writes a best-selling book about the mystery of Brookhants, and it’s now being turned into a movie. We follow the author and the actresses who will be starring in the film as they arrive at Brookhants and mysterious things begin happening again.

This was an impossible-to-put-down book, full of great (lesbian) characters, creepy yellow jackets, illustrations, and mystery.  Danforth does a fantastic job of jumping from one story line to the other.  My standard for judging such works is whether I get mad when I have to leave one character’s narrative to jump to another and then get mad when I have to jump back – it’s a sign of engrossing both/all tales are and Danforth delivers in spades.  Also, it’s not gory horror, so if that’s a concern, rest assured that this is still good reading for you! 

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

 You can check out the review for this series here, but I wanted to include it again here because of the gay romances included throughout.  This is an example of works where the sexuality of characters aren’t the main focus, but just a natural part of the tapestry of the story.  

The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar 

This was a beautiful story, both in terms of what it was about, but also the writing itself. There are two main stories interwoven here. The first is a Syrian-American transboy, dealing with the aftermath of his mother’s death while struggling to find his true self as he takes care of his grandmother in New York City. His mother died while campaigning to save the remaining buildings of Little Syria, both to preserve the history of the early generations of Syrian immigrants, but also because she claims an incredibly rare species of bird had made its nest there.

It is the questionable existence of this species that ties the present to the story of the past, based on a diary of letters written by a Syrian girl who came to New York with her parents following the first world war. It is her diary that our narrator finds and which helps him piece together his own family’s history. 

There are so many identities to learn from in this story. Our main character in the present is still grappling with his identity, so much so that his name is scribbled out at the start of each of his chapters for most of the book.  We are not given the advantage of knowing who he is before he knows himself. Joukhardar himself hadn’t come out as trans yet when he started the book, which serves as an interesting parallel.   But more than just the trans aspect, we get insights to the immigrant experience, what it means to be Arab American, Muslim, and part of the LGBTQ+ community all in one story. And on top of that, the constant imagery of birds calls us to both stay grounded but also soar above the everyday, to hold fast to the possibility of the undiscovered and the unknown.   (I also highly recommend Joukhardar’s book The Map of Salt and Stars.) 

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher 

Another book I’ve previously reviewed, but with a nonbinary narrator.  And an example of an author I probably wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t ventured over to the Horror section to find Plain Bad Heroines.  

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune. 

The pull quote on the top of the cover from V.E. Schwab reads “I loved it.  It is like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket.  Simply perfect.” I don’t think I could sum it up better myself.   

Linus is a perfectly ordinary government employee charged with assessing the well-being of magical children in what is essentially foster care situations. When he gets summoned to a particularly tricky case under top secret status, his world gets turned around.  As he gets to know the children he’s observing, including Lucy, the literal son of the devil, he finds himself falling for their caregiver and facing a question of where his loyalties truly lay.   

Having read both this and Under the Whispering Door, one of the things I appreciate most about Klune is his ability to portray the power of love. Whether it’s romantic love between two men, or the fierce protective love of friends, or the sacrificial love of parental figures, it triumphs over all the forces working to tear it asunder. It’s a powerful message and one worth keeping at the forefront of our minds.   

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht  

Check out the review here. It’s again one of these books where the gender norms aren’t the main focus, but the diversity in sexualities and gender are just part of the world. Which is really where we hope to get to, isn’t? 

The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis  

New sci-fi series! In this distant future, Earth has been through some pretty rough times. Colonization occurred on Mars, Venus, and Mercury, but humanity has taken different paths based on where they lived. Earth and Mars (the people of which become known as the Geans) endured a war between each other, there was some kind of revolt by A.I./androids who have disappeared past the asteroid belt, and Venus and Mercury (the Icarii) spent the war years focusing on developing their own technology and human genetic augmentation.  

Meanwhile, the Geans have created a religious system headed by the Mother. Below her are the Sisters – women who lose the ability to speak so they can be sent out among the Gean soldiers as confessors and “comforters” and not be able to pass on anything they may learn in those roles. A Sister on board a Gean ship must be available to any and all soldiers, unless she is made First Sister and claimed by the Captain. She then serves the Captain until the end of the Captain’s service, though the captain can also choose to bring the First Sister with them when they retire.  

Such is the situation First Sister finds herself in as the book opens. She is ready to leave her ship and go live with her captain. But as she gets ready to start her new life, she finds that powers outside her control have new plans for her, consigning her back to the ship and tasking her to spy on the newest captain, war hero Saito Ren. At the same time, on Venus, Icarri warrior Lito sol Lucius is still coming to terms with the disastrous battle with the Geans in which his partner, Hiro, disappeared. He is given a new mission – one he’s not sure he can complete.  

The book switches perspectives between First Sister and Lito. There’s quite a bit of diversity in terms of gender and sexuality, though none of it is seen as a big deal. I’ve seen the book labeled as “space opera,” which I’m not sure I totally get, but it’s definitely an interesting story. I recently finished the trilogy and more characters are introduced and we get their perspectives in the second and third books.  It’s a well-done series, though I encourage you to read the books as close to one another as you can. Each book picks up pretty quickly after the previous left off and there isn’t a lot of review about what happened previously (which is nice when you’re starting the next one immediately, but makes it a bit more difficult if you had to wait a year for the next one and were too anxious to read it that you didn’t go back and re-read the previous).   

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I’ll confess that while we read The Iliad in high school, I never really connected with it and don’t remember much of it at all. If we had read this as well, I probably would’ve gotten a lot more out of it! (Though I’m guessing the gay love story probably wouldn’t have gone over well with some parents. It’s easier to ignore that when you’re slogging through Homer’s verse.) With a BA and MA in Classics, Miller does a fantastic job of letting us see Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus in a book that is hard to put down. 

I first read Miller’s book Circe, which took me down the rabbit hole of retelling of classics/mythology. (Big shout out to Natalie Haynes as well.  I just finished reading her newest book, Stoneblind, about Medusa, and can’t recommend enough!) Because Miller draws so much from the classics, The Song of Achilles is a reminder that homosexuality isn’t a modern development and that these love stories stretch back through the ages.   

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon 

I’ve read several books now by Rivers Solomon (fae/faer pronouns) and I’d recommend them all. Faer books are amazing, but tough. Solomon is not going to hold any punches or do anything to make you feel more comfortable with the realities fae creates, which are centered on Black pain and trauma and how one works through and within those. While race is a primary lens through which Solomon writes, gender and sexuality are integral as well. An Unkindness of Ghosts in particular brings those discourses to the fore.  

Set far in the future, the remainder of humanity is wandering through space in a giant ship, looking for the promise land. Generations have lived and died on board and all sorts of social structures have cropped up, most prominently a version of Antebellum Southern plantations. White elites live in the upper portions of the ship, where they enjoy warmth, food, nature reserves, and all sorts of other luxuries. The maintenance and labor needed to provide those luxuries and keep the ship in working order falls on the darker skinned people, monitored and overseen by White guards who have the freedom to treat those under them however they please. In addition to the stark racial lines, strict gender binaries are also prized by the ruling elites, while gender is recognized as being more fluid among the lower decks (one floor refers to everyone as “she” unless told differently; another uses “they” as the default pronoun; etc.).

Even among her people, Aster is different and an outsider. Social nuances frustrate her, as does non-specific language. She doesn’t quite identify as either male or female, though she is all too aware of how the guards see her. Yet her medical knowledge and abilities bring her some measure of respect and her unlikely friendship with the ship’s Surgeon grants her a few meager privileges. But life on the ship has become even more unbearable than usual and it’s up to Aster, with the help of her sister-in-all-but-blood Giselle, to unravel the mystery left behind by her mother’s death by suicide.

In some ways, I couldn’t help but think of this book as a really, really dark version of Wall-E. The Earth was so polluted and destroyed by humanity, they had no choice but to board a giant ship and take their chances out in space. But after several centuries, things have greatly deteriorated. Rather than having anthropomorphic robots take care of everyone, though, it’s a reversion to race-based segregation and forced labor. Solomon mostly keeps us with Aster as our narrator, but from time-to-time fae switches perspectives to a handful of other characters, namely Giselle and the Surgeon. The story helps interrogate ideas about sexuality, race, gender, power, and trauma while also creating an interesting world in a sci-fi setting. Like I said, Solomon’s books aren’t for a quick, lighthearted read. Fae demands you grapple with the past and the present, that you acknowledge the violence and harm continually perpetuated on others and Others. But you’re also rewarded with an amazingly written story for your efforts. 

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki 

I delayed this post slightly just so I could include this one as well.  Aoki serves up an amazing blend of fantasy and sci-fi in a story set in our present, everyday world.  Light from Uncommon Stars has two primary characters: Shizuka Satomi, a violinist who made a deal with the devil and Katrina Nguyen, a transgender girl running away to escape her abusive father.  Satomi needs to deliver seven souls to Hell in order to free her own. She has already sent six; Katrina looks like the ideal seventh.  At the same time, however, Satomi meets an alien captain who fled with her family from her planet’s war and is hiding in plain sight as the owner of a doughnut shop.   

It’s impressive how seamlessly all these narratives fit together. In addition to the literal demon and the aliens is Katrina’s struggles as she tries to protect herself and nurture her talent with the violin. Because while Satomi is dealing with representatives from Hell, Katrina is constantly trying to defend herself from the hate, fear, and loathing that comes with being a transwoman. When she meets Satomi, who offers to teach her to hone her musical skills, Katrina is naturally suspicious, but soon realizes she doesn’t have many other choices.  Sometimes, the devil you don’t know is preferable after all.   

I really loved this book. I enjoyed spending time with these characters and I was aching to know how it would end. While it’s generally written in a positive tone, Aoki does not shy away from what Katrina goes through and what she’s done to survive and to make money. She doesn’t dwell in the acts of abuse, rape, misgendering, hate-filled screeds, etc., but she doesn’t hide from them or pretend they don’t have any long-term effects. Right off the bat, it’s hard not to want someone – anyone – to just hug and care for this girl.  It’s enraging to think of the abuse heaped upon her from her own parents and then even more enraging to know this is exactly what so many trans youth are enduring now. And if you don’t understand what it might be like, this book (and so many more!) can hopefully give you a glimpse and help you better know why pronouns matter, why love and acceptance is so crucial and what a profound difference that can make.   

So that’s where I’ll leave it for now.  It’s great to see more and more characters across the gender and sexuality spectrum appear in novels these days.  If you have any favorites, add them here!

Persephone Station

by Stina Leicht

cover of Persephone Station on a star field background with a red moon in the corner

I’ve noticed recently that when it comes to my Sci-Fi/Fantasy category, the “Fantasy” side definitely has the edge.  Persephone Station was a great reminder why I love the Sci-Fi part as well. 

Persephone Station embraces all sorts of aspects of sci-fi, though more Star Wars than Star Trek.  Various types of AI, mech suits, spaceships, planets, alien-life, etc. 

The story jumps between perspectives, but the main story follows Angel, an ex-marine who endured several resurrections during her service.

She now works as a mercenary on Persephone Station, a planet outpost that has caught the attention of the Serrao-Orlov Corporation.  But like all mega corporations, their plan for the planet is full of problems for everyone who lives there.  Angel and her team must figure out where they stand and what they stand for, regardless of the cost.

There’s a lot to like about this story.  The core characters are interesting people and it’s fun to learn more about them as the story goes on.  The perspective jumps help you get a deeper sense of each of them.  Leicht weaves world building into the narrative without huge exposition dumps. While there are places where it seems a little slow, it picks up and soon you’re hooked and can’t wait to find out what happens next. 

The one downside to this book is that there are 3-4 different perspectives, but there’s such a long break between some of them that you lose connection with them.  By the time we check beck in with a specific viewpoint, it feels like a bit more like a forced break from the main story rather than an integral part of the tale.  Things do start to come together towards the end, but I didn’t feel as connected to those characters.  Other things suddenly pop up that weren’t really set up and feel a bit shoved in.

But despite that, it’s still a great, fun read.  I could see this being part of a series, but it’s a stand alone novel for now.  So if you’re looking for a fun sci-fi novel with all sorts of queer characters, interesting world building, and an operatic plot, check out Persephone Station.        

Find it here

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

The cover of When Women Were Dragons, with toy dragons set around it.

For Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony triggered this narrative” – with this dedication, When Women Were Dragons hooked me.  And it kept me so all the way through.  There are myriad themes in this book, which I’ll get to.  But at its heart, this is a book about rage and women experiencing and living that rage. 

You will tell people that you did not raise me to be an angry woman, and that statement will be correct.  I was never allowed to be angry, was I? My ability to discover and understand the power of my own raging was a thing denied to me.  Until, at last, I learned to stop denying myself.”

So writes a housewife from Nebraska, shortly before she dragoned in 1898, according to the opening document of the novel.  An ordinary housewife, married to an abusive and terrible man, spontaneously transformed into a dragon and flew away.  Sporadic dragonings happened throughout history, but authorities quickly squashed any news or evidence regarding it.  Until April 25, 1955, when hundreds of thousands of women in the United States, mostly wives and mothers, all transformed into dragons throughout that day.  Homes physically destroyed, families ripped apart, and a number of men eaten or immolated by dragon fire – it was a day that could not possibly be forgotten.

That didn’t mean people wouldn’t try.  Our narrator, Alex Green, was a young girl when her aunt dragoned, leaving behind a baby girl of her own.  Alex’s parents took the girl in and quickly set to work convincing Alex that her cousin Beatrice was her sister and always had been. Alex was not to ask questions or say anything about the dragons (who had flown off and disappeared) or her aunt (who didn’t exist, after all) or anything related to either topic.  But Alex remembered.

At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (infamous for its persecution of suspected Communists, giving us the likes of Joe McCarthy) sought to silence any attempt by scientists to explore the phenomenon in any greater depth.  Since the Mass Dragoning was too large to ignore, the government issued a brief, sanitized overview of the event, and then worked hard to make sure that everyone just let it drift in the fogs of history, out of sight, out of mind.  But there remained scientists determined to learn the truth.

The book follows Alex’s personal journey towards understanding, interspersed with testimony by the lead scientist hauled in front of HUAC. Barnhill does a great job of weaving in the cultural pressures to keep anything related to the feminine as quiet and hushed as possible. 

Dragoning is dangerous precisely because it is both closely tied to the feminine while also displaying emotions that are deemed distinctly unfeminine.  Rage is at the heart of dragoning, it seems.  Women’s rage over being kept in the home, of having little to no recourse against violent husbands or boyfriends, of being told that their sexuality should be limited to “wifely duties,” of constantly being told to take up less space, less, time, less sound.  A dragon is not less.  She is large.  She is strong.  She is powerful.  She can gobble up or incinerate those who would harm her.  She can come and go as she pleases.  She does not conform. 

In addition to these meditations on women’s circumscribed emotions and options in the 50s, dragoning serves as a metaphor for LGBTAQ+ experiences.  Many of the women who dragon saw it as a way to fully embrace their true selves.  The research papers sprinkled in make mention of dragons who people had previously seen as men.  Other individuals nearly dragoned, but in the end stayed human for a variety of reasons. Dragoning is both hugely public and intensely personal.

There was only one thing that kind of clanged for me in this book.  The dragons themselves.  By which I mean, the abilities and properties of being a dragon in this world wasn’t clear to me.  They seemed to be able to do and be whatever was most convenient for the moment.  While most dragons flew to remote places on Earth, some went into space, exploring the galaxy, apparently being able to fly well past the speed of light.  Maybe it’s all the sci-fi I’ve imbibed over my life, but for some reason, that irked me.  However, it is a very very very tiny thing in the grand scheme of an excellent book.  So to paraphrase the theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000 “just repeat to yourself it’s just a [book], I should really just relax!”

“You brought me here, gentlemen, in hopes of conquest – in an attempt to rein in this feminine largeness, to shrink it down and force it to acquiesce to your paternal control, to allow our culture to forget that any of this dragon business ever happened.  This, my friends, is an impossibility.  While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance.  Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been…

            “Personally, I think it’s rather marvelous.

So do I. 

Find it here

Book Review: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Cover of the book To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

I noticed recently that I haven’t read as many books as usual by this time of year. Then I realized that Almanac of the Dead and today’s book, To Paradise, felt like reading multiple books in one. This is especially true of To Paradise, which is comprised of three distinct stories that share a loose common bond. The book is divided into three parts, each of which could be a book on its own. The core setting remains the same: New York City, specifically, a large house in Washington Square, with each story set 100 years after the previous (1893, 1993, and 2093). The names of the characters also pass through each of these years, which creates an interesting set of questions for the reader: how is this David different from that David? How do I feel about this Charles, knowing what I know about the other ones? That age-old question of “what’s in a name” creates an undercurrent that swirls through the entire work without overwhelming it. 

Washington Square

Set in an alternate history version of New York City in 1893, the first segment of the book (“Washington Square”) focuses on 23-year-old David Bingham. Here, the Civil War did not end in a reunion of the Union, but rather additional splintering. The South remains ceded, reconstituted as “The United Colonies.” The northern-central/Midwestern part of the U.S. is now called “America” or “The American Union.” The West Coast is the Western Union, the Southwest (excluding Texas) is labeled on the map as simply “Uncharted Territory,” Maine is its own Republic, and the rest of the Northeast, including New York, make up “The Free States.” In the Free States, homosexuality is not only legal, but same-sex marriages are commonplace (and so are arranged marriages, complete with marriage brokers) and relatively unremarkable.

David lives in the Washington Square house with his grandfather, the only unmarried and aimless drifter of his siblings. While Free State society has a very open-minded view of homosexuality, it still maintains the usual biases against mental illness, class differences, and race. Free Staters pity Black people from the Colonies for the terrible plight in which they find themselves in the South and the affluent join aid societies aimed at helping them escape, but only to push them out to America or Canada or anywhere else. As a wealthy White man, destined to inherit even more from his famous banking scion grandfather, David is in a position of great respect and power, but his troubling “nervous issues” that occasionally send him into a catatonic state is a secret that needs to be covered as much as possible. 

David’s grandfather, Nathaniel, however, has found a suitable suitor for David, a gentleman from Massachusetts named Charles. A widower, Charles is a kind and dependable man, with a fortune of his own. But then a poor but beautiful and gifted music teacher named Edward catches David’s eye – and heart. Soon David finds himself in a common romantic dilemma: does he stay with the “safe” and practical choice expected of someone of his status or does he give it all up for romance and passion, despite potential red flags? What does it mean to be free? How will he get to paradise?


We leave David’s struggle over his future to jump to 1993, where another David Bingham is confronting his past. This David is a young paralegal in a relationship with one of the big-shot attorneys at the firm, named Charles. Charles is wealthy, living in the same Washington Square house, self-confident and assured. He handles everything, makes all the decisions, and wants David to just be with him and enjoy the comforts he can provide. David tells himself this is ideal, but under the surface, things feel off.

When we meet him, David is preparing for the huge dinner party Charles is throwing for a dying friend.  Death and illness seem to be everywhere, as a disease stalks gay men, striking silently and causing them to waste away. (While never named, it’s clear she’s talking about AIDS.) David observes how Charles’ friends have their own ways of dealing with this ever-present threat, including those who seem to have turned gluttonous, as though by gaining weight they could block the disease while simultaneously proving to everyone around them that they were not sick. 

But all of this suddenly takes second billing when David receives an unexpected letter from home.  David, we learn, is originally from Hawaii and through his father’s side, a direct descendant of Hawaiian royalty. If it hadn’t been for the colonization of Hawaii and the deposing of its queen back in 1898, David could very well have been preparing to take the throne, instead of living royally through his boyfriend.  Something fractured in his childhood, though, driving him to start another life on the other side of the continent. There was some sort of falling out between him and his father, a sickness of a kind that his father couldn’t overcome. 

This section is told in two different formats – one from David’s perspective in the present and his father’s perspective of his past through a letter. Through the letter, we learn of David’s father’s childhood, his meeting of the independence-focused Edward, his brief relationship with David’s mother, his love for David, and his inability to stand up for himself against those who would use him to push their own dreams of Hawaiian independence. Meanwhile, David must figure out if he is ok being swept along in Charles’ wake or if he is following the same path as his father. 

Zone Eight

The letter style continues in the third part of the book.  We begin in 2093 where we meet Charlie, granddaughter of a scientist/virologist also named Charles. Charlie grew up in the house on Washington Square with her grandfather, but only in a small apartment. The house has been divided up over the years and is only for married people. Charlie recently married, and her grandfather moved out, hoping he had done everything possible to protect her. New York is a much more dangerous and depressing place then it ever was in the previous centuries. 

As we learn in greater details through Charles’ letters, which begin in the 2040s, Earth is now continually plagued by pandemic after pandemic, despite scientists’ bests efforts to stay ahead. Some were more virulent than others – Charlie barely survived the pandemic of the 2070s that took so many children. The treatment that saved her life left her changed, erasing her original personality and causing her to struggle with human interactions. 

In addition to the waves of deadly illnesses, climate change has ravaged the planet as well. The government controls Central Park, and set up the Farm, where Charlie’s husband works, to try to genetically engineer plants and animals that could help increase the food supply and/or work as medicines. Nearly all civil rights are suspended – Charlie is left shaking and terrified each time their apartment is searched by authorities.  The internet is long gone – it was, as Charles explained in his letters, too big a source of disinformation that led to people dying. Mass crematoriums are set up on Roosevelt Island to keep up with the dead.  And yet, even with this large-scale horror show, Charlie continues with her daily life, using her ration book to get her allotments of food, wondering if her husband will ever love her, taking care of the embryonic rats at the lab. Despite the horror of everything, life moves along. Until it doesn’t.

Overall, I liked this book.  It was a bit confusing at first with all the names overlapping across the centuries, but I liked the implications of it. So much of this story revolves around questions of fate, destiny, free will, and the cumulative effects of our choices. Despite its length, it never felt long, perhaps helped by the fact that it has such discrete parts. And each part struck different chords in me. The Washington Square book recreates a sense of Victorian novels, diving into the world of the wealthy elite, the duty to one’s class, and the difficulties that can create for love.  Parts of Lipo-wao-nahele reminded me of And The Band Played On, a foundational work on the AIDS crisis, while the scenes from Hawai’i recalled Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn, about a Hawai’ian family dealing with the pulls of tradition, family responsibility, and finding one’s own path. 

Zone Eight, though, simply reminded me of now.  While published in 2022, apparently Yanagihara wrote much of the Zone Eight section before 2020 and the outbreak of Covid.  She did her work though, spending a great deal of time researching viruses and pandemics, interviewing scientists and researchers and figuring out how things might play out with a new virus sweeping across the globe.  Regardless of when she wrote it, she captured so much of the tensions we currently face. 

Generally speaking, when I read dystopian novels, I quickly and easily side with those fighting their oppressors. It’s usually clear-cut, though things rarely are in real life. Charles’ letters force us to see how well-meaning choices can spiral out of control. At one point, Charles tells his family it’s understandable to sympathize with a mother who smuggled her sick child out of the hospital and took him back to her apartment building, where she desperately tried to get someone to help her. He then urged them to think about how many innocent people she exposed to a deadly disease, how many of her elderly neighbors and other children paid the price of her fear – were they not deserving of sympathy? What of the families they left behind? Having lived through this pandemic, those arguments don’t feel so theoretical. But where do the lines get drawn? 

Questions are the foundation of this book. Yanagihara isn’t going to provide answers. But perhaps it is the asking of questions that leads to paradise.  

Thoughts on To Paradise? Did you have a favorite of the three parts? How do you feel reading fictional accounts of plagues and pandemics these days? Leave a comment and start a discussion!

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