The Best I Read: May 2022
Time Travel > Flying
You know that familiar hypothetical question, “if you could have any superpower, what would it be?” It’s usually asked by some guy named Tom at a particularly dull moment during work happy hour drinks. Someone always chooses flying, which, fine. But the answer is clearly time travel. Time travel, y’all! Emma Straub and Emily St. John Mandel know this is the correct answer, and we’re lucky they do, because both just shipped charming, thought-provoking time travel books. I recommend reading them back-to-back, and then searching for a portal in the bottom of your closet.
In This Time Tomorrow, Emma Straub’s fifth book, Alice Stern is living a somewhat static existence as an admissions officer at her elite alma mater, a prep school on the Upper West Side. Faced with the imminent death of her father and a serious case of mid-life blahs, she proceeds to get well and truly bombed on her 40th birthday, and then wakes up back in her childhood home on her sixteenth birthday. After confirming she’s not hallucinating or in a John Hughes simulation, she starts to experiment with making small tweaks to her past that she hopes will lead to a better future. A better 40th year.
Plot mechanics aside, this book is a moving tribute to the love between parent and child. Alice’s father, Leonard, a sci-fi author and single father, is beloved and loving, eccentric but solid. Stuck in his own kind of stasis (he hasn’t published a book since his monster hit, Time Brothers), he and Alice spend her childhood bopping around 1990s New York City, eating gooey pizza, Gray’s Papaya hot dogs, and admiring the giant whale at the Natural History Museum. It’s no wonder that when she goes back in time, she feels a pressing need to soak up every moment with him, and do whatever she can to prolong his life.
The book is also a paean to New York City — its street food, its grimy subway, its storied bars, and its “many kinds of rich people.” As a New Yorker approaching the specific flavor of hell that is figuring out where to send your kids to school, her empathetic skewering of the prestigious private school world was a real treat. The whole book, in fact, is an absolute delight.
Let’s move on to Emily St. John Mandel’s latest, Sea of Tranquility, another time travel banger (can you say “banger” about a book? I’m old). Having written Station Eleven, Mandel is basically speculative fiction royalty, and she doesn’t let us down with her latest imaginative foray into time travel. This is a short book, almost a novella, and yet she manages to spin up multiple characters over several centuries who wrestle with meaty subjects: art, time, mortality, the nature of reality, and the genesis of meaning.
The book opens with Edwin in the early 1800s, a reluctant colonialist who has been banished by his wealthy family to the wilds of western Canada. He bumbles around the country, discovering that he is very bad at most practical endeavors (farming does not go well), and pondering the dynamics of his strange “new” land. “The trouble with Victoria”, he thinks, “is that it’s too much like England without actually being England. It’s a far-distant simulation of England, a watercolor superimposed unconvincingly on the landscape.”
And from here we are off to the races. Having introduced the idea of simulation, which underpins the entire story, Mandel jumps forward to 2401, a time when a disastrous plague has forced large parts of humanity to colonize the moon, and we have apparently developed a way to time travel. In this future time period a small group of scientists are exploring a disturbing hunch: that we’re living in a simulation. But if we are, so what?
What I admire about both Straub and Mandel is their ability to construct detailed, intellectually playful worlds that tackle meaningful questions. You are immersed in the plot, challenged by the philosophical considerations, and touched by the characters. It’s the perfect recipe for a satisfying read.
Less tabs this month because I read a lot of books (how dare I). But here are a few pieces worth your time:
Can Motherhood Be A Mode of Rebellion? by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker
The work demanded creativity and intuition: spending a day alone with my infant daughter reminded me of shepherding a friend through a first-time acid trip, continually gauging whether she needed to look at a flower, or listen to music, or sob for ten minutes, or be alone in the dark.
Creed Bratton Has a Story to Tell by John Tyler Allen in Esquire
I believe what I’m setting down here to be true. I fact-checked, reported out, and cross-referenced what was possible to verify, what hadn’t been eroded by 65 years and cocaine. I tracked down and emailed cold an old flame. “This might seem like an odd question,” I wrote to her. Did you have a brief affair in the Greek islands with a man named Chuck Ertmoed around 1965? Yes, she said, she had. Why was I asking about Chuck? And why did I also call him Creed? She had no idea.
I’ve Always Struggled With My Weight. Losing It Didn’t Mean Winning by Sam Anderson in The New York Times Magazine
What is the human relationship to the body? Is it like a roommate? A pet? A twin? A teammate? A rival? A parasite? A host? Is the body our essential self, or is it just an outer shell — and if so, is it more like a clam shell (homegrown, enduring) or a hermit crab shell (adopted, temporary)? Is it closer to a tamale husk or a hot dog bun or a pita pocket or the fluorescent cake-tube that wraps a Twinkie’s sweet cream center? Is the body the other side of the coin of the mind, or is the body the whole coin itself, and is the mind just the series of images and slogans stamped, superficially, on the exterior? Is the body an ancient piece of hardware designed to run the cutting-edge software of our souls? Or is it more like a hostage situation — is the body a time bomb strapped to our existence, the thing that will bring the action movie of our life to a sudden, unpredictable end?