What to Read Next (No. 141): fun fiction // Paul Tremblay interview (for real this time)
Fiction needs more fun. That feels a little silly to say, with all that’s going on in the world, and considering what fiction can do to help foster empathy, reveal injustices, and much more. But sometimes, you just need a breather from crushing weight of the world, and right now especially, a reprieve from the general sense of national, existential dread in the air. Below are a couple recent reads that were just plain fun.
I also managed to actually include my interview with Paul Tremblay. (I mentioned it in the subject line last week but ran out of space, and then neglected to delete it from the subject line.)
Let’s get right to it.
The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington by Charles Rosenberg
Published: 2018 | Pages: 421
Historical fiction tends to have a certain form and rhythm. Even when the history that’s fictionalized is fast paced, the genre tends to be wordier and slower moving than something in the thriller genre. Charles Rosenberg’s alternate historical fiction—imagining a different reality using what we know from the time—deftly combines historical fic and thriller into a compulsively readable novel.
In real life, there were many kidnapping plots against General George Washington. Thankfully, none were successful. But what if Washington had been captured by the British and brought back to England for a trial?
King George would want revenge. Right? Lord North, the Prime Minister at the time, would want a swift end to the war. Right? The Americans would do anything to get their leader back. Right?
Rosenberg imagines all these questions in a tale that combine politics, 18th century law (surprisingly interesting, I swear!), and revolutionary emotional fervor. And for the most part, the plot is incredibly believable. It gets a touch over the top at the end, but by that point I was deep enough into the book to not mind.
Perhaps the most impressive piece of Rosenberg’s novel was how he structured it. The short chapters and swift dialogue were thriller-esque, while the care given to the history was more reminiscent of historical fic. It certainly wasn’t the world’s most memorable novel, but it was a fun story nonetheless that was well worth the week of pre-bedtime reading that I gave it.
A Few Bookish Questions With Paul Tremblay
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I hadn’t heard of Paul Tremblay before I started reading The Last Conversation. But as soon as I was done with that remarkable story, I knew I had to read more of his work. Enter Survivor Song, a wonderful, chilling new novel that’s (sort of) about a localized zombie outbreak. So of course I leapt at the chance to ask him a few questions about his reading.
1. In Survivor Song, you write about a rabies outbreak, which is probably a little more relevant than you expected when you first started writing it. Did you do any reading on the subject of epidemiology or epidemics/pandemics to either inform or motivate your writing?
I didn't research epidemics/pandemics specifically. The original, zombie-adjacent (we'll call it) “what if” that sparked the novel was partly about how I could make that kind of story as realistic as possible. I'd happened to read the book Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus a few years prior and I knew that the rabies virus, and how strange it is, made it a good fit for my story. There's a wealth of rabies information online as well. The other part of my research focused on what would a local response to an epidemic look like. My sister is a nurse at one of the biggest hospitals in Boston and I leaned on her heavily for digging up that kind of information, which included a text exchange between her and her coworkers in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak.
I also emailed my kids' pediatrician some horrifying questions that he gleefully answered!
2. In one interview, you said that The Stand was the most important birthday present you ever received and that it showcased the power of empathy in fiction. In your opinion, what are some of the best examples of that principle?
Reading The Stand (as you mentioned, a gift on my 22nd birthday) shortly on the heels of having read Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?" for an English class that fulfilled a graduation requirement were the two stories that turned me into a reader. Blame math for my coming to reading so late. I was a math major and went on to math graduate school as well.
There are many studies that argue the act of reading fiction helps the reader to workout and flex those empathy muscles. I take that notion seriously as a writer, and all but for a small handful of "villains" in my novels, I approach the building of each flawed character from a place of empathy. The distinction between empathy and sympathy is important, too. Sympathy is shallow, easy, and akin to rooting for the home team. Sympathy too often boils down to “I sympathize with that character because they look and act like me.” Empathy is harder but it's more rewarding, more human, and more humane; the want to understand someone who isn't you.
As far as the “best examples” question goes, that's difficult to answer because I think all the books I enjoyed and continue to enjoy offer excellent examples as to the power of empathy, from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-House Five to Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indians to Emily Danforth's forthcoming Plain Bad Heroines.
3. What do you enjoy reading outside of the horror/thriller genre? Are there any non-fiction subjects you gravitate towards?
I try to read widely. I read a lot of what would be considered literary/mainstream fiction and I also like reading graphic novels (not usually of the superhero kind). I dip into non-fiction with audiobooks, generally, and I listen while I take my dog for walks. There's no set subject, for me, which is part of the fun. The last three audios I listened to were How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White, and Asleep: the Forgotten Epidemic that Became Medicine's Greatest Mystery by Molly Caldwell Crosby.
4. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?
The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang was brilliant as was Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett (great title!). I'm eagerly checking my mailbox each day for John Langan's new horror collection Children of the Fang.
5. What are some books that you find yourself recommending a lot, gifting a lot, or generally just talking/thinking about?
My current go-to recommendation is Marina Enriquez's Things We Lost in the Fire. It's my favorite fiction collection of this century. Each story is so different from quiet ghost stories, to Lovecraftian weirdness, to biting sociopolitical satire and critique. Also, a difficult book to classify other than just being flat out great, Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss, which introduces punk photographer Cass Neary into a quasi crime/mystery set up, but Cass is unique as far as antagonizing protagonists go.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Published: 2020 | Pages: 336
I nearly gave up on the first Backman novel I read—A Man Called Ove. Ultimately, I finished it and thoroughly enjoyed it; it’s also one of those books that has since grown fonder in my memory.
Anxious People, Backman’s new novel, hooked me from the very start and didn’t let up until its lovely, satisfying ending. If ever a book qualified as fun and delightful and “feel good,” it’s this one. While I’m well aware that some folks won’t like it (more on why in a bit), it seemed perfect for this moment in time when everyone could use a little more compassion.
Right away, we’re told that this is a story of a bank robbery and, subsequently, a hostage situation. That doesn’t sound very lighthearted, but I promise it is. Two police officers—one older journeyman and one hard-edged younger fellow—are interviewing the hostages after it’s all been resolved. The officers are trying to piece together the timeline . . . and what on earth happened to the bank robber/hostage taker. It seems this person has eluded capture thus far.
Each of the hostages is, indeed, anxious in their own way. Modern life is crushingly exhausting and most people, when given enough time to prove it, are a bit annoying. That’s the part some readers may not enjoy—the anxieties displayed could read as grating, and it’s rather possible that you don’t think these folks should be given as much compassion as they are. But, as Backman explores through his lovable characters, every person needs to be examined through the whole context of their pasts, experiences, and hardships. Our bank robber/hostage taker, while clearly making a series of bad choices, had reasons.
The format of the story is also really fun. Between police transcripts, timeline jumps, and some classic unreliable narrating, Backman delivers not only a well-plotted and entertaining narrative, but an engaging and curious style, too.
I loved Anxious People. The world needs a lot more compassion right now, a truth which Backman brings into clear focus.