Book of the Month: Shortest Way Home, by Pete Buttigieg, despite the fact that Mr. Buttigieg has been trying his very hardest to annoy me in the last couple of weeks.
Hey, all– I said I’d repost this when the book came out, and I thought at the time that I’d actually set it to autopost, and it turns out I didn’t, so this is actually a couple of days late. Sorry, Jack! I still liked your book.
Several weeks ago I RTed a promotional tweet about this book. I didn’t really think anything of it; I RT book promos all the time if the author or the cover or really anything about it at all catches my attention, but in this particular case the publisher picked five people who had RTed the tweet and sent them an ARC of the book. There was no particular expectation attached that I would review the book or really do anything at all with it– I mean, I’m sure they were hoping, but there was no “give us an honest review and we’ll send you a book!”
But! I read it nonetheless, because reading books is kind of a thing I do, and I’m pleased to report that Jack Skillingstead’s The Chaos Function is a pretty solid read. I wasn’t familiar with him or his work prior to being sent the book– he is mostly a short story guy, apparently– but he’s definitely on my radar now for future work.
The Chaos Function is a bunch of things: it’s a war novel, it’s a pre-, post- and ongoing apocalypse novel, a dash of alternate history, some conspiracy theorizing and secret society stuff, and a bit of a physics lesson. The main character is Olivia Nikitas, a journalist specializing in war zones. The book is set slightly in the future but you won’t be terribly surprised to learn that Skillingstead posits that Syria will continue to be a war-torn nightmare, and Nikitas is covering the war in Syria when some shit goes down and two of her friends are killed. And then all the sudden … they aren’t anymore. Not “not dead,” not killed. As in she remembers them dying and they don’t. And it turns out that somebody else died in the same event, someone who gave Olivia the ability to alter specific events in the past, but not to control what happens next.
Heard of the butterfly effect, have you? This book asks you to imagine some really big butterflies, to overextend the metaphor just a wee bit. And every time Olivia tries to use her new abilities, things change in ways she wasn’t expecting, and most of the time they don’t change in a way she particularly likes. And this leads to some interesting moral dilemmas wrapped in and around the whole “people chasing me, need to stay alive, oh by the way World War III just started and I’m pretty sure it’s my fault” thing the novel has going for it.
At 304 pages it’s a fast read– Skillingstead has no time to waste on frippery or flowery language, which makes him a writer close to my own heart– and once it gets started he never lets off the gas. The bad thing? They got this to me early– way early– and the book doesn’t come out until March 19 of next year. So I gotta remember to repost this, I guess. Until then? I hear Amazon takes pre-orders.
Dear authors I like: please stop writing so many books. I do not have time for all of them, and my unread shelf, which is full of riches, is starting to frighten me. There are three different authors I have more than one book from on that shelf. I just ordered another Seanan McGuire book, meaning there are about to be three by her. Kameron Hurley has a book coming out next week. And there is a third book in that order, an order I just placed perhaps an hour ago, and I don’t remember what it was.
(Oh, right! G. Willow Wilson, an author I’ve come to associate mostly with comic books, just released her second novel. That was it.)
I am currently reading The Phoenix Empress, the sequel to The Tiger’s Daughter, a book I read in January and liked a hell of a lot. For some reason it has taken several days to read, which is not a reflection on its quality, just on my lack of time to read in the last couple of days. I am about 180 pages away from the end, and as soon as I finish this post I’m going to pick it up and I’m not putting it down again until I am done with it. Because look at my damn unread shelf. It’s out of control, and more books are coming. I can’t stop buying books, because I have a sickness, and I’m pretty sure I really can’t read any faster, so the only solution is that y’all are going to have to stop writing so many books. I know y’all depend on this for your livelihood, but I’m told that things like eliminating Starbucks can lead to financial success, so maybe that will work for you. Or perhaps find a way for me to not find out about your books– which might be difficult, because I’m following all of you on Twitter.
(The Phoenix Empress is probably not going to get a full review. I am enjoying it but it’s not quite as amazing as The Tiger’s Daughter was. That said, a large part of my love for Tiger’s Daughter is related to how amazingly well it stuck the ending, so we’ll see how the last couple hundred pages go tonight.)
And then I will pick one of those books from the pile before I go to bed, and I will hope to be halfway done with it before I sleep. Because, my God, I have to winnow that mess down somehow. Tell me what I’m reading next in comments. I want to read them all next, which I’m pretty sure isn’t possible.
This is gonna be one of those book reviews that’s more about me than the book I read, so buckle yourself in for that.
The strongest single-sentence recommendation I can issue for the book my mayor wrote, Shortest Way Home, is this: Pete Buttigieg made me proud to be from South Bend.
(In case you’re wondering, he wants you to think his name is pronounced “BOOT-edge-edge,” but “bootyjudge” is also acceptable, because I’ve voted for this dude four times so far and I get to poke gentle fun at his name if I want to.)
It is rather difficult to express just how unlikely a sentence that is for me to have written. I grew up here, y’all. I escaped to Bloomington for college and to Chicago for nine years after college and then … well, my wife is amazing, I totally married up in the biggest way possible, and I literally would not trade her for anything, but my one and only reservation was how the hell did I move to a city with 3,000,000 people and end up marrying someone I went to high school with?
Which, yeah, that’s what I did. And there’s a whole story there, and I’m not sharing it, but if you had asked me even two years before we got married what the chances were of me marrying someone from high school I’d have told you zero and not been kidding, and I’d probably have been slightly offended by the question. I moved back to South Bend because one of us had to move and I hated my job and she didn’t want to live in Chicago; it just made more sense for me to come back to where my family was. (And I’m not complaining about my family! I hope that’s obvious! It’s just that they all lived somewhere I didn’t want to live in.)
And then we elected a dude who wasn’t even thirty yet to be Mayor, and I think I competed against his ass (and probably lost) when I was on the Quiz Bowl team in high school, and I voted for him because everyone else running pissed me off and he won by default … and then the guy turned out to be way more Mayor than South Bend ever deserved, and he turned the fuckin’ city around in two terms, running against and crushing by 80-20 the parent of one of my former students to win his second term.
And there was that time I almost killed him. And now he wants to be President, and I’d rather have him as my Senator or my Governor than my President right now, but I gotta admit I’m coming around. And Goddammit he’ll be a good President when he gets around to it but I’d still prefer he take over for President Harris when her second term ends in 2028.
So here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I liked this book more than most people will because, well, I live here. And this is a memoir written by a still relatively young mayor of a mid-sized city. It may be that the appeal is somewhat limited, especially since it really is about mayoring, for the most part, and about revitalizing a city that basically none of you live in. But Buttigieg really genuinely is a smart, fascinating guy, and this is a ridiculously compelling book given what it’s actually about. It’s the second “I’m running for President!” memoir I’ve read this year– Kamala Harris’ was first– and it’s a better book than Harris’ was. (It’s also much less of an “I’m running for President!” book, for the record.) But Pete Buttigieg loves the hell out of South Bend, guys– the book is drenched with it; I thought I loved living in Chicago but it pales in comparison to how Pete feels about being mayor of the town he grew up in. And my curmudgeonly THEY PULLED ME BACK IN nonsense just couldn’t stand up against it. I’m this close to ordering a damn flag, for God’s sake.
(Shout-out to the graphic designers, who incorporate elements of South Bend’s flag throughout the book but never call direct attention to it, in a way that I find clever. The current flag was a product of his administration, and looks like this:)
I still really don’t think Buttigieg is going to be President in two years. For the record, he hasn’t officially announced yet; he’s still in the exploratory committee phase. But there’s a townhall on CNN tomorrow night at nine, and maybe you ought to watch that? And maybe if you watch that, and you think, hell, Luther’s right about this dude, then you should probably check out this book. If nothing else, for the chapter about meeting and courting his husband, which is the most ridiculously fucking adorable thing I think I’ve ever read.
Book of the Month: On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas. The little one in the polybag up top is my signed chapbook edition of Warren Ellis’ Dead Pig Collector.