Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

November 18, 2016

Focusing Efforts

When I announced my intent to focus on revising my novel in November, I didn't anticipate that the results of the election would leave me staring at the internet in horror for so many hours this month. I suspect I was part of a nationwide productivity dip as I neglected my usual work to stay informed and get angry and wonder what I could do.

Like many, I fear that under Trump, our government will have the desire and the power to strip away rights from segments of the U.S. population who already endure daily hate and obstruction. My privileges mean my life will likely remain as safe as it's always been, so I want to use my resources and advantages to protect others. I've been determining which of the organizations prepared to fight I'll continue or begin supporting with donations. I learned about calling my representatives and made those calls for the first time. I've started to investigate how I might usefully take other forms of action. Check the end of this post for some resources on these topics.

I have also been forcing myself to continue revising my novel, not because it will help, but because we all have things to get done. My novel is no more or less important now than it was two weeks ago, which is to say, it's not particularly important. This book matters a lot to me, and I hope it will eventually mean something to readers enthusiastic about getting invested in the lives of my characters for a little while, but it won't be making any sort of real difference.

That's fine. While an occasional novel tackles such significant material with so much skill that it can have a large, positive impact on the way people think, most fiction doesn't do that. Usually the role of novels is to entertain and provoke emotion and maybe communicate a couple of tiny points about some small aspect of the world. That's all great and sufficient, whether or not it's also true that fiction makes people more empathetic. Stories (in every medium) have their own value, though it's not a more special value than all the other valuable things.

I understand how to make my novel better, and working on it leads directly to progress. As hard as it is to focus on fiction when a lot of ugly reality also needs to be dealt with, it sure is satisfying to tackle a problem that's so easily solved.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jezebel offers a comprehensive list of organizations to support with donations.

→ The Effectivism blog rounds up some tips on Talking to Congress (and getting them to listen).

→ Activist Kara shares a Google spreadsheet with detailed instructions for calling representatives, scripts for current priority topics, and a suggested schedule for making your own calls.

→ Anil Dash urges that it's time to get to work and presents "concrete steps we can take immediately, which can set up habits that we can sustain for the years of struggle to come."

→ Slate provides options for How to Channel Your Post-Election Anger, Sadness, and Fear Into Action with a collection of places to put your time and money.

→ Maya Prohovnik's Looking to Help newsletter sends an email each day with helpful actions you can take right now. Past messages are archived.

November 7, 2016

October Reading Recap

In addition to two debut novels, last month's reading included a rare work of nonfiction:

THE WANGS VS. THE WORLD by Jade Chang: Charles Wang accumulated all the wealth and success America could offer, and now he's lost it. The cosmetics empire he founded after immigrating from Taiwan has fallen victim to the 2008 financial crisis, and poor investment decisions mean his family's luxurious Bel Air home and the rest of their property is repossessed. Charles, his second wife, and his two younger children leave California and drive across the US to find refuge in the home of the oldest daughter in upstate New York. As the family clashes with each other and copes with the disappearance of their affluent life, Charles remains fixated on reclaiming an asset his family lost long ago, the ancestral land in China the Wangs once presided over.

This is only the broadest summary of the novel, which goes deep into the lives of the five family members, exploring and complicating their failures, desires, and secrets. I loved getting to know each of the Wangs and watching them struggle to find their way through a world that once seemed so easy. Every character is unpleasant and neurotic at times, none are quite what they appear at first, and I was rooting for all of them by the end.

Chang brings this family to life with a series of unexpected choices and a strong vein of humor. The Wangs' road trip is an entertaining disaster, and this novel is a lot of fun.

THE MOTHERS by Brit Bennett: In the wake of losing her mother to suicide, teenage Nadia finds solace in a relationship with Luke, the son of the pastor in her San Diego church community. Nadia is college-bound, and when she gets pregnant, she knows she wants an abortion. Luke gives her money for the procedure but abandons her at the clinic afterwards. As Nadia struggles with losing another person she loved, she befriends Aubrey, another motherless girl from the congregation, but never tells her new best friend about Luke or the abortion. Nadia leaves for college in Michigan, Luke and Aubrey remain in California, and the three weave in and out of each other's lives during the years that follow.

The characters drew me into this novel, and I stayed invested in their growth as time passed. That passage of time is itself an intriguing aspect of the story, because Bennett takes an interestingly casual approach to leaping over years. She's a talented writer, rendering each scene with well-observed details and believable character dynamics.

However, the book fell short for me by not delivering quite enough of a story. I enjoyed following the characters, but I was well into the pages before I felt the plot moving in any clear direction, and when pieces eventually came together, they met with less impact than I anticipated. Many readers have heaped praise on this novel, but it left me unsatisfied despite many strong elements.

PANDEMIC: TRACKING CONTAGIONS, FROM CHOLERA TO EBOLA AND BEYOND by Sonia Shah: I don't often read nonfiction, but I was thinking about pandemics, because who doesn't, and I remembered hearing good things about this book when it came out earlier this year. It's packed with fascinating, terrifying details, presented in a highly readable narrative.

The book examines the factors that lead to diseases spreading and considers how they came into play during past outbreaks, comparing long-ago and recent scenarios. Some of the facts bode poorly for the future, as when Shah explains that diseases are more likely than ever before to jump from other animals into humans, since habitat destruction and climate change push these populations closer together. In other areas, progress works in our favor, and I was glad to have the benefit of historical distance when reading the horror stories of periods when mistaken scientific beliefs made people more vulnerable to disease. I was astonished to learn about the influence of pathogens on human evolution, and I was amused to come across some surprise Hamilton content.

My only disappointment was that the book didn't cover as much ground as I expected. I was under the impression there would be more speculation on future outbreaks, but that was less of a focus than I imagined. I was also surprised that certain famous pandemics, such as the bubonic plague and influenza in 1918, received little attention. I suppose Shah wanted to present less-explored material by focusing on cholera's long history and several diseases with twenty-first century outbreaks. So while I would have been happy for another hundred pages or so with those topics included, I enjoyed/feared all the information contained in this entertaining/horrific book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Electric Literature presents Jeff VanderMeer's Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories: "Once you get to the point where you have a sense of your story elements--the general situations, the impetus or driving force--you still have some decisions to make. You have the shape of your story--in this case, depicted as a lizard--but you still have decisions as to where you're going to begin and where you're going to end, not just the story but also your individual scenes. Where you end or begin your scenes is not only a question of pacing. It's also a question of what's right for the story you're telling, for the kinds of characters that you're using, and in the context of their unique characteristics."

October 31, 2016

It's Novel Season Again

Since I last reported in, the aforementioned revisions have been keeping me busy, and I'm making good if gradual progress. I devoted a solid, necessary chunk of time to planning the next draft of my novel but avoided getting trapped in that stage forever, so I'm now on to rewriting based on my plan.

My planning this time mostly involved making outlines, for some reason multiple partially overlapping outlines that I eventually had to merge together. Using these outlines, I tested out different ideas for new plot directions until I settled on the sequence that works best. I dealt in advance with many of the time-consuming logistics that so often stall me in the middle of writing, such as determining how to place a specific set of characters together with the motivation to discuss a certain topic, or deciding whether events should be shown, summarized, or skipped past with blank space. The scene-by-scene outline I wound up with gives me a place to keep adding any notes I think of while working on different scenes, or while lying in bed trying to sleep.

Tearing apart text I've previously worked so hard on is always scary (insert Halloween sounds), and I was nervous to begin actual revision, but I'm getting back into the swing of it. It's satisfying to recognize that I'm creating even better text, and I'm excited about putting my new plot and character ideas into action. Of course, I'm generally the least excited about writing at whatever moment I have to force myself to sit down and begin, but once I've stared out the window in despair for a few minutes, I tend to find that somehow sentences are coming together and time is passing and oh yeah, I guess I really do like this writing thing.

I haven't participated in National Novel Writing Month in years, but I'm still well-conditioned to find November an excellent month for writing productivity. As I'm cheering on my NaNoing friends, I hope to gain inspiration from the wordiness in the air this time of year. I don't have a specific goal in mind for next month, but I do intend to buckle down and focus on my novel (which originated as a NaNoWriMo project long ago).

In other seasonal developments, we've finally had some rain here in northern California, though the weather keeps climbing back to summer temperatures. While I do prefer sun to not, it's been such a hot year that I'm looking forward to chillier days and a chance to snuggle inside the cozy sweater I finished back in February, just before the weather started warming up. In case winter never comes, I've also started knitting a lighter weight sweater. And since the real purpose of this paragraph is to brag about my knitting accomplishments, I'll point out the two wraps I completed this summer.

Onward into autumn, and good luck to everyone embarking on NaNoWriMo or an alternate challenge!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Millions shares a comforting/panic-inducing conversation between Whitney Terrell, Emily Barton, and Alexander Chee about spending ten years or more on a novel: "Working so long on a book is a scary proposition in the supposedly 'fast-paced' media culture of the 21st century. But it happens more often than one might think. The three of us sat down to share strategies and retrace our steps in the hope that our experiences might provide a practical map -- or at least give some hope -- to other writers engaged in a long work. Here are our notes on a decade in the literary wilderness."

October 18, 2016

History in the Making

The end of this interminably painful election cycle is finally approaching, and that turns out to be shamelessly relevant to another installment of my childhood writing. I've unearthed two artifacts, one a piece of journalism and the other a work of fiction, that provide some historical perspective on the last time a Clinton entered the White House.

I wrote for my high school paper, The Centipede, and eventually became the Features Editor. (I'll delve more into my life as an intrepid student reporter in a future post.) When I learned there would be a polling place located at our school in November 1992, I mobilized some of the Centipede staff to conduct exit polls. The resulting article, "Poll Predicts Election Results", demonstrated that as Precinct 6 of Concord, Massachusetts goes, so goes the nation.

A refresher: In the 1992 presidential race, Bill Clinton was elected into office with a comfortable lead over incumbent George H. W. Bush. Independent candidate Ross Perot took a strong share of the popular vote. For me, and for most of the people around me in a largely Democratic state, Clinton's election was a significant triumph. I was 17, and I had no memory of a time before Bush and Reagan.

My article about the election is mostly a dry comparison of our exit poll to the election results of the town, state, and nation, for the presidential race and the state referendum questions. I report that some voters "agreed to disclose their choices only if the reporter stepped into the side hallway, away from the line of people waiting to vote," which makes me wonder how annoying we were and how well we planned the logistics of our polling. I do at least remember doing advance research to determine where pollsters were permitted to stand.

The closing of the article also sticks out in my memory, because when I got this scoop, I knew it would make for a killer ending: "Perhaps the most interesting result of the exit poll was the confession of a hassled looking woman with a young boy. When asked for whom she voted, the woman responded confidentially, 'George Washington,' before the toddler dragged her away."

Unlike the article, I didn't remember anything about the lightly fictionalized story I found in my notebook from a few months later, on the occasion of Bill Clinton's inauguration. As usual, this piece ends just at the point when it's starting to develop a plot, but it offers a good picture of my excitement over Clinton's election.

The night before the inauguration, Dana watched the superstars fawn over Bill. She lay sprawled across her dad's bed with her math book open in front of her and guiltily watched the Inaugural Gala. Sure she had a lot of homework, but this was, as her mother would say, "history in the making."

Dana felt a certain obligation to watch the show anyway, since she had missed most of the election coverage. She hadn't seen any of the debates, though she was sorry to have missed Stockdale from the imitations she'd seen the next day. She had watched most of Clinton's speech after he won the Democratic nomination, but that was mostly because she wanted to see what Gore looked like. And she'd only seen about 5 minutes of Clinton's acceptance speech in November.

The gala was probably the most interesting, and certainly the fastest moving, part of the '92 election. She hadn't been that transfixed since she watched the election results slowly trickle in.

October 4, 2016

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading was three very different novels, all full of surprises:

THE QUEUE by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette: Yehya needs surgery to treat an injury, but the mysterious and authoritarian Gate that controls the city has ruled his injury could not have been sustained, so operating is prohibited. In hopes of obtaining permission, Yehya joins the queue of citizens waiting for the Gate to open. As days and then weeks pass, the Gate issues ever more restrictive proclamations but remains closed, and the queue becomes a community with its own businesses, religious figures, and scandals.

THE QUEUE is compelling and unsettling. I was caught up in Yehya's ordeal and rooting for him and his friends to triumph even though success seemed unlikely from the start. The people Yehya meets in line are a fascinating group of characters, each set on pursuing a doomed quest to take back some control of their life.

At times the novel is playful about the absurdity of the situation, as when an argument breaks out over the length of the line and is resolved by a surveyor who happens to be among those waiting: "Asking for a bit of quiet, he ran some quick calculations, using his geographical knowledge of the area, information provided to him by both parties (representatives from the beginning and end of the queue), and a detailed description of the area's various landmarks and general terrain." More often, though, there's a grim hopelessness to what the characters are going through, and the book reads more like a plausible reality than an exaggerated satire. It's a fascinating, disturbing read.

→ In PLANETFALL by Emma Newman, a group of colonists left Earth in search of God's city on a planet seen in a vision by the Pathfinder Suh-Mi. After a successful journey across space, the colony has thrived for more than 20 years at the foot of the city, where Suh has retreated to commune with God. Renata, who was Suh's closest friend on Earth, is one of the engineers who built the colony. She's also one of the only people aware of the truth behind what happened during Planetfall, when some of the landing pods were lost during descent. It was believed there were no survivors, but now a young man has walked across the planet to the colony, and he's the offspring of lost colonists. His arrival threatens to expose the secrets Renata has lived with for decades, not only about the circumstances of Planetfall, but also about everything that keeps her apart from the rest of the colony.

This novel incorporates an interesting range of subjects. Highly advanced 3D printing and network-enabled brains are standard in this society, well-imagined by Newman, and used to good effect in the plot. Religion also plays a large role, and while I didn't get a clear enough idea of how the Pathfinder's vision first brought the colonists together, I was intrigued by the reveals about how technology and faith shaped the colony's belief system. In all areas of the worldbuilding, Newman mingles technology and the organic in ways I found inventive and unexpected. I was particularly impressed by the evolution of Renata's character, from the reader's perspective, and the additional subject this brings to the story.

I liked many things about this book, but there was much that frustrated me. Renata hints at and muses on the big terrible secrets of Planetfall repeatedly, offering the reader glimpses but not revealing the full story until the end, and eventually this withholding of the truth became too artificial a conceit. A couple of additional elements suffered from repetition or were drawn out too long, while the ending was rushed and underdeveloped. Though these problems made for a less satisfying book than I'd hoped, the compelling story and original worldbuilding offer plenty that's worth reading.

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein: In 1943, a wireless operator working as a spy with the British Special Operations Executive is captured in Nazi-occupied France after her plane goes down. She's a defiant prisoner, but following weeks of torture and the indignity of being repeatedly called English when she's actually Scottish, she agrees to tell her captors everything she knows about the British war effort. Her account focuses on her friendship with Maddie, a skilled pilot who flies for the Air Transport Auxiliary (since women aren't allowed in combat). Eventually the reader and the Gestapo learn the full story of what led up to the two women's doomed flight to France -- sort of.

There are some narrative tricks in this novel, and I anticipated that going in based on the buzz surrounding the book, but that information sent my reading expectations in the wrong direction. I might have held back on becoming emotionally invested (I'm apparently the only reader who didn't cry, and I cry at books all the time) because I wasn't sure what to believe. I should have trusted the story more, so I recommend going with the flow instead of searching for the twist, because it's not quite that sort of twist.

This is a suspenseful book about friendship in extreme circumstances. The two main characters are wonderful to spend time with, and their fierce friendship made me happy even when their experiences filled me with horror. I was fascinated to read a war novel with women working in so many different roles, doing as much as they were permitted and a few things they weren't. A lot of research went into the book, and the details of history, piloting, and spywork are woven into the story well. If any of these elements sounds appealing, I think you'll devour this novel as eagerly as I did.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah Yahm writes at Atlas Obscura about the history and operations of a library located on the U.S.-Canada Border: "It's easy for Americans to go into the Haskell--they merely walk through the front door. But for Canadians it's a little more complicated, because they technically have to cross the international line, which is demarcated by a cement obelisk and a line of flower pots." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

September 30, 2016

Build Your Own Religion

The last several examples of my childhood writing were from the many Steno notebooks I kept through high school and into college, so let's mix things up and check out some schoolwork.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, I got my first Macintosh during high school, and amazingly, most of the work written on that computer still survives. Yes, for 25 years, I've preserved my documents across computers and operating system upgrades so I can subject you to them today. In order to give you a full understanding of my sacrifice before you express your gratitude, I'll mention that a couple of years ago I realized I was on the verge of losing the ability to open files created in obsolete word processing programs, and I tediously converted them one at a time to a readable format. You're welcome.

Anyway, as mentioned in a different earlier entry, I thought a lot about religion and my lack of it during my teen years, so it's not surprising I took a class in World Religions as a senior. (Another important factor was that one of my favorite teachers taught this elective.) The class gave me an opportunity to submit some creative writing, though I'm not sure how many of the assignments were intended to take the form of stories.

In a previous class, I'd hit upon the idea of writing imagined dialogues with historical figures, and rejecting the usual essay structure earned praise from that teacher, so I milked the format again for a paper entitled "Hinduism Evaluation":

Lisa entered the temple in search of answers. "What is real?" she asked Krishna.

"Brahman is real," responded Krishna.

"But what is Brahman?" Lisa asked.

"Brahman is infinite," said Krishna. "Brahman is sat, chit, and ananda; that is to say being, awareness, and bliss. And Brahman is infinite in all these things."

"So Brahman is everything?"

"No. Brahman is not everything. Anything you can conceive is not Brahman."

"So then what is Brahman?"

Krishna pointed at a stone. "Neti," he said. "Not this. Brahman is not this stone." He pointed at a piece of wood. "Neti." He continued in this manner until Lisa motioned him to stop.

And so on, with Krishna explaining all the principles of Hinduism that I was presumably supposed to demonstrate familiarity with. I remembered none of it, so reading this paper was quite enlightening, as it were.

I don't recall the assignment for a file labeled "Build Your Own Religion". I'll speculate that at the end of the course, we were asked to construct a set of beliefs that a culture might develop. Whatever the expectation, I resorted to the power of fiction again and turned in this story:

One Who Dared To Question

[Note: It must be understood that words such as "spouse", "widow", and "All-Spirit" are merely the best English equivalents of terms which can be only roughly translated.]
 

In the beginning there was light and dark, sun and moon, earth and water, wind and rain, winter and summer, plants and animals.

There were people. They lived among the trees in huts made of branches and leaves. They drank water from the stream, gathered roots and berries, and hunted deer and rabbit with spears. They made tools from sticks and sharpened stones, cooked meat over open fires, and wore skins to keep warm in cold weather. They spoke to one another in words and drew pictures on stones.

Children were born and grew up in their parents' huts. They were taught the history and culture of the tribe by the widows. They learned from their parents and from the other parents how to gather, hunt, and cook. When children grew into men and women, they chose spouses and moved into huts with their partners. Soon, new children were born. Adults died, and sometimes children did, too. The tribe grew ever larger, and its members thanked the All-Spirit daily for their prosperity.
 

Owwoo was named for the sound the of the wolves howling at the full moon. She was born fourteen summers ago, at night, during a full moon. Owwoo's birth heralded good fortune for herself and for the tribe: each summertime birth foretold a more successful gathering season, and one born under the full moon was destined to bear many children. Owwoo began bleeding last fall, and her flow, too, coincided with the full moon, like that of her mother. Yes, said the widows to one another, Owwoo would bring times of much fertility to the tribe.

Now that Owwoo's body had changed, she was a woman, and it was time for her to move out of her parents' hut. Today was the day that she had decided to ask her closest friend Kaar to be her spouse. She had played with Kaar since they were very young, and lately they had talked together often about their futures, the tribal customs, and the All-Spirit.

September 16, 2016

Double Revision

After a wonderfully hectic summer filled with great visits to and from family members, I'm happy to be immersed in writing again this month. I'm enjoying having plenty of uninterrupted time to write, and I'm excited about moving forward on projects with some new goals and motivations.

Recently I received some very helpful advice and encouragement about THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, and that's inspired me to embark on yet another revision. The focus of my previous revision was shortening the manuscript, and I cut over 20% while keeping the plot more or less the same. This time, I have suggestions and ideas about improving some parts of the story that aren't as strong as the rest. I'm planning to add new elements and remove others that aren't working, ideally while keeping the length about the same, which I'm sure will require further use of the compactness techniques I relied on last time.

I started off by rereading the manuscript, which I hadn't really looked at in more than a year. As always happens after time away, I saw plenty I wanted to change, but I was heartened by how much of the novel I was happy with. Before the last revision, my reread of the previous draft put me to sleep at points and left me wondering if gremlins had rewritten my sentences for incoherency. It was an enormous relief to not have a repeat of that experience and to confirm I'm actually making the book better with each edit. I was also pleased to notice that some of my thoughts about improving sentences and paragraphs came out of what I learned from the writing and critique in the class I just took.

I'm now on the next step of revision, the planning stage. I've written before (while in the middle of a still earlier, quite lengthy revision) about the value of planning and the danger it can morph into procrastination. I think I'm doing okay at the moment. I'm outlining the changes I want to make and trying to figure out the best options for the story. Some of my notes are lists of pros and cons for different plot directions. Some include comments like "but is it all just too ridiculously melodramatic?" and "this needs to conclude whatever the conclusion turns out to be". It's a process. I'm making good headway, and the plan is gradually coming together.

I don't think I've blogged at all about the writing software Scrivener, which I began using a couple of years ago, I believe when I was preparing for the previous revision. It's a powerful application with a lot of features, and I'm starting to use more of these than I had before, though nowhere near all of them. Maybe later I'll write about my Scrivener techniques, but for now, here's a screenshot from my revision planning:

September 1, 2016

August Reading Recap

I got the pleasant surprise of reading all my remaining anticipated reads of the season last month, even though one wasn't supposed to be released for a couple more weeks, because Oprah picked THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD for her book club. I was also pleased, but not surprised, to find that these anticipated books were all excellent!

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia: Reshma Kapoor publishes an op-ed about her Silicon Valley high school that catches the notice of a literary agent, who asks if she's thought of writing a novel. Realizing a book deal would look amazing on college applications, Reshma replies to say she's almost finished a young adult novel. In fact, she hasn't started or even imagined writing a book, and she considers fiction a waste of time that could be spent studying, but she'll do anything to gain admission to Stanford. Reshma begins writing her novel, and to keep things simple, she makes herself the protagonist. Since her life of constant studying won't produce a good story, she decides to win friends, find a boyfriend, and undergo a transformation to complete her character arc. None of this goes as smoothly as anticipated, but Reshma is skilled at manipulating people to get ahead. When circumstances at school threaten her chances at Stanford, she incorporates the obstacles into her plot and sets out to overcome them by doing whatever it takes.

Reshma is a fascinating and infuriating character. She recognizes that she's not a nice, good, or kind person, but she doesn't have the self-awareness to realize that she's not always in the right. The shameless way she maneuvers and connives through the world is a propulsive force that kept me reading with gasps and laughter. Reshma's insecurity and anxiety occasionally broke through and allowed me to feel sorry for her, but I appreciated how much Kanakia was willing to make the character despicable.

The meta structure of this novel is a tricky conceit, and I can imagine many ways it might have gone wrong instead of succeeding as cleverly as it does in ENTER TITLE HERE. So much about this book is original and unexpected, and all of it is well-written and compelling. As a bonus, the hardcover looks great, with an eye-catching cover and another hiding beneath the dust jacket. I recommend picking up a copy!

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead is mesmerizing in several ways. The story of Cora's escape from slavery on a Georgia plantation is packed with danger, and the suspense of the plot kept me engrossed. Whitehead draws the reader in with sentences that are perfectly crafted but not showy: "George sawed with his fiddle, the notes swirling up into night like sparks gusted from a fire." Most powerfully, the world of the story blends the harsh reality of pre-Civil War America with invented elements presented with such authority that I frequently double-checked the facts of history.

The novel's core departure is the underground railroad itself, an actual system of trains operating in tunnels hidden beneath the ground. The railroad plays a smaller role in the story than I expected but establishes the concept of the not-quite-real. In each U.S. state that Cora visits on her journey out of slavery, she encounters a different form of oppression. While most of these societal practices and policies didn't literally exist as portrayed, they depict truths about the racism of our nation's past and present.

The nature of the subject matter means this book is not a pleasant or easy read, but I'm glad I spent time within its pages. This is a story that will stay with me.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal starts with a clever premise, fully develops a world in which this intriguing idea can exist, and sends great characters on a thrilling, suspenseful adventure through that world. In other words, the novel delivers everything I've come to expect from Kowal's writing.

Ginger is an American medium working with the British Army during World War I as part of the women-run Spirit Corps, a crucial branch of military intelligence. She and the other mediums take reports from soldiers who have just died in battle. It's exhausting, risky work, made more difficult by the army's sexist policies and attitudes. When the spirit program works correctly, ghosts are able to serve their country a final time by providing information about enemy positions that can be sent to the battlefield immediately. Unfortunately, the Germans are starting to figure out how the Spirit Corps operates, and they're doing all they can to sabotage the program. Ginger, her colleagues, and everything they've worked for are in danger unless she can discover the traitor who's passing secrets to the enemy.

Since this is a book about World War I, with an explicit focus on ghosts, there's a lot of death and sadness, and I teared up during the majority of the chapters. The tragedy is balanced out by the gripping mystery and fast-paced adventure, plus well-placed moments of humor and levity, so this ends up being pretty fun for a war story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood reports for The Guardian about an academic's discovery of significant differences between the US and UK versions of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS: "Mitchell himself explains the reasons for the discrepancies in an interview quoted in Eve's paper: they occurred because the manuscript of Cloud Atlas sat unedited for around three months in the US, after an editor there left Random House. Meanwhile in the UK, Mitchell and his editor and copy editor worked on the manuscript, but the changes were not passed on to the US." The paper by Martin Paul Eve is long but fascinating.

August 16, 2016

A Very Minimalistic Play

It's time to move ahead in our journey through my childhood writing, so I braved my next teenage Steno notebook (#4, for those keeping track). As I read through its pages, many entries made me laugh, and even more provoked cringes. One piece of writing stood out by causing the most of both reactions.

In addition to its other exceptional qualities, this work is noteworthy because it's written as a play. When I started writing creatively in my free time during high school, one of my first efforts was a short play, but I only experimented with the format once or twice more before the piece we'll consider today. I frequently attended theater at the time, both school and professional productions, and I auditioned for every school play, though I was rarely cast, so it's no wonder I had an interest in playwriting.

Like most of my adolescent works, this one is unfinished, exhibiting my usual struggle with plot, so prepare to be left hanging. As you'll see, I put a lot of thought (a lot of thought) into elements that in retrospect weren't the most important to focus on:

(This is a very minimalistic play. What else can you expect from a play that consists entirely of one side of a telephone conversation? Consequently, the set, props, and lighting are of little importance. The play takes place in CAROL's college dorm room. All that is required are some books, notebooks, a bag of pretzels, a can of soda, some other random clutter, and of course, the all important telephone. To eliminate the need for furniture or walls, the stage can simply be darkened, and CAROL may sit center stage in the light of a large spot. Make sure the light is not too bright or harsh, as the audience needs to look at it for the entire play. Another note concerning comfort: Be sure the telephone can be comfortably held for a long period of time. A shoulder rest which attaches to the handpiece may be used, if desired.

What is important in this play is that the audience be able to follow CAROL and NICK's conversation. The actress playing CAROL should determine exactly what NICK is saying at each pause and wait the correct length of time before speaking again. Small changes may be made in the lines as the actress or director sees fit, in order to aid in comprehension or to sound more natural.

There are few stage directions. The actress may do whatever seems natural while talking on the phone: sit up, lie down, eat, drink, doodle, do leg lifts, etc. These actions should be spontaneous and unplanned.

August 5, 2016

July Reading Recap

Last month, I happily devoured my first two anticipated summer reads, plus a release from earlier in the year.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters imagines a version of US history in which Congress passed the proposed Crittenden Compromise, guaranteeing the right to permanently practice slavery in states where it was already legal. The story takes place in a present day where slavery persists in four southern states. Elsewhere in America, the ramifications of slavery affect the lives of black citizens even more strongly than in our own reality.

Victor, who grew up enslaved, works undercover as a bounty hunter for the US Marshals Service, which has the responsibility to track down any "person bound to labor" who escapes to freedom. The job fills him with constant self-loathing, but he's very good at it. His latest case brings him to Indianapolis in search of a young man smuggled out of a plantation by the Underground Airlines (a metaphorically named movement: "Only very rarely is there a real plane involved.") Victor has to find the man before the Airlines gets him to Canada, but the further he investigates, the more unusual the details of the case become.

The conflicts inherent in Victor's life make him a fascinating protagonist, and each element of his character is well-developed and specific. I was glad to have him as my guide through the book's twisty plot and horrifying world. As with the excellent Last Policeman series, what most impressed me about this novel is how carefully Winters thought out every aspect of the premise. He's constructed a complete alternate history for the United States and its foreign relations, applied modern technology to the practice of slavery, and considered how systematic and individual racism perpetuates inequality. UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is an exciting mystery that grows ever more complicated and harrowing as the story progresses, but what kept me most enthralled was my desire to learn more about Victor and his America.

JULIET TAKES A BREATH by Gabby Rivera: When Juliet Palante reads the work of feminist author Harlowe Brisbane, it rocks her world. Juliet writes to Harlowe and scores a summer internship working out of the author's home in Portland, Oregon. It's the farthest Juliet has ever been from the Bronx, and she's excited and nervous about spending the summer with a white hippie writer in a white hippie town, far from her Puerto Rican family and the college girlfriend she's been afraid to tell them about. At the goodbye dinner before she leaves for Portland, Juliet comes out to her family, and the reactions are only the first surprises in what will be a wild, emotional summer.

This is a powerful coming-of-age story about a queer brown girl, and it pulled me in right from the start. Throughout the novel, I was caught up in all the raw emotions Juliet experiences, from joy to heartbreak, and I enjoyed her funny, opinionated commentary on the world and people she encounters. Juliet's summer exposes her to a wide range of approaches to feminism and identity. I was right there with her on that journey, having my mind opened and struggling against the ways white feminism excludes women of color.

While the writing is rough in places and the narrative doesn't always flow well, there is so much to love in this book, and I'm glad Juliet's story is out there.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown: Madeleine is suffocating in a loveless marriage, longing for the life of painting she gave up for her controlling husband. After the couple has a terrible argument, Madeleine returns to her small southern hometown and her mother, another controlling and critical figure in Madeleine's life. While she dreams of an escape from the crushing expectations of other people, Madeleine finds a box of diaries kept by her grandmother as a young woman. In their pages, she discovers that Margie struggled with an overbearing mother of her own and wanted to write rather than get married. In 1924, Margie travels to Europe as a chaperone for a younger cousin, and what she experiences in Paris changes her life.

I loved getting to know the two protagonists of this novel. Both are artists who don't conform to the roles demanded by their high society families, and I wanted to see them succeed in breaking free. Brown does an excellent job with the settings in this novel, delightfully skewering the culture of debutante balls and ladies association meetings and vividly presenting the energy of 1920s Paris. I was hoping for a bit more from the story, because despite the two separate timelines, not a lot happens. Still, this was an engaging read that kept me well entertained while traveling.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Cait Etherington reveals The Secret Apartments of New York Libraries: "In the early to mid twentieth century, the majority of the city’s libraries had live-in superintendents. Like the superintendents who still live in many of the city’s residential buildings, these caretakers both worked and lived in the buildings for which they were responsible. This meant that for decades, behind the stacks, meals were cooked, baths and showers were taken, and bedtime stories were read."