Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

June 24, 2016

Classing Up My Writing

The online class I'm taking with Gotham Writers Workshop is more than halfway through, and it's serving the intended purpose of helping me think about short fiction and generate new writing. Granted, having a deadline to submit a story for critique didn't save me from excessive procrastination, but eventually it did force me into several long days of writing. It's been a while since I've been deeply engrossed in a project, and I was happy to be back in that space.

I finished my story on time, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. Receiving feedback from my classmates was, as always, a thrilling and nerve-racking experience, and I spent the week constantly refreshing the class website to see if anyone new had commented. The students in our group bring a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives to their thoughtful critiques, as well as to their stories, and it's been fascinating to see how everyone reacts to each other's work. The feedback for my story gave me a lot of information about what resonated with people and what didn't work, and it will all be useful when I revise this story after the class is over.

Now, though, I have to write something different, because my second turn at the workshop is in two and a half weeks. So far I have no solid ideas for my next story, but I remain overly confident that the approaching deadline will spark inspiration soon enough. I may produce something promising in one of the short writing assignments we have for class each week, though more likely a decent idea will occur to me at some random moment. If I get desperate, maybe I can complete one of the unfinished stories from my teenage notebooks.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah S. Davis of Book Riot shares her experience of growing up as the English teacher's daughter: "I was cocky in English class, slaying the classic white male authors and tossing around literary jargon I'd gleaned from my father's theory books in his office. I thought I knew everything. I didn't."

June 17, 2016

Fear Itself

I'm aware that the earliest examples of my childhood writing were fun because they involved cute drawings and hilarious story concepts. Now that we're into the high school era, I hope nobody minds that it's all death and angst. I was prolific during high school, and most of my work from that period has been preserved, so we're going to be here a while.

While the Steno notebook I reported on last time is nearly all stories (or at least, story beginnings), the next one contains quite a few journal entries mixed in with the fiction. Among the raw adolescent emotions on display in these, there's the ongoing pain of that unrequited love I mentioned before: "When I am away from him I am seized with terror, and I imagine that he is hurt or dead." Also of note is the admiration I express for a friend's writing, coupled with doubt over my own: "She showed me her poems and stories all the time, and they were so good that I knew she would think mine were pitiful. Next to hers, they were."

At other points in the notebook, I'm more confident about my writing. Early in the summer after my sophomore year, I enthusiastically proclaim, "Well, today I finally began committing some of my stuff to disk. It's so nice now that I have Puck, my wonderful little Mac." (Puck was a Mac Classic, a one-piece computer with a handle, easily portable at only 16 pounds!) I write about looking through my notebook entries and deciding what to type into the computer and revise, and then I reflect, "I realized that I've got some good stuff. However, nearly everything I like is about death or dying. How totally morbid! The problem is that this morbidity is so typically adolescent that it's embarrassing." Very perceptive, Teen Lisa.

Here's one of my rare stories from the time that's not about death, though I'll warn you, it is a little scary. I suspect it's no coincidence that I wrote it just before Halloween.

Fear Itself

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheer terror. The American media thrives on the culture's love of being frightened. Stephen King, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Unsolved Mysteries spawn books, films, and episodes in rapid succession, making money off our desire for horror and fear. And I'm the biggest sucker of all.

After seeing The Silence of the Lambs, I couldn't sleep without the light on for a week. I haven't gone near a graveyard since reading Pet Sematary. "Laura, I wish you'd stop reading those ghost stories," pleaded my mother after I woke her up after a nightmare for the third night in a row. "They're really unhealthy, honey."

But I couldn't stop. It wasn't teenage perversity that drove me to devour every thriller in the library, but a burning need to feel my heart beat faster and my breathing quicken as I reached the climax, then slam the book closed and remember with relief that it was just a story. The terror is only fun, of course, if it goes away.

Except it didn't. It got to the point where not only couldn't I walk outside in the dark, even with other people, but I couldn't sleep with the light out, and finally I couldn't be alone, not even in broad daylight.

I tried to hide my fears from my mother. I would go along with her every time she ran errands, rather than stay home alone, claiming that I had to buy something or wanted to talk to her. I declined her invitations for moonlit mother-daughter walks, explaining I had too much homework. I waited until she had tucked me in and closed the door before turning on my bedside lamp. Sometimes I got my little sister to sleep with me, promising to tell her all the high school gossip as we giggled late into the night.

But still I read the horror stories. I couldn't explain why. It was my secret addiction, and I walked around with a guilty conscience. The stories were becoming more real to me, too. I would become so absorbed in the book that I would become oblivious to everything else. When I stopped reading, I would be drenched with sweat and shaking.

June 3, 2016

How To Not Write a Short Story Quite Yet

A few years ago, I outlined my no-nonsense, foolproof, sure-fire method for writing a short story. For the past month, I've been working on a new story, and at first I thought I was doing really well, since I breezed past many of the early steps and quickly arrived at the stage of beginning a first draft.

It turns out I probably should have followed the procedure more closely, because I got stuck somewhere in the process. As far as I can see, deviating from the original instructions is the only reason I'm not finished drafting by now, but in case something else went wrong, I decided to record the steps I took this time.

1. Sign up for a class to give yourself both a reason to write a short story and an opportunity to receive feedback and guidance on the story.

2. Clean the entire contents of your house. Consider the course information email that advised you to prepare for class by beginning work on a story, "or at least formulating a rough idea". Recognize that your brain might generate ideas if left unstimulated during the tedium of cleaning. Instead, catch up on dozens of hours of podcasts.

3. Decide on a extremely general topic for your story. Decide that constitutes a "rough idea", so you're all set for now.

4. Spend a long, tiring day fulfilling civic obligations. When it's over, attempt to nap. Find that your brain won't turn off, but that it now contains a fully formed and detailed idea for the story. You're ahead of the game!

5. Record all your thoughts about the story. Create an outline. Reason that you can't possibly start drafting yet because the class hasn't begun, so you don't know what the word count restrictions will be.

6. When the class begins, receive the word count guidelines, plus your personal date to present your story for critique. Rejoice and despair, for your deadline is approximately one thousand weeks in the future.

7. Continue rearranging the contents of your house. Participate eagerly in the many components of the class unrelated to working on your story. After all, you signed up for this class to reap the benefits of the entire experience, and your due date is infinitely far away.

8. Take the essential but time-consuming step of assigning names to characters you've been referring to with descriptors like "Younger". Write several opening sentences and nearly three paragraphs. You're really making progress now!

9. Assemble furniture, bake cookies, spend a lot of time traveling from place to place for frustrating purposes outside your control. Devote all your remaining time to writing thoughtful feedback on the work of your classmates. Reason that since critiquing others improves your skills at spotting problems in your own work, you're essentially also working on your story during this time.

10. Realize your class deadline is in three and a half weeks and the rough draft deadline you set for yourself is in three days. Struggle to write for about an hour. Recognize that the best sentence you produce during the session is this tweet: "I find it increasingly inconvenient that it's necessary to write a first draft in order to embark on the glorious process of revision." Also recognize that this feeling is an integral component of step 10 of your original 12-step story process.

11. Spend the rest of the week on tasks that circumstances render more time-sensitive and important than your story. It's important to deal with car maintenance, because that's what responsible adults do. It's important to take care of all your classwork early, because visitors are arriving. It's important to research recipes, buy ingredients, and do more baking, because yum. It's important to jot down notes for a blog post, because it's certainly a more promising piece of writing than the story you aren't working on.

12. Have a wonderful extra-long weekend with visiting family members. Relax. Don't worry about your story. Remember that after the visitors leave, you'll still have two weeks left until the due date, and there won't be so many non-writing demands on your time.

13. Look at the partial scene you've written so far. Look away in horror. Clean your house. Take care of your classwork, some of which involves rewriting a small section of the partial scene. Contemplate more baking. Read the book you've been neglecting. Remember you made notes for that blog post you should definitely finish writing now, so it'll be out of the way and you can focus on your story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily St. John Mandel reflects on her lengthy book tour in The Year of Numbered Rooms: "I was declining most event offers by that point, because it was clear by then that what had started as five cities in six or seven days was going to be something closer to 50 cities in 14 months. I am aware at all times of how lucky I was with Station Eleven, having published three previous novels that came and went without a trace, but it is possible to exist in a state of profound gratitude for extraordinary circumstances and simultaneously long to go home."

May 16, 2016

My Teenage Loves

After the trauma of sharing those two high school stories about religion and death, I avoided reading further in my old notebooks for a while, but now it's time for another entry in my childhood writing series, so I've bravely forged onward.

My earliest steno notebook contains mostly lists and notes, with some writing in the back, including the first draft of the theater scene from last time. The next is almost entirely fiction. I started my personal creative writing kick during the first year of high school but really got enthusiastic about in the summer that followed. I've read through all of notebook #2, which takes me through the first half of sophomore year.

Since all the entries are dated, I can see that from summer on, I usually wrote at least a few days a month, with periods of regular daily writing mixed with gaps of weeks when I didn't write. I often worked on the same piece for multiple days, not only in close succession, but also sometimes returning months later. The constraints of a bound notebook meant that if I'd written something else in the meantime, I'd have to continue an older story some pages on, and I didn't mark this in any way, so certain sections of the notebook contain interleaved bits of stories diverging wildly in topic or tone.

I edited as I wrote, which is visible in the frequent crossed out words and sentences, plus occasional arrows indicating parts to be reordered. As we saw last time, I later did more serious revision of selected stories on my computer. Almost everything in the notebook is unfinished. Sometimes my interest in an idea fizzled out after a page, sometimes I wrote many pages and even multiple scenes, but very little became a full story. I'm sure I usually started writing with nothing more than a premise or an opening line in mind, and it can be hard to reliably wring a plot out of that. Today I still have just as many ideas that go nowhere, but I no longer take the time to write them down until I've given more consideration to whether they're viable.

The contents of this notebook are overall pretty boring. The stories tend to star teen girls, often attending a private high school similar to mine or saddled with an annoying little brother. In a departure from writing what I knew, more of these characters drink coffee than I would have expected, since I didn't start enjoying coffee myself until my thirties. Often some promising bit of conflict is introduced, as in the story of three friends discussing a generally beloved teacher who one of them dislikes, but the idea is abandoned before we learn the cause of the turmoil. I suspect I frequently wrote myself into a corner and was unable to imagine the dark secret driving whatever came before.

The first draft of the autumn story from last month's post is in here, and to my surprise, there's also a still earlier incarnation of that story. It's much shorter, mainly a riff on the "fall is the season of dying" idea I all but wrote out of the final draft. It features characters I used repeatedly around that time, initially only in stories I told myself inside my head but eventually in some I wrote down. I probably saw some promise in the concept and decided to try it again with characters who didn't bring along all the backstory I'd already developed.

As is the case today, I read a fair amount of science fiction as a teen but didn't write much that wasn't set in the real world. The one piece of science fiction in this notebook is the start of a story set in 2010, 20 years in the future, when the earth is in crisis due to overpopulation and the hole in the ozone layer. It starts strong: "Joanie stared out the window at the gray rain and remembered a time when there was color. From behind her came the sounds of children sleeping fitfully or crying softly." Alas, after a couple of pages explaining how the world went to hell, I stopped writing.

This notebook ends with a lone entry that's pure journal. It comments on what I was up to at that particular moment (watching a Paul Simon concert airing during a public television fund drive) but mostly analyzes my unrequited crush on one of my friends: "Dammit, I love him! Love. Love. That word. Do I love him? Am I 'old enough' to love a man? Oh, sure, why the hell not?" It's full of the turmoil of not-quite-16-year-old emotion, and I'm afraid there's going to be more of that particular agony when I move on to the next notebook.

The story from this book that's most worth sharing is unlike any of the other contents, but it does represent a major aspect of my life at the time. While I angsted over painful unreturned feelings for several friends during high school, my purest love was for the music of The Beatles. It's true that I did sometimes experience so much love for Paul McCartney that I was moved to kiss a photograph of him, but on the whole, The Beatles brought me more joy than anguish. Anyway, here's this thing:

May 2, 2016

April Reading Recap

I had another fantastic reading month with three great, recently released books:

WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN by Kaitlyn Greenidge: When the Freemans are selected by researchers to adopt a chimpanzee into their family and teach him sign language, Charlotte reacts with teenage skepticism and resentment. She's angry about leaving Boston to move to the Toneybee Institute out in the Berkshires, where she'll be one of the few black students at her high school. Charlotte's younger sister adores their new chimp brother before they even meet, but Charlotte remains wary of the experiment. Living at the Toneybee puts a strain on the whole family, and when Charlotte learns about racist studies buried in the institute's past, she questions the motives behind their selection.

This is a fascinating, unusual novel that covers a lot of ground. I was impressed by the range of topics woven into the story and delighted by how many happened to align with my own interests. The characters are well layered, with specific traits and flaws, and I was invested in every one of their problems. I only wish that some of the narrators had been given more chances to speak and that certain threads had been explored in greater depth. This is the rare novel that might have benefitted from being longer, but the story as it stands is an excellent, complex work.

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson takes place in the small English town of Rye at the dawn of World War I. Beatrice arrives in Rye to serve as the new Latin teacher, and she's immediately the subject of much controversy, because the idea of a woman teaching Latin is shocking. The declaration of war provides a new focus for local politics and gossip, as the most influential residents vie to surpass the patriotism of the others. Hosting a group of weary Belgian refugees offers the townspeople even more opportunities to display generosity and pass judgment. While those around her fret about respectability, Beatrice tries to concentrate on doing what's right, with the assistance of the sensible young surgeon Hugh, his flighty cousin Daniel, and their kind but fierce Aunt Agatha, who wields her power in the town for good, most of the time.

I haven't mentioned even half of the great characters in this novel, some I adore because they're wonderful people, some I adore for their ridiculous awfulness. The story is built around interesting dynamics between the characters, whether these take the form of possible romance or petty power struggle. It's a well constructed comedy of manners, but as Simonson warned at the author event I attended, the humor does give way to tragedy at several points. There's a war on, after all.

The middle of the book dragged, but just as I was worried it would disappoint, many events happened at once, and the rest of the story kept a tight hold on my interest. This is a worthy follow-up to the excellent MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND.

HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter charts the development of the Broadway musical that has received and earned every praiseworthy adjective I might bestow. Short chapters describe each step of the journey from idea to opening night, introducing every person involved in bringing the show to reality. These alternate with, and often coordinate well with, the lyrics to the next song, which are presented in full, with fun and informative annotations. Scattered throughout are reproductions of other interesting documents, including pages from Lin-Manuel Miranda's notebooks and Alexander Hamilton's pamphlets.

The Hamiltome is a beautifully packaged book: large, thick pages with deckle edges, full color photos, a smartly designed layout, and a faux-leather binding. I savored it slowly, luxuriating in the fascinating look behind the scenes. If the cast recording plays on repeat inside your brain, I'm sure you'll appreciate this book. If you haven't listened yet but remain curious, perhaps experiencing the music and the book together will allow you to join us.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michelle Colman has analyzed book illustrations and real estate listings to value the homes of children's book characters: "Many children's books have been set in New York City--think Harriet the Spy or Stuart Little. In this day and age of record-setting prices, how much would those fictional characters have to pay to live in their homes today? Who would have seen the most appreciation, Eloise or Lyle Crocodile?"

April 29, 2016

New Leaves and Old Pages

I've been busy this month with various things:

→ Since I haven't worked much on fiction this year, I decided to take a class and give myself motivation and deadlines. I've signed up for an online short fiction class through the Gotham Writers Workshop, a well-regarded program out of New York City. It starts in a couple of weeks, and I'm excited to get started. In fact, I should get started now, because ideally I'll be working on a story when the course begins so I'm ready when it's my turn for critique. Time to turn my writing brain back on!

→ I reached an important milestone in my writing room cleanup project by completing the time-consuming process of filing many years of accumulated documents. Now our household has usefully organized filing cabinets, and I have floor space. There's still work left to get the room arranged the way I want it, but the rest should go quickly, provided I don't lose momentum.

→ I've looked through a bunch of my old writing lately, which is a lot more interesting than the old bank statements. In my high school notebooks, I found the embarrassing stories I shared, plus a list of books I wanted to read. There will more be teenage treasures as I continue my exploration. Additionally, I read a couple of manuscripts I wrote in more recent years, and I'm contemplating what works and what doesn't to improve my future writing.

→ Mid-month, I celebrated my birthday with baking and eating and more eating. A few weeks before that, I gave myself the early present of a new laptop, since my previous one was five years old. I'm very happy with the speed and power of my new computer, and I got it a decal to keep it cozy.

→ I have been doing a lot of walking around my neighborhood and admiring the flowers in bloom. We've had some rain, so my part of California is greener than it's been in a while. I have the window open, and I'm enjoying the spring weather and the view from my writing desk:

April 22, 2016

Religion, Revision, and Mortification

On this journey through my childhood writing, it is with no little trepidation that I usher us into the high school era. Midway through ninth grade, shortly before I turned 15, I started keeping a series of notebooks filled with embarrassingly earnest stories and personal musings. I wrote exclusively in steno notebooks because that's what some character did in a novel I no longer remember, and much of the work inside springs from a similar pretentiousness.

Up to this point, it's been fun to mock my early writing because it all seems so childish. Everything I've shared is either exuberantly ridiculous or surprisingly competent, and I can read it while mentally giving my young self an encouraging but patronizing pat on the head. The last story I posted, Crime Doesn't Pay, is more difficult to laugh at, because despite the clumsy dialogue and excessive cliche, I see signs pointing in the direction of the writer I am today.

In my high school notebooks, my maturation as a writer continues, with all the awkwardness that entails. Unlike the eighth grade story, written to be turned in for a class, the contents of the notebooks were private and uncensored. I've only started looking through the books, and I'm already fascinated and surprised to discover what I was preoccupied with at 15. So far, the prevailing themes are religion and death.

I'd thought I might ease myself into the high school era by first posting some class assignments, but instead I'll plunge right into the mortifying end and let you see two of these religion-and-death stories. These two works are also notable in that they are examples of a few stories I revised, purely for my own satisfaction. I wrote first drafts in the notebooks and much later, the following year, revised them on my computer (and was foresightful enough to note this in the documents for my future archivist).

We'll start with "Proof of Existence", a theater scene for two characters:

Proof of Existence

CASSANDRA: A 13-year-old girl
JEFF: Her 17-year-old brother

TIME: Present
PLACE: Cassandra's bedroom. A "typical" teenager's room. Moderately messy. Center stage is a single bed. Near the bed is a stereo.

[CASSANDRA is sitting on her bed, dressed in a black dress. She is sobbing. "You've Got A Friend" by James Taylor plays on the stereo. There is a knock on the door, and immediately JEFF sticks his head in the room. CASSANDRA does not respond.]

JEFF: Mom wants to know... [He notices that she is crying.] Oh. [He enters the room. He is wearing a dark suit. He sits down next to CASSANDRA and awkwardly rubs her shoulder.] Come on, Cassandra, don't cry. We have to go now. Be brave, kiddo. C'mon, stop crying. [After a pause, he reaches over to the stereo and stops the tape.]

CASSANDRA: [Looks up, still crying. She says the next half as an accusation, half as a fact.] That was our song.

JEFF: Yeah, I know. [Pause] So why were you listening to it? You knew you'd cry.

CASSANDRA: [Annoyed] Jeff, it's a funeral. You're supposed to cry.

JEFF: [Trying to make a joke] Yeah, but you aren't at the funeral yet.

[CASSANDRA turns away and buries her face in the pillow.]

JEFF: Cass, I'm sorry. I'm an insensitive jerk.

[CASSANDRA says something incomprehensible into the pillow.]

JEFF: What?

CASSANDRA: [Rolls over and sighs] Nothing.

JEFF: I'm sorry.


JEFF: Are you ready to go?

CASSANDRA: No. What time is it?

JEFF: [Looks at watch] Twelve thirty-six. Funeral starts at one.



JEFF: C'mon.

CASSANDRA: [Staring at ceiling] Jeff, why did she have to die?

JEFF: [Rubbing face with hands] I don't know, babe. I'm not God.

CASSANDRA: [Suddenly rolling over to look at him] Do you believe in God?

April 11, 2016

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2016

This season, the two books I'm most eagerly anticipating share an unusual characteristic for me: neither one is fiction.

HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (April 12) explores the making of the amazing musical (which I'm listening to right now and playing inside my head always). From advance coverage of the book, I gather it contains an annotated libretto, photographs, interviews, and essays that tell the story of both the show and the history behind it. I'm not sure if I'll dive into this and read nonstop or if I'll be satisfied to enjoy it gradually, but either way, I'm glad I no longer have to wait for it.

HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay (originally June 14, but may be changing): I am here for anything Roxane Gay writes. Her debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE is a beautiful and brutal read. The essay collection she released the same year, BAD FEMINIST, takes a thought-provoking look at a range of personal, political, and pop cultural topics. The new memoir focuses on food, weight, and body image, and I'm sure it will be another brilliant and difficult book.

While I haven't been waiting with the same excitement for any of this spring's novels, I'm intrigued by several upcoming releases that I'll be sampling and potentially reading. June 7 is a popular publication date, so I won't get to all of these immediately!

THE REGIONAL OFFICE IS UNDER ATTACK! by Manuel Gonzales (April 12): A few years ago, I read and recommended Gonzales's short story, "One-Horned & Wild-Eyed". I never got around to his collection, THE MINIATURE WIFE AND OTHER STORIES, though it's still on my radar. In this debut novel, a "coterie of super-powered female assassins protects the globe from annihilation", which sounds like fun.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett (May 3) is a family story about mental health, which is relevant to my interests. That the novel spans decades and is told from multiple points of view also gets my attention.

THEY MAY NOT MEAN TO, BUT THEY DO by Cathleen Schine (June 7) is another multigenerational family drama with some focus on depression. The title comes from a Philip Larkin poem with a special place in my heart.

THE ROOT: A NOVEL OF THE WRATH & ATHENAEUM by Na'amen Tilahun (June 7) is an urban fantasy set in San Francisco. I don't usually read this genre, but I know Na'amen from FOGcon and am always thrilled to hear him speak on any panel.

THE GILDED YEARS by Karin Tanabe (June 7) is a novel based on a real black woman who passed as white in order to attend Vassar at the end of the nineteenth century, an era when her race would have excluded her from admission.

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi (June 7): I've already encountered several enthusiastic reviews of this debut that begins in eighteenth-century Ghana and tracks the lives and legacies of two women with very different fates. Gyasi will be appearing at the Bay Area Book Festival in June.

And speaking of the Bay Area Book Festival, the extensive schedule of events has just been posted, and tickets are now available to guarantee seating at individual sessions. That's one more source of anticipation for me this season!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrew Heisel at Electric Literature investigates the history of the novel's first sentence: "Now we laud this and many other great sentences, but no reviewer at the time thought anything of Brontë's choice. No one in America was excited, four years later, about Melville's classic opener to Moby Dick. Nobody had a thing to say about the wonderful beginning to Pride and Prejudice. Nobody was bothered by the pedestrian beginning to The Scarlet Letter, or in love with the beginnings of Middlemarch or A Tale of Two Cities, or unimpressed by that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

April 6, 2016

March Reading Recap

Last month's reading was an excellent and varied set of books:

THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: Leo is the oldest of the four adult Plumb siblings, and he's screwed up the future for all of them. His brother and sisters have been relying on their shares of The Nest, the family trust fund, to save them from financial troubles they've been trying to conceal. Shortly before the money was to be distributed, their mother drained the fund to bail Leo out of a costly substance-fueled car accident. Now he's home from rehab, and the others want to know how he's going to pay them back when he has no resources, or at least none he'll admit to.

Dysfunctional family drama is my favorite type of story, and this novel is one of the best I've read in the genre. The plot hinges on money, but it's really about siblings who haven't been close forced to come together in a crisis and figure out how they actually feel about one another. Each of the Plumbs is a complex, uniquely flawed character stumbling through a specific set of problems. They're brought to life by Sweeney's vibrant dialogue, well-chosen details, and funny observations. Even the story's smaller characters are fully developed and given their moment in the spotlight.

I just loved this book all the way through. I wished the best for every character, though several were often jerks, and I was satisfyingly moved by the story's resolution. I'm also thrilled to see wonderful things happening to this wonderful novel.

THE SELLOUT by Paul Beatty opens with the narrator in the chambers of the Supreme Court, waiting for a hearing on the case that has made him a target of national outrage. He's a modern day black man from Los Angeles who stands accused of owning a slave and implementing racial segregation in his inner city community, with the surprising aim of bringing people together. The narrative then jumps back to recount how the whole bizarre situation arose. It's a rambling, inventive tale written in biting prose that's sometimes uncomfortably funny and sometimes simply uncomfortable.

The story builds slowly, with most of the focus on the dynamics of the unconventional characters. Our protagonist (often nicknamed but never named) is a skilled urban farmer trying to carry on the legacy of his radical psychologist father while also recovering from his childhood as a subject of relentless behavioral experiments. He accidentally acquires a slave in the elderly Hominy Jenkins, who was once a bit player in the Little Rascals and still misses the simplicity of old-fashioned racism. The town's segregation begins as an attempt to cheer up Hominy, with help from the narrator's unrequited love, a bus driver who always speaks her mind. As the project grows, they enlist more co-conspirators and face opposition from a local talk show intellectual who seeks to end racism by rewriting classic literature in an ever more ridiculous fashion.

I laughed frequently while reading THE SELLOUT, and I cringed just as often. The story's absurdity couches nonstop commentary on the realities of racism in America. The result is an intense and very effective novel.

INTO THIN AIR is Jon Krakauer's riveting account of climbing Mount Everest with an expedition that ended in disaster. Krakauer had extensive climbing experience, though none at high altitude, when he was sent by Outside magazine to climb with a commercial guiding company and write about the operations and effects of commercial expeditions. When a severe storm hit the mountain as several groups attempted the summit on May 10, 1996, numerous climbers were overcome by the wind and cold and became lost for hours, and eight never made it back to safety.

The book is an engrossing mix of memoir and reporting. Krakauer describes his own experience during the weeks of the expedition while also presenting the stories of the people he climbed with. Based on interviews conducted later, he reconstructs the disaster from the perspectives of everyone involved. Woven into this narrative are fascinating tidbits about the history of climbers on Everest as well as discussions of ethical issues surrounding guided ventures that make Everest available to less skilled climbers.

Krakauer's effective writing conveys the scale, difficulty, and thrill of the climb, and he never shies away from addressing the risk and unpleasantness involved. He writes with moving candor about his own guilt over the harm he may have caused through his presence as a journalist and by his actions and mistakes during the disaster. The conscientiously detailed account explains the how and why of everything that happened, both when the expedition was operating normally and when catastrophe struck. This is a fantastically executed work of narrative nonfiction.

I first read INTO THIN AIR ten years ago, and I was inspired into a rare reread after watching Everest, a movie that dramatizes the same events. Krakauer has criticized the film for getting things wrong, including his own portrayal, but it's pretty accurate for a movie, and it does a good job of showing the challenge of the climb and the horror of the disaster. Though I don't read much nonfiction, I've counted this book as a favorite since my initial reading, and I found it just as excellent this time around. I should remember to make time for more of the great narrative nonfiction I hear about.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Catapult, Tony Tulathimutte shares tricks to keep things short in your writing: "The most useful and underrated technique is what's sometimes called the 'scalpel edit': clipping and nipping your manuscript line by line. Once I started focusing solely on lowering the word count, everything looked baggy. My first draft contained the line: 'Up to a certain degree he felt there was nothing wrong with disliking work,' which ended up as: 'Still, it beat real work.'"

March 31, 2016

Exciting Week of Author Events

This week, two authors with exciting new releases appeared in my area, and I made the effort to break out of my usual routine (sit at desk, then sit on couch) and attend. I'm so glad I did, because both events were a ton of fun!

First, Charlie Jane Anders visited Google to talk about her wonderful ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY, which I raved about last month. She read a well-chosen excerpt that introduces readers to the characters, the San Francisco setting, and the Caddy, an artificially intelligent smartphone-like device that plays an important role in the story. Since Google is likely to develop any such technology, the audience was delighted by the appropriate and funny selection.

In the interview that followed, Anders talked about building the world of the novel, which incorporates both science fiction and fantasy. When the interviewer asked which of those she'd prefer if could only have one, Anders said she'd rather live in a world with magic, provided she could be one of the witches. They discussed the decision to set the book in San Francisco, the deleted scenes she's been posting online, literary influences, and the guest list for her ideal author dinner party (Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, and Michael Chabon).

This event was filmed and is available online, so you can enjoy the reading and conversation as well.

The following evening, Helen Simonson appeared at Kepler's as part of her book tour for the just-released THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR. I started reading the book while waiting for the event, and I was immediately curious about the entertaining cast of characters in an English seaside town right before World War I begins.

Simonson's excellent first novel, MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND, is charming and funny, so it was no surprise to discover the same description applies to the author. She was interviewed by Tracy Guzeman, author of THE GRAVITY OF BIRDS, and the discussion was fascinating.

Simonson talked about the terror of writing a second novel after the astonishing success of her debut. She faced this terror by setting herself an even bigger challenge, working with multiple points of view, a historical setting, and the high stakes of war. The book is set in her Sussex hometown, but she's lived in the US for 30 years, which she feels gives her the necessary distance to write about the place she grew up. Her novels start with characters and no solid plot in mind, so she writes to see what story develops, always trying "to zag when expected to zig". Simonson confessed that her writing process is one of avoidance and that she often stays away from the keyboard for days, but she's realized important story work happens in her head as she procrastinates and that she's more comfortable thinking things out before committing them to the page. This "creative procrastination" seems to work just fine for her, and I'm eager to read more of the new novel.

I hope to continue getting myself to author events when the opportunity arises. I'm looking forward to a big event in a couple of months, the second Bay Area Book Festival, which will be June 4 and 5 in Berkeley. I had a great time last year and am waiting with interest to see this year's schedule of events in a few weeks. For now, there's a sneak peek available, and guests include Charlie Jane Anders, Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Lethem, and many more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Ed Tarkington describes his journey to publication in How I Gave Up On The Great American Novel And Got A Book Deal: "All the arch cleverness and literary pyrotechnics in the world are worth nothing if you aren't willing to put a little blood on the page--or a lot. For so long I’d been afraid to be vulnerable, to strip away the artifice and get down to the truth of what matters to me, to stop worrying about being cool and write from a space of deep longing, a place rooted in memory and desire and, above all, love. I'm not afraid of that any more."