Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

September 10, 2021

August Reading Recap

Last month I read two novels and a guide for writers, and all were excellent!

HAMNET by Maggie O'Farrell: Hamnet is a young boy living in Stratford in 1596 with his mother, his two sisters, and his grandparents. He misses his father, who spends most of the time away in London, working in his theater. When Hamnet's twin sister falls suddenly ill, the family is rocked by the terror of discovering the pestilence has reached their house. Though Hamnet's mother, Agnes, is renowned for her healing potions and has a gift for seeing the future, she finds herself powerless to protect her family from the grief to come. The narrative slips among the viewpoints of every family member to give an account of the fateful day as well as the story of Agnes's courtship and marriage to Hamnet's father. (It's William Shakespeare, though the text avoids ever naming him.)

This novel won much acclaim, and I found the praise well warranted. O'Farrell has taken the little that's known about Shakespeare's family, especially his wife, and imagined rich and surprising lives that have little connection to his work and fame. From the first page, there's a carefully crafted sense of foreboding. The whole reading experience is one of anticipating outcomes that we know are historically inevitable but the characters don't, and O'Farrell plays around with this in interesting ways by giving Agnes visions of the future (or at least, belief in her visions). The story unfolds slowly, through vividly depicted moments and compelling insights into the minds of the different characters. While I was completely engrossed throughout the first section, my attention waned some in the second, but I loved the satisfying conclusion.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker: Following the events of THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, the title characters have evaded the threats to their lives and secrecy, so now they can go on existing among the humans of 1900s Manhattan. The Golem has a few friends in her Lower East Side community, and the Jinni has his business partner in Little Syria, but their true natures keep them both isolated, except when they're able to be open with one another. As time passes, though, they seem to become less close, not more, and their disagreements intensify. Meanwhile, other characters and forces are gathering, both nearby and far away, and when these others reach the Golem and the Jinni's stories, everything will change.

Wecker has written a wonderfully rich sequel that expands and further complicates the already expansive, complex story and characters of the first book. While the initial installment built to its exciting climax in the space of months, this one spans years of the world changing around the Golem and the Jinni. The two of them never age, and each in their own way resists altering their carefully constructed lives until situations reach breaking points that are often emotional to read. There's perhaps more pain in this book than the first, though also plenty of hope. I loved the new characters we meet and the developments with those we knew already, and I'm once again impressed by how the many story threads converge to a satisfying end. I highly recommend reading both these books.

THE CYNICAL WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY by Naomi Kanakia sets out to address a sad fact of the publishing world: many good books fail to be published or noticed while many bad books succeed. Kanakia's aim is to help the writers of good books convince publishing's gatekeepers that their book is a potential success, even if that means making the manuscript look a little more like a bad book. It's a cynical perspective indeed, but based on years of observation and experience. This guide lays out many hard truths about publishing and the writing life, with some practical advice on failure-proofing your manuscript while protecting your creative ambition.

I read this because I've long enjoyed the opinions on Kanakia's blog, in addition to appreciating her novels. I found her perspective thought-provoking and the advice helpful. I'm a writer who likes picking apart what makes stories work, and this book approaches that from a unique angle. The cynicalness of it appeals to me and makes the book fun to read as well as useful. I recommend it to writers who have experienced at least some attempts at traditional publishing and are wondering how to get further.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Amy Zimmerman, writing for Electric Literature, contemplates autofiction, pandemic time, and the desire to be the main character: "What was missing from many of our quarantined existences was not the experience of time passing, but rather the presence of plot, of one event leading to another. This absence was at stark odds with the causality of the world beyond our quarantine bubbles. Out there, decisions, actions, fleeting moments of contact and exposure, all had serious, even deadly consequences. If we were lucky, we could afford to live in a room, in an apartment, where nothing much happened. Time moved forward, but didn't yield the gifts or the consequences that we've grown accustomed to. Without narrative movement, and so little to do or decide, it became harder to see ourselves as the architects of our own lives."

August 30, 2021

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2021

I'm excited about a bunch of books coming out in the next couple of months. Some are books I've been eagerly anticipating for years!

MATRIX by Lauren Groff (September 7): Groff's previous novel was the fascinating FATES AND FURIES, a relationship story nothing like I expected. I'm surprised again, and intrigued, to discover that Groff's newest book is set in the 12th century, based on the life of a historical poet, Marie de France.

THE ACTUAL STAR by Monica Byrne (September 14): I haven't previously read anything by Byrne, though I was interested by reviews of THE GIRL IN THE ROAD. I'm even more interested in this new novel, a global saga spanning two thousand years, from the ancient Mayan Empire to a post-apocalyptic utopia.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (September 14): Every anticipated list everywhere includes the latest from Whitehead, who produces literary masterpieces with impressive frequency. The new book has a family at the center, involves a heist, and sounds like a lot of fun.

SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson (October 12): Bergman has long been a great source of thoughtful life advice through his column Asking Bear (and as a personal friend). This delightfully illustrated comic book features practical, step-by-step guides to behaving better, demanding better, and thinking through how to be a human in this complicated world.

PERHAPS THE STARS by Ada Palmer (October 19): This will be the fourth and final book in the expansive Terra Ignota series, a narratively inventive chronicle of twenty-fifth century politics, technology, and philosophy. The first two volumes (which are essentially one long book) left me astounded. I decided to wait on the third until it was clear when the last would be published, and then I forgot to stop waiting, but I'm looking forward to diving back into this incredible science fiction series!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Atlantic, Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter chart The Rise of Must-Read TV: "As television scholars have noted, the plots and premises of 'complex TV' are structured primarily around characters and their development: Viewers want to identify with, relate to, and follow characters. Given that, the adaptation economy may well be one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of what literary critics call 'multiprotagonist fiction,' books with not a single protagonist (an Emma Woodhouse or Hercule Poirot, say) but a collection of main characters whose stories intertwine in surprising ways over the course of a single narrative."

August 6, 2021

July Reading Recap

I packed a lot of reading into July:

FOLKLORN by Angela Mi Young Hur: Elsa is a physicist nearing the end of a season at the South Pole, where she studies neutrinos, sometimes called "ghost particles." Maybe it's because she's stayed awake too long under the endless polar sun, but before Elsa leaves Antarctica, she's visited by another sort of ghost. The woman who appears to her is the grown-up version of her childhood companion, a friend who was imaginary, or at least invisible to everyone else. This elusive friend resembles a character from Korean picture books, or the folk tales Elsa's immigrant mother used to tell over and over. But her mother hasn't said a word in years, since an accident left her comatose. Elsa has tried to get as far as possible from the whole combination of misfortunes that is her family, until her ghost friend returns and she receives word of her mother speaking again. These events draw Elsa into an investigation of folklore, family mysteries, and the questionable boundary between story and reality.

This summary only covers a fraction of the things going on in this fascinating novel. The story shifts in and out of the past, circles the globe, and slips between genres, often self-consciously. The characters' conversations shift quickly as well, between ancient legends and modern pop culture, from science to history. Elsa is a great narrator, funny and perceptive, except when she's oblivious and frustrating, which I was soon attached enough to forgive her for. This is one of those ambitious, unconventional novels that might so easily have gone wrong, and probably won't connect as well for all readers, but for me, it was a storytelling success.

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS by Rainbow Rowell: In the final chapter of the Simon Snow trilogy, Simon and his friends have just arrived back in England after their American misadventures. They've all come to various realizations about their lives and are ready to figure out what kind of futures are possible after saving the world a time or two. But some of those realizations still need some work, and definitely some working together, because much about being an adult is hard to figure out, both in and out of the World of Mages. Perhaps the rumored new Chosen One can provide answers, or at least raise different questions to get to the bottom of once and for all.

I'm very fond of all the characters in this series, and I was delighted to spend time with them again. The level of angst in Simon and Baz's relationship is less endearing to me, and while I appreciated watching them navigate their intimacy, I would have preferred less time spent on it. Mostly because of that focus, the story starts off slow, but once the plot is really in motion, things get exciting. The other characters have some great plotlines, though they all remain in separate plots for longer than I expected. Still, everyone comes together at the end to save the magical world again and conclude this wonderful trilogy.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY by Matt Haig: Every decision Nora has ever made seems to be the wrong one, leading her to the worst possible life. After an especially terrible day that causes her to relive every regret, she decides to die. Nora takes an overdose and finds herself in a magical transition space, the Midnight Library. The librarian, in the form of a school librarian who was kind to her in childhood, tells Nora she has a chance to step into alternate versions of her life and experience what would have happened if she'd made other choices. By living out the result of each abandoned dream and possibility, Nora gets to choose a new future.

This popular novel is billed as a "feel-good" story, and I approached it skeptically for that reason, but I found it engrossing despite my preference for something less gentle. The smooth prose is a pleasure to read, the characters are lovely, and the story moves quickly through the expected beats, with a few surprises. I enjoyed this book, and though it didn't change my life, I don't regret following along as Nora changed hers.

LIBERTIE by Kaitlyn Greenidge: In 1860, Libertie is a freeborn Black girl in New York, where her mother is a respected doctor. She's in awe of her mother's accomplishments and wants to follow in her footsteps, but dark-skinned Libertie also knows the path of medicine will be harder than for her mother, who sometimes passes as white. As Libertie grows older, she discovers more differences in the way the two approach the world, and a rift grows between them. When her mother sends Libertie off to college to study medicine, she feels banished, and at school she realizes she no longer shares her mother's dreams of practicing together. In search of a different future, Libertie marries another doctor who is returning to Haiti. But life in Haiti is nothing like she imagined, giving Libertie more reasons to consider what freedom means and decide what kind of life she truly wants.

There's much to praise in the well-researched historical detail and lush writing of this coming-of-age novel. Unfortunately, my interest waned as the story grew increasingly slow and atmospheric, and I had more and more trouble understanding what was behind some of Libertie's reactions. Greenidge took inspiration from the real life of an early Black woman doctor, but when I heard her recount the whole story on the Code Switch podcast (audio and transcript), I was surprised by her choice not to use some of the most dramatic parts in the novel. Still, I admire Greenidge's ambitious use of history and structural experimentation, also evident in her first novel, WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN, which I recommend.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chris Drangle presents a typology of short story titles at Literary Hub: "The one-worder is a classic, from Chekhov's 'Gooseberries' to Mary Gaitskill's 'Secretary.' Both of those are decent, I'd argue—solid if unremarkable eighty percenters. Then you've got 'Gospel' by Edward P. Jones and 'Apostasy' by Mary Robison, both of which are fairly great, in my humble opinion. (Maybe one-worders benefit from religious connotation?) And then there's 'Give' by James Salter, which is just terrible. Poor James Salter—the man wrote exquisite, harrowing fiction, and his tables of contents read like the track listings of pretentious folk albums."

July 29, 2021

Where Do I Get My Ideas, Please?

Recently I've been putting focused time into brainstorming in hopes that I'll think up some viable story ideas. Writers are often asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" to which my instinctual answer might usually be a panicked "I don't know, I don't have any!" Many other writers seem a lot more full of ideas than I've ever been.

A more accurate assessment, though, is that without further qualification, ideas are easy, and I have a million of them. I have opening scenes and configurations of characters and a more interesting spin on that thing that happened in real life. Maybe I'm as full of ideas as those other writers I'm envying, but the thing I'm too often lacking is an idea that transforms some of this random stuff into a story. I don't have enough ideas about middle scenes or plots to send the characters on, so I'm left with no coherent shape to assemble the existing ideas into.

I have of course had viable story ideas before, and that suggests I surely will again. Most often, the good ideas come to me in a way that feels out of the blue, but very often following a period of despair and maybe a public proclamation that I'll never have another good idea again. So I figured I'd better make this post to move the process along.

I went looking through old blog posts to see what I'd written before about the search for ideas. I was thinking of this post on how to write a short story, though it turned out to focus less on the pre-idea stage than I remembered. I also found a sort of sequel post that's really more about procrastination than anything else.

I ended up reading through a lot of other old blog posts (speaking of procrastination) and was kind of amazed to discover how much I used to post and how much more full of ideas I seemed back then. I once came up with a whole story outline to use in a discussion of plot for a column I used to write, and then there's this other detailed invention for the sake of example. Possibly the answer is to get my ideas from Past Me, so I guess I'll be writing a story about the stress of unemployment and dolphin training.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At CrimeReads, Taylor Adams explains What Makes a Killer Plot Twist: "While out-of-nowhere problems are a great way to intensify the story's moment-to-moment suspense (I often delight in imagining things that can go wrong for the main character), it doesn't land with the same visceral impact as a plot twist because the groundwork isn't there. A complication can be simple bad luck, but a twist is inevitable. The clearer the reader can recall these 'signposts'—and the longer they've been embedded in the story—the bigger the exhilaration when you circle back on them to deliver an unexpected (but fully unavoidable) revelation."

July 8, 2021

June Reading Recap

Last month I read two brand new novels and a decade-old self help guide:

ONE LAST STOP by Casey McQuiston: August is new to New York City, new to the easy friendship her roommates are offering, and new to the experience of falling so hard for a girl she doesn't even know. Her attraction to Jane during their first subway encounter is immediate, but it would have been a missed connection if not for the happy coincidence that August and Jane share the same daily commute. Jane is always on August's train, so there's time for their flirtation to grow into a possible romance, though cautious August isn't sure if someone as wonderful and mysterious as Jane could ever be interested in her. Jane is always, always on August's train, and eventually it becomes clear how odd that is, and just how much of a mystery Jane is, even to herself. All Jane knows is that she boarded the subway in 1976 and then time stopped passing for her, so August is determined to figure out what happened almost 45 years ago and how to fix it.

This is a delightful story about developing relationships that celebrates friendship as much as love, with a vibrant, constantly bantering cast of characters. The speculative element emerges gradually, and I really enjoyed the ways it impacts both plot and character dynamics. As August and Jane uncover Jane's past, the novel explores queer history of the early 1970s in fascinating detail. The story gets emotional at times, steamy at other times, and focuses on joy throughout. I loved the time I spent with August, Jane, and all their friends.

THE OTHER BLACK GIRL by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Nella is the only Black employee on the editorial staff at Wagner Books, so she's delighted by the arrival of a new Black editorial assistant, Hazel. The two young women click immediately, and Nella is relieved to finally have a colleague who can share her perspective on the very white world of publishing. From the start, Hazel seems better at navigating that world than Nella has ever been, which Nella admires, then envies, then grows increasingly suspicious about. The sinister, anonymous notes Nella is receiving may be connected to Hazel, or may have nothing to do with her, but either way, Nella is paranoid about Hazel's motives and what exactly is happening at Wagner.

This novel begins as a sharp look at race in publishing and develops into an intriguing but not entirely successful thriller. I liked so much about the book early on, but once its secrets started to be revealed, I wished for a few more plot developments or layers to keep the tension up. Though each piece of the story appealed to me—the workplace dynamics, the mystery built through the different points of view, the accumulating clues—when they all came together, I felt there wasn't quite enough there. Harris is co-writing a television adaptation, and I look forward to seeing how that expands the great premise into a fuller story.

THE HAPPINESS PROJECT by Gretchen Rubin tracks a year in the author's life as she follows a set of resolutions intended to increase her happiness. The motivation for this project is her realization that while she has a pretty great life—a loving marriage, wonderful kids, financial security, and a career she loves—she is frequently unhappy about minor difficulties, annoyances, and slights. This well-structured, engaging book chronicles the changes Rubin makes, the results, and what she learns along the way from her experiences and her research into happiness.

To achieve her happiness goals, Rubin adopts new habits each month of the year, organized around themes. In January, to boost her energy for the rest of the project, she establishes routines for sleeping and exercising more, and she gets rid of household clutter that she finds draining. In later months, she works to strengthen the relationships with her husband, children, and friends using strategies that introduce more fun, patience, and generosity. Rubin pushes herself to expand her work and leisure by trying new things, but she also strives to recognize what she actually likes and values versus what she believes she should enjoy.

As someone coming from a similar position as Rubin, I was the right audience for this book, and it connected well for me. Like any self help guide, some parts were more resonant and applicable than others, but I found plenty to think about and try in my own life. I hope to use the ideas from this book to reframe my perspective and develop habits for more reliable happiness.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller at Slate investigates how representation and casting is changing in the audiobook industry: "It's customary now in the audiobook business to try to match a book's narrator to the gender, race, and sometimes sexual orientation of a novel's author or main character. Yet most novels feature characters with an assortment of different backgrounds, and this can require narrators to voice characters with identities very different from their own."

June 30, 2021

Keeping You Posted

A short general update, and then a technical update for the handful of people who receive this blog via email:

In general, my life is going pretty well, for which I remain grateful. Thanks to vaccines, I was able to travel to see my family, and I feel so fortunate that I got to have those happy reunions. I know that most of the world is not so lucky, and that insufficient vaccine uptake in this country means our window of increased safety could be receding.

In writing, other than occasional continued puttering on a story revision, I haven't been doing much. I don't have any specific writing goals at the moment, and that's keeping me somewhat adrift. I've been feeling more excited lately about the idea of diving into a new project, but I'm not yet sure what that project would be, so I have thinking to do.

And now, the boring announcement for my dozen or so email subscribers: The service (Feedburner) I've always used to automatically send my posts as email messages is discontinuing that feature. I've migrated my subscribers to a new service that will email the posts instead, but I'm still figuring out the details. If everything goes as expected, you'll receive this post from both services (probably at different times). Subsequent posts should only come from a new service, but the look (or the service itself) may change. Hiccups are of course also possible, because technology is fun that way.

Since this has required me to start messing around with the technical workings of my blog after years of barely touching it, I might even get inspired to make some bigger changes. So if there's anything (or everything) about my decade-old design that you think desperately needs an upgrade, let me know your thoughts.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Maria Kuznetsova offers Writing (and Life) Lessons from Finishing Two Novels That Didn't Sell: "Find the axis that your novel turns around. You can have as many plots and subplots as you want, as long as there's a clear focal point. In my first book, I lost track of the fact that it was about how Chernobyl affected my narrator—every scene, whether it was her love for her friend's grandpa, or the friend's accident, should have revolved around that. When I lost track of Chernobyl, my narrator was aimless."

June 4, 2021

May Reading Recap

I had a fantastic reading month of three wonderful novels:

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade: Amadeo has a lot of plans for getting his life back on track, starting with faithfully portraying Jesus in the Good Friday procession of the religious brotherhood he's recently joined. He doesn't have time to deal with the unannounced arrival of the pregnant teenage daughter he barely knows. Angel has her own newfound sense of purpose as she prepares for the birth of her baby. Though she's only 16 and hasn't made the best choices to end up in this situation, she can see that her plans are more sensible than her father's. Amadeo's mother, Yolanda, would like to do all she can to guide her son and granddaughter to better futures. She'd rather they not know her help will have to be limited, so she decides not to tell them about the brain tumor that's going to kill her in a few months.

THE FIVE WOUNDS has everything I want to read in a family novel: sympathetically flawed characters with believably complicated relationships, multiple viewpoints with distinct outlooks, and a story that balances deep emotion with humor. The humor Quade finds in the absurd details of life is key here in keeping an often sad and painful story from turning maudlin. I became quickly invested in the lives of these characters, and I continued to care even when they made frustrating choices. I am so impressed with the novel that grew from Quade's short story, and I look forward to more of her work.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: Flora and Margot's friendship began in New York City, when they were both young actors breaking into the theater scene. The friends were together when they met the men who would become their husbands, they saw each other through early successes and failures, and to their collective surprise, both couples ended up in Los Angeles. Flora has found steady work as a voice actor and raised a wonderful daughter, while Margot has become a huge TV star. As different as their lives have been from each other, and from what their young selves imagined, they've remained the best of friends. But Flora discovers troubling new information that makes her question everything that seemed settled and clear.

The discovery that launches the plot is a bit of a red herring, because this is not a book of twisty reveals but rather a compelling portrait of friendships and marriages evolving over time. I found the novel and its characters beautifully developed, with relationship dynamics and personal flaws that are complex and real. I also enjoyed the knowledgeable peek inside the two different acting worlds of NYC and LA. But until I understood that the initial hook was not the story, I was frustrated that flashbacks kept appearing every time the present day plot seemed about to move forward. That structure is best viewed not as a pacing problem but as a deliberate exploration of the way memories and experiences intertwine and small moments produce large consequences. This is a nuanced, emotional character story, and the secret that sets it in motion is only one step of a much longer journey.

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY by Martha Wells: In the newest installment of The Murderbot Diaries, our favorite Security Unit has to help solve a murder on a station where dead humans are an anomaly rather than an expected side effect of corporate operations. SecUnit is really only interested in this murder if there are indications that its own humans might be in danger, and it definitely isn't going to enjoy collaborating with the annoying humans who work in security on this annoying station. But with some clever deductions and a little more network access, maybe it can figure everything out and get back to watching media before it has to care about any of it.

I'd been looking forward to spending more time with Murderbot and was delighted to find this novella as excellent and satisfying as the rest. The mystery unfolds well and fuels an exciting plot. The portrayals of both the returning and new characters continue to be great, and it's especially fun in this series to watch dislike become grudging respect and even friendship. Note that this story takes place before NETWORK EFFECT, so if you're just starting out with Murderbot, you could read this novella after the others and save the novel for the end.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Naomi Kanakia explains the process of revising a book by exploding it in her mind: "It's very easy to write something in the text like, 'They were best friends!' But sometimes the problem is that they're not actually best friends. They just don't seem like, feel like, or act like best friends. The temptation here is to wade in and start forcing stuff into place, writing scenes where they swear eternal friendship, but the thing to do is first to just notice what is going on: What are the conflicts? What are the relationships? Not what do you want them to be–instead, what have you actually written?"

May 6, 2021

April Reading Recap

I did a lot of fun, exciting reading last month:

THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV by Dawnie Walton: In 1971, a barely known musical duo shot to fame in the wake of a racist riot that left their drummer dead. Opal Jewel, a flamboyant Black singer from Detroit, and Nev Charles, a quirky white songwriter from Birmingham, England, had started collaborating the previous year. These mismatched misfits only released two albums together before going their separate ways, Nev to massive solo fame and Opal to a patchier career. Forty-five years later, a reunion concert is in the works, and perhaps a tour. Music journalist Sunny Curtis has risen to the top of her field, a rarity for a Black woman, while taking care never to reveal her connection to Opal & Nev as the daughter of the murdered drummer. In this oral history, Sunny charts the origins and rise of the duo, investigates the circumstances of that fateful night, and plays a role in the long aftermath.

This outstanding novel joined my list of favorites before I even reached the powerful, satisfying end. I love fiction that makes good use of unusual forms, and here Walton creates complete believability as well as a compelling story in the oral history format of transcribed interview excerpts with judiciously placed editor's notes. Every character's voice is unique and real (the full cast audiobook production gets great reviews). Bad behavior and decisions are rampant in the story, but they always make sense for the person and situation. Despite the many developments explained at the outset, the plot builds and twists in surprising ways as the book goes on. Music is at the heart of this novel, but it covers so much more about race, gender, family, time, and loyalty. I've been recommending it to everyone!

MACHINEHOOD by S.B. Divya: Welga appreciates the reliable pay of her job protecting high-profile clients, and she enjoys the physicality of fighting off attackers. The pills she uses to enhance her job performance are standard for people in any field who want to keep up with bots and AIs that are faster and stronger but lack the nuanced abilities of humans. Lately, though, Welga's pills seem to be the cause of symptoms that are getting scarier, and she turns to her biogeneticist sister-in-law Nithya for help. Nithya is coping with bodily concerns of her own: an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. Both women's problems become smaller and yet more urgent with the emergence of a terrorist group called the Machinehood, which demands all pill production cease. The global crisis caused by the Machinehood could be the work of the first truly sentient AI, or it might be a cover for the continued warfare of a secretive empire, but either way, Welga is determined to take the Machinehood down.

I was quickly caught up in the thrilling plot, the well-developed characters, and the fascinating world. The future Divya imagines is innovative but also follows logically from our present, and the developments are a complicated mix of positive and negative. The novel is heavy on ideas about topics like progress, religion, and right and wrong, and these interested me but occasionally bogged down the story. Divya skillfully manages many different story threads and characters in this exciting sci-fi debut.

LOCAL STAR by Aimee Ogden: Triz is content with her quiet life repairing starships on a station, and she has no desire to travel through space like her more adventurous partners. It's just as well her relationship with Kalo is over, because his death-defying fighter piloting puts him in more danger than Triz can stand. But she worries that her partner Casne, and her wife, only want Triz to join their marriage if Kalo is part of the package. With Casne and Kalo both back on the station after a military victory, it might be time to address some of these relationship questions. Before that can happen, though, Casne is arrested on unbelievable charges, and Triz finds herself in the middle of a mystery, then a dangerous adventure to save the station.

This novella is a fun romp that delivers both exciting action and romantic drama. It was satisfying to watch Triz reckon with her self-doubt and gain confidence in her abilities and her place in Casne's family. I enjoyed the loving portrayal of polyamory in a world where this is the norm, though I was sorry the short length meant the relationships weren't developed as fully as I wanted. In general, the characters and their dynamics could have used more nuance, but there's an entertaining story here for those seeking a quick sci-fi read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller at Slate suggests what writers can learn from The Phantom Tollbooth: "Procrastination isn't always your enemy. Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth when he was supposed to be writing a book about cities for children, a project for which he had received a grant. As a rule, the thing that you write for fun will always be better than whatever you think is more important, serious, or expected of you."

April 30, 2021

Coming Around Again

One year ago, I posted about celebrating my birthday under the strange new conditions of pandemic life. By then, it was apparent the situation wasn't as temporary as we might have believed at first, but it's just as well I couldn't imagine that life would be similarly constrained a year later.

I marked turning 46 the same way as 45, with delicious treats at home with my household. But I did also get my Santa Cruz afternoon, complete with ice cream by the ocean, a few weeks in advance. And the best early birthday present was that two days before, I received my first vaccine shot!

A year ago, the outlook was grim and so unknown. Now I'm embracing a growing sense of hope as more Americans get vaccinated and cases decline. However, grim uncertainty remains when I look beyond the US to places where the pandemic still rages, particularly the horrifying crisis in India. (Donate at GiveIndia.)

A lot of life, for those as lucky as I've been, involves navigating the balance between personal joys and awareness of other people's suffering. I'm another year older now, and after a year that made those contrasts especially stark, I recognize this even more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Catriona Silvey ponders the Counterintuitive Appeal of the Literary Time Loop: "Why do we seek out narratives that not only repeat themselves, but feature repetition as an anchoring principle of their structure? As a linguist and novelist, I believe that the answer lies in the process by which readers construct meaning from texts. Time loops, it turns out, are perfect for hacking this process to deliver a hefty intellectual and emotional impact within a tight narrative framework."

April 7, 2021

March Reading Recap

I had plenty more reading variety last month, with two novels, a book of nonfiction, and a short story collection:

THE COMMITTED by Viet Thanh Nguyen: After the events of THE SYMPATHIZER, the man of two minds finds himself a refugee in Paris in 1981. He arrives with his blood brother, a killer of communists who cannot learn that our antihero spent years secretly operating as a communist agent (though he now isn't sure where his loyalties lie). The two find work with a crime lord, and the protagonist ends up selling drugs to the intellectual friends of his aunt, who isn't really his aunt but in fact a connection from his spy days. He also ends up using at least his fair share of the drugs, getting beaten and tortured quite a bit, and musing a lot about his own history and that of Vietnam and other colonized entities.

This is a consistent sequel that delivers more of Nguyen's clever sentences and pointed observations in a story that mixes intense action with cerebral analysis. As with the first book, at times I found the philosophical sections slow going. It's possible this book is grimmer than the first, or weirder, but as I remember more about the first, I'm not sure that's true. The narrative voice of these novels is unique and confidently crafted, and the narrator still has a fascinating story to tell.

STOP SAVING THE PLANET!: AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MANIFESTO by Jenny Price argues that too much of the conversation about environmental crises focuses on individual consumer actions, when the problems can only be solved at a systemic level. In this opinionated, accessible book, Price calls for corporate accountability, a reframing of environmentalist movements, and a more thoughtful accumulation of stuff. It's a great introduction to concepts like environmental inequality and greenwashing, but even those familiar with the subjects will find new perspectives and ideas here.

The book makes a clear case for why the focus has to shift away from individual actions: "Why can't you find a 50 Simple Things You Can Do to End World Poverty handbook at your bookstore?—or 101 Ways You Can Help Stop Gun Violence (or Solve the Middle East Crisis) Before You're 12!" Still, it does end by offering the reader a list of Ways to Stop Saving the Planet, but—guess what?—they aren't simple, and they aren't solutions. Many of the suggestions revolve around educating yourself, and this book is a good place to start!

MEDIUM HERO: AND OTHER STORIES by Korby Lenker: The two dozen-plus stories in this collection range from brief, lighthearted musings to intense character reckonings. All are nicely written, with moments and details that are well observed, unexpected, and often amusing. Some of the pieces have the feel of anecdotes from life rather than crafted stories with complete arcs, and while I tended to prefer the latter, I enjoyed reading either way.

Among my favorite stories: In "Pro Wrestling," full of great details and tension, a couple at a crossroads attends a wrestling match gone wrong. The protagonist in "Manboy and the Mafia Table" finds himself playing a surprising role in a social situation. The title story starts off as an insightful portrayal of how difficult the smallest things can be when depressed, then goes to an even darker place before reaching a satisfyingly hopeful ending. I'm glad I was introduced to the work of this author, who is also a singer-songwriter.

INFINITE COUNTRY by Patricia Engel: Talia's life and family have been divided by immigration restrictions. She and her brother were born in the US after her parents and their oldest child overstayed their visas. When Talia was still a baby, her father was deported to Colombia with no way to return. Her overwhelmed mother sent Talia back as well, and she grew up in Bogotá under the care of her grandmother. Now Talia is fifteen, her grandmother has died, and she's sentenced to a prison school after committing a random act of violence. But Talia has a plane ticket to finally return to the US and rejoin the mother and older siblings she barely knows, so she escapes detention in hopes of making it back to Bogotá in time for her flight.

INFINITE COUNTRY is beautifully written and recounts many experiences faced by undocumented immigrants and mixed status families, but I didn't think the story worked particularly well. After a tense opening scene depicting Talia's escape, the narrative changes course by jumping back to cover years of her parents' lives in Colombia and then the US. That the novel turns out to be as much about Talia's parents as Talia herself is fine, but the initial hook and ticking clock of the fugitive journey becomes a background thread that isn't all that deeply explored. Nor is there an especially deep exploration of the novel's many other events, because most episodes pass in summary, with only brief pauses for detailed scenes and dialogue. The result is that my reaction to this book was a generalized sympathy for these characters as representatives of a range of traumatic immigration experiences, but little feeling for them as specifically drawn fictional people.

This novel exists within the context of a publishing landscape in which stories about marginalized characters are more often rewarded when they focus on trauma and can educate readers about important issues. Whether or not that context influenced the writing or style of this novel, it seems like a factor in some of the praise it's receiving. Certainly the book exposes many terrible realities, but for me it fell short as a work of fiction.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, Parul Sehgal considers the history and legacy of who is reviewed and how: "Note that language. It reappears in the reviews of the interlopers — the nonwhite writers, women writers and especially L.G.B.T.Q. writers. Their books are not written, they are not crafted — they are expelled, they are excreted, almost involuntarily.... Where Black writers are concerned, another pattern can be detected. Reviewers might impute cultural importance to the work, but aesthetic significance only rarely. And if aesthetic significance was conferred, it often hinged on one particular quality: authenticity."