Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

February 8, 2017

January Reading Recap

January was an unusual reading month for me, because it didn't include any novels. Instead, I read a collection of short stories and two works of nonfiction. All three were great, powerful books, but they all focused on bleak topics, so I may need to seek out some more escapist literature next.

DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay is an incredible and intense collection. The opening story, "I Will Follow You", which features sisters who share a bond after suffering horrific sexual violence together, introduces subjects and themes that are repeated throughout the book. Most of the stories revolve around women figuring out how to survive brutality, grief, and other terrible circumstances, so while there are some hopeful endings, this isn't easy reading.

The narrator of "Break All the Way Down" is one of several in the collection mourning the loss of a baby, but Gay makes this and every other story specific and individual by delving deep into the character's particular journey through pain. I was constantly struck by the complexity of the lives established in a short space. "La Negra Blanca", for example, is a compact and nuanced portrait of both a college student who strips for tuition money and the customer who lusts after her, and the plot builds piece by piece to a terrible climax in just 15 pages.

Several stories have magical elements, such as "Water, All Its Weight" about a woman who is followed by dampness and mold. A couple are structured as a series of vignettes, like "FLORIDA", a powerful look at how class and body image affect the residents of a gated community. Whatever the style or tone, Gay's gorgeous writing exposes the emotional core of the difficult lives that produce difficult (ill-treated, hurting, misunderstood) women.

WHAT WE DO NOW: STANDING UP FOR YOUR VALUES IN TRUMP'S AMERICA edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians: Following the election, the independent publisher Melville House pulled together this anthology of essays and speeches by activists, politicians, and writers. The contributions, divided into topics like Racial Justice, Immigration, and Women's Rights, address the country's current situation (or at least, the situation as anticipated before the inauguration) and attempt to offer guidance, motivation, and hope.

Two essays from ACLU directors, one by David Cole and the other by Anthony D. Romero, remind readers that legal action and the protections of the Constitution will continue to have power against the Trump administration's policies, a fact demonstrated sooner than we might have imagined. Brittany Packnett of Campaign Zero asks the important and difficult question, White People: What Is Your Plan for the Trump Presidency? and suggests a few starting points. ("Here's a simple test: If the action you're taking isn't really costing you your comfort, chances are you're not doing enough.") Cristina Jiménez, director of United We Dream, delivers a rousing call for "local grassroots organizing, the daily practice of using an intersectional and cross-movement lens, and the discipline to do the hard work."

I found some of the entries more useful and engaging than others (I question the choice to open with a rather dry proposal for economic reform by Bernie Sanders), but every writer had something worthwhile to add. Taken as a whole, this collection provided much-needed inspiration for facing what's ahead.

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER'S BERLIN by Erik Larson: This work of nonfiction looks at Germany in 1933-34, as Hitler rose to power, by focusing on the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his family, particularly his adult daughter Martha. The Dodds arrived in Berlin at a time of upheaval but initially disbelieved or downplayed reports of Nazi persecution and brutality, a position that's chilling from the perspective of both history and current events. The family's interactions with many of the prominent people in Berlin at the time, from leaders of the Nazi party to Jewish journalists, provide a fascinating view into how German society changed in the course of a year that eventually convinced the Dodds to recognize the danger of Hitler's reign.

Larson tells the story with a novelistic technique that makes for page-turning reading, though at times I found the literary style a bit overdone and would have preferred more straightforward prose. I did appreciate Larson explaining upfront that anything presented as a quote is taken from a diary, letter, or other primary source, so it was clear that despite the use of devices from fiction, this is a factually accurate, heavily researched account of history. I didn't know a lot about this period, and I learned a great deal.

I picked up this book in January expecting a cautionary tale, but I was still alarmed at spotting quite so many parallels to the xenophobia, discrimination, and governmental chaos happening right now. One of many sentences that resonated: "Hitler's government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another." By the end, though, I felt hopeful on reading, "Throughout that first year in Germany, Dodd had been struck again and again by the strange indifference to atrocity that had settled over the nation, the willingness of the populace and of the moderate elements in the government to accept each new oppressive decree, each new act of violence, without protest." Germany's silent acceptance was a terrible mistake that we aren't taking any chances with today.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Eileen Webb shares strategies for Productivity in Terrible Times: "Blocking off time -- whether for volunteering or regular work -- can feel daunting, and disconnecting from our news sources and friends can feel simultaneously like guilty relief and anxious negligence. But the world will still be burning when you come back, and you'll feel better for having given your time, or completed some work that will enable you to keep fighting."

→ At Literary Hub, Anna Pitoniak reveals What Being An Editor Taught Me About Writing: "Every sentence or passage ought to perform a function, whether it is moving the action forward, or developing a character, or deepening an emotion, or something else that truly enhances the story. I am wary of writing that is merely beautiful. And if you’ve convinced me that a character is a certain way, you don't need to keep convincing me of that again and again."

January 18, 2017

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2017

Whatever else 2017 has in store, at least there are still good books on the horizon. I've been especially anticipating these winter releases:

DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay (January 3): The wait is already over for this short story collection, and I'm nearly finished reading it. I am a huge fan of Gay's writing, whether it's fiction or essay, and these stories are as hard and beautiful as I expected. These are examinations of pain and loss and the difficult lives that produce difficult women, and they're written with nuance and power.

THE YOUNG WIDOWER'S HANDBOOK by Tom McAllister (February 7): McAllister is one of the hosts of Book Fight, a conversational literary podcast I look forward to every Monday morning. He's reported periodically on the long process of getting his first novel published, and I'm excited to finally read it. The story follows a young man suddenly widowed who embarks on a road trip with his wife's ashes, and it promises to be both sad and funny.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders (February 14): I was one of the many who became aware of Saunders's wonderfully weird stories after the success of his 2013 collection. His career began much earlier, but he's only ever published shorter works, so this novel has been highly anticipated. The main character is Abraham Lincoln, who mourns the death of his young son during the Civil War by visiting the cemetery, where he encounters the ghosts of other people buried near the boy. It's a strange, fascinating premise that I expect Saunders will pull off with style.

THE BOOK OF ETTA by Meg Elison (February 21): I recently raved about Elison's gripping post-apocalyptic tale, THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, and I'm glad the followup is nearly here. This sequel takes place somewhat later, featuring a different character who is mentioned at the end of the first book. I'm eager to return to the intense world of the story and explore further.

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid (March 7): I read Hamid's previous novel, HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA, and while my review was lukewarm, I've been curious to read more of his writing. This upcoming novel sounds great, involving a love story in a war-torn land and magic portals that allow instant immigration. I can't wait to start reading!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times spoke with President Barack Obama about the role of books in his life and presidency: "To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Golden Notebook and The Woman Warrior). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night -- reading that was deep and ecumenical, ranging from contemporary literary fiction (the last novel he read was Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad) to classic novels to groundbreaking works of nonfiction like Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow and Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction." The interview transcript is also well worth reading.

January 13, 2017

2016 By The Books

After a new year begins, I like to take a look back at my reading trends and favorite books from the year before.

In 2016, I read 35 books. In last year's roundup, I reported that I'd just managed to match the 36 books I read two years previously (the in-between year was an outlier of record reading). I was intending to at least hit and ideally surpass 36 this time, and I thought I'd squeeze in some short books at the end if necessary to reach the magic number, which nicely averages out to three books a month. Of course this plan was kind of silly, and I decided not to let it bother me (too much) that I fell just short of the earlier number.

I'm always going to experience some disappointment over the number of books I read in a year, because there are always more books than I have time to read. I find a pace of three books a month generally workable, and it lets me get to a decent selection of the books I'd like to read. However, on occasion I end up reading when I really ought to be writing, not just because it's more fun but because I feel responsible for reaching my book quota, and again, that's kind of silly. I hope I can arrange my time to enjoy roughly the same number of books in 2017, but I'm also going to try for a more sensible approach, so we'll see how it goes.

Over time, my reading has shifted toward new releases as I become increasingly tuned in to various sources of book news. This year I got especially organized about tracking and reading books as they were published (next week I'll share another installment of Releases I'm Ready For). As a result, two-thirds of the books I read this year were published in 2016. A handful of others were 2015 catchups, a few more from the earlier years of this decade, and only three from before that, with nothing published before the 1990s. I'm happy with the variety of stories and styles I'm getting from contemporary books, so I have no particular plans about changing my selection habits, but again, we'll see what happens.

I did really well this year at choosing good books. I still don't have the hang of abandoning a book I'm not enjoying, but that wasn't an issue this year, because I was pretty happy with everything I started. (I'm not counting sampling the opening pages and quickly determining a book's not for me.) Sure, I did read some books with flaws or frustrating elements, but even those had good qualities that outweighed the problems. So if you're looking for reading suggestions, check back through my monthly reviews. I recommend everything!

Of course, I do have some favorite picks, which I've wrangled into categories:

Family: Stories about family relationships are my favorite genre and made up approximately a third of my reading this year. COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett (December) is a standout depiction of a family over time, with nuanced characters and situations, an unusual chronological structure, and perfectly observed details. THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (March) throws highly flawed family members into a crisis and cleverly weaves their problems and conflicts into a gripping, vibrant story. Family dynamics are more of a subplot in ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia (August), which portrays a high school senior's disastrous ambition through a compelling, unexpected plot and masterful handling of a tricky structural conceit. All three of these novels convey real, difficult emotions with a solid dose of humor, and they all contain characters I came to love despite their often terrible behavior.

Speculative: Out of my various science fictional and related interests, post-apocalyptic reading has been a staple for me in recent years, but I only read one such book in 2016 (insert comment about current events). THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison (November) really scratched my apocalyptic itch with the gripping, brutal story of a woman surviving a world devastated by disease. Another favorite novel this year in the broader speculative genre is LOVECRAFT COUNTRY by Matt Ruff (February), a deft and thoughtful tale that subjects its characters to both supernatural horrors and the horrors of racism in 1950s America. 2016 introduced me to STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS (also February) by Ted Chiang, a 2002 collection of brilliantly written short stories that explore wildly original science fiction concepts.

Historical: I've always enjoyed reading good historical fiction, though I think it's only recently that I've noticed this preference. THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Alexander Chee (February again!) is an intricate, suspenseful story of an opera singer in 1880s Paris and the complicated path she traveled to obtain her fame. Like any strong historical novel, it demonstrates an immense amount of research and uses that knowledge in service of character and plot, and the same is true of my top book pick of 2016: The amazing HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi (May/June) covers 250 years, depicting the impact of slavery on the United States and Ghana through vivid snapshots of each generation that expertly bring characters fully to life in the space of a chapter.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Atlas Obscura, Eric Grundhauser reports on The Highbrow Struggles of Translating Modern Children's Books Into Latin: "In addition to Green Eggs and Ham (Latin title: Virent Ova! Viret Perna!!), the Tunbergs have also translated Dr. Seuss classics How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Quomodo Invidiosulus nomine Grinchus Christi natalem Abrogaverit) and The Cat in the Hat (Cattus Petasatus), as well as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree (Arbor Alma)."

January 6, 2017

December Reading Recap

I'm closing out my 2016 reviews with recommendations for the two books I read in December:

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett starts with an adulterous kiss at a christening party that breaks up two marriages, creating a new family of stepsiblings united only in resenting their parents. I'm hesitant even to share that brief summary, because the kiss and almost everything that happens in this novel emerges as an unanticipated development. The story jumps back and forth across decades, presenting big and small moments in the lives of the characters as they navigate family dynamics, growing up and growing old, and the problems of remembering and retelling shared experiences.

I am in awe of the way this novel manages to convey the story of an increasingly sprawling family by focusing on a small set of incidents that often aren't the scenes I expected to play out. While the reader gets to spend more time with some characters than others, each family member is portrayed as a full and nuanced individual. I especially enjoyed seeing how various siblings and parents clashed or connected and watching these relationships change over time. This family felt real and unique, and I cared about everyone's fate, so the novel delivered all that I hope for (but don't always find) in a family drama.

Patchett is an incredible writer at every level. Her sentences are crammed with well-observed detail, but the casual, comfortable language always provides a smooth reading experience. Even at serious moments, Patchett teases out the humor in mundane human behavior and interactions. I was impressed by the deft handling of the book's idiosyncratic structure, which frequently skips past major events and then gradually fills in the details of what happened. Like so much in this novel, the manner in which the story unfolds was a delightful surprise.

Commonwealth joins my list of favorite family stories, and I heartily recommend it to other fans of the genre. If you've read it already, I suggest this Bookworm interview in which Patchett discusses her decisions in crafting the novel as a whole and some specific scenes.

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen opens at the end of the Vietnam War, as Saigon falls, or is liberated, depending on perspective. Those different perspectives are at the core of the novel, because the narrator acts as an officer of the Republic of Vietnam's National Police while secretly serving as an agent of the communist Viet Cong. During the attack on the capital, he escapes and resettles in Los Angeles, where he previously attended college and studied American culture. Once in the US, our protagonist continues living a divided life, working in the Department of Oriental Studies at Occidental College (a dichotomy not lost on him) and conducting covert operations for both sides of the Vietnamese conflict.

There's a lot happening on every page of this novel, particularly inside the narrator's head. As he announces at the start, he's "a man of two minds," and much of the story explores how a person (as well as a country) can cope with duality. Plotwise, a lot also takes place, including some extremely tense and intensely violent scenes, but the events are spaced apart by more cerebral sections and somewhat detached from each other. Though I found the slow pace a challenge at times, most of the book kept me fascinated.

The novel is packed with cleverly constructed sentences that often take a darkly funny turn. Some gems: "Over the next few days, we wept and we waited. Sometimes, for variety, we waited and we wept." "I barely even had the opportunity to sleep, since a sleeper agent is almost constantly afflicted with insomnia." "She cursed me at such length and with such inventiveness I had to check both my watch and my dictionary." I look forward to reading more of Nguyen's great writing in his upcoming story collection, THE REFUGEES.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A few months back, Emily St. John Mandel crunched the numbers at FiveThirtyEight on books with "girl" in the title: "A number of patterns emerged in our analysis: The 'girl' in the title is much more likely to be a woman than an actual girl, and the author of the book is more likely to be a woman. But if a book with 'girl' in the title was written by a man, the girl is significantly more likely to end up dead."

→ This week, Adrian Liang of The Amazon Book Review points out a hopeful new trend (also mentioned by Mandel), books with "woman" in the title: "I sometimes have this horrible suspicion that, consciously or no, a book title is whispering, 'Read about "girls." They're less troublesome than women.' ... More troublesome 'women,' please." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

December 29, 2016

My Year in Sometimes Writing

Well, here we are at the end of one eventful year, facing the start of another. In 2016, my personal writing progress and accomplishments feel particularly small and unimportant, but this is my blog all about me, so I'm reviewing my year in writing and related activities. I'll do a separate post about reading and books in January.

For the first four months of the year, I didn't write any fiction. I did some research and idea generation for a project I'm still thinking about. I reread a few old manuscripts and considered what I might salvage from them. I wrote a couple of essays that didn't end up going anywhere. Writing-wise, the early part of the year was mainly about investigating possibilities.

Much of what I actually spent time on during those months was cleaning my writing room. I filed years of documents into filing cabinets, got rid of a huge amount of clutter, and rearranged furniture to make my space more usable. I meant to post photos of the final product, but then I never entirely finished organizing the last few small areas to make it picture-perfect, and my attention moved to other things. Until I maybe get around to someday sharing the results, just know that I'm very happy with what I accomplished, and my room is a great place to work now.

From May to July, I took an online short fiction class from Gotham Writers Workshop, and that provided deadlines and motivation to get me writing again, eventually. While some aspects of the class worked better for me than others, I got a lot out of it. I wrote two stories, in addition to some smaller pieces prompted by exercises, and the process of writing them, receiving feedback, and reading and critiquing the work of others was all very instructive. In the writing and revision I've done this fall, I feel like I've made noticeable improvement, and it's in part because of what I learned during the class.

I intended to try publishing my class stories and others in literary magazines, and I did get as far as researching the submission process and revising one of the new stories in September. The feedback I got from critique partners indicated that I still need to do more work, and then the project fell victim to timing, because I was hoping to finish the story while planning my next novel draft. Once I started the actual revising of the novel, I was reluctant to put any time into reworking the story, so I set it aside. I would rather not abandon the project at this stage after all the efforts of my kind commenters, so I want to return to the story with fresh eyes in the new year.

The latest revision of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE has been my big writing focus for the last few months. Unfortunately, timing also dealt a blow to this project. I completed outlining the new version and started revising at the end of October with grand plans for a productive November. Then the election happened, and focusing on writing got a lot harder.

I haven't made nearly as much progress on the revision as I expected back in October, but arguably, that statement was going to be true no matter what, because all writing is always slower than I anticipate. I produced good writing in November and December, but I spent a lot of time not writing. Some of the interruptions involved following the news and making phone calls and attending a town hall and learning about political action. Others were all the usual distractions of life, which tend to be especially numerous toward the end of the year.

2017 promises to bring more of everything: more revising, more reasons to take action, more real life. I have a lot to keep working on.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Lorraine Berry at Literary Hub contacted authors a few weeks after the election to find out how writers are getting back to work: "How are writers using their rage, their disappointment, their grief to get themselves moving? Mixed in each of the letters I received, even the ones where the sadness felt the most crippling, the writer recognized that action must emerge from the sadness."

December 6, 2016

November Reading Recap

What with one thing and another, I only read two books in November. Both were in part an excellent distraction from current events and in part painfully relevant, which I'm realizing is exactly the way I like my literature.

THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison: A nurse midwife is working at a hospital in San Francisco when a mysterious fever starts bringing in more and more patients, who soon die. Every delivery the midwife attends ends in stillbirth, and the fever usually appears and kills the laboring mother, even if she wasn't sick before. Within the space of a few weeks, the epidemic reaches apocalyptic levels. Our protagonist becomes sick, and when she recovers, she finds very few people are left alive, and almost none of them are women.

An apocalypse in which women are rare is a particularly brutal apocalypse, and this novel is committed to exploring that reality. Pretty much the first thing that happens to the main character is that a man nearly rapes her, and she has to kill him to escape. She decides to disguise herself as a man, which provides some safety but adds the constant danger of discovery to all other dangers of a collapsed society. The story is always tense and often upsetting, and I loved it for that realness.

Elison made a lot of smart choices in writing this book. A frame narrative establishes that the midwife's tale was preserved in journals, and some of those entries are presented for the reader. Wisely, though, rather than staying in that limited mode, most of the story is told in standard prose. While the focus is on one character we can get fully invested in, as the midwife encounters other survivors on her journey, we learn about different ways people choose or are forced to live in this future. The worldbuilding is well-considered throughout, particularly the details related to gender and sex. THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE is one of my new favorite books, and one of the best among the many apocalyptic stories I've read.

A sequel is coming out in February that follows a different character through the devastated world (and I can't wait to read it!), but the midwife's story wraps up in this book, so it can be read alone.

THE CUTTING SEASON by Attica Locke: Caren manages a former plantation in Louisiana that now operates as a museum and event venue, complete with daily theatrical performances that don't present the most historically accurate depiction of slavery. Caren's ancestors were enslaved on this very plantation, but she also spent her childhood playing with the brothers who own the estate, so she has complicated feelings about the place and her job. When a migrant worker from the neighboring cane fields is found dead on the plantation grounds, the lives of Caren and her young daughter become a whole lot more complicated.

Caren is a well-developed character grappling with a lot of conflicts related to both her work and her family. Locke makes good use of Caren's many facets, as well as the intriguing plantation setting, in constructing the mystery plot. As the story moves through the steps of the investigation, it never strays too far from examining how race and the legacy of slavery contribute to everything that's happening.

I don't have a ton of experience reading mysteries, but that part of the book seemed fairly solid to me, with clues gradually coming together while many secrets and suspicions turned out to be unrelated to the murder. Though I enjoyed being pulled along by the mystery plot, what interested and satisfied me more was the story of Caren, her family, and their history with the plantation. If that's what I was supposed to care about most, than this novel definitely succeeded.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ If you're at all intimidated by making calls to legislators, this guide for how to call your reps when you have social anxiety will help: "It is okay if your voice shakes. It is okay if you feel awkward. They get a lot of calls, so they don't have time to judge you by how well you delivered your message."

→ I'm fascinated by Edan Lepucki's summaries for five novels she'll never write: "Without a long-term project to obsess over, I find myself channeling ideas all the time. A new premise will possess me for a few minutes or hours, my brain asking What if? or Why would that happen?, until, like a fly at a picnic, I alight on another, juicier narrative."

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.