Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

April 21, 2017

Spring Is in the Air

It's April, so the cherry blossoms have scattered to the winds, flowers are springing up all over my neighborhood, and sneezes are in full bloom. After years of not enough rain, California has probably finished a season of too much rain, and we're looking at a stretch of pleasant sunny days before my valley inevitably gets much too hot for my taste.

I'm another year older now. I've been celebrating my birthday primarily by eating lots of delicious treats. I also bought myself a few books, celebrated with friends, and have more festivities planned for this weekend. Once again, I find it's good to be the birthday girl.

Between birthday activities and unrelated commitments, I haven't done much writing this week, but in general I've been making steady if slow progress on the revision. As I mentioned before, some of the changes to this draft involve writing entirely new material rather than simply adjusting what's already there. Something I only recently articulated for myself is that I'm trying to write this new stuff not as a first draft but as a fifth/tenth/whatever-this-is draft so that it matches all the parts that have been through many rounds of polishing. That's not completely possible, but I'm getting at least partway there, and it's one reason things are moving slowly for now.

While I'm working from a detailed outline I developed in the fall, parts of the story have drifted away from the plan, as tends to happen. I hit a big plot snag about a month ago, but I eventually wrote my way out of it. Though I'm still winging it a bit more than I was hoping, I'm happy with how the new version of the story is developing. I do have concerns that too much of my novel revolves around chairs, sandwiches, and ice cream, but after all, those are a pretty good set of things.

I hope spring is bringing good things your way as well!

April 3, 2017

March Reading Recap

My March reading was excellent, with a great batch of novels from authors I've enjoyed in the past:

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid: In a city on the brink of war, Nadia and Saeed meet at a night class about product branding. They begin to date as militants take over the city, and the uncertain times intensify their falling in love. Meanwhile, across the globe, doors are opening that transport people from one part of the world to another. When Nadia and Saeed get the opportunity to pass through one of these doors to a safer place, they make the difficult decision to leave the only city they've ever known. The couple joins the flow of migrants changing the structure of the world's cities, and migration changes the shape of their own relationship.

This is a brilliant novel that depicts both the minutiae of two intertwined lives and the societal impact of countless migrating bodies. From the opening pages, I was invested in Nadia and Saeed as characters and drawn into their day-to-day reality, where the banality of emailed marketing pitches mixes with the routine of car bombings and checkpoints. Despite the magical doors, which are introduced with little fuss, this story feels like it could be happening right now, thanks to Hamid's care with details.

While the workings of the doors aren't explored, their effect on migration numbers is thoroughly imagined. Existing inhabitants fight or embrace the refugees, new arrivals establish ways to organize themselves, systems adjust to accommodate growing populations. I was fascinated by the plausible infrastructure solutions Hamid developed for the novel, and I hope our own world will move to resemble those parts, not the ones where people fear and hate each other. I encourage everyone to read this timely and wonderful story.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders is based on a historical fact, the death of Abraham Lincoln's beloved young son Willie, which occurred just as it became clear how long and bloody the Civil War would be. It's also inspired by a rumor from the time, that after the funeral the grieving president visited the crypt where the boy was interred. Saunders combines historical record and speculation with the supernatural and fills the cemetery with ghosts who witness the events of that night and help Willie through the transition from life to death.

The premise is inventive, but the really unusual part of this novel is its narrative construction. I was a fan of Saunders from the collection TENTH OF DECEMBER, and while those stories are all wonderfully weird in content, they stick to pretty standard forms, so I wasn't expecting his first novel to be stylistically unlike anything else I've read. Understanding how the story operated was a thrilling and unsettling pleasure, so I'm not going to spoil anyone else's fun by explaining further. If you're uncertain about trying experimental prose and want to know more first, check out Ron Charles's Washington Post review for a fuller description.

Saunders does a lot of skillful work in this novel, from pulling off the format to crafting a huge cast of distinctive and memorable characters. It's a moving story involving a good deal of grief and pain, which Saunders handles with his characteristic compassion, while also weaving in a bit of his characteristic humor. I really enjoyed this book as both an impressive writing feat and an emotionally engaging tale. It's not going to appeal to all readers, but if you're drawn to unconventional prose, I highly recommend it. And if you're into audiobooks, note that this one has a large cast of celebrity narrators -- I'm not normally an audiobook listener, but I'm considering experiencing the book again that way.

THE BOOK OF ETTA by Meg Elison: This is the second installment in a planned trilogy, after THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, which I adored last year. Since the first novel stood strongly on its own, I was a bit nervous about a sequel, but the new characters and developments in this story made for a compelling continuation. I expect most readers who enjoyed the first book will also appreciate this further exploration of Elison's post-apocalyptic world.

Generations after a plague wiped out most of humanity, killing women at far higher rates than men, the disease still lurks in the population, and women remain a small minority. Eddy was born to the fulfilling life of adventure on the road, where he raids for useful supplies in the ruins of the old world, trades with small towns, and rescues women and girls held by slavers. When he returns home between trips, he despises having to resume the role of Etta, daughter of a respected village mother who can't understand why Etta won't accept the biological necessity of becoming either a mother or a midwife.

Identity and gender are big topics in this novel, and the problem of an unbalanced world presents numerous complications. As Eddy travels between towns, he encounters many different arrangements between the men and the few women. Some are cruel, all are imperfect, and each adds something to the story and Eddy's perspective on the world. (The first book also explored various possibilities, but nothing here struck me as repetitive.) While reading, I was somewhat frustrated by information that was hinted at but went unrevealed for what felt too long, but mostly I stayed intrigued by the story. Toward the end, it gets especially intense and takes a number of quick turns before reaching a conclusion that wraps up major plotlines but also sets things up for the final book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Kelly Jensen explores the approaches to cover design for 1984: "George Orwell's classic 1984 -- a staple of high school classrooms everywhere -- has been holding strong to the top of the bestsellers list for the last few months. I spent a little time looking at covers from previous eras, as well as foreign editions, and I found some interesting commonalities."

→ And Rebecca Romney collects covers for The Handmaid's Tale: "The color red, both an evocative design choice and a key aspect of the narrative, has dominated most cover designs since. Whether the designer goes for something abstract and almost digital in appearance (as in the 2016 Vintage Classics edition) or strews the space with flowers (as in the 2009 Bloomsbury edition), the flash of red is eye catching and ominous."

March 29, 2017

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2017

I've just finished reading through my previous crop of anticipated books, and I'm getting excited for the next batch. These are the books coming out this spring (and the start of summer) that I've been eagerly awaiting:

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad (April 4): I've been seeing buzz for a while about this novel, which imagines a second American Civil War. The description also mentions a plague, which places it squarely in the category of "horrific things I love to read about". I'm looking forward to being horrified by this one, which is Akkad's debut.

WOMAN NO. 17 by Edan Lepucki (May 9): I've long been a fan of Lepucki's writing for The Millions, and I enjoyed her debut novel, CALIFORNIA, about a couple who flees to the wilderness as civilization collapses. That first novel received a great publicity boost during an Amazon brouhaha, so this one may arrive a bit more quietly, but I'm one of many readers interested to find out what Lepucki has in store this time. The novel involves a writer in the Hollywood Hills, the nanny she hires, and the friendship they develop, and it's billed as "sinister, sexy noir".

HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay (June 13): This book was originally slated for publication a year ago, but now it's really on its way, and I'm sure it will be a beautiful, difficult read, like everything else Gay writes. I loved her story collection DIFFICULT WOMEN, out only last season, and I previously devoured her amazing novel and essay collection. This new memoir considers food, weight, and body image, frequently topics in Gay's writing.

MADE FOR LOVE by Alissa Nutting (July 4): Nutting's debut novel was TAMPA, a seriously disturbing, seriously impressive book about a middle school teacher who is sexually obsessed with her students. I've ben curious to see where Nutting would go from there, and the answer involves a woman leaving her husband, a senior citizen trailer park, a sex doll, and tracking technology. I'm intrigued.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Guardian, George Saunders considers what writers really do when they write: "My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with 'P' on this side ('Positive') and 'N' on this side ('Negative'). I try to read what I've written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might ('without hope and without despair'). Where's the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the 'P' zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts." (Thanks, Henri!)

March 16, 2017

FOGcon 2017 Report

Last weekend was my seventh year at FOGcon, and my high-level recap is similar to all the previous years: I had a great three days talking about speculative fiction and related topics with other people who enjoy thinking hard about such subjects, and I came home happily exhausted from all the conversation, ideas, drinks, karaoke, and fun.

Honored guest Ayize Jama-Everett was one of the highlights of this year's programming for me. Prior to his announcement as guest, I wasn't familiar with him or his work, and the conference booklet features an excellent profile by Anasuya Sengupta addressing the fact that many black writers remain relatively unknown in speculative fiction. I'm glad I read Jama-Everett's THE LIMINAL PEOPLE before the con, and it was a thrill to hear him speak on several panels about his experiences as a writer and teacher. For his guest slot, he brought in futurist Lonny Brooks, and the two had a fascinating conversation about how writers and theorists can imagine the future and explore the present.

I didn't get a chance to read anything by the other guest, Delia Sherman, but I appreciated her thoughtful contributions as a panelist. She participated in two panels I particularly liked, one covering the joys and problems of Writing Between Genres and one about the scarcity of middle-aged women as SFF characters, called In Between the Pixie and the Crone. The "between" in both these panel titles stems from this year's theme, Interstitial Spaces, and numerous panels considered stories and identities that lie between categories.

Even more than usual this year, many FOGcon attendees were interested in politics and activism, and I attended most of the panels on those topics. At the How Did You Survive The Election? panel, participants talked about balancing emotion and action. When Do You Pick up the Blaster? reflected on resistance in fiction and the real world. The Writer as Resistor panelists talked about how their stories have changed since the election. I found all of these discussions compelling and wish I had more notes to share.

This year I wasn't placed on any panels myself, which was just as well, because after a hectic month, I was content to not have any preparation or responsibilities to deal with. I had plenty of time in my schedule to attend a couple of reading slots, where I heard some wonderful stories and poetry. And in all the interstitial spaces in the program, I enjoyed lovely meals with good friends. It was a wonderful mix of relaxation and invigoration, and I came home excited about getting deep into writing again!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathryn Schulz investigates what calling Congress achieves: "In normal times, then--which is to say, in the times we don't currently live in--calling your members of Congress is not an intrinsically superior way to get them to listen. But what makes a particular type of message effective depends largely on what you are trying to achieve. For mass protests, such as those that have been happening recently, phone calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time--thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention."

→ Eric Harris reports from a congressional office on what it's like answering all those phone calls to Congress, and it's worth noting that the numbers are still small enough that your call really counts: "Before Trump's inauguration, our Washington office received anywhere from 120 to 200 calls in a given week. Those numbers have more than doubled this year."

March 8, 2017

February Reading Recap

I returned to my regular diet of wildly different novels last month, and I also read a play:

THE YOUNG WIDOWER'S HANDBOOK by Tom McAllister: Hunter is 29, and the one thing he's accomplished is creating a happy marriage with Kait. His life revolves around their relationship and their shared dream of saving up enough money and time to travel the world. When Kait dies with no warning, Hunter can't face the thought of remaining alone in their Philadelphia home. He takes Kait's ashes and very little else, gets in the car, and starts driving west in search of anything that might help him comprehend a future without Kait.

This is a novel about grief, so it certainly includes plenty of sadness. I cried at the end of the short first chapter, which means McAllister pulled off the tricky writing challenge of getting me emotionally invested in just 10 pages. It's also a book about a road trip that goes ridiculously wrong, and I often laughed at the people Hunter encounters and the situations he gets himself into. Finally, it's the story of a relationship, and the flashbacks to Hunter and Kait's marriage contain some of my favorite bits, both funny and heart-wrenching. I admired the perceptive observations about the reality of how people relate, such as a passage on the concept that "It's in the arguments that you ultimately felt the love."

I recommend this to anyone who likes character-focused novels and the opportunity to both cry and laugh over a book. I also recommend the weekly podcast McAllister co-hosts, Book Fight!, which generally only produces laughter.

THE LIMINAL PEOPLE by Ayize Jama-Everett: The author is one of the honored guests at the upcoming FOGcon, so I tried out this book that wouldn't otherwise be the type to attract my interest. I'm glad I did, because I enjoyed the characters and the writing, and I recommend this novel, especially to fans of urban fantasy.

Taggert has the power to alter bodies at the molecular level. He can use his ability to heal, but during his time in Morocco, he's more often applied it to harm or impede the enemies of his boss, an international drug dealer whose powers far surpass Taggert's. When a long-lost love gets in touch asking for help, Taggert returns to London to assist her and her family, and he ends up caught in a life-and-death struggle between opposing superpowered factions.

Taggert is an excellent narrator, with a voice and perspective that pulled me into the story immediately and drew me along to the end. He's highly competent and frequently short on patience, with an attitude that makes for a fun narrative. ("I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker.") His ability to analyze and modify bodily processes, both his own and those of people nearby, is an ever-present part of his awareness, which is cleverly conveyed and used to drive the plot. The other characters are a fascinating and unexpected bunch, and I liked how the dynamics between them shifted over the course of the story. This is the first book in a trilogy, so it ends with some closure but also some setup for the next installment.

MISTER MONKEY by Francine Prose charts the final weeks of a way-off-Broadway production of a terrible children's musical. Nobody in the cast and crew of Mister Monkey the Musical is proud to be involved, though they're grateful for the work. Audience members young and old are largely bored or confused by the story of a talking chimp who ends up in a New York City courtroom. As the show falters, it takes on a larger and stranger role in the lives of everyone connected to the production.

February 27, 2017

Slowly But Surely

I've had a busy month, but mostly not on the writing front, so while revision continues, my progress has been rather sluggish. Still, I figured it was time for an update on the project.

As usual, rewriting involves a lot of new writing, which means figuring out the logistics of scenes and even characters who didn't exist before. Though I planned a lot in advance while outlining, I've come up with plenty of enhancements and changes since then, so the story is getting better but taking longer to revise. I'm pleased about making these improvements, despite the frustrating pace.

It's always exciting to finally write a scene I've imagined for months. I recently reached an episode I was anticipating with a special thrill because it was a sex scene. The reality of the event didn't quite live up to my expectations, which created an entirely appropriate tone for the scene.

Sometimes I get confused about what season it is because my mind is still inside the calendar of my novel (no, I don't usually forget the current decade). Other times, life and fiction line up nicely, as when I needed to write my characters getting caught in the rain while rain poured down outside my window. Occasionally, reality produces parallels that I wish it wouldn't. While I subject the characters in my novel to the loss of housing and possessions after an earthquake in San Jose, some of the city's real residents are coping with the effects of a devastating flood that damaged thousands of homes. Reading about the relief effort for this disaster has been familiar and odd and uncomfortably informative.

A couple of happier real life distractions are coming up, in the form of a visit from family and then another fun FOGcon weekend. So it's going to be a little longer until I get time to seriously focus again, and inevitably at that point I'll find another excuse to take time away from my novel. But I really am still hard at work -- except when I'm not.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black discusses the tricky question of when to reveal backstory: "The difference between building up a reader's curiosity and spoiling it is this: First you hint that there's something to be known. Only later, after readers have had a long time to stew in their curiosity about it, do you ultimately reveal the Shocking Truth about the past."

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!)