Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

November 30, 2020

Still Writing

Last time I posted about anything other than books, I noted that I'd fallen into the pattern of providing a writing/life update every two months. Naturally, that meant it was time to deviate, so here I am three months later with another update.

Things are okay, at a personal level. The current and impending stages of the pandemic terrify me, but I'm incredibly fortunate that my household can still mostly isolate at home. We're also lucky that being here together all the time doesn't bother any of us too much, too often. It's been a bizarre year for sure, not getting to hang out with local friends aside from very occasional outdoor visits, but I didn't have the most hopping social life before this. Now I tend to have more engagements, between reconnecting with far-away friends and attending a lot of virtual author events that I wouldn't have been able to get to in person.

It's a huge relief to be on the far side of the election. (Remember the election? We're still in the same month as the election.) Between the Biden/Harris win and all the promising vaccine news, I'm feeling hope for the future again. That future is still some long, slow months away, but we'll get there.

After an extended stretch of heat and smoke, the Bay Area shifted into pleasant autumn weather this month, with mild temperatures (highs in the low 60s, generally), blue skies, and better air. Our leaves have changed colors for the fall, and I've enjoyed taking pictures on my daily walks.

And I'm writing! Or rather, I'm revising, which anyone who follows this blog will know is always an endless process for me. I'm now wrapping up the third draft of that short story I wrote back in August. My progress has been (as usual) extremely slow, and I'm often not able to focus the way I want. But at the beginning of September, I committed to at least looking at my document every day, even just to reread a sentence or type a few words, and that's made a big difference for me in getting back into the story whenever I have time to work. My assessment of the story at this point was going to be "I think it's pretty good," except that's exactly what I said about it back in August, so I'll raise that to "It's even better now!"

I wish you all for things to be better, and then better still. Stay safe.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Lincoln Michel offers a way to look at realist and science fiction literature as more than a binary: "Take Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s play is 'realism' in the narrow sense of taking place in our world—gravity is the same, there are no dragons or vampires, etc.—yet the plot revolves around a series of intentionally absurd coincidences and the characters speak in polished bon mots. Wilde, who hated the trend toward realism, was certainly not attempting to recreate reality. But there's little in common between Lady Bracknell and a Balrog."

November 2, 2020

October Reading Recap

I continue to be grateful for books to distract myself with:

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam: On a warm summer day, Amanda, Clay, and their two young teens escape Manhattan for a vacation at an Airbnb way out on Long Island. The beautiful house they've rented is too remote for cell phone service, but it has internet, satellite TV, and most importantly, a swimming pool. The first days of vacation are perfect, but on the second night, after the kids are in bed, Amanda and Clay are startled by a knock at the door. It's the owners of the house, or at least people claiming to be the owners, and they say the city has suddenly gone dark in a power outage. Electricity is still flowing at the house, but the internet and TV are out, so there's no way to confirm their story or learn what's happening. After an uneasy series of conversations, the owners go to sleep in an empty bedroom, and they all wait for the situation to become clearer. The next day, with no clarity in sight, everyone tries to cope with anxious speculations and the awkwardness of each other's presence. But it's such a beautiful house, and such a beautiful day for enjoying the pool, that it's hard to really believe anything is wrong.

This book is so good, and so tense. Alam's sentences are perfect, whether he's relaying a character's vaguely shameful thought, describing the detritus on a car floor, or providing an ominous, omniscient peek at what's unfolding in the world beyond the vacation rental. The nuances of all the character interactions make this as much a story about the horror of being stuck in an uncomfortable situation with strangers as it is about the horror of possibly impending doom. I recommend this book highly, but with the warning that it is profoundly unsettling. I read the last third in a shaky adrenaline rush that had me jumping out of my skin when my doorbell rang. It's that effective a story.

FIND LAYLA by Meg Elison: Layla's goals in life are to become a scientist and to protect her little brother from their unstable mother and horrific home environment. She works hard to excel in junior high, to ignore the classmates who bully her, and to prevent anyone from discovering how she and Andy live. Layla dreams of escape, but it's hard to imagine a good way out when you live in an apartment you have to exit through a window because the front door no longer opens.

The experiences and surroundings that Layla describes are deeply upsetting, but Elison keeps the story from descending into misery by portraying Layla as so competent and confident that the reader remains hopeful. Layla's great narrative voice pulled me in immediately, and the escalating series of events kept me engrossed. There's no easy happy ending for Layla, but she does get free, as Elison did of the childhood circumstances she drew on for this riveting novel. I'm so impressed, and relieved for them both.

STRANGER FACES by Namwali Serpell: In this collection of essays, Serpell ponders faces in a variety of cultural contexts. Each of the five essays is tied to a specific piece of history or media and combines footnoted research with more abstract theorizing. One essay starts by focusing on the life and portrayals of Joseph Merrick ("the Elephant Man"), moves into the ways faces are rendered in different styles of art, and ends up at Cleopatra and Michael Jackson. Another analyzes scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to show how the film plays with faces and reflections. Throughout the collection, Serpell discusses how ideas of beauty, race, and gender influence our reactions to faces, both in life and in art.

I wouldn't have picked up a collection like this if not for my enthusiasm for the author, and it was an interesting reading experience not entirely to my taste. I generally enjoyed whenever the essays provided historical information and more concrete cultural criticism, but my attention wandered at the parts I'd call philosophical musings. My favorite essay was the last one, which explores emoji usage and how we communicate with those little digital faces. I'd recommend this book to readers inclined toward this sort of essay, and I'll take the opportunity to once again recommend Serpell's incredible novel, THE OLD DRIFT.

→ In RED PILL by Hari Kunzru, a writer travels to Berlin for a fellowship, eager for the opportunity to focus on his writing, something that's been difficult at home in New York since his daughter was born. He finds the expected working conditions at the center unfavorable for focusing, but when he holes up in his room to write, his concentration isn't any better. Mostly he wastes time online, takes long walks in the depressing winter landscape, and binge-watches a police procedural called Blue Lives. He's increasingly bothered by odd references he notices in the show's dialogue, and by concerns that everything he does at the center is being watched. Eventually (after a disconnected section relating a different character's experiences in East Berlin) the writer meets the creator of Blue Lives at a party. They spend a disturbing evening together, and his paranoia grows.

I found this novel oddly paced and structured. While the narrator's obsession with Blue Lives and its creator becomes central to the story, most of the first half is about other matters, and I'm not clear why all of it is in there. Kunzru writes well, which kept me interested enough in the slow, cerebral narrative, but I was discouraged by feeling that I didn't really get what he was doing. The book ends with an emotionally wrenching section that in some ways clarified the point of everything else, but in other ways left me more frustrated.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Leah Rachel von Essen investigates How the USPS Chooses Its Literary Stamps: "The Literary Arts series has featured an author on a stamp every year since 1979. They try to choose a wide range of literary figures, both in terms of diversity of gender, race, and in subject matter. The first stamp in the series featured John Steinbeck. Artists featured have included Richard Wright, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Tennessee Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Katherine Anne Porter. The stamps feature a portrait of the author with a background inspired by the themes of one or all of their works."

October 7, 2020

September Reading Recap

I read three excellent books last month in three quite different genres:

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi: In Gifty's neuroscience research as a grad student at Stanford, she studies the brains of mice to learn about the mechanisms behind addiction and depression. Her brother died of a heroin overdose, and her mother has struggled with depression ever since, but Gifty is reluctant to connect her research focus to her family's problems. She studies neuroscience because it's hard, she and her mother don't discuss her brother, and she doesn't tell her labmates anything about her life, even when her severely depressed mother comes from Alabama to stay with her and won't get out of bed. Gifty used to communicate most freely in the letters to God that she wrote in her journal, but these days she's torn over how to balance faith and science. In the course of the novel, Gifty recalls her childhood, explores her views of religion, and explains her work, until she's answered the research question that is her own life.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM is an intimate story of one woman and one small family, so it's quite unlike Gyasi's epic debut, HOMEGOING, but both books unfold with confident leaps through time and skillfully crafted scenes. As Gifty reveals different aspects of her past and present, there aren't any sudden revelations or shocking twists, yet the story builds to a nuanced, satisfying depiction of her life, or at least as much as she's willing to share. This is a beautiful, wrenching story of complicated family ties, mental illness, loss, and belief. I can't wait to see what new direction Gyasi will go next.

TWELVE: POEMS INSPIRED BY THE BROTHERS GRIMM FAIRY TALE by Andrea Blythe is a small but powerful book of prose poetry. These compact stories imagine the post-fairy tale lives of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, giving each sister identity and agency. I wouldn't have picked up this book if Andrea weren't a friend, but I happily read it twice through.

Each sister's tale is vivid with imagery and sensation, and I was delighted by the unexpected fates they reveal. The first sister rages against the man she's forced to marry, but her desire to be free of him is complicated by lust: "They played a game of poisoning, death always at the edges of every smile, every kiss and touch and caress." The fifth sister is pregnant, but she doesn't know if she's carrying a baby, a magical creature, or the product of ingested apple seeds. The eighth and ninth sisters, twins, become bandits of legend: "No one ever said two girls could carve open the world like an oyster, taking all its pearls and swallowing the meat." The tenth sister finds love in the palace kitchen: "At night, they untangled the laces of their skirts, uncaged themselves of corsets, peeling each other open like rare fruit." There's bodily pleasure throughout this collection, along with a yearning for knowledge and escape, and the result is an empowering, inventive storybook.

ARTIFICIAL CONDITION by Martha Wells is the second installment of the Murderbot Diaries, and I liked it even more than the first, but I recommend reading these novellas in order for the full story of the highly competent, very anxious Security Unit. In this episode, Murderbot is on its own for the first time, trying to escape notice by passing as an augmented human while investigating the mystery of its forgotten past. Murderbot is fortunate to meet up with a clever research transport ship who may be an asshole but has some good ideas, and also shares Murderbot's enthusiasm for watching downloaded media serials.

Murderbot continues to be an excellent protagonist and entertaining narrator, and I enjoyed seeing how the character developed through the challenges faced in this book. The growing friendship between Murderbot and Asshole Research Transport has a great dynamic, and I hope there will be more of ART in the future. If you've been curious about the Murderbot series but wary of the hype, I urge you to check it out.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Paris Review, Adrienne Raphel returns to Beverly Cleary's Ramona books and finds delight and weirdness: "Seeing images of Portland in tear gas, under an orange sky, I've felt enraged, terrified, and helpless. I've wanted to escape to Ramona’s Portland, with invisible lizards and makeshift sheep costumes and beloved red rubber boots." (Thanks, The Millions!)

September 25, 2020

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2020

One thing getting me through this year is good books, and the anticipation of more good books. I've been looking forward to reading these fall releases — and the wait is over for some of them, since the September books are already out.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi (September 1): Gyasi's debut, HOMEGOING, was an amazing epic covering centuries and generations of characters. Her new book is the much more intimate story of a family affected by addiction, mental illness, and loss, narrated by a scientist unsure how to square her work with her religious upbringing.

FIND LAYLA by Meg Elison (September 1): Back when I was enthusiastic about reading post-apocalyptic stories, I sank into Elison's THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE and the rest of the Road to Nowhere trilogy. FIND LAYLA is a refreshingly different genre of story, though still one with a character going through tough times, about a teen coping with family instability and online bullying.

TWELVE: POEMS INSPIRED BY THE BROTHERS GRIMM FAIRY TALE by Andrea Blythe (September 7): Andrea is a friend, but I don't think I'm being too biased in my enthusiasm for her writing. TWELVE is a small book of prose poems, beautifully produced by Interstellar Flight Press, that imagines what happens to The Twelve Dancing Princesses after the end of their fairy tale.

THE 99% INVISIBLE CITY: A FIELD GUIDE TO THE HIDDEN WORLD OF EVERYDAY DESIGN by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (October 6): One of my favorite podcasts is 99% Invisible, which explores the design of objects, the built environment, and all kinds of topics we probably never even thought about. The book investigates the details of how cities work, and while I'm not sure if I'll read it straight through or dip in at random, I am excited to receive my copy.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam (October 6): The interpersonal dynamics in Alam's THAT KIND OF MOTHER were so good that I'm not going to put off reading his new book, even though it involves some sort of potentially civilization-shattering disaster. Two families who don't know each other are forced together in a remote house while something horrible seems to be happening in New York City, and nobody is sure who or what to trust.

BLACK SUN by Rebecca Roanhorse (October 13): Roanhorse's work has received a lot of attention and awards, and I was intrigued by her new series after hearing her speak at WisCon's online convention. The Between Earth and Sky trilogy takes place in a fantasy world based on civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, and it promises celestial prophecies, power struggles, and great characters.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At BBC Culture, Hephzibah Anderson pages through the first drafts of classic novels: "The manuscripts of literary works-in-progress fascinate on many levels, from the flush-faced thrill of spying on something intensely private and the visceral delight of knowing that a legendary author's hand rested on the paper before you, to the light that such early drafts shed on authorial methodology and intent. Sometimes, the very essence of what a writer is trying to express seems to hover tantalisingly in the gap between a word deleted and another added in its place."

→ David Lerner Schwartz writes for Literary Hub about Percival Everett's new novel, TELEPHONE, published in three slightly different versions: "Books of course contain multitudes in that they contain characters who, like us, are contradictory, complex, and human in worlds so close to (or far from) our own. But here, depending on the version you've received, you're getting a slightly different Zach, a slightly different story. In one version he's perhaps more reticent, another more daydreaming, another more at odds, but these differences seem overall negligible. Across the versions, they average out to the same man, the same-ish experience. But to be wise to Telephone's instantiations is to believe that perhaps somewhere else things might work out differently."

September 9, 2020

August Reading Recap

While the real world keeps getting more unreal, I'm continuing to appreciate escaping into fictional worlds and people:

MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Noemí is a socialite in 1950 Mexico City who enjoys parties, dresses, and flirting but would still like her father to take her more seriously and let her pursue a degree in anthropology. She was once quite close with her cousin Catalina, but they've been out of touch since Catalina married and moved to her new husband's family home in a remote town. When a bizarre letter arrives from Catalina, full of paranoid ranting about poison and ghosts in her new home, Noemí's father sends her to pay a visit and check on Catalina's health. At High Place, Noemí finds her cousin in a worrying mental and physical state in a decaying mansion where the family imposes strict rules. The ancient patriarch is obsessed with eugenics, Catalina's husband is alternately hostile and lecherous, and Noemí starts having nightmares about the men that grow more disturbing every night. Her instinct is to run away, taking Catalina with her, but the more time she spends with the family, the more doubts she has about what's happening, and the harder she finds it to leave the house.

This book is so impressively creepy. Even Catalina's letter in the first chapter made my skin crawl, and since I don't read a lot of horror, I wasn't sure if I could tolerate the rest of the book. The carefully managed tension and fantastic characters kept me reading to the end, even as the story became more gruesome and distressing. The dank, rotting atmosphere of the house rises off the page, and the text has seared into my mind several vivid images of repulsive things happening to bodies. This is all a testament to Moreno-Garcia's writing skills, as well as a fair warning to readers. MEXICAN GOTHIC is an excellent book that's very hard to put down, and it's also so effective that it's hard to read!

LOVING DAY by Mat Johnson: Warren is a not-too-successful comics artist and a Black man often mistaken for white, and he's pretty self-conscious about all of that. After the death of his father, Warren returns to Philadelphia to deal with the burned-out mansion his father was restoring, which is haunted by either ghosts or drug addicts. Warren intends to burn down the house completely, collect the insurance payout, and leave the country again, but before he can carry out that plan, he meets the seventeen-year-old daughter he didn't know about. Tal was raised white and Jewish, and she isn't too happy about discovering her Black roots, or about much of anything. She moves into the mansion with Warren, and he enrolls her in a new school for mixed-race students. Warren has no interest in embracing his own biracial identity, but he is interested in a woman who works at the school, so he gets a job there teaching art and postpones his arson scheme until Tal finishes school.

I had a lot of fun reading this book. Warren, Tal, and all the people they meet are great characters, sometimes absurd, largely human in their many flaws. Johnson's sentences are well-observed and often slyly humorous: "Its expansive lawn is utterly useless, wild like it smokes its own grass and dreams of being a jungle." Some made me laugh out loud: "They have two beautiful kids, and one okay-looking one." The exploration of race and identity is honest, even when it approaches satire. The story careens along through wild interactions, strange turns, and touching moments of connection. Throughout, LOVING DAY is a delight.

THE RELENTLESS MOON by Mary Robinette Kowal is the third book in the Lady Astronaut series and has a different protagonist, a character who appears in the earlier books. The story takes place during events of the second installment but could be read without knowledge of the first, since the relevant pieces of backstory are sufficiently explained.

In the years since a meteor strike destroyed the eastern US and permanently altered the climate, the international effort to relocate humanity into space has made great progress, but anger has grown among those who know they may be left behind. Nicole, one of the original class of astronauts, splits her time between piloting shuttles on the Moon and throwing parties for her politician husband on Earth. While she misses her husband when they're apart, she usually appreciates the calmer life of the lunar colony. But when Nicole learns that several recent space program misfortunes may be linked to sabotage, she realizes that this trip to the Moon isn't going to be anything like ordinary.

The story starts off with a couple of bangs, a window shattering during a riot and a rocket exploding on launch in the first dozen pages, and the catastrophes rarely let up. Things go wrong constantly in this novel, so it's an exciting (dare I say relentless?) read, and often upsetting, with characters who suffer in all sorts of ways. There's even a disease outbreak and a quarantine! The cleverly constructed plot revolves around a mystery, with suspects and clues that kept me guessing. I find the writing in this series clunkier than in Kowal's earlier Glamourist Histories, maybe because of the different narrative style or maybe because my tastes have evolved. While I was sometimes frustrated by narrator quirks and repetition, I remained caught up in this action-packed story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Angelica Baker writes for Literary Hub about the thoughts behind her pandemic project of reading every unread book on her shelves: "...the place reading occupies in my life is really that of a vice. I apply myself to it like an alcoholic on a drinking binge that never ends; I do it compulsively, for days and hours I have pledged (to myself and others) to spend doing other things. It is no accident that I've arranged my adult life such that I can spend a full day reading and then lean on the pretentions of 'research' or 'craft,' as if I only dip into someone else's fiction as part of the diligent work of writing my own."

August 28, 2020

Writing Again

It looks like it's my habit now to post a writing update every two months, which in These Times continues to feel like so much longer. Part of the reason for this pattern is that it's about as often as I have anything to say, because my writing focus has been very on-again, off-again.

At the time of my last report, I was working on a story I was really enjoying, and approaching what wanted to be the end, but with no conclusion in mind. I never did come up with an ending, and after leaving it unfinished, I had many uncreative weeks.

I should reread that last story soon and see if the time away gives me a new insight, but happily, I'm preoccupied with something else now. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a whole story in three days, all the way to an end this time. I'm revising it now, and I think it's pretty good!

Non-writing life is as okay as it can be, considering. California is on fire, and that's a terribleness on top of the existing terribleness of the pandemic, but my personal impact is nothing compared to people who have lost their homes or lives. I live in the middle of an urban area not in direct fire risk. The air quality has been awful throughout the Bay Area for the past week and a half, so I haven't been able to get outside as much as I'm accustomed to, but the smoke comes and goes as the wind shifts, and I got to take several walks this week. Firefighting crews are gradually containing the many wildfires of what I've only just learned is amazingly named the "August Lightning Siege," so that's good news all around.

I'm off to write more on my story now, and when I have something new to share, I'll write again!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders addresses the question of what to write about when the world is broken: "The past few years, I've had the same conversation a bunch of times, with other authors who couldn't write what they were 'supposed' to be writing. Maybe they were trying to finish a serious, intense military fantasy book, but they kept 'cheating' and writing a fluffy rom-com about magical chipmunk princesses in love. Or maybe they were trying to write something light and escapist, to get their mind off current events, but all that came out was a dark reflection of our real-life nightmares." Anders is posting a whole series of essays on this topic at Tor.com, and I'm eager to read them all!

→ At The New York Times, Amitava Kumar shares writing advice inscribed by authors in their books: "When I started asking writers I knew or met at literary festivals to sign their books with a piece of valuable advice, I began to see it not as self-help but, instead, as a glimpse into that particular writer's mind."

August 6, 2020

July Reading Recap

There was a lot of variety in last month's reading, though I did happen to read two very different stories involving ghosts!

EVERYONE KNOWS YOU GO HOME by Natalia Sylvester: On Isabel and Martin's wedding day, which coincides with the Day of the Dead, Martin's father makes a uninvited ghostly appearance. Martin has no interest in speaking to his father, who abandoned the family long ago, but Isabel is fascinated by her father-in-law, who her new husband refuses to speak of. The next year, Omar appears again to Isabel, and the connection that grows between them is strengthened and complicated by the arrival of another unexpected family member. As Isabel, Martin, and the rest of their living family navigate challenges and triumphs, alternate chapters provide an account of Omar's past, starting with an eventful border crossing from Mexico to Texas.

In this emotional family story, Sylvester keeps the plot developments coming, and I was frequently in suspense and guessing at what would happen next. I felt deeply for the characters, even when I was frustrated over the many secrets they kept from each other. Some of the pacing felt off to me, and I was surprised that certain parts of the story weren't explained or shown, but overall, I found this novel affecting and worthwhile.

HIMSELF by Jess Kidd: Mahony was left on the steps of a Dublin orphanage as a baby in 1950. Twenty-six years later, he receives a letter revealing the name of his mother and his birthplace, and he travels to that small coastal town to learn about his past. In Mulderrig, Mahoney makes a few allies, including an elderly actress who shares Mahoney's suspicion that his mother's mysterious disappearance was actually a murder. Once the duo begins investigating, the town turns against them, and it becomes clear that more than a few villagers have something to hide. Also, Mahoney can see ghosts, and he's soon surrounded by dead who are eager to talk, but it turns out they aren't as much help as you'd think in solving a murder.

This is an entertaining novel full of quirky characters, exciting plot turns, and delightful prose. At some points the story is absurdly humorous or suddenly supernatural, at others the characters are subject to dark violence or peril, and Kidd manages all of these tones well. I enjoyed watching the relationships developing between Mahoney and his friends, and I was always rooting for them to outsmart their enemies and get to the bottom of the mystery. The narrative is a bit too coy about withholding information, including seeming to leave a question unresolved at the end, so it's somewhat less successful as a mystery than it is as the compelling escapades of a fun team.

THE LIGHTNESS by Emily Temple: Olivia enrolls in a summer meditation program for teen girls at a mountain retreat that's nicknamed the Levitation Center for the rumored abilities of some practitioners. She's searching for clues about her father, who disappeared after a visit to the Center, but what she finds instead is a growing fascination with three girls who hold themselves apart from the rest of the program. When the trio's charismatic, mysterious leader brings Olivia into their fold, her summer transforms into one of intense friendships and rivalries, dangerous games, and a quest to learn the secrets of levitation.

This atmospheric novel captures the obsessive extremes of adolescent friendship and longing. Throughout the story, short sections present Buddhist teachings and philosophical musings that comment on the events. Temple crafts great sentences, full of well-chosen details and subtle humor: "You could see the wealth in her cheeks, clear as anything. Day. Crystal. Vodka. My own parents managed, but things were harder for all of us after the separation. Corners and coupons were cut." Olivia narrates from an adult perspective, dropping foreboding hints about how the summer ends, but I found the eventual reveals underwhelming. Like seeking levitation perhaps, the story is more about the process than achieving the goal, and it succeeds in making the steps along the way compelling and disturbing.

→ In BIG FRIENDSHIP: HOW WE KEEP EACH OTHER CLOSE, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman use the story of their own friendship to explore the value and challenges of adult friend relationships. Aminatou and Ann met in their mid-20s when they were both at transitional points in their lives. Their quick, easy connection grew into a mature bond as they worked through the strains of career stress, distance, chronic illness, and interracial friendship. As the podcast they started became a successful joint business, they found their personal attachment faltering, and eventually sought counseling together so they could commit to their Big Friendship for the long haul.

I've listened to the Call Your Girlfriend podcast for years and enjoy the hosts' feminist perspective on politics and culture as well as the way they celebrate their friendship, so I was intrigued that the book opens by revealing the precarious period of their relationship. This framing promises a more honest look at their friendship than the podcast has ever provided, and while the authors do discuss many issues frankly, the book is far from a sensational tell-all. In general, the more personal sections interested me less than the parts where Sow and Friedman place their friendship within a larger context, incorporating the stories of others and presenting research from experts who study interpersonal relationships. I would have liked even more of that broader approach, but I think there's enough to make this book a worthwhile read even to those not previously invested in the authors' friendship.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Lit, Kate Reed Petty suggests possible ways to radically rethink online book events: "Innovation is part of the push for universal access—the more we can make online experiences exciting and engaging, the more we can cement an enduring tradition of truly accessible events. And we can also open the door to people who might never walk into a bookstore."

→ Adriana Balsamo describes the changed work habits of The New York Times Book Review in quarantine: "Before the coronavirus, the Book Review would receive hundreds of books and galleys (a printer's uncorrected proof) in the mail every week. Books were entered into a database and divided between bins and shelves for preview editors, who look over galleys more thoroughly and decide if they warrant a review or some other form of coverage.... Whether the galley was sent from one of the big five publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) or a small press, every book passed through the hands of at least one editor for consideration."

July 10, 2020

June Reading Recap

In June, I read three excellent novels:

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett: Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in Mallard, a town of Black citizens who prize light skin like that of the sisters. In 1954, the teenage twins ran away together to New Orleans, and then their lives split apart. When Desiree returns to Mallard fourteen years later with a dark daughter, the townsfolk are scandalized. For Desiree, what's more shocking is that when she last saw Stella, her sister was passing as a white woman. The story moves across decades and perspectives to tell the story of the twins who chose different racial identities and their daughters, whose identities were chosen for them.

This ambitious novel delivers even more than I expected from the compelling premise, becoming more interesting with each chapter and new development. Bennett is masterful at handling frequent shifts in time, as she was in THE MOTHERS, and THE VANISHING HALF provides the strong, tense plot that I wished for when reading the earlier novel. That the plot relies on a number of coincidences never bothered me, because I was too caught up in appreciating all the nuances explored in each complicated situation. Bennett excels at portraying the small moments and details that bring characters to life, and she uses this skill to full effect in a story that covers many different ways of passing and taking on new identities.

→ In LITTLE EYES by Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, kentuki are the hot new gadget sweeping the globe. Consumers can either buy a cute plush animal containing a camera and some limited movement functionality, or the software that provides control of a single kentuki's camera and wheels. Upon registration, one device owner and one software user are permanently linked, creating an unusual asymmetric relationship between two strangers. Many pairs work out a way to communicate, and some develop close relationships. The novel follows a variety of characters in locations around the world as kentukis shape their lives in ways that are positive, negative, or just plain confusing.

I love novels that present an inventive premise and play out the many ways it could influence individuals and society. Schweblin does a fantastic job of this as she develops the complicated kentuki situations of five main characters and occasionally throws in a one-off chapter showing yet another possibility. She delves into everything that's weird, disturbing, and compelling about the idea of watching a stranger's life, or letting a stranger see in. Very little in this story went in a direction I expected, and I would have happily observed for many more chapters.

FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi opens in the plural voice of ọgbanje spirits who occupy the body of a human child, Ada. The spirits tell the story of Ada's childhood and family in Nigeria and early college days in Virginia, until a traumatic sexual experience brings out a new self in Ada. Ada's multiple inner selves trade off the story, and control of Ada's body, as she learns how to shape her life and identity to her own desires.

While this novel is sometimes difficult to read because of upsetting content, I never had any trouble with Emezi's lyrical, confident sentences. The powerful language and well-differentiated voices propel forward a story that explores trauma, mental health, gender, and religion. FRESHWATER is unlike anything else I've read, and I appreciated Emezi's essay about their experience writing and publishing a book that doesn't fit into any easy categories.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Katherine Willoughby at Book Riot writes about rereading HARRIET THE SPY: "This book was an excellent read right now because we are all Harriet as our world changes and shifts around us. I am a teacher, a real creature of habit. I now long for days in the classroom when I can lead my students through all of our classroom routines and procedures. They help us all feel safe. The coronavirus snatched that all away from us, breaking our routines like someone stealing Harriet's beloved tomato sandwich."

June 30, 2020

Finding a Path

At the end of April, which was both an eternity and a moment ago, I posted about managing to write a little that month. I was going to report that I wrote nothing at all in May, but I've just opened up a document and discovered that in fact I wrote several disjointed and instantly forgettable pages.

June has been somewhat more promising for my fictional endeavors, despite more important things in the world not moving in a promising direction. Early in the month, I started a story from a glimmer of an idea, and I liked the character and premise that began developing. As I kept going, I continued to not hate the thing, a big achievement for me. I've now worked on this story every weekday for the past three weeks, often for only 20 minutes or so, but I've stayed motivated about maintaining my streak.

When I embarked on the story, I had nothing more than the strange little detail I opened with, and most days when I came back to it, I didn't have a plan for where it was going next. I've moved ahead a whim at a time, developing a certain amount of momentum and approximating a short story shape. It's getting to the point where a conclusion should be coming, and I still don't have much idea for a reasonable endpoint.

I caught up on my friend Christopher Gronlund's blog recently and was amused to see his last post was about writing a story without knowing where it was going. He makes a nice comparison to walking in the dark without a flashlight: "In many ways, when your eyes adjust, you can see even more in the dark. Maybe not as clearly, but I always feel more aware of my surroundings without a light source because I'm not looking directly ahead at something unnaturally so bright. Sometimes when I have no idea where to go next in a story, or even what to write at all, I feel like I'm on a night hike: it's awkward at first, but I adjust to the darkness in time and find my way."

I'm hopeful that as I keep inching forward on this story, I'll find a path to a satisfying destination. But even if I don't and the story doesn't turn out to be worth further attention, it's a relief that I've figured out how to get writing again, even in the midst of so much darkness.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Joseph Scapellato talks about story shape: "Here is my own understanding of shape: it is a structural container for a narrative. The most important practical quality of a shape—its most useful feature for a writer—is that it suggests 'natural' beginnings, middles, and endings. Any one narrative is going to be made out of many shapes at once, shapes that overlap and intersect and interrupt one another."

June 5, 2020

May Reading Recap

I have not been doing enough on most fronts, other than reading:

FIEBRE TROPICAL by Juliana Delgado Lopera: Fifteen-year-old Francisca has just moved with her family from Bogotá to Miami, and she is not impressed. She's especially uninterested in having anything to do with the evangelical church her mother's life now revolves around, but participation is not optional. Francisca is forced into distributing church flyers with the annoyingly pious Carmen, but the more time the two girls spend together, the more Francisca feels her heart opening to Jesus, or perhaps more accurately to Carmen.

What makes this queer coming-of-age story so great is the narrative voice that thrums with personality and attitude. As Francisca pours out her teenage opinions and emotions, she slips between humor and torment, English and Spanish, but always maintains a vivid rhythm: "Outside, the sky in all its fury released buckets of water that swayed with the palm trees. El cielo gris, oscuro. Talk about goth."

There's not much plot to the novel, but I didn't mind because the voice and characters are so strong. In the middle of her own story, Francisca pauses to expand on the lives of her mother and grandmother by relating their teen exploits in Colombia of the 1970s and 1950s, and those chapters provide a good contrast to the main storyline. I'm so glad I attended an online event that introduced me to Delgado Lopera, and I look forward to more of their work.

GODS, MONSTERS, AND THE LUCKY PEACH by Kelly Robson takes place in a far future, after humanity has been driven underground by climate disaster and then learned to rehabilitate the environment and build cities at the surface again. Minh has spent her career restoring rivers. Her ecological remediation firm once did well at securing contracts and funding, but banks have had little interest in investing since time travel became the hot new technology. When the firm's young admin, Kiki, suggests they bid on a project to travel back to ancient Mesopotamia and study the Tigris and Euphrates, Minh is intrigued. But winning the contract won't be easy, especially since it will involve close collaboration with Kiki, who is unwaveringly eager and just may be as stubborn as Minh.

There is a lot packed into this short book. The world is impressively complex, the characters are nuanced and wonderful, and there are many fun science and project management details to geek over. When I read novellas, I'm often disappointed that they end so quickly, but this story had enough character and plot development to satisfy me, and it reaches a strong conclusion despite not tying up every thread. I recommend this to science fiction readers, and I'll be excited to read more from Robson (including, apparently, an eventual sequel to this book).

ALL SYSTEMS RED by Martha Wells: Murderbot is a Security Unit working for a group of humans performing a planetary survey that's just become dangerous. Because Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, it operates with a lot more freedom and interest in watching TV than other killing machines, but that doesn't make it any less awkward around human clients. After Murderbot saves some lives in the course of just doing its job, it's surprised and initially displeased that this weird group of humans starts treating it like a person. As Murderbot tries to cope with this new dynamic, the survey team discovers the situation on the planet is far more dire than they all thought.

I have been hearing praise for a while about the Murderbot Diaries novella series, and with the first full-length novel just released, it seemed time to finally check it out. I was immediately delighted by Murderbot's narration, and I greatly enjoyed this exciting first installment. The story moves quickly through a brief but satisfying episode that sets Murderbot on the path for future adventures. I'll be happily reading on.

THE PARIS HOURS by Alex George: In 1927 Paris, four characters struggle with secrets and losses as their lives brush up against the city's famous artists. A puppeteer who survived the Armenian genocide can't escape his grief, but he's soothed by the music of Maurice Ravel playing in the apartment downstairs. A painter hopes the patronage of Gertrude Stein will save him from debt-collecting thugs and keep him near the woman he watches. A journalist interviews Americans like Josephine Baker and longs to travel to their country, but a search binds him to Paris. The housekeeper and friend of the late Marcel Proust mourns her employer and the betrayals between them. Over the course of a single day, their four stories and backstories unfold and entwine.

I enjoyed the range of historical events and figures this novel encompasses. George writes strong sentences and descriptions, and the story moves along at a quick pace as it rotates between characters. It's not a light read, however, as the characters are all coping with pain in their pasts and presents. Unfortunately, I often had trouble connecting with their emotional reactions, so I found some of the plot developments melodramatic. Other readers have been more drawn in by the story than I was, so consider this book if you're a fan of historical fiction or curious about the era.

BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE by Anne Lamott: This book about writing is famous for discussing the importance of "shitty first drafts," which must be produced before revising one's way to a better draft. I'd probably read that chapter before, and reading this book all the way through for the first time, I was expecting many more useful instructions. The concept of breaking work into "short assignments" was a good reminder to focus on the next sentence or paragraph or detail rather than the intimidating entire story ahead. And there were a few other insightful ideas and sections.

Overall, though, I didn't get a lot out of this book. A large portion of the advice is geared toward mining experiences from one's own life, and that's not what I'm looking for guidance on. Lamott rambles and tells anecdotes that often rubbed me the wrong way, and her sense of humor didn't click with me at all. I am clearly in the minority, as BIRD BY BIRD is beloved by many writers, so your mileage may vary.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bethany C. Morrow writes at Tor.com about America's differing responses to fictional and real resistance: "It had been nine months since Catching Fire came out, but as the second film in a series, its popularity had persisted, as had its publicity. Surely, that same overflow of support and recognition was going to rise up, I thought. Surely people were going to raise their hands in solidarity, and disallow history to repeat itself. It wasn't going to be mostly Black Americans decrying this most recent slaying by a police officer."

→ NPR's Code Switch interviews Alex S. Vitale, the author of THE END OF POLICING, about how much we need police: "What I'm talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake, and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them. And my feeling is that this encompasses actually the vast majority of what police do. We have better alternatives for them. Even if you take something like burglary — a huge amount of burglary activity is driven by drug use. And we need to completely rethink our approach to drugs so that property crime isn't the primary way that people access drugs. We don't have any part of this country that has high-quality medical drug treatment on demand. But we have policing on demand everywhere. And it's not working."