Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

November 22, 2017

Wait Till It Comes Around Again

Well, here we are much of the way through November, already into the hectic rush of the end of another year. I started the month with ambitious plans of drawing inspiration from the NaNoWriMo energy in the air and devoting bigger chunks of time to revision. That worked out for two or three days, and then there were some plot developments on the new house remodel that sucked up my attention. I never really managed the "NANOWRIMO AMOUNT OF FOCUS" that my all-caps to-do item called for this month, and writing progress has mostly trickled along. Our new home is proceeding more quickly, at least, and it will be ready for moving in next month. My manuscript will be ready next year, surely.

A year ago, November also began with high hopes. I was excitedly embarking on this revision that's still underway, and I wrote more or less the same thing about harnessing NaNoWriMo energy. Then the election happened, and focusing on writing got a lot harder for quite some time.

Of course, even under ideal conditions, I'm not super great at consistently putting hours of concentration into writing. Or maybe the issue is that conditions are so rarely ideal. Real life presents a constant distraction, which is a lovely thing as often as it's not. I knew I'd written about this issue before, and I found this post from many years ago on the topic, when naturally I was engaged in another revision of this same novel. Because let's not forget that I've been doing this over and over for a decade.

But hey, the tail end of the year is all about annual traditions, right? Some year it might be nice if my custom evolved to working on a different novel or revived making the most of NaNoWriMo. But I'm incredibly fortunate to get all this time for writing, and for that and so much else in my life, I'm truly thankful.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Adam O'Fallon Price explores the nature of both first- and third-person narratives in this Defense of Third Person: "We constantly divide our attention between the first- and third-person points of view, between desiring the shiny object in front of us and figuring out what it means for us to take it: who else wants it, what we have to do to get it, and whether it's worth taking it from them. In this sense, close third person not only accurately models human cognition, but omniscient third does as well, since, while we cannot read other people's minds, we are constantly inferring their consciousness--their motives and feelings. The human experience is a kind of constant jumping of these cognitive registers, from pure reptile-brain all the way up to a panoramic moral overview and back down, and human ingenuity has yet to invent a better means of representing this experience in art than the third-person narrator."

October 31, 2017

Horror Story

For Halloween, I present a list of scary facts about my novel:

→ It was ten (ten!) years ago that I wrote the first draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE for NaNoWriMo 2007.

→ At that time, the 2026 portion of the story took place at the far reaches of the near future, while the late 1990s section drew on my recent memories. Today, the 90s are a historical setting, and by the time people can purchase my book, 2026 might be their credit card expiration date.

→ The first draft only took 30 days to write. Sure, it's 83,000 words of mediocre prose, the characters are simplistic, and the plot is a mere sketch of the story as it currently stands, but I got from start to end in a single month.

→ I'm now on the fourth major rewrite of the novel. Counting less extensive editing passes, this is at least the eleventh draft.

→ Despite all the research I've done over the past decade (decade!), there are still endless details in the manuscript that remain to be factchecked or rendered more accurately.

→ I've written or planned out several other novels in the years since beginning this one, and I'm still just as far away from finding a story that might eventually turn into something worth publishing.

These are the terrors that haunt me in the night. I wish you all a better sleep, a happy Halloween, and a successful NaNoWriMo!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Annalee Newitz explains for Slate How to Write a Novel Set More Than 125 Years in the Future: "Possibly the most difficult part of building a future was coming up with little details, like the euphemisms people use for slavery, or how they access the internet. Characters have to do things like eat, turn on the lights, and get wasted on a night off. These mundane details lead back to larger questions. What powers the lights? My novel is set after peak oil, so do the lights run on alternative energy? Batteries? Are the lights in fact just glowing bacteria living on the ceiling? Also, when would my character go out to a club? Do we still have the concept of weekends in the future? Do adults socialize mostly in the evening, or are work shifts so arbitrary that they might consider it normal to go to a raging party at 2 p.m.?" (Thanks, Jamie!)

October 10, 2017

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading consisted of a pair of second novels whose authors both managed the tricky feat of living up to the high expectations set by their excellent debuts:

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng: In the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, life is carefully ordered, and the ugly parts (garbage cans, racism) are kept out of sight. The Richardsons are the perfect Shaker Heights family: successful and well-off, generous to those less fortunate, blessed with three smart, popular children... and Izzy, the youngest, who never stops causing trouble. Izzy's rebellion reaches a shocking new level when she burns down the Richardson home at the end of a complicated year in which the arrival of an artist and her daughter affects each member of the family in a different way. And both families are impacted by their connections to a custody battle that disturbs the peaceful structure of Shaker Heights.

The novel charts the events of the complicated year by spending time with each character, and the reader gradually understands how everyone's actions are driven by experiences the other characters often don't know about. As in EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, Ng does a fantastic job creating believable scenarios in which characters fail to understand each other. I liked how the full story of the past and present emerges, with interesting choices such as keeping Izzy ignored in the background (the way she is within the family) until fairly far into the book, despite her pivotal role.

There are so many fascinating, complex elements to LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. It's crammed with intriguing character details and nuanced interpersonal dynamics. The story delves into difficult topics of class and race and explores questions about who gets to raise a child. There's tension, mystery, and emotion on every page. Once again, I'm extremely impressed, and a bit envious, of what Ng has accomplished.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan serves up the same geeky fun as his debut, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, but this time the wild quests and secretive societies revolve around food rather than books.

Lois has recently moved to San Francisco for a programming job at a robotics company striving to make work obsolete by overworking its employees. She's miserable in her new life, her stomach hurts constantly from stress, and she has no time away from the office to unwind or make friends. A small bright spot appears when she begins ordering dinner every night from a neighborhood restaurant run by two friendly brothers whose spicy soup and sourdough restore her body and soul. But soon the brothers' visas expire, and they move away, leaving Lois their sourdough starter and the responsibility of keeping it alive. Lois has never prepared food or even thought much about it, but she gives bread baking a try, and this sets her on the path to another new life, one that's far more exciting and delicious.

This novel is delightful and clever from beginning to end. The world of the story combines actual San Francisco and East Bay landmarks with locations that are wonderfully close to plausible, and then it mixes in a dash of the improbable. Lois remains an excellently real protagonist, however, and I sympathized with her hopes and frustrations. The writing made me laugh frequently, but the various plot threads eventually become quite suspenseful, and the satisfying way they tie up left me finishing the book with happy tears. SOURDOUGH is a warm and nourishing treat of a book!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Jennifer Kitses describes what trying to finish a crime novel taught her about writing: "A character might face multiple threats--he's being pursued by the Feds, and also by his partners in crime, and maybe his very survival depends on completing a job that is already hopelessly botched--but what sends him over the edge is worrying about his kids. In a domestic novel, the nature of the stakes and the source of danger might not involve a crime (though they surely can), but from the characters' points of view, the stresses they face at their jobs and in their homes feel no less urgent."

September 29, 2017

What's New

It's probably time for another revision update, and of course the update is once again that I'm still working my way through this draft. The new wrinkle is that I haven't been writing as much as usual due to real life demanding more time, as it so often does whenever the writing really gets flowing.

Fortunately, this real life intrusion is a happy and exciting one. Somewhat out of the blue, we've purchased a new house, and we're now in the process of arranging renovations before moving in. The new house is only a few miles from the old one, in the same Silicon Valley city, which is convenient, since I've been over there almost every day to meet with contractors and repair people, make decisions, and dream about how we'll set up our new home once it's ready.

I could craft some sort of extended metaphor comparing revision to remodeling, but let's just say they both tend to take longer than expected. We're almost to the point where the professionals are going to get to work turning our plans into reality while I get back to focusing on the manuscript, but this past month my attention has been more on the house than the words. I'm trying to do at least a little bit of writing every day, and that's sometimes successful and sometimes a reminder of how poorly I handle distractions.

The progress that's been happening, while slower than ever, is nonetheless good, satisfying progress. I'm continuing to make this novel so much better, because I'm constantly a better writer than I was before, which is a cool thing to realize. Eventually, the work will be done, and I'm confident it will all be worth the wait!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Melville House shares an essay from Elisabeth Jaquette on translating Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue (which I read last year): "Much of a translator's work boils down to being a mediator. In the larger sense, we're mediators between languages, of course. But translating an entire novel also means mediating between cultures, histories, and readerships in ways that can present daunting -- and thrilling -- challenges."

September 11, 2017

August Reading Recap

These days I'm not reading as many books as before, but I'm pleased about continuing to experience an excellent variety of stories:

THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin: The Stillness is a land that's never still, where communities are designed around the earth's constant trembling and the threat of a shake large enough to bring disaster. The disaster that's just occurred is cataclysmic. One survivor, Essun, is simultaneously suffering a personal disaster, the murder of her young son by his own father. The boy was killed for displaying his power, the ability to move and calm the earth, which he inherited from Essun. She's kept her identity as an orogene secret for years, because orogenes are hated and feared, despite the protection they can provide. The best an orogene can hope for is to be taken in by the Fulcrum, trained to channel their power, and forced into a life of service, keeping the Stillness a little bit stiller.

Jemisin has created a fascinating world, based on extensive research into geology and an imagined history that stretches back millennia. Like any skilled writer, she presents only as much of this background as is needed and interesting, and exposition about how the Stillness, the orogenes, and the Fulcrum operate doesn't get in the way of the story's tension. The characters are as thoroughly developed as the world, by turns endearing, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

This book grows more and more intriguing and clever as it goes along and presents new revelations and mysteries. The secrets are only beginning to unfold by the end, so this first installation of the Broken Earth trilogy doesn't form a complete story on its own. Happily, the whole trilogy is available as of last month, and also happily, I will be glad to spend two more books with Essun and the others, exploring the Stillness.

CHEMISTRY by Weike Wang follows the thoughts of a woman under pressure. She's a PhD student who worries she'll never match the accomplishments of her lab mates. She's the child of immigrants who fears she'll never live up to her parents' expectations. And she's overwhelmed by the marriage proposal from her boyfriend, who has completed his PhD, grew up with parents who praised him constantly, and doesn't understand what she has to be afraid of.

This short novel is composed of brief passages that detail a moment, a memory, an emotion, a scientific fact, or any blend of these. The first-person narrative is written with both humor and insight. Imagining her future, the narrator says, "I don't see myself having kids... If I had one, I would want to have two, and if I had two, I would want to have zero." Of her father, she muses, "Such progress he's made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon."

The combined pieces tell a story about a difficult period in the protagonist's life, but it's a relatively -- and realistically -- uneventful story, concerned far more with character than plot. While I prefer a more even balance between these in my reading, I found CHEMISTRY a well-crafted, appealing version of this type of book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Anna Solomon considers sexy backs, headless women, and evolving book cover trends: "Maybe the point isn't banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it's not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized--though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women's backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men's books in egregious disproportion to those by women... but by women ourselves."

August 30, 2017

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2017

Lately my reading time has diminished, because I've been trying to get as much writing as possible accomplished while I also have a lot of other things going on. This extra-busy state is likely to continue for a while, but I do intend to find time in the upcoming months for these books I've been anticipating!

GEORGE AND LIZZIE by Nancy Pearl (September 5): I'm a longtime fan of librarian, interviewer, and action figure Nancy Pearl, so I was excited to hear she's publishing her first novel. Even better, it's one about family relationships and secrets. Though early reviews are mixed, I'm curious to check this book out.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan (September 5): I wrote a glowing review of Sloan's debut, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, so this is one of those cases where I'm nervous about whether an author's second book can live up to my hopes. Happily, advance readers are enthusiastic about this new geeky adventure through the Bay Area tech world, which prominently features some of my favorite topics: food and bread.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng (September 12): Again, this is a second novel from an author with a debut I greatly admired, the powerful family story EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU. Ng's new book involves two Ohio families whose lives become entwined, and it sounds like it's going to be another incredible read.

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie (September 26): If you're a science fiction reader and haven't tried Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy yet, consider this another reminder to pick up ANCILLARY JUSTICE. I loved that series! No need to read the trilogy before PROVENANCE, however, because this book introduces new characters in a different part of the Ancillaryverse. It's the story of a woman on a quest for power and lost artifacts, and it's sure to include richly developed people, cultures, and conflicts.

ARTEMIS by Andy Weir (November 14): Weir's first novel, THE MARTIAN, was a ton of fun, combining a thrilling survival story with fascinating space science. ARTEMIS promises to deliver more thrills and science, plus a heist plot, and it's set on a moon colony. I can't wait!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rosie Cima performs some excellent data analysis and visualization to measure the gender balance of The New York Times Best Seller list: "If we are looking for a single category to explain why women are better represented among best-selling authors today, the Literary/None category is our best candidate. Most best-selling books fall into this category, and its change over time closely matches the overall gender ratio, shifting from extreme bias in the 1980s to close to parity in the 2000s."

August 3, 2017

July Reading Recap

July was a busy month, writing and otherwise, so I haven't had time to post since my last batch of book reviews. I also didn't have quite as much time for reading, but I did enjoy two new novels:

THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle reveals its core premise in the title, and if not for that hint, you might get quite far in before guessing that dark, supernatural forces are at work. While the book describes itself as a fairy tale in the opening sentence, the first third is the realistic story of a family in contemporary New York City. Apollo is raised by a hardworking mother and starts his own career at an early age, buying and selling used books. He meets Emma at a library book sale, and they fall in love. Their baby is born under some unusual circumstances, but their experience of parenting an infant is full of the normal joys and pressures, with too many photos shared on Facebook and not enough sleep.

When the novel takes a turn, it's a very, very dark one that will make it not suitable for all readers. Even then, the full nature of the horror isn't revealed for a while. The story shifts through several apparent realities before the end, and Apollo has to battle numerous types of evil. Throughout, the characters are portrayed with as much care and detail as when this started as an account of a family just trying to get through the day.

LaValle has crafted a stunningly disturbing story with a ton of emotional impact. It's a harrowing read, but it earned a place on my list of favorites.

MADE FOR LOVE by Alissa Nutting: Hazel decides it's time to leave her husband when he wants to implant a chip in her brain to connect the two of them wirelessly. Byron's the genius founder of Gogol, the tech megacompany built on collecting and analyzing everyone's data, so for him, it's the natural next step in human relationships. For Hazel, it's the final straw after a decade trapped in a controlling marriage. She flees Byron's compound, aware that his surveillance abilities are limitless and afraid that he may kill her if he can't get her back. She seeks refuge at her father's house, where she discovers Dad has just purchased and married a sex doll. After that, things get weirder.

All the events in this story are over-the-top and bizarre, which made for frequent laughs, constant surprises, and occasionally some trouble connecting to the characters. That said, Nutting does an admirable job creating layered characters with real emotions and anxieties in the midst of this somewhat alienating plot. I was always concerned about what was going to happen to Hazel and the others, and it was always more odd than anything I could have guessed. Nutting is imaginative, to say the least, with the skill to render her story worlds in vivid, compelling, hilarious detail.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charse Yun considers the complex issues involved in Deborah Smith's flawed translation of Han Kang's "The Vegetarian": "I can't emphasize enough how different Han Kang's writing style is in Korean. Han's sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a 'nineteenth-century ring' to it, reminiscent of Chekhov." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

July 7, 2017

June Reading Recap

I spent much of June simultaneously reading these three wildly different books:

HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay is an intensely honest and powerful account of moving through the world as a very fat woman. The book mixes smart musings on weight, food, and other bodily topics with concise sections of chronological memoir. Gay writes about what was done to her body -- she was gang-raped at the age of 12 -- and what she did to her body in response -- she made herself as large as possible to avoid becoming a victim again. With frank insight, she examines the complex repercussions of these points in her life and all that followed.

The writing is uncomfortably raw at times, but that's not to say it's unpolished. As in all her books, Gay demonstrates great skill at both sentence and structural level. Short chapters and recurring refrains give the reader some sense of the effort and bravery required to write this memoir, as the text sometimes circles around and works its way up to revealing the most humiliating parts. It's an effective and beautiful technique.

Right after reading the book, I was lucky enough to get to attend one of Gay's tour events at Kepler's Books, where she had a deep and wide-ranging discussion with interviewer Angie Coiro. I recommend seeking out any recordings of Gay's previous interviews to hear her talk about her work, such as recent appearances on Fresh Air and Another Round.

→ In STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND by Samuel R. Delany, there are over 6,000 planets populated by humans and aliens. The story provides readers a sense of the vastness and variety of this inhabited universe, while focusing primarily on two humans originating from two quite different worlds. One of the main characters spends decades in an extremely limited existence, enslaved on a planet where there's little knowledge of other worlds. The second comes from a culture shaped by the close cohabitation of humans and the native species, and works as a diplomat engaged in frequent interstellar travel.

I'm keeping this explanation simple because the book's many complexities are best discovered through reading. The impressive, intricate worldbuilding is presented the way I love, with concepts referred to but not usually explained right away, if at all, so the reader has a chance to reflect, guess at what's going on, or just roll with it. The scope of Delany's setting is enormous, and characters frequently mention that even a single planet is "a big place" with many cultures, languages, climates, and so on. Most of the story, however, takes place at an intimate scale, revolving around personal concerns such as desire, family, gender, etiquette, and food. For me, it's the perfect combination for a science fiction novel.

Delany planned this story as the first half of a diptych, but his creative focus changed, and he never finished the second novel. As a result, this book ends with much unresolved, but with that caveat given, I highly recommend it to anyone excited about what I've described. It's brilliantly conceived and superbly written, and I'm eager to read more of Delany's work.

SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari looks at the shifts in human development and culture from prehistoric times, when homo sapiens was "an animal of no significance", to the present day. Harari analyzes the major leaps forward in human history -- the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions -- and explains the contribution of factors such as the rise of monotheism and the idea that the future will be better than the past. He draws connections between different changes and at several points considers whether history might have gone another way.

I learned a lot from this book. I knew a small amount about some of these topics and found out many more fascinating facts, and I discovered whole aspects of history I'd barely thought about. The writing engaged me most of the time, though there were some dry passages and some points where I disagreed with Harari's arguments. This is an informative and mostly easy-to-read survey of the significant stages in human progress, and definitely a good way to learn about the subject.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura explores maps that reveal the hidden structures of Choose Your Own Adventure Books: "In just about every case, it can be surprising how a simple choice leads you down a complex path. In By Balloon to the Sahara, you're in a balloon and are presented with a choice on the very first page. Storm clouds are on the horizon. Choice 1: 'If you act now, you can release gas from the balloon and land before the storm overtakes you.' Choice 2: 'Perhaps the storm will pass quickly. Maybe you can ride it out.' That’s just the beginning, since this book has the most decision points -- 48 -- of the series."

June 28, 2017

Things In Progress

Right now my life is fairly pleasant but a bit scattered, with various things in progress:

→ The revision, still, forever, but it continues to go well. Lately I've been really putting my characters through the emotional wringer, which I guess is a good thing. I keep believing milestones are just within reach, and then I hit a slow patch or discover more details to work out or have to manage the logistics of a scene with five people talking, and those points recede farther into the distance. I'll get there.

→ Three books I'm in the middle of reading. Earlier this year I was mostly focusing on one book at a time, and then I resumed my two-at-once habit until it got out of control this month. The books are wildly different, so I have nice variety to choose from, but it's a bit impractical. Expect reviews next week.

→ A knitting project, after a long bout of knitter's block. I spent a few months on a cardigan that was giving me a lot of trouble, and when I put it down in frustration a while back, I didn't pick it up again and was reluctant to start anything new. I finally decided I can return to the sweater when I feel like it and seek out more enjoyable projects in the meantime. It's soothing to be knitting again.

→ A heat wave. To be fair, the serious heat has passed for the moment, with temperatures only in the low 80s this week. That's still too warm for my taste, but it's far more tolerable than last week's record-breaking highs. It was over 100 outside my house.

→ Real life fun with family and friends. We've had various visits and celebrations around here, with more planned, and that's been nice. I'm glad I'm not a character in someone's novel of dysfunction and angst, because gatherings not interrupted by dramatic revelations are a lot more relaxing!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black analyzes How Exposition Breaks Empathy: "It shifts the story into a mode in which the focus flips 180 degrees around, pointing out of the story rather than into it. That feels radically different. It yanks you out of the immersive reading experience by reminding you that you are in fact reading a story told by an author."

June 6, 2017

May Reading Recap

I read another batch of recently released novels in May, all with very different subject matters and styles:

NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME by Rakesh Satyal: Harit lives an isolated life that's only become lonelier since the death of his sister. He spends his days selling men's accessories at a department store and his evenings in a ritual of wearing his sister's clothes to soothe his grieving mother. Though Harit's family immigrated to Cleveland from India a decade ago, he's found little friendship or community until his pushy coworker insists they go for a drink together. Elsewhere in Cleveland, Ranjana appears to have a model immigrant life Harit would envy: comfort with American culture and strong ties to the local Indian community, a lasting marriage, and a son starting at Princeton. But Ranjana's reality is that she fears her husband is having an affair and she struggles under the expectations of gossiping acquaintances. Ranjana is happiest when she's writing fiction, a passion she has to hide from her family and friends, especially since her genre is paranormal romance.

Harit and Ranjana, along with the other characters inhabiting this wonderful novel, are complete and complex people who I adored getting to know. By the time their stories merged, I was thrilled to watch my two new friends meet and befriend each other. While this novel is focused primarily on the characters' emotions and relationships, Satyal has also developed a strong plot for his characters to move through, full of events that constantly surprised me. The one piece of the story that engaged me less was the thread following Ranjana's son at college, which felt like it belonged in a different novel.

This is a fantastic story of people longing for types of connection they can't understand or express. It does a beautiful job of exploring the messiness of real life through unexpected developments and characters who aren't what others imagined. I highly recommend this novel. I also recommend Satyal's Hamilton-themed book trailer, which is unrelated to the story's content but quite delightful.

WOMAN NO. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Lady hires a live-in nanny for her toddler after separating from her husband. The new nanny, who goes by the name S, is eager to move into the backyard cottage to get away from her mom, and Lady sympathizes due to a difficult history with her own toxic mother. The childcare arrangement is supposed to give Lady time to work on her book, a memoir about raising her older son, an 18-year-old who has never spoken. While Lady sorts through memories of his early days, S works on a project of her own.

This novel revolves around the two women's secret motivations, so information about their pasts and presents is doled out gradually, and I won't give more away. It's not a mystery story, and there's no shocking twist, but certain elements borrow from that genre. I enjoyed how the narrative unfurled, and while I did feel some of the revelations fell short of their intended impact, I was always eager to keep reading.

These characters are intriguing from the start, driven by unpredictable fears and desires. Small details of their lives and interactions make the story real and frequently funny. I think this is the first novel I've read where the characters use Twitter, and Lepucki has done an excellent job of integrating it naturally into the story. There's a whole compelling, unsettling world inside WOMAN NO. 17, populated by people who are fascinating to visit, but I'm glad I don't have to live there.

SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA by Jaroslav Kalfar: Jakub Procházka is the first Czech astronaut, launched by his country's space program to study the cloud of cosmic dust that's formed between the Earth and Venus. During the first months of the eight-month solo journey, Jakub's weekly video calls with his wife break up the lonely days he spends reflecting on his childhood during the fall of Communism. When his wife refuses to show up for a call, Jakub loses focus on the mission, and perhaps his grasp on reality. He starts talking to the giant alien spider lurking around the spaceship, who wants to probe further into Jakub's memories of his life on earth.

The space portions of this novel shift from wacky alien hijinks to harrowing danger, all of which I found entertaining, especially when I didn't worry too much about the science. These adventures are broken up, sometimes frustratingly so, by flashbacks to Jakub's childhood and relationship with his wife. Jakub's past, and how it relates to his country's changing politics, is a compelling story on its own, and it greatly increased my knowledge of Czech history. The interaction between the two pieces of the novel was occasionally clunky, but I liked them both enough to appreciate the book as a whole.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alexandra Alter at The New York Times investigates how The Martian got a classroom-friendly makeover: "Apart from the four-letter words, 'The Martian' is a science teacher's dream text. It's a gripping survival story that hinges on the hero's ability to solve a series of complex problems, using his knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy and math, in order to stay alive on a hostile planet. (The Washington Post called the novel 'an advertisement for the importance of STEM education.') After getting dozens of inquiries from teachers, Mr. Weir, who describes himself as 'a lifelong space nerd,' asked his publisher, Crown, if they could release a cleaned-up edition of the book." (Thanks, Book Riot!)