Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

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!)

May 19, 2017

A Writer's Search History, Revisited

Last month I noted on Twitter: "My search history suggests I have small children and a drug problem. Happily, neither is true." Writing leads to a lot of internet searches, sometimes weirdly specific, often on topics that are odd or disturbing either individually or in combination.

Four years ago, I put together a post highlighting some search queries that had featured in my recent research. When I looked back at that post -- once I finished suppressing my panic about how it's four years later and I'm again, still, working on same novel -- I was amused (mixed with an additional dash of panic) to see many similarities with searches from the past few months.

→ Previously on Lisa's search history, I was seeking concussion information, and just recently I looked up "concussion check" and variations. As it happens, a different character is the subject of concern this time. Within the plot, this all makes perfect sense, but maybe I need to examine why my novel has a motif of head injuries. Related searches: "head wound blood", "bleeding from chin".

→ Last time, I wanted to know about the smell of vodka, and I didn't end up using the information. A couple of months ago, I put something in a scene about the narrator smelling tequila, but I wasn't sure it made sense and ultimately took it out. It doesn't appear I did any searching this time around, so I must have done some real world investigation, meaning the research didn't all go to waste.

→ In the category of "of course you can find that on YouTube", I recently searched "sound of a baby burping" and watched numerous videos, all in the name of essential research. More baby queries: "how long does it take a baby to drink a bottle", "when can baby roll over", "older child sharing room with baby". Incidentally, the baby and older sibling I was writing about are part of a brand new family of secondary characters introduced to the novel in this draft, since I didn't have enough people to revise already.

→ My previous search post discussed my brief desire to explore motel curtains for some reason. This year, my decor needs were about "bathroom tile walls". I'm reminded of a long-ago commiseration with a writing buddy regarding first drafts overly focused on describing wall and floor coverings.

→ "election day 2026" is the sort of search I do when I suddenly consider that the part of my novel that takes place in the future also takes place in early November. Election Day will be before the novel starts, and of course it's a midterm, so there shouldn't be a glaring absence if the characters don't mention it. Most likely, I went through this same panic cycle years ago.

→ "california shrubbery" is the sort of search I do when I suddenly doubt that an extremely small detail is realistic. I'm imagining a row of bushes in front of a house, which I think of as a very common yard feature, but what I'm picturing is a childhood home in Massachusetts, so do houses have those here? Several times a week, I walk around my neighborhood, but I guess I immediately forgot about this query, because I still haven't paid any attention to the question while outside my (unshrubberied) house.

May 5, 2017

April Reading Recap

Last month I finished reading two recently published novels (and I have more new releases in store for next month's roundup):

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad: The Second American Civil War starts in 2074 when a group of Southern states secedes after the United States government outlaws fossil fuels. Sarat is a young girl living with her family in Louisiana, on a coast reshaped by rising oceans, until nearby combat forces them into a refugee camp. As Sarat grows up in the camp and her family suffers further trauma, she learns to hate the North and channel her anger toward the cause of resistance.

Sarat is an intriguing character, and not an easy one to follow, because the horrors she undergoes and her resulting zealotry are tough to read about. El Akkad uses his background as a journalist, reporting from conflicts around the world, to fill this novel with grisly authenticity. I was very caught up in this book, and it also often made me uncomfortable, so it succeeds at telling an effective story.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sarat and her family, but excerpts from imagined historical sources appear between chapters, offering more context and explanation of the war. These were so well-developed that I was sorry we didn't get even more of the big picture. What's there, however, does an excellent job at providing a level of commentary on Sarat's actions, which the character is only able to see from the perspective of her singular goal. This is an inspired book in many ways, and I hope to read more from El Akkad.

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein: Karen has an amazing six-year-old son, a successful career as a political campaign consultant, and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. In the time she has left with Jake, who she's parented alone, Karen is trying to create good memories and prepare him for life without her. She's arranged for her son to be adopted into her sister's family after her death, but these plans are disrupted when Jake asks Karen to find his father. From Karen's perspective, Dave gave up all parental rights when he ended their relationship upon hearing she was pregnant. But Dave is overjoyed to learn of his son's existence, and now Karen is terrified he's going to try to take her place in Jake's life when she's gone.

The premise sounds like a tearjerker, but I didn't personally cry while reading, I think because while Karen occasionally gives in to despair, the narration focuses more on her stubbornness, anger, and dark humor. This is a sad situation, sure, but it's also a complex one, and the story is mostly about the nuances of characters trying to do the right thing when they can't agree on what that is. I found all the characters real and sympathetic, and I was absorbed by their interactions. I also liked the glimpses into Karen's campaign work, which involves another set of fascinating interactions.

The narrative takes the form of a book Karen is writing for Jake to read when he grows up, and I think that frame detracted from the novel in more places than it improved it. I also felt the story could have used a stronger ending. Despite these flaws, I enjoyed this engrossing read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily Temple of Literary Hub finds the living authors with the most film adaptations: "There are plenty of writers whose works have been made into many, many films--William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Arthur Conan Doyle being the high rollers that immediately spring to mind. But with contemporary--read, living--authors, the field is a little slimmer."

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."