Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

July 21, 2016

Mornings and The Open Road

At the previous stop on this expedition through my childhood writing, we visited steno notebook #3. In addition to the piece of fiction I shared last time and the angsty journal entries I definitely won't be sharing, a couple of other stories from that period are worth pausing at before we move on.

As I've read my old work, some pieces are immediately familiar, and I recall where the stories are going, or more often, failing to go. Others come as a surprise. An untitled story about mornings fell into the second category, and I was pretty engaged and curious to discover what was going to happen. Disappointingly, after seven pages written over the course of a few weeks, the story comes to an abrupt end.

More disappointingly, at the end of this notebook in an entry reflecting on the fiction it contains, I wrote, "Whatever happened to the mornings story? That was a damn good idea with an ending in mind. I'll have to work on it." I regret to say that whatever I planned is lost to the mists of time. It's always possible the rest will turn up in another notebook, but I don't expect it to.

So I present this work with the warning that it's unfinished. That property, along with some stylistic and character elements, makes it a representative example of my (non-death-related) writing at the time.

The sudden onset of bad music at full volume started her out of a vivid dream. Driven by the screaming voices and merciless electric whine, she leapt out of bed and lunged across the room for the clock radio. Her fingers fumbled automatically for the "reset" button, located it, and depressed it. The sudden silence felt as if she had been struck deaf. Then her brain registered the traffic sounds of the city that never sleeps three stories below.

Her mind cleared of the heavy metal noise, she encountered an overwhelming desire to stumble across the room and crawl back into bed. But as she was already at the door to the bathroom, she dragged herself in there instead and turned on the cold water to the shower.

Willing herself not to think, she stepped into the shower stall. The blast of icy water shocked her awake and sent her groping for the hot water knob. The daily struggle for consciousness was over.

Putting the alarm clock at the other end of her one-room apartment had been her father's idea. The moments between getting out of bed and getting into the cold shower were the toughest part of her day. After two weeks in her apartment, with the snooze button at her fingertips and no parents or roommates to make sure she was up, she had been late to work four times. A long phone conversation with her father had resulted in the wake-up solution and the rescue of her job from threats of dismissal.
 

Mornings.
 

Her first memory:

There was a hand on her shoulder and Daddy's voice in her ear whispering, "Julie, wake up. Mommy's going to have the baby!"

Three-year-old Julie got out of bed and put on her sneakers. The routine had been carefully rehearsed several times in the past month. Julie picked up her duffel bag, which had been packed and ready for two weeks, just like Mommy's. She took Daddy's hand and went downstairs.

Mommy was putting on her jacket. She handed Julie her windbreaker. "I called Aunt Jenny and the hospital. We're all set," Mommy said.

Daddy brought the car to the front of the house and came to get Mommy and Julie. Julie looked at Mommy's big stomach, but it looked the same as ever. She hoped the baby wouldn't come out too soon.

Julie had never ridden in the car in her pajamas before. It was dark outside because the sun hadn't woken up yet. No one was awake except Mommy and Daddy and Julie and Aunt Jenny and the hospital.

July 15, 2016

Classing Update

A couple of days after I posted about having no ideas for the second story I had to submit for class, I found a seed that gradually grew into a viable premise. Much of the concept was vague when I started drafting, and the lack of a plan for the end made the writing process especially harrowing. I did figure out a conclusion before I had to write it, and after several frantic days of work, I completed a story I'm quite pleased with.

I might be getting the hang of this short story thing. I still have novel ideas churning in my head, and I want to focus on those soon, but it's certainly satisfying to create something that can be finished in a few days or weeks. I hope I can continue to generate ideas for stories without the pressure of a class deadline.

Even before this class, I've been inspired to return to short story writing by my friend Christopher Gronlund, who like me, has put most of his time into novels for many years but recently set himself a short fiction challenge. He produces a monthly podcast, Not About Lumberjacks, in which he presents one of his short stories. Some are older pieces, but the project has gotten him writing a lot of new stuff as well. I especially enjoyed listening to his latest release, "Standstill", a sad and beautiful story about a couple faced with the problem of time.

I'm not a podcaster, but I would like to get some of my stories out into the world. The class is wrapping up now with a final week about the publication process. I intend to use what I learned in class to revise my new stories, plus some others languishing on my computer, and then I'm going to try submitting to literary magazines.

I've only made one tiny attempt at story publication before, because it's another time-consuming avenue for rejection on top of the agent querying I'm already doing. But this week I received such a kind and encouraging rejection for my novel that I'm actually looking forward to collecting more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Katie McLain reports that Librarians Don't Read All Day and tells us what they actually do: "When I'm at the reference desk, I can usually be found answering technology questions, helping high school students with research papers, showing someone how to create a resume, making book suggestions, notarizing documents, and restarting the public print station for the tenth time in an hour. And when I do have time away from the desk, you can find me planning the summer reading program, training coworkers, relabeling books, writing blog posts, or prepping for a high school book talk."

July 5, 2016

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2016

This season brings the publication of five books I've been anticipating for quite some time. I can't wait to finally get to read these new novels!

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters (July 5): I adored Winters's THE LAST POLICEMAN and its sequels, a trilogy about a New Hampshire detective who's still intent on solving crimes even though the earth will be obliterated by an asteroid in a few months. The new book is an alternate history, set in a present-day America where the Civil War never occurred and slavery is still practiced in four states. I'm fascinated by the premise, and I'm sure the story will deliver more horrifying worldbuilding, great characters, and gripping mysteries.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown (July 12): Brown's debut was a wonderful story about a family of Shakespeare fans, THE WEIRD SISTERS. I've had the chance to meet Eleanor a couple of times to talk about writing, and I was thrilled to learn that she has a second novel coming out. THE LIGHT OF PARIS is another family drama, this time about a woman escaping an unhappy marriage who finds the diary her grandmother kept during a summer in Jazz Age Paris. I'm looking forward to lots of family secrets and historical detail.

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia (August 2): I know Rahul from Bay Area writing circles, and through his blog, I've been following his journey to publication. The novel sounds like a lot of fun: The overachieving main character decides she can improve her chances of getting into a top university if she lands a book deal, so she somehow obtains a literary agent and then sets out to write a novel. The whole plan goes wrong in a way that I'm confident will be both smart and hilarious.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal (August 16): I'm a big fan of Kowal's Glamourist Histories, a series that concluded last year after five amazing books set in the Regency period, but with magic. This new novel, which will potentially launch another series, takes place during World War I and features a medium who contributes to the war effort through her work with the Spirit Corps, which gathers intelligence from soldiers who die in battle. Kowal writes excellent characters and plots, and she never shies away from facing difficult realities in her fantastical stories, so I'm expecting great things from this book.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead (September 13): I've read and enjoyed two of Whitehead's strange and beautiful novels, THE INTUITIONIST (my review) and ZONE ONE (review). His next book has been getting a ton of buzz. The story follows characters escaping from slavery, and it's alternate history of a subtler type than the Ben Winters book at the start of my list. Whitehead sets his novel in the real pre-Civil War South, but the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad of secret tracks, tunnels, and stops. I'm very intrigued by the descriptions I've heard, and I'm eagerly awaiting the book's release.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Kim Liao recommends aiming for 100 Rejections A Year: "My rejections became tiny second-hand ticks on the slow-moving clock of my writing career, counting down to an acceptance, another revision, a long rest for the piece in the bottom of a drawer--or possibly, a return to the clay pit of my subconscious."

July 1, 2016

May/June Reading Recap

I was too busy at the beginning of June to deal with book reviews, but now I've caught up on my past two months of reading. There's a ton of variety in this big list of books, and I hope you find something that piques your interest.

→ I'd encountered several rave reviews of HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi before putting it on my list of anticipated spring releases, and I continued hearing great things that got me reading as soon as the book was available. This novel is indeed as amazing as everyone says.

Effia is born in Fanteland (part of today's Ghana) in the middle of the eighteenth century, and when she grows into a beautiful woman, she's married off to a British colonizer to help her village prosper. Her new home is a castle on the Gold Coast where dungeons hold people captive before they're shipped across the Atlantic as slaves. Esi is born in Asanteland to the best warrior in the village, but her prosperous future is ripped away when she's captured during an attack and forced to march for days to the slave dungeon. Effia and Esi are half-sisters who never know of each other's existence. The novel follows their respective descendants through the generations, depicting the impact of slavery and its lasting repercussions in both the United States and Ghana.

We spend only one chapter with each character in the book, providing a snapshot of life on both sides of the Atlantic before we proceed to the next generation. With this structure, the novel presents an incredible range of experience across 250 years, but Gyasi writes with such care and efficiency that every character's story feels full and individual. All of the places and times are vividly portrayed, with the extensive historical research woven tightly into the narrative. As I read, I was always torn between slowing down to savor my deep investment in each life and hurrying to discover what the next chapter had in store.

HOMEGOING is an intense and fascinating read. I recommend it highly.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett also appeared on my spring releases list, and soon after the novel came out, my writing class happened to read one of his short stories. I was impressed by the strong writing in "Notes to My Biographer", a story dealing with mental illness through generations, so I quickly started the novel, which explores the same subject. Haslett is skilled at conveying the complicated emotions of a difficult family situation, and his characters are real and engaging.

IMAGINE ME GONE follows a family across decades, often jumping wide gaps of time to visit the big and small events that shape the characters' lives. The earliest event leads to all the others: After Margaret's fiance John is hospitalized with what's described as an "imbalance" in 1964, she makes the decision to proceed with the marriage. Margaret and John go on to have three children. The oldest, Michael, is an anxious, tightly wound child who remains a source of worry for the family as he grows into an odd and troubled adult. Michael's brother and sister find their own adulthoods overshadowed by his problems and their desire and obligation to help him attain a bit of happiness.

Each of the five family members narrates some of the chapters, and they all have their own storytelling style. The narrative takes on unusual forms in places, which helps the reader get deeper into the mental states of the characters. Every time the perspective switched, I was glad for the opportunity to get to know a character better. I cared about everyone in this novel, I felt their pain through the many hard scenes, and I kept hoping things might turn out okay for some of them. This is a rough and honest family story.

SPEAK by Louisa Hall had some buzz last year, and I'm glad I went back to discover the pleasure of this unusual and absorbing novel.

The story revolves around the themes of memory and artificial intelligence, and it's composed of multiple interconnected narratives. Through prison memoirs of a convicted inventor and chat transcripts presented as court evidence, we learn about the rise and fall of babybots, lifelike dolls with powerful AI that a generation of girls bonded with, causing disastrous effects. Two sets of letters chart the lives of a fictional couple involved in 1960s AI efforts and the real computer science pioneer Alan Turing. Finally, a diary from 1663 follows a young adventurer on her pilgrimage to America.

I quickly became caught up in each of the stories and enjoyed spotting all the ways they intersect. Though the book has a philosophical bent, each storyline possesses a compelling plot. My desire to understand the full story increased as the connections became clearer, so I was somewhat disappointed that so much was still unknown at the end. I'm not sure I grasped everything Hall was aiming for with this novel, but I still found it a worthwhile read.

→ I was curious about THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle because of a synchronicity with Matt Ruff's excellent LOVECRAFT COUNTRY: the books were published on the same day and both grapple with the racist work of H.P. Lovecraft. After I heard a great Fresh Air interview with LaValle, in which he reads the opening pages of his novella, I knew I wanted to read more.

June 24, 2016

Classing Up My Writing

The online class I'm taking with Gotham Writers Workshop is more than halfway through, and it's serving the intended purpose of helping me think about short fiction and generate new writing. Granted, having a deadline to submit a story for critique didn't save me from excessive procrastination, but eventually it did force me into several long days of writing. It's been a while since I've been deeply engrossed in a project, and I was happy to be back in that space.

I finished my story on time, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. Receiving feedback from my classmates was, as always, a thrilling and nerve-racking experience, and I spent the week constantly refreshing the class website to see if anyone new had commented. The students in our group bring a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives to their thoughtful critiques, as well as to their stories, and it's been fascinating to see how everyone reacts to each other's work. The feedback for my story gave me a lot of information about what resonated with people and what didn't work, and it will all be useful when I revise this story after the class is over.

Now, though, I have to write something different, because my second turn at the workshop is in two and a half weeks. So far I have no solid ideas for my next story, but I remain overly confident that the approaching deadline will spark inspiration soon enough. I may produce something promising in one of the short writing assignments we have for class each week, though more likely a decent idea will occur to me at some random moment. If I get desperate, maybe I can complete one of the unfinished stories from my teenage notebooks.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah S. Davis of Book Riot shares her experience of growing up as the English teacher's daughter: "I was cocky in English class, slaying the classic white male authors and tossing around literary jargon I'd gleaned from my father's theory books in his office. I thought I knew everything. I didn't."

June 17, 2016

Fear Itself

I'm aware that the earliest examples of my childhood writing were fun because they involved cute drawings and hilarious story concepts. Now that we're into the high school era, I hope nobody minds that it's all death and angst. I was prolific during high school, and most of my work from that period has been preserved, so we're going to be here a while.

While the Steno notebook I reported on last time is nearly all stories (or at least, story beginnings), the next one contains quite a few journal entries mixed in with the fiction. Among the raw adolescent emotions on display in these, there's the ongoing pain of that unrequited love I mentioned before: "When I am away from him I am seized with terror, and I imagine that he is hurt or dead." Also of note is the admiration I express for a friend's writing, coupled with doubt over my own: "She showed me her poems and stories all the time, and they were so good that I knew she would think mine were pitiful. Next to hers, they were."

At other points in the notebook, I'm more confident about my writing. Early in the summer after my sophomore year, I enthusiastically proclaim, "Well, today I finally began committing some of my stuff to disk. It's so nice now that I have Puck, my wonderful little Mac." (Puck was a Mac Classic, a one-piece computer with a handle, easily portable at only 16 pounds!) I write about looking through my notebook entries and deciding what to type into the computer and revise, and then I reflect, "I realized that I've got some good stuff. However, nearly everything I like is about death or dying. How totally morbid! The problem is that this morbidity is so typically adolescent that it's embarrassing." Very perceptive, Teen Lisa.

Here's one of my rare stories from the time that's not about death, though I'll warn you, it is a little scary. I suspect it's no coincidence that I wrote it just before Halloween.

Fear Itself

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheer terror. The American media thrives on the culture's love of being frightened. Stephen King, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Unsolved Mysteries spawn books, films, and episodes in rapid succession, making money off our desire for horror and fear. And I'm the biggest sucker of all.

After seeing The Silence of the Lambs, I couldn't sleep without the light on for a week. I haven't gone near a graveyard since reading Pet Sematary. "Laura, I wish you'd stop reading those ghost stories," pleaded my mother after I woke her up after a nightmare for the third night in a row. "They're really unhealthy, honey."

But I couldn't stop. It wasn't teenage perversity that drove me to devour every thriller in the library, but a burning need to feel my heart beat faster and my breathing quicken as I reached the climax, then slam the book closed and remember with relief that it was just a story. The terror is only fun, of course, if it goes away.

Except it didn't. It got to the point where not only couldn't I walk outside in the dark, even with other people, but I couldn't sleep with the light out, and finally I couldn't be alone, not even in broad daylight.

I tried to hide my fears from my mother. I would go along with her every time she ran errands, rather than stay home alone, claiming that I had to buy something or wanted to talk to her. I declined her invitations for moonlit mother-daughter walks, explaining I had too much homework. I waited until she had tucked me in and closed the door before turning on my bedside lamp. Sometimes I got my little sister to sleep with me, promising to tell her all the high school gossip as we giggled late into the night.

But still I read the horror stories. I couldn't explain why. It was my secret addiction, and I walked around with a guilty conscience. The stories were becoming more real to me, too. I would become so absorbed in the book that I would become oblivious to everything else. When I stopped reading, I would be drenched with sweat and shaking.

June 3, 2016

How To Not Write a Short Story Quite Yet

A few years ago, I outlined my no-nonsense, foolproof, sure-fire method for writing a short story. For the past month, I've been working on a new story, and at first I thought I was doing really well, since I breezed past many of the early steps and quickly arrived at the stage of beginning a first draft.

It turns out I probably should have followed the procedure more closely, because I got stuck somewhere in the process. As far as I can see, deviating from the original instructions is the only reason I'm not finished drafting by now, but in case something else went wrong, I decided to record the steps I took this time.

1. Sign up for a class to give yourself both a reason to write a short story and an opportunity to receive feedback and guidance on the story.

2. Clean the entire contents of your house. Consider the course information email that advised you to prepare for class by beginning work on a story, "or at least formulating a rough idea". Recognize that your brain might generate ideas if left unstimulated during the tedium of cleaning. Instead, catch up on dozens of hours of podcasts.

3. Decide on a extremely general topic for your story. Decide that constitutes a "rough idea", so you're all set for now.

4. Spend a long, tiring day fulfilling civic obligations. When it's over, attempt to nap. Find that your brain won't turn off, but that it now contains a fully formed and detailed idea for the story. You're ahead of the game!

5. Record all your thoughts about the story. Create an outline. Reason that you can't possibly start drafting yet because the class hasn't begun, so you don't know what the word count restrictions will be.

6. When the class begins, receive the word count guidelines, plus your personal date to present your story for critique. Rejoice and despair, for your deadline is approximately one thousand weeks in the future.

7. Continue rearranging the contents of your house. Participate eagerly in the many components of the class unrelated to working on your story. After all, you signed up for this class to reap the benefits of the entire experience, and your due date is infinitely far away.

8. Take the essential but time-consuming step of assigning names to characters you've been referring to with descriptors like "Younger". Write several opening sentences and nearly three paragraphs. You're really making progress now!

9. Assemble furniture, bake cookies, spend a lot of time traveling from place to place for frustrating purposes outside your control. Devote all your remaining time to writing thoughtful feedback on the work of your classmates. Reason that since critiquing others improves your skills at spotting problems in your own work, you're essentially also working on your story during this time.

10. Realize your class deadline is in three and a half weeks and the rough draft deadline you set for yourself is in three days. Struggle to write for about an hour. Recognize that the best sentence you produce during the session is this tweet: "I find it increasingly inconvenient that it's necessary to write a first draft in order to embark on the glorious process of revision." Also recognize that this feeling is an integral component of step 10 of your original 12-step story process.

11. Spend the rest of the week on tasks that circumstances render more time-sensitive and important than your story. It's important to deal with car maintenance, because that's what responsible adults do. It's important to take care of all your classwork early, because visitors are arriving. It's important to research recipes, buy ingredients, and do more baking, because yum. It's important to jot down notes for a blog post, because it's certainly a more promising piece of writing than the story you aren't working on.

12. Have a wonderful extra-long weekend with visiting family members. Relax. Don't worry about your story. Remember that after the visitors leave, you'll still have two weeks left until the due date, and there won't be so many non-writing demands on your time.

13. Look at the partial scene you've written so far. Look away in horror. Clean your house. Take care of your classwork, some of which involves rewriting a small section of the partial scene. Contemplate more baking. Read the book you've been neglecting. Remember you made notes for that blog post you should definitely finish writing now, so it'll be out of the way and you can focus on your story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily St. John Mandel reflects on her lengthy book tour in The Year of Numbered Rooms: "I was declining most event offers by that point, because it was clear by then that what had started as five cities in six or seven days was going to be something closer to 50 cities in 14 months. I am aware at all times of how lucky I was with Station Eleven, having published three previous novels that came and went without a trace, but it is possible to exist in a state of profound gratitude for extraordinary circumstances and simultaneously long to go home."

May 16, 2016

My Teenage Loves

After the trauma of sharing those two high school stories about religion and death, I avoided reading further in my old notebooks for a while, but now it's time for another entry in my childhood writing series, so I've bravely forged onward.

My earliest steno notebook contains mostly lists and notes, with some writing in the back, including the first draft of the theater scene from last time. The next is almost entirely fiction. I started my personal creative writing kick during the first year of high school but really got enthusiastic about it in the summer that followed. I've read through all of notebook #2, which takes me through the first half of sophomore year.

Since all the entries are dated, I can see that from summer on, I usually wrote at least a few days a month, with periods of regular daily writing mixed with gaps of weeks when I didn't write. I often worked on the same piece for multiple days, not only in close succession, but also sometimes returning months later. The constraints of a bound notebook meant that if I'd written something else in the meantime, I'd have to continue an older story some pages on, and I didn't mark this in any way, so certain sections of the notebook contain interleaved bits of stories diverging wildly in topic or tone.

I edited as I wrote, which is visible in the frequent crossed out words and sentences, plus occasional arrows indicating parts to be reordered. As we saw last time, I later did more serious revision of selected stories on my computer. Almost everything in the notebook is unfinished. Sometimes my interest in an idea fizzled out after a page, sometimes I wrote many pages and even multiple scenes, but very little became a full story. I'm sure I usually started writing with nothing more than a premise or an opening line in mind, and it can be hard to reliably wring a plot out of that. Today I still have just as many ideas that go nowhere, but I no longer take the time to write them down until I've given more consideration to whether they're viable.

The contents of this notebook are overall pretty boring. The stories tend to star teen girls, often attending a private high school similar to mine or saddled with an annoying little brother. In a departure from writing what I knew, more of these characters drink coffee than I would have expected, since I didn't start enjoying coffee myself until my thirties. Often some promising bit of conflict is introduced, as in the story of three friends discussing a generally beloved teacher who one of them dislikes, but the idea is abandoned before we learn the cause of the turmoil. I suspect I frequently wrote myself into a corner and was unable to imagine the dark secret driving whatever came before.

The first draft of the autumn story from last month's post is in here, and to my surprise, there's also a still earlier incarnation of that story. It's much shorter, mainly a riff on the "fall is the season of dying" idea I all but wrote out of the final draft. It features characters I used repeatedly around that time, initially only in stories I told myself inside my head but eventually in some I wrote down. I probably saw some promise in the concept and decided to try it again with characters who didn't bring along all the backstory I'd already developed.

As is the case today, I read a fair amount of science fiction as a teen but didn't write much that wasn't set in the real world. The one piece of science fiction in this notebook is the start of a story set in 2010, 20 years in the future, when the earth is in crisis due to overpopulation and the hole in the ozone layer. It starts strong: "Joanie stared out the window at the gray rain and remembered a time when there was color. From behind her came the sounds of children sleeping fitfully or crying softly." Alas, after a couple of pages explaining how the world went to hell, I stopped writing.

This notebook ends with a lone entry that's pure journal. It comments on what I was up to at that particular moment (watching a Paul Simon concert airing during a public television fund drive) but mostly analyzes my unrequited crush on one of my friends: "Dammit, I love him! Love. Love. That word. Do I love him? Am I 'old enough' to love a man? Oh, sure, why the hell not?" It's full of the turmoil of not-quite-16-year-old emotion, and I'm afraid there's going to be more of that particular agony when I move on to the next notebook.

The story from this book that's most worth sharing is unlike any of the other contents, but it does represent a major aspect of my life at the time. While I angsted over painful unreturned feelings for several friends during high school, my purest love was for the music of The Beatles. It's true that I did sometimes experience so much love for Paul McCartney that I was moved to kiss a photograph of him, but on the whole, The Beatles brought me more joy than anguish. Anyway, here's this thing:

May 2, 2016

April Reading Recap

I had another fantastic reading month with three great, recently released books:

WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN by Kaitlyn Greenidge: When the Freemans are selected by researchers to adopt a chimpanzee into their family and teach him sign language, Charlotte reacts with teenage skepticism and resentment. She's angry about leaving Boston to move to the Toneybee Institute out in the Berkshires, where she'll be one of the few black students at her high school. Charlotte's younger sister adores their new chimp brother before they even meet, but Charlotte remains wary of the experiment. Living at the Toneybee puts a strain on the whole family, and when Charlotte learns about racist studies buried in the institute's past, she questions the motives behind their selection.

This is a fascinating, unusual novel that covers a lot of ground. I was impressed by the range of topics woven into the story and delighted by how many happened to align with my own interests. The characters are well layered, with specific traits and flaws, and I was invested in every one of their problems. I only wish that some of the narrators had been given more chances to speak and that certain threads had been explored in greater depth. This is the rare novel that might have benefitted from being longer, but the story as it stands is an excellent, complex work.

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson takes place in the small English town of Rye at the dawn of World War I. Beatrice arrives in Rye to serve as the new Latin teacher, and she's immediately the subject of much controversy, because the idea of a woman teaching Latin is shocking. The declaration of war provides a new focus for local politics and gossip, as the most influential residents vie to surpass the patriotism of the others. Hosting a group of weary Belgian refugees offers the townspeople even more opportunities to display generosity and pass judgment. While those around her fret about respectability, Beatrice tries to concentrate on doing what's right, with the assistance of the sensible young surgeon Hugh, his flighty cousin Daniel, and their kind but fierce Aunt Agatha, who wields her power in the town for good, most of the time.

I haven't mentioned even half of the great characters in this novel, some I adore because they're wonderful people, some I adore for their ridiculous awfulness. The story is built around interesting dynamics between the characters, whether these take the form of possible romance or petty power struggle. It's a well constructed comedy of manners, but as Simonson warned at the author event I attended, the humor does give way to tragedy at several points. There's a war on, after all.

The middle of the book dragged, but just as I was worried it would disappoint, many events happened at once, and the rest of the story kept a tight hold on my interest. This is a worthy follow-up to the excellent MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND.

HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter charts the development of the Broadway musical that has received and earned every praiseworthy adjective I might bestow. Short chapters describe each step of the journey from idea to opening night, introducing every person involved in bringing the show to reality. These alternate with, and often coordinate well with, the lyrics to the next song, which are presented in full, with fun and informative annotations. Scattered throughout are reproductions of other interesting documents, including pages from Lin-Manuel Miranda's notebooks and Alexander Hamilton's pamphlets.

The Hamiltome is a beautifully packaged book: large, thick pages with deckle edges, full color photos, a smartly designed layout, and a faux-leather binding. I savored it slowly, luxuriating in the fascinating look behind the scenes. If the cast recording plays on repeat inside your brain, I'm sure you'll appreciate this book. If you haven't listened yet but remain curious, perhaps experiencing the music and the book together will allow you to join us.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michelle Colman has analyzed book illustrations and real estate listings to value the homes of children's book characters: "Many children's books have been set in New York City--think Harriet the Spy or Stuart Little. In this day and age of record-setting prices, how much would those fictional characters have to pay to live in their homes today? Who would have seen the most appreciation, Eloise or Lyle Crocodile?"

April 29, 2016

New Leaves and Old Pages

I've been busy this month with various things:

→ Since I haven't worked much on fiction this year, I decided to take a class and give myself motivation and deadlines. I've signed up for an online short fiction class through the Gotham Writers Workshop, a well-regarded program out of New York City. It starts in a couple of weeks, and I'm excited to get started. In fact, I should get started now, because ideally I'll be working on a story when the course begins so I'm ready when it's my turn for critique. Time to turn my writing brain back on!

→ I reached an important milestone in my writing room cleanup project by completing the time-consuming process of filing many years of accumulated documents. Now our household has usefully organized filing cabinets, and I have floor space. There's still work left to get the room arranged the way I want it, but the rest should go quickly, provided I don't lose momentum.

→ I've looked through a bunch of my old writing lately, which is a lot more interesting than the old bank statements. In my high school notebooks, I found the embarrassing stories I shared, plus a list of books I wanted to read. There will more be teenage treasures as I continue my exploration. Additionally, I read a couple of manuscripts I wrote in more recent years, and I'm contemplating what works and what doesn't to improve my future writing.

→ Mid-month, I celebrated my birthday with baking and eating and more eating. A few weeks before that, I gave myself the early present of a new laptop, since my previous one was five years old. I'm very happy with the speed and power of my new computer, and I got it a decal to keep it cozy.

→ I have been doing a lot of walking around my neighborhood and admiring the flowers in bloom. We've had some rain, so my part of California is greener than it's been in a while. I have the window open, and I'm enjoying the spring weather and the view from my writing desk: