Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

January 11, 2019

2018 By The Books

This is my now-annual January(ish) post in which I pick my top recommendations from the books I read the year before. As I started putting it together, I was thinking about how consistent my reading habits have become and how much of what I want to say in introduction is the same as for previous yearly book wrap-ups. I began musing on how to write about this consistency, and then I realized that consistency also comes up in my year-end writing overview. So: 2018 was a very consistent year in my life (except in all the ways it wasn't).

For example, my general goal is to average three books a month, and I again hit pretty close to that target, reading 33 books in 2018. I continued gravitating toward recent releases, with the vast majority of books I read published in 2018 or 2017. As I found last year, about a third of what I read was truly outstanding, which leaves me quite pleased with my reading selections. I'm recommending those exceptional books again here, with a link to the monthly recap containing my original, fuller review.

TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING and SEVEN SURRENDERS by Ada Palmer (February and March/April) earn the top spot on this not entirely ordered list for sticking with me the most strongly. This pair of novels tells a unified story (which will continue in two more books, less closely tied) of the complicated events that rock the world of 2454. Palmer's future is ambitiously imagined, with a mind-boggling number of disparate pieces and players woven together into a gripping tale of political intrigue and so much more.

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko (July/August) is a family story that stands out for how solidly every element is crafted. Through carefully detailed character portrayals and a plot that's never predictable or easy, Ko unfolds the story of a boy from China whose mother disappears after she brings him to the United States.

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie (October/November) is especially notable for the excellent use of perspective shift to reveal its complicated layers. In this tense and tragic novel, the fates of two British-Pakistani families become entwined by love, politics, and questions of loyalty.

THE GOLDEN STATE by Lydia Kiesling (September) takes the family story down to the micro level of recounting the daily tedium and anxiety of parenting. Few significant events occur for much of this novel about a mother hiding from the world with her toddler, but the strength and intimacy of the narrative voice kept me enthralled.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker (July/August) depicts immigrant life in the multicultural stew of early twentieth century New York City, with supernatural protagonists who are also newcomers to the human world. Wecker develops her inventive premise marvelously, and this novel was even richer and more layered than I anticipated.

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE by Ijeoma Oluo (January) is a thorough, approachable guide to noticing and discussing racism, whether you want to or not. Oluo offers practical suggestions on talking and acting in various difficult situations, and I intend to return to this book again.

AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz (May) depicts a future in which humans, robots, and intellectual property can all be owned or freed, whether legally or illicitly. A batch of pirated drugs with lethal side effects set humans and bots on both sides of the law on a thrilling chase, packed with science, danger, and a stealth submarine.

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange (June) introduces a large cast, mostly Native Americans and mostly living in Oakland, and places them on a trajectory toward a powwow where a violent act is planned. Orange gives each character a full and vivid portrayal in impressively few pages, and I only wish there was more of this tight and suspenseful story.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL by Mira T. Lee (March/April) focuses on two adult sisters and the way mental illness impacts their relationship with each other and with each of their partners over the years. Lee complicates every character with unexpected details, and the evolution of the plot feels organic.

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam (May) brings together two families from different races and classes, bonding them through tragedy and adoption. What particularly sticks with me about this novel is how carefully Alam depicts the nuances of every interaction between the well-drawn characters.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood at The Guardian explores the world of miniature books: "Nomenclature is important here: according to the US-based Miniature Book Society, a miniature book 'is no more than three inches in height, width, or thickness', and while the London Library has some 350-odd 'small' books, of less than five inches, it has only 47 true miniatures. The library decided they were being overshadowed by their larger cousins, so now they are gathered together in a glass-fronted cabinet." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

January 4, 2019

December Reading Recap

Here's my final month of book reviews to close out 2018, and next week I'll look back at the year's reading highlights.

THE CALCULATING STARS by Mary Robinette Kowal: Early in the space race, Elma and her husband Nathaniel are vacationing in the mountains after a satellite launch they both worked on, when suddenly the world changes. A meteor strike near Washington, D.C. destroys everything and everyone in the vicinity of the capital, including Elma's family, her friends and colleagues, and most of the federal government. Elma and Nathaniel escape to safety thanks to their combined scientific knowledge and her skills as a pilot. They wind up at a military base, where Nathaniel is pulled into meetings and Elma isn't allowed to do anything useful that might distract her from grief and shock. At last she's given some data to analyze, and through her calculations, she discovers that the consequences of the meteor impact are going to become far worse than they already are. Though no humans have yet orbited Earth, it's now urgent to figure out how to get humanity off the planet.

This premise combines two subjects I love to read about, apocalyptic disasters and space travel, and Kowal explores both with well-considered and fascinating detail. The science is woven tightly into the many plot events, which means both that the story makes sense and that it moves along at a pretty fast pace. With mathematician and pilot Elma as our guide through the accelerated space race, we get to understand and witness every development, and also experience the constant fight to have women's accomplishments taken seriously. Along with portraying the sexism of the era, Kowal is thoughtful as always about how every character's identity interacts with the story, especially paying attention to how black people are treated in the disaster and in the space program.

As soon as I finished devouring THE CALCULATING STARS, I started the sequel, THE FATED SKY, which continues the quest to colonize other planets. These two books are closely tied and were released in quick sequence. More books in the series are planned for the future.

THE PERFECT NANNY by Leïla Slimani, translated from French by Sam Taylor: In the first pages of this novel, two small children are murdered by their nanny. The story then goes back to the previous year, when Parisian couple Myriam and Paul decide to hire a nanny so Myriam can return to work as a lawyer. They bring on Louise, who delights the children immediately and soon becomes an indispensable part of the family. Myriam is thrilled to be working again and to leave the concerns of children and home to Louise, but she struggles with guilt about this choice and anger at the society that judges it. Louise is thrilled to dedicate herself to taking care of everything the family needs, and her devotion to the work blocks out the empty despair of life away from their apartment.

This tense, unsettling novel is primarily a character study of Louise and Myriam. By delving into the complicated thoughts and emotions of each woman and the changing dynamics between them, Slimani charts how the situation goes so horrifically wrong. I read this short book quickly and eagerly, fascinated by the nuanced characters and always in suspense at how the inevitable end would arrive. I anticipated that there would be no clear, simple explanation of what drives Louise to murder, but what surprised and disappointed me was that we don't get to see the event from her point of view, despite how much time we otherwise spend in her head. I'd still recommend this to anyone intrigued by the premise, but prepare for an ending you may find unsatisfying.

THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez is narrated by a writer and teacher whose closest friend, another writer and teacher, dies by suicide. As she's contemplating his life and death, their past together, and his history with women, his wife (Wife Three) asks her to take in his dog. Apollo, an enormous and aging Great Dane, moves into her tiny apartment where dogs are forbidden, and they grieve together. Soon Apollo becomes such an important part of her life that she won't consider giving him up, despite the threat of eviction from a rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment.

This novel won the National Book Award and much critical acclaim, but I'm in the camp of readers who only liked the parts about the dog. Apollo is great, and the relationship the narrator forms with him is emotionally satisfying. The dead friend, and the narrator herself, aren't especially compelling, nor are the majority of their musings about writing that make up much of the book. This is one of those novels composed of short scraps, in this case often presenting a thought or quote about writing, a fact or anecdote about death or dogs or both, or the summary of another book or movie. While I've read several books in this style, I'm not much of a fan, and in this case I felt the disparate pieces really didn't gel into a cohesive novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In Uncanny Magazine, Diana M. Pho explains What Writing Fanfiction Taught Me as an Editor: "I spent hours studying a blend of British common law and JKR's hints about the Ministry of Magic to theorize how they passed legislation as reactionary response to Muggle history. I made calendar timelines to figure out whether the Animorphs went to high school in a term or semester system. Now, when I look at an author's manuscript, I take out my sledge-hammer and test out the sheetrock of their world. Is that a plot hole? Slam! Magical loopholes? Whump! How does a character's social or political identity affect their place in this world? Why can the cat talk? How do the airships fly?"

December 21, 2018

Another Year

The year is drawing to a close, as years always do. Often around this time I wrap up the year with a post in which I take stock. Last year I didn't write one because we were in the middle of moving into our new house -- and having that excuse was a bit of a relief, because except for the house, I didn't feel I'd accomplished much in 2017. This year, I debated whether to skip again, since 2018 also didn't involve any exciting completions or successes in my writing life.

Still, I like getting an overview of the year, even for myself, so I looked back at what I've done, and it's not nothing. This eternal revision isn't over, but the end is in sight. The steady plod continues, even on days when it feels like pointless misery to so much as look at this stupid manuscript, and that is an achievement worth reporting. I can't know for sure what's going to happen at the end of this revision, but I do know that by persisting, I've turned my stupid manuscript into a far better novel than what I thought was good enough before.

While looking back, I also reviewed December posts I've made in earlier years, and there's a consistency in my reflections on where I am or am not at the end of the year and what I imagine happening in the next one. That could be demoralizing, but I actually found it kind of comforting. As long as my good fortune continues, there's always another year, and that's the best cause for celebration.

May you find reasons to celebrate in 2019, and may your dark days brighten!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Panio Gianopoulos extols the virtues of trains as writing spaces: "Can you really get deep into a piece of writing, into anything creative, when you've only got 35 minutes? Isn't that just the warm-up? Strangely, to invert the truism, more is less. On weekends, once the children have been anesthetized with iPads and I've ducked up into our attic with my laptop, I find that somehow I get less writing done in two hours."

December 13, 2018

October/November Reading Recap

Time to catch up on reviews again! In the past two months, I read quite a variety of books:

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie: Isma put her education on hold to finish raising her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, after they were all orphaned. Now she's heading to a PhD program in the United States, leaving Aneeka behind in London. Parvaiz should be home with his twin, but instead he's gone away to do something so terrible that his sisters won't talk about it. In Massachusetts, Isma encounters another Brit, the son of a politician who has a fraught history with Isma's family. This MP distances himself at every opportunity from his Pakistani-Muslim heritage, to the disappointment of those who share his background like Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz. The fates of the two families soon become entwined by the consequences of Parvaiz's actions.

Shamsie develops this gripping story one layer at a time by giving each character a turn to claim the point of view and reveal or learn more about what's happening. I admired how well the perspective shifts work to show the unexpected sides of the characters and to build the tension and suspense that's constant throughout the novel. I found HOME FIRE even more intriguing knowing that Shamsie modeled it on the ancient tragedy of Antigone, which I reviewed before reading so I could spot the parallels. This is a powerful book that I recommend to readers interested in complicated situations and tolerant of gruesome material.

→ In ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR REASON, SCIENCE, HUMANISM, AND PROGRESS, Steven Pinker presents the data that shows life around the world is getting better in nearly every way. One by one, he considers aspects of the human condition -- health, inequality, civil rights, and so on -- and uses graphs and facts gleaned from scientific studies to chart the progress made in that area over the centuries and decades. Pinker demonstrates why this is the best time in history to be alive and why that's pretty much true no matter who or where you are. Even commonly perceived problems of the current era are mostly misjudged, overhyped, historically unlikely to persist, or within our power to fix.

I enjoyed this book overall, though I would have preferred a shorter version of it. The bulk of the text is the middle section analyzing the progress in each aspect of life, and I found most of that interesting and educational. The sections at the beginning and end are more abstract and philosophical, and I had trouble staying engaged at times. Pinker's use of the Enlightenment to frame this story of progress never really came into focus for me, so I may not have gotten everything I was supposed to from this book. I also wasn't quite his imagined reader because I came into the book already aware that we're lucky to live now, so some of his arguments aimed at pessimists missed the mark for me. However you're feeling about the state of the world, if you'd like concrete evidence that it's improving, I recommend this book, and I won't tell if you decide to skim some sections.

→ The stories collected in THE REFUGEES by Viet Thanh Nguyen feature vivid, complicated characters in difficult situations. Nguyen's superb writing makes every sentence and scene engaging. However, I was often underwhelmed at the ends of stories that felt like they stopped too soon or without enough conclusion.

A few favorites stood out and stayed with me: The sad, powerful "Black-Eyed Women" is narrated by a ghostwriter who encounters the ghost of her brother and has to remember the terrible circumstances of his death. "Someone Else Besides You" spends a few days with a divorced man and his challenging father, winding up with one of the more satisfying endings. I really enjoyed the hapless protagonist and unexpected turns in "The Transplant", the story most reminiscent of the darkly playful tone of Nguyen's excellent novel, THE SYMPATHIZER.

November 29, 2018

Restructuring a Chapter

I haven't written much for my blog this year because I've been trying to focus my creative energy and time on revision. But when Christopher Gronlund posted a before and after of a paragraph he'd recently improved, I felt inspired to share a rewrite example of my own. I knew I'd made posts of this type before, though I hadn't recalled until locating the two earlier entries that both specifically demonstrate how a passage gets shortened along with strengthened.

Before I could go further with the idea of presenting a section of revised text, I noticed how many big chunks I was moving and deleting in the chapter I was currently working on, and I wondered if I could show off that process instead. The concept got pushed aside while I finished actually wrangling the Frankenchapter into shape. Then some initial work on this post was interrupted by the demands of the next messy chapter. Also, as usual, real life happened in the meantime, including a trip for family celebrations and the first Thanksgiving in our new house.

I've finally set aside the brainspace to finish a visual representation of one chapter, before and after restructuring. Many thanks to my in-house graphic designers and consultants for helping me realize my visualization vision! You can click to view a larger image:

October 4, 2018

September Reading Recap

I'm enthusiastic about all three novels I read in September, two brand new and one older:

THE GOLDEN STATE by Lydia Kiesling: Daphne is having a tough day at her university job, faced with responding to the death of a student abroad, when she decides to pack up and leave. Her life already contains as much stress as she can handle, because she's parenting her toddler solo after her husband's deportation to Turkey over unresolved green card issues. Daphne collects her daughter from day care and drives away from San Francisco to the high desert at the eastern edge of California. The double-wide that she inherited from her grandparents is sitting empty in a remote town with not enough wifi, so it's the perfect place to retreat and avoid the question of what's going to happen next.

I adored this novel, which manages to be enthralling despite how much of the action is mundane daily logistics. Alone with her toddler on this unscheduled trip, Daphne ticks off the passing hours by picture books read, string cheeses distributed, and cigarettes snuck. Daphne's strong narrative voice fills this accounting with tension: her child isn't stimulated enough, string cheese makes up too much of her diet, a better mother would have quit smoking. The lack of major plot developments becomes the novel's conflict, as Daphne fails to act on her abandoned job responsibilities, respond to her husband's questions about her plans, or do anything besides remain stalled in the high desert. Eventually life gives Daphne the push she needs to get unstuck, which leads to something finally happening next.

SEVERANCE by Ling Ma: Before the apocalypse, Candace lives in New York City, dabbling in photography and working at a book production company, where she coordinates the printing of Bibles. Afterwards, when most of the population has succumbed to a strange fever, Candace joins up with a small band of survivors journeying toward a possible refuge in Chicago. The story switches between these timelines, chronicling Candace's increasingly isolated existence in New York as the end times descend and her increasingly uneasy assimilation into the survivor group.

Many reviews call this novel a satire, but I wouldn't describe it that way, though there's humor to Candace's shrewd observations of modern life. The details of work, culture, and post-apocalyptic survival struck me as realistic or plausible, never elevated to the ridiculous, and that authenticity is one of the things I liked best about the book. Candace herself is a full and complex character, even at points when she drifts along detached from what's happening around her. I was sorry the novel ended when it did, without following Candace a bit longer or answering a few more of the questions the story raises, but I was glad for the time I got to spend in Candace's before and after.

SARAH CANARY by Karen Joy Fowler: Chin and his fellow railway workers are on their way to another job in the Washington Territory in 1873 when a mysterious white woman emerges from the forest. Her babbling speech and odd behavior suggests she's wandered away from the nearby asylum, so Chin attempts to return her there, though he's half-hoping she's one of the ghost lovers from stories. The simple task becomes a harrowing adventure, and then another, with more people pulled into the orbit of the perpetually inscrutable woman known as Sarah Canary.

Everyone who gets tangled up with Sarah Canary is a fascinating character, wonderfully depicted, and I grew fond of them all, even the villain a bit. Fowler brings the historical setting to life with vivid detail, and occasional short passages about real period events provide fun and useful context. The story addresses the blatant racism, sexism, and other horrors of the time, but the narrative's deadpan humor keeps the story feeling like a wild romp even when events become dark. I enjoyed keeping up with these delightful characters as they chased each other through the exciting plot.

I've read a couple of Fowler's other novels (this was her first), and I always admire her writing. I intend to read more of her work in the upcoming months, because she's going to be an honored guest at the next Friends of the Genre Con in March. Fowler has published both speculative and realistic fiction. Readers can approach SARAH CANARY with that knowledge, but may want to save learning Fowler's intentions until after reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ M.R. Carey analyzes apocalyptic trends for Electric Literature and discusses how these stories reflect each era's fears: "Every generation sees the end of the world through the prism of its own day-to-day reality. And the popularity of apocalyptic fiction seems to rise and fall in line with real-world fears and tensions and insecurities. Taxonomy only takes us so far, though. What's remarkable about the best post-apocalyptic narratives is what they do with their initial premise--what kind of stories they launch from the springboard of global catastrophe."

September 10, 2018

July/August Reading Recap

I got a lot of good reading done this summer. Here's a recap of what I read in July and August:

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko: Deming is eleven when his mother disappears. Polly has worked hard to build a life for the two of them in New York City since since immigrating from China, and she's always dreaming of more, so it's possible she's left him to take a job she talked about in Florida. Months pass in the crowded apartment where Deming lives with Polly's boyfriend's family, but his mother doesn't return, and nobody will tell him anything. Then one day Deming is taken upstate by a white couple who say they're his new parents. He's given an American name and grows up in a town where he's the only Asian kid, never quite sure where he belongs. Years later, he receives some information about what happened to his mother, and Polly's complicated story is revealed.

This novel is riveting from start to finish. It's not just the mystery of Polly's disappearance that kept me reading, but the carefully detailed portrayals that made these characters into real people I wanted to learn everything about. There's nothing easy or cliche in the unfolding plot. Deming and Polly go through a lot, sometimes because of events outside their control and sometimes as a result of their own choices. Ko brings every scene and setting to life with unexpected, often funny observations and incredible writing. This is an impressive debut, and I'll be eager to read more from her.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker: At the turn of the twentieth century, the Golem is brought to life on a steamship traveling from Prussia to America, but her master soon dies, leaving her without the purpose she was created for. In New York City's Little Syria, the Jinni is released from a flask after a thousand years of confinement and is horrified to discover he's now trapped in human form. Both the Golem and the Jinni are newcomers not only to bustling New York but to the odd world of humanity. They're each fortunate to find sympathetic humans willing to help conceal their supernatural identities, and they've started becoming part of the community in their own enclaves of the city by the time they meet each other.

I love this premise, and Wecker develops it marvelously. The Golem and the Jinni are wonderful, complicated protagonists faced with sympathetically human problems as well as unique issues arising from their situations and powers. Wecker uses her storytelling talents to also spin out fascinating backstories and conflicts for a surprising number of other characters, which adds more layers to the historical and cultural settings and enriches the plot. As the pieces of the story converge, the danger and suspense grows, and the way everything connects at the end is exciting and satisfying. I'm looking forward to spending more time with the characters in the sequel, expected next year.

STAY WITH ME by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: After years of marriage, Yejide has not become pregnant. Interfering family members decide the only solution is for her husband, Akin, to take a second wife, though the two of them agreed at the start of their relationship that they weren't interested in polygamy. Yejide turns to solutions of her own, seeking out a mystic who promises to work miracles. To her delight, she becomes pregnant immediately, but Akin isn't pleased to hear the news, and nobody else reacts as she expects, either. The road to a happy outcome is long and confusing, and there's far more sadness in store for Yejide and Akin as the years pass.

I found this novel very compelling, but it wasn't anything like I expected, which only made it more interesting. Though the introduction of a second wife sets the events in motion, a fairly small portion of the plot involves the two women dealing with each other. This is mainly Yejide and Akin's story, and it careens through surprising plot developments and shocking reveals. It's a horrifically sad story much of the time, though there is joy and humor mixed in with the tragedy. I felt great sympathy for these characters, who are also wonderfully frustrating people. I'm looking forward to more from Adébáyọ̀.

August 31, 2018

The Steady Plod

It's been ages since I posted a revision update (or since I posted much of anything beyond book reviews). The thing about getting a novel into really good shape is that it takes a long time, and the thing about long-term projects is that there's a lot of same old, same old. I can report I'm in a good stretch of sitting down to write and making progress every day, but there will be far more of that before I reach the finish line.

Writing, like most work, is a daily plod that involves doing more or less the same thing over and over again. Those are the ideal conditions, really. Aside from when I occasionally reach a noteworthy milestone, the writing days that look different are the ones where I struggle to eke out more than a paragraph or rage against the corner I've written myself into. I'm good with the more common state of plodding unremarkably forward.

Plodding along means I pass minor milestones all the time, and I pat myself on the back whenever I nail down a scene, get through a chapter, or just craft a particularly nice phrase. Sometimes I even feel like crowing publicly. The other day I tweeted my triumph over coming up with a little moment to insert that really tied a scene together. I no longer recall what detail I was talking about, but the satisfied feeling remains.

So, while it doesn't look like much from the outside, I'm still revising, I'm still happy with what I'm producing, and I'm still here, keeping my pace to a steady plod.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes at The Millions about the evolution of her author name: "Leaving Korea, I also left Myung-Ok behind. Nobody in America called me that. I became Marie again and didn't think about it until, ironically, my Fulbright novel--many years later--was acquired by a publisher. Ever since I'd started publishing, I'd had a sporadic problem of another Marie Lee, a white writer whose Cape Cod Skull Mystery series was quite popular, judging from the fan mail she received, i.e., the fan mail I received."

July 11, 2018

June Reading Recap

Another month, another batch of books to report on!

→ The first chapter of THERE THERE by Tommy Orange introduces us to Tony, who's grown up riding his bike around Oakland, listening to his grandmother's stories of their Cheyenne history, and getting angry about people thinking he's stupid. Tony is recruited into a scheme to rob the Oakland powwow with 3-D printed guns, and that threat hangs over the rest of the novel as we meet other characters on a trajectory toward the powwow. Dene, a filmmaker, is applying for a grant to document the Urban Indian experience, with plans to set up a story booth at the big event. Opal, who was part of the Native occupation of Alcatraz as a child, is now raising the grandsons of her estranged sister and doesn't have time to talk to them about their heritage. The oldest grandson, Orvil, is secretly practicing to dance at the powwow and compete for the prize money that Tony and his associates plan to steal.

These are only a few of the dozen viewpoint characters whose lives entwine in THERE THERE, and Orange gives each of these lives a full and vivid portrayal in impressively few pages. I would happily have read many more chapters about every character, but Orange keeps the story tight, setting up all the players and pieces and building suspense about the approaching powwow. The final section of the novel is a breakneck, heartbreaking account of the inevitable violence that explodes at the point where the characters converge. While I wished for a conclusion that tied up more threads or followed them further, the book's ending was as emotionally effective as all that came before.

WHERE YOU'LL FIND ME: RISK, DECISIONS, AND THE LAST CLIMB OF KATE MATROSOVA by Ty Gagne is the gripping account of a solo mountaineering expedition that went fatally wrong. In February 2015, experienced climber Kate Matrosova activated her emergency beacon in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She'd started hiking before dawn, planning to summit several peaks before the end of the day, but she was unaware that a forecasted storm was hitting sooner than expected. The storm brought extreme wind and cold, notable even for the region, creating many obstacles for the search and rescue teams who responded to Matrosova's distress call and ultimately recovered her body.

Gagne, a risk management consultant and wilderness first responder, pieces together all available information to detail the whereabouts and actions of Matrosova and the rescuers throughout the ordeal. He tells the story in compelling prose that makes this a page-turning and even suspenseful read despite the known outcome. I found the discussion of decision-making and risk-assessment techniques a bit drier than the rest of the material, but it was interesting to have the events filtered through that very relevant perspective. This is a fascinating book, researched and written with care and compassion.

GIRLCHILD by Tupelo Hassman is a darker story than the jacket copy suggests. Rory lives in a trailer park outside Reno with her mother and grandmother, and while these two strong, protective women are distracted by their own problems, Rory is traumatized by ongoing sexual abuse. She's so terrified to speak of it that her narrative initially talks around the subject, and the book even includes some blacked-out pages before Rory's mother and grandmother finally realize what's happening. In time, with their help and some inspiration from the Girl Scout Handbook, Rory is able to move forward and imagine growing up and away from the hard life of the trailer park.

This novel is made up of short vignettes and documentation from Rory's life that jump around in topic and time. The fragmented format works pretty well to depict Rory's painful memories, but some of the more unusual pieces didn't do as much for me as her straightforward narration. Rory's voice and idiosyncratic observations are great, with a darkly humorous outlook that pulls her and the story out of the most difficult periods and makes this ultimately a hopeful book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund explains the problem with "Show, don't tell": "I'll gladly scrap 'Show, don't tell,' for another rule: Put the reader there. Whether you show or tell them something, the goal should be to make the reader feel what you're writing. Make them cry, laugh, or think."

June 8, 2018

May Reading Recap

I had a wonderful reading month in May, with these three excellent books:

AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz: Jack is a pirate, using her bioengineering expertise to copy patented pharmaceuticals and roaming the Arctic Sea in her stealth submarine. She sells recreational drugs at a lower cost than the corporations to fund the distribution of life-saving medications. When one of her drugs starts producing lethal side effects, Jack fears she's made an error in the reverse engineering, but the problem is in the original, and the company behind it will do anything to cover this up. One of the agents chasing after Jack is Paladin, a military robot on his first assignment. Paladin is programmed with a desire to learn everything he can about the mission and to protect his human partner at all costs. The more he discovers about himself and humans, the more he becomes conscious of interests and desires that go beyond the scope of fulfilling his duties.

I had a great time following these main characters, as well as the secondary ones who gain prominence as the story progresses. I especially enjoyed being inside Paladin's head and experiencing how he processes the world and interacts with humans and other bots. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in the future Newitz has created, both promising technological developments and alarming societal constructs. We meet humans and bots who are indentured to masters, working toward the hope of legal autonomy, and Newitz explores ideas of ownership and freedom as the plot and characters develop. This is a thrilling story, packed with danger, science, passion, and complicated relationships. I've been eagerly recommending it to everyone I talk to.

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam: Rebecca gives birth to her first child and is helped through the difficult early days by Priscilla, a lactation consultant at the hospital. Rebecca feels a friendship growing and then hires Priscilla as a nanny, changing the dynamic of their developing relationship. Rebecca is white and Priscilla is black, and their differences in race, class, and life experience, along with Rebecca's many assumptions, further complicate the situation. After a tragedy strikes, the lives of Rebecca's and Priscilla's families become entwined permanently, though often uneasily. Rebecca has worried about falling short at parenting, and she finds herself in a position to prove to herself and the world that she's truly a good mother.

This novel gripped me from the start with its intimate narrative voice. Throughout, I appreciated how carefully Alam depicts the nuances of each interaction between his well-drawn characters. He pokes at all the uncomfortable spots in Rebecca's unexamined privilege, and while she does learn and grow with time, there's no easy transformation. The book covers so much ground that's fascinating to explore, from broad issues like transracial adoption to more specific ones like feeling strongly connected to someone while also not knowing much about them. Alam is a great writer and portrayer of characters, and this novel offers plenty to think about and discuss.

HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL by Alexander Chee is not a literal how-to guide, but in this collection of essays, Chee explores the how of his own evolution toward maturity, as a writer and as a person. He approaches every subject with impressive honesty and careful consideration, whether he's recounting his activism in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic, describing the rose garden he cultivated in Brooklyn, or grappling with memories of sexual abuse. Chee is not only a compelling storyteller but a crafter of sharp and vivid sentences, a talent he reveals took him years to hone.

Writing is the main focus of several essays. In "The Writing Life", Chee reflects on the class he took with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan, and the essay encapsulates her lessons on writing. "The Autobiography of My Novel" details the long process of finding the structure and focus of his debut novel, EDINBURGH. More than one piece looks at the financial realities of writing, and Chee explains the periods when he had and didn't have money with the frankness he exhibits throughout the collection. I recommend this book to writers especially, but also to anyone who's been moved by a powerful personal essay.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Literary Hub, Emily Temple compiles advice from 31 authors on whether you should write what you know: "[Ursula K. Le Guin]: I think it's a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it's my duty to testify about them."