December 20, 2013

End-of-the-Year Book Catchup

Before 2013 comes to a close, I wanted to catch up on book reviews, so I'm leaving you with my impressions of three books that have nothing in common except that I read them recently:

BLOOD, MARRIAGE, WINE AND GLITTER is S. Bear Bergman's third collection of personal essays, and like the first two, it offers a look at what's currently occupying his life and mind. These days, as the father of a preschooler, Bergman is thinking a lot about family, and the beautiful essays in this book tell all kinds of stories that celebrate all kinds of families. Bergman's perspective on family life is shaped by his experience with being trans, Jewish, an activist, and a hopeless romantic, but the essays address the universal experience of being a part of, and creating, a family.

These essays felt even more personal to me because Bear is a dear friend who I've known since I was 14 years old. I even had the odd and delightful experience of finding an appearance by my own family in the book, specifically the dogs of my childhood. The writing is tender and funny and brought tears to my eyes multiple times, and I think any reader will have the same moving experience.

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See portrays what it was like to be a woman in nineteenth century China, and what it was like was not especially pleasant. The narrator, Lily, looks back at her life from an advanced age and recounts her story, a series of mostly painful events starting from her footbinding, an even more horrifying process than you probably imagined. This tradition is described with graphic thoroughness, and all the customs of life in that time and place are presented in careful detail. As with much historical fiction, quite a bit of time is spent explaining day-to-day life, but it's engrossing because it's so unfamiliar.

Lily grows up, is placed in an arranged marriage, and spends most of her life confined to upstairs women's rooms, all according to custom. What sets Lily apart from many other girls -- and what brings her great joy for much of her life -- is that she is selected to be matched with a laotong or "old same", a girl of the same age who is slated to become her lifelong best friend through a tradition not unlike marriage. Lily's relationship with her laotong, Snow Flower, is the focus of the story, and we learn right from the start that this too will end in pain.

I found all the period details fascinating, and the story was absorbing, though often troubling to read. Toward the end, the plot fell somewhat flat for me, but I still recommend this book to any interested reader.

→ In PALIMPSEST by Catherynne M. Valente, four strangers from our world meet in a fantastical city that first appears to them as a dream. Upon waking, the characters find their bodies marked with tattoo-like maps that depict a portion of the city, and they each have a longing to return. Gradually, the protagonists learn that the way back to Palimpsest is through having sex with others who share the mark. The novel follows the characters on their separate, often brutal, journeys in both worlds until eventually their paths converge.

The premise of a a world that requires sex as the gateway is an intriguing one, and the story does a pretty good job of exploring the problems this creates. The four main characters are well developed, each with a distinct motivation and set of obstacles that colors their attitude toward Palimpsest. They also each have a passion -- bookbinding, beekeeping, locksmithing, and trains -- and I enjoyed the discussions of these topics. I wasn't completely satisfied with the plot or the style of the novel, but overall it was an entertaining read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Moira Redmond at the Guardian Books Blog has a roundup of undergarments in literature: "There's never much mention of male underwear in literature, although the hideous Lady Montdore in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate tells a young engaged woman: 'don't go wasting your money on underclothes ... I always borrow [her husband] Montdore's myself'."

December 17, 2013

Starting Philip K. Dick

Next up in my START HERE project is Philip K. Dick, another author I've long intended to try. The reading pathway for Dick, written by Steve Randolph, is more loosely structured than the previous ones. I chose two of the recommended novels to serve as my introduction to Dick's massive catalog.

→ I began with EYE IN THE SKY, which I would not actually recommend as a starting point, because it was only so-so.

The book opens with an accident at a particle accelerator that causes a tour group to fall into the beam. Despite the science-y premise, everything else that happens is more fantastical and absurd. When the accident victims regain consciousness, they find the world has changed in ways that are either terrible or terrific, depending on which character you ask. As the strange new world becomes more menacing, the characters have to figure out what's going on and how they can get back to the world they know.

I liked some of the plot ideas, though others didn't do much for me. The book is definitely more focused on plot than character -- the people in the story are fairly one-dimensional, and their actions often didn't make a ton of sense. It was a quick and reasonably entertaining read, but dated in both style and content.

→ I found THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE to be a far more interesting and better executed book. It's not flawless, and it's also very much a product of its time (it was published in 1962), but I do recommend it.

In this alternate history, Germany and Japan were the winners of World War II and divided up the United States. Most of the novel takes place in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America (the west coast), a relatively benevolent occupation in which whites have second-class status but are still mostly allowed to carry on with their lives and livelihoods. Things are less pleasant for non-Germans in the Nazi-controlled east.

The plot follows a number of characters of different backgrounds who are dealing with situations both political and personal. As the text jumps between the characters and we find out how their problems are interconnected, we get a good sense of how this world operates. I appreciated the way that the premise and facts of the world are revealed gradually, without ever requiring big chunks of exposition. On the other hand, I could have done without some of the large chunks of philosophy and social commentary.

On the whole, I found the story engrossing and the setting well-developed. I was dissatisfied by how the plot resolved, but that may have been because I'd been led to expect something else. After I read Matt Ruff's THE MIRAGE last year, I saw many reviews comparing it to this book. The two novels have parallels, but the stories are quite different.

What other Dick novels or stories should I read or avoid? I've bought THE PHILIP K. DICK READER, a collection of his short stories, and I intend to dip into it soon.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the New York Times' Opinionator, Marie Myung-Ok Lee argues that the Internet is a welcome distraction: "While I still have epiphanic moments while staring out my window like a proper author, or am inspired by a long article in the New York Review of Books, I am just as often prompted by a random bit I've gleaned on a friend's Twitter feed as it speeds by, or the latest ha-ha list from BuzzFeed."

December 12, 2013

Life After Revision

I've had some questions about what I've been doing with myself after finally, finally reaching the end of revision. Now that all those years and drafts have resulted in a novel I'm really satisfied with, I'm occupied with a few different things:

Getting started on the querying process. I'm not going to be blogging about the details of my specific query-related activities, but I assure you that things are happening. The basic idea of the process is that an author sends a query letter (generally email at this point) to a literary agent, briefly describing her book and why this particular agent might be interested. The agent reads the query and potentially some sample pages, and if she is in fact interested, she requests the manuscript. Then when an agent and a book love each other very, very much... No, maybe that's something else. Anyway, connecting with an agent can be a lengthy undertaking, and it involves a lot of waiting, but I'm glad to be on the journey at last.

Chilling out. Hey, I've earned it, right? The end-of-the-year timing worked out nicely in that I feel quite comfortable about not getting started on any new writing projects until all the holidays are over with. I have a big list of random stuff to get done this month, and I'm gradually checking things off, but I'm also not getting too stressed about not being all that productive.

Reading. A large component of the chilling out has been compensating for all the reading I didn't have time for in November while I was so focused on revision. Last week I finished three books that I'd started weeks earlier, and there are a bunch more I want to read in the rest of this month. Several book-related posts are in the works.

Miscellaneous and sundry. Some of this has been boring real life tasks such as reporting for jury duty (I didn't get to do anything except sit in a waiting room for an hour) and having my teeth cleaned (no cavities). But I've also done some far more fun things, including offering feedback on a friend's story and shopping for books for my nephews.

Not revising. It's really kind of weird. I basically spend all day going, "Okay, wait, it's all right that I'm not working on my novel right now." I can't quite get myself to believe that I'm not procrastinating. I'll be happy to resume writing in January so that I can get back to avoiding it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Instead of releasing best-of lists this year, the NPR staff put together NPR's Book Concierge, a neat way to browse through 2013's great reads.

December 5, 2013

Starting Italo Calvino

I'm still gradually continuing through my START HERE project, and I was pleased that it gave me the push to finally read Italo Calvino, whose work I've long been curious about. I read and was delighted by two of the books on the reading pathway by Kit Steinkellner. I also tried a third and found it not to my taste, so I remain intrigued about Calvino's very wide range of styles.

IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER is a strange, meta novel from the opening sentence: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler." The first chapter introduces you, the reader, who buys the book and prepares to read. The second chapter is the purported first chapter of that book, but the following chapter returns to the reader, who discovers that due to a printing error, the rest of the book is missing. You go back to the store for a new copy and start reading that, but it turns out to be an entirely different story. Once again, just as it starts to get exciting, the text stops.

The novel proceeds in this fashion, with a series of unrelated first chapters that break off right as things become interesting, alternating with the story of the reader's increasingly bizarre quest to track down the continuations of the books. This may not sound as though it would make for a readable novel, and it's definitely a weird experience, but I found it compelling enough that I read the whole book in 48 hours. The story of the reader protagonist is fun and clever, the varied first chapters are intriguing, and throughout the novel are many great musings on books and reading.

COSMICOMICS is a collection of short stories all featuring the same narrator, though one who was present in an unspecified form at the birth of the universe as well as later living a more recognizable human life on Earth (some of that while the moon was close enough to be reached by a ladder). Also he was a dinosaur for a while: "about fifty million years, I'd say, and I don't regret it." Oh, and our narrator is named Qfwfq, which is typical of the character names in the book.

All of that might start to give you an idea of what these stories are like, but some of them are weirder than that. I liked this collection very much, but it's not going to be for everyone. Most of the stories have a connection to some real astronomical phenomenon, but portrayed in an absurd, tall-tale sort of way, so the ideal reader will be both interested in science and willing to see plausibility thrown out the window.

Many of these stories concern love (including one about Qfwfq's time as a mollusk), often with a love triangle or unrequited yearning. Long-standing rivalries are another common theme, which is perhaps to be expected among characters with infinite lives. This is quite a funny collection in its idiosyncratic way, although at moments it becomes serious. I was especially amused by two stories that are probably my favorites: In "The Light-Years", Qfwfq is seized with paranoia when he discovers that galaxies millions of light-years away are observing the actions he took millions of years in the past, and judging him for them. "How Much Shall We Bet?" involves some extremely long-term gambling. If these stories tickle you as well, I recommend the whole collection.

→ Before turning to COSMICOMICS, I started reading INVISIBLE CITIES, but I could quickly see it wasn't going to be for me, and I stopped after only about 20 pages. The book consists of short descriptions of cities, as told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. The descriptions are more poetic and metaphorical than informational, and there didn't appear to be any plot to it at all, and none of that appealed to me. Lots of other people love the book, though, and if that includes you and you think I'm missing something, I'd be interested to hear about it and maybe give it another chance.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ben Blatt at Slate performs a textual analysis of the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter series to find the most commonly used adjectives, adverbs, and sentences.