December 22, 2014

Another End-of-the-Year Book Catchup

There's no theme to this set of reviews, other than that they're the ones I have left to post as the year winds down:

THE AMADO WOMEN by Désirée Zamorano is a story about a family coping with secrets and resentments, which is right up my fictional alley.

Mercy Amado is pleased about celebrating her sixtieth birthday with her three grown daughters, but she's concerned that none of her girls are as happy in their lives, or with each other, as they might be. And Mercy doesn't even know about the worst of the problems. The narrative rotates among the four Amado women as they face challenges and heartbreak that sometimes bring them together as a family and sometimes drive them apart.

The novel features strong, complex characters who often act against their own best interests, which makes for great dramatic fodder. There's a lot of tragedy and upsetting subject matter in this story, but enough hope to leave readers feeling uplifted. I found this book useful in thinking about my own writing, which covers some similar themes.

SELF-HELP by Lorrie Moore: In keeping with the title, most of the stories in this collection are framed as a set of instructions, though the way this premise plays out in the narrative differs between stories. For example, "How" tells the story of a troubled relationship (as so many of these stories do) by directing the reader through a series of steps, some of which include options:

Somehow--in a restaurant or a store--meet an actor. From Vassar or Yale. He can quote Coriolanus's mother. This will seem good. Sleep with him once and ride home at 5 a.m. crying in a taxicab. Or: don't sleep with him. Kiss him good night at Union Square and run for your life.

Not every story in the collection appealed to me, but I love Moore's writing style, which is conversational and clever, full of wordplay, jokes, and unusual but apt descriptions. Like this paragraph:

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.

That's from "How to Be an Other Woman", the first story in the collection and the one I liked best. As the title suggests, the plot is generic, every mistress's story, but the specificity of the character and her thoughts makes the story gripping, and often wryly funny.

December 17, 2014

Silicon Valley Novels

I live in Silicon Valley, so I always like finding a book that uses this area as a setting. I've even written one myself. (Incidentally, a real conversation I once had with a San Franciscan: "It's set in San Jose." "Why???") This fall, I read (and reread) a few Silicon Valley novels:

THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING by Shelly King: After years at Silicon Valley startups, Maggie has been laid off (again), and she's spending her days at a Mountain View used bookstore instead of looking for a new job. At the store, she finds a tattered copy of LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER containing a series of romantic notes that two strangers once left for each other. Maggie's fascination with the mysterious lovers sets off a string of events, and soon she has both a job and a romance of her own. Neither of these are quite what she expected, or what she wanted, and they turn out to be not quite what they seem.

This is a sweet, funny story about books and love and love of books. I was charmed by Maggie's first person narration and the entertaining cast of characters. I enjoyed the gentle satire of Silicon Valley culture, and it was fun to imagine the fictional businesses along Mountain View's real Castro Street. While the story dragged for me a bit in the middle, I got caught up in the story again once the plot started delivering its many surprises.

MICROSERFS by Douglas Coupland, written and set in the mid 1990s, is about a group of Microsoft employees who quit, move to Silicon Valley, and start a company of their own. I first read (and loved) it in 1997, shortly after moving to Silicon Valley myself, so rereading it was strongly nostalgic of both the era and my younger self. This time around, I wondered how many of the now-familiar technical and cultural references were meaningless to me back then.

MICROSERFS is great as a depiction of 90s geek culture and as a portrait of an engaging group of friends. The story is presented as a series of journal entries, a format that is somewhat limiting and leads to the inclusion of various boring details during the lulls when nothing's happening in the narrator's life. In general, it's not a plot-heavy book -- that synopsis I gave in the first sentence is pretty much the story -- but I was happy just spending time with the characters. So despite the weaknesses in the narrative, I enjoyed the reread, and I remain a fan of the way this book captures a time and place.

THE BUG by Ellen Ullman is about the quest to track down and fix a software bug, and I've never read another piece of fiction that makes authentic programming details such an integral part of the plot. If you're tickled by the idea of "kill -9" as a plot point, you'll like this book. But if you don't know what this means, don't worry, because all is entertainingly explained within the text, and the story is about so much more than a bug.

The setting is the mid 1980s, during the early days of graphical user interfaces. A software tester who wanted to be a linguistics professor discovers a bug that can't be replicated. She passes a report to the engineer responsible for the front end, and he tries to ignore the problem, the same way he's ignoring his girlfriend and the increasing distance in their relationship. In time, the bug reappears, but it remains elusive, unable to be captured or corrected, and it gradually wreaks havoc on the lives of these two characters.

I admire the way Ullman digs into the depths of both code and human behavior to tell this story. The strong and careful plotting make this is a suspenseful and fascinating read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Ploughshares, Amy Jo Burns offers five aphorisms to consider when revising: "Don't simplify the complex: Real life has no saints or sinners, only humans who are capable of selfless and selfish acts."

December 12, 2014

Continuations of Series

Recently I read on in several book series that I'd started earlier this year. I completed a trilogy, read the new second book in a trilogy-in-progress, and finished a duology:

→ The Last Policeman series by Ben H. Winters follows a New Hampshire detective who's determined to keep solving crimes even though life as we know it is about to be destroyed by an asteroid strike. As that premise might suggest, it's kind of a page-turner, so I'm glad I waited to read the first book until all installments of the trilogy were published. I read and loved THE LAST POLICEMAN in September and then rationed out the other two books over the next two months. They're all fantastic.

I was delighted to find COUNTDOWN CITY as excellent as the first book. In less than three months, the asteroid will strike, and the situation is growing more and more apocalyptic. Southern New Hampshire now lacks electricity -- and coffee! Henry Palace would like to continue solving crimes, but he no longer has the resources or the authority. Still, he takes on a missing persons case, and in the course of the investigation, he has to enlist the help of his sister and get mixed up in her wild conspiracy theories.

The premise of the series is what attracted me, but the great characters and narrative voice have me hooked. I like the way everyone in this story is real and flawed. I also like that while the mysteries are eventually solved, it doesn't happen cleanly: Henry makes mistakes and gets things wrong in the process.

I was almost too nervous to start WORLD OF TROUBLE, because as much as I wanted to know how the story resolved, I was afraid of how the story would resolve. I won't say much about this book so as not to give anything away, but it was a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

The asteroid is fast approaching, and the situation is beyond desperate, but Henry Palace is determined to solve one final case. The search takes him into new territory, where he encounters people who are taking a variety of tactics as they face the end of the world.

Every chapter of this book is agonizing and surprising. While there are still moments of levity, the overall tone is appropriately more intense than in the first two books. Henry, along with the rest of the world, is under a lot of strain, but he remains the single-minded and honorable policeman I've grown so fond of.

→ Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series begins with ANCILLARY JUSTICE, which I recommended in June. The epic work of science fiction came out last year and won all the awards. This fall's new installment, ANCILLARY SWORD, is another accomplished novel, and I liked it even better than the first book.

December 4, 2014

Captain Bandorf's Treasure

The next piece of my childhood writing that I'd like to share is an important work entitled "Captain Bandorf's Treasure". The significance of this item is evident in the story's binding (the "two-staple" method common to the era), the full-color, laminated cover, and the illuminated letter at the start of the first sentence. These lavish features suggest there was at least one earlier draft of the manuscript, but alas, prior versions are no longer extant. While the work is undated, the artifact is believed to have originated in the fourth grade, making it contemporary with the previous entries. For the time period, this is a lengthy story, filling eight pages (four double-sided sheets).

As a qualifier to the number of pages, I think it's time to address the absurdly large paragraph indents, which can also be seen in photos of the Flutterina story. These empty spaces stretch from a third to half of the way across the line, often increasing over the course of a story. I recall that there was a rule about how many fingers to place on the paper as a guideline for indentation. Either the number stipulated was excessive, or I had really large fingers as a child.

Anyway, please enjoy the exciting quest for Captain Bandorf's Treasure. After the stunning conclusion, I'll offer some comments on the story.

November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Over the past three weeks, I read Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy for the first time. I had watched the first two movies when they came out, and the more interesting second one made me curious enough about the world and characters that I decided I'd read the books before the next movie. I almost waited too long to carry out this plan, but I finally took the time to read this series, and I'm not sorry.

→ Presumably you know the premise of THE HUNGER GAMES: In a dystopian future, teenagers are forced to fight to the death in a televised spectacle intended to remind the people of the oppressed districts that they are powerless against the evil Capitol. I'm unconvinced that this is a logical tool to prevent rebellion (and it proves not to be), but okay, it's the premise of the series, so I'll roll with it.

When her beloved younger sister is selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss makes the deadly choice to volunteer in her place. Katniss is thrust into the spotlight of the Capitol and then into the horror of the arena, where her only hope of survival is to kill or outlast the rest of the participants, many far stronger and better equipped. Throughout this ordeal, Katniss struggles with anger at the Capitol and her situation, guilt and depression over what she must do, and constant fear.

The strength of Katniss's first person narration is what elevates this from a kind of ridiculous story to something truly gripping. The experience of being inside Katniss's head is a difficult one even in better circumstances, and that's handled well in presenting the horrific events that unfold. The story is excellently plotted to keep you reading, but Katniss's voice is the more impressive accomplishment (and the main element that had to be omitted from the movie adaptation).

→ At the start of CATCHING FIRE, Katniss has survived the Hunger Games, so she ought to be living a happy life of wealth and safety. Instead, the memories and consequences of her time in the arena plague her. And even worse, the choices she made to win the Games have angered the Capitol and put everyone she loves in danger. There are reports of rebellion in the districts, and it seems Katniss has unintentionally become a hero of the revolution.

I found this a more interesting and nuanced story than the first book, which focuses mostly on the action of the Games. This book still had plenty of action, but the rumors and realities of the uprising are the more important element of the plot and appealed more to my reading tastes. We remain in Katniss's viewpoint, and it's as well-developed as ever. Since she's both concerned with the wider world and unable to learn what's happening there, it adds tension and mystery to the perspective.

→ In MOCKINGJAY, the districts are in full revolt against the Capitol, and Katniss is being forced into the role of leader. It's not that she doesn't believe in the cause, but she's already been through so much and continues to suffer from the trauma of the arena. All she wants to do now is hide under the covers. Reluctantly, she becomes the public face of the rebellion, but she fears this is only making the situation worse for the people she loves.

I liked that the revolution is presented as a complex, morally ambiguous situation, not a simple question of good and evil. This leads to an interesting range of conflicts for Katniss, both with others and in her own mind. I also enjoyed that after two books spent mostly in the wilderness or in Katniss's poverty-stricken district, this one presents a high-tech setting that gave the story more of a science fiction feel. While much of the story was compelling, I grew frustrated by the plot as it got closer to the end, and ultimately, I didn't like this book as much as the second one.

While I didn't adore this series, I found it worthwhile to read. Collins is a solid writer, and though I have some complaints about the books, I feel they've earned their success.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrea Blythe visits the Tate Modern and ponders what makes a story a story: "For example, in taking a note from minimalist art, could I put a single word on a page and call it a novel, in the same way an artist can take a single color and fill a canvas and it's a painting?"

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard considers the imaginary worlds that budding storytellers construct: "Like Martin Wilson, I created an imaginary tennis tournament with fictional players and results. I also had imaginary schools full of fictional students (for which I even created yearbooks), imaginary towns (for which I drew maps and created directories), and my own imaginary soap opera for which I outlined ten years' worth of episodes."

November 12, 2014

The Adventures of Flutterina

We've all been enjoying the investigation of my childhood writing, so how about another installment?

My fourth grade class did a ton of creative writing under the guidance of the aforementioned wonderful Mrs. Martin. It appears that all my short stories and personal essays from that era were saved, so there's an abundance of material to sort through. I'll choose the "best" of these cursive masterpieces to share.

Longtime fans of my early work may remember the Flutterina series. Flutterina is a mischievous, adventure-loving fairy who lives in the enchanted forest and gets up to hijinks with her friends, Sparkle and Flower. That's the premise established in the opening paragraphs of the original story, but the adventure that follows is pretty tame due to a pacing problem:

November 6, 2014

An Early Poetry Collection

Last week I introduced a new series of posts presenting some of my earliest writing. The response to the first entry, in which I took a critical look at a story called "The Craziest Rainbow", was enthusiastic and perceptive. Commenters provided insightful feedback and clever ideas for improving the piece. I may or may not get right on that.

But now, more juvenilia!

I'm not a poet, and I know it. In my early years, though, I was still exploring my poetic identity, and records of this remain from several distinct periods. Today we'll look at a small collection of poetry I wrote circa fourth grade, in a little heart-covered book:

October 29, 2014

The Craziest Rainbow

As I explained earlier this month, I've lacked blogging inspiration lately, so it's been mostly book reviews. I don't know about you, but I'm getting kind of bored with that, so I thought this was a good opportunity to start up a new feature I've considered for a long time. I can guarantee this series will be highly self-indulgent, and if we're all lucky, it will also be somewhat entertaining.

Ever since I was a small child, I've fancied myself a writer. Thanks to diligent parental hoarding, many of my early creative efforts have been preserved, and I'd like to share some of these stories and poems with you. The first piece of juvenilia dates from second grade, which I believe makes it my earliest surviving work:

October 17, 2014

Fit to Print

It's well into October (in case you haven't noticed), which means that the bulk of the year is over. The most substantial thing I've accomplished in 2014 to this point is that I've read a lot of books. I've done some other stuff too, of course, but most of that remains stalled in a state of incompletion.

Reading books is great. You start at the first page, you move forward through the (hopefully wonderful) story, and then you get to the end, and it's over. Maybe you're sorry it's over, maybe you're a little bit relieved, but in any case, the book is done. You've had the experience of reading it, you get to add it to your list, and you can tell other people what you thought of it.

This is why all my posts for the past few months have been about books I've read. Reviews are a nice concrete chunk of prose representing a specific accomplishment that I know how to tell the world about. While I sometimes struggle to accurately (and diplomatically) express my opinions of the books, these are feelings I'm comfortable sharing.

The rest is trickier. I am still making gradual progress toward the new novel. I'm still actively seeking an agent for the completed novel. I'm always contemplating what other sorts of things I could write, or should write, or might do with myself and my time. It's all kind of vague.

I had hoped my accomplishments would be more thrilling by this point in the year. Any day now, I could have exciting new things to post about, and in the meantime I'm going to work on coming up with a bit of variety, even if it's not too new or too exciting. But when all else fails, it's a comfort to know that there are always more books to read and discuss.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Edan Lepucki studies the metaphors in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: "Throughout the novel, Offred continually turns her body into something other than a body in this way. At the same time, she also regularly personifies objects. In this passage, for example, while she is a piece of a toast, the ceiling has a 'blind plaster eye' and the moon shines on 'the breast of the new-fallen snow.' In Offred's imagination, everything is turned on its head, or given one." (Thanks, The Millions!)

October 10, 2014

Station Eleven

I'm fascinated by apocalypses, and I'm not the only one, so there's always more fiction out there to satisfy my horrified curiosity about what would happen if civilization broke down for one reason or another. I go into these stories with high hopes, but I'm often disappointed, because I usually find something lacking, whether in the premise or the characters or the plot. So I was very excited when STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel not only lived up to my expectations, but earned a spot as one of my favorite books of the year.

The story opens in a Toronto theater, during a production of King Lear, as the lead actor has a heart attack in the middle of a scene. This ominous event introduces us to the characters we'll be following into a world that is just about to change completely. Hospitals are already filling with patients sick from a deadly and highly contagious flu. Soon, very few people will be left alive.

After the opening section, the narrative jumps ahead many years. Life in the wake of the pandemic is both simpler and more difficult. A troupe of actors and musicians travel the coast of Lake Michigan, bringing Shakespeare to settlements of survivors. One of these performers acted in King Lear as a child, right before the collapse. She remembers the kind man who died onstage, but she doesn't remember much else of the time before, or from the terrifying first year.

Fortunately, as readers, we get to know more than any of the characters, and we gradually learn about several different experiences of the immediate aftermath. The story's carefully presented time shifts reveal the connections between a web of fascinating characters who were once part of one another's lives, if only briefly. With this structure, Mandel portrays the intimate, emotional stories of each character while also exploring the broad effects of a worldwide catastrophe.

This is a gripping novel, full of well-developed characters, intriguing mysteries, excellent world-building, and strong writing. At times it's heartbreaking, at times it's amusing, and at every point, it's engrossing. Mandel has three earlier books, and I'm eager to read them all, because she can definitely tell a story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the NaNoWriMo blog, Crystal Chan offers suggestions on How to Write About What You Don't Know: "Take a deep breath, because a heavy dose of research--and humility--will be involved. You can't just conjecture because you'll do so using your own frame of reference. Writing about what you don't know explicitly means that you can't rely on your own experiences. You have to do so much research that this new material becomes what you know."

September 30, 2014

Summer Reading Bingo Recap

Now that I've caught up on posting about all my summer reads, it's time to see how I did on the summer reading bingo challenge. For this fun project, created by the hosts of the podcast Books on the Nightstand, I generated a bingo card with a random set of book categories, and then I organized most of my summer reading around filling in as many squares as possible.

I ended up covering 17 out of 25 squares, representing 16 books and a film (the free square). Some of these were books I would have read this summer anyway. But many of the bingo squares inspired me to pick up books that I theoretically wanted to read someday but kept not getting around to. I enjoy undertaking periodic reading challenges because they provide that push to expand and mix up my reading, and I'm pleased with how this one worked out for me.

Here's a look at my finished card, followed by a list of all the completed categories and books, with links to my reviews.

September 24, 2014

Forays Into Fantasy

In this thematic installment of reviews, I look at two fantasy novels. They're very different kinds of fantasies, and I had very different reactions:

→ I'm not usually drawn to works of high fantasy, in which characters undertake epic adventures in magical worlds that tend to resemble medieval Europe. But since one of the squares on my summer reading bingo card was Fantasy, I thought I'd push myself into trying something in this particular subgenre. I chose a book I'd heard good things about, THE KILLING MOON by N.K. Jemisin, which is notable for a setting based not on Europe but on ancient Africa.

THE KILLING MOON takes place in a city where life is focused on devotion to the goddess of dreams. Priests provide all the important functions of society: educating children, healing the sick, establishing laws, and sending the faithful to dwell permanently in the land of dreams at the end of their lives. When something goes wrong as the priest Ehiru tries to gather a man's final dream tithe, he's devastated, but the unfortunate incident also raises questions. Soon Ehiru, his apprentice, and a foreign diplomat are all working to find answers and get to the bottom of a terrible corruption that threatens the city.

While Jemisin drew inspiration from the culture and geography of ancient Egypt, she's created a richly developed original world. I was frequently impressed by the intricate worldbuilding as details of the religion, magic, and daily life were revealed -- and I appreciated that these explanations never bogged down the story, which has its own complexities. The plot that unfolds is one of political intrigue, and I enjoyed following the characters on their quest to get the bottom of it.

I recommend this book to fantasy readers, or to anyone who might read more fantasy if it didn't all look so similar. THE KILLING MOON is a refreshing change.

This book is the first in a duology, though it stands on its own. I'll definitely be reading the second book, THE SHADOWED SUN.

→ I expected to like Lev Grossman's THE MAGICIANS because I've heard so many good things about the book and the trilogy as a whole. The premise has great potential, and it plays around with the tropes of popular children's fantasy series such as Narnia and Harry Potter, which sounds like a lot of fun. Grossman knows how to craft a sentence and has a sense of humor that appeals to me, and he's a book critic, which suggests a familiarity with what makes stories succeed or fall short. Alas, I found this story tedious and poorly assembled, and it was a big disappointment.

As I said, the premise is promising: Quentin likes magic tricks, and he loves the Fillory fantasy books that everyone reads as a kid. Neither of these are cool interests for a high school senior, and Quentin doesn't feel he fits in, not just at school, but in the world itself. When he's mysteriously transported to a strange college and told that magic is real, it seems like his dreams have come true, and he's finally in the place where he belongs.

Quentin's new life continues from there, mostly in long expositional passages that describe events in summary rather than letting scenes come to life. The scenes that do play out often seem random, serving no clear purpose in advancing the plot or developing the characters. I kept holding out for the possibility that it would all tie together brilliantly at the end, but instead I had the sense that the characters and the author weren't even keeping track of earlier events. For example, in one important section, Quentin uses all his magical abilities to survive in a lethally cold environment. Later, the characters spend a while in a place cold enough that they're eventually forced to leave, and there's no discussion of whether Quentin might be able to use his previous experience to solve the problem. It all frustratingly fails to add up to anything.

Late in the book, one character yells at another, "This isn't a story! It's just one fucking thing after another!", and I felt like Grossman was messing with me. Maybe the whole book is meant as a commentary on fiction and I'm failing to grasp the genius of it? I know many of my friends enjoyed this book. What am I missing? I've had the experience of appreciating a book more in retrospect once someone else explained what they loved about it, so I'm hoping that can happen in this case.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Roxane Gay pays tribute to The Books That Made Me Who I Am: "I could not limit a list of important books to a number or a neatly organized list. The list, whatever it might look like, would always be changing because I too am always changing. I am not influenced by books. Instead, I am shaped by them. I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am also made of books."

September 18, 2014

Mysterious Reads

My summer reading included a few books with mysteries at their core. This type of book is always tricky to describe, but I've been careful not to give anything away in these reviews:

→ Several of my friends have raved about THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters. I can now add my voice to the praise for this pre-apocalyptic detective story. This is a fantastic book. It's part of a trilogy that has all been released by now, and I can't decide whether to gobble up the other two books immediately or ration them out slowly.

Detective Henry Palace suspects he's identified a murder in what superficially looks like the latest in a string of suicides. The reason for the sharp uptick in suicides is that an asteroid is headed toward the planet and will strike in six months. The unavoidable collision will destroy life as we know it, so the world is already in chaos. Some people are killing themselves, some are leaving their jobs and homes to accomplish everything on their bucket lists, and others are seeking solace in conspiracy or religion. Nobody cares much about investigating a possible murder except for Detective Palace. Solving crimes is all he's ever wanted to do, and he's not going to let a looming apocalypse stop him from finding the killer.

Everything about this story is great. The writing is smart, the narrator is engaging, and humor is used effectively to lighten the dark, terrifying premise. The details of how society is reacting to the asteroid are well-considered and plausible. There's a host of memorable supporting characters, including a complicated sibling relationship, which is something I always enjoy. The book is even set in New Hampshire, where I've spent a lot of time. Have I mentioned how much I liked this book? Are you reading it yet?

DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn: When Libby was seven years old, her older brother brutally murdered all the other members of their family. As the tragic survivor of this massacre, Libby received a flood of donations that supported her through her sad childhood and into her thirties. But now the money has run out, and Libby has done nothing with her life except milk the role of the victim. Needing money, she connects with a group obsessed with high profile murder cases who will pay her to appear at their meeting. Libby learns that the group members believe her brother is innocent and was imprisoned because of her own flawed testimony. She's always avoided examining this opinion, but this time she starts investigating and discovers the past is far more complicated than she realized.

Like Flynn's breakout novel GONE GIRL, this earlier book features some very clever plotting and a constant twisting of reader expectations. I didn't like it to the extent I loved GONE GIRL, but that's a very high bar -- this is still an impressive mystery. Flynn excels not only at plot but at crafting fascinating, deeply flawed characters, and I always appreciate her perfectly worded observations and sharp insights into human nature. Recommended as long as you haven't just finished GONE GIRL and as long as you're up for a very disturbing tale.

A movie version of DARK PLACES is in production, though it has been delayed from its originally announced release date. (In the meantime, you can go see the adaptation of GONE GIRL, in theaters next month!)

→ In WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart, the Sinclair family spends their summers on a private island. The narrator, teenage Cadence Sinclair, says of her family, "Perhaps that is all you need to know." Summers on the private island are wonderful months for Cadence and her cousins. Then she has an accident, and afterwards, she doesn't quite remember what happened. The novel takes the form of a mystery in which Cadence tries to reconstruct her lost memories.

This is a book that's very hard to stop reading. Fairly early on, I figured out one of the story's secrets, so I didn't have the same mind-blown experience of many readers, but I still eagerly continued turning the pages. I didn't love the book, but I would recommend it as a fast, exciting read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Writing for The Awl, Ben Dolnick documents A Week of Watching People Read in the Subway and speculates on his findings: "Assumptions: Astra still needs to finish her summer reading (her English teacher at Friends Seminary has given everyone an extra week) but she’s been straight-up skimming for the past hundred pages."

September 15, 2014

A Collection of Collections

It happens that in the past few weeks, I read three collections of short pieces, one nonfiction and two fiction:

→ Earlier this year, Roxane Gay published her astounding first novel, and just a few months later, she released a book of essays, BAD FEMINIST. I'm not usually interested in essay collections, but I've been following Gay's online writing, both fiction and nonfiction, so I was eager to read this book. BAD FEMINIST is an excellent, thought-provoking set of essays that combine personal, political, and pop cultural topics.

Gay writes with authority and nuance about issues of gender, race, and sexual violence, and she analyzes the roles these play in the world, in entertainment, and in her own life. She acknowledges the complicated nature of these subjects and the conflicted feelings that lead to her calling herself a bad feminist. Her casual style makes these essays approachable, though some of the subject matter makes me want to shy away. There are essays in here about injustices that left me angry at the world or wanting to cry. Other pieces take a smart look at recent pop culture phenomena. Sometimes these topics are combined in the same essay. (Links are to online versions of essays that appear in the book, often in somewhat different forms.)

Gay's talent is in examining a piece of entertainment or news and using it to discuss a broader issue. In the course of the collection, she looks at television, movies, and comedy, but I especially appreciated her focus on literature. She covers the debate over unlikable characters and the categorization of women's fiction. She considers the absurd and disturbing aspects of the Fifty Shades series and reveals her obsession with Sweet Valley High. And one book review is a powerful, wrenching essay on body image that starts "I went to fat camp once."

While you can find much of the book online as separate pieces, if you like what you see in these linked essays, I recommend reading the collection as a whole. Though there's a bit of repetition, the selection and arrangement of essays works well as a book, and reading it in the entirety offers insight into Gay as a person and not simply a cultural critic. Plus, there's a great essay about her participation in the world of competitive Scrabble that you don't want to miss.

After you read this collection, you might enjoy listening to the Slate Audio Book Club discussion, particularly if you want to hear Hanna Rosin react to the essay in which Gay criticizes Rosin's book.

→ For years, my mom has been encouraging me to read the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, particularly the collection INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. I finally listened to my mother, and of course she was right. These stories are outstanding.

In the space of twenty or thirty pages, characters come alive, plots unfold and resolve, and the reader is admitted into fascinating micro-worlds. And this isn't true of just a few stories in the collection -- every one is absorbing and complete. I'm not sure what makes these stories so successful, but I'm going to be studying them carefully to try and understand what Lahiri has accomplished and figure out how to develop some of this skill in my own writing.

A number of the stories involve characters encountering cultural differences. In the title story, a tour guide in India drives around an Indian-American family, and the mutual reactions flow from distaste to fascination and back as they learn more about each other. The narrator of "The Third and Final Continent", a young man from Calcutta, adjusts to life in the U.S., and then to the arrival of the wife he barely knows. In "Mrs. Sen's", an eleven-year-old boy is looked after by a woman who is new to America and not adjusting well. All of these situations are conveyed with observant and touching detail.

September 3, 2014

Three Books With Buzz

These three novels I read recently are unlike each other, but they're all books I heard a lot about before picking up:

CALIFORNIA by Edan Lepucki was probably the buzziest novel of the summer. The debut received a huge publicity boost after Sherman Alexie recommended it on the Colbert Report (this New York Times article explains the details), and as a result, it made the NYT bestseller list the week of its release. When watching the Colbert episode, I may have squealed a little upon hearing Lepucki's name, because I've long followed her essays at The Millions and had been anticipating the book for months.

In CALIFORNIA, civilization is breaking down, and Frida and Cal have fled into the wilderness. Though life is difficult and isolated, and they are insufficiently prepared to live off the land, this seems like their best chance for survival. Two years in, they're doing pretty well. But now Frida suspects she's pregnant, and they're faced with new fears, uncertain whether they can or should bring a child into their world. They decide to seek help from the nearest community, though the settlement has a menacing reputation. Once they take this step, the story turns into a mystery as Frida and Cal discover unsettling facts about the community's past and its relationship to the world beyond the forest.

The story is a gripping one. I could rarely predict what was coming, and I was always eager to read on. Frida, Cal, and the other characters are well-developed, complicated, and flawed, and the relationships are difficult in realistic ways. For the most part, I liked the pace at which information was revealed, and I was generally impressed by the resolutions of the mysteries. There were a few elements I didn't find as effective, including the ending, but overall, this book earned my recommendation.

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came out last year, and I heard about it at the time, initially from this short but memorable NPR interview. Since then, I've encountered rave reviews of the book all over, and it seems to be read and discussed with increasing frequently as time goes on. A movie version is now in the works, so I imagine the buzz will only continue its slow build.

The novel follows Ifemelu from her childhood in Nigeria and teenage romance with Obinze to her immigration to the United States and eventual decision to return to Nigeria. Her time in the US is difficult at first and very eye-opening: Ifemelu never gave much thought to her race while living in Nigeria, but she learns that in America, being black is a significant and complicated part of one's identity. Ifemelu starts a blog about her observations as a non-American black, and as it grows in popularity, she turns blogging and speaking on this topic into a career. She has a couple of important relationships but never really stops thinking about her first love. A smaller portion of the story concerns Obinze's briefer, failed stint in England and the success he finds back in Nigeria. At the core, this is a love story about the long history of a couple, both together and apart.

There's more to the plot, but that's the bulk of it. This is primarily a novel of characters and ideas, and there's a fair amount of focus on everyday life, which is interesting to readers like myself because it's far removed from our own everyday lives. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, learning about life in Nigeria, and seeing several different immigrant trajectories. I loved Ifemelu's thoughts and blog posts about race and was glad to have my own eyes opened by her experiences. However, I would have preferred either more plot or a shorter book, because some portions of the story moved too slowly, and my interest sometimes waned.

The story doesn't proceed entirely in chronological order but jumps around in time, which is something I'm fine with in general but found not entirely effective here. It took me a while to really get into the story, and the timeline shifts were one reason. But after listening to this Guardian Book Club podcast in which Adichie spoke about her reasons for the book's structure, I can better appreciate what she was doing. This whole podcast discussion is a great extra for those who have read the book -- which I encourage, because despite some criticisms, I found this a worthwhile read.

→ When THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta was published a few years ago, I heard about it repeatedly and kept planning to read it. I finally got around to it this summer because HBO was airing a television series based on the novel, and I wanted to read before watching.

August 25, 2014

Invisible Man Is Uncomfortably Current

I started reading INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison a few days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer and protests began in Ferguson, Missouri. At first, I didn't think about the novel in the context of the real-life events unfolding. I'd simply gotten around to the book because someone mentioned recently that this year is the centennial of Ellison's birth, and it reminded me that I've been meaning to read his most famous work for ages.

But as I read on in the novel, I was also hearing more and more reports out of Ferguson about violent, racist police response to the demonstrations and the refusal to investigate an officer's shooting of an unarmed young man. I was clued in early on because I was following the right people on Twitter, but I saw that news and outrage was slow to spread elsewhere. Much of the media coverage has been biased, and a lot of public reaction suggests that because these events involve a black youth and a black community, they matter less than other news stories that Americans get worked up about.

INVISIBLE MAN, published in 1952, portrays a black man's experiences of racism, violence, and invisibility in the 1930s. During another month, I might have read it as a record of the past and rejoiced in how much progress has been made. Reading it now, though, I found that many of the later events in the story mirror what's happening in Ferguson, and the book felt sadly current.

In the novel, the unnamed narrator graduates from a southern high school at the top of his class and is rewarded with a college scholarship -- after he endures disgusting humiliation for the amusement of the town's prominent white men. Things go well for him at the black university until a strange incident with a white trustee that leaves him disillusioned. He moves to New York City, and for a while he's highly visible as a prominent activist in Harlem. The story sometimes veers into the surreal, and those parts didn't work that well for me, but for the most part, I was absorbed by the narrator's life and the often appalling series of events he experiences, which are always complicated and nuanced.

The most upsetting synchronicity with reality comes near the end of the book, when a young, unarmed black man is shot by a cop. The narrator gives a moving speech at his funeral, stating, "His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn't that enough to tell? Isn't it all you need to know?" Afterwards at a meeting of the activist organization, he says again, "He was shot because he was black and because he resisted. Mainly because he was black," and his white so-called allies criticize him for focusing on race. It all felt too familiar. I found a couple of other writers who were reminded of Tod Clifton when writing about Michael Brown. I recommend these essays by Charles Kinnaird and an anonymous teacher for their thoughts and the longer excerpts from the funeral speech.

I hope you will consider reading INVISIBLE MAN or any other book that addresses prejudice. I hope you'll talk about the shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson. I hope you're angry that events in the United States today can resemble scenes from a book about the racism of almost a century ago. It's hard for individuals to feel that any small actions can make a difference, but I believe that reading, and talking, and being angry are all important paths toward change.

August 21, 2014

Observations From the Bookstore Cafe

I'm sitting in the second-floor cafe that overlooks Books Inc. in Mountain View. I've purchased a couple of paperbacks, I've consumed an iced latte, and now I'm supposed to be doing some noveling, but I haven't been able to focus. I chose a table by the railing on purpose because I enjoy eavesdropping and spying on the people working and shopping below, and to nobody's surprise, these fun activities are distracting me from the less appealing task of accomplishing something.

The bookstore is busy, and this is on a weekday afternoon. Print is definitely not dead.

At a table nearby, there's a group of writers having an open meetup. Earlier they discussed their current projects, and they're now silently writing in solidarity. I haven't identified myself to them as another of their kind, and for some reason this amuses me.

I would like to spend all day in this store, but I don't want to be a bookseller, because that's hard work and involves being personable all day. I want a job that consists of sitting here looking down on the proceedings and reporting on my musings. Done, I guess?

I hope that brilliant writing is like heat in that it rises, and that by positioning myself above thousands of books, I'll absorb some words and inspiration.

August 20, 2014

The Giver Quartet and the Movie

I reread Lois Lowry's THE GIVER back in April because I knew it was being adapted into a movie. I initially read this dystopian kids' book soon after its 1993 release and liked it enough to read multiple times (though I was already well past the target age), so I was curious how it would stand up to my memories. After rereading and discovering that the story is still thought-provoking and affecting, I decided to check out its sequels, which I'd heard were only loosely connected to the original.

My reactions to the followup books were less enthusiastic. None of them are as powerful as THE GIVER, and fans only looking to find out what happened after that story's ambiguous ending will be disappointed by the switch to a new setting and characters. However, the sequels do get better as they go along, and the traditional sequel function also increases in that direction. It's possible to skip any of the books without becoming confused, so my recommendation for non-completists wishing to continue is to go directly to the final book.

The new movie, released last week, was another disappointment. Some critics have reviewed it well, but I'm with the majority in finding it unworthy of the source material.

Here's my take on each of the books, followed by more thoughts on the film:

THE GIVER: Life in Jonas's community is pleasant and safe. Every citizen is provided for, children are well cared for by the family units to which they are entrusted, and each twelve-year-old is assigned to a carefully chosen career that will lead to a satisfying adult life. But when Jonas receives his assignment during the Ceremony of Twelve, it's a bewildering one, and what he learns as he starts his training is even more confusing. He's never thought to ask questions about his life before, and now he's questioning everything.

This is a strong, if simple, story of a world that seems like a utopia to the inhabitants but isn't quite so perfect from a reader's perspective. It's written to be accessible to pre-teens, and so at times I would have preferred to have things less spelled out, but in general it's a pretty sophisticated story for the age group, relying on the reader to grasp the limits of Jonas's understanding. It stood up well to what I remembered, and I'd recommend it to both kids and adults.

GATHERING BLUE is also set in a far-future world, but in a completely different type of society, a primitive village where life is based around superstition and fear, women and children aren't respected, and nobody is particularly happy.

The plot is very similar to that of the first book: A young person is chosen to fill a special, mysterious role in their community, and this leads to discovering that their world is not what they've always been told. This repeated formula makes the story somewhat dull. More importantly, the second book lacks the element that gave the first one its impact. The society of THE GIVER is arguably better than ours in many ways, and you can contemplate whether what they gave up was worth it. GATHERING BLUE leads to no such philosophical questions. It might keep younger readers interested, but it has nothing special to offer adults.

August 14, 2014

New Books From Favorite Authors

It's always exciting when a favorite author has a new book out. When I realized that two of my favorite authors were releasing books in July, I could hardly contain my bookish delight. And I'm even more pleased to report that both novels are wonderful and delivered everything I've come to expect from these writers.

LANDLINE is Rainbow Rowell's fourth novel. (I've previously reviewed all the others.) Though she's better known for her YA hits, this book (like her first) features adult characters and is aimed at a grown-up readership. The story focuses on the realities of a faltering marriage and adds an element of unreality to create a clever, emotional, and funny tale.

Georgie is a TV comedy writer who finally has a chance at running the show of her dreams. But the timing couldn't be worse, because she's supposed to leave for Christmas vacation with her husband, Neal, and their kids, and instead she has to stay behind in Los Angeles to churn out scripts with her writing partner. Georgie and Neal's relationship hasn't been great recently, and the way he acts as he heads to the airport makes her afraid for the future of their marriage. When he seems to be avoiding her calls to his cell phone, she worries even more. Finally Georgie reaches Neal on his mother's landline -- except the Neal answering the phone isn't quite the same version of Neal as the one who left.

I loved the premise and the way it plays out, and as always, Rowell's characters are the perfect combination of eccentric and relatable. This novel does a great job of portraying the hard parts of staying in love and staying together, but it doesn't mind making you laugh at the same time.

LANDLINE was the first pick in Book Riot's new Riot Read program, so the site has a variety of dedicated content for the book. There's also a podcast episode with a book club-style discussion, for those who have already finished reading.

HOW TO TELL TOLEDO FROM THE NIGHT SKY by Lydia Netzer is a weird, lovable story about people falling in love under weird circumstances.

Irene is an astrophysicist who discovers a way to create black holes inside a particle collider. Outside the lab, she's terrified of losing control. George is a cosmologist searching for an equation that explains the arrangement of the universe. He's helped in his project by gods and goddesses that appear to him during migraines. "George and Irene were born to be together," the story tells us. It's not because they have so much in common, and it's not because opposites attract. The reason is that their relationship was planned out before they were born.

Dreams play a prominent role in this novel, and I think "dreamy" is a good word to describe Netzer's writing style. As in her debut novel, which I adored, the narrative often takes odd and fanciful turns. I enjoy the way this style contrasts with Netzer's recurring, and more grounded, themes of geeky love, science and technology, and family (also favorite themes of mine). And I'm especially impressed by how much humor Netzer manages to mix into all of this. (Check out her recent novella for an especially funny take on these themes.)

I have a huge amount of admiration for Rainbow Rowell and Lydia Netzer, and they both inspire me as a writer. I hope you'll check out their work!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Opinionator blog, Aimee Bender analyzes What Writers Can Learn From "Goodnight Moon": "Yes, move around in a structure. But also float out of that structure. "Goodnight nobody" is an author's inspired moment that is inexplicable and moving and creates an unknown that lingers."

August 8, 2014

Going Swimmingly

I just had the most rewarding swim. The rhythmic movement through the water loosened up a muscle kink that had been plaguing me. It also helped me (as it so often does) work out a bit of plot that I was stuck on.

My recent vacation to visit my family was wonderful. And despite my fears and occasional past experience, the break didn't diminish my interest in writing, but rather built up some new momentum.

Before, during, and since the trip, I've been working on carefully nailing down the story of the next novel. I haven't historically been the kind of writer who creates detailed outlines in advance, but I feel like I could be, and I want to try it this time. I think if I can discover the story in the pre-writing stage, rather than in the first draft (and the second, and the third), I can reach the finished version in fewer revision iterations and a lot less time.

As always, we'll see how that really goes in practice. But now I've waded in, and I'm gliding smoothly along.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Competing perspectives: At Thought Catalog, Michael Malice advises Never edit as you write: "Editing while you write is like climbing down the mountain as you try to reach the summit. Get the job done first, and only then should you try to go back." Responding in Electric Lit, Lincoln Michel offers a different point of view: "Each path you take--choices of voice, structure, character, setting, etc.--alters your destination. Thinking of it that way, is it so crazy to take out a map and backtrack if you realize you are going the wrong way?"

July 23, 2014

You Get the Picture

It's been a while since I posted anything about this new novel I'm working on. That's because after I did a bunch of planning and a lot of research and then some more planning, I wasn't sure how to proceed. I still needed to figure out many aspects of the story, and I didn't really know enough about the facts, and it was all rather intimidating. I went off and wrote some other stuff for a bit, and I wrote nothing for a time, and I let myself get distracted by unrelated things. Somehow none of that resulted in progress on the novel. But now I finally have a much stronger grip on the story, and I'm feeling far more confident about getting somewhere. So it's the perfect time to get caught up in the excitement of a vacation and forget all about the novel again!

I'm really looking forward to visiting my family. I'm also happy about feeling that when I get back from the trip, I'll be eager to move forward with this novel instead of continuing to avoid it.

In a couple of other areas, I've made more visible progress:

I'm pleased to report that my new/old Polaroid camera is functional! I was able to purchase the appropriate battery and film, but I wasn't certain I really had it working until I peeled apart the first photograph. I'd braced myself for disappointment, so seeing a clear image there was kind of astounding, perhaps what it might have felt like to encounter a Polaroid for the very first time.

Here, meta-ly, is a photo of my first four photos:

July 18, 2014

Inspiration vs Perspiration vs Procrastination

There is a component of creativity that comes out of nowhere. At no particular time and for no particular reason, you might be struck by an image or a scenario or a dilemma that enthralls you. Maybe this happens to you constantly, maybe it's rare, but either way, that spark of inspiration can become the thing you're excited to write about (or express in the creative format of your choice). A creative project has to start from something, and this so-called visit from the muse might be the best source for an idea you actually care about.

But any creative project requires a whole lot of ideas, not just a starting point. That sentence you overheard can inspire your novel, but you're going to have to make a million decisions about character and plot and setting to transform that sentence into a story, and that's leaving aside the fact that you also have to sit down and write the damn thing. Since so many brilliant ideas come unexpectedly, it can be tempting to wait around for as long as it takes for all the right pieces to fall into place in your head, but this isn't generally the best tactic.

Coming to every decision in its own sweet time could take forever, so it's important to apply the same discipline to planning and thinking as to writing: Show up and do the work whether you want to or not, whether you feel inspired or not. This won't be effective absolutely every time, but usually, all that's required to get things flowing is to make a start. Focus on the problem, stare pointedly at research materials that might lead to ideas, and a solution will become apparent. It's not magic, it's persistence.

Once you've had a little success with the just-do-it strategy, it can again be tempting to sit back and let the rest of puzzle assemble itself through those useful flashes of brilliance. This might work, after all, now that you've solved that one big problem that was plaguing you for ages.

Don't do that. A crucial aspect of persistence is that it's ongoing. To really accomplish anything creative, you have to work at it and work at it and work some more. Even if it's summer and there are new books out and vacations to plan.

This post is of course simply a timeless observation, relevant to nothing at all particular or currently relevant.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ This summer, London is full of benches inspired by books, and they're rather lovely. (Thanks, Books on the Nightstand!)

→ At The Millions, Jonathan Russell Clark examines The Art of the Epigraph: "Writers don't use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. "

July 10, 2014

Artifacts of Fiction

Last month, while I was out for a walk in my neighborhood, I saw a sign for an estate sale inside a house that was on the market. I never pass up an opportunity to look around a stranger's home in a socially acceptable manner, so I went in.

It was clear that someone had spent a long life in that house and taken great care of their belongings. I lingered for a while over a beautiful Art Deco bedroom set that has nothing to do with the decor (if you can call it that) of my own house but would fit in well at the home of my antique-collecting parents. Primed by childhood weekends of antique fairs, I turned my highly specific knowledge to the shelves of smaller items in search of any other Deco pieces. I didn't find any, but my attention was grabbed by a set of white dishes with tiny green flowers near the edges. The pattern instantly made me think of being young in my other parents' kitchen. It's a strong memory, but I'm not even convinced it's correct -- it might be my grandmother's dishes that bear this pattern.

Then I spotted another object full of personal significance, but this one had nothing to do with my real family. Instead, it was connected to the fictional family that inhabits my novel. In THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, the characters buy an early model Polaroid camera. It's not a major event in the story, but the camera does play a role in several scenes, as do the photographs passed down through the years. I put a fair amount of effort into researching 60s-era Polaroids, so it gave me a thrill to unexpectedly discover one in front of me.

The actual camera in my novel, which the characters purchase in 1964, is a Polaroid Land Model 100. It retailed for $165, equivalent to over $1000 in today's dollars. The estate sale camera is a Model 250, available starting in 1967 for about the same price, but the two models are similar in design. The original owner had carefully preserved all the camera's accessories and documentation, and what most excited me was the idea of a carrying case packed with everything my character would have brought home from the store. For $40, I took this piece of fictional family history back to my own real house.

June 27, 2014

Three Awesome Reads

These three books have nothing in common except that I read them all recently and I think they're all great. Maybe there's something in here that appeals to you?

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie has been earning many awards, and that's no surprise. The world of the novel is built on an epic scale, with a story that spans planets, an empire that rules much of the universe, and huge armies and spaceships for conquering and occupying planets that aren't yet part of the dominant civilization. Like all the best science fiction, the book adds new elements to these familiar tropes, most notably the form taken by our narrator, an artificial intelligence embodied simultaneously as a spaceship and as the soldiers of a conquering army. It's a strange and clever concept, and Leckie executes it with skill. What really makes the whole book work is that despite the epicness, this is one character's very personal story of loss and vengeance.

As you might guess from that description, there's a huge amount of complexity to the world and the story. I appreciated how carefully information was doled out. The plot never became bogged down with exposition, and sometimes by design I didn't yet have quite enough information and had to keep reading to piece together the puzzle, which is something I enjoy. This is the start of a series, but the first book does come to a satisfying conclusion, so it's possible to read it as a standalone. I'll definitely be continuing on, though.

Leckie has written a couple of thoughtful essays in which she discusses the multiple identity of her protagonist and the choice of gendered pronouns in the novel. Both of these contain some information that you might prefer to encounter first in the course of the story unfolding, but you could also safely read them in advance.

EVERYBODY'S BABY by Lydia Netzer is a novella about a couple trying to conceive who raise the money for their expensive fertility treatment by using Kickstarter. To attract publicity, they offer donor perks like cutting the cord and naming the baby, but they never imagine strangers will donate at the levels required for these absurd gifts. Naturally, though, the campaign is successful beyond their wildest dreams, and the results bring chaos to their lives.

This story is the perfect mix of lighthearted and emotional. While the events are hilarious and often over-the-top, I was frequently struck by just how plausible it all seemed. Netzer has done a great job of imagining the consequences that might arise if someone went through with this scheme. The main couple is lovable, and their relationship is sweet but not always easy. The book left me sobbing happy tears, which is always a plus for me.

Netzer's debut novel, SHINE SHINE SHINE, came out two years ago, and I loved it. I'm eager to read her next novel, HOW TO TELL TOLEDO FROM THE NIGHT SKY, which will be released on July 1. This novella served as an excellent appetizer.

VALOUR AND VANITY is the fourth book of Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories, and it's another excellent read. I'm always happy to be back in the Regency-era-with-magic setting, spending time with these great characters.

This time, the plot involves swindles and heists, which are movie genres I love but that seem difficult to pull off in novel form. Kowal does an impressive job, constructing a twisty plot that kept surprising me. And while that's going on, another equally engrossing story is unfolding, about the toll that difficult circumstances take on even a very loving marriage. Kowal wrote an interesting essay about combining these plots.

You can read this book without having read the earlier ones. Or if you're interested in the series but Austenesque plots doesn't appeal to you, read the second one and then this fourth one for the maximum amount of adventure and magic and the minimum time spent in drawing rooms.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Airship, George Dobbs explores The Origins of Literary Cliches: "The phrase 'little did she/he/they know' has plenty of history. The question is, when did it start being used for cheap suspense? The inversion of subject and verb sounds stilted and melodramatic, so the obvious culprit would be 19th century fiction. But perhaps not everything is as it seems." (Thanks, The Millions!)

June 19, 2014

Summer Reading Bingo

Most summers, I don't think to undertake any specific seasonal reading project, though I encounter plenty of talk about summer reading in the various book media I follow. I usually have a bit of time to read on airplanes during the summer, but other than that, my reading habits aren't much different from the rest of the year.

However, when the great podcast Books on the Nightstand announced their summer reading bingo challenge, it struck me as such a fun idea that I immediately decided to participate. The podcast hosts, Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, have come up with a set of book categories and plugged them into a bingo card site that lets you generate a card with a random selection of categories. Each card is likely to have one or two genres, such as "science fiction" or "cozy mystery", descriptions of story elements ("set in another country"), ideas about where to get recommendations ("that you saw someone else reading"), and some esoteric items like "with a red cover".

For more details, visit the BOTNS blog. Ann and Michael have defined "summer" as running from Memorial Day to Labor Day. By the time I listened to the episode and printed my card, it was a couple of weeks into that period, and I was pleased to discover that I could already fill in several squares. So far, I'm finding that my card has enough categories with enough breadth that I've been able to match every book I read to a square, with the exception of one that didn't fit any category.

June 12, 2014

Rainbow Rowell Backlist

In early July, Rainbow Rowell's fourth novel, LANDLINE, will be released, and I can't wait. Rowell has been receiving much attention since last year, when she published two YA books that were wildly popular with both teens and grown-up readers. Her earlier novel, and the forthcoming one, are aimed at adults, with older characters and concerns. Since January, I've devoured all Rowell's published work, and she has become one of my favorite authors.

→ I started with FANGIRL, and I loved it right from the start. My full review is here. The brief version is that I found unexpected depth, intriguing characters, and clever plotting in the story of an anxious college freshman who would much rather be writing fanfiction than venturing outside her dorm room.

ATTACHMENTS took a little longer to charm me, but once it did, I fell in love with Rowell's writing all over again.

In this adult novel, Beth and Jennifer work at a city newspaper, where they spend much of the day exchanging email about problems with their relationships and families. Lincoln works in the IT department at the paper, and it's his job to read the email that gets flagged for inappropriate language or suspicious frequency. (Also, it's 1999.) Beth and Jennifer's exchanges keep ending up in Lincoln's monitoring queue. He ought to send them a warning about using the office email system for personal communication, but he's grown to like them through their messages, so he doesn't want them to get in trouble. And he doesn't want the messages to stop.

It's a cute, funny premise that sounds like it will lead to a cute, funny story, and it does, in part. But the actual novel that eventually develops is rich, unexpected, and sometimes quite dark. Rowell excels at crafting substantial, unconventional stories out of elements that could be fluffy and predictable in other hands.

At times the storytelling in ATTACHMENTS is a little constrained by the structure, and the style of the email messages sometimes stretches credibility. Overall, though, this is a wonderful book, packed with great characters, brilliant lines, and touching moments.

ELEANOR AND PARK is an excellent teen love story, but it didn't connect with me as deeply as Rowell's other work. Because FANGIRL and ATTACHMENTS both surprised me in how their stories unfolded, I was expecting the same thing here. Instead, the romantic plot is fairly standard, though well-rendered and with atypical protagonists.

The book is really all about the atypicalness of the characters. Eleanor dresses weird, has too much red hair, and is fat, so as a new student, she's an immediate target for the mean popular kids. Park doesn't fit in either -- he likes comics and the wrong music, and he's half-Korean -- but he grew up in the neighborhood and is tolerated as long as he doesn't attract too much attention. When Park lets Eleanor sit down next to him on the bus, it put unwanted attention on them both, and they try ignoring each other to avoid making the situation worse. But over time, they notice each other more and more. The result is an emotional romance that brings them both joy and pain.

Real teen emotions tend to be extreme, and an accurate portrayal in fiction sometimes irritates me as an adult reader, but in this case I found myself able to identify with Eleanor and Park's feelings, even at the most angsty. I can see why this book has been so successful with readers of all ages.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New Yorker's Page-Turner blog, Akhil Sharma relates his difficulties writing a novel based on a tragedy in his own family: "There was a third technical challenge to writing the book, and this last one was what I found hardest to solve. The story I was planning to tell had very little plot. A truly traumatic thing occurs to the family and then the family begins to unravel. The misery of this family's daily life takes a slow toll. Real life is plotless, but the experience of reading books that replicate this can be irritating."

June 6, 2014

An Untamed State

In Roxane Gay's debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE, the narrator observes "the startling contrasts" of her parents' native country, Haiti -- "so much beauty, so much brutality." This is a perfect description for the book as well. The novel is deftly written by a writer of great talent. It's also deeply upsetting, and that's the point. This is a story about terrible things happening to one woman, and it provides an uncomfortable reminder that terrible things happen to women all over, every day.

Mireille is the daughter of a wealthy Haitian family. She grew up privileged in America, is happily married to an American, and has a successful career as a partner at a law firm. Before the events of the story, Mireille has moved through life fairly easily. I have that in common with her, and so I was as unprepared as she is for what happens after she is kidnapped outside the gates of her parents' estate, in broad daylight and in front of witnesses. She soon comments on how little she previously knew of suffering: "I had never felt anything so off-putting but then, I was only beginning to catalogue my discomfort. I had an inadequate frame of reference."

Mireille's father refuses to negotiate with the kidnappers because his experience of Haiti is that paying the ransom will only result in more family members being taken. So Mireille remains captive, and she is subjected to unrelenting sexual violence. Gay doesn't let the reader shy away from the horrors that Mireille endures. Fair warning: This novel will take anyone outside of their comfort zone. Readers will have to decide if they're able to face that challenge.

The brutality of the kidnapping story is broken up by flashbacks to Mireille's life before. The memories of her childhood and marriage contain both happy and difficult incidents, and we get a picture of the complex woman that Mireille has always been. Nothing in this story is simple or generic, and that's what makes the book succeed. Mireille is an individual in the way she copes with every event in the story. She has a unique strength and some very specific flaws, and all of this comes through in her amazing narrative voice.

Mireille's captivity ends after thirteen days (she tells us this on the first page). Though Mireille is free at that point, she's not free of what's happened, and the second half of the book charts the aftermath with just as much beautiful, painful detail. Her recovery doesn't come easily, but there is ultimately hope in this story.

The novel grew out of Gay's short story, "Things I Know About Fairy Tales", which relates the same tale in capsule form. You could read the story first to get an idea of Gay's writing style and the content of the novel, though the short piece is far less explicit.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Brendan Constantine tries to answer a question from The Rumpus about where he writes: "I don't know where I write. Couldn't begin to tell you. I'm not being coy, I'm serious. I look at my books, the piles of uncollected work, and they just seem to have appeared. I can't create any images to go with my sense of ownership." (Thanks, The Millions!)

May 23, 2014

News Is No News

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about writing a new short story. The other day I finished revising it, and then I submitted it to a literary magazine. This is my first time trying to get a story published. It will be pretty cool if it's accepted, but it's also been neat just going through the process. If the story isn't picked up by the first magazine, I'll try some others, and maybe I'll start submitting stories more often.

In novel news, there isn't any. I've been continuing to research the next novel, but I'm getting sort of bored with that stage and feel like it's time to move on to writing soon. There are still some major story details that I need to figure out, but idly pondering them hasn't been productive, so I'm ready for a more aggressive tactic like writing things out in a format other than Post-Its.

That's about all there is to report at the moment. Of course I've been reading a lot, too, but that goes without saying.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Bookends column, Zoë Heller and Mohsin Hamid consider the adage Write What You Know: "The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people's experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination."

May 20, 2014

Sleepless in New Releases

This spring saw the release of two unrelated books in which a plague of terminal insomnia wreaks havoc on America. The two take very different approaches to this scenario, and based on the descriptions and early reviews, I was eager to read them both. Each book has some admirable features, but ultimately both of them disappointed me.

In BLACK MOON by Kenneth Calhoun, almost nobody can sleep anymore, and the prolonged insomnia results in madness. Within a few months, this leads to your standard breakdown of society: telecommunications and other utilities no longer function, cities are full of abandoned cars and looted buildings, and chances of survival aren't good for the small minority who are still able to sleep. What makes continued existence especially dangerous is that insomniacs are driven into a lethal rage by the sight of somebody sleeping.

The story switches between several protagonists who hold on to the ability to sleep while those around them become afflicted. This lets us watch the effects of the epidemic from several angles: an urban dweller goes searching for his missing insomniac wife, a suburban child is left on her own after her parents succumb, and scientists at a sleep lab desperately work on a cure. These plotlines also begin at different points in the crisis, including beforehand, which gives us a wider view on the situation.

It all seems like a strong concept for a novel, but I was never particularly engaged. I like post-apocalyptic settings, but this one felt generic. Some of the characters and storylines interested me, but I found others sort of annoying. So while I really expected to enjoy this book, it turned out to be merely so-so.

SLEEP DONATION, a novella by Karen Russell, starts out promising, with a lot of clever worldbuilding and the makings of an intricate plot. In Russell's version of the insomnia epidemic, a large portion of the population is affected, but enough people are left untouched that it's been possible to develop treatments for this ultimately fatal condition. Donations of sleep collected from healthy sleepers, in a system much like a blood drive, are used to prolong the lives of insomnia sufferers and in some cases cure them.

The main character is a recruiter for the Slumber Corps. She's great at appealing to donors with the heartbreaking story of her sister, one of the first victims of the insomnia. One of her recent recruits is an infant known as Baby A, whose sleep is so pure that it can be distributed unfiltered. Baby A is the only discovered universal donor, which means there's a desperate need for her sleep, and her parents are starting to have misgivings.

I enjoyed most of this novella. The idea of sleep donation is a neat one, and the concept was explored pretty well. Several good complications arise early in the story, and I was looking forward to watching the plot come together in what would surely be a mind-blowing way. Then the story just ended, with nothing really explained or concluded. I don't demand to have all stories neatly tied up, but this ending was so unsatisfying that it made what came before it feel pointless.

It's unfortunate that neither of these books really worked for me, but it was interesting to be aware of their serendipitous publication and to compare different ideas of how an insomnia epidemic could play out.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Atlantic, Chris Beckett champions The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction: "Modern realist novels--the kind that would most often be categorized as 'non-genre'--make up characters and situations, but set them against a backdrop that purports to be the world we actually live in. This allows writers to explore the psychology of different characters and allows us to look out of eyes other than our own. I like to make up situations and characters, too, and for the same kinds of reasons, but I also like to go an extra step and make up the world as well. This allows me to reflect on the way we relate to the world, and on society." (Thanks, Lauren!)

May 8, 2014

A Few Words

For the early months of this year, my writing activities consisted mostly of composing blog posts and query letters. I was thinking a lot about fiction (specifically my next novel, which I've been planning and researching), but I wasn't writing any.

Recently I became fed up with this situation and decided that it was time to produce some fiction. I'm not ready to begin writing the novel, so I started thinking about short stories, as I do from time to time.

I wrote two short stories last year (and read a great many). I haven't done anything with either of them, but since I've received feedback on both (one during my workshop at Squaw Valley), I could potentially turn my attention to revising them. That idea wasn't very appealing, though, and I was more interested in writing something new.

So I set out to write another short story, but this time, I gave myself a challenge to go even shorter. (Actually, the biggest challenge was to focus enough to create anything at all, since I'm out of practice.) After some brainstorming and playing around with a bunch of half-formed ideas, I found myself with an odd little story that's only five paragraphs long. And I liked it quite a bit.

There's certainly something refreshing about writing such a bite-sized piece of fiction. The last story I wrote took weeks of thinking before the idea gelled enough for me to write a rough draft. With this story, I typed a first line with no plan for what would come next, and about twenty minutes later, the whole piece was done. It still needed work after that, but I figured out all the details during another productive swim and then rewrote in an hour or two.

I sent the story off to some critique partners, and getting comments on a work this short was also pleasantly straightforward compared to the novel feedback I'm usually asking for. So little to read meant my critiquers were able to mention all their thoughts, down to the word level, without an unreasonable investment of time. (Thanks, guys!)

Now that I've collected their clever insights, I'm ready to revise. And for once I can feel confident in predicting that I'll be done with revision any day now.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Guardian, Alison Flood tries to identify the earliest ebook: "One journalist even took his computer on a wheelbarrow to the beach, along with a generator, to read Host in his deckchair."

May 2, 2014

More on Novel Research

On Wednesday, I wrote about the different stages of novel research. Today I have a few more research tips to pass on, based on what I've figured out through many drafts of many manuscripts.

The single most important thing I've learned about research is to record every piece of information the first time I discover it. While revising THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I wasted untold hours looking up facts that I almost certainly verified two drafts ago but couldn't be sure of. Now everything I research, I immediately type or copy into a file, along with a reference to where the information came from, whether it's a URL or a page in a book. Treat your research as though you're going to have to provide footnotes to your story, and you'll be ready when you doubt yourself later or you get questions from a critique partner or editor.

Be organized with all these research notes you're diligently keeping. For DAMAGE, my computer has one folder of files divided up by major topic, including "earthquakes", "aerospace industry", and "babies". Additionally, in my SuperNotecard story notes, each chapter has a card with references for specific facts in that chapter. This slightly obsessive method of documentation is what works for me, but you'll have your own personal record-keeping strategy.

As with any research, when you're acquiring information for a novel, you need to consider all the types of sources that are available to you. Primary sources from within a time, place, or culture are extremely valuable but sometimes easy to forget about. A cool but tricky thing about fiction research is that other fiction can often be used as a source. A novel by an author with firsthand experience may be even more revealing than a work of nonfiction if you're looking for everyday details of an experience you can't have yourself. Novels, movies, and TV shows that are about a certain era, location, or industry but were written from outside may also be useful, but tread carefully and consider the work's reputation and biases.

In general, be thoughtful about sources. Not everything on the internet is true, and the same goes for books. If a fact seems questionable to me, I try to verify it against a second, independent source. Because part of DAMAGE takes place in the 1960s, I'm always eager to watch movies made during that time to notice details like a washing machine in a family's kitchen or people smoking, well, everywhere. But movies aren't a pure reflection of reality, and I have to keep that in mind. Similarly, while the television series MAD MEN has a reputation for extreme accuracy in its 60s-era period details, I recognize that it's a work of fiction by writers with a twenty-first century perspective, and I only trust it up to a point.

Finally, remember that the research you invest in a novel is to improve your story, not to insert directly into your story. When you become intimately familiar with the world of your novel, that will show in how well and seamlessly you bring it to life. Rarely is this accomplished with paragraphs of dry explanation or awkward dialogue in which characters tell each other facts about their setting. Resist any urges in that direction, and keep your meticulously organized research notes to yourself. (Or maybe you can share them online as background information or bonus material for your readers.)

That's the end of my novel research advice, at least for now. I still have a whole stack of library books to get through.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At io9, Charlie Jane Anders offers 10 Can't Miss, Surefire Secrets Of Torturing Fictional People: "Suffering that happens because of your characters' decisions is way more interesting -- and often more painful, because of remorse. A lot of the most powerful fictional torment comes as a result of people's terrible decisions, but it's also really poignant to see someone stick his or her neck out for justice, and get dinged."

April 30, 2014

On Novel Research

As I've mentioned, I'm currently deep in the research phase for my next novel. I enjoy the various aspects of research: the obtaining of new knowledge, the tracking down of obscure facts, the delaying of actual writing. In the course of many years and drafts, I've refined my research process through trial and error, and I thought I'd pass along some strategies and techniques.

Much of novel research is similar to any other research, including the work you probably had to do for term papers in school. While I still find it ludicrous that in sixth grade, each student in my class had to create a box of index cards filled with details of every major battle of the Civil War, I will concede that this project gave me a strong foundation in research skills. I was fortunate to receive an education that helped me refine these skills as I got older, and later I worked at jobs that gave me further practice. As with any research task, when fact-finding for your fiction, spend time thinking up relevant keyword combinations to run through a library catalog or web search, and always remember to judge the quality of sources. It's also useful if you have an ability to skim information to find the sections that are worth reading carefully.

I do novel research at several different points in the writing process. The initial stage, before I start a first draft, is my opportunity to get an overview of major subjects in the story that I don't know much about. This is where I am right now with INCONCLUSIVE, and one thing I need to learn about is life in a biology lab, so I've been consulting a ton of library books on this topic. I also anticipate plenty of online research, but books tend to be a good place to start for in-depth, curated information.

The advance research stage is the time to immerse yourself in whatever parts of the world of your novel aren't familiar to you, whether it's a time period, geographical area, culture, or career. (If your novel is set in a world of your own invention, you might be doing more world-building than research at this point, but most likely there are reality-based aspects you'll need to learn about.) This is also the part where it's really easy to get trapped forever and never begin writing the story, so it's advisable to give yourself a research deadline. (Note to self: Set a research deadline.)

Once you've decided that you know enough and can start writing, you're going to quickly find out how much more research you wish you'd done. When you're in the middle of a scene and there's some information you want to look up, you're supposed to make a note of it, keep writing, and fix it at the end. That's what everyone says, but I'm terrible about this, because I don't like moving forward in a story if I'm uncertain about what's happened so far. The deal I try to make with myself is that instead of interrupting my writing for a research excursion, I can investigate the question that night, or the next day at the beginning of my writing session, so I feel comfortable knowing I'm not getting too far ahead with a fact unchecked.

There's always the potential for more research, so I always have to exercise judgment about how much to do when, and sometimes I don't get the balance right. I'm sure I've put dozens of hours into verifying details of scenes that I removed in a subsequent draft. Ideally, you'll stick to more general research early in the writing process, when a story is still in flux. Then plan to devote time to another research stage after you've completed a draft or two and have some certainty about both what's happening in your story and what you still don't know.

I'll wrap up my research advice next time with some tips on record-keeping and choosing sources.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bill Morris at The Millions considers second novels and asks, Are We Entering a Golden Age of the Second Novel?: "There's plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write -- and that it can be even harder to live down."