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?"