January 29, 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric

Reading CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine challenged me on multiple levels. The material examines issues of race in America and the daily experience of going through life as a black person. Whether Rankine is writing about the thoughtlessly racist statements made by friends and strangers or the tragedy of racially motivated killings, her words hit hard, provoking both discomfort and thought.

The book's format presented another reading challenge for me. It's classified as poetry, which I don't read often, and most of the text didn't match my expectations for the poetic form. The pieces take a variety of formats, but many are prose poems, one or a few paragraphs that convey a moment or an image. Some of these struck me as very short essays, while others recount a brief scene. The collection also contains some longer pieces I'd describe as essays, others with the frequent line breaks traditionally associated with poetry, and a set written to accompany videos. I'll admit that the more poetic and abstract material was harder for me to understand and connect with than the more straightforward prose.

But rather than me trying to explain the poems any further, it's time for some excerpts of Rankine's work. This poem provides a good example of both the format and the subject matter:

A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the cafĂ© you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something--she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?--her son wasn’t accepted. You are not sure if you are meant to apologize for this failure of your alma mater's legacy program; instead you ask where he ended up. The prestigious school she mentions doesn't seem to assuage her irritation. This exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive.

This second person narration is used throughout, with "you" as the protagonist. It's an effective choice that forces the reader to briefly experience the microagressions and abuse the collection focuses on. Several more poems are available at the Poetry Foundation site, along with audio of Rankine reading them aloud.

One section looks at individual racially charged news events, and each of these pieces is labeled as a "Script for Situation video created in collaboration with John Lucas". One video, with a script designated "In Memory of Trayvon Martin" in the book, is displayed here with additional information about the project. More of the videos are available on Rankine's site under Situations.

Alongside all these powerful words, Rankine has included some photographs, mainly of artwork relevant to her themes. These are presented in glossy color, and the whole book is attractively designed, making it a physical object worth handling.

There's a lot going on in this important collection, and I recommend all readers undertake the challenge.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the NaNoWriMo Blog, Robin Stevens explains Why the Most Important Thing About Your Novel Is the Story, Not the Words: "They might be nice words, they might be really beautiful words, but if they don't help your story move forward, they need to be deleted. If you wrote them once, you know that you can write something equally good, or even better, again."

January 23, 2015

Half-Baked Ideas, Mashed With Butter

Last night I dreamed that I wrote an awesome blog post. It was fairly short but extremely clever, and I was pleased at the thought of how much my readers would appreciate it.

This is not that post. Alas, I have no recollection of what the dream post was about. And frankly, if I did retain a clearer memory, it would probably turn out my topic was something uninspiring and utterly irrelevant, such as sweet potatoes. Though I really do like sweet potatoes.

Anyway, I've been making a start at the new year, slowly but surely. I'd fallen out of many of my work habits in recent months, so I've set myself a new schedule, and it's proving more or less effective. In keeping with my mission statement, I've gotten up to some reading, some writing, and some revising, and I'll have more to say about all of those soon.

Today I took my first swim of the year, outside in the California sun. (Yeah, I'm telling you this mostly to gloat.) While I swam laps, I mused over novels and stories and posts and dreams. Many of these thoughts aren't fully formed yet, and I'm still working out the details of all my writing plans, but it's nice to be back to work.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Janice Hardy suggests that Small Changes in Your Writing Process Can Lead to Big Results: "It's easy to keep writing when the writing is flowing, so don't do anything to break that momentum. If you run into a detail you don't know, or you aren't sure how to describe something, but that detail will make no difference whatsoever to the plot, try making a note and moving on."

January 15, 2015

What I Read on My Winter Vacation

Due to one thing and another, this first post of 2015 is rather later than planned, but hi, I'm back, happy new year! I have a number of looking-back-and-ahead topics to get to as I reacclimate to routine. Today, though, I'm savoring the memories from the first week of my time off, which I spent in beautiful Mendocino relaxing with family. I did a lot of contemplating the ocean, eating well, and of course, reading. Here's what I read on my winter vacation:

→ At its core, THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber is about a marriage tested by separation. As the story opens, Peter is leaving on a long journey. His wife, Bea, has agreed that it's important for him to go, but she's struggling with the thought of them being apart.

Information is doled out slowly in this novel, and it's a while before all the circumstances of the voyage are revealed. Knowing nothing else up front would make for a great reading experience. However, I'd already heard considerably more when I started the book, and it was those details of the premise that made me interested in reading, so I'll go ahead and describe the other major parts of the story.

Peter is traveling to a far-distant planet because he is the pastor selected to preach about Christianity to the native population. He knows shockingly little about the mission he's about to undertake, and nearly everything he discovers once he arrives on the planet comes as a surprise to both Peter and the reader. His biggest challenge is that he and Bea are used to functioning as a team, and at first, his thoughts are always on what she might be doing and how she would react to what he's experiencing. Only limited communication between them is possible, and as the days pass and her messages fill with more and more bad news about life back on Earth, Peter finds himself feeling increasingly disconnected from his beloved partner.

The story, characters, and worldbuilding in this novel are all fascinating, though all fell somewhat short of my expectations, which were raised by the book's inclusion on many best-of-the-year lists. Still, I was engrossed throughout. Faber is a skilled and imaginative writer, and I'm interested in reading more of his work. I strongly recommend this book, despite some flaws, and I look forward to discussing it.

→ I bought myself a mystery present in the form of Book Riot's Quarterly box, and among the excellent selections in the shipment, I was pleased to find MS. MARVEL, VOLUME 1: NO NORMAL by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. I've been hearing raves about this comic for a while, including that it appeals even to readers unfamiliar with superhero comics. I fall into that category myself, so I was curious to give the series a try.

Kamala Khan is a teen from Jersey City who writes Avengers fan fiction, adheres to her Muslim beliefs, and also argues against the restrictions of the religion and of her parents. Her classmates mock her differences, and Kamala wishes she could be normal. Instead she becomes extraordinary when she is granted superpowers and transformed into the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel. This paperback volume collects the first five issues of the comic, in which Kamala receives, comes to terms with, and learns to use her new powers.

The writing and art in the comic are both strong. What interested me most about the book is the way Kamala struggles to find a balance between home, school, religion, and fighting evil. I didn't get invested enough in the superhero story to want to continue following the comic, but it's great to see new diversity introduced to old characters, and I'm glad this version of Ms. Marvel is out there.

HERE by Richard McGuire is a beautiful and strange graphic work that I first heard about on the radio and had a hard time envisioning from description alone. I'm offering a photograph of one of the pages to help explain the book: