April 30, 2015

Room Nine

In the most recent post of my juvenilia series, I promised to share a story from fifth grade that is maybe supposed to be a mystery, though it leaves the reader with rather more questions than it answers:

"Room Nine"

"But I can't, I just can't take a room numbered nine!" cried Ms. Raven.

"Mother," said Kitty, "please be reasonable. It's the only room the hotel has. It's eleven thirty, and you can't drive with all this rain."

"You're right, Kitty," sighed Ms. Raven. To the desk clerk she said, "We'll take it."

When they were settled in their room, Kitty wrote in her diary.

August 9, 1983

Poor Mother. Ever since Father's death on September ninth (that's 9/9), she has been so scared of the number nine. And now, on the ninth of the month, we have room nine. I wish she would get over her fear.

Kitty put away her diary and went to bed.

Though she was only fourteen, it sometimes seemed that Kitty was taking care of her forty year old mother. True, Ms. Raven earned the money to support herself and her daughter, but it seemed that she needed Kitty to survive.

In the middle of the night, Kitty awoke with a start. She had heard a huge crack over her head, and it wasn't lightning.

"Kitty, did you hear that crack?" called Ms. Raven out of the darkness.

"Yes, Mother."

Kitty got up and turned on the light. When her eyes grew accustomed to it, she realized that there was a big branch coming out of the ceiling!

There was a knock at the door. Kitty opened it and found the manager standing there.

"I see that old tree finally came down," he said. "If that branch is bothering you, you can sleep in my room."

"No, thank you," said Ms. Raven. "We're fine."

When the manager had left, Ms. Raven showed Kitty an old piece of paper. On it was written: "This room was built by P.Q. Raven."

"Why that's Father," exclaimed Kitty.

"Yes," said Ms. Raven. "He must have built this note into the ceiling, and the branch knocked it out. Now I remember that nine was his favorite number. Now it's mine, too."

I mean, what?

April 17, 2015

This Is 40

Today is my birthday. I've missed my chance to appear on a best-under-40 list, but I can now take as long as I like to claim the questionable title of late-blooming writer.

I kicked off the festivities Wednesday evening with a great event at Kepler's Books. Kirstin Valdez Quade, whose excellent story collection NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS I recommended in my previous post, appeared along with Skip Horack, whose new novel THE OTHER JOSEPH I'm looking forward to reading. Their conversation was a ton of fun, and I'm glad I made the effort to get myself off the couch on a weeknight in order to attend.

Last night, I had a few friends over to test my first two attempts at cake. The baking results were delicious, and the company was lovely. The weekend will include more friends, and of course plenty more delicious food.

A birthday obviously requires new books. Two that I'm really looking forward to will be out in the next few weeks, so I've placed pre-orders as a birthday gift to myself. I can't wait to read OF NOBLE FAMILY, the final installment in Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories, and A GOD IN RUINS, Kate Atkinson's companion to the incredible LIFE AFTER LIFE.

Before I head off to continue my birthday celebrations, I'll allow myself the indulgence of letting you know how amazing I am. Actually, I'll let the fabulous Book Fight podcast tell you how amazing I am. As a thank-you gift to donors who support the podcast, the Book Fighters write custom blurbs that they read on the show. My blurb appeared recently in episode 82, starting at 30:30, and it's awesome and strange. The general idea is to describe donors in the ridiculous way that books are sometimes described, but the blurbs have grown quite abstract and elaborate.

Here's the text of my blurb, composed by Tom McAllister: "Lisa Eckstein is a treasure chest once owned by the Visigoths and then lost in a raid and eventually passed through the possession of the likes of Genghis Khan, the Ottoman Empire, Wild Bill Hickok, the Yakuza, Johnnie Cochran, and Clifford the Big Red Dog before disappearing. Thousands of people have died trying to unearth the treasure of Lisa Eckstein, wars have been waged, coups have been staged, and yet nobody can tell you where it is. Nobody knows what's contained inside, but everybody wants it, and so treasure hunters across the globe are drawing maps and digging, spelunking, climbing, giving it the whole Carmen Sandiego treatment really, because whatever it is this treasure chest contains, it must be invaluable, something remarkable and irreplaceable, like the secret to eternal life, or a phone that allows you to communicate with God, or the formula for nuclear fusion, or a sugar substitute that has no calories but also doesn't make you feel like shit. The point is, Lisa Eckstein exists as much as a concept as a reality, as a hope for a better future, the solution to all worldly problems, something to aspire to. She is the Holy Grail and the Maltese Falcon and the Stanley Cup wrapped in one package, and before you try to find her, understand this: once you go down that path, you will never come back."

You may hereafter refer to me as Treasure Chest.

April 9, 2015

March Reading Recap

March was an excellent reading month. I highly recommend all three of these books:

THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR by Sandra Newman astounded me from the opening sentences, when I discovered the story is written in an invented dialect of English that doesn't yet exist but could after generations of language evolution. (You can read the opening here to see what I'm talking about.) As this ambitious narrative style signals, Newman did serious worldbuilding for her post-apocalyptic novel, and the reader experiences it naturally as the gripping story unfolds.

Ice Cream Star is fifteen years old, so she's one of her community's elders in a future where every child sickens and dies by the age of twenty. Ice Cream and her clan are aware that things were different in the time before a disastrous plague struck, but many generations have passed since then, and they know little of the world before. They survive in Massa woods by hunting wild animals, searching the ruins of long-abandoned houses, and trading with or stealing from other local groups. While they've warred in the past with some of their neighbors, life is relatively peaceful until the discovery of a strange child utterly unlike themselves. He sets the occupants of Massa woods on the path toward a greater war than they've ever known.

Much of the content in the book is difficult, as the story focuses on war and its harsh realities and also covers a range of other challenging subjects. Fortunately, Ice Cream serves as a powerful guide for both her people and the reader. There are many more fascinating aspects to Ice Cream's world that I haven't mentioned because I want you to discover them as you read. The reveal of information is handled beautifully, as is the choice to leave many details unexplained, and one of the pleasures of this book is making connections, recognizing places, and interpreting words that are initially mysterious. While the narrative dialect could be a deal breaker for some readers, it's deftly executed, and I recommend giving it a try even if you're skeptical. I was so captivated by Ice Cream's voice that I often found myself thinking in it when I set the book down. This is a novel that will stay with me for a long time.

Newman is also the co-author (with Howard Mittelmark) of one of my favorite books on writing, the perceptive and hilarious HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL.

WELCOME TO BRAGGSVILLE by T. Geronimo Johnson opens by listing all the names the protagonist, D'aron, has been known by. This provides a quick sketch of his whole childhood in the South, where he is picked on for being smart and fat and sensitive (and therefore gay, by bully logic). When D'aron begins his freshman year at UC Berkeley, he's thrilled to be in a place utterly unlike his small Georgia hometown, but he has a hard time fitting in. He finally makes friends when a diverse group of classmates bond after being accused, somewhat dubiously, of racist behavior.

The friends enroll in a very Berkeley class on alternative perspectives in American history and decide that as a project, they'll stage a performative intervention (a theatrical type of protest) during spring break in D'aron's hometown. The scene of the intervention will be the annual Civil War reenactment, and the form will be a mock lynching. Their intent is to point out the problems in proudly memorializing the Confederacy, but the message isn't well formulated, and the details are even more poorly planned. On the day of the reenactment, things go terribly, terribly wrong.

The novel starts off darkly funny before turning just plain dark for a while, and the writing is strong and compelling throughout. The uncomfortable humor works because it's detailed and disconcerting: "Quint, more a brother than a cousin, had the Confederate flag tattooed on his left forearm, in case you didn't see the one on his right." Johnson applies the same level of careful observation to the story's brutally emotional moments. He also employs a number of narrative techniques, and while I found the shifts disorienting at times, which may be part of the point, the combination of styles was overall effective.

WELCOME TO BRAGGSVILLE is a sharp, powerful exploration of modern biases around race, class, and geography, and it's also a hell of a story.

NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS by Kirstin Valdez Quade is a collection of short stories that succeed at the difficult task of taking small moments in ordinary lives and rendering them fascinating. These are all beautifully detailed portraits of people and relationships that I was able to quickly care about and remain engrossed in, something I can't often say about short stories.

The stories are set in New Mexico and other parts of the American West, in a variety of eras ranging from the 1920s to the present day. Many deal with class differences or cultural divides. In "Jubilee", a young woman attends a fancy party with the intention of showing up the rich hosts who employ her father, but as the event goes on, what's exposed are her own insecurities. The main character in "Canute Commands the Tides" moves to New Mexico to paint, and when she hires a woman to help clean and unpack, she envisions a charitable friendship with her housekeeper that turns out not to match the reality of their relationship.

Quade makes all the stories real and specific with perfectly crafted and sometimes funny observations of the characters and moments. In "The Five Wounds", she writes of a pregnant teenager's belly, "The buttons of her jeans are unsnapped to make way for its fullness, and also to indicate how it got that way in the first place." The title story features a great narrative voice that gently mocks the protagonist, a teen girl who is constantly imagining herself as a character in a book or movie: "She pictured herself: her slow blush, lashes lowered against her cheek."

Families play an important role throughout this collection. My favorite of the stories is probably "The Guesthouse", about a man who must deal with his grandmother's house and affairs following her death. He can't count on his mother and sister to help out because he and Grandma were the responsible ones in the family, an identity he's quite invested in, and the situation is made more complicated by the reappearance of his estranged father. Another standout is "Family Reunion", in which a girl tries to navigate her family's weirdness as non-Mormons in Salt Lake City. But really, it's hard to pick out the best stories. They're all excellent, and I look forward to more of Quade's work.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Rachel Smalter Hall explains What Happens to a Book After You Donate It to the Library: "The Friends of the Library volunteers go to work after the books hit the sorting area. Each volunteer is trained to be responsible for a designated subject area, and the room they work in is lined with bookshelves labeled by subject. There's even a shelf for rare books and first editions. The room has a fun and informal vibe, with volunteers coming and going at all hours to chip away at new donations, snack on hard candy, and chit chat with each other about books, family, and life."