April 29, 2016

New Leaves and Old Pages

I've been busy this month with various things:

→ Since I haven't worked much on fiction this year, I decided to take a class and give myself motivation and deadlines. I've signed up for an online short fiction class through the Gotham Writers Workshop, a well-regarded program out of New York City. It starts in a couple of weeks, and I'm excited to get started. In fact, I should get started now, because ideally I'll be working on a story when the course begins so I'm ready when it's my turn for critique. Time to turn my writing brain back on!

→ I reached an important milestone in my writing room cleanup project by completing the time-consuming process of filing many years of accumulated documents. Now our household has usefully organized filing cabinets, and I have floor space. There's still work left to get the room arranged the way I want it, but the rest should go quickly, provided I don't lose momentum.

→ I've looked through a bunch of my old writing lately, which is a lot more interesting than the old bank statements. In my high school notebooks, I found the embarrassing stories I shared, plus a list of books I wanted to read. There will more be teenage treasures as I continue my exploration. Additionally, I read a couple of manuscripts I wrote in more recent years, and I'm contemplating what works and what doesn't to improve my future writing.

→ Mid-month, I celebrated my birthday with baking and eating and more eating. A few weeks before that, I gave myself the early present of a new laptop, since my previous one was five years old. I'm very happy with the speed and power of my new computer, and I got it a decal to keep it cozy.

→ I have been doing a lot of walking around my neighborhood and admiring the flowers in bloom. We've had some rain, so my part of California is greener than it's been in a while. I have the window open, and I'm enjoying the spring weather and the view from my writing desk:

April 22, 2016

Religion, Revision, and Mortification

On this journey through my childhood writing, it is with no little trepidation that I usher us into the high school era. Midway through ninth grade, shortly before I turned 15, I started keeping a series of notebooks filled with embarrassingly earnest stories and personal musings. I wrote exclusively in steno notebooks because that's what some character did in a novel I no longer remember, and much of the work inside springs from a similar pretentiousness.

Up to this point, it's been fun to mock my early writing because it all seems so childish. Everything I've shared is either exuberantly ridiculous or surprisingly competent, and I can read it while mentally giving my young self an encouraging but patronizing pat on the head. The last story I posted, Crime Doesn't Pay, is more difficult to laugh at, because despite the clumsy dialogue and excessive cliche, I see signs pointing in the direction of the writer I am today.

In my high school notebooks, my maturation as a writer continues, with all the awkwardness that entails. Unlike the eighth grade story, written to be turned in for a class, the contents of the notebooks were private and uncensored. I've only started looking through the books, and I'm already fascinated and surprised to discover what I was preoccupied with at 15. So far, the prevailing themes are religion and death.

I'd thought I might ease myself into the high school era by first posting some class assignments, but instead I'll plunge right into the mortifying end and let you see two of these religion-and-death stories. These two works are also notable in that they are examples of a few stories I revised, purely for my own satisfaction. I wrote first drafts in the notebooks and much later, the following year, revised them on my computer (and was foresightful enough to note this in the documents for my future archivist).

We'll start with "Proof of Existence", a theater scene for two characters:

Proof of Existence

CASSANDRA: A 13-year-old girl
JEFF: Her 17-year-old brother

TIME: Present
PLACE: Cassandra's bedroom. A "typical" teenager's room. Moderately messy. Center stage is a single bed. Near the bed is a stereo.

[CASSANDRA is sitting on her bed, dressed in a black dress. She is sobbing. "You've Got A Friend" by James Taylor plays on the stereo. There is a knock on the door, and immediately JEFF sticks his head in the room. CASSANDRA does not respond.]

JEFF: Mom wants to know... [He notices that she is crying.] Oh. [He enters the room. He is wearing a dark suit. He sits down next to CASSANDRA and awkwardly rubs her shoulder.] Come on, Cassandra, don't cry. We have to go now. Be brave, kiddo. C'mon, stop crying. [After a pause, he reaches over to the stereo and stops the tape.]

CASSANDRA: [Looks up, still crying. She says the next half as an accusation, half as a fact.] That was our song.

JEFF: Yeah, I know. [Pause] So why were you listening to it? You knew you'd cry.

CASSANDRA: [Annoyed] Jeff, it's a funeral. You're supposed to cry.

JEFF: [Trying to make a joke] Yeah, but you aren't at the funeral yet.

[CASSANDRA turns away and buries her face in the pillow.]

JEFF: Cass, I'm sorry. I'm an insensitive jerk.

[CASSANDRA says something incomprehensible into the pillow.]

JEFF: What?

CASSANDRA: [Rolls over and sighs] Nothing.

JEFF: I'm sorry.


JEFF: Are you ready to go?

CASSANDRA: No. What time is it?

JEFF: [Looks at watch] Twelve thirty-six. Funeral starts at one.



JEFF: C'mon.

CASSANDRA: [Staring at ceiling] Jeff, why did she have to die?

JEFF: [Rubbing face with hands] I don't know, babe. I'm not God.

CASSANDRA: [Suddenly rolling over to look at him] Do you believe in God?

April 11, 2016

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2016

This season, the two books I'm most eagerly anticipating share an unusual characteristic for me: neither one is fiction.

HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (April 12) explores the making of the amazing musical (which I'm listening to right now and playing inside my head always). From advance coverage of the book, I gather it contains an annotated libretto, photographs, interviews, and essays that tell the story of both the show and the history behind it. I'm not sure if I'll dive into this and read nonstop or if I'll be satisfied to enjoy it gradually, but either way, I'm glad I no longer have to wait for it.

HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay (originally June 14, but may be changing): I am here for anything Roxane Gay writes. Her debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE is a beautiful and brutal read. The essay collection she released the same year, BAD FEMINIST, takes a thought-provoking look at a range of personal, political, and pop cultural topics. The new memoir focuses on food, weight, and body image, and I'm sure it will be another brilliant and difficult book.

While I haven't been waiting with the same excitement for any of this spring's novels, I'm intrigued by several upcoming releases that I'll be sampling and potentially reading. June 7 is a popular publication date, so I won't get to all of these immediately!

THE REGIONAL OFFICE IS UNDER ATTACK! by Manuel Gonzales (April 12): A few years ago, I read and recommended Gonzales's short story, "One-Horned & Wild-Eyed". I never got around to his collection, THE MINIATURE WIFE AND OTHER STORIES, though it's still on my radar. In this debut novel, a "coterie of super-powered female assassins protects the globe from annihilation", which sounds like fun.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett (May 3) is a family story about mental health, which is relevant to my interests. That the novel spans decades and is told from multiple points of view also gets my attention.

THEY MAY NOT MEAN TO, BUT THEY DO by Cathleen Schine (June 7) is another multigenerational family drama with some focus on depression. The title comes from a Philip Larkin poem with a special place in my heart.

THE ROOT: A NOVEL OF THE WRATH & ATHENAEUM by Na'amen Tilahun (June 7) is an urban fantasy set in San Francisco. I don't usually read this genre, but I know Na'amen from FOGcon and am always thrilled to hear him speak on any panel.

THE GILDED YEARS by Karin Tanabe (June 7) is a novel based on a real black woman who passed as white in order to attend Vassar at the end of the nineteenth century, an era when her race would have excluded her from admission.

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi (June 7): I've already encountered several enthusiastic reviews of this debut that begins in eighteenth-century Ghana and tracks the lives and legacies of two women with very different fates. Gyasi will be appearing at the Bay Area Book Festival in June.

And speaking of the Bay Area Book Festival, the extensive schedule of events has just been posted, and tickets are now available to guarantee seating at individual sessions. That's one more source of anticipation for me this season!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrew Heisel at Electric Literature investigates the history of the novel's first sentence: "Now we laud this and many other great sentences, but no reviewer at the time thought anything of Brontë's choice. No one in America was excited, four years later, about Melville's classic opener to Moby Dick. Nobody had a thing to say about the wonderful beginning to Pride and Prejudice. Nobody was bothered by the pedestrian beginning to The Scarlet Letter, or in love with the beginnings of Middlemarch or A Tale of Two Cities, or unimpressed by that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

April 6, 2016

March Reading Recap

Last month's reading was an excellent and varied set of books:

THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: Leo is the oldest of the four adult Plumb siblings, and he's screwed up the future for all of them. His brother and sisters have been relying on their shares of The Nest, the family trust fund, to save them from financial troubles they've been trying to conceal. Shortly before the money was to be distributed, their mother drained the fund to bail Leo out of a costly substance-fueled car accident. Now he's home from rehab, and the others want to know how he's going to pay them back when he has no resources, or at least none he'll admit to.

Dysfunctional family drama is my favorite type of story, and this novel is one of the best I've read in the genre. The plot hinges on money, but it's really about siblings who haven't been close forced to come together in a crisis and figure out how they actually feel about one another. Each of the Plumbs is a complex, uniquely flawed character stumbling through a specific set of problems. They're brought to life by Sweeney's vibrant dialogue, well-chosen details, and funny observations. Even the story's smaller characters are fully developed and given their moment in the spotlight.

I just loved this book all the way through. I wished the best for every character, though several were often jerks, and I was satisfyingly moved by the story's resolution. I'm also thrilled to see wonderful things happening to this wonderful novel.

THE SELLOUT by Paul Beatty opens with the narrator in the chambers of the Supreme Court, waiting for a hearing on the case that has made him a target of national outrage. He's a modern day black man from Los Angeles who stands accused of owning a slave and implementing racial segregation in his inner city community, with the surprising aim of bringing people together. The narrative then jumps back to recount how the whole bizarre situation arose. It's a rambling, inventive tale written in biting prose that's sometimes uncomfortably funny and sometimes simply uncomfortable.

The story builds slowly, with most of the focus on the dynamics of the unconventional characters. Our protagonist (often nicknamed but never named) is a skilled urban farmer trying to carry on the legacy of his radical psychologist father while also recovering from his childhood as a subject of relentless behavioral experiments. He accidentally acquires a slave in the elderly Hominy Jenkins, who was once a bit player in the Little Rascals and still misses the simplicity of old-fashioned racism. The town's segregation begins as an attempt to cheer up Hominy, with help from the narrator's unrequited love, a bus driver who always speaks her mind. As the project grows, they enlist more co-conspirators and face opposition from a local talk show intellectual who seeks to end racism by rewriting classic literature in an ever more ridiculous fashion.

I laughed frequently while reading THE SELLOUT, and I cringed just as often. The story's absurdity couches nonstop commentary on the realities of racism in America. The result is an intense and very effective novel.

INTO THIN AIR is Jon Krakauer's riveting account of climbing Mount Everest with an expedition that ended in disaster. Krakauer had extensive climbing experience, though none at high altitude, when he was sent by Outside magazine to climb with a commercial guiding company and write about the operations and effects of commercial expeditions. When a severe storm hit the mountain as several groups attempted the summit on May 10, 1996, numerous climbers were overcome by the wind and cold and became lost for hours, and eight never made it back to safety.

The book is an engrossing mix of memoir and reporting. Krakauer describes his own experience during the weeks of the expedition while also presenting the stories of the people he climbed with. Based on interviews conducted later, he reconstructs the disaster from the perspectives of everyone involved. Woven into this narrative are fascinating tidbits about the history of climbers on Everest as well as discussions of ethical issues surrounding guided ventures that make Everest available to less skilled climbers.

Krakauer's effective writing conveys the scale, difficulty, and thrill of the climb, and he never shies away from addressing the risk and unpleasantness involved. He writes with moving candor about his own guilt over the harm he may have caused through his presence as a journalist and by his actions and mistakes during the disaster. The conscientiously detailed account explains the how and why of everything that happened, both when the expedition was operating normally and when catastrophe struck. This is a fantastically executed work of narrative nonfiction.

I first read INTO THIN AIR ten years ago, and I was inspired into a rare reread after watching Everest, a movie that dramatizes the same events. Krakauer has criticized the film for getting things wrong, including his own portrayal, but it's pretty accurate for a movie, and it does a good job of showing the challenge of the climb and the horror of the disaster. Though I don't read much nonfiction, I've counted this book as a favorite since my initial reading, and I found it just as excellent this time around. I should remember to make time for more of the great narrative nonfiction I hear about.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Catapult, Tony Tulathimutte shares tricks to keep things short in your writing: "The most useful and underrated technique is what's sometimes called the 'scalpel edit': clipping and nipping your manuscript line by line. Once I started focusing solely on lowering the word count, everything looked baggy. My first draft contained the line: 'Up to a certain degree he felt there was nothing wrong with disliking work,' which ended up as: 'Still, it beat real work.'"