December 21, 2018

Another Year

The year is drawing to a close, as years always do. Often around this time I wrap up the year with a post in which I take stock. Last year I didn't write one because we were in the middle of moving into our new house -- and having that excuse was a bit of a relief, because except for the house, I didn't feel I'd accomplished much in 2017. This year, I debated whether to skip again, since 2018 also didn't involve any exciting completions or successes in my writing life.

Still, I like getting an overview of the year, even for myself, so I looked back at what I've done, and it's not nothing. This eternal revision isn't over, but the end is in sight. The steady plod continues, even on days when it feels like pointless misery to so much as look at this stupid manuscript, and that is an achievement worth reporting. I can't know for sure what's going to happen at the end of this revision, but I do know that by persisting, I've turned my stupid manuscript into a far better novel than what I thought was good enough before.

While looking back, I also reviewed December posts I've made in earlier years, and there's a consistency in my reflections on where I am or am not at the end of the year and what I imagine happening in the next one. That could be demoralizing, but I actually found it kind of comforting. As long as my good fortune continues, there's always another year, and that's the best cause for celebration.

May you find reasons to celebrate in 2019, and may your dark days brighten!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Panio Gianopoulos extols the virtues of trains as writing spaces: "Can you really get deep into a piece of writing, into anything creative, when you've only got 35 minutes? Isn't that just the warm-up? Strangely, to invert the truism, more is less. On weekends, once the children have been anesthetized with iPads and I've ducked up into our attic with my laptop, I find that somehow I get less writing done in two hours."

December 13, 2018

October/November Reading Recap

Time to catch up on reviews again! In the past two months, I read quite a variety of books:

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie: Isma put her education on hold to finish raising her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, after they were all orphaned. Now she's heading to a PhD program in the United States, leaving Aneeka behind in London. Parvaiz should be home with his twin, but instead he's gone away to do something so terrible that his sisters won't talk about it. In Massachusetts, Isma encounters another Brit, the son of a politician who has a fraught history with Isma's family. This MP distances himself at every opportunity from his Pakistani-Muslim heritage, to the disappointment of those who share his background like Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz. The fates of the two families soon become entwined by the consequences of Parvaiz's actions.

Shamsie develops this gripping story one layer at a time by giving each character a turn to claim the point of view and reveal or learn more about what's happening. I admired how well the perspective shifts work to show the unexpected sides of the characters and to build the tension and suspense that's constant throughout the novel. I found HOME FIRE even more intriguing knowing that Shamsie modeled it on the ancient tragedy of Antigone, which I reviewed before reading so I could spot the parallels. This is a powerful book that I recommend to readers interested in complicated situations and tolerant of gruesome material.

→ In ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR REASON, SCIENCE, HUMANISM, AND PROGRESS, Steven Pinker presents the data that shows life around the world is getting better in nearly every way. One by one, he considers aspects of the human condition -- health, inequality, civil rights, and so on -- and uses graphs and facts gleaned from scientific studies to chart the progress made in that area over the centuries and decades. Pinker demonstrates why this is the best time in history to be alive and why that's pretty much true no matter who or where you are. Even commonly perceived problems of the current era are mostly misjudged, overhyped, historically unlikely to persist, or within our power to fix.

I enjoyed this book overall, though I would have preferred a shorter version of it. The bulk of the text is the middle section analyzing the progress in each aspect of life, and I found most of that interesting and educational. The sections at the beginning and end are more abstract and philosophical, and I had trouble staying engaged at times. Pinker's use of the Enlightenment to frame this story of progress never really came into focus for me, so I may not have gotten everything I was supposed to from this book. I also wasn't quite his imagined reader because I came into the book already aware that we're lucky to live now, so some of his arguments aimed at pessimists missed the mark for me. However you're feeling about the state of the world, if you'd like concrete evidence that it's improving, I recommend this book, and I won't tell if you decide to skim some sections.

→ The stories collected in THE REFUGEES by Viet Thanh Nguyen feature vivid, complicated characters in difficult situations. Nguyen's superb writing makes every sentence and scene engaging. However, I was often underwhelmed at the ends of stories that felt like they stopped too soon or without enough conclusion.

A few favorites stood out and stayed with me: The sad, powerful "Black-Eyed Women" is narrated by a ghostwriter who encounters the ghost of her brother and has to remember the terrible circumstances of his death. "Someone Else Besides You" spends a few days with a divorced man and his challenging father, winding up with one of the more satisfying endings. I really enjoyed the hapless protagonist and unexpected turns in "The Transplant", the story most reminiscent of the darkly playful tone of Nguyen's excellent novel, THE SYMPATHIZER.