December 21, 2020

In Hindsight, 2020

So, this year happened. Reaching the end of it is a great relief, and a consequence of much privilege and luck. While next year will still be tough, I see reasons to believe in 2021 growing gradually better rather than gradually worse.

But I really shouldn't tempt fate by putting even that vague a prediction into the universe. I'm well aware that one of the prime forms of entertainment in these times is to find statements from the start of the year that have aged tragicomically badly.

On my own blog, I made the extremely ominous declaration in January that "Whatever else happens in 2020, it's set to be another great year for books." I regret the part I played in extending a dare to the year, but there is technically nothing untrue in this sentence. I was grateful all year to have wonderful books to read, and not to be afflicted with the widespread difficulty in focusing on text or stories. I'll post a roundup of my favorite books after I've wrapped up my reading year.

My year-end post for 2019 is also one to cringe over. A year ago, I was "extra optimistic" about making headway toward novel publication. Well, the global pandemic has put a lot of things on hold, and I have no updates on my own tiny little aspirations. I ended that post by wishing us all "progress in positive new directions." Commentary is left as an exercise for the reader.

Writing was hard this year, and I'm thrilled that I created any fiction at all. After a long stretch of floundering at writing anything, I spent much of June engrossed in a meandering story I never figured out how to finish. That got me back in the swing, and in August I wrote a rough story draft, beginning to end, in three days. It had promise, and over most of the rest of the year, I did a couple of revisions on this short story until it became something pretty good. Of course revision remains endless, and I'm planning to incorporate some great feedback into yet another draft, but that's a project for January.

In a normal year, right now I'd be enjoying a little getaway with family, but 2020 means no gathering and no change of scenery. I still hope to close out this year by reading, playing games, eating treats, and hanging out with family and friends thanks to the wonders of technology. I'll try not to speculate any further than that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Leslie Brody, author of a new biography of Louise Fitzhugh, describes a last-minute addition to one of the author's novels: " April 1973, Fitzhugh had been drafting a version of Nobody's Family Is Going to Change when she read on the front page of Sunday's New York Times that Clifford Glover, a ten-year-old Black child, had been shot in the back by a plainclothes police officer in Jamaica, Queens. Fitzhugh saw such incidents of unchecked police brutality as a nauseating throwback to the systemic racial violence of her youth in segregated Memphis, Tennessee. Born to a wealthy family in 1928, Fitzhugh would come to repudiate the white supremacist world of her childhood. By 1950, she’d settled in Greenwich Village. As a young lesbian artist, her first response to just about any assertion of supremacy—white, male, heterosexual, abstract expressionist, or just garden-variety pomposity—was typically to oppose it."

December 9, 2020

November Reading Recap

The month of November felt extremely long, and I packed it with books:

BLACK SUN by Rebecca Roanhorse: Captain Xiala receives a ship, a crew, and the assignment to cross the sea faster than should be possible, though she might be able to do it with the magic of her seafaring people. Xiala isn't told why she has to get the mysterious Serapio to the religious capital by a certain day, but he's fulfilling a divine destiny set in motion back in his childhood. Meanwhile, in the city they're bound for, head priest Naranpa is concerned about unrest among her people, but an assassination attempt catches her completely off guard.

As is probably apparent, this is a fantasy novel with a lot of worldbuilding and a lot of plot, and both are well developed and well balanced. The story moves along quickly, trusting the reader to pay attention to the many characters and pieces of information. Early on, I didn't feel connected enough to the swirl of events, but as I got deeper into each plotline, I became invested in all the characters. I'm never that enthusiastic about high fantasy and many of its conventions, and this novel didn't fully overcome my personal disinclination, but I think it's a strong addition to the genre. BLACK SUN begins a planned trilogy, and much is left unresolved at the end of the book.

MEMORIAL by Bryan Washington: Benson has been with Mike for four years before he meets Mike's mother. She flies to Houston from Tokyo, intending to stay a while, though Benson isn't sure where Mike plans for her to sleep in their one-bedroom apartment. Then he learns the only plan Mike has made is to leave immediately after her arrival, heading off to Osaka to see the dying father he hasn't spoken to in years. Benson is left with Mike's mom, and neither of them really knows how to deal with the situation or each other.

This setup promises so much great conflict, and Washington takes the changing dynamics between the characters in some nuanced and unexpected directions, but I wished the story went deeper. While I appreciated how the sparse, withholding narration fits with the abysmal communication skills of everyone in this novel, I felt so much was left unsaid that I wasn't always able to put together the pieces. I did grow fond of the characters despite my frustration with nobody talking to each other about anything. The constant cooking scenes (they're all a lot better at cooking than conversation) left me craving so much delicious sounding food.

AXIOM'S END by Lindsay Ellis: Cora's life has been complicated since her infamous father started publishing leaked government secrets online, particularly since the leak that suggests extraterrestrials have arrived on earth. The unwanted attention seems like it can't get any worse, and then Cora is kidnapped by a newly arrived alien who needs her help locating the others. She's terrified at first, but starts to feel somewhat sorry for the alien when she realizes how poorly equipped he is to communicate diplomatically with humans. They both have reasons to get to the bottom of the government cover-up, so Cora proposes they work together. As they learn more about each other, their mutual fear and distrust evolves into a tentative friendship.

I liked many pieces of this novel, though I found the whole uneven and overlong. The heart of the story is the changing relationship between Cora and the alien, and I enjoyed following that through every stage. Many sections of the plot are quite exciting, but things drag in the middle, and some of the waiting around and talking could have been trimmed. Early on, the tone seemed fairly lighthearted and humorous, and as the story grew darker, I wished it retained more of the fun. Ellis develops many cool ideas about alien biology, language, and civilization, some of which are only partially explained but may be explored more in future books of the series.

ROGUE PROTOCOL and EXIT STRATEGY by Martha Wells are the third and fourth installments of The Murderbot Diaries. I read both novellas in the same week and was delighted about spending more time with everyone's favorite Security Unit as it continues navigating the world of humans and emotions.

ROGUE PROTOCOL is a tense adventure with some excellent new characters. While the earlier novellas dealt with multiple separate challenges, this one mainly focuses on a single endeavor that becomes a lot more complex than anticipated. Be warned that this story gets darker than the others.

In EXIT STRATEGY, the experiences and information gathered in all the previous books require Murderbot to undertake a new mission. I was thrilled that this brings it back into contact with old friends. By now, Murderbot is very good at hacking and not really so bad at emotions, which makes for an excellent combination throughout this installment. I am excited to move on to the full-length novel and hang out with Murderbot for longer.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Cornelia Powers, writing for Electric Lit, considers the history of the author portrait: "Recognizing the power of the portrait while enjoying the still-maneuverable liberties of the brush and pencil, writers such as Alexander Pope, Benjamin Franklin, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron took 'great pains' to control and perfect their image as a performative reflection of their literary legacy, criticizing—or sometimes all-out rejecting—portraits which highlighted their physical imperfections, misrepresented their demeanors, or thematically deviated from their writing. Perhaps no one benefited from this artistic leverage more than the growing cadre of female authors, who, not unlike women today, were subject to harsh cosmetic criticism."