Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

May 21, 2024

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2024

I've been planning out my summer reading and getting excited for these new books by some of my favorite authors:

THE HAZELBOURNE LADIES MOTORCYCLE AND FLYING CLUB by Helen Simonson (May 7): Simonson writes wonderful comedies of manners. MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND is the charming story of two widowers falling in love despite the opinions of their small English village. In THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR, residents of a small English village are concerned with not only the activities of their residents, but also the start of World War I. This new novel is also historical, set just after the war in 1919, and it sounds like another delight.

THE DEFAULT WORLD by Naomi Kanakia (May 28): Kanakia has published three young adult novels (most recently, JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE) that all portray characters and situations with the complexity and nuance they deserve. I'm excited for her first novel with an adult rather than teen protagonist. The tagline, "A trans woman sets out to exploit a group of wealthy roommates," sounds like a wild ride, and the San Francisco tech world setting is an extra draw for me.

MOONBOUND by Robin Sloan (June 11): Speaking of the San Francisco tech world, that's the starting point for Sloan's MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE and SOURDOUGH before each swerves off into a mysterious secretive society, one based around books and the other in food. I adored both and can't wait to see where Sloan is going in MOONBOUND, which takes place 13,000 years in the future. There's a companion website where he's posting material related to the book.

SLOW DANCE by Rainbow Rowell (July 23): I've read all of Rowell's novels, and I love the way she writes about the emotions of relationships between people with humor and heart. After almost a decade of publishing books about magical characters in the Simon Snow series, she's returning to a story of real world adults trying to figure out a relationship together.

SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A PARENT by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson (July 30): The first collaboration between Bergman and Freedman-Lawson, SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN, offers life advice that's as enjoyable to read and look at as it is useful. I'm willing to bet that even as a non-parent, I'll find guidance in this new book to incorporate into my life and relationships.

LOKA by S.B. Divya (August 13): Last year's MERU launched a space opera series with imaginative worldbuilding, great characters, and an exciting plot. I'm looking forward to continuing the interplanetary and genetic adventures in the next installment!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At CrimeReads, Micaiah Johnson explains how genre communicates a contract with the reader: "This understanding is why I write every single story as a murder mystery author, even though I do not strictly write murder mysteries. The murder mystery author's contract is neither kind nor cruel, but a kind of trickster middle. The murder mystery author gets to behave like an older sibling who is as bullying as they are loving: I will trick you, there will be death, but there will also be resolution. It is the antagonism of the horror writer, but in the form of a game. And, most importantly, it is a game the reader can win."

May 6, 2024

April Reading Recap

I had another great month of so much reading!

ANITA DE MONTE LAUGHS LAST by Xochitl Gonzalez: Anita de Monte and Jack Martin are married artists, both successful within their very different styles, but less successful at being married. Though they've always been drawn together, they are often violently at odds and think little of each other's work. Their years of shared passion and separate creativity end with Anita's shocking death in 1985. Less than 15 years later, Jack remains a giant in the art world, but Anita isn't even on the radar of art history student Raquel Toro as she prepares to embark on her senior thesis. Like Anita, Raquel forms a relationship with a more established artist who'd rather shape her to his tastes than appreciate who she is. As Raquel studies Jack's art, she closes in on the knowledge of Anita and all they have in common.

This is a fantastic, unpredictable novel about art, passion, and identity. The characters are wonderfully developed, sometimes infuriating, and all memorable. I was able to envision the artwork, and I liked the level of detail that filled out a whole art world around Anita and Jack. I also had a particular fondness for the details of Raquel's setting, since she attends Brown University at almost the same time I did. In the middle, I grew impatient for Raquel to hurry up and learn about Anita, but the suspense over this inevitability pays off, and all the story's pieces come together in such a satisfying way.

I didn't know until after reading that Anita's life, art, and death were closely based on a real artist, Ana Mendieta. Gonzalez discusses the inspiration in interviews, and Mendieta's family has also commented on the fictional portrayal.

VICTORY CITY by Salman Rushdie: When Pampa Kampana is a child, she is visited by a goddess who tells her she will plant a city and live more than two centuries to chronicle its rise and fall. That city, eventually named Bisnaga, grows from a bag of seeds in a matter of days, complete with fully grown citizens who only need Pampa to whisper their histories into their minds. A series of rulers transforms Bisnaga and extends the size of its empire, sometimes through negotiation, mostly through warfare. With Pampa's divinely extended lifespan, she is involved in every dynasty, serving as queen, advisor, or adversary. She records it all in an epic poem recounting Bisnaga's history, and she experiences the loneliness of watching everyone she loves grow old and die while she lives on.

Rushdie is a great storyteller, and this story kept me entertained, but I was less invested than I wanted to be. What created an emotional distance was the narrative's fairy tale quality: the archetypal characters, magically convenient solutions, and things happening in threes or according to other formulas. It's a deliberate style that's written well, and even if it didn't quite work for me, I remained curious about how events would unfold.

It turns out this is the second book in a row I read without realizing its basis in real historical events. Rushdie invented the magical parts, of course, but VICTORY CITY more or less tells the story of the Vijayanagara Empire that dominated southern India in the medieval period, with the names of the rulers, the dates of battles, and so on pulled right out of history.

JAMES by Percival Everett is the story of the runaway slave Jim from Mark Twain's THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. As in the original, after James flees to avoid being sold, he ends up traveling down the Mississippi with the boy Huck, who has always been, if not entirely kind, at least friendlier to him than the average white person. The ever-present threat of capture keeps James and Huck's journey perilous, and stealth and deception are often necessary. James is particularly skilled at deception, because survival in slavery depends on maintaining an intricate facade.

The first facade exposed in Everett's version is that every enslaved person is bilingual, putting on a thick, tortuous dialect in the presence of whites, and switching to a refined English among themselves. It's a delightful reveal, both funny and sharp, and Everett continues playing with this and other facets of language throughout the novel. The book delivers further surprises I won't spoil, all as skillfully managed.

I reread HUCK FINN in preparation for this new release, and that was interesting but definitely not required. Parts of JAMES follow the source material, but not all, and that's a solid choice given how constrained Jim's activity is for much of Twain's novel. Everett provides James with a more varied set of constraints, enriching and elevating his story. This is a fascinating reimagining, highly recommended.

SEEK YOU: A JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN LONELINESS by Kristen Radtke: In this work of graphic nonfiction, Radtke grapples with loneliness by writing and drawing about both her personal experience and the wider phenomenon of societal isolation. The text moves between a range of topics, including scientific studies and aspects of media history, tying these together with scenes from Radtke's own life and forming connections. The illustrations have a unified style but also cover a range of subject matter, sometimes depicting people in realistic settings, other times imaginatively evoking a feeling, and frequently reproducing news headlines and other documents.

I found the book's material interesting and the art visually appealing. The content is thought-provoking and educated me about subjects both entertaining (laugh tracks, professional cuddlers) and disturbing (psychologist Harry Harlow's monkey studies). At times, I thought the text switched too quickly between topics or fell short of reaching an intended conclusion. My bigger complaint is a number of missed opportunities where the illustrations might have done something that text couldn't, by showing what was being described or using sequential images for more impact.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens: In 1952, Kya is six years old and left to more or less fend for herself in a shack in the marshes of the North Carolina coast. In 1969, in the nearest town, local big shot Chase Andrews is found dead, possibly murdered. Kya is still living a hermit-like existence in the marsh, and at first she's suspected only for her outcast status, but then because her past history with Chase comes to light. The first half of the book is mostly episodes from Kya's childhood showing how she survives, often with only birds for company, interspersed with occasional short chapters about the murder investigation. In the second half, events preceding and following the murder take prominence.

I'm baffled that this unremarkable novel has been a runaway bestseller. The book's strength is the descriptive passages that evoke the natural setting of the marsh Kya loves. Nothing else stood out to me. I was moderately (but only moderately) interested in the story during the first section, and then gradually less so as the book neared its underwhelming conclusion. I found the plot lacking, and the dialogue flat and unconvincing. Millions of readers love this book, but it did little for me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Scottie Andrew at CNN profiles author Lauren Groff's new bookstore, The Lynx in Gainesville, Florida: "Groff understands Florida, in all of its confounding and infuriating glory. She knows that the things that live here are hard to conquer. 'What we want to do is create a lighthouse so that, nationally, people know that Florida is not full of closed-minded people,' Groff says. 'So that they know that there are places here that love and welcome transgender people, people who want to learn about Black history, people who want to pay homage to what actually happened, even if it makes us feel bad.'"

April 30, 2024

Same Old Story

Obviously I'm a sucker for any essay headline promising the narrative of a novelist who spent a decade working on a book, or who rewrote their novel a dozen times, or who tried to sell five different finished manuscripts before finally getting a publishing deal. I've linked to many such essays in this blog over the years, and I've read countless more.

This is a frequently told sort of story because it's a common experience. Probably more published novelists could recount some version of that essay than the number of authors who published their first attempt at a novel after only a draft or two in a year or two. Novels involve a great big hunk of ideas and words to imagine, reimagine, write, and rewrite. Generally even if some of those stages go quickly, others require a lot more time.

Today I read the latest iteration of the essay to appear in Literary Hub, where I often encounter these. "The Pilgrim's (Lack of) Progress, Or, Sorry I Took So Long to Finish My Novel, Or, On the Value of Restarting" is the headline for Justin Taylor's account of writing REBOOT (which used to have even more subtitles than the essay). He explains:

Depending how you reckon, writing it either took me nine years or it took me a month.

I started it on New Year's Day 2014 and the first thing I did was write longhand for a week. The second thing I did was fail for seven years. I don't mean that I spent seven years trying to complete a draft. There were plenty of drafts. I mean that I spent seven years trying to make work something that would not work, that I felt increasingly certain could not work, and yet found myself revising and restarting time and again, always in a state of perfect hopelessness except for when I came to my senses and abandoned the project once and for all, which I did at least once a year.

When Taylor eventually writes the draft that works,

...the only way I could allow myself another attempt was to first make a rule that I would not revisit any of the old material. Drafts, outlines, character descriptions, the handful of passages I thought were good: all off-limits. I would not even peek at them to refresh my memory of what they contained. I had to start from absolute zero—a hard reboot, if you will—and anything that survived from those prior drafts would be there not because I'd salvaged it, but because I'd created it from scratch all over again.

I finished the first successful draft of the novel on April 3, 2021, twenty-eight days after I started. Though there would be another year of revision before I sold it (year eight), and then a year of working with the editors who bought it (year nine), the novel was basically done.

I found much about this identifiable, though my version of the experience follows a different sequence of steps. Most crucially, I haven't yet achieved that decisive story beat, the publication of the novel that occasions the publication of an essay about the arduous journey that's now in the past.

The scale of the journey has been on my mind as I turned another year older this month. When described in hindsight, a long road to publication seems impressive, even mythic. But in the middle, well, it's not a story until it gets an ending.

April 2, 2024

March Reading Recap

I've still been doing a lot of reading, which means I haven't been doing so much writing, but I sure have been doing a lot of reading.

SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND by Jennine Capó Crucet: Ismael Reyes (call him Izzy) is twenty years old, and so far his only ambition in life has been to capitalize on his resemblance to the singer Pitbull and make some easy money as a celebrity impersonator. After a cease and desist letter puts a stop to that, Izzy comes up with a plan to model himself after another Miami-associated personality, Tony Montana from the movie Scarface. Izzy figures that all he needs is a sidekick, some shady dudes who can hook them up with shady work, a girl, and maybe an exotic animal, and soon he'll be rich and powerful. As it happens, an exotic animal in Izzy's vicinity is aware of his scheme: The orca Lolita has spent decades confined to a too-small tank at the Miami Seaquarium, but her senses range much farther. Lolita observes Izzy and even infiltrates his thoughts as he seeks out the pieces of his plan. The search leads Izzy into questions he's long suppressed about the circumstances of his childhood journey to Miami on a raft from Cuba, questions that return him to dangerous waters.

I would not have been drawn to this book if not for my admiration of Crucet's previous novel, but I'm so glad I read it. This is a weird, audacious story, often hilarious and sometimes horrifying. Izzy is well-developed as a basically sweet kid who is completely out of his depth in striving to become a gangster. Lolita is an even more fascinating protagonist, and all her biographical details are taken directly from real life. Through omniscient narration, Crucet moves between their perspectives and those of other characters, while also commenting on Miami culture, history, and climate change. And don't worry if, like me, you know nothing about Scarface, because Crucet provides all the necessary context -- and said in an NPR interview that her goal was for people to "read this book and then never have to actually watch it."

FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS by Ursula K. Le Guin: The four stories in this collection are closely linked, and all take place on the planets Werel and Yeowe, which are also closely linked. On Werel, a system of slavery dominated society for thousands of years, and Werelians brought that system to the previously uninhabited Yeowe, where variations emerged. Finally, uprisings lead to decades of revolution and eventual liberation on both planets. During that turbulent period, Werel and Yeowe also begin accepting envoys from the Ekumen, the consortium of worlds that appears in much of Le Guin's fiction. Each of these stories shows some aspect of the transition to liberation, by focusing on a variety of characters from different places, with different societal positions.

I really liked getting to know all these characters while gradually learning more about the larger story of their worlds. Throughout the book, Le Guin is doing what she does best: imagining complex, plausible cultures and bringing them to life through specific character experiences. As the book's title suggests, forgiveness plays a role in every story. So does love, and characters from vastly different circumstances coming to understand each other is a recurring theme. I recommend this to any Le Guin fan, and I think it could serve as an introduction to her work.

GET IN TROUBLE by Kelly Link: I've often heard Kelly Link and her work referenced, but I don't think I'd read any of her stories before picking up this collection. The first story, "The Summer People", provides a good introduction to Link's style, because it starts with a character who is preoccupied by real-world concerns (illness, bad parenting, work), and the reader gradually comes to understand that she's also dealing with something weird and supernatural. Most of the stories similarly blend familiar situations, especially involving relationships between characters, with speculative elements of some kind. I enjoy this combination in general, and I liked Link's approach, though I sometimes wanted more exploration of the speculative parts, and several endings left me puzzled or disappointed.

Two of my favorites in the collection are both set in a world where superheroes are common. In "Secret Identity", a teenager travels to New York City to meet up with the man she's in an online relationship with. The way the story cleverly unfolds, first the reader has to figure out what's going on, and then the main character does. "Origin Story" is about a meeting of old friends, one of whom happens to be a famous superhero. In both stories, as in the collection overall, the character relationships are well-developed and specific, and there's a bit of humor as well as some real emotion. The most emotionally affecting story is also the most grounded in reality: "The Lesson", focusing on the tension in a couple's relationship as they attend a wedding while waiting for their surrogate to give birth to their child.

KINNING by Nisi Shawl: In the wake of the early twentieth century's Great War, a group of revolutionaries aim to prevent future conflicts by spreading peace and empathy. Their method is the fungus-based Spirit Medicine that creates bonds between fellow inoculants, who become able to sense each other's emotions and even communicate telepathically. The sister and brother scientists, Bee-Lung and Tink, along with the rest of the crew of their aircanoe, are on a mission to distribute the Spirit Medicine in their travels across Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, another sister and brother, the royal children Mwadi and Ilunga of Everfair, are vying to inherit the throne when their father abdicates. Their stories and those of many other characters converge over questions of Everfair's future, and then become further entwined through Spirit Medicine.

This sequel to EVERFAIR brings back many of its characters, but the story has a different focus and scope than the decades-long nation-building of the original, and it's not particularly important to know what happened before. Though I was curious to return to the story world, this book's plot didn't interest me nearly as much as the first. The idea of an empathy-spreading fungus is intriguing, but I didn't care for the way it played out. The characters spend a lot of time being caught up in sensuality that I wasn't feeling, and the mechanics of strains and cores eventually become tedious. While this wasn't for me, I applaud the originality of the concepts, and I hope the story finds the right readers.

THE THREAD COLLECTORS by Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman follows two couples separated during the Civil War, one Black, one white and Jewish. When William flees out of slavery to join the Union Army, he leaves Stella behind in New Orleans. While he keeps up the spirits of his fellow soldiers by playing his flute, she embroiders handkerchiefs with maps to help more men in their escapes. At the military camp, William befriends a fellow musician, Jacob, who writes letters recounting their experiences to his beloved wife Lily. She's back home in New York City, where she organizes women in sewing quilts and making bandages to aid the troops and further the abolitionist movement.

This novel offers a lot of historical detail, but I didn't get much else out of it. In writing the book, the authors set out to "explore the Civil War experience through two underrepresented lenses" (Black and Jewish), and I was often conscious of that motive rather than transported into these experiences by the story. The characters rarely felt like real, complex people living the events from within their era. Despite that, the four characters' stories move along well enough, if a bit unevenly. Though the two women and their sewing are highlighted by the title, cover, and description, this is as much or more a story about the men, and what little impact the sewing has on the plot seems forced. William and Jacob's shared love of music, and the friendship that grows from it, is more effectively portrayed and might have been a better source for the title.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the New York Times, Anna Holmes celebrates the 100th year of The Boxcar Children: "But the food in 'The Boxcar Children' is so central, so memorable. For the Alden children the days and hours are marked not by school lessons or play dates but by meals and the position of the sun. Bread is 'fragrant,' with 'crusty ends.' Cheese in wax paper is 'golden.' Early in the book, Jessie, a 'little housekeeper' in line with the gender roles of the time, devises a makeshift refrigerator: a small pool of water in which she stores milk ('cold as ice') and butter ('cool and sweet')."

March 6, 2024

February Reading Recap

When I'm not busy figuring out character arcs, I've been reading away:

COME AND GET IT by Kiley Reid takes place mostly inside a dormitory at the University of Arkansas. Millie is one of the resident assistants for the dorm, and she's good at it. Even when students make clueless comments about race or class, Millie keeps up her facade of perky responsibility and patiently smooths over conflicts between residents, like the three roommates in the suite next door. A couple of her fellow RAs are much less invested in the job, and as Millie's friendship with them grows, she adopts some of their slacker ways and cares less about doing everything by the book. Agatha is a visiting professor who first connects with Millie for help setting up interviews for Agatha's next book about attitudes toward money. The interviews provide such great material that Agatha talks to Millie about spending more time in the dorm to observe students informally -- in other words, to eavesdrop. What begins as a harmless arrangement develops layers of complications over time to threaten consequences for everyone involved.

This story is all about people listening in on what other people say and how they say it, and the reading experience constantly delivers the juicy thrill of eavesdropping on an outrageous conversation. Much of the novel is seemingly unimportant discussions that go on surprisingly long, and I expect some readers will find it slow, but I remained entertained by everything the characters had to say. Reid demonstrates her skill at rendering realistic dialogue for characters of all backgrounds once again, as she did in the faster-moving SUCH A FUN AGE. Though it takes time for the plot of COME AND GET IT to really get moving, Reid sets the characters on their eventual trajectories from the start and uses tiny moments to build up an intricate plot. I loved how nuanced and quietly complex the story is, and I really admire Reid's craft.

THE BEE STING by Paul Murray: The Barnes family is under financial strain because of the global recession, and that's pushing every family member into situations they don't want tell the others about. Teen daughter Cass worries her best friendship will end if a class divide grows between the two girls, and she becomes increasingly desperate not to lose the relationship. (Increasing desperation eventually drives all the characters.) Her younger brother PJ has his own friendship issues, but the boy he met on a gaming forum is the one person who seems to be on his side, and may have a solution to all his family's problems. Their parents, Imelda and Dickie, are overwhelmed with concerns of an adult nature, complicated by a past that's far darker than their children realize.

I'm always interested in stories about family secrets, and this one is well constructed, unfolding to reveal more and more surprises. I liked how even though these characters interact daily and are all impacted by the failing family business, each is largely occupied with a plot the others are completely unaware of. Those separate plots are set up in a section for each character before the perspectives interleave in the final section. The structure allows time to really sink into the distinct points of view, but because the parents' sections are quite long, I got impatient waiting for an update on the kids' stories. Though I wasn't sorry to read 650 pages of this book, I think it could have been shorter.

I'm glad I read this, but it won't be for everyone. Along with warning about the length, I'll mention that one POV is written without any periods or commas, every character makes terrible decisions, and the story gets disturbing in numerous ways. If none of that scares you away, you might also be a reader who will appreciate THE BEE STING.

HOLLOWPOX: THE HUNT FOR MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend: After a difficult first year as a junior scholar in the Wundrous Society, Morrigan Crow is excited to finally begin her magical education in earnest. Her new set of classes is strange and thrilling, and she's so caught up in learning and practicing that she barely has attention for anything else. Still, Morrigan can't ignore the increasing number of disturbing incidents involving Wunimals. These sentient creatures, who normally behave like any other member of Nevermoor society, have started attacking humans in the manner of senseless beasts. While a disease is suspected, even the Wunsoc can't figure out how to stop it, and fear and prejudice is spreading. Morrigan is just a kid, so the adults don't want her trying to find a solution, but she may be in a unique position to help.

I'm continuing to enjoy this series, and how with each new book, we're learning along with Morrigan that there's more to Nevermoor and Wunsoc than was apparent before. The suspense is high in this installment, and the story goes to some tough places and covers them thoughtfully. Morrigan's friendships keep developing in great ways, with this book particularly focused on the idea of found family. I look forward to the gang's next adventures, so I'm joining the wait for the fourth book, expected later this year.

UNLOCKING THE AIR AND OTHER STORIES by Ursula K. Le Guin: For this collection, Le Guin compiled her stories from the 1980s and 90s that aren't science fiction. I didn't realize that when I checked it out from the library, but I was glad for the opportunity to read a different side of her work. Unfortunately, I wasn't that taken with most of the stories. I don't want to pin my disappointment on the lack of scifi, because I'm happy to read realistic fiction, and many of these stories aren't entirely grounded in reality anyway. But my sense after reading them was usually that something was lacking, either in the follow-through of an intriguing setup or in my understanding of the point. The writing is great at a sentence and paragraph level, of course, and Le Guin develops some good characters and relationships, but I wanted more from these stories.

The opener, "Half Past Four", was one of the most interesting to read: In each scene, a set of recurring characters are remixed into different versions of lives and relationships to one another. I enjoyed figuring out all the pieces of each iteration, but the ending left me feeling like I didn't get it, a recurring experience with this collection. The most effective story for me was "Standing Ground", which depicts a tense situation at an abortion clinic from different points of view, though I was also confused by the abruptness of that ending. "Ether, OR" is about the relationships between residents of a small town that doesn't remain in a fixed location. The characters are strong, and the premise is a fascinating one, but I was surprised it mostly provides background flavor more than it impacts the events.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrea Blythe considers the importance of food in storytelling, on the page, on screen, and in games such as Pentiment: "Some of the most interesting moments in the gameplay is when Andreas joins one of the local families for a meal. The act of sitting down for lunch or dinner plays several important roles in the game, including marking the passage of time by moving the day forward. It also reveals a significant amount of information about the family and their social class, as well as being a space for discussion, local gossip, and family arguments. It also allows us to see what kinds of foods were eaten during that time period in Bavaria, enabling the player to feel more connected to this historical moment."

February 29, 2024

Arc-itecture

I've been thinking a lot about character arcs this month. Despite the amount of time I've already spent planning and attempting drafts of the current novel, I realized I didn't have a clear enough sense of what should be driving and changing the characters over the course of the story. Sure, I'd set up events in the world for characters to respond to and conflicts to develop between them, but I couldn't make the pieces of the plot fit together in a satisfying way. One big reason was that I'd never worked out all the details of what's behind the characters' goals, how those motivations evolve during the story, and the consequences for the ending.

I have traditionally considered myself to be good at characters and bad at plot. But "Character is plot, plot is character," as F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have said. What comes most naturally to me as a writer is inventing people who have complicated personalities and relationships and backstories, just like real people. The challenging part is making them also like fictional people, who have a compelling reason to participate in a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Given how much of that beginning, middle, and end I'd already constructed before tackling that part, it seems my weakness isn't so much plot as the character-plot intersection, the character arc.

So I've been refreshing my memory of the principles of character development and plot structure. It might sound artificial to reduce a complex character to a formula of goals and motivations, or corny to frame everyone as pursuing an acknowledged want while truly seeking an unrecognized need. But these pieces of writing advice get repeated over and over because they describe common features of many succesful stories, and I find them useful blueprints to reference.

An entire novel is large and ungainly, and I like using techniques that let me see the big picture by turning it into something small, such as a few sentences that remind me what's important to each character. Readers will eventually get something so much more elaborate and interesting than those sentences, but having those at the heart of the story gives me confidence that the structure is solid.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In a wide-ranging essay, Matthew Salesses questions the Possibilities of Climate Fiction: "I can think of several norms we have in America for contemporary fiction that might get in the way of our ability to story (and therefore comprehend) hyperobjects, especially those that have to do with agency and the project of the individual, such as a character-driven plot (internal causation over external causation). It should be clear right away how a focus on the individual might make it difficult to handle massively distributed objects that no individual is personally responsible for yet whose consequences every individual must deal with."

February 5, 2024

January Reading Recap

I started off the year with a lot of reading!

THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD AND OTHER STORIES by Ursula K. Le Guin: What Le Guin excels at is imagining a culture and bringing it to life with well-considered, fascinating detail, and the stories in this collection really show off this talent for approaching science fiction anthropologically.

In several of the stories, Le Guin revisits a culture she created earlier and takes the opportunity to explore the implications at leisure. "Coming of Age in Karhide" uses a young person's perspective to explain the practical workings of the Gethenian gender and sexuality established in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. "Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways" are love stories set on the planet O, where marriages involve four people, linked in a specific arrangement. These stories are all light on plot but strong on developing the characters and the complicated dynamics of their relationships.

The world of "Solitude" is one where relationships are nearly forbidden, and the way Le Guin explores that idea with characters from inside and outside the culture is thought-provoking and affecting. In "The Birthday of the World", the narrator is so deep inside a particular religious tradition that the reader only gets to understand it gradually, as Le Guin masterfully unspools the story.

The book ends with a novella, "Paradises Lost", that's just the sort of generation ship story I've been wanting to read. The main characters are the fifth generation born on a ship that left Earth bound for a distant planet. The journey will end in the next generation, when these characters are old, and so they grow up viewing the ship as their entire world and never really understanding the irrelevant concept of a planet. Le Guin depicts life in this limited situation with insight, developing the plot carefully and cleverly. It's a captivating finale to a superb collection.

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula K. Le Guin: Something disturbing happens when George dreams. After particularly vivid dreams, he wakes to discover the world has changed to match whatever he dreamed, and he's the only one who remembers the old reality. Desperate to stop the dreams and their unpredictable consequences, George turns to drugs, and that gets him sent for therapy with Dr. Haber, a specialist in sleep and dream disorders. Haber thinks George's claims sound delusional, but he's eager to put George into a dream state and study the EEG. If Haber can get to the bottom of what in George's dreams is making him so afraid, maybe he can learn something that will do good in the world, and also elevate his status as a researcher.

I really liked this short, smart novel. It was published in 1971, and early on, it felt very of that era to me, especially when Dr. Haber delivers long, expositional monologues. I couldn't find a connection at first to the later Le Guin stories I'd just read, but as the story develops, more of her subtlety and interests emerge. The way the plot unfolds chapter by chapter is so clever, unexpected, and ultimately moving.

JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE by Naomi Kanakia: Tara is the first trans girl to attend Ainsley Academy. On the surface, everyone at the all-girls school is welcoming and supportive, but Tara is finding it hard to fit in. She isn't rich or white like most of the other students, and she's a nerd who loves reading famous speeches but still performs terribly in the debate club. Though she's been able to transition socially at home and school, she hasn't started hormones due to oppressive state laws and her parents' concern that an investigation by child welfare services could endanger their visas. Only when Tara interviews for a spot in the school's elite club, the Sibyls, does she find somewhere to belong, with true friends who fully accept her. But then the school administration questions whether Tara is eligible to become a Sibyl, sparking a controversy that splits the club and soon spreads beyond the school. Tara has to decide if she's willing step into the public spotlight and speak out for herself.

Through Tara's first person narration, Kanakia portrays a realistically complicated character who has mixed feelings about so much in her life, as real people do. I enjoyed the character's honesty and nuance, and I felt for her in the story's joy and pain. Other characters are also well developed, especially Tara's parents, who are supportive and trying hard, but don't always get things right. I wished the dialogue had been smoother, and the plot was a bit unevenly paced. Despite some flaws, I'm happy this book is here.

THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE by James McBride: By 1936, most of the Jewish families of Pottstown, Pennsylvania have moved off of Chicken Hill, but Chona Ludlow convinces her husband that they should stay in what is now a mostly Black neighborhood. Though traditionally the Jewish and Black communities haven't mixed, Chona's grocery store serves everyone, and she intends to keep running it. She also intends to keep speaking out and fighting back against hate and injustice whenever she spots it, no matter how much trouble it causes. So when a Black Deaf boy from the neighborhood is orphaned, Chona is happy to take him in, and to hide him from the state authorities who want to place him in a horrific institution. This leads to whole new levels of trouble, though, with a series of repercussions that involve a wide range of people from in and around Chicken Hill.

I liked so many parts of this novel, but there are so many parts, and I was frustrated they didn't all come together as well as I expected. The book is packed with characters, and it takes some patience to get to know them all, because whenever one is introduced, there's a recounting of their life history, and sometimes that of their ancestors. I mostly didn't mind that digressive style, since McBride is a great, funny storyteller who has imagined a terrific cast. Where the book fell short for me was the plot: While a lot of pieces are set up to connect by the end, I found that ending rushed and unsatisfying, with a number of threads and questions left dangling. Still, these characters will stay with me, as I know they will for so many other readers.

ERASURE by Percival Everett: Thelonious "Monk" Ellison has published a number of novels that have gone largely unread. His work is experimental and difficult, and he's often criticized for choosing subject matter that is anything other than what readers consider representative of Black life. Monk is enraged by the popularity of a new novel, We's Lives in Da Ghetto, praised for authentically depicting the Black experience. After a series of family tragedies, Monk is left caring for his aging mother and strapped for cash. He spends a week writing a parody, My Pafology, a novel full of every infuriating stereotype, and sends it to his agent to distribute under a pseudonym. To Monk's horror, an editor snaps up the manuscript for an outrageous sum, and it's on the way to becoming another runaway success.

I was excited about the premise of this novel, but I didn't enjoy reading it as much as the book I was expecting. Though the novel contains the entire text of My Pafology in all its painful glory, what happens to Monk as a result of publishing it takes up less of the main text, and gets less wild, than I anticipated. Large stretches of the story are about Monk's family, and while his reaction to his mother's decline is emotional, that plot didn't interest me as much as directions I thought the publishing satire might go. The text is also peppered with experimental passages I didn't understand. I'm left thinking that I'm probably repeating all the sins of Monk's critics, and that this book is operating at a higher level of satire than I'm able to appreciate. (As one example, I learned afterwards that familiarity with Native Son would add another layer of understanding.)

I'm interested to watch the new movie adaptation, American Fiction, and to read more of Everett's many and wildly varied books.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Nicholas Dames shares an excerpt from his book about the history of the chapter: "The conventionality of the chapter places it in the middle of a spectrum of form: too ordinary to be easily apparent as a particular aesthetic method or choice, too necessary to eliminate in the name of an antiformal freedom that claims to speak on behalf of pure 'life.' That intermediate position is a place, we might say, where form's deliberate artifice and life's unruly vibrancy mix most intimately. The chapter has one foot in both restriction and freedom, diluting the force of both: a not very severe restriction, a somewhat circumscribed freedom."

January 30, 2024

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2024

In my previous post, I looked back at the highlights of my 2023 reading. By now, my 2024 reading is already well underway, and I'm looking ahead to the new books I've been anticipating:

KINNING by Nisi Shawl (January 23): I didn't actually get much chance to anticipate this one, because I only just learned the good news that Shawl has written a sequel to EVERFAIR. In this alternate nineteenth century, Black American missionaries and white British socialists come together to turn part of the Congo into a new nation that offers safety and progress. Plus, there are airships and other steam technology. I read the first book in February 2020 (Shawl was an honored guest at the last strange FOGcon) and then put a lot of other information into my brain, so I'll need to refresh my memory of the story, but I remember that I enjoyed the world and characters.

The rest of my anticipated reads are the second novels published by authors whose debuts I really liked. Second novels are notoriously tricky, because they're often written in much less time, from ideas that haven't percolated as long, under the pressure of trying to replicate a success. I'm eager to see what these writers have done next, whether they match my expectations or not.

COME AND GET IT by Kiley Reid (January 30) is billed as "a tension-filled story about money, indiscretion, and bad behavior" involving a college senior and a visiting professor. That sounds like a fitting follow-up to SUCH A FUN AGE, a page-turner about class, race, and privilege involving a babysitter and her employer.

WANDERING STARS by Tommy Orange (February 27) is both a sequel and prequel to THERE THERE. In the first book, a variety of Native characters with connections to Oakland have plotlines that converge suspensefully at a powwow. The new book deals with consequences from those events and also goes back into the past to explore generations of Native history.

SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND by Jennine Capó Crucet (March 5): I wouldn't normally pick up a book described as "Scarface meets Moby Dick," but since I was a big fan of MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS, I'm going to check this out. Crucet's first novel followed a first generation college student in a story that was compellingly told but I guess pretty conventional. Nothing sounds conventional about the story of a wannabe gangster on a quest involving a possibly magical killer whale. It promises to be a wild ride.

ANITA DE MONTE LAUGHS LAST by Xochitl Gonzalez (March 5): As it happens, one protagonist of Gonzalez's second novel is a first generation college student (at Brown University). The other is an artist who died dramatically in the previous decade, and the student investigates her story. I admired the complexity and layered conflicts of OLGA DIES DREAMING, and this sounds like an even more intriguing setup.

MEMORY PIECE by Lisa Ko (March 19) follows three friends from the 1980s into the 2040s. That's a premise I'd be drawn to regardless, and I'm especially excited it's been written by the author of THE LEAVERS. I was so impressed by the riveting plot and deft handling of family secrets in that novel, and I can't wait to read more.

January 18, 2024

2023 By The Books

I had a great reading year in 2023. Happily, reflecting on my past year of reading with enthusiasm is the norm for me, because I'm fortunate to get the chance to read most days, I always have a book or two in progress, and there are so many great books to choose from. I only wish I was a faster reader so I could enjoy even more of those books! It's possible I'm finally getting a little speedier, though: In 2023, I read an almost unprecedented 51 books. (Or maybe I simply spent more time reading at the expense of more writing progress.)

Last year, a couple of things changed my reading habits some, especially by leading me to more books that weren't published in the past year or two. I joined a book club for the first time, and every club selection was from at least five years ago, some from decades back. The book club has been a good experience in reading even more widely than I already do, and I've read a number of books I wouldn't have picked up on my own, including some memoirs. (I'm still not much of a fan of memoir.)

The other reading innovation of 2023 is that I borrowed far more ebooks from my public library than in previous years. I've used the Libby system sporadically for a while, but sometime in 2022 I started relying on it more, and last year I took full advantage. I sometimes get on waiting lists for brand new books, but I especially use Libby availability as a prompt to check out books from past years that I never got around to. (If you read ebooks or audiobooks and aren't already using Libby, jump on this bandwagon!)

Between the overlapping changes of book club and library borrowing, I read a higher percentage than usual of books that weren't new releases. A recurring pattern lately has been that around two-thirds of the books I read were published that year, and in 2023, it was less than half. Still, around two-thirds were from 2020 or later, and except for book club picks, I mostly stuck to books less than ten years old, so it's not as though I've significantly veered from my preference for contemporary reading. (A recency bias, if you will.)

That habit is continuing to work out well for me, because almost all my favorite books of 2023 were published in 2023, and the oldest is from 2019. But beyond that similarity, my favorites are wide-ranging, spanning a variety of genres, topics, and styles. I've wrangled them into some groupings below. (Find my full review of each book at the linked monthly reading recap.)

I didn't expect my top picks to include so many mystery and crime stories, since I don't think of myself as gravitating toward those genres. None of these are exactly prototypical examples, and that's consistent with my attraction to stories that resist categorization, subvert formulas, and do multiple things well. HAPPINESS FALLS by Angie Kim (September) is a gripping, twisting mystery and also a portrait of a family in the midst of multiple crises. It starts as a missing person story, and then the mystery widens as the family members realize how much they don't know about each other, particularly the child who is unable to speak. In I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU by Rebecca Makkai (June), the characters use a true crime podcast to re-examine the case of a student murdered at their boarding school decades ago. As the investigation unfolds, former classmates grapple with the impact of the events, the role of memory and nostalgia, and the ethics of turning crime into entertainment. Both these mystery novels impressed me with how realistic the scenarios stayed even as the plots satisfyingly thickened.

The crime novels on my list offer a fascinating look inside the criminal world of a specific place and time. In AGE OF VICE by Deepti Kapoor (January), readers follow the central character from an impoverished childhood to a comfortable life serving a powerful, corrupt family in early 2000s Delhi. CROOK MANIFESTO by Colson Whitehead (August), the second book of a series, portrays the shady side of Harlem in the 1970s, featuring a cast of thieves, gangsters, and dirty cops. Both books bring their settings to life with the help of multiple character viewpoints and masterful prose.

Specificity of place and time is a common feature of many of my 2023 favorites. THE FRAUD by Zadie Smith (December) is the most firmly historical fiction, combining details of real historical people and events with wonderfully imagined characterizations. The story covers much of the 1800s, focusing especially on prominent London literary figures and a bizarre court case about a disputed inheritance (so it's a crime story as well!). In MOBILITY by Lydia Kiesling (August), we meet an American teenager in 1998 Azerbaijan and follow her into adulthood and around the world on a personal coming-of-age journey that also tracks the climate change narrative we're all a part of. ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews (April) doesn't hinge quite as much on setting, but the main character's life is shaped by graduating into the recession of the late 2000s. She finds a job in a city where she doesn't know anybody, and in the course of the layered novel, she fulfills her longing for friendship and love. Nuanced character dynamics are prominent in all three of these books, and really in all my favorites.

The novels I've discussed so far are grounded in reality. Now I'll turn to my favorites in the speculative genres, but even some of these draw heavily on real world places and times. I read two excellent horror novels that are also historical. LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle (April) depicts solitary women homesteading in 1915 Montana, a landscape that's brutal and dangerous enough before the story's horror element emerges. How the women come together to survive frontier life is as much a part of the story as how they handle the mysterious contents of the main character's steamer trunk. Similarly, the threats faced by characters in THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS by Matt Ruff (March) are sometimes supernatural but just as often a consequence of being Black in 1957 America. (This is another second book in a series.)

Setting plays a big role in the delightfully original LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS by Ryka Aoki (April). Amid the Asian communities (and cuisines!) of San Gabriel Valley, a trans violin prodigy is taken in by a teacher who made a deal with a devil, the two befriend a family of extraterrestrials who run a donut shop, and joyful hijinks ensue. By contrast, time is the critical element in RECURSION by Blake Crouch (December). That's because it's a time travel thriller where characters jump between alternate timelines in a clever and intricate plot that made my brain hurt. It might seem a bit forced that I've grouped these two wildly different books together this way, but what they share is that both surprised me by how emotionally affecting I found them.

My final three picks leave the real world entirely, since they're all science fiction of the space opera variety. The distinctive protagonists of TRANSLATION STATE by Ann Leckie (June) come from different planets and cultures, but a search for a fugitive translator brings them together with repercussions that may affect diplomacy between all sentient species. In MERU by S.B. Divya (February), most humans are confined to Earth while their improved genetic descendants roam the stars without needing protection from the vacuum of space. When the human main character is permitted to explore a distant planet, she travels as a passenger inside the body of one of the post-human characters. The robot narrator of SYSTEM COLLAPSE by Martha Wells (November) hates spending time on planets and wishes its humans would finish up their mission and get off this particularly unpleasant one before even more goes wrong. The first of these wonderful novels is set in a larger fictional universe but can be read as a standalone, the second is the promising start of a new series, and the third is the latest installment of an ongoing series. All involve intricate and imaginative worldbuilding, exciting plots, and complex characters.

I've already started 2024 with some great reading, and I can't wait to read on!

January 3, 2024

December Reading Recap

I wrapped up a great year of reading with a final four books!

THE FRAUD by Zadie Smith: By 1867, Eliza Touchet has spent decades managing the household of her cousin by marriage, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. Over the course of their long and complicated relationship, she's also perfected the art of managing William's ego. This entails avoiding references to the fact that his work isn't as popular as it used to be and negotiating the ever-changing friendships and rivalries with his literary contemporaries. Eliza sometimes allows herself to wish for a life beyond William's house. A form of escape comes from a surprising source when Eliza starts following the Tichborne case, in which an obvious fraud declares himself the missing heir to an aristocratic estate. Though Eliza doesn't believe the absurd claim, she's fascinated by how many people do, and she's increasingly captivated by the legal proceedings and the figures involved in the case.

I loved this novel, which brings to life historical people and events I'd never heard of. Ainsworth was a successful author of dozens of novels, forgotten after his death, unlike his friend Charles Dickens. The Tichborne case was so entertainingly bizarre that in places Smith reproduces portions of actual court transcripts. Though Eliza Touchet really existed, her character in the novel is mostly a product of Smith's wonderful imagination. Eliza is smart, funny, and generally perceptive but with some notable areas of failed understanding. By focusing on Eliza's singular point of view (and occasionally others), Smith crafts an engrossing, wide-ranging story out of events both real and fictional, or maybe somewhere in between.

RECURSION by Blake Crouch: Barry is the first officer on the scene when a woman goes out on the ledge of a skyscraper, threatening to jump. What's driven her to suicide is that she's the latest person afflicted with False Memory Syndrome, a mysterious new condition that causes distressingly vivid memories from an alternate life. The woman's inexplicable sorrow over a child who seemingly never existed moves Barry, as both a grieving father and a detective who can't resist solving puzzles. He begins investigating, determined to put together the strange pieces of this case. Ten years earlier, Helena has run out of funding for her research into recording and reliving memories, a goal she hopes will help people with cognitive decline, like her mother. Then a powerful billionaire offers her unlimited resources to continue her memory work at a secure facility out on a decommissioned oil rig. He promises her that if she accepts this audacious proposal, they're going to change the world.

I was really impressed by this twisty tale of false memories and alternate timelines. The setups of Barry and Helena's stories let the reader start forming theories about what's going on, but nothing played out quite as I expected. Eventually, of course, Barry and Helena connect, and then there are many more surprises in store. I love time-bending stories, and the mechanics of this one made my brain hurt in the best way. I was also more emotionally affected by the novel than I would have predicted at the start. My mind will keep going back to RECURSION, and I'll be seeking out more of Crouch's scifi thrillers.

OLD IN ART SCHOOL: A MEMOIR OF STARTING OVER by Nell Painter: After retiring from an accomplished career as a professor of history, Nell Painter entered art school at the age of 64. The creation and study of art had been a lifelong interest, but she'd mostly set it aside for decades to focus on teaching and writing. By pursuing a BFA and then an MFA, the aptly named Painter finally gives herself the opportunity to not merely make art as a hobby, but to commit at a professional level. Though she's sometimes able to completely immerse herself in art like her younger fellow students, her attention is often split, since she's also caring for her elderly parents on the other side of the country and completing her latest book. As an artist, Painter remains a historian, drawing from the past for inspiration and always seeking to place works in a larger context.

This was a book club pick that I approached without much enthusiasm, and while I never entirely overcame that, once I got a few chapters in, I mostly stayed interested. For me, there wasn't quite enough to the story to warrant a whole book, but Painter is clearly an experienced writer who knows how to craft a narrative with the material she has. I listened to the audio book, which is read well by the author, so I missed out on seeing the artworks that accompany the text. I enjoyed the book most when Painter talks about the joy of being caught up in her art projects. There's a lot of discussion about visual art and artists that readers with that interest will probably appreciate more than me.

WUNDERSMITH: THE CALLING OF MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend: Following the events of NEVERMOOR, Morrigan Crow has earned a place in the Wundrous Society and discovered the nature of her mysterious power. She can't wait to start school, bond with her classmates, and learn all sorts of exciting new skills. But by the end of the first week, Morrigan has been disappointed on every front, and Wunsoc doesn't feel like the welcoming community she thought it would be. She wishes she could talk to her patron about it all, but Jupiter keeps being called away to help search for missing Wunsoc members. As the number of disappearances mounts and more threats loom, Morrigan increasingly tries to solve her problems alone.

This is a strong sequel that starts playing out the implications of everything set up in the first book. Morrigan's school experience introduces new situations and great new characters. I was glad to spend time with the existing characters and watch their friendships continue to grow, and I enjoyed seeing more of Nevermoor and the Wundrous Society. The story world is a bit high on the whimsy for my taste, but it's all cleverly done and well imagined. I wasn't wild about how much the plot relied on kids not turning to adults for help, so I may be too much of an adult for this series, but I'll probably keep reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Emma Pattee considers the False Promise of Climate Fiction: "Perhaps the confusion about what climate fiction can – and should – do is really just a question of the thin line between art and propaganda. While both may look like a book and quack like a book, most of the writers I spoke with described their fiction as an exploration towards an unknown destination. Propaganda, whose goal is persuasion, must know the destination and take the most succinct, least nuanced path to get there. When the label of 'climate fiction' is applied to a book, every plot choice and character starts to be seen as a message about climate change."