Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

September 28, 2023

Progress Is Progress

I tend to go months without posting anything here about my writing. That probably isn't news to the regular readers of this blog, and to those regular readers: I appreciate your attention to my occasional musings! I maintain the blog partly as a record for myself, but I don't think I'd keep doing it if nobody was reading.

A big reason for the long gap between updates is that I always feel like there are only so many ways to say I'm still doing essentially the same thing as last time I posted. Except whenever I finally start an update and look back at the previous months-ago post, I discover I've actually made more progress than I realized.

For example, back in June I was sticking notes onto poster boards to figure out the big picture of the plot, and this month I'm filling in the rows and columns of a table to figure out the big picture, so that's completely different! Ha, no, of course it's different. Probably. No, really, I did in fact read that post and think, "Wow, that was ages ago, I've done so much since then."

So the record-for-myself aspect of the blog is working, but sharing how I've progressed is trickier. A lot of what I've done lately is intently brainstorm and make decisions about one aspect of the story for a week or two, then shift abruptly to something else. It's not very linear, and I'm not always sure I'm moving forward, but I have to keep trusting that it's all building up to something.

One concrete thing I did last week was to reread the previous draft (or draft-ish pile of text). I hadn't looked at the whole thing in many months, and I've had many new ideas about the story since then. It was useful to revisit the old ideas with all the context around them, and I'm starting to get a better sense of how to reassemble the pieces that are working.

So, yeah, I'm still figuring out how to write a real version of this novel, and I'll probably be doing that for a while, but I've also made a lot of progress.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ I met my friend Christopher Gronlund through his writing blog, The Juggling Writer, which he's been keeping for 14 years. Chris posted about how he's also blogging far less frequently than he once did. But in his case, the big reason is that he's busy writing and recording stories that he puts out into the world regularly through his fiction podcast, Not About Lumberjacks. I am in awe of the ever-expanding scale of this project, and I've so enjoyed witnessing Chris's writing and audio progress over the years.

September 6, 2023

August Reading Recap

Last month's reading included the first couple of books from my long list of anticipated summer releases (which will take me through the fall!):

MOBILITY by Lydia Kiesling: Bunny is an American teen who's grown up all over the world because of her father's job with the Foreign Service. In the summer of 1998, she's living in Baku, Azerbaijan, and everything is boring except for boys. What's available in that department are interesting young men who occasionally treat Bunny as something other than a child and offer glimpses into the complex (but still boring) politics and oil jockeying of the region. Some years later, as a young adult herself, Bunny ends up in a decent but boring job on the fringes of Houston's energy industry. Over time, her work brings her deeper into the world of oil and gas extraction, and she starts to better understand the massive industry. Bunny is finally no longer bored, but now she knows enough that she has to reckon with the complicated baggage of her accidental career.

I am once again impressed by Kiesling's ability to create a gripping story by focusing on the details of a life that's often deeply boring to the character living it. I described THE GOLDEN STATE as "enthralling despite how much of the action is mundane daily logistics," and the same is true of MOBILITY. This time, though, the scale of the logistics eventually expands from one teenager's beauty regimen to the workings of the global energy infrastructure. Frankly, I'd expect to be bored reading about either of those subjects, yet they're fascinating in the context of Bunny's life and family, the extended coming-of-age journey this novel follows her on, and the bigger climate change narrative we're all a part of.

CROOK MANIFESTO by Colson Whitehead: Ray Carney has been on the straight and narrow for four years by 1971, after the events of HARLEM SHUFFLE pulled him deeper into the world of crime. Now he no longer does business with thieves and gangsters, and simply serves the decent people of Harlem by selling well-made furniture at fair prices in his (newly expanded!) store. But when his daughter wants tickets to the sold-out Jackson 5 show, Carney calls up a corrupt cop he knows and agrees to do a favor. That favor becomes a long and violent night as the cop's unwilling sidekick, and that night revives the crooked side of Carney's life.

This sequel gets to the action much faster than the first book, and I enjoyed it as least as much, if not more. This time around, one of Carney's associates becomes a character we spend more time with, and I grew particularly fond of him. As in the original, this installment consists of three adventures set a few years apart, and a big part of the fun is watching the characters and New York City change over the course of the decade. Whitehead's descriptive detail, clearly based on extensive research, brings every aspect of the story world to life, from the siren-filled streets to the criminal underworld to the contents of Carney's furniture showroom. I look forward to the final book in the trilogy, covering the 1980s.

THE TWYFORD CODE by Janice Hallett: After a long stretch in prison, Steve wants to stay out of trouble and reconcile with the adult son he never knew. He starts recording audio files on the old phone his son gave him, explaining his rough childhood, his criminal past, and the mysterious disappearance of a beloved teacher. Steve doesn't clearly remember the events of the day his teacher went missing, so he tracks down classmates and records conversations about their recollections. The story he begins to piece together involves a World War II-era children's book by an author named Edith Twyford and the possibility that the book contains hidden codes. As Steve and his friends attempt to retrace the trail their teacher may have followed decades earlier, the mystery grows stranger, larger, and more dangerous.

This mystery presented entirely as transcripts of audio files is clever and a lot of fun. The structure is unusual, as are the twists and turns, and I could rarely predict where the story was going. Steve is an interesting character to follow, and his portrayal becomes more complex as the story unfolds. This is a good book for fans of word puzzles, though no puzzle solving is required, and I haven't read anything else like it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Esquire, Kate Dwyer examines the growing popularity of shorter books: "Thanks to factors like dwindling attention spans, less leisure time, and price hikes across paperbacks and hardcovers, short texts—novellas, standalone short stories, poetry collections, plays, and experimental cross-genre works—are finally getting their due."

→ Molly Templeton responds at, describing her own recent shift from avoiding to seeking out short books: "There's no room for clutter, in a short book, and while my brain frequently adores narrative clutter—stuff everything in there! Give me the history of some strange corner of the world, Neal Stephenson-style!—it has, of late, wanted something else. Something you might call 'quieter,' even though the stories are not necessarily quiet. Something from which everything unnecessary has been gently removed."

August 7, 2023

July Reading Recap

I got through a wide variety of books in July:

THE OTHER MOTHER by Rachel M. Harper: Jenry is thrilled to arrive in Providence for his first year at Brown University, not so much because he's excited for college but because he might finally learn more about his father. All he really knows is that his parents met while students at Brown, that Jasper went on to become a famous dancer, and that he died when Jenry was two. His mother has been reluctant to share any further details about Jenry's early life in Providence, before they moved to Miami following Jasper's death. So Jenry is astonished to discover that Jasper's father is a retired professor who still has an office on campus. And then his world is blown apart when his new-found grandfather reveals the truth of Jenry's parentage: Jasper was merely a sperm donor helping out his sister, who is Jenry's other mother, a figure never before mentioned.

From the revelation of this initial long-held family secret, the novel unfolds in sections that each focus on a different family member and uncover a new layer of secrets and misunderstandings. This accumulation makes the book increasingly more compelling as the story grows more complicated, so it took me some time to be pulled in, but then I was eager to see the full picture. The premise is great and original, and the different pieces of the story are woven together cleverly. Certain plot events hinge on extreme character reactions that I didn't always find believable, but overall the characters are well drawn.

LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL by Emily St. John Mandel: All Lilia ever does is leave. It's how she was raised, ever since her father showed up to spirit her away from her mother's house when Lilia was seven. She grew up on the road, changing names as frequently as motel rooms, fleeing a past she barely remembered and a detective seemingly always on her trail. Now an adult, Lilia has tried staying in one city and forming relationships, but she always feels pulled to leave again. When Lilia leaves Eli behind in Brooklyn, he's bereft over the loss of their new love, and after receiving a mysterious postcard, he goes looking for her in Montreal.

I'm a big fan of Mandel's work from STATION ELEVEN on, but I hadn't read her first three novels. In this debut, her writing style is already well established, and I immediately felt comfortable in the atmospheric sentences, carefully rendered characters, and nonlinear structure. The plot is compelling and a bit strange, as Mandel's stories generally are. I was delighted by the different character perspectives that appear as events unfold, and I enjoyed watching the pieces come together.

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou is the first in a series of autobiographies she published between 1969 and 2013. This book recounts Angelou's youth, starting with her parents sending 3-year old Maya and her brother to live with their grandmother in rural Arkansas during the 1930s. As a child in a highly segregated Southern town, Maya grows up in a world of Black people. She possesses some understanding of the strange power held by "whitefolks" but has little early contact with "these others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife." Later, she directly experiences the humiliation and violence of racism. For a time, Maya is reunited with her mother, but after a brutal sexual assault, she returns to the relative safety of her grandmother's home until her teen years.

In this beautifully written memoir, Angelou impressively recaptures her limited childhood perspective on experiences and surroundings. This often makes the book's many distressing episodes even more emotionally wrenching. The narrative proceeds chronologically, portraying the consequential events of Angelou's life along with vignettes that represent more typical times. I found the significant scenes fascinating, though usually painful. I'll admit that during more mundane sections, I was sometimes bored. I don't usually choose to read memoir because I prefer the crafted plots of novels to stories constrained by real events, but I'm glad my book club led me to this interesting classic.

ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld: Sally loves her job writing for a late night sketch comedy show (Saturday Night Live, but with a different name). The hectic pace of putting together a live show every week leaves no time for romance, and that's mostly fine with her, because she's skeptical about the concept of falling in love. One week in 2018, the show's guest host as well as musical guest is the handsome pop star Noah, who Sally is glad to discover is less vapid than she expected. In the course of working together to develop and rehearse sketches, Sally finds there's a lot about Noah that's surprising and intriguing. She even wonders at times if he's flirting with her, but considers it unlikely since she's not young or hot or particularly famous. After that strange week, Sally and Noah don't talk for two years, until several months into the pandemic, when he emails her out of the blue.

I was looking forward to a clever and amusing read after several glowing reviews, but this novel disappointed me on most fronts. I didn't think much of the writing, and I hardly ever found the jokes funny. This was especially frustrating because in an early scene, Sally walks us through her editing process for punching up lines and cutting unnecessary material from sketches, which left me imagining edits throughout the rest of the book. I did enjoy the behind-the-scenes details of how SNL operates, yet even there I wanted to edit, because sometimes there was so much detail that it seemed like research dumped on the page. Sally and Noah and their romance are decently developed, but nothing is a huge departure from romance tropes.

I haven't read anything else by Sittenfeld, though I've also heard good things about her previous books, so I'm unsure whether this is a typical example of her writing or an outlier.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Michelle Wildgen celebrates the joys of food-centered fiction: "This love for food-related reading goes all the way back to my childhood. One of my early favorite books was a picture book by Russell Hoban called Bread and Jam for Frances, which is the story of a picky little badger who scorns everything except the titular sandwich. Sick of trying to persuade her to eat anything else, Frances's mother finally obliges and serves her bread and jam while the family eats a wide variety of appetizing meals and her friends unpack the most glorious little lunches involving tiny salt and pepper shakers and hard boiled eggs and cookies and clusters of grapes and so on. (Eventually Frances realizes variety is better than monotony.) I was not a picky eater, so for me the lesson of this book was that I needed to get my hands on tiny salt and pepper shakers for my school lunches."

July 26, 2023

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2023

I've been planning out my summer reading and getting excited about all the books from favorite authors that are coming out this season!

CROOK MANIFESTO by Colson Whitehead (July 18): It's always a surprise to learn what topic and genre Whitehead is venturing into for his next impressive book, but this time the surprise is that he's written his first sequel. I'm looking forward to another visit with the characters from HARLEM SHUFFLE, which combined a fun crime story with the more serious historical events of the early 1960s. One of the things I most enjoyed about the first book was how it portrayed the city and characters changing across several years, and the sequel has the same format, covering the 1970s.

MOBILITY by Lydia Kiesling (August 1): Kiesling's first novel, THE GOLDEN STATE, focused in minute detail on the stress of parenting a toddler solo and was somehow completely enthralling. I've been so curious to find out what she'd write next, and I'm fascinated by everything packed into the description of a "geopolitical exploration and domestic coming-of-age novel" that revolves around the oil industry.

TIME'S MOUTH by Edan Lepucki (August 1): I'm excited to get a novel involving time travel from an author I trust to do something unpredictable with it. Both the apocalyptic CALIFORNIA and the contemporary WOMAN NO. 17 were complicated and unsettling, and a story involving a possible cult in 1950s Santa Cruz promises to be as well.

(A fun note: I became familiar with both Kiesling and Lepucki through their work at The Millions, so it's a bit of synchronicity that not only are they publishing books on the same day, but both covers feature rainbow shimmers.)

TOM LAKE by Ann Patchett (August 1): I'm a big admirer of Patchett's masterful family stories, COMMONWEALTH and THE DUTCH HOUSE. Both novels jump around through decades to fully develop the characters and their relationships, and it sounds as though TOM LAKE does the same. Part of the story takes place in the spring of 2020 as a family comes together to isolate, and I'm eager to see how Patchett writes about the early pandemic.

HAPPINESS FALLS by Angie Kim (August 29): Kim's debut, MIRACLE CREEK, was an intricately plotted, emotional mystery and courtroom drama. Ever since its release, Kim has shared occasional details online about her next book, so I've been anticipating this missing person mystery for years now!

THE VASTER WILDS by Lauren Groff (September 12): MATRIX, the surprisingly compelling story of twelfth century nuns, was one of my favorite books of 2021, and I continue to recommend it frequently. Groff is going far (but not quite so far) back into history again with this novel, to 1610 and the Jamestown colony, and I'm intrigued.

LAND OF MILK AND HONEY by C Pam Zhang (September 26): I loved the beautiful writing and fierce characters of HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD, a story set in the past, in the aftermath of the California gold rush. This time Zhang imagines a future of smog and famine, and in case that isn't interesting enough, the novel is also billed as "a love letter to food."

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Stewart Sinclair explains the path to publishing his first book, a treatise on juggling: "This was the sort of class where the discussion you had in the morning would sort of carry on Socratically in your head throughout the day. So I'd still be thinking about post-modernity and irony and the films of David Lynch even as I took the streetcar down to the French Quarter, where I'd set up my pitch in the middle of the street and lay out my juggling props."

July 7, 2023

June Reading Recap

Last month's reading was excellent:

TRANSLATION STATE by Ann Leckie: After Enae's grandmother dies, sie has the first opportunity of hir life to travel. In fact, sie has no choice but to travel, because circumstances surrounding Grandmaman's estate mean that Enae is sent away from the family home and given a bizarre diplomatic job. Enae is tasked with traveling to distant systems in search of a fugitive who might be one of the translators for the mysterious alien Presger. Meanwhile, on a station elsewhere, Reet is summoned to a meeting by people who have information about his genetic background. Reet grew up in a loving adoptive family, but he's never felt he fit in anywhere, so he's cautiously intrigued by the claims that he's part of a powerful ancient clan. And somewhere else, Qven is raised under the close supervision of Teachers, learning human language and behavior so they can fulfill the role they were designed for, if they survive into adulthood. The choices all three make will have profound effects on the lives of the others, and potentially on all sentient species.

I always love the characters Leckie creates, and I was immediately fond of these three distinctive protagonists. Enae, Reet, and Qven have lives unlike any reader's, but they also have personal foibles and emotions that provide an element of familiarity. Their three separate stories soon converge into an increasingly tense adventure with ever-greater stakes, playing out in a universe Leckie has developed in rich and inventive detail. Throughout, the individual characters remain the focus as they each figure out who they are, what they want, and who they care about.

This novel takes place in the same universe as Leckie's excellent trilogy that begins with ANCILLARY JUSTICE. Familiarity with those books provides some additional context, but TRANSLATION STATE features different characters and settings, and it stands well on its own. It was as good as I expected, but nothing like I expected, because there was no way to predict this utterly original story.

I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU by Rebecca Makkai: During Bodie's senior year of high school in 1995, a classmate was murdered. Now it's 2018, and she's back at the New Hampshire boarding school to teach a class on podcasting. One of her students wants to make a podcast about the death of the young woman 23 years ago, taking the position that the wrong man was convicted. Bodie has her suspicions as well, and as she reviews her memories through the lens of adulthood and the MeToo movement, she forms new theories about what happened. She's also forced to question the role her actions and inactions may have played in the case, and to wrestle with the ethics of turning true crime into entertainment.

Since this true crime story is actually fiction, it combines the tantalizing thrill of following a real investigation with the promise that the clues will add up to something. Makkai does an excellent job plotting out the novel to keep the characters uncovering new information and interpretations in ways that always feel plausible. The details of the characters and setting are also completely believable throughout. Bodie's reflections on New England boarding school in the early 90s are close enough to my own (murder-free) high school experience that I felt significant nostalgia. That surely contributed to how much I liked the book, but the story also impressed me beginning to end with its complexity and insight.

THE IMMORTAL KING RAO by Vauhini Vara: A boy given the lofty name of King is born in 1951 in a poor Indian village to the Rao family, whose successful coconut business has lifted them above the expectations of their Dalit caste. Over a hundred years later, King Rao's success has reached unimaginable heights before resulting in his downfall, and he dies "the most influential person ever to have lived," according to his daughter, Athena. She writes an account of his life from the prison cell where she has been confined since King's death, revealing the circumstances that led to this point by following multiple timelines. Athena tells of King's childhood in the coconut grove among a large, often feuding family. She recounts how after moving to Seattle as an adult, King and the woman who would become his wife found an early computer company, Coconut. And Athena explains her strange isolated childhood, raised in secret by her father after his retreat from a society dominated by the technologies and algorithms he invented.

I enjoyed this novel and the way it combines my favorite genres by telling a family story that starts off grounded in a specific historical time and place and ends up in a speculative future. In that future, the world has moved beyond nation-states to rule by the impartial Master Algorithm, a supposedly utopian solution that's constantly challenged by the story, which focuses on the perspective of people who've opted out of the system. The book sets up a number of mysteries at the beginning to be explained in the course of the narrative, and this structure mostly worked well, though a few things were left less explored than I expected. It's a fascinating debut, and I look forward to more from Vara.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Patricia Fancher considers why personal writing often ignores the importance of friendship: "I wondered if earlier drafts of these memoirs had included more, if these friends were once complete characters. In my imagination, I saw an editor cutting a friend out in order to simplify the narrative. I have, at least once, cut a friend to get an essay under the word limit. I’ve been in workshops in which someone found the additional 'friend character' confusing. I myself have advised students to write a composite character instead of including a crowd of friends. It’s true: these kinds of revisions can streamline a narrative. A network of friends can muddle a storyline—but I also see it as a sign of a rich life."

June 30, 2023

Sticking Points

A few weeks ago, to get myself unstuck on novel planning, I turned to sticky notes.

While I do all my writing by typing into a computer, for the planning stages, I often apply pen to paper. Usually small pieces of paper, like index cards, or small areas of paper, like the margins of a printed draft. My handwriting is barely legible, even to myself, and it's even worse when tiny, but I find a lot of value in scribbling down thoughts, despite the effort required in interpreting them later. Switching away from the keyboard into a mode with something physical to see and touch helps me generate new ideas.

The ideas I'm trying to generate right now involve that novel I've been working on that is still more like piles of sticks than a bridge. I'm in the process of figuring out all the questions about the plot and characters that remain unclear to me, and there are more of those left than I'd like.

As one example, a major part of the story I decided on long ago is that one character is involved in wrongdoing, and then at a particular turning point, another character catches them. But I have yet to construct the exact scenario in which the catching plausibly happens, in a way that couldn't have just as easily happened far earlier in the story. And ideally I want this event to be a result of some events in another plotline, or at the very least not include any details incompatible with those other events. So there are many sub-questions for each of the big questions, and it's a lot to get my brain around. I hoped that unloading some of my brain onto paper might help.

Last fall, I had great success working out the basic plot for this novel by lining up index cards on my rug. This time, I felt like trying a different, more freeform medium, so I arranged sticky notes on poster boards, some in orderly columns and others stacked up haphazardly.

June 7, 2023

May Reading Recap

I'm continuing to read as many books as I can!

YELLOWFACE by R.F. Kuang: June Hayward and Athena Liu met in college and both published novels not long after graduating. June's debut performed modestly, and she hasn't written anything since. Athena has produced multiple bestsellers, so the casual friendship between the two involves a strong current of jealousy from June. One night, Athena dies suddenly, leaving behind a completed manuscript she hasn't shown to anyone. June takes the draft and finds it fragmented and rough, but brilliant, and it inspires her in a way nothing else has. She rewrites the novel, historical fiction about the Chinese Labour Corps in World War I, and presents it as her own, justifying to herself that she's worked hard enough to deserve all the credit. To stave off questions about June, a white author, writing Chinese history, it's suggested she publish under her full first and middle name, the ambiguous Juniper Song. But the better the book does, the more questions and suspicions arise, and the harder June has to work at denying the truth of what she's done.

YELLOWFACE portrays the worlds of publishing and social media with an insightful accuracy that makes the story as compelling as any unfolding online disaster. At every step, Kuang imagines plausible iterations for the Twitter outrage, and she finds new ways to complicate it. Nobody in this story is entirely good or bad, always right or wrong. The nuance extends to the issue of literary appropriation, both of cultures and of personal experiences, and I appreciated that the novel doesn't take a clear position but instead leaves the reader to ponder. My only disappointment was that the ending was less spectacular than I was hoping, and some details I thought were early clues didn't wind up factoring in. Still, this was a gripping read for me, particularly as someone immersed in the online book world.

SWING TIME by Zadie Smith opens with the unnamed narrator returning abruptly to England after losing her job abroad in some dramatic fashion. She looks back at the events that brought her to this point, especially the two complicated friendships that shaped first her youth and then her early adulthood. At a childhood dance class, she's drawn to Tracey, the other brown girl in the class. They both have one white parent and one Black, but their lives are otherwise quite different, which becomes a constant source of fascination and judgement. From a young age, it's clear that Tracey is a gifted dancer while the protagonist is not, and this is one aspect of the rivalry that permeates their friendship. In her early twenties, the narrator has the chance to meet the pop star Aimee, whose records she listened to as a child, and makes such an impression that Aimee hires her as a personal assistant. Aimee is a white celebrity who takes on the cause of girls' education in West Africa in her own stubborn, naive way, so for many years the job involves spending time in a village to oversee the creation of a school. As the narrative shifts between the main character's earlier and later life, the full story of Tracey and Aimee's impact on her life emerges.

I ultimately really liked this exploration of complex relationships of many different and unexpected types. It did take me a while to get into this book, but eventually I became invested and was eager for each new chapter, especially those in the Aimee storyline. The novel packs in a lot of events that develop the layers of the characters while commenting on dance, race, money, and family. At times there's so much to cover that it slows the story down, and since many of the nuances rely on remembering details established earlier, I think the book would have benefited from being a shorter, faster read. It's still well worth reading, but I'd also recommend Smith's first two novels, which I read long ago but remember as tighter stories.

WRONG PLACE WRONG TIME by Gillian McAllister: Jen is waiting up for her teenage son on the night the clocks turn back, when to her shock, she witnesses him stab a stranger to death outside their house. After a horrible night, she finally sleeps, then wakes to find that time really has turned back for her. Somehow it's the previous day instead of the next, and the stabbing hasn't yet happened. Maybe there's something Jen can do to stop it, or at least to understand what would drive her sweet and nerdy son to murder. She spends the day trying to work out what's happening and get anyone else to believe her, but she makes little progress. When she wakes the next day, it's not the next day, or the same day, but the one before. Jen is moving backwards through time, hoping there's some discovery she can make that will bring her back to her present and save her son.

This is a fun page-turner of a story. It's the sort of book that's all about the plot, and that plot is a solid one that kept me in suspense and surprised me multiple times. The characters are fine, not the best developed but also not flat, and for the most part their actions are believable. The time-reversing element also generally maintains the necessary internal consistency. If a thriller that plays around with time appeals to you, I think you'll enjoy this.

BROTHERLESS NIGHT by V.V. Ganeshananthan: At sixteen, Sashi already knows she wants to be a doctor, and her mind is on the exams she'll need to pass to enter university and then medical school. Her four brothers, three older and one younger, are mainly focused on their studies and futures as well. But it's 1981 in Sri Lanka, and civil war is on the horizon. Soon Sashi and the young men in her life, all part of the country's Tamil minority, find their futures interrupted by violent conflict between militant separatists and the government. In the years of tragedy and displacement that follow, Sashi does manage to pursue her dream of studying medicine, but her family's future is also changed by complicated alliances with the Tamil Tigers liberation movement.

I knew nothing about the Sri Lankan civil war, and I learned a great deal from reading this novel. Ganeshananthan uses the experiences of Sashi and her brothers to portray many years of brutal history and convey varying perspectives on the militant groups. While the book served as a valuable history lesson, I found it less effective a novel. Sashi and the other characters felt flat to me, lacking specifics that would have brought them more to life. As a result, I never connected with the story emotionally in the way that most other reviewers have.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders discusses her approach to revision: "It's easy to think of a first draft as a series of IOUs that you wrote to the story. But this is where I've been finding it helpful to think of it as a set of presents to unwrap, instead. Take those scenes that feel so half-baked or sketchy, for example: there's a really good scene in there somewhere, and you just have to find it. Usually -- definitely not always -- the weak version of the scene contains plenty of seeds, or clues to help you find the better version." (Anders offers more revision strategies in her next post.)

May 4, 2023

April Reading Recap

Another wonderful and varied month of reading:

LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS by Ryka Aoki: Katrina Nguyen has saved up money every way she can to buy a violin, and to run away from home after her father beats her for being trans. She heads to southern California, where Shizuka Satomi has also traveled in search of her next violin student. Shizuka needs to find one more musical genius and deliver their soul to Hell in order to fulfill the deal she made with a demon decades ago. Katrina and Shizuka meet, with some help from the donut shop run by a family of aliens who have come to Earth to live beyond the reach of the Galactic Empire. But all Katrina knows about any of this at first is that Shizuka wants to teach her and offers kindness, not the judgement and disgust she's received from almost everyone else in her life. With Shizuka, and later the aliens, Katrina finds a family, one that might have the power to fight back against hate, demons, and galactic threats.

This novel is so original and so emotional. While the overall story brims with fun and joy, it also unflinchingly portrays the violence, transphobia, and racism that Katrina and other characters face. I felt deeply for all the characters, with their many flaws, as they muddle through the strange set of circumstances they're in. The story is full of musical lore, mouth-watering descriptions of donuts and all the other foods of the San Gabriel Valley, and sheer delight.

LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle: In 1915, Adelaide Henry burns down the farmhouse where she's spent her entire life, incinerating the bodies of her parents, killed in brutal circumstances. Before this point, the Henrys lived among a community of other Black farming families in California's Lucerne Valley, but they always remained separate due to a secret shame. Adelaide must take that burden with her when she leaves, packed inside a heavy steamer trunk. She journeys to Montana, where even a woman on her own can acquire a plot of land to homestead. Montana is relentlessly cold long before winter sets in, and survival is a struggle. But Adelaide meets other lone women who help her out, and for a little while she doesn't have to worry about what she keeps locked up in that trunk. Secrets have a way of getting out, though.

This is an excellent work of historical, feminist fiction with a deep undercurrent of horror. The story is unsettling from the first page and contains many disturbing events, but I wouldn't call it scary, and I'd recommend it even to readers who aren't generally interested in horror. LaValle depicts the characters and their interactions with nuance, and he presents a fascinating rendition of frontier life. At any given moment, the threat might be coming from the steamer trunk, from other people, or from the land that's "trying to kill every single one of us," as another character tells Adelaide early on, and it all makes for a tense and riveting book.

ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews: The narrator, who at first only calls herself S, is lucky to find a job after graduating from college into the recession. She moves to Milwaukee, where the company even provides her an apartment, though it's a miserable situation living above a property manager who sends threatening texts every time S makes the slightest noise. The job also isn't great, but it's improved once S gets a college buddy hired as a coworker. Besides him, S knows nobody else in Milwaukee, and she's oceans away from her parents, who had to move back to India some years ago. For the first time, she feels free to explore dating women, though she tells herself she's only interested in sex, not relationships. She does want friends, however. Gradually, S finds the friends who will be able to support her through the difficult times ahead, if she'll only be honest with them about what she's going through.

I was immediately pulled into this novel by the excellent narrator, who is full of longing for love, friendship, and the trappings of maturity. Early on, the plot is sparse, and I expected the character to mostly meander through the events of early adulthood, but in fact there's much more to this story. As it progresses, the novel unfolds layers I didn't even realize needed unfolding, and I was impressed by the overall effect of the many developments. This is a beautifully crafted book about the complications of love: romantic, familial, and above all the enduring love of friends.

→ In THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion recounts the terrible year that begins with her husband's sudden death while their adult daughter lies comatose in a hospital. In the aftermath of John's fatal heart attack, Didion moves mechanically through the practical tasks to be handled, aware that part of her still believes he's coming back. Only weeks later does daughter Quintana wake up to learn the news, and her medical ordeal continues, leaving Didion caught in uncertainty. Months pass before Didion can fully focus on her grief and accept the finality of her loss, and this memoir meticulously documents that process and the events of the year.

Didion approaches this project as a writer accustomed to researching and revising in order to provide the most accurate portrayal. I have the same tendencies, so I appreciated her methods as she returns to certain moments again and again, questioning her memories and trying to reconcile them with corroborating evidence. In some later sections of the book, the circularity and repetition started to feel tedious, and the whole thing could have been shorter, but that's also an accurate representation of grief. I came to this memoir with little knowledge of Didion's work, and I wished for a bit more context around the books and people she references. She had a fascinating life and a wide ranging career, and it was interesting to learn about parts of these in the course of her effective account of one tragic year.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meaghan Mulholland, writing at Electric Literature, finds connections between The Secret Garden and her life with long COVID: "At the time I began the [hyperbaric oxygen therapy] treatment, I happened to be reading Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden to my six-year-old daughter at bedtime. I'd forgotten much of the plot in the decades since last reading it as a child, but I was struck early on by the book's repeated references to the healing properties of air—specifically that of the moors around Misselthwaite in Yorkshire, where orphaned Mary is sent to live with her uncle at the story's outset."

April 27, 2023

Breaking Away

I reported two months ago that I'd finished a writing stage of my current novel project, producing a semi-draft and generating a slew of ideas over the course of four months.

I haven't made a lot of visible progress since then, because I took much of these two months off for a stretch of visitors and vacation. I'm grateful for the visiting and traveling I was able to do, and it was nice have a planned break after months of writing every day.

I did check in with my project periodically and somewhat recursively: First I reread the whole draft and took notes about what works, what needs work, and how the pieces might better fit together. Some time later, I read those notes from the readthrough and jotted down additional thoughts about what to prioritize. Later still, I looked through all the notes again to synthesize and reorganize. And then... well, then I decided it's probably time to move on from this particular notes stage.

During my downtime, I also had a chance for some background thinking about the novel. I wish I could say that while I was gazing at beautiful scenery, I came up with brilliant solutions to all my plot problems, but I've rarely found inspiration to work that way. Instead, now that I'm getting back to work, I'll need to devote focused attention to those plot problems, but I can hope the ideas might arrive a bit quicker because I've been pondering for a while.

The work ahead of me is still vast and intimidating, but after getting the time to relax and regroup, I'm feeling more ready to forge on ahead.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Emma Staffaroni asks, What Kind of Pandemic Storytelling Do We Actually Need? "These two prestige pandemic stories allow their allegories of total destruction to chafe against our inhabited COVID experiences without directly representing them. They resonate emotionally: the early horror, the devastating grief, the world turned upside down. The Last of Us titillates more directly, its language of quarantine zones and potential vaccines unbearably coded. This can have the effect of registering the story's epic shoot-outs with 'the infected' as grandiose personifications of the quiet, microscopic battle with virus particles that actually shaped our lives for those long, pre-vaccine months."

April 7, 2023

March Reading Recap

I'm still on a reading streak!

THE TERRAFORMERS by Annalee Newitz: Some 60,000 years in the future, corporations terraform planets over millennia to prepare them as real estate and tourist destinations. Destry is a ranger with the Environmental Rescue Team on the developing planet Sask-E, and her job is to keep the ecosystem in balance so it can support eventual mass habitation. She was built as a homo sapiens, though other people on the planet are different species of hominin, or animals, or bots of various forms. Destry works closely with Whistle, a flying moose who communicates by sending text messages through the network. Along with some other rangers, Destry and Whistle go to investigate a mysterious door spotted in the lava tube of a volcano. There they discover a secret city of people living undetected by the corporation that owns the planet and wields control over all the other inhabitants. These free citizens want the ERT's help, and that request sets off a chain of events that will take centuries to unfold.

This is an ambitiously epic story that covers a lot of fascinating ground. Some elements worked better for me than others, but overall I enjoyed it. I was particularly drawn in by the varied characters and the connections they form. The novel celebrates friendship and love, giving an exuberance to a story that's sometimes about much darker topics like slavery and eugenics. Science fiction usually comments on the time it's written, and this book depicts problems such as gentrification causing homelessness in a way I sometimes found too exactly like today for a setting so far in the future. Other aspects are much more creatively imagined, and I liked the details of technology and society that Newitz develops and evolves over the course of the story. This may be an uneven novel, but the characters and ideas will stay with me.

→ In THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS, Matt Ruff returns to the characters introduced in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY and subjects them to new harrowing adventures. As a result of the events of the first book, Atticus and his family are tangled up with some powerful wizards, all white men who aren't thrilled to find themselves dealing with bunch of Black folks. Atticus and his father set off on a roadtrip to explore the history of their enslaved ancestors, and on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line, they end up on the wrong side the law and displaced in time, recreating the flight to freedom. Aunt Hippolyta and her angry teenage son have their own encounter with the police on a different roadtrip out west, but that doesn't stop Hippolyta from picking up the custom transporter that will allow her to explore the universe. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, other family members are involved with dangerous magic that's going to lead everyone to a big showdown with those evil wizards.

I was delighted to spend more time with these characters in a sequel that's packed with exciting escapades. This book has a different structure than the first, with chapters switching quickly between storylines, creating a fast pace with many tense cliffhangers. The story has everything I expect from Ruff: well-drawn characters, wry humor, cleverly entwined plots, and imaginative ideas. As a sequel, it lacks the novelty of the first installment, but it also benefits from Ruff's freedom to move beyond the basics that had to be covered in the original. This is a solid second entry in a series that will continue with at least one more book. I recommend starting at the beginning.

→ I reread AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the book club I've recently joined. We had a great discussion, and I enjoyed revisiting the novel.

My 2014 review describes the story of a young woman who immigrates to the United States from Nigeria, then after many years decides to move back. That review fairly well captures my response on the second read: The characters are compelling and the story provides fantastic insights on race and culture. I also still thought the novel gets bogged down some with sections that are more about presenting ideas than developing the characters or plot, so it could have been shorter.

Something that particularly impressed me on this read is how well Adichie writes dialogue. The characters always sound like real people talking, and like different real people, with subtle distinctions that convey upbringing, status, and setting. I haven't read any of Adichie's other work but am interested to see she has a story in the speculative collection Black Stars, which I've heard good things about.

OH WILLIAM! by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy and William divorced decades ago, but they've remained friendly. Now they're in their 60s and have both recently gone through big changes: Lucy's beloved second husband has died, and William's much younger third wife has left him. William has also learned some unsettling news about his late mother's past, and he asks Lucy to travel with him to Maine, where he hopes to learn more. In the course of their trip, Lucy reflects on the good and bad times in their marriage, their relationships with their two grown daughters, and the impact of William's mother on all their lives. She also shares more about her childhood of poverty and abuse, which she wrote about in her memoir.

The memoir Lucy refers to is Strout's earlier novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, and this book builds on the same characters and relationships, but it could be read alone. (I kept wondering what the rest of Lucy's books are like, since she's primarily a novelist but never describes her other work.) While this installment of Lucy's life has more present action than the first, with a bit of suspense over what Lucy and William will discover in Maine, it's primarily another character study. By this point Lucy's narration has become comfortably familiar, such that even at the slowest points I was more pleasantly lulled than bored. I enjoyed spending more time with these characters, and I immediately moved on to the next book in the series.

LUCY BY THE SEA by Elizabeth Strout: In March 2020, Lucy's ex-husband tells everyone in the family that they need to get out of New York City. Lucy doesn't really understand what's going on, but when William insists he's taking her to a house he's rented in Maine, their grown daughters encourage her to go with him. "Just for a few weeks," they say, with foreboding that's baked in, and since Lucy is writing from the future as well, she can ramp up the tension by listing all the things she "did not know that morning in March." Lucy and William drive to the Maine coast and isolate there, taking walks, having anxious phone calls with family members, and spending more time together than they even did during their long-ago marriage. As the weeks and then months pass, they make friends to socialize with outdoors, and they watch the pandemic unfold. Lucy continues processing her grief over her second husband while she also grieves for the world. In time, she is able to return to writing fiction.

What motivated me to start reading this series was my interest in getting to Lucy and William's pandemic experiences. I recommend reading at least OH WILLIAM! before this book, because much of the emotional impact comes from familiarity with the characters and their relationship prior to the upheaval of the pandemic. I found it compelling to go through these events with characters I already knew well, but I don't think the book would have been as successful for me without that background.

Strout does a good job evoking the fear and uncertainty of the early pandemic. Lucy and William are in the position of being able to remove themselves from risk, which was my experience as well, so much of what feels familiar about the story is the extreme privilege. Through other characters Lucy interacts with, Strout provides a somewhat broader picture. Lucy's family does not emerge unscathed, but I found some of the foreshadowing manipulative, suggesting a more catastrophic outcome than the story actually has.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At CrimeReads, Frederick Weisel describes what he learned from book clubs reading his novels: "Not everyone loves your book. In a book club, they tell you this to your face, not in the snarky, scoring-points way of a social media post, but in an honest explanation of what didn't work for them. That explanation will, like nothing else, bring you back down from whatever pedestal you climbed up on and, even if you reject the criticism, might open your eyes to other ways of seeing the story."