Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

February 24, 2021

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2021

The next few months are bringing many new books from authors I'm excited to read more from!

THE COMMITTED by Viet Thanh Nguyen (March 2): It did not occur to me to expect a sequel to THE SYMPATHIZER, but I was excited to learn one was coming. The excellent first novel follows a double agent from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War to a new life in Los Angeles, and the second takes him to Paris to deal with the many difficult events of his past. I look forward to more time with this fascinating protagonist, and to more of Nguyen's dark humor and clever sentences.

LIBERTIE by Kaitlyn Greenidge (March 30): Greenidge's inventive debut, WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN, featured well-developed characters, complicated family dynamics, and a wide range of topics including sign language and the history of racist science. LIBERTIE promises to deliver more history and complexity with the story of a young Black woman during the Reconstruction who tries to find a life where she can truly be free.

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade (April 6): This novel expands a short story from Quade's great collection, NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS. All those stories did an impressive job rendering characters and relationships fully enough in a few pages to get me invested. I'm eager to see what Quade does with a whole novel to depict a family coming together in the face of a teen pregnancy.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (April 6): I adored Sweeney's debut, THE NEST, a standout in my beloved genre of dysfunctional family dramas. It was a particular delight to enjoy the book so much and see it succeed, because Sweeney and I were workshop-mates at the Community of Writers some years earlier. The new novel explores the truths behind a friendship and a marriage against the backdrop of theater and TV acting.

STOP SAVING THE PLANET!: AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MANIFESTO by Jenny Price (April 20): While I'm bragging about personal connections, I'll divulge that this author is one of my cousins, which is why I'm anticipating a book that's pretty far from my usual tastes. But I am genuinely looking forward to reading this, because I agree with the premise that most "save the planet" efforts do little to address the real problems of climate change and environmental inequity. Jenny is also an entertaining writer, and I recommend her previous book about human connections to nature, FLIGHT MAPS.

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY by Martha Wells (April 27): I read all the previous installments of The Murderbot Diaries last year and put the series at the top of my 2020 favorites. The title character, a cyborg security expert trying to find its place in human society, is an excellent, opinionated narrator, and I can't wait for its next adventure.

SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon (May 4): AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS and THE DEEP are both intense, beautiful stories about power and complicated relationships. SORROWLAND sounds like it will explore these as well, in the context of another intricately imagined world. I'm especially intrigued by this sentence from the description: "Here, monsters aren't just individuals, but entire nations."

ONE LAST STOP by Casey McQuiston (June 1): Since reading the delightful RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE, the politically optimistic gay love story I didn't know I needed, I've been eagerly awaiting more from McQuiston. The new novel is a romance between two women, one of whom is displaced in time, and it sounds just as wonderful.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker (June 8): This sequel to THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI has undergone changes to both title and release date since it was first announced, but it's really on the way now. I'm thrilled we'll be getting more to the richly developed story of two supernatural beings who met as immigrants to New York City and the world of humanity at the turn of the twentieth century.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Casey McQuiston writes at Goodreads about the importance of queer love stories: "I thought about what it would have meant to a teenager like me, stumbling around and grabbing onto anything that felt sturdy, to see a book like mine while loitering around the stacks. This pastel-colored confection, with a jacket copy describing a fantastical, frothy, happily-ever-after queer love story that sounded like so many of the rom-coms I loved. I think it would have helped her to know that stories like that could be prominently featured in her favorite place."

February 4, 2021

January Reading Recap

My reading year started off well!

THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans is an impressively, consistently strong collection of stories. They're just so good! Each one puts well-drawn characters into nuanced conflicts, often with themselves.

Evans is particularly skilled at combining a bunch of seemingly unrelated elements so the story feels organic and lifelike, yet delivers a satisfying narrative arc. In "Happily Ever After," a woman works in the gift shop at a landlocked replica of the Titanic, she has a difficult health decision to make, and these threads and more weave together into a compelling whole. (An earlier, shorter version of the story appears online.) "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain" juxtaposes a potentially doomed wedding weekend with the disastrous circumstances in which a guest and the groom first met.

The situations in these stories are complicated. In "Boys Go To Jupiter," a college student goes viral for casual racism, and the story unfolds her tangled past. "Anything Could Disappear" presents a traveler with a series of choices that lead to an emotional journey through ethical gray areas.

The title novella has space for even more complexity in the plot and character relationships. The protagonist works at the Institute for Public History, a federal agency that combats misinformation by issuing corrections to plaques, public records, and so on. She's tasked with making a particularly knotty correction that puts her back into contact with an old frenemy and their longstanding rivalry. It's a fascinating end to an incredible collection!

WE RIDE UPON STICKS by Quan Barry: Danvers, Massachusetts, borders the more famous Salem, but it was part of Salem Village in 1692, when a group of teen girls discovered the power they could wield by accusing neighbors of witchcraft. The Danvers Falcons Women's Varsity Field Hockey Team have never come anywhere close to a successful season, but in the fall of 1989, their goalie turns to local lore for help. She makes a dark pledge that the rest of the team join by solemnly signing their names—to a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. With the magic of Emilio fueling them, the eleven team members discover their own power. They start scoring (both on and off the field), they grow into their truest selves, and they delight in wreaking havoc on their own terms.

I loved this quirky novel and found it wicked funny and at times quite moving. It didn't hurt that I was also a Massachusetts high school student in 1989, so every cultural reference charmed me. Barry does a great job managing an ensemble of eleven main characters, plus assorted classmates and adults, and I developed deep affection for everyone in the story. In the middle, I felt some sections dragged a bit, but in retrospect, I'm not sure I'd give up any part of the book. It's a lot of fun, it has a lot of heart, and all its weirdnesses lined up well with my own.

RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark: Maryse fights monsters that wear Ku Klux Klan robes. And they really are monsters: hideous creatures from who-knows-where that feed on racist hatred and take over the bodies of weak, despicable fools. Most people can't see the signs of the monsters lurking beneath the skin of the humans they've turned. Maryse and her friends have the sight, and they're part of a group using both magic and firepower to fight back against evil in 1922 Georgia.

This short book is packed with exciting action scenes and effectively disturbing body horror. I'm not the best audience for either of those, but I appreciated many parts of the story, including the opportunity to read about Black women wielding power in the Jim Crow South. I was intrigued by the premise and the connections made to historical events, and I would have enjoyed more worldbuilding about the origins and spread of the monsters. You can judge this book by the cover: The KKK robe and the mouths where they don't belong encapsulate the story's horrors, so use that to decide whether it's for you.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Ruth Madievsky looks at the differences in reviews of women-centric and male-centric literary fiction on Goodreads: "In our publishing climate—where women authors (especially queer women and women of color) are often assumed to be writing autobiographically, are dismissed for writing work that is 'domestic' and characters who are 'unlikable,' and are reviewed significantly less than men in major media outlets—this ratings discrepancy doesn't feel benign."

→ Melissa Baron introduces Book Riot to the genre of ergodic fiction, a new term for me: "What that really amounts to is whether or not the text follows the conventional format of paragraphs, dialogue tags, standard margins, and all the things that make reading it easy."

January 15, 2021

2020 By The Books

It's my habit in January to look back at the books I read in the year just ended. In 2020, of course, everything was different, but reading was the one part of my life that didn't change all that much.

I read 46 books in 2020. While that looks like a notable increase from the previous year's 39, the number of novellas and other shorter works means I don't think I spent substantially more time reading. I've been fortunate not to have the sort of reading block many people have experienced during the pandemic, though my ability to focus on a story certainly fluctuated week by week and hour by hour. Often fiction was the only thing that could distract me from the news, and I might have ended up reading a whole lot more if I hadn't eventually started writing again.

My book selection patterns remained fairly stable in 2020. More than half my reading was brand new books, with almost all the rest from the past five years. I read my usual mix of realistic fiction, speculative, and stories that fall somewhere in between. As always, fiction dominated, but I also read a couple of books about writing, two other nonfiction works, and a book of poetry. The one type of book I wanted little to do with was my previously beloved apocalyptic genre (though I did make one exception). And a weird trend was that without meaning to, I happened into quite a few stories involving characters who see ghosts.

I read a lot of good books in 2020, which is perhaps the nicest thing I have to say about the year. Here's a rundown of the ones that impressed me most, each linked to the monthly recap with a full review:

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells brought me the most reading delight, though it has an unfair advantage as a series. I was hooked by ALL SYSTEMS RED (May), the first thrilling adventure of the Security Unit who's great at its job but not at interacting with humans. Three more novellas and a novel (so far) provide further action, intrigue, and space travel, while also developing an increasingly complex exploration of friendship, anxiety, and feelings. I love how Wells combines these elements, and I can't wait for more Murderbot this spring.

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid (January) was one of my first reads of the year and remains one of my most frequent recommendations. This page-turner revolves around a babysitter and her employer when the mother decides to address the race and class differences between them. Good intentions and bad assumptions go wonderfully awry as the plot winds tighter, and Reid brings the story to life with fantastic dialogue and nuanced, compassionate character portrayals.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam (October) was the one apocalyptic scenario I was willing to read this year, because I was so intrigued by the combination of author and premise. Alam writes such strong, well-observed character interactions, and the story starts with a promisingly uncomfortable dynamic. A family on vacation at an Airbnb is surprised by the late-night arrival of a panicked couple who say they're the owners, and that something terrible is happening in New York City. Events outside the house grow more and more disturbing as the occupants try to cope with the awkwardness inside. This novel is profoundly unsettling, and so good.

THE LOST BOOK OF ADANA MOREAU by Michael Zapata (February) is a novel set in the real world that's about and for lovers of science fiction. The mystery of a lost and found manuscript connects characters across generations in a tale that explores immigration, loss, and family. Zapata has crafted a gorgeous, inventive novel about stories, journeys, and the rambling path both often take, and I was captivated all the way through.

January 8, 2021

December Reading Recap

I closed out last year with some great reading. Now that I've caught up on reviewing everything I read in 2020, I'll get to work on my list of favorites to share next week.

HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD by C Pam Zhang: In 1862 California, two young siblings are left orphaned by the death of their father, a man hardened by poverty and failure. After a racist incident in town, the kids decide they must flee without taking time to bury their Ba. Sam packs a trunk with their belongings, and they load it onto a stolen horse. They travel for days before Lucy discovers that the trunk contains Ba's body. Sam is determined to find the right place for burial, and though Lucy is the older one, she's never been able to tell stubborn Sam what to do, so they continue their journey into unknown territory.

This is a powerful novel full of both beauty and ugliness. As you might guess from my summary of the opening events, it's not a story for the squeamish, and there's a wide range of difficult content as the story unfolds. That unfolding comes gradually, through shifts in time and perspective, and sometimes reluctantly. Lucy, Sam, and their parents hold close the secrets of their selves and pasts, so the suspense in this novel is not only about what will happen, but what has happened. Zhang wields perfect control over the narrative to make discoveries about this complicated family as rewarding as a glimpse of hidden gold.

Zhang's sentences are carefully honed, mixing tight dialogue with vivid imagery. I was constantly admiring the writing style, and I particularly appreciated every description of the hills: "From afar the wet hills shine smooth and bright as ingots—riches upon riches stacked to the Western horizon." I was blown away by this intense, absorbing novel, and I'm eager to see where Zhang will take readers next.

THE PULSE BETWEEN DIMENSIONS AND THE DESERT by Rios de la Luz: This collection of brief short stories covers a range of styles and genres. Some stories are brutally real, some involve time travel, others encompass both. What unites them all is beautiful, dreamy images and powerful emotions.

In "Lupe and Her Time Machine," a grandmother builds and carefully decorates a contraption in her garage. Maybe it's a time machine powered by rose petals, maybe she's simply remembering, but the difference between these isn't as important as the insights she finds. The protagonist of "Esmai" lives prepared for apocalyptic scenarios, but instead she encounters a version of herself from another dimension.

"Ear to the Ground" shifts from childhood innocence to shocking violence, with a pause at this magical interlude: "One night, on your way home, you passed the giant pecan tree in the middle of the neighborhood. A pecan landed on your head and when you cracked it open, there were rounded sprinkles inside. You opened more, one of them had honey inside and another had pomegranate seeds inside. The last pecan you picked up had confetti inside and a photograph. It was of you and Soledad. She made bunny ears behind your head."

If these descriptions intrigue you, you're definitely the right audience for this collection, and I encourage you to seek it out.

NETWORK EFFECT by Martha Wells: Murderbot is the private name of a cyborg known as SecUnit to its clients and friends. Having friends, and working with them as a security consultant out of choice, is a new experience for Murderbot, who until recently was owned by a company and treated (badly) as sophisticated rental equipment. Now it's not only made friends with a group of humans, but it's starting to form a life in their society outside the Corporation Rim. Murderbot has a lot of feelings about this, and it's not wild about feelings, or the way humans always want to talk about them. All of this becomes significantly more complicated when Murderbot's humans are attacked and kidnapped (again), possibly by someone who Murderbot thought was also a friend.

I have become a big Murderbot fan over the course of the four novellas that precede this novel-length installment, and everything about this book delighted me. I was thrilled by the return of some favorite characters and the introduction of excellent new ones. The longer form allows for a more complex plot, as well as space to slow down between action and planning scenes to delve into the nuances of character relationships. This book is a tense adventure, and it's also all about feelings, relationships, trauma, and how hard those are to process, even for someone with the capacity to monitor a dozen inputs while watching an episode of bad TV. I loved it.

NETWORK EFFECT could be read without prior knowledge, but I really recommend starting at the beginning of this great series for a fuller understanding of the characters. The next book will be out in April.

→ In THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James, a young governess takes a first job with strange conditions: She's instructed not to tell her employer anything that happens with the children under her care, and her predecessor has died. She's nervous, but when she arrives at the county estate, things start out well. She becomes fast friends with the housekeeper, and the two children are sweet and well-behaved. But soon she is disturbed by strangers around the house who nobody else acknowledges. These ghostly appearances make her question whether there's a sinister side to the children's perfect behavior.

I enjoyed the slowly building tension in the first half of this novel. Toward the middle, I started to wish things would build a bit less slowly, and I grew tired of James's convoluted sentences. I was eager for some reveal or shift that would pay off all the buildup, but when I reached the abrupt ending, I was utterly confused by how to interpret what had occurred. Then I learned that people have been arguing about the interpretation for the last century. After reading some analysis, I have more appreciation of what the story is doing, but I didn't really get it on my own, even while looking. This leaves me with a mixed reaction: I'm glad to have familiarized myself with the story and its ambiguities, and it was a frustrating read.

December 21, 2020

In Hindsight, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

December 9, 2020

November Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

November 30, 2020

Still Writing

Last time I posted about anything other than books, I noted that I'd fallen into the pattern of providing a writing/life update every two months. Naturally, that meant it was time to deviate, so here I am three months later with another update.

Things are okay, at a personal level. The current and impending stages of the pandemic terrify me, but I'm incredibly fortunate that my household can still mostly isolate at home. We're also lucky that being here together all the time doesn't bother any of us too much, too often. It's been a bizarre year for sure, not getting to hang out with local friends aside from very occasional outdoor visits, but I didn't have the most hopping social life before this. Now I tend to have more engagements, between reconnecting with far-away friends and attending a lot of virtual author events that I wouldn't have been able to get to in person.

It's a huge relief to be on the far side of the election. (Remember the election? We're still in the same month as the election.) Between the Biden/Harris win and all the promising vaccine news, I'm feeling hope for the future again. That future is still some long, slow months away, but we'll get there.

After an extended stretch of heat and smoke, the Bay Area shifted into pleasant autumn weather this month, with mild temperatures (highs in the low 60s, generally), blue skies, and better air. Our leaves have changed colors for the fall, and I've enjoyed taking pictures on my daily walks.

And I'm writing! Or rather, I'm revising, which anyone who follows this blog will know is always an endless process for me. I'm now wrapping up the third draft of that short story I wrote back in August. My progress has been (as usual) extremely slow, and I'm often not able to focus the way I want. But at the beginning of September, I committed to at least looking at my document every day, even just to reread a sentence or type a few words, and that's made a big difference for me in getting back into the story whenever I have time to work. My assessment of the story at this point was going to be "I think it's pretty good," except that's exactly what I said about it back in August, so I'll raise that to "It's even better now!"

I wish you all for things to be better, and then better still. Stay safe.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Lincoln Michel offers a way to look at realist and science fiction literature as more than a binary: "Take Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s play is 'realism' in the narrow sense of taking place in our world—gravity is the same, there are no dragons or vampires, etc.—yet the plot revolves around a series of intentionally absurd coincidences and the characters speak in polished bon mots. Wilde, who hated the trend toward realism, was certainly not attempting to recreate reality. But there's little in common between Lady Bracknell and a Balrog."

November 2, 2020

October Reading Recap

I continue to be grateful for books to distract myself with:

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam: On a warm summer day, Amanda, Clay, and their two young teens escape Manhattan for a vacation at an Airbnb way out on Long Island. The beautiful house they've rented is too remote for cell phone service, but it has internet, satellite TV, and most importantly, a swimming pool. The first days of vacation are perfect, but on the second night, after the kids are in bed, Amanda and Clay are startled by a knock at the door. It's the owners of the house, or at least people claiming to be the owners, and they say the city has suddenly gone dark in a power outage. Electricity is still flowing at the house, but the internet and TV are out, so there's no way to confirm their story or learn what's happening. After an uneasy series of conversations, the owners go to sleep in an empty bedroom, and they all wait for the situation to become clearer. The next day, with no clarity in sight, everyone tries to cope with anxious speculations and the awkwardness of each other's presence. But it's such a beautiful house, and such a beautiful day for enjoying the pool, that it's hard to really believe anything is wrong.

This book is so good, and so tense. Alam's sentences are perfect, whether he's relaying a character's vaguely shameful thought, describing the detritus on a car floor, or providing an ominous, omniscient peek at what's unfolding in the world beyond the vacation rental. The nuances of all the character interactions make this as much a story about the horror of being stuck in an uncomfortable situation with strangers as it is about the horror of possibly impending doom. I recommend this book highly, but with the warning that it is profoundly unsettling. I read the last third in a shaky adrenaline rush that had me jumping out of my skin when my doorbell rang. It's that effective a story.

FIND LAYLA by Meg Elison: Layla's goals in life are to become a scientist and to protect her little brother from their unstable mother and horrific home environment. She works hard to excel in junior high, to ignore the classmates who bully her, and to prevent anyone from discovering how she and Andy live. Layla dreams of escape, but it's hard to imagine a good way out when you live in an apartment you have to exit through a window because the front door no longer opens.

The experiences and surroundings that Layla describes are deeply upsetting, but Elison keeps the story from descending into misery by portraying Layla as so competent and confident that the reader remains hopeful. Layla's great narrative voice pulled me in immediately, and the escalating series of events kept me engrossed. There's no easy happy ending for Layla, but she does get free, as Elison did of the childhood circumstances she drew on for this riveting novel. I'm so impressed, and relieved for them both.

STRANGER FACES by Namwali Serpell: In this collection of essays, Serpell ponders faces in a variety of cultural contexts. Each of the five essays is tied to a specific piece of history or media and combines footnoted research with more abstract theorizing. One essay starts by focusing on the life and portrayals of Joseph Merrick ("the Elephant Man"), moves into the ways faces are rendered in different styles of art, and ends up at Cleopatra and Michael Jackson. Another analyzes scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to show how the film plays with faces and reflections. Throughout the collection, Serpell discusses how ideas of beauty, race, and gender influence our reactions to faces, both in life and in art.

I wouldn't have picked up a collection like this if not for my enthusiasm for the author, and it was an interesting reading experience not entirely to my taste. I generally enjoyed whenever the essays provided historical information and more concrete cultural criticism, but my attention wandered at the parts I'd call philosophical musings. My favorite essay was the last one, which explores emoji usage and how we communicate with those little digital faces. I'd recommend this book to readers inclined toward this sort of essay, and I'll take the opportunity to once again recommend Serpell's incredible novel, THE OLD DRIFT.

→ In RED PILL by Hari Kunzru, a writer travels to Berlin for a fellowship, eager for the opportunity to focus on his writing, something that's been difficult at home in New York since his daughter was born. He finds the expected working conditions at the center unfavorable for focusing, but when he holes up in his room to write, his concentration isn't any better. Mostly he wastes time online, takes long walks in the depressing winter landscape, and binge-watches a police procedural called Blue Lives. He's increasingly bothered by odd references he notices in the show's dialogue, and by concerns that everything he does at the center is being watched. Eventually (after a disconnected section relating a different character's experiences in East Berlin) the writer meets the creator of Blue Lives at a party. They spend a disturbing evening together, and his paranoia grows.

I found this novel oddly paced and structured. While the narrator's obsession with Blue Lives and its creator becomes central to the story, most of the first half is about other matters, and I'm not clear why all of it is in there. Kunzru writes well, which kept me interested enough in the slow, cerebral narrative, but I was discouraged by feeling that I didn't really get what he was doing. The book ends with an emotionally wrenching section that in some ways clarified the point of everything else, but in other ways left me more frustrated.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Leah Rachel von Essen investigates How the USPS Chooses Its Literary Stamps: "The Literary Arts series has featured an author on a stamp every year since 1979. They try to choose a wide range of literary figures, both in terms of diversity of gender, race, and in subject matter. The first stamp in the series featured John Steinbeck. Artists featured have included Richard Wright, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Tennessee Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Katherine Anne Porter. The stamps feature a portrait of the author with a background inspired by the themes of one or all of their works."

October 7, 2020

September Reading Recap

I read three excellent books last month in three quite different genres:

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi: In Gifty's neuroscience research as a grad student at Stanford, she studies the brains of mice to learn about the mechanisms behind addiction and depression. Her brother died of a heroin overdose, and her mother has struggled with depression ever since, but Gifty is reluctant to connect her research focus to her family's problems. She studies neuroscience because it's hard, she and her mother don't discuss her brother, and she doesn't tell her labmates anything about her life, even when her severely depressed mother comes from Alabama to stay with her and won't get out of bed. Gifty used to communicate most freely in the letters to God that she wrote in her journal, but these days she's torn over how to balance faith and science. In the course of the novel, Gifty recalls her childhood, explores her views of religion, and explains her work, until she's answered the research question that is her own life.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM is an intimate story of one woman and one small family, so it's quite unlike Gyasi's epic debut, HOMEGOING, but both books unfold with confident leaps through time and skillfully crafted scenes. As Gifty reveals different aspects of her past and present, there aren't any sudden revelations or shocking twists, yet the story builds to a nuanced, satisfying depiction of her life, or at least as much as she's willing to share. This is a beautiful, wrenching story of complicated family ties, mental illness, loss, and belief. I can't wait to see what new direction Gyasi will go next.

TWELVE: POEMS INSPIRED BY THE BROTHERS GRIMM FAIRY TALE by Andrea Blythe is a small but powerful book of prose poetry. These compact stories imagine the post-fairy tale lives of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, giving each sister identity and agency. I wouldn't have picked up this book if Andrea weren't a friend, but I happily read it twice through.

Each sister's tale is vivid with imagery and sensation, and I was delighted by the unexpected fates they reveal. The first sister rages against the man she's forced to marry, but her desire to be free of him is complicated by lust: "They played a game of poisoning, death always at the edges of every smile, every kiss and touch and caress." The fifth sister is pregnant, but she doesn't know if she's carrying a baby, a magical creature, or the product of ingested apple seeds. The eighth and ninth sisters, twins, become bandits of legend: "No one ever said two girls could carve open the world like an oyster, taking all its pearls and swallowing the meat." The tenth sister finds love in the palace kitchen: "At night, they untangled the laces of their skirts, uncaged themselves of corsets, peeling each other open like rare fruit." There's bodily pleasure throughout this collection, along with a yearning for knowledge and escape, and the result is an empowering, inventive storybook.

ARTIFICIAL CONDITION by Martha Wells is the second installment of the Murderbot Diaries, and I liked it even more than the first, but I recommend reading these novellas in order for the full story of the highly competent, very anxious Security Unit. In this episode, Murderbot is on its own for the first time, trying to escape notice by passing as an augmented human while investigating the mystery of its forgotten past. Murderbot is fortunate to meet up with a clever research transport ship who may be an asshole but has some good ideas, and also shares Murderbot's enthusiasm for watching downloaded media serials.

Murderbot continues to be an excellent protagonist and entertaining narrator, and I enjoyed seeing how the character developed through the challenges faced in this book. The growing friendship between Murderbot and Asshole Research Transport has a great dynamic, and I hope there will be more of ART in the future. If you've been curious about the Murderbot series but wary of the hype, I urge you to check it out.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Paris Review, Adrienne Raphel returns to Beverly Cleary's Ramona books and finds delight and weirdness: "Seeing images of Portland in tear gas, under an orange sky, I've felt enraged, terrified, and helpless. I've wanted to escape to Ramona’s Portland, with invisible lizards and makeshift sheep costumes and beloved red rubber boots." (Thanks, The Millions!)

September 25, 2020

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2020

One thing getting me through this year is good books, and the anticipation of more good books. I've been looking forward to reading these fall releases — and the wait is over for some of them, since the September books are already out.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi (September 1): Gyasi's debut, HOMEGOING, was an amazing epic covering centuries and generations of characters. Her new book is the much more intimate story of a family affected by addiction, mental illness, and loss, narrated by a scientist unsure how to square her work with her religious upbringing.

FIND LAYLA by Meg Elison (September 1): Back when I was enthusiastic about reading post-apocalyptic stories, I sank into Elison's THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE and the rest of the Road to Nowhere trilogy. FIND LAYLA is a refreshingly different genre of story, though still one with a character going through tough times, about a teen coping with family instability and online bullying.

TWELVE: POEMS INSPIRED BY THE BROTHERS GRIMM FAIRY TALE by Andrea Blythe (September 7): Andrea is a friend, but I don't think I'm being too biased in my enthusiasm for her writing. TWELVE is a small book of prose poems, beautifully produced by Interstellar Flight Press, that imagines what happens to The Twelve Dancing Princesses after the end of their fairy tale.

THE 99% INVISIBLE CITY: A FIELD GUIDE TO THE HIDDEN WORLD OF EVERYDAY DESIGN by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (October 6): One of my favorite podcasts is 99% Invisible, which explores the design of objects, the built environment, and all kinds of topics we probably never even thought about. The book investigates the details of how cities work, and while I'm not sure if I'll read it straight through or dip in at random, I am excited to receive my copy.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam (October 6): The interpersonal dynamics in Alam's THAT KIND OF MOTHER were so good that I'm not going to put off reading his new book, even though it involves some sort of potentially civilization-shattering disaster. Two families who don't know each other are forced together in a remote house while something horrible seems to be happening in New York City, and nobody is sure who or what to trust.

BLACK SUN by Rebecca Roanhorse (October 13): Roanhorse's work has received a lot of attention and awards, and I was intrigued by her new series after hearing her speak at WisCon's online convention. The Between Earth and Sky trilogy takes place in a fantasy world based on civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, and it promises celestial prophecies, power struggles, and great characters.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At BBC Culture, Hephzibah Anderson pages through the first drafts of classic novels: "The manuscripts of literary works-in-progress fascinate on many levels, from the flush-faced thrill of spying on something intensely private and the visceral delight of knowing that a legendary author's hand rested on the paper before you, to the light that such early drafts shed on authorial methodology and intent. Sometimes, the very essence of what a writer is trying to express seems to hover tantalisingly in the gap between a word deleted and another added in its place."

→ David Lerner Schwartz writes for Literary Hub about Percival Everett's new novel, TELEPHONE, published in three slightly different versions: "Books of course contain multitudes in that they contain characters who, like us, are contradictory, complex, and human in worlds so close to (or far from) our own. But here, depending on the version you've received, you're getting a slightly different Zach, a slightly different story. In one version he's perhaps more reticent, another more daydreaming, another more at odds, but these differences seem overall negligible. Across the versions, they average out to the same man, the same-ish experience. But to be wise to Telephone's instantiations is to believe that perhaps somewhere else things might work out differently."