Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

January 22, 2020

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2020

Whatever else happens in 2020, it's set to be another great year for books. These are the novels I've been most anticipating reading over the next few months:

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu (January 28): Yu's previous novel was HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE, a moving family story that takes a metaphorical, meta-fictional approach to time travel. His new novel, described as "a send-up of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes," sounds just as unusual, clever, and thoughtful.

MAZES OF POWER by Juliette Wade (February 4): I know Juliette from FOGcon and have been following her writing journey for years, so I'm thrilled that she's publishing her first novel. The book, which begins a series, is set in a richly constructed world with a strict caste system. The story involves a political struggle and maybe an epidemic, and it's been getting rave advance reviews.

88 NAMES by Matt Ruff (March 17): I'm a longtime fan of everything Ruff has written. His most recent book was LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, a story of supernatural and racist horrors that's currently being adapted for TV. 88 NAMES features a virtual reality game world and a mysterious figure who might be Kim Jong-un, so it's sure to be wild.

THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel (March 24): Mandel's last novel, STATION ELEVEN, remains one of my favorite apocalypse stories (and is also getting a TV adaptation). The new book has a complicated jacket description that Mandel sums up as "a ghost story that's also about white collar crime and container shipping." I'm certainly intrigued.

WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL by Rahul Kanakia (March 31): I loved Kanakia's smart first novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, which follows an ambitious high school senior on a shameless quest to manipulate her way into Stanford. Her new book also stars a high school student with a plan -- one that's thrown off track when he hooks up with his guy friend and has to reconsider his sexuality and identity.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Eater, Jaya Saxena interviews Jasmine Guillory about celebrating food in her romance novels: "In my books, I really wanted to have people eating meals together and not feeling like there was something wrong with them. To a certain extent, that is a little bit of a fantasy. But I do know plenty of women who love to eat and don't have a source of anxiety with food. I want food to be joyful and fun no matter what it is." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

January 13, 2020

2019 By The Books

Since it's January, I can now safely reflect on my favorite books of last year without the risk of omitting something wonderful I read right at the end. My practice of waiting for the new year was even justified this time around, since one of my picks captivated me during the final week of 2019.

Last year I established that my reading patterns have become fairly consistent, and that remains the case, though my count of 39 books is an uptick from previous years. Two-thirds of those were 2019 releases, many that I was eagerly awaiting. I only read two books published before 2000, both toward the end of the year. I may continue the trend of mixing in older books with the recent stuff, but I'm also excited about a long list of books coming out in 2020, so I don't expect a major shift.

As tends to be the case, about a third of what I read stands out as exceptional. Rather than trying to narrow the list, I'm going to include them all, each with a pointer to the monthly recap that contains my original, fuller recommendation.

If asked to name a single favorite book of 2019, I'd go with THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell (July/August) for containing so much of all the things I love to read about. This epic tale of families tied together across generations details the history of Zambia, speculates on the technology of the future, takes mysterious and fantastical turns, plays with language, and throws wonderful characters into love and conflict. While THE OLD DRIFT does it all, these sorts of elements also recur in my other top books of the year.

Families entwined by past events are central to YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha (December). In present-day Los Angeles, a Korean-American family and a black family are shaped as well as linked by the racial tensions and unrest of the early 1990s.

Race relations are given careful consideration throughout GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS by Mira Jacob (March). In collages of drawn characters, photographs, and speech bubbles, the author attempts to answer her biracial son's questions while reflecting on her own upbringing with Indian immigrant parents.

Trying to make sense of family is a big concern for the narrator of THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett (December). The story charts the bond between a brother and sister for decades as the rest of the family and relationships in their lives come and go.

January 7, 2020

December Reading Recap

I closed out 2019 with a great reading month. In my next post, I'll look back at my whole reading year.

YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha follows a Korean-American family and a black family in present-day Los Angeles, uncovering their connections to the city's unrest in the early 1990s. Grace works at the pharmacy owned by her immigrant parents and wishes her older sister would reconcile with their mother, or at least explain why she stopped talking to her. Shawn has been putting his life back together ever since the violent death of his older sister and hopes that his cousin's release from prison won't bring further turmoil to the family. Grace and Shawn are just trying to get along in their very different lives until a shocking crime impacts them both and raises questions about the past.

This is a masterfully crafted novel at every level. The characters, situations, and difficult topics are all presented with realistic nuance. The plot is a tense page-turner, and Cha draws on her experience writing detective novels to set up a compelling mystery. She also draws from history, basing the story's catalyst on a real event that happened around the time of the Rodney King beating, and I was fascinated to learn about it. I highly recommend this novel to all readers.

THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett: Danny is eight and Maeve is fifteen when their father first brings Andrea to the Dutch House for a tour. The house, Dutch because of its original owners, is a grand home outside Philadelphia that Danny and Maeve's father purchased in 1946 for their mother, who left when Danny was too small to remember. By the time Danny is fifteen, he and his sister no longer live at the Dutch House, but Andrea does. The siblings begin a habit of parking on the street outside the house to observe and discuss, a tradition they continue for decades. As Danny grows up and makes a family of his own, his bond with Maeve remains central to his life, and for good or bad, so does their past in the house.

I loved this book and the brother-sister relationship at its core. Patchett is a master at crafting distinctive, fully realized characters, and I now feel like I've known Danny and Maeve personally all these years. The portrayal of a long span of time with the aid of quick jumps forward and back is similar to Patchett's equally excellent COMMONWEALTH, though this novel's approach is more methodical. The confidently rendered characters and structure, the engrossing story, and the subtle humor place THE DUTCH HOUSE among my favorite books of the year and confirm Patchett as one of my favorite authors.

GIOVANNI'S ROOM by James Baldwin opens with the narrator alone in a house in France. David's girlfriend is on a ship back to America (it's the 1950s) after understanding that he never really loved her. Giovanni, who he may have truly loved, is sentenced to die at the guillotine in the morning. From this shocking start, the novel goes back to tell of David's first sexual encounter with a boy in Brooklyn, his move to Paris to find or escape himself, and all that occurred between meeting Giovanni and Giovanni committing his crime.

This is an emotionally intense story, beautifully written but difficult to read. The setup imbues every event with foreboding, and David's conflicted feelings about his sexuality prevent him from finding happiness in his love for Giovanni. As a result, this isn't quite the celebration of gay love that I anticipated, but it's a nuanced, compassionate portrayal of several midcentury gay experiences. I hadn't read Baldwin before, and I'm glad I finally spent some time with his exemplary prose.

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder: The housekeeper narrating this novel is hired to look after a retired math professor, who lives an isolated existence with only his beloved numbers for company. While math may have always been an overwhelming focus of his life, it's now one of the sole subjects accessible to him, because he suffers from anterograde amnesia and can't form any new memories. Every morning when the housekeeper arrives, she's a stranger to him again, a situation she handles with far more kindness than his previous housekeepers. When the professor displays his love of children, she starts bringing her son along, and the two of them become eager students of the professor's number theory lessons. Despite the limits of his memory, the three create a sort of family until the outside world intrudes.

This is an interesting but frustrating story. The characters are all charming, and when things took a bad turn, I was definitely concerned and invested in everyone's fate. The math is explained well, and there's personality in how both the professor and the housekeeper think about numbers. However, for much of the book, I felt the amnesia barely impacted the plot, and a similar story might have been told if the professor's eccentricities lacked this contrivance. There were also a few places when secrets were uncovered but raised more questions than they answered. These issues made me wish for a somewhat different story, but the reading experience was mostly enjoyable.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Lincoln Michel describes the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story: "I'm interested in what devices--engines let's call them, since surely the author is always the driver (even when they're crashing their story into a ditch)--can supply power to the rest of story.... In my own writing, I typically find that plot and character are not enough and that my stories are inert until I find a different kind of engine--a thematic engine perhaps or a structure engine or a linguistic engine--that makes the thing get up and running."

December 20, 2019

The Annual Reckoning

This year I finished my novel, twice, once in February and once in November. That's pretty cool, but it's not unprecedented. In my long history of finishing THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, there was another year I reached The End twice, way back in 2013.

I wrote last December about the repetitive nature of my year-end posts, but it's not every year I complete this novel even once, so 2019 was definitely a year of accomplishment. One consistent feature of my annual wrap-ups is the belief that the following year will bring a much more triumphant accomplishment, though I think I stopped stating this explicitly way back in 2011. So I'll just say that this time, I'm extra optimistic.

This particular end of the year is also the end of the decade, and everyone's been reflecting accordingly. I started this blog in 2010, so it's easy to check back on what I was up to at the beginning the decade. I was preparing to embark on a revision of this same novel. As much as the world has changed since then, I guess it's nice to find points of stability.

Here's to a new year, a new decade, and progress in positive new directions. I wish you all much happiness!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Adam O'Fallon Price decides to face the horror of rereading his first novel: "One thing that struck me on this reading is just how much there is going on. It's a common feature of the debut novel, in which an author takes decades of reading and thinking about novels and compresses it all into their first try, as though it will also be their last. Some of it works here, and some of it doesn't. If I were to give critical advice to the person who wrote this, I might tell him to think about losing at least one of the component parts--maybe the Vietnam sections--and to also not feel like he has to conclude all of the proceedings with quite such a bang."

December 6, 2019

November Reading Recap

Last month I got through four books and a lot of variety:

THE DEEP by Rivers Solomon: Yetu is the historian of her people, the one tasked with carrying the memories of the ancestors so the other wajinru can forget the painful origins of their underwater civilization. She alone remembers, and constantly relives the story: The first wajinru were born in the ocean from drowning two-legs mothers, thrown overboard from slave ships. Yetu has never been well-suited to the role of historian due to her unusual sensitivity, and this year when she shares the memories at the Remembrance, she can't bear the thought of taking them back.

THE DEEP is a beautifully written, emotionally charged story. What I knew going in was that the book was inspired by a song by clipping., itself inspired by the music of Drexciya, who imagined water-breathing descendants of enslaved Africans drowned during the crossing. (An excellent afterword by the members of clipping. discusses the evolution of this collaborative mythology.) Where Solomon takes the story, and how they structure their telling, is fascinating and unexpected (a trait I admired in their debut). Some of the elements this short novel dwells on were not as interesting to me as other parts that got less attention, but I remain a fan of Solomon's inventive writing.

THE CHARISMA MACHINE: THE LIFE, DEATH, AND LEGACY OF ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD by Morgan G. Ames: The One Laptop per Child project aspired to build cheap, sturdy laptops that kids in the developing world would use to teach themselves software programming and hardware maintenance. From the beginning, OLPC failed to live up to many of its goals, but the project still captured the public imagination due to the charismatic ideas and personalities behind it. Morgan Ames spent half a year in Paraguay observing schools with OLPC laptops to discover the reality of how they worked in classrooms (frustratingly, with much breakage) and how children used them in their free time (more for media and games than learning). In this book, she examines OLPC in the context of other utopian projects, presents findings from her fieldwork, and considers how cultural and gendered biases shaped the project.

THE CHARISMA MACHINE traces a fascinating subject with care and insight. While the writing is generally accessible, the book is a work of scholarship from an academic press, and parts were a bit dense on theory for me, especially the first chapter. I wouldn't fall into the usual audience, but Morgan is a friend, and I've followed this book's progress from fieldwork to dissertation to manuscript. Once past the more abstract section, I read the rest with interest, curious to learn about the development of the laptop and eager to discover how it was received by the children of Paraguay. This is a thoughtful, thoroughly researched book with a charisma of its own.

REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro: Stevens has served as the butler of Darlington Hall for over thirty years. He worked for Lord Darlington himself until his death, and now in 1956, the home is owned by an American gentleman. The state of the house and the size of its staff are greatly diminished, and so is the reputation of his late lordship, all facts that trouble Stevens when he takes the time to think about them. He's presented with quite a bit of thinking time when he gets the opportunity to borrow his employer's car for a road trip to admire the beauty of England and visit a former colleague. Along the way, he ponders the question of what makes a great butler, the nature of dignity, and the political choices of Lord Darlington before and during the war.

The core of this novel is Stevens's narration and his tightly controlled perspective on everything he's experienced and witnessed in his years of service. What first drew me in is the intriguing way Stevens addresses his audience as already familiar with the world he's describing and, for example, knowledgeable about which butlers are held at the top of the profession. (Ishiguro uses the same narrative trick in the excellent NEVER LET ME GO, but I still found it just as effective here.) Then as the book progresses, it becomes clear there's an awful lot in Stevens's memories he's determined not to consider, and the story becomes about reading between the lines. I thought the setup was leading to a surprising reveal at the end, and that wasn't the case, but aside from that letdown, I enjoyed the journey and the craft of this story.

THE REVISIONERS by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: In 2017, Ava accepts a job taking care of her rich white grandmother so she can move her son to a better neighborhood and school. In 1924, Ava's multiple-great-grandmother on the other side, Josephine, looks back on her long life, the family she's raised, the farm she's built, and her childhood in slavery. Ava worries about her son being one of the only black students in his new school. Josephine worries about how her grandson will fare when his father remarries. Both women face looming racist threats: Ava from the declining mind of her grandma, Josephine far more dangerously from her new white neighbors. Josephine's memories of her time in slavery, and the visions and dreams that appear in the story, shed more light on the connections between the distant generations.

In reflecting on how to describe this novel, I've teased out some parallels that tie the timelines together, but these were less clear while reading the somewhat disjointed narratives. Ava and Josephine are both strong characters with complicated lives, and I wished for a greater and earlier understanding of why their stories were paired. The novel contains good historical detail in the 1924 and 1855 sections, and I was interested to see childbirth and midwifery depicted in all the time periods. Unfortunately, though, the overall story fell short for me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Book Riot, Danika Ellis researches the various reasons why books are rectangular: "The other crucial piece of human anatomy that comes into play while reading is our hands. The proportions of a book look pretty similar to that of our hands, which makes sense because they should fit together. While the first books being bound were usually put on pedestals to be read, books now are meant to be held, which means they should be optimized to that shape--which may also explain how books have gotten shorter since their first incarnations."

November 26, 2019

Finishing the Sweater

Back in June, I used the analogy of a knitted sweater's loose ends to explain why the new revision of my novel needed another editing pass. All my projects, whether writing or knitting, take far longer than I expect they will, but I'm relieved to say that I finally have this novel into the shape I want it.

I went through the manuscript addressing all those comments hanging off the side. I worked in the extra bits of ideas and trimmed away the strands that still didn't connect. In a few areas, I had to redo sections with tangled or dropped stitches so the quality would match the rest. I removed part of the trim and added it back in another color. I sewed on some buttons to make the whole thing more attractive and more functional.

One of the final steps in a knitting project is to wash the garment and pin it down flat in the desired shape. This is called blocking, and it can dramatically change the size. In the course of rewriting and improving my novel, I'd ended up with a manuscript that was rather baggy. Happily, after the long soak and determined blocking of the past months, it's shrunk again to a more flattering fit.

Now that my project is really finished, I'm going to send it out into the world and see if any, um, clothing labels want to reproduce the design? Here the metaphor breaks down, but it's just as well, because I have a habit of spending months or years knitting something that I then put in a drawer and forget about. My novel deserves to be worn.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rahul Kanakia shares her approach for deciding what to write next: "I have an exercise where I imagine opening a new book, and I imagine staring at 'Chapter One' and I imagine looking at the page and what I'd like to see on it. What's my ideal page one? Not my all-time ideal, but my ideal for right this minute. What do I want to be on that page? Usually what comes to me first is a certain shape. I want the text to look a certain way on the page."

November 6, 2019

October Reading Recap

Someday I'll return to blog content other than book reviews, but for now, here's another month of recommended reading:

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor's solitary life of routine and self-sufficiency is first thrown into disarray when she discovers the man she is determined to marry. Eleanor hopes this match will satisfy Mummy, a demanding figure who exerts a formidable influence even from a distance. Then, just as Eleanor starts learning everything she can about the object of her interest, progress is interrupted by a number of interactions that are decidedly unplanned. Eleanor is bystander to an elderly man's medical emergency, and through the interference of her irritating coworker Raymond, she ends up entangled with this stranger's loving family. She's forced into some difficult new situations and some pleasant ones. With Raymond's prompting, she begins to contemplate how she's arranged her life and consider that other options might be possible.

You can guess from the title of this book that Eleanor is not fine, but you probably wouldn't guess from the marketing that the reasons are profoundly dark and disturbing. While Eleanor's observations and misunderstandings are often quite funny, this is not the hilarious bit of whimsy suggested by many of the blurbs. It's a heartbreaking story about trauma and recovery, skillfully presented through a narrator who's uncertain about her own past. Honeyman writes Eleanor, Raymond, and the people around them with care and nuance, and I was glad to be invited into their lives through bad times and good. ELEANOR OLIPHANT is completely wonderful.

MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim: In an isolated Virginia town, the Yoo family runs Miracle Submarine, a private facility offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat chronic conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy. A terrible chain of events leads to an explosive fire that kills and injures several. A year later, one of the people involved is on trial for arson and murder. Tense courtroom scenes and character recollections piece together the events of the tragic day and everything that led up to it, revealing that nobody's testimony is entirely truthful.

This is a fantastically written mystery in which every new perspective introduces details that plausibly undermine the previous explanations of what happened. The intricate plot does require more coincidences of bad timing than would occur in real life, but it's all so cleverly constructed that nothing seemed far-fetched. Beyond the mystery, the novel tells an emotional story of complicated characters who are suffering over their roles in the tragedy. I sympathized with all of them, even as they admitted to regrettable actions and thoughts. The novel explores difficult issues around parenting, disability, and immigration with sensitivity. I recommend this suspenseful debut and look forward to more from Kim.

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz: Tess has always traveled through time with the goal of editing history in a more progressive direction. She and her fellow like-minded travelers have discovered a group working against their changes, men from the future who follow the 19th century moral crusader Anthony Comstock. These men are trying to edit the timeline to take away women's rights, then lock that version in place by permanently destroying the time machines, which are ancient and mysterious geological formations. As women from different eras join forces to defeat these men, Tess also attempts to edit a traumatic event from her personal history.

This is an exciting time travel story containing a great mix of real and imagined history from several eras. I didn't always connect with the characters due to sections that felt more didactic than natural, but I was very invested in the high stakes of their endeavors. I especially enjoyed reading about and pondering the book's unusual time travel mechanics: how it works physically, what the constraints are, how much or little it's understood at different times. I'm not convinced I followed all the tricky time travel logic depicted, but I loved seeing a world where time machines are generally known about (and even portrayed on a popular unrealistic TV show) but available to only a few because of practical limitations. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is full of fascinating ideas, cleverly woven into an imperfect yet compelling novel.

Don't miss the delightful music video by Grape Ape, a feminist punk band featured in the novel but sadly lost to our timeline.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meg Elison writes for Tor.com about The Hidden Layers of Every Novel: "Every book is the tip of an iceberg. Most of what an author knows, through research and through experience, is ballast to fiction. What is written and what is published are a tiny sliver of all that exists. Every writer you have ever read and loved is ninety percent unpublished underwater knowledge, and ten percent ghostly blue published prose." (Thanks, Andrea!)

October 4, 2019

September Reading Recap

Hey, it's a return to the classic single-month book review post! (At least for now!) I did some fun and sequel-icious reading in September:

WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell is the second book of the Simon Snow series. In preparation for its release, I reread the first book, CARRY ON. The story of a Chosen One in his last year of magic school was just as clever and delightful on a second read. I may have even liked it more than I did the first time.

While CARRY ON tells the obligatory Chosen One story of saving the world, WAYWARD SON considers what the aftermath of that looks like. Simon and his friends survived serious trauma defeating the threats to the World of Mages, and they're each suffering as a result, in different ways. Rowell always writes well about relationship strains and mental health issues, and the depictions here are realistic and compassionate.

The characters are facing a more mature and mundane set of obstacles in this book, but they're also going on a new adventure: a road trip across America. Along the way, they discover that the World of Mages is a very British institution, and magic operates quite differently in the US. They make new friends, encounter dangerous new foes, and maybe sort of have to save the world again, but everyone's better emotionally equipped by then.

I loved how these wonderful characters grow and heal throughout this novel. The expansion of the magical world is smart and thoughtfully done, and the plot takes surprising turns. There will be at least one more book in this series, and I'll gladly follow the characters wherever they go next.

THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood is a sequel to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, but what's distracting at first is that it's also sort of a sequel to the three existing seasons of the Hulu series, which extends past the events of the original novel. Early on, too much of my attention was on analyzing this relationship and considering what details do and don't line up with the show. Though it took me some time to get past that, I was able to immediately appreciate that Atwood is still a fantastic writer, great at narrative voice. This sequel presents compelling characters, an exciting plot, and a fascinating further look into the totalitarian regime of Gilead.

The story is billed as taking place 15 years after the end of the first book, but that's not entirely accurate, since there are also flashbacks reaching as far back as the rise of Gilead (some of the best and most horrifying sections). The three narrators are women and girls with different perspectives on Gilead society, and this allows Atwood to show new aspects of the world, along with more sharp observations tailored to each character. One oddness of the book-show situation is that these narrators will be quickly identifiable to viewers of the series, while readers only familiar with the first novel may be more surprised by connections that are revealed later on.

This book is more plot-focused than the first, sometimes to its detriment. Certain developments strain credulity, and toward the end, events come at such a fast clip that the story and characters lose their earlier nuance. I don't expect THE TESTAMENTS to become a classic like THE HANDMAID'S TALE, but I found it an engaging read.

CHARMED PARTICLES by Chrissy Kolaya: In 1972, Abhijat earns a job at a world-renowned particle accelerator lab located in a small Illinois town. He brings his new wife Sarala from Bombay to join him, and they each take their own approach to settling into their marriage and community. Elsewhere in town, Rose has returned from traveling the world with her explorer husband to raise their child in a place she knows, though it's changed with the arrival of the lab. The daughters from the two families grow up to become the best of friends. But when the government proposes building a much larger collider beneath the town, everyone takes sides in the debate, and tensions rise.

This story of two families and a town divided contains a lot of great interpersonal dynamics. I enjoyed getting to know all the characters, whose complicated and evolving feelings for one another are well-depicted. Where the novel fell short for me was plot: Kolaya sets up a variety of promising conflicts, but issues with balance and pacing made the story drag at times. Still, I'll remember these characters fondly, and I'll look out for Kolaya's next novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kimi Eisele, author of THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE, describes working on an apocalyptic novel for years as the world changed around her story: "When I started the novel, the U.S. was at war with Iraq, and peak oil warnings were sounding loudly, at least in alternative news outlets. Against that reality I began to imagine what it would really be like to lose not just light, but mobility, long-distance communication, instant information, central governance, bananas, and the kind of entitlement that an economic system built on exploitation and convenience seemed to enable."

September 5, 2019

July/August Reading Recap

Well, I've certainly done a lot of reading since I last posted! These are all the books that kept me busy this summer when I wasn't writing or having family fun:

THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell is a novel that contains multitudes, and to describe too much of the story would take away from the joy of discovery. The joy (and pain, and question) of discovery is how the story opens, in fact, with a chapter narrated by a British explorer who's one of the first white settlers to "discover" the wonders of Africa. With much personality and prejudice, he tells of his life in colonial Rhodesia, including a chance encounter that seems to link together the fates of three families for generations to come. These descendants are vivid, unusual characters, and as Serpell weaves their complicated story, she follows the history of Zambia from colonial rule through independence and into the future.

This is a big, juicy novel full of difficult family dynamics, strange repercussions, historical and cultural details, and narrative quirks. I read it slowly because there was a lot to absorb, and I enjoyed stopping to look up the many unfamiliar words and references. It was fascinating to realize that some of the characters are real figures. The one source I avoided consulting was the family tree at the front of the book, because I found it more fun to wait for the story to reveal the connections.

Serpell is a great writer at both the storytelling and sentence levels. She delights in languages and wordplay, making her prose a delight to read. While the characters in THE OLD DRIFT often experience tragic circumstances, what sticks with me is the sheer pleasure of reading it. If this sounds like your kind of book, I highly recommend it.

→ In BECAUSE INTERNET: UNDERSTANDING THE NEW RULES OF LANGUAGE, Gretchen McCulloch chronicles how communication styles, slang, and other language elements have evolved with the changing internet. Her analysis is rigorous (but always entertaining!), grounded in historical dialect studies and a taxonomy of internet usage patterns laid out in a chapter called "Internet People". In that section, McCulloch explores the ways different groups experience the internet based on when and how thoroughly they came online, and how this relates to linguistic conventions such as punctuation usage.

I appreciated that McCulloch brings a deep understanding of the internet to her investigation of online language. Anecdotes about her own life as an Internet Person provide a personal touch, and comparisons to language developments from analog communication modes give weight to her arguments. McCulloch's insights are nuanced, clever, and frequently funny, whether she's charting the history of memes or explaining how emoji substitute for the gestures that occur face to face. This book is a perfect blend of informative and fun. I learned, I lol'd, and I learned how the meaning of "lol" has transformed.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes: Evvie is in the middle of packing up to leave her husband when he dies in a car accident. A year later, she's struggling with the isolation and shame of her non-grief, because she lives in a small Maine town where everyone knows her tragedy, and she's never told even her best friend that her marriage was terrible. Evvie can barely motivate herself to work, so to help pay the bills, she agrees to rent out part of her house to Dean, who's looking for a small town where he can hide from his problems. Dean used to be a star pitcher for the Yankees, but he was forced into early retirement after mysteriously losing his pitching ability. He moves in on the condition that he won't ask about Evvie's husband and she won't ask about baseball. But soon they're both breaking the deal and pushing each other to address their problems, help that is sometimes appreciated and sometimes a big obstacle to their growing attraction.

Evvie and Dean are great characters, and I was rooting for their relationship from the start. I appreciated both the lighter moments in the story, like the natural way the characters joke and make pop cultural references, and the heavier ones where they cope with depression and anger. The pacing is a bit uneven, and I was frustrated when some threads and characters were dropped for stretches. Overall, though, this is an engaging story, and I'm eager to read more from Holmes in the future.

July 26, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer/Fall 2019

I've got a good chunk of my reading for the rest of the year planned, with a bunch of books I've been awaiting for quite some time!

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead (July 16): I've read several of Whitehead's earlier novels, all masterfully written and highly inventive. His latest takes place in Florida in the early 1960s, where a young black boy is sent to a reform school and subjected to racist violence. The subject matter means this won't be an easy read, but I'm looking forward to another powerful, engaging story from a great writer.

BECAUSE INTERNET: UNDERSTANDING THE NEW RULES OF LANGUAGE by Gretchen McCulloch (July 23): For years, I've enjoyed McCulloch's articles on internet linguistics, as well as the Lingthusiasm podcast she co-hosts. I've been impatient for the release of this book and can't wait to dive into chapters such as "Typographical Tone of Voice" and "Emoji and Other Internet Gestures". I'll be reading in print, but the audio version narrated by the author also sounds very entertaining.

THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood (September 10) is a sequel to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, a novel I treasure and admire for its thoughtful, chilling narrative. I hope the sequel will live up to the original and stand with Atwood's generally excellent work, but I'm nervous. Part of my wariness about a continuation is that the TV series, which started strong, has become infuriating, but I don't think Atwood has much to do with that, and this will definitely be a different story, set 15 years later with three different narrators. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell (September 24) is also a sequel. It follows Rowell's previous novel, CARRY ON, which was itself based on the Harry Potter analog Rowell invented for her earlier book, FANGIRL. Still with me? I've read all Rowell's novels with great delight, and I'm expecting more clever fun and heartfelt emotion from the further adventures of these magic-wielding characters.

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz (September 24): Newitz's first novel, AUTONOMOUS, was a wild ride through a world of pirated pharmaceuticals and artificial intelligences. I'm into the way Newitz thinks about science and science fiction, ideas they share as co-host of the podcast Our Opinions are Correct. I'm excited about another book from them, and the time travel plot promises another thrilling tale.

THE DEEP by Rivers Solomon (November 5) has a cool origin story. Solomon took their inspiration from a gorgeous song produced by the group clipping. for an episode of This American Life. In the song, and now the novel, an underwater civilization has grown from the descendants of enslaved African people thrown overboard during the ocean crossing. It's an upsetting, empowering premise, like the one in Solomon's amazing first novel, AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Literary Hub, Jake Wolff explains his approach to integrating research into a story: "I heavily researched my debut novel, [THE HISTORY OF LIVING FOREVER,] in which nearly every chapter is science-oriented, historical, or both. I'd like to share a method I used throughout the research and writing process to help deal with some of my questions. This method is not intended to become a constant fixture in your writing practice. But if you're looking for ways to balance or check the balance of the amount of research in a given chapter, story, or scene, you might consider these steps: identify, lie, apply."