July 21, 2016

Mornings and The Open Road

At the previous stop on this expedition through my childhood writing, we visited steno notebook #3. In addition to the piece of fiction I shared last time and the angsty journal entries I definitely won't be sharing, a couple of other stories from that period are worth pausing at before we move on.

As I've read my old work, some pieces are immediately familiar, and I recall where the stories are going, or more often, failing to go. Others come as a surprise. An untitled story about mornings fell into the second category, and I was pretty engaged and curious to discover what was going to happen. Disappointingly, after seven pages written over the course of a few weeks, the story comes to an abrupt end.

More disappointingly, at the end of this notebook in an entry reflecting on the fiction it contains, I wrote, "Whatever happened to the mornings story? That was a damn good idea with an ending in mind. I'll have to work on it." I regret to say that whatever I planned is lost to the mists of time. It's always possible the rest will turn up in another notebook, but I don't expect it to.

So I present this work with the warning that it's unfinished. That property, along with some stylistic and character elements, makes it a representative example of my (non-death-related) writing at the time.

The sudden onset of bad music at full volume started her out of a vivid dream. Driven by the screaming voices and merciless electric whine, she leapt out of bed and lunged across the room for the clock radio. Her fingers fumbled automatically for the "reset" button, located it, and depressed it. The sudden silence felt as if she had been struck deaf. Then her brain registered the traffic sounds of the city that never sleeps three stories below.

Her mind cleared of the heavy metal noise, she encountered an overwhelming desire to stumble across the room and crawl back into bed. But as she was already at the door to the bathroom, she dragged herself in there instead and turned on the cold water to the shower.

Willing herself not to think, she stepped into the shower stall. The blast of icy water shocked her awake and sent her groping for the hot water knob. The daily struggle for consciousness was over.

Putting the alarm clock at the other end of her one-room apartment had been her father's idea. The moments between getting out of bed and getting into the cold shower were the toughest part of her day. After two weeks in her apartment, with the snooze button at her fingertips and no parents or roommates to make sure she was up, she had been late to work four times. A long phone conversation with her father had resulted in the wake-up solution and the rescue of her job from threats of dismissal.


Her first memory:

There was a hand on her shoulder and Daddy's voice in her ear whispering, "Julie, wake up. Mommy's going to have the baby!"

Three-year-old Julie got out of bed and put on her sneakers. The routine had been carefully rehearsed several times in the past month. Julie picked up her duffel bag, which had been packed and ready for two weeks, just like Mommy's. She took Daddy's hand and went downstairs.

Mommy was putting on her jacket. She handed Julie her windbreaker. "I called Aunt Jenny and the hospital. We're all set," Mommy said.

Daddy brought the car to the front of the house and came to get Mommy and Julie. Julie looked at Mommy's big stomach, but it looked the same as ever. She hoped the baby wouldn't come out too soon.

Julie had never ridden in the car in her pajamas before. It was dark outside because the sun hadn't woken up yet. No one was awake except Mommy and Daddy and Julie and Aunt Jenny and the hospital.

July 15, 2016

Classing Update

A couple of days after I posted about having no ideas for the second story I had to submit for class, I found a seed that gradually grew into a viable premise. Much of the concept was vague when I started drafting, and the lack of a plan for the end made the writing process especially harrowing. I did figure out a conclusion before I had to write it, and after several frantic days of work, I completed a story I'm quite pleased with.

I might be getting the hang of this short story thing. I still have novel ideas churning in my head, and I want to focus on those soon, but it's certainly satisfying to create something that can be finished in a few days or weeks. I hope I can continue to generate ideas for stories without the pressure of a class deadline.

Even before this class, I've been inspired to return to short story writing by my friend Christopher Gronlund, who like me, has put most of his time into novels for many years but recently set himself a short fiction challenge. He produces a monthly podcast, Not About Lumberjacks, in which he presents one of his short stories. Some are older pieces, but the project has gotten him writing a lot of new stuff as well. I especially enjoyed listening to his latest release, "Standstill", a sad and beautiful story about a couple faced with the problem of time.

I'm not a podcaster, but I would like to get some of my stories out into the world. The class is wrapping up now with a final week about the publication process. I intend to use what I learned in class to revise my new stories, plus some others languishing on my computer, and then I'm going to try submitting to literary magazines.

I've only made one tiny attempt at story publication before, because it's another time-consuming avenue for rejection on top of the agent querying I'm already doing. But this week I received such a kind and encouraging rejection for my novel that I'm actually looking forward to collecting more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Katie McLain reports that Librarians Don't Read All Day and tells us what they actually do: "When I'm at the reference desk, I can usually be found answering technology questions, helping high school students with research papers, showing someone how to create a resume, making book suggestions, notarizing documents, and restarting the public print station for the tenth time in an hour. And when I do have time away from the desk, you can find me planning the summer reading program, training coworkers, relabeling books, writing blog posts, or prepping for a high school book talk."

July 5, 2016

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2016

This season brings the publication of five books I've been anticipating for quite some time. I can't wait to finally get to read these new novels!

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters (July 5): I adored Winters's THE LAST POLICEMAN and its sequels, a trilogy about a New Hampshire detective who's still intent on solving crimes even though the earth will be obliterated by an asteroid in a few months. The new book is an alternate history, set in a present-day America where the Civil War never occurred and slavery is still practiced in four states. I'm fascinated by the premise, and I'm sure the story will deliver more horrifying worldbuilding, great characters, and gripping mysteries.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown (July 12): Brown's debut was a wonderful story about a family of Shakespeare fans, THE WEIRD SISTERS. I've had the chance to meet Eleanor a couple of times to talk about writing, and I was thrilled to learn that she has a second novel coming out. THE LIGHT OF PARIS is another family drama, this time about a woman escaping an unhappy marriage who finds the diary her grandmother kept during a summer in Jazz Age Paris. I'm looking forward to lots of family secrets and historical detail.

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia (August 2): I know Rahul from Bay Area writing circles, and through his blog, I've been following his journey to publication. The novel sounds like a lot of fun: The overachieving main character decides she can improve her chances of getting into a top university if she lands a book deal, so she somehow obtains a literary agent and then sets out to write a novel. The whole plan goes wrong in a way that I'm confident will be both smart and hilarious.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal (August 16): I'm a big fan of Kowal's Glamourist Histories, a series that concluded last year after five amazing books set in the Regency period, but with magic. This new novel, which will potentially launch another series, takes place during World War I and features a medium who contributes to the war effort through her work with the Spirit Corps, which gathers intelligence from soldiers who die in battle. Kowal writes excellent characters and plots, and she never shies away from facing difficult realities in her fantastical stories, so I'm expecting great things from this book.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead (September 13): I've read and enjoyed two of Whitehead's strange and beautiful novels, THE INTUITIONIST (my review) and ZONE ONE (review). His next book has been getting a ton of buzz. The story follows characters escaping from slavery, and it's alternate history of a subtler type than the Ben Winters book at the start of my list. Whitehead sets his novel in the real pre-Civil War South, but the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad of secret tracks, tunnels, and stops. I'm very intrigued by the descriptions I've heard, and I'm eagerly awaiting the book's release.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Kim Liao recommends aiming for 100 Rejections A Year: "My rejections became tiny second-hand ticks on the slow-moving clock of my writing career, counting down to an acceptance, another revision, a long rest for the piece in the bottom of a drawer--or possibly, a return to the clay pit of my subconscious."

July 1, 2016

May/June Reading Recap

I was too busy at the beginning of June to deal with book reviews, but now I've caught up on my past two months of reading. There's a ton of variety in this big list of books, and I hope you find something that piques your interest.

→ I'd encountered several rave reviews of HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi before putting it on my list of anticipated spring releases, and I continued hearing great things that got me reading as soon as the book was available. This novel is indeed as amazing as everyone says.

Effia is born in Fanteland (part of today's Ghana) in the middle of the eighteenth century, and when she grows into a beautiful woman, she's married off to a British colonizer to help her village prosper. Her new home is a castle on the Gold Coast where dungeons hold people captive before they're shipped across the Atlantic as slaves. Esi is born in Asanteland to the best warrior in the village, but her prosperous future is ripped away when she's captured during an attack and forced to march for days to the slave dungeon. Effia and Esi are half-sisters who never know of each other's existence. The novel follows their respective descendants through the generations, depicting the impact of slavery and its lasting repercussions in both the United States and Ghana.

We spend only one chapter with each character in the book, providing a snapshot of life on both sides of the Atlantic before we proceed to the next generation. With this structure, the novel presents an incredible range of experience across 250 years, but Gyasi writes with such care and efficiency that every character's story feels full and individual. All of the places and times are vividly portrayed, with the extensive historical research woven tightly into the narrative. As I read, I was always torn between slowing down to savor my deep investment in each life and hurrying to discover what the next chapter had in store.

HOMEGOING is an intense and fascinating read. I recommend it highly.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett also appeared on my spring releases list, and soon after the novel came out, my writing class happened to read one of his short stories. I was impressed by the strong writing in "Notes to My Biographer", a story dealing with mental illness through generations, so I quickly started the novel, which explores the same subject. Haslett is skilled at conveying the complicated emotions of a difficult family situation, and his characters are real and engaging.

IMAGINE ME GONE follows a family across decades, often jumping wide gaps of time to visit the big and small events that shape the characters' lives. The earliest event leads to all the others: After Margaret's fiance John is hospitalized with what's described as an "imbalance" in 1964, she makes the decision to proceed with the marriage. Margaret and John go on to have three children. The oldest, Michael, is an anxious, tightly wound child who remains a source of worry for the family as he grows into an odd and troubled adult. Michael's brother and sister find their own adulthoods overshadowed by his problems and their desire and obligation to help him attain a bit of happiness.

Each of the five family members narrates some of the chapters, and they all have their own storytelling style. The narrative takes on unusual forms in places, which helps the reader get deeper into the mental states of the characters. Every time the perspective switched, I was glad for the opportunity to get to know a character better. I cared about everyone in this novel, I felt their pain through the many hard scenes, and I kept hoping things might turn out okay for some of them. This is a rough and honest family story.

SPEAK by Louisa Hall had some buzz last year, and I'm glad I went back to discover the pleasure of this unusual and absorbing novel.

The story revolves around the themes of memory and artificial intelligence, and it's composed of multiple interconnected narratives. Through prison memoirs of a convicted inventor and chat transcripts presented as court evidence, we learn about the rise and fall of babybots, lifelike dolls with powerful AI that a generation of girls bonded with, causing disastrous effects. Two sets of letters chart the lives of a fictional couple involved in 1960s AI efforts and the real computer science pioneer Alan Turing. Finally, a diary from 1663 follows a young adventurer on her pilgrimage to America.

I quickly became caught up in each of the stories and enjoyed spotting all the ways they intersect. Though the book has a philosophical bent, each storyline possesses a compelling plot. My desire to understand the full story increased as the connections became clearer, so I was somewhat disappointed that so much was still unknown at the end. I'm not sure I grasped everything Hall was aiming for with this novel, but I still found it a worthwhile read.

→ I was curious about THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle because of a synchronicity with Matt Ruff's excellent LOVECRAFT COUNTRY: the books were published on the same day and both grapple with the racist work of H.P. Lovecraft. After I heard a great Fresh Air interview with LaValle, in which he reads the opening pages of his novella, I knew I wanted to read more.