September 10, 2021

August Reading Recap

Last month I read two novels and a guide for writers, and all were excellent!

HAMNET by Maggie O'Farrell: Hamnet is a young boy living in Stratford in 1596 with his mother, his two sisters, and his grandparents. He misses his father, who spends most of the time away in London, working in his theater. When Hamnet's twin sister falls suddenly ill, the family is rocked by the terror of discovering the pestilence has reached their house. Though Hamnet's mother, Agnes, is renowned for her healing potions and has a gift for seeing the future, she finds herself powerless to protect her family from the grief to come. The narrative slips among the viewpoints of every family member to give an account of the fateful day as well as the story of Agnes's courtship and marriage to Hamnet's father. (It's William Shakespeare, though the text avoids ever naming him.)

This novel won much acclaim, and I found the praise well warranted. O'Farrell has taken the little that's known about Shakespeare's family, especially his wife, and imagined rich and surprising lives that have little connection to his work and fame. From the first page, there's a carefully crafted sense of foreboding. The whole reading experience is one of anticipating outcomes that we know are historically inevitable but the characters don't, and O'Farrell plays around with this in interesting ways by giving Agnes visions of the future (or at least, belief in her visions). The story unfolds slowly, through vividly depicted moments and compelling insights into the minds of the different characters. While I was completely engrossed throughout the first section, my attention waned some in the second, but I loved the satisfying conclusion.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker: Following the events of THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, the title characters have evaded the threats to their lives and secrecy, so now they can go on existing among the humans of 1900s Manhattan. The Golem has a few friends in her Lower East Side community, and the Jinni has his business partner in Little Syria, but their true natures keep them both isolated, except when they're able to be open with one another. As time passes, though, they seem to become less close, not more, and their disagreements intensify. Meanwhile, other characters and forces are gathering, both nearby and far away, and when these others reach the Golem and the Jinni's stories, everything will change.

Wecker has written a wonderfully rich sequel that expands and further complicates the already expansive, complex story and characters of the first book. While the initial installment built to its exciting climax in the space of months, this one spans years of the world changing around the Golem and the Jinni. The two of them never age, and each in their own way resists altering their carefully constructed lives until situations reach breaking points that are often emotional to read. There's perhaps more pain in this book than the first, though also plenty of hope. I loved the new characters we meet and the developments with those we knew already, and I'm once again impressed by how the many story threads converge to a satisfying end. I highly recommend reading both these books.

THE CYNICAL WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY by Naomi Kanakia sets out to address a sad fact of the publishing world: many good books fail to be published or noticed while many bad books succeed. Kanakia's aim is to help the writers of good books convince publishing's gatekeepers that their book is a potential success, even if that means making the manuscript look a little more like a bad book. It's a cynical perspective indeed, but based on years of observation and experience. This guide lays out many hard truths about publishing and the writing life, with some practical advice on failure-proofing your manuscript while protecting your creative ambition.

I read this because I've long enjoyed the opinions on Kanakia's blog, in addition to appreciating her novels. I found her perspective thought-provoking and the advice helpful. I'm a writer who likes picking apart what makes stories work, and this book approaches that from a unique angle. The cynicalness of it appeals to me and makes the book fun to read as well as useful. I recommend it to writers who have experienced at least some attempts at traditional publishing and are wondering how to get further.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Amy Zimmerman, writing for Electric Literature, contemplates autofiction, pandemic time, and the desire to be the main character: "What was missing from many of our quarantined existences was not the experience of time passing, but rather the presence of plot, of one event leading to another. This absence was at stark odds with the causality of the world beyond our quarantine bubbles. Out there, decisions, actions, fleeting moments of contact and exposure, all had serious, even deadly consequences. If we were lucky, we could afford to live in a room, in an apartment, where nothing much happened. Time moved forward, but didn't yield the gifts or the consequences that we've grown accustomed to. Without narrative movement, and so little to do or decide, it became harder to see ourselves as the architects of our own lives."