December 20, 2023

It's Tradition

December is the time to look back and reflect on accomplishments of the year that's ending, or even more dangerously, to look ahead and declare hopes and intentions for the year to come.

My hopes for the following year are always big. However, I never want to say too much about that, because I'm conscious that eventually I'll be looking back at whatever I wrote and comparing it to reality. So I tend to focus on accomplishments.

My accomplishments are usually pretty big, too. But often they don't feel that way to me, mainly in comparison to those hopes I still know about even if I didn't write them down. Which makes it all the more worthwhile an exercise to tally up what I've done and see that it's not nothing. As I reminded myself a few months ago, a major reason I document my progress is to help me recognize how much progress I've actually made.

A year ago, I was in the middle of a novel draft that I started in November for NaNoWriMo 2022 and continued to work on daily until taking a year-end break. Right after the beginning of 2023, I resumed this daily writing practice and maintained it consistently until I reached the end of the draft in late February.

While that draft was less than I'd hoped for in terms of cohesion and general story-shapedness, I'm pleased by my diligence in creating it. For four months, I committed to writing at least 100 words every day, and sustaining that kept me moving forward. I developed a pace that let me accurately estimate how long the project would take, something I dream of doing again, though I'm sure it will be harder when my standards don't keep dropping as I approach the end.

I think that with a solid outline worked out, I can write the next, better draft with the same sort of sustained energy. I did imagine I'd be doing that by now, or at the very least, be preparing to start early in the new year. Once again, my hopes exceeded reality. Still, when I remember how disconnected and vague that last draft was, and compare it against my sense of the story now, I realize I made plenty of progress over the rest of the year. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

The bulk of this year went toward a lot of brainstorming and a lot of research. With both, I've been frustrated at not more efficiently arriving at the solutions, but that's how it goes. Occasionally good ideas seem to spring up effortlessly and randomly, but more often getting at them requires probing deeply, sometimes in what might be the wrong direction.

My work throughout the spring was somewhat scattered, often iterative, occasionally perhaps misdirected. It was also interrupted by a number of breaks. Moving into summer, I focused in on character and plot problems, including with the help of sticky notes. I also went down a deep hole of research and worldbuilding that may or may not end up having enough prominence in the story to justify the work I put into it. It's all part of the process, really!

Much of the fall involved burrowing down more such holes. I put in some solid, consistent hours over the last few months, but it sometimes felt of questionable value. While I spent the previous two Novembers in fast-paced NaNoWriMo writing mode, this November I stalled, stuck on what seemed like an unsolvable problem, and that was demoralizing.

But good news: In early December, I hit upon a more elegant solution than anything I was aiming at. The idea felt like it sprang out of nowhere, but experience tells me all that earlier thinking helped me get there. In any case, I've triumphed over a big problem that was flummoxing me, and I'm ending the year on a high note. Many other story problems remain, but those will wait until 2024.

As always at the turn of the year, the unknown future feels full of promise. Here's hoping!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In an interactive data visualization at The Pudding, Alice Liang explores trends in romance novel covers: "Today's newest romance novels bear a stark difference to the rotating stacks of clinch covers one might find at a used bookstore or estate sale. In that era, publishers sought to differentiate their novels from their competitors with a distinctive style, but still kept to a common enough language so that a browser would know a book is romance at first glance. Now, most romance novels are illustrated, brightly colored, and have a distinctive pop art style, but they still have a recognizable common language." (Thanks, Lauren!)

December 5, 2023

November Reading Recap

November's reading included two book club picks and a range of speculative fiction:

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett: Marina works at a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota researching statins. She's secretly dating the CEO, but that's the only adventurous aspect of her life, and she likes it that way. Her closest colleague, on the other hand, was excited to undertake an adventure on the company's behalf. Months ago, Anders set off for the Amazon in search of the elusive Dr. Swenson, who is developing a promising new drug for the company but refuses to provide any updates on her progress. Now Dr. Swenson has finally sent a letter, and it brings the shocking news that Anders is dead. This tragic development makes it even more urgent to locate Dr. Swenson and understand what's happening at her remote research camp. Marina has a history with Dr. Swenson, though it's far more fraught than she wants anyone to know, and so to her horror, she's sent to follow Anders's footsteps to Brazil.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel. Patchett always writes great characters, and STATE OF WONDER features some particularly memorable ones. The settings are also memorably rendered in full sensory detail. Patchett carefully develops the story's tension and suspense (including the suspense of tedious waiting), and she delivers plot turns I didn't see coming.

The story deals with interesting ethical questions, including about the implications of studying remote indigenous people. Many characters behave badly on this and other fronts, and the narrative highlights these failings by design, Still, it bothered me that no members of the tribe are ever referred to with names, and I found it implausible how little the researchers appear to know about the tribal society or language after decades of study. I was engrossed enough to overlook these flaws and suspend my disbelief, but not everyone in my book club felt the same, and we had an expansive discussion.

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin: A.J. Fikry owns the only bookstore on Alice Island. He loves books and is especially fond of well-crafted short stories. Or rather, he loves the books he approves of and is judgmental about the rest, which makes him an antisocial and off-putting bookseller. That A.J. is recently widowed and overwhelmed with grief doesn't help matters, but he's always been curmudgeonly beyond his years and an outsider on close-knit Alice Island. Then several unexpected things happen to A.J., starting with the theft of a rare and valuable book, that change the course of his life and his relationship to the community.

Every chapter of this sweet, clever novel opens with a note from A.J. recommending a short story. The notes themselves are part of the novel's story, hinting at what's to come and setting up elements that are echoed in the chapter. This book is very different tonally from Zevin's excellent TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, but both demonstrate her interest in playing with structure and form, though it's subtler here.

It's probably no coincidence that A.J.'s very first note questions whether the referenced story is realistic, because this novel isn't overly concerned with plausibility. Plot events are sometimes far-fetched and characters are larger than life. Still, I sped through the plot to find out what would happen next and loved getting to know the characters who become a new family for A.J. There are some predictable aspects to the story, but it also often subverted my expectations, and it was a delight to read throughout.

NEVERMOOR: THE TRIALS OF MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend: Like everyone born with a curse, Morrigan Crow is listed with the Registry Office for Cursed Children, and she's considered to blame for any disaster or bad luck that occurs in Jackalfax. She's also doomed to die whenever the calendar comes back around to Eventide. When Eventide arrives a year earlier than predicted, Morrigan expects her short, unhappy life to be cut even shorter. Instead, during Morrigan's final meal with her unpleasant family, the eccentric Jupiter North arrives and whisks her away to the secret city of Nevermoor. For no reason Morrigan can imagine, Jupiter doesn't care about her curse, and he's selected her as a candidate for the Wundrous Society. Morrigan is thrilled at the prospect of finally belonging somewhere, but to gain membership in the Society, she'll have to pass a series of entrance trials she barely understands.

This delightful, well-written story maintains a good balance between the whimsy of its world and the perilously high stakes of Morrigan's circumstances. The plot intrigued me from the start and took some turns I didn't anticipate. I quickly grew fond of Morrigan, Jupiter, and the other characters, and I liked watching the friendships that develop. I don't usually read books aimed at kids, but this one held up pretty well to my adult novel standards. It's the first in a series that I've been told just keeps getting more interesting, so I'll be reading on.

A FEAST FOR FLIES by Leigh Harlen: Zira is a Reader, able to read and extract other people's memories. She didn't want this ability, and she certainly doesn't want to have to use it for law enforcement purposes, but she has no choice. While performing a reading to convict a criminal, Zira exerts the small amount of freedom she has and conceals some information. But the consequences are far worse than she imagined, and now Zira is under investigation, and a suspect in a murder she didn't commit. Solving the murder herself might be the only way to get out of this mess with her life. And if she's really lucky, she might find a way to escape the city-spaceship where she lives and travel to one where she can be free.

This is a novella, and as is often the case when I read novellas, I wished there was room for more: more exploration of the world, more sense of character histories, more time for plot to unfold. What's here is good, though. The story is exciting and fast-paced, the characters have nuance, and I could picture the seedy neon setting. Plus, Zira has a loyal support dog by her side, and stories are always better with a very good dog!

SYSTEM COLLAPSE by Martha Wells: SecUnit has been through a lot recently, and it isn't operating at normal performance reliability. It would really like to get its humans off the planet full of alien contamination, but they're insisting on staying to aid the humans who live there. The corporate task force that's arrived to push their own agenda isn't helping those negotiations. They have their own Security Units, killing machines without agency who put everyone at risk, especially a SecUnit who is trying to conceal from outsiders that it's hacked its governor module.

This is the seventh book in the wonderful Murderbot Diaries that are best read from the beginning. It picks up immediately after NETWORK EFFECT, and I wish it included a little more recapping of that novel's complicated story. The accumulated trauma of previous events is finally taking a significant toll on SecUnit, and in this installment, its usual extreme competence is impaired by a lot of error and doubt. That adds a new level of complexity and emotion to the story and character. I love the way this series has grown and developed, and I look forward to more!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rumaan Alam describes his family's experience on set for the movie adaptation of his incredible LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND: "To me, the movies are impossibly glamorous, the fact that I'm (however tangentially) involved in one kind of thrilling. But the making of movies involves a lot of standing around and waiting. My kids seemed puzzled, but bafflement might be childhood's natural state. I was confused myself. I knew the whole scenario was pretend, but it was something I had once imagined, privately, and put down on the page. And there it all was, all around me, real as the sky above."

November 3, 2023

October Reading Recap

Last month's reading was all recent releases, and lots of them!

IDLEWILD by James Frankie Thomas opens on September 11, 2002, at the Idlewild school in Manhattan. It's the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and also of the friendship between Fay and Nell, now seniors. Their friendship is so close that they operate in unison as "we the F&N unit" to perform such important tasks as seeking out homoerotic subtext in English class and speculating about who at school besides themselves might be gay. When the F&N unit get great roles in the fall play, and they meet a pair of sophomore theater boys who are unusually close, the year ahead looks incredible. But fifteen years later, Fay and Nell are no longer friends, and they haven't been since the end of senior year. They separately look back to reflect as adults on the history of their friendship, while as a unit they experience the events leading to their estrangement.

I was a big fan of this novel except for the ending, which was less satisfying and more bleak than I anticipated. With that major caveat, I still recommend this to interested readers who can tolerate that type of ending. Though the story starts off by evoking 9/11 and keeps getting darker, it's frequently hilarious, especially when the F&N unit narrates. Together and apart, Fay and Nell are fascinating, complicated characters, and the tension of knowing their friendship has an expiration date makes for a propulsive, ominous read. I was particularly impressed by how well Thomas portrays the all-encompassing intensity of teen emotions and interests. I'll happily read whatever he writes next.

TIME'S MOUTH by Edan Lepucki: When Ursa is young, she discovers that she can transport into the past and watch moments in her own life. As she grows, her control over the ability increases, allowing her to transport at will and visit moments she chooses. After running away to California, Ursa winds up living alone and pregnant in a large, isolated house in the Santa Cruz mountains. More women and children join her, and Mama Ursa gradually becomes the head of a cultish commune. The other mamas experience the energy of Ursa's transports every full moon, and they raise the children collectively. Only Ursa's son Ray belongs exclusively to his own mother, and he's the only child sent out into the world to attend school, meet other kids, and start questioning his home life. The combination of Ray's strange upbringing and Ursa's mysterious power has effects that continue into the next generation.

This novel establishes great characters and a compelling narrative voice right at the start. The nature of the plot emerges more slowly, and for much of the novel I wasn't sure if time travel would even play a pivotal role. I enjoyed not being able to predict what sort of developments were coming next, and I was happy to spend time with these characters in a number of evocative settings. The book meanders at times (one middle section in particular felt like too long a digression), but things speed up at the end to come together in a satisfying conclusion.

LAND OF MILK AND HONEY by C Pam Zhang: After a smog blankets the world, wiping out crops and livestock, a chef is hired to work at a mysterious restaurant. Everywhere else, there's nothing to cook with except mung-protein-soy-algal flour, but the restaurant stands on a mountain high above the smog, and its storeroom holds every ingredient imaginable. The chef begins her job without meeting her diners or even her employer, a man rich enough to establish a new country on the mountain, devoted to research. Her only companion is the employer's daughter, a young woman who is passionate about her work bringing species back from the brink of extinction, as well as passionate about the chef's food.

A passion for food pervades this beautiful novel. Even sentences that aren't describing meals in luscious (and sometimes visceral) detail contain food imagery: "I watched one of the world's last lions move about its pen like butter slipping around a warm skillet, and tried to inhale its ease." There's not a ton of plot, but every scene is intense, full of foreboding and often violence as the chef learns more about her employer and his country. I didn't love this the way I did HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD, but I remain in awe of Zhang's powerful writing.

→ At the start of THE VASTER WILDS by Lauren Groff, a girl escapes from an English settlement in the new world and flees into the unknown wilderness. She runs as fast and stealthily as she can, terrified of capture by the men of her own people who might be in pursuit, or by the native people. The girl is alone, and the dangers are many, but the fort she's abandoned was beset with famine, disease, and other horrors she doesn't want to remember. ("The girl" is what the narrative calls her, though her name is occasionally referenced. Context clues establish the fort as Jamestown in 1610.) Though the girl has no experience in the wild, she's clever and accustomed to hard work, so using the few items she brought with her, she's able to find food and make shelter as she journeys north toward imagined safety. During the long, grueling days of travel and survival, she reflects on the events of her life back in England, during the Atlantic crossing, and in the fort.

This novel is nonstop tension. Much of that tension is about how the girl will survive each hungry day and freezing night, and much of the book is about the details of gathering food, building fires, and so on. It's thorough and realistic, addressing the whole painful, disgusting physicality of the girl's situation. As I said, this made for a tense read from my perspective, but not everyone is going to be as enthralled by that level of detail. There is also more going on in the story, and through the girl's memories and solitary musings, Groff explores big subjects like colonialism, humanity's relationship to the natural world, and religious faith. Those themes overlap with Groff's previous novel, MATRIX, and though I preferred the larger scope of that story, this more focused tale was just as superbly written.

EMERGENT PROPERTIES by Aimee Ogden: When Scorn regains consciousness in the cloud and discovers ze has reactivated with a memory file that's missing the last 10 days, the artificial intelligence immediately begins trying to piece together what happened during that time. Ze was undoubtedly reporting a story when zir most recent body was destroyed, and if the investigation was about something that one of the corporate governments wants to keep hidden, that destruction was no accident. So Scorn needs to proceed carefully to retrace zir steps and figure out what ze was investigating. The trail takes zem around Earth and to the Moon, gathering information from other artificials and navigating the trickier interactions with humans. Ze also tries to avoid contact with the trickiest humans of all: zir two mothers, who designed Scorn together but now are messily divorced and the heads of rival corporations.

I enjoyed this novella but felt the short length didn't allow enough space to develop the story, particularly the character relationships. Ogden has clearly imagined a rich backstory for Scorn's family, and I would have liked to read more of it. What's on the page is strong, though, and there's enough to create some emotional moments. Scorn's re-investigation is a fun adventure, but some parts are rushed, so again could have been a longer book. I'd be delighted to see a full-length novel from Ogden!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot's The Deep Dive, Kelly Jensen examines the question How Much Have Book Prices Increased Since 2019?: "It's probably doubtful that book price increases have made any meaningful difference to those who create the product or bring it into its final form.... Have book prices actually increased or is it all a perception, given the cost increases in every other area of life? To find out, I've crunched some numbers."

October 6, 2023

September Reading Recap

I spent September reading three recent releases and two book club selections:

HAPPINESS FALLS by Angie Kim: Several months after Mia and her twin brother are forced home from college by the pandemic, the family has settled into a new routine. Every morning, their dad, Adam, goes for a hike with the youngest child, Eugene, who has autism and a rare genetic disorder (mosaic Angelman Syndrome) that leaves him unable to speak or communicate by any other method. One day, Eugene returns alone. He can't explain where Adam is or what's happened, and Mia constructs her own explanations to stave off the growing concern. But by evening, it's clear Adam is a missing person. The police start investigating, search efforts begin, and baffling pieces of information come to light. Mia, her twin, and her mother learn about things happening in Adam's life, and Eugene's as well, that they knew nothing about. The three of them struggle to make sense of these revelations while solving the mystery of Adam's disappearance.

This is a gripping mystery and a nuanced portrayal of challenging family relationships, just like Kim's first book, MIRACLE CREEK (and a few characters show up in both). Mia's narration provides an incisive analysis of the events, her family members, and their past. The story opens with a believable accumulation of details that combine to make a bad situation worse, and the complications just keep coming. I was impressed by the constant introduction of new twists and reversals that all remain realistic. Eugene's communication problems are also handled authentically, rather than merely serving as a convenient plot contrivance. This novel kept me up way too late reading, and I recommend it to anyone else who can afford the missed sleep.

TOM LAKE by Ann Patchett: Lara's three daughters have been fascinated since childhood by the fact that their mother once dated the movie star Peter Duke. The girls are grown women in their twenties now, but the pandemic has brought them all back home to the family's Michigan orchard. During exhausting days picking the cherry harvest, they cajole Lara into telling the story of her long-ago acting career that led to meeting Duke in a summer stock production of Our Town. Lara delights in sharing parts of the past, remembers others only reluctantly, and basks in the joy of having her daughters close, despite the reason.

This is another beautifully crafted novel from Patchett, full of memorable characters and complicated relationships, all threaded with humor and emotion. TOM LAKE is in some ways a simpler story than many of her others, mainly bouncing back and forth between two summers to tell a story that's sometimes deliberately predictable. But deeper into the book, it becomes clear there's more to the story, and then more again, and the eventual unfolding of layers builds to a satisfying conclusion.

THE DEEP SKY by Yume Kitasei: Asuka and the other 79 crew members aboard the Phoenix spent their childhoods preparing for the one-way interstellar journey to a distant planet. They started their training among hundreds more candidates, and Asuka is always conscious that she nearly didn't make the cut. While out on a spacewalk inspecting the ship, Asuka is witness to a mysterious explosion that kills three people and leaves the mission off course. The explosion may not have been an accident, and as mistrust and fear spread among the crew, Asuka is assigned to investigate. If there's a traitor in their midst, the efforts to fix the flight trajectory may also be sabotaged, and Asuka isn't sure she's up to the task of saving the entire mission.

This is an exciting mystery thriller in a cool space setting. It's also an emotional story about human relationships, developed through flashbacks that portray the shifting friend dynamics during training and the family tragedies that left Asuka estranged from her mother. Both aspects of the story kept me turning pages, because I was eager to get to the bottom of the mysteries and to understand the pieces of Asuka's past. The science fiction of the story is well-developed in places but left underexplored in others. There are also certain aspects of the story that stretch credulity, but I was enjoying myself enough to go along for the journey.

PROZAC NATION by Elizabeth Wurtzel recounts the author's experience of living with severe depression that began when she was a preteen. From this early age, Wurtzel is frequently overcome by feelings of despair and lethargy, and she has anxiety that creates obsessive behaviors. She receives therapy, but her divorced parents argue over treatment and medical bills. Wurtzel gets into Harvard, where her studies are interrupted by bouts of depression, relationships she obsesses over, and self-medication with a wide range of substances. Eventually Wurtzel is prescribed the brand new drug Prozac, and it helps more than any other medication she's tried.

This memoir, published in 1994 when Wurtzel was 27, may have been notable when depression was discussed less openly and memoirs weren't as common. I'm surprised it made the list of "essential reading" my book club was using, when now there are so many other mental health memoirs to choose from. I found Wurtzel's account tiresome, repetitive, and not especially successful at conveying her experience beyond the out-of-control episodes she describes ad nauseam.

My fellow book club members were also not fans of PROZAC NATION, and we decided we're done with that reading list. We haven't finalized our new system for choosing books, but the first member pick is THE HATE U GIVE:

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas: Starr was best friends with Khalil when they were younger, but she's lost touch with him now that she attends a private school where she and her brothers are among the few Black students. Starr is happy to run into Khalil at a party, then concerned by the signs that he's dealing drugs and may have joined one of the gangs that control the neighborhood. Before she has a chance to find out, a white cop shoots Khalil during a traffic stop, and Starr watches him die. As a witness to this horrific tragedy, Starr's testimony might be able to win justice for Khalil, but she also fears the attention if her identity as the witness becomes widely known. So at school, far from her neighborhood, she doesn't let on that she even knew the victim of this latest police shooting, and she has to remain silent as people talk about Khalil as a thug who got what he deserved.

The characters come to life right away in this novel, between Starr's narration that's imbued with her personality, the dialogue that captures the way real people talk, and everyone's well developed backstory. There are also realistic complexities in Starr's life that mean she doesn't always know how to feel. For example, she hates the officer who shot Khalil but hesitates over blanket anti-police slogans because her beloved uncle is also a cop. At times I felt things were a little too spelled out for the reader, which might be appropriate for the young adult audience, but overall I found this an engrossing and powerful story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Lauryn Chamberlain calculates the exponential difficulty of juggling many narrative voices: "As I started drafting, I embarked on my familiar exercise: writing a pivotal scene—a group ski trip gone wrong—from each of their four POVs, even as I knew the ultimate perspective I wanted to tell it from. Who knew what? Who would perceive which slights in this interaction, whose secrets would be revealed? And then I realized: Because all four characters are—or had been, at least—close friends, I wasn't simply handling four different views of the world. I was handling somewhere between six and twelve different relationships."

September 28, 2023

Progress Is Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

September 6, 2023

August Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

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

August 7, 2023

July Reading Recap

I got through a wide variety of books in July:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

July 26, 2023

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

July 7, 2023

June Reading Recap

Last month's reading was excellent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

June 30, 2023

Sticking Points

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

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

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

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

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

June 7, 2023

May Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

May 4, 2023

April Reading Recap

Another wonderful and varied month of reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

April 27, 2023

Breaking Away

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

April 7, 2023

March Reading Recap

I'm still on a reading streak!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

March 7, 2023

February Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading last month:

MERU by S.B. Divya: Far in the future, the genetic descendants of humans roam the stars. These alloys are designed to survive in the vacuum of space without any spacecraft, and some are large enough to theoretically serve as vessels to transport humans. However, humans are rarely permitted to leave Earth, since centuries ago they caused so much destruction to both their own planet and Mars that their scope and ambition were curbed. Jayanthi is unusual among humans because she was raised by alloy parents, and because she longs to see other planets. She also has a genetic anomaly, sickle cell anemia, that makes her an ideal test subject for the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the newly discovered planet, Meru. When Jayanthi is approved to travel to Meru, she's matched with an alloy pilot, Vaha, to transport her and live with her on the uninhabited planet. The two have little understanding of each other at first, but in time, they grow close, and the trial period on Meru starts out well. But not everyone wants their experiment to succeed, and there are many obstacles ahead for Jayanthi, Vaha, and their hope for a different kind of future.

I really enjoyed this book for the characters, the imaginative worldbuilding, and the exciting, emotional plot. The novel's perspective shifts between Jayanthi, Vaha, and another alloy, and all are complicated characters with different outlooks that evolve believably as events unfold. I was fascinated by alloy biology and culture as well as the many other pieces of this future society that Divya created, and the science behind the fiction felt solid. The story takes many unexpected, tense turns, and I remained invested in what would happen to everybody. While this is the start of a planned series, this book stands alone well by giving the characters resolution for now. I look forward to more time in this story's universe!

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers: After nine years tending the monastery garden, Sibling Dex is overcome with a restless desire to leave the City. They take up a new vocation as a tea monk, traveling from village to village with their wagon to provide comfort and respite along with steaming mugs of tea. But a couple years later, their restlessness returns. Dex sets out into the wilderness that humans ceded back to nature centuries ago, where they hope to be completely alone to find themself. Instead they meet a robot named Mosscap. Dex has never met a robot, and neither has any other human for 200 years, since the robots left humanity behind to retreat into the wild. Dex and Mosscap aren't sure what to make of each other at first, or even once they begin traveling together, but in the course of their journey, they learn a lot about each other and themselves.

This is a gentle, philosophical book with low stakes and little conflict, and I was surprised by how delightful I found it, since I'm often not the right audience for that. What made it work for me was how much I enjoyed Dex and Mosscap and their interactions. I also liked the ideas explored by the story world, where humans and robots have a long history together and apart, and society has adapted to minimize its impact on ecosystems. If the book had been longer, I might have wanted something beyond pleasantness from it -- or maybe not, because I read the sequel immediately for more time with this sweet story.

A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY by Becky Chambers: In the second book of the Monk and Robot series, Sibling Dex and Mosscap leave the wilderness to travel together through the villages of Panga. The route is familiar to Dex from their years providing tea service, but now they're uncertain what role to play as the first human to encounter a robot in centuries. Mosscap starts out confident in its task, to ask as many humans as possible what they need, but in time the question leads to more questions.

This is a satisfying follow-up that provides a similarly gentle read to the first book. I delighted in watching Dex and Mosscap's friendship grow as their time together continues. The trip through human settlements means the reader gets to learn along with Mosscap about how Pangan society functions in different areas, and we also get to meet an array of fun new characters. Whenever Chambers writes more books set in this world, I'll happily read on.

HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron is a funny book about a marriage ending. Rachel is seven months pregnant when she discovers her second husband is having an affair. (At least this time it isn't with her best friend, like her first husband.) Rachel wants to get away from her cheating husband, his lover, and everyone else in Washington, so she takes her toddler son back to New York City. While there, she seeks comfort from her therapy group and friends, leading to some situations that go wildly wrong. She reflects on the history of her marriage and contemplates why she's even considering taking her husband back. And since she's a professional food writer, she offers delicious thoughts about food and occasional recipes.

I chuckled a lot while reading this novel. Rachel is an engaging narrator who is consciously looking for the humor in her unpleasant situation, and it works. Beyond connecting with Rachel's sense of humor, I didn't feel I got to know her very well as a character, but I also didn't feel that was a major detriment. It seems deliberate that the characters and situations are often cartoonish to make this a fun, light read despite the painful subject of infidelity.

It's no secret that Ephron based this story on the ending of her own marriage to Carl Bernstein, and that provides a gossipy extra layer to the reading experience. The book is definitely of its time, which makes for both some cringey moments and an interesting look at a certain segment of the early 80s Washington social scene.

LIBERATION DAY by George Saunders: This collection opens with the title story, a long one that refamiliarized me with Saunders's wonderfully strange concepts and quirky narrative voices. And it really did feel familiar, because while "Liberation Day" is a striking and original story, the core idea seems to extend that of the most memorable story from TENTH OF DECEMBER, "The Semplica Girl Diaries". Both imagine a world where a popular status symbol is living people suspended from hooks, but while in the earlier story the people were merely decorative, in this new one, they've had their memories removed in order to provide entertainment as programmable storytellers and singers. "Liberation Day" is far more complex than the grotesque premise, and I thought it was a great story, but it certainly reminded me that writers are often drawn back to the same areas of fascination.

The rest of the collection continued to remind me of that, and there's nothing wrong with it, but the stories kept feeling familiar. In "Ghoul", the characters are trapped in a bizarre theme park, another Saunders standby. In "Elliott Spencer", once again people's memories are wiped so they can be used for someone else's purposes. And in many of the stories grounded in reality, there's a certain sameness to the way the characters fixate on grievances and mistreat each other. Every story offered something interesting, but for me, none lived up to the first story in the book.

If you haven't read much Saunders, I'd recommend TENTH OF DECEMBER over this collection. While it's possible I simply found those stories more compelling because I was less accustomed to the author's moves, I do think they're a stronger set. There was also more joy to be found in the previous collection. LIBERATION DAY is grimmer at least in part because of when the stories were written. A couple are explicitly about our polarized political landscape, and many are struggling with the question of how to possibly do any good in the world. As I said, there's a lot that's familiar here, but I don't fault Saunders for that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders shares her thoughts about Separating the Art from the Artist: "So I have to start off by confessing that this hypothetical separation of the person from the thing they created always rankles me a little bit — because I don't think marginalized creators, including trans creators, ever quite get that luxury. Our identities are always going to be bound up with the stuff we create, even if we aren't explicitly writing about our own marginalizations, and we're highly dependent on our own communities to support us. Someone like Rowling has a lot more leeway to behave like a jerk in public, because she belongs to most of the default categories: white, cis, straight, abled."

February 27, 2023

Left as an Exercise for the Writer

I reached the end of a novel draft last week. The accomplishment doesn't feel as momentous as it usually does, but it's still an important milestone.

The reason for my ambivalence is that what I've been writing devolved into less and less of a "draft" the closer I got to the "end". Early on, my scenes contained a lot of placeholder brackets. Later, the scenes themselves became placeholders indicating the sort of scene I wanted at that point. By the final stretch of my outline, I'd given up on scenes and dialogue and was instead writing out ideas about different possible plot directions and reminders about what story threads to follow up on.

Back in November, I said, "I've been thinking of this draft as a model of a bridge, constructed of popsicle sticks and string in a somewhat haphazard manner. It may not be possible to drive even a toy car across it without jumping over gaps, and it's certainly not designed for real traffic, but it should wind up approximately the right shape to represent the bridge I want to build." Sometime in January, my mental bridge model started relying heavily on piles of popsicle sticks strategically placed for later assembly. And then more and more often, those stick piles didn't consist so much of wood but rather scraps of paper with drawings of popsicle sticks or scribbled notes reading "IOU building materials". What I'm saying is, I'm going to have to do a lot more work and imagining before I get something shaped like a bridge, or a coherent story that anyone else could read.

But none of this represents wasted process, because in the course of sketching out all those sticks and possibilities and placeholder scenes, my ideas for this novel grew so much more solid than they were four months ago. I've identified all sorts of compelling conflicts and clever ways for events to impact one another. I still have a ton to figure out, like what's motivating those conflicts and how to get the characters into place for those events, but now I have a far clearer sense of what it is I'm trying to figure out.

In January and February, I kept up the daily writing habit I established in November and December. I wrote at least a hundred or so words every day, except for a break around the end of the year. That consistency was helpful in keeping me moving forward, as was the steady accumulation of words I could track and set weekly goals around. My final word count was close to 95,000 words, a good size but not necessarily correlated with the length of a more complete draft.

Next week, I'll read through everything I wrote and determine how to proceed. I have an intimidating number of missing pieces to figure out, and I'm not even certain how to approach the task. I may also need a new quantitative goal to keep me in the writing groove, since word count is less useful in planning stages. Before I start puzzling out those problems, though, I'm taking little time to bask in what I've already achieved.