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."