What I’ve been reading lately, witchy season edition

Just two books on this list. My reading has been slowed down with the turn of seasons – although again, I have actually read more than this. But I felt like these two books, one of which I loved, and one of which I had such a problem with I could not finish it, work as a single list.

  • The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec. Loved this book. Just loved it. It’s a Norse myth-inspired story, and I found its prose both modern and uncannily myth-like. But most saliently for this particular list, it presents the idea of “witch” in a way that to me is both original and compelling.
  • A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee – this was a DNF for me, in part (but not only – I had other issues with it too) because I found it offensive in a way peculiar to me. I feel strongly that any author who mentions the Salem witch trials (or really, any historical event) in a work of fiction, no matter how casually, has a moral obligation to be aware of the actual history of this event and to take it into account in their mentions; otherwise, they are perpetuating the belief system that led to those twenty executions (and to other lost lives as well). If you don’t know anything about the history of the Salem witch trials, this is a good summary. We Ride Upon Sticks is, in my opinion, an example of a novel about witchcraft that talks about the Salem trials and gets it right – something far too rare.

What I’ve been reading lately, trying to keep up edition

There are more – even though I have been slowed down – I just can’t think of any right now. I’ve been too busy, but also, despite the fact that I enjoyed all three of these (esp. She Who Became the Sun), I’m in a bit of a reading slump. I was surprised to stumble across the suggestion (in this post) that reading slumps are a product of the social internet! This is definitely not my experience (and I know it because I’ve experienced reading slumps before I experienced the internet, and I participate in the social internet only minimally anyway – this blog is about it, and it’s not very social), and I was initially a little offended by the suggestion.

But in thinking about it, I came to what feels like an important realization about my reading: I’m a reader, not a fan. And this makes my situation different than that of those who are both fans AND readers. Clearly, the author of the post is both. I’d argue that the kind of slump that’s produced by the internet is more properly termed a fandom slump, since (as the post author argues) it has more to do with participation in reading communities than with reading itself.

What about what *I* term a reading slump – the inability to find a book that I want to read despite longing for something new? I think that’s a separate phenomenon. So does the author of the post, in fact. For this type of slump, she suggests, “Set aside a book you haven’t read yet by an author you love.” I suspect this is a suggestion that works for fans, but it doesn’t work for me. For me each book – not each author, each *book* – is a passage into another world. It stands alone. Even books set in the same world show different slices, different moods, of that world. There are few authors whose books I will always read – I can probably count them on one hand – and I can think of no examples of authors who’ve never written a book that I’ve found problematic, no matter how much I normally love their work (see, for example, Winterkeep).

(There are authors who, having tried a few of their books, I will not read again. But that doesn’t solve the reading slump issue!)

There are a lot of readers/fans out there, and those readers do to some extent drive what’s being written and published. I don’t know if my reading slumps correspond with the abundance of books that appeal to me in their concept, but that are associated strongly with reading fandom, at any particular time, or not. Something to consider.

What I’ve been reading lately, shedding my skin edition

What I’ve been reading lately, renewal edition

I’ve read more than this, actually, but what I haven’t listed is mostly re-reading. I’m recovering from last year and right now I just can’t muster the energy to list it all. Every day, a little more energy…or so I hope.

What I’ve been reading lately, plain February edition

  • Winterkeep, by Kristin Cashore. I had some problems with this one, though I did read it all the way through, not just once but twice. Kristin Cashore is one of “my” writers and so her works get a level of trust from me that many other authors’ don’t. For this reason I found reading Winterkeep an interesting exercise in figuring out what my problems with it were. I think it comes down to three main issues (no real spoilers in what follows). First is a world-building issue. Cashore’s previous novels in this universe (Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue) suffered from a common and extremely problematic issue in fantasy: presumed (and in some cases explicit) whiteness (some discussions of this issue in fantasy generally here and here). Perhaps in part to remedy this, in Winterkeep Cashore presents a nation of people with brown skin, and clarifies that the Lienid are also brown-skinned (albeit lighter-skinned than the people of Winterkeep). All this is well and good, except that by this choice, Cashore has created a world in which human phenotype is completely unmoored from biological reality (the people of Winterkeep live in the far north). This worldbuidling thus gives credence to some mistaken ideas about the biology of skin color and race; such mistaken ideas inform quite a bit of present-day scientific racism (this project provides some background for what I’m trying to get at here), which is clearly not what Cashore intends – but nonetheless, it bothered me. I couldn’t not see those threads as I read. My second issue is also science-related. While environment is at the heart of the conflict in Winterkeep, and Cashore emphasizes this by having two point-of-view and one additional important set of non-human animal characters, all the animals seem completely human-focused. These three types of animals are the only wild animals we’re introduced to (and one, the telepathic foxes, would really have to be considered a semi-domesticate); otherwise the world is populated by domestic animals (that is, dependent on humans) such as cows, pigs, and cats. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem except that the responsibility of the denizens of Winterkeep to take care of the earth and the impacts of their decisions on ecosystem dynamics are a significant part of the plot. Similarly, while concepts such as cascading environmental effects and ecosystem mechanics are touched upon, the superficial way in they are treated supports the idea that people are the superior beings, the most important part of this world…which is directly in conflict with the stated environmental themes of Winterkeep. Finally, one of the aspects of this book that I really liked was the theme of coming of age out of a background of family trauma. However, the many viewpoints (there are five) made it hard for me to fully connect with the character of Lovisa. And this made the way in which Winterkeep treats family trauma, for me, fundamentally unsatisfying. Together these three issues made the entire book problematic for me; they may not be so much of an issue for other readers. But thinking about why things were problematic for me in this one was also a really fruitful and interesting exercise – one that’s given me some insights into writing craft.
  • Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu. I loved this book.
  • The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, by Ha Jin.
  • Making Magic: Weaving Together the Everyday and the Extraordinary, by Briana Saussy

What I’ve been reading lately, deep dark midwinter edition

It doesn’t sound like a lot, and it is in fact not a lot. I’ve been tired, laboring under darkness both real and metaphorical. But we’ve passed the solstice now and I see a glimmer of light in the far distance…enough that I’m able to at the very least, record what I’ve been reading.

Here’s to light returning, for all of us (including those of us in the southern hemisphere, for whom the returning light will be metaphorical at this point).

Writing resources

I have been thinking about a post describing how I began writing again after a hiatus of fifteen years. Writing journey stories always fascinate me, no matter how prosaic, and I feel like writing my own might be useful for me as well as potentially interesting to others. I sat down and began it — but it soon became evident that the story of my writing journey is not yet ready to be told. The right words aren’t available to me yet. Someday they will be, but at the moment the topic is, as Natalie Goldberg would say, “composting.”

Instead, I will share something related: a list of writing resources. The list below contains things – mostly books, but also a set of videos – that I have found useful in writing. Some of them were useful in the past, even transformative, but more recently have been less so (although maybe they will be again sometime). Some I revisit again and again, finding something new each time; some were more useful to me years ago than they are now, but they’ve stuck with me and are part of my canon. They are not all directly about writing, and they contradict each other. Some of them, even, are internally inconsistent. But they are all resources that have helped me on my writing journey, as my driving question has changed from, why do I write? to, how do I write?

In most cases, the links for books go to my local indie, Bookworks, but the books are available elsewhere too (most of them – Second Sight is hard to find these days!).

  • Writing Down the Bones and Thunder and Lightning, by Natalie Goldberg. Writing Down the Bones is a very well-known book, more than thirty years old now, which (despite my abiding love for writing books) I only discovered this past summer. Goldberg’s approach is all about writing practice; what she means by that is the topic of Writing Down the Bones, while Thunder and Lightning covers what to do with a writing practice, after you’ve established one. Goldberg has been instrumental in getting me writing again…or maybe it would be more accurate to say, in getting me to love writing again. In addition to her books, Goldberg teaches workshops, some online, one of which I attended this past June/July. If you have the opportunity to study with her, whether through her workshops or her books, I highly recommend it!
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. This short collection of essays is an old favorite of mine. Although they are more personal essays than writing guide, they are filled with practical advice on how to write. And that advice is not dissimilar to Goldberg’s, although Bradbury and Goldberg are completely different writers. As someone who writes speculative fiction, I find the pairing of this volume with the two from Goldberg, above, extremely helpful.
  • Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin. This one is a guide; it is a finer-grained look at writing than the Goldberg and Bradbury books, being full of exercises that focus on language. A class on how to use language from Ursula Le Guin – who couldn’t use such a thing? (Probably someone, but I can sure use it!)
  • Second Sight and The Magic Words, by Cheryl Klein. Klein, currently the editorial director at Lee & Low Books, self-published Second Sight, a collection of her talks and essays (out of print now, although Amazon lists some used copies) and then later went on to publish The Magic Words, a more formal writing guide, with Norton. Klein describes herself as a “narrative nerd” and these two books are my go-to guides for thinking about how to shape a narrative. Klein’s editorial specialty is children’s and young adult literature, but much of what she has to say applies to any writing – even non-fiction.
  • On Writing, by Stephen King. I was not really a Stephen King reader, though his books were wildly popular among my peers (I love this interview and most particularly Victor Lavalle’s description of his early Stephen King-influenced writing; I was busy writing similar knockoffs of Mary Stewart, which didn’t resonate so well with my friends). On Writing is part memoir, part guide, and just amazingly well-written.
  • Something to Declare, by Julia Alvarez. This book of autobiographical essays by Alvarez – one of “my” writers, writers who have written books that have become part of me – is more about her life (including her life as a writer) than about the mechanics of writing. It’s not a textbook, in other words. But writing and reading are the backbone of these essays, even the ones that are about Alvarez’s life as a child rather than writing per se, and I have learned much about writing from all of them.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s lectures from his BYU class. Links for these can be found here https://www.brandonsanderson.com/writing-advice/; there are other versions out there too. I listened to the audio from the 2014 version fully (these seem to have been taken down at this point), and have watched only some sessions from more recent years – but as far as I can tell, the more recent classes cover the same ground.

What I’ve been reading lately, nightmare autumn edition

It’s autumn, getting on towards Halloween – usually, my favorite time of year. But this year I am weighed down, and though I am making an effort to get outside, to witness the birds and the leaves and the river, it’s not easy. Some of my current circumstance is flat-out on me: I am overworked, having said yes to not one but half a dozen or more obligations that I had no business taking on. (It is strange but true that the more overloaded I am, the more I say yes to demands; saying no is hard, and when I’m stressed out and busy, I don’t have the energy to do it. Which of course makes things worse.) But some of it is the state of the world. For the last four years I’ve been saying, it’s a hard time, but the difficulty has been getting more and more acute. Knowing that so many have it so much worse than I do does not make getting through the day-to-day any easier.

The weather and my mood are reflected in my reading. I’m not really a horror reader, but have read (or tried to read) two recently. Mexican Gothic received such good reviews that, despite the fact that I really didn’t go for Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, I gave it a try. But this one (though very different) was again not for me and I didn’t finish it. I’m apparently the only reader out there who found both of these works much better in concept than in execution. I see that there are some who found Mexican Gothic slow; that wasn’t my problem. I just wasn’t into the prose. Like Gods of Jade and Shadow, though, Mexican Gothic has been widely praised. What am I missing?

(Speaking of things I’m missing: I stumbled across Time’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time list and was horrified. I mean, really horrified, so much so that I just can’t bear to link to it. I could go on and on about the way in which it skips over everything up till about 15 years ago – after bragging that they go back to the 9th century at that! – and that is a problem for sure. So is the fact that 14% of the books on it were written by the authors consulted in making the list. But on a personal taste note, the correlation between books I’ve talked about disliking on this blog and the past 15 years portion of the list is stunningly high. There are some notable exceptions – I love N.K. Jemisin’s work, for instance, and I absolutely agree that The Fifth Season deserves a place on a top 100 list. But a lot of the others….)

By contrast, I was very impressed by The Only Good Indians (I’d never read any Stephen Graham Jones before!) and I’m enjoying Trouble the Saints so far (not a surprise, as Alaya Dawn Johnson is a favorite author for me; wow, looks like I never blogged about Love is the Drug? I’m going to have to do that one of these days). But of the set, the book that most lifted me above my current state was H is for Hawk. It is totally different and yet somehow reminded me of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.

I hope everyone is finding things to read (or just things, period) that lift them out of the nightmare. Stay safe. If you are American, vote. And above all, take care – of yourself, and of the rest of the world too.

What I’ve been reading lately, 100+ degrees Fahrenheit edition

It is hot. The world continues to be difficult. But there is reading. I was completely blown away by The Changeling – I found it to be creepy, gripping, and nuanced all three, and that doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s a master class of a novel. I’ll be reading it again, that’s for sure.

None of the other three really grabbed me, though I have barely started Vita Nostra so that may change (but I don’t think so). It may be that they are suffering by comparison to The Changeling – not an unusual problem for me when I’ve read a book that really captures me; everything I read after seems flat for a while.

Stay healthy and well, readers. I hope something – whether books or something more concrete – is bringing you hope and comfort right now.

The adventure of reading literature in translation

Anyone looking at my what I’ve been reading lately posts would probably notice: I like to read books in translation. By books in translation I mostly (but not entirely) mean, books originally published in a non-English language that I then read in English. As I’ve discussed here before, one of my all-time favorite novels is If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, written and originally published in Italian; a sampling of other things I’ve read in the not-too-distant past that were originally published in a language other than English include Basho’s poetry, The Godmother, Baron in the Trees, Core of the Sun, and the Mirror Visitor Quartet. It’s not too hard for me to rattle off others that I love: Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The Neapolitan Novels. Momo (the book not the internet hoax). What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I could go on and on. And that’s just the ones I remember offhand, not the ones that I enjoyed but am not remembering now, or the ones that I felt equivocal about, or even the ones I hated. I am glad I read them all, because they made my world bigger.

I will sometimes give works written in French or Spanish a read in their original language as well as in translation, but usually after having read the English version. This is partly because I’m not as fluent a reader in French and Spanish as I am in English, but it’s also because I love the insight into the art of translation. Reading the translation first and then the original not only improves my comprehension of the original, it renders me in awe of translators. Sometimes it also makes me frustrated with them, but when I read this way I am acutely aware that capturing an author’s art while getting meaning across is an impossible task (see this article for more about this!). A translation always walks a fine line between too literal and not literal enough. I find this line fascinating. I’m such a geek about this that sometimes I’ll try to read something originally published in – and which I first read in – English in its French or Spanish translation, just to see what it’s like, what new shades of meaning emerge when it’s put in another language.

(At least at this point, my reading ability in other languages isn’t good enough for me to be able to do this with works not in French or Spanish, but I keep on studying. I especially hope to add Italian to the list of languages I can read in – it’s close enough to Spanish and French that I think I should be able to get there with some concentrated study, and I am especially fond of the Italian works in translation I’ve read – but I’ve been working on German, for other reasons, recently. At some point I’d like to work on Japanese.)

Given this (admittedly peculiar) interest, and given that I travel (or used to, pre-COVID19) a lot for work, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that when I travel outside the USA I always try to spend some time browsing local bookstores. I find so many books that haven’t ever been translated into English; and at the same time, I’ve found that non-American bookstores often have an excellent stock of literature in translation (and not just translated from the English, either).

All this makes me wonder: what’s behind my difficulty in finding books in translation here at home? Are plenty of works translated, but the marketing machine for these books does not reach me, for whatever reason? Or are there in fact relatively few, and if so, does this indicate American insularity/unwillingness to buy translated works, or something more general such as the difficulty of the art of translation?

(In case you are wondering, as I was, if it is really true that books in translation aren’t as widely available in English as they are in other languages, a quick search found me a number of articles suggesting that indeed, this is the case: this article, which is about English-language translations in general, and this post, titled “Why Do Americans Read so Few Books in Translation?”, were two that I found particularly interesting. It does appear that the issue is not that I’m not able to find books that have been translated, but rather that there are relatively few non-English books that are ever translated into English.)

Works in translation are on my mind right now in part as a result of the recent passing of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, described as “the most-read Spanish author since Cervantes” in his obituary in the Guardian. I did eventually read The Shadow of the Wind in Spanish, but I started with the English translation. My life would be poorer without ever having encountered his work, or Italo Calvino’s, or Hannelore Cayre’s or Haruki Murakami‘s or Elena Ferrante‘s or Michael Ende‘s or that of so many others.

What I’ve been reading lately: searching for clarity edition

Not much to say, except doing a lot of reading (more than I’m listing here…I’ve been reading some things at the urgings of others and re-learning that I generally have pretty good instincts about what I like to read. Possibly I’ll post about that sometime) and writing (stuff that will almost certainly never see the light of day. There’s a lot of freedom in this kind of writing and I encourage everyone to give it a try). And listening. And watching. There is so much to hear, to see, to learn.

Change

While the world continues to burn, and tragedy and injustice keep on occurring, I feel hopeful at the moment that we may see some change. Black lives matter, change must happen. To those of you who are out in the world demanding that change, I respect you, I am grateful to you, I admire you.

Myself, I’ve been struggling. I’ve been struggling with what my responsibility to the world is right now, as someone with a lot of privilege but without a lot of voice. Mostly I think it is to shut up and support. But I don’t know.

ETA: things that are helping me think right now include this article, The Power of Black Lives Matter, by a writer I greatly admire: Jamil Smith.

What I’ve been reading lately: lockdown edition (preceded by bonus thoughts on ANDERSEN’S FAIRY TALES)

When I last wrote one of these, I mentioned I was reading Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Specifically, I was reading “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a story I knew from many childhood re-tellings but I don’t think I’d ever read in the original before. I remembered it as a story about the truth, and the importance of telling the truth. I wanted to read it for reasons that presumably are obvious; I felt like I was living in that story, and I thought reading it might give me insight into the current situation.

What I read wasn’t the story I thought it was, though. Rather than ending with the Emperor and his enablers realizing that their folly made the situation worse than it needed to be, it ends

“The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.”

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1597/1597-h/1597-h.htm#link2H_4_0001

In other words, they keep on pretending! Even when they all know the game is up! This isn’t a story about truth at all, but about lying to keep up appearances! This is a little too on-the-nose for me, in the current world situation, but even if it weren’t I would hate it.

It’s funny because this has happened to me before, and with Andersen too. I was introduced to “The Snow Queen” through a ballet performance for children, not through the story itself. I was very young, probably five or younger, when I saw it. What I remembered after was the mirror that made everything ugly and hateful, and how a sliver got into the brother’s eye and made him see the world in a twisted way. This idea really resonated with me. I carried it with me throughout my childhood. Yet for some reason I did not actually read “The Snow Queen” until I was an adult. And I discovered that first, Andersen’s tale focused on the mirror making things physically ugly, not ugly in a larger sense; and second, that the cure wasn’t knowledge or truth (which – again – I somehow had thought it was) but a combination of faith and innocence.

Anyway, that’s a long and not all-that-relevant prelude to “What I’ve been reading lately”:

  • Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (this, by the way, is a great pandemic novel and for my money better than all the more commonly-cited novels featuring viruses. I enjoyed Severance, which has made a few recent lists, but most of the other suggested reads on those lists I find…tedious at best. It’s amazing to me that Cold Earth hasn’t been on any such lists that I have seen. Well, here it is on mine.)
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (I found this because I was looking for Cold Earth. I’m surprised I hadn’t happened upon it for other reasons – but however I found it, I am so glad I did. It’s a stunning example of how powerful a short work can be.)
  • The Lost Kitchen by Erin French
  • The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre
  • Traveling Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (because the other books on this list were not helping me to sleep!)

What I’ve been reading lately, turn of the year edition

Books read over the holiday: Seane Corn's Revolution of the Soul, John Connell's The Farmer's Son, Jenniver Givhan's Trinity Sight, and James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life
Books read over the transition from 2019 to 2020

This has been a cold, dark couple of weeks for me, but – despite ongoing horrible world news – I am stumbling into 2020 with what feels like cautious optimism. I hope. And the older I get, the more I realize what a gift hope is.

Here are some things I have been reading during this dark time:

  • Seane Corn‘s Revolution of the Soul: part memoir, part yoga philosophy. I am impressed with Corn’s ability to tie some of these yoga philosophy concepts to real life, and with her bravery in using her own life to illustrate them.
  • The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. I loved this book, and will see if I can write about it in more detail later. For now: I was interested in how many things Rebanks describes about the Lake District that sound similar to New Mexico.
  • The Farmer’s Son by John Connell: this was recommended as a “read-alike” to The Shepherd’s Life, but I think that’s misguided. I found it to be much more of a literary memoir than a social science one – a really good one, though, and well worth a read.
  • Trinity Sight by Jennifer Givhan: the sole work of fiction on this particular list, and an example of why I want to dedicate more of my reading to small/independent press publications this year. It’s a fascinating book, complex, deep, and simultaneously a good read – and unusual enough in its conception and execution that it would be a big risk for a major publisher. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to re-reading it.