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.
- Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (DNF)
- The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
- Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson
- H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
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.
- The Changeling by Victor Lavalle
- The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
- The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
- Vita Nostra by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko
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.
Not beach reads, but things I’m reading outside with a jar of ice tea at my side…
- Babylon Berlin (English translation of Der Nasse Fisch, not the TV series) by Volker Kutscher
- Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell
- Thunder and Lightning by Natalie Goldberg
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
- Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer (reread)
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (reread)
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.
- The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino
- Monday’s Not Coming, by Tiffany D. Jackson
- Old Friend from Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg
- A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
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.
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.
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!)
No, not The Plague, at least not yet!
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.
December is, for me, the season of reflection. For the past week or two, as things have wound down at work, in the garden, everywhere, I’ve been thinking about reading and writing – what I’ve been doing over the past year, and what I’d like to change.
I didn’t get as much writing done in 2019 as I had hoped I would; there’s nothing new in that (does anyone ever get as much writing done as they had hoped?). I *did* have breakthroughs with a couple of different projects that were stalled at this point last year, and I know how I want to proceed with them now. The trouble is that I have too many concurrent projects going, and it’s not yet clear to me which of these I will pursue first and which will wait. This decision is at the forefront of my reflections right now. I will decide this, sometime over the next few weeks, and we will see.
On the positive progress side of things, I was able to return to reading in 2019. I read lots, and I wrote about reading, too (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). I’m happy about this – both the reading and the writing about it. My reflective reading brain is slowly creaking to life again, it seems. I am so glad to have it back.
And yet, despite this, I’ve been frustrated by my reading lately. This has happened before (and it’s a not-uncommon experience), but, this year (and maybe in previous years also, I don’t know) and for me, I think my frustration isn’t a purely internal phenomenon. I think it has to do with what’s being published, at least in part (this and this and this contain some previous related reflections).
When I’ve felt this in previous reading slumps, I’ve pushed back against my instincts, telling myself it’s all internal. And maybe I was right; I did manage to get out of those previous reading slumps. But this time, I’m going to try something new to address this. Following up on some recent thoughts on self-publishing/small presses, I’m going to try to devote a majority percentage of my 2020 reading to works published by small and independent publishers, rather than by the big 5.
I’m still working out how I will actualize this, but I’ll write about it here as I figure it out.
- Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (still!) by Jeff VanderMeer
- A Concise History of Japan by Brett Walker
- Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō
- Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
- Ukiyo-e: the Art of the Japanese Print by Frederick Harris
- The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Sunzi)
- The Secret World: A History of Intelligence by Christopher Andrew
- The Secret State: A History of Intelligence and Espionage by Colonel John Hughes-Wilson
- Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer
- Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille
- One Pan and Done by Molly Gilbert
Yes, that is a weird collection of books. No, they are not all for the same project. Yes, they are all related to ongoing projects – three projects, to be precise! One novel, one picture book, one cooking project.
Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only (when other sites associated with the books are available, I’ve linked to them instead). The links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to commercial sources.
I am not a winter person. I was born in a tropical environment, and although I didn’t live there long enough to remember it, I think maybe it got into my bones. The dark, the cold, the sleeping plants, the swirling dead leaves…they bring me down. Even though winter is (usually) relatively short where I live, it always feels like it will never end.
This year, the cold has arrived early in central New Mexico. Our frosts began early in October; at Samhain it is predicted to dip into the teens. The garden is fully dead; we’ve had to move the potted plants into the house; and the furnace is not yet on.
I am cold, inside and out.
I have two strategies for adjusting to the cold season. One is to get outside and exercise until I warm up. The other is the opposite: to curl up under a warm blanket with a cup of tea, and read. In honor of the latter, I’d like to share a few of my favorite autumn/winter seasonal books – books that warm me when I am cold, books that help me see the beauty of winter, books that reassure me that warmth does exist out there and will come again. Some are explicitly seasonal, some are explicitly cozy, some are both, some are neither. They are all flawed. But I find them comforting as the cold and dark advance.
In no particular order:
- A is for Alibi – What better, on a cold night, than to immerse oneself in Grafton’s 1980s California? The earlier books in her alphabet series work better for me than the later ones this time of year.
- The Cuckoo’s Calling – This is the first of J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith mysteries. It’s got all sorts of flaws and things that bug me, but I also find it super-compelling.
- Ha’penny – Set in an alternate-history London, this mystery is set in July but feels cold to me. It’s by Jo Walton.
- The Pillars of Hercules – I find travel books a wonderful escape when the weather is cold, even when they are describing cold places. Theroux’s depiction of winters in Spain reminds me of my times living in southwest Europe.
- A Perfect Spy – I only discovered this classic recently. I read it over the summer but it’s more a winter read for me.
- Waiting for Winter – this picture book is sadly out of print, but I love it.
- The Shortest Day – This new presentation of Susan Cooper’s poem has truly fantastic illustrations. And what better than a solstice book for coming to terms with winter?
- Bitterblue – I love Kristin Cashore’s writing in general; Bitterblue is my Cashore comfort read for autumn.
- Sunshine and Beauty – I discovered both these books by Robin McKinley in the autumn, many years ago. They have become inextricably linked to late October for me, and I re-read them every year.
- Tam Lin – the story takes place over four years at college, and therefore includes the full seasonal round of those four years. But it has a very autumnal feeling for me, and I don’t think I’m misleading by calling it a Samhain book.
- Coyote Tales – among many Indigenous peoples, Coyote tales can only be told in the winter, from the first frost through the first lightning. I spent enough time living on reservations that I picked up this prohibition. Now, I find reading Coyote tales to be one of the joys of the season. There are lots of different published versions of different Coyote Tales from different Indigenous groups out there; the link above is to one of many.
- Georgie – I loved this picture book as a child; I rediscovered it during one of its periodic reprintings. It’s out of print again now, but it’s widely available in libraries and can also be found used.
- The Snowman – a classic and another childhood favorite.
- The Feast Nearby – a memoir about seasonal eating. Though much of it takes place in spring and summer, the author’s focus during those seasons is largely preparing for winter.
- Six Seasons – Seasonal cookbooks have become rather trendy in the past few years; this one, in my opinion, is one of the best. The six seasons it uses as an organizing principle aren’t the same as seasons in New Mexico, but I still love it.
- The Wood Wife – This book is set in Tucson, where I lived briefly, and captures fall in the Sonoran Desert beautifully.
- The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West – Gardening catalogs, some of the best cozy reads, start coming in December, usually. Before they arrive I rely on gardening books. This one is one of my favorites.
- Classic German Baking – My go-to source for traditional German seasonal cookies (it’s got four different recipes for Lebkuchen). It’s great for other seasons too, but winter solstice in northern Europe is something special.
I recently read/re-read the three books in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. I’ve loved these books since I read the first one, and even though they are relatively recent (in the case of the last, quite recent, only a year old), they have swiftly made their way onto my shelf of comfort re-reads. (If you are deducing from this paragraph that I’ve recently been in need of comfort, well, you aren’t wrong.)
For anyone who hasn’t read them, the Wayfarers books take place in a future in which humans have destroyed earth and moved off-planet, where they have encountered other species who have banded together to create a “Galactic Commons” government. In the Wayfarers world, humans were relatively recently granted Galactic Commons (GC) membership and are lower-status members of the galaxy.
These books have been quite successful. The first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, began life as a Kickstarter-funded self-publishing project; it went on to be nominated for the 2015 Kitschies (Best Debut) and was subsequently picked up and republished by Hodder & Stoughton and, in the US, Harper Voyager. More awards nominations followed – the 2016 Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (Best Foreign-Language Novel), 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2016 British Fantasy Awards (Best Newcomer), and 2016 Women’s Prize for Fiction – as did the following two novels (not sequels per se but rather books set in the same universe), which racked up an impressive list of awards nominations as well. The series won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series.
The thing about the Wayfarers series, for me, is that none of the books are strongly plot-driven. A Closed and Common Orbit is a bit more so than the other two; the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is like a character-driven science fiction television series (I will not be the first to note that it has a similar feel to Firefly, although Chambers’ Galactic Commons is quite different than the universe inhabited by the ship Serenity) while Record of a Spaceborn Few reads like an engagingly-written piece of ethnography. The world-building and the characters are what make these novels so fun to read, not the plot. They are also unfailingly optimistic, and given the current state of the world, who couldn’t use a little optimism? But the character- and world-driven nature of these books is startlingly unusual in the recently published books I’ve come across. I’m amazed that they were published by big publishing houses – tremendously grateful, for chances are I would never have found them otherwise, but amazed nonetheless. I’d have guessed that their non-plot-driven aspects would have immediately flagged them as no-go for major publishing houses. And I suppose I wouldn’t have been wrong to make such a guess, as it’s only after the success of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as a self-published work that they got picked up.
In this sense, the Wayfarers books are not dissimilar to Check, Please! Both are optimistic as well as episodic rather than plot-driven; both were self-published, gained success, and were subsequently picked up by major publishers. Obviously they are substantively different in other ways – but to me, both reflect how self-publishing has been changing norms about what types of books will be successful. I can’t help but hope their publication signals a shift among traditional publishers, an increased willingness to take a chance, to move away from marketing-defined pigeonholes and to publish some works that have unusual and perhaps risky characteristics and yet are nonetheless truly quality.
I am probably hoping too much. But my experience with Wayfarers, and with Check, Please! too, highlights a reason why I am hoping this: if these works had not been picked up by major publishers, I almost certainly would not have encountered them. Self-published and small press-published works are difficult to find if what you are looking for is quality rather than something that falls squarely in a genre; there are so many of them, and they are so all over the map in terms of their execution. I was lucky enough to find Younger-Older Ones and Tales from Rugosa Coven on my own. How many similarly quality books have I missed, all the while bemoaning the lack of innovation among recent traditionally published books? And yet, the pool of self-published and small press-published books is so very large as to make the task of sorting through it nearly impossible.
Chambers has a new standalone novella out this fall. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to it.
Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only. The links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to commercial sources.
I recently attended a concert by the wonderful Takács Quartet and, as is not unusual for me, listening drew correspondences. Three things came together in my mind:
- Movement 3 (Lento) of Bartók quartet No. 2 (the recording in the link is not Takács, unfortunately)
- The Ursula LeGuin short story “Imaginary Countries” (it’s in The Unreal and the Real but I’m sure it can be found elsewhere as well)
- Recent events in Syria.
I wept as I listened. I am often a weeper, particularly at musical performances, but this was some heavy-duty weeping even by my standards.
I have some sense of what this set of correspondences is about, but I don’t think I’m able to capture it in words, at least not yet. So instead, I will simply leave this list here.
This is not a book review blog! The fact is that I am in some ways reluctant to call it a blog at all – it’s just my not-very-organized thoughts, usually but not always about what I am reading – but I don’t really know that there’s any other name for what it is. So, I can accept that it is a blog, despite my reluctance. But I most definitely don’t consider my thoughts on what I am reading reviews.
Reviewing is, in my view, a highly specialized art. A good review puts a book (or other piece of writing) in a larger context, and then evaluates how well that piece of writing does what it sets out to do within that context. If you are thinking that this definition excludes most of what appears in the “Reviews” section on Amazon, as well as most posts on Goodreads, well, you’d be right: I don’t consider the majority of such posts reviews, either. By my definition, they are opinions – sometimes insightful, sometimes less so. But they aren’t reviews.
(I don’t consider this blog a book opinion blog either, though I do occasionally offer opinions. Really, all I’m trying to do in my reading posts is document what I’ve been reading and, sometimes, analyze why I’m reacting to it as I am. In some cases I think my reaction is mostly about the book(s). In others, I think it’s mostly about me.)
I did try to write a review once. I don’t think I did a very good job; what resulted was, at best, an opinion piece. After that one try, I decided that writing reviews wasn’t what I wanted to do here, so I stopped. Instead I periodically post on what I’ve been reading. That’s really all I want to do, and since I’m not trying to monetize this or anything, it works just fine. While there are Amazon/other links to pages where you can buy books from here, these aren’t supporting me or this site in any way. A few of those links do support the American Indian Library Association (I would be doing this with all the links, but my link-provider no longer has access to information) and I think a few may support Sirens (because I grabbed those links from the Sirens Readers Challenge page).
But the purpose of this blog is to provide a record, not to make money for me or for anyone else.
And in that vein…here’s the…
What I’ve Been Reading Lately, Everything’s Crazy Edition:
- Silence: the Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer
- Sunburn and And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman (I also re-read the Tess Monaghan books)
- Michelle Sagara‘s Cast series
- The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (this is kind of a cheat, I read it a while ago – last spring I think – just neglected to note it here then!)
in all this thinking about what the goals of this blog are and what I’m reading, a memory has surfaced. Years ago, I had the opportunity to read a story called Younger-Older Ones by Rina Swentzell, published as a limited edition letterpress book. The story has stuck with me, though it’s been a long time since I read it – it had interesting things to say about the tension between individuality and community, as I remember it (I might be totally wrong).
Regardless, I am trying to track down a copy. If anyone knows where I can find one, I’d be most grateful for the information! You can reach me via email (see the About page). Thanks in advance!
Somehow, in my sporadic and lazy return to blogging over the past few months, I forgot to write about Check, Please! How could I have forgotten? This book/webcomic lifted me up and got me through a very difficult week earlier this summer. I can’t remember how I discovered it – maybe it was Rachel Hartman’s blog interview with author/illustrator Nogozi Uzaku – but once I began I was hooked.
Check, Please! is a comic about college hockey, growing up, and baking, among other things. The first three years of main character figure skater-turned-hockey player Eric Bittle’s years at (fictional) Samwell University are available online and in Kickstarter-funded self-published editions, but a volume with just the first and second years (plus additional content) came out in September 2018, with the third and fourth years slated to be released in Spring 2020. Uzaku has also created a ton of supporting content (that link just goes to some of it; there’s so much that it’s difficult to link to it all!) for the series, which is well worth checking out.
I came across Check, Please! back in June, during a weekend when my partner was out of town and I was having an attack of the blues. Because my library had Check, Please!: #hockey available as an ebook and it sounded like a good antidote to my mood, I downloaded it – and then spent the rest of the weekend reading, first the book I’d downloaded, then going online to catch up through the third year, then reading through all the extra content. By Sunday I had ordered all three of the self-published books, and as soon as they arrived I devoured them too. It was the kind of this-book-is-perfect-for-right-now reading experience that I hadn’t had in quite a while.
I don’t really want to say anything more about the plot of Check, Please! because part of the pleasure of this series, for me, was discovering it as I went along. It crossed my path at the perfect time, when I needed something that made me happy. The comic is not all sweetness and light, but it is consistently fun and upbeat and I highly recommend it. I’ve been giving the book as a present at pretty much every relevant gift-giving occasion since June, and everyone I’ve given it to loves it too.
I miss blogs.
I don’t mean I miss writing them. I have never been much of a blogger, as anyone looking over this particular site can probably guess. No, I miss reading them. There was something fascinating about that period when it seemed like anyone and everyone had a blog. It was a window into the minds of strangers. In contrast to Instagram, which I find to be largely about surficial presentation, blogs were (are?) about content. For this reason they were harder to fake. One can, of course, write anything down and it may or may not be true. I could write here that I have a black belt in Judo and run a business deploying snakes as pest control, and the casual reader would not be able to know if it were true or not. (In my case, even a less-casual reader might have a difficult time tracking down the truth of any particular statement I make, as Maddy is a pseudonym.)
But what can’t be faked in writing (at least I don’t think it can) is the voice. The voice is what tells the reader, there is an underlying, substantial truth here, even if the superficial is false. It’s what Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, called quality.
Blogs were a window into quality of so many kinds. Of course, there were lots of low-quality blogs out there, but it didn’t matter; in the freeform days of early blogging, there were so many different blogs with so many different goals out there that it was easy to find interesting, unusual, and high-quality writing within them.
I am not an internet historian and I wasn’t even really a dedicated blog reader, so I don’t know what happened with blogs – I just noticed that many of the ones I liked to read went dark, or the authors stopped posting, and that I wasn’t finding new blogs that I liked to read. Some time after I noticed this, I discovered a lot of people (online and off) commenting that blogs are dead. Presumably people have written about why blogging died, and maybe I will try to track those writings down. But as a casual reader I wonder if it was monetization that killed the blog as an art form. There are still blogs, sure, but so many of them now are just marketing devices for the blog author or composed nearly entirely of sponsored posts (i.e., marketing devices for various products).
And so they are boring.
I guess it’s funny to write about this in a blog post. I didn’t start posting on this site until well after the golden age of blogs, and I sometimes wonder why I do it. I don’t do it for the traffic (which is good, since I get so little) and, as I write here as my reader/writer self rather than my professional self, I tend to neglect it when my professional life gets busy (hence the numerous long hiatuses in posting). But I keep coming back to it…perhaps because I miss reading blogs, and if I can’t find any to read, the only way to address that is to blog myself.
I stumbled across this post by Jo Walton recently – http://www.jowaltonbooks.com/genre-pacing-a-question-from-goodreads/. I thought it was interesting at the time, as genre is something with which I sometimes struggle, but it’s grown more interesting to me in the time since, as I’ve read some books that are certainly admirable in many ways but at the same time haven’t worked for me.
Walton’s post is about pacing and how it defines genre. She gets there by way of two other widely-used definitions of genre:
- the marketing definition, i.e., genre tells booksellers where to place books on the shelf. This is a definition I find deeply annoying on a personal level. Marketing-based definitions seem to invariably lead to fewer and fewer books that I want to read within the genre at hand. This has happened for me most notably with young adult literature: the more the marketing machine took over the definition of YA, the fewer YA books I’ve found that I’ve liked. (I have the same experience with Pandora in that the more I interact with it, the fewer songs that I like come into rotation, which is the opposite of how it is supposed to work. I have thoughts on why this is, which I may try to explore at some point in the future.)
- the “furniture” definition, i.e., a genre is defined by the devices it uses. Walton’s examples of this include rocket ships in science fiction and couples in romances; I’d add girl-choosing-between-two-boys (technically not a love triangle, though it’s often termed such) in YA to this list.
Walton’s post goes on to discuss works that use science fiction furniture but are nonetheless ultimately literary, and thus unsatisfying to the science fiction reader. That’s not where I want to go here, although her thoughts are super-interesting and well worth reading! But thinking about her definitions of genre helped me to understand better why sometimes I, as a reader, find certain books frustrating.
One example of such a book is Searching for Sylvie Lee, by Jean Kwok. I’d never read any Kwok before picking up this book; I gather she’s a well-known writer of literary fiction (which I generally don’t read, though there are exceptions). Searching for Sylvie Lee crossed my orbit because I stumbled across a review that described it as a thriller focused on an immigrant family. I enjoy thrillers, and fiction about the immigrant experience has long been of interest to me. I read the book quickly (after a long wait on the library waitlist) – it’s exceptionally well-written, I think – but I nonetheless found it unsatisfying, especially as the mystery part of the book began to heat up. I think the reason for this is that I was looking for a thriller/mystery, but this is a book that is, at its heart, literary fiction. Searching for Sylvie Lee is all about the emotional resolution; it’s not about the puzzle, the pace, the figuring-things-out. To use Walton’s terms, the thriller furniture is scenery here – it’s not the heart of the book. Given Searching for Sylvie Lee ‘s success, this clearly isn’t a problem; the book has found its audience, even if that audience isn’t me.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is another book that I read recently and found unsatisfying. I have seen this one billed as adult fantasy (here’s one review https://www.npr.org/2019/07/23/741222646/gods-of-jade-and-shadow-spins-a-dark-dazzling-fairy-tale) and it certainly has a fantasy plot: Mayan gods materialize and act out a duel in the real world (in this case Jazz Age Mexico). But, although the author does not see this book as YA (see https://www.goodreads.com/book/36510722-gods-of-jade-and-shadow/questions#), it seemed to me that the furniture in this book (the coming-of-age theme, the plot, the pacing) – everything except the ending (which I *did* find satisfying) – was almost entirely that of YA fantasy, not adult fantasy or SFF more broadly. My frustration with YA plot devices meant that I very nearly did not finish this book. I’m glad I did finish it (because of that ending!); but at the same time, I can’t help but (selfishly) wish that the book had been written without the YA devices. I would have enjoyed it, I think, rather than having been irritated by it. But, this is presumably just another case of me not being the audience for this book.
I have not yet seen Gods of Jade and Shadow reviewed for a genre audience; I’d be curious to see if those reviews agree with me that this book is more similar to YA than adult fantasy, or if I am on my own here. But I definitely don’t agree with the author that the only reason Gods of Jade and Shadow is classed by some as YA is that SFF written by women automatically is considered such. I think she does have a point (why Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel was not considered YA is beyond me, for instance); but Gods of Jade and Shadow uses so many YA conventions, whether by accident or on purpose, that by either the “furniture” or the pacing definition I think it could fairly be considered YA. Though perhaps this is a question better left to dedicated YA readers…I am looking forward to seeing what, say, Locus has to say about it.