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.
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.
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.
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.
Every few years, I get to attend the American Libraries Association (ALA) conference, courtesy of my partner (who is a librarian). I tag along to whatever cool location in which the meeting is being held and get an exhibits-only pass. Why bother getting a pass? One simple reason: ALA exhibits are *awesome*.
They have robots. Author talks. Publisher displays, from publishers large and small, with recently published and forthcoming books. Sometimes they give some of those books away. In fact for me the most difficult aspect of going to ALA exhibits, aside from the general overstimulating nature of it all, is not picking up too many books.
(There are lots of other things in the ALA exhibits as well as books and book-related booths, like displays on library automation software and databases. I like those too.)
This year ALA was in Chicago. Not only did I wind up with a number of exciting-looking books (most of which I knew nothing about prior to the conference)…
To top that all off I spent some time exploring Chicago, including eating pierogis at Tryzub, a Ukranian restaurant; experiencing the Purple Pig; and exploring Read It & Eat, a cookbook-focused bookstore.
Yes, I spent all my time reading, eating, and talking with other people about reading and eating. And if that doesn’t sound totally worth the price of admission to you, well, probably you don’t read this blog.
(I did also attend the Chicago – Orlando MLS game, but I ate and drank while there so technically this is in the “eating” category. I didn’t read at the game, but it was still super-fun.)
In the midst of all this activity I also finished The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove, a book I’ve been meaning to read since it came out. I definitely enjoyed it – it has great world-building and does interesting things with the concept of time. As this review points out it’s in the tradition of Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy, but (maybe because of the American setting) to me it had a very different feel. I’m still mulling over my reaction beyond “I liked it,” though. I suspect I won’t really know until I’ve read the other two in the series.
However, those other two books will have to wait, much as I enjoyed The Glass Sentence. My reading for the next few weeks will focus on the Advance Reader Copies/other books I picked up at ALA, so stay tuned for some thoughts on those!