Tabs and Follow Me

August 15, 2017

Update

Horror of horrors, I did not manage to finish One Hundred Years of Solitude in a week.  I am enjoying it and I know what I'd say about it in a blog post if I stopped right now and pretended I finished it, but who knows what will happen in the next 200 pages and I like to think I'm better than my high school English self these days.  So I'm taking a pass this week on the book reviews.  I don't feel too bad about it because I haven't missed one in a while.

On top of the brick of magical realism I'm reading, I had a crazy week.  My son turned two.  There were day job fires and night job fires.  And then you might have heard the podcast mentioned on NPR.  Not to brag, but my phone exploded with notifications.  And then I felt the guilt I should have had about my slow reading but instead was about how season 2 isn't ready yet.  So hello to any new people who were sent here from that.  Sorry it's a dry week on the blog. 

I'll be back this weekend.

August 8, 2017

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown Review

This week's novel is The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black.  I went for this one because I like Black's writing and I'm slowly working my way through her novels.

In an alternate history, about ten years ago, a rouge vampire wen to n a biting spree, changing vampirism from a secret society with strict rules to a full blown, unmanageable epidemic.  With one bite from a vampire, a human becomes infected or "Cold," becoming violent and craving blood.  Once they taste human blood, they become a vampire.  In response, the United States has set up Coldtowns, walled off quarantined cities for vampires, the infected, and humans lured in by the video feeds of the vampires' glamorous parties and hopes of eternal life if they can get a vampire to bite them.  When Tana wakes up after passing out in a bathtub at a party, she finds that vampires got into the house during the night and slaughtered everyone except her, her newly infected ex-boyfriend, and a vampire boy in chains.  Together, they head for Coldtown to submit themselves to quarantine.

Black does a fabulous job of showing different points of view, from those that fear vampires to those who worship them.  Coldtown is never-ending, extravagant parties with ball gowns and booming house music and open bars, and Coldtown is homeless kids who barter batteries for rat tacos.  Vampire celebrities are famous, with highlights of their parties shown on television along with reality TV shows about vampire hunters.

The other thing I was impressed with is how Black implies a wider world.  The humans who come to Coldtown willingly participate in wider on-line groups where they share strategies and assistance.  There are little stories mentioned throughout about people who were bitten and how their families tried to hide them instead of sending them to Coldtown, about scientists who infected themselves to study vampirism, about Coldtowns across the country and how they function differently, and how Europe hasn't set up any Coldtowns at all.  The details give the impression of a wider, rich world which we only see a part of through Tana's eyes.

The way mass media is portrayed here helps both of these points.  People inside Coldtown blog their experiences and post videos that get thousands of followers, but these people generally have a rose tinted view, and that's the view that gets projected out into the larger world.  At the last rest stop before Coldtown, they sell touristy T-shirts with slogans like "Corpsebait" and "I take my coffee with your blood in it", which would get the wearer beaten up in Coldtown and probably repel vampires, who want to keep the human population in Coldtown human so they can have a steady food supply.  They're choosy about who they bite (who they bite without out-right killing).

I'm also impressed by the structure.  It alternates chapters between the main story and short flashbacks to Tana's past when her mom was infected.  I might spend some time going through this to see how it all fits together.

***

Next week: One Hundred Years of Solitude, the magical realism classic by .

August 1, 2017

The Paper Menagerie Review

This weeks book is The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Lui.  It's a collection of short stories, mostly sci-fi but with some fantasy magical realism, about Chinese or Chinese American experiences.

The titular story "The Paper Menagerie" is the story of a biracial young man learning about his Chinese mother's past after he has rejected everything Chinese.  His mother used to make him paper animals that come to life, which may have been his boyhood imagination and may have been magic, but either way the animals no longer move.  It also includes the line, "Son, I know that you do not like your Chinese eyes, which are my eyes. I know that you do not like your Chinese hair, which is my hair,"...and I'm crying again.  It was simple and brutal and so so true and lovely.  It's no wonder this story won the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Award.  But then it's also interesting that within the collection, it comes right after "The Regular," a sci-fi novella cybernetic enhanced private eye who has artificially removed her emotions tries to solve the murder of a prostitute in Chinatown.

"The Man Who Ended History: a Documentary" was another of my favorites.  The basis of this story is that if you have a powerful enough telescope that will let you see activity on another planet, you would actually be looking back in time due to the time it takes light or the images of what's happening to travel.  If we sent a telescope that travels faster than light way out into space and looked back at the earth, we could look at history.  (This part is true.)  It then posits that there is a sister particle to those photons sent out into space, particles that stay here where they were created and which we can observe without going into space or moving faster than light.  The problem is (and this part is based on real science too), once you look at a particle, it "collapses its wave function" which basically means that once observed, it ceases to exist.  Therefore in this story, by viewing parts of history, you destroy them so no one else can ever observe them.  Can you hear my particle-physicist heart fluttering?  But then Liu takes it further.  The main character and time traveler wants to send people back to witness the atrocities of a Japanese concentration camp in occupied China, setting off a conversation about who owns history, about taking responsibility for past crimes vs moving on since so few of the actual perpetrators are still alive, which is a powerful and complicated topic when dealing with this period of history especially.



I also very much enjoyed "State Change," where people's souls are physical objects that can be used up, like cigarettes or coffee grounds or an ice cube.   And "Simulacrum" about a man who invents a way to make holographic copies of people that think for themselves in ways that person would think, about his strained relationship with his daughter, and how he's stuck in the past.  And "Good Hunting" about a girl who can turn into a fox and how the coming of the railroad is sucking away the magic.  It turns from a fantasy with magical creatures and ghosts, what seems like it's going to be a typical "technology hurts nature" story, into a steam punk story about adapting and thriving.

It was a powerful collection.  Liu boldly talks about dark eras in Chinese history, shares honestly about the immigrant experience, and beautifully uses science-fiction elements.

***

Next week: The Coldest Girl in Cold Town, YA vampires by Holly Black.

July 30, 2017

Random things I've been thinking about

I've been thinking about some things lately, but since I haven't come to any conclusions about any of them, I'm just going to put them in bullet points.
 

*The craft task for my critique group recently was to write a single really long sentence (250-300 words) from my main character's point of view, then a second long sentence, still from their point of view, but about their imagining what someone else is thinking.  I didn't like the long sentence part for a lot of reasons--mostly because there needed to be a short sentence between the two to break it up and release some tension.  But it got me thinking: my characters often assume what other people are thinking, because I always assume what other people are thinking (usually in a self-conscious kind of way).  Apparently, from both the book my group is using and from the other people in my critique group, this is not a common thing.  I do it a lot, and it always always always gets called as for a point of view error.  So I go back and add something like "Steve supposed Betty was horrified" or "It looked to Steve like Betty was horrified," but then I'm giving Steve way too much credit, because Steve isn't self-aware enough to think "I'm making an assumption that Betty is horrified."  No, he's thinking, "Betty's horrified!" and takes it as a fact.  So putting that qualifier in there changes Steve's characterization.  So I usually end up taking the sentence out altogether or changing it to a description of Betty's face.  But!  Maybe there's something to this long sentence idea as a way to get everything in there.


* The Bechdel test is a really simple test that asks if a work of fiction has two female characters who have a conversation that's not about a man.  I've been thinking about how a story can pass this test if it's written in close third person or first person from a man's point of view.  So let's say it's from Steve's point of view, so he's in every scene and every scene is filtered through him. 
    • He can overhear two women talking, either by eaves-dropping or because the women don't care that he's there, they're having their own conversation and ignoring him.
    • He can be involved in the conversation.
    • There can be a story in a story.  Steve watches TV or sees a play, where two women are talking.  A female character tells him about a conversation she had with another woman.
Even though none of these are cheating, they all feel insufficient.  Steve is horning in on some women's conversation or he's listening in and violating their privacy.  On the other hand, two characters having a conversation in Steve's story about something that's not Steve or Steve's problems has its own problems (like that it'll get cut in editing). The truth is, having a male perspective just structurally is going to remove the reader a step from female interaction.  That's just how it is.  So the way to have the female characters have a substantial impact is to work more on how each of them is portrayed and how each of them comes off as flushed out, dimensional, and possessing agency.  They need to have relationships and motivations beyond men, which is what the Bechdel test is getting at in a surface kind of way, but by nature of how the narrative is set up, those won't be front and center. 

July 25, 2017

Jane Steele Review

This week's novel is Jane Steele, a retelling of Jane Eyre with more murder, by Lyndsay Faye. 

Orphaned Jane is mistreated by her bitter aunt, and (after she accidentally kills her creepy cousin) she is sent to boarding school where she's mistreated by her creepy headmaster.  She decides that since she's already a murderer, she might as well keep it up to protect the people she loves who have no agency of their own, and if she ends up going to hell, at least she'll be reunited with her suicidal mother.  When he aunt dies, Jane takes a job as a governess in the house in which she used to live.  She learns that the new master of the house, Mr. Thornfield, is surly, all the servants have knives, and there's a mystery involving stolen jewels and the East India Company.  Secrets!  Lies!  Murder!

Full disclosure: I did not like Jane Eyre at all.  This book was a lot of fun.

I think my main problem with Jayne Eyre was that Mr. Rochester is THE WORST.  I don't like him, I don't like that Jane Eyre thought he was so great, and I don't like that our culture romanticizes his behavior.  Remember how he called her "pet"?  Remember how he dressed up like a "gypsy woman" to try to trick her into admitting that she liked him?  Remember how he kept his wife locked in the attic? 

In this book, Mr. Thornfield doesn't do any of this nonsense.  He's blunt and he swears, he was raised in Punjab and is Sikh and more open minded than the English people think he ought to be.  His secrets honestly aren't hurting anyone.  He's surly, but he's affectionate with his ward and with his staff.  Early on, Jane mistakes him for a bandit and pulls a knife on him, swearing a blue streak, and he makes fun of it for her for it while letting her know he heartily approves.  He's not verbally abusive and he never threatens Jane or his staff or his ward.  He's more sassy along the lines of Howl from Howl's moving Castle, and I can get behind that.

So my main irritation against Jane Eyre wasn't there.

Beyond that, the style of this novel does a nice job of mimicking Bronte.  The diction and sentence structure are similar.  Take the tag line, for example: "Reader, I murdered him."  Perfect.  The story beats align--a bit to the story's detriment because that second-act-breakup was a bit flimsy and I kept waiting for there to be a wife locked in the attic (I have good news on this front). 

It was similar, but the more proactive protagonist made it more fun.  I would say the story is also changed with a more modern sensibility, but I'm not sure that's accurate.  It's not true that in Victorian England there were no people of color and it's not true that in Victorian England women didn't have special-men-friends or think about sex.  It's just that they wrote about it way less in literature of that era.  So the presence of people of color is a more modern way of telling a story and fits more with what I want to read.

It's fun, but there's still an awful lot of violence against women.  Furthermore, I apparently have no understanding of how the East India Company works, because this all sounds ridiculous.  I think I'll survive with not understanding.

***

Next week: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, short stories by Ken Liu.





July 22, 2017

A Trip to the American Writers Museum

The American Writers Museum opened in downtown Chicago in May, and my combined love for writing and museums meant I've been trying to find time to go for two months.  I managed yesterday.

It's a small place on the second floor of a skyscraper off Michigan, so you have to go in the lobby and take one of the elevators up a single floor while the person you share the elevator with goes up to floor 18.  The gift shop is a wall of shelves with coffee mugs and magnets with inspirational writing quotes, and you pay for the merchandise at the front desk where you bought your admission.  The museum itself is a circular hallway that flows from one gallery to the next, and it took me about an hour to make my way through, back to the gift shop and the kids manning the front desk.

There's a gallery of children's literature, which points out that you can tell a culture's morals, fears, their goals for their children and their biases by looking at what they read to their children.  They go into depth with just a few examples: The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte's Web, Little Women, and Where the Wild Things Are.  They tell stories about the authors' motivations, large scale edits, publication history, and public reception.  My favorite part was reading about how Maurice Sendak's mother used to call him Wild Thing! in Yiddish, and how the wild things in the book are how he remembers members of his extended family with rolling eyes and big teeth.

There was a temporary exhibit: a dark hall filled with plants and rain forest sounds, where I sat on a bench and listened to poetry about palm leave read aloud on a looped track.  It was peaceful, and gave the poems some context while also giving me a peaceful place to just listen and absorb and find my own meaning.

There was a hall with a long row of 100 American authors, put in historical order from the 1400s to the 20th century (Vonnegut was just a few from the end).  Each author had a big picture and then a rotating info box with three sides of facts about them.  With this setup, they were able to show how historical events affected literature.  There was a big group focused on abolitionists and a big group around the Vietnam War.  They were able to show how authors started movements and trends, influencing later authors.  I could see an active intention to include diverse voices, but with the exhibit's intention to tell a historical narrative (which had a mostly white perspective), and with the desire to display authors from the American canon (who people are going to expect to see at the American Writers Museum, and who are overwhelmingly white) the authors were still a pretty pale bunch.  There was also not much room given to genre fiction, which is my bag.

Other highlights include Kerouac's original scroll of On the Road in a temporary exhibit.  I was expecting a reading room that was on a listicle that's been floating around of the 10 best places to sit and write in Chicago, so I brought my computer, but the reading room is like three uncomfortable looking sofas, no tables, and a steady stream of museum visitors going past, so my suspicions that that list is nonsense has been confirmed.  I also found out there's a kid's story time where children's authors come and read, so I'll be back with toddler in tow. 

July 18, 2017

A Million Worlds with You Review

This week's novel is A Million Worlds with You by Claudia Gray, the final book in the Firebird Series.

The awful Triad Corporation has a hideous scheme to completely destroy a bunch of the alternate universes.  Marguerite's parents and their grad students have found a way to protect the universes, but an evil version of Marguerite (dubbed "Wicked") is jumping through the universes, setting up all the versions of herself to die so our Marguerite can no longer enter those universes to save them.  Marguerite must jump from universe to universe, following Wicked, saving herself over and over, and stalling for time so her parents can save all the universes they can.

This was an exciting set up.  Marguerite can't jump into a universe where Wicked already is, so she has to wait until Wicked moves on.  Wicked can't flat out kill herself in another universe or she'll die too, so she has to set events into motion that will kill her and then jump out of the universe real fast.  This gives Marguerite a short window to get in, figure out what the trap is, stop it, and then wait while Wicked sets up some other elaborate booby trap in the next universe.  The traps are exciting, but there's tension in the uncertainty as to how the traps will spring, where the traps are, what's gone wrong this time.  And then once Marguerite has saved herself, there's the tension of waiting and wondering what Wicked is up to.  The tension stays high and that's a lot of fun.

I also liked how Marguerite has moved past "if this one version of a person is bad, then every version of that person is bad and just hasn't been bad yet" and moved on to putting herself in Wicked's place and thinking about what parts of her personality if put in the situation Wicked was in would make her act that way.  It made Wicked more sympathetic, but also made Marguerite more sympathetic, and it was rewarding to see how she'd matured about the situation and how she was able to empathize.  It's still a little off-putting (understandable and believable, but still off-putting) that she comes to this realization when faced with an evil version of herself.  When faced with an evil Theo in the first book, she was convinced that her Theo was evil too.  Then in the second book, when faced with violent versions of Paul (her boyfriend), she was more forgiving, but still uncomfortable.  It was only when she was faced with an evil version of herself that she really started to find forgiveness.

And then Marguerite's reactions to Paul's "brokenness" drove me nuts.  In the last book, Paul's soul was splintered into pieces and Marguerite collected them all and brought them back together.  When we last saw Paul, he was distressed over witnessing what other versions of himself were capable of.  It's been a while since I read it, but my reaction was, "Poor Paul needs some hugs and ice cream and maybe some therapy."  Marguerite's reaction was, "Paul is broken forever."  She'd spoken to Paul about it once and they did no research and about an hour and a half had passed since his soul came back together.  Let the guy take a nap before you give up on him!  It made me angry.  Eventually, she and Paul do talk about it, and they get an oscilloscope to look at his brain and get some graphs that look like bad news, but then neither one of them knows how to read oscilloscope-brain-graphs, so who knows.  At this point Paul decides that he's broken forever (which is obnoxious).  Marguerite hears him say this, and--just to be contrary--decides he'll be fine and they'll work it out.  Even though I agree with her, it was still annoying because she was still making decisions about someone else's brain without any scientific evidence and without listening to what Paul's saying.  I know I'm doing the same thing and I don't know why it gets me so rankled, but it does.

Anyway.  Aside from how much I don't want to hear about Marguerite's personal drama when universes are being ripped apart in epic volcano-doomed glory, this was an exciting book and a fun series.

***

Next week: Jane Steele, a retelling of Jane Eyre with more homicide, by Lyndsay Faye.