What I’ve Been Reading, December 2018

You ever just have a run of really good books? Like, every book you pick up you just enjoy straight away, and love reading it all the way through? That’s what I’ve had these past few weeks. This is what I’ve been reading:

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin — This book follows George Orr, a thoroughly average, inoffensive man living in early 2000s Portland, Oregon (the future at the time Le Guin wrote it.) George Orr is wholly unremarkable, except for the fact that, sometimes, his dreams change the world. When he wakes up from these “effective” dreams, he’s the only who remembers the old world—although he also has new memories from this new world—and otherwise, the new world marches on without missing a beat. When Orr is referred to the psychiatrist William Haber, he tries to get cured of this ability, but soon realizes that Haber is only taking advantage of his effective dreams to try and make a better world as he sees fit—and each attempt only creates a more dystopic reality.

The pacing in the book is terrific, with Haber growing more powerful in each new iteration of the world, and circumstances getting more dire for all of humanity. As well, it lets Le Guin really show off her world-building chops, with all these slightly different futures for Portland and for the whole Earth. The book is largely driven by dialogue, but what prose there is is that clean, cut-glass writing you’d expect from Le Guin. This allows her to establish these new altered worlds quickly, with just a few prominent images to pull the reader in.

What I loved most about this book is the themes it’s dealing with. The idea that the world’s woes can be solved by rational problems, that these can be applied universally without nuance, is completely dismantled—or rather, Le Guin shows what happens when these rational ideals have to face up against the illogic of humanity, of Orr’s dreams. Nowhere did this theme his harder for me than when Haber tries to solve the war in the near east by telling Orr to dream of a world with no more war. The results are, of course, not perfect, and in fact far more frightening. Haber is the perfect image of the bloodless Rational™ Liberal thinker, who believes there is war in the Middle East because middle easterners are foolish religious zealots, and iF onLy tHey CoUld See tHE lIgHT of ReAsoN TheRe wOulD Be No wAR, and by golly I am the man to fix the Middle East’s problems. Le Guin’s stroke of brilliance is that when this rationality meets Orr’s unconscious mind, the result is not a bunch of humans who suddenly love each other, because in a sense humans were never really the problem—the result is unfathomable monsters.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018

Okay, so I intended for this post to go up in October, but it took me awhile to finish House of Leaves, and honestly, whateverSpooktober can live on in our hearts year round. So yeah. Here’s a ton of spooky stuff that I’ve been reading.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle Universal Harvester begins with Jeremy, a VHS rental store clerk in the small town of Nevada, Iowa, when customers begin returning tapes and complaining that something has been taped over part of them. When Jeremy inspects the tapes, he finds odd, lingering shots of a farmhouse spliced into the middle of the movies—and the inserted footage only becomes more and more disturbing.

But that’s just where the book begins. As it progresses, the narrative winds its way through various small Iowa towns, backward and forward in time, sometimes leaning more toward horror, sometimes more toward the mundane (which isn’t to say that the two aren’t connected.) Overall the book is very atmospheric, but it isn’t an atmosphere of constant dread. It’s a portrait of the midwest that is loving without being provincial, critical without falling back on the old clichés we all know about middle America and rural communities. That’s really what struck me about the book—its quiet, steady chronicling of the lives of characters dealing with loss, struggling to find home, caught between staying and leaving. It’s a book without climaxes, no do-or-die moments, just endless process, a book about living.

Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, October 2018

It’s October, and for the past couple years I’ve taken this month as an opportunity to read some spookier pieces than I normally would. So while this post is only mildly spooky (featuring a flying bear, murder, and an enormous black cat), later this month I’m hoping to put out a 100% haunted “What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018” post, probably talking about The Grip of It and Universal Harvester and House of Leaves (if the library patron who has it now ever returns it), so look forward to that. In the mean time, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer — Wow this book is great.

Borne takes place in an unnamed city, which, along with the rest of the world, has been radically changed by civilization-ending climate change. The only power-structure in place is that of Mord, a colossal flying bear which protects the building of an old bioengineering company (always referred to as “the company”), and the Magician, an old employee of the company who is steadily taking control of various parts of the city. In the shadow of Borne, scavenging humans and escaped bioengineering experiments carve out an existence. One such scavenger is Rachel, the narrator of the book, who scavenges for her partner Wick, another ex-employee of the company. On one perilous scavenging excursion, Rachel finds an odd piece of biotech which looks a bit like a sea anemone, and she takes it back to her home and names it Borne.

Borne soon grows, and eventually begins to talk, revealing his powers of shapeshifting and his unnerving lack of waste—he only ever absorbs things, never excretes any waste. It’s hard to pin down the plot of the book to a specific archetype, because it plays off lots of them. It’s a coming of age story, and a kind of parenting story, and a kind of E.T.-esque story. So it’s peak VanderMeer, in it’s ineffability.Read More »

Review: Something New by Lucy Knisley

Cover courtesy of First Second books

Something New is a graphic novel memoir by graphic novel memoirist Lucy Knisley. Although I’ve read all of Knisley’s travelogues and her terrific culinary memoir Relish (check it out, it’s got recipes!), I put off reading Something New because I knew it was about Knisley’s wedding and weddings in general, and I didn’t think it would hold my interest. I just feel very detached from weddings. I don’t have the kind of money to throw a wedding. I don’t have any attachment to the religious or cultural aspects of it. I don’t have friends who have been married. I don’t foresee myself being married anytime soon (ever?) I’ve been to tons of weddings, but only as an observer, never as part of the groomsmen party (or the bridal party, for that matter.) So even stories of really crazy disaster weddings don’t really connect to me. Like, okay. You did a weird thing with more money than I can ever imagine myself having in accordance with ancient ceremonies, and you put doilies all over it, and then it rained. Like … cool, fun story.

But! I listened to a podcast with Knisley, where she talked about this book as well as her upcoming memoir Kid Gloves, which will detail her pregnancy and fraught-with-difficulties childbirth. I realized that Kid Gloves sounded like a book I would enjoy, as it would present an honest, warts-and-all portrait of pregnancy. And I thought, well, how can I read that book without first reading Something New? Maybe it too will be a different story of marriage than I’m used to seeing. So I checked it out from the ICPL, and dug in. And then I pulled on my socks and shoes and proceed to kick the crap out of myself for not having at least glanced at the first few pages of this book sooner.

The reason I include all this preamble is that, it turns out, many of my feelings toward weddings were exactly Lucy’s feelings, too, before she decided to get married (and even during the process.) And here’s the thing: the wedding itself isn’t all that different from most weddings. It’s not that different from the classical wedding story. However, it’s Lucy’s skepticism and willingness to present the cold, hard facts of marriage that make it such an engaging read. It’s a testament to Knisley’s storytelling that, as she describes her coming to understand why people love weddings, why they are so special, as she sheds some of her skepticism, so did I, to the point that when she finally arrives at the wedding itself, rather than seeing just a bunch of dresses and strings of light bulbs, I was genuinely touched by the emotional sincerity of the moment.

Knisley achieves this in a lot of ways, but mainly by taking her time. The first 70 pages of the book is a love story, detailing the serpentine path that her and her husband took over the course of several years to finally become engaged. Learning who the principal characters (as it were) of this story are in this way is what makes all the wedding planning (which is the majority of the book) engaging, it’s what gives it all depth. And she isn’t messing around with the other 230 pages either, which she uses to address themes that are universal in weddings and marriage, and show how they manifested in her own life. In this way, she’s both informative on weddings in general (with lots of interludes that include facts or statistics about weddings) and insightful in how these things affected her as an individual. One chapter that I found particularly interesting was the one in which she described her experience being bombarded with targeted ads, and how these ads changed her internet experience (and how her fiancé wasn’t targeted at all.)

As for Knisley’s art, she has a very clean, bright style that draws you forward effortlessly, and occasionally provides some great visual gags. She pairs the images and scenes she illustrates perfectly with her narration, underscoring or complimenting the mood, theme, or idea of her words with her drawings. Also, her depictions of food are mouthwatering (another reason to check out Relish.)

Towards the end of the book Knisley writes, “The strangest part I’ve found of being an adult is that I kept waiting for my life to feel the way other people’s lives felt, viewed by me, the outsider.” And although she goes on to explain that we each have to experience our own lives, our own adulthood, for ourselves, I think that with this book she has, in part, granted the reader the ability to look into her life, and the life of a bride-to-be, from the inside—failed DIY projects and all. This book was a terrific, substantial read, and I cannot wait for Kid Gloves.

What I’ve Been Reading, September 2018

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson — Man I went hard on this book. I essentially listened to the entirety of it over the course of a few days, which, even at 1.5x speed is quite a lot. The book is about a crew of “mistings”—sorcerers of a sort—plotting to overthrow The Final Empire, which is ruled by a god, the Lord Ruler. I’ve heard Sanderson describe it as a mix between a heist novel and epic fantasy, and it seems like those things don’t go together, but Sanderson really pulls it off.

Like any good heist story, the book has a broad cast of characters, each of whom specialize in one aspect of “allomancy”—a form of magic whose users derive their power from ingesting a specific metal or metal alloy. This power is mostly possessed by the nobility, and of course the Lord Ruler, as it is passed down hereditarily. While a system of eugenics has mostly kept the nobility from spreading this ability into the peasant class—the Skaa—some Skaa still end up being allomancers. Most allomancers can only use one metal, but there are some who are “mistborn,” who can use all the allomantic metals (there are ten, and a rumored eleventh, while burning all other metals, or even impure alloys, just makes allomancers sick.) This magic system lends itself well to the heist elements, and gives a very solid sense of progression to Vin, a mistborn and the main character of the book, as she masters the use of all these different metals. The magic also just has a wonderfully tactile feel to it, an almost steampunk-ish brassiness to the language of it—phrases like “Vin flared pewter” or “he rioted her fear” just leap off the page in a way that gives the magic a real sense of weight, even when it isn’t being used to cause some physical change. As the book goes along, and the reader comes to learn the different metals, the action scenes gain a beautiful fluidity, with Vin using a multitude of different metals—flaring tin to see better, then thrusting herself forward with steel and burning pewter to dampen the pain of the impact—and the reader understanding perfectly what all this means. “She burned tin” comes to mean as much as “she squinted,” though again, it has that wonderfully, gritty, imagistic heft to it.Read More »

Review: Rereading Great Expectations

Engraving titled “Pip waits on Miss Havisham” by Marcus Stone.

A month or so ago I reread Great Expectations in the hopes that it would provide me some nice juicy quotes to pair with chapters of the travel memoir I was writing. That ended up kind of working, but in general I just found myself loving the book, as it more than lived up to my fond memories of it. I actually did review the book on this blog awhile ago, in a What I’ve Been Reading post,  but I only spent a few paragraphs on it, and a lot of stuff struck me that I didn’t really notice the first time around, so here goes.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is narrated by Pip, an orphan living in a small town in southeast England, presumably near the Thames Estuary, as he multiple times describes “the marshes” and the sight of “hulks”—prison ships. Actually, the Pip who’s narrating things is an adult, looking back on his life, mainly focusing on his boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

The book is broken into three volumes, and each one is really it’s own little universe, with its own specific goals and style.

The first volume mainly focuses on Pip’s boyhood. Pip is raised by his much older sister, the abrasive, violent Mrs. Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery, a kind, gentle, infinitely likable blacksmith. Pip is given a taste of wealth and status when Ms. Havisham, an old, reclusive noblewoman, calls him to her house to attend on her, and play with her daughter, Estella. And with that little taste, and with his sudden love for Estella, Pip quickly grows distasteful of his low, common life.

That’s really what the first volume does beautifully—it paints a portrait of the steady development of self-loathing, even of disdain for Joe, in this commoner boy. It shows the growth of his unhealthy desire to be a “gentleman,” to escape the profession of blacksmith. One terrific quote comes as Estella and Pip are playing cards:

“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!”
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

Towards the end of the volume though, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor, who wishes him to go to London, and who has granted him great expectations—expectations meaning, by a now archaic definition, an inheritance. Although the benefactor works through an intermediary, not revealing their identity to Pip, all signs point to it being Ms. Havisham. These expectations only drive Pip further apart from Joe, and the volume ends with Pip setting off for London.Read More »

Ten Years Writing: In Sum

As of a month or so ago, I’ve been writing seriously for ten years, so I’m taking a moment to reflect with two posts looking back on those years. My purpose with these pieces is to escape my myopic focus on the present, and appreciate how far I’ve come. So my first post was a “cartographic description” of the past decade, trying to capture all that progress in a (relatively) short space. Today’s post will be even more contained, as I try to quantify all the progress I’ve made by adding it all up, looking at it all in sum.

Most of my fiction writing from the past ten years. Lots of this is multiple drafts, but also a few manuscripts that I don’t have in Tallahassee are missing, so the photo gives an accurate impression overall, I’d say. This was posed, by the way—I don’t just keep a precarious stack of writing in my room at all times.

So let’s look at everything superimposed on everything. Let’s look at the totals that I’ve kept meticulous records of (another sign of progress is that I’ve gotten less obsessive about constantly updating these things, and now only do it when I get around to it.)

In total, in the past ten years, I’ve written 6.5 novel-length works, none of them fully edited, one of them in the process of revision right now.

I’ve written twenty theatrical works: two full-length plays, eleven one acts, and seven short plays.

I’ve written thirty-nine short prose works: two (or four) novellas, eleven (or nine) novelettes, and twenty-six short stories. (The line between novella and novelette changes depending on who you ask.)

In all, I’ve written around 1,138,940 words of fiction. I’ve also written 144,820 words of blog posts (not counting the translations, or this post), which includes two short collections of essays. And I’ve written 64,790 words of unfinished fiction—that is, works that I didn’t even finish the first draft of, and which I do not think I will ever finish. (For this reason I counted the 0.5 of a novel in the former group, because I still intend to finish it.)

In all, I’ve received 193 rejections—mostly for short fiction, sometimes for plays. I’ve received four acceptances, one from Kzine, one from Playworks, two from fanzines (which I don’t really submit to anymore.) I also have one weird response that I don’t know how to categorize right now. We’ll see what comes of it.

I’m not exactly sure how many productions of my plays there have been. Two? I think? Plus a script-in-hand production and a student-directed one? IDK. A number that could fit on one hand in any case, all for the same play, The Trial of Adbot 579.

I’ve made $281.41 from my writing, about $210 from Adbot, and all in the past four years.

It’s interesting that the more I look at these numbers, the more I get used to them, and the more they don’t seem that impressive. My brain is somehow normalizing them, and now expects me to do better in the next decade. I mean, I probably will “do better”—write more, make more money, get more rejections—but maybe the lesson here is that these numbers are useful to glance at, but not to stare at. Unsure.

Hopefully these numbers give a good idea of the work-to-success ratio in the early years of being a writer (slightly skewed by the fact that they were also my early years of being a human.) And hopefully they provide some transparency, showing the enormous submerged section of the iceberg, rather than the tip that is so easy to focus on. I know that personally, it’s easy for me to see a writer (particularly if they’re around my age) who’s successful, and then get in my head wondering what I’m doing wrong, why I’m not as successful as them. In those situations, I find it useful to remind myself that everyone has taken a different path in writing, giving them certain skills, advantages, and areas of weakness. Weirdly, telling myself that someone else has worked harder for something than me actually makes me feel more secure about my own capabilities, and more empowered to achieve success.

And, if these numbers themselves don’t provide enough of an image of the iceberg, you can always read my first “Ten Years Writing” post, which is nothing if not a proverbial humongous, unwieldy mass of submerged ice.

Ten Years Writing: A Cartographic Description

Map for We’ll Tell Happy Stories (2016).

I’ve been writing for ten years now, and writing about that has proven to be quite the challenge. I’ve taken several cracks at writing this post, but I think this is the way to go—this, and another much much shorter post I’ll put up next week.

The reason this is so difficult is that it’s hard to describe what ten years of writing looks like in a post. It’s difficult to reduce it into something snappy, sharp, clear, because it isn’t. But that’s exactly why I want to write this post. In the day-to-day or week-to-week of writing, it’s easy to lose track of progress. It’s easy for me to believe that I’m not getting anywhere, that I’m not getting closer to any of my goals, that the story I’m outlining right now is actually worse than the story I wrote a month ago. Because as I move forward, my goals do too. For years I was eagerly awaiting the day when I would’ve written 1,000,000 words of fiction. I obsessively kept track of the word count of everything I wrote, updating the figures to reflect the latest revisions as I made them. But by the time 1,000,000 words neared, I’d become more focused on being able to write lots of distinct short works, rather than just lots of words in general.

Likewise, my idea of when I started writing is kind of nebulous. I’ve really been writing all my life, but when asked I usually say that I started at eleven. I say that because at eleven (actually a few months before I turned eleven) I started writing the first novel that I actually completed, and eleven is the age when I started writing regularly, usually about once or twice a week. I’ve stuck with this idea, because at a certain point I just had to stick with something, and recognize that if I let myself constantly redefine when I began my  r e a l   w r i t i ng,  I’d eventually be saying, “Now 2018, that’s when I reeeeally started writing.”

Zooming out helps me appreciate the progress that’s been made. Looking at all the fruits of my ten years of labor together, and looking at how many phases I’ve gone through, how many times I felt like I was plateauing and unable to improve my writing, when every single time I managed to get better, it helps break me out of the rut of the present. It can also be useful, in the rarer moments when I need humbling, to remember all the times I thought I pretty much understood writing, and how there was always much more to learn.

I also enjoy reading other writers describe their careers. Although everyone is different, it does provide the closest thing to a map that you can get for a writing career, which is a career without one specific Way to Do It.

So here we go. A cartographic description of the landscape of my first ten years as a writer. It’s worth noting: my first ten years coincide with my teenage years, so your mileage may vary if you’ve started writing later in life (that’s to say, you will probably do better than me, because you’ll be starting out better read than eleven-year-old me. Writing is a sport for all ages!) Also worth noting that I haven’t had to work a job in all this time, except a few part-time summer jobs, though I have been in middle and high school and college, which takes up a fair chunk of time. So factor that into your reckoning, map-readers.Read More »

New Publication: ChannelCon ’30

Right on time for convention season, my new novelette “ChannelCon ’30” is now available on Amazon and Smashwords!

0016d89f1aa203ded0e47304488df88d16e3c368With hours and hours of old movies entering the public domain every year, in the near future curators emerge as a new kind of content creator, culling all this old material and selecting personal favorites to livestream on their channels. Lindsey Xong and Amber Smith are two such curators, Amber focusing on finding movies, and Lindsey focusing on commentary and abridgment. Together, the two form Amber Linz, an incredibly popular channel, poised to sign a major deal to to get exclusive access to old movies a year before they enter public domain. To announce this deal and to engage with the curator community, the two go to ChannelCon, the biggest, greatest curator convention in the world.

But almost instantly, it’s clear that ChannelCon is coming apart at the seams, beset by the growing division between purists (who stream content completely unedited) and cureditors (who stream abridged or even completely remixed movies.) As retaliations and acts of sabotage escalate, the two sides seek to claim either Amber or Lindsey as their own, driving a wedge between the duo and jeopardizing their deal. Finding out which side is perpetrating all the chaos is not only important for purists and cureditors—it could also be the only way to save the Amber Linz deal, and Amber Linz itself.

In addition to this novelette, this publication includes an afterword in which I discuss the real world inspiration for this story, and how little fandom and conventions have changed in the past 80 years.

What I’ve Been Reading, June 2018

Currently I’m catching up on all the issues of Asimov’s that I wasn’t reading while I was over in Spain, and other short stories. As far as books, I’m mostly reading them via audiobooks, but I am still reading them.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin — Boy am I late to this party. The Fifth Season is the first in the Broken Earth trilogy, which in itself holds two Hugo Awards for best novel and one Nebula Award for best novel, not to mention three nominations for each of those awards—and it may just clutch a third Hugo Award this August. So yeah, I am late as fuck to a hell of a party.

The accolades are earned. The Fifth Season takes place in a world (Earth?) periodically ravaged by tremendous apocalypses, called “Fifth Seasons” or simply “Seasons.” These global catastrophes usually originate from seismic activity, though grow out of control from there (e.g. an erupting volcano can cause years of winter, a fissure in the earth can release hallucinogenic gas causing a “season of madness” …) The only bulwarks against these Seasons are the orogenes, a subsection of humanity gifted with the ability to sense and quell tremors in the earth, among other things. This first book in the trilogy is split into three narrative strands, each focused on an orogene at a different point in their development, the oldest of which is actually living through a Season, trying to find her daughter.

I won’t talk much more about the story/stories of Fifth Season, because I think it’s the book’s weak point—in as much as healthiness is the weak point of a cake. Fifth Season isn’t really trying to tell a ripping yarn, at least not throughout all of the book. Later on, plot developments start to thicken, but the first half of the book is largely focused on exploration of the world, and of the interior of these characters. In this, Fifth Season excels.Read More »

New Publication: Tallahassee Ca. 2045

Remember this post about the Parkland shooting and representation of high schoolers? The play I was talking about back then is now available, on Smashwords and Amazon.

Tc2045-c-2In the year 2045, a group of politically conscious high school seniors decides to organize a youth rally—a protest to lower the minimum voting age. Just before the protest is scheduled to happen, a massive ice sheet breaks off of Antarctica, causing global flooding. The youth rally becomes a demand for radical change of climate policy, and the politics of the students are put under new pressure. Relationships between the original group of friends strain as the protest grows further and further out of control, and any hopes of changing the world look dimmer and dimmer.

Tallahassee Circa 2045 is an exploration of protest culture, shifting ideologies, and the intersection of youth and politics, set against the backdrop of global catastrophe and an ever-shifting national landscape.

Running time is approximately 120 minutes. The cast is 1M, 5F, 3NB.

In addition to the play, this publication includes an afterword (a large part of which already appeared on this blog in that MSD post) which constitutes an in-depth look at youth rights, representations of high schoolers, and the politically tumultuous period in which the play was written.

Happy summer everyone! #HotOutHere

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wrote this post before Ursula K. Le Guin passed, though it seems fitting now to open it with these words of hers, in response to the question, “What do you want to happen to your books after you die?”:  “I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.” Well, I’ve read a second-hand cheap paper edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, gotten angry with it, kind of loved it in a few moments, argued about it (in my head, with myself and with two different versions of Le Guin), and now, behold, an unreadable dissertation blog post. Hopefully, this is exactly as Le Guin would wish. Rest in peace.

Cover of the 1st edition, vastly superior to the latest edition’s cover, which is just a glacier, honestly it’s stunning how mediocre that new cover is. Courtesy of Ace Books

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books I’ve always felt silly for not having read—and likewise, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those authors I’ve always etc. Not just because Left Hand is considered a classic, and Le Guin one of the greatest, most influential sci-fi/fantasy writers, but because it’s the kind of sci-fi and fantasy that really interests me. Sci-fi with a focus on society, on the world, on characters. Not to mention, the gender thing—I’ve always heard that Le Guin is a great feminist writer, someone who subverts and challenges our ideas about gender, and especially about women. And Left Hand is, of course, the gender book—or the book without gender. A world where the dominant sentient life-form has no biological sex—fantastic. I’m always interested in that kind of premise, I always like to see deconstructions and reconstructions of gender. Yet, I somehow never got around to reading it, I always had some other book or author I was more interested in. I finally decided to read the book when I got it in a white elephant gift exchange, and, for months, had the physical copy sitting about in my bedroom somewhere, staring at me.

So I read it. One less thing to feel silly about Francis, good job. After reading it, and kind of wondering what everyone else saw in it re: the discussion of gender, I read Le Guin’s essay on the book, “Is Gender Necessary?” Actually I read the “Redux” version, which was written over a decade later, with annotations from Le Guin clarifying and arguing with her past self. In some ways, the redux essay is a revisiting of a revisiting—Left Hand came out in 1969, “Is Gender Necessary” (henceforth to be referred to as IGN) in 1976, and the redux in 1988. Which would make this blog post a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a book, at least in some part.

I’ve struggled with how to write this post. It seems unfair to review the book as if its some kind of argument—in fact, Le Guin herself mentions this in “Redux,” when she writes that “critics of the book insisted upon talking about its ‘gender problems’ as if it were an essay not a novel.” That line instantly made me think of “Cat Person,” the Kristen Roupenian short story that made the rounds last year, and which was bizarrely referred to as an “article” or “essay” by some. These stories did not ask to be scrutinized as perfectly hygienic arguments about gender and sexuality. The idea that Left Hand is an incredible classic which strikes right to the heart of gender politics is external to the book. So I’ll do my best to separate the two, to review the book as just a book, before specifically going into why I found it lacking in terms of gender commentary.Read More »

New Publication: Beneath Them

beneaththem-c-3I’ve just published “Beneath Them,” a short story available on Smashwords and Amazon.

In this piece of flash fiction, without warning, thousands of alien spaceships have appeared above major urban areas around the globe, and some have descended to devastating effect. Although the aliens have expressed a lack of ill intentions, and a desire for “recreation,” no one really knows what they are doing on Earth. The only thing that is clear is their overwhelming power, and their overwhelming intelligence.

In the shadow of this invasion, life goes on as Atlanta resident Cheyenne, and her younger cousin Denise, deal with roaches in their apartment.

Also included in this publication is a brief afterword, in which I describe my own encounter with a cockroach which inspired this story.

What I’ve Been Reading, February 2018 (Southeast Edition!)

Hey wow, two books published in 2017! I’m only a little late to the party, for once! Also, two books that take place in the US Southeast! I could’ve broken this post into two separate review posts, since I have a lot to say about both books, but they kinda sorta pair I guess not really but whatever here we go!

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard — I happened upon this book just by browsing through my local library’s non-fiction ebooks, looking for something to occupy my time over the winter break, and man am I glad I did. Sunshine State is a collection of essays mainly dealing with events, recollections, and social issues in the Tampa Bay area. Though the title comes from the nickname for Florida, Tampa Bay and Pinellas County are really the central locations of the book.

What I enjoyed most about these essays was Gerard’s ability to pierce through these very specific, or at times very personal, topics, and reveal something more universal, especially in essays like “BFF,” “Going Diamond,” and “Sunshine State.” “BFF” is the opening piece of the book, and is written as an address to an old, unnamed friend of Gerard’s. The writing is visceral, and the description of their painful, years-long parting is captivating. It’s a level of emotional, personal intensity that the collection never really returns to—at least not in full (it would be impossible to sustain anyway.)

This intensity is certainly sprinkled into most of the essays though, like in “Going Diamond,” an essay about AmWay, the direct selling (a.k.a. pyramid scheme) company. The essay describes the history of the corporation, as well as the Gerard family’s time as members of AmWay, interspersed with descriptions of Gerard and her husband posing as prospective homeowners, and touring enormous mansions in South Florida gated communities. The blend of all these elements creates this feeling of surreality around AmWay, a cloying, saccharine vision of country clubs and indoor pools and saving the earth with warm, honest capitalism. The American Way.Read More »

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This was originally going to be just part of a “What I’ve Been Reading” post, but it turns out I have a lot to say about this book, so now it’s just its own review post.

Cover courtesy of DAW

The Name of the Wind is the first book in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, and it describes the early life of the first-person narrator and alleged Kingkiller, Kvothe. To describe the plot generally would paint this novel as clichéd. I guess that’s because it is, in its broad strokes. An exceptionally talented, fast-learning child lives a comfortable life as a player in his father’s troupe of traveling performers. When the troupe takes on an arcanist, young Kvothe is mentored by him in Sympathy—a kind of magic based on intense concentration and mental gymnastics. Eventually the arcanist leaves, and soon after the Kvothe’s father begins work on a ballad involving the mysterious Chandrian—mythical superhuman superevil beings, probably just fables. Then the Chandrian murder the entire troupe, leaving only Kvothe alive. For years Kvothe survives by the skin of his teeth, hitchhiking, begging, stealing, though he eventually determines to go to the University, to utilize its massive archives to research the Chandrian. Demonstrating exceptional intelligence and knowledge of sympathy, Kvothe is admitted to the University, where he spends the remainder of the book having adventures and misadventures, and trying to gain access to the archives.

Yes, with the exception of a few creative flourishes, the book traces a familiar arc. Where it stands out, or at least justifies its position as one of the most popular fantasy novels in the past decade, is in the execution. The book reminds me of a 19th-century serialized novel, like Great Expectations or Count of Monte Cristo—both of which, in their broad strokes, also rely on clichés, despite being terrific works. The pacing is tireless, each chapter lurches into the next as new dilemmas arise and Kvothe sets his sights on new goals. There’s a large cast of characters, but they’re all memorable, and you love to love the ones you love, and love to hate the ones you hate. Name of the Wind manages the great trick of being long and reading fast.Read More »

New Publication: The Wisdom-Goddess Star

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! My novelette, “The Wisdom-Goddess Star,” is now available on Smashwords and Amazon. It has nothing to do with love or romance, but neither does St. Valentine (possibly), so it works out. Here’s the synopsis:

twgs-c-2Alexander Irving. First generation Martian, born to Patricia Irving and Peter Leung. Studied journalism at the newly founded University of Mars, a petri dish for “human journalism,” a new style of journalism to compete with AI reporters. Moved to Phobos upon graduation and joined the staff of The Light, the premier news organization of Mars’s largest satellite. Reported primarily on the working class of Phobos—technicians, repair crew, service workers—and always felt he was missing something. The grit of real journalism, investigative journalism, the kind which humans still do in the mud and shadows of Earth.

2 Pallas. Third most massive asteroid in the solar system, the newest acquisition of the International Martian Program. Its colonization is the first major IMP project to make use of the Per Aspera Ad Astra program, recruiting a thousand new members from working class, low income, secondary education backgrounds. Due to its highly eccentric orbit, Pallas only nears Mars once every 2 years—making it the most isolated colony in the IMP.

Pallas gives Irving the opportunity he’s looking for, to probe deep into a colony from which AI cannot harvest data, as the colony still lacks a long-range communications relay. When Irving arrives, he shortly discovers that Pallas’s isolation may be the intentional work of the local governor, and he endeavors to discover what exactly the governor wants to keep hidden from the rest of the IMP.

In addition, the publication includes an afterword in which I discuss how a school superintendent election, a dysfunctional novella, and a few English classes influenced the creation of this story.

Review: Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

Cover of the first German edition, courtesy of Campus Fachbuch

I heard about this book around the time I was starting to form my own ideas about why people identify themselves as Americans, Porteños, Quebecois—and why other people don’t. Essentially, what does it take to convince people that they belong to a group? Why did US citizens identify more with their states than their nation, in the early 19th century? When does state building fail, and when does it succeed? Imagined Communities does not examine those specific questions, but it effectively answers them, and provides a whole bunch of tools for understanding nationalism, and, I ‘unno, separatist movements like the one that is happening right now. Might be worth picking up now for that reason.

The central conceit of Imagined Communities is that nationalism, even the concept of clearly delineated nations as the ultimate form of legitimacy, is recent, and that it was only possible with the rise of print capitalism. When reading newspapers based in Venezuela, inhabitants of the country could imagine other “Venezuelans” reading the same text as them, reading about the same political appointments, the same market changes, the same marriages of nobility. This “imagined community” is the nation. Of course, there are other imagined communities (Anderson describes religious community as the greatest precursor to national community), but because of the insularity of nations, and a host of other factors which he delineates in the book, this imagined community becomes one that people are willing to die for.Read More »

An Imperialist Writing Policy — How

Now that I’ve explained what an “imperialist writing policy” is, and why it might be useful, here’s how to actually do it.

Compiling Your Curriculum

So you’ve got some reason for enacting an imperialist writing policy—what do you fill it with? What are your imperial holdings? As I said, with Suggest the Empire I initially began with plays I was already aware of—Shakespearean histories. However, Stuff Happens I only learned about by doing some research, looking up contemporary history plays. After finding these materials, I just continued with my life, and kept on the look-out for any books or shows or movies or podcasts that seemed like they could be useful, adding them to my curriculum as I found them.

I’d recommend the same—start with works that you are already aware of, or that you have already been wanting to read. If you have enough, great! If you don’t, it’s time to do some research. This is essentially how I determined what plays to read for Play Time (which was a literal curriculum, since it was an Honors project.) I started by looking at some plays dealing with time which I already wanted to read—We Are Proud to Present …, Strange InterludeTop Girls, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—then did some research. I pretty quickly found out about J.B. Priestly’s time plays, and stumbled upon a review of a few short Beckett plays staged together because of their similar treatments of time. The internet is an incredible thing.

If this seems overwhelming, start with Wikipedia. Look at the external links on the article, look at the references. Look up what resources your local library has, or, if you’re a college student, check out your university library. Find people who are experts in whatever you need to immerse yourself in, and see what they’ve written. See what they recommend. If you personally know anyone who has some experience with the topic, ask them to give you some recommendations—or, if they’re willing to give you their time, ask them questions about the topic and make note of the answers. Sift through your personal library, see if there are any old books you forgot you even had that might be useful (this is exactly how Top Girls made it onto the list for Play Time.) And if you’re really hitting a wall, just start reading whatever you have found. More likely than not (and especially if its non-fiction) that work will lead you to other works. You’ll start to get a sense of what the foundational texts in the field are, which authors keep coming up again and again, which authors have written stuff very similar to (and therefore very useful for) what you’re planning to write.Read More »

An Imperialist Writing Policy — What and Why

A year and a half ago I returned home for the summer break knowing that, whatever else I worked on for the next few months, by the end of the summer I wanted to have finished the rough draft of Suggest the Empire. At that point I’d already been wanting to write this play for a year or two, though I’d previously put it off because I knew it would be massive, strange, and demanding in multiple ways. How did I know this? Well here’s my short description for the play:

A history play about an invented history, exploring the theatrical nature of nationalism and empire.

So yeah. Massive strange demanding. And I had never read or seen a history play (in the Shakespearean sense of the term) back then at the beginning of summer 2016, so I decided that would be a top priority. I determined to read seven of Shakespeare’s histories—Richard IIIRichard IIHenry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V, and Julius Caesar—before beginning to write the play. I also added Stuff Happens by David Hare to my reading list, a history play about the lead up to the Iraq War. These were the works that I felt I had to read before beginning work on STE. Obviously I planned to write other stuff in the mean time, but I wouldn’t start Suggest the Empire until I’d finished those eight plays.

As I progressed into the summer I came across more and more works which I thought could in some way inform the writing of STE—youtube channels like Historia Civilis, documentaries like Secrets of Great British Castles, movies like Waterloo, games like Mount and Blade and Reigns—which I’d add to the list. Some of these I’d already been meaning to get around to, others I stumbled upon and decided to look into because of STE, and others I was already engaged with anyway, just by happenstance—the greatest example being The Absolute at Large. Just by luck, that very summer I was recording an audiobook of The Absolute at Large, a satirical novel which is heavily critical of nationalism and fanaticism. I came to think of this body of plays, movies, books, tv shows, and whatever else, as the product of an imperialist writing policy. I was not solely consuming, and working on, Suggest the Empire, though almost everything I consumed and worked on fed back to that play in some way.

SuggesttheEmpire-c-2The result was that, when it finally came time to write Suggest the Empire, it was a breeze. Over the past months I’d become fluent in the language of empire, of nationalism, of history, of historical drama, and I had no trouble plotting out the story or sketching out the world, or, as I actually wrote the thing, sprinkling in realistic military, cultural, or political details. I’m incredibly proud of Suggest the Empire, and you can now buy the play! Ha ha you fool, I tricked you, this is all just an ad, ho-ho I got you!

Just kidding. If you have no interest in reading Suggest the Empire (which you can get on Smashwords or Amazon, or read the first act of free) this post, and the “How” post which will be up next week, should still be useful to any writer (or creator of any kind, I suppose) who wants to design their own imperialist writing policy. This isn’t the Only Way, or the Correct Way, to prepare for a piece of writing, but it is a method that I’ve found useful, which may prove useful for others. Alternately, if you’ve just read, or plan on reading, Suggest the Empire, these two posts should be a good look into my process in preparing for that play. I talk about it some in the afterword, among other things, but here I’ll be breaking down just that specific, preliminary part of creating the play.Read More »

New Publication: Suggest the Empire

Awhile ago I wrote a post about learning from Shakespeare’s histories. The reason I read those plays was to prepare for writing Suggest the Empire, a full-length play which is now available on Smashwords and Amazon! And you can read the sort-of-self-contained first act for free! (See below.) Here’s the synopsis:

SuggesttheEmpire-c-2To Prince Oht, heir apparent of the Olisan Empire, all the trappings of nationhood seem as skeletal and artificial as the trappings of theatre. War chants to suggest fraternity, court language to suggest royalty, flags to suggest ownership—all are equal to flimsy poles to suggest spears, colored cloth to suggest flags, three men to suggest an army. All his cynicism is of little consequence while his father, the charismatic Alita Tolkash, still rules as emperor, but the time will come when Oht has to step up. And when Tolkash is injured in battle, and begins to have his own doubts about what the empire truly is, it looks like that time of responsibility is drawing sooner and sooner.

Suggest the Empire follows in the Shakespearean tradition of history plays, though it tells a completely invented history in a completely invented world. Relying entirely on representational sets and costuming, the play portrays a centuries-old empire caught at a momentous crossroads, with conflict brewing in all quarters.

Run time is 160-180 minutes. Cast is 26 (no gender restrictions), with potential for double casting.

If you read We’ll Tell Happy Stories, this play is set in the same world as that one. There’s hardly any crossover at all (completely different characters, different settings), but Suggest the Empire has the same kind of world-building and treatment of language as in We’ll Tell—so if you liked the one, you’ll probably like the other.

The publication also contains an afterword in which I discuss the origins of the idea, my imperialist writing policy, and my method for writing court Olisan.

If you want to get a sample of the play, you can read the first act, which is sorta self-contained, for free in the following formats:

PDFEpub — Mobi