2016 Reading Challenge

About a year ago, I posted a run-down of the books I read in 2015, as well as three separate posts detailing my reading plans for 2016. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is not the soul of this blog.

That was early January, but since it feels unlikely that I’m going to finish anything tomorrow, I thought I’d get a jump on the reflecting. This year, I made myself a spreadsheet to track my reading (my engineer husband is so proud). I finished 87 books. Of those, 42 were written by people of color, which is a drastic improvement from my mostly-white 2015 reading list. The breakdown of author gender was pretty similar, with about 2/3 female authors and only one non-binary author.

Wiser people write about the issue of diversity in publishing every day, but here’s my two cents: I had a harder time finding new fiction by people with backgrounds different from my own. These books were not always on library or bookstore shelves. Many of the ones I did find were indie or self-published, rather than from a major publishing house. The discrepancy has certainly made me more conscious about where I spend my book-buying dollars.

I read more nonfiction this year- thirteen books total. A good percentage of those were writing books that I read in an effort to improve my own craft, or maybe figure out what genre the book I’m writing is (With some help from friends and books, I’ve settled on calling it paranormal suspense). Reading with a goal in mind helps decrease the feeling that I’m doing pointless homework.

There was less fantasy this year, or maybe it just looks that way because I stopped lumping “paranormal” in with “fantasy.” There were a lot more romances this year—I was craving happy endings, for sure. According to my lovely spreadsheet I read somewhere in the neighborhood of 24,600 pages total, which is a basically meaningless number because of font sizes and different editions and illustrations and such, but still fun to look at.

I’ll be back sometime next week to let you know what to expect from this blog in 2017 (hint: it is mostly books and yelling about The Magicians). In the meantime, here are my favorites from the past twelve months:

Favorite New Series: Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate. I picked up Soulless back when it first came out in 2009. I can’t remember if I was having paranormal burnout or het romance burnout or what, but I didn’t finish it then. I’m so pleased I got it out of the library again. I’ve never purchased a box set that fast.

Favorite Continuing Series: The Obelisk Gate is the second book in the Broken Earth Trilogy. N.K. Jemisin continues to break my heart in new and creative ways.

Favorite Re-Imagined StoryThe Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. I love a good fairy tale retelling. Even though I’ve never read Hale before, this felt like coming home.

Favorite Classic That I Finally Got Around ToKindred by Octavia Butler. Newer, as “classics” go, but wrenching and still so necessary.

Favorite Comic: I am a little sad to be coming to the end of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, which gets better and better as it goes.

Favorite Surprise Discovery/Debut Author: I’ve already written about how much I found Mishell Baker’s Borderline thanks to a bookstore staff recommendation. It’s a stunning paranormal mystery full of complex characters, fairies, and modern Hollywood intrigue, and I’m so so happy I picked it up.

Favorite Overall: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the 16th book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Bujold has incredible range as a writer, but this is how I like her best—sci-fi with a twist of family drama, romance, and comedy.

What other excellent and life-changing literature did you experience this year? Tell me in the comments, and have a safe and happy new year.

2016 Reading Update

Congratulations, everyone, we made it halfway through the year! It hasn’t been easy. The news has not been good. But here you are, six months in, still kicking, still making it work. Nice job. I’m proud of you.

It seems like a good time to check back in with the reading resolutions I set for myself in January. So far I’ve finished 41 books. I have a spreadsheet, you guys.

Books by Authors of Color

My goal is to read at least 35 books by authors of color this year, and so far I’ve finished 23. This is already a huge upswing in diversity from 2015, when I only finished 10. I had some reservations about the wording of this resolution, which I go into in my original post. But overall I think it’s been a good exercise for me. If nothing else, it’s encouraged me to check out authors I haven’t read before, like Octavia Butler and Daniel José Older.

Nonfiction Books

I have read as few as four or as many as seven nonfiction books. I was aiming for five, so okay, but why the discrepancy? Well, I didn’t really think this one through as well as I should have. I didn’t really have poetry in mind at first, but if you want to get technical, it is shelved in nonfiction. Then there’s the issue of books The Water is Wide, which walk a thin line between memoir and novel.

Of the four incontrovertibly, uncontestably nonfiction books I have read, two were about writing craft and two were about feminism. Make of that what you will.

Authors with Different Gender Identities

I was getting a little weary of goal setting by the time I came to gender. I read about an equal number of male and female authors last year, but to my knowledge no trans or non-binary authors. The very low bar I set for myself was a vague sort of “I can do better” statement.

And I’ve done…better, I guess, if you count one book. One in Every Crowd by Ivan E. Coyote is another semi-fictionalized memoir, geared towards a young adult audience. It deals with the narrator/author’s own experience growing up as a gender nonconformist in rural Canada, as well as their adult experiences mentoring queer youth.

Look, I don’t cry a lot. If I type “this made me cry” in a text or a tweet or a blog post, you can read it as “this made me emotional and maybe my eyes watered a little.” But while I was reading One in Every Crowd there were big, wet, I-need-to-stop-and-get-a-tissue-before-I-short-out-my-Kindle tears running down my face. Five stars, highly recommend.

Other Observations

Most of the authors I’ve read are American, with a handful from the UK and a very small number from anywhere else. My most-read genre is sci-fi (11 books) closely followed by fantasy (10 books). Overwhelmingly I read ebooks rather than any other format, although I did have a few audiobooks and paperbacks as well.

So that’s where I’m at as of July 1. I’ll check back in around December and let you know how I did.

How is your reading year going?

Review: How To Be A Woman

Emma Watson started a feminist book club on Goodreads a couple months ago. I joined. I will never pass down an opportunity to be in a club with Emma Watson, even if it’s an online forum and not an excuse to hang out in her living room and drink wine.

Every month, Watson picks a new feminist book for the group (which now has over 100,000 members) to read and discuss. I am a self-centered book club member, so I waited until the book of the month was also something already in my to-be-read pile. April’s book club assignment was Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which I’ve been eyeing since it came out.

51o191DtEtL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_

How To Be a Woman is part memoir, part feminist manifesto. Moran, a journalist and former rock critic, came of age in the UK in the 1990s. The book spans her life from her thirteenth birthday into her early thirties. The range of topics and emotions is broad. Lighthearted chapters about first love and high heels go alongside heavier ones describing Moran’s abortion and the difficult delivery of her first child.

The book has plenty of reviews, both good and bad. There’s one I need to address here, just to clear my palate before writing my own. Moran advocates politeness, so I will be as vague and polite about this as I can: it was written by a male author whose books I enjoy. Sometimes he has personal opinions, shared on social media, that I do not agree with. He quite enjoyed How To Be A Woman. His review praised Moran for not only being funny, but for being laid back. She doesn’t believe in a “secret conspiracy of the patriarchy.”

I’m also not sure how I feel about laid back feminists. A man complimenting a feminist for being “down-to-earth” sounds like a backhanded way of saying other feminists are irrational. Hey, most of those ladies are really uptight, but this one’s okay! She even laughed when I told her to go make me a sandwich. Being chill about sexism might make you popular with sexists, but it doesn’t tend to incite change.

I was delighted to find, then, to find that Caitlin Moran is not pandering to any misogynists. She proudly reclaims the term “strident feminist” and has, I am relieved to admit, zero chill where sexism is concerned.

If you had never read a word about feminism in your life, How To Be A Woman would be a good place to start. Moran outlines the basic goals of the movement, using examples from her own life to detail the inequalities and absurdities of modern womanhood.

And it is a funny book. Not that I ever believed strident feminism couldn’t be, but some people seem surprised. It’s raunchy, so if you’re bothered by cursing, sex, or drug use, maybe take a pass on this one. But if you, like me, are fascinated/amused by what other people nickname their vaginas (Moran did a survey on Twitter and shares the results in Chapter Three), this is perfect for you.

I didn’t agree with every idea that Moran put forth in the book. She’s a bit reductive on some subjects, like women in history and body image. But the wonderful thing about feminism is that it’s not a lockstep movement. We don’t all have to agree with each other about everything. We can be in the club even if we haven’t read all the books.

Book Review: Legend

When young adult dystopia became a big trend post-Hunger Games, I was really into it for a while. I’ve loved stories about people struggling to thrive in hostile future landscapes since I read The Giver in fifth grade, so when the dystopia boom came, I was eating them up. Then I got burned out, like you do. Lately I’ve been dipping back into the genre, and I’ve been generally enjoying the results. If you are also in the mood for teenagers fighting back against oppressive governments and Scary Capitalized Nouns, allow me to suggest Legend by Marie Lu, the first book in the Legend Trilogy.

legend cover

The premise is solid—many years before the book takes place, extreme climate change and natural disasters destroyed life and we know it. The map of the United States was redrawn, both physically and politically. Most of the East Coast is underwater, and the Western states have seceded to create the Republic. By the time Legend begins, good citizens of the Republic don’t believe there ever was a United States. All they remember is their seemingly unending war against the other states, now known as the Colonies.

The climate change element is what sells it for me. I’m so tired of speculative fiction where the evil fun-hating dictator takes over and everyone just goes with it. With so many resources wiped out, it’s plausible that people would have traded some freedom for a sense of security. Aside from the hurricanes and floods, there are also periodic outbreaks of plague to worry about. The government can cure that, of course, which helps to cement the people’s loyalty.

The story focuses on Day and June, two fifteen-year-olds living in Los Angeles. Day, the son of a poor family, was declared useless to the Republic when he was ten. After failing his Trial, an important aptitude test, he narrowly escaped being killed. The government murders children for not being smart/fast/useful enough, and that’s strangely not regarded as the worst thing they do. It’s not dismissed, but it’s not the Moral Event Horizon you’d expect (link to TVTropes, sorry not sorry).

Day has become a Robin Hood-like figure in the city’s slums, causing trouble for the city’s higher-ups and omnipresent military. His real concern, though, is caring for his mother and two brothers. When his younger brother, Eden, comes down with a new strain of the plague, Day is willing to take great risks to find a cure.

June, by contrast, was raised to wealth and privilege. After earning a rare perfect score on her Trial, she was accelerated through military school. All she wants is to graduate and serve her country alongside her brother Matias. Matias raised June after their parents died in an accident, and he’s the most important person in her life.

When Matias is killed in an attempt to capture Day, June’s whole life changes. Her first post-school assignment is to work out a new plan to apprehend Day, and she channels all of her grief into tracking down the boy she believes killed her brother. She goes undercover as a street urchin in order to earn his trust. Of course, this works out a little too well, and both June and Day wind up facing some difficult truths about themselves and the world they live in.

June and Day tell the story in the first person in alternating chapters. I should stop complaining about switching POV. I say I hate it, but maybe it’s time I admit that it’s just a technique, one that can be done well or poorly. It worked for me here, and I felt equally invested in both protagonists.

If I could ask for more of anything in this book, it would be romantic tension. I wanted more of a “will-they-or-won’t-they” pull. There’s a lot of emphasis on how similar June and Day are despite their different backgrounds. June has a lot more agency than your average uptown girl, but I was missing the conflict that could have come from that quarter. Wouldn’t June and Day have conflicting worldviews? Wouldn’t they butt heads over more than just misunderstandings?

There are two more books in the series, which hopefully explore their dynamic more. Legend has a satisfying ending, but certainly leaves enough mysteries unsolved and wrongs un-righted to fuel more stories.

Book Review: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, like many epic fantasies, is structured around a journey. A caravan of merchants and hired mercenaries must travel through a dangerous jungle to reach a distant city. Demane, one of the soldiers, is descended from a race of gods who have abandoned the world. Demane never felt like he fit in with ordinary people, but he’s afraid that using his godly powers at full strength will isolate him even more.

wildeeps cover

There are strong themes about feeling foreign and fitting in, underscored by the use of language. The default is similar to African-American English, but there’s a smattering of French- and Spanish-inspired dialects. It’s implied that Demane was highly educated in his home country, but he has difficulty expressing himself in other tongues.

Demane is able to be himself with the two characters who know the whole truth about his origins. Cumalo, his best friend, is another soldier from his native region. Isa, his lover, is another demigod. When a hyper-intelligent, magic-using, man-eating tiger starts stalking the caravan through the jungle, Demane knows he can use his powers to protect his friends and his beloved. He also knows that in doing so, he risks losing his own humanity.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is just over 200 pages, which is short for a fantasy. Novels in this genre tend to run longer, because the readers need to be introduced to an unfamiliar world and new systems of magic. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps doesn’t waste words explaining where we are and how the magic works. The reader has to learn on their feet.

This book is refreshing because it doesn’t over-explain. In between chapters are little excerpts of the imagined world’s culture—letters, literature, songs— but those mostly served to tease me with a picture of the wider world. There are footnotes throughout, but they tend to be emotional asides rather than information.

Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to really explain how the world operates, and I’m okay with that. A lot of my favorite books or series don’t make all their rules of magic obvious right away. They reward multiple readings. A second or third time through, I can catch things that I didn’t understand the first time. My imagination can fill in the gaps. I knew when I was halfway through The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps that I was going to want to read it again someday, which is a great feeling.

The brevity of the novel also gives it a fairy tale quality. I didn’t have enough time to get acquainted with the emotional lives of the supporting characters, and even Demane feels distant at times, more of an archetype than a person. That’s not a bad thing—I do love fairy tales—but I know it’s not everyone’s thing.

There is a notable lack of female characters. The men think of absent wives and girlfriends, and in flashbacks, we get “Auntie,” Demane’s mysterious goddess-mentor. A couple of female prostitutes show up early on, but it’s hardly representation. Strangely, this didn’t bother me too much. Maybe I would rather have female characters be absent than have them only representing tired stereotypes. Maybe I’ve been reading lots of books with interesting, creative, and badass girl and women characters lately, so this seems like the shrug-worthy exception rather than the eye-roll inducing rule.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a great way to dip into some swords-and-sorcery without committing to a long series, or even to a very long book. It’s a standalone that hints at so many more possibilities, a story rooted in tradition that doesn’t lean on clichés. The road is dark and dangerous, but in the end, the journey is worth it.

Going to the Movies

If you follow me on Twitter (@andieinitaly), you know that I was doing some traveling this week. Thanks for reading my storm of tweets about how much I hate airports. Writing them was a good distraction and made me feel better.

As much as I dislike the airport, I do love flying. Planes are a great place to nap or read, and someone usually comes to bring me a drink. I started a new book, Save the Cat! The Last Screenwriting Manuel You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, before I got on my first flight Wednesday, and I finished it Thursday morning.

Save the Cat is a widely read book on (you guessed it) screenwriting. It was published in 2005, and while it has its detractors, it’s clearly been hugely influential in Hollywood. I’m not working on a screenplay, but I read the book to learn about ways I can improve my novel. I came out of the experience with lots of ideas and some new techniques to try, so overall a success.

I won’t write a full review of Save the Cat here. If you’re itching to discuss it in detail, I’d be happy to come do that with you in the comments or elsewhere.

The title refers to the moment early in a story when the hero does something nice so the audience knows to root for them. Allegedly inspired by a literal cat that gets saved in the movie Alien, but I can't corroborate that since I've never managed to finish that one.
The title refers to the moment early in a story when the hero does something nice so the audience knows to root for them. Allegedly inspired by a literal cat that gets saved in the movie Alien, but I can’t corroborate that since I’ve never managed to finish that one.

I do want to write about the connection between books and movies. We talk a lot about adaptations a lot. We discuss book movies past, present, optioned, and un-optioned at length. We spend a lot of time thinking about the way a book translates to the screen, but not so much about what can move the other way (unless your job is to write novelizations of hit movies, in which case you probably think about this all the time).

Each medium has its own quirks. In Save the Cat Snyder warns against having characters “talk the plot,” which is to say loading down the dialogue with background details. His example: “This sure isn’t like the time I was the star fullback for the N.Y. Giants until my…accident.” That’s terrible no matter what you’re writing, but as a novelist, I have the leeway to sneak information like that into the narration.

On the flip side, movies get to use visual and aural cues to develop setting and character. There’s no slowing down the action to describe the city street or the forest path your characters are walking down. It’s just there (I don’t like it when books have lots of walking, so I look more favorably on them as movies—Cold Mountain, Lord of the Rings).

Likewise describing characters. You don’t have to tell the audience what the actor looks like. They’re right there on the screen. I hate writing physical descriptions of characters. Especially when I’m writing first person POV and the main character is perforce describing themselves in their head, something I don’t think most humans do all that frequently.

Likewise getting across accents and vocal inflection. Writing in dialect is one thing, but that can go wrong easily. On a movie set, bring in the voice coach and let them do their job.

I’m not a movie buff at all. I like going to the theater and getting popcorn. I tend more towards the brain-candy side of the silly-to-serious spectrum, too. While I was getting ready to write this post I was thinking of all the movies I’ve watched in the last year or two. It reminded me of how much I liked Jupiter Ascending. Why isn’t that streaming on Netflix yet?

But I could learn a thing or two about writing from the movies. A story is a story. Screenwriters and novelists have concerns in common—plotting and pacing, creating a likable hero with agency, writing engaging dialogue, and more. I could stand to be more analytical when it comes to films.

Or I could spend that time making a dent in the sixty-two episodes of Jeopardy on my DVR. That’s an option, too.

I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. If you’ve got a minute, tell me about all of your favorite/least favorite movie adaptations in the comments.

Valentine’s Day Reads

Happy Valentine’s Day! I had toyed with the idea of doing a whole post about romance novels in honor of the holiday, but there’s just way too much there for me to parse. If you Google “romance novels” the results that come up are everything from Jane Austen to Nicholas Sparks to E.L. James. Who even knows, anymore?

The term “romance novel” conjures up images of the boxes labeled “free books” that used to crop up around the English building in college. Freshman year my best friend and I raided one for the cheesiest covers. We spent the night in her room skimming for a page with the word “throbbing” and doing dramatic readings. (Important Note: We were totally invited to go to a party that night but we had to get up early for a class the next day. BEING RESPONSIBLE IS COOL.)

Throbbing aside, I really don’t have a problem with romance novels. Unfortunately, I haven’t read any super good ones lately. Here’s a little sample of what I have been reading to get myself in the Valentine’s Day mood:

Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances

Georgette Heyer started writing meticulously researched historical novels in the 1920s and continued until her death in 1974. Her romances, usually set in England or France in the late 18th century, established a new genre. There have been countless imitators since, but Heyer’s work holds up remarkably well.

311182

I picked up my first one, The Convenient Marriage, after reading this charming piece by Garth Nix about getting hooked on Heyer when he was twelve and recovering from bronchitis. I recently finished These Old Shades, which is set in France under Louis XV. The Duke of Avon takes in Léon, a street urchin, to be his page. Leon turns out to be Léonie, and romance ensues. I’m a shameless fan of cross-dressing plots, so I was obviously all in for this. There’s also lots of revenge, intrigue, and adventure to go with the romance.

Love Poems, Nikki Giovanni

I didn’t recognize Nikki Giovanni’s name when I bought this collection, but I realized after reading that I’ve seen several of these poems in anthologies—“I Wrote a Good Omelet” for one. The poems in the volume are approachable and fun to read, and they represent Giovanni at many different stages of her life. They’re all love poems, but what’s celebrated here is much more than romantic love.

41obN+M4wxL._SX380_BO1,204,203,200_

“The Only True Lovers Are Chefs or Happy Birthday, Edna Lewis” is all about the great cooks who pass their love along in recipes. Giovanni writes to her mother and her son, to Langston Hughes and Tupac Shakur. History, both personal and global, is present throughout. “And Yeah…This Is A Love Poem (October 16, 1995)” imagines the Million Man March through the eyes of a single participant. While some of the rhymes are cute enough for a greeting card, every poem is heartfelt and thought provoking. As of this writing, it’s still only $1.99 for Kindle, if you do that sort of thing.

Fanfiction

During the years I was in a long-distance relationship, I had a tradition for any Valentine’s Day that I had to spend away from my boyfriend: I’d get a pint of ice cream and read some fanfiction. Fanfic fills the same spiritual niche as romance novels in a lot of ways: the stories usually focus on the development of a relationship, so they’re naturally character-driven. Both genres are also mainly written and read by women. One thing I think fanfic has over published romance novels: fanfic writers include a header that lets you know what you’re getting into with their story, including a summary and a rating. No one stumbles across anything sexually explicit that they didn’t want to read, and no one slogs through a ton of pages waiting for the “good parts” only to be rewarded with a tasteful fade-to-black. Quality varies, of course, but there’s fic out there that’s better written than some traditionally published books.

That’s what I’ve been up to! Anyone else have any favorite romances or Valentine’s Day traditions? I love you all, and don’t forget to hit up the drugstore for cheap candy tomorrow.

Audiobook Review: All These Things I’ve Done

I read a lot of dystopian fiction. It’s one of those things that I just eat up, ever since I read The Giver in fifth grade. I’m happy to say that Gabrielle Zevin’s All These Things I’ve Done is hands down the best dystopian novel I’ve read since The Hunger Games.

Previously, I had read only one of Gabrielle Zevin’s books, Elsewhere. It’s not a dystopia, but I did like it very much. I recommend Elsewhere to people who liked The Five People You Meet In Heaven because it’s also about the afterlife, but with more of a YA slant.

Not actually the audiobook cover, but I think I prefer this one.
Not actually the audiobook cover, but I think I prefer this one.

I picked up All These Things I’ve Done as an audiobook. Ilyana Kadushin gives a wonderful reading. The first person narration is the perfect mix of precocious teen and frightened, weary young woman. The interpretation of the dialog is spot on as well. Kadushin gives each character has a unique and consistent voice.

I tend to like character-driven stories, but I’m not immune to the allure of a really good science fiction concept. All These Things I’ve Done is delightful in that it has both.

First, the concept: The year is 2082. The United States is in economic shambles. Gas, water, paper, and other resources Americans once took for granted are strictly rationed. Crime is rampant. A recent administration decided that the solution was a new prohibition. Instead of alcohol, now coffee and chocolate have been banned. There’s a healthy black market in both, of course (more on that in a minute). Rebellious teens drink at coffee speakeasies.

Then, the character: The novel is narrated by sixteen-year-old Anya Balanchine. As I listened, I started to think of Anya’s character, and her character arc, as having three different layers. At one level, she’s a high school student. She hangs out with her friends, tries out for school play, and complains about the cafeteria food.

Once Anya comes home, though, she’s the caretaker for her two siblings and her ailing grandmother. There are a few helpful people, like the family’s lawyer, who step in when things get tough, but the day-to-day stuff is all on Anya.

What put her in this situation? Anya’s father was a crime boss, head of the Russian mafia in New York. Chocolate and coffee are still legal in Europe and Asia, so people with family connections there can make big money on the black market. Both Anya’s parents were killed because of her father’s work. Now, years after their deaths, Anya is working hard to distance herself from the Balanchine crime family. It’s not easy when the media wants to paint her as a mob princess and her criminal relatives come by the apartment to drop off cases of contraband chocolate.

As hard as Anya works to keep these three aspects of her life separate, there is inevitable overlap and complication. There are fights brewing—between the mob and the new assistant DA (who wants to clean up the city), between competing crime families, and even within the Balanchine family itself. Anya is drawn into it all against her will, but she fights to protect the people she cares about and keep her siblings together.

Anya is scrappy and unromantic, and I love her for it. She’s street-wise, a product of her upbringing. She loved her father. She strives to emulate his sense of honor, duty, and loyalty, but she doesn’t want to follow his footsteps into a life of crime.

There’s a big cast of supporting characters, both inside and outside the family. I would cheerfully read a spinoff about Anya’s grandmother, Galina. Even though she spends All These Things I’ve Done confined to her bed, it’s hinted at that she used to be pretty high up in the ranks of the family, with all of the adventures and misdeeds that implies. I also really liked Anya’s love interest, Win. He’s the exact sort of adorkable boy that I would have been into at sixteen, and watching his romantic idealism clash with Anya’s wide pragmatic streak feels very real. Did I mention Win is the son of the assistant DA? Star-crossed indeed.

This book has some pretty heavy sections dealing with death and loss. You could probably guess that, since the protagonist is an orphan, but I wasn’t prepared for the Anya’s grief when it hit. She spends so much of the book holding her emotions in and caring for other people. When she falls apart, it’s shattering. Anyone who’s lost a loved one will see some of themselves in Anya or her siblings.

I had a hard time finding anything to be dissatisfied with here. Every hole I thought I could poke was filled in. Checkhov’s guns abound; all are fired by the last act. Sometimes the dialogue seems overly formal, but maybe tradition-obsessed mobsters and ultra-smart teenagers are a narrative justification. It might not have rung false at all if I’d been reading instead of listening. Thanks to the title I’ve had The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” stuck in my head more than usual lately, but that’s less of complaint and more of an observation.

All These Things I’ve Done is the first in a trilogy, and I will definitely be seeking out the next one. Definitely recommended for anyone who loves 20-minutes-in-the-future dystopian or speculative fiction, especially with kick-ass girl heroes.

 

 

 

 

The Water is Wide

One of my friends recommended Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide to me shortly before I moved to North Carolina. It’s Conroy’s memoir of a year spent teaching in the South, and since I’m a teacher who has recently moved to the South (albeit temporarily and with little intention of teaching) it seemed like the perfect time and place to read it.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Water is Wide, read by Dan John Miller (It’s still on sale for $3.99 at Audible, even if you aren’t a member, which is a wicked good deal if you’re interested). It’s a great performance. Miller manages to capture both versions of Conroy: the young, idealistic teacher, and the slightly older, painfully wiser writer. He portrays the other characters with subtlety and warmth, employing different dialects and inflections without verging into parody territory.

It’s been very pleasant, for the past week, to wake up in the morning and let Mr. Miller read to me while I drink my coffee and eat my oatmeal. Still listening, I would head outside to go for a run. There’s one big difference living here has brought about; there’s no way I’d be running outdoors if I was in the Northeast.

Anyways. Pat Conroy reads his own introduction, where mentions that he deeply regrets naming his book The Water is Wide, since people mishear or misremember it so frequently- the water is wine, the water is wet, etc. But I think it’s an apt title, because the water in question—the river that runs between mainland South Carolina and Yamacraw Island—represents a broad gap, in the physical and spiritual sense. In the book, one of Conroy’s coworkers refers to the island as being “overseas” without a hint of irony. With no bridges to connect it to the mainland and no profitable homegrown industries to bring money or people to the island, Yamacraw in the late 1960s seemed like an entirely different country.

I should probably pause here and mention that Yamacraw Island isn’t on any maps. Conroy worked on Daufuskie Island, which he then fictionalized as Yamacraw. This may have been to protect the people of the island from outside scrutiny, but I suspect it’s also a way for Conroy to protect himself from accusations of embellishment. This book confesses and sometimes rambles like a memoir, but it has a certain economy of events and characters that make it seem more like a novel. Sometimes it gets shelved as fiction, sometimes as nonfiction. Whether not I count it towards my goal of reading 5 nonfiction books in 2016 will depend on how desperate I feel in December.

Daufuskie Island today-- eight square miles, four golf courses.
Daufuskie Island today– eight square miles, four golf courses.

Here are the facts that we know, then: Pat Conroy spent a good portion of his childhood and adolescence in South Carolina. Upon graduating from college, he taught at an integrated high school for some time before accepting a job at an all-black elementary school on a small island along the coast. He spent the next year commuting by boat and struggling to teach students who had been all but forgotten by the larger educational system.

Conroy was responsible for teaching eighteen kids between the ages of ten and thirteen. Most of them were reading far below grade level or were completely illiterate. Some could barely count. Their knowledge of the world outside the island was shockingly limited. The administration provided little beyond a set of textbooks the kids didn’t know how to read.

If this were a novel, it could have ended with young Pat Conroy as the hero who saved his students from their own poverty and obscurity, along with all the white savior garbage that storyline implies (be warned: both of those links go to TVTropes.org, and I won’t be held responsible for any time you lose looking at them). But The Water is Wide refreshingly avoids most of that. Conroy is honest about his successes and failures, and about his own naiveté. He owns up to having been a card-carrying racist in his teens and chronicles his transformation to a white guilt-ridden, idealistic bleeding heart in his twenties. It’s the story of a white boy growing up in the 1960s as much as it’s a story about a school.

The Water is Wide contains a lot of stories. It’s the story of the islanders, who lost their main source of income when pollution made the waters unfit for shrimping. It’s the story of Southern schools at a time when racism was being forced underground by integration. There are plenty of pleasant, likeable white people in this book whose actions reveal their racial prejudices, demonstrating that you don’t need to wear a sheet to be a bigot.

The thing that I enjoyed the most, and that I think will stick with me, is the relationship between Conroy and his students. The personality of the class, and of some of the more memorable individuals, really shines through. He was ahead of his time in a lot of ways, from his refusal to use corporal punishment to his attempts to differentiate learning. It sounds like his classroom was a lot of fun, if sometimes noisy and chaotic. In the audio introduction Conroy mentions that he’s kept in touch with most of the students from that year, which is the most convincing proof that he had an impact on their lives.

Conroy seemed convinced that in 1972 the old generation of Southern racists was dying off, and that a more caring, more inclusive future was just around the corner. There are still problems in so many poor schools, and so many districts that are divided along racial lines. I like that The Water is Wide doesn’t pretend to offer a solution, just a small part of the larger story, and maybe a little bit of hope.

 

 

Book Review: Kindred

I’ve been meaning to read Octavia Butler’s Kindred for a long time. This book and Butler’s name come up a lot if you read science fiction or fantasy. She was a pioneer within the genre. Starting in the 1970s, she wrote stories with black female protagonists, a character type she saw was lacking in the genre. Kindred, published in 1979, is her best-known and best-selling novel.

When I posted about my resolution to read more diverse authors in 2016, a friend commented and asked if I’d read Butler’s other work. I said no, I hadn’t, but this was definitely the year. I’d gotten the ebook version of Kindred a few weeks before, and I started it that same day.

As soon as I read the first line, I was a little bit obsessed. And what a first line it is: “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.” There was no way I could put this book down until I figured out what that was all about.

Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin, a woman living in California in 1976 who is mysteriously transported to a plantation in early 19th century Maryland. She realizes fairly quickly that she’s been sent back in time to protect her accident prone ancestor, Rufus Weylin, and that if she fails to keep him alive long enough to father children, she herself may never be born.

It’s a take on the classic sci-fi trope of the Grandfather Paradox—if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, your parent will never be born, then you will never be born, but if you don’t exist you can’t go back and kill your grandfather. Since Dana’s focused on keeping Rufus alive, the paradox doesn’t result, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t complicated.

Rufus is the white son of a slave owner in the antebellum South. In order to keep him (and by extension herself) safe, Dana has to blend into her surroundings. That means pretending to be a slave, a brutal existence that she feels totally unprepared for. Then there’s Alice, the young black girl who will be the mother of Rufus’s child, if he lives long enough. Dana has few illusions about how mixed-race children of the time were usually conceived, and she fears that she’s continuously rescuing a future rapist.

Butler sets down rules about time travel and sticks to them, but she doesn’t provide a lot of explanations. One of the afterwords in the edition I read mentions that this isn’t H.G. Wells, and there are no shiny time machines. We never find out how Dana is transported, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. This is a story about time travel, but it’s also about family, and justice, and the meaning- of home.

Kindred has cast of well-drawn characters from both time periods. As much as she abhors slavery, Dana sees that the Weylin family is a product of their times, and even develops a fondness for Rufus. She is shocked by some seemingly contented slaves, but later realizes that their outward behavior hides a different story. Some of the other black characters resent Dana for her education and her closeness to the Weylins, and she experiences cruelty from them (although it pales in comparison to what she suffers at the hands of whites).

One of my favorite things about this book was the relationship between Dana and her husband, Kevin. Butler reveals their courtship and marriage through flashbacks. Kevin is white, and both he and Dana encounter people in the 1970s who look down on their inter-racial marriage. These scenes keep the book from being a simplistic “the present is better than the past” morality tale; life is not free of prejudice for Dana and Kevin even in their own time. Still, they love and support each other through everything, and they make it clear that they’re willing to sacrifice everything for one another.

Dana and Kevin have no children, but there are a lot of motifs about parenthood and parent-child relationships running through the book. There’s a particular focus on the black women who give birth while in slavery. Sometimes the child had been fathered by the white plantation owner. If the child survived infancy (not a given, in that time period) they lived under the constant threat of being sold away from their mothers. It made me think about a presentation I went to in college that mentioned Kindred, an honors project about representations of black motherhood in fiction. The presenter pointed out that when modern feminists talk about reproductive rights, we’re often talking about the right to not have a child, the right to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. Black women in slavery, by contrast, wanted the right choose the father of their child, and the right to raise their own children. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Octavia Butler, writing this novel during the height of second-wave feminism, included these themes deliberately.

Dana, as a visitor from another time, is used to having more of a say in her own fate. She’s determined to make her own choices, even when none of the possible outcomes seem positive. Her journey and the decisions she makes are the basis for a powerful story that resonates throughout history.

I absolutely loved this novel, but I’m not I’ll be in a hurry to reread it. Just like confronting our own history, this book is neither easy nor comforting. That makes it all the more important.