What I liked
This is my first exposure to Alice Hoffman. I found her while browsing for magical realism authors in my library, and I got this particular book because it was immediately available. After reading a few other short story collections recently, I was pleasantly surprised that these stories shared a common thread—the town of Blackwell, Massachusetts.
In many of the stories, the “magic” is subtle or is simply coincidental. But in my favorite story, “The Fisherman’s Wife,” it’s right up front and a key ingredient of the story. I found more solid footing on the clear break with reality rather than the myth-infused stories of real life.
What I didn’t like
While the stories feature a wide range of characters, I found them (especially the women) to be too same-y from story to story. They might have intentionally been similar—many are from the same few families in town—but their predictability made the stories somewhat indistinguishable. It’s been a couple months now since I read it, and I only have clear memories of a handful of characters and plot points.
What I can learn
Modern magical realism doesn’t require the sweeping epic tales that Gabriel García Márquez’s stories have. The Red Garden has some similarities to his work, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I wouldn’t really consider them comps. (That is, if you loved One Hundred Years, I can’t guarantee you’ll like The Red Garden.) That’s good news for my WIP novel.
(Note: This blog is the first in which I'm trying out a new format. It ran longer than expected. I'll continue to play with this to figure out what works best.)
For me personally…
I see a lot of similarities here between what Saunders is doing and what my WIP novel does. Which is unfortunate for me, I think, because this isn’t a “comp.” (Comp: A comparative title to give agents and editors and, eventually, readers an idea of what to expect. Next time you read a book blurb, notice how often you see something like, “For fans of The Time Traveller’s Wife with the driving tension of John Grisham’s best work.”)
Saunders and I both have talking ghosts. But lots of books do. My ghosts know they’re dead and want to stay that way. Saunders’s ghosts have mostly decided to forget that they’re dead so they can hang on to some semblance of life and hope. Mine look and act more or less like people, his are more monstrous.
I include interstitial chapters in the POV of the ghosts describing how they died. In Saunders’s book, the ghosts are compelled to repeatedly tell their stories to each other, gathering some new mutation every time they do. (American Gods includes interstitial chapters about the gods coming to America that are much closer to mine, although I’d already written mine when I read that book.)
I also include interstitial chapters with information about the world in various formats—blog posts, academic papers, news articles, etc.—but I wrote them all. I include fake citations as well. Saunders includes interstitial chapters with short citations from real-world primary sources, and he uses these to explore what President Lincoln is thinking.
Although we’re using these techniques in slightly different ways for different purposes, I recognize that my work will be compared to this. And Saunders does these things pretty well. So I worry that people will read my work with the assumption that I was trying to emulate (or was at least inspired by) Lincoln in the Bardo and judge me as failing at that goal.
But of course, that wasn’t my goal. I started this novel almost 10 years ago, and I finished the first draft (in which I nailed down these format choices) well before Lincoln was published. This is one of the really frustrating things about how long this whole process takes, especially when your day job doesn’t support working on your novel all day. What a privilege that would be.
What I didn’t like
Format similarities aside, I really struggled with the way the narrative is structured. Partly, it was difficult to follow, bouncing irregularly between narrators with only their names to differentiate them. The voices are pretty similar, except for the exaggerated ones that aren’t. As the novel progressed and I got more used to this, it became easier to keep up with.
But it is non-traditional, and so partly, I felt frustrated knowing that this only gets published because Saunders is part of the establishment. Publishers (editors, agents, readers) will allow him to take risks because he’s already been established as good, as respected, as intellectual. He no longer has to prove that he’s good. I cannot imagine this as a debut novel. I cannot imagine this as a novel written by a woman. And I cannot imagine this as a novel written by a person of color.
One could make an argument that the female and non-white characters are treated the way they might have been at the time. Fine. The novel opens with—and sticks with as a main narrator—a ghost who has a giant erect penis sticking out in front of him, so large he trips over it. Other ghosts have spectral orgies, one female and three or four males. Black characters and poor whites speak ridiculously. There’s a wet, dripping penis and a woman who was repeatedly raped, and some female ghosts who continue to be raped after death… And just, no. Enough. I’m so sick of this privileged white male description of the world. At least this book didn’t last as long as Ulysses.
Also, I was almost exactly at the halfway point before I figured out what the main conflict of the book was and got a rough idea of how the ghosts “worked.” This is frustrating to me too after hearing from early readers of my work that they needed the rules of my ghost world spelled out more clearly. And everyone knows that if you haven’t hooked your potential agent/editor/publisher/reader in the first two paragraphs (or, you know, ten words) with your main conflict, then they’ll never read on. And yet, there’s some built-in trust in the establishment that allows this work to thrive. Like once an author has made it, needing those things reflects poorly on the reader, not the book.
What I liked
By the time I got to the end—had figured out the plot, themes, techniques, and characters—I could more easily see how well this was put together. Problems above notwithstanding, it is well done. Using real-world citations to fill in President Lincoln’s memories was a clever way to both set the context and get the reader to believe in this world.
Let’s start by acknowledging that this blog doesn’t have many regular readers.
It started mostly as a place for me to talk about the things I’m reading, and so the lack of a regular readership (and the expectations they may have) isn’t a bad thing, IMO.
But am I getting the most out of this blog, for me?
I think not.
I’ve modeled the posts after book reviews—professional ones and the better ones on Goodreads. I did that because I thought that’s how book reviews were supposed to sound.
And I thought that my mental processing of a book could best be expressed in a review.
The truth is that I don’t want to be a book reviewer. Not for pay, and not for fun. I don’t even read book reviews until after I’ve finished the book.
What I want to do is to read as much as possible. I want to learn from other writers. I want to churn on their work to recognize what they do well, what I can emulate, and why I hate the parts I inevitably hate.
And a traditional book review doesn’t really allow me to do that.
So I’m going to be rethinking this space. I have a new structure in mind (I like structure), but I want to give myself freedom to scrap that structure if I have something else to say.
First thing to go is the star ratings. If I can sum up an entire book—a whole world or multiple worlds with lives and relationships and choices and consequences—on a scale of 1 to 5, then I didn’t read it honestly enough. Next, I want to focus on what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I can learn from each work. There won’t be plot summaries, but there might be spoilers.
If that doesn’t feel right? Then I’ll adjust. Because this blog is meant to give a window into my headspace, not to mold my thoughts around what I think others what to hear. I do enough of that kind of writing for my day job.
And to you, dear reader who has stumbled into this monologue, thank you. Thank you for being curious enough to stick with me. To see where this chewing and cogitation leads us. While I’d be happy to hear from you, it’s ok if you stay quiet too. Because I’ll just keep reading and processing and trying to learn. And I hope you’ll learn along with me.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of a slave who escapes a Southern plantation and makes her way North, facing a variety of tension-filled challenges, cultural observations, and threats from both well-meaning and ill-intentioned people.
I wanted to like this novel so much more than I did. But I got really hung up on the way the author distances the narrative from any sort of lived experience. Most every aspect is told, not shown. The most pivotal, dramatic moments—including the violent climax—exist through flashbacks after the reader already knows the outcome. And it’s not a dialogue-heavy flashback, in which one character explains his or her first-person experience, full of emotion and reflection. It’s more of a textbook description of the action. The only emotion comes from the horror of the action itself, not from any connection to the characters experiencing it.
And, okay. The railroad. I try hard not to read any other reviews (just the book-jacket-type summaries) before I start a book. So when Cora and Caesar climb down into a tunnel and end up on a subway platform… what? I had to ask someone. “Have I misunderstood this my whole life? It *is* a metaphor, right?”
The literal railroad underground throws this novel into a different category, at least for me. It’s no longer historical fiction. Something closer to fantasy fiction. And then I don’t know how much to believe from the rest of the story. That might not have bothered me so much if the novel was on a topic besides American slavery. But there are so many untold stories on this topic already—dramatic, emotional stories that need to be shared, even as fictionalized accounts—that I can’t find a place where this horrific fantasy version fits.
I can see why so many people liked this novel. Obviously, take it all with a grain of salt—although I have no idea how big a grain to recommend. And if you find you’re not engaging with the main character in the first few chapters, it’s okay to give it up, because that’s not going to get much better.
The only excuse I have for waiting so long to draft a review of this short story collection is that I was too busy telling everyone I know about it in person. I stumbled across A Manual for Cleaning Women based, I think, largely on browsing algorithms in my library’s app. I’d never heard of Lucia Berlin, but these stories evoked the same response in my heart as hearing John Prine for the first time. An enthusiastic, “Where have you *been* all my life?” after a deep itch has been scratched.
I loved every one of the 43 stories in this collection, although I can admit that some are stronger, more emotional, than others. “Macadam” has become a common word in my house now. I think often of Sally and her children, of Melina and César, of Bella Lynn. Sometimes, I think of Jesse, Amelia and her pobre mojito, Dr. HA Moynihan’s toothless mouth, and the narrator’s mother, but that’s more painful.
The one story that set me weeping above the others—the one I listened to on audiobook multiple times and the one that forced me to sit in the parking lot after I’d arrived to work just to pull myself back together—was “Stars and Saints.” It begins, “Wait. Let me explain…” and tells a story of terrible circumstances all piled together outside of anyone’s control in a way that inevitably result in each character making the worst decisions for everyone. I can’t say more about it. If you can spare 15 or so minutes, read this story. And you might want to be alone and give yourself 5 or so extra minutes to clean yourself up afterward.
Did anything other than sexism keep Lucia Berlin’s largely autobiographical stories away from me until now? She does a wide range of unladylike things. But I enjoyed her stories of addiction and sex and blue-collar jobs much more than any of the Bukowski we read in college. Because she doesn’t try to make it seem glamorous or even that fun most of the time. She manages to enjoy herself despite the terrible situations she gets into, not because of them. She shows all the dirt under her fingernails and shrugs. Isn’t this the way life is, she asks? Messy and full of life and hope and heartbreak?
If you have a pulse and empathy and can read, check out A Manual for Cleaning Women. And behold humanity.
There’s a line within the first paragraph of Moby Dick in which Ishmael tells us that he heads to the sea “…whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” That line marked the first time I laughed out loud at the novel and convinced me that I was going to love it.
Although heading to sea occasionally is within my grasp (see my August 2017 adventure with Jubilee Sailing Trust, incredible although expensive), the more reasonable alternative may be to pick up the next book in the Aubrey-Maturin series. To send my mind to sea instead of my whole body.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Master and Commander, the first book in the series, I hesitate to recommend it without hedging. It’s always great when books teach you something about yourself, and I learned that I love hearing ships described. I love the talk of sails and lines and decks and masts. I love the incredible danger these sailors faced so regularly and how it brings them together as a family unit.
But as a single novel? It’s middling. The events that happen are more like vignettes rather than a cohesive arc. Because it’s the first in a series, the reader knows that Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin will survive, no matter the odds. And this series nature also prevents the plot and the characters’ relationships from evolving dramatically.
And still, I enjoyed it. I listened to it on audiobook in the car—steering my own ship through the highways of central Ohio—and I can’t tell you how many turns I missed that month because I was wrapped up in an epic sea battle. So, if you also like tales of watery adventure, piracy, and ropes (a lot of ropes), give this one a try. I’ll likely revisit these characters when I next feel like knocking random people’s hats off.
In this fantasy novel, the first in a series, a teenaged girl comes of age in a world that’s suddenly not the one she thought she knew. It’s way more interesting.
I don’t want to reveal too much, but watching Kendra realize that her hallucinations are actually a view into the world as it really is—full of magic and creatures and alternate realities—is a delight. The reader cheers for her throughout the story as she discovers more and more people in her life are in on the deception, and she faces down threats without fully understanding her own power or theirs.
There’s no way to avoid being drawn in to the world with her, watching her figure out the rules, possibilities, and limitations while learning to trust her own instincts.
The author (who, full disclosure, is a personal friend of mine) does a great job at revealing this magical realm slowly, giving readers the outline of its hierarchy and purpose without delving too deep into the mechanics. I don’t often read series—too much of a commitment—so this slow reveal confused me at first. I finished the book with question marks still around what this all means for Kendra and what she’s ultimately capable of. But, of course, I’ll have to read the next two or three forthcoming books for that part of the story!
And I will continue with this series. Kendra is too likeable, and the world too threatening, to abandon her after Book One. I look forward to enjoying Book Two as much as I enjoyed Book One!
Mrs. Dalloway is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. This most recent read was not the first and won’t be the last. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a novel I’ll revisit over and over again throughout my life, gleaning new perspectives and a new respect for it every time.
What do I love? The balance of detail between physical actions and internal monologue, including how one influences the other. The empathetic rendering of not just the POV characters, but every character, so you feel exactly what they’re feeling, in the full context of their lives. The contrast between Clarissa’s life and Septimus’s life, both so important, so essential, although not in obvious ways. The weaving together of their storylines throughout this single day in London. Their reactions to love, to ambition, to societal expectations. Their interactions with the secondary characters, and the secondary characters’ reactions to them, which we also see in stunningly honest detail. And so much more.
I reached out for Mrs. Dalloway on instinct, like looking for a rocky outcropping after a shipwreck, as antidote to the state Ulysses left me in. Of course, Woolf was reading Ulysses while writing this, so that’s no coincidence. Although scholars, and even friends, may disagree, I think these two show Woolf’s blatant superiority to Joyce. He may have written an “important” novel, but it’s unreadable and unrelatable.
Woolf shows that, as a skillful, careful writer, she can tell a deeply personal story about a single day through multiple first-person accounts and make it enjoyable and emotional. Not just readable, it’s re-readable, over and over.
Having such trouble lately finishing a novel, I set about browsing for something entirely different for me. Dodgers pulled me in and kept me engaged (and talking about it) from beginning to end. What a great surprise!
I found Dodgers through my library’s audiobook app when browsing through the African-American Literature section. It wasn’t until today, novel completed, I discovered that the author, Bill Beverly, is a white man. That may say something about his ear or my ignorance, I’m not sure. And I’m not sure how that knowledge would have changed my enjoyment of the story. Just wanted to mention it here for context.
The novel follows East, a young African-American kid who runs a crew standing yard by a drug house in Los Angeles. (Take that, Henry James.) East is conscientious in the way you’d want your accountant or lawyer to be—focused on every detail and driven to accomplish his goals, although maybe a little humorless. East’s boss sends him and three other boys in a van to Wisconsin to commit a murder. No cell phones, no credit cards, no weapons (in theory), just each other.
Of course, it all goes wrong. Or it goes right in the very worst ways. The amazing thing about the narrative is that it’s mostly a slow, cross-country road trip that’s packed with tension. Knowing what they’re going to do, every encounter is spiked with risk. And seeing their amazement at what America outside LA looks like leaves the reader wondering how they’re ever going to know how to go unnoticed once they finish their mission.
The author must average one metaphor per sentence when describing the land that East and the others travel through, but it's effective. And staying as close as he does to East’s POV is effective too. East may not be the smartest character or the most fun or the most violent, and he likely has a concussion for part of the trip. But his eyes don’t miss much. He’s constantly analyzing every situation, sizing up the risks and guessing at others’ motivations. This is how he has survived in LA. But will it be enough for Wisconsin? Or Iowa? Or Ohio?
If modern crime novels have this sort of character-focused, slow-burn tension, I’ll start reading more of them!
I’ve continued to fine tune my novel—with the goal of sending it to agents before the end of the year—by integrating notes and feedback from a new round of readers. I also recently took a great workshop at the Thurber House with Kristen Lepionka about writing query letters, so I’m feeling confident and prepared.
At the same time, I’m beginning to stretch my short story muscles again. Drafting new, but also revising old stories that I never sent out. I’m seriously enjoying the rush of sending a completed story to a journal—the sense of accomplishment and patience that comes while waiting for a response. I got another rejection just today!
I went five years without sending anything out. During that time, I drafted several full re-writes of my novel, published a few issues of The Outbreak, wrote for this blog, and got a job where I write most of every day. Those have all been wonderful experiences, and I’m continuing most of them. But I’m thrilled to be back in the draft/submission/rejection/submission game. I've renewed my Duotrope subscription and even established a profile on Submittable for the first time!
Adding short stories back in, as well as the “final” push on the novel, has pretty much eliminated blog time. I’m spending all my severely limited personal writing time on those projects. But there’s one more reason.
Last summer, I spite-finished Ulysses. And I haven’t been able to hold my attention on a novel since then.
Let me back up. Years ago, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. I joined a charity group (we raised money for an AIDS clinic) that I trained with for six months, running progressively longer routes each weekend. At the beginning of that training, I jogged three blocks up my street, nearly collapsed into a wheezing heap, and walked home. Six months later, I finished the marathon at 5 hours and 10 minutes—not breaking any records but thrilling all the same. I did it! With such a sense of accomplishment, I even signed up for another marathon! After a week or two of rest, which is about how long it took me to comfortably walk down stairs again, I started my own training program. But within a mile or two, I knew. I hated running. Running is boring and painful. Even if someone was chasing me, I couldn’t imagine running 26 more miles—at some point, I’d turn around and fight.
So that’s what happened after Ulysses. Novels became boring. Of course, they didn’t change. But my attention span did. I have managed to complete a couple since then--The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Awake by Andy Havens, and even American Gods by Neil Gaiman—and I hope to get my thoughts about those up on this blog soon. But there were many more novels and longer non-fiction that I picked up and put down unfinished.
Then, I remembered short stories. I started with a collection that was highly recommended to me: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. And even though I got impatient during some of the longer stories, I really enjoyed it. I could get into fiction again! After that, I tried crime and mysteries and became enthralled by PD James’s The Mistletoe Murder. Currently, I’m reading A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, a collection of short stories so moving that I arrive to work in tears with some frequency.
Although I’ve been quieter here and on other social media, I’ve been much louder in real life. It feels like I’ve been writing and reading constantly, and I’m excited by it. I interrupt friends mid-sentence. “Have you read Lucia Berlin? You MUST find her. This PD James story blew my mind! The Ray Bradbury story about the rain… yes!” I’m thrilled to the point of gushing. I’m falling in love all over again.
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