I’ve been interested in writing for a while now. I’ve created a long “to be read” list of books about writing. Once of those is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This book is a collection of short essays about the life of writing, including such topics as Getting Started, Shitty First Drafts, and Finding Your Voice. Some of them are less directly about writing itself, like Looking Around and Radio Station KFKD.
A main focus of the book is encouraging the reader to write, not with the goal of being published, but for the sheer joy of it and the unanticipated benefits is brings. Among these are a deep connection with your fellow human beings. She encourages the reader to write what they know starting with their childhood. She includes the idea of writing about the nasty or abusive lover. Just be sure to change enough details (including giving him a small penis) that he won’t sue for libel.
This book won’t take the place of a writing course or a more detailed book on the craft of writing. But it does a masterful job of sharing the ups and downs of a writers life, encouraging the reader to write despite the fact that their chances at publication, followed by fame and fortune, are minuscule at best. She teaches that the writing life is deeper and more satisfying than that.
There has been a lot of hype this year about Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. It is all deserved. The book is a tale of lifelong friendship that starts in a children’s hospital. Sadie and Sam go on to become world-famous video game programmers. Many reviewers have focused on that last aspect of the novel, but the story is much deeper than that.
This is a story that any person can identify with. These friends support each other, fight, go through periods of not speaking, and still care deeply and struggle together and with each other. It is a tale of relationship more than anything else. And it is an engrossing story supremely well-told.
The author uses what some may call gimmicks in a few places. For instance, one chapter is a he said/she said where the same experiences are told from the point of view of each of the main characters. Another chapter is told in the second person (you). However, in each case, the method of writing serves the storytelling well. At the end of the book I felt I had been taken a deep into the lives of very real people from whom I learned a lot about the struggles and rewards of deep relationship.
I read multiple books at a time–at least one fiction and one non-fiction. At the same time that I started reading The Peacekeeper, I also started reading Origin by Jennifer Raff. The Peacekeeper is a novel that takes place in an alternative present where North America was never colonized. Origin is about the peopling of North America. It is written by a biological anthropologist–she uses genetics to study our ancient human past. It turned out to be a good pairing.
In this book the author presents both the archeological and genetic evidence for how and when humans first arrived in the Americas. I found the addition of the genetic evidence fascinating. While I might have thought that genetics would have unambiguously narrowed the possibilities, this does not seem to be the case. It brings some clarity but also some questions and therefore some dispute. Raff is open and transparent about this dispute, doing her best to simply present what the evidence could mean as well as pointing to what most archeologists believe.
What I most appreciated about this book is that it is sensitive to what the genetic research means to indigenous peoples. Tribes consider the DNA and bodies of their ancestors to be sacred. Scientists and archeologists have not always respected this. Raff discusses at length in the latter part of the book how this has hampered research and the trust needed between indigenous peoples and the scientific community that are required to perform it. All in all this book is a wonderful introduction and foundation for understanding the current state of genetic archeology in the Americas as it continues to develop.
I finally got around to reading The Overstory by Richard Powers, and it did not disappoint. The simplest description of the novel is that it is the story of trees and forests. But that is over simplified. It is the story of humans, their experience with trees, how they learn and grow in relationship to them, and how they come into conflict because of this. Still doesn’t sound very enticing or interesting, but it surely is.
The storytelling is gripping. In the first section of the book, each chapter is a separate story about a person or family. These are internally complete and gripping stories themselves. The second section starts to bring them together. The language is flowery and descriptive as well as immersive. I found myself sucked into every person’s life story. I am very grateful to have read this as an ebook as there were a lot of words new to me. This ease of looking up word definitions is one of the main reasons I prefer to read ebooks.
The theme of the book is very ecological and makes a strong statement about the place of trees. I found the ending a bit of a let down as it does not wrap things up neatly. There is no happily ever after or prescription for a better future. The book is more an exploration of how we got here and some ways some of us have and might address this condition. After thinking about it a bit, I feel like that was the ending the book needed regardless of my expectations or desires.
I was drawn to The Peacekeeper by B.L. Blanchard due to its setting. It takes place in modern time but in a world where the Americas were never colonized by Europeans. The story is about a young man whose mother is murdered by his father when he is a teenager. He spends the rest of his life caring for his sister who was twelve at the time of the murder. He eventually becomes a peacekeeper (what today we would call a policeman) and starts to investigate only the second murder in twenty years in his small town.
Due to what felt like heavy-handed foreshadowing, I suspected the murderer from the beginning. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The world building is amazing. The story takes place among the Great Lakes. There is a map in the front of the book but with East at the top due to world view of the Anishinaabe tribe, the tribe of the main character and the tribe of which the author is an enrolled member. We learn how the criminal justice system in this world is based an restorative justice rather than punishment.
In addition to the culture and cities, we learn also about how communities and families work in this modern indigenous world. And the themes throughout the story touch on and explore these as well. This is more than a simple murder mystery set in an alternative world. It explores what it is like to live in that world and how people living there might deal with what happens around them. I would love to read more stories that take place in this world.
The second audiobook we listened to on our Thanksgiving trip was The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill. This one falls into my special category of “books about books” in more than one way. First, the pivotal scene in the book takes place in the Boston Public Library. And the book is also about a writer who is writing a mystery that starts in that location. On top of that, the author writing about that writer is corresponding with someone who is helping her as a first reader as she prepares and shares each chapter. This may sound a bit confusing, but Gentill makes everything clear to the point it almost seems natural.
The bulk of the book is about the book the author is writing. We read each chapter of this book right before we read the letter from the helper to the author with his thoughts. The story is told in the first person by the author and starts with her sitting in the reading room of the Boston Public Library trying to write her book. She notices three others close by who grab her attention as possible characters in her story. Then they all hear a woman scream. This causes the four to start a conversation that leads to a friendship. After they learn later than evening that a woman was murdered in the library, their friendship deepens as they all try to figure out what happened.
It is hard to say much more without spoiling it. The relationships grow and twist and change in ways that feel somewhat natural despite the odd circumstances. And the multiple layers add to the mystery and kept me interested right to the end.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my partner and I traveled from our home in western North Carolina to central and northeast Ohio. We drove, so we naturally listened to audiobooks along the way. The first one we listened to was a repeat for me. I had read it many years ago in my teens–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.
This was a book that was on the bookshelf in my home when I was in high school. My dad’s books were mostly history, cars, and airplanes, so I was a little unsure what this book was doing on his shelf. I asked him about it. He proceeded to comment on the nature of how the murderer was revealed in the book. From the shocked look on my face, he quickly realized I had yet to read it. He apologized profusely. But a funny thing happened as I started to read the book. I didn’t believe him. Or rather, I thought he must have misremembered. But as I finished the book, I learned that he hadn’t.
So on this recent trip, I decided to reread it, or rather re-listen to it. My partner had never read it before. I wanted to read it again knowing who did it for a different experience, to enjoy the magnificent writer that Christie was. I was not disappointed. I have read many of her other books, but this one may be my favorite. I really enjoy Hercule Poirot as a character and how he uses his “little gray cells”. The setting in the English countryside lends an air of isolation and mystery that deepens even that of the plot. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury is superior storytelling, though I didn’t think so as I was reading it at first. I found the language over flowery and a little old fashioned (the book was originally published in 1962). But I got used to the language of the time. And the prose is full of so much metaphor that it almost felt like poetry that paints not just a picture you can visualize but one you feel. Instead of trying to see all the description, I instead let it wash over me and move me emotionally. That’s when the book really came alive for me.
The book is the story of two boys–best friends–in a small town in Iowa. One early morning in October, a carnival arrives. But it is no ordinary carnival. The boys are drawn to it and adventure follows. My favorite aspect of this book is the relationships. The two friends are very different but very dedicated to each other. Jim is the adventure seeker. He wants to do things just because he can and to see what happens. Will is the good boy who feels deeply and sees deeply into others. Will and his father also share a relationship that grows and changes as the story unfolds.
But the part I love most about this book is what it says about the nature of evil and how to overcome it. This story could be characterized as horror but doesn’t share the hopelessness that I associate with that genre. Rather it evokes a living and breathing sense of ominous and imminent doom but resolves it in the most unexpected and satisfying way.
After reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, I was looking for something a little more recent in the same vein. I found The Shallows by Nicholas Carr published in 2010. The theme in this newer volume is based on scientific research that shows that our brains change based on how we use them. Using the internet is changing the way our brains are wired and not for the better.
Perhaps the most interesting idea explored is attributed to Marshall McLuhan. “What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.” So much of our discussion today focuses on content as the problem. What if the problem is the medium rather than the content?
I really appreciate the fact that Carr neither demonizes the internet nor treats it as an unalloyed good. Rather he points out, supported by scientific research, how the shallow, quick hit nature of the internet is changing how we work and think and how this is causing all sorts of problems. This book was published twelve years ago and the problems it lays out have only gotten worse.
The one thing I wish Carr had included in his book was a path out of this wilderness. He acknowledges that much good has come with the internet but how can we get the good while avoiding (or counteracting) the bad? Maybe that’s the next book I need to look for.
Every other month, I read the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine. Why do I do this? Lots of reason, really. There are great stories in each issue by well-known and new writers. The non-fiction essays touch on topics modern with respect to our culture and how it is evolving. But mostly I love how new cultural and technical ideas are explored in its pages.
Speculative fiction is my favorite genre. I love it when a writer takes some idea, tool, or practice in today’s world and twists it with a “what if” that explores some aspect of that thing that most of us have yet to consider or think about. That’s why I read this magazine. Six times a year, I get to read the thoughts of people who have pondered these ideas deeply and share them through stories and essays. I encourage you to dive in and see for yourself.
Here are the pieces I most appreciated in the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine, Issue 49 November/December 2022.