Still Reading, Still Writing

I don’t have a book review for you this weekend, but it’s for the best possible reason.

I just can’t bring myself to rush this book.

Stay tuned for my upcoming review of Ted Chiang’s short story collection “Story of Your Life and Others”. This man has a peculiar genius for micro fiction. But no, I’ll go no further. I have to keep reading.

I submitted to the Angry Robot open submission call today, which makes for nearly 60 submissions of my novel since I completed it last Fall. I’m still suffering a sore temptation to rewrite the whole novel from its very beginning, but for now, I am recommitting to the goal of publishing with journals and magazines as I endure the long wait for feedback on my book.

Whatever it takes to keep writing, writing, writing.

Back to it!

Book Review: The Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

 What a great title. What a great cover. What a great premise!

What. a pointless. book.

In her latest book, The Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock attempts to explore the hearts and minds of three women.   Antonia, Toni, and Toniah, women of the 15th, 21st, and 22nd centuries, wander through parallel lives, each burdened by a tragic past. Each woman (aged 11, 15, and 30ish) strives to find her place in a world which is largely indifferent to her hopes, to her needs, to her hidden heartbreaks. 

That’s it. No need to warn of spoilers, because nothing of substance happens to any one of these characters. From the beginning of this book to the end, these women do not learn or grow or change. There were so many opportunities to demonstrate and to speculate on the varying paths of women in three very different centuries. But no.  

I struggled from the beginning (only very rarely can I stomach stories told in the present tense) and by the abrupt and hopelessly existential conclusion I was exhausted. The pacing could not have been slower. The end results for each character could not have been less climactic.

Charnock did take an admirable amount of time researching for the glaringly obvious theme of this book: 15th century Italian Renaissance Art.  But instead of enriching the story, all the data and pedantic lessons on color and perspective and art history only weighed down an already cumbersome plot. Normally, I love stories set in a richly detailed history. But, I learned a valuable lesson from this experienced author: don’t study something that’s new to you in order to write a story about it. Write what you know. Write what’s natural to you and second nature, so that you can be the insider who invites intrepid explorers into a world of intimately familiar detail. Otherwise, you’ll write like a museum guide and put your readers to sleep.

Book Review: The Magical Art of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

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Marie Kondo, a Japanese career “tidier”, has released upon the world her personal expertise in keeping your home “tidy”, once and for all. The KonMari method is based on Kondo’s experiences both personal (apparently, she’s been tidying since she was first laid in her crib) and professional (as an organizing consultant, she has a waitlist of 3 months). From how to fold your t-shirts and roll your socks (for GOD’S sake, don’t ball them up like miserable little poppies!), to how to part with those keepsakes your ancestors are demanding that you keep forever, Kondo leaves no throw pillow unturned. She doesn’t just organize your stuff, she thins it out to include only those things which give you joy.

Despite the alien-feeling Asian philosophy and the narrow view of the world presented in this book, I absolutely love the result it has had in my own home. I’m a serial purger (thanks in large part to my darling dad, who’d show up with a trash bag and tell us we could keep three stuffed animals. Three). I figured I had this whole clean out, organize, tidy up business pretty much handled. But Kondo taught me a lot. I not only learned some nifty organizing principles that had simply never occurred to me before, I also learned the freedom and exhilaration of letting go of anything and everything that does not bring me joy. I enjoy the things I’ve chosen to keep more. I see them more because they aren’t hidden behind the clutter. I use them more because my home is organized so that I don’t forget what I own. I know where every single thing is in my house. Literally. Not least of our life changes, we’ve thrown out and donated upwards of thirty bags of stuff!

I strongly recommend this book to tenacious tidiers and hopeless hoarders alike. It’s a gem.

Book Review: The Five Times I Met Myself by James Rubart

Not too many mid-life crises come with adventures in lucid dreaming, tantamount to time travel. 52 year-old Brock enjoys and suffers the rare experience of playing out alternate timelines in his life, based on a series of pivotal choices. It seems an impossible turn of events, but then, Brock is not dealing with the disappointments and regrets of life on his own. As a man of faith, his first and last thoughts run to the promises of the Christian faith. That cornerstone anchors and guides him through an unbelievable journey of self-discovery and painful transformation.

Despite the compelling premise, this book was a struggle for me. To all appearances, I meet more than one of the intended markers for the book’s audience (educated, church-going, middle-aged, Christian), but I failed utterly to connect with the characters. Details that did not matter to me even the littlest bit (like the particular brand and style of one character’s putter) crowded out the details which would have actually kept me interested in the story (like the particular “lucid dreaming techniques” employed by the lead character).

It is entirely possible that the challenges I faced in finishing this novel were of my own making. It seems other readers sailed through these pages of mostly dialogue and introspection, rapt and fully satisfied. But for me, the dialogue was painfully stilted, which was rough since it made up so much of the book. Almost all exposition took place in conversations of the infamous style known as, “As you know, Bob“. And while every novel absolutely does not need to be a thriller, this one lacked any truly consequential conflict.

In short, not my favorite.

 

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

It’s perhaps more laudable to simply keep heading out into the world, than always tilting to leave one’s mark on it.

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Sixteen year-old Fan had no intention of sparking a movement on the day she left the SuperCorp run city of B-More for the untamed “counties” of a post-apocalyptic United States. Or, at least, we don’t think she did. She set out in search of a boy she loved. He was taken from her, secreted away like a small animal in the clutches of a bird of prey, and the ripples of his disappearance faded too quickly as the community of B-more fought to maintain normalcy, productivity, harmony. So Fan left, navigating the treacherous counties, folding open the stories of those she met, diving the murky seas of high society life in affluent charter villages. And everywhere she went, Fan catalyzed quiet revolutions. Shifts in perspective. Blossoms of hope and fire for change. As for Fan herself, she had eyes only for the road ahead, for the honor paid to lives lost and gained, for the future.

This delicately woven story illuminated Asian culture in a way I didn’t know was possible. As a Korean American, Chang-rae Lee sees the world from the perspective of a third-culture kid: one foot in Asian culture, one in Western, not fully belonging to either. It may have been this background that equipped him so well to tell the dystopian tale of Chinese workers in a post-apocalyptic US. Who else, after all, would have thought to make the narrative voice speak as “we”, the voice of a community? What really brought this novel home, was his mastery of language, of how to weave life into each page and draw the delicate strings of theme and character through to the final page.

I loved this book. It surprised and affirmed and challenged and overwhelmed me. It made me revisit my own writing, strive to raise it to a higher standard. It taught me to understand and love Asian culture and my own “third-culture kidness” more deeply.

After reading On Such a Full Sea, I’ve added every one of Chang-rae Lee’s books to my list of books to be read.

I highly recommend that you do the same.

Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Well, Neil Gaiman has done it again.

Trigger Warning is an eerie, irreverent, occasionally shocking bouquet of absolutely wonderful stories and poems. He took his title from the psychological term which has grown so popular of late. A “trigger warning” is a caution to any passersby that the contents of the upcoming experience could remind them of past traumas, deep fears, and generally unsafe places. That’s a pretty accurate picture of what it’s like to wander through the stories of Mr. Gaiman’s imagination.

I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? 

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My first exposure to Gaiman was through some of his films (Coraline, Stardust, the wonderful, delightful, totally original Mirrormask, etc.) and I was not surprised to find that I loved his books even more than the darkly whimsical movies that came from them. Trigger Warning made me stop in my tracks and say “whoa…” out loud more than once. It has made me dream of wandering through the gray, misty landscape of the Isle of Skye. I’ve been lost in the stark, burnt out remains of the Lunar Labyrinth. And I now listen to the howls of wolves very differently.

The short stories and poems of this collection varied widely in length and style, but Gaiman’s signature lilt of melancholy amusement and morbid beauty ran throughout. A few, like “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” and “Feminine Endings”, left me a little more wary of the weird, wide world. Still, not a single story left me disappointed.  

I always recommend Neil Gaiman. He’s not for children, mostly, or for the faint of spirit. But if you’re willing, if you’re able, he will lead you to places in the realm of Faerie that will press new perspectives upon you, for better or for worse. And he’ll do it with inimitable style.

Other titles I’ve read and can recommend by Neil Gaiman:

I’ll have a review coming soon on Anansi Boys!