Hello and welcome to a new decade. Long-time readers will surely know what to expect out of me around this time: a look back at all the reading and work I did over the last year and a reflection upon the (revamped) 2019 Reading List. And like last year I won’t disappoint, but I’m also hoping to use this post as a re-envisioning of John Abraham the author. First I wanted to get to the books I read this year now that I’m taking a deeper dive into each work.
First of all, I’m not counting books I technically read in 2019 but considered part of the previous year’s reading list, which does shorten things a bit. But I am also realizing that I gained a lot more in my close reading despite not getting to as many books. Ann Patchett proved she is a genuine great storyteller, Emma Cline showed me a contemporary woman author can have as much punch as anyone before or after, and unfortunately Edan Lepucki displayed some of the opposite qualities. As readers know this year continues a trend of reading more contemporary female authors, and Katherine Dunne was one of the best I have encountered. I rounded out the group on a local note with Julie Schumacher.
I then pivoted to the genre of my current manuscript (science fiction) by reading Robert Heinlein, considered a master of the form. And possibly my closest read of the year was also my most disappointing, as I struggled for two months puzzling through why many of the stories of an anthology I read were considered the “best.” And on the last day of the year I posted my review of a book my editor suggest I read when she got through an initial (and awful) first draft of my own manuscript. And just like last year, eliminating most of my “other” types of reading left open a larger chunk of time to catch up on my non-fiction at work. This allowed me to read quite a few books I have wanted to for a long time: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Understanding Media by the late great Marshall McLuhan, The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, Failed States by the legendary Noam Chomsky, and a couple that found their way to me through the bookstore where I work: Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump by Rick Reilly and Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Account Right Now by tech pariah Jaron Lanier.
All told I fell quite a bit short of my total last year, getting through 14 books, which is much less than the 25 from last year. While I could feel bad about that, lately I’ve been reading the travails of those who got to way more books and it has confirmed for me that I'm on the right track regardless of how many titles I hit in a year. While it is great to catalogue each book you read one should not put too much stock in the number. While I did not get to as many books this year, for those that I did I took my time and really considered my reaction, as well as what I learned (about myself, about society, about writing, about whatever). And I have to say this has been a very successful year of reading.
So, how did I do on my other goals for the year? I would say major accomplishments were posting a much better short story to the blog, and finally starting on the Writing Life Series (parts one, two and three are here if you missed them). And the original post (“What’s a Writer For?”) still languishes on my computer, but I hope to finally post that and a similar one (“What’s a Reader For?”) by the time I reach five years writing for this site in the summer. I am also planning a fourth entry in the “How to Write a Book” series now that I’m deep into rewrites on my manuscript.
Long-time readers will once again recognize that I’ve been compiling these reflections on my years for a long time now, and while I enjoy them I don’t put such pressure on myself to complete goals like I once did. So what’s on tap for the next year and decade? Not much in the way of change. Even though I didn’t make much headway on it this year, I am still planning on mixing up the series with other genres (drama, poetry, graphic novel) and still hope to write more about other mediums (up next in the Netflix series will be Orange is the New Black). And while I’m still working on earlier goals (don’t over-promise and under-deliver, keep diversifying the list with non-old white guy authors) after doing this for years now I can see how it has affected and improved my writing. Simply having a broad comparison of other writers can help you hone your own voice.
Until then, as I stated last time the next book on my list will be Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. And thanks to all of you who have stuck around reading my posts on this here website blog for the past (almost) five years.
Hello readers and welcome to the final installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! At this point I am continuing through science fiction territory, previously spending a few months on an anthology dive (of which I had mixed thoughts). I decided to finish up the year with a book my editor Libby recommended for drawing comparisons to my manuscript: Omar El-Akkad’s 2017 novel American War.
Right off the bat I can see why she urged me to read this; the setting and plot are remarkably similar to my own manuscript. We both envision a future lacerated with civil war (his a more protracted conflict over the “right” to keep burning fossil fuels, mine over what I feel will be an even more valuable asset, drinking water), but his lasts over twenty years and involves various forms of warfare. Suffice it to say that I found enough here different from my own work to find some issues with the prose, but the story was so good I was compelled to finish it. El-Akkad makes a major choice deciding to show an entire civil conflict through the eyes of one family. Granted this group plays a very pivotal role throughout the war, but I felt there were some downsides to this decision. What is great is getting to see the incredible character devastation of Sarat Chestnutt, which also makes us think about what would happen if this type of warfare did come home. Not to give too much away but there is not much for Sarat to live for by the end of the novel and El-Akkad does a great job showing her life to us so we know why she takes the actions she does by the end of the novel. I also thought El-Akkad shines the most when he takes what he surely must have witnessed all across the globe in his “real” job as a journalist and portrays it in new fictional ways. I thought the best examples were his portrayal of the geo-political situation as it will become through the climate shift, but also how the “Blue” (aka the North) is not above using the same torture techniques used at places like GTMO on its own citizens.
Alas, while this was a phenomenal read and kept my interest throughout, some of the larger choices El-Akkad made caused me to want so much more. There is a larger struggle playing out on the world stage that influences the domestic conflict that we only get through a representative of the Bouazizi empire (an amalgamation of Middle Eastern nations that band together) as well as “historical document” sections among the chapters, but I wish we could have gotten more about it. The real problem I had with the choice of following the Chestnutt family at the exclusion of almost everything else was this: in a book about civil war, there is surprisingly little actual warfare. Again this is a choice the author made, but I found that most of the battles are alluded to and while the major character does assassinate a general on the other side, we see very little of the fallout from that during the war (demarcation of time becomes more of an issue later). But I must stress that the plot of this book is so interesting that I would recommend it for anyone seeking a great, speculative read. And I have learned that there is much to be gained by reading “comp” titles as I now know my manuscript is much different than contemporary novels with similar themes (including another I was even less thrilled by earlier this year).
Up next I will be back with a post looking back on this year’s Reading List and what to expect going forward. I am also going to keep plowing ahead in the science fiction vein and read an author I am ashamed to say I have not read: Ursula Le Guin and her masterful 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. And stay tuned for more updates in the Writing Life series and some other things. Hope you all had as wonderful a year as you could, and I’ll see you in the next decade.
Hello readers and welcome to the third in a series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here and the second is here if you missed them. And without further ado, here is the third installment in the Writing Life.
Listening to editors. This is another general piece of advice I have written about before but also struggled with, and I thought it was a great subject to talk about as writers are only as good as their editors. I have come to understand this through the Reading List since many of the books I had issues with could have used stronger editing. So how do we writers make ourselves listen to those voices who tell us things about our writing we may not want to hear? I reached out to one of my editors Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial (you may remember her excellent input from my “How to Write a Book” series) about this very situation. Here was some of her response:
“While you as the writer know your story inside and out, there is something to be said for coming at a story from an outside perspective. This fresh set of eyes can help catch issues that you may not be able to see, simply from being too close to it..”
I thought this hits the nail pretty much on the head, and helps point to what we need to think about as we work on our drafts. For however many versions of it you may go over, you’re still just seeing it with your own eyes, and your own imaginative voice. It’s not until those same words get pored over by a professional who does this for a living can they truly measure up and be ensured to flow. And I have to stress: if you find a good editor, hang onto them and listen to them! A good editor will be up front with you about whether or not to take their advice, how much to listen, and other details that form the basis of the relationship. This insight from Anne was also worth thinking about:
“An editor's loyalty is to the manuscript in front of them, which means we want it to be a strong piece of writing. Our advice, then, is to aid in that goal.”
It’s important not to think of your editor as being in an opposition role; rather, they are here to help guide your book or story into a better shape. There will be plenty of other voices out there looking to tear down your work. Stick with those who give you feedback that actually improves your writing. I know it can be difficult when we have such singular visions about our work. But the more you learn to form a collaborative relationship with your editor, the easier it becomes to see your writing from another perspective. Because that is a lot of what listening is: having the empathy to open up and see things from another’s viewpoint, a not-to-easy task in today’s oversaturated world of infotainment.
So listen to others, but especially your editor. If they are doing their job, yours should be made that much easier.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! At this point I am diving deep into the science fiction realm, last time getting through what is still considered an earlier masterpiece of the form. I decided to pivot from Heinlein to more contemporary work in the genre and picked up a collection I had almost no familiarity with, Houghton Mifflin’s long-running Best American series. The Science Fiction and Fantasy version was only in its third year by then, and while I am a little behind the times with this entry, this was a great look at the genre authors making waves in 2016, which as we all know was an important year in this country for a lot of horrific reasons. The series editor is John Joseph Adams, who in addition to editing runs his own imprint. The esteemed science fiction author Charles Yu was the guest editor. And while there were yards to learn from these talented authors I found there were only a few of the supposed “best” stories I thought deserving of the title.
I enjoyed the fantasy stories in this collection much more overall, which was a surprise for me. Leigh Bardugo’s Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail was an all-around show stopper, with excellent dialogue, setting and characters that stuck with me. This collection was also my first encounter with the extraordinary N. K. Jemisin, whose subversive and immersive Cthulhu-inverted The City Born Great towered over every other story. The legendary Peter Beagle told a fascinating eastern-inspired tale in The Story of Kao Yu, and Alice Sola Kim contributed a fearsome yarn inspired by her writing group in Successor, Usurper, Replacement. All of these stories were incredible examples of how to use the genre to say far more than what is on the surface, and I am looking forward to reading more of these authors.
There were a few science fiction stories I really liked, including a very Black Mirror-esque tale by Alexander Weinstein called Openness. Joseph Allen Hill scored with the final entry, The Venus Effect, a powerful allegory about police brutality. And there was a darkly funny “choose your own adventure” type of science fiction story in Caroline Yoachim’s Welcome to the Midnight Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0.
Before I get to what I didn’t like about this series, I must again stress that this was a great assemblage of talent. And yet, I found myself wondering if these tales were really the “best” of that year or if it was more of a subjective thing. There were a number of stories in here (Dale Bailey’s Teenagers From Outer Space, Debbie Urbanski’s When They Came to Us) that appeared to be less-great workings of Neil Blompkamp’s epic alien film of nearly a decade ago, District 9. And if I’m being nit-picky, Catherine Valente could have used a bit more research on her subject (the great garbage patches of the seas) in order to present it more realistically (they are not giant islands of refuse, as she seems to suggest). Some of the other stories Adams mentions in the introduction that did not make the cut (especially Sarah Pinsker’s Nebula finalist Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea) seemed like better work that could have been incorporated here.
I hate to end this on a downer note, but after spending two months on what is a very popular anthology series, I have to say I was fairly disappointed and am going to look elsewhere for my next genre collection. The subjectivity of the selection process, despite finding some amazing and talented authors, left something to be desired. But I did learn a ton about writing stories and as I’ve stated before, I am celebrating the publication of my very first short story this month.
Thanks for bearing with me as I eked out the time and space to for this collection and my thoughts on it. I will be continuing in the science fiction realm for the rest of the year, heading back into novel territory with another suggestion of my editor Libby: Omar el Akkad’s revolutionary 2017 book American War. Thanks as always for reading and writing!
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List. Previously I finished up a run of contemporary female authors with a local, academic read. Now as I complete the first round of re-writes on my science fiction manuscript I decided to pivot to that genre in the Reading List, starting with Robert Heinlein’s masterwork, the 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Or rather I decided to read what was released in 1991 as the “original, uncut version.” (Although Heinlein may have actually preferred the initial version.)
This novel is considered a masterpiece of the form, and while I don’t totally disagree I must say I had my ups and downs with both the narrative and what Heinlein was trying to say with the story. As readers know by now, these entries are not so much rundowns of the plots of these books, and I wouldn’t want to do that with this book anyway. If you are truly interested in the genre this one is without a doubt worth reading, but I don’t think I would place it as high as Vonnegut or Gibson. The novel was indeed vastly ahead of its time, and was visionary in how to use fiction to deconstruct such societal woes as religion and worries about “the other” (in this case an “other” from the planet Mars, yet human like us). It was also quite revolutionary in its approach to sexual relationships, which scandalized people at the time and led to the novel being banned from schools. Not much of it seems that way in 2019; despite the novel supposedly taking place around our time period there were more than a few lines (including a victim-blaming one concerning rape uttered by a female character and some pretty outdated views on homosexuality) that I would have preferred cut.
I thought the novel’s strongest parts were in fact the religious bits, and Heinlein’s deft use of prose to examine what was just becoming a major element of society in his day to be very interesting. He was essentially describing today’s megachurches, and I was blown away to read passages of gambling halls and strip joints being turned into religious domains, pondering how he was simply drawing conclusions of what was to come. The entire novel is also a great example of how to build up enough of a world that it is a believable place for the characters to interact through the story. On the whole, I did enjoy this over-five-hundred page novel, and it was a good if not overly satisfactory (re-)introduction to the genre, and I do hope to revisit Heinlein again in the future.
Toward the end of this year I plan on getting to Omar El Akkad, Dave Eggers and Ursula Le Guin, as well as possibly some Burroughs and Asmiov. But up next, in the middle of all of this I am going to take a break from my manuscript and work on some (science fiction-y) short stories that I hope to submit in the wake of “Live a Mile” finding publication. To that end I’m going to dive into a relatively new entry in Houghton Mifflin’s long-running Best American Series: the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 (ok so I’m a little behind the times, sue me). And I will be back with an update on that published story when it hits the streets in October. Thanks as always for reading and writing!
Hello readers and welcome to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here if you missed it. And without further ado, here is the second installment in the Writing Life.
Embrace the failure. I know, it sounds counterintuitive and perhaps like every other piece of writing advice you’ve encountered on the internet and elsewhere. But there is perhaps no other more important part of the writing life than this one. Because it will be all consuming, and inescapable. Forget the general people out there who may be repelled by your work, or never even find out about it; there are yet to be legions of lit mags, online outlets, editors and publishers who all will reject your work for various reasons. This is a huge part of refining our skills. I suppose I should lead all this failure announcing that I am finally going to have a short story published this October, after a half-decade of writing them and not getting anywhere (more on where to find this particular story coming soon). This represents the culmination of getting an idea, drafting a basic concept story, showing it to a few people, getting some great feedback, rewriting and rewriting it, looking it over a few more dozen times, submitting it and receiving (at least) ten rejections, from lit mags in Minnesota and beyond, until finally it will be published by an outlet that has also published my editor, Libby Copa.
Speaking of Libby, a while back she pointed me to this essential LitHub article by Kim Liao about the importance of seeking 100 rejections per year. I know that I didn’t even get close to that with this story, and that feels pretty great but doesn’t make me underestimate the amount of work required to get even more published. If the dream is having some kind of story collection ready to go by the time my other manuscripts can get shopped, I will need to get hundreds of rejections piled over a dozen stories (at least). I have come to find the necessary rotation should be around five-six stories sent out to as many places as you can, while keeping track of them through a spreadsheet or document. And while it felt odd to have to withdraw the piece from other places I’d submitted it, I didn’t mind the reason.
This essay was also inspired by some thoughtful reviews of my books on GoodReads, which is another great resource for feedback (even if they point out errors I too have gone on about at length). And as much fun as it was to see someone created a profile just to give my first novel a one-star review, it is all a part of dealing with the fact that some people just won’t like your work. It seems hard to overcome that at first, but the more you embrace it, the more you will see how it doesn’t define you but is used to make your writing better. I have a lot more confidence now that an independent party has verified that I might know what I’m doing. This will in turn help me get my current manuscript in the best shape it can be, and eventually get it published as well. So learn to embrace the failure, for your own good.
Hello readers and welcome to this short installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Finishing up the first half the year reading nothing but contemporary female authors (last time was one of the best), I am wrapping up this portion with a local author, Julie Schumacher and her hilarious 2014 novel Dear Committee Members, a novel-in-letters unlike that I’ve encountered since maybe Dracula.
Schumacher is a professor at the U of M in the Department of English, and it comes through in every inch of this tale, which is told entirely through Jay Fitger’s letters of recommendation, whether that be of current and former students, or for literary honors. This conceit becomes increasingly bizarre as Fitger’s life intervenes upon his students’, including one who is re-imagining Melville and ends up with one of the more darker ends of the piece. The rest of the time I was laughing out loud repeatedly, reading out loud lines of prose that were just so ridiculous (and let’s face it, would never be included in a “real” LOR but perhaps that is the point) yet cathartic and abrasive. Schumacher notes in her bio she has “written more letters of recommendation than she cares to recall,” and the entire novel (short and succinct as it is) revolves around this theme.
And even for a book published five years ago, that theme was quite obvious. Though the letters take place over the school year of 2009-2010, for both her and her character the writing is on the wall. Liberal arts doesn’t have the luster it once had in the era of unaffordable college; the economics department gets its floor upgraded as we hear about ad nauseum (Fitger is a stunning creation, a witless once-talented creature inhabited by many people the author must have encountered over the years); Fitger’s recriminatory letters continue to gain in self righteousness and self loathing; I have never seen character work done like this and it’s quite impressive. As I keep digressing, the major theme is the deconstruction of the academic scene via economics, and one man’s vigilant (some of the other characters might say vicious) crusade against it. In an era in which presidential candidates are actually calling for free college and abolishing student debt, perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. And in the end Figer’s colleagues (rightly or wrongly) vote for him to chair their department back to its former glory.
Overall I would highly recommend this novel for anyone looking for a short, funny read that also grapples with some important issues about art, books, and where all this stuff is heading (Young Adult literature that sells for six-figures is a prominent presence, for example). Schumacher clearly has a good grasp of what she wants to say with the unctuous Fitger, and it comes across as he degenerates through the year and tries to redeem himself through tragedy.
Up next, as promised I’m taking a pivot into science fiction as I plunge head first into the manuscript re-writes (which are going pretty well, by the way): the legendary Robert Heinlein and his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. And there will be more updates in the Writing Life and on my book. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! I am continuing the trend of contemporary female authors, this time focusing on another recommendation: Katherine Dunn and her 1989 novel Geek Love. This work has taken on legendary status among a certain type of cult-ish book lover, and I had known about it for years but never sat down to read it until now. And I have to say this is one of the best books I have encountered in this portion of the experiment, right up there with The Secret History and Wise Blood from last year.
Since I’m taking more of a “review” tack this year I will eschew most of the plot points in the hope that readers who haven’t discovered this gem will want to spiral through the tale. But a quick summary: this book takes place over two separate time periods but covers the same family, the Binewskis and their traveling “Carnival Fabulon.” In trying to save their business, the family resorts to some unconventional and dangerous means for birthing “freak” children which then become the main acts of the show, eventually bringing about its downfall. Now I want to get down into just what this novel gets so right.
This is one of the best-constructed novels I’ve ever encountered. There is not a sentence out of place and this feels like a story that took a decade to write (which it did; various pieces of it were published in literary magazines throughout the Eighties). Even the few things that jumped out at me, such as an adverb here or there or a sentence ending with a preposition didn’t bother me as the writing is so phenomenal. This helps with the major themes, which off the top of my head could be: the body and its perceptions, the concept of “freaks” and “norms,” cults, carnivals, technology, telekinesis, the list is endless. And they are all covered in depth and with some of the best drawn characters I’ve ever read. Each individual of the family brings their own drama to the story, and each has a role to play in its undoing. And while there is a fair amount of content that may turn people off (incest is a theme that hovers if not technically present), I found that the more outrageous the plot became the more I enjoyed it.
I want to just briefly stop at the “freak” theme that I felt had reverberations in the sense that LGBTQ people are finally gaining acceptance from “norm” society. I also can’t help but see the continued media obsession with beauty paralleled with the later parts of the story, in which the narrator Oly works out a plan to save her own daughter from someone she fears will change her. This book was miles ahead of its time in commenting on this and I think it deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone wanting to know how to capture the most important elements of the novel. Next I’m going to take on another recent book written by a woman (Julie Shumacher’s 2014 novel Dear Committee Members) before I pivot into science fiction territory with my manuscript rewrite. Thanks as always for reading!
Hello there readers and welcome as I finally get to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years. After working on the initial blog post (still entitled “What’s a writer for?”) for months and seeing no end in sight (but there are gonna be tons of links!) I have decided to try something different for this series. And that is, shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. I mean, that was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. So without further ado, here is the first installment in the Writing Life.
I’m writing a book about climate change. It’s not like I haven’t said this before, but I think it deserves its own post because it’s pretty much all I have worked on for a solid year. And the entire thing needs to be re-written, because the perspective is wrong. By next year I might have a solid draft to show people. But until then, I can talk about it. So, why climate change?
If you somehow haven’t heard about it by now, the IPCC reports essentially spell out what is rapidly becoming the challenge of my generation: climate crisis and how little time we have to do anything about it. While this issue has waffled over my lifetime as something Americans care about, and then don’t (remember #climategate? No, I’m not going to link to that), it seems that we have reached a relative tipping point with legislation like the Green New Deal reaching massive audiences and people my age realizing this is going to affect the rest of their lives.
It’s important, and if you have been following me online for any length of time you’ll know how much I scream into the void about it to little result. This is my attempt to rectify that in what I feel is my greatest capacity: writing. Specifically, a story about climate change, how it may be manipulated into use via geo-engineering and how that may lead to an utter division of the planet. And that just scratches the surface of this beast, which also tackles AI, religion, technology, cloning, environmental catastrophe, time travel (can you see why it is kind of a mess at this point?), and other stuff. Oh yeah, journalism too. Cuz that’s what I’ve devoted a lot of my time over the years, and informs a lot of this book.
And as my editor stated, this book pushes a lot of buttons. I come from a conservative religious background that ultimately didn’t take, and I want to examine it through my fiction. But I also want to examine a culture that allows the generational selling out we’ve witnessed via the climate crisis, and how it’s up to us to do something about it. Again, in the real world we have maybe a decade to reduce emissions to the point where human survival is a possibility. In my novel, that is not quite a foregone conclusion, and for the hell of it I will give away a major plot point in the hope it may interest you. I conclude that the only thing that may wake up the populace is the sudden loss of half the landmass of Florida. Again, sitting here reading this you may not believe it. But the science tells us enough ice is melting rapidly that something like that could happen, and in my lifetime.
Speaking of my editor, she was also right to point out that this is merely one way to get involved. Contact your representatives, create your own art about it, get involved in the protest movement that is growing by the day, and try to use as little fossil fuel as possible. I know it sounds hyperbolic but this is truly the challenge of our generation, and we need all hands on deck.
Thanks for indulging me as I shine a light on my manuscript, and I hope you’ll one day be able to read it as I publish it. Some other topics I have lined up for this series include: failure and why we should seek it out, how to learn to listen to others (i.e. editors), time management, and some other things. And of course I’m still working on that (initial) blog post about what writers are for, which takes on new meaning by the hour of teh #Drumpf tweet. On that note, thanks for reading and writing.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Last time I took on a contemporary female author I meant to get to in the previous year; this time it was a similar circumstance as Edan Lepucki’s dystopian vision of the west coast has been on my radar ever since it got published in 2014. Readers may recall Lepucki was on the receiving end of the “Colbert bump” and received a lot of publicity for her debut, but after waiting so long to read this I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the many missed opportunities.
As should be known, part of taking a deep dive into these books is to see how they might stack up to my own work. And in the case of California, it is stunning to see the similarities. A world ravaged by climate change, people easily swayed by demagogues, the notion of how humanity might carry its next generations forward; all of these are themes present in my current science fiction manuscript. And yet each time Lepucki uncovers the most interesting parts of her world, she kept returning to the slower aspects of the story that didn’t move it along as well.
The story situates around a young couple (Frida & Cal) attempting to survive by themselves in the California wilderness. Unfortunately, except for a few brief mentions (hurricanes, a huge snowstorm in the Mideast, nothing about the rest of the planet) there is almost no reference to why the land is so barren, so devoid of humans or animals. When the family who was keeping watch over Frida and Cal mysteriously kill themselves, the couple decide to move on to the “Land,” one of many needlessly capitalized words that dot the book (the “Group,” a smartphone-esque “Device,” etc) that should have been better developed. It was almost as if Lepucki understood the bare outlines of how our society and political life was crumbling in the wake of climate catastrophe, but didn’t want to do more than provide a bare outline for the actual plot, which frankly breaks down toward the end. The primary antagonist, who turns up alive after purportedly performing a suicide bomb attack for the Group in Los Angeles, doesn’t seem to have a leadership-related bone in his body and yet the people on the Land look to him as their saviour when he rescues them from the “Pirates,” a roving band of marauders that again are barely developed and have almost no backstory.
If it sounds like I’m trashing this novel, I don’t mean to go that far. But after having a recent manuscript ravaged (rightly so) by my editor, I feel I am much more attuned to the important areas of world building, background and character development, and envisioning how the future might play out. All of these things are quite lacking in this book, and while the writing flows very well (Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Lepucki’s wheelhouse) there was so much about this world I wanted to know more about, and kept hoping would be revealed. The “Communities” are maybe the most dystopian aspect, are talked about for a huge portion of the book, and yet we just see them briefly in the last ten or so pages.
Overall I can’t say I would recommend this novel, but am going to keep reading contemporary female authors as they should be promoted and read. Next up will be another female author: Katherine Dunn’s well-regarded 1989 book Geek Love. And I still hope to get some of the other series (How to Write a Book, What Writers are For) in gear later this year. Thanks as always for reading.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.