Thoughts on Fiction

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My coworkers and I were chatting about books earlier this week and I found myself trying to explain my love of fiction, maybe for the first time ever. I’ve never had to explain this to anyone before. I assumed most people read fiction for fun. Maybe they do. I probably read more fiction than any other category.

I’ve always worked with smart people, and of course smart people come in all shapes and sizes with varied interests and concerns. Some smart people like business books, some like romance novels. But the people I work with now are, without exception, much more intellectual than I’m used to. There is no one on my team who will admit to reading mysteries on a cozy weeknight; they’re all reading about cognitive science or global economics.

So over beers my coworker is telling me about the book he’s reading now, Violence & Social Order: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. I could tell he was really enjoying learning from it and hadn’t just name-dropped it to sound impressive or superior. He was meeting a woman for a date the next evening and I had suggested he bring her a book as a way of starting a good conversation. When he told me what it was he was reading though I changed my mind. (I’m no expert in dating but starting off with a book about violence is probably not a great way to get laid. But I suppose I could be wrong. Who knows what those crazy millennials are into?)

I, meanwhile, was loving The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. A great thick multi-decade novel about the life of a man called Cyril Avery, set mostly in Ireland. The story opens with his 16 year-old pregnant mother being exiled from the church and her family and follows Cyril as he grows and experiences many different types of love and loss. “Maybe there are no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.” SO. GOOD. It’s definitely the best book I’ve read so far this year and I’ve been reading some great ones (I also loved The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui).

Anyway, my coworker was explaining that the thing he liked about his book on violence and social order was that the author created a clear framework and helped him understand the impact of one on the other. I started a friendly little argument with him about it — how could you trust this author? Don’t you feel like you need to read another book with a different perspective in order to know whether the first guy knows what he’s talking about? Arguing with him made me realize that one of the reasons I love fiction is that you very rarely get the perspective of just one person — it was written by a single person, of course, but in order to make the story work, it’s imperative that other characters have different perspectives. And when it’s done well — like in The Heart’s Invisible Furies — you end up with a fuller and more nuanced view of the world. I’m not gay, I don’t live in Ireland, and my mother was much older than 16 when she had me. I have literally nothing in common with Cyril Avery. But after reading his fictional story I feel like I know something about what a person like him might have experienced. I know just a little bit about what it’s like to be cast out of your family and church, about what it might be like to love parents who don’t understand children, what it might have been like to be in love with someone you could never tell.

To be clear, I try to never judge what anyone’s reading. What you read is your business, and you don’t need to justify it to anyone. It doesn’t make you a better or smarter person to read one thing over another. It’s just a matter of personal taste. And I’m glad my friend is reading about violence because lord knows we could use some people to figure out how to solve it. My point is just that sometimes getting into a friendly argument with someone who sees things differently than you helps you better understand why you love the things you love. And I unabashedly love fiction.

LGBT YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy: It’s a Thing, and I Love It

Toward the end of 2016, I was browsing for something to read—something to finish out the year right, to carry me through the holidays and into my weeklong staycation between Christmas and New Year’s. I hit all the usuals—the Kindle new releases and daily deals pages, my Amazon “to read” wish list, my Goodreads “Want to Read” shelf and posts from friends, my Audible wish list….

And that was where I found it, a book I’d saved some time ago thinking it sounded intriguing, but I wasn’t in any rush to listen it: We Are the Ants, by Shaun David Hutchinson. I read the description—Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens—and knew I had found my title.

I immediately downloaded We Are the Ants and started listening to it on my drive home from work that day. About thirty seconds into main character Henry’s opening monologue, I was hooked. Part of it was Gibson Frazier’s narration—deadpan and monotone and totally teenager but awesomely passionate at the same time—but mostly it was the writing. So good, so honest. Full of teen angst and vulnerability and…aliens? Yes, but it totally makes sense. Henry talks about being abducted by aliens like he’s talking about what he did at school that day, like it’s just something that happens in the normal course of his life (which, in fact, it is).

And that’s how the story approaches the fact that he’s gay as well. It’s what I love most about We Are the Ants and most of the other books in this genre that I’ve read: In them, being LGBT (any variation thereof) is not a big deal. It’s not something to be overcome or outed but just part of the normal everyday lives of the characters. Just like their height and hair color, they are gay, or trans, or asexual, and it’s not a big deal. I mean, it is a big deal that books like this exist. But as part of the storyline, it’s really just another character trait, and I can’t tell you how much I love that.

That said, here are five great LGBT YA sci-fi/fantasy novels I’ve read and/or listened to:

  1. We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. The book that started it all for me and the one to which I compare all other LGBT YA sci-fi/fantasy novels. It is the bar. It is perfection. It is a gay John Hughes movie with aliens.
  2. Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak. This one made my top seven favorites list for 2017, and with good cause. The writing is amazing, the story so deep and sensitive and sweet. And I might have mentioned this before, but Jarrod, the love interest? Totally dreamy.
  3. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. This was the first Rowell book I read, and I didn’t realize until I was done with it that I had gone about things a little backward. See, she has this other book called Fangirl, where the main character writes fan fiction about this character called Simon Snow—a sort of Harry Potter knockoff. Well, Carry On is the fan fiction novel she is writing throughout Fangirl. I didn’t know this when I read Carry On, so I just took it at face value—and loved every word of it. A gay wizard and a gay vampire with a searing love/hate relationship? Yes, thanks.
  4. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. The way this one starts out, you think it’s just a good, solid urban coming-of-age story, but then that sci-fi stuff sneaks up on you. It’s worked in so seamlessly, it makes it a totally believable part of the story.
  5. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. The genius of this novel is that it really is about the rest of us who just live here—while the heroic kids are off saving the world, this story focuses on the other kids who are just living their lives, with all the requisite teen angst, confusing love…and a guy who’s actually a god worshiped by cats. It’s kind of awesome.

Bonus book: At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson, who has become the Brad Pitt of the YA literary world for me: Just like I will see any Brad Pitt movie without even knowing what it’s about because there’s no such thing as a bad Brad Pitt movie, I will read anything Shaun puts out, because I can trust it will be good. Also looking forward to his upcoming title The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, due out on February 6.

How to Talk (and talk and talk) About Books

I love to talk about books. When it was my job I used to talk about books all day every day. Now that I don’t have that luxury I try to find other ways to scratch that itch.

Of course there’s this blog, where I can talk to Elise and to the rest of you about what I’m reading. It’s awesome and I love it but it’s not enough.

I’m in a book club (shout out to Quitters Club Book Club!) and I love it but we only meet once a month and talk about one book at a time. That’s not enough.

There’s also Goodreads, where I can see a steady trickle of what my friends are reading and rate and review my own stuff. I am a superfan of the Goodreads Reading Challenge and obsessively track what I’ve been reading. I also try to write a review of each book I read. A friend inspired me to try to write 25 word book reviews — long enough to be interesting, short enough to keep a reader’s interest. It’s fun but also not enough.

There’s also Round Robin Reading, a book sharing thing I do with one or two friends. Each of us buys a hardcover book that the others either want to read or are curious about. You open the book to the first page and write your name and the start date. Then you read it and you mark the hell out of it. You talk to your friends as though they’re right there with you. You underline passages, make notes about what the text says, make notes that have nothing to do with the text, draw smiley faces, exclamation points, hearts. You dog-ear and add post-it notes. Then you pass the book to the next person for them to do the same. And so on. Eventually the book makes its way back to the original owner and that person has a beautiful, well-read and marked-up object that is kind of a self-contained book club, sitting right there on your shelf whenever you might want to dip into it. It works best if each person sticks to one writing implement so you can tell who wrote what — maybe I’ll use a blue pen and the second reader will use a pencil and the third, a green marker. [Obviously this doesn’t work if you are one of those people who think books are sacred objects and need to be preserved in plastic — that’s not my thing, but you know, you be you. I like my books marked up and well-loved.]

Another option is to pick a book to work through with a bunch of people, sort of a one-time-only book club. My team at work is awesome, and all four of us are in places where we’re thinking about what comes next, whether it’s a new project or a new job entirely. We all read Do More Great Work and for a month we met every week over breakfast to discuss and do the exercises together. It was great, and I definitely got more out of it than I would have alone.

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But it’s still not enough.

(There might be something wrong with me.)

CPB Goals 2018

How many posts can I write about my 2018 goals? We’re going to find out!  

(Don’t know what a commonplace book is? Read about it here.)  

So as you saw in the previous post, my co-blogger Vicky is quite prolific with her commonplace book. Me, not so much. As with many things in my life, I love the idea of a commonplace book but find it hard to keep up with. Well, not hard exactly. The truth is that I’m lazy. I have a backlog of audiobook clips to transcribe into mine and Kindle notes to copy. I keep lists of words I look up in the dictionary, and they have found a home in my CPB as well, but at the moment I have several of those sitting on stickies on my desktop waiting to be added. I can pull out that old “I just don’t have time for it, with everything else going on in my life” card, but that’s getting a little broken record-ish, no? I think it’s time I start making time instead of complaining that I have no time to begin with. The time is there. I just have to find it. That is my new mantra.  

That decided, I have a few questions I need to answer first:

1. Do I enter things in my CPB right away, as I read them, or wait and do one big dump on a schedule, say once a week or twice a month? 

Right now I’m basically doing the big periodic dump. I’ve added a few things as I come across them, like clips from other blogs’ posts and snaps of snippets from magazines, but for the longer works, I’ve been lax. I highlight and note as I read in my Kindle, but then when I’m done with the book, I let it sit for quite some time without adding those highlights and quotes to my CPB (which, like Vicky, I use Evernote for). I have to find the right balance. I feel like posting as soon as I’m done reading the book is the way to go, so I’ll try to do that instead of procrastinating.

2. How do I handle print books? 

 One of my reading goals for this year is to read more print books. So, how do I record quotes from them in my CPB? Vicky’s post outlined how she’s able to take pics of print materials and edit them down to include only the text she wants quoted—I’m going to have to pick her brain on that one, because my attempts at same have not been successful. This seems like a better, quicker method than typing up every quote I want to save and less complicated than highlighting quotes and going back to snap them later (as I’ve tried…so time consuming), so I must master it.

3. And what about those word lists, anyway? 

So I have what the kids these days call a side hustle as a book editor. My clients are all self-published authors. It’s interesting, and while I complain about it a lot because hey, who wants to work two jobs, I do enjoy it. I love editing in and of itself, and I get some satisfaction from hopefully helping people who have chosen the nontraditional publishing route to put out the best product possible and maybe become better writers in the process. 

I also have a full-time job as a copy editor, where I edit audiobook descriptions. Yes, it’s as exciting as it sounds, but again, I love editing, so I like it. Anyway, between these two jobs, I look up a lot of words in the dictionary to check for proper spelling, hyphenation, compounding, etc. (I wrote a blog post about that a while back. I have a lot of feelings about editing, okay?) And I keep lists of these words, have done for a while. Why? Well, there’s a practical side to it—once I look up a word during an edit, if I list it, I can just refer back to the list and won’t have to look it up if it appears again. Largely, though, it’s all about self-amusement. Curiosity. And a plain old love of all things wordy. Maybe I’m just a word hoarder. I don’t know. 

So now that I have a CPB, I have someplace to collect these lists, rather than just amassing a myriad of sticky notes on my various computer desktops. Which is great! But I feel like I need some larger purpose for these words. Recording them is fine, adding them to my CPB is brilliant, but what then? This is what I must figure out. How do my word lists fit in to my larger CPB goals, and what inherent weight do they hold? Is there something more I can be doing with them?  

These are all questions I will answer in time. The most important thing is to jump in and start posting in my CPB more often. In fact, I think I’ll go and catch up on some of that audiobook transcription right now. 

You & a Bike & a Road

You & A Bike & A Road (and some coffee)

I worked from home today and when I ran out to get lunch I grabbed this book to read. A friend of mine posted a very rare 5-star review of it on Goodreads so I ordered it from the library and just picked it up yesterday.

It is SO GOOD. It’s a short graphic novel with very simple pencil drawings, and is a memoir of a bike tour the author took by herself in 2016. It’s a little bit about depression and a lot about being a woman and traveling alone and the kindness of strangers and feeling good on a bicycle. Maybe a little bit about how fucked up this country is right now. The author live-tweeted it along the way but since I’m not really into Twitter the book was a much better way for me to digest it. You should check it out.

This was my favorite spread:

Me & A Bike & A Road

My Commonplace Book (CPB) Today

My Digital Commonplace Book
Keeping track of all the great things I read using Evernote

It’s been 9 months since I started playing with Evernote as a way to create a digital commonplace book (see our original post here) and I thought I’d give an update on how it’s going.

In a word: good. And getting better. But still not perfect. Today I have 436 entries, with anywhere from one to 50+ quotes per entry. Most of my entries come from books I’ve read on my Kindle, but I also have entries that include websites, physical books, and original notes I’ve made based on thoughts, ideas, and conversations with people.

My CPB process today

I use a single dedicated notebook in Evernote to save quotes, pictures, and ideas from things I read. It’s simply called “Commonplace Book” and I share it with the common place’s co-founder, Elise. I love the idea of a handwritten CPB but the advantages of digital (search, ease of copying long passages, always available on mobile/laptop/tablet) outweigh the benefits of creating a beautiful artifact (err, beauty).

I like Evernote because it has well-synced mobile and web apps, makes clipping from the web easy, and can read text within images. I have a Plus account, which is an upgrade that costs $34.99 a year, but I don’t need it for my CPB needs (I have another project where I upload lots of high resolution photos which require more than the 60 MBs you get for free in the Basic membership).

Here’s how I gather entries today.

Kindle Notes & Highlights

I’ve been using the Export Kindle Notes feature to send myself an email with a pdf of all of the highlights and notes I’ve made in a book everytime I finish one. I then go to my email and drag that pdf over to create a new entry in Evernote. This creates a single entry for each book. It’s ugly and an awkward process but it works (and it’s free!).

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This is what a kindle highlight looks like using the awkward export from kindle then send email to evernote process.

Just last week I came across clippings.io and it takes away all of the clumsiness of this manual process. It’s pretty much built for this purpose. I used it to upload notes from more than 300 books I read on my Kindle and it only took a few minutes. It costs $1.99 a month, which can be kind of pricey over time but it was totally worth getting this big archive into my CPB. I don’t yet know if it’s worth the price on an ongoing basis. I’ll report back in a few months.

Poser using clippings
This is what a kindle highlight looks like using clippings.io.

Print Books and Magazines

Most of my book reading these days happens on a Kindle but when I find myself reading an old-fashioned print book, I can still add entries to my CPB. I just snap a quick photograph on my smartphone. It works just using the camera function, but often looks nicer if I use an app like Scannable and if I crop it as neatly as I can so it includes only the relevant text.  Either way, Evernote is smart enough to scan the text within the photographs so that the content is searchable. It’s not usually pretty, but it works.

The Hate U Give
This is an entry for a print book I read; it includes two photos from separate parts of the book.

Clippings from Websites

Whenever I come across something interesting on a website that I want to include in my CPB, I use my Evernote Web Clipper plug-in for my Chrome browser. It’s an easy tool that allows you to clip entire articles, screenshots, or selections and because my default Evernote notebook is my Commonplace Book, it’s just a simple one-click action for me.

OpEd Advice
Clipping from the Washington Post using the Chrome plug in

Random Notes from My Day

Another fairly frequent entry to my CPB is snippets of conversations and ideas from my day. Those are easy to add by hand using the Evernote app on my smartphone. For example, last night I went to a reading with the delightful Nikki Giovanni and she said something I wanted to remember. I just opened my app and typed it in.

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Nikki Giovanni is a bad ass.

So, all-in-all, things are going pretty well and I am still loving my CPB. I still want to figure out a few things — an elegant solution for Instagram, a way to include excerpts from audio books or podcasts, and a way to randomly surface CPB entries, just to name a few — so I will continue to experiment and will, of course, report back. If you keep a commonplace book, I’d love to hear about how it works for you!

 

Ten Books I Meant to Read in 2017 but Didn’t Get to (and Totallyyyy Plan to Get to in 2018!)

Thanks to The Broke and the Bookish for the title and topic as part of their Top Ten Tuesdays!

As I’ve probably mentioned on this blog a few times already, time is at a premium in my life. I know, whose isn’t? But for real, I just don’t get a lot of time to read in an average day. Listening to audiobooks has helped with this a lot—I have at least an hour in my car a day when I can listen, and sometimes I can even get away with listening while I work—but still, in 2017, I just couldn’t manage to get to everything on my (lengthy) to-read list. Here are a few I didn’t read/listen to but totally plan to in 2018, in no particular order.

  1. We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel. Dana Scully, the TV role for which Gillian Anderson will probably forever be best known, is my spirit animal: skeptical, stern, and takes no bullshit from anyone. And I went to a women’s college, so I’m definitely a feminist from way back. So how could I not want to read this book?
  2. Memoirs by Tennessee Williams. I have had a soft spot for Tennessee since my favorite English teacher/mentor in high school introduced me to his short stories, and I actually have two or three memoirs/bios of him on my to-read list. I actually started this one but just didn’t get to finish it yet. Bonus: a fantastic introduction by John Waters in which he says things like “Was Tennessee nuts when he wrote Memoirs, or just high?” As you read on, you see this is a legitimate question.
  3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Can you believe I made it through my seriously book-obsessed childhood without ever reading this one? Neither can I. Decided to give it a go now on Vicky’s recommendation.
  4. The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. I was a latecomer to Becky’s awesome first book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, but I finally read it and loved it. Looking forward to catching up with this one in 2018 and the Simon sequel due out in April, Leah on the Offbeat.
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Everyone—everyone—loved this book, but I stayed away because (and I know this makes me a wuss) it seemed depressing, like “awful, terrible subject matter I can do nothing about and that makes me feel helpless” depressing. But Vicky says Angie Thomas is the next Toni Morrison, so now I’m in.
  6. From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Grohl. Yes, Dave Grohl’s mom. I like memoirs, and I like music, and I am a mom of a boy who wants to be a Skrillex/Deadmaus-style DJ when he grows up, so this one seems entertaining to me.
  7. Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner. I may be anti-NaNoWriMo, but a book of inspiration and motivation from its founder? That I can do. I need all the motivation and inspiration I can get, tbh.
  8. Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. I generally give fiction written by actors the side eye, but come on, it’s Tom Hanks. You can’t side eye Tom Hanks. (Let’s just hope it’s not as painfully boring as fellow actor/my idol Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens to You.)
  9. Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay. Daphne du Maurier has been one of my favorite writers since I was assigned Rebecca for summer reading before my freshman year in high school, but I don’t know much about her life. Her own daughter said this is a good biography, so I’ll give it a try.
  10. Release by Patrick Ness. He got me with A Monster Calls. Also loved The Rest of Us Just Live Here. This one is supposedly inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever…—how could I possibly pass it up?