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.)

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:

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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?

 

Literary Karma (the good kind)

Two Great Memoirs

I’ve read a lot of books about cancer lately, and two of my favorites are When Breath Becomes Air and The Bright Hour. Both memoirs were published after the authors died, both authors left spouses behind. Those widowed spouses? They just made public the fact that two years later, they are now in love. It is the sweetest story. Here’s the piece in the Washington Post.

Top Seven Books Elise Read (and/or Listened to) in 2017

Because ten reviews was just too damn long. 

As we already know, I don’t keep up with the latest books. Hence my reading list this year has been all over the map, a mishmash of older and newer titles in genres from memoirs to YA LGBT fantasy/sci fi (it’s a thing, and I love it). In fact memoirs were what I seemed to have read the most of, and that’s great because it was my goal for the year to start reading memoirs, a genre I never explored before. 

That said, here’s my list, in no particular order, accompanied by a quote I liked from each:

1. Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming.  

It’s hard to explain how much that feeling of the bottom potentially falling out at any moment takes its toll. It makes you anxious, of course, and constant anxiety is impossible for the body to handle. So you develop a coping mechanism, and for us that meant shutting down. Everything we liked or wanted or felt joy in had to be hidden or suppressed. I’m sad to say that this method works. 

I’ve been a fan of Alan since seeing him in the ’90s in Cabaret on Broadway and have always admired his versatility as an actor. I have to admit the subject matter of his memoir—his abusive childhood—gave me pause, as it’s a difficult one for me personally. But the writing is so well done, so thoughtful, it even gave me new insights into my own life. And isn’t that what good memoirs are supposed to do?

2. In the Pleasure Groove by John Taylor.  

So I had been working on a new concept of God, with the intention of creating something that I would feel comfortable praying to, conversing with, trusting. Which had seemed heretical to the old Catholic in me, but the truth was, the old ideas had only been able to get me so far…. I chose to turn to a higher power that was filled with the generosity of spirit and unconditional love that my parents always had for me and was as supportive as my family now were. As loving as my wife, and as goodhearted as my bandmates. This God was on my side, had my back, and wanted the best for me.  

Full disclosure: I have a tattoo of the cover of Rio on my arm. So just know that I went into this one with a bit of a bias.  

If you were not as obsessed with Duran Duran in the ’80s as I was (okay, and as I continue to be to this day), John Taylor is the band’s bass player, and this is the story of his life. And while this might sound pretty yawn-worthy to someone who isn’t a fan, it honestly is just a good solid memoir. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s got ups and downs and the obligatory addiction and recovery yet maintains an overall optimistic tone throughout. Mostly I was pleased to hear that he and his bandmates seem to be nice people.  

PS, if you are a fan, listen to the audiobook. Hearing John talk for almost eight hours straight is swoon-worthy.  

3. A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold. 

As a mother, this was the most difficult prayer I had ever spoken in the silence of my thoughts, but in that instant I knew the greatest mercy I could pray for was not my son’s safety, but for his death. 

Sue Klebold comes across as an intelligent, strong, and caring woman – none of which she really gets credit for as the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters in the Columbine school massacre. As evidenced in many reviews of this book, she is often seen simply as a bad mother who is culpable for what her son did. This, we find out here, is not truly the case. The truth is a whole lot more complicated than that, and I applaud Sue for allowing us to peer into her life and see who she really is beyond the news coverage, to witness her own struggle to come to terms with what her son did while also grieving for his death and for the violent, sudden loss of the son she knew. 

4. Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak. 

The teller shapes the story. If you don’t tell it, the story shapes you. 

I listened to the audiobook of this one, and let me tell you: The story, the writing, the narration by Michael Crouch. A perfect trifecta of perfection. The main character’s coming-of-age story is beautiful, translatable from the microcosm of his life to the macrocosm of society and the culture he lives in. He faces his vulnerabilities without fear and works to accept the people in his life and himself as they and he are. He doesn’t know how strong he is until he’s really tested, and then he finds out he’s stronger than he ever knew possible (a trope I generally hate when it’s included in a book’s description, but it works so well here). 

5. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. 

I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were coming or I’d have cleaned up a little more. My life, I mean, not just the apartment. 

This was a reread for me—the third or fourth, I believe; it’s one of my favorite books—but this time I listened to the audiobook, which did not disappoint. Excellent narration by Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole, and even with my familiarity with the story, I was still moved by Henry’s inevitable, unstoppable downward spiral and his and Clare’s inability to do anything about it. Tragic love story at its finest. I can guarantee this won’t be the last time I read or listen to it.  

6. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. 

It took me a long time, but I prefer victim to survivor now. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting, moving forward without pretending I am unscarred. 

One of the most honest memoirs I’ve read (well, listened to the audiobook of). There’s a level of candidness you don’t often see in memoirs, where the story generally revolves around the hardships the author has endured and how she overcame them. Instead this is an examination of one woman’s trials throughout her life and up through the present day; the ways in which trauma can shape a life; and the problematic ways our culture, our families and friends, and ourselves deal with those who are different or imperfect.   

7. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. 

“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?” 

Henry lit a cigarette. “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.” 

Another reread, this one for the fourth or maybe fifth time. Another of my favorite books. Donna Tartt’s world building is extraordinary, as is her talent for taking extraordinary circumstances and making them completely believable. With anyone else, the kind of insane characters in this book might have fallen flat, but she makes them deep and real, even sympathetic despite the vile situation they’re in. This review is sort of vague, but I don’t want to give away too much for those who haven’t read it. If you haven’t, be sure to put it on your list for 2018.