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Psychological expressionism

I think–and this is by no means a new thought that I’ve had–that it’s better not to slam books for something they were never trying to do in the first place. If something is not a genre romance, the author never promised that the book would definitely have a love story and a happily-ever-after, so saying that the author screwed up because it lacks those things would be unfair; similarly, you don’t have a bad author for not providing a solution to a crime at the end, what you have is not a genre mystery. It’s fine to then go on and say, “I prefer romance,” or, “I prefer mystery,” or, “Even outside those genres, I prefer those elements in my non-genre fiction.” But there seems to me to be a useful distinction between what you want and what the author was aiming for.

I was thinking of this with a book I was reading, because the way the cast of characters was drawn differed from a psychologically realistic portrait in ways that seemed clearly deliberate. Only the protagonist got to be a fully realized individual with motivations and desires of their own. All the other characters were specifically arrayed against them, not just in the ways that people sometimes do oppose one, but in universally loathsome ways. In ways that entirely precluded being a fully realized individual with motivations and desires outside the protagonist. And this was done so completely that it seemed impossible to me that it could be an accident. Everything about these characters was calculatedly loathsome–no one ever just happened to like a food or a mode of dress that might be perceived as neutral or even liked by some readers or not by others. Everything was at a fever pitch of hatefulness, all aimed at the protagonist.

It struck me that rather than considering this failed psychological realism, a better term for it might be psychological expressionism. That, like in a Munch or Kandinsky painting, the supporting characters were all there not to be realistically drawn but to evoke a feeling in and about the protagonist–in this case the feeling of being all alone and persecuted. I’ve seen others that are about feeling overwhelmed, which are less disturbing than the persecution complex book I was reading and eventually set down and did not finish. You can dislike this mode of characterization just as you are not required to like a particular style of painting. But I think it’s useful to dislike it as itself rather than as something else.

One of the weaknesses of psychological expressionism in literature, of course, is that when it’s not a clear-cut case, it can blur into theory of mind problems in the author–just as half-assed Expressionism can blur into attempts at realism wherein the painter really just can’t do faces very well. But I don’t think that invalidates it as a deliberate artistic choice. And once people are making it as a deliberate artistic choice, I want the vocabulary to talk about it. So here we are.

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revision and sunk cost fallacies

Last week I sent my agent a revision of a book of mine, and I’m really happy with it. I think it’s a good revision that did a lot of exciting things to this book that made its core more itself rather than radically altering it. I think one of the hardest things for new writers is that revision gets really, really hard to tell from sunk cost fallacies. And the advice you get depends on the direction of characteristic error the person giving the advice tends to have.

On the one side, you have the infinite comma fiddling. Sometimes a draft really does need to be put to bed. There is a virtue in doneness, good enough is better than never seeing the light of day, and all that jazz. Will you learn more from changing the adjective on page forty-seven or from writing an entirely new story? And will you improve your odds of getting it out there in front of an audience from changing that adjective or from having two manuscripts that might appeal to people from slightly different angles?

On the other: there are many editorial passes involved in an unpublished manuscript. No, many. No: many. And usually there should be. Usually for a novelist who has not published a novel before there is a darn good reason for each editorial pass. Unwillingness to do the work to get the manuscript into shape means standing in your own way. And there will always be a newer, brighter, shinier idea, and nobody actually cares how shiny your ideas are, because authors don’t write ideas, they write books.

My first thought on how to sort whether a revision was a good revision or a bad revision was whether you had a good reason for doing it. But I’m not sure that’s a good way to figure it out, because some of the good reasons involve waving your hands excitedly and making swoopy noises, and some of the bad reasons can sound very erudite. (But that’s not a clear indication, because you can fool yourself with swoopy noises and make total sense with erudition, too.) I think that assuming that most books need at least one or two revision passes is a good start, and if you don’t need those you’re a rarity and an outlier.

And…I think if you find that you’re doing large numbers of big revisions, over and over again on the same book, my best rule of thumb is if you have a smart reader who has read this specific book, can you describe what you’re doing and why? And does that smart reader say, “Oh yeah, that sounds much better?” Or do they at least say, “Okay, well, that makes some sense?” Obviously you don’t want one smart reader to be in sole control of your fate. But if you’ve done a couple of revisions and you decide you need to do one more–but you can’t really describe it so that a smart reader who has read your book and generally liked it things that you are improving things or at least prooooobably not making them worse–that’s a pretty big danger sign, and worth at least thinking about.

Literally everyone I talked to about this revision said, “Oh yeah! That sounds much better!” So either I’m on a really solid good track…or I’m getting really good at describing revisions now….

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Okay, let’s talk about great. Really.

I put this on more ephemeral social media yesterday, but not everybody reads me there, and things are easy to miss. So.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan always reminds me of the Langston Hughes poem Somehow I don’t think that Hughes and Trump see eye to eye on this matter, but I keep getting Hughes in my head instead of Trump: “the land that never has been yet–and yet must be–”

And it got me thinking about how I keep saying positive, positive, positive. So okay. Time for a positive. It’s looking alarmingly like the Republican National Convention is either going to wind up with Trump as a nominee or a massive fight to keep him out, and the fallout around the whole thing is deeply alarming. And I think we’re all going to want something positive to talk about around then.

Something like the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.

So at the beginning of July, I’m going to post a reminder that this is coming up. For those of you who are slower readers or have library systems with big backlogs, you can start now if you like. For me, I’ll pick up the book after Readercon. But the RNC is July 18-21, and I intend to spend at least some of the time during those days talking in various online forums about the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Anyone who wants to is welcome to join me, and spend some attention looking at a great American poet who had serious ideas about making America great again. For everybody.

(When I say “anyone”–you don’t have to be American to do this. Everyone’s politics and everyone’s art affects everyone else, and it’s not like the rest of you have been able to dodge Trump. At least we can share Langston Hughes with you too.)

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Books read, early March

Renee Ahdieh, The Wrath and the Dawn. A vivid and intense 1001 Nights retelling, very distinct from E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights despite both featuring a strong romance and a strong female platonic relationship. The root story is not one that snagged me for possible retelling as a love story, so I’m fascinated to watch very different people make it work, and I’ll be even more interested to see what Ahdieh does branching out into more of her own stories with the sequel.

Thornton Burgess, The Adventures of Old Man Coyote. We all have gaps in how we read the children’s classics as kids, and Burgess was one of mine–when talking to a friend about his childhood reading and Little, Big, it became clear to me that I’d read a character in the latter as a type when he was far more particular than that. Burgess is very much of a different era of children’s literature–gender issues so marked that there was only one (grandmother) female character in the entire animal village, didacticism not only marked but set aside in little poems–and yet it was a breezy little read, and I could see why decades of kids learning to read were proud of getting through the different animals’ adventures.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern. Strange combination of highly personal and highly intellectualized/meta poems in a very small volume. While I could see that what he was doing was very good, none of it touched me very particularly, in the strange way that poems either do or do not. However, it was a thing that I read over breakfast instead of articles about Donald Trump, and this is a life choice I cannot help but recommend.

Neil Kent, The Triumph of Light and Nature: Nordic Art, 1740-1940. Lots of pictures, some of them unfamiliar and interesting. I am still puzzling over Willumsen’s Jotunheim. Particularly the decapitation. I was interested in this before planning my trip to Sweden and Finland, but I made it a priority to read in case there was anything I’d want to make a point of seeing.

Hilary McKay, Binny in Secret. This is one of the good McKays, by which I mean that it made me giggle out loud in several spots and it also tackled genuinely dark and difficult topics. And yet it wasn’t one of the best McKays, by which I mean that I don’t think it really held together in the end. The dark and difficult topics were brought up with a “lady or the tiger” sort of ending: unresolved, left to the reader, in a way that I found to be a copout, and also one of the middling-difficult topics (the relationship between the two girls) was really glossed over in a way that was far less sensitive than I usually expect of McKay. Also the characters were more remembered from Binny for Short than completely drawn in. So: I’m glad I read it, I will want my own copy (this was the library’s), but it’s not going to be one of my top recommendations. More on a par with Indigo’s Star than the really good ones.

Jonathan Spence, Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man. A fascinating look at an essayist at the end of an era, his family and how he portrayed them. Spence is really good at this kind of microhistory, the sort of stuff for China that Steven Ozment does for Germany. Always a pleasure.

Brian Staveley, The Last Mortal Bond. Discussed elsewhere.

Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree. Oh, I loved this. Loved. It’s a novel about Jonathan Edwards–you know, the preacher of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” that Jonathan Edwards–and his household and neighbors and their world. And Stinson really digs into the fundamental weirdness of colonial Massachusetts, religiously and interpersonally, and yet sticks with their fundamental humanity, in ways that are so compelling. It’s rare and wonderful to get a great historical novel that isn’t focused on either war or a single arc of romance, that gets all the gritty details of householding right and puts them in the context of different characters’ concerns with their larger universes. Preaching from insects, different slaves’ perspective on joining their owners’ church, nephews finding their way in the world their uncle shapes with his preaching but does not control…oh, so many good bits.

Wislawa Szymborska, View With a Grain of Sand. Reread. Perhaps it’s an aspect of reading in translation, but while nothing shot lightning through me, nothing made me go leaping through the house looking for my phone or my computer to write to someone about a particular line, a particular poem, the entire experience of this was satisfying, like being in very good and thoughtful hands, like a satisfying conversation.

Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Fascinating study of how people interact with the ideas of magic and evil and money when the money/wage component is comparatively new to how they deal with work. Lots of really interesting anecdote, lots of really dense and chewy analysis. Good fodder for fantasy writers, probably worthwhile for others as well.

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Apex Book of World SF Volume 3. Like Volume 2, this was an extremely varied collection in tone, subject, author origin, and more; I expect that Tidhar had to work quite hard to get such a variety of stories. The ones that stood out for me in the most positive ways were Xia Jia’s “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” Fadzlishah Johanabas’s “Act of Faith,” and Amal El-Mohtar’s “To Follow the Waves.”

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The Last Mortal Bond, by Brian Staveley

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

If you’re one of the people who still can’t believe that George R. R. Martin had [horrible result] happen to [character], good news! The last book of Brian Staveley’s trilogy is out. If you’re one of the people who got tired of that and wandered off to look at a stand of birch trees, also good news. The world still has birch trees in it.

By the beginning of this book, everything has gone seriously to hell in a handbasket, and continues to do so. The difficulty of having the central problem of the series be “how do we keep everyone in the world from becoming loveless monsters” is that you have to show people not currently all being loveless monsters, or else the basic response is, “eh.”

I really wanted to like this. I really, really did. After this many pages, I was invested. And Staveley does have some cameos of minor characters who care about each other–and he does have, eventually, some major characters realize that life is not all suffering. Five hundred pages into the third book. But for whom is the boilerplate at the end of this review? Who might enjoy this, who might want to read it? People who don’t mind wallowing in the darkedy darkedy dark of the grimdark even when the premise is supposed to be undercutting it and specifically on the side of choosing caring. Because this is a lot of wallowing. This is a lot of muddle and muck–a lot of instances of things going wrong in eye-rollingly predictable fashion–“don’t let thing go wrong, A!” says B, so of course A screws up in exactly that manner–before the end finally comes.

I think the thing that tipped me over the line into NO NOT REALLY, NO: was the disabilityfail. The major, utter, total disabilityfail. Here is your rule of thumb: if your character’s disability literally goes away when it is most convenient for it to go away. If you have your character discussing how this happens. I will not care that you have come up with a magical reason for why this happens. I will start spelling magical with extra a’s at that point: your magical reason is now a maaaaaagical reason.

Because here’s the thing: I always want my disability to go away. It would always be most convenient. I do not need barbarian warriors to be slashing at my head. The day I missed the wedding of one of my best friends in the world was enough. Or the day other people in my house got sick and no one was well enough to get groceries and we had to call for outside help. Or…oh, pick a random Tuesday. Tuesday is a good enough reason to Rully Rully Want to not be disabled. And pretty much every disabled person I know feels this way. (Now, you may have labeled some differences as disabilities that the person who has them does not label that way. That’s a separate conversation. But if the person who has it calls it a disability? They pretty much want it gone.) So the Convenient To The Plot Appearing And Disappearing Disability: don’t do that. Don’t ever, ever do that.

But if you’ve stuck with the previous two volumes and want to see how it all turns out….

Please consider using our link to buy The Last Mortal Bond from Amazon.

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To illustrate my last remark YET AGAIN

Last night I didn’t read Anna Karenina. I didn’t watch Simon & Simon or consume walnuts or gluten or alcohol. I didn’t play Moonlight Sonata on the harmonium. I didn’t buy a hamster.

All the things you don’t do are pretty boring to write about.

For one of my friends, though, not consuming alcohol was a little more interesting, because she was recently actively staying sober as a choice that she needed to make for her health. Not like me–I’m at a point with my vertigo and my vertigo meds where I can have a bottle of cider or a glass of wine and enjoy the pleasant taste, and some days I do, and most days I don’t. When I do, the taste can be interesting to comment on; when I don’t, the lack is completely boring.

Earlier this week, people in my Twitter feed were talking about the perception that all writers are heavy drinkers. And honestly some of the reason for this is that a bunch of writers really are heavy drinkers. And some of the reason for it is that conventions bring out the heavy drinker in some people who are otherwise pretty moderate. But some of the reason for it is that those of us who are, like me, light drinkers, and those who are non-drinkers, don’t talk about it in those terms; it’s just not an interesting thing to discuss. At best, boring. At worst, it sounds defensive or false. “There I was, playing the harmonium and TOTALLY NOT DRINKING HEAVILY WHY WOULD YOU EVEN THINK THAT, GOD, EVELYN.” Or, “There I was, buying a hamster and NOT drinking heavily NOT LIKE SOME PEOPLE, KYLE.”

So it’s a good thing to keep in mind: like many topics, you’re not going to hear most of what other people do, and that occasionally means you hear from people like my friend who say, hey, this is how many days (or in the case of other friends, years) I’ve been sober. But for most cases it means you hear, hey, I’m having this drink, and it tastes like this. Or, I’m having this many drinks, wooo! (If you’re thinking that I find “it tastes like this” more interesting than “wooo!”, yeah, guilty. But people get to have their “wooo!”)

If you’re trying to work in this field and do convention culture and you’re someone who is concerned about heavy drinking in writer culture, though, for personal reasons–maybe you’re someone like my friend who needs to stay sober for your own health. Maybe you’re shy and not very comfortable drinking in professional circumstances. Maybe you just don’t like loud bars. A million reasons. I think it’s probably a good idea to think of what positive things you’re doing for convention/colleague bonding instead. So that you have something to talk about and focus on–“hey, I am doing fancy brunch with people!” or “I am doing tea tasting!” or whatever else you are doing. Rather than, “I am not drinking!” Karaoke. Trying to find someone who knows about fight scenes and is willing to nerd out about yours until you can fix it. An outing to the best restaurant you could find in walking distance–they have [specialty of the house here] and you heard it’s amazing.

You’ll end up with some of the heavy drinkers with you, because they like [specialty of the house here], too, and karaoke and tea and brunch and fight scenes, too. And also some of the moderate drinkers and the light drinkers and the non-drinkers. And hey, isn’t that what you wanted? Because the stuff you’re not doing…is kind of boring. And not your focus anyway. So better to accentuate the positive, see how that works. And if it doesn’t, try a different positive, because messing with Mr. In-Between is pretty much never the answer.

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revision: three ways to level up

  1. There’s stuff you don’t have to revise any more when you get past a certain point, because you never mess it up in the first place. That’s convenient if you can get it. Do as many of those as possible. But don’t expect them; they come where they come, and yelling at yourself for not having more of them is counterproductive. Your favorite writer in the world wrote something completely idiotic in the first draft of your favorite book. Really. I promise they did. Ideally they revised it out.
  2. There’s stuff that would have looked impossible when you were newer at this. When someone says, “I’d like you to do more of x, more of y, and more of z, and can you do it in 10% fewer words? Thanks.” Sometimes you look at that and think, “Well, sure, yeah. I see how to do that. That’s only work, no problem.” And you know for a fact that when you were newer at this, less practiced, you would have cried. You would have thought this was ridiculous. Smooth out the pacing, what does that even mean? Does this editor, agent, or critique buddy hate you? I bet they hate you. They just say these things because they hate you. Whereas a few years and a bit of practice and the very same critique suggestion is reasonable. It’s like yoga, when they tell you to breathe into various body parts that are not your nose, sinuses, or lungs, and at first you balk and think, “Ludicrousness right here, what do you mean, breathe into my tailbone, you breathe into your tailbone, lady,” and then after a bit more you’re like, “Oh, breathe into my tailbone.”
  3. And then there’s the stuff that you know better than to attempt. Because you have the experience to know that it’s a bad idea. It looks very much like the stuff in #2, only, y’know, bad. Do more of x, y, and z, in 10% fewer words? You breathe into your tailbone, lady, that is bad for my story and I’m not doing it. Not even belligerently. Just: time for the nope, the calm and rational no thank you, nope. Knowing which reaction goes where and how to implement them: that’s the important part of leveling up.
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Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling, by Tony Cliff

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is the second in a series, and I have not read the first, which is called Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. Its content is easy to infer, since the titular characters are both in this volume: the Turkish Lieutenant, Mister Selim, narrates to the reader his role in events and his (slightly more sensible) opinions of Delilah’s exploits.

And exploits: they are many.

There is swashing, and also buckling. There are adventures on horseback, on sailboats, in carriages, at fancy balls, in gardens, at teas. There are adventures with multiple different sets of soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. The swords, the muskets, the barrels of powder, and the written-out sound effects are copious. So there are many of you for whom this is going to be exactly your sort of rollicking adventure. If you have ever thought, “The biffs, bams, and pows of ’60s era Batman: if only they were attached to a young woman in the British Regency!”, then your long nightmare of waiting is over and this is the graphic novel for you.

Those of you for whom it maybe isn’t: the ones who care about the social mores of British society during the Napoleonic Wars. In the author’s note, Tony Cliff says that despite his best efforts there will inevitably be some conflict with the astute reader’s knowledge: boy howdy. And then he invites readers to help him with his research: um. This is a complete cop-out, basically, because when it comes to social mores he pretty clearly does not care. When can you, as an unmarried woman of good family, go introduce yourself to random other people of good family? How does that work in the Regency? Hahaha Tony Cliff patently does not care–I cannot imagine that a reader saying, “That’s not how it worked, actually,” would have gotten anywhere with the plot he had contrived. It looks very much like he wanted to write a rollicking adventure with a very modern heroine who does not care either. And if you, the reader, care–if you cannot un-know the things you know about the social interactions of the time–if you cannot set them aside to go biff, bam, and pow–this is probably not the graphic novel for you, swashing and buckling though it may have.

Please consider using our link to buy Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling from Amazon.

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Books read, late February

Tina Connolly, Seriously Wicked. Connolly’s previous book, Silverblind, was one I felt was a serious level up for her, and so I had high hopes for Seriously Wicked. But it was aimed in a completely different direction from her previous work, and I think it’s important to keep in mind that when we really like something an author has done, sometimes the best thing they can do with their next book is something different. Compared to Silverblind, this is frothy, bubbly fun. I felt like the resolution was somewhat obvious, but its teen target audience very well might not–and writing things that are genuinely fun is harder than it looks and generally underappreciated.

Laura Esquivel, Malinche. The prose of this is beautiful, particularly the places where it’s talking about pre-Columbian Mexico. There are several places where Esquivel skips over some of the most emotionally difficult stuff–where her heroine decides to accompany Cortes and leave her infant son with a nanny, for example, that decision is summarized in a paragraph. She’s allowed to talk about what she wants to talk about, but a book that’s about Cortes’s translator could have been more powerful if she had been less willing to flinch. That wasn’t her interest, though, and the lyricism is gorgeous. Also it’s very quick, so if you start to get annoyed at the places where Esquivel looks away, it’ll soon be over.

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. Exhaustive detail. Exhaustive. Really. There is an entire chapter about what the roads were made of, advantages and disadvantages of the different materials. If you’re writing a book set in Victorian London or similar city, you really do want this. There are a few missteps–mostly not related to her period but to ours–but in general Flanders is someone to follow if you’re at all interested in her period, and even if you’re not.

Christine Ingebritsen, The Nordic States and European Unity. This says a lot of things about the Nordic states and their relationship with the EU and its predecessor, and it’s one of those books where if you know a reasonable amount about the differences in the economies of those countries, it will all seem a tiny bit obvious. But here it’s laid out with graphs and charts and numbers, so you can quote the things that seem obvious if you need them later, so there’s that, I guess.

Astrid Lindgren, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Reread, twenty-five or so years later. This was a favorite when I was little, and revisiting it after a hiatus of my entire adulthood does not make me love it any less. If anything, I love it more now, because I see the things it’s doing clearly from a different angle. Lindgren writes with clear-eyed love about childhood friendships and time in the Swedish wilds. Death, dirt, illness, hunger, and prejudice are all here, but none of them win–none but death, because in a Swedish children’s book you’re allowed to tell children that the people they love will someday die. Which is one of the reasons I love them. The horses, the forests, the snow and the river and the rocks, Ronia and Birk together in the summer, oh how I love this book.

Jan Morris, Hav. This was the perfect book to read while planning a trip. It’s a travel guide to a Mediterranean city that doesn’t exist, and it’s chatty and wonderful. It feels real. It feels like, oh well, we chose to go to the Baltic in May, but if we hadn’t, we could have gone to the Mediterranean instead and gone to Hav. So it was like having a friend talking about her own vacation while I was planning mine. And the bits that loomed, the bits that were plotty around the edges–the bits that smelled like plot in the corners of your brain without coming right out and being plot–those were fascinating.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient. This is such an encapsulated world book. Onddatje wanted to be telling such a very particular kind of wartime story, and the places where he’s playing with other pieces of English literature keep fascinating me. Kim and A. A. Milne, I keep going back to pick at what he was doing there, I’m still not entirely sure I’ve got it. I do know that if I had charge of him for the week I’d make him read a lot about Gertrude Bell until he apologized for the idea he had about the desert being a men’s world. But never mind that, there was stuff about love and choices and pieces of English literature, and I’m not sorry I took the time. Even if I get stern about Gertrude Bell sometimes.

Diriye Osman, Fairytales for Lost Children. Short stories, queer Somali surrealist immigrant experience, and if that doesn’t make you want them, then you don’t want them. Family relationships around all that. Not like anything else, like itself. I think many of you do want them, though. I think many of you were waiting for queer Somali surrealist immigrant family experience short stories in this kind of illustrated prose and didn’t know you were.

V.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows. Discussed elsewhere.

Wade Shepard, Ghost Cities of China. This felt very much like expanded magazine articles. It did not, at the end, feel like it had enough insights to be a book instead. So: China pre-plans and pre-builds its cities, intending to fill them with people, and they don’t always fill as quickly as the west would expect, since we don’t do things that way. Okay. And the environmental destruction involved in China’s building industry is staggering, but is it more so with the pre-planning than it would be if they were waiting until the people were clamoring to get in? Do we have any indication that the cities in this book will stay ghost cities? Well. Not really. Disappointing, written probably ten years before there’s book to be had, meh.

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Apex Book of World SF, Volume 2. A varied volume in location, style, theme, etc. In such a volume of course there will be some that appeal far more than others. For me the two standouts were Anabel Enriquez Piñeiro’s “Borrowed Time” and Shweta Narayan’s “Nira and I.” Shweta is a personal friend, and I had never even heard Anabel’s name before. Very divergent topics and styles also. I look forward to finding gems like these in the rest of the volumes in this series.

Charles Watkins, Trees, Woods, and Forests: A Social and Cultural History. In an email to a friend, I compared this to being the more informative, intellectually stimulating version of looking at puppy pictures on the internet. Because it was calming. It was so pleasant. And yet: informative! Not mindless in the least! I think I need more things like this, full of scientific and social facts about a topic of interest and yet not at all likely to make me fume and want to punch things. Forestry may be fertile ground here. So to speak. But this volume in particular is great, many lovely facts about trees, almost as good as trees themselves. You can even combine the two when the weather is a tiny bit nicer.