Posted on Leave a comment

Important tools

One of the things I often think about advice is that it usually reflects the advice-giver’s needs rather than being some kind of universal law. “Don’t smack yourself in the face with a frying pan,” okay, sure, but once you leave that realm, you’ll run into “definitely write every day because you need the momentum” and “definitely don’t write every day because you need to take breaks,” and…those two things are advice designed for different people who have opposite problems. And the milder versions, “momentum is valuable” and “rest is valuable” are both true.

So I’ve been thinking about another pair of aphorisms in tension. And they are “it’s a poor crafter who blames their tools” and “get the right tool for the job.” I think this is a case where both are true and it’s a matter of finding the balance and figuring out where you are on the spectrum of “how true is this at the moment, how much does this apply to me right now.”

Example: for Christmas in 2018 I got a traveler’s notebook. And that has been astonishingly helpful for my productivity. I was productive before, no one who lives outside my skull could deny it. And yet this: this is staggeringly useful. This is a thing that helps me be both more productive and more relaxed about it. What is this magic. It is an amazing tool for me. It is objectively much, much better than its absence. Was it worth spending the money? Oh God yes. (It was not my money, it was a gift. But if it had been? STILL YES.

Now: if my productivity device had been an extremely fancy laptop instead of a traveler’s notebook, this math would be somewhat different. Or if I was finding productivity leaps from a different system every month. Because then you start asking: are these genuine productivity leaps? But I think we’re culturally skewed toward Puritanism in some ways. We’re skewed toward sit down, shut up, you can’t possibly benefit from the thing, do not ask for anything.

Except…hammering with a hammer is better and more efficient and safer than hammering with the handle of a screwdriver. You can hurt yourself doing that. There’s a reason professionals use a hammer. No one is going to hurt themselves trying to write in a spiral notebook from Walgreen’s instead of a nice traveler’s notebook, but it’s entirely 100% possible that they might not get as much written. I myself have written on basically anything, computer, paper, whatever. The back of junk mail. Just to prove to myself that I can, that I don’t need a special system, that if I’m in a random location with scrap paper I can still write. I still do that now, so that I don’t get too precious about having to have things exactly right. Buuuut having things that I like is actually great and it is totally okay if you want things that you like too.

And the difference between, for example, really good artist-grade colored pencils and the bottom of the barrel cheapest colored pencils is staggering. You literally can make immensely better art with the good pencils. That’s not being “precious,” that’s not being spoiled or demanding or a snob, that’s…there is a difference in the quality of what comes out.

I suspect that nobody reading this has infinite choice. I suspect that I have not attracted any billionaires to be regular blog readers. (If so, hi! I have a whole list of artists you could patronize, billionaire reader!) So it’s a matter of balance, balance, balance, as in so many things. I just…feel like there’s a certain amount of cultural default that if you purchase organizational tools to make things easier, you’re being self-indulgent and you don’t really need them, and I want to push back on that. Sometimes the right tool that fits your hand is amazing, and you can do better work with it. Hurray for finding those moments. Let’s celebrate them when we can. Even when they seem random and weird from the outside.

Posted on Leave a comment

The exact right thing

Today it’s been over three weeks since the three-day flooring project began. It will not end today. I hope it ends this week but who knows. I have learned to just…go with whatever is, to not rely on this uncertain world and so on. And so for basically a month we’ve been living with the uproar of not being able to have things on the main floor of the house, because we had to have it cleared out in advance. This has been…not great. We’ve coped. We’ve done quite a lot of coping.

But it’s given me insight, I think, into what people want of minimalism. Right now there are rooms in my house that are the purest minimalism. They have nothing in them. It’s hard to get more minimalist than that, and yet: that is not what minimalism wants. Other rooms are stuffed with more than what they’re supposed to have, they’re impossible to use or merely annoying and difficult, because the things that are quite usable in their usual space are overwhelming when crammed in. So–and I know this is not unique to me–I feel like minimalism is a fantasy of having the exact right stuff.

It’s about knowing exactly what you’re going to need and having only that. Not the stuff you thought you might need, or the stuff you thought looked cool when you were twenty and now you’re forty-one and you’re less sure. Not the stuff someone else thought you might need. And especially not the stuff someone else thought looked cool and it was never really quite right for you but also not wrong enough to get rid of. Just exactly the right stuff, exactly where you can get to it.

Living life inevitably comes with baggage–emotional baggage as well as physical. If you’re a person who reaches forty without things and people in your life, that itself is emotional baggage, that itself is a story. Even if you’re happy that way, it’s a set of things that have happened to you and ways you’ve reacted. When we were packing up wedding presents into a U-Haul to move to California when I was 21, my uncle sighed and said, “When I was 21, I could just…throw my guitar in the backseat and drive off into the sunset,” and I said, “Uncle Pete, I’m a pianist.” Which is symbolically as well as literally true; I was never going to be someone who had a guitar and a kit bag for her entire life.

I do understand wanting to have the right things, though. Not too much and not too little. Not so much of the things that seemed right but weren’t that you can’t get to the things that are actually delightful, or even just functional. Enough of the backups that you don’t have a crisis when something is no longer working, but not so many that you drown in them. Balance, balance, balance.

Right now having things cleared out is making me look at all of it very carefully. Do I really want this, no, really, no, really. When everything goes back in those rooms, should it. I have already realized that I am probably not going to play my flute again, that the future in which I have more time for music doesn’t probably mean a future in which I devote it to the flute. So someone else can enjoy that, rather than having it gather dust in the corner of the music room, between the pianos that we do still want. Nobody with two pianos can reasonably be called a minimalist. But still: the right things, the things we do want, and not the things we don’t, sure, yes, I see that.

Right now that includes my oven, I want my oven back….

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, early February

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. I had not read this fairly famous set of essays, and now I have. It was horrifying and instructive, as of course you would expect it to be. I think that in some ways the fact that it is a few generations ago and it is his cri de coeur about his experience of racism, direct and unfiltered, makes it not my first recommendation of Baldwin or of this kind of essay. I feel like his fiction and the contemporary equivalent of these essays are the things I’d hand to people if they’re going to read only one thing by him or only one of this type of essay, because the historical nature of it makes it easier for people to take the message as an historical message rather than one with contemporary relevance, and I feel like that’s less true of his plays/novels. But it’s still very much worth reading as long as you’re going to think carefully about it.

Bob Cary, Born to Pull: The Glory of Sled Dogs. I read very little middle grade nonfiction, but this was recommended for all ages of people who are interested in sled dogs. Not complicated but beautifully done.

Paul Cornell, A Long Day in Lychford. This is the third novella in its series, and in a lot of ways it’s a series of novellas that’s more of a serialization of a longer piece of fiction, so there are parts of the relationships, characterization, and setting that will be hard to pick up at this point. It doesn’t really stand alone. What it does do well: take on Brexit head on with a fantasy conceit. Oh my goodness, it had been a minute since I read the previous one in the series, and I had not braced myself for how much Cornell was just going to square up and do that. Wow. Wow.

Fernando Flores, Tears of the Truffle-Pig. This was a little bit influenced by SF about genetic engineering of animal species and a lot influenced by Latinx fabulism, and it’s US/Mexico border SF/F that isn’t entirely like anything else.

Lisa Goldstein, Travellers in Magic. Reread. Kindle. I had read these before and didn’t remember much about them, and I’m afraid I didn’t find them very memorable this time around either. Neither were they bad or offensive, they were generally pretty readable, just not her best work, in my opinion.

Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons. Actually more a history of the Anglo-Saxon (/early English) kings, but that’s fine, that’s useful in its own way as long as you’re clear on what you’re doing and willing to look further for the rest of things, which I am.

Nalo Hopkinson, Dominike Stanton, and John Rauch, House of Whispers Volume One: The Power Divided. This is in the Sandman universe, but with Caribbean gods and loa and a mostly new set of characters from this author. It is the kind of graphic novel collection that is not at all required to be a complete story arc, so there will be more of this story to come.

Tove Jansson, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. These stories were amazing. The first one was so good that I had to set the book down and make noises about it. The characterization is just incredibly spot-on beautifully done, and I love it, I love this collection so much, I am so happy with it, oh gosh, so good.

A.K. Larkwood, The Unspoken Name. Discussed elsewhere.

Long Litt Woon, The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning. This is a memoir of a woman who lost her husband very suddenly and unexpectedly in middle age and took up mushroom hunting as part of figuring out what to do with herself in the aftermath of his passing. She was born in Malaysia but had moved to Norway as an exchange student and stayed there when she met her husband, so part of this story is how she determined that she was going to stay there even once he was gone, how she made the Norwegian forest landscape more her own. It’s not very long, and I liked it.

Maria Mitsora, On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave, White Roses Have Already Bloomed. Short stories in translation, a very slim volume, a little surrealist and a little puzzling, but fine.

Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World. Another in the sub-genre of “people deal with their proximity to a fictional famous author,” in this case one mostly offstage, and also there’s the eccentric family of an immigrant scholar, and also a young woman making her way in the world of the 1930s. If you like that sort of thing.

C.L. Polk, Stormsong. Even when I say that a sequel deals with consequences, usually there is at least a little glossing over of the awkward bits. But this sequel to the excellent and (!!!) award-winning Witchmark does not spare its characters the social or moral implications of what they’ve done. They have to figure out how to handle it, exactly how to handle it–there’s no “oh I’m sure there’s some way to”–nope, who gets arrested, who has to say something upsetting to which powerful person’s face, exactly how does speaking really horrible truth to really powerful power play out here. It’s amazingly done, it’s really powerful, and I recommend it highly.

Danez Smith, Homie. These poems are soft and hard and particular and beautiful and ugly and just what I needed. There is one in particular that makes me cry every time I read it, “I’m Going Back To Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense,” but the others that are in some way the opposite, the others that are not my own perspective whatsoever, are enlightening in their own way too. Highly recommended.

Mariko Tamaki, Lumberjanes: Ghost Cabin. This is another of the middle grade novels in the same setting/with the same characters as the Lumberjanes comics. This one sets the group on a path to encounter some of the Lumberjanes who went before, and to help them to figure out where they want to be now that they’ve…gone beyond. Friendship to the max, even beyond the grave. So much fun.

Thant Myint-U, The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. It is very strange to read a history book that happened not only during my lifetime, not only during my adult lifetime, but mostly during the most recent part of my adult lifetime. It’s extremely useful, because the stuff that Thant is talking about here was drastically underreported in the news media I was reading. If you don’t know what the situation is in Burma in any great detail, this is a good place to go.

Jesmyn Ward, ed., The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. As should be clear from the title, this is an essay collection inspired by James Baldwin’s famous essays, above. Ward asked a bunch of people to write on a very broad interpretation of this topic, and most of what she got is really interesting, some of it even brilliant. There are two essays that relate to what I would broadly describe as the historical Black experience in New England that were just mind-blowing. One essay for some reason needed to footnote its cis-essentialist viewpoint for reasons I still don’t understand, and I want to flag that, because otherwise this is great and what is that footnote even doing, and I wouldn’t want someone to come upon it unprepared and think I thought that part was great too. But there is so much else worth reading in this collection.

Jane Yolen, Things to Say to a Dead Man: Poems at the End of a Marriage and After. This is harrowing and well done and I cried in several spots. If you are the sort of person who grieves communally through literature, this may well be for you; if you know such a person, this may well be for them. If you are the sort of person who does not want your grief highlighted by that kind of commonality, steer well clear of this book.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Unspoken Name, by A.K. Larkwood

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend since we’re repped by the same agent and all.

Which is not to say that you should discount my squee, because: squeeee this is so much fun. I tore right through it and then have had to wait months to share this review with you lot through the wonder of ARCs. I love books that ask, “But then what next?” And this is very much that kind of book. There is a child priestess who is to be sacrificed, who is ready to die. She is saved from death. Yes: but then what next?

What next is learning so much. What next is searching not one world but many, for ancient relics, barely remembered but powerful beyond describing. What next is being handed team members you don’t want, don’t like, and would actually like to throw into any convenient abyss. What next is loyalty to the point of agony–loyalty beyond imagining–and then.

And then discoveries of someone new who can earn your loyalty too.

This is not a short fantasy, but not a page is wasted. I tore through it at a scorching pace, with each section bringing new personal developments for both Csorwe and her worlds. The shape of Csorwe’s story is hers, and for all the fantasy I read, I never yawned, oh, this again. I wanted to be with her for every moment of it. Highly recommended.

Posted on Leave a comment

Present Writers: Delia Sherman

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman,Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, and Ellen Kushner.

It’s a little strange and yet also wonderful to write two of these in a row when my favorite book by the pair of authors is the one they wrote together. Because as I said last month–The Fall of the Kings is my favorite Ellen Kushner book, and it’s also my favorite Delia Sherman book. They’re a married couple who managed to do something together that was even more amazing than what they do separately–it’s magical and immersive, and I love it so much.

But Sherman does have an entire quirky and individual body of work away from Riverside, and writing these two posts in such quick succession made me think carefully about what I like about that body of work apart from The Fall of the Kings. Remove the favorite, and what have you got? And for me the answer is that Sherman is an absolute champ at historical fantasy. The texture and detail of how the characters’ motivation and plot arise from their context and setting, the way that magic can arise from a knowledge of place and time–that’s where she really shines.

You can take a quick tour through a chocolate box sampler of these skills with Sherman’s short story collection, Young Woman in a Garden, in which she demonstrates a variety of inspirations and settings, rather than just one or two. Even within the 19th century in the United States Sherman has an ear for place, context, dialect. If you have time you can pick up one after another of the longer works to see her range–but one collection will give you a taste of it incredibly quickly. It’s a treat, and it’s a gift.

Posted on Leave a comment

Revising grief

There’s no particular reason why you have to make anything out of grief that’s for anyone else’s consumption. A lot of people don’t; but then a lot of people do, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Roland Barthes and Donald Hall and Jane Yolen and, apparently, me. The stuff that you pour out into a journal or sketchbook or freeform on your instrument can just be you and your grief, you and a bunch of tears and snot and the knots in your chest. But the minute you say, hey, I think this might actually be good, this might be worth going on with, then there’s subjecting the art you made from grief to revision, and that is, frankly, very weird.

I think for me the thing that has been weirdest about this process is the bifurcated view that it requires. Because a lot of what I’ve been doing is looking at sentences and saying, yes, that is exactly right, that is exactly what my experience of grief and mourning was like–and, simultaneously, this sentence is not doing what it needs to do for this story as a story. And so it needs to change, it needs to communicate more with the outside world, or it needs to go away completely, having served its purpose of getting my emotions out and not having a purpose in the other thing I’m doing, which is telling this story.

Which is a story about grief. Yes. It totally is. But it’s a story, I am asking an editor to publish it as a story; I had the choice of just doing a blog post that was word soup, an outpouring on the page, and instead I shaped it into something else, something indirect; I wrote about my grief by writing about the grief of someone who lost their mother, a person who lived alone, a person who had an alien visitor. None of those details are true of me. I took it into the realm of fiction because that’s what I do–but then the other thing I do is actually, I revise, I consider, I add and prune and think about what’s there compared to what I meant to be there.

Even when it’s something incredibly personal.

Even when it’s one of the worst things.

It’s always okay to say no. It’s always okay, when someone says, hey, can you make this clearer, can you make this longer, can you make this shorter, I don’t understand what significance the bananas have here–it’s always okay to say, no, you know what, I don’t want to do it that way, this is how we’re doing it or not at all. And I think being a short story writer gives me a very particular outlook on that, because there is always another one.

But there isn’t another of this one, there isn’t another that does what this one does, that says what this one says, and at the end of the day when I weigh the variables I find that I actually do care enough to make it worthwhile, to look with double vision at my own suffering and say, okay, this part is just for me, this part is to try to talk to the world about what it is like to suffer in this particular way. This, and not that.

All of the things I have to say about Dad’s opinion of this are circular: Dad would want me to if I wanted to. Dad would want me to have something to say about this if I had something to say about it. Dad would think it was worth it if it was worth it to me.

Dad trusted my judgment.

Dad wanted me to trust my own judgment too.

It is a very different kind of exquisitely painful to mourn someone who wasn’t good to you, and I try to be careful how I talk to people when I know their parental relationship was more complicated than this, but for me, I have this, I have this support that has lasted, that will last, because one of the things about knowing him this well and honoring who he was is that when I take a deep breath and think about whether this line stays or goes in a story, I don’t have to second-guess whether he would be upset or not, because that is not how this worked, that is never how this worked with my work, he would never have second-guessed my work, not once, he would have been horrified. I can do this when I say I’m ready, and my dad was in the absolute front ranks of the people who would say that.

I was never going to be ready for the grief part. But the revision, well. Apparently that’s now. Bring it on.

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, late January

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary. This is the scraps of observation, literally scraps, that Barthes scribbled down about his feelings after his mother died. I had been hoping for the sort of communal experience of grief across the years that I got with Tennyson, and this is definitely not it. Barthes focuses almost entirely on himself here, rather than on memories of the person he lost–I can tell you very little about his mother, from this book. Some grief experiences turn out not to be universal at all.

Gwenda Bond, Girl in the Shadows. This is a YA in the same universe as Girl on a Wire with overlap of characters but different protagonist, so I think it would be fairly easy to pick up without reading the first one. The protag here is a teenage girl who wants to be a magician despite the dearth of girls in that profession–and then finds out that more than one kind of magic is real, and her control over the stage kind does not extend to the other kind right away. There are the dangers of being involved in a circus plus the dangers of the world beyond it. This was fun, and I raced through it.

Stephanie Burgis, Moontangled. Discussed elsewhere.

Thomas DuBois, ed., Sanctity in the North: Saints, Lives, and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia. Lots of good essays here about the pre-Protestant saint cults and also which elements of saint worship survived into the Protestant era in this region and why. Thoughtful and interesting, rounded out some views of a region where I have a lot more context of the religions of the period surrounding this one.

Katherine Fabian and Iona Datt Sharma, Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night. Kindle. Oh this was so lovely. It’s a story of found family and lost love and daring magic rescues, and if you’ve ever felt on the outside of a Christmas movie looking in, this might well be for you. It is the very best kind of inclusive and fun, and I sat on a bench waiting for Orchestra Hall to open up reading and laughing helplessly at how funny but also how true some of the passages were.

Tim Flannery, Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds: On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea. Every year for my grandpa’s birthday I buy a book that we both might have enjoyed. This was this year’s choice, and it did not disappoint, it had all sorts of things about rare species that were just the sort of thing I would have called Grandpa up to read to him over the phone, or vice versa. I think it’s clear that Flannery would write it somewhat differently today, that his more recent books have learned more modern language approaches to talking about different people’s customs, but there was enough about the tree kangaroos to be going on with.

J.E.A. Jolliffe, Pre-Feudal England: The Jutes. This was a book from the ’30s and was a grave disappointment. Not recommended. The time spent on land deeds was all right, but Jolliffe was muddled about who he was talking about and tracking his own assumptions vs. proven fact and I yelled at it and really, you don’t want this.

Andrew Lang, The Pink Fairy Book. Kindle. Probably a reread, but I read the fairy books so long ago that I have no record of it. Lots and lots of Lang’s own cultural assumptions heaped onto other people’s fairy tales in ways that are very transparent now that we don’t share them, but on the other hand he was trying to get worldwide fairy tales to an audience that wasn’t necessarily getting them other ways, so…we can get them other ways, but thanks for your service, Andrew Lang.

D.H. Lawrence, ed., Some Imagist Poets, 1916: An Annual Anthology. Kindle. What a hilarious thing to read immediately (immediately) after Rose Macaulay and see exactly what she was making fun of in the poetry of this era, because yes, okay Rose, yes. There were some lovely things in it but not by anyone you wouldn’t expect, unfortunately, if you’d read any Imagists before. No hidden gems, alas.

Rose Macaulay, Dangerous Ages. Kindle. This book, good heavens this book, where has this book been. (We all know where this book has been.) It is from 1920, it is about a woman who has raised her children and finds herself at loose ends with them more or less grown, and is trying to figure out what next, in an era when that question was regarded with a certain bafflement by most of the people around her, and it’s about middle age and work and family and…it’s amazing, it’s sharp and tender and funny and does all sorts of things, and I would say no one else thinks of doing them, but I didn’t know she thought of doing them, so who knows who else is out there. It’s free on Gutenberg whenever you want it.

Arkady Martine, Danika Dinsmore, et al, eds., Reckoning Issue 4. Kindle. Another really good issue of this magazine, which I have consistently enjoyed. My favorite pieces were “The Last Good Time to be Alive” by Waverly SM, “Thank You For Your Patience” by Rebecca Campbell, and “Ambient and Isolated Effects of Fine Particulate Matter” by Emery Robin. I was particularly glad I’d read the Campbell right before my ConFusion panels because I talked about it on two or possibly all three of them, it just kept applying, it keeps applying to everything. I got to hear the Robin piece read aloud by its author in New York in October, so that was an astonishing treat, and I can’t wait for it to go live in the online edition so I can link it for you in my short story round-ups; especially those who have lived in the East Bay will, I think, find it rings particularly true.

Liza Mundy, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. This is more a social than a technical history, but that’s all right, there are loads of codebreaking technical histories, this tells you how the women involved with the American codebreaking projects lived, where they lived and how they ate and what their families knew and how they kept them from knowing. I loved this.

Delia Sherman, Young Woman in a Garden. Reread. Mostly historical fantasy shorts, but in quite a variety of settings and magics, and I did enjoy the variety even on its return visit.

Lilah Sturges and Polterink, Lumberjanes: The Shape of Friendship. Shapeshifting friendship to the max! Never Not Lumberjanes.

Mariko Tamaki, Lumberjanes: The Good Egg. This one is a Lumberjanes middle grade novel, and even more Never Not Lumberjanes, because I will take it in graphic novel form if that’s how they’re serving it, but I would always rather have interiority than illustration. That’s obviously a personal preference, but it is in fact my personal preference. Yay.