Monday, June 13, 2022

Ash Holes

Lying in my improbable bed
Protected by our improbable roof
that mere hours ago I imagined gone
before I understood how 'gone'
gone would be.

Weeks later, reminded only
if I walk half a mile south or west
or try to run the trail around the hospital
where the collie used to leap up
to bark above an eight-foot fence
and now a bin of dog food
sits at the base of a tree in the wasteland of the neighborhood
some guardian put out in case 
their dog miraculously escaped
the fence and ran east
(please not north, not west nor south).
I don't even know if it was the collie
there must have been twenty houses
on their little patches, now undivided.
The acreage so small it seems impossible
that I used to consider that it mattered which way to drive the circle
when we picked up Gwyn or Isabella, 
but a subdivision is a few acres. Now empty,  
with a retaining wall naked for all to see, 
All those houses made it bigger,
expanded it with life and love.

The houses that survived: Dan's backyard burned 
but only boiled the paint on one wall and broke a window
and Natalie's, the last house standing on her street,
and John's, alone among mansion-holes,
will be months to be repaired and cleaned
and now they say the demolition 
will take eighteen months,
rebuilding five years,
and ten percent of those that burned
have already been sold. It hasn't even been one month.
Our neighbors gone,
under-insured or traumatized or too exhausted
to deal with all of this
because who even has time to breathe 
or take a bath or read a book
and now this? Loss and grief
trauma and paperwork.
Work. Painful, grueling, work
out of nowhere for no reason but nothing at all.

Even the untouched houses now appear
in my head as ethereal, just one hot moment
away from being twisted metal ash holes.
The wheated grass I love signals danger:
not only the lines of houses bordering vast open spaces
but the tongues that stretch along bike paths
meant to connect people but they connected flame
to streets that burned while others, between,
remained untouched.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Guide by Peter Heller (A book I finished!)


The Guide by Peter Heller

I have ten unfinished books on my night stand, and there is little chance that I will return to most of them (for various reasons). However, once I started reading The Guide, I had trouble putting it down (even though I'm hella busy right now and also sleep deprived). 

The curious thing is that there are several aspects to the book that I didn't like. 

Format: The author's chioce to write in paragraphs denoted by a space between instead of first line indentation. This is how I wrote the first draft of my first novel, and my understanding is that it is for online content instead of hard-copy. Normally I would see this as a flag for beginner, without an editor, but this author has published at least three novels and more non-fiction, so it is clearly a choice. It is distracting on pages with a lot of dialogue (where each speaker requires a new paragraph) because there is so little room for text, and I'm not sure what is the reason for the choice.

POV: It is about 99% in Jack's head, but on four or five occassions, it wanders to another character for a paragraph or two.  I'm aware that the current, strong admonition against omniscient point of view is just a trend, but the extreme imbalance in this book seems amateurish. One of the arguments against using omniscient is that it can serve as only a device to transmit information to the reader that the protagonist doesn't have, but that didn't even seem to happen here. In this case, the only reason I could see to use it where the author did is to deepen the supporting characters but this wouldn't have been that hard to achieve by strictly using limited POV. It is an example where my critique group's advice would help: if you're going to go that route, introduce it early so the reader isn't thrown out half-way through, and put in more so it seems consistent, and certainly think about why you're doing it and if there's another way to achieve the same effect.

A major aspect that I was unsure about

The setting is a with-COVID world. (There's apparently not going to be a post-COVID world). It has been an interesting discussion with fellow writers how to deal with COVID in our novels. Any fictional world that doesn't include it seems false, but it is so fresh that no one really knows how it is going to affect our long-term future. This novel did a good job in having Jack don a face mask in the first few pages and mention the possibility of new variants, so I knew what world we were in. Given that it was published in Aug 2021, I can only imagine there were lots of last-minute edits to more truly align the fictional experience with the virus real-world experience. I can't even imagine the hubris required to write it, and I quite admire how well the author did with making it work.

So why did I keep reading?
It was a bit of a mystery to me during the act. Here's some guesses:

The mystery. 
Throughout most of the book, I thought this was a negative aspect. It seemed like the mystery was going to have a really obvious conclusion. In the end, it was different, and tied well into another major aspect of the book. It seems in retrospect that the author was purposefully misdirecting me to think it was going to be the obvious answer, but since I was pretty convinced, it turned me off that it was heading an apparent cliché.

The backstories
It seems this is actually a sequel to The River, which has now been spoiled for me (but since I enjoyed this enough, I probably will read it anyway). But there is a tragedy in that, and a tragedy early in Jack's life, that are tied in here, and I found them to be compelling "wounds" for the protagonist to recover from. The way they were healed in this book seemed a little forced, though.

The protagonist wasn't a hero, the relationship wasn't consummated
Not sure if this kept me reading but I liked how the characters could be attracted to each other without ending up in a relationship, and I liked how much the love interest was key to the final solution. I've recently realized how many books try to force their protagonist to go-it-alone because all we know about is the Hero's Journey (or atleast that's all I knew until I read The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carriger). This was a fresh change.

Purple prose
It's not really overly descriptive and flowerly although some of my critique partners might disagree. But there is a lot of emotionally evocative description of the natural world and the experience of fly fishing right in the middle of the action scenes.  I can quote Anna Solomon's review of Ocean Vuong's writing "coaxing his readers to understand the weight of each moment with welcoming, fluid prose and imagery.

I think this served to slow down the action just enough, and definitely to get to know the character and set me deeply in the scene. It might not work so well for someone who isn't such a fan-girl of the natural world, but then Peter Heller himself expresses that those who grew up in cities appreciate nature more so maybe there's more readers who can identify!

My appreciation of this aspect leads me to think that the real reason I liked this book is that it really is my genre. The ARC quote on the front is "Peter Heller is the poet laureate of the literary thriller." I'm not writing thrillers (yet?) but I find myself straddling the literary/commecial divide. Sometimes I feel like that means I'm not doing either well but my hope is that the work I'm putting in will strengthen both and I can land in that sweet spot where the plot is moving and compelling, the characters are interesting and also the language is beautiful enough. While reading this, I felt tension between wanting to linger in the imagery and wanting to skim to find out what was going to happen, and I think this is my sweet spot. It is great to have an author that does this at the balance that I want, and definitely a reason for me to read more of him.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Why I finish reading so few books


I've heard from a few other writers who have this experience: it is hard to finish a book anymore. For me, I know at least three contributing reasons. 

1) High standards/see behind the curtain. A lot of of what gets published would get ripped apart in critique group. This is a good lesson for critique group, actually: it doesn't have to be perfect, and "the rules" are really only guidelines. That said, the newer of an author someone is, the less they can get away with. More often for me is that it is all just so transparent. I see the whiff of death, I see how they're setting up the stakes, I see how their making the protagonist likable (save the cat). This is even worse in movies but there I find it an interesting puzzle. When I'm reading, I want to fall into the book!

2) Lack of time. Any time I'm reading, I'm not writing. However, the first rule of writing is that you're supposed to read a lot of books. A lot. Basically, those few people who write a first novel that just happens to be brilliant, or the larger set who write without planning, are those who have absorbed how to tell a good story without being taught, and mostly this happens through reading. So I strive to read more and I don't consider it an excuse that I'm busy, but I'm not going to waste time finishing a book that I don't find compelling.

3) Buying books for research, not pleasure. The corollarly of the 'read a lot' rule is to read a lot in your genre. On my bedstand, there are currently four novels with themes or setting involving the moon. When I talk to an agent, I need to know how to compare my book to those that are out there. Moon or earth near-future. My dirty little secret is also that I don't spontaneously read speculative fiction. Growing up, I read the classics that big fans of the genre suggested to me, but I don't have deep knowledge. So although I've found authors I like, it requires wading through a lot that I don't. 

Up next: a book I was compelled to finish, despite it's flaws.