Black God’s Kiss

One of the last books I finished in 2021 (a record reading year for me, though maybe not for entirely good reasons) was Black God’s Kiss, a selection for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s January meeting.

Cover the 2007 edition of Black God's Kiss by C. L. Moore

Or, well. To be more precise, the short story “Shambleau” by C. L. Moore  was a selection for the meeting. Beyond that, we were left to our own devices to find what we could of Moore’s writing elsewhere. The Stockholm public library had Black God’s Kiss, a 2007 edition of the anthology of Moore’s “Jirel of Joiry” that Paizo first collected and published in the 80s, so I rounded out my sci-fi experience with a generous helping of fantasy.

I won’t comment too much on “Shambleau” here, because it’s not in the Black God’s Kiss collection, but you can easily find it in the Internet Archive’s fantastic collection of old pulp magazines. That said, the protagonist of “Shambleau,” Northwest Smith, appeared in several other stories by Moore, including a crossover story with Jirel of Joiry that does appear in this collection.

To provide some context, our organizers suggested C. L. Moore after doing a deep dive into the real-life pulp writers who inspired the writer characters in the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” There is widespread fan agreement (and maybe even official Word of God?) that the character Kay Eaton is a fictional analogue for Star Trek writer and producer D. C. Fontana as well as pulp writer C. L. Moore. (That said, while Eaton in the episode is instructed not to disclose her gender, there’s nothing in either Moore’s or Fontana’s biography indicating they did likewise. Moore used initials to hide her identity, but that was to hide her status as a published author from her employer, not necessarily to obfuscate her gender.) That was the first time I’d ever heard of Moore so this was undiscovered country (hah! hah!) for me, and I think most, if not all, of our book club members.

Up to this point I’d already read several short stories from the magazines in question—primarily Weird Tales, but also a few others like Astounding Stories—so I was familiar with their typical literary style. I bring this up because Moore writes in the same style and thus her stories have a certain breathless “biff! pow! socko!” quality to it that’s no longer en vogue. And like so many of these other stories, the characters are really second billing to the Weird and Astounding elements: the alien settings, the supernatural forces, the fantastic magic. Does Jirel really evolve in the way we expect characters to do today? Only very slightly, perhaps, in the title story. Do we get a glimpse into her inner life, thoughts, dreams? Not really. Does she have any defining characteristics besides “proud” and “violent”? Nope! It’s not entirely science fiction or fantasy as it’s commonly written today, but if you’re already well-read in the genre then Moore does not disappoint. The stories advance at a  breakneck pace through the weird and magical 16th century France that Moore has created, the kind featured in countless Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

The collection is entirely short stories. While the first two are tied together through their plot, and a couple of the later stories make oblique reference to the events of the first, all of the stories stand on their own and exist in a sort of self-contained vacuum. This only makes sense, when you consider their original publication over several years in various editions of various magazines, but readers going in expecting (for whatever reason) a long-form novel would be confused and possibly disappointed. Even with that understanding, it can take a moment to shift gears when you’re mostly used to reading novels, or short story anthologies where the stories are entirely disconnected in terms of plot and characters.

From a genre historical perspective, these were a lot of fun. After countless words spilled about Manly He-Man Heroes running around beating stuff up, having a Xena Warrior Princess run around and beat stuff up is a welcome change. One refreshing difference from stories we see today is that Moore never presents it as weird or unusual for Jirel to be the feudal head of Joiry or the commander of her men; no secondary character remarks on how Joiry is unnatural for being commanded by a woman, and none of the foes Jirel faces (who run the gamut from relatively mortal wizards to unearthly sorceresses to vague, abstract supernatural forces) underestimate or undervalue her because of her gender at all. Nor is Jirel simply a palette swap of Conan the Barbarian. Several of the conflicts in the stories are driven by romantically or at least sexually charged encounters rather than overt violence; Black God’s Kiss is maybe my favorite in the collection because despite being a swords-and-sorcery revenge story, the story also captures the erotic tension of competition and rivalry well.

With that all said, I’m not entirely thrilled with the cheesecake cover art of this edition of the collection. I guess boob armor and tactically inadvisable exposed skin is now a fantasy art trope, but it clashes with Jirel’s actual character. Her dress is invariably actual armor, a doeskin tunic, or some kind of fancy gown. It seems to miss the point to take a pioneering woman fantasy protagonist and give her the Heavy Metal treatment. Of course, the original cover art for “Black God’s Kiss” isn’t really a proper representation either:

Cover of Weird Tales with the text

Overall the stories were fun and compelling, and I really wish that Moore had used them to launch into a full-length novel so we could spend more than an hour or two at a time with Jirel and her world. Or, barring that, more than just six stories would have been nice. By contrast, Conan the Barbarian appeared in 18 stories published before Robert E. Howard’s death—not counting Conan-adjacent pieces and posthumously published works. Perhaps if there had been an equal volume of Jirel of Joiry stories, she’d have her own beefcake cinematic avatar to cement her place in pop culture history.

It’s not too late for that, I suppose! I nominate Ronda Rousey for the role.

Catfishing on Catnet

The bulk of my reading seems, more and more, to be taken up by the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club. I’m not complaining; merely observing. The book for November was the underwhelming and skimmable Catfishing on Catnet.

Cover of Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer.

I went in cheering for this book. The original short story, “Cat Pictures Please,” is a fun and flawless gem of a short story. The voice is pitch-perfect. The way Kritzer is able to build the lives of the people in the story through the wake of their internet activity is masterful.

The novel ruins everything by adding teenagers.

I know, I know. Insert the Simpsons meme here:

Two shots of Principal Skinner from the Simpsons. In the top he looks concerned, and the text reads,
Have I inadvertently rendered myself even MORE old and out of touch by referencing The Simpsons, a show that is no longer funny? Oh well.

Let me say what I would have wanted to see in a full-length novel before I complain about what I read. I think that will maybe serve to highlight why I disliked this book so much, if I can properly sketch out my expectations.

First and foremost, I would have preferred to spend all of my time with the AI narrator. Maybe the premise would have worn thin, but then again, maybe it wouldn’t. I also would have preferred it to not be YA. The original story featured grown-up humans, after all, and I also can’t stand YA.

On a more substantive level, I would have wanted to see a complex, philosophical and slow-burn character-driven story: maybe a coming out bildungsroman, maybe a queer romance…you get the idea. That kind of approach would have been truer to the spirit of the original story and a more interesting thing to do with the premise. Something with nuance, something with depth, something that made you work a little bit to infer what was going on off page. Off screen?

And I name queer aspects specifically because 1) that was the focus in one of the three vignettes in the original short story, and 2) because queer themes make perfect sense: the internet is where a lot of, well, everything happens these days, including awful Trans Discourse TM, and at the same time, it’s a place where trans and queer people of all ages can find support and information in a world that’s not quite ready to support them yet. An AI character is also a great means of examining social norms from oblique angles, like in the Ancillary Justice  and Murderbot series.

If Kritzer had written a book like that, it would have been amazing.  But alas, she didn’t! Instead she wrote a Wacky Spielbergian Young People Doing Scary Things adventure, where our gang of misfits all neatly check off a panoply of GLBTQ+ and racial identities in a way that feels like a white cishet writer trying to play representation Bingo.

The teenagers aren’t nearly as fun to spend time with as Alice, and I skimmed the human chapters as fast as I could without losing the plot. (Needless to say, I did not enjoy the portion of the book where Alice is taken offline.) Not only were the humans just naturally last interesting than Alice, but…

Look. I was once a weird teenager on the internet among many other weird teenagers on the Internet. Some of us did, indeed, form a tightly-knit “found family” of life-long friends. What Kritzer is attempting to capture here was basically my life from age 15 to 23, and since I know it so well, I can see all the more clearly where she failed.

The cloying syrupy sweetness between the teenagers in Catfishing doesn’t read as “genuine emotional connection” so much as “desperate fawning for approval.” The two or three mild-mannered interpersonal conflicts that arise, presumably Kritzer’s attempt to make the group dynamics more realistic, are all resolved within less than a paragraph of dialogue and thus have the exact opposite of the (presumably) intended effect. Where is the shitposting? Where is the trolling? Where are the Problematic Opinions? Where are the memes?

This failure to capture the sense of being at home on the internet is what ultimately tanked this book for me. If you’re like me and you want a thought-provoking story about how our lives, relationships and identities play out on the internet, give this one a pass. But if you want something mindless that won’t take a lot of focus or emotional investment, I suppose you could do a lot worse.

Vacation Reading

Happy spooky season, everyone! I kicked things off by renting a cabin in Falun for two weeks, where I did a lot of walking (in cemeteries, no less), a lot of reading, and a lot of sweating it out in my own private sauna. I don’t have all of my photos of the walking uploaded and cleaned up yet, and there’s not much to be said about the sauna, but I can go ahead and talk about the reading. Some of these books might be worth their own post, but for now I’ll just stick to bite-sized thoughts.

Parable of the Sower

I watched Sarah Zed’s underwhelming video on YA dystopias a week before I left, so the whole trend of YA dystopias was on my mind as I read this one. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, several years before our current glut of YA, but by industry genre standards it would be slotted as a YA dystopia if it were published today. And yet, it’s clearly a very different (and much better) beast than The Hunger Games or Divergent or whatever else tried to ride that wave. Is it fair to put Parable of the Sower in the same category as them? From a quality and content standpoint, I would say of course not. But from a book-selling standpoint, there is no difference. Consumerism is a cancer.

The History of White People

Extremely illuminating reading. My father’s side of the family came to the US around the turn of the twentieth century from villages that are in the south of current-day Poland, but there is absolutely no family lore about what it was like moving here, or about life or family back in The Old Country, or anything like that. (Making sense of the immigration documents is also a trip, just because territory was a bit up in the air at that point in time.) Painter’s research obviously can’t fill in the gaps of my own  family’s history, but it gave me a broad sense of the historical context of their arrival in America, and a rough idea of what kind of prejudice and problems they might have run up against—something I’d never really reflected on before.

Beyond my own personal takeaways from the book, the examination of the construction of “white” as a middle class signifier and its gradual expansion over the years is a valuable piece of scholarship for understanding American society as a whole.  The only downside is that The History of White People is over a decade old now, and reading a discussion of race and whiteness in 2021 that ends in a discussion of Barack Obama’s presidency rather than Donald Trump’s feels a bit…unresolved. GoodReads indicates that Painter’s most recent book is from 2018, but it’s a memoir rather than any kind of scholarly work. Hopefully she’ll put out an updated edition of The History of White People at some point.

Shards of Honor

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I don’t think anyone really enjoyed it all that much? For me, at least, there was too much romance and not enough sci-fi. Internet rumor mill pegs it as Star Trek fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off, and I believe it.

Becoming Beauvoir

An absolutely outstanding new biography of Simone de Beauvoir drawing on previously unavailable or untranslated material.

The Cyberiad

One of my philosophy professors taught a popular and engaging philosophy of the mind course, or maybe a couple variations on the idea, and one of the texts for it was The Mind’s I, an anthology that included a story from The Cyberiad. My particular iteration of the class didn’t use that book, but I browsed through a friend’s copy out of curiosity. Long story short, one of the selections I always thought was part of The Cyberiad wasn’t actually, so my introduction to Stanislaw Lem was actually Solaris.

So now I’ve finally read The Cyberiad for real. The English edition is an incredible feat of translation; it struck me as I read one of the first stories in it that one of the textbooks or more scholarly anthologies I’d read over the years had highlighted exactly this story so now I’ll have to try to do a little detective work to see what, exactly, they had to say about it.

Un hiver à Majorque

Still the same book as it was the other two times I read it this year. Unlike my previous attempt with the original French, this time I looked up every (or almost every) word I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out from context.

The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road: A Comparative Reading

I purchased The Scenarists of Europe and 1 the Road concurrently, though this was unintentional on my part. Or rather, the only intention was: “Ah yes, there are several books I’ve been meaning to buy for some time now, let’s pick them up all at once.” A third book in this same frenzy of book-buying, A City of Han, might even claim a tenuous thematic connection to the other two, but that’s only if you’re really reaching. It’s still a book I want to talk about, but more on A City of Han in another post.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I would do if I were given the infinite resources (time, money, mental stamina, ability to decipher subtext) to pursue a graduate or postgraduate degree, or heck, even just pick up another bachelor’s. I have a couple topics picked out for English literature, and one of them would be travel writing. I love it on a surface level—living vicariously through the writer in other times and places, opening yourself up to novel (hah, hah) experiences from the comfort of your couch. But as an immigrant, and as someone who’s worked abroad, I also live for the self-conscious reflection that comes with navigating cultural differences, Othering, and living between two worlds.  I don’t think that was really on my mind when I bought these books, and yet it’s a shared characteristic.

Straight up, I didn’t entirely enjoy either of them. I am, frankly, too much of an illiterate peon to fully grasp what Judge was up to in Scenarists, and novelty only carries AI-generated text so far. But something linked them in my mind, and the books began feeding off of each other.

They are both novels deeply about place. 1 the Road is literally a travelogue. The movement in Scenarists is much more oblique, and perhaps more psychological than physical, but the focus is nonetheless on locations and environments (though these environments seem to be external manifestations of interior conditions). So much so, in fact, that I would have had a hard time placing the book in its proper historical context if I didn’t have access to the back-of-the-book summary, and that I still will refrain from using the “historical fiction” tag. What if the undeniably striking Imagist* prose of Scenarists had been pressed through the banal cheesecloth of times, dates, cities, local businesses that constitute the bulk of 1 the Road?

The introduction to 1 the Road highlights the typewriter, and then later the word processor, as tools that didn’t replace writing or render it obsolete but simply helped writers do more writing by removing a lot of awful tedium. The implication is that perhaps an AI** can do the same thing. What if an AI could help you work through your writer’s block, or generate a plot to play around with? Of course, at that point we’re discussing higher-level procedures than simply collecting random input and spitting it back out in more or less semantically intelligible English. That’s where things like perspective, themes, characterization, and description come into play.

Maybe the AI writing tool of the future won’t be one that generates anything for you. Maybe instead it’ll train itself on more books than you could read in a lifetime—all the books you meant to read but never did, all the ones that people and crit partners keep comparing your work to—and highlight the differences, whether it’s as granular as sentence length or as “big picture” pacing or as abstract as characterization.

Certainly AI isn’t going to replace writers, or human writing, at least not human creative writing. (After all, the AP is already using computer-generated writing for sports coverage, among other topics.) But I feel like if you gave a writer like Judge the building blocks generated by something like the AI at work in 1 the Road it would be interesting. The banal input of date and time might have been all it took to ground Judge’s surreal writing and turn the book into something my tiny brain could more readily grasp. Judge’s deft hand at visceral and discomfiting images would have had a field day riffing on some of the weird stuff a computer trained on Beat writers spits out.

Sometimes you read a book because you like it, and sometimes you read a book because it’s good for you—the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables. The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road, together, constitute an experience that I didn’t particularly enjoy at the time, but that months after the fact I’m glad that I had.

*Bro I know Imagism is term usually reserved for poetry but I don’t care.

**Bro I know “AI” is a vague term that doesn’t really capture what this was and also invites popular imaginations (HAL 9000, Skynet, the Matrix) that are far from the actual truth of things (machine learning, neural networks, training sets, etc.) but I don’t care.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Right before the pandemic broke out, I stumbled my way into the neighborhood book club—loudly and awkwardly, because I’m an American and unable to stumble into anything except loudly and awkwardly. My original intent was to make sure I kept up with my Swedish reading, but more often than not any given selection will originally be in English. Their Swedish translations are of theoretical interest for me, even practical, and sometimes I read them (Dödsynden) and sometimes I don’t (The Fifth Season). This was one of the latter.

I was tempted to tag this as memoirs but chose not to, since the book is classified as fiction above all else—its (purported?) origins as a letter to Vuong’s mother notwithstanding. Since I don’t know Vuong personally and am hardly in a state to speak to the details of his personal life, taking it as fact feels presumptuous. Fiction it is.

This was an excellent book to follow The Crying Book, as their structures are rather similar. This might be another reason why I was tempted to tag On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as memoirs; it nestled into my memory alongside The Crying Book almost immediately. Vuong and Christle both favor short, brief scenes that are not necessarily in chronological order and are instead connected more by theme. Nonetheless, they both manage to keep narrative tension sustained throughout the book, so you don’t feel like you’re reading a random jumble of unrelated events. Maybe Christle was inspired by Vuong, in the end, since On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published a few months before The Crying Book. Maybe they’re in some of the same writing groups. Maybe they’ve been inspired by the same writers. Maybe it’s an artifact of being poets. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Maybe, since both books also deal with similar subject matter, this sort of float-like-a-butterfly approach to tackling grief and too-young, too-tragic deaths.

That’s about the the only original thought I have about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It won an incredible amount of prestigious awards; I’m sure book reviewers and judges and all the rest have exhausted anything else there is to say. But that’s my thought and I’ve shared it.

Sam the Cat: Detective

When I moved to Sweden I brought a handful of my favorite children’s, middle grade, and young adult books with me. My motivation was largely nostalgic, but they ended up being useful resources when tutoring.

Sam the Cat: Detective is one that never made an appearance at a lesson. I didn’t have any really cat-obsessed students and I’m not entirely sure all of the detective and noir style elements would have been a productive challenge. In fact, I didn’t re-read it until just a couple weeks ago, when I read it out loud to my sambo over a weekend. (His new-found appreciation for audiobooks means that he also enjoys me reading out loud to him; this is hardly the first book we’ve enjoyed together like this.)

Scholastic edition of Sam the Cat: Detective

I distinctly remember loving the hell out of this book as a kid, to the point where I read it multiple times. I generally don’t get much out of re-reading books until I’ve all but forgotten them, and the same was true for me as a kid, so reading any book more than once was a rarity. What stuck in my memory was the noir-style tone, a couple essential vocabulary words (“fence,” as in a buyer of stolen goods; “cat burglar” (because of course) and very likely “dumbwaiter”) and a very chaotic showdown at the end where a cat burglar is foiled and apprehended by a dozen neighborhood cats.

It turns out adult me also loved the hell out of this book, though maybe not for all of the same reasons.

The writing is definitely a very self-aware hard-boiled detective…homage? parody?…that’s suitable for kids but in no way condescending or dumbed down. At 8 years old I wouldn’t have been conversant with Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, of course, but kids can tell when there’s very Smart Grown-Up Stuff at work (except when they can’t; at the same age I didn’t realize Get Smart was supposed to be funny) and the sense that there was Smart Grown-Up Stuff was without a doubt what a large part of the appeal was for me. There are also jokes for the grown-ups in there, for the parents who would have inevitably been reading this to their kids at bedtime, including an acrobat troupe of cats called Wang, Chang, Sturm, and Drang. And while yes, it’s definitely a play on the old Chinese circus acrobats trope, the cats don’t speak in broken English or cringe-y dialect.

The mystery isn’t bad either. An adult reading it, especially an adult who’s read at least one detective novel in their life, will probably figure out the bulk of the mystery by the time it’s done being set up, but what you lose in the obvious nature of the mystery qua mystery, you gain in appreciation for Stewart’s technical accomplishment in the whole package. The cats are able to solve the mystery faster than the cops because of their different perspective; the story logic doesn’t rely on the target demographic being children. They also have an imaginative and genuinely adorable parallel cat world, with cat celebrities (in this case, cat food commercial animal actors) and cats running businesses like detective agencies and salons, paying each other in cat food and information about humans that feed strays but also very casually making use of telephones, computers, and microwaves. Stewart and her editor also do an excellent job of succinctly explaining the more advanced or specialized vocabulary in a way that fits in smoothly with the rest of the narration, usually with a joke when possible (“Personally, I always thought a dumbwaiter was a server at the restaurant who spilled the wrong kind of soup in your lap…”) Plus, semi-colons. Hallelujah! Just because your book is for children doesn’t mean your prose needs to be dull and repetitive.

Adults who never read it in childhood might not love it the way that I did if they read it now, but that’s okay. I still love it, and that’s all that matters.

The Crying Book

In one of life’s small serendpities, on the same day my mom let me know about a death in the family, a newsletter I subscribe to about mental health (Sanity by Tanmoy) featured a write up on  The Crying Book, which sounded all the more appealing as I scrolled, sniffling and snot-nosed, through my email. On a whim I spent the 10 kronor to put a hold on it at the library (no digital version available) and by the following Monday it had come in. It’s a short book, without any chapters but with very frequent section breaks, so I offered to read it out loud to my sambo.

I finished it in two nights, in two marathon reading sessions.

I walked away from it with mixed feelings. On the minus side, I didn’t always care for her style. Christle is a poet, which you can tell not only by her explicitly mentioning it fairly regularly, but by her writing. This kind of “assembled snapshots” brevity also gives the whole book a sort of Instapoetry vibe, even if Christle is a bit too old and a bit too establishment to go with that crowd. Needless to say, I don’t like Instapoetry. For every Nayyirah Waheed (good) you get a million Rupi Kaurs (less good). About a third of the way through, I also picked up that Christle had a very annoying tic of sandwiching long asides—entire independent clauses, sometimes—in between two em-dashes, and once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it and all I wanted to know was why didn’t anyone notice this and edit a few of them down, or cut them entirely? To be fair, this might have only made itself apparent because I was trying to read the book out loud—you can imagine how that kind of writing would make deciding on the right cadence and intonation difficult, while reading silently you might more readily gloss over it.

On the plus side, I was very taken with the actual content. The book is something like a folk history of tears and crying, and the 200-odd footnotes at the end make it clear that Christle did a lot of research, which I appreciate. I also appreciate how seamlessly the personal reflections are intertwined with the historical subject matter—I enjoy that tack in popular nonfiction and I don’t think I’ve read anything that does it quite how how Christle does it. The first thing that comes to mind is Ålevangeliet, or in English The Book of Eels, which is on the surface about eels but is also about a bunch of stuff tangential to eels: the author’s childhood fishing (eeling?) expeditions with his father, the long and embittered scientific battle to find their reproductive organs, weird “facts” surrounding them from people like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, our impending climate catastrophe, etc. The GoodReads reviews, at least in Swedish, seem frustrated with this approach (“I wanted to read about eels, not fishing with his father!” is the short version of a lot of them) but I really liked that kind of thematic meandering within and alongside a particular topic. The Crying Book does that but on a much smaller scale.

Finally, on the mixed side, I had mixed thoughts about the actual structure of the book. While there are several narrative or conceptual strands within The Crying Book, no idea is carried for very long: Christle discusses something for a paragraph or two, occasionally a page, and then moves on to something else.  There are no chapters organized thematically, but there is usually an interior logic leading from one brief section to the next and the resulting flow is very much akin to following someone’s train of thought in real time. This works really well to build a sort of tension with her personal trials and tribulations (her pregnancy, the suicide of a poet friend), and when it takes you to unexpected but nonetheless relevant places, the subversion is genuinely rewarding. On the other hand, this approach feels scattershot and confusing when it comes to historic personages and biographies, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Alvin Borgquist; meatier, protracted narratives would have served that subject matter much better.

A quick read, all told, though at times unflinching and grotesque. Beneath the Instapoetry conceit there is a wealth of information and depth of thought.

Steering the Craft

Steering the Craft came recommended to me by a member of my writing groups. Or not recommended to me specifically, but recommended as a purchase with the group’s money. I borrowed it last week to see what Ursula K. LeGuin had to say about writing.

Cover of the 2015 edition of Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin
Image courtesy Mariner Books

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.15 stars

Language scaling: B2+ (though some of the books she quotes are older or use some form of regional dialect and more like C2)

Summary: LeGuin provides thoughts on different technical aspects of writing narrative, along with examples to consider and writing exercises to try yourself.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in narrative writing (fiction, memoirs, etc.)

In-depth thoughts: People often recommend Stephen King’s On Writing as a guidebook for writers. I did too, once upon a time, and I still would. I would just pair it with Steering the Craft. I think King still has fantastic insights on the process of writing, but LeGuin has the better grasp of what makes for good style. Not surprising, since I find King’s writing fairly pedestrian whereas LeGuin’s prose is actually good. To that end, I think Steering the Craft is a good book for editors, while they can give On Writing a pass (unless they’re also writers, of course!).

LeGuin doesn’t give any hard and fast rules about anything; she merely points out what most people do these days and what most people used to do in previous eras, recognizing that there is a time and a place for following guidelines and for departing from them. She also provides a good 101 level introduction to the technical terms of English grammar, rightly pointing out that a writer should be able to name their tools specifically rather than just having a vague idea about things.

Some of the literary extracts, being over a hundred years old or using a particular regional dialect (or both!), might be hard for non-native speakers to process, but the instructional aspects of the book, including her exercises, are crystal clear. The exercises are originally intended for a workshop or feedback group, but would work just as well in a traditional classroom setting. Editors would probably want to keep a copy of this on hand, or at least browse through it once or twice, so as to be able to better diagnose or name what would otherwise be a vague “I don’t know what it is” problem in a manuscript.

Burnt Shadows

One of my ongoing goals is to clear out my backlog of unread books. Burnt Shadows has been in my library since 2009 and might win the award for “gone longest without reading,” at least among the books I have left after numerous purges. The Wrath of Kon Mari.

Cover of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Image courtesy Bond Street Books

Author: Kamila Shamsie

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.9 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The atom bomb brings together disparate families from Japan, India, England and Germany, leading to tragedy and betrayal in post-9/11 America.

Recommended audience: History buffs and international policy nerds who might want a narrative, fictional take on what they already know

In-depth thoughts: Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I’ll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.

The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.

The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story  is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.

The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it’s not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.

But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it’s easier to smooth the transition between “head hops” when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It’s not up there with the dialogue in John Green’s Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character’s language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there’s nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of  A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.

There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.

 

*I mean, I would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I’m cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.

Scholastic Books edition of The Boggart by Susan Cooper
Image courtesy Scholastic

Author: Susan Cooper

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.75 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: The Vonik family inherits a castle in Scotland and brings a boggart with them back to Canada

Recommended audience: Fantasy fans; people who enjoyed Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Scottish mythology fans

In-depth thoughts: My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right — it was a bigger hit than the other books I’d brought in — but my point here isn’t how I’m awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven’t grown out of this book.

I didn’t remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you’re a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters’ mother apologize to another adult for being “bitchy.” We don’t have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children’s literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn’t as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you’re reading in 2019.