Review: Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

I admit my reading is a bit peripatetic. So often do I clamber wearily through my weekly schedule without the energy to do anything more than open up, say, a Vorkosigan omnibus to some random place so I can have something to read while eating dinner, that it takes a critical mass of recs and/or an opportunity of mood to pick up something new.

This weekend, however, I haled my neurodivergent ass over to B&N and picked up A Memory Called Empire to read while consuming egg drop soup and dumplings. I read four chapters and let the remains of my dinner get cold — and the tea, too. Then I took the book home and read the rest of it in one gulp.

It’s not a short book by any means, but it does read very quickly, and the pacing is snappy without being frenetic or irrational. This is my second court-intrigue novel in a month — and strangely, like The Goblin Emperor, it involves a murder mystery, where the mystery is not really about who committed the murder as it is about why the murder was committed and the serious implications of the aftermath for the succession of the throne. Are a lot of court-intrigue stories like this? I’m not sure I’ve read enough of them to discern a pattern.

In any event, this is a particularly ambitious story. Apart from the court intrigue plot, Martine introduces us to a highly mannered and poetry-inflected world via a foreigner, the POV character who is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire’s central planet. Mahit was chosen as the hasty replacement of her murdered predecessor in no small part because she had fallen in love with the empire’s literary tradition and similarly struggles with the simultaneous insult of being branded a barbarian and desire not to be one. We find out all about the meaningful details of dress and mode of language and apparent alliance through her eyes. To add to this bewildering sensory onslaught, each chapter is headed by epigraphs from Teixcalaanli poetry, or history, or correspondence offstage and out of the POV character’s ken. It’s a lot to take in, and without the snappy pace of the plot itself, it might have been too much.

The characters, too, help carry the burden of introducing such a vivid and complex world. They are nearly all of them memorable individuals that have arcs of growth and nuance as the story unfolds. But if I want to be honest, the parts I want to reread — the parts I have gone back to reread, several times — are the parts where Mahit interacts with her imago memory implant, a technology of her home station whereby the experience and skill of previous generations is grafted onto the new people in their roles, with great psychological care taken to integrate them with their predecessors’ personalities. Not to spoil a major plot point, but Mahit’s relationship with Yskandr, the former ambassador whose murder she is investigating — hampered by sabotage early on in the conflict between her home and the Empire — became the heart of the story for me. I found the concept fascinating and exceptionally well-drawn, and I particularly loved the theme behind the idea, of being seen and understood and not alone, with all the intimacy and peril that implies. That, too, chimes somewhat with a theme in The Goblin Emperor, though the implications are not at all drawn out in the same way.

I gave this a solid four stars on Goodreads and would rec it unreservedly for people who like the kinds of things I’ve described. It was hard for me to not read it like a writer, which I’m not sure is a fault at all, but it did put a small remove in my own intimacy with the story, and in any case it was so well written that it didn’t suffer by that undercurrent of examination. Definitely worth the purchase.

Turning point books

It’s the dog days of summer, which I suspect to be an astrological expression but in my case means that lying around rereading books is much more my speed than anything else. So I thought I would respond to a meme going around FB and do a post about books that are meaningful to me. Specifically, I thought I’d write about fiction books that entered my life at certain watershed moments and stuck with me to the present.

Richard Adams, Watership Down

Let’s start with the earliest. My recollection is that a relative rented the movie for a cousin’s birthday party, thinking hey, animated film, should be good for a kids’ sleepover, right? I was the only person left finishing it. So when I was in a used bookstore some time later and ran across the paperback, I picked it up. I carried that book around with me everywhere I went for a year. When my mother took us to get our Social Security cards, the person at the desk demanded a second form of ID for me, so I ran out to the car and got Watership Down and showed her my name on the Garfield bookplate sticker inside the cover, carefully inscribed with a felt-tip calligraphy pen. I no more understand why that was sufficient than why they demanded more ID in the first place, but okay. Sometime in the future Richard Adams’s book will figure in a post I plan to make about POV, but for now I’ll just say that it has what have turned out to be some of my enduringly favorite tropes: found family, loyalty to unlikely leaders, deceptions with cover identities, journeys, uncanny connections between individuals. And stories. It’s the only book I know of where the epigraphs consistently add something to the text and the glossary is not a vast annoyance. Of all the books that could have found me at a formative time, this one was a great piece of good fortune.

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

I have talked to people who read this book hoping to like it and were disappointed. I was fortunate; I approached it from the opposite headspace, because it was a book I had to read for a graduate seminar on Edwardian literature. You’re not supposed to like books that you have to read, but I found myself crying with laughter when Syme starts planning the exact dialogue by which he is going to challenge an enemy to a duel. And it had an even more profound effect than that. Syme, as Thursday, sets out to topple the fearsome Sunday, precisely, he says, “because I am afraid of him. And one should never leave in the universe anything of which one is afraid.” There’s something so quixotic about Chesterton in general, but the idea of going up to strike God in the mouth changed something in my viewpoint forever; revealed to me the utter safety of expressing my anger in the presence of the divine. This is not something I would have discovered in my environment up to that point: I had never experienced anger, my own or anyone else’s, as anything but chaos and peril. I don’t know where I’d be, spiritually, without this book.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

I could have chosen for this spot another book, like The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, a comfort read that introduced me to online fandom and some of my oldest friends. It was on the RUSS-L book discussion email list that I heard about TSNOTD, and many other enduring favorites, like the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I could have put Gaudy Night on here, which opened up a world that is small in itself but from which you can see everything — all the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. I could have put Doomsday Book on here, which I read much later and which unlocked a great grief that I had been unable to access. But this is the book that I referenced for all my online handles for the next fifteen years, the book that reconciled me with chaos by making me laugh. Connie Willis can write Very Serious, and she can write Very Slight, but this one strikes the perfect knife-edge balance. It’s brilliant and awesome and, for good and ill, is more and more of an AU to our world, but it remains a needed reference point.

Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

Let’s just say it: Charles Williams is the most difficult of all the Inklings to read. None of his books are long, but they are full of sentences so intensely calibrated to get at spiritual states of being that one has to put down the book and recover from the brain-ache for a while. Descent Into Hell is no different; in fact it may be the most impenetrable of Williams’s books, but at the encouragement of the friend who recced it to me, I persevered with it and was deeply rewarded. Somehow it addressed things in me that I had forgotten to hope could ever be articulated — nameless fears, unphysical joys, simple loves. And of course I wound up shamelessly stealing the Doctrine of Substitutionary Love for Ryswyck. If Williams has a fault, it’s an over-reliance on masculinity and femininity as essential archetypes; but he’s able to see and name so much else with astounding accuracy that I can forgive him that with this book in particular.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

I’ve already said stuff about Leckie and Ancillary Justice on this blog, so I won’t repeat myself. I was too shy to go up and talk to her at her booth when Worldcon was in Kansas City, which is a shame as I’m not a huge con-goer and may not get another chance. But the cumulative effect of reading this trilogy coincided with a process in which I finally understood the not-brokenness of my human instrument. For many years I had suffered under a debilitating — and highly gendered — suspicion of myself as incapable of right perception and possibly even evil at bottom. Events unrelated to this book led me to quietly unravel that mesh of beliefs; and so when I read a book in which all humans were referred to as “she,” I understood the revelation that I don’t have to step outside myself to be representative of humanity, or perceive its essence, or write about it. Oh, these were all things I knew intellectually, but there’s something about taking them in in story form that sets them off in living color. Not to mention more of my favorite tropes: there’s a vast amount of hurt/comfort in this series, along with the found family, non-romantic love, and unlikely leaders.

I could do a different post with all different books that I love for other reasons, but these are books that I met at important nodes of my life and which stick with me even to this day.

Saturday gallimaufry

Here I am, on a Saturday morning, with cat paralysis, in an idle mood. So here are some idle thoughts.

Authors in bagel shops getting coffee

It was very fortunate that I was slated to host the book club this month, as I needed some kind of impetus to unearth my kitchen from, let’s be honest, months of neglect. It’s…still a work in progress, but reasonably presentable. Or at least I hope so, because right after that I had a houseguest — my longtime friend, beta reader, and fellow author Erica Smith — for two days of playing with the cat and chilling on the porch with tea (when I wasn’t at work). I did manage to take a selfie of us at the bagel shop, but didn’t get any other pictures — dammit, apparently even a new camera is not enough to remind me of such things.

Ah well; Erica and I had some good in-person confab about our respective works in progress, which is what’s really important. And Erica didn’t seem to mind my dubious hospitality, which is as much the mark of a friend as going to a friend’s house and finding they didn’t overclean it for your arrival.

It’s my turn to choose the book club book again come September, so in hopes of finding something new to present, I bought a Kindle copy of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It was entirely worth the recs I’d seen for it: the story was absorbing from the first moment, emotionally complex, with an intricate world and a fantastical, slightly steampunk-flavored atmosphere. And I read it all in one sitting — or I would have, if my eyes hadn’t given out at 96% at which point I realized I was in desperate need of sleep. I finished it first thing the next morning. This book is not, I fear, the kind of universal crowd-pleaser that To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book (the most recent book club book) were — but then, what is? I may make them read it anyway, and get loaded on wine before it’s time to have the discussion.

Anyway, thanks to book club my nightstand currently looks like the quintessence of my mental space, so I took a picture of it to use for the category in future.

And finally, there was really no contest this morning between going out to run errands and getting out my watercolors. I had an idea of trying to represent what a prayer-light bowl looks like, based on a memory of a dish I used to have and with a tea-light in a different bowl as a guide. The result is not impressive but the color is all right. I may try this again on black paper, which would save me attempting a satisfactory background wash.

And that, I think, is all the news that’s fit to print.

Style and the virtual cocktail party: part two in a series

Last week I introduced Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by supporting his argument that literary art can in fact be distinguished from other forms of written communication. Alter wrote his book before even email became ubiquitous, and now, in the age of the tweet, there are even more forms of the written word to compete with the distinction of literature, so I think it’s worth reviewing the ground Alter covers, with my own perspectives and occasional critiques, in light of 21st-century life.

Alter did not set himself the project of covering all the functions of literary skill, just enough of them to outline what makes writing — and reading — good books a worthwhile endeavor. So I’m going to talk about style, which Alter did cover, along with genre and convention, which he didn’t.

Style, Alter says, is “the medium we swim in as we read,” and therefore is not something you can just pin down in a few descriptive phrases; but as he points out, it’s worth trying to tease out the concept so we can get a look at it. In general, writing exists because it’s a way of getting words from the person making them to another person who is not present. Now that we have phones and Skype and podcasts and television and Netflix, the fact that writing was made to cover that gulf of absence is somewhat obscured. But it’s one thing to leap that gulf with the written word; it’s another to make the most of it as a fillable gap, to turn it from mere negative space to an occasion for art that is complex, fanciful, representative, or stimulating, or all that and more.

That is where style comes in. The way in which a story is told is an intimate component of the story itself, and when a writer is skilled and in control of her instrument, that way of forming and ordering words “goes to the heart,” as Alter says, of the work. Connections are set alight, metaphors are ranked as buttresses, the fleeting experiences of the mind and soul are evoked; pace and diction shape the reader’s experience of the text in a way that draws them — or fails to draw them — into the dream of the writer’s world for the time that they are reading.

Alter also takes some pains to show how style is handled by less skilled writers: “A good deal of bestselling American prose,” he says, “is written in a mode one might call Standard Contemporary Novelistic, representing, I would guess, a homogenization and formulaic reduction of certain features of robust and muscular style introduced in the twenties and thirties by Hemingway, Dos Passos, Farrell, and others. This writing often reflects a certain workmanlike competence, but the suspicion of a cliche lurks around the corner of all too many sentences.” He goes on to say that striving to be “literary” is in fact a hallmark of mediocre writing, and skewers a passage of one of Barbara Cartland’s books in illustration of this.

I mean, on the one hand, ouch! But on the other, it’s worth getting at this sort of troubled synapse between the writer who hamfists a palette of literary styles, and the average reader who might, in fact, resent having to do even a little work to engage with a complex book. It brings to my mind two passages from books I’ve reread with enjoyment.

In my favorite of the Robert Galbraith novels written by J.K. Rowling, The Silkworm, our detectives are trying to unravel the mystery of a novelist who was killed, it seems, in the same tableau as the ending of his last manuscript. They wind up interviewing both “bad” and “good” writers, along with critics, agents, and publishers, who knew the victim, and Rowling doesn’t hesitate to draw direct parallels between the attitudes of the pathetically-derivative self-published writers and those of the celebrated masculine authors — their preening and their neuroticism, their senses of what’s decent among writers and how rarely those standards are lived up to, and so on. But the Cartland-like “bad” novelist insists on describing her work as “quite literary,” and undercuts her friend’s writing by saying “it’s not great literature or anything,” even while deploring how her friend had been treated by the murder victim. Alter’s right: an aspiration to be seen as “literary” is a sign of underdevelopment in a writer, one of those giveaways that tell you exactly what you’re likely to find in their work.

To compare with another meta-literary discussion: in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane attends a cocktail party with fellow writers, who are all talking about the Book of the Moment, either with admiration or bitterness, or a sort of Emperor’s-New-Clothes unwillingness to seem unsophisticated. “But what’s Mock Turtle about?” Harriet says, and is treated to a long description of an incomprehensible plot filled with grotesque characters. “But of course a lot of things came into it — it was one of those books that reflect the author’s reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it….Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of [her current manuscript]. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.”

I think one of the problems of the modern age (and by the modern age I mean a period that has its beginnings with the rise of the novel itself, leading to our polytextual mosaic of daily existence), is the perpetual consciousness of the literary arena in the mind of the writer. A writer doesn’t want to write from an external locus of what styles and subjects are “significant” — underdevelopment of one’s own style is one thing; failure to strike the right note among one’s peers is even worse. It’s not coincidental that these reflections on writers’ communities are from mystery novels — a genre which has been a handy scapegoat for all that is formulaic and hyper-laden with overused tropes. The writers of the mysteries actually in the reader’s hands — Rowling and Sayers — are taking their swipes at an establishment that dismisses their own literary merit out of hand even as it indulges its own artistic narcissism to a unrecognized and gross extent.

And the virtual cocktail party is always going on. Let a genre writer stick sensibly to “workmanlike” prose, and watch his book’s style be dismissed as unremarkable, his story as tropetastic. But let a genre writer conversely innovate one or more of her genre’s conventions, and she may get tagged as “pretentious” by reviewers and readers who “couldn’t get into it.” “Pretentious,” as it was pointed out in a blog I cannot now find, is a word that gets applied to people who the speaker thinks are undeserving of the thing they are “pretending” to, as a usurper pretends to a throne. To call someone “pretentious” is to tell them they ought to “know their place.” Alter says that he is unabashedly using literature and style as “honorific” terms, to counter the critical environment that has been busily deprivileging literary art as a mirage covering propaganda and deterministic structures. But Alter knows, I think, that we can’t just leave it at that.

As a writer and as a reader (and when they let me, as a critic), I think it’s part of the “high fun,” as Alter puts it, of literature to ask of a text how a thing is done, why it’s done, what effect it has, the sheer engineering of the thing; and then to apply a value judgment if appropriate. Here’s an example of a convention that irritates me as a reader, by way of example. In a lot of well-regarded modern fiction, it’s become a Thing to write dialogue without the use of quotation marks, and sometimes to dispense with the convention of starting a new paragraph with a new speaker as well. Whatever the author might intend by it, this has specific effects as the reader goes through the text. It buries the dialogue visually in the narrative as a whole, making the text appear to be a hermetically-sealed experience of the POV character if there is one, or the general situation if there isn’t. This can evoke a dream-like quality to the experience of reading which can quickly be escalated to nightmare if that’s what the writer wants.

As soon as I encounter a book like this, my reaction as a reader is something along the lines of: There damn well better be a payoff if you’re going to make me adjust to the absence of a helpful convention. And sometimes there is. But sometimes, it just comes off as a cheapskate way of making the text seem more difficult than it really is. Eventually, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop will move on to a new style Thing, and the tides will leave some books exposed as gimmicky.

As a reader, there are some difficulties I will tackle with joy — and some I will leave on the plate. I will read the Divine Comedy for the hell of it, struggle through a massively allusive Dorothy Dunnett novel, savor the patchworked personal narrative of a memoir like H is for Hawk; but Finnegans Wake? Someone else can read that. I’ve no axe to grind about what I’ve sampled of Lincoln in the Bardo, but I haven’t got round to finishing it either.

As a writer, I don’t aspire to produce deathless literary prose, in part because you can’t say “I’m going to go cut down a forest” without eventually having to tackle some tree or other. Erin Bow can write imagery with a miraculous economy and a gossamer touch, and I envy the hell out of that, but it’s a thing she no doubt developed by hard work while also being absolutely inimitable. In my youth I sought to write lots of first-person narratives because I had been reading a lot of very good ones and thought that was how you went about writing great fiction. But I’m not Harper Lee, either. While working on several fanfiction projects (and I’ll tackle the conventions of fic when I write about character and/or perspective at a later date), I learned how the surrounding style conventions worked and evolved, and chose what suited me to use; and by such degrees, and by reading more, and reading more kinds of things, I developed my instrument, which just happened to be useful for the kind of story I wanted to write. Go figure!

But as a reader who is also a writer, I crave discussion venues that aren’t just replications of the virtual cocktail party. In a response paper in a long-ago seminar of Victorian lit, I remarked on Jane Eyre that Charlotte Bronte had a quandary on her hands with the endgame of the novel, recognizable to writers and dreamers if not to anyone else — that Jane and Rochester had to get together at the end, and Rochester had to have suffered something by then, so how? What she did about the quandary makes for a much more interesting discussion, to me, than “I liked/didn’t like it” on the one hand or “Monological imperatives in Dick and Jane: a study in psychic transrelational gender modes,” from a Calvin and Hobbes strip pasted up on a fellow grad-student’s office door in an oblique commentary on our common critical enterprise. But a venue for real, actual literary discussion is surprisingly elusive — not just in the halls of academe but in listservs, blog communities, and book clubs whose purpose would seem to be nothing else!

I mean, I can’t be the only person who wants to have a thoroughgoing discussion about what’s actually in the book. Right?

The Distinction of Literature: part one of a series

A couple years ago, at my local independent bookstore, I picked up The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter. I already admired Alter greatly for his contributions to the study of the Bible as literature (and have been lusting, if that’s the word I want, after his new translation of the Hebrew scriptures), so I snapped this book up thinking it might be fun.

Not surprisingly, it’s turned out to be a book I return to engage with again and again, and not only because it was written shortly before I started my undergraduate and then graduate studies in English literature. Alter’s characterization of the critical scene at that time is amusingly familiar. I’ve been out of the academy for 20 years, and this book was written 30 years ago, so there’s a sense in which I’m picking up a conversation with Alter 30 years late. But in another sense, the “ideological” age Alter is writing about is no longer just a description of the critical scene; and more than that, Alter’s treatment of the components of literary skill has worn well enough to be perenially useful.

The chapters of Alter’s book, in fact, are useful enough that I’d had it in mind to write a blog post or two talking about one or more of them in connection with my own approach both to reading and writing. But a recent reread of the book has prompted me to think I might want more of a series than that. So this is a post addressing the basic argument Alter delineates in his introduction and first chapter; other posts will tackle the functions of literary skill and merit that he identifies in other chapters.

Here’s a rough-faced summary of the argument. Alter asserts that although literary studies in academia promised to benefit from the structuralist and post-structuralist theory that challenged the ivory-tower, New-Critical style of literary criticism, by the time of Alter’s writing the study of literature has wound up in a boondoggle of doing things to texts for ideological purposes, scarcely ever reading them on any terms but polemical ones, and as far as Alter can tell, never recognizing or enjoying literary art at all.

He’s not exactly wrong. When I was an undergraduate, and even more in graduate school, I could usually be counted on to provide the least ideologically sophisticated responses to the texts on the syllabus. To say what the reading of the book has done to you, rather than demonstrate your proficiency at doing things to it, was at best precious and droll. But I couldn’t stop doing it; and that may be the true motivating factor (besides, of course, money) why I did not persist in academia after getting my MA.

So I don’t really have a quarrel with Alter’s overarching argument. But the last time I looked this book up on Amazon, its reviews had a lot of praise along the lines of the phrase “breath of fresh air” from backlashy types who were all too eager not only to criticize the ideological boondoggle but to heap scorn on what Harold Bloom liked to call “the School of Resentment” — “politically”-motivated scholars whose minority status made them delicate snowflakes in need of crushing with the shovel of reality. But scorn is not Alter’s project at all — and so this blog post is to deal with the distinctions that need to be made.

“All study of literature must emerge from and return to reading,” Alter says in his introduction, and follows it with a statement of the main theme: “Literary language is an intricate, inventively designed vehicle for setting the mind in restless pleasing motion, which in the best of cases may give us a kind of experiential knowledge relevant to our lives outside reading.” He is critical of the idea that the literary canon, loosely conceived, is nothing more than a vehicle of hegemony for congratulating itself, without taking Bloom’s tack of rejecting all criticism of the canon itself.

Alter only mentions Bloom a couple of times, and I resent (heh, see what I did there) doing so more than once in a short blog post, but it’s like shooting one big sturgeon in a barrel, really; it’s not to be helped. Bloom built his academic brand on the idea that great literature is so because its writers have engaged the tradition with serious intent and succeeded by overcoming their own idiosyncrasies to become, as Alter says, “relevant,” to broaden the scope of what might be called universally human. That most women and other minorities have failed to do this is, for Bloom but not for Alter, merely incidental. Alter has no axe to grind here; he just wants to read a damn book and talk about why it’s good.

But I don’t think Alter entirely achieves a distinction between the operation of the canon, “the impulse of self-recapitulation” that keeps the tradition going as a recognizably literary endeavor, and the ontology of the canon, the thing that makes a text worth recognizing as literary art. He warns the reader that the examples he will choose to illustrate elements of literary skill are not diverse because he wants immediately recognizable texts to hand for his discussion. The unfortunate phrase “affirmative action quotas” crept in there at one point. I can distinguish this from Bloom’s project of apotheosizing the Western Canon, but it just points up the problem that has not, as we know, gone away at all.

Let’s take as an example Ann Leckie’s groundbreaking SFF novel Ancillary Justice. It became a bestseller on its publication in 2014 and won the Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo Awards, and thereby was admitted to a canon, if not “the Western Canon” of literary art. It also drew a massive backlash that went on to affect how the Hugo Awards themselves were conducted in the future.

At contention was, among other things, Leckie’s use of a single pronoun to refer to all human persons in the novel, a pronoun that was used without distinctions and meant clearly to be universal in its comprehension of human identity. The pronoun was she. Now, there were (and are) plenty of thoroughgoing misogynists ready to state baldly that females and the feminine are representative of nothing but themselves, that to truly denote universal humanity you need a man. But this is an idea that is thoroughly sedimented in us all; and Leckie’s book required every reader to grapple with it.

Ancillary Justice‘s detractors used the argument, tellingly, that the book really had no literary merit and also no true popularity except among people with an ideological agenda. It could neither be valued nor enjoyed. Apparently, the pleasures of reading Ann Leckie’s book in an ideological age are either 100% or zero.

I’m pretty sure Alter would see the problem with this. And the question must be asked: can we appreciate the “high fun of literary art” of a text like Ancillary Justice if we have not already entertained the idea that the experiences and insights of women and other minorities can stand as relevant and representative, without asterisks or qualifications, of the human condition that art is made to speak to? I can’t help but think of how even after instituting blind auditions, women still weren’t getting into orchestras…until carpet was put down to hide the telltale clack of high heels when the auditioner came in. Then, amazingly, the acceptance rate quickly reached parity.

Without throwing Alter’s argument out the window wholesale, I would say that interrogating the canon(s) of literary art is not just a parity project but vital to the development of the very functions of skill and merit that Alter would like to see recentered in our minds when we pick up a book. And it is with those reservations that I appreciate the chapters that follow.

So stay tuned for more in this series on such topics as character, style, structure, and perspective. And ignore the acacia trees that grew overhead while I was writing this post, heh.

Monday gallimaufry

Yes, even when I’m on writing sabbath this blog is 100% genuwyne quality content. Starting with thanks to the folks who sent me recs for summer reading — I’ve ordered a few things and look forward to charging my Kindle frequently.

One author I like to collect in hard copy, meanwhile, is Ann Leckie, and since I’ve had a critical mass of recs for her new fantasy novel The Raven Tower, I went ahead and bought it to read over the weekend. I was not disappointed. One of the things I appreciate so much about Leckie — apart from the commitment to pushing the frontiers of how we treat gender in SFF and the interrogation of domination systems in fine, spare prose — is the internal consistency of her inventions. Every McGuffin has a firm solidity, every world has a margin outside the frame of the story. And she knows how to surprise. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a story written in the second person — strictly speaking, second person isn’t really a POV, as it assumes (as this story does) a first-person narrator to focus on that second person. The character in focus is a trans man; and Leckie is an example to any writer wanting to do representation right, because that fact, while it presents complications in some situations, isn’t what the story is about, nor does Eolo have anything less than an individual take on his own identity.

I also appreciate reading the kind of story that I also prefer to write — one in which the final reveal is not a sprung surprise but a culmination of what is in plain view. The Raven Tower, perhaps appropriately, has a plot like granite — disparate events being gradually drawn and fused by great pressures — and the final tableau is satisfying as any parable should be, with a stone-like chill to tickle the reader’s spine with. Altogether I would say that for me this book was not as life-changing a read as Ancillary Justice, but easier to bond with than Provenance. I give it an unreserved rec.

In other news, a friend from my community, on hearing that I’d taken up photography, offered to send me an extra camera of his — gratis, as he was in the process of decluttering his house. To my shocked pleasure, what arrived in a box for me the following week was a very fine never-used Lumix with an all-in-one telephoto lens. I’ve been practicing with it, and went out on Saturday to photograph fountains, with really satisfying results.

The camera also has a great capacity for macro shots — I’ve been putting selected photos on Facebook as I take them.

The real photographer in our family, by the way, is my sibling Sam, who took the photo I chose for my author avatar in this and other venues. Sam and I are planning to start a podcast centering on our artistic fields, media criticism, and representation, with (probably) a healthy dose of snark. I’ve been considering launching a newsletter in the future, so podcasts could certainly serve as Genuwyne Quality Content for subscribers, along with easter egg scenes, notes on public appearances (assuming I make any), and other such things as I would be less likely to post on this blog.

I also read an article on the virtues of making a book trailer, which, as I told Erica, “sounded like fun, and by fun I mean a money- and time-sink that results in a disappointing product,” so although it was a little tempting to browse royalty-free music files, I scrapped the idea.

One thing I did make, for my amusement and office white noise, was a new composite generator on the MyNoise site. The Ryswyck one I made six months ago is still nice, but it’s rather stationary in nature. This one I call The Defender — it has a little more drive to it, and makes me think of Speir and her training routines.

Welp, that’s all the news that’s fit to print from these parts.

Rec me, Amadeus! or, the Author on sabbath

Well, I’m back.

Once a year the religious community I belong to gets together for an annual meeting, in which business is accomplished, Eucharists are celebrated, songs are sung, and wine corks are popped. This year we were at the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet retreat center in St. Louis. The century-plus-old monastery is right on the river, and of course at the moment it’s even more right on the river than usual: all the rivers in the broad vicinity are vast expanses of opaque and purling water, draining as best it can toward the distant Gulf of Mexico. I had booked a train trip out there, but due to diverted freight traffic Amtrak was forced to bus us to and from our destinations: cue me making a face. I’ve actually seriously considered abandoning my usual stance of recreational complaining and writing a Strongly Worded Letter lamenting our collective priorities when it comes to infrastructure. Of course, I can do both.

Disappointing non-train trips aside, it was great to reconnect with my companions, to breathe back life into the round of daily prayers, to sit and talk late into the evening with popcorn and snacks and wine, and to remember what is so valuable about holding our lives in common. Our collective charism is an undergirding to what we do in the places where we are, and we all wish for more than one chance a year to refresh that knowledge.

Now I’m back at my desk and back to work, and making my plans for the next months. Launching Ryswyck was six months of really hard work, and slowly but surely it is paying off; but I’m definitely ready to recharge.

So I think I’m going to put aside the ‘verse for a month — not do any writing, or any stewing about not writing — and read. When writers who are just starting out ask me for advice about how to develop their writing, I agree with all the authors who say: read. Read a lot or read a little, read good books or read bad ones, read people you know and people you don’t know (and that goes for both authors and POV characters), read in familiar genres and in genres you’ve never touched.

I believe in this advice wholeheartedly: more than half of what I know about writing comes from studying my favorite books — or any books — and working out how the authors did it. (The other half comes from failing again and failing better, because you have to do that too.) But. While I am in the actual act and process of writing, I just can’t spare much headspace for consuming new books. While I am writing, most of my reading consists of making dinner and then opening a Vorkosigan omnibus to a random page, or something similar.

So when I’ve finished a project, or a stage in a project, I’ve started taking reading sabbaticals, seeking out books I haven’t read a billion times and opening new thought-territory. Plus, it pays to keep up with one’s field.

While I was on the road for work, I read the first book and half the second of the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, and have been enjoying that very much. So I’ll get back to those. And then there are always the monthly reads for my book club, which always comprehend a great variety.

But I want recs. What are you reading right now? I’d like to read something new, or something old brought back from the margins. Something a middle-aging white Midwesterner might not run across on her own; something that has a damn good story to it. Or: something you want to read but haven’t got to yet.

That sort of thing. Or as my sister likes to say: Okay, recs, go.

Good life choices: a fencing manual rec

A week or so ago I joined Instagram — largely because I feared I might be boring my Facebook readers with new views of my cat asleep, and other such random photos as Instagram appears to be specially made for. Instagram is great, I discovered: vastly more simple to curate, with a feed presented in order by date posted (that thing which every user of a social media service wants and every service developer hates to give them), and easier to discover friends on.

It’s thanks to Instagram that I discovered that a longtime fandom friend has just finished a project illustrating a fencing instruction manual. So naturally I bought it; it arrived today, and it is clearly the Best Purchase Ever.

For one thing, fencing — whether HEMA or sport — is a small world. The author dedicated an acknowledgment to a fencing instructor whom I’ve actually met — and I don’t get around much in fencing circles. For another, the manual is both serious in approach and light in tone, which is no mean feat when writing instructions for practice and pedagogy. My friend’s illustrations are simple but clear and excellent.

I’ve read a few fencing manuals for knowledge and entertainment, and this one really raises the bar for both; it does not over-assume what the reader knows, yet the explanations are not heavy. Seriously, snag this puppy right away, even if you’re not a fencer yourself. (I mean, that can always change. Right?)

Congratulations, Kat and Russ!

And it helped, too

So yesterday was the kind of day where, although things didn’t exactly go badly, there was just a general atmosphere of stress, exacerbated by all the little things crowding the margins of my mind that I haven’t gotten done. I have taxes to do, and a sermon to write, and certain work deadlines have been glaring at me from beneath their heaps in Outlook for weeks.

(Speaking of exacerbate, a friend of mine has a running joke where when someone uses a 25-cent word, she says, “And [simpler word], too.” Once in our hearing, V remarked that something-or-other would exacerbate a certain situation, and C said: “It might even make it worse.”)

So at close of business yesterday evening, I shut down the lid of my laptop. “Fuck it,” I said, “I’m going to Bo Lings.” I put on my hat, grabbed my file of “Household Lights,” and went.

Bo Lings is one half of my mental spa ritual. The other half is Barnes & Noble. The order in which I visit them depends on how hungry I am, and whether I plan to purchase reading material to go with my dumplings and egg drop soup. In this case, preliminary editing was the order of the day, so after dinner I walked the two blocks to B&N and mouched about, browsing.

To my delight, I found that B&N had stocked Erin Bow’s new book. Which is, deplorably, not always the case at my local B&N.

Lo these many years ago, I was a failed beta reader for one of Erin’s early projects. Can we talk briefly about beta reading failure? Writers (at least all the writers I know including myself) continually trawl the mental rolodex of their friends for possible readers for their manuscripts: people with certain areas of expertise, or with discriminating taste, or with an editor’s eye for detail, or all of the above. But sometimes it happens that someone agrees to read a manuscript and then…just doesn’t. Or just can’t. And then there’s a shame spiral and they can’t even look at the file, and turn aside from the topic as soon as may be and may take to avoiding the writer on the street.

I’ve been on both ends of such a weltering disaster, and producing Ryswyck has taught me a lot about this aspect of project management. Well, actually, one of my betas taught me a lot about it: she suggested I give a timeline along with available dates for discussion so that she would be able to work it concretely into her schedule. “Ooh, concept,” said ADHD me. By providing a proposed deadline and other parameters, I as the writer can practice expectations management, and the beta reader can find it easier to cancel if necessary without having to say I don’t want to read your book ever ever ever.

Anyway, Erin has obviously found better betas, because she has now produced a string of brilliant books. I read through Chapter Six last night, and look forward to getting back to it. (You know, somewhere among all the abovementioned work.) Some writers worthy of the Evil Author badge are ingenious at making you cry by the end of the book, but Erin is special: she made me shed tears AT THE BEGINNING WTF.

Talk about a mental spa service upgrade. Couldn’t have found a better way to ameliorate my anxiety.

A Gnosticism Taco

For numerous reasons, this Sunday blogging is brought to you by my dear friend and fellow community member V. I have, in the past, shared living space with her for longer than I have anyone else except family, and she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together, so I reckon that as the mark of a good friend.

It was V who recently recommended Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, and since I already knew Rutledge to be a fine writer and preacher, I bought it on Kindle — and am finding it just as amazing as advertised. It has the kind of academic rigor and respect for ecumenical reality that you would hope for from a 21st-century treatment of the topic, and just my kind of humor as well. (To people who argue about whether to focus more on Good Friday or Easter, she retorts: “If you’re making a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t ask which is more important, the ham or the cheese. If you don’t have both of them, it isn’t a ham and cheese sandwich.” This occasional flippancy is just the right leavening for a serious and complex topic.)

What really got me thinking, however — at least as far as this blog post is concerned — is the way she begins her approach: with a serious and thorough critique of gnosticism as it has leached into our beliefs and practices even in churches, displacing the importance of the cross. I know, I know: we’re supposed to think of gnostics as the good guys — after all, “gnosis” is knowledge, and knowledge is better than ignorance, right? “I thought I was all set to read a blog by a smart person. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!”

No one ever does.

I mean, I get it. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in New Age shops, read Jung and learned Tarot, fought my way free of the creeping despair of fundamentalism; my friends constellate the widest varieties of belief and nonbelief, and I have no reason or desire not to honor that, even enjoy and affirm it. But Rutledge is right about one thing: gnosticism is not actually democratic in nature. It seems like it might be: though the cross is a picture of abject helplessness and degradation, we know instinctively that we are more done-to than doing when we face God in a Christian arena. To take the initiative into our own hands, to go out and seek knowledge or to hold still and grasp it from within: that’s more like it. It certainly is more appealing to me.

But democratic it is not. Some people are better equipped for meditation, get more out of walking labyrinths, find more opportunities of learning from teachers. Transcending the difficulties of the body — being spiritual — is a matter of becoming adept. And if you don’t make the grade, you roll down the bank as the train barrels past.

I think we’re supposed to care about that. Not least because I’ve rolled down any number of spiritual banks myself; but also because in some limited areas I have impressed people far more than I deserved to, better people who were not aware as I was that it ought to be the other way around.

So naturally my thoughts turned to the worldbuilding I had done for Ryswyck. As a secondary-world speculative story, it doesn’t carry the same factual history of our world but is an analogue to it. In the story we only meet people from two countries in a backwater region of a global community more or less united against nuclearization anywhere in the world. The two peoples of the story share, with some differences, a religious tradition — a worship of wisdom without resort to images. As I feigned it, destruction and loss on such a massive worldwide scale led to an iconoclasm similar to the Simplification of A Canticle for Leibowitz: it is better to know nothing than to know how to harm people. For my world, the axiom is that it is better to worship no image than to identify the image only with ourselves.

My characters stoop to enter the low lintels of meditation halls; they burn lights in witness to their prayers; they pray alone and they chant together; they consider themselves more or less adept in comparison with others. I questioned myself: did I feign a gnostic religion for my world?

I mean, I don’t think I’m going to hell if I did. But on consideration…I don’t think so. I think what I did was a photo negative to what I experience in this world. After all, I wrote Ryswyck because I wanted to read a story that I couldn’t find out there six years ago. I wanted to read a story driven by friendship, ensconced in community, making use of Charles Williams’s concept of substitutionary love but anchoring a truly feminine point of view: plus all my favorite SFF tropes and the kitchen sink. It makes sense that if my daily fare is a Christian pita with a gnostic filling, I would serve up substitutionary love in a gnostic taco.

So pour me a Dos Equis and pass the hot sauce.