20 December, 2016

Repost: It's a Wonderful Bike - 19 December 2013

Note: From now on, I will try to re-post one of my favorites of my dad's writing every month or two. Here is "It's A Wonderful Bike", first published on 19 December, 2013

Sure, I know lots of adults don't, and if the truth be told, lots of children don't either. Nevertheless, I do - always have and always will. Please don't try to make something of it.

And it's not that people haven't tried to dissuade me from believing - even my parents, by the way.

Consider Christmas of 1960. We had moved into our new home in Virginia Beach in October of 1958, and this was our third Christmas in that home. I was 12 and was asking Santa for a new bicycle. Full size for this soon to be teen. Blue. Schwinn. Black Panther model.

My nearest neighbor - a year or two younger than I – had that bike, and I wanted one too. My friend's father, however, was a local TV celebrity - which is to say they had more money than we did and could easily afford to spend a little more. Santa brought a Schwinn Jaguar III model, the next “class” down.

I don’t really recall if I had been told to expect that model or not. I don't remember any discussion of the Black Panther vs. Jaguar III issue at all, but since I wasn't disappointed with the Jaguar III, I’m assuming I already knew. That can mean only that I had previously agreed with my parents on what I should ask Santa for.

Anyway, I was already in bed on Christmas Eve, but around 11:00 my parents called me to come downstairs. It seems they had begun to a uncrate the bike Santa had brought so that my father could assemble it. Unfortunately it was not blue, but red - not the kind of mistake Santa typically makes. They didn’t want me to be disappointed in the morning, and at the same time, showing me now might encourage me to begin to accept there was no Santa.

This had never really been discussed in our home, and although I knew my parents were skeptical, I never pushed it. So at the age of 12, I received my first suggestion of what most my age already believed, but I wasn't buying it. For me, Santa existed then and still does.

That bike is in my garage right now; I just went out and looked at it. It will be 53 years old in a few weeks and has a little rust, but I saw one just like it (without rust) for sale online at $2900. It doesn't matter; I'm keeping mine. It has come to symbolize far too much. For example, knowing that Santa sometimes makes mistakes has made it a lot easier to forgive myself when I do. That's a useful skill I recommend regardless of how you come by it.

And those Christmas bells. They "still ring for me, as they do for all who truly believe." I feel sad for you if you don't know that reference, but it's not too late. Go watch or, better yet, read The Polar Express. It might just turn you back into a believer, and how wonderful it would be to hear those bells again. BELIEVE. And just as important - tell a child you believe. It won't hurt you a bit, and in fact, watching that child's reaction might just begin to convince you it is so. Happy Christmas.

18 December, 2016

Learning to write by rewriting other people's books: A review of Wintersong

I'm back!

I've been terribly delinquent about remembering to post reviews of ARCs, but I have a new approach: I'm going to try to improve by own writing by critiquing and reflecting on what works and doesn't work me as reader. Let's see how it goes...

This week's book: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Next week's preview: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Both are YA-style fantasy novels. I say "YA-style" because I'm not sure either book is being marketed as YA, or that either author identifies herself as such, but I think they share some of the common problems of YA fantasy. I am by no means an expert in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, science fantasy or their subgenres, but I'm also not turned off by the label of "fantasy." I basically divide fantasy into "YA/YA-style" and "literary." This is how I approach them in my head, as a reader and writer, and doesn't imply any kind of accepted division within publishing, literary criticism, fan-dom, etc. For me, YA is shorthand for readability and accessibility, although perfectly capable of heartbreakingly beautiful writing (see: Maggie Stiefvater and Laini Taylor), while "literary" is shorthand for less accessible writing but often deeper, more intricate themes, clearly beyond the reading level of most teenagers. (see: China Mièville). And then there's all the magical realists of the world, who share something with both groups (see: Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell).

So that it is where I'm coming from. Feel free to set me straight as to how other people are comparing this genres and subgenres.

I've written elsewhere about my enduring love for YA as an adult reader, but I have to admit that it disappoints me fairly often, and it's hard to find authors as good as, say, Laini Taylor. Wintersong, in particular, is a great example of one of the most frustrating problems. Many a YA fantasy author seems to have a dazzling imagination and a knack for setting up compelling conflicts. Sadly, more authors seem capable of the set-up than the follow-through. Truthfully, this probably reflects (1) the age of many writers, (2) the lack of life experience outside writing, and (3) just how challenging it is to write the other, but especially when the other is, say, an alien race (see: Samantha Shannon and The Mime Order).

Back to Wintersong, with, first, some spoiler-free comments: The writing is lovely, but at times overly descriptive. I read a lot on my iPhone, so I can usually see 2-3 paragraphs at a time, and I ended up swiping through five or six paragraphs of description at a few points. The first half can be a bit slow, but the connection between the narrator/protagonist Elisabeth, a young woman in 18th century Germany (I think) and the Goblin King was intriguing enough to keep the pages turning. In the end, I finished in one setting of about three hours.

It has a wistful, melancholy tone, and a deep sadness pervades the events of the book. It brought me to tears more than once. I think that both of those must reflect well on the author's talents. She created a mood and a voice and made this reader feel what was happening. I will definitely read the sequel.

The problems...oh, the problems. The fact that I have thought so much about the problems is probably complimentary in some ways. A book has to get under my skin a bit for me to dwell so much on what could have been done better. Fair warning: spoilers will follow.

This book is a classic example of the two most common traps YA fantasy authors seem to fall into: creating a logical and internally consistent reality/world, and building psychologically and philosophically complex characters, situations, and conflicts that the authors follow through to an appropriately psychologically and philosophically complex resolution. These problems often occur simultaneously; that is certainly the case for Wintersong. 

(1) Creating a logical and internally consistent reality/world: Okay, this is hard. I agree this is hard. And it's not just hard for fantasy writers - it absolutely plagues writers who write other genre fiction, and it is a pervasive problem in fiction that involves medical settings. (As a physician, these are the most obvious to me, but I suspect that police procedurals, courtroom dramas, spy thrillers, etc. all suffer from the same issues.)

Often, when I'm writing, it feels like something should happen. Emotionally, I mean. This something would move the plot forward. Build character. Create tension. Resolve tension. Whatever. But...the something doesn't follow the rules of the fantasy world or the relevant rules of the real world.

Wintersong fails massively on establishing and maintaining some kind of internal logic for the events. A spoiler-y example: In the Wintersong world, a great war between the goblins and other magical creatures and humans results in the creatures going Underground, separating their races. One man gives up his life and humanity - his soul - to establish peace and prosperity for both, becoming the first Goblin King. (I think I got this right - it was frankly hard to get straight.) However, he grows old, and the earth begins to fail. A "brave maiden" - the first Goblin Queen - seeks him out and offers up her own life in order to save the rest of humanity and restore the cycle of life and seasons. From then on, the Goblin King continues to take sacrificial brides, in payment for the continuity fertility of the earth. Periodically, the Goblin King is itself replaces by a new human man.

However, PLENTY of important details are left unexplained. For instance, it is eventually made clear that the Goblin Queen doesn't just give up her human life but lives a much-foreshortened life Underground. She suffers for her sacrifice - her passion for life feeds the earth (and, it is implied, the goblin races) and in turn she loses her ability to enjoy life, gradually losing her senses. "Gradually" is expressly stated but what we see in the text is the opposite: the narrator abruptly loses her ability to taste, then regains it; she loses her hearing, then fully regains it; she has dramatic nosebleeds, then makes a full recovery. This is never explained, or sometimes explained in ways that don't ring true to the rest of the story. It is also never explained how much time she has - the characters act like her life will be extremely brief, but it's not at all clear. At another point, she is told that she will live as long as someone in the human world remembers and loves her. It is obvious that her siblings do, and haven't forgotten her, yet she she has these dramatic episodes repeatedly. And it never entirely makes sense, within the information we are given, that encounters with her lover shorten her life more than other emotional interactions.

Many of the most problematic plot points and scenes suffer from the second problem as well...

(2) Building psychologically and philosophically complex characters, situations, and conflicts...and then following through to the psychologically and philosophically complex resolution. This is actually not the most egregious example of this problem, but it's still pretty bad. Okay - so you've got a young woman who has put aside her dreams, hopes, ambitions, joys, her very essence (she is a gifted composer) for her family, but has now become to Goblin King's bride to save her younger sister. And then you've got the Goblin King, who has known and loved her since she was a child, drawn to her music, which brings back memories of his humanity and his lost soul. But to be together means she will lose everything he loves about her and then die (apparently fairly quickly but, as I noted, it's unclear). This is a rich dilemma. Alas, it's not explored with the sophistication and nuance that would make it truly brilliant. And by "truly brilliant", I mean "worthy of me shedding tears"!

Part of the problem is in the character development, and this made me think a lot about how we develop characters and particularly how we convincingly show two characters falling in love, a subject which deserves its own post. For example, the Goblin King repeatedly begs the narrator to share her music and she refuses. In one very brief paragraph, she finally engages in an internal dialogue about why, revealing a childhood rife with physical and emotional abuse, in which her alcoholic father discouraged her gifts in favor of her younger brother's. This should NOT be a single paragraph. This struggle - an abused child now grown, acknowledging and confronting her painful past, choosing to allow herself to love again, to see herself as worthy - this should infuse the entire plot. This journey is the book's major theme, and this character arc should be central to the action.

Another example, of both a failure of internal consistency and a failure to meet expectations: It is stated that love will keep her alive. As the narrator muses on this, she thinks about how her brother, a gifted violinist, is traveling Europe, performing her compositions. She sees a letter from him, asking for her to give them some sign that she really exists (for her memory has been erased from all but those who loved her most) so that he can name her as the composer. This seems like an OBVIOUS set-up for a partial solution to the lovers' dilemma: through her music, she will be known and loved for years to come, perhaps beyond even her natural lifespan. Yet this possibility is dropped and never pursued again. Instead, the Goblin King chooses to let her go, although that will mean that someone else will simply have to be sacrificed in her place, or the world will end.

Suffice it to say this: I think we readers and writers should all be past this Mean Girls approach to stereotypical female characterization. It is implied that the previous brides were more beautiful than the narrator but without her exceptional talents, uniqueness and complexity. So they deserved to lose their senses and die? Internal consistency is a problem here too. The narrator's sister, Käthe, nearly becomes the Goblin Queen in her place. Käthe is much more beautiful and loves fine things. Later in the book, however, the narrator realizes that Käthe's fixation on marrying well has been motivated by a desire to provide for their family, and Käthe clings desperately to the memory of the narrator, showing much more strength and depth than the narrator realized. (For those who read a lot of YA, Käthe has parallels to Feyre's sister in Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses, but the redeemed "stepsister" is not exactly an uncommon type.) So why should we, the readers, be okay with the idea of another girl being sacrificed? We shouldn't.

It's not just a bad message to send; it's a major flaw in characterization, plotting, and, yes, editing. It's the easy way out, a way to tie everything together and put a bow on it. I wish the author had chosen to wrestle with the world's internal logic until everything fit and with the character arc until the story earned the emotions it provokes.

Next week: The Bone Witch.

Coming soon: The Mime Order (more than a year late but whatever); Queen of Shadows and Empire of Storms (also late but worth exploring why I loathed them both);

I also want to add...clearly, I lean towards reviewing books that I think had a ton of potential but ultimately fell short, but I want to give a shout-out to a few books that I simply can't criticize, and a shout-down to a few I didn't even like enough to criticize. If what I've had to say so far has been interesting or helpful, I recommend you:

Definitely read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha PulleySix of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, by Leigh Bardugo; The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh (the sequel, The Rose and the Dagger was not nearly as good); The Siege Winter, by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman (I love all Ariana Franklin's historical fiction and I was very sad when I learned she had died); and The Anatomy of Curiosity, by Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton, and Maggie Stiefvater.

Only if you are REALLY bored (and have no other options) read The Graces, by Laure Eve; An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch Against the Night, by Sabaa Tahir (I don't know if I have the energy to get into the problems with this series); The Last Star, by Rick Yancey (a very disappointing finish to this trilogy); The Beauty of Darkness, by Mary E. Pearson (also a lackluster finish to a mediocre series that I hoped would get better); The Pale Dreamer, by Samantha Shannon (a mediocre novella to whet people's appetites until The Song Rising)

Finally, if you absolutely 100% trust my judgment even beyond the realm of fantasy, read Disaster Falls, by Stéphane Gerson (I will write about this incredible memoir of grief and love separately); The Children Act, by Ian McEwan; and The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers.

07 May, 2016

Bedtime stories

Photos in our old house
Last night, my son crawled on my bed and studied the photographs on the wall behind it. They've been there for over a year, and hung in our living room in Colorado for his whole life before that, but something about them just now struck him.

I think that is a body, he said, pointing to the closest one.

Those are sand dunes, I replied, asking if he knew what a sand dune was, but I think it looks like a belly button.

I think it looks like a leg, he said, and a butt. He gazed at the other pictures intently. I could not have imagined what he was thinking. Most days, I think that Finn simply takes the world as it comes - everything is ordinary and the ordinary is wondrous. A few months ago, I took him to work with me and one of my nursing friends took him to our play room, where he played along side one of my patients. I thought he might have questions about her lack of hair or IV, but he never noticed. That is one way of describing what it is to be four years old. At 3 AM, he wonders if there might be a monster in the closet. That is another way.

He thought the Merzouga oasis looked "like a boat" and wondered how I managed to take pictures of the shadows of camels, as we were riding them in the Erg Chebbi, that drift of Sahara Desert in Morocco. I told him how the dunes were higher than our house, and how I watched the stars rise above the them, and listened to the sand crack and whip against the side of my tent all night long. I asked him what the word "desert" meant and we talked about the difference between camels and cacti, and he speculated that he might like to touch a cactus that had "soft pokeys" like feathers. I told him I would take him there when he gets bigger.

My photos are arranged in three rows of one, two and three frames each. They look like stairs, my son observed. When I get big, he said, I'll ride camels and take FOUR pictures, so you can climb higher. 

I turned off the lights, and we looked up at the glowing plastic stars that my sister put on the ceiling when she was a little girl in the same room. And then I told him a mostly true story about a little girl who got lost in a souk, ate camel burgers and lamb testicles, and eventually bought a flying carpet that came with a marriage proposal thrown in for free.

I don't know what the world looks like through his eyes, but I hope to see more of it with him every day.