Lessons learned: reading in summer 2017

Summer 2017 was a whirlwind of travel, which meant lots of time curled up in planes and automobiles with books. (I scoured my memory for a train to complete the triforce but, reader, I did not take a train.)

Complaining about things I didn’t like is a sort of gauche look. So here’s five stories I really liked this summer. (There were more, but this post was getting long.)

1) The short story that stuck with me the most was Ashok K. Banker’s “Tongue” published in August’s Lightspeed. Linguistically, this story was astonishing. I’ve played with the idea of evolving English into the near future for a project called Uncrypt that shall no longer be spoken of for at least a few years, but my attempts have fallen pretty flat. I was excited supposing that “Tongue”‘s dialect is a future Indian English, although let’s be real that my knowledge of Indian English is limited, and if it is it’s pulled off with supreme naturalness. And speculative linguistics aside, the pacing in this story is fantastic and every twist gave me a full-body wince. I’ve been thinking about female embodiment for “Splice”, and “Tongue” provokes the kind of horror and desperation and feeling of trapped-ness that I’m trying to paw at as I edit that story. (I listened to the audio version read by Pooja Batra and I’m sure her awesome narration, with just the right balance of chirpy pleasantness and warbly pathos, contributed to the impression this story made on me.) Lesson learned: Speculative linguistic prose can work.

2) Just yesterday I finished Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman on audiobook. I’ve never wanted an HBO miniseries so bad. Where it’s pulpy, it’s very juicy pulp. I caught some really nicely arranged prose and it talks about identity and the lack of identity in ways that I hadn’t seen elucidated before and that ring very true. I was thinking when I started listening to it that it would be the kind of book that uses homoeroticism rather than all-out lesbian love, and about the relative merits of both, because I do think there’s something special about sexual tension that never gets resolved and about the power of the unspoken and implied. But I was wrong and I’m glad I was wrong because honestly, codependent adolescent lesbian cultists anchors pretty deep in my id. Lesson learned: “Filthy in a good way” is a legitimate emotion to dig for when you’re trying to get good writing out of yourself.

3) I finally got around to The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. It’s been a long time since I read a really hard sci-fi and I’m so glad I did, because the absolute joy of ideas is laced into this book everywhere, and I had almost forgotten how much ideas could buoy me through a book. I had heard some people say they found it cold or boring, but understated emotion is not boring! Even though many things in this book are described plainly, I think Cixin Liu has such an eye for beauty and wonder that when I really settled in to picture what he was telling me it would wash over me all of a sudden like warm water. Lesson learned: Sometimes selecting the right detail does the work for you and you don’t have to select a scintillating word; let it breathe.

4) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer was one of the first books I read this summer. I was struggling with what was left to do with Lovecraftian creeping horror before this book, you know? I actually rarely get the full effect of horror in books for whatever reason–I’m working on it, but I read quite fast and don’t always let things sink in and percolate–but when the main character has to go back up the stairs I probably squealed. (Vaguest spoilers ever?) Lesson learned: It’s emotionally effective when the consequences of reveals are just as bad as the punch, or even worse.

5) I availed myself of Tor’s Book of the Month club to read Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. The cadence and vocabulary of this book is very particular and pleasing–I love the romance of the archaic language, the taste of the words–and I suspect we all could work on incorporating sexuality into stories as elegantly as Kushiel’s Dart. Even the masters often seem to make sex awkward in prose. When Ben Okri can end up on a “bad sex in fiction” award shortlist, you know a well-integrated sex scene is a universally difficult undertaking. Kushiel’s Dart solves the problem by being so extra all the way through. Honestly, I should be reading more well-written romance books. I enjoy writing romance, and like many people who pretend to seriousness I’ve nevertheless avoided reading romance books because they’re, oh, you know, so girly.  Lesson learned: Time to suck up my internalized misogyny and find good romance. That’s what ebooks are for.

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