News & Reviews: August 6, 2019

News

HUGE NEWS this week: I sold my first short story!

And to a professional, SFWA-qualifying market, no less!

More details as they shake out, but I’m over-the-moon pumped. The story’s one I’ve been working on for three years (!), revising, polishing, and submitting.

Many thanks to my friends that suffered through reading all those drafts, and offered me the feedback I needed to make the story shine!

Reviews

Finished off two books this week: Persian Fire and Paper Girls, Vol 1.

Persian Fire, by Tom Holland

One of the best examples of narrative history I’ve ever read. Holland is simply a great writer, so that despite some repetition and over-reliance on certain turns of phrase, I sped through its 350+ pages.

And it illuminated aspects of ancient Persia and Greece that I didn’t appreciate before. Like how Sparta trumpeted equality for everyone except for those living in the cities they conquered (who were turned into slaves, one and all). Or how democratic Athens regularly held an ostracism, so they could kick out a citizen who was getting too powerful (or causing too much resentment among other citizens). Or that the King of Persia considered all his subjects his slaves, and yet left them to worship their own gods, and mostly govern themselves, so long as they paid tribute.

I wish it’d gone more into a subject it teases in the Preface: How would Greece have fared if Xerxes had conquered it? Given that the Persian Kings were considering letting the Ionians (subjects of the empire) govern themselves democratically, how much of Western history would have been different?

Holland does go into detail about the Persian empire (origins, revolutions, etc), which is a great corrective to the usual Greek-sided way of telling this story. But he leaves one of his most tantalizing questions unexplored, which is a tragedy.

Paper Girls, Vol 1, by Brian K Vaughn, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson, and Jared K Fletcher

Picked this one up partially because of Vaughn’s work on Saga, and partially because of the clean, comprehensible art style.

And now I have yet another Image Comic (like Monstress, and Saga, and Wicked + Divine, and…) that I’ll pick up every chance I get.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that it’s set in 1988, it follows four pre-teens on their paper route one early morning, and that things rapidly get…weird. Like, time-travel and possible aliens and dinosaurs weird.

It’s fantastically well-done. Its creative team is firing on all cylinders: the story is strong, the drawing clear and easy-to-follow, the colors manage to invoke both the 80s (to me, anyway) and the various locations (early morning outside, dark basement, etc) and the lettering conveys everything from a radio’s static to a drunken warble.

Which reminds me, I need to go pick up Vol 2 🙂

Breakout Breakdown: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

So I’ve given myself homework.

I decided to take the list of books the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook uses for examples of good writing, whittle them down to the ones whose excerpts intrigued me, and read them all.

I figure I’ll discover some new authors, learn some new techniques, and get exposed to genres I wouldn’t normally read in.

First up: Empire Falls

Motivation

I liked that it wasn’t Russo’s first book, but his fifth, that broke out. It makes me feel like writing is a craft that you can get better at over time, and so long as I keep practicing and working on my technique, I can write a truly good book.

I was also intrigued because it broke out in a big way: it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. So not only did it make it seem possible to eventually write a good book, it means it’s possible to work hard at it, and write a great one.

Breaking it Down

Point of View

Third-person tight, with flashes of omniscience, plus jumps.

In other words, it’s all told in third-person, and mostly sticks close to one character’s thoughts and perspective during a chapter, but will occasionally jump over to someone else for a paragraph, then come back. Oh, and also the author’s voice sometimes comes in, to render a judgement on someone’s personality.

It works, though it breaks all kinds of rules.

Writing Style

Conversational, bordering on rambling. I can’t think of a single page that doesn’t have at least one flashback, possibly two. It’s all relevant material, and it fleshes out the world completely, but it definitely slows things down.

Overall effect is like an AMC show from around 2006: deliberately slow and relaxed pacing. As if there’s no final destination in mind, so there’s no reason to rush off there.

Breakout Techniques

Even though nothing happens for the first 3/4 of the book, the stakes for the characters involved are clear. Nothing happening is exactly the problem, and the reason so many of them are miserable.

And the plot threads are tightly woven. All that backstory has knock-on effects decades later, and Russo manages to pull otherwise random events together and make it all match up.

That said, “tension on every page” is something the book doesn’t have. If anything, there’s a complete lack of tension. It made reading it rather relaxing, oddly enough; hanging out with the sad sacks of Empire Falls after a stressful day at work felt like unwinding.

Re-readability

None.

I appreciate the mastery of technique here; no dispute about the Pulitzer. But the technique is in service of a story that I don’t want to read again.

It makes me think: if I could write that well about something with more action, more movement, how much fun would that be?

Midlife, by Kieran Setiya

Picked this one up during my last trip through Boston. I’m inching closer and closer to forty, so it seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life (not much, really) and where I might want to go from here.

I’d hoped this book would help with that, or at least with countering any fears or anxieties I experience as I enter middle age.

Unfortunately, it’s a mostly disappointing book.

An Audience of One

Part of that is due to a flaw he admits right up front: it’s a book he wrote for himself. Someone who’s entered middle age as one of the professional classes, with a stable job, a stable home life, and good health. And not just any job, but the job he set out to get in his twenties. So he comes at middle age from the perspective of someone who’s already achieved the things they wanted out of life.

The book suffers for it. For how many of us set out to do one thing in our youth, only to end up somewhere entirely different? Or enter middle age with our bodies broken, or our minds? Do we have nothing to learn from philosophy?

Abandoning Reason

The second flaw follows directly from the first: he discusses arguments for dealing with certain aspects of middle age, such as the fear of death, but dismisses anything that doesn’t feel right for him. Abandoning reason, he moves from philosophy to pop psychology, deciding that what gives him the most comfort must be the best.

Never mind that what might comfort him would be appalling to someone else. Or that comfort might have little to do with the truth.

Paths Not Taken

And so he glosses over the insights embedded in the not-self dogma of Buddhism. Skips right over the most reasonable argument for not fearing death. And misses a gaping hole in the middle of his whole argument.

For embedded in the heart of his book is an assumption: that philosophy is meant to help us be happy.

But what if that isn’t the case? If we take philosophy as being the study of how to live a good life, does it necessarily follow that the good life is a happy one?

I don’t think so. At the very least, I don’t think it’s something we can assume. For while it is a modern trend to conflate happiness with virtue (or perhaps merely a particularly American one), there are plenty of examples from ancient philosophy where that isn’t the case. Consider Stoicism, where virtue can only be shown in the face of adversity.

Final Words

So while Midlife claims to be a mix of philosophy and self-help, it is neither. Not philosophy, because it leaves reason behind in the pursuit of comfortable aphorisms. And not self-help, because it was written to help only one person, the author.

Frustrating at its worst, disappointing at its best, I wouldn’t recommend this book.

Cicero, by Anthony Everitt

Masterful. Not only did I get a better sense of who Cicero was as a person, and why he was important, I also got a good feel for the politics of the late Roman Republic. More specifically, Everitt lays out the flaws inherent in the Roman system that — coupled with the stubborn refusal to change of most Senators — led to its downfall and the birth of the Empire.

I found this book easier going than Everitt’s biography of Augustus. They’re both good, don’t get me wrong, but I never felt lost in dates and events in Cicero, because Everitt constantly tied things back to the larger movements of the period. It gave me a better perspective, and also let me see how important Cicero really was.

For example, after watching the HBO series Rome (which is fantastic, highly recommend checking it out), I thought of Cicero as little more than a pompous windbag, unable to make up his mind or stand for anything.

On the contrary, while he could be long-winded, and tended to talk up his deeds too much, he was a capable administrator (he was only sent to govern provinces twice, but both times was very popular with the locals for being competent and incorruptible) and a rare thing in the late Republic: a Senator that sided with the wealthy (optimates) but wanted to change things just the same. Not to mention his original claim to fame as a great orator, which he won by ably defending clients in the courts.

He even, apparently, had some skill as an investigator. While on his second tour as a provincial governor, he uncovered a banking scandal that was being run by Marcus Brutus (the Brutus that later was one of Caesar’s assassins!).

In short: Highly recommended if you’re interested in Roman history, or even (like me) just curious to know more about the personalities glimpsed through series like Rome.

On The Origins of Totalitarianism

Recently finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.

It’s hard for me to talk about, because the book is filled with such piercing, clear-eyed insight, that if I tried to summarize it properly, I’d end up reproducing it.

I could say that I think the book should be required reading for any citizen of any country, in any age, because I do. And not because of any simplistic need to show that “Nazis are bad,” which (while true) doesn’t need an entire book to demonstrate. The testimony of even one concentration camp survivor should be enough for that.

I think everyone should read The Origins of Totalitarianism because it shows how the logic of totalitarian governments grows out of capitalism itself. Not that capitalism must always lead to totalitarianism, but that it always can. Just as racism and nationalism don’t always lead to a Final Solution, but without racism and nationalism, without some ideology claiming to override our humanity, a Final Solution is not even conceivable.

And yes, I think there are passages of the book, describing the methods of the Nazis and the communists (for Stalin’s government was also a totalitarian one) that are too close to our current administration for my comfort. I can’t read about the Nazis contempt for reality, or the way people in totalitarian movements will both believe the lies told by their leaders and praise them for their cleverness when the lies are revealed, without thinking of how right-wing nationalists in my own country treat the current President. But even if these things were not happening in the United States, it would be a book worth reading.

It is, in short, rightly called a classic. A long one, and a hard one, if we take its insights to heart as readers (passages calling out the middle classes for abandoning their civic duties for isolated home life strike close to home for me; I feel I’ve worked hard for what I have, and want to cling to it, but how many others am I leaving behind, by doing so?).

And yet it is that wondrous thing: a book hailed as a classic work, that is worth all the time and study we can give it. If you haven’t read it, please do.

We’re counting on you.

Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

Ever read a book that makes you feel both better and worse about the times you live in?

That’s what Fantasyland did for me.

Better, because Andersen shows how the current fad for conspiracy theories and disregard for facts (on the conservative side of politics, this time) is just the latest iteration of a series of such fads, going all the way back to the first Northern European settlers of the Americas.

For example: the first colonists in Virginia were lured by rumors of gold that had been completely made up by speculators. They starved and died while hunting for gold and silver, until by chance they started cultivating America’s first addictive drug export, tobacco.

But I also feel worse, in that it makes me think there’s no real escape from the fanaticism and illusions that lie in the heart of the American experiment. They’ve allowed the burning of witches, the enslavement of entire nations, and the genocide of those who were here first. And now they’re pushing even my own family to condone the caging of immigrant children, the silencing of women, and the persecution of Muslims.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I take hope in the other side of the cycle that Andersen exposes. When reason pushes back against mysticism, and we re-fight the battles of the Enlightenment. We banned snake-oil and established the FDA. We drove quacks underground and wrote licensing laws. We won the Civil War. We passed Civil Rights legislation.

Granted, Andersen himself doesn’t seem to think there’s light at the end of our present tunnel. At the end of the book, he falls into what I think is a trap: believing the United States to be completely unique, and the current era to be uniquely terrible.

I think the first is countered with any glance at the news from the rest of the world. From Brexit to the rise of the populist right in Poland and Hungary, to Venezuala’s deluded leadership and China’s reality-scrubbed media, there’s plenty of other countries with their own fantasylands. While we in the U.S. often tell ourselves we’re not like anyone else, it turns out we are.

And I think his own book is a firm counter to the second trap. Every era thinks itself both the pinnacle of human achievement and the lowest depth to which humanity can fall. But pushing back against unreason — by refusing to give them a platform, by taking their threat seriously but not their claims, by not falling for the trap of treating every belief as equally valid — has worked in the past. It can work now.

Alive by Scott Sigler

Intense.

The prose is stripped clean of excess, going down so smooth it injects the story right into your bloodstream. And hot damn, it’s a good one.

I haven’t read a lot of YA, but this is the first one I enjoyed, start to finish.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • First-person, step-by-step, can be brutal: by sitting right inside the character’s head, it’s easy to get sucked in, and then when the shit goes down, you feel every victory and defeat like they’re happening to you.
  • Every group has a jerk. Every group in fiction needs a jerk.
  • One way to handle writing a large group, where each person needs their own personality, is to write scenes in which the group rotates through different configurations. The numbers stay manageable, but the composition of the group in the scene changes, giving each member a chance to shine.

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Not what I expected. I’d always thought the Meditations was a set of philosophical aphorisms. Instead, it’s something between a diary and a daily “deep thought”, a recording of a conversation an Emperor of Rome was having with himself.

As such, it’s repetitive and very personal, and yet somehow still relevant, hundreds of years after it was written.

Three things I found useful:

  • Try to learn from everyone, even (especially) the ones you disagree with.
  • If you know someone’s a jerk, don’t expect them to treat you fairly. And definitely don’t get angry with them for it, since you knew who they were from the start.
  • Success and failure happen to everyone, over and over again. So there shouldn’t be pride in the former, or shame in the latter.

The Conquest of Gaul, by Julius Caesar

Not what I expected. Written in plain language, as if he wanted to sound trustworthy, so the reader wouldn’t notice the (non-glorious) things he skips over.

Fascinating to read now, after I know more about both what happened to Caesar afterwards and the Gauls he attacked.

Three things I learned:

  • Caesar’s mercy started during the Gaul campaign, when he’d often pardon former enemies that were willing to bend the knee.
  • Caesar justified his attacks on the rest of Gaul and Germany on a domino theory: if the Germans prospered in Gaul, he said, they’d eventually march on Rome itself.
  • The Pullo and Vorenus from HBO’s Rome were based on real people, that Caesar wrote about by name (!)

Augustus by Anthony Everitt

Illuminating. Everitt makes Augustus a sympathetic figure, but without hiding any of his flaws: his hypocritical championing of family values, his slaughtering of competing Roman families, his unforgiving behavior towards his own family and friends. And he shows how Augustus’ life was often a series of serious mistakes followed by lucky victories, not a steady calculated rise to power.

Three things I learned:

  • The idea of having two “co-emperors” of Rome goes back to Augustus. He often had at least one trusted friend or family member invested with equal power and sent to rule different regions of the empire.
  • Augustus’ first official post was religious: his great-uncle Caesar, got him appointed to the College of Pontiffs, who were in charge of performing public sacrifices
  • Augustus was called “Princeps”, not Emperor. He was careful to keep his powers legal, renewed periodically via legislation, and to act humble while in Rome