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

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas

Essential. Maas describes the elements of a “breakout” novel, showing how to make any plot or story more compelling. He pulls examples from recent (well, recent to the year 2000, which is when the book was written) novels to illustrate each of his points, and even has exercises in each chapter you can do for your own novel.

I’m already mixing in his approach as I prepare for NaNoWriMo. It’s given me another set of questions to ask about my characters, plot, and setting, to help me push them to a higher level.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • People have been talking about the death of the mid-list since the 1970s. Don’t let it phase you.
  • Escalating stakes doesn’t mean making the one danger greater. It means adding more, different, dangers for the protagonist.
  • Characters need to be larger-than-life. Find the extraordinary in ordinary people, and bring that to life.

 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Masterful. It’s a classic for a reason: a locked-room mystery on an entire train, that builds slowly through lie after lie until the truth comes rushing out all at once.

Damn, but Christie was good.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Skip over the dialog that doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s enough just to say “so-and-so made a suitable response.”
  • Even adventures that get stumbled into have to be driven by the protagonist’s choices. Poirot doesn’t ask for the mystery, but he deliberately pursues it to the end, because that’s who he is.
  • Put the description at the start of the scene, briefly. If the position of something isn’t important, leave it out. It’s enough to report that “there were pencils and paper,” we don’t always need to know exactly where everything is.

X vs Y by Eve Epstein & Leonora Epstein

A cracking good read. Illuminates the relationship between Gen X and Gen Y, something that’s always felt a little slippery to me (as someone born in 1979, often thrown in with the Millennials but identifying with Gen X).

Filled with moments that made me nod along (the movie list for Gen X), and others that showed me a corner of the 90s I didn’t know existed (Sassy magazine). The book was clearly a work of love for both Eve and Leonora, and it shows.

Three things I learned:

  • Titanic was a huge movie for Gen Y. What I remember as just solid Oscar-bait was apparently perfectly tuned to imprint on young Gen Y brains.
  • Clueless can be read as not just a great adaption of Emma, but also as a love story between Gen Y (Cher) and Gen X (Josh), reflecting the complicated relationship between the two generations.
  • Complaining about the current tech-driven dating scene is common to Gen Y, though none of them would want to go back to the way things were before.

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

Stunning. I had no idea of the magnitude of what was lost in Eastern and Central Europe after the War, due to Soviet coercion and control.

By focusing on just the first decade or so after V-E day, and restricting her story to mainly Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, Applebaum is able to go in deep on how the Soviets — and their local communist allies — were able to subvert their newly conquered satellite states, and impose a foreign totalitarian system on them.

Three things I learned:

  • Poland, Hungary, Germany, Finland: their borders were radically remade after the Soviet conquest. The Baltic countries vanished altogether, absorbed into the Soviet Union. Germany lost much eastern territory to Poland, who in turn lost its eastern reaches to the Soviet Union. The Ukraine was gone.
  • Poland lost 20% of its population in the war. In comparison, France lost 1.5%
  • The first step for most of the communist parties was to form a “national front” with other leftist parties, sometimes by force, usually with some amount of arm-twisting. Once that was established, communists would take over the mechanisms of state power (Interior, Secret Police, etc) while leaving the most visible positions in the hands of others, so it looked like a pluralistic government from outside.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Generally excellent. Where the first book was broad, with multiple locations and times, the second one goes deep, diving into the political minutiae of a single system. And it works, drawing us further into the world of the Radch.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Be careful of “I knew that she suspected I thought I knew about this lie that she told me three days ago” plots. Unless your narrator is very explicit about their thoughts, you can lose the reader in too many significant looks that aren’t explained.
  • If a cool gimmick from the first book isn’t available (lost because of story), instead of bringing it back (and reaching for a retcon), try to find a different way to achieve the same thing. Here, the data relayed to the narrator by Ship gives us the ability to view scenes we wouldn’t otherwise, preserving the narrative trick of the first book by a different means.
  • For a sequel, you might be tempted to go broader than the first book (especially if the story of the first book was epic in scope already). But you don’t have to. A smaller scope can work just as well to let you show who your characters are, and deepen their relationships.