Wrap-Up Season 2011: Everything Else

As a writer and reader, these have been my most successful and exciting years ever. But the rest of my life has gone fairly well, too. I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I moved to Oakland. Most of my college friends are across the water, living in SF, and I thought that I might be distancing myself too much from them. But coming here was the right decision. I not only got to see a number of old friends on a fairly regular basis, but I also gotten to meet a lot of new and interesting people. For the first time since I went to college (more than seven years ago), I’m fully enmeshed in a new ‘scene.’

It’s not only fun to make friends with delightful new people, it’s also fun to make new acquaintances. It’s nice to see someone every month or every two months and have a nice chat with them and not necessarily feel the need to see them more often. It feels very balanced.

With regards to my work life, things could not be better. I’m truly fortunate in my consulting schedule. If I could keep doing this amount of work for the rest of my life, I would. Unfortunately, my situation is inherently unstable, so I imagine that the day will eventually come when I’ll need to seek more traditional employment (or, at least, when I’ll need to hustle to find some alternate revenue streams). Still, for the last year, things have been ideal on that front.

Also, I quit smoking, which is pretty good. Woohoo for those seven additional years of life!

It’s been a good year, and it’s taught me a lot about myself. This year, I’ve come to realize that nothing new and transformative is really going to happen to me. I’ll have many more years. I’ll have good years and I’ll have bad years. I’ll have moments of joy and moments of despair. However, my future is going to be made of basically the same sort of stuff as the past. In the years to come, I might change significantly as a person, and my setting and situation will certainly change quite a bit, but the types of feelings I have are not going to change.

Basically, I don’t think that I’m ever going to be sadder in the future than the saddest I’ve been in the past, and I don’t think I’ve ever going to be happier in the future than the happiest I’ve been in the past. There are no higher peaks and there are no lower valleys.

So if I take this year as a model for how happy I am able to feel, then I am fairly hopeful for the future. I would love if I was as happy in every future year as I was this past year. This past year certainly had some darker periods, weeks and months where I felt quite pessimistic, but these were short-lived and manageable. Mostly, it was a time of contentment, punctuated by days (or even weeks) of outright joy.

Furthermore, I don’t even think I’d mind if all my future years were fractally similar to the year that just passed. If I never achieved artistic success and never found romantic fulfillment, I think I’d still be content as long as I was able to spend my days reading, writing, and hanging out with people that I enjoy.

However, when I’ve had good years in the past, I’ve always made a botch of them by attempting to hold onto them for too long. I’m not going to do that this time. I’m well aware that one can’t simply replicate a good year. Good years only come when you are alive to the present, and when you do one’s best to cultivate the good that appears in your year (rather than pining for good qualities that are absent)

Still, it can’t hurt to remain cognizant of the essential elements of (this) good year (freedom and good people) and to attempt to seek them out whenever I can.

Wrap-Up Season 2011: Books That I Wrote About This Year

 

This year, I increased the number of capsule reactions (1-2 paragraph write-ups) of books I read. Thus, I ended up writing about way more books than I ever have before. All told, I wrote 123 books. I’ve listed them below, along with links to the relevant blog posts. In a surprisingly large number of these cases (particularly Working, Burmese Days, Fun Home, and Frankenstein), the links go to full blog posts that discuss the work in question. In most of the others, the link goes to a page that aggregated my reactions to many books. Finally, some of the book-links go to blog posts that are mostly about other things, where I also off-handedly mentioned book and my reaction to it.

My Favorites (Amongst The Books I Blogged About)

White Tiger Adiga, Aravind
Fun Home Bechdel, Alison
A Lost Lady Cather, Willa
Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother Chua, Amy
Alcestis Euripides
Stumbling on Happiness Gilbert, Daniel
Hard Living On Clay Street: Portraits Of Blue Collar Families Howells, Joseph T.
Darkness At Noon Koestler, Arthur
Tell Them Who I Am Liebow, Elliot
This Is Not A Novel [2] Markson, David
Wittgenstein’s Mistress Markson, David
A Bend In The River Naipaul, V.S.
Finding Time Again Proust, Marcel
The Jungle [2] Sinclair, Upton
The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck, John
In Dubious Battle Steinbeck, John
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do Terkel, Studs
Sleepwalk and Other Stories Tomine, Adrian
Vile Bodies Waugh, Evelyn
The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde, Oscar
Pick-Up [2] Willeford, Charles
I Married A Dead Man [2] Woolrich, Cornell
Germinal Zola, Emile
L’Assommoir Zola, Emile

 

The Other Books I Blogged About (Which Were Mostly Pretty Good Too)

Between The Assassinations Adiga, Aravind
Agamemnon Aeschylus
The Libation Bearers Aeschylus
The Eumenides Aeschylus
Thieves Like Us Anderson, Edward
Epic of Gilgamesh Anonymous
Mansfield Park Austen, Jane
Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes, Julian
Kitchen Confidential Bourdain, Anthony
My Booky Wook Brand, Russell
Paying For It Brown, Chester
The Postman Always Rings Twice Cain, James M.
Double Indemnity Cain, James M.
Don Quixote, Part One Cervantes, Miguel de
Farewell, My Lovely Chandler, Raymond
High Window Chandler, Raymond
Portrait Of The Addict As A Young Man Clegg, William
Candy Girl [2] Cody, Diablo
Waiting For The Barbarians Coetzee, J. M.
A Short Account Of The Destruction Of The Indies De Las Casas, Bartoleme
Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts And The Politics Of The Paraliterary Delany, Samuel
David Copperfield Dickens, Charles
Oliver Twist Dickens, Charles
Dropsie Avenue Eisner, Will
The Informers Ellis, Brett Easton
Medea Euripides
The Trojan Women Euripides
Electra Euripides
The Bacchantae Euripides
Andromache Euripides
The Big Clock Fearing, Kenneth
Bossypants Fey, Tina
Flying Colors Forester, C.S.
What The Dog Saw and other essays Gladwell, Malcolm
The Tipping Point Gladwell, Malcolm
Down There Goodis, David
Our Man In Havana Greene, Graham
Travels With My Aunt Greene, Graham
Nightmare Alley Gresham, William Lindsay
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time Haddon, Mark
Something Happened Heller, Joseph
Real Cool Killers Himes, Chester
The Haunting Of Hill House Jackson, Shirley
We Have Always Lived In The Castle Jackson, Shirley
War Junger, Sebastian
The Castle Kafka, Franz
Lit Karr, Mary
The Geography Of Nowhere Kunstler, James Howard
Call For The Dead Le Carre, John
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold Le Carre, John
Book Of Nonsense Lear, Edward
The Last Novel Markson, David
The General In His Labyrinth Marquez, Gabriel Garcia
A Dance With Dragons [2] Martin, George R. R.
The Tale of Genji Murasaki, Shikibu
Lectures On Don Quixote Nabokov, Vladimir
Burmese Days Orwell, George
Apology Plato
Crito Plato
Protagoras Plato
Parallel Lives, Volume III Plutarch
Swann’s Way Proust, Marcel
In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower Proust, Marcel
Guermantes Way Proust, Marcel
Sodom and Gomorrah Proust, Marcel
The Imperfectionists Rachman, Tom
Methland Reading, Nick
Ant Farm Rich, Simon
Tropisms Sarraute, Nathalie
Barrel Fever Sedaris, David
Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare, William
As You Like It Shakespeare, William
Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare, William
Frankenstein Shelley, Mary
Reality Hunger Shields, David
Just Kids Smith, Patti
Tortilla Flat Steinbeck, John
Cannery Row Steinbeck, John
Harmonium Stevens, Wallace
The Game Strauss, Neil
The Black Swan Taleb, Nassim Nicholas
The Killer Inside Me Thompson, Jim
The Grifters Thompson, Jim
Pop. 1280 Thompson, Jim
The Cossacks Tolstoy, Leo
Summer Blonde Tomine, Adrian
Shortcomings Tomine, Adrian
32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics Tomine, Adrian
Decline and Fall Waugh, Evelyn
Scoop Waugh, Evelyn
War Of The Worlds Wells, H.G.
Custom Of The Country Wharton, Edith
The Organization Man Whyte, William H.
The Burnt Orange Heresy Willeford, Charles
Local Wood, Brian
Nana Zola, Emile

 

Fifteen Other Books That I Read This Year And Also Liked Alot

After assembling the above lists, I realized that I had also read a bunch (100+) other books and not posted about them. In some cases (as for Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!) this was because I couldn’t think of something interesting to say about them. In other cases (like Orwell’s Fifty Essays and Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In A Science-Fictional Universe) I had tons of stuff to say, but I never got around to sitting down and writing it all down. In any case, these unwritten-about books are not unloved.  Some of my favorite books of the year are in the below category (particularly Jeffrey Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides, on which I would paste a gold-star, if I had any).

High Rise Ballard, J.G.
The Professor’s House Cather, Willa
Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine Dohrmann, George
The Virgin Suicides Eugenides, Jeffrey
Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner, William
A Farewell to Arms Hemingway, Ernest
Confessions of an Ex-Colored Man Johnson, James Weldon
After The Apocalypse: Stories McHugh, Maureen
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle Nabokov, Vladimir
A House For Mr. Biswas Naipaul, V.S.
Fifty Essays Orwell, George
Taming Of The Shrew Shakespeare, William
Age of Innocence Wharton, Edith
De Profundis and other writings Wilde, Oscar
How To Live Safely In A Science-Fictional Universe Yu, Charles

Wrap-up Season 2011: Revising The Novel

In June, I finished a novel in eight days. My intent was to spend the rest of June revising it and then to send it out in July or August. It seemed silly to write a novel in eight days and then spend months and months revising it. So, the day after I finished, I duly went right back to the beginning and started cleaning things up (making the beginning agree with the end; adding in some necessary scenery; correcting awkward sections, etc). I did that, intermittently, for most of the rest of June and then put the novel aside. I planned on making one more pass-through for style and then another one to copy-edit and then I’d be completely done.

Even that seemed like way too much work, actually, so I decided that I was just going to make a copy-editing pass-through and then send it out. I figured that novels really stand or fall based on their totality, and that a little stylistic roughness wasn’t going to hurt the novel.

Then, in July, a friend of mine visited and asked to read the novel. She’s a huge reader of YA and someone who I could trust to be both discerning and sympathetic, so I deviated from my normal practice (of never letting any of my friends read my unpublished work). When she finished it, she said the requisite number of nice things, but when I talked to her a bit more, it seemed like she felt that the beginning was pretty weak.

That’s what I’d been afraid of. Something about the beginning was really nagging at me. I decided that even if the rest of the book wasn’t going to get much more editing (except to ferret out typos), I should at least polish up the beginning a little. By this time, I was taking a writing class taught by Nick Mamatas (at the Berkeley Writer’s Salon) and I asked him to look at the first three chapters. Actually, I primarily wanted him to look at them so he could tell me what genre label I should market my novel under (you put the novel’s genre front and center in your query letters, usually), but he also gave me some really good advice on how I could structure the beginning.

The day after I got comments, I had an epiphany while I was in bed. I realized that one major character could be eliminated entirely, and that doing so would substantially improve the first third of the novel. This epiphany both energized and exhausted me. There was no question that I was going to do it, but at the same time, I didn’t really want to do it right then.

When the class ended, I spent a few weeks revising the stories I’d written, and then I tackled the novel. First I wrote a synopsis of the first nine chapters of the novel (so I’d know what I was deleting), then I pulled up my last draft of it (the one from the end of June), and selected the first third (about 22,000 words from a 75,000 word novel) and deleted them.

I spent about ten days (from October 7th to 16th) rewriting the first nine chapters. It came out really well, and I was quite satisfied with it. During the rest of October (in addition to other writing projects), I went through the rest of the novel and made sure it agreed with the new beginning (and made all the other major changes I needed to make).

After that, I was possessed by a kind of madness. I’d put in too much time. It wasn’t an eight day novel anymore. Now it had to be as good as I could make it. So I decided to make a pass for style. A few hours into this pass, something weird activated in my mind, and I started cutting words like crazy. On a paragraph and scene level there was not much that was extraneous. Nor did I cut very many entire sentences. Instead, I just rewrote sentences to make them shorter. At the end of the day, I’d worked for about four hours to cut 600 words. It was mesmerizing.

For the next twelve days or so, I followed that pattern. During four hours, I’d go through about eight or nine pages (twice). The first time, I did really micro-level cuts. The second time, I’d see if there was any obvious chunks of fat that I’d been blinded to. That’s when I cut out whole paragraphs and sentences (I know, it seems like I should’ve done sentence-level second, but that’s not the way it worked out).  At the end of four hours, I’d usually have cut an entire page of the novel.

Halfway through this cutting-room march, I got kind of worried that maybe I was eviscerating the tone of the novel and making everything sound very clipped and stilted and featureless. I tried reading and reading the sections I’d cut yesterday, but I couldn’t perceive the distance. However, I’d gone too far and made too many cuts. I’d also been making numerous tiny substantive changes along with the cutting, and there was no way to separate out the substantive from the stylistic. I was stuck with the cutting, unless I wanted to roll back entirely to a previous version. And the novel couldn’t be half stripped-down and half verbose. That’d be absurd. Instead, I continued grimly onward. It was kind of scary, but very satisfying. By the end of this pass, the novel was down more than 7,000 words from its previous draft (down to about 67,000 words).

That was in mid-November. After taking a week or so to recover, I engaged in the most incredibly, dreadfully boring part of the whole endeavor. I downloaded a program that reads out text (NaturalReader) and had it read the novel to me while I followed along. I found a typo on maybe every other page (much less than I thought there’d be). This part took more than a week. It was utterly miserable. I don’t think I’ve ever been as terribly bored by any other writing-related task.

And then the novel was done. A few days ago I wrote a draft query and sent out a novel query, just so I could say that the novel had been submitted this year (though I still intend to revise my query a little bit).

In summary, my revision included:

  • 3 weeks – One passthrough to clean up the rough edges from the eight-day novel-writing binge and make everything cohere and actually look like a real, completed novel
  • 3 weeks – One passthrough to totally rewrite the beginning and then make the rest of the novel agree with the new beginning, as well as fixing continuity problems and other niggling little things
  • 2 weeks – One passthrough to  cut 10% of the novel’s word-count, fix any remaining stylistic problems, and take a final look at all the substantive issues
  • 1 week – One passthrough for copy-editing.

 

Sold another story to Clarkesword; submitted my first-ever novel query; finished my eighth year of writing

As I think I mentioned last year, December 20th, 2003 was the day when I completed (and submitted) my first short story. As such, today marks the end of my eighth year of writing.

Last year, I surpassed every writing-related benchmark of my life, except for two (most words in one day and most words in one month). Today’s blog post was going to be about how I’ve surpassed last year in every benchmark except the one which is perhaps the most important: quality of sales. As of yesterday, I hadn’t yet made a sale that exceeded last June’s sale to Clarkesworld in goodness.

I mean, Nature and Daily Science Fiction are great markets, but (rightly or wrongly) they don’t receive any critical attention. My Clarkesworld story got more reviews and notice than anything else I’d ever published in my life.

Furthermore, I hadn’t yet sold a story that I’d written this year. With the exception of one Nature story, all of this year’s sales were written last summer. I’d started to worry that maybe my stories were getting worse.

The anxiety was getting pretty heavy, and it made me realize that no sale is ever really going to satisfy me. Even if I did sell stories to all the big magazines, I’d immediately start worrying about how none of them had been chosen for Year’s Best anthologies or been nominated for awards. Even if I do sell my novel, its sales will inevitably disappoint me. Even if I do get awards, I’ll worry about the years when I don’t get them. A writer is always going to find something to worry about.

It was a lot to think about, and it made me start to do some pretty heavy thinking about how I was going to build some psychological defenses against this kind of disappointment

But then I got an acceptance from Clarkesworld yesterday. My story “What Everyone Remembers” will appear in the January 2012 issue. And this story is recent. I wrote it in July of this year. I’ve had four near-misses with Clarkesworld this year (stories held for 20+ days and then rejected) as well as ten or so less encouraging rejections, so it’s good to hit with them again.

The only bad part about this is that now I have to wait six months before I can submit again to this really good magazine that’s demonstrated that it really likes my stories.

In other news, I also sent out my first novel query today. The novel is completely and totally done. Nothing on hell or earth is going to make me revise it further. The query might still need some polishing (ugh, and the synopsis still needs to be written). But otherwise, this is the end of my journey with this novel. I’m happy to have finished and submitted a novel, even if I am dreading the dozens of rejections that will inevitably arrive.

Finally, this year in writing has been really good. I’m attaching a table below that shows my yearly progress (with the caveat that my word-count includes words spent on revising, so it self-consistent but not consistent with other peoples’ yearly totals, i.e. my 2011 total of 500,000 really does represent more than three times more effort for me as 2009’s total of 150,000, but it does not necessarily represent twice as much effort as your total of, say, 250,000).

Total

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

Total Words

1,202,950

497,750

279,600

146,000

44,000

44,400

61,250

62,750

67,200

Rejections

750

177

252

321

Stories Sold (Pro Sales)

19 (8)

7 (5)

3 (2)

0

1 (1)

1

4

1

2

Stories Revised**

41

14

Stories Completed

149

37

27

17

10

2

19

14

23

Queries Sent

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Novels Submitted

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Novels Written

2.5

1

0.75

0.5

0

0

0

0.25

0

Days Spent Writing

922

294

251

136

60

48

51

52

30

Avg. Words on Above Days

1,262

1,693

1,114

1,074

733

925

1,201

1,207

918

% of Days Writing

34.48%

83.29%

68.77%

37.26%

16.39%

13.15%

13.97%

14.25%

23.08%

Words per Day

412

1,410

766

400

120

122

168

172

184

Goal Weeks (Weeks w/ >5000 words)

103/382=0.27

44

40

10

1

2

1

2

3

*Statistics are through 12/19/2012; I hope to hit 500,000 before the year is done.

**Prior to 2010, I didn’t track when I finished revising a story and submitted it for the first time.

Additionally, the best writing day of my life was June 7th of this year (the day I finished the first draft of my novel), with 11,450 words. My best writing week was the week beginning on May 30th, when I wrote 53,050 words (the first 5/7ths of my novel).

I made seven short story sales this year: two each to Daily SF and Nature, and one each to Clarkesworld, Brain Harvest, and Polluto. Of these, four have been published.

I also completed my first novel revision this year (which I will talk more about tomorrow).

In case it’s not obvious, my new productivity this year is largely a result of me moving to California and having to put less time into my job (I work long-distance now). I think that last year I pretty much hit the limit of what I could do with a full-time office job (I was writing about 2 hours a day). Now, I still have many 2-hour writing days, but I also have 4, 5, and 6 hour days (which I never had before).

I think the best things to come out of this year were two writing techniques that I’ve already discussed: one-week novel writing and iterative short story writing. One week novel writing is great because it only takes a week…and then you have a novel.

But iterative short story writing is what has really revolutionized my writing. Because I rewrite each story 3-5 times now, I’ve stopped writing a number of different kinds of bad stories. The most notable of these is the story that sort of slinks along for 3,000 words and then quickly wraps up in a way that’s both abrupt and predictable. Now, I take the time to figure out what my story is actually about. I don’t settle for the first ending (or beginning) that occurs to me.

This has resulted in a new way of thinking about writing difficulties. Now, when I am having trouble with a story, I don’t spend time trying to think it through (which was often a waste of time, since stories don’t come from the thinking parts of the brain). Instead, I just write my way through it. My cognitive input in stories is limited to discrimination: it’s just me saying, over and over again, “This doesn’t work,” until I finally write something that does work.

I don’t think that the resulting stories are a quantum leap better than the ones that I was writing before (although these stories are never as awful as the worst of what I wrote before). However, I do think that I had reached a plateau with my old technique. My new technique will eventually result in stories that are much better than anything the old technique could’ve produced.

My concern for most of this year was structure. In the upcoming year, I think I want to focus more on tone and language. My language feels too thin and flat to me. When I love some other author’s story, I usually love it from the very first sentence, because that sentence distills down everything that is good about the story. I don’t think that people get that feeling very often from my own stories. I want each of my stories to construct its own dreamscape and to describe that dreamscape using its own rhetoric.

Wrap-Up Season 2011: Predictably Good Books, Part Two

The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis – This fall I visited LA for the first time in my adult life, and found myself utterly entranced by the place. Before this year, LA had never really existed for me as a distinct place, where people lived…a place where I could go. If I thought of it at all, I thought of it as looking a little like the suburbs of San Jose (but, like, a little bigger). But it is not like that at all. It’s a diffuse, unnavigable mega-city. It’s what Dhaka or New Delhi would look like if they were first world cities. Not only does its sheer size and scale make it much different from anything else in America, it’s also a place that’s been systematically perverted by the influence of the entertainment industry, which shows even in extremely superficial ways (like how attractive everyone in LA is). The Informers is a fix-up collection by Bret Easton Ellis where he briefly and mechanically revisits all of his normal Ellisian tropes: bisexuality, nihilism, drug use, pop music, late-night diners, and sadistic murders. I think the plotlessness and lack of cohesion springing from the format (a fix-up is a collection of loosely linked short stories) actually make the work a lot more interesting, because it means that the only thing to focus on is the scenery.

Something Happened by Joseph Heller – I really liked Catch-22, when I finally got around to reading it last year. This book is nothing like Catch-22. For starters, it’s not really very funny. It’s a book that’s hard to describe. It’s a 1950s businessman (basically Don Draper) monologuing for 200,000 words about his life (how he’s driven to cheat on his wife, how his daughter hates him, how he’s worried that his son is growing to grow up and lose his vitality). The reminisces are not chronological and none of the book takes place in scene, except for short snippets of reported dialogue. The narration is manic and insane. It sounds like a man ranting to you while under the influence of heavy doses of amphetamines. But it’s also hypnotic. It’s a man trying his best (and failing) to gain some understanding of his own life.

Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner – A pretty awesome graphic novel covering two hundred or so years in the life of a street in the Bronx. You see ethnic groups jockey with each other and then move on, giving way to the next group. You see the architecture and the zoning and the economics of the place change. In its portrayal of any given era and group it might be a little simplified (and sometimes seems to come close to stereotyping), but the epic sweep of the thing makes the book worthwhile.

Wrap-Up Season: Predictably Good Books, Part One

I knew these books were going to be good before I read them, and I was right.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – It’s surprising how little personality David Copperfield (the character) actually has. The entire book is fairly episodic, and the only real throughline is David Copperfield’s involvement with each episode and character, but it’s not easy to get a grip on Copperfield’s character. It’s hard to say anything about what kind of person he is. In fact, when Copperfield becomes a novelist (about 2/3rds of the way through the novel), it kind of comes as a surprise, because there had never seemed to be anything of the artist about him. Still, this book ultimately succeeds because of David Copperfield’s narrative voice. There’s something very kind and worldly wise about him. The book is filled with memorable caricatures: the penurious Mr. Micawber; the scolding Betsey Trotwood; and David’s first wife, the silly Dora. But they only come alive under the kindness of Copperfield’s tone, which is really just a distilled version of Dickens’ overall narrative outlook. Under a harsher gaze, the characters all would’ve seemed like scoundrels and fools, but the virtue of this book is that, even though it’s about really harsh stuff like being an orphan and losing your home and having to work in a bottle factory, it never descends into horror.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson – I’m not sure why Shirley Jackson has become so indelibly associated with speculative horror (other than the vaguely fantastic nature of the short story “The Lottery”), since her work doesn’t seem notably stranger than other writers of grotesques, like William Faulkner or Flannery O’Conner. Still, regardless of genre distinctions, I really like her two novels (both this one and The Haunting Of Hill House). Both her novels start off very nice, and then become terrifying, particularly this one. Her talent is developing situations that you really care about—families and communities that seem like they should continue on in merry eternity­—before brutally destroying them.

Burmese Days by George Orwell– This is kind of a speculative novel. It’s what George Orwell imagined his life would’ve become if he had never left the Burmese Civil Service. It’s a naturalistic novel about an 40 year old civil servant who’s living a life of quiet desperation: he’s hated by the natives and by his fellow civil servants alike. The novel is filled with Orwell’s eye for detail with his satirical powers. I really have no idea how Orwell does what he does. Every page of this novel so sharp, and all his character portraits are so clear and severe.

Just Kids by Patti Smith – Patti Smith’s memoir about rollicking around in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe when she was in her twenties got a huge amount of favorable press coverage when it came out last year. I think this is because book critics are huge nerds, and they really love it when they get to interview rock stars (although I am still not quite sure how much of a rock star Patti Smith is, I’d never heard her music before reading this book). Still, if you love stories about 23 year old bohemians, then you cannot dislike this book.

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck – I think this is the fourth book I read this year that had a strike in it (the others were Germinal, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Jungle). But this one was the best of the lot. In it, a (Communist) Party organizer goes out to California’s central valley to foment a fruit-picker’s strike. It’s almost a documentary novel, it’s all about the give and take of the strike: the tactics, shifting movements, and compromises. There’s a lot of fire in this novel, but also a lot of loss. Probably a better strike novel than any of the others, because it’s not heroic, but that also makes it kind of disquieting at times. Steinbeck was really schizophrenic. It’s so strange that the person who wrote novels like this and Grapes Of Wrath could also write novels that idealize working class life in the way that Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat did.

Wrap-Up Season 2011: Surprisingly Good Books, part two

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair – This is the novel about Chicago’s meat-packing industry that put the nation into such an uproar over how their meat was prepared (at one point it implies that when workers fall into the renderer and die, their meat is just be added into the sausage) that the government created the Food and Drug Administration and started regulating food preparers. But the novel is actually a story about how this family of Lithuanian immigrants gets totally crushed by capitalism. I particularly enjoyed Sinclair’s attention to the numbers, the amount of dollars and cents this family needs to keep their head above water. It’s a very emotionally affecting novel, and it would’ve been utterly perfect….if it had ended about 2/3rds of the way in. After the family falls apart, it’s patriarch starts going on these picaresque adventures (at one point there is an extended interlude where he helps a drunken millionaire’s son get home and then has a bartender steal the $100 that the son gives him) and then the man ends up embracing socialism, so it all gets a little silly. Still, even that is a little respectable. Sure, all that stuff ruined the book, but I can see why Sinclair had to put it in. Sinclair wanted his book to change the world, so he needed to put in something about what his riled up readers should go out and do. He allowed his political instincts to overrule his artistic ones, and, maybe, for him, that was the right decision.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – This book is by a hedge fund manager who claims that we’re terrible about predicting the future because none of our projections allow for ‘black swan’ events, which are huge, discontinuous events that change everything (like, 9/11, or the Harry Potter phenomenon). That part is pretty interesting and even somewhat convincing. What’s more fun, though, is the narrative tone of the book. The author comes off sounding like a megalomaniac and an amazing dick. He sounds like such an asshole that he almost feels fictional. It’s as if Taleb was writing a very experimental novel where a fictional persona expounds upon a science-fictional idea. It’s a really engaging book.

Candy Girl by Diablo Cody – This is Academy-Award winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s memoir about her year as a Minneapolis stripper. I was really sick when I read this book, okay, but I still enjoyed it. It goes into all the proper anthropological detail about what being a stripper is like…and I am sucker for that kind of stuff.

Paying For It by Chester Brown – There are a surprising number of graphic novels about the author’s sexual dysfunction, but I think this own stands out even in that crowd. For years (decades?) the author has been patronizing prostitutes exclusively (as in, he has not been pursuing any other kind of sexual relationship) and in the course of this pursuit, the author has developed all these theories about why patronizing prostitutes is a sensible alternative (for people like him) to romance. The book covers his odyssey, beginning with his first visit and ending with him happily ensconced in an exclusive (though still monetary) relationship with one prostitute. It ends with fifty pages of appendixes in which he details his views on prostitution. Oh, and for some weird artistic reason, he never shows the faces of any of the prostitutes he visits! They are always turned away, or their faces are hidden. The book is really bizarre, but it was also really good.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather – This is a series of three linked novellas that doesn’t sound like it ought to cohere at all. The first is about an elderly professor reflecting on his family and on the son-in-law (who died in the war) who was the only person he felt close to. The second is a flashback to the summer that the son-in-law spent excavating a New Mexico plateau that held a Native American city. The third is about the professor’s lonely summer without his wife and daughter (they’re vacationing in Paris). And yet, somehow, it all does come together. It’s about excitement, and the intellectual life, and loss. It has a very wistful tone, which avoids being cloying because it’s broken up with the very exciting, adventurous middle. Also, maybe I just love Willa Cather so much that I can even enjoy her minor novels.

Portrait of the Addict As A Young Man by William Clegg – Literary agent Bill Clegg’s memoir about a two month $70,000 crack cocaine binge. I don’t know why this was so entertaining. I think it’s because the dreamlike tedium of the narrative kind of echoed the tedium of the binge: the endless succession of hits in an endless succession of five-star hotel rooms. Also, I was really sick when I read it.

Local by Brian Wood – If there’s anything I’ve learned this year, it’s that I am a sucker for graphic novels about shiftless twentysomethings. In each of this series of twelve comics, the main character, Megan, ages by one year and moves to a new city (and grows up a little). There’s one about her having a horrible roommate in New York and one about her being a fairly creepy movie theater clerk in Nova Scotia and…well…if you like this sort of thing, you’ll really like this series: it is wanksty early-20s at their most elemental.

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey – Reading this book made me realize what I dislike about biographies. They’re too long. You know, I’m only going to read maybe (at most) 10,000 books in the whole rest of my life. It seems like a huge waste to devote a whole .01% of that to learning about a single person. What have all these famous dead people ever done for me? Why do they deserve so much of my headspace? This book neatly solves that problem through the novella form autobiography. I’d probably never read a full book about Florence Nightingale, but I will definitely read a novella about her. There’s definitely room for biographies at a length somewhere above a Wikipedia entry and somewhere below a full book.

Wrap-up Season 2011

Another December, another wrap-up season. This year I’m planning on following the same general scheme as I did last year. I’m going to write about the books I’ve read about this year, dividing them into four categories according to my reactions to them: Predictably Good, Surprisingly Good, Mixed, and BAD!! Then I’ll have a post including links to my favorite posts from my year of blogging. Then on December 20th, I will wrap up my eighth year as an aspiring writer. And finally perhaps a post about everything else in my life.