Reading February 17

This is a continuation of the conversation about reading I started in January, so take a look at that post for more info on some of the books below. Reading time has been limited the last few weeks. I had to write two unexpected things, and I’ve been trying to sort a long and complicated situation that I’ll tell you all about at some point, when it’s sorted. Also, I’ve been prepping for and recording the audio narration of So Lucky (another subject for a later date).

This is not meant to function as an in-depth assessment. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a mix of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood). The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published, old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get for 99 cents from BookBub, sometimes because they’re old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, sometimes because it’s a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines. Some of it is also not-yet-published, some ancient and out of date foundational reading, and almost all a combination of fascinating, difficult, annoying, and necessary.

With that warning out of the way, here’s the state of my current reading.

In progress:
The Best Bad Things, Katrina Carrasco

I’ve only read 5 pages but it’s very promising so far: a woman in the late 19th C Pacific NW takes physical risks; supremely visceral. I would have read more but I only have it as a bound galley, which means it’s not available across devices, which in turn means I can’t snatch ten minutes’ reading here, or five minutes there. But I’ll get to it. It’s doing something I haven’t seen before from anyone but me: showing a woman who doesn’t flinch when bone hits bone and blood spills and is quite, quite confident of herself and her physical abilities.

Finished:
Madame Zero, Sarah Hall
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Dark State, Charles Stross
Hot Zone, Steven Konkoly
The Oracle Years, Charles Soule
The Changeling, Victor LaValle
Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker

This is an unusual list for me in that only two are by women. (At least I believe it’s unusual—this is partly why I’ve started to keep this list, to find out.) But those two, both short story collections, I recommend highly. It took me a while to work out what I was initially finding unwelcoming about Hall’s collection: they are solitary. With one exception, they are about people who are wrestling with their problems essentially on their own: their lives are hard and no one offers them comfort, physically or verbally. She gives fine and closely observed descriptions of landscape, natural and built, and though the atmosphere is constantly moving (there’s a lot of wind) the stories themselves feel oddly static because of the protagonist’s essential isolation. Sarah Hall is very good. And though I prefer her fiction when there’s a sense of physical and emotional connection these stories are most definitely worth reading. Recommended.

I liked parts of Machado’s collection very much. She is a strong, clean writer. She is not afraid of depicting women as entirely and magnificently human, with all the pluses and minuses you might expect from any fully rounded human being. Her people hope, and think, and feel, and fuck, and yearn, and ignore. They are marvellously and magnificently autonomous—though not alone, like Hall’s. The one piece I really did not get on with is, I suspect, intended as the centrepiece of the book. It’s certainly the longest. “Especially Heinous” is based on episodes of Law & Order: SVU. I could tell she was building to something, going somewhere, but frankly it made me impatient, so I did not make it past the first quarter. It was the only one I skipped. But other stories have real heft and feel unexpected and quite dangerous. Go read them.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Charlie Stross a long time, nearly 30 years. He was an usher at our first wedding. So I’m predisposed to like his work. And in fact the Merchant Princes series is my favourite of his, a zesty combination of plot, economics, and alternate history/timeslip/second (third/fourth/more?) world saga. Basic premise: we are not the only reality that exists, and a vanishingly small set of people with a genetic anomaly can walk between worlds/timelines. The impact on global economics and politics (think smuggling, think idea transfer) is profound. Also, smart women protagonists. Also, lesbians (though that’s later). If they’re new to you, start with the recently-updated first omnibus volume, The Bloodline Feud. Fun, fast-moving, thought-provoking, and competent.

Hot Zone on the other hand irritated me extremely. The clumsily writing eventually really got to me. And there’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, and better, in other global pandemic leading to apocalypse stories. Most damning, it turned out to be the first in series but did not say so on the packaging. The ending was most unsatisfying. I don’t recommend it, even for free.

I read the first few pages of Soule’s The Oracle Years as part of the Buzz Books selection from Publishers Marketplace and that was enough to convince me this would be a high-concept smash hit. (And in fact about a week later, it was snapped up for the screen.) It’s about a man who wakes with 108 visions of the future clear and sharp in his head. His friend happens to be a savvy finance, marketing, and data whizz. Together with the friend’s wife, they settle in to monetise the prophecies. What could possibly go wrong? Soule mostly answers questions posed by the premise, though leaves one unaddressed, which on reflection was mildly unsatisfying. But this is not a book that most will reflect on. It’s a blast of an airplane book or beach read. Approach it in that spirit and you won’t be disappointed.

The Changeling is one of those books I’ve been meaning to get to for an age, and last week (after giving up on a bargain Tom Clancy book in utter disgust, see below) was casting about for something to Read Right Now and finally pushed the button on the LaValle. It’s set in present-day New York and follows Apollo, a rare book dealer, as he learns his trade and wrestles with what it means to be a black man, a husband, a father, a friend, son, and provider when the world is not necessarily your friend. It began very well, but I soon got the sense that something super seriously nasty lurked at the heart of this book, and I almost stopped. But I was enjoying the characterisation, the clarity and humanity, of Apollo very much. And, in fact, the book ends well. Sort of. I have some quarrels with the shape of the narrative—it felt baggy here and there; I had the impression the author may have got a little lost and wandered about a bit—or perhaps I simply prefer a tighter trajectory. But on balance I recommend it.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker is a winning combination of stylish and cosy. Lots of food porn: loving descriptions of deliciousness like foie gras and different wines. A bit of stately sex. A real love and warmth for small-town France, la France profonde. The focus of this one is community and WWII history. There’s a whole series of Bruno novels, and I can imagine steadily consuming them, one by one. Recommended for relaxation and quiet contentment with an air of underlying melancholy.

Abandoned:
The Sum Of All Fears, Tom Clancy
Every Note Played, Lisa Genova

I’d never read Clancy but found the movies adapted from his books entertaining enough, so when I found this one for free I thought I’d give it a go. I think I made it about fifteen pages before abandoning it in disgust. It’s not a novel, it’s a blueprint for a movie. But the actual movie is much better than the blueprint. Not even worth reading for free. Go watch the film.

Genova’s prose is far superior to Clancy’s. But. The dual protagonists are Richard, a pianist who is a complete dick, gets ALS and (presumably) dies, and Karina his ex-wife who used to be a better pianist than dick but, because that made him unhappy (or something), gives it up. Although I’ve no doubt Richard’s illness trajectory is informed by Genova’s experience as  neuroscientist, and accurate, I just couldn’t bear to read yet another book written by a nondisabled author from the point of view of a disabled character. Also, I felt zero sympathy for Karina. I could not understand why the healthy, piano-playing I-sacrificed-my-career-for-my-husband’s-career ex-wife, did not just curl her lip at Dick and walk away. I’m guessing the whole point of the book was that she Found Herself Again as a result of Richard’s death. In other words, this book has Disability as narrative prosthesis written all over it.

Won’t read:
The Primeval Flood Catastrophe, because it was an interlibrary loan and I had to take it back. But I’ll be getting it out again in that mythical future When I Have More Time, at which point I’ll also read The Ark Before Noah.

Still have not yet got to:
Staring Back, Kenny Fries
Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England, Pasternack and Weston

On the TBR pile for the coming month:
A Study in Honor, Claire O’Dell
Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, Melvin Konner
The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley
Country Dark, Chris Offutt
Miranda in Milan, Katharine Duckett
Finding Camlann, Sean Pidgeon

In praise of short novels

So Lucky is a short novel, so the other day when I read a list in LitHub of the shortest novels by writers we should, apparently, all read, I paid attention.

Some of those twenty short books I immediately assumed I had read—Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway—but on reflection it turns out I haven’t. So now I think I might, certainly Woolf. After all, at 176 pages, even if it sucks I wouldn’t have wasted much time.

However, on the basis of the five I have read:

Sula, Toni Morrison 192 pp
Train Dreams, Dennis Johnson 116 pp
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin 159 pp
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen 220 pp
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien 300 pp

I’d say the odds are good that the short work of the three I mention could be as good as or better than their longer work. Short packs a powerful punch, and no matter how different from the rest of the author’s ouevre the book may seem, I think you still get a taste—an echo, if you like, or maybe a harmonic—of that writer’s concerns.

So Lucky is short (192 pp) and I designed it as a spear-thrust of a novel rather than the learn-by-immersion of, say, Hild, or the cool, machined elegance of The Blue Place. But several people have already said they see echoes of both Hild and Aud in these pages. So I’m looking forward to finding out what others think.

For those of you who like audio here’s an extra incentive: I’m narrating it myself. Macmillan Audio has booked me in at Clatter & Din in SoDo where I started on Friday. I have a dynamite engineer, Eric (and Sam when Eric can’t be there) and very clear, very helpful producer/director Matie Argiropoulos. I’m having a blast. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the high-tech, high-rent, loft vibe of a downtown studio—though I’m getting a wee bit tired of chamomile tea and the taste of honey…

audio composite

 

A piece in Catapult about representation

Out yesterday, an interview I did with Marian Ryan for Catapult in which I chat about the importance of seeing characters like ourselves in fiction.

“It helps to see someone else coping,” she told me. “We all borrow from fictional characters. But there aren’t enough good crip characters to borrow from, so we’re all learning on our own. It shouldn’t be that hard.”

Women with disabilities barely seem to exist in fiction, let alone queer women with disabilities or women of color with disabilities or queer, non-binary or trans women of color with disabilities. “You only seem to be allowed one degree from the norm,” Griffith said. “If the norm is straight white rich boys, then you can be a woman, you can be queer, you can be crippled, but you can’t be all those things.” In other words: You have to fight to be seen as a normal person living a normal life.

Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin

I wrote a remembrance of Ursula Le Guin. It’s up at the Seattle Review of Books.

For centuries the gatekeepers have been building that wall, designed with a single aperture to let through one woman writer at a time. I like to imagine Ursula would snort at this giant game of Highlander, in which There Can Be Only One, and call for us to tear that wall down. To paraphrase her speech at the National Book Awards in 2014: We live in patriarchy, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Resistance and change often begin in art, the art of words.

March events

So Lucky is out 15 May, so I’ve started to add things to my calendar.

  • March 13, Orlando, FL. ICFA: Marriott Airport Hotel, Vista A, 4:30 pm
  • March 27, Kirkland, WA: SFWA Reading Series, Wilde Rover Irish Pub and Restaurant, 7:00pm.

First up is the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, in Orlando, FL. As the first event of the conference I’ll be doing a reading with the fabulous Maria Dahvana Headley and Bryan Camp. Maria just gave me a lovely blurb for So Lucky:

“Nicola Griffith is a brilliant creator of fierce female protagonists. With So Lucky, she fires a gritty, scary, wrathful, sometimes blisteringly funny broadside at the monsters of ableist culture.”

We’re all represented by the same agency, The Gernert Company, and we’re hoping to serve monster cocktails (when I know for sure I’ll talk more about that). It’ll be my first ever reading from Lucky. The first is always special. So if you happen to be at ICFA, do drop by.

My second reading will be here in Seattle. Well, okay, actually Kirkland, when I join Nancy Kress and Cat Rambo for the SFWA Reading Series at the Wilde Rover Irish Pub and Restaurant. And, hey, it’s a pub! With beer! It will be awesome!

There may be something in the midwest in April (not sure yet) and of course there will be many things in May. The rest of the summer is in flux. When I know, you’ll know.

 

OtherLife has a movie trailer!

I know: the trailer is supposed to come first. Kelley’s film OtherLife started streaming on Netflix in October but for a variety of reasons the trailer was delayed. But now it’s finally here:

And just in case you need to persuade someone else of the niftyness of this fabulous film, see Kelley’s 10 Reasons to Watch OtherLife

So Lucky blurbs and reader comments

It’s just four months until So Lucky publication (May 15). Apart from Kelley (and my agent, editor, lawyer, copyeditor and other book production people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux), only half a dozen people have read it. This is weird. Usually at this stage of a book’s publication cycle hundreds of people have read an ARC, a number have given me endorsements, and I have a real sense of the book’s eventual reception.

The publisher seems confident that everything’s going to plan but for me it feels scarily behind schedule.

Happily, I’ve just got my first official blurbs:

Nicola Griffith’s So Lucky is compelling reading, a tour de force of the onset of disability. This is the first novel I have read that describes an experience of disability from Day One with a relentlessness that can parallel disability itself. It is intense, sad, and dramatic, combining mystery, romance, terror (internal and external), and hope. Just like life itself.

   Steven E. Brown
Co-Founder: Institute on Disability Culture

and

In Nicola Griffith’s So Lucky, Mara is a vibrant, active, social justice minded woman stalked by a phantom. The phantom threatens her work, her relationships—nothing less than her identity. This angry, funny, cleverly-written piece about the onset of disability in a world that values fitness above all ushers in a new wave of disability story. Or let’s hope so.

   Susan Nussbaum
Playwright, and author of Good Kings, Bad Kings

I’m hoping to have more official blurbs soon, and a cover. (I really want my cover!)

Meanwhile, unofficial comments from early readers have been encouraging. The most common descriptors so far include:

  • read-it-in-one-sitting/page-turning (x 4)
  • fury/furious/angry (x 4)
  • intense (x 3)
  • powerful (x 3)
  • enthralled/enthralling (x 2)
  • sad (x 2)
  • terror/terrified (x 2).

So I am cautiously optimistic. (Hey, “Intense, terrifying, funny, tour de force page-turner that ushers in a new era” would certainly make me pick up a book…) I think I’m achieving at least one of my aims: for So Lucky to be the kind of read that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go until it spits out your re-shaped bones. I might also be hitting another goal: to really give the reader an idea of what it’s like to find yourself suddenly treated as less because you’re a cripple—but to engage and intrigue said reader rather than overwhelm them.

Early opinion on whether the monster is real or metaphorical is evenly divided. Oh, yes, I most definitely have thoughts on that, but I’ll keep them to myself a bit longer.