That Time a Book Totally Slayed Me: All the Bright Places edition

That Time a Book Totally Slayed Me: All the Bright Places edition

I had never heard of Jennifer Niven before, and after having read her novel All the Bright Places, I am absolutely convinced that there are, literally, one million or more amazing writers out there who I’ve never heard of because, how I had never read her before is a mystery. This novel killed me. Killed me. I have been reading a lot of Young Adult lately because the novel I wrote and am preparing to query is YA, focusing on how one high school girl deals with the uncertainty and pain of a missing family member. All the Bright Places is similar in that the main characters, high school seniors Finch and Violet, are both suffering: Finch struggles with the way he sees and feels the world; Violet is traumatized by the death of her older sister. They meet, at the beginning of the book, on top of the school bell tower, presumably as they both contemplate suicide. The novel is told by Violet and Finch in alternating chapters.

Niven’s novel is a great example of a work that deals with a difficult, BIG topic – suicide – and a number of associated sub-topics – bullying, popularity, high school drinking, adult indifference – that does not beat the reader over the head. Yes, these topics are very important, they are timely, the should be talked about, but the novel is not didactic or editorial at all. I was completely captivated by her characters, their realistic and highly individualized personalities that were not quirky or interesting but were just true, as if they couldn’t be any other way. Violet, for example, wears her sister’s ugly eyeglasses, the ones that looked so great on Eleanor but look silly on her, because she is trying so desperately hard to hold on to someone she’s lost. The eyeglasses aren’t a gimmick. They are a totem for this character.

The novel could have been too-much, overly-sentimental, but Niven is expert at getting in and out of emotional moments with impeccable timing. For example, in a Violet section, she looks at her mother and contemplates her role in the family, her genetics:

“Eleanor looked more like my dad and I look more like Mom, but she and Mom had the same gestures, same mannerisms, so everyone always said, ‘Oh my God, she looks just like you.’ It hits me that my mother may never hear that again.”

UGH! And then she leaves the subject. It’s such a sad, sad thought, sad for the mom whose daughter is dead, sadder still that the 17-year-old sister/living daughter has to realize it, and even sadder that it’s just one of the many facts of her life in the aftermath of Eleanor’s death. And we know it is just one of the many facts of her life because after she states it, she matter-of-factly begins talking about something mundane. Niven gets out of that sad sentiment just in time, without lingering. The effect is crushing (in a good way).

And this book is not really a mystery, and yet, I had to keep turning the pages, to find out what would happen next. I think it’s because I’m rooting so hard for the characters, not because of any of the sad stuff that’s happened to them, but more because of how interesting they are, how much they deserve to become adults, because they’ll be good ones, good people, empathetic, creative, interesting. Reading this book really felt like what I imagine being a parent is like, being just so excited and invested in watching your kids grow up and fully inhabit the person they are meant to be.

Talk about #BookGoals!

Such a great read, and a reminder that YA is just a label, that great writing is great writing. Period.

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Summer Reading List – Week of June 27

Summer Reading List – Week of June 27

From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant

I recently read “The Bog Girl” by Karen Russell, and then followed up on it by reading her interview about the story with the New Yorker. I was in awe of how, in the story, she created setting without me even noticing it, she transported me to this weird, otherworldly place and she set up dynamics between the main character, Cillian, his family and the kids at school. In the follow-up interview, she talked about the story, “From the Fifteenth District,” which inspired her a bit, saying, “In [the story], the dead are haunted by the living. One ghost complains that her widower husband keeps calling her “an angel”—she hates this bogus, patronizing word.” This idea caused her to come up with the bog girl. I’m always trying to understand how to be inspired, so that I can continue to build a repository of fresh ideas.  Having a long list of ideas means that if I am ever bored with something (i.e. my thesis!!), I don’t have an excuse to stop writing. I can just go to my list and start something new. I’m also thankful/excited to find a writer I’ve never heard of!

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

I am excited to read this novel, despite the fact that the plot seems like something we’ve all read before: a mom who works part-time must start working, juggling family issues, work and love. I actually love new, fresh takes on stories like these. Here’s a short description:

“In A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as “wearing many hats” and wishes you wouldn’t, either). But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in–and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers–an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life–seems suddenly within reach. Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new “balancing act” (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up, and her work takes an unexpected turn.”

I’m really trying to make sure that I read both literary and commercial fiction (I’d call this commercial…) in order to see what makes a book like this compelling. Usually, the answer to that question is THE WRITING, THE WRITING, THE WRITING! So, I’m reading it because I’m somewhat interested in the subject matter, and I’m interested in the commercial health and prospects of a well-written book. I’ve been very impressed by novels that I consider peer to this one – Liane Moriarty is an author that comes to mind – and I hope that A Window Opens is another novel, and Elisabeth Egan another author, to whom I can look up.

Tin House Novels-in-Progress

Finally, I am reading a stack of 25-page novel excerpts, while around the country, 11 other folks are being required to read my novel opening. I am so excited to be going to this workshop/residency, so excited to be in a class with Dana Spiotta and so excited to have Michelle Wildgen as a mentor. Did I say I’m excited????

Well, I’ve taken an almost two-month break from reading and critiquing workshop stories, and I’m a bit out of practice. But, I know the drill. Read read read. I will hopefully read them on the way to and from St. Louis and Chicago on a mash-up Barry’s birthday-Barry’s presenting at a conference-Chicago Cub’s game road trip! And I’m excited to see the final manifestation of all of these novels-in-progress, whether its two, ten or twenty years from now!

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Carry On Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I am 150 pages into Eleanor & Park and it’s official: I love it. I love Rainbow Rowell. I love Jennifer Niven. I love Young Adult. I wrote a Young Adult novel before really getting to know the genre, and I would say that I’m pretty much just scratching the surface with these books, but having finished All the Bright Places and now barreling through Eleanor & Park, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this genre, about how well-written, literary young adult could capture me and somehow, retroactively tell my thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, etc. self that everything I felt and thought was totally valid and normal and – dare I say – fantastic. When an agent read the first ten pages of my novel, before I’d written very much of it at all, and suggested that I write it as Young Adult, my initial reaction was shock and, I’ll admit it, disdain. I didn’t want to be labeled a YA author. People wouldn’t take my writing seriously. We don’t write YA in MFA programs.

Holy shit, I was wrong. That agent probably wanted to tell me I was being ridiculous but instead, she took a deep breath and explained that readers grow up and keep reading the authors they loved when they were younger. And that – gasp – adults still read YA. They read YA to better understand their own kids, they read YA to remember being young themselves, they read YA because the writing is good. They read YA. Full stop.

I’m almost thirty-four and I would, in a heartbeat, read anything by Rowell or Niven, because after reading these two books, I trust them completely as writers. They draw their characters so well, so completely. They illuminate their feelings, their emotions, with writing that makes me feel what they feel, like all good writing should. These two Rowell books are next on my list!

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

I read the first few pages of this novel and it’s both mysterious and comical. I’m not sure how it’s both those things so I will read it to find out. An older widow who lives in a somewhat secluded beach house thinks she hears a tiger skulking around her den one night. The next morning, a stranger shows up, claiming to be a government caretaker, sent to wash her windows and make her lunch, to take care of her for a few hours a day. The premise is incredibly intriguing, the mystery intense but shrouded in mundanity. Very excited about this one.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This novel has been the subject of A LOT of buzz, and I’ve stayed away from most of it since I so often allow other people’s critical opinions cloud my own. But, the summary alone makes me super-excited to read it! Below is the full description from Penguin/Random House’s website:

“A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Summer Reading List – Week of June 13

Summer Reading List – Week of June 13

One really trying piece of advice that I really struggle hearing is, “Don’t measure yourself against others,” or some variation of that. I get it, I get it. Writing is hard enough without constantly comparing myself to someone else and their success. But, on the other hand, agents and publishers want to know how my work will fit in on bookshelves in stores large and small. What’s the genre? Who writes like me in that genre? What books are similar? Agents need this information to decide if they even want to read a book, to sell the book to a publisher and to match writers to appropriate editors. Publishers need this information to find appropriate marketing plans and connect new authors to established ones. They even have a word for this! Comparables.

They have this concept in real estate, too; it’s how we know how to price a house before putting it on the market. We ask, what have other, similar (or COMPARABLE) houses sold for?

My reading list this week is in part designed to help me answer that question!

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

I didn’t know about Abbott until a local writer here in New Orleans selected The Fever as a Maple Street Bookstore Book Club book. Since then, I attended a craft talk given by Abbott at the Tennessee Williams Festival, and have nosed through some of her other work. Abbott’s books straddle the Young Adult/Adult Fiction genres, like I think my novel does, and they also contain mysteries. In my dreams, my  novel is like a cross between Sarah Dessen’s coming-of-age tale, The Truth About Forever, and Megan Abbott’s mysteries. But before I claim that comp in writing, I want to make sure I’m familiar enough with both authors’ bodies of work. Also, Abbott’s books are just plain fun.

Plan BHow to Talk to a Widower, and This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I’m reading Tropper for another project I’m working on, in which a twenty-something woman who has followed all the rules decides to start taking risks by saying, “YES!” whenever given a choice. Tropper’s rompiness in his work is something I’m interested in emulating for this new project (a novel titled Standby), and I think his focus on plot and story will help me chart out the narrative for my main character, Erica.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Having never read any Young Adult until I, somehow, wrote a YA novel, I am now devouring popular, well-written, borderline literary YA novels so that I can really understand the category and the people within it. Rainbow Rowell comes very recommended, so I thought I’d start with this classic love story. The novel is set over the course of one school year, as is mine, so I’m hungry for lessons there as well.

Other People We Married by Emma Straub

I’m still trying to figure out how people write short stories, so I picked up Straub’s collection to see how she did it.

The Dystopian Novel

The Dystopian Novel

This past semester, I took an amazing class called Disaster Literature that, yes, was as depressing as it sounds. We read a number of novels that dealt with life amid disaster, whether it was realistic or fantastical, in the past or in the future. Titles included The Wild Palms by William Faulkner, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, White Noise by Don DeLillo, Paradise by Toni Morrison and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. One of the central questions we discussed throughout the semester was about the role of fiction in questioning and possibly changing modern, political control over such things as geography,  human biology, immigration and agriculture.

I am a sucker for books like these, generally. After all, I often joke that reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a welcome respite from togetherness-time on a recent family vacation. Having the novels put into conversation with one another and with larger socio-political questions really helped illuminate their importance in how we, as citizens, build narrative about our current situations, whatever they may be, and how we relate to citizens elsewhere, whether they are in the same country as us or across the globe.

Given my research in West Africa about underrepresented writers, it makes sense that I am always on the lookout for what’s going on elsewhere, what people are writing in far-flung places, languages I can’t read, etc. Words without Borders and Brittle Paper are two great resources for discovering new writing from underrepresented voices. So, I am thrilled to see the New York Times writing about authors from the Middle East that may not reach a Western audience without this type of coverage.

The article, “Middle Eastern Writers Find Refuge in the Dystopian Novel,” by Alexandra Alter, highlights dystopian novels that are being written by authors as a way to talk about taboo and outlawed topics. She brings us into the struggle of publishing as a commercial endeavor in the face of the disdain and anger of those in power. As with the writers in Mali, who had to think about publishing avenues when selecting the language in which they would write, publishing houses in these precariously governed countries must consider the consequences of publishing work in totalitarian regimes. This quote, from Alter’s article, demonstrates their strife: “We are concerned now with what we publish,” said Sherif-Joseph Rizk, director of Dar al-Tanweer Egypt, an Arabic publishing house. “If something is banned, it does create commercial problems.”

But as one of the writers says in the article, dystopian fiction can provide an outlet to say what is not possible to say. Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue, explains: “Fiction gave me a very wide space to say what I wanted to say about totalitarian authority.”

Similarly, the writers we read over the course of the semester in Disaster Lit were doing the same, using fiction to express the hard realities and truths about the society in which they were trying to live. I will have to add these names to my summer reading list!

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

I am currently **trying** to write/revise/rewrite short stories for my thesis/short story collection (first draft due date = December 1) and so in the spirit of reading relevant things, I will be turning to short stories for some inspiration. First stop, Alice Munro!

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro

I have read a bit of Alice Munro, most recently her collection, Too Much Happiness, which included the short story, “Wenlock Edge.” The setting of the story, like much of Munro’s work, is so totally commonplace, but the turns the story take are diabolical and dark. Think, young girls naked at dinner at the home of a wealthy, older man and the intentional drowning of an annoying camper. I saw parallels between this story and what I hope to accomplish in my collection  – the devastating and the mundane mixing together, basically. So, I dug up this anthology of her stories for more inspiration.

Buttony” by Fiona McFarlane

Since reading the NY Times review of The High Places, I’m pretty excited to read anything by this author.

Crab Orchard Review & Glimmer Train & Virginia Quarterly Review & Tin House Magazine

One of my major, major goals this year is to go submission-wild. To do that, I need to have some polished work, of course. I look at my Submittable page now and am embarrassed that I ever sent stories out to such publications as the ones listed above, n+1, Guernica, etc., when they were so obviously and totally not ready. On the other hand, I’m glad I did, because I can see them and think about how much I’ve grown and advanced as a writer, despite the noise in my head that tells me I haven’t. (SHUT UP!) But, I have also built some confidence through submitting, first off, because it is a way of interacting with the writing world, and secondly, because, for all my rejection, I’ve actually gotten some good feedback as well. I’d just like to be a little smarter about it, sending stories out when they are closer to ready, to publications that actually may be interested. So, I have a bunch of back-issues of these magazines, and many others, that I will be reading to try and find a home for some of my work.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I read this book once and it, well, ravaged me. Filled with images that slay, this book gets me.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

I don’t know where this recommendation came from – some interview I was reading, I’m sure – but I picked it up and read the first story, “Next Door,” which made me feel very sad, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why it made me feel that way. In my work, I am sometimes too explicit about what I would like my readers to think or feel, and that story was the opposite of explicit. I had to really pick it apart to understand why it made me bummed. (Bummed in a good way, that is…)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I’ve heard that this book is fantastic for general inspiration and advice.

And finally, I will, will, will read the short story collection of my thesis director, More of This World or Maybe Another, which she (Barb Johnson) wrote while a student in the UNO MFA program, and M.O. Walsh’s The Prospect of Magicso I’ll know what I’m up against as I defend my work in the spring!

Summer Reading List – Week of May 30th

Summer Reading List – Week of May 30th

I have an extra day off this week, given that it’s Memorial Day weekend, and with the craziness of my brother’s graduation dying down (even though I miss the celebrations and all the family that was in town), I’m finally able to read read read! Now, granted, B and I did go canoeing on Black Creek in Mississippi yesterday, but I think that actually made me sore enough to want to stay on the sofa with a book all day.

Bread & Butter by Michelle Wildgen

I picked up this novel, about three brothers who operate two different restaurants in a small Pennsylvania town, because I am lucky enough to have its author be my mentor at the upcoming Tin House workshop this summer. I wanted to get to know her writing style to better understand her perspective on my work. Other than leaving me hungry, this novel is definitely touching on some great insider-knowledge about working in food service. From Leo’s point of view, the reader gets this: “He sometimes wondered if any of [the staff] were worth the trouble. That was one thing Harry would get a taste of: the enduring, Sisyphean struggle, on any given day, not to fire your entire staff,” (135). Having managed before, I totally loved this line and related to the feeling!

I saw myself in another sentence, which describes one of the kitchen employees in the restaurant: “Oh, Lionel…he was one of those tortured souls who stumbles through the world but fries a great eggplant,” (130). I mean! I felt like that could have been me, only replace “fries a great eggplant” with “makes a stellar cappuccino” or “never leaves the inside of the cannoli shell empty.”

Loving it so far, super-enthralled, hungry all the time. Hopefully will finish this week and get into her other novel, You’re Not You, this weekend.

You Came Back by Christopher Coake

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Coake but the novel has similar themes to the one I’m working on, most notably the notion of finding a lost family member. I’m interested to see how another author deals with a potentially maudlin and sentimental topic while keeping the reader interested and having the feels.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

I am definitely reading this for the parallels to my novel, and because Dessen is a well-known, well-respected YA author. I didn’t know much about the genre before I started writing it, so reading this novel will hopefully teach me something about how to create the right tone and story for a YA audience.

Also on my radar:

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler – I lucked out and happened to notice Friday that she was in town giving a reading at Octavia Books so I got to hear a bit of the book and am so looking forward to reading.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans – I don’t know how I’ve managed to go so long without reading her.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane – The NYT review of her short story collection pointed out all the craft that I could potentially learn from this writer I’d never heard of. I’ll start with her novel then move onto the collection, The High Places.