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From prehumanity to eternal destiny
(we'll save "and beyond" for next time)
We'll be travelling with humanity all through time this go-round, from before we'd evolved to our current species to leaving the planet for the first time to leaving the planet for good. In between, we'll get some reasonable advice about building a career with words, and living with families, both good and terrible. We'll also visit one of my dearest friends from childhood, Roald Dahl, and a fellow who's movies I liked except they freaked me out, one Don Bluth.
077) Tuki: Fight for Fire by Jeff Smith, finished June 28
078) Tuki: Fight for Family by Jeff Smith, finished June 29
So I told you after I first read volume one that this was a two-volume set. Ah ha. Ah ha ha ha. There will be six. But I'm committed now.
This is Jeff Smith doing what Jeff Smith does best, weaving tales and crafting a world. It's just as beautiful and compelling as you'd expect. Here at the end of act one, our ragtag multispecies group has come together through danger as a true family, their leader has accomplished his quest, but we really have no idea what might come next. And when you consider that we haven't yet met every brand of human from two million b.c., I guess we do have some story let to tell.
Honestly, I'm glad it's not over.
079) The Writer's Hustle by Joey Franklin, finished July 8
I liked a lot of things about this book, I did. I liked Joey's helpful attitude, for instance. And his attempts to see lots of different ways for things to work out as you craft your own creative life. But he has a couple blind spots— Or maybe a better way to say it is that he feels the things that matter most to him matter most. Which is natural. We all feel that way. And I actually thinking his preaching the gospel of humility is really helpful. And when it comes to trying to teach at a university's creative-writing program, humility and an expectation of failure is the only rational path forward.
And honestly, I think a lot of the thinks that did rub me weird he's probably right about. I just don't want to hear them.
Simultaneously, I did feel called to repentence as well. I really oughtta be more involved with the local writing community, for instance. It's true.
My recommendation is to read the chapters you need and set it aside. Other chapters might matter later. Some may never matter at all. But he's a wise guide to the things that matter to you now.
maybe a couple weeks
080) Future Day Saints: The New Arrivals by Matt Page, finished July 16
Another triumph from Matt Page. His weird mix of woke Mormon satirical preachily storytelling-slash-advertizing is like nothing else anyone is doing and it should not be missed. (Click to buy.)
If you're not seeing him with frequency on Facebook, you might have missed the announcement. (I'm not on Facebook so I'm not sure how I knew to preorder. A miracle, I presume.) But volume three is here and a must-read. In my opinion, this volume best strikes the balance between standalone story, overarching events and themes, and all the itchily ironic/capitalistic fake (and real) ads. I felt this had the most purely felt moment of the three books and the highest frequency of laughs.
Anyway. I recommend leaving them around the house. They will attract kids and give them some vocabulary that Primary sometimes just misses.
Plus, they're just fun for everyone.
081) Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, finished July 18
I'm on the hunt for a very specific work of Afrofuturism; I'm not sure exactly what I'm looking for, but this isn't it. This novella has some interesting ideas and a scene near the end that really sings, but ultimately it's the perfect example for those who say being neither a short story nor a novel is an error.
The story's main ideas and set pieces are woefully underdeveloped, making it a bad novel. And it's symbolic conceits are stretched thin, making it a bad short story. Okorafor went on to write more stories, making a novel-length trilogy (three novellas and a short story), and maybe things come together at that length, but I think if I read her again, I'll aim at one of her true novels. She has a strong command of sentences and paragraphs, and her reputation is too broad and deep for me to think my complaints would hold across her oeuvre.
maybe four days
082) Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary, finished July 19
Beverly Cleary is a great writer. These books are pleasant for me to read, fun for my 6yrold, and the family is growing and changing and dealing with realistic problems book by book, all filtered realistically through the point of view of a growing child.
Really, what's not to love?
a small number of weeks
083) Just One More by Annette Lyon, finished July 20
Tell me not, friar, that thou hear'st of this,
Unless thou tell me how I may prevent it:
If, in thy wisdom, thou canst give no help,
Do thou but call my resolution wise,
And with this knife I'll help it presently....
Give me some present counsel, or, behold,
'Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife
Shall play the umpire, arbitrating that
Which the commission of thy years and art
Could to no issue of true honour bring...
Hold, daughter: I do spy a kind of hope,
Which craves as desperate an execution.
As that is desperate which we would prevent.
If, rather than to marry County Paris,
Thou hast the strength of will to slay thyself,
Then is it likely thou wilt undertake
A thing like death to chide away this shame,
That copest with death himself to scape from it:
And, if thou darest, I'll give thee remedy.
O, bid me leap...
From off the battlements of yonder tower;
...or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears;
Or shut me nightly in a charnel-house,
O'er-cover'd quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble;
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live [a mother] to my sweet love.
= = = = =
I adapted the above ever so slightly to make a point about my biggest issue with this novel. And as it regards the The Big Twist, continue reading my review at your own risk.
I appreciate the artistic chutzpah of getting one of your heroes to commit suicide as a way to accomplish some great good, but I can think of a dozen things she could have done instead. Crash her car, for instance.
The novel has alternating chapters, which switch between the two pov characters and time (the victim's are before her murder; the friend's after). It's a solid enough structure although sometimes it feels the structure forced the plot into unnatural behaviors. But one thing the structure does is place readers into circumstances where the novel feels obliged to tell us stuff rather than let us see it. The most egregious is our victim's personality. I get she's an abused woman and that's sapped a lot of her personal valor, but that she ever had any is largely asserted without evidence. And that she gets her mojo back in order to strategically suicide herself ain't exactly convincing.
I didn't want to get all negative in this review. I really wanted to like it. Annette's been waiting to dive into suspense her entire career and I think this book will meet its audience's needs, but I just really wanted it to be something other than what it was.
a couple weeks or so
084) The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl, finished July 22
"The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar" is the Dahl tale I've been counting my favorite for over thirty years. I haven't read it since I was a teenager, but it's wonder and power have stuck with me. The idea of seeing without my eyes is now a baseline daily fantasy and Henry's journey from rich cad to selfless hero just by following a path of intense study has become a core archetype in my understanding of human possibility.
So I was delighted when one of my favorite filmmakers announced he would be making it into a film starring an admired actor. Of course, this also meant it was finally time to reread at least the story and perhaps its entire collection.
I've actually been meaning to do this for years, but my copy which I've had since my tween years has refused to uncover itself. I'm convinced I still have it, but the occasional Saturday looking through boxes has never revealed it. And, now that there was a deadline, I had to compromise my standards and, gulp, read some other copy.
My own county library doesn't have a copy, so I interlibraried it. It has the wrong cover etc etc, but hey—that's how it goes, I guess.
Anyway, I started at the beginning and read through. The only other story I was certain was in the book was "The Hitchhiker," which I also remembered fondly and think of whenever I interact with police. But the other stories also came back quickly as we read. The strange modern fairy tale of "The Boy Who Talked with Animals" certainly hits different now. And "The Swan," one of the most horrifying stories I encountered as a child, is still horrifying but in different ways. And the ending makes more sense than it did before.
The book also includes a spattering of nonfiction—perhaps all Dahl's nonfiction until the release of Boy, which I received as a present circa age thirteen. And which has also stuck with me, though I considered it then the least of Dahl's writings. In "Lucky Break" (in this volume) he admits as much, that he is not a writer of nonfiction. He does so in the remarkable recounting of how he became a writer. There are very few universes in which it happened. And so how lucky are we? He also includes that first bit of writing in which he recounts being shot down in WWII. At the time, the first part of the story was great and the hallucinogenic last-half was absurd. From my position here in my 40s, it too makes much more sense. Though the entire marketing of this book as "for kids" seems . . . peculiar. I imagine his kids books sold better than his adult collection and while you can't sell "Switch Bitch" to kids, you can sell "The Swan" and "A Piece of Cake"—even if it'll never do Willy Wonka numbers.
And "Henry Sugar"? It takes up 72 of the book 225 pages. I still see the magic of the story and I enjoyed reading it though it didn't quite sweep me away. In part because I was reading as a writer and picking some holes in its worldbuilding and narrative choices, and because I was trying to adapt it to film as I read, curious about the choices Wes Anderson is making.
Although the story doesn't work as well for me all these decades later, I'm glad it did then. I'm grateful I reread and reread it.
I know we're reevaluating Dahl the man now and there are hints of his failings even here, but also there is evidence that complicated people can bring beauty and goodness into the world. Let us give ourselves permission to do so.
a small number of weeks
085) Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life by Don Bluth, finished July 22
I heard of this book through editing an essay by Randy Astle. My library didn't have it and so I requested they get a copy; they got four. One of which I have now read.
And I must say: What an intensely charming book! He is a delightful companion through his life. He's so wonderful to hang with and be regaled by that little details slide by unnoticed. After stories about teenage crushes, we have no idea he has a son until the acknowledgments. Where did he come from? And while he doesn't seem to have axes left to grind, some Hollywood folks (Spielberg, for instance) don't exactly come off shingingly.
Through it all, his passion for hand-drawn animation rules the day. You also get a good sense as to why some of the movies failed commercially and critically. But in the end, I want to go back and watch the ones I haven't seen. Which, if you include those I haven't seen as an adult, is all of them.
Between Astle's analysis and Bluth's love, they all seem worthy of attention.
A sidenote in keeping with my latest complaints about editing. There are some funky errors in this book. Not a lot. But more than you would expect. And I suspect BenBella (whom I've called out before) has processes that are to blame. I mean—at one point, an entire line of text was absent. I suspect it was underneath the whitespace surrounding an illustration, but I'll never know for sure! That sorta thing just shouldn't happen.