Summer Reading: The Invasion of the Tearling

Even though my schedule changes very little between seasons, summertime is a time for holiday trips, beach days, and my birthday. It’s a good season. One of the marked ways that summer gets separated from the rest of the year  in my world is by summer reading. It’s a magical concept in which people like me believe we have more time to read like the children and teachers unburdened temporarily by schoolwork. Usually, this just means that someone like me reads on the beach.

 

imagesThe definition of a “beach read” is debated in reading circles. The commonly accepted version is that a “beach read” is traditionally a plot-driven book that requires little thought and can be completed in a beach sitting. I fall into the camp where a beach read is something that you read while on the beach regardless of genre or complexity. As much as I respect the John Grisham et al. empire, I’m not that invested in it. Entertaining books can bend genres and provoke thought, and that’s where Erika Johansen’s The Invasion of the Tearling comes in.

The first book in the trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling, chronicled Kelsea Glynn’s rise to power as the queen of the underdog Tear kingdom. She faced a court corrupted by her Regent uncle and pressure from the advanced bordering Mort kingdom. One of the hallmarks of the novel was the presence of epigraphs preceding each chapter, revealing Kelsea’s legacy as told by future historians. The first book played with concepts of power through time and memory as Kelsea struggled with her mother and uncle’s past actions and being a woman in power.

 

By the sequel, Kelsea’s idealism is dampened by the forces working against her within the kingdom and abroad. While the threat of the Mort hovers over the overarching plot, Kelsea deals with the battles of being a woman, not just a woman in power. Issues of self-image and love rise to the story’s fore, but Kelsea deals with them in ways that feel true to her character without the cookie-cutter concepts of “strong female characters” weighing in. It’s often these reflections that feel most natural in the narration.

 

Her old appearance had been genuine, and had gained her nothing. But her new appearance was worse, hollow and false, and anything that she gained by it would carry that falsity like a disease.”
-from Johansen’s The Invasion of the Tearling

 

As Kelsea gets angrier under the influence of corruptive magic and the pressures of keeping her kingdom as safe as possible with the Mort advancing on the border, Johansen wisely links Kelsea’s story with a new character’s. Kelsea experiences life in the developed world that came before “the crossing” through the mind and eyes of a seemingly random woman named Lily.Unknown

 

The world before the crossing has always clearly been an even more dystopic version of our own, even though it is an opaque reference in the first novel. This second book illuminates the true nature of the crossing and it’s just what I hoped for all along. The reveal is whip smart and important to the network of ideas underlying the story. Better still, by showing the disturbing worlds of Lily and Kelsea in tandem, the book asks a bigger question: whether humans, given the chance to start over, will screw up all over again. Was the crossing enough to steer humanity in a better direction?

 

The answer here isn’t a nice one, and Kelsea must decipher what her impulsive decisions as a monarch mean for her people. The tension between the past and present amps up and this book uses that tension in order to challenge the future. It’s forward thinking even as it gazes on the past, and accomplishing that seeming contradiction makes for a powerful read, on or off the beach.

 

The Invasion of the Tearling is the perfect start to the summer and as my thoughts shift fully towards the future and space travel, more in hard-working genre is coming.

365 Short Stories: Application

8435321969_c1eea0631a_o

The 365 Short Story Challenge has fostered some realizations about how I relate to stories and the short story form. After one month I already feel as if I’ve lived in a vast number of worlds. The practicality of the challenge has also hit home for me. Here are some of my observations:

Well written short stories are easy to find. Most are even free and there’s usually something for everyone. Those who prefer realism will enjoy Electric Literature and Tin House Magazine (their blog has excellent fiction and nonfiction pieces as well). Those more into more speculative stories might enjoy Clarkesworld Magazine, Apex Magazine, Tor.com, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. These magazines are worth supporting with readership and subscriptions.

Reading one story a day is ideal, but not always realistic. I tried so hard to read one story per day. So hard. And then life happened and that plan went out of the window. I ended up reading several short stories on days where I had some reading time to fit them in and meet the quota. The nice thing about only doing one story per day was being able to luxuriate in the story and spend time thinking about it afterward. There was no rush to engage with the next character or the next world. The ones I read separately tended to resonate more in the long run.

Reading to meet a quota can suck the fun out of reading. Suddenly something you enjoy becomes a task to sludge through. So I often saved my bulk short story reading for times when I could take a break between stories. I ended up catching up on my quota by fitting in a story on a break here, or a story on a break there. I’d say to myself: instead of checking Facebook, why don’t you read a story? Sitting down and reading through a collection all at once can be defeating, unless that collection is meant to be interconnected like Oliver Kitteridge or A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The really great stories stick with you regardless of when or how you read them. Short stories are thriving online (see above) and it makes sense because they’re little contained capsules of story to enjoy in between all the other things that modern life demands. With attention divided, well crafted stories can slide into the breaks in our lives. I’m still elated and gutted by several of the stories I read last month and I’m looking forward to more experiences like that this month. The increase in demand and readership means better stories available to readers.

In essence, sometimes the short game is the way to go.

365 Short Stories: Inception

Unknown

May is short story month! In its honor, one of my fellow librarians is doing a book display at our branch on short stories after reading 365 short stories last year. 365 short stories. A story a day. It’s a beautifully simple challenge, and one that I intend to start in May despite the craziness that the month promises.

My coworker’s reasoning behind this effort made me reconsider how others think about short stories, that is, if they think of them at all. She told me that as an undergrad English Lit major, she read short stories that typified a genre or illustrated an important movement or point in literature. Example: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” However, many of her professors focused on novels and there wasn’t time to look at the breadth and depth of short stories in literature.

She decided to explore the form on her own now that she’s graduated. Immersing herself in the short story form amazed her, because she never realized the concise complexity and pithy wonder that is the short story when it’s done well, especially in modern fiction. “There’s a whole world in such a little space,” she said. I was all, “This is why we’re work friends.”

Short stories were part of the necessary course of things in our graduate program, and I’ve grown to love reading and writing them in that way most people love their highly exasperating younger sibling. She’s right about their capacity to carry so much in such a small space, which is why we used them so often to study and practice the craft of fiction writing. Writing in a short form is an art, and one that can help shape and inform the long form or serve as a form of release from the long form.

Many of our patrons read novels or novels in a series, and she wants to change things for them up by curating a display of story collections for them to check out and try. As soon as she told me this, I placed holds on my favorite collections to contribute. We’re trying to inspire people to move past only reading the same old stories in the same old anthologies. Yes, they’re classics, but there’s more out there.

LINK_GetInTroubleRight now I’m reading Kelly Link’s newest collection, Get in Trouble. All of the stories have plunged me in the strange worlds that Link does so well, but they also have made me feel for the characters and the weird situations they face. See “Secret Identity” about a teenaged girl goes to meet the adult man she met in an MMORPG even though she lied about her identity to hide her age and “Valley of the Girls” about a young man born into a wealthy family facing a very different sort of identity crisis. In fact, when reading her next story, I won’t start it until I know I can sit down and read it to its close. Otherwise I’ll feel incomplete and dissatisfied until I finish it.

The best fiction I’ve read has made me feel something I can’t turn away from: complicit, sad, hopeful, giddy. To do that in the span of less than 8,000 words is a small miracle. Kelly Link and so many others have done it well and continue to produce a multitude of fascinating worlds, but condensed into short form. Literature is alive and kicking in all its forms.

So challenge accepted: I will read 365 stories by next May.

The Endless Repetition of History

A woman teaching geometry to male students. From a medieval translation (c. 1310) of Euclid's Elements.

A woman teaching geometry to male students. From a medieval translation (c. 1310) of Euclid’s Elements.

The Historical Novel Society posted a blog entry today by Natasha Lester who attended the first Historical Novel Society of Australasia’s Conference and reported back. She rehashes the notable bits of the conference and quotes Colin Falconer’s* insight that originated in 1905 with George Santayana who said, basically, forgetting the past dooms us to repeat it. While writers might learn from the past, we shouldn’t believe history’s always repetitious. As writers, Santayana’s generalization doesn’t always serve our needs as storytellers.We’re not condemned to repeat the past because history doesn’t repeat itself, not really. It’s more accurate to say that people repeat their behavior. Being human over years, decades, and centuries doesn’t change. Humanity for better or worse (usually worse, but I’m trying not to be a downer) is a constant. History and its great scenes and even greater acts, stand out because they are based on choices made by individuals rooted in a place and time, and we write down the choices we want to remember.


T and O style mappa mundi (map of the known world) from Isidorus' Etymologiae.

T and O style mappa mundi (map of the known world) from Isidorus’ Etymologiae.

Just as the future is not inevitable, so the past was not inevitable. Raymond Ashley points this out in his discussion of the San Salvador and early exploration. Many choices we view as inevitable were accidents, some happy depending on where you’re standing. A lot of historians I meet get this, especially those writing commodity histories (which are my favorite). These authors dissect the rise of a specific commodity by sequencing a set of choices, a chain reaction, that led to the past we recognize, like how the biggest boom in Dutch history over the tulip has roots in Ancient Persia.

 

In the past, just as in the present, every move was a gamble and every decision a risk. Knowledge of the outcome helps us write and rewrite the story, the history, but the choices our predecessors made were based on their instinct and intellect. Their understanding of the world did not include sure knowledge of the future. They could anticipate and weigh outcomes, but never know what would happen until it did. The best decision makers understood what people had been and always would be about. History does warn us, but about what people are capable of.

 

Winston_Churchill_cph.3a49758

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill recognized “the endless repetition of history.” More specifically, he noted what human action (or inaction) constituted such repetition. We wait until the last minute, he warned. We don’t give a thought to a problem until it’s ours, he told the House of Commons in 1935. The curators/historians over at the National Churchill Museum (yes, in America, don’t be ungrateful) note, “Churchill worried not so much that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it, but that the loss of the past would mean ‘the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views’.” (House of Commons, 16 November 1948) Sound familiar? Winston Churchill couldn’t know about the internet, but he could spot our predilection for clickbait easily enough. 

 

So what does that mean for historical fiction writers and fiction writers in general? We tell the stories that help us understand choices in their time and place, and that translates to us as humans in the present. It’s the old human condition thing, but tip — don’t try to force a discussion the human condition in a story. Here’s the paradox that studying history and the people in it can teach us (kin to the Universal Paradox): when you write about the choices characters make and why, you’re writing about the human condition. Plain and simple. It’s what makes history and fiction so interesting.

 

The setting changes, but we stay the same. Or as one of my favorite fiction writing professors, Janet Peery, says, “Times change. People don’t.” Janet is also fond of saying that the ending to a good story should feel inevitable. I guess you see where I’m going with this. If history is built on people making choices in their time and place and good fiction is built on the same but substituting characters for real people, then both will feel inevitable even though they never were.

*Granted, I am using an excerpt here, but the assertion that speculative fiction is about the future feels too general. More specifically, fiction uses the future to enable us to talk about the present.

The Mysterious Alchemy of Attraction

Contrary to what the Bachelor/Bachelorette television franchise and the entire spirit-decimating Hollywood Industrial Complex would have you believe, romantic love is not a competitive sport.” — Sugar

 

One of my friends went out with a guy recently, and afterward she and I discussed the dude and the date as friends do. We’re both at a place in our lives where getting to know someone else is the worthwhile part of dating, and we talked about who we dig and the reasons why we dig them. For my friend, the rational reasons were all there. He’s intellectually curious, willing to listen, and even a little bit gorgeous (read this last one as an understatement). We also talked about the guy I dig and what draws us to some people and not others.

Tiny_Beautiful-330
Our conversation got me thinking about that mysterious alchemy of attraction and the narratives that alchemy propels. So, a couple nights ago I went back to the emotional archives in the form of an advice column called “Dear Sugar” written by Cheryl Strayed for The Rumpus. In “Romantic Love is Not a Competitive Sport,” Sugar responds to an anxious girlfriend who dislikes hearing about her boyfriend’s sexual past and worries that she has to compete with the girls he dated before.

Sugar’s advice rests on this line:
We don’t dig or not dig people based on a comparison chart of body measurements and intellectual achievements and personality quirks. We dig them because we do.”
Sugar gets it, just like those kids selling that cereal in the 90’s*. They like the cereal because they do. Sugar points out what is so difficult for people, especially women, to believe. Love isn’t a competition. There are plenty of rational reasons why we might choose to be interested in one person over another, but attraction isn’t based on the purely rational. It just is. It’s a hard lesson for a lot of us to learn based on the slew of advice books based on whether or not someone is “into you.”

This is the stuff that romantic movies are built on. The conversion point for my rumination on attraction came in the form of the Allen film Magic in the Moonlight, which showcases the travails of illusion and attraction in a “breezy,” affable romantic comedy. The film takes place in France in 1928 and follows a stage magician named Stanley as he attempts to debunk the methods of Sophie Baker, a spiritualist and medium. In the course of trying to expose Sophie as a fraud, Stanley gets taken in and Sophie changes his outlook on life.

There’s a lot to love in the lightness of this film, especially in the scenes where Emma Stone as Sophie and Colin Firth as Stanley face off. The scene at the obsMagic-Moonlight-20ervatory and the scene at the ball stand out. At the ball, dressed to the nines and holding a glass of champagne, Sophie asks Stanley whether he’s had any other thoughts about her. “I don’t mean as a mystic, I mean as a woman,” she says. Stanley balks at and discourages her feelings, yet he spends the rest of the film coming to terms with his attraction to her, despite the fact that they don’t fit with his rational, self-aggrandized notions or his rational engagement to another woman.

I have irrational positive feelings for Sophie Baker. It’s like witnessing a trick I can’t figure out.” -Stanley Crawford in Magic in the Moonlight
Stanley’s disbelief mirrors my own often enough. My favorite moment in the film is Stanley’s hilariously rational proposal that Sophie roundly rejects on rational grounds. This rejection forces Stanley to consider the irrational feelings he has for her. Romantic comedies often mystify me because it’s impossible to figure out what motivates the characters to care about one another. Here that question is answered with a Sugar-esque reply. As Stanley’s aunt says “The world may or may not be without purpose, but is not totally without some kind of magic.”

Unlike Stanley, I’m inclined to believe that there are mysteries in life that we’re better off not understanding. Attraction, for better or worse, is one of those mysteries. We get to make our choices from there. It doesn’t make sense, but, then again, it’s not supposed to.

 


*Speaking of the 90’s and the mysteries of attraction, check out Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want,” especially the last verse that repeats the chorus, but changes based on one personal pronoun: “he” becomes “I.” Love can be tortuous.

The Appearance of Evil: Dolores Umbridge

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.” Ursula LeGuin’s 2014 National Book Awards speech

The face of evil, as we’ve seen in the last year, often looks different than we might expect. In narratives villains are easy to spot, especially in many children’s films (although this is changing, especially when considering films like Frozen — but that’s a post for another time). In an effort to prove that most things can come back to Harry Potter, the information Rowling provided this past Halloween about Dolores Umbridge, notorious High Inquisitor of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HPOP) becomes extremely relevant. Consider the comparison between her and another of Rowling’s baddies, Voldemort.

Let it be known that from here on, there be spoilers for the series and HPOP in particular.

2015/01/img_0654-0.jpg

Umbridge’s office at the Ministry of Magic. Unsatiable control is now available in the color pink.

 

For readers of the series, HPOP sticks out as the turning point for the heroic trio because of Harry’s teenaged angst and the story’s emboldened darkness. Lord Voldemort has returned and his menace is clear. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling describes Voldemort as “whiter than a skull, with wide, livid scarlet eyes and a nose that was flat as a snake’s with slits for nostrils.” Evil, amiright?

And yet HPOP detours from Voldemort’s obvious evil, and chooses to focus on the corruption at the Ministry of Magic, which crystalizes when Harry is called to answer for using magic in self defense. At the hearing, Umbridge is described as having her face in shadow until she leans forward and she looked “like a large, pale toad…. even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue.” The description carries forward in addition to her voice being “girlish” and often wearing a “fluffy pink cardigan.”

2015/01/img_0655-0.jpg

Umbridge in her office at Hogwarts. Note the redecorating.

 

Here is someone unlikable, perhaps, but essentially harmless. Look at the clothes she wears and the affectations like her giant bows! However, her true capacity for evil is revealed slowly when she comes to Hogwarts. She insists that students read and regurgitate knowledge without practical experience or critical thought. Her approach to education is old-fashioned and out-of-touch, especially to the students, who she punishes for their free expression. She is a master of control, and she enforces her brand of order with a sweet smile.

Take, for example, the chilling scene in Umbridge’s office when Harry comes for detention in the film adaption of HPOP. At this juncture in the story, Harry has spoken out about Voldemort’s return and his claim contradicts the Ministry’s message that Umbridge insists on. No really, watch it. I’ll wait.

Umbridge’s pursuit of power and inflexible ideals creates a corrupt leader disguised thinly by cute affectations. When Harry and his friends form Dumbledore’s Army as a resistance movement against Umbridge’s unyielding regime, the audience cheers. The student population is punished and beaten, but they organize in secret to fight back against the blind and prohibitive authority.

Stephen King once described Umbridge as a villain on par with Hannibal Lector, and it’s because she is civilized to the point of madness. Rowling says it best, “Her desire to control, to punish, and to inflict pain, all in the name of law and order, are, I think, every bit as reprehensible as Lord Voldemort’s unvarnished espousal of evil.” It’s also more common. Evil doesn’t always follow the stereotype, in fact, it’s almost always the opposite of that stereotype.

The concept of evil resonates in our culture is of the obvious, the kind that appear in testimonies that claim a boy had the face of a demon for example. That Voldemort kind of evil, however fictional, appeals to our imagination. It’s defined clearly and easy to spot. Western society approves of fighting that evil openly.

What is harder to face and to resist is the Umbridge type of evil, the belief in the one-sided testimony itself. The sort of evil that insists it knows best while smiling sweetly as it strips away at humanity or freedom. This is the kind that insists on law and order to the point of absolute control. What makes HPOP such an important book in the series is that Harry and his friends question and confront this control, and in doing so rewrite their shared reality. It’s that sort of heroism that too often goes overlooked.