Thoughtful Meditations

SeveranceSeverance by Ling Ma
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love how the title word Severance is interpreted and re-interpreted throughout this book.

Time slips in interesting ways in this book, from present to past and present again, and I’m tempted to take a second look at this book and track its progression. Something specific I noted about the passage of time is how realistic in felt in the “past” timeline that immediately preceded New York City’s evacuation; it reminds me of the way my own coronavirus journal reads when my situation was at its most urgent.

Similarly, I found the in-universe symbolism of the masks to be fascinating. Although Shen Fever is a fungus-borne illness and not spread by respiratory droplets (unlike COVID-19), the healthy people wear masks to signal to other people that they are still cognizant and unaffected. It is the mark of the un-fevered. It’s hard not to parallel that to our current situation somehow, even I’m currently too braindead to parse out the specific similarities and differences.

I know this book is supposed to be a rallying cry against our current consumer office-drone culture, and I see elements of the capitalism critique, but I think the critique of our working culture is less impactful because of the way Candace is characterized. She’s characterized as a constant loner, someone who holds herself at a distance with most people. “Spend time with your family,” an overseas colleague tells her, but where would Candace even go? Candace always held herself apart from her coworkers; they aren’t her family. The closest thing to family she seems to have is her ex-boyfriend, who breaks up with her and tries to convince her to move away with him, and her old roommate, who she lost years earlier when their lease was up. She’s a loner. So Candace’s dedication to work and to projects plays less as a character flaw and more like a woman who’s solitary and wants to fill her time with something meaningful.

On that note, I wanted something more of the end of the book, but that’s me, always wanting to know everything. Craft-wise, I thought the final chapters were very much aligned with how Candace is characterized throughout the book.

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Fascinating, but I Wanted More

Church of MarvelsChurch of Marvels by Leslie Parry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book started strong with an interesting mystery at the heart of it — well, actually several mysteries that branched from a single incident.

I enjoyed these characters, but the second half fell flat to me as the mysteries started getting answered. The revelation of Alphie’s “big secret”, especially, didn’t sit right with me — it was trope-y and felt like it was there for shock value — and from the minute her secret was revealed, the book began relying heavily on exposition, as though to say, “You see, this is how it happened, and I would’ve told you earlier, but I couldn’t, because story structure.” It made for unsatisfying resolutions. Alphie and Belle’s story is basically left unresolved except for an epilogue infodump which has to work overtime to make up for the pacing/secrecy issues in their earlier chapters.

Odile and Sylvan’s story felt like they had the best pace and a kind of a closure by the end. Still, there were elements that felt like they didn’t get enough buildup to entirely earn the ending. That said, I still like their endings, for its emotional resolution qualities.

Overall, an enjoyable book, but it doesn’t really stand out from the gazillions of good literary fiction books out there.

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“Delightfully Bendy”

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal GirlPaul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Delightfully bendy!

EDIT:
This book was delightfully bendy and kept me constantly trying to untangle its interpretation of gender. It seemed to reinforce the gender binary one moment, and then to tear apart the binary a moment later. I’m intrigued that Paul never seemed to entirely identify with either being a boy or a girl; however he transformed his body, it didn’t change who he was inside in the slightest. Sometimes I had surface level knee-jerk reactions — like feeling a little defensive while reading Paul’s assessment of femininity and women — but Paul had such fascinating observations, and there was truth in a lot of what he observed. I loved this little adventure book.

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This Is How You Claim Your Story

The Epic Adventures of Lydia BennetThe Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet by Kate Rorick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prepare for a messy review, because I don’t think I can be articulate when it comes to this book.

The ways this book depicts mental illness, especially deep anxiety and trauma responses, is painfully accurate. To my experience, anyway. One of the themes of the books is failure. How to define failure, how to respond to it, how to learn from it. And moreover, how to not let a past failure define you.

Although I don’t think the word is ever used in reference to what George Wickham did to Lydia Bennet, the word that kept coming to mind as I read through this book was that what he did was “assault.” He took advantage of an insecure young woman, manipulated her into being vulnerable with him, into proving she loved him enough to make a sex tape, and then tried to sell their tape on the internet. Something that hit me so hard in this book is Lydia’s confusion. She talks a lot about the difference between understanding something with your mind vs. understanding it with her heart – Lydia really applies her new psych classes well here — and something she struggles with is understanding how her relationship with George ended. She knows logically that he left her and betrayed her, but she can’t reconcile those actions with the man who made her feel so loved and protected. Her heart can’t understand how it happened and changed so fast. There are a lot of facets of Lydia’s journey and healing in this book, but I’d say the biggest is Lydia reaching an emotional understanding of what happened, knowing this wasn’t her fault, and it was completely George in the wrong. She originally told her story to the LBD fans with careless abandon because it seemed fun, but then George and the internet ripped her agency away from her and tried to write their own ending.

They silenced her.

And in all the months since then, Lydia is trying to find a way to reclaim her agency, her story, and tell it in a way that encompasses who she was and who she now is, so that she can live with it and feel some kind of peace.

The original web series had a lot of compassion for Lydia Bennet and her situation, and that comes through in this novel as well. This novel, which gives closure to her story, is a way of letting Lydia take back her dignity after countless people took it away and stomped all over it. It’s impossible not to read this and extrapolate its messages out to anyone else who has suffered a trauma or been betrayed: Be kinder to yourself. You are trying to heal. And It’s okay not to be “over it.” Be kinder to yourself.

And as someone who needed to hear that message more than a few times in her life, I am so grateful this book exists and that Lydia found her way out of it. Lydia is a kind of blueprint for surviving traumatic relationships.

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Biting Back

Salt SlowSalt Slow by Julia Armfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just read this entire book in nearly sitting. Literally, I didn’t want to put it down! This book exposes the seams of the world and of daily life.

UPDATE: So I wrote tiny associative reviews for each story.

Mantis — 5/5 stars
Alternative puberty in the grand tradition of girlhood transformations. There is something in here about repressed girls suddenly being able to bite back at the invisible harm that power systems can do to them. (Or maybe I’m projecting my own Catholic baggage onto this story.)

The Great Awake — 5/5
Something beautifully psychological about this. Wistfulness and wishing. A sweet semi-unrequited love story at its core that encapsulated “almost.” Captures something universal living inside an surreal, alien-to-us shell.

The Collectibles — 4.5/5
Captures the way good friends are when living together, the way ideas kinda simultaneously form between 3 heads that all think a little alike but not quite, the kinds of telepathic leaps that get made. Something I noticed in this story is how it (and some other stories) end; some of the endings feel like they stop right at the point of no return, after which nothing will ever be the same, but then the story ends there. Likely just because that’s not what the story was interested in circling around, but as someone interested in consequences, that move stood out to me.

Formerly Feral — 5/5
This story teethers on the edge of absurdity but by surrounding our immediate main characters with a cast of absurdly horrific background characters — the homicidal neighbors — this story manages to lean decisively into the beauty and horror of making a real emotional connection. The unbecoming of girl and walk until they meet in the middle is fascinating to read.

Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax — 5/5
This is our world but tilted on its axis. Horror and realism despite the supernatural bend. Teenage girls and grown women desperate to be heard, understood, to be told its ok to let your fury and hunger spill over into entropy. A seduction of a kind. Glitter and blood and a mythology until itself. My favorite story in the collection.

Granite — 4.75/5
I understood this story more on my second read. The fragility of loving a man. Still undecided on how to fit the pieces of this story together — the neighbor, the boyfriend, the friends’ advice. Beautifully rendered, though, with imagery that took my breath away: “Morning sky. Gasp of purple, like the dark pit at the back of a throat. Day like a wallow. Promise of snow.”

Smack — 4/5
I enjoyed this for the portrait of Nicola and the look backward at her disintegrated marriage. The tone/genre felt different and certainly leaned more realistic. I love the imagery at the end. Think there’s a connection to be drawn between the fragile helplessness of jellyfish and Nicola… fragile with a sting? With some fight still in them both.

Cassandra After — 4.5/5
Structure felt more traditionally braided than the dreamy organic pace of previous stories. I felt conscious of how we moved through time. I do like the rendering of a complex relationship and the musing on being so float-y on the surface on someone’s life that you almost miss their death.

Salt Slow — 5/5
Surreal, horrifying. The most horrifying parts are the body horror but the implications of analogous real-world violence. I don’t know how this couple ever feels normal again, but the end felt like a benediction, an answer to the violence implicit elsewhere in this story.

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Homeric Tragedy for a Modern Me

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. The hype wasn’t wrong about what an excellent story this is. The development of the friendship and relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was very organic and sweet, and also bittersweet at times. Because this is based on the legend of Achilles, it got darker toward the end, and that was emotionally difficult to read sometimes. However, I don’t think it lingered too much in its own grimness or brutality, and Patroclus, despite being grieved by people’s deaths in the Trojan War, remained hopeful enough that I never felt so overwhelmed that I needed to put the book down for a while. There was a moment very close to the end where I was very scared and pained for a particular character, and I had to skim over that, but for better or for worse, that part is over quickly, and the story continues on toward its endgame.

What I was most struck by in the second half of the book — which is all about the Trojan War — is how the ending comes about. Anyone who’s familiar with the legend knows how it ends for Achilles and Patroclus, so it’s hard to write an ending that feels satisfying when the original Homeric tale is a tragedy. My fluffy little heart may have wanted a little more joy, but honestly, I’m still blown away with how she approached the ending. As someone who struggles with writing endings, I feel so inspired by how well she handled it.

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Came for the Doctor Who Reference, Stayed for the Story

This Is How You Lose the Time WarThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t remember if I heard of this book through Instagram, a magazine, or YouTube, but I got it at the library the day it came out and read it immediately. I expected to like it and hoped even love it because it sounded poetic and magical and queer — all things right up my alley. And yes, I loved it! Still, the first 68 pages were — dare I say it? — a bit difficult. In her blurb, Kelly Sue DeConnick calls it “poetry disguised as genre fiction,” and that feels accurate. My struggle was that I haven’t read poetry in several years, and it took me a while to get back into the groove. Although, it also felt like as Red and Blue got to know each other better, their language became more grounded somehow. Their delight in each other was mirrored in a delight in the world around them. And so I re-learned how to read poetry, and I fell in love with this book.

I read the last half in a frenzy, unable to put it down. It was impossible for me not to get invested in these characters. There was so much yearning and desperation in this story, and especially where queer lives are concerned, that feels so relatable. And there’s something about impossibility that touched my heart here. I loved that while so much of this story felt mutually exclusive (in a “neither can live while the other survives” kind of way), the story was continually teaching me that, actually, no, I’m just not using my imagination enough. And if there’s one thing Red and Blue don’t lack for, it’s imagination.

I adored this story. It’s a beautiful, painful, gem of a fairy tale, and now I want a copy for myself to love forever. Can’t wait to read this again.

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Quiet Lives on the Edge of Space

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers, #3)Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Years ago, I remember hearing buzz about Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, things like what a different approach to science fiction this was and that it was super inclusive story.

This was in the back of my mind as I started Record of a Spaceborn Few knowing that this would be a “different” sci-fi story, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I enjoyed this book and will probably read more of Becky Chambers work at some point, but am left with mixed feelings about this first reading experience.

Things I loved: the characters, the genuine thought and consideration of the question of “well, how would a bunch of humans survive in space?”. I love the anthropologic curiosity and approach to all these different races, but especially to the born-in-captivity Exodans.

Things I didn’t not like, but wish I’d understood about the book going in: this book is slow. The plot is very barebones, and the actual big, inciting incident happens two-thirds of the way through the book. The description on the back of the book kept describing a big tragedy, but I didn’t even notice when that tragedy happened. The book begins with a tragedy, obviously, but then there’s something else “big” later in the book which starts the “plot” rolling, but to me, the tragedy in the prologue felt so much more moving and shocking than what came later. This is a quiet story, which I didn’t really understand before. The danger and suspense comes almost entirely from character’s internal mechanisms. I don’t not like it, because I do like the characters, but it’s also been a few days now since I finished Record, and I still feel like what I actually just read was just a very long first act.

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Blurred Lines in Life & Writing

This is a different sort of post. I don’t know even know what to call it. A meditation, maybe? I’ve just been thinking a lot lately and chasing down my thoughts in circles, and I want to put some of it out there.

As a writer, I can divide my writing into “eras.” There are common themes, tropes, even similar characters that appear over and over again in every era. It’s like I’m constantly trying to work out the emotional knots in my brain. Repression has always been my response to trauma, and maybe that’s why all my anxiety and hurt gets channeled into my writing like this.

When my grandmother died in 2014, it was a trauma that took me three years to be able to talk about with anyone. It took another year and a half before I could acknowledge it publicly. But even as I kept my public silence, that grief found its way into my writing constantly. I had a “grandma” writing era.

I published “Red Tides” in my 2017 writing collection, In The Nucleus.

I’m so proud of this poem — “Red Tides.” I’m so proud of verbalizing a grief that took me three years to accept. But still, I’ve never read this poem out loud. I’ve never performed it, never even shared it with anyone outside of workshop or my closest friends and family. There is so much symbolism layered into this piece. The idea of picking it up and saying publicly, “These are the things that haunt me every day of my life” feels so daunting.

And then there’s my “family dynamics” era. For the past three years, everything I’ve written can be traced back to an obsession with family sagas and dysfunction. I can’t stop trying to heal these fictional families and bring them closure.

Anyway, the main point is this. The first half of 2019 was rough. It felt like my life imploded in the spring, which is a very dramatic way to describe it, but there it is. My relationship ended badly, and a friend violated my boundaries, and both incidents — and the resulting gossip — left me reeling.

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Language Barriers

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Here’s a story. A bilingual baby goes to her first day of preschool. Her teacher can’t pronounce the Spanish name “Marisa,” the long stretched-out I or the rolling R. So she calls her “Marissa,” and the child learns to respond to this name that is not her own. The same day, that child with the wrong name asks an adult for agua. She’s thirsty, but no one understands her. No one knows what she’s asking for, so she doesn’t drink anything all day. Actually, this isn’t a story at all. These are just the facts. I’ll resist the urge to say that assimilation was an act of survival because nothing is that simple. The act of releasing whole chunks of your identity into the wind takes years, not a single day. It just happened — a Marisa became a Marissa, and a child forgot how to say her own name. . . . . . . #writersofinstagram #writing #latinx #mexicanheritage

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