Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I finished The Handmaid’s Tale, I was impressed with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Having now finished Oryx And Crake, I’m falling in love with her storytelling.

To a certain extent, this is a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale, wrapped in a similar framework of intersecting flashbacks all building toward the action set in the post of a post-apocalyptic (or post-dystopic in the case of Handmaid) world. Where Handmaid fretted about gender roles, Oryx fusses about environmental concerns and genetic/pharmaceutical research gone awry, but they’re really two means to the same end. They show a world not too distant from our own right before everything falls apart and then they show the aftermath. The effect in each case is deeply affecting and grim.

Where Oryx And Crake is, I think, a better book, is that the story is more compelling. The central mystery of how the pieces presented in the flashbacks come to result in the Robinson Crusoe-like existence depicted in the novel’s opening chapter is deepened by the conflicts that twist around each other like DNA backbone. The central characters of Snowman, Crake, and Oryx are all rich and fascinating. The way the whole thing converges into such a magnificent climax where all the pieces—past, present past, present future, and future—collide is like a master class on How It’s Done. It doesn’t feel forced that these three are pivotal to everything, it feels right.

Granted, as with Handmaid, the ending is abrupt to the point of absurdity. Unlike the earlier novel, Oryx has a couple of sequels so hopefully at some point there is a real resolution. But it’s not a complaint, it’s more like a promise.

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Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that my personal literary canon over the past couple of years has been rather lily white. The thing about that kind of sampling is that the cultural underpinnings that inform North American/European white authors gets reflected in their settings and characters as a default. For example, most fantasy novels authored by white writers are set in some riff on medieval Europe, presumably because that’s where the fairy tales and other genre standards originated, but also I think because that period gets a lot of attention in white-majority primary schools.

So when you read a novel like Nnedi Okorafor‘s Who Fears Death, the cultural sameness of a lot of white-authored books becomes very plain. This is a book set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, magical realism Africa. Even though it’s probably not all that divergent from modern Africa (in the sense, for example, that The Road is not that divergent from modern America), just that fact alone makes it feel like this very remote, fascinating place to someone, like me, with limited literary horizons. Ms Okorafor crafts this world with a tender but unflinching hand. The world building is deft, typifying the novel as a whole being, by turns, lush and raw and gorgeous and devastating and ugly and remarkable.

This is not an easy book. There are no light, fluffy sections, no gentle fades to black when the ghastly truths of the setting come about. It follows the tale of Onyesonwu, a child born from the rape of her mother. Her mother’s attackers are Nuru; she is Okeke; the results of such violent couplings are distinctive, lighter of skin, freckled, and many superstitions surround those like her. But Onyesonwu is a survivor. She has strange abilities and she longs to find a sense of purpose for those talents such as shapeshifting and healing powers, as much as she longs to find a place in the world that does not accept her.

The fact that Onyesonwu is an outcast both from her parentage and her abilities, the violent assault on her mother, the local coming-of-age custom that involves female circumcision, the oppressive brutality of the setting and the antagonist, even the darkness inside Onyesonwu herself, these things make for grim reading. But what really worked about Who Fears Death is that Ms Okorafor never quite lets it feel bleak. Onyesonwu is fiery, sharp, stubborn. She is rarely self-pitying or whiny, despite having to deal with a great deal of angst. The supporting cast are wonderful foils for the protagonist, the pacing of the action is perfectly pitched to give Onyesonwu and the Okeke the right amount of triumphs amid the setbacks and tragedies to make the ending a genuine question. In most fantasy or hero’s quest tales the victoriousness of the ending is basically pre-ordained. But because the world in Who Fears Death is so grim and unsentimental, there is a genuine tension regarding the outcome.

There are so many little details about this book that made it gripping for me to read. The relationships, the fascinating blend of science fiction and fantasy, the characterizations, the breadth of the plot without having to resort to being “epic” (in the pejorative sense), the raw humanity on display at all times; it was all just so tightly woven. The book exhausted me somewhat, emotionally. I don’t know that I finished it thinking, “I’d love a sequel to this.” But I did finish it wanting to know more about the world Ms Okorafor had created, even if it meant having to make the harrowing trip back.

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Two Years Before the Mast

Don McCullough via Creative Commons

Today marks the second anniversary of my efforts to become a published writer. I suppose I might mark my progress based on when I began writing in earnest instead, but to be honest the specific date is hazy and anyway lost to memory. But I do know for sure when I sent out my first submission, and that was April 9, 2013. It pre-dates this site, even.

In the past 24 months, I’ve sent out over 200 submissions, totaling well over 800,000 words read by more than 120 different markets. I’ve received somewhere north of 150 rejections. My skin is tougher.

I’ve also received just over a dozen acceptances. Alas, at least one of those will never turn into a publication. But I’m slowly cobbling together a list of published work. I’ve made some money (not a lot! still, some) by selling these works. In the time I’ve spent submitting these stories, I’ve written over 250,000 additional words across a couple of novels and roughly 30 new short pieces. I think—I hope—I’m getting better.

I’ve made some wonderful friends along the way, made some mistakes, learned new things. To those who have read the stories, commented, critiqued, retweeted, signal boosted, even detested the work, I am deeply grateful. The writing would continue regardless, but the sharing of stories is what makes an idle pastime into a thrilling endeavor. Opening my imagination in a way that makes another person feel something, or think, or laugh, or just be entertained, that is the principal joy for me. I am honored and indebted to anyone who has taken time out of their lives to spend with my work.

Of course, nothing in these past two years would have been possible without the support of my family. They have all sacrificed in ways big and small for me to pursue this mad dream I sometimes wish could be discarded but cannot. My wife, who has endured my self-doubt, my existential whinging, my failed experiments, and who has cheered me on and celebrated each small triumph along the way. My children, who inspire me with their imagination and their love. They have all given generously; time, encouragement, understanding, sometimes welcome distraction. I am awash in good fortune.

Onward and upward.

A few things converged recently to get me thinking about physical spaces, in particular the spaces that we spend the most time in. The first is that I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up“, in which a Japanese tidying consultant suggests her method for getting rid of clutter in one’s home. The second was that I purchased a new eReader, and the third was that I had a series of home storage-based issues crop up during an extended period where I was away from work.
Bookshelf

David Orban via Creative Commons

The core of Kondo’s approach is to get rid of everything you own that you don’t absolutely love. She has some specific ideas about how one should go about this, but the idea is to drastically decrease one’s possessions so that what remains are things that are, in a manner of speaking, indispensable. Her criteria is that only those things that “spark joy” should be kept. I kind of like this idea, although as some critics have pointed out, it’s pretty tough to describe the feeling one gets for, say, a spatula as anything even in the neighborhood of joy. And yet, throwing out every spatula in the house might not be prudent no matter how much space it might save.
But I get the sentiment at the heart of Kondo’s regimen: all that stuff everyone has “just in case” or because it was a gift or because “what if…” is just crowding the things that are actually valued in our surroundings. The picture she paints of having a sparsely decorated and ornamented living space full of only things that facilitate simple joys is, to me anyway, very compelling.

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