In which you should read this: CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora

Something you may not know about me: despite my fairly high degree of confidence in my own intellect in many domains, I actually don’t think I read very well. Which may sound really. strange, coming from someone who regularly reads well over a hundred books a year. The thing is, my greatest weakness as a reader is that I’m a very surface-level guy. While I can handle complex narratives, I have to be in the right mood for them, and the fact that I read so fast can really hurt my comprehension if I’m not deliberately paying careful attention to what I read. This means that I tend to stay away from anything that, broadly classed, might be literature, which I nearly spelled litratcher in order to convey a sort of condescension toward the entire concept. If a novel feels the need to tell me it’s a novel on the cover, that’s a sign that it may not be for me. You know what never says “a novel” on the cover? A book with a dragon or a space ship in it. Not once. Not never. The closest to an exception I can come up with is John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which some editions of declare to be “a novel with three codas,” and which I think Scalzi put on the cover more as a lark than anything else.

In short, whenever I read literature, I always feel like I’m missing something; that there is some theme or some Hidden Meaning or some Deeper Symbolism that I’m not seeing, either because I’m being sloppy or the book is just smarter than I am. Is it there? No idea. But I’m convinced it’s there and I just can’t see it. This may be a sign that I’ve been poorly served by my English teachers; I have a copy of A Tale of Two Cities from high school that has a big chunk of the first page circled and the word “foreshadowing” written next to it, and as someone who has read that book as an adult I have no idea what I thought the foreshadowing was or what it might have foreshadowed. I still can’t handle Jane Austen.

Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women needs to become part of The Canon, because it belongs next to books by Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. That’s it. That’s the review. The book is magnificent. You should read it. I took my time with this one, because I wanted to savor it; normally it’s a good sign if I read a book in a day, and this one took several because I didn’t want it to be over with too quickly. It’s set in and around the Civil War, on a plantation, and the two main characters are mother and daughter, so the book alternates between the two of them, jumping back and forth between just before the war to just after it. A third significant character is Varina, the daughter of the former landowner, who has a bond with Rue, the daughter of the pair, and her story weaves in and out through theirs in a way that isn’t really typical of– here’s that word again– literature set in this time and place. Both Rue and her mother are … well, the title Conjure Women does the job to some extent; they are healers and midwives, and while Rue in particular is generally at some pains to think of her work as entirely natural and (though she doesn’t use this word) scientific, those around them generally don’t, and the book does have just a tinge of the supernatural around it to keep genre-obsessed dopes like me interested. Everything’s just a little better with a little hoodoo sprinkled on it, as my mom never once said in her life.

Every so often someone will ask me, generally not in especially good faith, why I do things like decide I think I’ll read 52 books by women of color this year, when I could … not, I guess. Well, this is part of it; I might not have looked at this book were I not focusing on a certain kind of author, and I’ll freely admit that had Afia Atakora been Ahmad Atakora I probably wouldn’t have bought it. (That said … a man couldn’t have written this book, but that’s not quite the point I’m making.).

In other words, the reason I work on diversifying my reading is that when you go looking for new and/or different reading experiences, you get them, and this book all by itself kind of pays off the whole experiment. Go read it.

In which I vent

I– well, all of us, really– got a letter from my superintendent this morning outlining the district’s plan to reopen this fall, and I am not exaggerating when I tell you that their plan is basically “we reopen, and nothing changes, so try not to die.” Apparently he mentioned some vague sort of “we’ll try and create a virtual school, and you’ll have options for e-learning if you want them” thing at an event this morning, but there are no details, there is as of yet no staff for such a thing, and the letter makes no mention of it.

Everyone will be required to “have” a mask.

Have.

Not “wear.”

I was expecting a lot of different things, but “we’re going to do nothing” was not one of them, and I am frustrated and, frankly, frightened beyond my ability to describe it right now. Like, “take one of your emergency brain pills” frustrated.

So the best thing to do, obviously, is lash out at some bullshit that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m mad about, and luckily I just decided I was done with this deeply stupid book here. Here’s my entire review: don’t read this fucking book, and don’t trust anyone who tells you this is a good book, and I am seriously looking askance at the two Actual Authors who recommended this to the skies and back, because you’re both out of your damn minds.

Need some background for that review? Okay. First, look at the title. The title of this book is Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere. That title is wordy as fuck and deeply obnoxious, and if you can’t literally get the front cover to your book done without being wordy as fuck and deeply obnoxious then your opinions on writing are probably not to be taken terribly seriously. Second, this author 1) has no relevant experience or expertise in psychology and 2) has never written or published a fucking novel.

Which … really, at that point we’re done. Your book is garbage. I don’t have to read your book to know it’s garbage. Unfortunately, I did, which was clearly my mistake, as I’ll never get that time back, and I should have been using it to look for a job.

Also, there’s no “brain science” in the book. None what-so-fucking-ever. There’s the occasional sentence where she says things like “brain science tells us …” but there are never any citations or, like, quotes from actual people who work in the field, or anything like that, and she also appears to think that “brain science” is a thing, which it’s not. There’s no one in the world where if you ask them their job they will tell you “I am a brain scientist.” The word is psychologist. I would also accept psychiatrist or neurologist or probably a couple of others. Hell, even an anthropologist would probably be useful for some of the claims that she makes, but there’s none of that either. It’s all fuckin’ hooey, and worse, it’s hooey that really only applies to literary fiction and doesn’t work well with genre at all. Don’t believe me? Let me introduce you to George R.R. Martin, who could probably tell you a few things about how his books violate every single one of the rules in this book– if you can coax him off of his gigantic money bed in his gold house to come talk to you in the first place.

The whole book is bullshit; know-nothing, arrogant, prescriptive bullshit, and it’s an easy candidate for the worst book I’ve had to read so far this year.

#Review: WANDERERS, by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers is one of those books that could have been very disappointing. To start, I have been waiting for this book for what seems like a very long time. I actually pre-ordered it, which I don’t do with books all that often– I am generally backlogged enough in my reading that even books that I’ve been looking forward to and whose authors I’m big fans of have to wait for a while for me to get to them. Not this one. I not only preordered it, I specifically timed the books I was reading before it so that I would be free and clear and able to start something new immediately when it showed up in my mailbox. So if it had been bad, there is a strong possibility that I might have cried. Actual book-nerd tears. It woulda been a problem.

Let’s not bury the lede any further: Wanderers is Wendig’s best book, and by a pretty large margin– and, again, remember that this is a guy who I am fond of and whose work has shown up in my end-of-year top 10 before. So this is way better than a bunch of books that I really liked. What’s fascinating about it is how different it is from all of Wendig’s other work. His previous work– which includes multiple Star Wars novels, books that have always sort of had a house style– has always been instantly recognizable: short sentences, present tense, visceral detail, and a certain disregard for strict grammar conventions in favor of impactful language. You can show me a single paragraph from any of Wendig’s previous books and I’d be able to tell you it was his. That recognizable.

Wanderers throws all that out the window. This book must have been a beast to write– not only is it markedly longer than any of his previous books (it’s probably close to twice as long as its closest competitor) but the style of the writing is completely different. I would never have guessed Wendig wrote this from a paragraph or even a chapter, although you certainly see his humor and his themes come through– it is, if this makes any sense, a Wendig book made up of nearly 800 not-very-Wendig pages.

That probably doesn’t make any sense.

So, the plot, and this will be spoiler-free, for the most part: the elevator pitch for this book is “What if Chuck Wendig wrote The Stand,” and those seven words were more than enough to earn my money. To be clear, The Stand is one of Stephen King’s two or three best books, and while I’ll need to read Wanderers a couple more times over the next decade or so to see if it lives up to that book’s very high standard, the comparison is not remotely unfair to either book. This book is about a plague, and the end of the world, and a presidential election, and white supremacists, and it’s about all of those things before we mention the titular Wanderers, people who are locked into their own bodies and sleepwalking … somewhere. The world doesn’t even start ending until like halfway through the book, and the omnipresent sense of dread and horror is thick enough to drag your fingers through, even before the book gets around to one of the scarier human villains I’ve read recently. The book is not stingy with its mysteries, and the way they unfold over the course of its somehow-still-fast-paced 780 pages is immensely satisfying.

I have read 74 books so far this year, and of those 74, 17 are on my shortlist for the end of the year. It’s been a good year for reading! But this is the first book that I’ve read and known beyond a shadow of a doubt that yeah, this one’s gonna be top three. You should read Wanderers, and you should start now.

On the best possible use of my time

The book doesn’t have a real title or a cover and only has like 1400 words right now but hell let’s spend an hour fiddling around with title logos just because. Why not, right?

Writing question for y’all

WordPress should have some sort of built-in poll functionality.

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