Category Archives: Nonfiction

Review ~ Never Say You Can’t Survive

This book was provided to me by Macmillan-Tor/Forge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories by Charlie Jane Anders

I was a few years out of college and working on my first novel when 9/11 happened. I wondered whether my silly ghost story mattered in such a world. Most artists feel like this at some point because the world is always on fire. That’s not to say that the last 18 months haven’t been…special.

Charlie Jane Anders argues in Never Say You Can’t Survive that writing (or making any art) isn’t just essential because it adds value to the world, but can be the thing that keeps a writer sane. Artists, and writers especially, are in the position to create their own worlds around them, not only as a form of escapism, but to present better worlds. It’s a form of hope and activism, even if those things are translated onto a worlds of space ships, dragons, or zombies.

I was surprised at how much of this book was nuts and bolts writing advice. As with any advice, your mileage will very. I had quite a few moments of “oh, I guess that’s a way to do it” which is never a bad thing. Many of the chapters started as blog post at tor.com and much of the language is contemporary and colloquial. Anders obviously loves writing and that comes through in these essays. If anything, reading what someone has to say about something they love is always a pleasure for me.

Reading Notes, 8/2/21

Finished Reading

Cover: All Systems Red by Martha Well

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

I’ll be honest, I was looking for a short science fiction book for #TrekAThon and I’d heard a bit about the Martha Wells “Murderbot Diaries.” All Systems Red was fine. A first person narrative, our main character is the self-dubbed Murderbot, a sentient security droid who hacked his governance programing. Murderbot is taciturn, sarcastic, cynical, and a bit lazy when it can be. Kind of like grumpy teenager. Murderbot has a past, which we don’t find too much about, and the story has a mystery, which isn’t entirely solved. This is the first in a series of novellas, after all. I’m not inclined to read the rest because “Murderbot Diaries” isn’t really my thing. I find I’m pretty picky about science fiction.

Jay’s Journal of Anomalies by Ricky Jay

From 1994–2000, magician Ricky Jay published a quarterly pamphlet entitled Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. This is a soft bound collection of the 16 issues, lovely typeset and lushly illustrated. Subjects include intelligent dog acts, flea circuses, ceiling walkers, the Mechanical Turk, and the odd association between dentists and traveling entertainments. Magic adjacent subjects. Jay is more interested in the history of such things instead of the debunking of them. The illustrations of broadside, advertisements, and poster are from his own collections.

Summer Challenges Check-In

#TrekAThon

#TrekAThon wrapped up on Saturday. I managed to save six crew members! Hey, I’m terrible at prompt-based readathons, so this is totally a win for me.

  1. Commander Scott: Zhiguai: Chinese True Tales of the Paranormal and Glitches in the Matrix, edited and translated by Yi Izzy Yu & John Yu Branscum
  2. Nurse Chapel: The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho
  3. Captain Kirk: Jay’s Journal of Anomalies by Ricky Jay
  4. Yeoman Rand: Jay’s Journal of Anomalies by Ricky Jay
  5. Commander Spock: All Systems Red by Martha Wells
  6. Lieutenant Uhura: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

20 Books of Summer

My goal for 20 Books of Summer was ten books. And with a month left, I’ve read…ten books! I don’t really have plans to expand my goal to 15 books. I have two books in-progress that would count (started after June 1st), but I also have The Mysteries of Udolpho, planned for August which is 18th century and long. But, Reverse Readathon and Bout of Books are both coming up; I won’t say “impossible” and I’ll continue to keep count.


Reading Notes, 7/1/21

Finished Reading

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch

One of my favorite things about mid-19th/early 20th century fiction is the inclusion, even in works of “literary” fiction, of lots of science. Or rather, natural philosophy, as it was referred to during the period. Poe was no exception, but I hadn’t considered just how science-leaning much of his personal philosophy was. I’d read Peter Ackroyd’s Poe: A Life Cut Short back in 2019 when I was reading through my “unabridged” Poe collection, but Ackroyd’s book is a very basic telling of Poe’s life. The Reason for the Darkness is a biography specifically looking at Poe’s education (at UVA and West Point in mathematics and engineering) and other connections to the burgeoning science community in the United States.

Throughout his writing Poe was striving to find the system behind what makes a good and affecting piece of poetry or fiction. This wasn’t any different to him than trying to discern a system of the universe—which he had his own thoughts on. My “unabridged” collection doesn’t include Poe’s version of a grand unified theory: “Eureka” which is subtitled “An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe.” In the way of an imaginative 19th-century man-of-science, some of Poe’s ideas in “Eureka” seem to foretell later theories in astrophysics and quantum physics. “Eureka” was presented and published the year before his death, to generally unfavorable reviews from both the literary and scientific communities. Poe seemed to consider it his master work, though perhaps he always considered his last work his master work.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Reason for the Darkness of the Night, bot as a Poe biography and as a history of science in the United States.

Book #4 for 20 Books of Summer!

Currently Reading

#Trekathon kicks off today! I’m starting out with Zhiguai: Chinese True Tales of the Paranormal and Glitches in the Matrix by Yi Izzy Yu & John Yu Branscum (Translators and Editors). This will fulfill my “a book either set somewhere you’ve never been” prompt and beam up Scotty. Still reading a chapter-a-day of Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert and Green Shadows, White Whale by Ray Bradbury.


Reading Notes, 6/3/21

Finished Reading

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

Heard about this book from What’s Nonfiction’s fabulous blog.

I’ve read quite a few books about magicians and, tangentially, spiritualism due to the vocation of many magicians to debunk (or, alternatively, learn from) mediums. As a skeptic myself, I find mediumship curious. So much of it is a con, but there is also often an aspect of self-delusion. Even magicians who have done mind-reading or séance type acts—professionals who know they are not communing with spirits or guides—have reported the feeling of working beyond what they’re capable of. But they also realize that this is a feeling and not reality.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding begins in 1938 when a normal British housewife begins to be harassed by poltergeist activity. Nandor Fodor, a “ghost hunter” for the International Institute for Psychical Research, investigates. Fodor believes in psychic phenomena, but he wants badly to have scientific proof of it. When we begin this story, he’s in some hot water with the IIPR because he has, disappointingly, proved several mediums to be frauds. He is desperate to find a true case of a haunting, but has also begun to theorized that these poltergeists might be manifestations (still psychic in nature) of trauma. As Alma begins to get attention, from the press and the IIPR, the poltergeist activity shifts to being apports (manifested objects) and mediumship, things that Fodor wants to see of her. There is an interplay between the expectations of Alma and Fodor. Their relationship becomes maybe too co-dependent. And Fodor eventually finds out that Alma isn’t as simple as she seems. This is all against the backdrop of a Britain under increasing pressure as WWII become immanent. Summerscale mentions that there was an increase in news-worthy cases of poltergeist activity during this era, which is a interesting detail.

At times, the book was maybe a little repetitive and there were a few too many a names. I had a tough time remembering who everyone was after putting the book down for a day or two. For me, this is a good addition to my framework of magic and spiritualism. It brought me further into the 20th century than my usual reading.

Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This was my May Classics Club Spin book, which I did finish in May. Barely.

I forget sometimes that Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe were contemporaries. What wonderful dinner parties those would be… Anyway. Like Poe, I’m not a fan of Hawthorne’s straight-up allegories. We’ve talked about this before when I touched on “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent” during Deal Me In. To me, the only way a writer should present allegory is if they can do it with a level of actual story. So, a few of the stories in Mosses (“The Celestial Rail-road ” & “The Procession of Life”) were rather torturous for me to get through. But so many others are such wonderful, if cynical, stories. I’m still a Hawthorne neophyte, so I’m still surprised by the very dim view Hawthorne takes of humankind. I’m not used to that from authors. Ironically, while I am not a fan of allegory, I am a fan of speculative fiction genres and the two go hand in hand, especially in the pre-pulp days. “Young Goodman Brown” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and even “Feathertop” and “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent” have gooey horror fiction cores.

Deal Me In

4♠️ – “The Cold Embrace” by Mary E. Braddon
Speaking of early horror fiction… Ever read a story where you say, “Oh, you naive boy. You don’t know what kind of story you’re in”? Yeah, I did that here and enjoyed every second of our main character’s comeuppance.

Currently Reading

Started on my summer reading and then was quickly sidetracked my an impulse read, All the Flavors by Ken Liu, while I was cataloging the books on my Kindle. Next up is The Hypno-Ripper: Or, Jack the Hypnotically Controlled Ripper; Containing Two Victorian Era Tales Dealing with Jack the Ripper and Hypnotism, edited by Donald K Hartman and then back to Journey to the Center of the Earth.


Reading Notes, supplemental (5/27/2021)

Willa Cather Short Story Project

The Willa Cather story for May was “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” This was a deviation from the schedule (a chronological list of Cather’s early works) because this is a bit of a rework of last months story, “A Son of the Celestial.”

Without getting too far into the plot weeds, “A Son of the Celestial” is more of a two-person story focused on how Ponter and Yang change each other and relate to their communities. “The Conversion of Sum Loo” widens the scope, somewhat, while being even moreso about Sum Chin and his wife, Sum Loo. The Ponter character is taken up by Girrard, a young man who is torn between the priesthood and art. The Sums are a fairly successful Chinese immigrant couple, though Sum Loo is much younger than her husband, and more open to the Christian influences in her community. Sum Chin is very concerned about the well-being of his son, possibly his only chance for securing a legacy and making sure that there is a next generation to take care of him and his wife. He does not object to his wife having the baby baptized; the more Gods favoring his child, the better, right? The conclusion of this story was quite the gut-punch.

The two stories were published seven years apart and Cather’s craft has absolutely improved in that time. “A Son of the Celestial” is not much more than a sketch, where “The Conversion of Sum Loo” is a more well-rounded story.

Interested in reading along? Short Fiction of Willa Cather, Phase II

Finished Reading

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination by Robert Coles

During my second semester as an English major (being my fifth semester as a college student), I took a course called “Stories and the Human Experience.” At the time I worried that it was kind of a useless class because it didn’t fulfill any specific English requirement and I would easily end up having enough non-English department elective credits without it considering the amount of now superfluous math and science I had already taken. (The war between STEM and the humanities has always been strong in me.) But it ended up being a great course. The two sections were taught by different instructors with slightly different syllabi. We’d join up every couple of weeks to jam on what we’d all been reading. (It occurs to me now that my advisor might have been really working to fill the class since it was the first time is was offered and they needed two sections.) I remember that we read King Lear, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (a novel I found slightly traumatic), and selections from Robert Coles’ The Call of Stories. (There were other things on the syllabus, but I don’t remember them. It’s been a while.)

I decided a few years ago that I wanted to revisit Coles and the concepts he presented. On the surface, Coles argues a point that does come up time and again in the STEM vs. humanities debate: stories teach empathy. They present characters who model behaviors both good and bad. They potentially offer insight into characters similar and different from ourselves. Coles presents what the scientific world would call anecdotal evidence. The most compelling portion of the books is reading stories of his students (mostly medical students, but also a few in fields like law and business) who have read a novel or short story and strongly identified with characters and plot situations. These stories have made them think about the morality of their behavior in new ways.

What left me a little cold was the actual talk of morality. Some of the points of view struck me as pretentious and privileged. This might be my own prejudice, but I can’t shake the feeling that Coles and his students (all Harvardians) find people less fortunate than themselves to be, well, unfortunates. Or maybe it’s because all these people are discussing problems that maybe wouldn’t be problems if they were worrying about making the rent. The irony of reading a book about stories and empathy, but not being super empathetic to the people presented in the narrative, is not lost on me.

Also, I wonder what it says about me that the characters that have “lived with me” the most are Schmendrick, Molly Grue, Henry Palace, and a man called Ishmael.


Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4

I added this book to my TBR list a couple months back when Deb @ Readerbuzz was reading it. I’ve been looking for books on writing nonfiction, but most of what I’ve found have been about writing memoirs, which isn’t quite what I’m after. I didn’t realize at the time that I’m slightly familiar with John McPhee. I’d read his A Sense of Where You Are years ago.

I looked up Draft No. 4 at the local online libraries and found that the Phoenix library had it — except they didn’t have it. I put in a hold, but then realized I was on a wait list for 0 copies. I suspect this happens when an online library had the license for a book, but it expired and the book wasn’t an automatic rebuy (if such a thing exists) due to lack of interest. I’ve also had it happen with a little known book about a 1910s serial killer. So I went to Amazon. The ebook was $10; the paperback was $12.75. I tossed the paperback into my cart and waited until we needed to round out an order. I still have a hangup about buying ebooks for a near premium price. In the meantime I checked out McPhee’s Levels of the Game.

A word about the paperback. It’s white. And it has this texture to it. Arizona is quite dusty. My white book has gotten dusty and resists cleaning because of the texture. I do no recommend reading it while eating Doritos.

Draft No. 4 is a fairly slim book. It’s earned a spot on my desk with my other writing books to be sure, though (like most of my favorite writing books) the practical advice is buried amid career anecdotes.

The first two chapters cover, roughly, the things that were of most interest to me: what’s a worthwhile idea to write long-form nonfiction about and what do you do with it once you have it. Turns out in McPhee’s experience, a good idea for a piece of nonfiction is a thing that the writer can commit time and effort to. What form will it take? Where will it end up? These are variable things. McPhee’s advice seems to be: keep an open mind and go with the flow. To me, that’s fairly comforting.

Of course, there is McPhee’s progression of drafts which is the second thing of particular non-entertainment-only interest to me. The first draft is simply getting things down, the philosophy of you can’t fix what doesn’t exist. In McPhee’s second draft, he tinkers with shape. The third draft is smoothing out the rough spots after giving it a verbal read-through. And the fourth draft? In the fourth draft, he calls into question weak wording and cuts about 10%. This cutting comes from writing for a magazine like Time where space is a premium. Ideas need to be cut, trimmed, distilled in order for there to be the proper number of lines for the piece when published in a print magazine. Even when not under those constraints, McPhee has found that this practice tightens up writing. (I have found this to be the case myself in the past.)

John McPhee is an entertaining writer and an entertaining teacher too. Draft No. 4 has a lot of stories from McPhee’s long career and some writing advice as well. Suitable even for those who aren’t crazy enough to write a book on a topic no one cares about. Yet.

{Books} Two Short Reviews

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Cover: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark was the July pick for the Occult Detective Book Club (a group on Facebook and Goodreads, if you’re into such literature). It is set in the same universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” which I read and enjoyed back in January of this year. “Djinn” is available online, so I reread that before diving into Tram Car 015.

As I mentioned with “Djinn,” the world building is very deftly done. I’ve generally had a problem with steampunk because usually it’s not just retro science-fiction, but 19th-ish century sci-fi mixed with Gothic/supernatural elements. It’s just too much. Clark, though, blends “advanced” technologies and the supernatural seamlessly. The supernatural is, in fact, why this version of 1912 Egypt has the technologies it does.

I felt like the characters in Tram Car 015 were a little less compelling. Agents Hamed and Onsi are fine, but Fatma (from “Djinn”) is such a great character that they suffer in comparison. Both stories are good though; they’re set in the same world, but not directly connected. I’d definitely read more if Clark wanted to spend more time in this setting.

Levels of the Game

Cover: Levels of the Game

I found Levels of the Game by John McPhee while looking for McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (recommended by Deb @ Readerbuzz). The latter was listed in my local library’s online system, but really the license had expired and I’m on a wish-waiting list for it if the library decides to renew the license, but! Instead I noticed another book in McPhee’s catelog with a tennis court on the cover. Nonfiction about tennis? Yes, please. (Tennis is my summer sport. But there are no sports this year. Sadly, this doesn’t mean there’s no summer this year…)

Additionally, the structure of this book is rather curious, and since I’m thinking about writing a nonfiction book, I wanted to see how McPhee would pull it off. Levels of the Game is fairly short, less than 150 pages. In it, McPhee profiles two tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, as they play a match at Forest Hills in 1968—the first US Championship tournament of the open era (meaning both amateurs and professionals could compete). As is mentioned in the book’s summary, McPhee begins with the first toss of the ball. Interspersed with the action of the match are biographical digressions comparing and contrasting the players.

Ashe and Graebner met in the semi finals of the tournament. Why write about a semi final? The two players were both American and Davis Cup teammates. But they were also very different. Ashe was a quick, finesse player; Graebner was more reliant on power and consistency. Ashe was a black, raised by a disciplinarian single father who held down multiple jobs to support his family. Graebner, white, was the son of a doctor and wanted for nothing in his life. Politically, one was of course more liberal and one more conservative. McPhee contends this influenced their styles of play as well.

I’m not sure if the conceit of the book, the stories told during the match, entirely works. The match itself didn’t seem that interesting and I was unaware while reading that this was the first US Open and that Ashe would be the only amateur player to ever win it. I did appreciate how McPhee moved smoothly between past and present and didn’t burden himself further by telling things in absolute chronological order.

I also didn’t realize until after I checked this book out that I read McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, a profile of basketball player Bill Bradley, back in 2011. I enjoyed that too. If anything, now I want to read Draft No. 4 more.