New Class! Nail Your Novel

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Usually, I spend three to six months developing a new class. This one, I’ve spent close to two years on. Or, you could say, the better part of a decade.

Or, you could say, the better part of my life.

Because Nail Your Novel really does reflect everything I’ve learned over my past ten years as an editor and book coach–which, frankly, I wish I’d learned in the course of the 8+ years of creative writing classes, or the innumerable books I’ve read on craft.

That’s why I say, basically, you could spend 40K on grad school, and spend 40 bizilion hours reading books on fiction, or you could take this class. Because I spent both the 40K and the 40 bizilion, and–like so many writers–I still really had no idea how to turn 80,000 words into a publishable novel.

What taught me that was the last decade of my life as a freelance editor and book coach. Because what I began to see was that no matter how different my clients’s work might be, it was the same issues that were keeping their novels from working, and, ultimately, getting published.

And I’m not talking about entry-level issues here.

For instance, I’m not talking about point of view (POV). I’m talking about that tricky way POV intersects with character arc, to deliver that Vulcan mind-meld of immersive fiction, and real emotion, or fail to.

I’m not talking about plot points and pinch points, the Hero’s Journey, Three-Act Structure, etc. and so forth. I’m talking about something much more fundamental, and much more interesting, which is causality, and how it can hijack your reader’s brain, leaving them no choice but to keep reading late into the night–and, alternately, how the lack of it can put your reader right to sleep.

I’m not talking about what your protagonist’s goal is. I’m talking about why your protagonist wants what they want, and how the reader will either keep track of that in the novel or fail to, which has everything to do with whether they’ll care about the outcome of the plot.

The reason I spent so long developing the content for this class? This stuff is complicated, and I knew I wanted to deliver it in the simplest possible way. It took me two years of writing and revising, but that’s exactly what I’ve done.

If you’ve done the same–essentially boiling down your hard-won technical knowledge into something that anyone can understand–you know how hard it is. And you know that it’s worth it.

Because not only is this the point in your career where you can really level up your impact, this is the point where you truly begin to understand what it is you actually know.

Nail Your Novel runs starts March 26 and runs four weeks; class size is limited, as I’ll be working one-on-one with each student on the big-picture elements of their novel. If you’ve got a novel-in-progress, feel free to drop me a line with questions: susan [at] susandefreitas [dot] com

Best Story of 2018: The Gold Bug Tree

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To kick off the New Year, I asked my Patreon subscribers to vote for their favorite story of 2018, and then asked my Facebook followers to help break the tie, based on their favorite first line.

The result? “The Gold Bug Tree,” a short story inspired by everyone’s favorite creepy crytographer, Edgar Allen Poe, and his story “The Gold Bug.”

I hope you enjoy it! And if you’re not already, I hope you’ll consider joining my patrons–unlike many writers, I don’t have a “day job,” which means that your support really does help me carve out the time, each and every month, to write. 

Cheers!

The Gold Bug Tree

Secret writing is as old as writing. I remember Craig telling me that when we were kids—that writing itself was a secret from most people for a long time. He was smart like that. Brilliant, really. Knew three languages in third grade. Obsessed with cryptography. Pretty much a total nerd, which was why he’d had nothing better to do at thirteen than to hang out with me, a neighborhood kid three years his junior. I hadn’t seen him since—what? freshman year?—and now here he stood on my parents’ front porch in the haze of New Year’s Day. Eight a.m., maybe. Early.

“Hey, Craig,” I said, feeling awkward, “long time no see.” I knew he wasn’t back home for Christmas, the way I was. Craig was home because his dad had died.

“Hey, man,” he said, but that was pretty much all I could make out, as what followed was a slurred string of syllables that bore little resemblance to any language at all.  His breath could have dropped flies in midair; apparently, he’d been mourning the old man’s passage the night before at Dunleavy’s.

I cleared my throat. “Sorry to hear about your dad.”

He shook his head. “Thadswhaddagetformeenafuckinshiheadformalife, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “totally. So, I hear you’ve been traveling.”

From what my mom had told me, Craig hadn’t been back in North America since his high school graduation, and for the past few years he’d been living on the beach in Costa Rica.

“Ohyear,” he said, and proceeded to launch into an explanation, or anecdote, or a tirade. Really, it could have been anything.

Those golden brown curls my mother had loved had gone frizzy and wild, and male pattern baldness had claimed new territory for his forehead. He was sweating profusely, though it couldn’t have been more than sixty-five degrees out, and his eyes were bloodshot. I found myself wondering if Craig had been bit by some sort of bug down there in the tropics—wondering if, even as he spoke, some spirochete was making Swiss cheese of his brain.

“Oh yeah?” I said. “You don’t say.”

He shook his head. “Degumbochi,” he said. “Member?”

“Yeah, you always did like my mom’s gumbo,” I said. My friends from New York would have told Craig he wasn’t making any sense, and moreover, he looked like shit. Me, I just smiled, hoping whatever he had was not contagious.

“No,” he said emphatically, “degumbochi.” He rubbed his eyes. “Cheezuschristcomin.”

Hell, I thought, did Craig get religion? It seemed unlikely, considering the way he had delighted in torturing Bethany Baker (“And on the seventh day, God buried fossilized dinosaur bones to test our faith”). But I knew Craig had done a lot of drugs in high school, and maybe, if he’d been trying to get clean?

“Kay,” he said, apparently trying a different tactic. “Member…” and then shot off a long string of gobbledygook. I leaned closer, trying to find a foothold in this mountain of nonsense, nearly lightheaded from holding my breath.

“Decassacookout,” he said. “Wheredecassacookout?”

I cleared my throat. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess we did go to a cook out that one time, with the fire department.”

“No!” Craig’s eyes were fairly bugging out of his head. “Wheredessaplaceweedacaddacassacookout?”

I studied him. “Where is the place?”

“Caddacassacookout?”

“Called the castle lookout?”

“Year! Cheezuschrist.”

“Oh,” I said, “I think that’s what we used to call the top of Fort Moultrie.”

He slapped his big sweaty forehead and stepped foot down the steps. “Comin,” he said, lifting a hand. And then, from the gate: “Cominman!”

It’s not as if I wanted to follow him, but my old friend was clearly in a bad way. Plus, he was only twenty-five, and his dad had just died.

Growing up on Sullivan’s Island, none of us had ever felt the need to build forts—we had a real one, right here at the end of the block, which had figured in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Many were the days we’d spent exploring its passages and powder magazines, our voices echoing through the concrete bunkers like the echoes of dead soldiers under siege.

Craig climbed the battlement up to spot beside the flagpole at the highest point of the fort and pulled a pair of binoculars out of a pocket of his baggy cargo shorts. I watched as he sighted the horizon and then slowly turned right, counting under his breath, toward the tangle of green that composed the north end of the island.

“There!” he said. “Degumbochi!” He grinned. Pulled a piece of paper out of another pocket and handed it over.

I recognized the paper as I unfolded it, from a notebook Craig had in junior high—the ragged edge of a spiral ring on the left side, and the screened-back image of Optimus Prime behind blue college-ruled lines. On it were eight lines of nonsense, written in what I recognized as one of Craig’s secret scripts, all alien curlicues and circles and dots; the writing appeared in white against an uneven brown background, as if he’d passed the paper just close enough to a candle’s flame to keep it from catching fire. Below those lines were eight lines in regular ballpoint blue—all familiar letters of the alphabet, though nonsensical; below those were eight lines in French. Though the paper itself was twelve years old, the sections in blue looked new.

“You wrote this?” I asked. “When we were kids? You wrote something in code, and then decoded it? Like, today?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but my French isn’t all that hot.” My French, in fact, was pretty much limited to Voulez vouz couchet avec moi.

He took the paper back and laid it on the railing. Underneath the French, with that same ballpoint pen, he wrote the following:

From the lookout

fifteen right by the nocs

proceed at low

seventh trunk, seventh branch, right side

drop the gold bug through the left eye

fifty degrees east and back to the trunk

X marks half the hypotenuse

All this I recognized, but it did not put my mind at ease about my old friend. Because all this was from of a story by Edgar Allan Poe that Craig had been obsessed with when we were kids. A story set here on Sullivan’s, where Poe was briefly stationed as a soldier at Fort Moultrie.

In Poe’s story “The Gold Bug,” an eccentric naturalist who lives on this island, in the course of cataloguing a new species of beetle, discovers an old piece of parchment paper, half hidden in the sand, and accidentally exposes it to heat, revealing a hidden script. That hidden script is written in code, which the man proceeds to decipher, first guessing which language the script is written in and then hazarding a guess at individual characters, based on the statistical frequencies of letters in that language. From there he works out the larger message, in a manner akin to a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. I remember Craig explaining all this to me when we were kids—the principles of cryptography.

In the story, that secret script, decrypted, leads the man and his friends to a very large tree, and buried beneath this tree is the long-lost treasure of Captain Kidd.

The Gold Bug Tree. I said the words out loud, and Craig nodded, handing the binoculars over. There I could see, was a very large tree jutting out of the hillside to the north, and high in a branch of that tree, from just the angle we were looking, was something that shone white in the sun.

Once again, Craig set off, and once again, I followed. This time he took me to his car—or, more precisely, his mom’s car, which was parked in front of her house, two blocks away. He indicated that I should get in, then we drove to the north end of the island, where the behemoth houses that had been built up in the wake of the last big hurricane gave way to this part of the island as we remembered it—marshland and pluff mud and snow-white egrets standing still in the shallows, as if listening for some far-off sound.

Craig stepped out of his mom’s Civic and pulled something else from yet another pocket of those cargo shorts. He offered me this object, still concealed in his hand. Something heavy.

I recognized it as a paperweight I’d seen at his house—a large beetle made of cast iron and gilded in gold. Fake, of course. His mom had found it, I remembered, at a flea market. She’d gotten it for him because of his obsession with “The Gold Bug.”

“Craig,” I said, “you know there’s not actually any treasure buried under this tree, right? That this tree isn’t actually the tree from the story?”

Craig laughed at that, in a way that anyone who did not know him would find alarming. (Really, it was alarming even if you did.) He tied a length of baker’s twine around the thorax of the beetle, wrapped it up in tight, and shoved it back in his pocket. Then he grabbed two shovels from the back of the car, and together we set off across the mud.

It was a good thing I hadn’t worn shoes any better than the ancient flip-flops I’d left at home when I left for college, because even at low tide, that pluff mud was as thick as molasses. As we walked across it, it released the sulfurous smell of home. Or maybe Craig’s bowels had yet to recover from Dunleavy’s.

“Craig,” I said, “you understand the difference between fiction and reality, right? The tree in the story wasn’t even a live oak. It was a magnolia.”

Craid cast me an amused glance. And I found myself wondering—I mean, it wasn’t like Craig hadn’t always been strange. But had he, in fact, lost his damn mind? Like, invisible ink and codes and fifty paces to the north? Was I going to have to call his mom, my mom? Stage an intervention? Was there a syndrome, maybe? Poe fixation? People who were chronically convinced they were in possession of a pirate map?

Clearly, Craig had taken his dad’s death hard; which seemed strange, as he had always sort of hated the guy. High finance, as I recalled, and high maintenance. Always used to bother Craig’s mom about losing weight. Used to throw stuff around when he got mad—including, sometimes, Craig.

Craig had rebelled against his dad, first by following Phish and then, after college, where he’d earned a degree in something arcane (linguistics, maybe? Latin American language poets?), he’d settled into the life of an itinerate couch surfer, an international backpacker, and, eventually, apparently, a wild-eyed white boy with a notably receding hairline living on the beach in Costa Rica.

Now here he was, leading me through the underbrush on the point to the north of the island, to an enormous live oak. It reared out from the hillside, the largest tree I have ever seen. How could I have forgotten about it?

Though of course I knew. Proceed at low. The path we’d just traversed was only passable at low tide.

“Geddonadare.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Youdherdare.”

“Craig,” I said, “I’m sorry about your dad, but—”

“Ohferfecksit! Clyde.”

I looked at him. “Climb?”

“Year!” he said. “Clyde!”

I pulled out that page from Craig’s eighth grade notebook: seventh trunk, seventh branch, right side. The immense old tree had ten main trunks. I approached the seventh trunk from the right side. Found an angle between it and the sixth trunk, and hoisted myself up.

And really, now that I was here, all of this seemed familiar. We’d spent a lot of time out here as kids, playing pirates—Craig at an age when his peers were probably obtaining an encyclopedic knowledge of bikini styles on the beach at Isle of Palms.

There, on the seventh branch of the seventh trunk of the tree, was a white plastic skull, the kind people set out on the front porch for Halloween—that spot of white in this tree we’d spied through the binoculars. The skull was screwed to the branch through its upper row of white plastic teeth; its lower jaw was missing. As I inched my way out toward it, the skull regarded me, grinning.

Craig tossed up the gold bug, that heavy paperweight. I unrolled the baker’s twine from around it, found the left eye of the skull, and dropped gold bug through it, careful to keep hold of the end of the string.

Craig noted where the paperweight hit the ground below and marked the spot with a stake, then marked out a point fifty degrees to the east of that. Finally, he drew a tape measure from that point to the base of the trunk, and then from there back to his original stake. Halfway across that final line, the hypotenuse of the triangle, he dragged an X through the dirt with the heel of his shoot.  “Aaight,” he said. “Nowedig.”

That part I understood.

We worked those shovels for quite a while, me and Craig. Long enough to excavate a four-by-four section of dirt and sand three feet deep. Long enough for Craig to sober up, apparently, from the combination of jet lag, culture shock, and an unspecified number of Irish car bombs the night before. And as he did, the story he was telling actually began to make sense.

Still, I was amazed when we actually hit it—a slim metal case, of the type that might have housed a set of wrenches. Inside that box was another, and inside that one was a gold watch. Craig brushed his hands off and held it up to the sun. It glittered obscenely in the sun, studded with diamonds.

Apparently, when Craig’s dad had left his mom, he’d moved into a bigger place on Kiawah with his new girlfriend. It had been an acrimonious divorce—pretty much the only thing Craig’s dad had left them was the house on Sullivan’s. Craig had been in eighth grade at the time, and he’d visited his dad just once at the new place; in the course of that visit, he’d relieved his dad of his Rolex.

His dad had accused him of taking the watch, but the man could never prove it, because Craig had buried the evidence out here beneath this tree, too deep even for a metal detector to find it, and left only that riddle, encrypted three layers deep and written in invisible ink, on a folded-up piece of notebook paper, to remind him of its location. That riddle had been waiting patiently for him all these years beneath that heavy paperweight, a reminder, atop a bookshelf in Craig’s childhood room.

Still, his dad must have suspected what he’d done, because when he died, he hadn’t left Craig a red cent.

I coughed a bit. Wondering what the right thing to say was in such circumstances. “Well,” I said, “at least now you have something to remember him by?”

Craig snorted. “My dad was a douche, and this watch is worth fifty grand. I’ve got a fiancée and a kid on the way in Nicaragua. After I sell this, we should be able to live down there without having to work for”—he cocked his head, doing the math—“twenty years, give or take.”

Seeing my dumbfounded expression, Craig clapped me on the back. “What?” he said. “You thought I’d gone off the deep end? Couldn’t you smell the Jameson seeping out of my pores? I haven’t slept in three days, and I was still drunk this morning from the night before.”

He laughed that honking laugh. Checked his phone, and then wound the Rolex to set the time. It was ten on New Year’s Day exactly.

“Come on,” he said, “Dunleavy’s just opened. I’ll buy you an Irish car bomb.”

The Story Behind the Story: Such Light

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After nearly a decade away from the Southwest, I’ve returned, so it seems fitting that I’ve been working on a story about someone moving back to this part of the world.

She’s a young artist who no longer feels quite so young, having recently suffered the sort of setbacks that lie in wait in middle age (a divorce, and the death of a loved one). Amid this transition, she’s decided to make good on an early ambition she had to move to a little ghost town perched improbably on the side of a mountain.

Those of you familiar with Arizona will recognize this town as Jerome, and the repurposed complex where the story is set as the Jerome Arts Center. Once the local high school, this center has long been a magical place for me–whether it’s a room full of aboriginal-style dot art or a giant puppet laboratory, you never know what you might find here. (There’s even a studio in the old auditorium, where the specters of long-lost students seem to look on.)

I took that magic one step further with a story that’s part haunted house, part house of mirrors, and part carnival sideshow, as well as sort of a “finding your new apartment” story. I love the way a new place in the world seems just a bit tilted when we first encounter it, before we’ve become accustomed to its charms, and perhaps fail to really see them.

This story reflects that, as well as some of the inherent weirdness of the Southwest, a place full of seekers, dreamers, and self-styled psychics, but also outlaws, Indians, and Mexican restaurants with no English on the menu–a place where the local norms are often not those of the nation at large.

Living in northern New Mexico, I’m reminded that Georgia O’Keeffe moved to this part of the world largely because she fell in love with the light. That’s part of why I fell in love with the Southwest too, all those years ago, when I was a young artist–and now I’ve returned, no longer quite so young, but hopefully just a bit wiser, and just a bit more aware of the unique power and potentials of this place.

What is light but starlight–that of our sun and those beyond–reminding us of our origins? What is light but a metaphor for consciousness, insight, understanding? It’s my hope that this tilted bit of speculative fiction helps to shed light in the dark places, and to share a bit of the grandeur of this landscape as well. =)

Want to receive the story in your inbox on January 31st? Subscribe via Patreon before the end of the month, and help to support my voice and vision in the world.

–SD

My Top 10 Books of 2018 (and a Few I’m Looking Forward to in 2019)

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It’s around this time of year that all sorts of publications are rounding up the best books of the previous year, so I thought I’d weigh in with ten of the books I read in 2018 that blew my mind, opened my heart, and made me maybe just a little bit smarter than I was before (as well as a few I’m looking forward to in 2019).

1. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

From my Litreactor review: It’s a national bestseller, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next Pick, etc. and so forth, and yes, one of my faves of 2018. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Zumas’s Red Clocks is not so much the science fiction of a near future as it is speculative fiction of the world today, just in different places—which is to say, if you took El Salvador’s notoriously strict abortion laws (which have actually resulted in women being imprisoned for miscarrying) and transplanted them to the Oregon Coast, in an era marked by a retrograde swing to the right, this world is what you’d get. Set in a version of the contemporary US where a “Personhood Amendment” has been added to the constitution, Zumas explores the fine line between medicine and magic, a pregnancy at the right time and a pregnancy at the wrong one, as well as the many ways that patriarchy works to undermine a woman’s right to determine the course of her own life. Plus, there’s a witch in the woods. 😉

2. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

A green ribbon worn by a woman at all times might be her privacy, her autonomy, her queerness, or all of the above—it also might just be part of a story that haunted the author’s childhood. The same goes for girls whose bodies are turning, inexorably, into dresses; for the dopplegangers who haunt alternate versions of Law & Order, forever seeking murdered girls; and for the women who, in undergoing bariatric surgery, find themselves haunted. These complex stories, conveyed in simple language, are as queer in their execution as they are in their subject matter, and they plumb the many ways that the female body is subject to violence, whether sexual, physical, or psychic. I found this collection absolutely haunting, and I’m thrilled to discover new short fiction for the top shelf of my bookcase (I actually do keep the best stuff up there, just like they do at the bar).

3. We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

Some books are game changers, in that they actually change the rules of the game. This hybrid novel/memoir thing by Ariel Gore not only does that for long-form prose, it might just do that for–well, the feminist imagination? Our ability talk about, see, smell, or taste patriarchy–which, after all, is nearly as ubiquitous (and often as invisible to us) as air? I could go on. (I have, in fact, at some length, over at LitReactor.) This book chronicles the protagonist’s struggles and triumphs as an unwed teenage mother (cuz if you want to get the ass end of patriarchy and capitalism, that’s definitely the way to do it) trying to go college, which is what society tells her she should do, despite the fact that society seems to have no interest whatsoever in actually helping her do it. From the welfare shamers to the bitchy neighbors to the court system, it’s one hell of a gauntlet young Ariel must run. Luckily, she’s met by fellow nonconformists—freaks and punks and feminists and such, as well as a bona fide witch—who offer her help, hope, and tactics. May we all be so blessed in the New Year.

4. Fight No More by Lydia Millet

Millet is one of my favorite authors, and she’s also a friend. The last time we met, she told me that the organizing principle behind her upcoming story collection was things that were once considered super transgressive but have now become cliche. That is not, I noted, the way the back-cover copy for this collection reads–that copy says that this book “explores what it means to be home.” And yes, there is a lonely real-estate broker who stands at the center of this web of stories connecting “fractured communities and families” (often through their houses). But here among these deeply satisfying linked stories, among this multitude of voices, both hilarious and crass, superficial and profound, you’ll also find the Marquis de Sade as bathroom reading, Syd Vicious as a stoned teenager’s hero, and the Third Reich as a subject of academic study–as if to say, “In our society, anything can be commodified, any horror made familiar.” Which in turn reflects the all-too-commonplace horror at the heart of this characteristically funny linked collection. There is no one else like Lydia Millet.

5. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This “international literary sensation” may originally have been published in 2001, but it seems to be having a bit of a moment in the US right now. I stumbled upon a copy in a used bookstore in Asheville, NC, and devoured it within days. A few months later, I found it at Collected Works here in Santa Fe–but when I returned, days later, to purchase it as an Xmas present, all four copies were gone. That doesn’t surprise me, considering–this novel, set just after the Second World War in Barcelona, is as good, and as funny, at the level of the line as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the story has the dramatic sweep of a telenovela. In the beginning, the protagonist’s father introduces him to a library of forgotten books, and it’s here he discovers a novel that will change in his life–in the usual sense, but also in the sense that his life will become inextricably entwined with that of its author, and with the dark history of Franco’s rise to power. The story is a hot romance and an engrossing mystery, and it’s also Gothic AF–it’s no wonder Stephen King is a fan!–but one that will ultimately leave you feeling like you’re floating a foot or so off the ground, levitated by the sheer beauty of art.

6. Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Speaking of which, this novel absolutely gobsmacked me–there were places where I had to force myself to read it slowly, to savor every moment, every scene. Of Arcadia, Richard Russo, Mr. Pulitzer Prize himself, said, “It’s not possible to write any better without showing off,” and I have to agree–this novel, set on a 70s-era commune in upstate New York, is a work of great beauty and power. Told from the POV of young Bit, this novel resonated deeply with me as a child of the counterculture (I grew up in an back-to-the-land community)–the beauty of growing up close to the land, the closeness of its kids, the sheer range of skills involved with making as much as possible of life’s necessities from scratch, not to mention the exuberance, the sense of play and inquiry associated with remaking the world, making it up as you go…I could go on. But this book also opened my eyes to the experiences of those who grew up on the further edge of the fringe, so to speak, from the one I knew, a world in which hardline ideals–and, in some cases, refusal to grow up–on the part of the adults resulted in privations and even horrors for its kids. When at last Arcadia falls, as we know it must, what struck me most was the adjustment that Bit is forced to make, to a world not of his parents making–and how it becomes necessary for him to make a world of his own. An extraordinary book.

7. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Because I was so enamored with Arcadia–and because I’m working on a novel of my own set in an intentional community–I asked my friends for recommendations for “novels set in alternative communities.” Someone suggested this one by Ann Patchett, and while I’m not quite sure that it fits the bill, I’m so glad they did! The set up is simple: A wealthy Japanese businessman, the CEO of a large corporation, has been compelled to attend a party in his honor, in an unnamed Latin American country, hosted by the government of that country, in an attempt to convince him to build a factory there; he has been promised that his favorite opera singer will perform. The event, attended by various international dignitaries, winds up being taken hostage by a group of guerilla revolutionaries, and those in attendence (well, most of them, anyway) are held in the vice-president’s mansion for what turns out to be over a month. In the interim, barriers both linguistic and cultural are bridged, romances sparked, and, in a way, a sort of ideal world formed–one which, of course, must end, and badly. This is virtuoso fiction, told from multiple points of view, by a living master of the novel. Ann Patchett, you have my fealty.

8. The Overstory by Richard Powers

You know how sometimes you get so sucked under by a big, sprawling novel that no matter how long it is, it seems to end too soon? This book is like that, an tapestry of narratives organized around what seems at first an unlikely principle: people’s relationships to trees. An artist, a video game designer, a couple of community-theater actors, a high-powered executive, a college drop out, a Vietnam vet, a scientist–a veritable forest of characters, as befits a book on this subject–and as the roots and branches of these disparate stories touch and intertwine, extraordinary things are revealed: for example, the fact that forests communicate, collaborate, defend themselves, and even calm those who walk among them. Many of the characters come together to tree sit in Warner Creek, the historic standoff between activists and law-enforcement in Western Oregon in 1995, and go on establish a radical, top-secret organization that sets fire to a whole lot of earth-destroying infrastructure in the American West, and are ultimately apprehended by FBI officials bolstered by post-9/11 antiterrorism funds. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote about the same group of people in my novel, Hot Season. I’d say “great minds think alike,” but my book is a snack, and Powers’s is a feast.

9. The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison

I don’t read as much speculative fiction as I should, but after seeing Nora K. Jemison speak this year at the Spirit of Brooklyn Awards, invoking authors like Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin as her foremost influences, I knew I had to read her Fractured Earth cycle. The world building, the characters, the slantwise reflections on race and class dynamics, the craft–all of them are downright astounding in this series. (I’d likely be done with Book Two by now if my husband hadn’t gotten sucked under by Book One and subsequently commandeered the Kindle). The series is set in a world where plate techtonics are so iffy, the roiling heart of the earth so full of rage, that earthquakes and eruptions are common–as are “fifth seasons,” natural disasters of such magnitude that they alter the natural cycles for generations. Those who can both quell and command such quakes are orogones (or, if you want to be nasty about it, “roggas”), and the Sanzed empire commands the powers of this hated and feared underclass with brutal efficiency. But the systems of power in this world were not always arranged so, and the heroine of this series, slowly but surely, is dredging up vestiges of a deep past, which suggest a story very different than the one they’ve all been told.

10. The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu

I don’t read a ton of nonfiction, and what I do tends to be goal-orienteed (i.e., craft or business books), but Francisco (Paco) Cantu is the son of an old friend of mine, and I was thrilled to get the blow-by-blow on his burgeoning literary career: Paco had won a Whiting, Paco was talking about his book on NPR, Paco’s book had been shortlisted for the Carnegie–and even that a few of Paco’s readings had been protested by those who thought a former member of the US Border Patrol had no right to be writing about immigration. Needless to say, I don’t agree, and I learned more from reading this book than I have from the news, about so many things: Who’s crossing the border illegally, and why; what the US Border Patrol actually does; what vigilante border patrol groups actually do; what “coyotes” actually do, and the harrowing journeys people take to get here; what the economics of the US’s undocumented workforce really are; and most importantly, the real human stories behind the forces that have converged at the southern border of the US. Cantu writes with empathy but without foregone conclusions–he seems to come to this work from a place of genuine inquiry, and this alone seems a feat, in this age of partisan politics. A book that should be required reading for every American.

Finally, here are a few books I’m looking forward to in 2019 (all of them are by friends/acquaintances, yes, but rest assured: all of these friends/acquaintances kick ass):

  1. Besotted by Melissa Duclos, “an absorbing, nuanced debut about belonging, desire, and the frustrations that surface in an atmosphere of isolation” revolving around American ex-pats living in Shanghai;
  2. All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil, “a post-punk San Francisco fairy tale about a seventeen-year-old Latinx governess, her tween genius charge, the girl’s rock star family, and a pair of ancient children bound to right the wrongs of her stolen childhood,” and
  3. I Am Yours by Reema Zaman, a memoir that spans the author’s life in Bangladesh, Thailand, New York, and Oregon, “through gorgeous prose as beautiful as it is biting, poetic as it is political.” 

Here’s to more books, more bookish friends, and more conversations that matter in 2019. =)