Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is the very deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo award for best novel. It takes place in a fantasy world where every few hundred years a cataclysmic, multi-year long disaster will happen, much like a miniature extinction event. The book starts as another is beginning. “Magic” in this world works by controlling earth, and most people cannot be taught: you either have the gift or don’t. these people are feared and reviled, kept away from society in their own slave-like community.

I won’t say much more about the book itself, because I went in cold, not knowing what to expect, and came away exhilarated so I don’t want to say too much. The world-building is incredibly interesting. And the plot…I remember as a teenager reading a ton of fantasy books and reaching parts where it would be almost painful to tear myself away from the action. That’s like the whole second half of this novel. Just go out and read it, it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.

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A Young Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway needs no introduction. His minimalistic stylistic innovations won him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and are still influential almost a hundred years later. Not only that, but his first full-length novel, The Sun Also Rises, established him as a major force in literature and some consider it his best work today. I recently read two volumes of a Hemingway biography, The Young Hemingway and The Paris Years by Michael S. Reynolds, and was struck by just how motivational a figure Hemingway was. Even if you dislike his social views or his larger than life persona, there’s a lot to learn from his discipline and early failures.

After serving in World War 1 as an ambulance, driver falling in love with a nurse, he returned to his family in Illinois and tried to piece back his shell-shocked life. Overseas, he had mentioned to the nurse that he was a writer, and he was determined to professionally publish something so that his lie would become reality.

But as their relationship fell apart, he continued writing and sending off his stories to places like the Saturday Evening Post. Although he wrote voluminously, all were rejected. They were, for the most part, non-autobiographical tales written in imitation of the popular writers of the day like Kipling and Sherwood Anderson and bad poems. He also started a novel based on his life in the war and with the nurse and worked on it intermittently. At the same time, he found work as a journalist, honing his skills for papers, but he considered this hackwork.

Eventually, he found another girl, Hadley, married her, and soon after attracted the attention of Sherwood Anderson. He advised the young writer to go to Paris, where the cost of living was a lot less, and where many artists were shacking up. He gave them a couple of letters of introduction to people like Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, and then the couple was off in 1922.

Hadley had a trust fund that would have enabled them to live, albeit just above the poverty line, with no work, but Hemingway refused and kept doing journalism, and traveled to Germany and Turkey and Greece to cover stories. All the while he kept writing–until tragedy struck.

While traveling, Hadley was supposed to meet him, bringing with her a valise filled with his stories, but somehow, somewhere in the crowded train and station, she lost it. Hemingway was heartbroken: other than on story (Up in Michigan) and some juvenilia he had outgrown, every story he had written along with his novel had vanished. He revised Up in Michigan a bit, but due its sexual content, it took a while for it to see print.

But the good news was soon after he finally got a book deal. It was not a glamorous publishing house, in fact, it was practically a vanity press printing, and the book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, sold less than ten copies in Paris. His next book, in our time, received similar press. And although he was starting to make a name for himself in literary circles in Paris, few magazines would take his work. His first big story publication, Indian Camp, was published in The Transatlantic Review, where he sat on the editorial board. Another short story collection followed, entitled In Our Time (with capital letters this time), and while it won praise from critics, the day when Hemingway would be able to earn decent money from his writing was still a few years away.

His break out novel came out in 1926, 8 years after 1918 when he had returned to Illinois and begun toiling away almost everyday. Although he is falling from critical favor now, he still provides a good lesson on staying motivated. If you don’t quit writing, one day you’ll see publication. Just don’t get discouraged when it takes you multiple years.

Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

A few weeks ago I reviewed Samuel R. Delany’s enigmatic book, “The Einstein Intersection.” Today, I’m going over another one of his New Wave novels–no, not “Dhalgren” (though that will appear on here eventually)–but “Babel-17.” Written when he was just 23 years old, it tied with “Flowers for Algernon” for Best Novel at the Nebulas in 1967.

Even at a young age, Delany writes in a beautiful poetic prose. The world of the book is also fascinating. The premise is that far in the future, during an interstellar war, Earth’s side begins to pick up bizarre radio signals during attacks. They christen this code, or language, as Babel-17, and enlist a genius poet/linguist to crack it. Along the way, she gets an oddball crew of her own to pilot a ship to help her in her quest to solve the mystery.

The problem is just how interesting this world is. Between ghosts, poetry, people genetically modified to resemble dragons, Delany’s world is brimming with life, but at only 180 pages, there’s inadequate time to fully explore everything. I also was a little disappointed with the ending, but for the exact opposite reason. Delaney explains everything about Babel-17 and the attacks and–it’s a bit anti-climatic. A part of me feels like it would have been much better had Delany left a bit more mystery there.

But “Babel-17” is still a hell of a read. It confirmed Delane as one of my favorite writers and is never a chore to read. It’s not perfect, but it is a great book.

Book Review: The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

The New Wave movement in science fiction was an attempt at composing more “literary” genre books: less escapism, more beautiful writing and deep themes. Writers associated with this include Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and many others. Among them, one of the most prominent was also one of the youngest: Samuel R. Delany, who won a Nebula award for best novel when he was only 24. In these earlyish works, his prose reads like pure poetry and the ideas behind his books are incredibly thought provoking. “Babel-17,” the book that won the award, explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language effects how we think and express ourselves. His follow up, published just a year later, would win him a second Nebula.

“The Einstein Intersection” is the New Wave at the New Waviest. It’s the story of aliens who have come to live on Earth and live out humanity’s myths. The main plot follows a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, but there are also biblical hints of Jesus, the Minotaur, and contemporary figures who presumably got myth status in the future (like Ringo Starr). Preceding each chapter are quotes from philosophers and occasional passages from Delany’s journal as he wrote this.

My only reservation about this is the length. It’s more novella than novel with around 140 pages. It’s incredible just how much Delany can get out of that few pages but I would have liked to see more of the interesting world he built, with three genders, dragon wranglers, genetic mutations, and, of course, the myths.

Fans of light, adventurous science fiction will probably not like this. There are a few action scenes but they are never the focus. Upon a first read, most people will probably be confused at a number of parts, especially the ending. When it first came out and garnered acclaim, there was a fair amount of backlash labeling it “pretentious literary nonsense” (and other New Wave books as well). Even at his most tame, Delany is still controversial (and this is by far Delany at his most tame. His later works are…pornographic).

Though I cannot bring myself to recommend this to everyone, if you’re intrigued by the premise, check it out. One of the best I’ve read this year.

A Young William Gibson

Wouldn’t it be great to knock the ball out of the park with your first novel? Write a revolutionary novel that goes on to become a classic? That’s the dream. And while some writers do cement themselves with their first book, their number must rank in the decimal percentages. And it’s nowhere as easy as that infinitesimal number might make it appear.

William Gibson is one such writer. After falling into writing almost by accident and a few acclaimed short stories, he wrote NEUROMANCER, a novel that changed scifi and brought about the cyberpunk subgenre; while Gibson has written a lot of other novels, it was this one that secured his legacy. And it’s not just his first published novel: it was his first attempt at a novel.

But in reality it wasn’t such a straight line to success.

As with any good writer, Gibson spent a lot of his childhood and teenage years reading: J.G. Ballard, Henry Miller, the Beats, science fiction pulps. He lost his father in childhood, and after his mother died when he was 18, he decided to dodge the draft and travel to Europe and Canada, where he would eventually settle. There, he suffered weeks of homelessness before scraping together a living from working at a hippie drug store and appearing in a documentary film, with his little extra cash going mostly towards psychedelic drugs. And it was there that he met his future wife, with whom he again traveled to Europe.

She had a teaching position. Gibson, rather than get a real job, first went to thrift stores trying to find items marked way below their value and then selling them, before returning to college as he felt maintaining a high enough GPA to qualify for rich student loans was easier than work. Here he took a class on science fiction and wrote a short story in lieu of a final paper. This turned into his first published story, FRAGMENTS OF A HOLOGRAM ROSE, which saw publication in 1977.

His next story got published in 1981, but during those years he was still working: JOHNNY MNEMONIC was started the same year as FoaHR. Not too mention the inevitable false starts and stories that didn’t measure up. A few more well-received stories flowed from his pen, earning Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and eventually he was commissioned into doing a novel. And rather than summarize the unease and anxiety Gibson felt while writing this, I’ll let him do it for me.

The best writing advice I ever heard was to go out and see the world. If you stay indoors reading and writing all day, you’ll eventually become a great writer but have nothing to write about. Gibson embodies this principle: a well-traveled homeless hippie. No wonder most of his work deals with those rejected by society. It took him a bunch of years to try writing, and a bit of encouragement and practice after that to really get the ball rolling, but once he was ready, there was no shortage of material for him.

So remember, as the weather grows warmer, to put down your books and pens and get out of the house. The inspiration for that break out story might be one block’s walk away.

A Young Donna Tartt

I like to post articles on here about famous writers when they were still struggling artists for motivation. Unfortunately for me, today’s subject, Donna Tartt, likes her privacy, so there’s not too much information on her early life.

Long before THE GOLDFINCH, her Pulitzer, writing THE book of 2013, before her other novels that also brought her awards and acclaim and put her on bestsellers lists, she was a freshman at the University of Mississippi. That year she enrolled in a creative writing class where her pieces caught her professor’s eye. He recommended she enroll in Barry Hannah’s graduate level writing class while still 18 years old. It’s tough to say just how much she had read and written before this but it must have been a large amount to win a professor’s admiration so early on.

Following more recommendations from her writing professors, she decided to transfer in 1982 to Bennington College, where her friend group included other writers such as Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem. In fact, she actually briefly dated Ellis; the two shared drafts of what would become LESS THAN ZERO and THE SECRET HISTORY. The former would be published in 1985 to general acclaim and great sales. The latter would receive similar reception in…1992 when she was 29?

Fans of Donna Tartt should know she takes her time with novels; a 10 years wait for her next work has come to be the norm. While Ellis was enjoying literary fame, Tartt quietly labored over her book. The latest she could have started it was in college. Since Ellis published his work at the age of 21, they must have traded drafts during their sophomore or early junior year.

THE SECRET HISTORY, then, is clearly no exception to the 10 year turnaround time, but that period of time must have felt a lot different to her than the composition periods of her other books. For those years she was at work on her first book, she did not know if it would be published, she had no deals, no bestsellers. It would not be a stretch to say that what got her to keep working on her novel was pure perseverance.

Tartt has put in her hours. Before she even started her first published novel, she had enough experience to impress her professors, and even then it took another ten years before she was published. Remember that next time you feel like quitting. Though there might be luck and coincidences in Tartt’s plots, in her own life story, there is just hard work.

Movie Review: Boogie Nights

This movie has it all: sex, drugs, glamor, murder, Mark Wahlberg, and an amazing script and cinematography. Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most acclaimed contemporary auteurs, this, his second feature film, marked him as a “big bright shining star,” to quote Wahlberg’s character.

Though the focus is on a young porn star named Dirk Diggler, played by Wahlberg, there is a large supporting cast, each with their own compelling side plots. The film follows them through the exciting 70’s until the mid 80’s, when changes in the porn industry and various excesses start catching up to them. It can get dark, particularly in the second half, but comic undertones scattered throughout prevent the story from getting too heavy, and here lies one of the movies greatest strengths: the movie flips from laugh out loud to nail bitingly tense (like the famous drug dealing scene) and makes sure none of these switches are out of place.

Despite PTA being only 27 when this was released, he clearly knew what he was doing. From the 2 minute long opening shot to the well-constructed script, already at a relatively young age PTA knew what he wanted and how to get it across on screen. The idea had been gestating in his mind for a while; it is actually an expansion of a short mockumentary film he made with friends when he was 17, called THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY. Though BOOGIE NIGHTS sheds the documentary feel and introduces a lot of new characters, the main plots in both are comparable.

If there is a flaw here, it is that some details get cut out due to the long length. At just over two and a half hours, there is not much room to stay and linger on certain side characters, and yet that is what’s needed—PTA even admitted that if there was one thing he could change, he would grant Diggler’s abusive mother more screen time. Other characters would have benefitted just a little more time in the spotlight, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, who has a falling out with Diggler on screen and an apparent reconciliation off screen.

For those not turned off by the pornographic premise, this is not one to be missed, and for anyone interested in film, I’d say watch it even if the subject matter disinterests you. It is a great offering by one of the best currently working directors, with some fans (me…) even ranking it above his more famous THERE WILL BE BLOOD. It is a great addition not just to PTA’s oeuvre but also to world cinema.