In praise of...

In praise of…stories that reset themselves

My first encounter with a reset story was a very long time ago. When I was an undergraduate, I took a couple of years of German for my language requirement. I watched Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) in the language lab and was completely blown away by a story that was told, over and over again, with slight changes to the plot that changed the ending of Lola’s attempts to get her boyfriend back after he screws up a money drop.

Pierre Adolphe Valette

The next time I found a reset story was years later. In 2013, I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book that polarized the bookish community at the time. Some readers hated it because it was strange or because they didn’t like how often the story of the sometimes doomed/sometimes heroic Ursula Todd kept starting over with her birth. I was utterly enthralled by the book. Usually, I don’t like books in which the author has too much of a presence. I like books that are more subtly constructed. I think what I love about resetting stories like Life After Life, Run Lola Run, Madame Victoria by Catherine Leroux, and Middlegame by Seanan McGuire is that they allow me to think about one of my favorite questions: what if this instead of that?

There is a proverb that dates back to the middle ages: “for want of a nail.” (The full version of the problem explains how the loss of a single nail can lead to the loss of a battle and, thus, a kingdom.) Small decisions can have huge consequences. A moment of forgetfulness on a bus, as in Run Lola Run, can lead to murder. The arrival or failure of a doctor to arrive at a birth can doom Ursula Todd. In actual history, there are stories of near misses and disasters that were caused by these little decisions or accidents in spite of historians and economists telling us that big things happen because of people in power or because of mass movements of people—but tell that to the chauffeur who took a wrong turn and basically delivered Archduke Ferdinand to his assassins.

In fiction, as opposed to speculative history, not only do I get to wonder “what if?” I also get to see authors at play. Instead of creating a fitting ending to cap off their narratives or carefully set up foreshadowing, they can freely experiment and send the plots in all directions. It’s almost as if the characters have room to play, too, once the author has tweaked their trajectories. There’s no telling where things will end up and all of the plots we see are equally “true.” I can see how this would be maddening to some readers, but this is one of the few exceptions to my personal dislike of looking at the sausage factory of literature.

What do you think, readers? Do you like stories that reset themselves? If so, do you have other books you might recommend to me? This is a vanishingly small genre-let.

In praise of... · opinions · reading life

In Praise of…Footnotes

I can’t remember when I first read Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman*, but I can remember that one of the things that made me fall deeply in love with the book was the comedic use of footnotes. I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Before Good Omens, my only encounters with footnotes were brief glimpses of academic texts with tiny print at the bottom of the page that I treated as entirely optional**. Later on, I discovered the joys of the footnoter phone in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I even found a book written entirely in footnotes that I absolutely adored: Ibid, by Mark Dunn.

I know that it can get irritating to have to constantly move your eyes up and down the page and remember where you were. It’s even worse on an ereader***. You have to hold two lines of text in your head to make sense of them. And, of course, there are times when what’s in the footnote doesn’t really add anything and/or goes on so long that you completely lose track of what you were reading.

But in spite of all of this, I love footnotes. I have to work hard not to read them before the main text. So, what is it about footnotes that I enjoy so much? I think Good Omens and my realization that footnotes could be funny had a lot to do with it. I love the way that a well-chosen footnote can puncture pomposity or add a hilarious aside to the main text. My love of metafiction also plays a role. Unlike other readers, who like to sink into a book to escape**** or who just don’t like being reminded that we are staring at dead, pulped trees with ink scribbles all over them, I revel in books with layers that make me think about how a story is constructed and what the narrative is trying to achieve*****. I love getting more than one story between a given set of book covers.

Endnotes, however, and this is my considered opinion, just suck. Who can be bothered to flip to the end of the book to get that extra, juicy bit of text?

Readers, what are your thoughts about footnotes and endnotes? Do you like them in fiction? Should they only be used in nonfiction and then only judiciously?

This footnote, from Nicolas Berdyaev’s The Divine and the Human, may be the greatest academic footnote ever written.

* Or, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
** Which means I didn’t read it.
*** Oh god, it’s awful. Get on this, publishers!
**** I do this sometimes, too, but not as much as I used to before I graduated with a degree in English literature. It is hard to turn off the analysis, even 10 years later.
***** Similar to my love of unreliable narrators.

In praise of...

In praise of…Books about old women with fascinating lives

A few months ago, I read the very entertaining Woman at 1,000 Degrees, by Hallgrímur Helgason and discovered that I had just found a new kind of story that I couldn’t get enough of—so it’s wonderful that I had the pleasure of reviewing two more: The Dictionary of Animal Languages, by Heidi Sopinka, and Refuge, by Merilyn Simonds. This trio of stories gave me characters who lived through exciting times, had plenty of unfinished business to fill out a last chapter, and have interestingly off-kilter perspectives on morality, and who .

3ced5ed026857123c437e51495548d5cThese novels feature a woman at the end of a long life. Some catalyst sends them down memory lane, which is interesting enough on its own to keep the book from being one long flashback. Depending on how old they are, there’s a good chance they’ve lived through parts of the twentieth century I love to learn more about: the Russian Revolution, World War II, etc. Historical fiction is, if I had to pick one, my favorite genre. I always love a front row to history, but safely behind the cover of a book.

But I think what gets me about these characters is the way they look at the world after their many decades. They’ve learned from their experiences. While these stories can be melancholy, I find that they’re extraordinarily rich in emotional depth. In the case of Refuge, the main character learned that going against the grain was the only way for her to find happiness and love—but that it would also mean giving up some kinds of more conventional happiness. In The Dictionary of Animal Languages, the main character learned that she has an absolute right to make up her own rules. But however much these women might transgress, I don’t think they come close to how subversive the protagonist of Woman at 1,000 Degrees is. Seriously, Woman at 1,000 Degrees is a rip.

One last thing that I like about theses books is that they feature protagonists who aren’t children (which I very rarely read because writing accurate sounding child characters) or adults in the prime of their life. We get to see those parts of the characters’ lives, plus we get to see almost the full span. We see them discover what brings them joy and meaning, what makes their hearts beat faster, and also what they find most important after every other consideration gets dropped along the way. It makes a nice change from books with happily ever afters before the age of 30 or thrillers full of characters who do ridiculously athletic things without a thought as to what it will do to their knees.

In praise of... · opinions

In Praise of…Messy Mysteries

Mysteries tend to follow a very established arc. More modern mysteries tend to color outside the lines a bit, but all of the plots tend to meet up in the end and all of the loose ends were tied up in a more or less neat bow. Red herrings spice things up. Suspects drop in and out of view. Readers usually have a fair shot at working out what happened, unless the detective withholds a clue like Agatha Christie’s used to…or it turns out that it’s a messy mystery.

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Last August, I read my first messy mystery: Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen. Ordinarily, the crime is committed by a single criminal or a conspiracy. But in what I’ve come to think of as messy mysteries, it’s impossible to map what happened to one of Vonnegut’s plot graphs. In Lightning Men, for example, there isn’t just one crime. There are multiple crimes that intersect and make things even more difficult for the detectives. Where we can see traditional mysteries following a graphable arc, I tend to see the messy ones as Venn diagrams. One criminal’s act bumps into another criminal’s, forcing them to act and possibly bump into a third criminal’s subplot. Each bump makes it harder to track motives and evidence—sometimes to the point where I marvel at any detective’s efforts make sense of the tangles.

When I read Lightning Men, I was frustrated because I couldn’t force the pieces of the puzzle to fit. It wasn’t long, however, before I started to appreciate the realism. Real criminals don’t have a clear field to commit their crimes. Real detectives are often working on several cases at the same time. It makes sense that mysteries would get messy all the time. I understand why mysteries authors don’t go this route. This kind of mystery must be hell to create. And I image that publishers are reluctant to greenlight messy mysteries because a lot of readers will give up on mysteries with so many moving parts. Speaking for myself, I’m glad this sub-genre—a new genre-let—exists.

If you’re interested in reading some messy mysteries, here are some recommendations in addition to Lightning Men:

In praise of...

In praise of…the mystery novelist

I recently finished the first two books in the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock and Last Seen WearingI enjoyed the first—the second, not so much. Thinking about my very different reactions to these books got me to thinking about how mystery writers construct their stories. While every genre has its own particular challenges in addition to just creating a solid, interesting story, I feel for the mystery writer.

0427b07704c11bdd71fb2adedb14f4e2First, there’s the plot. To write a really good mystery, a writer has to construct a plausible crime. It has to make sense once a reader has gotten to the end and read the solution. But, it can’t be predictable (unless you’re writing a whydunit instead of a whodunit). Predictability is a killer. Plus, I’ve also noticed an escalation in crime plots since their early days in the mid-1800s. Writers have to out-do what’s come before in terms of deviousness, gore, or something more. All this would be hard enough if it weren’t the wrinkle that, once a reader knows the solution to the mystery, they’re not likely to re-read the book unless there’s more to the book than just the puzzle.

The first two Inspector Morse novels highlight these challenges. In both novels, the mysteries are fiendishly complicated. Because Morse creates wild theories based on very little evidence, one is left with multiple possible solutions. There’s enough evidence that it’s all just plausible enough. I like puzzles, but I was left a bit unsatisfied, especially with Last Seen Wearing. The endings didn’t quite work for me. There was too much of an effort at being clever.

Second, there’s the detective. A good detective can keep readers coming back for new instalments. The genre has seen the savant (Holmes), the world worn (Harry Hole, from Jo Nesbø), the disillusioned (Philip Marlowe, by Dashiell Hammet), the humorous (Stephanie Plum, by Janet Evanovich) and the pain in the ass (Inspector Morse, from Colin Dexter). But if the character swings too far into cliché, then readers are less likely to bond with the character and carry on with new novels. Because pacing is so important to mysteries, it must be tempting to rely on genre shorthand to build character—which leads straight into clichés. It’s a delicate balance between taking time to develop the character and keeping the reader turning the pages.

My biggest problem with these two books by Dexter is Morse himself. While I rather enjoyed being in his head as his brain made all sorts of outrageous leaps. I’ve never read any detective novel quite like it; Dexter was almost writing stream-of-consciousness at times. But, I was also privy to all of Morse’s lecherous thoughts about nearly every woman he encountered in the course of his investigations. The books were published in the 1970s, but I can’t excuse the sexism. I stayed for the solutions, but I don’t want to spend anymore in that head.

Even if these particular books didn’t thrill me, mysteries have been some of the most enjoyable books I’ve read. The little gears in my head whirl while I try to figure it out before the detective. There is so much to think about, especially when the author uses an unreliable narrator. They’re great mental palate cleansers after a heavy, literary read.

In praise of...

In praise of…achronological stories

From our perspective, time only goes on direction. Our brains are wired this way and it has influenced the way our stories are written. Most stories will be written with the beginning first, followed by the middle, and concluded with the end. Some fancy writers will start things in medias res, but cause still precedes effect. Very rarely, however, an author will write a story where things are told out of order, achronologically.

Kristen Fritsch

Without a linear progression of events, we are unmoored from our normal modes of understanding. Without time to organize causes and effects, we have to work harder to make sense of things by tracing the development of themes or sifting narrative layers to find an idea that links things together.

The first time I read an achronological (non-linear) novel, I hated it. It was Slaughterhouse-Five and I could not figure out what the story was trying to tell me. If you haven’t read it, Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of a man who does not experience his life chronologically. He jumps from point to point in his life and so must we. Looking back, I don’t think the book would have worked if its plot was chronological. I wouldn’t have taken it seriously enough; I probably would have considered it a weird bit of literary science fiction. It is a weird bit of literary science fiction, but there’s more to it than that.

I know not every reader likes the out-of-time experience of an achronological novel. They are difficult to get into. If an author is not very skilled at moving us back and forth through timelines, we get lost. In a good achronological novel, there will be a center around which events revolve. Without a center, things really will fall apart. Achronological novels, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins, will return to their center again and again, giving us more information each time so that we can mull over the book’s theme from different points of view.

If I was more clever, I would have worked out a way to play with the formatting of this post to make it parallel its subject. Since I can’t do that, I’ll simply say: Take a chance on an achronological book. You might be surprised at what you learn.

In praise of...

In praise of…depressing books

August Macke
August Macke

My book club tends to read a lot of depressing books. We don’t mean to choose them. It just happens when we look for books with emotional depth and honesty, good writing, and interesting characters. And so, every month, we swear that we’re going to pick something funny. (Next month is Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, so we might actually succeed this time.) During last night’s discussion, I wondered why we write and read depressing books. It can’t just be that some of us like to cry. I hate to cry.

I think I read depressing books is because they usually include emotional depth. The depths characters’ feel always inspire empathy in me. A significant portion of my work involves dealing with people. Sometimes the people I work with a frustrated, angry, confused, worried, or just not having a great day. Because I’ve worked in libraries for so long, it’s easy for me to forget that they can bewilder and irritate people. Reading a depressing book every now and then reminds me of what other people may be going through and I get a boost of empathy and compassion.

In thinking about depressing books, I exclude melodramatic books (because they lack honesty) or misery memoirs (too much agony). I prefer tragedies, where a character’s choices or flaws lead to their downfall. I know when I read melodramas or misery memoirs that there will be no happy ending. With a tragedy, I always feel a little flutter of hope that things won’t go wrong. Maybe that little feeling of hope that things will be all right in the end is another reason why I read depressing books. Weird.