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Lots of thoughts from a lean book month
Hello! Happy Friday! It’s a good day! I’m writing this on Thursday, which speaks to my enormous optimism that Friday will a) occur and b) be a good day. I was thinking about doing today’s newsletter on both my reading in May and the Tom Stoppard biography, but I am still mulling over the latter, so May Reading it is!
This month was not nearly as strong as May in terms of non-work, non-fanfic reading. (I read a lot of fanfic in May. No, I will not be linking to it.) I spent a lot of time working on other projects. I also spent a lot of time on the peloton, listening to podcasts while watching their “scenic rides,” aka 30-minute videos traveling through the South of France. I miss travel, OK? Still, the stuff I did read was interesting, and I like doing these little round-ups, so here goes!
THINGS I FINISHED
I talked about Rest at length in last week’s newsletter, and my summary of it is: the advice is good, but assumes that you a) do a certain kind of very flexible work b) have someone else managing the particulars of your life. My dad sent me an email after last week’s newsletter saying that Cortana, which is Microsoft’s productivity assistant (yikes) recommended a schedule for him that involved: 2 hours daily focus time to “get work done,” 30 minutes daily to “catch up on your email and chats,” 15 minutes twice a day to disconnect and recharge, and up to “two hours to learn a new skill and grow your career.” Cortana did not specify where those two hours were meant to come from. In his email to me he said “I am not sure where I am supposed to fit in the 4 half-days of clinic and all the work generated by those clinics!” He’s a doctor who sees patients most days during the week and has to write notes on those patients every day, so the kind of rest-and-purpose driven productivity cycle recommended by the book obviously wouldn’t work.
I also want to include something he said in another email in that chain:
I looked up this quote from My Dinner with Andre.
It is Wallace Shawn thinking about his day while in a taxi going to the restaurant at the beginning of the film (as I recall):
“The life of a playwright is tough. It's not easy as some people seem to think. You work hard writing plays and nobody puts them on. You take up other lines of work to try to make a living. I became an actor, and people don't hire you. So you just spend your days doing the errands of your trade.”
Very often I think that is all that I am doing---“the errands of my trade”.
I really liked that idea: that what we do for a career is never as straightforward as doing the same thing for sustained stretches. We are all running around doing the errands of our trades.
The Honjin Murders was recommended to me in an article (linked back in the April Reading post) about Honkaku, a genre of Japanese murder mysteries that have been enormously popular for ages in Japan but are only now seeing translations into English. A honkaku mystery is characterized by an extreme adherence to the rules of fair play, most commonly known as having been established by the Detection Club in London in the 1930s. Fair play demands that the reader knows all the information the detective does, but honkaku novels take it one step further: “In honkaku, everything is transparent: no villains suddenly appear in the last chapter, no key clues are withheld until the final page. Honkaku writers were scrupulous about “playing fair”, so clues and suspects were woven through the plot, giving the reader a fair chance of solving the mystery before the detective does.” That could make for a flat or unengaging reading experience, but I found The Honjin Murders to be delightful. The story, in a nutshell: the morning after the wedding night, a wealthy family’s son and his new bride are found brutally murdered in a locked room. Earlier in the day, a mysterious tramp was sighted in the village. And at some point during the night, the residents of the house heard a koto playing (a kind of harp.) The murdered bride’s father calls in Kosuke Kandaichi, a private detective of unpretentious appearance, who solves the murder that the police cannot.
I am not an observant reader of mysteries qua mysteries. If I’m editing them I can think critically about plot and clues, but if I’m just reading them, I gobble them up so quickly that the reveal is almost always a fun surprise for me. The Honjin Murders was no different! I’ve been told to miss the next Kandaichi novel out in translation, but I’m looking forward to The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (trans. Hong-Li Wong) which has some good reviews.
The other work I finished in May was a Tom Stoppard play, The Real Thing. Probably one of his better-known plays, The Real Thing is a layered, self-referential portrait of marriages in crisis and an exploration of honesty and art. One of my favorite passages comes when Henry, a playwright, is arguing with his wife, Annie, about a (terrible) play written as agitprop by a Brodie, a Scottish soldier recently imprisoned for an act of political protest. Annie thinks Henry is being a snob about Brodie’s work because Brodie isn’t educated. In response, Henry makes an impassioned speech:
HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done with it is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn’t better because someone says its better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you? ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’ Ooh, ouch!
Henry’s arguing that the right tool is the right tool for the job because it does the job well, not because of consensus or snobbery. As Stoppard’s biographer Hermione Lee puts it: “The cricket-bat speech is about authenticity: what does the job, what rings true? It applies to language: how good can it be, what are the tests for its authenticity? And it also applies to love. How do you know the real thing? How do you keep it? And how do you write it?”
THINGS I DIDN’T (OR HAVEN’T YET)
I picked up The Man With The Compound Eyes in Brazos Books during one of my trips to Houston, and it’s exactly the kind of genre-adjacent litfic weirdness that I ate up when I was in high school. It follows two people from unlikely backgrounds who are drawn together when a giant island made of trash slams into Taiwan. I confess I got about seventy pages into this and found it bleak, and just wasn’t in the right headspace to finish at the time. Still, the writing was engaging, and I do want to find out what happens when the two characters actually meet up. One is a suicidal woman living in the house built by her ex-husband, which is gradually being devoured by the sea, the other is a young man from an uncontacted tribe coming into contact with the physical detritus of late capitalism. Uplifting, right?
If you’ve been around me for more than five minutes since July of 2020 you have probably heard me talk about the “gay wizards show,” which I have now forced several people of my acquaintance to watch. The show is “The Untamed,” and it is available in its entirety on Netflix. It’s fifty episodes long, and can best be described as “what if Supernatural were a telenovela set in ancient fantasy China, where gay wizard soulmates fight zombies amid a political conspiracy and also try to solve a murder?” I promise you, every single word of that description is absolutely true. It’s one of a huge wave of xianxia or wuxia dramas that are slowly making their way into American channels.
I will spare you my screaming about how much I love The Untamed (although if you do start watching it, may I offer you the handy-dandy character guide I made for friends who were starting to watch it?) and simply say that The Untamed is based on a novel called 魔道祖师 (Mó Dào Zǔ Shī) or Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. The author, 墨香铜臭 (Mo Xiang Tong Xiu or MXTX) is also the author of 天官賜福 (Tian Guan Ci Fu) or Heaven Official’s Blessing, which I have been working my way through for the past month. In my defense, it’s over 5000 pages in iBooks. It’s been made into an animated TV show which is currently available on Netflix. (The show is only 14 episodes which is approximately 1/15th of the book.)
The protagonist is Xie Lian, also known as the Crown Prince of Xianle or the Scrap-Collecting God. Due to his goodness and martial prowess, he ‘ascended’ to the Heavenly Realm at eighteen, only to descend to the mortal realm again several years later. He spent eight hundred years in the mortal realm, wandering around, collecting scraps and trying to help people. Now ascended for the third time, he has no powers and no influence, since he has no worshippers in the mortal realm, but is still a good-hearted person who wants to help the world. The novel follows his adventures as he tries to serve the common people, while also slowly drawing out the story of his tragic history. He also has a love interest in the form of a ghost king, Hua Cheng, or the Red Ghost/Crimson Flower Seeks Rain.
Y’all this book is WILD. Ghosts. Zombies. Gods. Demons. Genocide. War. Love. Struggle. Compassion. Daoism. True love??? Devotion???? It’s a very different prose style from western books, which took a minute to adjust to, but the overall themes and characters are very engaging. (I have a friend who sped through this whole thing in three days and I am very impressed.) My whole journey down the xianxia path has been incredibly interesting, and I will save my yelling about it for another day. (Please, someone ask me to talk about The Untamed.)
Hopefully June will be a better reading month, and with some time in Houston (and adjacent to my parents’ pool) I should be able to get some more page time in!
Bridget and I posted another episode of Shipping and Handling yesterday, and in it we did a podcast version of the pitch critique event I did on Twitter a few weeks ago! It was a lot of fun, and you can give it a listen here.
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Does anyone read this section? No? Too bad, I’m going to keep doing it, because I find it fun. After all that fuss the Leafs are out of the playoffs, and the lineup for the next round is a real grab bag. I’m not going to state a preference here because my support has historically been a curse for teams I love. But I do love playoff hockey, even if this has been a disappointing year for teams I support.
Why Did So Many Victorians Try To Speak With The Dead? by Casey Cep (The New Yorker)
Some of the leaders back then were hucksters, and some of the believers were easy marks, but the movement cannot be dismissed merely as a collision of the cunning and the credulous. Early Spiritualism attracted some of the great scientists of the day, including the physicists Marie and Pierre Curie, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, and the psychologist William James, all of whom believed that modern scientific methods, far from standing in opposition to the spiritual realm, could finally prove its existence.
The Great Wings Rush by Josh Dzieza (The Verge)
IT WAS MARCH 2020, and restaurants across the country were shutting down, setting up takeout windows, or doing whatever they could to absorb the shock of COVID. But it was Chuck E. Cheese, of all places, that had the foresight and steely clarity to see not just what the new era required, but what it permitted. With much of America suddenly interacting with restaurants through delivery apps, the food industry had been transformed into e-commerce, and the arcade better known for its ball pits than its food was free to invent a new identity: “Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings.”
The Marathon Men Who Can’t Go Home by David Alm (GQ)
Tadesse knew that winning the race was a long shot, but it wasn’t impossible. Six months prior, he’d placed 2nd in the Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea, with a personal best of 2 hours 11 minutes and 26 seconds—the kind of time that made him an outside contender in even the most competitive international marathons. Tadesse’s placement in Pyongyang had earned him $7,000, about a quarter of his income for 2019. If he won New York, he’d get $100,000, roughly the equivalent of what the 31-year-old had earned in his entire life up to that moment.
The Remains of 215 Indigenous Children Have Been Found At A Former School In Canada. | The winners of the 2021 BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition. | Christian Billionaires are funding a push to kill the Equality act. | Disco Elysium: How a Few Friends from Estonia Created 2019’s Most Original Game. | Zadie Smith interview: on shame, rage, and writing.
READING: 天官賜福 Heaven Official’s Blessing by 墨香銅臭 Mo Xiang Tong Xu (MXTX) [still, see above] All Systems Red (Murderbot #1) by Martha Wells
LISTENING: Olivia Rodrigo “good 4 u”
WATCHING: Ragnarok (Netflix)
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.