Book Discussion: The Danish Girl

 

I first heard of The Danish Girl when it came to theaters in 2015. A few of my friends—who are far more knowledgeable about and active in the transgender community than I—advised people against seeing it. It was great that aHollywood production had a transgender character, but the story of Lili Elbe’s transition is hugely different from the majority of trans experiences. Plus, the actor who played Lili is cisgender, even though Hollywood could have easily gotten a transgender person to play the part.

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Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe

So I didn’t see the movie. But a friend of mine had the book, and let me borrow it. And…wow.

I don’t feel comfortable giving this book a regular “review” for a few reasons, the first being that it’s so far outside my comfort zone. I can’t remember the last time I read a literary fiction book. The experience was so, so different from genre fiction. I read slower, and I could tell that the author labored over most every sentence and made conscious decisions about what to include in the scenes. Genre fiction—in particular, science fiction and fantasy—tends to describe every action the point-of-view characters take (or maybe that’s just something I do) so I found Ebershoff’s writing style refreshingly sparse.

Another reason I’m not comfortable “reviewing” this book is because I don’t know if it’s accurate. I’m not talking about historical accuracy; in the afterword, the author explicitly states the he filled in a lot of details missing from his research, and that he straight up created characters to suit the story. I’m talking about its representation of what it’s like to be transgender. I am not transgender, and I don’t claim to know what it’s like to go through that struggle. The transgender people I know each has their own experience, and none of them was exactly like Lili Elbe’s. This admittedly huge aspect of A Danish Girl remains a giant question mark for me.

Lastly, the ending fell flat for me. I knew the real-life Lili Elbe died after her final surgery, so I was expecting The Danish Girl to touch on grief. But the novel didn’t get that far. It ended before Lili’s story did, in my opinion. I would have liked to see the novel explore the various characters’ feelings of grief over Lili, especially because a few of the main characters knew Lili before she transitioned. I wanted to see, in particular, Greta’s grief over losing her husband intertwine with her grief over losing her friend.

Despite these reservations, I would recommend this book. Ebershoff’s characters are compelling and real, and his descriptions of the settings are exquisite. The novel is heavy-handed with the flashbacks in Part I, but they become less frequent as the story goes on. The Danish Girl explores not only one’s changing gender expression and gender identity, but also one’s changing sexuality. For anyone unfamiliar with it, The Danish Girl would be a great place to start learning about the transgender experience. Fair warning: the novel contains a few NSFW scenes and a stunning amount of sexual imagery. (I was expecting a more psychological look at transgenderism as opposed to a sexual one; that could be because the transgender person I know best is also asexual, though.) The Danish Girl is superbly written and quite the compelling read, and fans of literary fiction will find much to love between its covers.

December’s State of the Blog

This post comes on the heels of my first term of graduate school. I officially turned in my last assignment on Wednesday, and spent a good part of yesterday relaxing and doing all the things you should do on winter break: playing video games with a cat on your lap, drinking sweet coffee and watching the snow outside. Yes, snow. Portland had its first winter storm yesterday. I stayed inside with one exception: bringing my cat outside to experience snow. He didn’t like it.

You may have noticed that most of the blog posts I mentioned in November’s State of the Blog never made it to the website. With that in mind, I’ve included them on the plan for December.

Writing Discussions

  • Ebooks vs. Pbooks
  • Some simple writing prompts
  • Indexing as a career

Book Reviews

  • Mistborn
  • City of Weird
  • The Danish Girl
  • The Mirror Empire

Rambles

  • Cats and dogs
  • Portland weather
  • On motivation & self-care
  • Working in retail (again)

November’s challenge was NaNoWriMo, which I did not complete. This month, I’ll try a combination of two challenges that I know I have a better chance of completing: reading at least four books, and journaling at least three times each week. And I’ll try to actually write all these blog posts. With school over, I should have no problem blogging two or three times each week. But I might need some help along the way. If you see me on Facebook or Twitter, please remind me that I have a blog to maintain.

That’s all for now. I’ll be back soon!

Book Review: A Series of Small Maneuvers

When I finished Eliot Treichel’s A Series of Small Maneuvers, I cried. Okay, that may be overstating it. My eyes misted and I sniffed quite a bit. A few tears were shed. I gave the book to my fiancé when he asked what was wrong and told him to read the last few paragraphs. He did, and handed the book to me with a nod when he finished. “Good ending,” he said. “It’s so real.”

While reading Small Maneuvers, that was the thing that struck me most: how real it was. Treichel characterized the narrator, Emma, so thoroughly that I could hear her voice while I read. She’s not the only character with top-notch characterization, though; her father, who dies in an accident (chill out, we learn that from the back copy), had many different dimensions. He was not glorified or remembered as a faultless being after his death, as some individuals are. Instead, Treichel gives him flaws and reminds us of them throughout the novel. Emma loves her father, but that love is complicated and nuanced as it would be in real life. She looks to him for advice and support, but thinks he can be too overbearing. He loves his family but can be self-centered. He would be a perfect caricature of a modern tree hugger—concerned for the environment, disgusted with consumerism, infatuated by exploration and self-actualization—but he’s far from a perfect person. That said, he is a perfect character.

Treichel writes excellent dialogue, too. Here are some lines from chapter 26:

“What’s the name of that one kind of fish,” I asked instead, trying to distract her, “the one you don’t want here?”

“There’s a couple,” she said.

“More than a couple,” Dan said, climbing up to the oars.

[…] “Is one of them tilapia?” I asked.

“Yep,” [Alex] said. “Do you know those?”

“They’re the ones for fish tacos, right?”

Dan laughed at that. “They do make good tacos.”

The dialogue, like the characters, feels so very real. I can picture this conversation actually happening. Some may think the dialogue is uninteresting or understated, but it’s true to life and convincing.

There was only one aspect of the book that I didn’t like, and that was something Treichel had no control over: the interior design of the book. The margins are incorrect; they’re even on the top and bottom, with no extra room given to the page numbers. Additionally—and this is a weird thing to complain about—the indentations of the paragraphs are not even. It’s hard to explain without pointing in the physical book, but when a new paragraph starts with a quotation mark (as in dialogue), the first line will be closer to the margin. It’s nitpicky, but it makes the book stand out from other books.

I love the content of this book but dislike the layout of the book. Content receives a 5/5 and layout receives 3/5 for an average of 4/5.

Book Review: Siblings and Other Disappointments

When I went to Wordstock a few weeks ago, I stopped by the Ooligan table. They had all their books on display and I had a voucher for $5 towards any book purchase in my purse, so I gazed across the stacks of books in search for a new buy. Their newest book, Siblings and Other Disappointments, was written by an Ooligan alum (Kait Heacock) and had been released about a month prior. Earlier in the Wordstock festival, Heacock had read a section of her story, “Longer Ways to Go.” She didn’t finish the story, but I wanted to hear more. So I bought Siblings and the book next to it, A Series of Small Maneuvers, which I’ll discuss next week.

I knew the stories would all explore variations of melancholy, sadness, desperation, loss, loneliness, and depression, but I didn’t know how far the stories would go, how attached to the characters I would grow. Each story is believable and independent, full of convincing characters and true-to-life situations. I don’t know much about the landscape of Washington, where most of the stories occur, but Heacock instilled a deep sense of place throughout many of her stories, and I felt right there with the characters.

My favorite story is “No Horse in This Race,” one of the later stories in the collection. I was totally convinced by the characters of Ruthie and her father. I especially loved Heacock’s integration of Ruthie’s memories into the narrative; it can be easy to bog a story down with too much flashback, but Heacock avoids this pitfall. My heart raced while I read the surprising—but believable—final scene. The dialogue and descriptions make clear the father’s desperation, so much so that the story couldn’t have ended differently. (Apologies for being vague about the details of the story; I don’t want to give too much away.)

One of my favorite things about Siblings and Other Disappointments is that each story explores a different set of characters and viewpoints. Heacock writes from the perspective of a middle-aged trucker, a boyfriend and girlfriend, an agoraphobic tenant and his elderly landlord, a religious mother and her daughter, a college freshman and her father, and so many more. Each story brings a new person to life, which I find commendable for the simple reason that I tend to write similar characters into every story. That Heacock can balance so many distinct voices impresses me.

I have a small quibble about the arrangement of the stories. While the first story, “Upstairs,” is certainly written well, it might turn readers off with its surprising, punchy ending (again, sorry for the vagueness). Then again, I’m not quite sure which story would better kick off the anthology; perhaps “The First Wife,” with its strong character voice and identifiable strife, would lead the book more effectively. But the story order does not detract from the overall impact of the anthology.

If you enjoy reading about dysfunctional relationships and prefer your fiction short and sad, Siblings and Other Disappointments might be the perfect book for you (visit its Amazon page here). I feel the anthology edges on a 4.5/5 for its distinctive narrative voices and emotional arc.

Thankfulness and an Unrelated Shameless Promotion

I’m thankful for a lot of things, and probably not enough.

I’m thankful for my education: for the friends I’ve made, for the skills I’ve learned, for the ability to make mistakes and learn from them with relatively few consequences. I am thankful for the opportunity to attend good schools, for the privilege to prioritize my education.

I’m thankful for the apartment I have: for the safety it provides, for its comfort and warmth. I’m thankful to live in a maintained community with ample access to public transport and healthy (and not-so-healthy) food. I am thankful for my bed, my clothes, my shoes.

I’m thankful for my cat. The cat is thankful for me, too. I feed him and give him a dry place to sleep and he pays me in cuddles and cuteness.

I’m thankful for my fiancé, my best friend and partner. I’m thankful for his selflessness and his love and his undying belief in me. I’m thankful that he cares so deeply about me and about others.

I’m thankful, again, for my friends. I’m thankful for their support, for their happiness, for their humor. I’m thankful they choose to spend time with me.

I’m thankful for my body, which can do amazing things like write and draw and run. I’m thankful for my mind, which wonders and creates and questions. I’m thankful for my heart, which I’ve only recently accepted as something to be thankful for, and which allows me to care deeply for those around me.

I’m thankful for my family: their love, their support. I’m thankful to be in their thoughts. I’m thankful for their acceptance.

Most of all, I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful to walk this earth alongside seven billion other individuals and the countless lifeforms that call our planet home. I’m thankful to live in an era of technology. I’m thankful for the ability to comprehend and to convey information and to breathe clean air and to dance, listen to, and create music. I’m thankful that I get to share my life with so many wonderful people and that they choose to share their lives with me. I’m thankful for every new day.

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On an unrelated note, Please visit the blog for my grad program and read my post on tools for writing. You can read it here. I have used all four of the tools described in the post (I even wrote about Trello in a previous post on this blog) and am happy to answer any questions you may have.

On Writing, National Novel Writing Month, and Omega 84

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Remember when I said I would try to write every day for three weeks? Well, in a stunning turn of events (not), I failed. But much like my workout challenge, it wasn’t a complete failure. Out of twenty-six days, I wrote for sixteen days and missed ten. This includes creative writing and blog writing. Of those sixteen writing days, I wrote over 750 words on eight of them.

This is by no means my best record. But compared to the amount of creative writing I was doing a month ago, it’s a huge increase, and one that I’m proud of.

Let me tell you a story. In one of my classes, we were put into groups and given an assignment to create a fake publishing house. We also had to write fake query letters to the fake publishing houses. I didn’t think much of my query letters; none of my existing projects fit with any of the publishing houses in the class, so I made up some new ones. One of these stories I named Omega 84.

The fake publishing house I queried, Astral Waters Press, “publishes” science fiction novels featuring LGBTQ+ characters. Coming up with a fake story idea to fit those requirements seemed easy enough, I thought. So I wrote a query letter for a fake story called Omega 84. I won’t divulge too many details—suffice to say it features a gay woman who travels across space a few centuries in the future—but after I wrote the query letter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In bed that night, I lobbed questions at my fiancé: What do you think of this? How could this be believable? What should I name the home planet for my character? He didn’t have many suggestions, but he provided support…and then a reminder that he wakes up at six in the morning for work. I stopped asking questions after that.

But I didn’t stop thinking about Omega 84. Pieces started coming together. A narrative arc formed. My character’s motivations became clear and before I fully realized what was happening, I had my first book idea in two years.

I decided (foolishly) to write it for NaNo. So far, I have about eight thousand words, an outline through chapter five of the book, and a rough idea of what happens after that. School caught up with me again and I didn’t write as much as I wanted to, but it’s a start—if a difficult one. Fantasy is my comfort zone: with few exceptions, it’s what I read and write. But science fiction isn’t a far cry from fantasy. (They’re shelved next to each other in bookstores and libraries for good reason!) And I’m not afraid to tackle this unfamiliar genre.

That said, I’ll need some help. I’ve chosen my books through the end of the year but I’ll need some new reads, including some science fiction books, for 2017. Have any suggestions? Drop a comment or tweet me @fictionlass (see the sidebar). And if you’re interested in following my progress with Omega 84, you can search this blog for the tag “Omega 84” or Twitter for the hashtag #Omega84. I fully intend to finish a complete draft of this book and then try to edit it. If I haven’t posted about it in a while, feel free to bug me. I look forward to hearing from you!

Exploring the Amazon Bookstore

A few weeks ago, Amazon opened their third bookstore location in Washington Square. I’m not Amazon’s biggest fan (though I am a Prime user, mostly for their TV and music services), but I liked the idea of having another bookstore close to home. Amazon gets a bad rap from some publishing professionals for controlling too much of the book market. And while some days I agree with that sentiment, I was willing to keep an open mind about their bookstore. Maybe it would be awesome.

Well…

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It wasn’t what I expected.

In fairness, I wasn’t sure what I expected. And going in on opening day negatively affected my perception of the store: it was, in a word, overwhelming. So many people, so many book covers staring at me, so many signs to read… It wasn’t welcoming in the way I thought a bookstore should be. I treat bookstores kind of like libraries. The books should be plentiful, the people few and far between, the noise low. Amazon Books? Totally different.

When I finally found the sci-fi/fantasy aisle, I was confused. Surely there was another section somewhere? Maybe around the corner? But no, there was only the one aisle shown in the picture above. There couldn’t have been more than 200 sci-fi and fantasy titles in the whole store, which is strange to me, considering that I personally own over 50 fantasy and sci-fi books.

Something else that caught me off guard was finding books 2 and 3 of a series, but not book 1. I was assured that customers can order the missing books in a series from the virtual Amazon marketplace, but regardless, the source of this weirdness is an Amazon Bookstore policy: to only stock books with 4-star ratings or higher. (I’m sure they know this, but ratings aren’t everything; Twilight has a 4.2/5 rating on Amazon. Yikes.) Another side effect of only stocking the highest rated books is that I when expected to find an author’s entire collection of works, I only found their few popular ones. There are some readers who would want only the most read books by an author, certainly. But for me, part of the joy of being in a bookstore is stumbling across the unexpected. It’s exploring the shelves and discovering a book that feels unknown to everyone but you.

Amazon Books does not do this. Instead, only the most popular, most loved books are on display, and therein lies a realization: Amazon Books is in it for the money. The store is not comfortable; I found only a few chairs tucked between shelves, in the middle of where people browse. The lighting is new but makes the store feel dark and industrial. Sure, it feels like a new take on a traditional or independent bookstore, but…I don’t think it’s a good take.

From a business standpoint, maybe it is. It promotes visibility of Amazon as a book retailer, and the store does have a technology section which features the Echo, various Kindles, and the Fire TV among other devices. Amazon Books probably generates a lot of money for Amazon. Plus, the Washington Square area hasn’t had a bookstore for a few years; Amazon Books fills that void.

So there are benefits to the store. Perhaps I’m being overly critical. I’ve been in love with Powell’s since I moved to Oregon, and I couldn’t help but compare the two. I love the warmth in Powell’s—I love being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books. At the same time, friends have said Powell’s overwhelms them and makes them claustrophobic. I totally get that. Maybe they would like Amazon Books more?

I was never going to like Amazon Books the same way I like Powell’s. But maybe someone else will.