Friday, July 24, 2015

"Then they stay dead"

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

         - Donald Hall, from Distressed Haiku

Eight weeks ago today was my father's funeral. The first days passed in a haze of exhaustion and stunned disbelief. The first month was filled with moments of sudden pain as memories would catch me up, or events would trigger a fierce longing for him.

At the one month mark, I removed the torn ribbon the rabbi had pinned on my shirt at the funeral. While I am not a deeply religious person, there is some wisdom in the rituals around death and pinning that ribbon on each morning for 30 days was not just a reminder for me (as if one forgets the loss), but also a reminder for others to be patient with me. That I had just suffered a loss. That I was actively grieving.

This past month has been one of healing and returning to routine. Or so I thought.

This morning, I was overwhelmed by a terrible longing to talk to my dad. It came out of nowhere. It's not a 'special' day - not a birthday, not a holiday, nothing happened to trigger a particular memory. I just realized how long it had been since we spoke last. I miss him. And the realization hit that each time I thought of him, it would be longer and longer since I told him I loved him, hugged him, or just talked about some mundane thing or another.

And those lines from Donald Hall's poem burst into my mind. Then they stay dead. 

The death of my father isn't my first loss and it won't be my last, but for whatever reason, it's hit me the hardest. My mother died 3 years ago this September, and her's had been a slow decline, her memories and cognition worn away by dementia. I think I said my goodbyes to her long before her actual passing. But my father was lucid and mentally vital until just before the end. We had several weeks together in the last months of his life where we had deep and honest conversations. There was nothing left unsaid. No unfinished business remained between us. And he chose to stop dialysis with a full understanding of his decision, with grace, with dignity.

I miss him.

It's true that the dead never leave us as long as our memories of them stay alive. There is some comfort to be found there. This raw feeling will not be with me forever - and perhaps that is part of this pain. Perhaps I am holding on to the grief as a way to hold on to my father.

He'd be the first to tell me to let it go. To assure me that it will be fine. That he will always be there for me.

That is what I choose to hold onto today: the memory of his love.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Subjectivity of Reviews, redux

image from Open Clip art, in the public domain

First: some caveats/ground rules. Please, no nasty comments directed at the reviewers. In fact, no arguing with reviewers at all. If you wish to express solidarity by sharing some of the 'best' negative reviews sent your way, you can excerpt them or link to them in a comment. Attacking a reviewer on behalf of an author you enjoy is also neither useful or appropriate.

I never, ever engage with reviewers, except on rare occasions to thank them for their time (and only when they are book bloggers/reviewers I have reached out to, rather than readers who review on Amazon, etc.) I don't think I need to explain why arguing/badmouthing a reviewer over a negative review is wrong.

But that doesn't mean we can't talk about reviews and use examples of both positive and negative ones to illustrate the incredible subjectivity of opinion.

I've talked about this before: Reviews are opinions. And as such, they aren't inherently 'right' or 'wrong'. They are a reader's reactions and experience. There may be times where the creator is bemused by the reviewer in that they see something that was not actually in the piece being assessed. That, too, is subjectivity at play.

I wanted to illustrate this with two recent reviews I received for ITHAKA RISING. One was a glowing, five-star review from a book blogger who has read and enjoyed other books of mine. One was a critical two-star review from a book reviewer who obtained the book via NetGalley.

What fascinated me was the different experiences of the two reviewers around the same issues: characters who are competent and gifted in several skill areas.
Barre lives, breathes, thinks and communicates in music. He is genuinely gifted, but unappreciated by his career military physician parents, although respected by his younger brother, Jem the resourceful coding genius. Jem exceeds Halcyone Captain Ro Maldonado’s coding talents by light years, which is saying something.

Jem is speshul. [sic] He’s a brilliant and caring kid that behaves better than his parents whom you just want to hug while ruffling his hair. . . .  The characters of Ro and Barre are also brilliant and super speshul. [sic] They can hack any system, fix any ship and find a hidden planet that the Commonwealth with all their military might, have not found in 40 years,…. in a day. Riiiiiiight.

And this, in looking at characterization:
Featuring a feisty lesbian heroine, a multicultural cast spanning three generations and a search and rescue mission involving a handicapped pre-teen, a wounded woman warrior with a prosthetic limb and a crone coding goddess, Ithaka Rising delivers diversity in spades.

The characters just fell flat. Developing all the characters that wear their emotions on their sleeves does not create depth nor does it balance the character in opposition to their brilliant genius personas.

Of course, one of these reviews was a huge ego booster, the other, not so much. But beyond that, they are both valid commentary. My only reaction to the more critical of the two reviews is my own personal aversion to snark. It's far easier for me to take in feedback when it's presented free from the emotional overtones, but even that is just a personal thing. The reviewer is not writing the review for the author, but for other readers.

I recently had a conversation at Readercon about the book turned mini-series JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL. I pretty much hated it. Couldn't read past the third chapter. I found it overwritten, pretentious, and poorly paced. My lunch companion had loved it, and was enjoying the TV adaptation. We did not try to convince the other how 'wrong' they were. We did not devolve into calling one another stupid poopy heads. We simply laughed and kept talking.

Of course, there is a difference between a critical review and a personal attack. And I have received reviews that bordered on the latter (sidebar: I don't consider this one to be in that category). I still don't believe in engaging over an ad hominum attack. Why not? Because I actually think that kind of obvious nastiness is pretty evident to readers of reviews and reflects more poorly on the reviewer than the item reviewed.

And finally, even one's favorite, most beloved, award-strewn book will garner one- and two-star reviews. I'd be wary and concerned if my work had none. What that would tell me is I hadn't reached a wide enough audience.

If you are a book blogger/reviewer, ITHAKA RISING is available to request via Net Galley through the end of August.

It is also available in all eBook formats as well as in trade paperback. Purchase venues can be found here.


Monday, July 13, 2015

You Can Go Home Again

I was in college during much of the run of Bloom County and have fond memories of reading the strip in the Campus Times, the University of Rochester student paper. So I was thrilled to see this, today:

From: Comic Book Resources
Back in the day, Berkeley Breathed had visited our school, was interviewed by the radio station, and had signed the 'wall of fame' there. (Sadly, it was long since painted over. Sigh.)

We own all the collected strips (along with Bill Waterstone's Calvin and Hobbes) and it never feels old or out of date to re-read them.

I'm a huge fan of 'Dandelion Breaks' and use that term often in my life. One of our family's favorite movies is Second Hand Lions, where the character of the boy grows up to be a cartoonist - played/drawn by Breathed.

I am so looking forward to reading this new incarnation of Bloom County and revisiting my favorite characters. I'm hoping Milo has some things to say about the upcoming presidential election and is ready to torture his Newspaper editor again!

Thank you, Berkeley Breathed, for all the hours of entertainment during my college days and beyond and thank you for coming back into our lives! More Bloom County! Yay!!


Saturday, July 04, 2015

Interviews, Giveaways & Readercon, Oh My

Busy as a bee. . .
Photo by atramos, used under CC license

I've been here and there on the internet for the past few weeks, including a Q&A with Lynn Viehl (where I answer the question: If you could step into a time machine and visit any SF universe (including your own), what would you choose as your destination, and why?) and a guest post on Julianne Douglas' blog on the connections between writing poetry and writing speculative fiction. Julianne is running a giveaway of an eBook and signed paperback copy of ITHAKA RISING, so head over there and leave a comment for your chance to win.

To pique your interest, here is the opening to my guest post on using poetry tools in fiction:

Why is a raven like a writing desk?
. . . or how is writing poetry related to writing science fiction?

According to Lewis Carroll, there actually isn't a true answer to his nonsensical riddle from Alice in Wonderland, but I do have an answer to my question.

Having been a poet for a far longer time than I have been a writer of fiction, I maintain that poetry - or at least the tools of poetry - underlies all effective writing. Not only that, but in writing speculative fiction, those tools can enhance world building and reader immersion in fundamental and crucial ways.

The poetic tools I'm going to focus on are specificity, musicality, and comparisons. All three can heighten the reading experience of your novel, especially novels of speculative fiction.

If you're active on GoodReads, DERELICT (Halcyone Space, book 1) was chosen for one of July's group read picks on the Space Opera group! I have an author interview posted there and will be participating in reader Q&A.

This Thursday is the start of Readercon, where I'm going to be taking part in panels, reading, and signing. If you're in the Boston area, it's a great con, full of thought-provoking panels and great discussions about all things SF/F/H.

Here's my Readercon schedule: (You can also find me at the Broad Universe table in the dealer's room.)

Thursday July 09

9:00 PM    EM    Reading: Lisa Cohen. LJ Cohen. Lisa Cohen reads From ITHAKA RISING

Friday July 10

3:00 PM    IN    How to Read Poetry. Kythryne Aisling, Michael Cisco, LJ Cohen, C.S.E. Cooney, Samuel Delany, Elaine Isaak. Those who have never read poetry for pleasure often aren't sure how or where to start; even a short poem can look arcane and daunting. This workshop will explain how to get the most out of poetry on the page, from humorous doggerel to more complex works.
6:00 PM    E    Autographs. LJ Cohen, A. J. Odasso.

Saturday July 11

9:00 AM    G    Zombies as a Crisis of the Ecosystem: A Holistic Perspective. John Benson, Gwendolyn Clare, LJ Cohen, Meriah Crawford, Catt Kingsgrave. Zombie plagues, like all pandemics, are ecosystem crises. What aspects of the human ecosystem make it possible for such a plague to spread? (Long distance air travel, say, or science fiction conventions.) What would its effects be on agriculture, infrastructure, labor availability, public health (aside from the plague itself), telecommunications, and other elements of human civilization? Where most disaster novels zoom in on the struggles of a few people to survive such a crisis, we will zoom out and consider large-scale, long-term questions.
3:00 PM    G    Beautiful and Terrible as the Morn: Celebrating Spec Fic's Older Women. Beth Bernobich, LJ Cohen, Kelley Eskridge, Eileen Gunn, Diane Weinstein. In a 2014 blog post, Kari Sperring wrote, "Most women who are now over about 40 have been told their whole lives to be good, to keep their heads down, to keep on working away quietly and to wait their turn. And now, within sff, at the point when their male contemporaries are celebrated, these same women are being told, No, it's too late for you, you don't matter enough; that space is needed. Get out of the way." Judith Tarr concurred in a post on Book View CafĂ©, saying, "Our culture makes a cult of youth.... But males as they age manage to stay visible, and even manage to keep matinee-idol status—and if they’re writers, they become literary lions. Females simply drop off the radar." Women over 40 have been shaping the genre since its beginning, as readers, writers, editors, agents, publishers, artists, critics, and more. This panel will celebrate the past, recent, and forthcoming work of older women, and help to put it back on everyone's radar.

Sunday July 12

9:00 AM    F    Wish Fulfillment for Happy Adults. John Benson, LJ Cohen, Betsy Mitchell, Sheila Williams, Ann Tonsor Zeddies. Wish fulfillment for teenagers and wish fulfillment for adults with happy stable lives are necessarily going to be different. Speculative stories are great for navigating the trickiness of coming-of-age, but there's precious little for those who are already of age and have started to prioritize comfort over adventure. Female readers in particular often turn to romance novels for stories about familes and love and kindness, and to mysteries for stories about grown women with agency and purpose. Can speculative fiction draw in those readers by fulfilling different sorts of wishes?