Book Review: “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” by Joan Didion

My Rating: Five Stars

This is a book for writers, or anyone who want a peek at how Joan does her writing. In typical memoir style, she talks about studying writing in college, and what drew her to the craft. She has some witty observations on the anxious high school kid she was, who didn’t get into her first choice college, then found out it didn’t seem to make much difference. She’s avoids generalizations, staying always in the particularity of her experience. As she points out, this is her, all the time. She could never be a philosopher or historian, because she’s enmeshed in the world as it is experienced.

She describes one of her novel-writing techniques. She receives shimmering visions in her mind’s eye of scenes and characters, often in dialogue. She writes these unconnected pieces down. Then she weaves a story that connects the visions. The vision-based pieces seem to act as anchor points, at least in the beginning, to get the novel through the first draft.

I thought I was the only one who saved these little visionary scenes that appear from nowhere. I don’t recall seeing shimmers, so now I’ll look for them. I had thought of my tree of folders more as a well-stocked and structured scrap pile while Joan treats them as messages that are interconnected. It is her strategy to begin writing the novel, and discover the connections. Perhaps I’ll try her approach.

Other writers have said that they have never salvaged an idea from their scrap pile of ideas and snippets. Maybe they just didn’t have it organized so they could easily retrieve just the right snippet. Maybe Joan’s real secret is some method she uses to select the snippets that belong together. Whatever the answer may be, this is far afield of the John Campbell approach to writing that so many ‘writing experts’ tout.

It felt good to hear that I had a kindred soul out there. Unfortunately, Joan Didion passed away in 2021. She doesn’t lay out her creative approach with any recommendation, just making the point that it works for her. If there’s a theme, to this entire book, that is it.

She also describes some assignments where she honed her craft. The longest being ten years at Vogue magazine, writing captions and short pieces to accompany photos. It turns out to be a very disciplined task. The book wraps up with an in-depth non-fiction piece on Martha Stewart. Joan’s incisive comments are fun, but I felt like Martha was an easy mark for Joan’s incisive wit. I couldn’t finish the last chapter. I’d still give this book five out of five stars.


			

Book Review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two by Temi Oh

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The prose is solid. The editing well done. Technically well-executed. A bit long in the middle. Lacks the action usually in SF. If it were not so well-crafted I might not have finished the book.

The novel focuses on the reactions of the teenage crew members to the stresses of prepping and enduring the flight. This is not a typical hard SF action story, and I give it a plus for that. Variety is good. The characters do what I would expect teenagers to do. They do spend a lot of time thinking about themselves and working out the neurotic twists that are mostly results of upbringing and environment. But their upbringing, their training, the spaceship’s claustrophobic conditions are all part of the science and technology that carries them along, yet these factors are not presented as influencing their behavior.

Adults play pivotal, but otherwise inconsequential roles. They are all good people, most of the time. I would re-classify it as a YA novel.

The concept of breeding/selecting a few for ‘command’ is very British. In crisis, they never consider voting on a course of action or even considering everyone’s opinion. Always, one person assumes command and makes the decision. American kids would likely rebel at that. I give the book good marks for showing a distinct culture at work.

The teenagers are tracked at age thirteen for specialized astronaut training(another reflection of the English education system?). This is justified as the only way to bridge the generations over the long span of the voyage, but I am not convinced. There is no mention of a build-up of multi-year voyages to the outer planets that shows that this is achievable. This voyage is a ‘giant leap’ for mankind, and no one acknowledges how risky it is. There is a discussion of risk and the fact that the crew is made up of expendable people, not geniuses, but this realization does not go anywhere.

American teenagers might rebel at the regimentation that is demanded. Or would they? The reward is to explore another planet. It is a seductive proposition and all but one signs up for the voyage. The girls are giving up ever being mothers but never discuss it, and have no family pulling them the other way. It makes me wonder what I would do? Or others would do? I give the book good marks for making me think, but low marks for not digging deep enough to reach some tentative conclusions.

The technology has weaknesses: 1. Packing about a dozen people into such a small space for 23 years is a non-starter for me. 2. Having such a small crew, they don’t have the breadth of technical expertise to handle all the possible accidents and equipment failures. 3. I highlighted several physics bloopers, but I don’t think a YA audience would catch them. 4. The gravity-generator is fantasy, and unnecessary. Just build the spaceship as a wheel and spin it to make artificial gravity.

I will keep an eye out for another story by Temi Oh, but I will wait for reviews to be sure it is not YA.

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Book Review: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis by Sue Burke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have been reading mostly award-winning SF novels recently, and also new novels, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, and Klara and the Sun by Kuzuo Ishiguro(It got my Goodreads vote, edging out the competition). Semiosis’ intelligent plants hooked me. Sue Burke handles the discovery that the plant life is intelligent on this distant planet, very deftly. She even has character development of several plants! I was satisfied that the humans had reached an uneasy coexistence with the plants. It seemed like a good ending. However, the novel runs on for another 100 pages where it shifts into a generational political history of the humans coming to terms with the intelligent plants and carving out their niche on this odd planet. I think that is a different story that belonged in the next volume. Nevertheless, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the way the plants were presented in all their strengths and character flaws despite their limitations as plants.
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New story: “Seekers”

The story covers a turbulent period in the lives of a young couple, that results in their flight from their homeland, Ireland, in 1881.  Set primarily in Drogheda, Ireland, “Seekers” is fiction based on the lives of John A. Kelly and Margaret J. Marrey, my great-grandfather and great-grandmother.

Click on the link below to open the story in another window. You will need a PDF reader such as Adobe Acrobat.

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Patrick Kelly

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