My Top 3 Unusual Book Recommendations From 2020

This morning I’m at a primitive campsite in one of Florida’s state parks. Firewood crackles and hisses in front of me in its ordinary and mesmerizing way. I’m pleased with my fire-making skills.

Last night I had managed smoking wood but no flames. Nick watched, unimpressed, as I blew into the kindling, trying to get it going until it finally went, poof, erupting in flames.

“Wow, mom!” He said, “You’re amazing.”

That’s right.

Here are my top three unusual book picks from 2020.

1. The Power Of The Other, I love everything that Henry Cloud writes. This is one of those books that confirms what you always knew intuitively about relationships but never quite put into words. It’s about how we make each other not just better, but exponentially better. Any flavor of relationships, mentors, friends, bosses, etc., can serve as a vehicle to help you be the best version of yourself.

2. Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe you read it in high school. I did not. Even if I had, it deserved another read. This book is a cross between high-brow literary and zany science fiction. Against the backdrop of the Dresden bombing campaign, it’s at once hilarious and devastating on the beauty of the triviality of being human.

3. The Last Lecture. If you ever wanted to know what someone might say at the end of life, read this. When Randy Pausch learned his cancer treatment had failed, he set about creating a final lecture for the students and faculty of Carnegie Mellon. This is the book adaptation of his lecture, which is both funny and heartbreaking. Randy Pausch died some nine months after his lecture.

Bonus! I wrote about Big Friendship here on my reading list, and since I read it this year, I wanted to include it on my list.

Post in the comments anything cool you read in 2020. I’d love to know.

Feminism, Relationships, and The Rule of Reciprocity

Below are my three guiding principles for greater equality in a relationship.

There’s a lot of media going on around me right now. Nick has gotten in the habit of playing Fortnite while watching YouTube and TikTok videos. Outside in the back patio, it’s an instant relief as far as noise, only light rain, and the air conditioner. In Coatepeque, Guatemala, every afternoon, around 5:00 pm, lightning would crack nearby, and buckets of rain would crash onto the roof of the patio restaurant, a barrage of white noise such that you couldn’t hear the person sitting across from you. But it’s not that loud here. Not yet anyway.

I recently read Dear Ijeawelle, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Of the different books and articles I’ve read about feminism, Adichie offers advice which has become something of a guiding principle as I navigate what equality means to me. Adichie offers two Feminist Tools:

1. The basic feminist premise: I matter, equally

2. Can you reverse X situation, and get the same results?

These guiding principles need not only apply to women, of course. Both men and women can find themselves in relationships with an unfair premise based on a twisted interpretation of gender roles, and both genders can find themselves suppressed by these roles. It’s typically the woman who is down and out either because she’s a woman or because she’s taken a back seat, expecting the man to do all the heavy lifting. Neither situation is fair, and applying Adichie’s rules can be helpful for bothe men and women.

As Adichie wisely points out, equality is not about keeping score of who does the dishes or who drops the kids off at school. Or who earns the money. It’s about respect for one another’s effort, time, and attention. It’s about playing by the same rules.

To Adichie’s Feminist Tools, I will add one more thing:

3. Decide on a basic premise for your partner.

If the basic premise is, ‘I think my partner is responsible and acts in good faith,’ then it’s fair to expect the same vote of confidence, reciprocated. Of course, this implies that a negative premise for your partner requires some investigation. If you think your partner is truly irresponsible, for example, that’s a problem. A negative basic premise means there’s a lot more work to do before anything like fairness can exist. Where there is no fairness, there is no peace.

Metaphor, Figurative Language, and Silos

My parents have a patio that backs up against a small pond, surrounded by a forest preserve along the opposite side from where I’m sitting. It’s pretty, lush, and verdant (green!). The air conditioning unit just kicked on, and it’s drowning out the sounds of distant birds squawking (I haven’t learned my bird calls yet) and the pitter-patter of the usual Florida afternoon rain against the gutters. It’s nice outside, even though it’s humid and warm. My dad will go days without stepping outside. When I asked him about this, he just shrugged. I don’t know how he does it.

I had been giving metaphor and figurative language a lot of thought, not lately, but in general, when I find a great metaphor in a book I really enjoy it. Here’s a couple I love:

Arthur Dent was grappling with his consciousness the way one grapples with a lost bar of soap in the bath.

The Restaurant At The End of The Universe

“Thousands of refugees wailed as if attending a funeral, the burial of their nation, dead too soon, as so many were, at a tender twenty-one years of age.”

The Sympathizer

Creativity with metaphor and figurative language is a gift, but I think it can also be learned. These don’t come naturally to me. I had been searching for books and articles that go beyond definitions to figure out how I could learn this. And then, after much thought and contemplation, it dawned on me: metaphors compare what something does, not what something is. For example, if I say, love is fire, I’m saying that love burns (what love does), rather than love is painful (what love is).

In the first simile, Arthur Dent grapples with his consciousness because he is confused. Rather than Adams trying to relate grappling with confusion, he relates grappling with being lost (a verb!), and somehow comes up with a hilarious image of groping in the bathtub for a lost bar of soap. In the second simile, Nguyen relates the death of Vietnam with the death of a person with mourners. He relates it with the way one feels after a tragic, violent death, rather than what it is. I hope you follow what I’m saying.

As of late, I have been feeling quite siloed. Perhaps it’s COVID. Perhaps it’s me checking out from my military unit. Perhaps it’s combining households with my parents and having everyone in one place. Perhaps it’s me. Whatever the reason, my mind is a pinball machine and my thoughts rattle around with no place to go. See! I’m getting better already.

How to Handle Minor Characters and Groups in Fiction

As I work on my re-write of my manuscript, a bunch of things are clicking that hadn’t before, which is very encouraging for me! I think I have figured out how to hack into my main characters’ made-up souls to make them believable and interesting. Of course, one thing is sketching them out on my spreadsheet, and another is presenting who they are in some clever way in the story itself. (!)

One area that continues to elude me is how to handle minor characters and groups in fiction. I consistently fumbled this in my manuscript, losing my editor along the way, not making it clear who she was supposed to focus on, and who was unimportant.

Last night Steve and I watched Twilight (I know. I know.), and though I’ve never read the books, I know Stephenie Meyer had to create these high school cliques for Bella to blow off in favor of her vampire boyfriend. In visual media, perhaps showing minor characters and groups is less tricky, because you can simply put them in the background of whatever the main activity is (like Bella in the cafeteria first noticing the Cullens) and it doesn’t distract from where the audience is supposed to focus. In the movie, when Bella first notices the Cullens, she’s physically surrounded by other teens and the Cullens slow-motion walk to their table in the corner of the cafeteria. Here is the book excerpt of this scene setting up this moment from Twilight.

In this excerpt, we have two people, Bella mentions by name and one girl who she is talking to but is not named (since Bella quickly forgets her name). We get the sense that the cafeteria is full of teenagers. We know that Bella is surrounded by other people at the table (“several of her friends”), and is generally feeling like the new kid in school.

Looking at this closely, I notice a few things that Meyer has done.

  1. Each minor character Meyer introduces gets his or her little paragraph.
  2. The “group” in paragraph two has its own little paragraph.
  3. The scenery of groups and individuals is finally painted in the last paragraph.

My take-away from this little analysis is that it takes more words than I thought to develop minor characters. Also, it’s still necessary to develop minor characters and groups by citing some characteristic or behavior, to orient the reader and build the scene.

All that doesn’t seem too hard, does it?!

Air Travel Is Not What It Used To Be

Sitting at the Orlando International airport, air travel is in a sorry state. I’m struck by the empty spaces peppering the ticketing counter, which under normal circumstances would have been packed with families vacationing to Disney World, and kids in mouse ears. I haven’t seen a single set of mouse ears yet. Earlier this year I did a lot of air travel. I think I flew four times in January while still mobilized and it was, normal. And fun (even when we missed a flight). I guess we’ll all get used to this.