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On Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” and Amy Bloom Live

21 Oct
Lucky Us

Lucky Us

Apparently, I needed a six-week hiatus from all things book-related, but you better believe I’m back now, despite the glorious initiation of the NFL regular season. (Just don’t expect any blog posts on Sunday nights.) I can’t think of a better author to get me off my lazy ass than Amy Bloom, with her powerful, imagistic storytelling and her epic whirlwind plots. On August 4 at the Seattle Public Library, Bloom read from her newest novel Lucky Us and immediately hooked me on her quiet authority. She filled the room with her presence before she even read a word, and when she did start reading, the author of Away–nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award–reminded me why I love her stories.

In Lucky Us, half-sisters Eva and Iris work out their tumultuous love-hate relationship with World War II-era America as their backdrop. Eva’s story begins when her mother leaves her on the doorstep of her father and half-sister, and she narrates her life as she knows it: being the shadow of the captivating, horrible, hilarious characters around her. The narrative alternates by chapter–from Eva’s first-person perspective to the letters from Iris years into the future to the close third-person perspectives of secondary characters–as the sisters and their makeshift family travel from coast to coast back again, picking up and losing members along the way.

Fireside Chat

Eva, like many of her fellow Americans, spends her days entranced by the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt in his Fireside Chat.

Here are the three things you need to know about Amy Bloom:

1) Her greatest strength is writing incredibly three-dimensional characters. With Bloom’s background in psychology, she shows that she knows people. None of her characters are perfect, but they are all relatable. They are all believable. They are all real people. In the reading she gave in Seattle on August 4, she said, “The goal for me isn’t to create characters. The goal for me is to create human beings.” In the short length of the novel, Bloom creates a plethora of human beings. None of them seem to be very likable, even the passive, apathetic Eva, but something can be said for creating a unlikable human beings really, really well.

2) Bloom believes “World War II is where you saw the seeds of change begin to crack,”  and that belief led to her extensive research of the state of a country on the brink of yet another global war. From era-specific music to the lure of Hollywood, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the internment Japanese- and German-Americans, Bloom sets a solid historical foundation for her sweeping family epic.


One character finds himself

3) For Bloom, novel-writing is like a race against time and space. She has to cover as much ground and as many years as she possibly can, and she’s only got 250 pages to do it! While her short story style is concise–pithy even–and jam-packed with content, Bloom’s novels feel plot development on steroids. Lucky Us begins in Eva’s youth. She is an abandoned daughter, a younger sibling in the shadow of her flippant, teenage half-sister, but by the end of the novel, decades have passed, and everything has changed. It may feel as if Bloom writes in generalizations because years pass in a single paragraph, or characters travel cross-country in half a sentence. But truthfully, Bloom’s prose is so efficient and terse that she doesn’t need a hundred pages to describe a road trip.


Bloom is as succinct and impactful in person as she is in her writing. At her reading in Seattle this summer, she established herself as an expert on people and an expert storyteller.

Read this book if … you enjoy historical fiction, character-based stories, and/or American epics. There are many things Bloom excels at, but my favorite is her apparent love and respect for the American epic.

Don’t read this book if … you’re a sucker for details. Bloom doesn’t care much for those. She’s a brilliant character sketch artist. She’s genius at the long game. But her broad brush strokes aren’t for everyone.

This book is like … Bloom’s first novel Away in its scope and similar content. Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a young, first-generation immigrant to the United States. Lillian embarks on a cross-country journey from New York to Alaska in order to be reunited with her daughter who was separated from Lillian and left in Russia. Lucky Us also reminds me of A View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. The Nobel Prize-winner Munro writes mostly short stories, as does Bloom, and both authors’ attention to history and epic perspective feel extraordinarily similar. One major difference is Bloom’s tendency toward the romantic and Munro’s tendency toward the understatement. Both are excellent.

Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. All to say, she’s a badass.


SFWA Pacific Northwest Reading Series – October

16 Oct

Part of my motivation for starting my book review blog was to become more involved in the supportive, intimate, amazingly fun community of writers and readers in my area. You know, that fuzzy feeling you get when you walk into a small bookstore and someone else is knee-deep browsing in your favorite section? You do that little head nod. Maybe you even smile or say, “Hey.” (Who am I kidding? I don’t talk to people.) But there’s a special connection between people with common interests, especially interests as life-changing and lifestyle-forming as reading. This is what I’ve been looking for. Last night, I think I finally found my fuzzy niche community with a little more conversational opportunities than run-ins at the local bookstore. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) hosted their Pacific Northwest Reading Series in Kirkland, WA, yesterday, and yours truly attended.

Super connected!

Super connected! (Am I not a master with Paint?!)

Three questions:

1) What’s better than a reading in a pub (the kind with beer!)?

2) What’s better than a reading at a pub with authors Peter Orullian, Kay Kenyon, and Greg Bear (GREG BEAR)?

3) What’s better than a reading at a pub with those authors hosted by my new recent favorite J.A. Pitts?

The answer to all those questions is, “NOTHING.”

Peter Orullian, author of the fantasy novel The Unremembered (book #1 of The Vault of Heaven), read from the opening of the second in his second series, currently a work in progress. Not only does he write with obvious enthusiasm for such an historically rich genre, but he also happens to work in marketing for XBox and make some pretty decent music. Oh, and did I mention he sang karaoke with George R.R. Martin’s assistant in a mostly empty bar in Missoula? That belongs on his list of Wikipedia accomplishments, if anything. But Orullian’s writing sets him apart, too. Of what I heard, the language of his world (always a hard thing for an author to tackle well) felt natural, appropriate to the events of the short selection, and by the end of his reading, I was ready to cry. Orullian is an author to watch out for, because he’s going to take the fantasy world by storm.

There's Peter Orullian, being an awesome dude. In the background, you can kind of make out Kay Kenyon's superb Brave New World shirt.

There’s Peter Orullian, being an awesome dude. In the background, you can kind of make out Kay Kenyon’s superb Brave New World shirt.

Kay Kenyon is an author of 11 books. That’s ELEVEN books. XI books. That’s a lot of books, and for some reason, I haven’t read any of them. I picked up a copy of A Thousand Perfect Things, her first fantasy novel after a string of critically acclaimed sci-fi (her novel Maximum Ice was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award), and it will come next in my docket. Something to look forward to. Kenyon read from a draft of At the Table of Wolves, a new novel about a rewritten history where Nazis and British spies use psychic talents to undermine each other in an alternate WWII. No crying during this one… It was more of a shiver and a deep, abiding sadness. Interested yet? You should be. Kenyon’s writing had me literally on the edge of my seat, and it’s not just because I had four glasses of water and two pints of amber ale.

Don't worry, I got it signed. Looking forward to reading Kay Kenyon's A Thousand Perfect Things and posting the review soon!

Don’t worry, I got it signed. Looking forward to reading Kay Kenyon‘s A Thousand Perfect Things and posting the review soon!

Finally, the prolific father of literary nanotechnology, one of the progenitors of cyberpunk, the inimitable Greg Bear read from upcoming novel War Dogs: Last Exit to Hell. It was a little Catch-22 and a little Apocalypse Now and very much like The Forever War. But don’t get me wrong, I loved it. Bear’s ear for military lingo and mentality is always spot on, because it turns out he was raised by Marines, so there you go. His words flow with an easy cadence, despite the jargon and futuristic setting. I found myself entranced, willing to be transported across the galaxy. Turns out, I only had to go as far as Mars as Bear told about a mysterious space battle against mysterious foes. I guess I’ll have to pre-order this one. Life is hard.

Blame my awful, awful phone that can't take a clear picture from 10 feet away. Greg Bear, ladies and gents and Martians.

Blame my awful, awful phone that can’t take a clear picture from 10 feet away. Greg Bear, ladies and gents and Martians. And no, he’s not attached to the Halo movie project. I asked.

Truly, there’s is something singularly magical about a gathering of this kind. Not only do we exist in the same landscape and share the quirky qualities of Pacific Northwesterners, but we share the passion for a specific genre of fiction. I was enthralled the whole night with that kind of energy, and I can’t wait for the next SFWA event in Seattle.

On Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the Wind” (and on Patrick Rothfuss, the Man Himself)

11 Aug
Please, do yourself a favor: don't wait for someone else to buy it for you. Go get a copy. Afterwards, start following Rothfuss's blog.

Please, do yourself a favor: don’t wait for someone else to buy it for you. Go get a copy. Afterwards, start following Rothfuss’s blog.

At least six friends (so, like, all of them) have bugged me to read Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, but with my reading list being the depressing monster it is, I kept putting it off. Finally, some kind soul bought a copy for me and I felt obligated enough to him that I read it. I’m glad I did. Rothfuss creates a beautiful universe of original magic systems and fascinating characters, namely the protagonist, a man of many names, and hardly the likable hero readers are accustomed to in fantasy novels. For the most part, the main character is called Kvothe, and Rothfuss’s story begins when he is middle-aged, running an inn in some backwater village, living a relatively nondescript life. But Kvothe’s story begins in his boyhood. When a traveler called Chronicler passes through The Wayside Inn, Kvothe takes three days to reveal the story of his legendary life–the life of the most powerful magician in the land, the life of someone who killed the king. The Name of the Wind represents day one: Kvothe’s childhood as an ambitious, frighteningly brilliant student of the University. Orphaned by a mysterious entity, Kvothe vows to study the magic of naming–calling on powers and elements by using its true name–to exact revenge.

At the University, where students of all ages learn “sympathy” and “naming,” Kvothe is quick to make enemies with the wealthy student Ambrose, rile his professors with his arrogance, begin an illustrious career as a musician, and find the girl of dreams. He might be my favorite unlikable character of the fantasy genre–not just because of Rothfuss’s impressive character development through the book, but because Kvothe wrestles your admiration from you. He’s arrogant because he actually possesses the skill to back it up. It’s maddening, I know. What Kvothe lacks is humility and kindness.

Does this look like the face of kindness to you??? You know what they say about gingers...

Does this look like the face of kindness to you??? You know what they say about gingers… Oh, snap!

Now, maybe I know what you’re thinking (because maybe I’m slightly psychic). You’re thinking, “But, LitBeetle, isn’t this just a rip-off of Harry Potter? I mean, parents died by some evil force?? The kid goes to school to learn magic??? ISN’T THIS JUST HARRY POTTER???????” Well, first of all, crazy person, stop yelling. Second of all, no. This is not just like Harry Potter. Sure Kvothe’s parents die. But let me tell you, we live in a sad, sad world where parents die all the time, unfortunately. Kvothe lives in a much sadder world where parents die at least 120% more often. And sure Kvothe goes to school to learn magic. Only, where else would you learn magic? In the Sci-Fi/fantasy world, there are two ways to learn magic: through some old guru–preferably one who looks and sounds like an old Japanese man–who lives in the forest/desert/top of a mountain/Dagobah; or through a school, which is where children usually learn things, so I think we can overlook any similarities there.

My school taught me calculus, biochemistry, how not to make friends, how to find the best books, how not to get invited to parties, and how to work the system. It definitely didn't teach me sympathy (the Rothfuss kind, because I sure learned how to pity at OHS) or naming.

My school taught me calculus, biochemistry, how not to make friends, how to find the best books, how not to get invited to parties, and how to work the system. It definitely didn’t teach me any magic.

Kvothe’s experience at school is vastly different than most of ours, and definitely different than Harry Potter’s. Harry never had to worry about tuition, since he inherits mountains of gold from his parents. So here’s my biggest problem with TNotW: Kvothe is constantly worrying about tuition money. He’s falling in debt with various people. He’s playing his lute in some seedy places just to have enough money to eat and buy food. I’m reading this, and I’m like, “This is my life!” I don’t need to be reminded of my school debt, Patrick! Swear to God, I had stomach ulcers the whole time I was reading TNotW. But I will leave that stress to the new readers and cut any summary of the book short.

Mr. Rothfuss was everything I expected him to be and more.

Mr. Rothfuss was everything I expected him to be and more.

Last week Patrick Rothfuss held an event at the University of Washington Bookstore and read from the short story collection Unfettered. Similar to the vein of reading authors’ letters is attending author readings. In both environments readers get to pry into the secret lives of people they admire, respect, idolize. With letters, like the Calvino’s that I reviewed last week, we can participate in a little “peeping Tom” exercise and see writers in one of their most candid moments. Author readings, though, are moments to perpetuate a persona, build a rapport with fans not as an author but as an entertainer. People go to witness a different aspect of a favorite author–the author as actor or orator or stand-up comic.

Rothfuss read “How Old Holly Came to Be” from the collection of fantasy short stories Unfettered. It is a short story of repeated adjectives and nouns, written with a staccato cadence that sounds a lot like a children’s book, and it tells the origin story of the Holly tree. It’s a lovely little tale and a definite deviation from the popular Kingkiller series. When Q&A time rolled around, most of the questions brought us back to Kvothe’s world. I’m listing the couple of questions that made an impression on me. Rothfuss made us promise not to take video of the reading so we couldn’t post his answers out of context, but honestly, my notes of the reading aren’t half as accurate as a YouTube clip, so these will be out of context, too. Good luck with that!

Q: Do you see narratives everywhere in the world?

A: “Stories are what makes us human beings.” Rothfuss said stories are patterns and our ability to perceive patterns are what makes us story tellers. It’s also our attempt to put order to the world. I think Rothfuss’s story telling ability is a little more active than most people: “I see stories everywhere. I invent stories for everyone. … I see people on the street … and I think, ‘Oh, how awful their life must be.’ Kind of like being a more awful Sherlock Holmes.”

Apparently, Kvothe has been adopted by the emo-tortured-musician scene. (Art by thephoenixprod)

Apparently, Kvothe has been adopted by the emo-tortured-musician scene. (Art by thephoenixprod)

Q: How much is your world a criticism of ours?

A: Rothfuss believes in simply telling a good story. He doesn’t use his writing as a mirror or critique of our society. He pointed out Joe Abercrombie’s books. Apparently, Rothfuss found that Abercrombie’s trilogy is brilliant and subversive … “But I just wanted to die!” In fact, any novel–no matter how great or small–that participates in this kind of critique seems to bore Rothfuss, even George Orwell’s 1984, which he called “the most existentially bleak thing I have ever participated in.” (So he doesn’t like critique. He thinks it’s dull. He claims that’s not what he’s doing with his writing, which is fine. But he also claims that authors who incorporate critique, or who use their writing skills and medium to uncover truths about our humanity, ourselves, cannot also be entertaining. There’s bleak Orwell, and then’s funny, crass, witty Rothfuss.)

Q: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

A: “I would pick mind control, with all the sinister pomp.”

Q: Do you hate any of your characters.

A: No, but there’s one I find annoying: Tempi. “Do you know how hard it is to write a whole bunch of scenes with a character who can’t fucking talk?!”

Q: What do you think of George R.R. Martin?

A: “[George R.R.] Martin is a sweet guy. Some people think he’s a monster. He’s not a monster. [dramatic pause] I am a monster.”

There he is, ladies and gents. The man, the author, the monster. Patrick Rothfuss. He’s an excellent story teller and an even better entertainer. If you get the opportunity to see him read (or see him play D&D on stage at PAX), take it.