Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li–A Review

 

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Kinder Than Solitude is a book that I received from NetGalley in exchange for my unbiased review. The story opens with the death of Shaiao, whose poisoning led to her lingering in a vegetative state for twenty years before succumbing. The mystery of her poisoning is connected to a group of three Chinese friends, Ruyu, Boyang and Moran.

The book cycles through the three viewpoint characters between the past when Shaoia was alive just around the time of Tiananmen Square Protests and the present immediately after her death. Although the book is labeled a mystery, it isn’t a traditional mystery because no one’s on a quest to solve the mystery. Instead we get the minute to minute ruminations, tedious conversations, angsty wanderings of the three characters. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of sadness and passivity, and the lot of the reasons cannot be excused away lightly due to tragedy or bad circumstances. The reasons are a lot stupider–the characters are simply unable to see beyond the dark prison of themselves for the light of cheer. Yes, the writing is crisp and Yiyun’s observations are piquant and perspicacious, but really the story is joyless little tale of profoundly miserable characters. And in the end the twist on mystery doesn’t save the book from its drudgery, as the culprit is still whom you expected it to be all along.

Every page has a quotable passage, and not the jejune hallmark offerings either, but highlight a penetrating analysis of the human heart. Either way, the preponderance of resonant observation could not save the lot of dialogue from feeling tedious. Every occasion of dialogue turns into the most dreary interrogation because everyone questions everyone else’s motives over the most trivial things. For instance, if someone said hello, the other person would ask, “why are you telling me hello?” the other would reply, “Are you saying there’s something wrong about asking hello?” and on and on they would go.

Why is this book three stars, not two? The writing. Yiyun Li has talent nevertheless that shines on every page, but dear God the characters …. It felt like such a waste.

Still I’d say you should read Kinder Than Solitude because the profundity of Yiyun Li’s writing is worth it.

by Wando Wande

Too Old for Old Tricks–Part One

Happy Easter

It was Easter Sunday. Whatever of life and death, sacrifice and the resurrection were subsumed by the festering jubilation in the grocery store. Buy one get one free rabbit-sized bonbons, seventy percent off honey-glazed ham. Perhaps one could prevision death and its runny afterbirth from the scarlet poinsettias gracing the gardening aisle.

The cold and the diarrheic glimmer of beer bottles billowed from the open-faced fridge before Yinka tightening his arms folded on his chest. His bangles felt icy against the scars on his wrists. Something itched, rather wriggled underneath the squamous scars. Ratcheting the cool metal over his wrists, Yinka regretted the short sleeves of his tshirt and the white hairs over his arms and the infinite choices for beer.

And oh yes, beer. Brown bottle, green bottle. Gold foil cap, slovenly monk with apricot cheeks. Yinka reached for the choice of the past seven years: the case of all-American swill refreshing crisp lager. Bruce preferred it and he preferred to prefer Bruce’s tastes. But he thought, Easter seemed an occasion for something different, something of spring, leastways a resurrection for better beer. And what perhaps of the all-Japanese swill or the all-Chinese swill—How now beer from the middle kingdom of el-cheapos?

And it was decided a case of the house favorite. Then he perambulated the aisles, like a whale that had lost sight of the sea and its obviating vastness, no more content, no less disinclined to feel disappointed in himself for defaulting to the familiar.

Perhaps a different brand of mustard? Bruce bought the mustard. Or the organic, natural, non-fluoride, non-sweetened toothpaste? But the regular one with ingredients of unpronounceables looked less frightening. The soft head brush toothbrush should be better than the medium head toothbrush? Bruce preferred the medium head, but wasn’t the soft head better?

The dental conundrums were no more clearer than the conundrum in his back pocket: a handwritten letter addressed to Bruce Cohn. The letter had arrived three days earlier but Yinka held onto it instead of placing it on Bruce’s study desk like he always did.

And in examining the letter again, feeling the ink strokes mark the white envelope, he decided its precise curlicues and the compact loftiness were of a feminine hand. This ‘Chris Winston’ on the sender’s address must be female, which ruffled him.

Why should Bruce, work-twenty-seven-hours-a-day Bruce, received handwritten letters in this age where sharing and caring were worth less than a byte? Unsurprising given Bruce’s lucky happenstances; still, Yinka held fast, in tremulous wondering, to his own letter addressed to Yinka Peter Olubayo. He would like a letter too. It was just as well Bruce would dismiss his want with a pathetic shrug; and therefore Bruce should not mind if the letter came from a bronzed ephebe lounging on a far-off Greek Island—warm sands and warm bodies. But Bruce would not mind; rather Bruce did not care to mind.

Unnerved, he stuffed the letter back into his pocket and slipped to deliberating between soft head toothbrushes and medium head toothbrushes. Analyses were still as muddy when the loudspeaker bleated the last chance for six inch round lemon chiffon cakes at seven ninety nine. Randomly he tilted his gaze over towards the row cakes on display and was immediately and quietly seized by the fact of the day being Bruce’s birthday. He dumped a pair of medium toothbrushes in his cart and trundled to the bakery section.

The assistant looked young, rudely and flippantly handsome as he played with his tongue in his mouth, rounding cheek to cheek in a careless rhythm. The boy reminded him of rich acorns and fluffy moss. Yinka wanted to reach over the glass display and pop those cheeks. Maybe jump over the display—no, bum knee, bum kidneys—and lay the boy’s face over where his cholesterol-clogged heart was. And he would whisper restfully about hog-tying bucks or practicing the loops of a hangman’s noose—no, none of that—Morse code for SOS or SOB.

Rubbing his wrists mindlessly, he mulled the delicate yellow lemon cake inside a glass shelf.

“Sir, you get an inscription on the cake,” the boy said as if celebration was wanting.

How good of you to call me sir. Yinka suppressed the flutter working up his face. Unearned familiarity was always discomfiting, formality comforting, even subtly arousing from the boy now eying him impatiently. Yinka, looking down, contemplated the crisp frosting flowers on the cake. An inscription might read, “Happy Birthday Bruce, love Yinka,”or rather, “Happy Birthday Emu, many more steaks to you, love Crocky?”

The choices felt dry, wasteful. Bruce’s father was a reformed Jew, his mother a reformed Jehovah’s witness. Birthdays, Easter, the cake being this sop to the crisis of spring, Bruce would not understand it or the pleasures of a handwritten letter.

The blare of the loudspeaker again announced the cheapest unbelievable Easter eggs, and Yinka’s senses whittled away in the disorder murmuring away to eggland. The cake sans inscriptions sounded better, or perhaps just the unfrosted cake, even better to leave off the cake and take home the empty box.

Yinka saw the boy’s fingers uncurl over the glass counter like it was surrendering to the Easter din around. A line of a shadow trailed up the short fingers and its hairs up to the arm and his folded sleeve, and to the face, evidently suffering a gaze on him. He must be new here. Yinka decided not to smile or soften; the boy braved to keep up his stare. His face could be more gentle, could be more innocently boyish. And pink grilled around the temples. The eyes, blue as the twilight, as those myriad eyes that flickered and watched him in his dreams like ghosts roused rudely from stupor.

Yinka hoped the boy was docile as his stance presupposed. He was too tired to fight or boast illustrious feats, much less conquer or claim.

His wrists troubled him again, causing him to fidget with the tight clasps of the bangles. There were inscriptions embossed over the dull metal; inscriptions held no meaning, drove no need in him. And yet casting them aside never occurred to him as possibility.

“Cool bangles,” the attendant interjected.

“You like them?” He regretted his too eager reply and quickly blurted, “Titanium. Made of titanium”

“Titanium? Get out of here.” The boy’s smile was the glitter of clear water. “Now, where does anyone get titanium?”

Yinka saw now the squareness of his hairline, and the mole underneath the brow. The boy could be … Francis, truly? The name had the ring of the faint clink of pebble ricocheting down a well. No face fastened to the name, or smell, or touch. But the name had the surety in his mind, and Yinka concluded it had to be this Francis who gifted him the bangles. But that could not be. Or was it Wilson, his physics Ph.D advisor, who was reprimanded professionally for gross sexual misconduct.

“Must have been someone important,” Yinka said noncommittally.

The boy looked more serious. “You want the cake?”

“Since you insist, I shall.”

“Hehe, doing my best to make more money for the Man,” the boy said. “You want an inscription?”

Yinka chuckled. “Sure. ‘Happy birthday Emu, love Crocky.’”

“Man…” The boy guffawed. “Your name’s really Crocky?”

Yinka looked back at the discolored incisor jutting out of the laughing mouth like misshapen stump. And the puns followed with more laughter and feelings warmed expansively.

“Crocky?” The boy repeated to himself, feeling the size and girth of the word. Then he removed the cake from the shelf and placed it on the counter. He raised sharp eyes to him. “Pink, all right for the inscription … Crocky?”

“Green … if you don’t mind.” Yinka’s voice rose a little. “And you don’t get to call me that.”

“Emu sure can.”

“He stuck around in spite of my balding head. You’d have to give me some of those napoleons for free before I might let you …”

“He —I should get this done.” Cake unsteady in both hands, the boy turned away to the table in the shadowy recesses beyond the light display.

Yinka was amused with how fast his eyes narrowed and his cheeks lost their high mien. But it was all right for dreams to last a moment. A flame that flickered for an instant was no less a flame, after all.

The wrists bothered him impolitely now. They felt as if a hot wire were boring down his wrist and piping up his forearm. Yinka examined the clasps of his bangles, the darker-colored scars underneath, the reticule of thickening veins. Something was clawing from beyond the grave of his youth where names were whispers and faces were chimeras ghosting the deep. Whatever was coming, he did not feel ready.

The boy returned without expression on his face and with the cake yellow, blue and green in a clear container.

“Enjoy,” he said, deadpan.

A tub of ice cream and dishwashing soap, completed the groceries. At the checkout counter, conversation plodded about the involuble weather, paper or plastic, cash or credit, if forty is the new twenty-five.

The cashier’s cheeks were thin and her eyes darkly deep. But there had to be something delightful in her because she smiled and chatted and smiled and chatted a lot. Even though she smelled of earthy mushrooms in the forest damp, Yinka could not help but think of her smiles like lipstick on a skull.

“Forty, wow, I have got five more years till then,” she chimed then defaulted to a careless laugh. “Age is all in the mind. My three-year-old son runs me around all day. I feel old and young at the same time. You get what I mean?”

Yinka nodded, fixed his gaze at the automatic doors, open, close, toddler in a tutu, open, close, man gnashing teeth, in search of coffee. And then the burble on anxieties he was the wrong sex to understand. And of course the son.

“Did I tell you, he put a frog in his mouth the other day.” She clutched her breast. “It scared the bejesus out of me. The last time it was a cricket.”

Yinka thought of the crying, the puling, the mewling of the wobbly things. Those wobbly things were supposed to his lottery ticket to meaning, to immortality. Beautiful things want to beget beautiful things. Good things want to beget good things in the transcriptions of DNA and RNA.

Her words floated on him, floated through him, floated away from him. He was rotating his wrists now to wish away the renascent discomfort.

“You have any?” she asked.

Yinka blinked. “Children? Happily … no.” He pasted a smile then took hold of the handles of the grocery bags. “Here’s to remaining thirty-five forever.”

“Thanks.” Her smile wilting on her lips, she dumped the pair of toothbrushes into the bag. “Wish Bruce happy birthday for me.”

“I shall.” Yinka sighed, moved to lift the bags away, but his wrists hiccupped in pain and the bags dropped with a light bang.

The cashier’s eyes narrowed. “You, Okay there? You need a carry-out?”

“ Thanks, no.” I’m forty-five, not ninety. He gritted his teeth as he jerked the bags off the counter in a show of his lusty strength. The pain was definite, like gears turning in the bones of his wrist. Useless hands. Useless body. Futility was on his mind as he glided from the store to pavement to his car. Inside the car, he refrained from starting the ignition, instead wriggling his fingers and clenching and loosening his fists, trying to feel the strings of pain each action effected. Its prickling sounds lulling him, the wind assaulted dust and pollen upon the windshield and flurried the dry leaves onto oil slicks. He looked at the sky maddeningly bright, maddeningly blue, and waited. For what? For how long? The pain called to pain, his worries called to Bruce.

Gently and precisely, he got his cellphone from his pocket. After a glance at its artic blue screen, he tossed the phone aside and wriggled the letter from his back pocket. It felt warm and damp. There was the graceful name again, ‘Chris Winston’.

Bruce always had truculently asserted his right to identify as bisexual. Yinka dismissed his view as droll; after all seven years of monogamy should decide it one way or another. Yes, but they had had seven year now of what exactly?

His pusillanimous thoughts so appalled him that he flung the letter into the grocery bags on the passenger seat and stuck the keys into the ignition.

“Damn it!” Gently again, he cradled his right hand to himself, but burls of discomfort grew wilder in his forearms and his hand flamed. He could see the red roots curled over his digits, stretched and spiraled over his biceps and clawed its pin tendrils up his wattle. In that great revelation of pain, he lifted his eyes to the eastern horizon. His mind, instantly, expanded, warped, sheared—a great tree darkening half the sky, its leaves of magnesium-blue flame, its fruits hanging like massive lanterns during a Chinese New Year. Today was Easter; rather it was spring, and therefore the season of its pollen celestial tide.

The pollen streamed from the east, covered all over rooftops and electric pole, passed through windows, open hands, open mouths—diamond dust, metaphysical dust enthralled his eyes and prickled his skin. But his hands, the inky roots were bulging and pulsating underneath his taut skin, and neural darts harpooning bursting myriad corpuscles in his brain. Light and its variegated hues bled down his vision, and his arms felt like postulating appendages, the air thick and dry in his nose. And lost in a shattering darkness inside his skull, he slumped onto the steering wheel. Then he remembered.

Francis was not Francis. Wilson was not Wilson. The bangle was simple iron, as old as himself.


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Does Paid Editing Increase Ebook Sales?

WARNING: A LONG ASS POST! You can skip to the take home message at the bottom of the post.

Go to any self-publishing forum.  Most of its participants would advise you to have a professional cover and professional editing  before publishing. But the reality isn’t so simple.

Traditional publishers usually have s multistage editing process: content edit, developmental edit, line-edit, copyedit, proofreader. Perhaps you’d not recieve all of them, but the last three are crucial.    An editor presumably could do all of them, but that’s rare.  Usually you’d have 2-3 editors for the entire editing process. Freelance editors quote anywhere from $.005  per word to $.08 per word,  content/developmental edits being more expensive. A basic 70,000 word manuscript could easily cost a thousand dollars in editing expenses alone.

Covers costs are more flexible. Costs could be anywhere from  $0 or $5 from fiverr, to $20-$40 premades, to  $60-$100 Photoshop stock photo manipulations to $200-$500 for high end photo-manipulations to a few thousand dollars if you want original illustrated art that’s usual to the epic fantasy genre. Oh dear, the costs of being professional aren’t trivial.

Are these costs truly necessary in order to produce a book that will sell?

Seems like an easy question to answer, after all we can point to risible covers languishing in the ranks or underperforming books in dire need of edits.  However,  there are not an insignificant number of ebooks with self-done covers and weak edits selling well enough.

Thankfully Hugh Howey has done the hard task of collecting data that we need. He released groundbreaking report on authors earnings on the Amazon kindle publishing platform. I’d urge you to read it if you haven’t. In conjunction to his study of kindle ebooks, Hugh is running a voluntary survey of book earnings. The survey includes questions about editing and cover choices.

The data is free and available to all.  As of this posting, there are 988 responders.  If you’ve self-published or trad-published, I urge you to fill out the survey.  We’re in crucial need of data to help us understand the self-publishing landscape.

I peeked at the data, actually ran a hacksaw to it. Here are some preliminary thoughts. I’ll look at questions of editing expenses in this post, and on the next post, examine the cover art debate.

A number of caveats first!

With survey data, confirmation bias is KING. Those who make money are likely to respond than those who make nothing. (If you make next to nothing, I urge to fill out the survey). Additionally, there’s a stigma against unprofessional books among serious indies because it’s seen rightly or un-rightly that these books give indie books a bad name.  To avoid scrutiny, those who don’t pay for editors or covers are less likely to respond than those who do. And motivated indies are more likely to respond than those who upload a book to Kindle and forget about it.

Besides, people lie or their recollections are imprecise. A indie reported making $13,000,000  in the last year! True or false? A typing mistake? Who knows.  Some appeared to have published their first book six months in the future, or some reported income even though they reported publishing zero books.  There’s no specificity about fiction/non-fiction, genre or word length or whether the books are in a series.

On a more technical point, the meaning of editing is undefined.  Editing could be mean proofreading. Or it could mean a more thorough copy or line edit or developmental edit.  I’ll take it to mean that the author paid someone to look through their manuscript in some fashion. ‘Friends and Family’ (F&F) could mean editor friends and family or functionally illiterate friends and family. Which group does beta readers belong to? Among F&F or Critique Groups/Other Authors (CG)?

It’s not uncommon for self-pubbers to publishe a book that is either self-edited or edited for free, and when sales start rolling or presumably when they get bad reviews complaining about the lack of production values, they use the profits to fund a edited version or a more professional cover.  Hugh Howey himself has famously said he relied on friends and family to write Wool.  His first covers were DIY.

Well then, let’s jump into the data.

totalearnpie

Of the 878 who identify as indie, the pie chart shows the breakdown of their editing decisions. Those marked undetermined did not click a response on the kind of editing they used.

More than half pay for some kind of editing. If the survey is illustrative of self-publishing as a whole, then perhaps the stereotype of entitled wannabes foisting their unedited ‘masterpieces’ upon the masses isn’t very accurate.

How do the past year’s reported earnings compare?

Average Median Max
Critique group / Other authors $19,104.50 $725.00 $1,000,000.00
Friends and family $21,651.00 $1,000.00 $567,000.00
Hired freelance editor $93,646.70 $5,250.00 $13,000,000.00
None $31,743.60 $3,000.00 $1,000,000.00
Undetermined $2,476.78 $500.00 $10,000.00

The calculations were done on the total raw earnings of the last year.  As expected, those who hired editors did better over all since they have the highest average and median income.  But strangely  those who relied on CG’s and F&F seemed to be worse off than the self-editers (None Group).

We need to look at the data more closely. For instance, the intrepid self-editer, who reported earning a million dollars, also reported publishing a hundred books! The author who reported 13 million dollars had published 33 books.  It’s well known that earnings tend to jump exponentially with each additional books published. Perhaps a large backlist can overcome the purported disadvantages of  no-editing. 

To control for backlist bias, I decided to analyse the mean earnings per books instead of total earnings.  The mean earnings per book is the total earnings divided by number of books published.  A few data points were spurious because some authors reported income but also reported publishing zero books.

MeanEarningsPerBook

The first $1000 is a good benchmark to study the different groups. Expectedly those who hired editors did the best in that earnings bracket, as 50%  of them earned less that $1000 per book. Those who relied on F&F did second best.

Take a look at the CG group and the None group.  Surprise, surprise! While the self-editors were more likely to make nothing, they weren’t worse off compared to those who relied on CG’s. 70% of them compared to the 73% of the CG’s made less than $1000.  5% of self-editers made more than $50000 per book compared to the 0% of those who relied on CG’s.

Is the paucity of data to blame for the apparent well being of the self-editers compared to those who relied on CG’s? Probably. Nevertheless, one thing’s certain: authors with varying levels of resources are still able to maximise their potential.  Not hiring an editor isn’t the kiss of death. 

Are authors earning more because their books have been out longer?  Are they writing novels rather than shorts? Are glittering covers the reason for their success?  There’s the added fact that after a certain income threshold, time is literally money. It doesn’t pay to edit yourself. Your time is better spent marketing and writing rather than fussing over edits.

Examining mean earnings per book  doesn’t quite isolate the legacy of luck, timing, and persistence. And so I decided to look at authors who have published one book only in the last year excluding the month of December. I excluded December because I wanted books with at least a month of earnings. The data cuts down drastically to 58 points, which isn’t much but enough to tinker with.

earn3

How about their earnings? I adjusted earnings to take into account the length of time the book has been on the market. In effect, I chose to play with the mean daily earnings instead of total earnings.

earnone

8% of those who have hired editors earned zero compared to the 28% of those who relied on CG’s.  It would have been nice to see  how that compares to those who self-edit, but alas with only one data point, we can’t say anything.

Let’s take a total earnings of $1000 as the benchmark to evaluate results; this translates to 1000/365=$3.6 daily mean earnings. Here, we’re making an assumption that books have daily uniform sales, which is far from true.

Concentrating on the level of the green boxes, we see that those who hired editors and those who relied on F&F came out ahead.  Actually they did about the same. 48% of them earned more than $3.6 per day.  Those who relied on CG’s did much worse,  less than 10% earning over $3.6 a day.

The chart would show that those who relied on F&F did better than those who hired editors, especially so as their earnings are pure profit. But the raw numbers tell a different story.  Here are the averages, median and max of  mean daily earnings for the different groups.

Average Median Max
Hired freelance editor $52.38 $3.14 $520.83
Critique group / Other authors $1.15 $0.37 $7.03
Friends and family $14.94 $3.33 $109.49
None $4.00 $4.00 $4.00

The average author who hired a freelancer earned $52 per day compared to $15 per day earned by the average author who relied on F&F.

By looking at the max earnings, we see that paid editing enables the author to earn a lot more.  However, there’s a crucial caveat: To earn that first $1000, editors don’t help much–this we can can see, as half of those who paid editors earned less than $1000 in the last year.  Editing costs can easily run over a $1000 for long manuscripts. How long can you stand being in the red?

THE TAKE HOME MESSAGE

Self-editing yea or nay?  The self-edited book performs worse than the paid-edited book. AND the book  has a greater chance of earning zero dollars. I personally would think twice about self-editing.

You shouldn’t worry too much about hiring an editor either, especially if you’re strapped for resources.  You should search high and low for slaves (F&F) to massacre your manuscript. Your earnings potential  would be hurt on the top side, but the chart also shows that earnings on the low to medium side doesn’t get massacred either.  Moreover, the earnings will be pure profit that can be ploughed back into the book or to make the next book better.

As for relying on critique groups and other authors?  The data would confirm what many veterans of writing groups have long suspected. Writerly opinions on your writing might be helpful to learn the rudiments of writing, but not so much when it comes to the book you’re hoping to publish.  What writers like to read and what the ordinary readers likes tends to diverge. At some point an aspiring author has to graduate from critique groups to seeking the opinions of those good friends  or family who have a vested interest in helping them succeed.

Next post, should you pay for professional covers?

ETA: Ok I see some argumentation from my old folks at Scribophile.  I used to be active there, back in the day. Hello!

Those who paid for editing are more motivated to succeed.  I have no quibble about that.  But I’m more interested in the comparison between those who relied on F&F and those who relied on CG’s and other authors.  Who’s the more motivated among the two of them?

Even without more precise data about genre and book length and marketing, it’d seem that those who relied critique groups and other authors aren’t doing all they can to make their book succeed.  And yet those who relied on F&F seem to be able to do it.

We’re back to the sticking question.  Is the mechanics of critique groups or the writer’s lack of know-how  or is it just bad data to blame for the relative lack of performance?  I think the data points to something awry about relying on critiques groups and authors, but this is neither here nor there. We can all agree that  everyone should try, if they can, to hire editors.

As for the divergent tastes of readers and writers . Let me give an example.  Look at the Amazon top 100 fantasy bestseller list. You can tell which books are indie. And their bad reviews tend to be consistent: cliche or juvenile plot,  thinly veiled dungeons and dragons campaigns, bad editing. There’s a certain woman who’s making a killing in indie fantasy despite her reviews that ding her for poor editing.

After reading a lot of bad reviews of the indie fantasy bestsellers and those ranked well in the top 5000, it seemed to me that the average indie fantasy reader is easy to please. As long as you tell a good yarn, with clearly drawn tropes, they are fine.   The ultra-refined reader who prefers hugo-award winning stories would be appalled that selling authors are still mucking about with the messianic farmboy hero trope.  I bet the editors of the pro-paying scifi/fantasy mags would be appalled by what is selling on the top lists.

Writers tend to have more refined tastes because they tend to have read a lot more. They have thought a lot more than the average reader about the mechanics of story and character, prose and style.   A common complaint among writers is that they can’t turn off the inner editor when reading published books. They get so snagged with the badly crafted words that they miss the overall story. Readers who aren’t writers tend not to do this. While the unsophisticated reader might not care for cliche or juvenile plots, writers tend to care more. It’s my theory that critique groups can rag a writer too badly for cliches and unoriginality to the detriment of story appeal to the average genre reader.

Swann’s way, the Yale anniversary edition


Proust, yeah that Proust who writes books with paragraph long sentences about nothing. Many think him the example of dull indulgent literary fiction; others sing odes that somehow fail to rouse the most passionate of readers to try his books, and there are those for whom Proust is another author to namedrop in front of the pulp fiction reading masses.  When NetGalley offered a new edition of Swann’s Way (Volume one of the seven volume In Search of Lost Time, also know as Remembrance of Things Past) published by Yale University Press,  I decided I might as well see all about Proust for myself.

Yes, it is a long read, and yes, it veers towards the ponderous and the tedious, but it is not uninteresting. Even though the reading does demand a certain patience and concentration, I found myself drawn in. His observations of childhood were engrossing, more so because of his precise explorations of its exaggerated fears and the outsized anxieties. The attention to detail can overwhelm, but they do weave magical tapestry of  feeling and depth.  His explorations of characters, e.g. the narrator’s aunts and grandmother, captured humans in their most ordinary and their most captivating moments.  

An important theme of the volume is memory and its fickleness, its uncertain divagations, its distressing lack of assurances. A lot of passages were  long and impressionistic, dreamscapes so dense with images and vague feelings that I had to read a few times to comprehend the breathtaking immensity of it. Take the book cover image of a Madeleine, for instance:  the narrator’s simple act of tasting a Madeleine unleashes a torrent of feelings and flitting images that last for more than two pages.  After a while, you sense that the point of reading Swann’s way is not to consume wholesale, but to savor in piecemeal fashion–this is not a text you can read quickly like the latest pulp fiction novel.

As I understand it, this edition is a revision of the 1923 Scott Montcrief’s translation, revisions done by the editor and Proust scholar,William Carter. His annotations on French culture and French historical references were helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the text.  And the prose style was modern and readable enough for my standards. If you have been wary about trying Proust, you can do no better than trying a copy of this edition.

M/M Halloween Themed Books Giveaway

Halloween is around corner. Now’s a great time as ever to share books about vampires and men who love their undead beaus.  So I’m giving away five copies of my book The Cross and the Black for free.  In addition to my books, you get to sample a collection of  halloween themed works featuring lgbt characters.  For more details check out a Rafflecopter giveaway.

Disturbed Fate by Kia Zi Shiru Disturbed Connections by Kia Zi Shiru Pacifier 6; The Shadows Within by G. Wakeling Birth Rite by X. Aratare The Bodyguard (Book1 of The Artifact) by X. Aratare Bisexual Werewolf Dominance by Jen Harker Gay Vampire Cumslut by Jen Harker Sunday's Child by Lex Valentine Pricolici by Alicia Nordwell Supernature: Paranormal Stories From The Wittegen Press Giveaway Games by Sophie Duncan and Natasha Duncan-Drake The Need In Me by Sophie Duncan An Amusement (The Vampire's Concubine #1) by Sophie Duncan The End of The Journey (The Hidden War #1) by Sophie Duncan Forgotten Soul (The Soul Reader #1) by Tasha D-Drake Forbidden Soul (The Soul Reader #2) by Tasha D-Drake Fortunate Soul (The Soul Reader #3) by Tasha D-Drake Chip Off the Old Block? by Tasha D-Drake The Trade by Tasha D-Drake Out of the Frying Pan by Tasha D-Drake Face of the Dead by Tasha D-Drake My Fair Vampire by S. L. Danielson and Julie Lynn Hayes The Cross and the Black 1 by Luwa Wande The Cross and the Black 2 by Luwa Wande

Mandate of Kendan-Chapter 3

See the beginning here.
The next morning, I awoke alone.  Ogami should have been at a corner of the room, cradling a sheathed sword to himself, rocking to an unsung rhythm of dispossession. Sometimes, he would be set the sword on a miniature altar, and bow before it like one would do before the black idols of the Sister’s Three.  The one time I imitated him, he pulled me off sharply and demanded what meaning the sword had for me. Words and thoughts frothed in my throat as I had thought it would be obvious that since the sword held a meaning for him, then it held a meaning for me.

Here I was alone before the sword on the altar, and the light planing through the door, and the all too disorderly sense of the quiet around.  I darted to my feet with a mind to examine the lacquer finish on its sheath, especially the inlay of five flowerets circumscribed within pearly circles. The sword was a sacred thing to Ogami—I rushed out of the room—I, of the tewai, had no right to touch or to pollute it.

Ogami was not in the common room where he would be carving temple dolls.  I shambled barefoot to the verandah. The morning felt tempestuous with the fast and furious twittering of birds, but Ogami was nowhere in sight in the front compound.  Sometimes, I would find him stilled over the red fan of flowers drooping from the flame of the forest tree.

Maybe he had left?

Of course not! How cowardly. You had to recognize weakness and insecurity in your self, see what it is and beat it into submission.  Practicing a thousand sword strokes was perfect to that aim.

I began with my wooden sword. One … two … three … in due time, with my perfection, would come Ogami’s smile.  123 … 124 … 125 … as Ogami would demand, every stroke had to be composed, full of spirit, just as powerful and effective as the first, or I had to start again. My spirit must be unyielding and yet able to soothe a baby’s cry. Such level of control, I think as a adult, impossible.  But as a child then, I thought Ogami mastered it, and therefore I could achieve it. I only needed to dig deep find that ore of reserve and control. How wrong I was.

778 … 779… 780 …. My legs were trembling violently, and my breaths etched in the back of my throat … 800…801…802… In due time when I was worthy enough, Ogami would bequeath me his precious sword.  I could not lose heart or wax loose to mediocrity … 997…998… 1000.

Kendan isowarei Chawadan!  I crashed onto the hard ochre ground in a splat, the bamboo sword clanging away from my feet. My chest was burning, and my stomach felt vacuous. And the sure sky and silent sun, Kendan had pushed the sky up from the earth and fought the ocean mistress for her sun earring.  He was strong indeed. How could anyone hope to be like him?  Certainly, not me with my pathetic hands trembling uselessly and my lungs that would not stop burning in exhaustion. And Toba wanted to learn how to use this sword—ha! He would not last long against Ogami’s strict training.

I pulled myself upright and remembered Ogami laughing over Toba, his placidity against Toba’s roughness. What was it about Toba that could prompt Ogami to glide with ease and warmth? I thought I might as well find Toba in the village and ask him myself. There was no reason to sit alone and wonder what Toba was and was not.

But first, I ate a small breakfast of barley gruel, did a short musical practice on the wud, practiced fifty characters of Standard Hokima before I could go gallivanting to the village. To prepare for the trip, I needed to get control of my expansive clothes. While the ifa disported in various states of undress in the summer heat, I struggled with billowing robes, voluminous sleeves, overflowing divided skirts, the itchy thick hempen fabric.  I had to bind a sash around my legs and then around waist and chest and then around my arms to control the fabric.  And this had to be done in a proper ceremonial fashion. Too many times, I would slip with a sash that Ogami had to angrily take over its tying. For now, it was only me and my small hands, and devilish loops and knots. Toba would never agree to all these clothes. Perhaps I should protest and demand Ogami allow me the ifa inelegant liberties of their short loin clothes. I was a shunja after all, not a hekare.

Before venturing down the mountain path, I veiled my unmarked face, for I could not dare impose my disorder into an innocent’s view. Light fell through the grille of leaves and branches hedging the path.  The path declined in a predictable grade then steepened abruptly and curved towards the eastern view of the sky.  The view opened to the huts and the wall designs of red, black and white.  Women would mix clay and buffalo dung and fashion geometrical stripes on the walls.  The effect had the same warding effect of the curlicues and glyphs of the sanli. I myself felt dizzy, gazing on these wall patterns.  Maybe it was true that I was a demon spawn if I felt this disoriented.

The sun was high in the sky.  The temple gongs struck, marking the hour of Jade. The air rippled with overtones, and sound resounded through the hull of the valley, up the green terraces and over the house thatches, around the eaves of the Great Temple. Women, with grey braids crowning their heads, were stooped in the fields, planting rice seedlings before the rains would drench the land into paddies.

And far off where the road led to the Grand Temple, I recognized the sleek black profile of Ezo, his baldhead gleaming.  Even the team of buffalo stopped for his upper caste warrior eminence as he walked freely with a bamboo scroll held up in his face.  We could be kindred souls. Bound with a love for learning and martial arts, we could be bosom friends. But that would not be of the good way, of how Kendan would will things, for he was embalmed with pride of a fatriyad warrior caste sworn to defend the Ekio clan—and the shame of a rakki, a disgraced fatriyad. Ifa, shunja, we were all beneath him, even if his baldhead bared to all the fallen status of his family.  Pride and shame were his constant companions, and the book held up to his face like an iron curtain.

Wistfully, I veered towards a wide entrance leading to a copse of trees arranged in a semi-circle.  The last time I came here, a pack of snarling dogs chased after me.  But amidst the energy of boys running around a banyan tree, girls crouched in between the heavy thighs of harridans, no one took note of my little presence—I supposed the Goddess Nadmi herself had blessed my excursion.

I was a stone’s throw away from a group of boys looking up at something in a tree.  Their half-grey braids were loose over their bare shoulders. Though dirty and dusty, they all had gion. They all had faces streaked and dotted with the ash-white sanli.

“Toba, throw me a mango,” one of them demanded.

I could only make the shins and feet amongst the long leaves rippling and drooping from the branches.  The boys yipped for Toba to pluck that mango, not this mango.

“Toba, throw me a mango too,” a girl said. Around her small waist was a belt of small cages containing things I could not quite make out. Her hair was all but grey and she had a cleft lip. It looked like a lacerated caterpillar was stuck above her lips. Her eyes were overhead to the tree, my eyes were on her nose.

“Ayni, you climb up here and get yourself a mango,” Toba growled. “You know how hard it is be up here.”

“But you gave Khura mangoes,” she whined. “Ten of them.”

“She wanted five mangoes for one of her milk balls.”

“You do everything she wants. Five mangoes for one milk ball. How’s that fair?” Her lips worked in consternation. She slowly turned her face towards me, then her eyes narrowed.  The rib-like sanli tightened over her ebony cheeks. I palled.  I was more than willing to climb up and get her a mango if she would stop looking at me.

On other days, I would have stood in the shadows and watched their rambunctious ministrations from a far, but today should be different … maybe not.  What was I going to tell Toba anyway? Give me a mango too?  But mangoes were the body form of the goddess Padmi, so I could not eat them. And I could very well not impugn my Shunja self on his person.

Shadows seemed to seep from the weaves of mango leaves and smear and stretch out from the crown of the tree top. Perhaps I was getting dizzy. Water, perhaps water would be best, but the tree …  something like a storm cloud layered just over the bulbous treetop. I blinked. The cloud still drizzled over leaves, black, grey, forms that seemed to imprint the fabric of space. I stood mesmerized at the silhouette while everyone else yapped at Toba to his bidding, and Ayni was sliding from patient irritation to a petulant whine.  But most worryingly, the amorphous cloud slunk down the edges of the treetop and weaved in and about the heads and torsos. Half-shifting shadows glided over the red ground, glittered in various shades of grey, incomprehensibly balled up to an entity blacker and more solid in front of my person. A face? No face, but malformed indentations of grey, something fibrous could be a hand. It was as if something existed between the real and unreal, between body and spirit.

My blood quivered in my veins. Beats pumped out to panic. Flee or stand tall, as Ogami would have me be before this pestilent incorporeal presence? The field of my vision collapsed onto this being, and the sense of déjà vu swarmed by the moment.  Maybe this was another part of me, the damned part of my being, looking back at me, and demanding I acknowledge it. This was of the tewai, and I was of the tewai, and so we must be one in perdition.

Reader, the truth of the apparition was much simpler as you shall see later. For now, my small legs were wilting wobbly, and I found myself backing away from the odious apparition.

“Kesse, out of my way!”

All became white and stark, as I had backed up against somebody.  I turned around sharply, my veil unraveling off my face.  Kendan’s mercy!  It was Ezo, lips curled raggedly and his eyes tightening.  Kendan’s mercy! I had touched him and defiled his high person. His snarl twisted more fiercesomely, and there the shine of his fatriyad dagger on his waist. All sense of decorum vacated my soul as I fell down prostrate before him.

“Forgive me, forgive me,” I mumbled.

He kicked my head, one, two, three …. “A shunja shit head touched me! I should kill you for this.”

He should. Even though he was thirteen, he had the right to cut down an inferior in the open streets.

My breaths raced, and I could feel the ground heating up under my nose. How much mercy should I expect for my sin? But Ogami had told me never to depend on a man’s mercy. You had to act first, take the initiative and if you could not, force your way to the upper hand even if it meant becoming a man without gion. How then now, when I had clearly transgressed his honor?

“Oi Rakki! You’re the one who keeps walking around with a scroll like an idiot,” Toba shouted from afar. “I tell you one day, you’re going to fall into a ditch.”

“Kesse, mind your business and go shovel shit in the fields,” Ezo barked then kicked my head once more to make his point.

“You kick him again. I’m coming down from the tree and kicking your behind too.”

“Kesse, if you touch me, I’ll cut you down.”

Toba gave a wild laugh. “With your puny knife? Where’s your sword, Rakki?”

Kendan save us! Being a rakki, a disgraced fatriyad, Ezo could not carry a sword like it was the right of the warrior caste. I wished Toba had not said that as I could feel the furious wind from Ezo darting past me and blustering for the mango tree. It would be most evil if thing spiraled out of hand.  I picked myself up from the ground and rushed to Ezo’s side. I managed to get a hold his long sleeves and pulled him back strongly.

“Kesse,” Ezo bellowed, spinning into my face.

“Demei, it was I who dishonored you.” I did not look away to the unlucky left as I should have.  I stared into the fibrils blood feeding into his pupils and waited for his good judgment.

He bared his teeth, tossed his gaze away to the green horizon, muttering, “Why am I dirtying myself with shit-shoveling rabble?” He shoved me off, opened his scroll over his face and walked away.

I took a moment to enjoy the feeling of the sure ground under my feet. Then I came to children peering their tattooed faces at my now revealed shame. Kadmi deliver me!  It took a few moments for them to feel the reprobation of my presence.

“It’s a—” a boy’s eyes bulged. “Shunja!”

They scattered away, leaving me to wilt before Toba up in the tree. I was afraid for a moment that Toba himself might fall down in fright.

I hurriedly tied the shawl around my face. “I thank you greatly for your assistance, demei—”

“I remember you. You’re with Old Tree!” Toba said. “

“Old Tree, demei?”

“Why do you talk like a sadhai stuck in a privy? What’s with me demei? The rakki’s the demei, a stupid one too.”

Well, everyone was a demei to me because everyone was above me. I supposed that would be hard to explain to an ifa with gion. I avoided his searching his brown eyes as I tried to think of a more elegant way to take my leave.

Toba sighed angrily. “The Old Tree took my bush rat.”

The name Old Tree was most distressing to my pure ears. “Please, refrain from calling him such a discourteous name.  He is my Ogami—”

“I don’t get it.  You can play swords, but you let the rakki walk over you.”

Toba was indeed dull, but it would be disharmonious to tell him so.

“Was the sword just for show?” Toba demanded.

I looked at his face, the long grey silver of his hair falling in with the translucent leaves.  “I know all my stances, demei.”

The branches shook. “Don’t call me that.”

“Forgive me, Demei—”

“If you’re going to call me that, ask your Ogami if he can teach me the stances too.”

“Ifa tend to life. That would be disharmony.”

“Bah!” The branches susurrated as Toba slid from a main branch to the central trunk. “How do you know that anyway? People keep saying this and that is disharmony.”

“I read it in the Tratsa.”

“You can read?”

“Yes? You can’t?”

“Sadhais are the only people I know who read. And there’s the block head rakki…”

I did not like when he insulted the high person of the fatriyad either.  I wondered if insolence was usual to the ifa. Perhaps this was related to their lack of education.

I said finally. “Maybe not a sword, but my Ogami can show you how to use a staff.”

“What good is that? I want a sword like the one Kendan used to defeat the five-headed elephant … Tell him I’ll give him mangoes in exchange for lessons …. Catch!” came the voice overhead.

Green orbs fells from the tree, and I twisted side to side to catch them all. The mangoes were just soft enough to yield under pressure.  How exactly was I to explain elegantly to Ogami Toba’s inelegant request?

“Toba!” Ayni screamed, struggling with the bind of a loincloth around her chest, and tramping over to us. “Shunjas aren’t supposed to eat mangoes.”

That was most certainly true.

“I’m telling your Oppa, that you’re talking to a Shunja.”

Toba’s small black feet jutted out the branches. “Do what you want. You’re not getting any of my mangoes anyway.”

Her auburn eyes narrowed at me, and moments turned irately. With a huff, she tramped away, her bare feet kicking up the loamy soil.  I felt sorry more than slighted.  She made across a lawn littered with strutting birds and disappeared behind a red-black spiraled door.

Toba thumped out of the tree, a raffia bag slung around his chest. “Don’t mind her.”

Well then, I did not like the development.  The prospect of facing his father, making Ayni displeased was most disharmonious.  This excursion was clearly an ill-thought idea straight from the tewai itself.

I looked over the forbidden mangoes in my hands and hoped Ogami would eat them. It would be a terrible thing to waste them. “Forgive my unpleasant intrusion.  I must return to my Ogami.”

Toba held back my shoulder. I shuddered. He really should not be touching me.

He stood in front of me, smiling like he was commander of something.  Of what or whom, I did not know.

“Talk to your Ogami, will you?”

“I shall—” But I descried Ayni behind him zooming onto with … a black furry thing in her left hand.  My eyes flew wide.  I pulled Toba to my side away from her onslaught. Mangoes tumbled onto the ground, and then I saw that the black object was an enormous spider with snapping menacing chelicera.

“GO AWAY,” Toba yelled.

“Give me some mangoes,” she said.

“Take the mangoes from the ground.” Toba swished around me to get away from her fanged hands.

“The shunja touched it. Get me another from the tree.” Ayni darted the giant spider for Toba’s arm, but he swung around me again to evade. I tottered from side to side to every scream of Toba.

“Take the mangoes from the ground!” Toba shouted right by my ringing ears.

As she tried for Toba’s face to the side of my cheek, her black spider blotted out my view with its squamous thorax. And my patience whooshed away to the whimsies of the ugly heat.  I, before the appendages could touch my forehead, dove for her small wrist, spun her away from me. Before I would pop the elbow and dislocate her shoulder, she cried high and terrible,“Ow!” Her cry fell deaf on my ears as I grabbed the spider and smashed it to the ground.

All was still again for an instant. We looked at each other, uncomprehending the vicissitude of the moment.  Toba stepped out from me and stared at the black hair splat on the ground. Her nose wrinkled uncontrollably and her eyes roved madly at the spider legs twitching slowly to stillness.

“You killed Cudi.” She exploded to tears. “I took care of Cudi for three months and you killed my Cudi—Waaaaaaah!”

Kendan save me. The death of the spider was rather unfortunate. Ogami would declaim my lack of self-control. One does not kill indiscriminately. I could only mumble repeatedly. “Forgive me, Tomei-Demei.”

A matron, grey crown, muddy brown loincloth, stopped by, took a good look at me, and commenced a frantic warding, nose, brow, sky, nose, brow, sky. Ayni explained. She cried so more. I gulped, paralyzed without hope. Her wails beckoned all to come and see what the Shunja had done. They, adults, wagged at me, they pulled Toba away from me, they poked their staffs at me.

“The tewai take you!” A crone pelted holy rice at my face.

“Who owns it anyway? It should be bound and gagged,” a man asked

“In my day, they made all shunjas commit the good way,” another said.

The good way, the way of reclaimed gion and blessed eternal rest. Sun and sky were blinkering in and out of view. Around me, faces, crooked teeth, misshapen eyes, were swelling larger and blacker, blotted out the blue and white of sky. I could feel the weight of anger bearing hot and heavy over my face. I stepped back, but staffs nudged me back to the center. And then their voices grew harder and harsher down my ears, “Who owns it? Why was it still alive? What brought disharmony to their threshold? Who, what, why?”

Reader, there are questions one should not deign to ask.  Some questions will lead you to the crevasse of ruin, to the precipice of madness, to the island of dullness.  If Kendan has deemed it unknowable, why risk asking and asking? That is of pride and disorder.

But there I was, before esteemed superiors, facing questions I had no facility to answer, my lips trembling, my eyes dimming.  In that moment in my ten-year-old self, the seedling of an urge sprouted, the urge to slit Ogami’s throat.

****

Ok readers.  I have been worried about this for a while because I worry the opening chapters are too slow.  But I’m not quite sure how to condensce all the nuisances before layering out the action.  Well, read on tell me if it works.

Occitan Cross

Hmm, strange, all the while I was researching for my historical novel The Cross and the Black set in Renaissance Toulouse, but I never heard about the Occitan Cross.  Apparently it used to be on the coat of arms of the Old counts of Toulouse back in 12th century.  see the wiki

Distinctive design, isn’t it? It’s a bold emblem of the Languedoc region.  Now I have incorporate into the ebook cover.  If you’re a designer, and you don’t mind helping me with an cover art for a Renaissance novel with vampires and boy whores, contact me.