I took vacation time from work last week to work on my new novel. I wanted to put myself on track to finish a draft by the end of the year. While I made good progress, I might have made more had I not allowed myself to be distracted by the Internet. I was posting more than usual on Facebook and Twitter, in large part about the GOP convention speeches which flabbergasted, outraged, and insulted. Ann Romney’s exclamation, “I love you, women!” sounded desperate to me. There was her fake sense of solidarity with women in America: We’re the mothers. We’re the wives. We’re the grandmothers. We’re the big sisters. We’re the little sisters and we are the daughters. You know it’s true, don’t you? Okay, an irrefutable enumeration of our familial roles, but what most of us know is true is that Ann Romney understands little about how the non-wealthy mothers, wives, grandmothers, etc., live.

And of course Paul Ryan’s lies were documented in any number of post-speech, fact-checking news outlets, including FOX News. The absolute howler for me was his lie about running a sub-three-hour marathon—as self-aggrandizing as his social policies.

Mitt’s vapid acceptance speech was short on specifics for his own plans for the country and short on facts (to use one of the euphemisms bandied in the press) about Obama’s record.

The other story that was firing up the Internet last week was the story about paid book reviews. If you had $999 to spare you could buy 50 five-star reviews to populate your Amazon.com book page. One paid reviewer opined “There were books I wished I could have gone back and actually read.”

It gets a little depressing, all the lies and fakery. Leaves you cynical.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to turn to fiction, by which I mean deliberately made-up stories whose purpose is not to distort realities for the sake of whipping up fear and hatred among the electorate, nor to manufacture demand for sales of one’s book. Rather, their purpose is to illuminate the human condition, to help us uncover truths about ourselves and lead us to a better understanding of the world.

So the other thing I did on my week home from work was finally use the gift card my brother gave me for my birthday last June. Here’s what I added to the stack of to-read books on my desk.

People are Strange (Black Lawrence Press) by Eric Gamalinda—Strangeness equals humanness. This is from the Book Dragon review: Gamalinda’s ‘strange people’—an adopted Marcos “son,” a dead man sending emails to his ex-wife, the Elvis of Manila, a fictional Eric Gamalinda who can change skin color at will, a murderous fly-killer—are all feats of imaginative invention, albeit with varying degrees of curious behaviors, characteristics, choices. Their strangeness ultimately makes them more uniquely human, each searching for connection in a disjointed, scattered world.

Arcadia (Hyperion) by Lauren Groff—I first read Groff’s work in One Story and immediately sought out more—first the inventive The Monsters of Templeton and later her story collection Delicate, Edible Birds, so full of delicate, tantalizing prose. According to the official book description, here’s what Arcadia has in store for me:

In the fields of western New York State in the 1970s, a few dozen idealists set out to live off the land, founding what would become a commune centered on the grounds of a decaying mansion called Arcadia House. Arcadia follows this romantic, rollicking, and tragic utopian dream from its hopeful start through its heyday and after.

Laura Rider’s Masterpiece (Grand Central Publishing) by Jane Hamilton—I’ve been a fan of Hamilton’s ever since I interviewed her in 1993 about A Map of the World. I’ve read most of her novels and loved them for her nuanced characters. Laura Rider’s Masterpiece seems not to have gone over well with many of her fans. Of the 46 Amazon reviews, over a third of them were one-star—all the more reason for me to read this book, especially as these one-star reviews contain sentences such as the following.

The book is described as a “full-blown comedy,” but the humor is of the driest, darkest variety.

…if you love sitting back and letting writers take you on a quirky flight of fancy, and if you are anxious to read everything Jane Hamilton thinks and then writes, you may like this.

Laura Rider, to me, is a selfish, cold hearted, manipulative woman, who has only her best interest at heart! She is a shameless self-promoter.

Yes, yes, yes, I want to read this book.

Silver Sparrow (Algonquin) by Tayari Jones—Here’s the captivating description.

With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and two teenage girls caught in the middle.

In an interview with Ru Freeman on the Huffington Post blog, Jones says, “I look at a story as a way of deepening my understanding of a subject. I have gone into a project with one opinion and come out of it with a new way of thinking.” I think this is exactly the potential books have for the reader of fiction—to open us up to new ways of considering the world.

Drifting House (Viking/Penguin) by Krys Lee—I’ve been meaning to purchase this book since seeing Lee on a panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books last spring. I wrote about Lee’s intelligent, articulate remarks in an earlier blog post. Here’s a summary from the official book description:

In the title story, children escaping famine in North Korea are forced to make unthinkable sacrifices to survive. The tales set in America reveal the immigrants’ unmoored existence, playing out in cramped apartments and Koreatown strip malls. A makeshift family is fractured when a shaman from the old country moves in next door. An abandoned wife enters into a fake marriage in order to find her kidnapped daughter.

The Year We Left Home (Simon and Shuster) by Jean Thompson—I’ve read two story collections by Thompson and she’s easily among my favorite writers that include Antonya Nelson, Ana Castillo, Lorrie Moore, Francine Prose, and ZZ Packer, to name a few. Here’s what I look forward to with The Year We Left Home:

Spanning from the early 1970s in the Iowa farmlands to contemporary Chicago and far beyond, The Year We Left Home is a vivid, moving meditation on our continual pursuit of happiness and an incisive exploration of our national character.

I can’t think of a better way to escape the lies and fakery of the last week than through fiction that contains truths that elevate our understanding of each other and ourselves.

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