Hello readers and welcome to installment number five of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After taking on All Quiet on the Western Front I decided to pivot to a Minnesota author who is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine: Tim O’Brien. In this case I chose his landmark 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods.
While I’m not sure it’s quite as brilliant as The Things They Carried, this book is without a doubt an incredible piece of fiction masquerading as fact. The story, about a Minnesota politician residing in a remote cabin with his wife after being soundly defeated in a primary, is deceptively simple, but O’Brien weaves his narrator through the pieces of the puzzle, offering explanations as to what may have happened. The chief characters are John Wade and his wife Kathy, but we meet a dozen others through the course of their lives, and also as pieces of “evidence” the narrator has assembled for our viewing. The story is intricately told and kept me riveted until the end. But more on all these themes in the lessons I took away from this monumental work:
If you can’t tell from my effusive praise, I very much enjoyed reading this novel, and would highly recommend it. There is a reason O’Brien is consistently cited as one of the best wranglers of the written word over the past few decades, and has miles to teach within his books. I hope to be able to visit all of his works over the coming years.
Up next, I’m going to take a bit of a break before I dive into what will be my summer read: Stephen King’s gigantic 2009 novel Under the Dome. I hope to also hit a short story collection or two, and get some of my own written. Have a safe and fun season everyone, and thanks for reading!
Hello readers, and welcome to the fourth installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After previously suffering through John Grisham’s The Firm, I moved backward in time to what is generally considered the greatest book about war ever put to paper: Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.
First, I would absolutely agree with the critical consensus. I’ve finally gotten to a fair amount of phenomenal war novels in the last few years (Catch-22, Slaughterhouse V, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Johnny Got His Gun) and this was the best one I’ve read. I believe I understand the reason as one of the major lessons to draw from this impactful work. And so:
I’ll conclude this with a hearty recommendation for anyone who enjoys great literature to pick this one up. It’s important to recall this war happened only a century ago, and to ponder its lessons for today.
Coming up next in AYOF: I will be taking on (Minnesota author) Tim O’Brien’s landmark 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods. Thanks for reading!
My first novel was published by North Star Press nearly three years ago. 2014 seems like a long time ago: Obama was still POTUS, and nobody even considered the upcoming election much yet. I was preoccupied with a lot that year, including getting the book, Our Senior Year, finished and the cover ready to go for my events. For those of you who haven’t read it, the book is essentially a fictionalized account of my time at a small high school in Iowa. I named the town Clarmont, a pastiche combining another nearby town, and patched together a few of my best friends at the time as characters. I also split my personality in half and had them be best friends, a decision I’m not quite sure worked very well but was useful in telling the story from two different (albeit similar) perspectives.
I’d recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of the first “horror” novels (depending on your time frame) of the modern era, and one told entirely through epistolary forms of the time: monographs recorded for others to listen, letters, and diary entries. This got me considering a journal entry to tell one character’s side of the story. This journal is located by the other main character at the beginning of the tale, and he uses it to tell the story in what ends up being the actual book. There are some plot twists based on my experience at that town over four years, including an amalgamation of some car wrecks, and a suicide.
The friends were based on people I got to know quite well during my senior year there, as I had run with a different group of people aimlessly (and neurotically, though I wasn’t aware at the time) up to that point. I realized the people in my own grade were having an awesome time, and that it was time to start seeing what they were into. I have since come to understand our activities as pretty stupid, but no too much outside the norm for kids of any era. But all of this did not bode well with my parents, who raised me on a farm outside the town based on pretty strict religious structure. This is reflected in the character’s attending a youth group night at a local church.
This entire novel was really a reaction against my upbringing. Circa 2013, when I was finishing the last drafts, I was coming off an important conversation with my parents a year earlier regarding my breaking away from their Christian faith. I would end up telling them parts of what the story would entail, and tried to make sure they were aware that the parent characters are not really them. One is an alcoholic, and my father doesn’t touch the stuff, and my mother was not overbearing and mean like in the novel. Still, I had conceived the novel in my high school days as being against this type of strict upbringing.
Yet I couldn’t view this work through any other lens than a strictly religious conflict up until now. I’ve recently had some powerful emotional breakthroughs regarding all of it (the ignorance coupled with the extreme fundamentalism) and have come to some much better ground surrounding it. I’m not so angry any longer, and it feels better. I thought it would be as good a time as any to revisit what was driving this first novel.
A lot of it was driven by anger, and fear. Since our initial discussion I had since come to see how I was raised through a mostly negative light, and struggled to distance myself from it through this novel. There is a discussion in the book dealing with a documentary I watched in real life produced by PBS describing a lot of the fallacies in where the Bible comes from. After, the father and son discuss why they don’t believe in this stuff anymore, but must for the sake of their mother. This was one of my first clumsy attempts at inserting commentary I’d arrived at much later into a fictional time zone where part of me existed. I was also at the time afraid my parents would know more about what I thought. I thought this passage in the novel would be enough to cover some of this. It never was.
But that’s another great revelation to hit as a writer: I’m not who I thought I was. That’s right, I can evolve, both through life and in my work. My marriage has taught me a lot about the life part, now it’s time to tackle the writing bit.
The person who finally finished that book in 2013-14 is not the person sitting here writing this today. I have a new, and different outlook on religion and all of its various manifestations through society. And instead of forgetting about it, like it’s not a part of me, I have come to the conclusion that I can only incorporate it into my writing. I have seen so much of it used in the wrong way, in ways that will affect me for the rest of my life. But instead of the anger, I have to approach it with the opposite. Compassion, understanding, but also ruthless interrogation. What causes humans to believe such things? Where does it come from, and where is it going?
I have no idea, and things are only getting more confused with the technological revolution of recent years. AI appears to be the closest thing we might get to a “god” on this planet, so what does that mean for religion? These are all things I didn’t realize I wanted to write about until they wouldn’t go away and kept turning into a huge idea. Therefore, I am going to begin drafting a new book, involving ideas about the future, climate change, technology, and seeing where it leads. I’m also going to continue re-writing Observe and Detach so it’s ready for an agent, but I can’t suppress this any longer. It’s time to start harnessing the tide of creative growth that comes from a healthy examination of one’s path.
That’s my main point for you aspiring writers out there. Look at where you come from, gaze at what you wrote, but don’t let it define you. You are never who you thought you were. I wish there was some other better way to figure this out besides time travel or something. But as I near the midpoint of my thirties, I’ve come to understand that if you can learn from your mistakes, and where you come from, you’ll go a long way toward finding out where you’re going.
(Also when I first started thinking about this essay, I couldn’t help get this infamous YouTube video out of my head. Denny Green was a perennial character in my parent's’ living room as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings a million years ago…)
Hello readers, and welcome to the third installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). So far I’ve read a deeply disturbing murder mystery and what has been considered the first feminist novel. Next, I decided to take a veering course into commercial fiction with John Grisham’s 1991 novel The Firm.
This novel and its author are quite well-known in the literary world, and if I’m being honest I’m not quite sure why. This was quite possibly the worst book I have ever read. Despite this, it sold millions of copies and produced an epic movie that went on to cement Grisham’s status in the pop culture realm. I won’t spend much time on the plot, which for me was the only thing that kept me going, except to say it’s a legal thriller involving a young attorney who joins a Memphis tax firm which he ends up realizing (through the FBI) is a front for organized crime. Yet I still found a few (counter-intuitive) lessons to draw from this book:
I unfortunately must conclude that due to these glaring issues I will not be picking up this author anytime soon, if ever. I would recommend this book only if you are looking for a quick read to breeze through over the summer, but even in that category there are doubtless better books. I hate to wrap up this review in such a negative light, but it bears mentioning that even reading books like this can clue an author into what is popular in today’s market. Grisham manages to crank out a book every year, and while working at a bookstore has taught me the ethereal nature of big-name mystery authors, there is no doubt he has found success despite his shortcomings.
Up next, I’m taking a major step back into the past and revisiting one of my favorite genres, the war novel: in this case, Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front. I also hope to get a few more essays for the blog completed by the halfway point of the year. Stay tuned to this space for more updates on Another Year of Fiction!
Hello out there and welcome to the second installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After starting off with the morbid murder tale The Killer Inside Me, I decided to take stock of our current society (and my wife’s years-long wishes) and pivot toward what is generally considered the first feminist novel: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Even as this legendary novel reached its 200th birthday a few years prior it had long taken its place in the Western canon, both due to Austen’s radical vision of her society and in her varied use of language and dialogue. For those who don’t know the story I won’t give too much of it away, but suffice to say that the two words in the title convey a host of meanings upon main characters Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. I want to chiefly dive into the two major lessons I appreciated through reading this beloved masterwork.
Upon reading this novel I completely understand why it’s considered one of the greatest in the English language. But more pointedly, given the current bizarre misogynistic waves churning our glorious American society I thought it was a very important book to read at this time. Recall that Austen was taking an unparalleled look at her own society, its mores and values, and providing a sharp rebuke through her extraordinary female characters. Yet she never shies away from showing their faults and foibles with ironic delicacy. That being said, it’s important to note that the world needs strong females now more than ever, especially those who challenge the dominant order of things and weird, anti-intellectual trends such as the “men’s rights” movement. This novel felt like a major corrective against our current slump toward a dark age in America, and helped remind me about how people once comported themselves (though one hesitates to wear too rosy a color glasses peering into the 19th century). I would highly recommend this to those who, like me for years, thought they were “above” reading such a work as this.
Moving forward, I have decided to travel ahead several centuries and back into commercial fiction, delving into my first Grisham novel, his hugely successful The Firm. Stay tuned for the next update in Another Year of Fiction. And thanks for reading!
Hello and welcome as we take a journey into Another Year of Fiction. I decided to kick off this year’s experiment with a novel that was recommended to me by several people last year: Jim Thompson’s incredible 1952 crime novel The Killer Inside Me. Having received accolades from such luminaries as Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King, Thompson’s most famous book is a terrifying dive into the psyche of a normalized serial killer. The notion that depravity lies just below the surface of a small-town demeanor is one crucial theme of this novel, but there are some very important writing lessons to take away from it as well.
This was in my estimation a phenomenal book, and one of the creepiest I’ve read in some time. While I would recommend it, I’d direct that more toward people inclined to read crime/mystery or horror novels. But if you can stomach the dark vision of humanity and what lurks underneath, it would be hard to do better than this novel.
Next up: I decided a good antidote to the bizarre, misogynistic churn of our culture would be that most classic of feminist novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (But mostly it’s because my wife has been asking me to read this one for years.)
Stay tuned for the next essay in Another Year of Fiction. And thanks for reading.
Hello once again readers and welcome as I wrap up the final title from My Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. As with Reading Like a Writer, I wanted to bookend last year’s list with another tome on writing. I decided on Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which had been recommended to me by a few people. The book itself was decent, but had some glaring issues I couldn’t overlook. Lamott is much less funny on the page than she seems to think she is, and I found myself stunned that her editor didn’t try to correct this irregularity. Despite this there were a few portions that did make me laugh, and there are many excellent ideas through the entire book. I want to turn to some of the main lessons I took away from this work:
While there are many excellent pieces of advice throughout this work, I am not going to give it my full recommendation to other writers out there. Lamott really could have used a stronger editor as the book weaves in and out of her rambling considerations of her own talent, her internal feelings, and how nerve-wracking the writer’s life can become. While I don’t doubt many of us have experienced these things, it’s equally if not important to find ways to break through the self-doubt. All of this being said, there is a reason why this book has been a massive bestseller for years and is routinely included among lists of “books on writing.” There is absolutely a lot to gain from reading it, so I certainly would say take a look if you enjoy her previous writing (and I must confess this is the first book of hers I’ve ever read).
This wraps up my first year experiment in reading nothing but fiction (and two books on process). Up next, I begin my foray into Another Year of Fiction. I have decided my first book will be Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me. Stay tuned for an essay on that book in the coming weeks, and as always thanks for reading!
Hello out there readers, and thanks for sticking with me as I wrap-up the final few books of My Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. The last fiction work on my list was the epic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer by William Gibson. While I gained some major writing lessons from this epic volume, I wanted to first state emphatically that this was the best Science Fiction book I have ever read. Gibson’s monumental work was a phenomenal mix of futuristic vision and cyber-dread. The fact that he could so clearly see where we were headed as a species, even with the technology available in the mid-Eighties, is astronomical and a great example of how to use the genre to speak about the world. To that end, let’s delve into two important writing lessons I gained from this book.
You will probably notice that I haven’t given much away in terms of the plot of this novel. That’s because I hope those of you out there interested in the genre will give this one a read. It’s that essential of a book, and even if you’re not into Sci Fi I would highly recommend this book as it has much to teach about the nature of writing, not only about the future but of who or what might exist in that future.
And with that, there’s just one more book to go from my previous list: Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont’s well-regarded work on writing fiction. I hope to post an essay on it by the end of this month, and then it’s onto Another Year of Fiction (AYOF?!). Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!
Hello out there, readers. Happy 2017, and welcome to our Brave New World!
As you are aware, most of my writing for this blog last year concerned a year-long experiment I conducted reading only fictional works, then crafting essays about the writing lessons that I drew from each book. While I learned a ton from this experiment, I also learned about my own ability to set expectations as a reader and a writer. I want to delve quickly into the positive and negative aspects of this experiment, and then outline my plans for Another Year of Fiction (AYOF?!).
In terms of writing lessons, without a doubt I encountered more of those last year than any other of my career. Hemingway taught me how to keep things simple; Oscar Wilde showed me how to use a novel to speak truth about your society; and Vonnegut basically schooled me in almost every way possible for a master author. Even the books I wasn’t sure I would enjoy taught me a lot about keeping reader interest. I also read a phenomenal book about the practice and nature of reading, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in writing.
The biggest lesson learned for me in 2016 was: read fiction. There is simply no better path to understanding the work of others and how it might contribute to your own. The writer Austin Kleon has described the importance of how to “steal like an artist,” and the only way to accomplish this is to read all kinds of stuff, then artfully repurpose what you like about them for your own work. As a voracious consumer of all things nonfiction for years leading up to this experiment, I can make this conclusion with full confidence. Despite my wife’s protestations, I will get back to reading nonfiction at some point in my life (I’m going to need it for novel #4, for one reason). But that is not going to be 2017, as I plan on extending this experiment for at least one more year.
Which leads me to what I didn’t get quite right about this experiment. I’d have to say the biggest takeaway was: don’t over-promise and then under-deliver. I posted two lists of books to read during the year, but did not make it through the second half by the end of the year. Chiefly this was due to the nature of the final book I read and my underestimating of the slog it took me to finish it. But this also gave me a good idea of how long it really will take me to accomplish a task like this, and of how much I can read in a given year. Obviously people have been able to cram in many more works in a given year, and I can always do better. But for now, I’m not going to put out an “official” list of my upcoming fiction titles. Rather, I’m going to take it one book at a time and see how many I can complete in a year. Last year I was able to get through eleven books. Let’s see how many I can get through this year. And for those of you who have given me recommendations: they are still on my list, I just can’t promise I will get to all of them in 2017. Given how much I have learned already, I have a feeling I may be doing a variation of this exercise for the conceivable future...
To that end, I plan blasting through both Neuromancer and Bird by Bird and writing essays on each (hopefully) within a month. Gibson’s epic cyberpunk novel is already blowing me away in countless ways, and I can’t wait to see how Anne Lamont’s recommendations stack up next to Francine Prose. After that, I’ll announce the first “official” title for AYOF 2017!
Thanks to all of you who read and commented on my essays last year. I hope my advice has been helpful for those of you who want to give this writing thing a go in your own lives. Let’s enjoy another year of fiction together.
It is time once again for what will be the final update in my Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. Those of you keeping score at home will recall I initially promised to read another two books this year. While I will be getting to those next year, I’ll also have more on the major lessons learned from this experiment in a post re-launching this experiment in January.
After taking on Faulkner’s legendary Sound and the Fury I took a decidedly different pivot in my next selection: Exodus by Leon Uris. Published in 1958, it is an epic novel about the creation of the state of Israel after World War II. Uris traveled thousands of miles throughout the Middle East interviewing people and researching places for the book, and this imbues it with a historical sense that engaged me through nearly 600 pages. There are many characters and the book spans half a century, but I will admit the writing is actually quite dry and does just enough to keep the narrative flowing. Here are two lessons I drew as a writer from this monumental work:
While I’m glad Uris was able to keep my interest in the tale, I would be hard-pressed to recommend this book to a contemporary audience. As I’ve already stated, the writing just isn’t that great, and Uris presents the story of the Jewish people in an extremely one-sided way. As just one glaring example, the Arab people making up the states surrounding Palestine are almost uniformly presented in a harsh light, being described as backward and even “dirty” people who only reached salvation through the Jewish farming methods being used in the deserts. While things like this absolutely did happen, anyone who studies history as I have ought to know that things are never as simple as people would like them to be. Especially given the context of recent events transpiring between the US and Israel, it is important to note that this is just one (fictional) version of events, and while the historical narrative is quite engaging, anyone who wishes to truly understand the history of this part of the world would do better starting with some non-fiction sources.
So that’s it for my first experimental year of fiction! I’ll be back next year with a post running down everything I have gained from this experience. But for now I’ll say this year was incredibly revelatory for me. I gained some new favorite books and learned a ton from the masters of the written word that have gone before me. I hope I was able to distill some of this into useable knowledge for other writers out there. I would also highly recommend this type of experiment for anyone who wishes to hone their craft.
Thanks to everyone who read my posts in this experiment throughout the year, and I’ll see you on the other side of 2017.
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.