Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2020 Reading List. Last time I wrapped up a months-long tour of science fiction tales and now am getting back to another goal of reading more contemporary female authors. To that end I began with Jennifer Egan’s multiple award winning 2010 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. This book could be considered a short story collection or a novel (or both), and while the prose was quite gripping the overall structure left me wanting more. But first I wanted to get into why this book was so interesting.
The story concerns two “major” characters (Bennie and Sasha) and a host of “minor” characters that headline a chapter and then disappear into the overall narrative concerning these two and their lives in the music world. The first six chapters (“A”) are made up of stories Egan had published in various places and the ending six (“B”) seem to be more written for this book. Of the first set, I found “The Gold Cure” and “Ask Me If I Care” to be standouts, the former showing an aging Bennie still attempting to find musical acts, the latter a much earlier look at Bennie the musician. In the second set there is a good story showing Sasha’s world travels (“Goodbye, My Love”) and we also get to find out what happened to another character in Bennie’s life (“Pure Language”). I would have loved to find out much more about these supposed main characters but that’s about the most we get.
I have to say my biggest problem with this book is how it is supposed to all tie together. The narrative is quite disjointed over time and space, and while this supports the character interactions it also means we read about a lot of people we never see again. I found myself wondering what happened to the pop star that got abducted by a dictator (“Selling the General”), why did it matter that someone in Sasha’s life drowned (“Out of Body”), and what impact any of these secondary characters had on anyone else in these stories. I also had some issues with the various style choices Egan made, including a DFW-esque magazine article and an uninteresting segue of power-point type slides written by Sasha’s daughter (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses”).
While the stories themselves are unique, I question whether or not it helps the overall narrative connecting them together like this. While there were sublime moments when it did work, a lot of this felt jammed together into a forced commentary on the music business that did not always work for me as a reader.
I wanted to make a quick note about the Reading List going forward. I am still planning on getting to my blind spot that has existed for years, female authors. But it continues to need (more) non-white authors and I will continue to go in that direction over the next year. And I still hope to do a genre detour within the coming months. Up next, I am getting to a book I’ve wanted to read for years: Kathy Acker’s 1988 novel Empire of the Senseless. Thanks as always for reading, and stay cool and healthy out there.
I have tried to craft this #WritingLife essay twice. Once with the title ending “Covid” the other “George Floyd’s murder.” And then both events have merged together and represent so much more broken within our society. It’s almost quaint to think that a month ago the biggest concern with a lot of writers was “productivity.” The question of: am I creating enough during this down time? Should I be taking advantage of it more? As someone who has been laid off for a while now, I can say from a decent vantage point that none of that matters.
For some inspiration on this topic I conversed with Ed Simon, who has been running a phenomenal series on pandemic writing for The Millions.Here is part of what he had to say on the rise of “pandemic productivity:”
“Maybe they offer an alright corrective to people who feel anxiety about those things, but they sometimes do an over-correction, and are a disservice to people for whom that advice doesn't apply.“
“If I don't write, I get antsy, and I have to actively not write sometimes to recharge. I'm a recovering alcoholic, and not coincidentally my productivity shot up when I replaced getting black out drunk with actually writing. No clue if that's healthy, but it was certainly healthier, and in a very literal way I simply need to write. So the ‘You don't have to be productive’ stuff is probably good for people who DON'T have to be productive, but I kind of do.”
I thought this was a very interesting perspective and shows how a reliance on just putting words to page often backfires. You need to know what you are writing down in order to create something. I know there have been a lot of pieces on “productivity” and writing in the time of these earth-shattering events. But I’m here to tell you even if you read all of them you are not guaranteed to find the road to success cranking out your novel during this time. You may find more success doing nothing at all.
I am planning on delving into this more on the blog over the next year, but getting laid off (again) felt like an odd mirror to how this whole writing career of mine changed five years ago. And instead of thinking I must go back to wage-slave work and do another pointless job for five more years (this time with the added benefit of a pandemic), I have decided to use the little financial resources I have and (for real this time) do this as my career. I know it’s a stretch, a gamble, but it’s also the most freeing thing I could have done.
So be as productive as you want to during your quarantine. I could go on about how I’ve been re-writing my science fiction manuscript over and over in the hopes of this societal upheaval being my big break and whatever. I am more stunned to see my life from the perspective of never having to answer to anyone for my work. Ever again.
(I should add as opposed to last time when I kind of stepped aside from the journalistic side of things, in the wake of the MPD murder of George Floyd I don’t think that’s going to be an option. Those who know me might remember I used to cover City Council races and do investigations and stuff. For now it’s been more shouting on Twitter, but I may write some longer stuff at some point. The important thing is to make people aware.)
Writing in the time of...whatever it may be, don’t feel you must be productive. It’s far more important to understand what you want out of life, and then figure out how to get it. Write during all times, for all reasons. Thanks for reading.
Hello readers and welcome to the (long delayed) third entry of the Netflix series. This idea branched out of my need to add more overall artistic perspective to the blog. (If you want to catch up, here are the first two posts on BoJack Horseman and Black Mirror.) This time I took on the show that blew up the streaming network but also proved that a very solid series can be built on an unconventional memoir: Orange is the New Black.
It’s pretty doubtful you haven’t heard of this show, given the monumental attention it has received in the era of Golden Television. And right away I have to agree: this is the best television show I have ever seen, full stop. The character work alone by the talented directors and producers (not to mention the phenomenal acting performances) sealed the deal for me by the very first season. If I did have some issues with the series it was in reading the memoir by Piper Kerman.
The show and the memoir are quite different, and it was the alterations that affected me the most. At the risk of spoiling some parts of the show I will list a few. Kerman had a devoted partner who stuck with her the entire time she shifted among multiple women’s correctional facilities. In the show he’s depicted by Jason Biggs (in a standout performance) and ends up having an affair with Piper’s best friend. He does make some appearances toward the end when she gets back out of prison, but I kind of wished they would have shown how in real life he supported her through all of this. There is a well-known character from the series played by Uzo Aduba (“Crazy Eyes”) who is quite altered from the memoir, and some of the subplots specific to the show don’t quite pan out.
Another major difference that I thought made the show much stronger was the concept of taking the characters into various other forms of prison. First this is done based on the memoir, when the real Piper was transferred to a facility in Chicago where she runs into the person who named her and sent her to jail (in the show she’s a sort of amalgam character played by the amazing Laura Prepon). This sequence is lifted right from the book as we follow the “diesel therapy” plane trip into the unknown. And there is an outstanding episode in the first season where the show version of Piper gets sent to solitary confinement. But this is done much better later in the series, where the fictional version of the prison is privatized, leading to new guards that then cannot control the outbreak of a riot over the death of a black prisoner. I won’t spoil the aftermath but will just say that it ends up with the remaining characters in the maximum security unit, which the real-life Piper learned about through interactions with those that did time there. And in the final season I thought a great choice was made to show the sheer brutality of the ICE prisons and the impoverished deportation machine.
There are many more examples, but while you might not find it necessary to read the book this series is based from, they are quite dissimilar in some key ways. For the most part I tried to understand why certain choices were made by the stand-out crew that put this show together (starting with Jenji Kohan, and to be fair Piper Kerman was a consultant throughout) and how it affected the narrative. For the most part, I think it gave me some insight into how a series based on a book can work in some standout ways.
Not only is this one of the first shows to have a dominant POC/non-binary cast of females and/or LGBTQ in its cast, with most male characters either asshole guards or ineffective beuracrats, although that evolves over time. The series also does not shy away from the most brutal of topics that Kerman’s memoir explores: the sheer dehumanization of these prisoners by the guards and the system, the ways in which they manage to band together through their common humanity, and how they make it through their time there. I also have to praise the concept of pulling the few real-life details of the women Kerman met in Danbury to construct some incredible, memorable characters. Alongside Prepon, Natasha Lyonne gives the best performance of the series as a Brooklyn junkie that (I’m pretty sure) is based on a character from the memoir. And the black women Kerman met (“Taystee” on the series; “Delicious” in the memoir as one example) were already interesting and the series gives the characters rich lives of their own, despite showing the challenges they face (homelessness, few economic prospects, city structures that oppress them) in unflinching detail.
Overall I can’t recommend this series enough if you’re looking for a provocative watch as we live through historical times. To understand the “justice” and “correctional” systems is to understand how they oppress marginalized communities, and this is the first series I have come across that presents that in such an important, empathetic manner.
I plan to write about a few more Netflix programs in this series, the next being Stranger Things. And if you live in the Twin Cities, please stay safe out there tonight. Thanks for reading.
Hello readers and welcome to the third entry in the 2020 Reading List! I am wrapping up a long tour through science fiction territory, last time reading a more contemporary take. For my last stop I decided to read another of the old masters: Isaac Asmiov and his 1950 collection I, Robot.
I chose this title to inspire me as I wrapped up this round of revisions on my science fiction manuscript, and for that I found it to be quite good. As is pretty well known, Asimov is legendary for creating the three laws of robotics, and most of these stories rotate around them in one form or another. But I found an even more insight in the character of Susan Calvin and some comparisons to what I’m trying to do in my manuscript. The stories build on each other pretty well until “Liar,” which becomes more of a psychological study of robots. While the gender stereotypes haven’t aged well (more on that later) this still an interesting tale about the notion of a robot that could read minds and yet be held back by logistics of the rules. There is also some great humor in the Powell and Donovan stories.
I thought Asimov shines most in the later tales, “Escape!” “Evidence” and “The Evitable Conflict.” Each of these build upon themes present in all of the stories, and offers its own stirring narrative. The first deals with some rather disturbing elements of “hyperspatial” travel and how a robot must deal with them. “Evidence” shows a great way for any writer of this genre to insert elements of technology right into society. Reading these final stories I was struck by how Asimov long ago got to where I have in my manuscript, in that he saw the planet broken down into various regions and political upheaval in the form of a zealous organization (in his universe it’s the anti-robot “Fundamentalists”).
I would recommend this collection if you have interest in what is considered the beginning of the field of artificial intelligence, even if actual robots would be decades away. I found many remarkable examples of what behemoth corporations like Google are attempting with their deep learning machines today. And of course in those decades we have also found out more about Asimov, and like others like him, it becomes difficult not to consider that when selecting works from the genre.
This will be the last of the science fiction works for the year and the Reading List will be back open to everything. In that spirit, next up will be Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer-winning novel (and/or short story collection) A Visit from the Goon Squad. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the second entry in the 2020 Reading List. Last time I took a deep dive into the best science fiction novel I have ever read. I have now shifted to a contemporary title in the genre, Dave Eggers’ well-received 2013 novel The Circle. Eggers is considered a pillar of the literary community, his creation of one of the most iconic publishing brands alone cementing that years ago (I also somehow never put together that it launched the landmark lit mag The Believer). I encountered other organization websites in the bio section that I was not aware of as being his projects. And of course Eggers has a litany of published works in many different genres and won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize among others. This was the first novel of his I had read.
While I understood and even cheered the themes he pursued in this novel, so much of the execution was flawed that I have a hard time recommending it. First I want to discuss the things Eggers gets right in this tale. For being published in the early part of the decade he was way ahead of the curve seeing where internet technology would be headed in a few years. One giant company engorging on the data of everyone, concerns of privacy and security and transparency, and the ideology of disruption overriding moral ideals are a few themes he explores. We see the world of The Circle through the eyes of Mae Holland, who accepts the increased demands of her employer with alarming alacrity despite warnings about these concepts from others in her life. I found many of these descriptive passages very compelling as Eggers spends yards of prose on mundane details like social media updates that are still gripping, just as we understand how important yet pointless it seems in the real world.
I applaud the overall direction of analysis Eggers takes, and his prose is deceptive enough to weave layers of comment under the character interactions. Yet I found myself wanting more diversity out of Mae. Her persona is written rather cliched, bouncing between two weird male characters and coming to hate another female protagonist for reasons of corporate advancement. Eggers overreaches in his own need to stand-in as two characters, one I’d wager is Mae’s ex, Mercer, who is a foil in that he offers up endless screeds against the tyranny of the online masses Mae continues to dismiss. I also struggled with some of the logistical issues of what The Circle manages to accomplish. It would be a massive undertaking to place cameras everywhere on the planet, even given the disregard for political pushback on companies like this in the novel. Eggers presents the reverse political accountability in a novel way (more cameras, but this time following elected officials) but one I found overall to be unconvincing.
I have a hard time advocating for this book as a great science fiction read, but it does contain a solid working of these themes, and Eggers deserved the praise for his remarkable and prophetic vision of these internet companies. Next I’m going to take on a final major icon for this sci-fi tour: Isaac Asimov and his 1950 collection I, Robot. Then I will shift back toward all kinds of fiction and hope to mix up the genres a bit by the summer months, which still feel decades away. Thanks as always for reading, and stay healthy.
Hello and welcome to the fourth part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(Note: Part three focused on the editing process for my third novel Observe & Detach. In the almost two years since I have returned to this series I have decided to focus again on what has become my new “current” manuscript, a science fiction novel titled Spheres of Influence. For more background on how that project came about, check out parts one and two of the series.)
Rewriting. The main reason it has taken me so long to figure out a process for this step is that I have been struggling with doing it for most of that time. Since Observe has taken a back seat in favor of this climate change tale, its manuscript has seen around six full drafts. That is, the previous draft takes up one half of my screen and the new one takes up the other part. I have decided to continue this process until my editor Libby Copa has time to take another look at the work. I have come across no easier way than this, and I must say getting all this time inside has helped me to test it out a bit more. To that end, I want to again exhibit how a piece of writing can change during each stage.
Spheres of Influence started out as another weird chain of ideas that wound up becoming an initial draft (check out part two of this series if you dare to dredge through it), which ended up being an introductory multiple pages. Reading over my thoughts back then, it’s interesting to see what has changed, or morphed, or been erased. The character here is still an “underground journalist” (maybe not so much “historian” any longer) but I have since decided to base her more on a real world journalist I admire. But her ranty first-person narration made it all the way through multiple drafts before I could see what was in front of my face: that her career and work was facilitating the story, not her general recollections. But after realizing this final cut was necessary I still had some work for the introduction, and even after this will need to make sure it hooks the reader from the start. I present now the changes first chapter paragraphs can make from one draft to the next.
Amy Greatman washed soapy water through her dark brown hair, which she noticed in the mirror above her sink was beginning to shade to gray. The reflection emanated all she tried to cultivate during her career: stone dedication honed over two decades of investigative journalism. Her eyes traced the eyes of the scar curving around her left eye, and she let her palm fall into the clean white bowl of the porcelain sink. Amy was never late to work. Not once in her whole damn life did she ever show up to that newsroom with anything less than five minutes to spare before the morning briefing. Her producer Dan expected this from her now that their staff was dwindling in number after the last round of budget cuts. But on this day, as she threw on a gray nylon sweater and corduroy jeans cinched by a snazzy black belt and matching socks, she thought would be an exception.
And when she walked into the briefing room a few minutes late, an overwhelming sense of dread dragging behind her and saw Dan's face and he wasn't upset, she knew something else bigger had happened. She couldn't shake the words he screamed at her out of her mind as she raced down the hallway to get her cameraman.
"I don't know what happened. People are saying somebody flew a fucking plane into the side of it! The whole thing looks like it's about to collapse. Get your ass down there, now! We have to get it as it falls. These images are going worldwide!" Dan gasped at the end like he was having a heart attack.
Amy couldn't find her cameraman Jose so she pushed through the front doors she'd just walked through, notepad and phone in hand, and jumped back into her crappy two-door sedan. She turned and looked as the screeching wail of sirens blew past her in the crowded street. She flicked on the radio, turned to the public news station.
The woman on the radio kept saying: "There has been an attack."
Amy Greatman washed the soapy water into her dark brown hair. She caught a glimpse in the mirror above her sink that portions were now shaded gray. She traced the small curve of the scar hooked over her left eye with her index finger, then let her weathered palm fall into the clean white of the porcelain sink. Her reflection emanated stone dedication honed over decades of investigation. Amy held certain tenets, a major one was never be late. Not once in her entire damnable life had she ever shown up at that newsroom with anything less than ten minutes to spare preparing for the morning meeting. Her producer Dan expected it now that staff was dwindling from the recent budget cuts. Independent media was a brutal landscape at any time, let alone one where the major media groups controlled most of it. Amy threw on a gray nylon sweater and corduroy jeans cinched with a black belt and matching socks, and was out with the door with plenty of time to spare.
The first thing to strike her was the silence. Manhattan had never been a place of concentration, of slowness, of still behavior. But this was next-level. Amy could hear the wind blow the boughs of the few trees planted along her street. It was eerie. The main location of her indie news program Instant Freedom!, which streamed its episodes to half the globe, was a few train stops away. She walked into the briefing room with a sense of dread, brought on from the train passengers and their dead stares and the lull that entered her car as it rattled. Dan's face confirmed it when Amy walked into the room. The words he screamed at her echoed through her mind as she raced down the small carpeted hallway to find her cameraman.
"I don't know what in the hell happened. The first wire reports say somebody flew a fucking plane into the side of it. The whole fucking tower is about to collapse. Get your ass there now! We have to get that image. It's going worldwide," Dan gasped.
Amy ducked her head into Jose's small changing room, but he was not there. She left a message on his small desk, then tromped further down the hallway to Gary's office. He was the senior journalist on staff, but as of late had taken to commentary. She knew he would have interest, even if he couldn't work a camera. She gave two tiny knocks on his door, but he didn't turn around. She said his name, but then picked up on the fact that he was listening to the radio, the giant public news station.
The woman on the broadcast repeated: "There has been some sort of attack..."
"I'm going down there," Amy said to his back. When he turned, his face was ashen and torn with fear. She had never seen it on his tough face.
"Be careful," he said. He never said that. "I am going to stay with this for a bit."
Amy went back out to the hallway to her office, grabbed her notepad and a small film camera, and headed up to the front doors. She jumped back into her beat up two door sedan, then whipped her head around as a screeching wall of sirens blew down the street. She twisted the knob on the radio.
"There has been some sort of attack..."
The major change would be the introduction of a character (Gary) who I had introduced much later in the book but found it made little sense. I have since decided to flesh out more scenes with Amy and Gary in another chapter, and thought he could use a basic introduction here. And there are of course many other differences. This passage got a couple hundred words longer, but that won’t always be the case. In general, there should be a good balance over the drafts between cuts and additions, and over the course of this process there should begin to appear a novel. The number of drafts isn’t the main thing to consider, it is how the plot, characters and entire story is changing through each one. Now that I have a good pattern to establish for my rewrites I have a good rhythm to my churning them out. I’m not sure where the next entry in this series will go but it will continue to follow the course of this manuscript.
Hello readers and welcome to the long-delayed first entry in the 2020 Reading List. I know there is a lot going on in the world but I hope that means we are all taking stock of what is important in life. For me that is a close read of a phenomenal novel. And I had that in my first title for the year: Ursula Le Guin’s landmark 1969 science fiction work The Left Hand of Darkness. This was without a doubt the greatest sci fi book I have ever read. Better than Gibson or Heinlein, and maybe even Vonnegut, who was just hitting his stride around the same time. There are many reasons for this so let’s start from the top.
First, the entire novel was a master class in how to say a lot with very little prose. There are so many layers to this work: the world itself, its inhabitants and its societal structure, but far beyond this are the androgynous aspects to the people of Gethen and those of its various regions. We are brought into the story by an anthropological envoy named Genly Ai whose sole mission is to bring this world (Gethen, or Winter to the envoy) into the Ekumen, or collection of planets. He visits both regions and is treated poorly by both. Throughout there are deft allusions to the geo-political situation on our planet at the time, but Le Guin is so masterful with her prose you have to ponder how those are drawn out. There is no simple statement within saying one nation is better than the other, but there are quite a few nods toward the notion that an androgynous society is much less susceptible to the quarrels and demons of our world, the chief being warfare. War is shown as something that has to be manipulated into, and there are very interesting passages where Genly is considering how their society is different from his own.
Second, this novel is also a master class of how to world build by breaking all the rules. I’ve gone over this on the blog before, but most “rules” for writers are nonsense for those who have the talent to break them. Many of us, myself included, might think to put the details of the world in the first part of the book. Instead Le Guin dumps a bunch of terms and mannerisms on us from the outset (not to mention changes in perspective that aren’t always recognizable) and starts a slow download of what they mean as we progress through the work itself. We don’t find out the origin of a major term (“shifgrethor”) until almost the end of the novel, but the word itself is shown so freaking well through the story that it does not matter. That’s how skillful the prose is here. The entire last portion where the two major characters are traversing the ice back to the start, was one of the most gripping and stunning passages of prose I have ever encountered.
I must thank you readers for sticking with me as I took almost two months to devour this novel, and it was worth every chapter. As I stated I may not be getting to as many titles per year as before but I am going to analyze the heck out of each novel as I get through them. To that end, the next title in this continuing march through science fiction territory will be an author I have avoided until now: Dave Eggers and his dystopian 2013 novel The Circle. And I’m getting scary close to finishing both Orange is the New Black the Netflix series and the memoir, so stay tuned for a post on that next month.
And of course in these scary times it’s important to truly reflect on what matters in life. I hope as we are all self-quarantined and distancing ourselves we all are noticing the beauty of life that does exist, and the wonderful connection we all share. As great books like this show us, this is pervasive despite the many attempts at division. Stay safe and healthy out there and thanks for reading.
John Abraham 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.