Hello readers and welcome to the second installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Last time I took on another of my editor Libby’s recommendations: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. This was another book written by a contemporary female author that I must admit, has completely changed my opinion about today’s publishing landscape. If something this good can still be cranked out by a major house, there is hope for us all.
As you know, this time around I’m taking a more deep dive into each work, which apparently is making me less effective at turnaround as I’m barely clearing a book per week. I am fine with that, however, when the reading is this good. For years I thought Hemingway was the epitome of a stunning, clipped, American sentence. Not so much anymore. Cline’s prose is so well put together I felt lost in her world of alternate 1969 for days on end. Alternate in the sense that this is a reimagining of the Manson family, a peculiar curiosity from that time, one of many my wife has gotten me into over the years. The main character is the only member of the cult not to go to jail, to live her life on the periphery of things, to see it from the author’s perspective, and it is a powerful ride. I had a few quibbles with parts of the prose but let me state flat out that the story itself more than compensates for any issues I had. The framing used, seeing the main character as an old woman, is incredible. You can tell from early on something very bad is going to happen in these people's’ lives, and that tension is threaded intricately throughout.
That being said, I did have a couple of items, both of which could have been caught by her editor. First, there is a luminous couple pages of paragraphs where Evie first encounters “the girls” (meaning those outside her world of high school privilege) which are set right at the beginning of the text. We revisit the scene pretty early in the book, which left me wondering why the decision was made to excise that little bit of text and put it in the front. That’s fairly petty, but my next critique is a bit more substantial. While Cline is presenting a master class in how to use language and metaphor, she does overuse the simile form a bit too much. The word “like” especially becomes overused at times, but I must stress the writing is overall so good I didn’t notice very much.
This was an amazing, dark book and shows reams of potential for this author. Her website lists a bunch of other stuff she’s published, and looks similar to mine (I shudder when looking at my “events” which took place four years ago…). I eagerly anticipate what else she publishes and would highly recommend this book for anyone who has (like me) been discouraged with the state of contemporary fiction. Up next, I’m on to another female author, Edan Lepucki and her 2014 debut California. Thanks as always for reading!
(I should add I am now able to devote my full break at my day job to reading non-fiction, so hope to compile some of those titles here for those who may have interest. First down the hatch was one I have wanted to read for at least a decade: Alan Weisman’s landmark 2007 thought experiment The World Without Us. A major help for my current sci fi/dystopian manuscript.)
Hello readers and welcome to the first installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Alright, so it’s technically the third month into the year but who’s counting? I’ve spent the last few months wrapping up the 2018 Reading List, reflecting on it, and posting a re-worked short story to the blog. Then I did a close read of the first book on this year’s list: Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder.
This book was (actually!) recommended to me by my editor, and I can see why. Patchett’s luminous sentences, coupled with radiant scene description and phenomenal character interactions (Annick Swenson was one of the best fictional people I have encountered in some time) made this a very fascinating read. The story follows Dr. Marina Singh as she travels to the Amazon region of Brazil for a large pharmaceutical company in search of her lost (and presumed dead) lab partner and friend, as well as the aforementioned Dr. Swenson, who is working on a fertility cure derived from a compound in the jungle. While it takes about a hundred pages to get to that point, once the narrative settles it is quite compelling, and Patchett throws in a few plot twists at the end I have to admit I did not see coming. The story does just seem to “end” and while I’m not sure the resolution is quite earned, it is interesting to see the end result of Dr. Singh’s journey. Now I’m going to delve into what I didn’t like about the novel before giving my ultimate recommendation.
While the story was good enough on its own merits, the gorgeous sentences were overwhelmed at times by a complete and utter over-use of adverbs. For a piece of advice that I thought was well known (still the number one thing I remember from Stephen King’s On Writing), Patchett seems to have never heard of it, making worse some lines (and speaking parts) with needless “ly” modifiers. There were also some confusing structural issues, involving Dr. Singh recalling bits of her past when I wasn’t quite sure we had shifted back. But this may have been a function of me not picking up the clues as well as I should have. The largest issues I had with the novel were the times the plot did tip-toe up to the “white savior” line. As Conrad before her, Patchett seems not to have much of a place for the native Indians of her story, except to show them using the fertility cure, braiding hair, or giving birth. Even Dr. Swenson, who has been studying the Lakashi people for most of her life is treated like a deity rather than a researcher. This all being said, Patchett also does a good job weaving in thematic notions of “Big Pharma exploiting the rainforest,” which in real life has turned into a bit of a plunderous game and is worth writing and speaking about in public.
So would I recommend this title? Overall I’d have to say yes, because it was a great read. (And while I’m not supposed to be veering in this direction anymore, there are some good lessons for writers within this novel as well.) If you can get past some of the issues in the prose you will be rewarded with a great story and characters. I hope to read another of Patchett’s books in the future.
Up next I’m continuing in the contemporary female author way by getting to a title I didn’t make time for last year: Emma Cline’s 2016 debut The Girls. Stay tuned to this here blogspace for more of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List!
I never noticed that small crack in the upper left corner of the bathroom, winding its way toward the pinnacle of the ceiling. A bit of mold grows around the base, a sick greenish-black splotch. I open the old mirror and its hinges squeal in protest. From within, the remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small rectangular box. It taunts me; reminds me of what used to be.
Sylvia used to make me floss every night. Said it was good for me. I haven't touched the stuff since she left and took the kids. I don't notice a difference in my teeth. I feel around with an index finger to make sure. As I am doing this, my eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought the week after she moved out. It's not as good as what she got me, but I don't care. I don't have to care anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the overhead bulb. A pack of cotton swabs she would use to clean the disgusting wax from the caverns of my ear cavities. My mother used to do the same thing when I was six years old. I see peroxide for my little cuts, bandages for the larger ones. My gaze shifts to the tweezers sitting next to the bandages. She used to use those to pull little hairs right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it.
Sylvia left behind what she didn't want at her new place, the overstuffed plaid couch we found at a garage sale the year we were married. Our cat Diana, before we even started talking about having children, used to eat the white fluff that poured from its sides when she scratched it with her long, merciless claws. Diana lives with Sylvia and my children now. I think they even got another cat.
I see Sylvia took all the "female" stuff from this squeaky cabinet. The makeup, the hair ties, the pins, facial cleanser, hair spray. All the pills she had to take for allergies, headaches, muscle injuries. And the bottles that would make her smell nice when we were alone without the kids. I don't need to smell like a damn thing now. I'm still a man, aren't I? Our gender was never supposed to smell like roses. Just like we were never meant to clean up after ourselves. Don't even think on that kitchen right now. Focus on the task at hand.
My eyes arrive back upon the tiny white box of string. If I am going to do this, affirm that I'm ready to move on, it's best to get it over with while I can. I don't see or feel anything wrong with my teeth. But I'm not looking hard enough. I reach out and pull the little box down to the sink. A string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and pull out a length of it. Start on the back, I tell myself. That was always the hardest. Six months ago my dentist said a cavity was forming here. Sylvia said to just take care of it; we'd worry about how to pay for it later. I should have listened to her. On the bright side, there is nobody to nag me about what to eat now. I wonder what's left in that refrigerator. Ouch. Focus.
Damn, this hurts. More than it did last time. I shouldn't have broken this habit. I shouldn't have done a lot of things. We thought new trips would help our situation. Did our ski vacation in Denver last winter? Not according to my bruised ass, and damaged ego. I didn't know the pain of snow grinding against flesh quite until then. Charlie, our oldest, almost slid right into a tree. And the traveling out east to see some of Sylvia's judgmental relatives? When we left screaming out the door on the way out to our rented minivan, Uncle Mike said in mighty plain language we were not welcome back. Sorry I brought up how good I thought oil was for the country at large. Didn't realize it was still so communist out there. What's been happening to this country.
My thoughts return to the slow movement of my fingers, moving along the right side. This side hurts even worse. Could there be another cavity forming here? Why wouldn't the dentist have told me this?
Sylvia, you shouldn't have taken the kids. I lost control of the narrative. Christ knows what she's telling them about their absent father. About what a jerk, what a loser he is. He doesn't even floss, Charlie. Did ya know that? Doesn't even take care of himself. What kind of man is not able to continue basic hygiene once his partner is gone? Not somebody she wants you to know, Lisa. I suppose it's more important she knows what men are like, now, before she grows up. Before she goes into this world, and finds out what it's really like.
Forget about all of that. Keep going. I am doing this because I want to, not because it was a routine, like all the others only you could keep me doing. Not because it reminds me of the ways you affected my life. I'm conducting this painful exercise, this tour of duty because I want to, and not for any other reason.
This part, in the front, doesn't hurt so much. This is what it's supposed to feel like. Gives the mouth a nice clean feeling. Doesn't that feel better, Sylvia would say. Yes it does, I would say in grudging reply. You were right. I got used to saying that quite a lot. She nailed the fact that I wouldn't be able to keep that job in her father's firm. Of course, there was more to it than that. Besides, I got this new job at the diner. Pays the bills for this place, for now. I'll find work elsewhere. It's not like I'll be working at a suck hole restaurant down the street for the rest of my life.
Now it's time to floss the other side. This hurts like hell in the back. I must be developing more cavities. It's in my diet. Sylvia used to force me to eat the most disturbing foods. Healthy crap like broccoli, potatoes, carrots, and fish. Can you imagine much worse? And this was every night. She said it was good for the kids to grow up with healthy bodies. What about what might be good for me?
Sylvia and I used to have routines. Go out to the potholed street to pick up our mail together each night after work, dodging the kids on bicycles and then old folks out for their stroll. Sometimes we'd walk further too, out into the park across the way. We'd sit up late at night reading, her with a book and me with a hunting magazine, as the fire warmed. I don't even remember the last time we went out to see a movie. Not since the kids came along. They went to see their own stuff now, and we didn't because we were too exhausted. Routines are only held together by commitment. I'm finding that out now. I keep telling myself I'm doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I'm doing this because she used to make me do it. I can't not do it. I want to be told to do it. To be held to a standard.
I pull out another strand of floss, circulate it to the lower regions. It still hurts, but not as bad as at the beginning. I should just go to the dentist. You would want me to do that, even after all of this. You forced these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance. You knew I wanted better. But maybe I don't want to be better anymore. You're not around to make me. Not since that night.
You had your suspicions. Lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker in your father's office. I know you had your father spying on me. In the break room, in my office, in the hallways. He even had his secretary looking through my mail. Why was I so stupid? I left that envelope out on my desk, knowing she would see it. Knowing you would find out. Maybe I wanted to be found out. Maybe I knew it was wrong all along. Plus it never could have worked out. The girl was half my age, didn't even know who Ronald Reagan was. I was a damned fool.
Truth was, I didn't think I was happy. I couldn't imagine getting that from you and the kids. I wanted out. And now that I am, it's everything I thought it would be. But much worse.
Back to the flossing, I have rounded third and am getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier is flung at the mirror. I watch as it smacks the glass, falls a few centimeters and gets plastered in place right above my left eye in the mirror. It takes up room among the other stains: toothpaste, soap, my own sweat, water marks. These things she would have washed off so I wouldn't have to look at them. It is time to be done.
I hold a lingering glance at the cabinet after I swing open the creaky door. The floss was left in there. You knew I'd want to use it again someday. My eyes fall on the rest of my products; drop to the sink as I close the door. I have to get that door fixed. Along with the crack in the ceiling. And the mold. You would have noticed that months ago.
My gums are on bloody fire, the pain is excruciating when I open my jaw. I recall you one evening yelling at me, telling me I had to endure the pain before I could understand it. The worst pain of all I brought upon you, and the children. I can never be forgiven for this. I'm not sure if I even want to be.
Back to the main room, where the ratty, comfortable couch remains. Nobody around to tell me I can't set my food plates right on the cushions, either. Like a disgusting hog in a pen.
I have everything I could ever need. Sylvia took all of her clothes, leaving metric feet of space in the bedroom closet. This is my chance to see how long I can make it with my current wardrobe. I told her once I could live in these clothes for years. Now is the time to prove it. I think it's time to get some beers from the liquor store across the street.
I will miss you. I will always miss you. I cannot dwell on the past, not when I have this sweet bachelor pad. Not when I have the opportunity to meet new people. It's easy to make friends after you turn forty, right? You moved on with your friends quite well. None of them want to speak to me, and it serves them right. I never liked them, anyways. Once the girl in your dad's office found out I was married, it was over. I guess women don't like to be deceived. Now I am on my own, for the first time since before I met you. I did it before, I can do it again. Right?
Shit, it is chilly out here. I wish I remembered to bring my coat. No bother. A few vagrants linger around the shelves in the liquor store, harsh white fluorescent light blasting the scene for the closed circuit cameras. I grab a twelve pack of brew from the cooler and hoof it to the counter, where two meth heads are dueling it out for supremacy over a large forty ounce bottle. See, there are a lot of people in this neighborhood to meet. Back in the apartment building, I run up the three flights since the elevator remains out of order. I need the exercise, just like I needed to floss.
Now I just want to settle in for some television. I click the button, but nothing happens. Damn, I forgot she paid for it. I should have asked her to transfer it to my name. I need my Spike-TV. Oh well. I suppose now I can relax on my own. Do some quality reading. Like we used to in front of the fire. Where's that Norman Mailer novel.
Now it's 2:00 am and darkened in this house we used to share. I forgot the damn light bulbs. I hear myself moan in the darkness as I lift myself out of the ratty couch. Leave those beer bottles for tomorrow. You have all the time in the world before you have to walk back into that kitchen. The stack of dishes can remain a mystery until tomorrow.
Sylvia, you were right to take the kids. Charlie and Lisa will grow up the right way under your guidance. I'm an unfit parent. Can't even take care of my fucking teeth. No child should have to endure that. I had do with my father, as I told you on our second date. You saw it coming a mile away.
I stumble into bed, using my phone as a flashlight. I forgot to brush my teeth. After all that work. This thought is borne away on a stream of false consciousness. When I think I am back in reality I see Sylvia, Charlie and Lisa in front of me, standing in front of this apartment, waving but moving out of my vision. And then they are gone, and I'm alone in this bed, in this apartment with my rotten teeth and my eternal misery.
Short stories - what are they? How do they work? This is a topic I have been struggling with since I began writing for this website (almost) four years ago. The first short story I ever posted here was a re-posting of a terrible story I wrote for a creative writing class back in my university days (if you’re a glutton for punishment, here are parts one and two of that initial workshop).
Since that time I have carved out a dedicated space each year to simply read short story collections. Beginning with Jack London and Neil Gaiman, I later moved the “pivot” into these collections toward the end of each reading year before finally realizing this type of writing cannot be constrained to when I would like to think about it. I began reading pairs of authors but also spent some deeper time with those I thought were the best. I also posted a few more stories to the blog in that time. One was political in nature and got a few good responses, but without a doubt the story that made the biggest splash was “Flossing,” which I posted in September 2017. (Here is a link for those who’d like to read the original.)
Since then I have continued working on it, combining aspects of another story and cleaning up the perspective and emotional tenor. To that end, I sent the revamped story to my “other” editor Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial to get her take on how this story could be improved. I also asked her if I could use some of our editing conversations for this post in order to try and show the process of how to write a short story, something that has bedeviled me for quite a while. Those who do choose to go back and read the original will see a clipped, single-perspective story concerning a man who has lost everything in his life. While I decided to keep that overall theme, I wanted to say more about the concept of toxic masculinity through what happens when we of the male gender act as is our wont. Thankfully this came through enough for Anne to see as well.
Of course, every editing partnership contains some give and take. My “main” editor Libby could attest to that, as most of our early working relationship involved her telling me how to make my books better and me not being willing to listen to some (or all) of it. I have since learned how to trust her expertise, and I am trying to do the same here even on our points of divergence. In the case of this story, there were two places in which I told Anne I didn’t take her advice, and here was her very thoughtful consideration when we discussed the second case:
“Everything I change or comment on are suggestions, for you to take or leave as you wish. After all, this is your story, and you know best what message you're trying to get across and how you want to get there. I see my role as being an outside eye and making those suggestions, but I certainly don't expect that every author will accept 100% of them.”
The first case was more subjective, involving the main character getting a job at his (now ex-) wife’s father’s firm and how that led him into temptation. Anne suggested I cut most of this, and I decided to go a different way and pull more of a narrative from that. When I told her so, she actually said she liked the changes. This is an example of how sometimes you should stick to your original thought, but be respectful in exploring how you came to that understanding. I’m very grateful that Anne is such an amazing editor (you should follow her on Twitter too) and is very open to such a back and forth.
There was also another point of contention regarding a change of setting, and while I’m still not sure I made the right decision in whether to keep it, sometimes writers are just bull-headed and want to keep stuff in their work. This is an impulse you should listen to every once in a while, but always keep it carefully weighed against what your (very smart, talented) editor has to say on the matter.
Besides those points of divergence, every other suggestion Anne had made this story much better. It is my hope that in posting it to the blog readers can see how much it has changed in nearly two years. I am also open to any thoughts/criticism regarding the theme, which I am still not sure I have hit correctly even with this rewrite, but I am trying...
In the interest of keeping this part to its own topic of introduction, I will be putting the actual story in its own post. And I look forward to any and all reader comments, since this thing will never see the light of day for publication in an actual literary journal but is a piece that will live on my blog for demonstration purposes. I do have a few other stories I have been circulating through journals and contests over the past month; more on that if I am lucky enough to hear back from any of those outlets (all rejections so far, but they’ve come with notes from editors which are usually great).
Thanks as always, for reading my work.
Hello readers and welcome to 2019. All right, we’re a month in but who’s counting? Just the calendars?
Long-time readers will recall that I’ve been doing some sort of fiction reading and posting since 2016, and last year I decided to just make this a regular series. And again, I’m back with a post looking over the year and what these authors taught me. Just a few quick hits: both Margaret Atwood and Emily St. John Mandel taught me how to write an incredible, dystopian tale; Donna Tartt showed me how to maintain such control over one’s writing that you can give away the ending; Virginia Woolf showed me (and many male authors of her own time) how to spin a dramatic life out of a single day; DeLillo quite simply blew me away with his immense talent; Joyce Carol Oates illustrated family life in ways I never thought possible; Flannery O’Connor deftly proved how to weave religious themes into secular morality tales; James Baldwin showed how to speak boldly and causticly about our racist American society; and Chekhov gave me a master class in short story writing at the end of the year (I also shoved in two more story collections into the first month of this year).
I also delved into a brilliant Netflix series, took a detour into drama and finally made it to a graphic novel (albeit also not until this year). And I was again able to blast through a fair amount of phenomenal nonfiction at my day job, which this year included Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, Naomi Klein’s climate polemic This Changes Everything, the late Anthony Bourdain's second collection The Nasty Bits, Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, Daniel Kahneman's masterful Thinking Fast and Slow, and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. All told, while I didn’t quite manage to get everything shoved into 2018 I read around 25 books, which if you’re keeping score at home is about twice the amount I have been able to get to in years past.
Looking back, I’d have to say while I met the overall goal of reading more fiction, I still have a ways to go including non-white and female authors. While I made some strides in that direction this year, it is something I am going to continue to work on and include in my reading lists (and as always, I’m open to any recommendations). As I stated last year, the Reading List is going to be an ongoing, never-ending series for the rest of my career, so I am not concerned with promising a certain amount of titles per year anymore.
This brings me to my second overall lesson, which is how to switch up this series. For three years now, with each work I have attempted to draw out at least two major lessons for writers. Some authors had many more than this, some barely made it at all. After all this time I have decided I have illustrated this enough, and now hope to do a more “review” style post on each work, describing what I liked and didn’t like, what worked for the story, and whether or not I would recommend this to other writers.
Regarding some of my other goals from last year: I was able to begin a series called “How to Write a Book” - if you missed any of it the first time around part one (Ideas & Outline) is here, part two (Drafting) is here, and both of parts three (Editing) can be found here and here. The “Writing” series continues to be a no-show, mostly because I have been working on a blog post titled “What are writers for” for a few months and it’s still not done. But I hope to get that series at least begun in 2019. I also hope to keep broadening my horizons in terms of inspiration, and to that end I hope to cover more Netflix shows, and of course the other genre/types such as drama, poetry, and graphic novels. And now that I’m down to a single magazine subscription (Poets & Writers, which I would highly recommend) I would like to read even more nonfiction at work throughout the year.
Overall I would say this was my most successful year of reading, both in terms of books read and in how much I learned. And even though I don’t work with her any more, I’d like to again extend a thank you to the coworker who encouraged me to include more contemporary women authors on my list. I hope to continue that trend with other non-gender-binary and non-white authors. As always, thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you gained some writing insight through these posts, and I really hope I was able to encourage everyone to read more in what sure looks like America’s dark age. And as I posted last time, the first novel for the revamped Reading List will be Ann Patchett's 2011 novel State of Wonder. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and thank you for sticking with me as I jam the last bit of the 2018 Reading List into January before taking it in a little different direction. Last time I got through the Salinger collection Nine Stories, and while I am still planning on re-posting a short story to the blog I am wrapping up the collections in favor of novels for the next few months. But before I get into the 2019 Reading List I wanted to get to a type of work I had on deck for last year: the graphic novel.
Being a comic book fan for most of my life I have been familiar with the superhero genre in this area for years, but have yet to read much of the more “serious” fare that has gained national attention for decades. While I’ve caught up with a few over the past years (Maus and the first part of Persepolis for two examples) I have yet to actually write about one. So I chose an author and a work with which I thought I’d have some affinity: Craig Thompson and his 2003 mastework, Blankets. I want to try and do the usual thing here with respect to the lessons writers can get out of a work like this, but also want to say a little about the emotions evoked out of the story.
The use of illustration. This is one of those lessons that, especially in this medium, probably gets a response of, “well duh.” And while that’s kind of the entire point of the medium, Thompson is a genius of the form. There are full page spreads devoted to various images such as angels, regular humans, humans in trees, and multitudes of Biblical images flowed on pages seamlessly into the “actual” story. In between these are the regular frames, filled with gorgeously rendered dialogue and exquisite character interactions.
Use your pain. This ties in with the overall message of the book, which struck home with me in a few ways. Apparently Thompson wrote it as a way of telling his parents he was leaving his faith, which I have also had to do in various ways over my life; the way he tells the story resonated with me in ways few other pieces of art have. It didn’t hurt that he also grew up in a cold farmhouse, and with pressures coming from his family church and the places he would hang out, and youth group trips (similar to themes to those of my first novel, *cough* shameless plug *cough* Our Senior Year). This story is one of the best examples of using details of your life to make excellent work.
This piece worked for me on several levels, I guess mostly because of the personal turmoil I have gone through in the last year, but really in my whole life. I too have struggled with leaving the Christian faith and understanding myself to be atheistic, and both Thompson’s art and the way he described his journey made me consider my own in different ways. While there were some bits I wish he would have explored more (what happened to Raina?!) overall this was one of the best graphic novels I have ever read.
Well, that officially wraps up the 2018 Reading List! This series will continue in the new year, going back to novels written by females beginning with Ann Patchett's 2011 novel State of Wonder. I am also hoping to do a post on lessons learned this time around, similar to what I did at the beginning of the 2018 list, and pointing the way forward for this series. I am going to keep the type of works included as broad as possible, while changing up how I approach the posts at this juncture in my career. But more on all of that later. For now, I’d like to say thanks for coming along with me on this journey. When I started this as a series of experiments in 2016 I never could have imagined how important it would become to my career, and my life.
Thanks for reading, writing, and thinking about all of it. Here’s to a happy and healthy (and maybe better?) 2019.
Hello readers and thanks for sticking with me as I continue to jam in the rest of the 2018 Reading List into January before taking a different tack with it going forward. Last time I read through a collection it turns out was not recommended to me by my editor as I thought (although she has read some of the same stories): Rock Springs by Richard Ford. As my final collection of this period, I wanted to take a look at who may still be considered one of the greatest American short story writers, JD Salinger and his 1953 anthology, Nine Stories.
I thought this was indeed a collection much stronger than his novel Catcher in the Rye, and while I did have some issues overall with this author I want to envision some of the key lessons from this writer.
Use of dialogue. This is without a doubt Salinger’s ultimate skill, and he weaves it deftly in and out of his prose. I would say the stories in which this works the strongest is “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos.” The conversational quality between characters is natural and believable, and he even includes things like writing something twice when a character repeats themselves, as we often do in real life.
Use of character. I would have to say this complements the other lesson, in that Salinger can draw a character with just a few lines of simplicity far better than almost anyone. I found this especially true in the final story, “Teddy” in which he describes the youth’s features in a paragraph and lets his conversation do the rest. And this is obviously the case in “For Esme - with Love and Squalor,” which I must say found to be one of the greatest short stories I have ever read. The way the author captures the highs and lows of emotions resonates off the page, despite the fact that it was written by a fairly creepy guy.
So about that. I kinda came to understand a more dark side of this author as I was reading this collection, and it made me come to think even more about criticism I’ve received about this reading list over the years. Mainly, it concentrates on a lot of dead old white dudes and not enough on contemporary, diverse, or otherwise non-gender-conforming work. Some of this I have tried to fix and I hope to do the same over the course of 2019. And if I’m really being honest I need to reexamine how I approach this matter in my own writing, especially in the manuscript I’ve been working on for the past half-year. I have come to understand that the Reading List will need to endure some changes this year, but will write a separate post on that after I finish the last bit of the 2018 list.
To that end, I’m getting to one other genre/type of work I promised I would last year: the graphic novel. I’m going to take on an author in that realm I’ve admired from afar but read, Craig Thompson and his 2004 masterwork Blankets. (Supposedly the subject matter may hit home with me.) After that, I’ll be back with a post looking back at the last year and looking forward with how the 2019 Reading List is going to evolve. Thanks as always for coming along on this journey.
Hello readers and thank you for hanging in with me as I front-load the remainder of the 2018 Reading List into January. Now that this series is continuous I hope to initiate further changes this year. But more on that later. First we need to take a look at another short story writer, who while maybe not as good as Chekhov definitely holds his own in a certain time and place: Richard Ford and his 1987 debut collection, Rock Springs. This book was initially recommended to me by my editor Libby and centers around small towns in Montana and the fascinating people that populate them. While I had some issues with decisions he made (more on that later), I want to take a look at what Ford gets right in these realist stories.
Use of character. Each of these tales contains at least a few memorable characters, people whom it is quite clear are based off those Ford must have encountered in his life, and situations that seem almost too ridiculous (and sublime) to have been totally made up from whole cloth. I would have to say the story “Winterkill” may be the best example of this, with a main character in a wheelchair snagging a dead deer in a river. This can work the other way too, though, with each story seeming to also contain different versions of the same character (which could also be considered a general running theme, along with…)
Use of place. This Ford uses to his advantage perhaps even better, evoking a parched, dry and dirty landscape in which his seedy characters go about their business conducting affairs in motels, going into the wilderness, or generally living miserable lives in which there are glints of happiness. The final story (“Communist”) is a great example of how to build up to a scene of nature and wildlife and then let it play out around the characters.
Overall I would have to say the main story “Rock Springs” was my overall favorite, a stunning almost thirty pages that shows this guy as a true master of the form. Unfortunately I found some (“Children”) to be downright creepy and one (“Empire”) that could have easily been cut in half, and for some reason contains an additional paragraph after what I thought should have been a masterful closing line. My bellyaching aside, there is more good to be found here than bad and a lot of instructions for those who want to follow in the Raymond Carver tradition of short story.
Up next, I’m still going to take on Salinger’s Nine Stories and then I may take a brief pivot into the one genre/type I didn’t make it to in 2018: the graphic novel. I also have some more ideas (inspired by my wife) for the 2019 Reading List that I hope to be able to share in an upcoming piece looking back on last year and my goals. And for those who do enjoy my fiction writing, I got one back from my “other” editor Anne that I will be posting here again (last time it was called “Flossing” now it’s just “Floss”) to try and deconstruct the process. Happy New Year and let’s have a slightly better 2019!
Hello readers and thank you for bearing with me as we march through this last part of the 2018 Reading List! After getting through a few pairs of books I made my annual “pivot” to short stories, taking on a writer highly admired by Francine Prose, whose book Reading Like a Writer I read two years back. She turned me onto the work of this 19th century Russian but I had no idea of Anton Chekhov’s true legacy until I read his stories. They are are that good. Normally I head into the major lessons to be learned from such a phenomenal writer (and I will) but the best lesson for me was: read Chekhov. You will be hard pressed to find a better short story author at any caliber, at any time period. So now let’s take a quick look at two major factors of why that is:
Use of setting. This is not arguably Chekhov’s strongest suite, but the playwright in him shines through in the introduction of many of these stories (I had Norton Critical Edition collecting his best known). Nature is described quite beautifully and flowing, but is only allowed a few sentences at the beginning of sections. This was all Chekhov considered was necessary in telling a story about human drama. The characters are also set in the stage in this literary way, placed either in favor or against each other, just as the master wants them.
Use of character. This is what critics have spent their entire lives trying to figure out, and I’m hardly going to say it’s the use of one specific description or story that really shows it. It’s in all of them; that’s how amazing every story he wrote was. But for just a few examples - in “Misery” the poor carriage driver is reduced to explaining his daughter’s death to his horse because no one else cares; in “The Teacher of Literature” a man starts out in what he think is a great life only to end up miserable; and in “The Lady with the Dog” two people wind up in love at the worst possible time. These are but three examples of the incomparable control Chekhov exercised over these character’s lives in order to present life just as it is, not as we would like it.
I also tremendously enjoyed “The Bishop,” “The Betrothed,” “Anna on the Neck,” “Sleepy,” the list goes on. I am at a loss to go any further than my first piece of advice regarding this author: read him. He wrote several hundred stories in his lifetime, so it’s possible you may encounter an entirely different collection than I did, and have your own experience. I also must add that in Reading Like a Writer, Prose recommends checking out Chekhov’s letters. In the edition I had there were quite a few excerpts he wrote to his contemporaries about writing that I found enormously interesting and helpful. Which goes back to my major point - if you are studying someone to see how they did what they did, take it all in, not just the stories but the process and how they accomplished it, and their own thoughts about it (if they offered them). Not all authors were good enough to leave such a trove when they passed. I also was lucky enough to read a few literary essays contained in this edition, which helped my understanding of the author and his stories.
So what’s left to close out the year? Readers who have been with me for a while probably recognize that I usually get in a few more novels after “short story” time. Well I have realized that short stories are not something I am going to have the convenience of shoving into a certain part of the year, so they are now going to be worked on all year round. This means more short story collections added to the yearly Reading List, so send me your recommendations. This year, I hope to get through another few collections and get an essay done about them by the end of the year - Rock Springs by Richard Ford (recommended by my editor, Libby) and Nine Stories by JD Salinger. I have also sent a short story to my “other” editor and hope to get a post about that process up here in the coming weeks.
To all my readers: thanks for sticking around while I spent close to two months poring over this legendary author. I still plan on mixing up the Reading List as I did somewhat this year, including adding more stage plays and graphic novels. And as always, thanks for reading and writing!
Hello readers and welcome again to the second half of the 2018 Reading List. For this part of the year I’ve been combining authors or works, last time taking a detour into drama. I decided to wrap things up with two works from an author I had never read: Jack Kerouac, documenter of the so-called “beat” generation by reading his seminal 1957 novel On the Road and the follow up, 1958’s The Dharma Bums. I had read somewhere that these two works are kind of like sequels or “spiritual successors” but found them largely to be separate tales, one much better than the other. But before I get too critical, let’s get to some of the broad lessons from reading a pair of works like this:
Deciding to fictionalize. Famously, Kerouac wrestled for years with whether or not to fictionalize his road trips to discover himself and others, which for me were the most thrilling parts of the book. Wikipedia says the “original scroll” of the work was finally published in 2007 and does include both parts his publisher made him take out and the real names of the people involved. I read the regular version, and I had to say I was struck by why people think this is either a good novel or even a Great American Novel. While it was fascinating to read about Jack, er, Sal’s adventures with his writer friends, not much actually happens when they’re together except a lot of drunken hi jinks and stealing stuff. The life of a criminal apparently wasn’t that far from that of a beat, and while that in itself may be the lesson, it doesn’t seem very helpful.
Use of description. This is probably the greatest strength of both novels, as Kerouac really was a great writer when it came to showing us what he was doing, and why. I liked The Dharma Bums a lot more and it was a much more realized book, written nearly ten years after the events of On the Road but only published a year after. The depictions of mountain climbing and the zen attitude that brings on in the Dharma Bums are amazing, and while Ray (Jack’s pseudonym in this one) does go on the road a bit he finds himself through eastern wisdom a lot more, and shows how he did grow as a person from one set of events to another.
Using the novel to talk about your generation. I had to throw this one in there, as this is probably the most important point brought up about Kerouac, and especially about On the Road. I felt pressure to read this book, as if doing so would open my mind to the possibilities of literature and how it can be done in new and different ways, and I suppose for a certain generation that was true, especially as the victory in the Second World War led to the suppression and disillusionment of the Cold War. Kerouac could see what was coming in his society, and used the road to rebel. I’m not so certain a message like that resonates today, and if I’m being brutally honest I’m not sure his writing was as good as he thought it was in conveying it.
This is all to say that while I wouldn’t recommend On the Road I definitely would The Dharma Bums, and any interest toward eastern religion or Buddhism in general, as all of these things have helped me cope with adult life. I found it really interesting to read and interpret Kerouac's prose as he encountered these concepts in his own life. And of course feel free to completely ignore what I say and read On the Road and draw your own literary conclusions about this piece of American literature.
All of this musing aside, I am now ready to do the annual pivot toward short story land, starting with a legendary author Francine Prose recommended to me years ago via her amazing book Reading Like a Writer: Anton Chekhov. I’m nerding out on a Norton Critical Edition of his stories, which contains additional letters and essays. I am also going to use the next few months to work on some stories I have submitted (and others I have not so much yet) and track their progress through the blog. Sorry for a bit longer post than usual but I wanted to let you all know I’m still around and still reading. :-)
Stay tuned for more updates on the stories, and for the rest of this year’s Reading List, which will get back to novels before I finish out the year. Thanks as always for reading and writing.
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.