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.
Hello readers and welcome to the second half of the 2018 Reading List. For this portion I have been combining works of authors or genres, last time taking a look at two from James Baldwin. This time I decided to shake things up even more and take a “detour into drama,” reading some of what are considered the best stage plays of all time: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and a “novel in dramatic form” The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. The first two pieces should be pretty well known so I won’t spend much time going over the plot and characters in favor of comparing/contrasting these works.
Death of a Salesman. This was Arthur Miller’s first true masterpiece of the stage, and I was blown away upon reading it. The tale of Willy Loman and his slow spiral into depression and death over the course of a day is not only an amazing story, but the way Miller uses the medium to tell it is even more impressive. I would say the most important bits for writers were the use of repetition and the use of contradiction. Loman and his sons both stress things they believe to be true (Willy being “well liked,” his uncle “walked into the jungle and came out rich”) but also contradict themselves repeatedly (Loman curses his eldest son one minute, then praises him the next). This, combined with the radical use of the stage to show how memory operates, makes this a true landmark of the form.
Our Town. This was an author I had never read, and decided to start with what is considered his greatest. While I was struck by the well-known properties of this piece (almost no props or settings - even for basic things like books, using ladders to evoke going upstairs, stage manager directly addressing the audience, etc) what really hit home for me was the underlying existential questions, especially those evoked in the third act. Viewed as a conversation with death, this was an extraordinary critique of the American way of viewing it and compares quite favorably with Miller’s consideration of the subject around a decade later.
The Sunset Limited. This “novel in dramatic form” was recommended to me by my editor Libby after I showed her a (bad) short story I wrote a few years back called a “Conversation with God.” And while parts of this piece were instructive for me, I found overall the work not nearly as good as McCarthy’s “actual” books. While his impressive use of dialogue is present throughout, literally driving the action, I was struck by some of the choices McCarthy made. For one example, the characters are known as “white” and “black” because of their skin color and disposition on life, but he consistently refers to “the black” in his state instructions while referring to the other gentleman as “professor” or something of the like. While this may have been intentional to show that “black” actually represents the death that “white” seeks by throwing himself in front of a train (“the Sunset Ltd”) I still found it jarring and possibly beneath such a talent to portray race in such a way. That being said, I still found benefits to reading this work given my recent struggle to escape the religious indoctrination of my youth.
All in all, while I think readers can find a lot more beneficial lessons in McCarthy’s novels, I would definitely recommend the other two dramatic works to anyone like me who has yet to read them or is interested in the stage. While the Reading List is always going to focus on books first and foremost, I enjoyed taking this little “detour” and hope to do the same with other literary genres as I close out this year and look to the next.
Speaking of what’s coming up, I will be back into literary territory with another author I have never read - Jack Kerouac. I’ll be taking on both On the Road and its semi-sequel The Dharma Bums. As always, thanks for reading and writing!
Back in 2015 when I started this blog, I wrote a piece about vacations that comes to mind every now and again. I penned it about a month after getting laid off and moving to a new apartment, and was quite uncertain about the direction of my life. My point here isn’t to really mess with that post (it holds its own lessons from the first time I went camping), but to rather find out how much I have changed since then.
This week we got to spend the entire week at the resort near the Chippewa Flowage. My mother-in-law was kind enough to rent two cabins this year so my wife Mary and I got one pretty much all to ourselves. The view from this cabin was extraordinary, and I found myself doing little else than sitting around staring at the lake for parts of the day. While I enjoyed every minute of being out there this week, I did learn some more about myself as a human and as a writer that I thought I should detail here.
So without further ado, more lessons to be learned from the wilderness above and beyond my earlier post on vacations and how they matter.
I may be going out into the woods for the third year, but I still have no idea what I’m doing. This became apparent the longer we spent out here, as the woodsy mentality accumulated by my wife’s family continued to overshadow any initiative I may have eked out. Most of them were constantly surveilling the fire pit making sure it was always going, they all knew how to get a rod ready for a line, and I wouldn’t have known the first thing about setting up a tent like their cousins do every year. I also almost hurt my wife in a dumb stunt with a canoe that taught me to listen up and pay attention to the people who are out here and know what they are doing.
The woods are a great place to unplug, but you don’t have to all the time. I made a big point in the previous vacation post by saying how I turned off my phone the entire trip. While that worked back then, I decided to take a different tack this time around and not only leave the phone on (this was partially to keep in contact with the cat sitter each day) but to document some of the trip on Twitter. I also brought my laptop but managed to check my email once the whole time.
Previous inebriations don’t do the trick. I once had a pretty unhealthy addiction to both cigarettes and alcohol, and while I have conquered both, this trip is always a gateway to getting back into both things. After a week I have it pretty well decided: I don’t like drinking and never will, and same with the smokes. I may have thought I needed such substances to have a good time (that was certainly my mindset circa 2006, and even somewhat circa 2015) but today I know that I don’t.
I love my life. As mentioned, the previous post regarding this Wisconsin trip was written at a time in which my life felt very much in flux. Just got fired, new apartment, going out on vacation where I don’t know a thing (not everything has changed). This time I had a bit more of a revelation: we tried to plan out stuff to do all week but even though we had seven days of pretty much nothing to do, we still didn’t get it all done. This made me think differently about our own lives and how day-to-day we try to cram in as much as possible. We think this should be done in “real” life but in actuality, if most of us had all the free time a week could offer we still couldn’t prioritize it all. Part of the trick is to just enjoy it, and this trip has taught me all the more how to do just that: I love our apartment, my wife, our kitties, and my career. Getting away from it all is important, but so is understanding what “it all” really is. The next step now that I’m back in Minnesota and back to work, is continuing the work with a new perspective.
Vacations (still) matter. It’s all in how you use the time, and what you get out of it.
Hello readers and welcome to the second half of the 2018 Reading List. To wrap up the first half I took on another female author and read Wise Blood. For the latter half of the year I’m going to switch up the formula but still continue to get as many books read in this year as I can. To that end, I’m going to put some titles together and see how they combine to show deeper writing lessons. As I said last time, it felt right to read James Baldwin now, so I this month I took on his 1963 classic The Fire Next Time and his 1957 novel Giovanni’s Room. Both were stunning in their own ways, so I want to get to the major lessons writers can learn from this landmark American author.
Using the novel/essay to speak about society. This is the entire point of The Fire Next Time, and I must say even in 2018 I don’t think I have come across as searing a dissection of religion and the ways it is used to manipulate people. The poignancy here comes from Baldwin’s refusal to make this a color issue, as he denounces both whites’ use of Christianity to cover up their racist minds, and blacks’ relatively more recent use of Islam to further a similar goal. As he discusses at length, both religions were used to preach an idea of a separation of the races, which Baldwin denounces in very stark terms as the opposite of what is needed in this nation. As we can see even today, this vision proved incredibly prophetic. This lesson can also be found in Giovanni’s Room, especially involving the way homosexuality was viewed in the West around this time (the main character describes it as against the law, which in many states it was at the time).
Use of imagery. This was possibly the highlight of Giovanni’s Room, as Baldwin uses basic language to describe the world of Paris (made up of stones that reflect light during the summer and repel it during the winter) and the people he meets (Giovanni and his “boyish” legs, his “leonine” figure, Jacques in his presence appears “very frail and old”), painting a world of intrigue the main character David is attempting to navigate. Though the story reflects Baldwin’s own of escaping cloistered America, David soon learns to resent most of Europe and its inhabitants as a scandal grows from his time in Paris.
Using the novel to reflect your own life. This is a lesson I continue to learn in new and different ways, and without a doubt Giovanni’s Room is a huge example of this. It is well known this book is a parallel to Baldwin’s own time spent in Europe, but he digs even deeper to dissect his relationship with Giovanni, in whose room they both stay for a period, and his own internal shameful thoughts and what they are doing. This becomes even more enhanced when David’s fiancee Hella arrives and he attempts to lead a double life, which leads to Giovanni’s ruin and eventual killing of another character. The end chapters of the novel become incredibly moving and deep as David puzzles through what he should do and while the ending is quite tragic, it contains much to understand about life in the world at this time.
I would highly recommend this author to anyone who seeks a better understanding of race and gender relations during the Cold War, and there were few more powerful American voices on this than Baldwin’s. I definitely will return to this author to gain more insight into these topics.
Up next, as promised I’m shifting the Reading List into a different territory, but one I’ve become more interested in over the years: drama. To that end I will be reading a pair of the greatest stage plays even written, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as well as possibly another “sort-of” drama if I have time. And stay tuned for an essay concerning what writers are for (especially now), as I have approached the ten-year mark of doing it in one form or another. Thanks as always for reading.
Hello and welcome to the third 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.)
(For those who want a refresher part one - Idea and Outline is here, and part two - Drafting is here. And “segment one” of this Editing series can be found here.)
Editing. I am going to continue shifting gears away from my newer projects in favor of my current manuscript, Observe & Detach. In the previous segment I queried one of my editors, Libby Copa of Sherman Writing Services. For this bit I wanted to get the opinions of my “other” editor, Anne Nerrison. Anne originally worked with me on the second novel I published through North Star Press, Last Man on Campus. While most of the initial heavy lifting on that manuscript was done by Libby, Anne was instrumental in making sure it was a great book. She has now started her own editing venture, Inkstand Editorial, and has worked on a short story of mine. I asked her a similar set of questions as I did Libby.
First was about the editing process itself, and how she sees it: “In all cases, I see my job as helping make the book the best it can be (and by extension in some cases, help the author become a better writer). Certainly this sometimes means fixing errors in grammar and punctuation, but sometimes it's querying word choice, working to develop plot points, or questioning character development and/or motives. The latter cases I don't see as errors, but rather stylistic choices by the author or elements that could be developed further or in a different way, or viewed in another light.”
I also wanted to ask her about the “trust” issue like I did with Libby, because I have had to trust Anne’s judgement over the years. With two brilliant editors to work with, sometimes it becomes a matter of learning how to trust each voice. I want to highlight this portion of her answer:
“Trust can also lead to good discussions about manuscripts and suggested changes. I want writers to know that I'm editing with the book's (and by extension, their) best interests in mind. My goal is always to help authors, and I want to know what's helpful and what's not. If I'm not helping an author, then I need to look again at what I'm doing and figure out how to be a more effective editor. And my changes are not always correct; I'm not infallible, and my mentor taught me that if there's one good way to write something, there's a thousand.”
In other words, if I may be so bold to interpret this, we authors don’t always have to follow the course our editors set down for us, and in fact this is a crucial part of our own work. While most of the time the editor will conceive of a better or more efficient way of how to set down a particular passage, it’s up to the writer to actually do it.
This was a struggle I had with Libby for quite a while. I almost thought I had some kind of a rule for it: 80/20, in that eighty percent of what the editor said should be changed was worthwhile, and twenty percent (or less) should be your own discretion. Here is how Anne sees her role now that she has her own editing business:
“As a freelancer working largely with indie authors, I leave all changes up to the writer. I have no control over the final, printed copy, so I have no say in how much of my advice an author takes. Of course I hope they'll take my changes and comments into consideration, but the writer knows their own work better than I do, and I know there will always be a few changes I suggest that the writer feels don't fit the story as they see it.“
Working with Anne on that short story, we used track changes (generally thought of as a Word application but can be used in free programs like Libre Office) and she highlighted portions of the text she thought were confusing, or needed cleaning up. But she made sure to note that I didn’t have to take a single one of her corrections, even though most were quite warranted.
I also want to include some of Libby’s thoughts on this topic, because I didn’t get to them last time. Here is how she considers her role:
“I try and review the story that the writer is trying to tell (not the story I want them to tell) and provide feedback that aligns with that. All decisions are made by the artist, this is their story-- I can only hope they are being thoughtful when they reject suggestions, that they consider why I took time to point something out, and that they can justify to themselves and future readers why they do not make the change.”
I think that is a great summation of the relationship, and why it’s so crucial to find an editor who can give you the space as an artist to tell your story. Even better if you can find two such people who are so great at their jobs!
To that end, since last time I showed off a little of my manuscript and how the introduction has changed, I wanted to post some more of the first chapter for those who have interest. I’ve been talking/writing about this book for three years, and Libby has been hard at work over that time showing me how to make it better. While I still plan on sending her another draft by the end of this year, the text is much stronger with her suggestions.
So without further ado, here is another portion of the first chapter of Observe & Detach:
The day had not started promising. VP and head accountant Phil, thick mustache waving as he berated, enlightened me on the finer points of precision within our accounting database software. By “started” I mean eleven thirty, because Phil never got to the office earlier than that. As head of operations, he was a cranky bastard.
“Hello there, Mr. Walter. You got a minute?”
“Sure, Phil. What's up?”
“I was running your key inventory numbers this morning,” he said, slapping down several printed-out pieces of paper. This was a favorite tactic: producing evidence to the accused so they'd fess up. I once saw him do this to my co-worker Kari over a messed up store order that was probably Mona's fault. “You're off on your lock box inventory count.” Phil's mustache twitched in revulsion at me.
“Oh really? Sorry about that.”
“Yeah, you were off by five whole units. It's not a big deal since you're still new to some of this. But we gotta make sure those numbers add up. Signal Corp, for all their bullshit, makes up a huge portion of our revenue. You outrank Mona over there in the store big time when it comes to money flowing in here from agent purchases of these damn things. We have to make sure our numbers are correct.”
“I know,” I said, averting my gaze. “I'll keep a closer eye on them.”
“Make sure you do. I don't want to have to fix it every month. Just count 'em right the first time. And be accounting for those defective boxes you're sending back. Those were also wrong.”
“I'll do that,” I said.
“Thanks, Mr. Walter.” He grabbed the spreadsheets.
“The other thing I wanted to bring up was attitude,” Jack continued. The light from his office window bounced from his gray head, which stretched to black toward the bottom by his earlobes. “I haven't noticed this myself, but others tell me you may not be coming up to the front counter with the greatest...gusto. I'm not saying you have to be like Kari. She can become too much in a hurry. Just be glad to see the agents walk in here. You know, like family. Make sure to smile, make sure they are satisfied with their encounter. We are here to serve them, you know?”
I wasn't feeling restrained after what happened the rest of the day, so I made a mistake.
“Well, perhaps if you would come out of hiding from your office once in a while instead of hearing the gossip from Mona, you'd know what I actually do around here.”
He gave me his best vacant stare, then closed his mouth. “Excuse me?”
“I-uh, look, that came out wrong, but...”
“I don't go into my- I, uh, I don't do that. You know it. I'll ask you not to speak to me in such a manner, Walter.”
“I'm sorry, Jack.”
“It's all right. You haven't been here long enough to know how this place works. Mona and I go back a long way. You also don't know the full story on Betty. You don't know enough about anyone at this point, except to show respect.”
“I'm sorry,” I said again. I felt my face flush.
“You're damn right. Now, that being said, it's important for us that you want to be here, Walt. That you are happy being here. That's important.”
“Well, I do want to be here.” It was better than a series of restaurant gigs over the past half-year.
The discussion devolved into a twenty minute soliloquy on his cabin in Grand Marais, then into the proper way to clean a duck carcass. I stared out the window into the parking lot and watched our CEO Alan Dunbar leave, an hour and a half before we closed. His dark green hybrid SUV was parked as usual in the nonexistent spot under the oak tree.
Hello and welcome to the third 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.)
(For those who want a refresher part one - Idea and Outline is here, and part two - Drafting is here.)
Editing. I’m going to shift gears away from my fourth novel in order to attempt to demonstrate the editing process with my third, Observe & Detach. This was the second book I was lucky enough to work on with Libby Copa of Sherman Writing Services, and she has done a ton of work making Observe a much better book. This process is much more intricate and difficult than drafting, which can remain fun for a while if you aren’t showing your stuff to anyone. Editing means not only showing it off, but getting a wordful of critique back. This was an issue early on with Libby, as my brain back then couldn’t see the benefit to some of her changes when I got back her edit for Last Man on Campus, my second book that was eventually published by North Star Press. I had to break through that barrier and learn to trust her. I asked Libby about this trust issue as piece of the process, and this is part of what she had to say: “If you don't trust your editor, the relationship is never going to work, and all feedback will sting. The editor must also trust that the writer is listening. That the writer is seeking their opinion, even if they do not always take it. An editors name is at stake if a writer thanks them in their book and has not done the work, it can reflect badly on the editor. The editor must trust that the writer has put in the time.”
I also asked her in general about the editing process, as I became mystified by it the longer I wrestled with (and changed) this current manuscript. She said: “My job is to push the writer to see their manuscript in new ways. To help them see where holes in the story might trip the reader or force the reader to put the story down.”
This was basically her advice for me every step of the way as she has now looked at this entire book of mine twice. Yet I failed to heed her advice, thinking the story had to be a certain way, or had to contain only certain viewpoints. I can’t really talk about the process of this book without revealing its content, or where it came from, so a little on that first. This book is a fictionalized account of my time at another capitalist establishment based upon land transactions, which is a pretentious way of saying real estate office. I wanted the story to capture the mundaneness, the drudgery, of that world, and spent page upon page in my early drafts doing exactly that. Even up until the last draft I still was committed to doing it that way, until Libby finally got through to me. In what has become a marathon of email exchanges over the last year, she has helped guide me through the process of understanding “holes in the story that might trip the reader,” starting with the big one at the beginning. To that end, since this series is all about #ShowYourWork, I would like to place in order the previous and most recent drafts of the beginning of my third novel, Observe & Detach:
This morning I entered a new white collar universe. That's right, I have located an office job I may be able to stand. Two years, countless dead ends, and yet I found the promised land. The land of dreams and affordable health insurance.
Those people who read my drivel know I've been searching for work in the Twin Cities for some time. Started in the restaurant industry, thought I was going to be the next Bourdain. Turns out I couldn't hack that lifestyle, so retail might be for me. The bright lights and garrish red penetrated my brain, and I fucking hated wearing khaki. The friend of a family member who used to work at this office called me up, announcing an administrative position. Entry level. Twelve bucks an hour, which is four more than the red demon was willing to pony up for my hard earned toilet paper stocking skills.
Today was spent getting to know the place and my co-workers. The Ramses County Board of Real Estate Agents (RCBREA) counts over eight thousand agents as members. They come from all over Minnesota to join, but most of the transactions occur right in Minneapolis. The board itself is located in Edina, that rich, pampered ass suburb where the olds hate sidewalks and the young. “RCBREA” is the acronym, and everyone around here says it just like that: “wreck-bra.” I've already heard one joke about torn undergarments, and I'm sure there are more. I don't get a fancy real estate license. That takes years of studying to pass a state exam, and you have to keep renewing every two years. I don't even get to set up homes or anything cool. My job is to sit at the front department and assist the agents with their adventures of moving houses and finding clients.
( This is my re-write after Libby worked on my manuscript this year: )
I sat down with Jack to discuss my first year. He shut the door to his office when it was apparent Mona, head bent, eyes peering over half-bifocals, was eavesdropping under the guise of stocking plastic riders. He asked what I thought of the place so far. I lied.
“Everyone seems to know their tasks. I like it pretty well.”
“I'm glad you do.” His eyes beamed at me, refrigerator door jawline jutting downward. “We like having you, even if there are a few issues to discuss.”
“Well, yes. A few things to go over, in light of Allison leaving our department and you taking over her duties. This isn't a review, or anything. Our CEO, you know Alan, he thought I should mention a few things. First, the phone. I know we're getting a lot of dues calls these days, but it's a main task of ours to answer the phone.”
I suddenly remembered I had integrity. “Well, then might I mention something? It helps to answer the phone if one is present at their desk.”
“You mean Betty.”
“That would be my example, yes.” I had yet to see her arrive to work not hungover.
He sighed, leaning back in his rickety chair. “Look, Walt. I'm going to tell you something I've had to tell others here before. I want you to remember it. Working in this office, it's like being in a family. You know how in your family there's that one...uncle who's a little off? You may not like talking to him at family events all that much, but you have to regardless? That's how I want you to think of RCBREA. Do you understand?”
First of all, there is quite a difference between openings. One is just a bunch of descriptions of stuff, the other is an actual scene, comprised of what I was going to have happen later in the book. All throughout writing this, Libby was pushing me to compact the boring parts, those that introduced more characters that weren’t going to stick around, and anything that took away from the main story.
This was another point Libby was always trying to get me to see in a new light. While I thought the goings-on at the office would more than suffice for a pretty lackluster rest of the main character’s existence, she pushed me to see how I could change the story to his benefit, almost as if I was making up for my past mistakes. What began as a stenograph of my monotonous time there became what I hope to be a more thrilling insider tale, showing how actual journalism could bring down an institution and strike a blow for the workers all at the same time.
This is becoming a bit too much for one post on the subject, so I will be back with the rest of this segment on editing, hopefully within a week. I will also be sharing my “other” editor’s thoughts on the subject, as she has also worked on stuff of mine over the years. Thanks for reading, and writers out there please feel free to share your own thoughts on all of this in the comments or on the social mediaz.
Hello readers and welcome to the final installment of this portion of the 2018 Reading List. Last time I read a recommendation from my editor, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. This time I took on another recommendation from a co-worker: Flannery O’Connor and her stunning 1952 debut novel Wise Blood.
This was without a doubt the weirdest and darkest novel I have read this year, but I would also say by far one of the best. The tale of Hazel Motes and his attempt at building a church of “Christ Without Christ” is a compelling look at religion and how it affects people. Finally escaping the clutches of a deeply religious family myself, I found the narrative to be a stinging critique of all types of belief, and a demented rumination on blindness, swaying people, the notion of “destiny” and many other things. I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away (such as it is) so let’s hit the two major lessons I feel writers can gain from this work.
Use of language. Upon beginning these reading experiments, I naively considered Faulkner the voice of the “Southern American” literary tradition. But O’Connor is far and away the master, deftly weaving in colloquialisms, the best portmanteaus this side of Cormac McCarthy (“listenhere,” “theter,” “thisyer”), weird situations (a man in a gorilla suit shaking hands with children in front of a movie theater) and tons of oblique references to religion and the way it undermines people. In the simple way the language flows, O’Connor makes you care very little that we don’t know the background of these characters or what their motivations even are. That’s how phenomenal the writing is throughout the entire novel, which seems to end on a fairly depressing note, but that may depend on your interpretation.
Using the novel to talk about religion. This is ostensibly the novel’s greatest strength, and yet even the main character struggles with the concept throughout the work. Hazel Motes is the son of a traveling preacher who then becomes a traveler in his own regard, preaching against religion. This gets him tangled up with a not-blind blind man who works crowds for money with a young woman, a false “preacher” who uses his own version of Motes to fleece crowds, and various other sordid characters. All the while he considers what he is doing and why, and when attempting to go to another city gets his car wrecked by a policeman. I wish I could say there was a unifying religious theme connecting all of this, but the writing was so understated and bizarre that I don’t feel comfortable stating anything specific.
I can’t say much else but to fully recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a writer who was clearly a master of her craft, and a true heir to the southern tradition. Faulkner was great and spoke for a certain class of people, but it’s O’Connor’s bleak view of humanity that really resonated with me. This is one novel that I will be pondering over for a long time.
Up next, I’m mixing up the way I’m doing the Reading List. First it feels appropriate to read some James Baldwin, an author I’m tragically embarrassed to say I’ve never read. First up will be his essay The Fire Next Time, then I will pivot to his second novel Giovanni’s Room. After that I’m going to be taking on a different type of literature, so stay tuned. And thanks for reading and writing.
Hello readers and welcome to another installment of the 2018 Reading List! Last time I took a first look at Joyce Carol Oates, this time I’m catching up with a recommendation my editor gave me around the time I started this as an experiment. That would be David Guterson’s stunning 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. This tale of love, loss, and small-island prejudice was the first novel for Guterson and according to Wikipedia took him ten years to write. This shows immensely through the writing, and I want to take a close look at what I considered the two major lessons of this book.
Use of framing. Guterson uses the courtroom on the island where the story is set to launch into the personal narratives of all the characters. When the plot focuses on the murder trial of a Japanese-American man (accused of killing a white fisherman), it stays with the lawyers as they aggressively cross-examine witnesses, asking multiple versions of the same question. Guterson captures this very well and uses it to ensure we get a good understanding of the facts. But it’s when he uses the witnesses to delve back in time that the writing really shines, as we get to experience the story from their perspectives. This is a master class in framing one part of a story in order to tell another, deeper one.
Use of identity. In a novel that wades through many dark themes (racism, war, murder) it is the concept of “identity” that ties everything together. Two of the main characters fall in love but cannot be together due to the perceived difference in their ethnicities, and there is much discussion and consideration over identity. Years later, this causes an unfortunate ethical dilemma for one of them, and Guterson writes this so well I wasn’t sure up until the very end what the newspaperman would actually do. This notion is also apparent more broadly in how the islanders see the Japanese-American citizens among them, before and after they are detained in internment camps.
I felt this was an important book to read right now, in light of the obscene nationalism that has gripped our body politic. It is important to remember similar rhetoric to that which we are hearing today led in the past to mass incarceration of persons based upon their race. It was wrong then, and remains abhorrent today. Guterson does an amazing job showing how the torment of war and death divide a small community struggling to adjust with a world war, and how the most base prejudice could lead to an innocent man being put to death. I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone looking to understand either the past or present moments. It’s a masterpiece in terms of construction.
Up next, I’m going back again to the recommendations from my co-worker of modern literary women and hit an author I’ve been wanting to get to for years: Flannery O'Connor and her novel Wise Blood. I also hope to get some kind of post done on the editing process, and another more reflective one by end of summer on writing itself.
Thanks as always for reading and writing, and happy summer!
My goal this year was to expand my content variety to more than just books, the idea being to broaden my influences in order to widen my writing perspective. So far, I have added some graphic novels to my lineup, read several non-fiction books at my “regular” job, and made it through a couple of Netflix original series (as well as plowed through a huge backlog of their comedy specials - check out Sarah Silverman’s A Speck of Dust as one of the best examples). But I have not encountered a show worth pouring out a few words of my own until I viewed Charlie Brooker’s phenomenal, terrifying series Black Mirror.
(Readers will recognize this is technically the second in my Netflix series, the first having appeared almost two years ago - click here if you’d like to read my thoughts on their terrific animated program BoJack Horseman)
Black Mirror was a show conceived in the UK by the sardonic television critic almost a decade ago, but it didn’t really catch on across the pond until it was vacuumed up by Netflix, which commissioned another two series (the last of which came out last December). I have mostly known Brooker via a series he produced for the Beeb around the same time: How TV Ruined Your Life. A breakdown of the hidden manipulators behind most of what we watch on the small screen, it opened my eyes to the uses and misuses of propaganda and emotion in that medium, and has caused me to think about television in a different way ever since. This is why the salient dissection of our own current technological age strikes me as a continuation of what Brooker has been doing for his career: showing us the creepy possibilities of our world and where they might lead.
Approaching his latest effort provoked a challenge in me: how can one write about a show that is already so stunningly well-written and offers the best media critique of this nonsense I have ever seen? Since I can’t compete, I am merely going to speak about how this series works, at least from my own vantage point as a flogger of the written word. The show operates on roughly two different levels. There’s the basic plot of each, many of which take place in an indeterminate, bleak future in which eye implants have replaced the smartphone screen, or technology has mutated into an out-of-control form. I would argue that the first two series, originally done for Channel 4, remain the overall best and I want to take a quick look at a few of the episodes. The dystopian “Fifteen Million Merits” stuck with me for a long time. Ostensibly a tale of a bizarre, underground “power plant” that uses human stationary bicycle pedaling for some nefarious purpose, the episode devolves into a parable about our current obsession with celebrity and reality television, and points toward a future in which everyone is looking to cash in on the phenomenon. This episode cast a harsh light not only on possible future living arrangements (each person lived in a screen-embalmed cube, which is impossible to look away from without losing merits), but also upon our celebrity-obsessed current age and its sheer emptiness.
Probably more famously from the second series was “The Waldo Moment,” which Brooker himself has alluded to as eerily peering forth into our current worldwide political malaise. In this one, a conservative British MP stands against a cynical neophyte and a pretend, CGI rendered “puppet” that exists solely to point out the meaninglessness of the entire political exercise. The “real” politicians do their best to point out that adding more nihilism to the process won’t help anything, but in the end “Waldo” the profane creation ends up garnering a significant percentage of the vote without actually winning. The entire episode was at once a blistering commentary on the sorry state of political affairs pre-Brexit, but I also read it as a very broad commentary on the entire concept of critiquing the political moment anymore, especially in the age of TheDonald as our wonderful Commander-in-Chief.
I also want to give high marks to the “White Christmas” special, featuring a stellar and disturbing performance by Jon Hamm and possessing its own three dark, intertwined tales that lead to an incredible, emotional payoff.
The later, Netflix-commissioned series are almost as good, while in my opinion not quite reaching the heights of the initial episodes. But even among these twelve are many that I found to be quite phenomenal. “Playtest” from series three is a creepy dive into the world of brain-augmenting video games, and its multiple false endings really freaked me out. “Hated in the Nation,” the series three closer, was a dystopian tale about the use of drone bees that took over for the real creatures (killed off through climate change) to assassinate whoever the Internet hates the most each day, and also contained a few subtle call backs to earlier episodes. And I would say that “Crocodile,” covering the lengths someone goes to cover up a horrible crime as well as the technological misuses of memory, and “Black Museum” which contained multiple stories like the Christmas special, were two of my favorites.
In the best episodes, almost all of which are written by Brooker, these stories point out the misery and destruction lingering just underneath the “black mirror” of our screens. While each has its own internal plot and setting, the greatest part of this series is its ability to show us where technology is heading, and why we face such a dangerous course. I found this show to be a healthy corrective to the kind of jargon that emanates from Silicon Valley these days, especially in the age of companies such as Cambridge Analytica. I would highly recommend this show to anyone who enjoys science fiction and the way it can be used toward cultural and critical analysis.
(I should also mention that I did wrap-up another series before this one: LOVE, co-created by Judd Apatow, Paul Rust and Leslie Arfin that concluded its three-season run this year. That show hit too close to home for me to write about in-depth, but I may re-binge-watch it at some point and put something down.)
I still hope to write about some other Netflix original series (including Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things), but it may not be for a few months. This blog will primarily remain one about writing, books, the creative process, etc but I will continue broadening my influences and blogging about them. Until then, thanks for reading (and watching)!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List! Last time I took a quick dive into High Fidelity. Then I took on another author suggestion from a coworker who I would have otherwise (stupidly) kept regaling to a “read later” list: Joyce Carol Oates and her masterful 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys. I was struck by Oates’ abilities as an author to show the story on every page, and that she reminded me of another author I used to call my favorite - Stephen King. Although as we’ll see, I would argue that Oates does King one better in almost every fashion. Let’s take a look at two major lessons writers can draw from this book.
Use of language. This is possibly Oates’s finest skill, and she brings it to bear in various layers throughout the text. The story is about the dissolution of a family, and you can see these people come alive on the page as well as the farm that begins as their home and ends up in disrepair and sold. The descriptions of the farm life, the way the characters act as they speak to one another, and the use of simile and metaphor are all reminiscent of King, but much better done.
Use of character. This may actually be the stronger part of the novel, as Oates deftly shows us the breakdown of each individual character while also protracting the story out via their various perspectives. The book is ostensibly “written” by Judd, the youngest Mulvaney, but the perspectives shift subtly into scenes that he could not have seen, but possibly heard about from his older siblings. Each character’s view on the horrible events that tear their family apart apply a layer of depth to this story and a stunning emotional weight. If I had a caveat to any of this, I’d say I wish we got to spend more time with the eldest child, Mikey (“Mule”). There is an interesting vignette involving him early on, but later he goes off with the Marines and we don’t hear much from him until his father visits toward the end of the book.
My stupid nitpicking aside, it is easy to see why the book is considered one of the best this (very prodigious) author has produced. And speaking of her considerable body of work, I should point out that King himself praised Oates and her productivity a few years back. With (at least) 40 more books out there, I will definitely return to this author in the future.
Up next, I’m going to take on a recommendation given to me by my editor years ago, when I was beginning this series as experiments. This would be David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. And stay tuned for another update in the “how to write a book” series hopefully within the next month. Thanks for reading and writing!
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.