Hello and congratulations for making it through the first year of this decade. And while most of us would prefer not to think about 2020 ever again, it seems 2021 is off to an even more rocky start. My long-time readers know what to expect from me at this juncture, and I decided to do one final reading reflection on the year before I continue this series as long as I can.
Readers also know by now this is a “revamped” list (focusing less on old white dudes) that also pivots to more genres. Toward the start of 2020 I wrapped up my tour (for now) of “mainstream” science fiction works and then started back with more contemporary female voices. I finished up the year with another “detour into drama” and just managed to jam the first poetry collection on the list. I was laid off from my bookstore job in March, eliminating most of my non-fiction reading time. But I still managed to get to one: Aldous Huxley’s 1954 work The Doors of Perception. All told I read through eleven books this year (far lower than usual, but then again it was 2020).
I also got some posts done in a few other series throughout the year. I managed to get parts four and five of my “How to Write a Book” series posted, and did another entry in the “Writing Life” series during the height of the unrest last summer. And came back to the series on Netflix, doing a post on the incredible Orange is the New Black (I also read the memoir, technically making that book number twelve for the year).
I don’t have much else to add other than to say thanks for reading my work on this here website for over five years. Most of the posts going forward will be divided into these series categories. I have a few other ideas regarding sourcing I’m figuring out, but I will be focusing on these categories. Thanks again for reading and have a great new year.
Hello readers and welcome to the final installment of the 2020 Reading List. I am pivoting through genres (last time taking my second dramatic detour) and decided on a poetry collection for my final book. In this case Scott Edward Anderson’s 2018 collection Dwelling: An Ecopoem. As the subtitle indicates, this was much more than just a group of poems and I found a lot of philosophical and environmental considerations laced throughout the work.
Claiming to be “in conversation with” Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” the first half is a series of connected poems that look at those concepts. As I am a complete ignoramus in the realm of poetry, I was blown away by the excellent uses of language and figurative imagery to conjure the many ways humans have taken ourselves out of “nature” despite being a part of it ourselves. Through long poetic ruminations on housing (“dwelling”) and what it means in the larger picture of life, Anderson shows us how we can find our way back. Many of the poems I had to ponder on my own about how it affected and contrasted my own work.
I found the second half (“Some Questions of Dwelling”) just as enjoyable, as through a bunch of short essays Anderson details his philosophical arguments, both about Heidegger’s questionable history but also how his concept of “dwelling” fits in with our own modern age. There was a ton to ponder on how the urban landscape could change, and I found the entire section to be a refreshing look at how our cities and neighborhoods could adapt to the coming climate shifts. Anderson has a voluminous amount of works cited that sum up many of the influences of this book.
As a reader who is abominable when it comes to understanding poetry I am very glad I picked up this book. Poetry forces one to think in a much different way, and the way the sequence built into the multi-layered essays (as well as the definitions running along the bottom of each page) offered a viewpoint on a new way of being and thinking toward nature and the environment. I would recommend this collection for anyone interested in the future of humanity and how it might reincorporate with the planet.
Thank you for joining me on another reading adventure as we navigated this horrendous year. As promised I will continue the varied genres into the new year, starting with a collection my wife has wanted me to read for years: Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Thanks as always for reading, and here’s hoping 2021 is (slightly?) better.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2020 Reading List. I am finishing another journey with contemporary female authors, last time poring through an interesting tale that threaded storytelling and magic. For my final book in this vein I decided to read a science fiction classic that I have wanted to get to for years: Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred. Given all that has occurred in my city this year I felt it was an important choice.
In a year of amazing reads, Kindred was the best one I have encountered. Described by some scholars as a “neo-slave narrative” this book is far more than just a science fiction or historical novel, but a deep examination of the country and its shape over the course of two centuries. The main character, a Black woman from 1976 California named Dana is sent back to 19th century east coast plantation country over the course of weeks that in fact take place over years in her actual life. She figures out she is meant to go back to save the life of the plantation owner’s son who will wind up being related to Dana in some pernicious ways over the years. This is just one paradox at the heart of this crucial examination of race relations and its hold over the national consciousness.
While a lot of science fiction is driven by Butler’s kind of spare prose, I found her particular style conveyed this narrative in a powerful fashion. We get an up-close look at Dana’s interior thoughts as she experiences these trips back in time alone and with her white husband, who (*spoiler*) ends up getting trapped back in that time period for a portion of the novel. We get to see her inner anguish as a 20th century Black woman interrogating her own ancestry and the many ways slaves showed resistance to a horrendous, cruel and racist system of oppression. The larger stunner for me was continuing to set this book aside as I read it to think: just how much has changed in two hundred years?
This was quite possibly the best science fiction novel I have read, and continues the preponderance of evidence that women own this genre just as much as (if not more than) the white men that are considered part of its founding. I would recommend this book in leaps and bounds over any other science fiction author of the era, as it will make you think about history and race in a lot of profound ways.
Up next I will be winding down the 2020 Reading List with some genre detours the likes of which haven’t been seen here since (*checks archives*) the bad old days of 2018. First up will be two dramatic works, then I hope to hit one poetry collection and possibly a few others. Thanks for enduring this year along with me and reading my work.
Hello readers and welcome to the fifth part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(Note: Parts One, Two, and Four have followed my speculative dystopian manuscript Spheres of Influence. The epic Part Three covered my [stalled] office satire, Observe and Detach.)
Feedback. This is an important part of the process that I had to force myself to do. After I sent the initial (shitty) first draft of Spheres to my editor Libby, one of her best pieces of advice was to find #beta readers to look through it. These would be people who might read similar books to what you’re producing and would have enough time to read a chapter of yours. And here’s the first bit of this advice: don’t ask too much of them.
At this point I have been lucky enough to have a revolving cast of #beta readers, and while some have not been in full communication I am still confident they will get to it when they have time. My old college roommate Aric (he was the basis for a character in my *shameless plug* second novel Last Man on Campus) were willing to take a massive dive into each chapter and offer revisions. Try to widen your array of feedback partners so that you have a diverse skill set and readership type.
I asked Aric a few questions about the SciFi genre, and that got him pushing me to consider this work more of a speculative dystopian thriller. I continued giving him chapters and he sent me even better feedback on the flow but also on the various themes, and some basic spelling and grammar I missed. If you can find a good #beta reader to have such back and forth discussions, hang onto them!
My favorite piece of feedback from him so far:
“...this is just so similar to what is happening that you can't put it down once you start.”
Another #beta reader was Allan, a colleague from my old neighborhood board. He happened to be in a major city where a major event I riff on took place, and had some good real-world experience. Allan also urged me to call this a more “dystopian” book, and had some great thoughts on the initial themes. He also had thoughtful feedback on a specific piece of dialogue (again based on his own real experience) that worked so much better after I included his notes.
This was another part of his response:
“I don't really see this as science fiction since it's not that far in the future and warfare seems pretty conventional. I'd maybe call it a dystopian novel of what could happen if we continue down our current path.”
I also want to shout-out my other #betas whose reading and feedback were important. Thanks to Josh for having many, many (many) rambling conversations over coffee about it first, and then being willing to read the first chapter as a reader. Thanks to Christie for even more conversations, but also getting started on her own work (and for giving me the chance to read it). Thanks to Karen, who has also read my first two books. Special thanks to Martin, who like my editor Libby also pored over an early (shitty) draft of this and gave me some great early feedback. I’m sure I am leaving out others who have conversed with me on this project, but that’s in favor of keeping your group wide.
Back to Libby for a moment. This is another in a long line of advice that she has given me for years, but I was too ignorant to take it. I’m not going to claim I’m nailing it very well now, but I do understand why she implored me to have others read this manuscript. This is just another reason why she’s so good at what she does.
So when should you start giving others a chance to look at your work? That’s a question only you can answer, but again I must stress once you decide it cast as wide a net as possible. If you can get feedback from readers and friends, you will go a long way toward formatting your manuscript in a way that it can gain larger interest. I now have some good ideas to put in my query letter when I get ready to pitch this to an agent.
To that end, this post in the “How to Write a Book” series may be the last one for a while. It has always been about the process, but now that I am embarking on finding representation and publication I hope to document that as well. I hope you will continue to join me on this journey. Thanks for being readers.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2020 Reading List. I am continuing the journey with more contemporary female authors, last time getting to a radical feminist I will never forget. Next I decided to take on Karen Russell’s 2010 Floridian ghost story Swamplandia! This was my first official foray into a work that has been labelled “magical realism” (although Russell doesn’t seem to consider it under any certain thematic area) and I found that aspect to be quite restrained and very well done.
This was an outstanding read for many reasons, but Russell’s use of description has to take the top prize. The Bigtree family of Swamplandia! was a creation of Russell’s from an earlier short story, and we see most of their lives from the perspective of thirteen year old protagonist Ava. This leads to spectacular passages of out-there swamp spaces and creatures that both are well written and fun to imagine. If I had to nitpick Russell does rely on the use of simile a bit much in some of these passages, but the prose was so good it didn’t jump out at me often.
The other amazing part of the book was how the “magical” parts are blended into the storylines. We see young Ava’s journey with a mysterious guide into the “underworld” of the Ten Thousand Islands but also her older brother Kiwi as he navigates the ridiculous realities of the mainland in the wake of their mother’s death. And while we don’t get much of either their father the Chief or the middle child Ossie, there were plenty of reminiscent paragraphs that show them in various interesting ways.
I did find the narrative got a little off track toward the end, and Russell works in a very dark turn of events that while understood in retrospect was rather stunning. There were little signals throughout the tale I realized were in fact guides for this later horror, and it made for an explosive way to end the tale.
Overall I would have to say this book reminded me of Geek Love in some ways (family of performers gets broken up and the aftermath) and Russell’s characters have very intricate ways of seeing the weird worlds around them. This book was a joy to sit through and encouraged me to embrace a different way of conducting my reading for this list as I build out my career.
Up next I’m getting to what feels like essential reading right now and a book I should have gotten to long ago: Octavia Butler’s landmark 1979 sci-fi tale Kindred. I hope to do some genre switching by the end of this year, and have some other ideas for next year as well. Hope you are all enduring 2020 in whatever ways you can, and thanks for reading.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2020 Reading List. Last time I began another journey with more contemporary female authors, starting with a multiple-award winner. Now I’m taking a step into a dystopian universe with a feminist author I had read about for years, but could not find this particular book until last year: Kathy Acker’s 1988 science fictional tour-de-force Empire of the Senseless.
To be honest this book was so wild, weird, offensive, stunning and amazing I almost don’t know how to review it. Acker’s deft use of language was of a type I had never encountered. On the face of the narrative exist two different characters ruminating and conversing about this post-apocalyptic world. One of them wants to be a pirate, the other is a Black woman who happens to also be part robot. But this work is so much more, and I was struck over and over again by the themes Acker uses that apply to our exact moment: police brutality, violence against women, familial sexual dynamics, economic ruin, colonialism, marginalization, etc, etc. This novel, more than almost any other I’ve read from the Eighties, shows what a horrible place the Reagan era was for so many people.
I will add that if you are offended by topics like incest and racism this book will make you unable to look away from them, and the language is also quite brutal at times. Again this is overshadowed by Acker’s towering use of language and word repetition, notably how she works in styles by authors like Burroughs, Twain, and Gibson. The prose borders on Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness, but the topics being spoken on are so varied and important that it is a joy to be along for the ride. Acker was truly one of the greatest feminist authors. I’m so glad I got to sit with this one, and would recommend this challenging read for those who wish to engage on these thorny issues. (If you’d like more insight from a better writer than me, check out Alexandra Kleeman’s 2018 essay in Paris Review.)
I am still getting through more contemporary female authors: up next will be Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia! Thanks as always for reading, and stay safe in our very real dystopia.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2020 Reading List. Last time I wrapped up a months-long tour of science fiction tales and now am getting back to another goal of reading more contemporary female authors. To that end I began with Jennifer Egan’s multiple award winning 2010 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. This book could be considered a short story collection or a novel (or both), and while the prose was quite gripping the overall structure left me wanting more. But first I wanted to get into why this book was so interesting.
The story concerns two “major” characters (Bennie and Sasha) and a host of “minor” characters that headline a chapter and then disappear into the overall narrative concerning these two and their lives in the music world. The first six chapters (“A”) are made up of stories Egan had published in various places and the ending six (“B”) seem to be more written for this book. Of the first set, I found “The Gold Cure” and “Ask Me If I Care” to be standouts, the former showing an aging Bennie still attempting to find musical acts, the latter a much earlier look at Bennie the musician. In the second set there is a good story showing Sasha’s world travels (“Goodbye, My Love”) and we also get to find out what happened to another character in Bennie’s life (“Pure Language”). I would have loved to find out much more about these supposed main characters but that’s about the most we get.
I have to say my biggest problem with this book is how it is supposed to all tie together. The narrative is quite disjointed over time and space, and while this supports the character interactions it also means we read about a lot of people we never see again. I found myself wondering what happened to the pop star that got abducted by a dictator (“Selling the General”), why did it matter that someone in Sasha’s life drowned (“Out of Body”), and what impact any of these secondary characters had on anyone else in these stories. I also had some issues with the various style choices Egan made, including a DFW-esque magazine article and an uninteresting segue of power-point type slides written by Sasha’s daughter (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses”).
While the stories themselves are unique, I question whether or not it helps the overall narrative connecting them together like this. While there were sublime moments when it did work, a lot of this felt jammed together into a forced commentary on the music business that did not always work for me as a reader.
I wanted to make a quick note about the Reading List going forward. I am still planning on getting to my blind spot that has existed for years, female authors. But it continues to need (more) non-white authors and I will continue to go in that direction over the next year. And I still hope to do a genre detour within the coming months. Up next, I am getting to a book I’ve wanted to read for years: Kathy Acker’s 1988 novel Empire of the Senseless. Thanks as always for reading, and stay cool and healthy out there.
Hello readers and welcome to the (long delayed) third entry of the Netflix series. This idea branched out of my need to add more overall artistic perspective to the blog. (If you want to catch up, here are the first two posts on BoJack Horseman and Black Mirror.) This time I took on the show that blew up the streaming network but also proved that a very solid series can be built on an unconventional memoir: Orange is the New Black.
It’s pretty doubtful you haven’t heard of this show, given the monumental attention it has received in the era of Golden Television. And right away I have to agree: this is the best television show I have ever seen, full stop. The character work alone by the talented directors and producers (not to mention the phenomenal acting performances) sealed the deal for me by the very first season. If I did have some issues with the series it was in reading the memoir by Piper Kerman.
The show and the memoir are quite different, and it was the alterations that affected me the most. At the risk of spoiling some parts of the show I will list a few. Kerman had a devoted partner who stuck with her the entire time she shifted among multiple women’s correctional facilities. In the show he’s depicted by Jason Biggs (in a standout performance) and ends up having an affair with Piper’s best friend. He does make some appearances toward the end when she gets back out of prison, but I kind of wished they would have shown how in real life he supported her through all of this. There is a well-known character from the series played by Uzo Aduba (“Crazy Eyes”) who is quite altered from the memoir, and some of the subplots specific to the show don’t quite pan out.
Another major difference that I thought made the show much stronger was the concept of taking the characters into various other forms of prison. First this is done based on the memoir, when the real Piper was transferred to a facility in Chicago where she runs into the person who named her and sent her to jail (in the show she’s a sort of amalgam character played by the amazing Laura Prepon). This sequence is lifted right from the book as we follow the “diesel therapy” plane trip into the unknown. And there is an outstanding episode in the first season where the show version of Piper gets sent to solitary confinement. But this is done much better later in the series, where the fictional version of the prison is privatized, leading to new guards that then cannot control the outbreak of a riot over the death of a black prisoner. I won’t spoil the aftermath but will just say that it ends up with the remaining characters in the maximum security unit, which the real-life Piper learned about through interactions with those that did time there. And in the final season I thought a great choice was made to show the sheer brutality of the ICE prisons and the impoverished deportation machine.
There are many more examples, but while you might not find it necessary to read the book this series is based from, they are quite dissimilar in some key ways. For the most part I tried to understand why certain choices were made by the stand-out crew that put this show together (starting with Jenji Kohan, and to be fair Piper Kerman was a consultant throughout) and how it affected the narrative. For the most part, I think it gave me some insight into how a series based on a book can work in some standout ways.
Not only is this one of the first shows to have a dominant POC/non-binary cast of females and/or LGBTQ in its cast, with most male characters either asshole guards or ineffective beuracrats, although that evolves over time. The series also does not shy away from the most brutal of topics that Kerman’s memoir explores: the sheer dehumanization of these prisoners by the guards and the system, the ways in which they manage to band together through their common humanity, and how they make it through their time there. I also have to praise the concept of pulling the few real-life details of the women Kerman met in Danbury to construct some incredible, memorable characters. Alongside Prepon, Natasha Lyonne gives the best performance of the series as a Brooklyn junkie that (I’m pretty sure) is based on a character from the memoir. And the black women Kerman met (“Taystee” on the series; “Delicious” in the memoir as one example) were already interesting and the series gives the characters rich lives of their own, despite showing the challenges they face (homelessness, few economic prospects, city structures that oppress them) in unflinching detail.
Overall I can’t recommend this series enough if you’re looking for a provocative watch as we live through historical times. To understand the “justice” and “correctional” systems is to understand how they oppress marginalized communities, and this is the first series I have come across that presents that in such an important, empathetic manner.
I plan to write about a few more Netflix programs in this series, the next being Stranger Things. And if you live in the Twin Cities, please stay safe out there tonight. Thanks for reading.
Hello readers and welcome to the third entry in the 2020 Reading List! I am wrapping up a long tour through science fiction territory, last time reading a more contemporary take. For my last stop I decided to read another of the old masters: Isaac Asmiov and his 1950 collection I, Robot.
I chose this title to inspire me as I wrapped up this round of revisions on my science fiction manuscript, and for that I found it to be quite good. As is pretty well known, Asimov is legendary for creating the three laws of robotics, and most of these stories rotate around them in one form or another. But I found an even more insight in the character of Susan Calvin and some comparisons to what I’m trying to do in my manuscript. The stories build on each other pretty well until “Liar,” which becomes more of a psychological study of robots. While the gender stereotypes haven’t aged well (more on that later) this still an interesting tale about the notion of a robot that could read minds and yet be held back by logistics of the rules. There is also some great humor in the Powell and Donovan stories.
I thought Asimov shines most in the later tales, “Escape!” “Evidence” and “The Evitable Conflict.” Each of these build upon themes present in all of the stories, and offers its own stirring narrative. The first deals with some rather disturbing elements of “hyperspatial” travel and how a robot must deal with them. “Evidence” shows a great way for any writer of this genre to insert elements of technology right into society. Reading these final stories I was struck by how Asimov long ago got to where I have in my manuscript, in that he saw the planet broken down into various regions and political upheaval in the form of a zealous organization (in his universe it’s the anti-robot “Fundamentalists”).
I would recommend this collection if you have interest in what is considered the beginning of the field of artificial intelligence, even if actual robots would be decades away. I found many remarkable examples of what behemoth corporations like Google are attempting with their deep learning machines today. And of course in those decades we have also found out more about Asimov, and like others like him, it becomes difficult not to consider that when selecting works from the genre.
This will be the last of the science fiction works for the year and the Reading List will be back open to everything. In that spirit, next up will be Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer-winning novel (and/or short story collection) A Visit from the Goon Squad. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the second entry in the 2020 Reading List. Last time I took a deep dive into the best science fiction novel I have ever read. I have now shifted to a contemporary title in the genre, Dave Eggers’ well-received 2013 novel The Circle. Eggers is considered a pillar of the literary community, his creation of one of the most iconic publishing brands alone cementing that years ago (I also somehow never put together that it launched the landmark lit mag The Believer). I encountered other organization websites in the bio section that I was not aware of as being his projects. And of course Eggers has a litany of published works in many different genres and won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize among others. This was the first novel of his I had read.
While I understood and even cheered the themes he pursued in this novel, so much of the execution was flawed that I have a hard time recommending it. First I want to discuss the things Eggers gets right in this tale. For being published in the early part of the decade he was way ahead of the curve seeing where internet technology would be headed in a few years. One giant company engorging on the data of everyone, concerns of privacy and security and transparency, and the ideology of disruption overriding moral ideals are a few themes he explores. We see the world of The Circle through the eyes of Mae Holland, who accepts the increased demands of her employer with alarming alacrity despite warnings about these concepts from others in her life. I found many of these descriptive passages very compelling as Eggers spends yards of prose on mundane details like social media updates that are still gripping, just as we understand how important yet pointless it seems in the real world.
I applaud the overall direction of analysis Eggers takes, and his prose is deceptive enough to weave layers of comment under the character interactions. Yet I found myself wanting more diversity out of Mae. Her persona is written rather cliched, bouncing between two weird male characters and coming to hate another female protagonist for reasons of corporate advancement. Eggers overreaches in his own need to stand-in as two characters, one I’d wager is Mae’s ex, Mercer, who is a foil in that he offers up endless screeds against the tyranny of the online masses Mae continues to dismiss. I also struggled with some of the logistical issues of what The Circle manages to accomplish. It would be a massive undertaking to place cameras everywhere on the planet, even given the disregard for political pushback on companies like this in the novel. Eggers presents the reverse political accountability in a novel way (more cameras, but this time following elected officials) but one I found overall to be unconvincing.
I have a hard time advocating for this book as a great science fiction read, but it does contain a solid working of these themes, and Eggers deserved the praise for his remarkable and prophetic vision of these internet companies. Next I’m going to take on a final major icon for this sci-fi tour: Isaac Asimov and his 1950 collection I, Robot. Then I will shift back toward all kinds of fiction and hope to mix up the genres a bit by the summer months, which still feel decades away. Thanks as always for reading, and stay healthy.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.