Hello readers and welcome to the final entry in the 2022 Reading List (yes, I am aware it is now 2023). As mentioned in a previous entry, toward the end of last year I had been focusing on my backlog of “old white dude” authors since setting aside the Reading List in 2021. To that end I decided to read one more by picking up a collection I had heard about for years, the 2009 assembly of Italian postmodernist writer Italo Calvino’s short stories, The Complete Cosmicomics.
This was a very interesting collection of stories, all mostly centered around a scientific fact (some made out of date since many of these stories were published from the 60’s to the 80’s) and featuring almost always the same narrator Qfwfq as he tells the tale. While there were an abundance of varied and different tales within the collection I thought I’d start by mentioning some of my favorites. “A Sign in Space” features Qfwfq leaving a literal sign in space and being in competition with another strangely named character to leave better and better signs. This story was based on the fact of how often the sun revolves around the galaxy but is better understood (as the introduction to the collection puts it) as a rumination from Calvino both on the nature of signs themselves but also as a commentary toward his embarrassment over his earlier novel. The same theme of old replacing new can be found in “The Dinosaurs” in which the titular creature is supposed to have died out only to make a reappearance to the “New Ones” that have come to take his place. While the introduction delineates this story as a discursion on “the old writers who have failed to move ahead with the times and are still writing in the old, realist way” I found it to work as a fundamental allegory on immigration, with discussions of “Foreigners” and how they are not to be trusted. Finally I was amazed to read “The Light-Years” as a possible foreseeing of social media years before the fact, as the narrator witnesses someone hanging a sign “a hundred million light years away” that says “I Saw You.” The narrator struggles to discern what the act was that the other had seen, checking his diary and realizing it was something he’d rather have hidden. I thought the theme of this story could easily be applied to our current roving panopticon of surveillance that takes place online these days.
These three were my favorite in the collection, but there were many more that drew my interest. Whether that involved people collecting debris from the Earth (“The Meteorites”), ruminations on time and space (“t zero,” “The Chase”), evolution (“The Aquatic Uncle”) or even another astonishing presaging of technology such as the internet and search engines (“World Memory”) there were tons of stories here that were fascinating and very much ahead of their time.
I would highly recommend this full collection (others were published during the author’s lifetime but this one has all of the Cosmicomics together) for those looking for a far-out assemblage of science fiction-esque stories that, while ostensibly dealing with the scientific and astronomical realm ponder many more serious themes such as the nature of love and forms (“The Spiral”) and relationships (“The Night Driver”).
Up next, for the first time since I have begun reading novels for my website I am actually not sure what I’m going to be getting to next. For at least the first half of the year I plan on staying with my previously set parameters of reading more contemporary female and BIPOC authors, but I have not yet selected one. Rest assured I will know within the week and will be posting the first entry in the 2023 Reading List soon. Since I will be doing this for the rest of my foreseeable future I have decided again not to do a “reflections” post this year and to just continue on with the various series I’ve started over the past years. As always, thanks for joining me on this reading adventure.
Hello readers and welcome to the seventh entry of this year’s Reading List. As mentioned in a previous entry, right now I am mainly focused on my backlog of “old white dude” authors since setting aside the Reading List last year. However, last time reading a “cozy” mystery got me in the mood to continue in the genre and so this time I picked up one I had been meaning to get to for ages: Harlan Coben’s 1995 first entry in his Myron Bolitar series, Deal Breaker.
I had been interested in Coben ever since reading an overview of his books in Harper’s some years ago and was lucky enough to find a paperback copy of Deal Breaker at the bookstore where I used to work. This was as hard boiled as books get, with a difference being that the main character is not just an investigator but a sports agent to boot. The story revolves around a missing woman named Kathy Culver and the clues that pop up that seem to point to her not being dead after all. The cast of characters in this novel were my favorite part and include Win Lockwood, Myron’s investigative partner and friend; Jessica, Kathy’s sister and Myron’s one time love interest; Esperanza, Myron’s assistant; Jake Courter, the detective investigating Kathy’s case; and Christian Steele, the star quarterback who was Kathy’s boyfriend before she went missing. The writing was tight and funny at multiple instances and Myron Bolitar is one of the great hard boiled investigators you’ll ever read.
Just like in Death by Dumpling I was reminded of the lessons I learned way back in the first year of this reading experiment in The Cat Who Played Post Office. For one, keeping reader interest is a speciality of Coben as the chapters are short and each one is packed with enough information to keep the story moving. I’d also have to say I got tons of outright pleasure reading this book as the mystery was quite engrossing and kept me guessing until the end, when Myron runs a scam to draw the killer out. There are also subplots revolving around Myron’s sports agent woes and his tangles with the mob, who are involved with another agent. And the “hook” is definitely interesting as I had never read a story about a sports agent, let alone one who had such an interesting backstory (Myron was a former professional basketball player who got injured and then worked for the FBI).
I would recommend this novel for anyone looking for a more modern hard-boiled mystery story as it is quite the roiling tale. And one does not have to know much if anything about sports to enjoy the book as that theme seems to be secondary to the drama of the mystery. Up next I am veering back into the experimental realm, taking on another collection I have sitting on my shelf that I have been waiting years to get to: Italo Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics. Thanks for following me along this reading adventure.
Hello readers and welcome to the sixth entry of this year’s Reading List. As mentioned in a previous entry I am mainly focused on my backlog of “old white dude” authors since setting aside the Reading List last year. However the last book I read was quite challenging and I needed a bit of a palate cleanser, so I decided to pivot to a type of genre I haven’t hit since way back in the first year of this whole reading experiment: the “cozy” mystery novel. To that end I picked up a recommendation from my wife, the first in a series (The Noodle Shop Mystery) entitled Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien that came out in 2018.
This was a breezy book and one I enjoyed coming back to each night and day that I read it. The story revolves around Lana Lee and her family’s noodle shop. It’s in the Asia Village, a sort of mall for Eastern-themed shops run by other Asian folks, some of whom become suspects in the mystery of who killed one of the two property managers who run the place, Thomas Feng. The book surrounds Lana and her roommate Megan as they attempt to figure out who swapped out the dumplings that Mr. Feng was deathly allergic to in order to kill him. The first suspect is the cook for the Ho-Lee Noodle House, but suspicion soon circles other characters who are involved in the Asia Village in one way or another. Another seemingly attempted murder heightens the suspense and Lana and Megan go to some lengths to try and figure out the secrets behind the mystery.
As I stated, this was the first “cozy” mystery novel I’ve read since The Cat Who Played Post Office in 2016, and back when I was pulling lessons for writers from novels I’d say the same three from then hold here (keep reader interest, reading for pleasure, make sure your “hook” catches people). I found myself very interested in the mystery at all times as Lana is a great narrator, and it was also pleasurable to enter this world of characters each time I sat with the novel. The “hook” is also quite interesting as it showcases an Asian culture with which I wasn’t too familiar with but found to be quite detailed within the world of the book. While the language could be fairly rote at times (characters are always crossing their arms over their chests or putting their hands on their hips; cliched language unfortunately abounds) it didn’t matter to the overall story and I found myself wondering who the murderer was all the way to the final pages.
I would recommend this novel to anyone searching for a new(-ish) mystery series that hooks one right away with great characters and settings and sets up potentially more in the future (this novel had the first two chapters of the next one excerpted at the end, and continued to draw my interest). Up next I decided to stick with the mystery genre and read another author whose book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for years: Harlan Coben and his initial 1995 Myron Bolitar novel Deal Breaker. Thanks as always for joining me on this reading adventure.
Hello readers and welcome back to the fifth entry of this year’s Reading List. As mentioned last time I am focused on my backlog of “old white dude” authors since setting aside the Reading List last year. To that end I got to a novel I’ve wanted to read for years, Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 book Under the Volcano. This was a very challenging read but worth it for a variety of reasons.
The book details one life in the day of Consul Geoffry Firmin in the town of Quauhnahuac, Mexico as he struggles with his roving alcoholism and the presence of his ex-wife Yvonne and his half brother Hugh. The day in question happens to be the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead, and that theme weaves it way throughout the narrative as while very little happens there is an abundance of thematic, sensory and emotional elements throughout this difficult novel. In fact I have not read any such book like this since Mrs. Dalloway, another from roughly the same time period and a novel that takes place within a day’s time. The volcanoes alluded to in the title loom large over the Consul and his various perambulations through cantinas and bars throughout the novel and give a sort of elemental sheen to the writing as they are referenced multiple times. Some chapters are narrated by other characters in which we get to see their backstories (Hugh as a guitar player and sailor; Yvonne as an actress). The Consul is haunted by schizophrenia-esque voices that plague him over his drinking and we are bestowed an inside look at his deteriorating reality. Yvonne and Hugh go on a horse ride and later they all take a bus where they witness an Indian man who was assaulted and lies bloody on the ground. We are privy to the Consul’s reading of postcards from Yvonne and his interior monologues regretting his life decisions and drunkenness.
As stated this book was quite a heavy lift on an emotional and symbolic level and I have to admit a lot of it went over my head as I was reading it. I caught the main thrust of the narrative but Lowry’s prose goes all over the map when it comes to allusions and other thematic elements that lead strongly in the character’s lives. That being said it was still a powerful read and one that will stick with me for some time even if I failed to absorb every bit of its nuance. Faustus apparently plays a big role as well as the number seven, which is branded on a horse. I would recommend this novel only to those seeking out a difficult yet rewarding read, one that probably pays out even more upon multiple re-readings. I found an interesting website that breaks down the various themes of the narrative that would be helpful to anyone wishing to fully understand this masterful book.
Since this book took a long while to read and was fairly exhausting I decided up next I’m going to pivot to a type of genre I haven’t hit since the first year of this whole Reading List experiment - the “cozy” mystery novel. My wife recommended the first a book in a series she’s been reading (Noodle Shop Mystery): Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien. So stay tuned for a more lighthearted affair on the next stop. And as always, thanks for reading.
Hello readers and welcome back to the fourth entry in this year’s Reading List. As mentioned, now that the fiction list is back (and committed to reading more contemporary female authors) I am trying to read more BIPOC authors. To that end I decided to read another recent novel published in 2020 by Gish Jen entitled The Resisters. This book was quite well written and had a lot of similarities to my own manuscript, including a dystopian theme and use of technological ideas such as artificial intelligence.
The major theme of the novel, however, would be baseball. The two main characters (Eleanor and Grant) have a child named Gwen who seems to be a prodigy at the sport from the moment she starts tossing toys out of her cradle. Her parents encourage her to pitch with another child of the “Surplus” as catcher and then they begin an underground baseball league. The “Netted” are the other half of the society in the novel and are those who work jobs (the “Surplus” have something along the lines of a universal basic income as many of them are “Unretrainables” like Grant, a former language teacher - Eleanor is a lawyer and can still file suits). Out of the baseball league comes an offer for Gwen to play for the Net U baseball team and possibly try out for the Olympics, which has just added baseball back as a sport. While Gwen initially drops out of school she does end up joining the olympic team and pitches an almost perfect game in the last one of the series. In the final few pages a major character dies in what I thought was an unexpected manner and casts a bit of a pall on how the book ends.
This novel had yards to teach me about how to create a dystopian world filled with interesting characters and how to display the tech running the world in various ways. Every technology introduced has a sort of mashed up way of description, whether it’s AskAuntNettie (the AI running much of the nation of AutoAmerica), Ship’EmBack (what is alluded to as sending immigrants back to their home counties), AutoLyft (vehicles), PermaDerm (changing skin tone to become part of the “angelfair” Netted, as one of the characters does about halfway through) and many, many others. In fact it did get a little repetitive at times reading through all of these types of words and I did wish some of them were a little more fleshed out and described better. But overall I’d have to say this was a masterful way of showing our climate ravaged future and how it may break society down along lines of the Surplus and Netted. There were quite a few parallels to my manuscript (Surplus getting one chance to have a child, “marooned” and flooded places that can only be reached by boat, an AI overlord that controls society) which taught me new ways of pondering them even as I respected the difference in technique here. This was a great read, and I would definitely recommend it to those searching for a very interesting look at where our society might end up if we don’t get a handle on climate change and automation.
Up next, I know I’ve promised to read more contemporary female and BIPOC authors, but I also have a major backlog of “old white dude” books from setting aside the Reading List last year. I plan on tackling them through the end of this year and then getting back into the other authors by 2023. So the next novel will be one I’ve wanted to read for years, Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 book Under the Volcano. Thanks as always for joining with me on this reading adventure.
Hello readers and welcome back to the third entry in this year’s Reading List. As mentioned, now that the fiction list is back (and committed to reading more contemporary female authors) I am trying to read more BIPOC authors. To that end I decided to read another recent book by a female author, the 2020 novel A Burning by Megha Majumdar. This was a well written book, centering on three main characters in modern-day India whose lives intersect in some important ways, despite none of them sharing much page time together.
The novel is divided into chapters (along with a few interludes) titled by the characters: Jivan, a young woman living in the Kolabagan slums with her family; Lovely the “hijra” (meaning essentially transgender) actress; and PT Sir the physical training instructor who goes on to become a political heavy-hitter. The novel begins with a terrorist attack on a train that is blamed on Jivan due to a Facebook post. The other characters’ lives are shown in great detail but it was Jivan’s portions that spoke to me the most. She spends almost the entirety of the novel in prison, and this resonated with me in the sense that I have also spent portions of the previous months in institutions where I could merely observe the outside world. This work deals with many important issues of contemporary India: its right-wing turn in politics, made emblematic by PT Sir joining with a party that ends up allowing and justifying some pretty horrific violence against Muslims, as well as how the hijra community in the character of Lovely tries to make it in a mostly uncaring world. The many themes of the novel include turning back upon those one knew in a previous life (both characters are called to testify at Jivan’s trial, but only one of them tries to exonerate her) as well as how the charges of “terrorism” can lead to a life being destroyed by a simple post online. The novel deals with the various classes of Indian life quite well, and I was struck by the multiple striving narratives and how they played out. The end result for one character is quite depressing but as with any good fiction, resolution is not always what the reader might hope it would be.
I would definitely recommend this novel for anyone wondering about the modern day Indian state and its great economic upheavals, especially in the Modi era. I have to say I was not that familiar with the minutiae of the various classes, but understood it much better having read this novel. It is an uncompromising look at a place where the author’s parents still live and it resonates far beyond this part of the world.
Up next I will be taking on one more contemporary female BIPOC author in Gish Jen’s (also published in 2020) novel The Resisters. Thanks for continuing on this reading journey with me.
Hello readers and welcome to the second entry in this year’s Reading List. As mentioned, now that the fiction list is back (and committed to reading more contemporary female authors) I am trying to read more BIPOC authors. To that end I decided to read one of the all-time classics of African fiction, Chinua Achebe’s stunning 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. I have been meaning to reconnect with this book since coming across Achebe’s lecture deconstructing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness back when I tackled that influential work in 2017. I was also assigned to read this book during an African Studies course in my college years; regretfully as a sluggish young student I failed to read much of it. After grappling with a fairly difficult and elaborate first read of the new list it was somewhat pleasant to encounter Achebe’s free-flowing and simplified language in this volume.
The novel has gained an immense amount of prestige over the decades since its publication, and for good reason: it is quite possibly the first African novel of its time and has influenced generations of authors over that period. The story of both the village of Umuofia and one of its “strong men” Okonkwo, it is also a study in colonization and what happened under its legacy. Not only do we see the culture of the village and its people, we see it from a perspective of understanding and one that is not western-centric. While some might consider the culture of the village (and that especially of Okonkwo) as chauvinistic it is important to understand that not everyone of the village acts this way, and women play an important role throughout the society. This becomes somewhat ironic as halfway through the story Okonkwo is banished to his maternal side’s village due to his hand in a tragic accident.
I also read this book in a different ironic sense given that I was raised in a church that espoused much of what the white colonial Christians do in the third part of the novel. I was taught that our church needed to send missionaries to these parts of the world to spread our version of the faith just as Mr. Brown does when he establishes a church within the tribal society. This becomes problematic as clashes within the English society render the Ibo people supplicant before the new colonial masters, and turned the notions of how I was raised on their head even more than they had over the last few years of my life. This is the power of good writing and shows how such language can affect thought and reconsideration over the life of both the geopolitical stages of the world and in people’s minds.
This is a highly regarded novel and I’d wager most of my readers have either heard of it or read it, but if you haven’t I would definitely recommend it as it’s one of the most influential of the (few) non-western books I’ve read for the list. Up next I’m taking a turn toward the contemporary (and female) with the 2020 novel A Burning by Megha Majumadar. As always, thanks for joining me on this reading journey.
Hello readers and welcome back to a new series for the website, which as I stated last time began as an outgrowth of a file that’s been sitting in my Google Drive for months now so I thought I’d just break out some of the more important elements. That initial post was called “What’s a Reader For?” and was going to take a look at all the sources we bring into account each day as we try to understand the world. In the age of the internet and social media I realize that could be an infinite amount so I’m going to break it down into the sources I try to follow.
So what are some more important resources for finding out what’s going on in the great city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota? The first post collected my major “go to” sites. But if you’re interested in even more, here's a handful of others, many I get direct to my email inbox whenever they publish new content.
I’ve written before that my wife comes from the great northern region of this state, and has helped me understand its rich history and customs. Another person who has helped me understand the culture of “Up North” is Aaron Brown. Aaron has been blogging about life in that part of the state for as long as I can remember and also has a daily column in a newspaper (he’s also finishing up a book’s worth of history of the area). I would highly recommend him for anyone looking to understand how the northern areas approach politics and life and how this has changed, especially in the last decade.
Another great site for radical info and people’s struggles is Fight Back! News. They cover protest movements and (lately) strikes and are a great source for learning about actual progressive and leftist struggles both here and around the country and world.
Another site that I’ve been following via newsletter since it launched two years ago is the Minnesota Reformer. Now some of you may know I’ve had some issues with this site’s editor but I can’t deny the quality coverage it has provided, especially during the Minneapolis Uprising of 2020 and beyond. I’d also like to single out their state reporter Ricardo Lopez as he’s broken some major stories in St. Paul over the years.
I will also mention here that the City of Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council have decent email newsletters providing information about resources and what those entities are doing on a weekly basis. I’ve waxed and waned (on Twitter) about how they get covered by journalists here, but there’s no doubt a ton of information about municipal affairs in their newsletters.
I’d also like to quickly shout-out the last of the “old school” Minnesota blogosphere tenants still going strong: Sally Jo Sorenson of Bluestem Prairie. Sally has been a great source for news about southern Minnesota and is worth checking out for her incisive commentary about all of state politics. Another “old schooler” that I just recently became aware of again is the Minnesota Progressive Project.
And finally a quick look at some email newsletters that provide coverage of art and music and other things. The MPLS Art newsletter is a great roundup of local galleries and helps me know what’s showing where. Other great newsletters can be found from the Minneapolis Institute of Art (I’d recommend their latest supernatural exhibit), the Soo Visual Arts Center, and the Walker Art Center. In terms of music, while I don’t usually have time to peruse it, the Electric Fetus has a great roundup of newly released music and vinyl, and while my wife and I haven’t been in years, the Minnesota Orchestra has great ways of reaching us with their newest lineups. Other options include the Landmark Theater for film, and the world-class Guthrie Theater which offers a newsletter to broadcast its stage shows each year. I’ll wrap up this list with a few others: Minneapolis Climate Action is a great activist collective I’ve followed for a while now; Friends of the Hennepin County Library hosts tons of literary events (many online these days); and Housing Link provides a huge amount of resources and their email newsletter is invaluable for housing information (needless disclosure: I am also friends with someone who works for them).
Here are a few more links to round out the set: Open Streets Mpls has been hosting events and lobbying for a more pedestrian-centered mindset in our fair city; the Weisman Art Museum is yet another phenomenal gallery; and Hennepin Theater Trust is a collection of all the great stages adorning that street in Minneapolis.
Once again feel free to post comments or reply to the email regarding your own source lists. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but there’s only so much time in the day to read. Upcoming areas this series will be taking a look at include: Books/Literary, News & Journalism, Environment, Politics, and a few other topics. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome back to this long-running series for my website, the Reading List. As you may recall, the list took a hiatus last year and I read several non-fiction books over that time (The Shadow Factory by James Bamford and Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman). Now my fiction list is back and I hope it reflects a broader move by the publishing industry over the last few years to include more BIPOC authors overall. To that end, my first selection was a stunning and elaborate 2020 novel by Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies.
This book got a lot of coverage at the time so if you would like more of a plot run-down it shouldn’t be too hard to find in reviews. My interest piqued in this novel upon watching Dessa interview the author for a Rain Taxi event in 2020. This was a masterful, eloquent book that was also fairly difficult to decipher at times. On one side the title is a perfect metaphor for Akhtar’s life in the United States as he gained notoriety as a playwright. But on the other it is also a crying out for how Muslims have been treated in this country, especially after the 9/11 attacks. As has been noted in many reviews this could be considered a piece of “autofiction” as the main character just happens to share Akhtar’s same name and profession and the only other name change that I noticed was not using his step-sister’s real name (or including her much at all). This is an interesting concept but it did confuse me as it seemed this book was a straightforward retelling of the author’s life story that very well could have landed on the nonfiction side of things. But as I’m not quite sure how much the author drew from his own life (it seems like a lot) I am going to review it as it stands.
The book revolves around many major themes: racism, capitalism, religion, and other weighty objects that resonated with me as I am dealing with my own issues in life. Crucial among these are the author’s relationship with his parents and how he has turned away from their version of Islam in favor of his own relationship to that religion and the unknown. The parts in which the fictional “Akhtar” deals with his parents were familiar to me as I have also dealt with overbearing religious parents for much of my life and it was very relatable. But the story winds its way through those parts leading to more challenging perspectives such as the plight of Muslims in America and how they have had to adapt over the years. There is a strong portion of the middle of the novel in which his car breaks down outside Scranton, Pennsylvania and he is taken for a ride by the repair shop that illustrates just how badly people still treat those with brown skin. This is balanced out with the author later joining up with a billionaire “merchant of debt” named Riaz, who ends up getting investigated by the SEC for saddling municipalities that refused mosques with incredible amounts of debt, which his company then bets against. Akhtar is masterful in concluding sentences, like this one from the Scranton repair shop bit: “I was going to stop pretending I felt like an American.” And as he finds a significant other (later discovering she transmitted to him a sexual disease) who claims their meeting was ordained by her psychic, Akhtar comes clean with his own belief in a power guiding him through life via dreams: “I have to own it, this brand of crazy is fully baked into me.”
I found this book to be quite difficult to read at times and had to look up more than a few words from the author’s remarkable breadth of language. There were also many Muslim and Pakistani words I had not encountered before and gave an even more lucious illustration to the world Akhtar paints throughout. But despite this I would highly recommend this book as it deals with every major thread of the past few decades, the narrative of the fictional “Akhtar’s” life tightly wound around them. I am still wondering how much of this book was based on real life and how much was embellished but perhaps that is the point. The real Akhtar, as the video interview shows, is quite erudite and this makes for a riveting page-turner despite the immense and flourishing language. And I have to say again the parts that spoke to me the most were when the author had to deal with his ailing parents. As somebody who has turned away from that I found these bits moving as they resembled my own struggles with the Christian religion and belonging as an atheist.
Up next I will continue the path of reading more BIPOC (and women) authors in taking up a novel I haven’t looked at since my college days: Chinua Achebe’s 1958 landmark novel Things Fall Apart. Thanks again to all readers out there for bearing with me as I take up this series once more for the website.
Hello readers and welcome to what would have been the final installment of this part of the Reading List. As stated last time, my intent was to finish up with a non-fiction title. However I have since learned that the author was forced to resign in disgrace several years ago due to a sexual assault investigation. In the interest of standing with survivors of sexual assault, I will not be posting about this book.
This is unfortunate but does coincide with my plan to put the Reading List on hiatus for a while (at least a few months, possibly the rest of the year). What began as an initial experiment for this blog turned into a yearly series, and as I wrote in my final “reflections” post, will be ongoing for my career. Few other things have taught me so much about how to write and about my blind spots as an author. This fits in with an overall withdrawal that I will post on next month as I take some needed time away from my writing career.
Thanks to everyone who has read this blog for the past half-decade. The Reading List will return (eventually). jA
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.