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 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
Hello readers and welcome to the penultimate installment of this leg of the Reading List. (ICYMI: As I stated in the final “reflections” post, this will be an ongoing series for the rest of my career.) I am continuing the genre detours and am now heading back to a few kinds I haven’t gotten to in a while. First up is Chris Ware’s 2000 graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.
First serialized in the Chicago alt-weekly Newcity and his own Acme Novelty Library, Ware’s genre-defining work was collected as a book by Pantheon and went on to win several major awards after publication. I have been reading graphic novels for a long time now but haven’t gotten to many classics of the form until the last few years. I feel I can state Jimmy Corrigan was quite possibly the best I’ve ever read. I have never encountered such a graphic work that blends story, thematic elements, palette and setting to tell such an engrossing tale. The book centers around an autobiographical protagonist of Ware (Jimmy). But the story follows far more than just this character as Ware weaves a rich backstory of both the history of Chicago and the Corrigan family within it.
A minor complaint I had (being an addled almost forty-year-old man) was that in some of the 19th century parts the cursive handwriting could be difficult to read even with my new glasses. But therein lies the draw, as small works very well for Ware through the panels, most of which use tiny lettering to paint a rich conversation among the expansive setting panels. There are also a few ludicrous craft pages that are hilarious and worth the effort to scour for detail. Overall the artwork makes this book a true masterpiece of its era.
The narrative deals with some heavy and important issues such as loneliness, depression, and racism in some quite profound ways. I would recommend it as one of the greatest examples of the form. I am looking forward to reading more of Ware’s work.
Next I am taking a final stop into a different type of non-fiction book (*gasp*) I haven’t read in years: the “how to write” category. This will also finally be my first Graywolf title, Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Thanks for joining me on this reading journey.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the Reading List. (ICYMI: As I stated in the final “reflections” post, this will be an ongoing series for the rest of my career.) Starting out this year will be a continuation of the genre detours I have established over the last few months, and last time I looked at a very interesting poetry anthology. As promised I am now going in a completely new direction, reading a (according to The Wikipedia) “young adult coming-of-age epistolary novel,” Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 book The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
This isn’t exactly an unknown title, being made into a quite successful film by Chbosky in 2012 (and the original impetus for my wanting to read the book), but I had forgotten in the intervening years how much the story is similar to my first novel from North Star Press. Before I get too deep into the comparisons I must say Chbosky wrote a far superior book and I’m glad he got the accolades. I also think he made a good call in using the epistolary form (something I tried to do with a diary) to tell the story as it allowed for a very intimate look into the main character’s life. Also (somewhat *trigger warning* if you need that) there is an incredible and sad revelation about abuse at the very end of the novel that made me think about how to layer in such an impactful moment and have it resonate.
Regarding those similarities, major themes in common would be (*spoiler* for my book, I guess?): suicide, drug use, and being an outcast (albeit a more religious way in my novel). But striking more to the core of it, despite the turgid anger of my Twitter feed these days, I was like Charlie for most of my life. Observing people rather than “participating,” trying to be someone I was not, and in general feeling sensitive toward the world rather than being active in it. I tried to wrangle all those things (much more a part of me in high school) for Our Senior Year along with some of the other crises I was facing in my “real” life at the time circa 2013. This “young adult” novel, despite a few quibbles of my own, does an incredible job of displaying what it is like to navigate this type of world and make it.
I wish Chbosky had focused the narrative a bit more on the “major” themes, but even that’s pretty personal. I also was a lot more repressed about homosexuality growing up and perhaps that understanding continues to limit me. That being said, growing up believing I needed to be a bigoted jerk about it does explain why in the novel (and played so freakin’ well in the film by Ezra Miller) Patrick needs to be careful with his identity. For those people in my own high school who felt that type of loathing from me, I know it’s far too late, but I am sorry.
Up next I’m switching over to a genre I haven’t returned to in a few years, the graphic novel. To wit, one of the utter ground-breaking classics of the genre: Chris Ware’s 2000 opus Jimmy Corrigan. (FYI the text is very small and a recent trip to the eye doctor confirmed my continuing addled decomposition, so this one might take a while.)
Thanks for reading and following my work. -ja
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the Reading List. As I stated in my final “reflections” post, this will just be an ongoing series for the rest of my career. Starting out this year will be a continuation of the genre detours I have established over the last few months. As promised, the first book is this twentieth century lyrical work by Edgar Lee Masters.
This was a collection my wife has recommended to me for years and I thought it would be another good look at a different way to use language. The anthology is made up of cemetery epitaphs, some connected and some philosophical, that tell the story of the residents in the fictional town of Spoon River. The epitaphs are connected through stories and lives, and while most connect page to page others take longer to understand. At the end is an epic, Homeric type poem entitled “The Spooniad” that brings together many of the intertwining tales.
I thought this was a great read, and took my time with it. I would sit with ten to twenty of these epitaphs per session and think about them as they revealed similar mystery and passions that roiled any small Midwestern town over the last century. I kept being drawn to my own memories of fall and how little everything seems to change, even as it does. Some of the best epitaphs reveal hidden secrets behind everyday occurrences or the unvarnished truths about life. And while the overarching story concerning the pillars of the community (bank and church etc) collapsing due to corruption carries over and wrecks plenty of people, not all let the moral backwardness of the town rule their lives.
I would definitely recommend this collection for anyone looking to understand both the weird history of this country, but also those wanting to see how to tell a story in a different format. I would suggest checking out a stage version as well; this video I found on the series of You-Tubes has some great performances.
Up next I am going to wind even farther away from my normal patterns, yet reading a book I have been interested in for a long time: Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a young adult novel published (*adjusts spectacles*) over twenty years ago. Thanks for joining me on this reading adventure, and stay healthy out there.
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.