Hello readers and welcome to the second half of the 2018 Reading List. To wrap up the first half I took on another female author and read Wise Blood. For the latter half of the year I’m going to switch up the formula but still continue to get as many books read in this year as I can. To that end, I’m going to put some titles together and see how they combine to show deeper writing lessons. As I said last time, it felt right to read James Baldwin now, so I this month I took on his 1963 classic The Fire Next Time and his 1957 novel Giovanni’s Room. Both were stunning in their own ways, so I want to get to the major lessons writers can learn from this landmark American author.
Using the novel/essay to speak about society. This is the entire point of The Fire Next Time, and I must say even in 2018 I don’t think I have come across as searing a dissection of religion and the ways it is used to manipulate people. The poignancy here comes from Baldwin’s refusal to make this a color issue, as he denounces both whites’ use of Christianity to cover up their racist minds, and blacks’ relatively more recent use of Islam to further a similar goal. As he discusses at length, both religions were used to preach an idea of a separation of the races, which Baldwin denounces in very stark terms as the opposite of what is needed in this nation. As we can see even today, this vision proved incredibly prophetic. This lesson can also be found in Giovanni’s Room, especially involving the way homosexuality was viewed in the West around this time (the main character describes it as against the law, which in many states it was at the time).
Use of imagery. This was possibly the highlight of Giovanni’s Room, as Baldwin uses basic language to describe the world of Paris (made up of stones that reflect light during the summer and repel it during the winter) and the people he meets (Giovanni and his “boyish” legs, his “leonine” figure, Jacques in his presence appears “very frail and old”), painting a world of intrigue the main character David is attempting to navigate. Though the story reflects Baldwin’s own of escaping cloistered America, David soon learns to resent most of Europe and its inhabitants as a scandal grows from his time in Paris.
Using the novel to reflect your own life. This is a lesson I continue to learn in new and different ways, and without a doubt Giovanni’s Room is a huge example of this. It is well known this book is a parallel to Baldwin’s own time spent in Europe, but he digs even deeper to dissect his relationship with Giovanni, in whose room they both stay for a period, and his own internal shameful thoughts and what they are doing. This becomes even more enhanced when David’s fiancee Hella arrives and he attempts to lead a double life, which leads to Giovanni’s ruin and eventual killing of another character. The end chapters of the novel become incredibly moving and deep as David puzzles through what he should do and while the ending is quite tragic, it contains much to understand about life in the world at this time.
I would highly recommend this author to anyone who seeks a better understanding of race and gender relations during the Cold War, and there were few more powerful American voices on this than Baldwin’s. I definitely will return to this author to gain more insight into these topics.
Up next, as promised I’m shifting the Reading List into a different territory, but one I’ve become more interested in over the years: drama. To that end I will be reading a pair of the greatest stage plays even written, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as well as possibly another “sort-of” drama if I have time. And stay tuned for an essay concerning what writers are for (especially now), as I have approached the ten-year mark of doing it in one form or another. Thanks as always for reading.
Hello readers and welcome to the final installment of this portion of the 2018 Reading List. Last time I read a recommendation from my editor, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. This time I took on another recommendation from a co-worker: Flannery O’Connor and her stunning 1952 debut novel Wise Blood.
This was without a doubt the weirdest and darkest novel I have read this year, but I would also say by far one of the best. The tale of Hazel Motes and his attempt at building a church of “Christ Without Christ” is a compelling look at religion and how it affects people. Finally escaping the clutches of a deeply religious family myself, I found the narrative to be a stinging critique of all types of belief, and a demented rumination on blindness, swaying people, the notion of “destiny” and many other things. I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away (such as it is) so let’s hit the two major lessons I feel writers can gain from this work.
Use of language. Upon beginning these reading experiments, I naively considered Faulkner the voice of the “Southern American” literary tradition. But O’Connor is far and away the master, deftly weaving in colloquialisms, the best portmanteaus this side of Cormac McCarthy (“listenhere,” “theter,” “thisyer”), weird situations (a man in a gorilla suit shaking hands with children in front of a movie theater) and tons of oblique references to religion and the way it undermines people. In the simple way the language flows, O’Connor makes you care very little that we don’t know the background of these characters or what their motivations even are. That’s how phenomenal the writing is throughout the entire novel, which seems to end on a fairly depressing note, but that may depend on your interpretation.
Using the novel to talk about religion. This is ostensibly the novel’s greatest strength, and yet even the main character struggles with the concept throughout the work. Hazel Motes is the son of a traveling preacher who then becomes a traveler in his own regard, preaching against religion. This gets him tangled up with a not-blind blind man who works crowds for money with a young woman, a false “preacher” who uses his own version of Motes to fleece crowds, and various other sordid characters. All the while he considers what he is doing and why, and when attempting to go to another city gets his car wrecked by a policeman. I wish I could say there was a unifying religious theme connecting all of this, but the writing was so understated and bizarre that I don’t feel comfortable stating anything specific.
I can’t say much else but to fully recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a writer who was clearly a master of her craft, and a true heir to the southern tradition. Faulkner was great and spoke for a certain class of people, but it’s O’Connor’s bleak view of humanity that really resonated with me. This is one novel that I will be pondering over for a long time.
Up next, I’m mixing up the way I’m doing the Reading List. First it feels appropriate to read some James Baldwin, an author I’m tragically embarrassed to say I’ve never read. First up will be his essay The Fire Next Time, then I will pivot to his second novel Giovanni’s Room. After that I’m going to be taking on a different type of literature, so stay tuned. And thanks for reading and writing.
Hello readers and welcome to another installment of the 2018 Reading List! Last time I took a first look at Joyce Carol Oates, this time I’m catching up with a recommendation my editor gave me around the time I started this as an experiment. That would be David Guterson’s stunning 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. This tale of love, loss, and small-island prejudice was the first novel for Guterson and according to Wikipedia took him ten years to write. This shows immensely through the writing, and I want to take a close look at what I considered the two major lessons of this book.
Use of framing. Guterson uses the courtroom on the island where the story is set to launch into the personal narratives of all the characters. When the plot focuses on the murder trial of a Japanese-American man (accused of killing a white fisherman), it stays with the lawyers as they aggressively cross-examine witnesses, asking multiple versions of the same question. Guterson captures this very well and uses it to ensure we get a good understanding of the facts. But it’s when he uses the witnesses to delve back in time that the writing really shines, as we get to experience the story from their perspectives. This is a master class in framing one part of a story in order to tell another, deeper one.
Use of identity. In a novel that wades through many dark themes (racism, war, murder) it is the concept of “identity” that ties everything together. Two of the main characters fall in love but cannot be together due to the perceived difference in their ethnicities, and there is much discussion and consideration over identity. Years later, this causes an unfortunate ethical dilemma for one of them, and Guterson writes this so well I wasn’t sure up until the very end what the newspaperman would actually do. This notion is also apparent more broadly in how the islanders see the Japanese-American citizens among them, before and after they are detained in internment camps.
I felt this was an important book to read right now, in light of the obscene nationalism that has gripped our body politic. It is important to remember similar rhetoric to that which we are hearing today led in the past to mass incarceration of persons based upon their race. It was wrong then, and remains abhorrent today. Guterson does an amazing job showing how the torment of war and death divide a small community struggling to adjust with a world war, and how the most base prejudice could lead to an innocent man being put to death. I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone looking to understand either the past or present moments. It’s a masterpiece in terms of construction.
Up next, I’m going back again to the recommendations from my co-worker of modern literary women and hit an author I’ve been wanting to get to for years: Flannery O'Connor and her novel Wise Blood. I also hope to get some kind of post done on the editing process, and another more reflective one by end of summer on writing itself.
Thanks as always for reading and writing, and happy summer!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List! Last time I took a quick dive into High Fidelity. Then I took on another author suggestion from a coworker who I would have otherwise (stupidly) kept regaling to a “read later” list: Joyce Carol Oates and her masterful 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys. I was struck by Oates’ abilities as an author to show the story on every page, and that she reminded me of another author I used to call my favorite - Stephen King. Although as we’ll see, I would argue that Oates does King one better in almost every fashion. Let’s take a look at two major lessons writers can draw from this book.
Use of language. This is possibly Oates’s finest skill, and she brings it to bear in various layers throughout the text. The story is about the dissolution of a family, and you can see these people come alive on the page as well as the farm that begins as their home and ends up in disrepair and sold. The descriptions of the farm life, the way the characters act as they speak to one another, and the use of simile and metaphor are all reminiscent of King, but much better done.
Use of character. This may actually be the stronger part of the novel, as Oates deftly shows us the breakdown of each individual character while also protracting the story out via their various perspectives. The book is ostensibly “written” by Judd, the youngest Mulvaney, but the perspectives shift subtly into scenes that he could not have seen, but possibly heard about from his older siblings. Each character’s view on the horrible events that tear their family apart apply a layer of depth to this story and a stunning emotional weight. If I had a caveat to any of this, I’d say I wish we got to spend more time with the eldest child, Mikey (“Mule”). There is an interesting vignette involving him early on, but later he goes off with the Marines and we don’t hear much from him until his father visits toward the end of the book.
My stupid nitpicking aside, it is easy to see why the book is considered one of the best this (very prodigious) author has produced. And speaking of her considerable body of work, I should point out that King himself praised Oates and her productivity a few years back. With (at least) 40 more books out there, I will definitely return to this author in the future.
Up next, I’m going to take on a recommendation given to me by my editor years ago, when I was beginning this series as experiments. This would be David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. And stay tuned for another update in the “how to write a book” series hopefully within the next month. Thanks for reading and writing!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. Last time I pondered the various meanings of White Noise. After the intensity of that novel, I decided to pivot toward some “lighter” fair, picking up an author who I hadn’t read in ages - Nick Hornby and his 1995 debut novel High Fidelity.
I’ve wanted to read this one since I saw Stephen Frears’ film of the same name years ago. I must say the book is many times better, and I found myself questioning why the movie took the story to America, because the humor does not translate as well. The story is about Rob, a middling, 35-year old record store owner in the UK who ultimately comes to realize his fear of death makes him jump in and out of relationships over the whims of a song, or a person’s reaction, or just because of his “itchy feet.” As I am turning that age this year, the book made me feel glad that my life has settled down and I have moved beyond the things that hold Rob back in the story. I want to take a look at some of the lessons writers can gain from a book like this.
Use of humor. This is arguably the novel’s strongest suit, and once again I felt this aspect didn’t make it into the film version (which is funny in its own, depressing Americanized way). Hornby deftly wields the voice of Rob, and interjects tons of statement that indicate the author himself sees this character as the pathetic shell of a man he is. There is a ton of self-deprecating humor that deals with the various situations, and I thought Hornby was quite spot-on regarding the man-child aspects of our modern age.
Switching up the narrative. This is something the film also tried capturing (to better effect IMO), the long monologues in which Rob is speaking to the reader/audience and pleading his case. At some points he even addresses the reader during a conversation with another character. Done right, this can be a very interesting way to tell a story from various angles/perspectives.
Overall while I did enjoy the work, I don’t think I will be revisiting Hornby for a while. Reading the travails of a thirty-something Brit who hasn’t gotten any part of his life figured out may have resonated with me back in my twenties, but as a married (for almost eight years) man it struck me as a gigantic excuse for men to act their boorish selves way past that era of their lives and to expect women to pick up the pieces. In the age of #MeToo, this message doesn’t resonate as it once may have. But, if you’re looking for an easy read, Hornby does the job, and you’ll have a few good laughs along the way.
Up next, I’m diving back into the female author recommendations, this time one who is very established by this point but I have never read: Joyce Carol Oates and her masterful 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys. Stay tuned for more updates as the Reading List progresses through the year!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. Last time we explored the world of Mrs. Dalloway, and now I am turning toward an author I have long known but never read: Don DeLillo and his masterpiece 1985 novel White Noise.
As with Virginia Woolf’s excellent prose, this too was one of the best books I have ever read. It feels like this novel has seeped into the national consciousness since its publication over thirty years ago, but reading it in the age of social media it still felt incredibly relevant. The advent of technology, eco-disasters, family disorder, academic redundancy; all of these themes have not eluded American life and in fact I have seen many of them get much worse in my lifetime. I won’t delve into the plot (such as it is) in the hopes that this will inspire others to read this book, and will dive straight into a few lessons writers can extricate from this work.
Use of thematic elements. This alone could be the source of an entire essay, and thankfully the edition I had of the book did include quite a few of them to help me gather my thoughts. While I would say the obvious themes of the book are in plain sight (the “airborne toxic event,” “Dylar”) the way DeLillo presents them in the prose is brilliant. What first starts as television ad jingles interspersed throughout the Gladney home slowly becomes part of the text itself, and seem to literally be running through the mind of the protagonist by the end (“Visa, MasterCard, American Express”). But this is just one theme - I would argue the largest is death and how much it looms over the American consciousness. The protagonist’s wife searches (and debases herself) for a pill that will cure death, and by the end Gladney himself is convinced of a much darker way to prolong his life. Writers can attend a master class in how to approach thematic elements in literally every page of this novel.
Using the novel to show society. This is arguably the novel’s largest success, as DeLillo uses his characters’ perspectives to show the consumerism obsessed populace of the early Eighties. The supermarket becomes a religious experience, academic life has become a series of intricately developed specialities (“Department of Hitler Studies”), and we are assailed all around by toxins and other elements that are slowly killing us. I had to set it aside and ponder the relations to our current malaise at many junctures. (This book is also the first since Catch-22 to make me laugh out loud multiple times.)
Use of voice. This struck me in the sense that Jack Gladney is essentially DeLillo’s voice, and yet it is not. Gladney views the world through academic suspicion, and yet is swayed by another academic (Murray) into committing a horrific act of violence he supposes will set him free. All throughout the book we encounter Gladney’s personal experiences of the world, viewed through a more jaded author’s handiwork, to amazing effect. Writers looking to hone their voice can find few better works of such phenomenal example.
Again, these are but three lessons for writers in this monumental book, and I would encourage anyone who has not picked this one up to do so if you can. It’s that incredible of a novel, and is so well-written that each passage has miles of depths to explore critically. And I would welcome any comments from those who have read it as well.
Up next, I needed a bit of a breather, as White Noise hit me hard on several levels. Therefore I’m veering back into (British) commercial fiction and returning to an author I have not read in years - Nick Hornby and his first novel High Fidelity. I also plan on reading more female authors later in the year, and am always open to more suggestions on that front. As always, thanks for reading and writing.
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. As a quick reminder, I’m catching up on some contemporary female authors, last time focusing on Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Now I am turning to an author I have wanted to read for some time: Virginia Woolf and what is generally considered her greatest work, Mrs. Dalloway.
This was without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read, and holds up quite comparably with other male authors of the era such as Faulkner and Joyce. In the introduction to the version I read, it was pointed out that this story is almost a counterpoint to Ulysses (takes place in one day, multiple characters, many interpretations), but I felt it was more readable. I’m not going to spend time on the story itself, in favor of the major lessons writers can draw from this work.
Use of perspective/character. This is Woolf’s overwhelming strength, and it shows on every page. The narrative sweeps among character points of view, then goes abroad over the city to find other characters who are doing other things at the same moment and gives their thoughts and hopes and concerns about life. Woolf does an amazing job showing how internal conflict can resonate within outer relationships. She also uses these techniques to show us the various complications of mental illness as it affects those who struggle with it.
Sentence construction. Almost as well known as the first lesson, this novel is also considered a masterwork in how to create powerful prose structure. Some sentences are actual paragraphs, using chained semicolons, parentheses and other flourishes to spin a narrative either from an omniscient perspective or from within the character’s mind. While this is not a technique that will work for every writer, it’s worth paying close attention to how the sentences wind together, as each one was obviously labored over for some time.
I would highly recommend this book for any writer looking for a phenomenal example of how to hone their craft. Whether you are pondering a use of a different perspective or how to show your character's’ internal thoughts, you can hardly find a better source of material. I would go so far as to say one can get a much deeper and rewarding experience from this novel than other stream-of-consciousness tales that were becoming popular in that era. I know I will continue reading more of Woolf’s fiction as well as her essays over the years.
Next up, I’m going to take on another author I have known of for years but never read: Don DeLillo and his first great masterpiece White Noise. I have another critical edition of this work so I hope to sample some of that material after I finish the text, and plan on getting a post about it done by the end of this month. And stay tuned for some more essays on the book process and writing itself. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. As a quick reminder, I’m catching up with some contemporary female-authored books, last time being Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Now I’m taking a dive into a dystopic future with a recommendation made by my editor: Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven.
This was a very enjoyable read and the revelations kept me turning the page, even if they didn’t always add up in the way I was expecting. Mandel takes as her starting point a flu epidemic not unlike those the world has witnessed in the last decade. Something about using a way of killing off 99 percent of the population via the flu made this story feel eerily real to me. But while the post-pandemic storyline is where the action is, I find myself liking the pre-pandemic character development a bit more. For now I will dive into the two key lessons of this work:
Keep it simple - This is definitely a strong suit of Mandel, and each time I caught myself wanting a little more detail or information I had to realize what she was doing with the writing. It isn’t easy to describe such a breakdown of society, but Mandel’s beautifully simple language makes it a breeze to experience. The converse is Mandel (or her editors) didn’t seem to have a problem violating a cardinal writing verity, that of “show, not tell.” There are a few amazing passages that are marred with later, lesser repetitions of what occurred. But overall the sparse language keeps this tale moving at a brisk clip.
Thematic elements - This was the best part of the book for me: the tying together of various characters over the pre- and post-pandemic timelines, the re-working of a Sartre quote (“hell is other people”) in some revelatory ways, the introduction of a graphic novel series created by one of the characters that shows up throughout. All of it is done very well and helps give the story and characters a richer meaning.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a good dystopian tale about humanity picking up the pieces after most of us are wiped out. While many other authors have tried their hand at this type of tale (myself included) Mandel’s writing makes hers stand out, and the few problems I had with the text did not mar that experience much. I’m now interested in Mandel’s other work and hope to return to it in the future.
Coming up next, I’m taking on an author I’ve wanted to read since viewing The Hours (and became entranced with Philip Glass’s existential score, among many other highlights): Virginia Woolf and her 1925 novel that inspired Michael Cunningham: Mrs. Dalloway.
I also hope to get another “How to Write a Book” series update here after I wrap up my current drafting, and will continue on with some other writing series as the year progresses. Thanks, as always, for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the second entry of the 2018 Reading List.
As a quick reminder, I am catching up on some contemporary female-authored books, the first being Margaret Atwood’s monumental The Handmaid’s Tale. Next is a recommendation from the co-worker who inspired me to head this direction in the first place: Donna Tartt’s phenomenal (and first!) 1992 novel The Secret History.
Though not much of this “mystery” novel is hidden, therein lies the deft ways in which Tartt spins this incredibly compelling narrative. I will refrain from giving even that bit away for those that have yet to dive into this one, and would recommend this to readers of all types of fiction. The history of the deeds of six college students in a leafy, quiet Vermont town is a powerful mediation on subjects we don’t consider often enough today: beauty, the will, how the ancients got on versus our stultifying age, etc. For now I will get into a few of the many lessons to be pulled from this prose.
Control. This word generally annoys me when I see it attached to a blurb on a book jacket. But in this case, I can’t think of a better word to describe Tartt’s level of hold on her craft. It’s not just in the settings, which are luminously detailed, or the character development, which is descendent and spellbinding, but overall in how compelled I felt to finish this stirring yarn. Tartt gives away the major event committed right there in the opening. It’s up to the reader to gauge the characters’ actions from this point onward, and that makes the story so flipping interesting. I could not put this one down until I got to the end, as disappointed as I was that some plot elements ultimately get dropped (Julian, their teacher, being the prime example).
Use of setting/characters. Despite her stunning control over the pacing, I feel I must mention something here that I also attempted (she obviously much better than me) in my second novel - using a campus setting for a shady storyline. It was very imaginary yet real the way she describes the idyllic (and dangerous for the protagonist during a freezing winter) town of Hampden and its school. On the other side, the characters are all quite unique and paranoid in their own ways, and I grew uncomfortable more than a few times recognizing similar weird behaviors in myself over the years.
While these are the two lessons I chose to highlight for this entry, there are without a doubt many more you can pull from this masterwork of a debut novel (and if I’m being nitpicky, a few places where an editor’s pen might have moved even more deftly). The story is forceful, pulling you through each scene by breaking down days into various segments of situations among the characters, and the writing is just excellent. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a great story.
Up next, I’m turning to a female author mentioned to me by my editor - Hilary St. John Mandel and her 2014 science fiction novel Station Eleven. Thanks as always for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the first entry in the Reading List. (This is basically the same as Another Year of Fiction but I’m just not making it a “formal” experiment any longer.)
It was pointed out to me last year that the ratio of male to female authors was a bit out of whack, so I decided to correct that in 2018 with a bevy of women writers. The first selection was Margaret Atwood’s brilliant and prescient 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I won’t delve into the plot much as the recent Hulu series seems to have renewed interest in this story and really, one cannot understand this book without reading it. The themes are so deep and universal (and scary) that each reader will draw his or her own parallels to our society as it’s gone in the decades since this book was published. I did draw some great lessons for writers, however, and will get to that now:
Use of an unreliable narrator - The entire book (with the exception of the “historical notes” section at the end) is from the point of view of Offred, the handmaid assigned to Commander Fred’s home. While she did have some experience with the dystopian overthrow of the US government, much of what she sees of the current regime is necessarily limited to her own perspective. Atwood masterfully spins multiple stories of past and present into a single narrative that shows how this society came to be and describes Offred’s previous life in stunning detail. While at times I would have liked a bit more information about the regime, there is plenty within this book to give the reader a compelling look at this futuristic world that could be around the corner.
Using the novel to speak about society - This is obviously the major strength of this work, and holds it up against other dystopian tales of the 20th century. Just off the top of my head, Atwood levels a blasting critique of: organized religion, totalitarian societies and how they can begin literally anywhere, feminism (the deeper levels of which I am not well versed enough to fully describe here), sterility due to biological factors, patriarchy, and many others. Atwood has described this novel as more in the vein of “speculative fiction” and it is quite apparent she was viewing the disturbing trend lines of the Eighties (the Reagan revolution, the abortion issue, the feminist backlash, televangelism) and how they could take our nation to such a place. Obviously in the age of *ugh* President Trump, all of these issues have taken on greater significance, inspiring the streaming series last year (which I hope to view soon).
Overall I would strongly recommend this novel to any writer who wants to see one of the best examples of an author taking a deep look into her society and seeing where it was headed. There are too many themes to fully explore here, and again I think this is a book that everyone needs to read and understand on their own terms. I know for sure as a man my empathy toward what women have to deal with has been deeply moved, and perhaps I am a bit more dug out of the ignorance of my earlier days.
Up next for the Reading List, a book recommended to me by a coworker: Donna Tartt’s landmark 1992 novel The Secret History. As always, thanks for reading.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.