Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2020 Reading List. I am finishing another journey with contemporary female authors, last time poring through an interesting tale that threaded storytelling and magic. For my final book in this vein I decided to read a science fiction classic that I have wanted to get to for years: Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred. Given all that has occurred in my city this year I felt it was an important choice.
In a year of amazing reads, Kindred was the best one I have encountered. Described by some scholars as a “neo-slave narrative” this book is far more than just a science fiction or historical novel, but a deep examination of the country and its shape over the course of two centuries. The main character, a Black woman from 1976 California named Dana is sent back to 19th century east coast plantation country over the course of weeks that in fact take place over years in her actual life. She figures out she is meant to go back to save the life of the plantation owner’s son who will wind up being related to Dana in some pernicious ways over the years. This is just one paradox at the heart of this crucial examination of race relations and its hold over the national consciousness.
While a lot of science fiction is driven by Butler’s kind of spare prose, I found her particular style conveyed this narrative in a powerful fashion. We get an up-close look at Dana’s interior thoughts as she experiences these trips back in time alone and with her white husband, who (*spoiler*) ends up getting trapped back in that time period for a portion of the novel. We get to see her inner anguish as a 20th century Black woman interrogating her own ancestry and the many ways slaves showed resistance to a horrendous, cruel and racist system of oppression. The larger stunner for me was continuing to set this book aside as I read it to think: just how much has changed in two hundred years?
This was quite possibly the best science fiction novel I have read, and continues the preponderance of evidence that women own this genre just as much as (if not more than) the white men that are considered part of its founding. I would recommend this book in leaps and bounds over any other science fiction author of the era, as it will make you think about history and race in a lot of profound ways.
Up next I will be winding down the 2020 Reading List with some genre detours the likes of which haven’t been seen here since (*checks archives*) the bad old days of 2018. First up will be two dramatic works, then I hope to hit one poetry collection and possibly a few others. Thanks for enduring this year along with me and reading my work.
Hello readers and welcome to the third entry in the 2020 Reading List! I am wrapping up a long tour through science fiction territory, last time reading a more contemporary take. For my last stop I decided to read another of the old masters: Isaac Asmiov and his 1950 collection I, Robot.
I chose this title to inspire me as I wrapped up this round of revisions on my science fiction manuscript, and for that I found it to be quite good. As is pretty well known, Asimov is legendary for creating the three laws of robotics, and most of these stories rotate around them in one form or another. But I found an even more insight in the character of Susan Calvin and some comparisons to what I’m trying to do in my manuscript. The stories build on each other pretty well until “Liar,” which becomes more of a psychological study of robots. While the gender stereotypes haven’t aged well (more on that later) this still an interesting tale about the notion of a robot that could read minds and yet be held back by logistics of the rules. There is also some great humor in the Powell and Donovan stories.
I thought Asimov shines most in the later tales, “Escape!” “Evidence” and “The Evitable Conflict.” Each of these build upon themes present in all of the stories, and offers its own stirring narrative. The first deals with some rather disturbing elements of “hyperspatial” travel and how a robot must deal with them. “Evidence” shows a great way for any writer of this genre to insert elements of technology right into society. Reading these final stories I was struck by how Asimov long ago got to where I have in my manuscript, in that he saw the planet broken down into various regions and political upheaval in the form of a zealous organization (in his universe it’s the anti-robot “Fundamentalists”).
I would recommend this collection if you have interest in what is considered the beginning of the field of artificial intelligence, even if actual robots would be decades away. I found many remarkable examples of what behemoth corporations like Google are attempting with their deep learning machines today. And of course in those decades we have also found out more about Asimov, and like others like him, it becomes difficult not to consider that when selecting works from the genre.
This will be the last of the science fiction works for the year and the Reading List will be back open to everything. In that spirit, next up will be Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer-winning novel (and/or short story collection) A Visit from the Goon Squad. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the second entry in the 2020 Reading List. Last time I took a deep dive into the best science fiction novel I have ever read. I have now shifted to a contemporary title in the genre, Dave Eggers’ well-received 2013 novel The Circle. Eggers is considered a pillar of the literary community, his creation of one of the most iconic publishing brands alone cementing that years ago (I also somehow never put together that it launched the landmark lit mag The Believer). I encountered other organization websites in the bio section that I was not aware of as being his projects. And of course Eggers has a litany of published works in many different genres and won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize among others. This was the first novel of his I had read.
While I understood and even cheered the themes he pursued in this novel, so much of the execution was flawed that I have a hard time recommending it. First I want to discuss the things Eggers gets right in this tale. For being published in the early part of the decade he was way ahead of the curve seeing where internet technology would be headed in a few years. One giant company engorging on the data of everyone, concerns of privacy and security and transparency, and the ideology of disruption overriding moral ideals are a few themes he explores. We see the world of The Circle through the eyes of Mae Holland, who accepts the increased demands of her employer with alarming alacrity despite warnings about these concepts from others in her life. I found many of these descriptive passages very compelling as Eggers spends yards of prose on mundane details like social media updates that are still gripping, just as we understand how important yet pointless it seems in the real world.
I applaud the overall direction of analysis Eggers takes, and his prose is deceptive enough to weave layers of comment under the character interactions. Yet I found myself wanting more diversity out of Mae. Her persona is written rather cliched, bouncing between two weird male characters and coming to hate another female protagonist for reasons of corporate advancement. Eggers overreaches in his own need to stand-in as two characters, one I’d wager is Mae’s ex, Mercer, who is a foil in that he offers up endless screeds against the tyranny of the online masses Mae continues to dismiss. I also struggled with some of the logistical issues of what The Circle manages to accomplish. It would be a massive undertaking to place cameras everywhere on the planet, even given the disregard for political pushback on companies like this in the novel. Eggers presents the reverse political accountability in a novel way (more cameras, but this time following elected officials) but one I found overall to be unconvincing.
I have a hard time advocating for this book as a great science fiction read, but it does contain a solid working of these themes, and Eggers deserved the praise for his remarkable and prophetic vision of these internet companies. Next I’m going to take on a final major icon for this sci-fi tour: Isaac Asimov and his 1950 collection I, Robot. Then I will shift back toward all kinds of fiction and hope to mix up the genres a bit by the summer months, which still feel decades away. Thanks as always for reading, and stay healthy.
Hello and welcome to the fourth part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(Note: Part three focused on the editing process for my third novel Observe & Detach. In the almost two years since I have returned to this series I have decided to focus again on what has become my new “current” manuscript, a science fiction novel titled Spheres of Influence. For more background on how that project came about, check out parts one and two of the series.)
Rewriting. The main reason it has taken me so long to figure out a process for this step is that I have been struggling with doing it for most of that time. Since Observe has taken a back seat in favor of this climate change tale, its manuscript has seen around six full drafts. That is, the previous draft takes up one half of my screen and the new one takes up the other part. I have decided to continue this process until my editor Libby Copa has time to take another look at the work. I have come across no easier way than this, and I must say getting all this time inside has helped me to test it out a bit more. To that end, I want to again exhibit how a piece of writing can change during each stage.
Spheres of Influence started out as another weird chain of ideas that wound up becoming an initial draft (check out part two of this series if you dare to dredge through it), which ended up being an introductory multiple pages. Reading over my thoughts back then, it’s interesting to see what has changed, or morphed, or been erased. The character here is still an “underground journalist” (maybe not so much “historian” any longer) but I have since decided to base her more on a real world journalist I admire. But her ranty first-person narration made it all the way through multiple drafts before I could see what was in front of my face: that her career and work was facilitating the story, not her general recollections. But after realizing this final cut was necessary I still had some work for the introduction, and even after this will need to make sure it hooks the reader from the start. I present now the changes first chapter paragraphs can make from one draft to the next.
Amy Greatman washed soapy water through her dark brown hair, which she noticed in the mirror above her sink was beginning to shade to gray. The reflection emanated all she tried to cultivate during her career: stone dedication honed over two decades of investigative journalism. Her eyes traced the eyes of the scar curving around her left eye, and she let her palm fall into the clean white bowl of the porcelain sink. Amy was never late to work. Not once in her whole damn life did she ever show up to that newsroom with anything less than five minutes to spare before the morning briefing. Her producer Dan expected this from her now that their staff was dwindling in number after the last round of budget cuts. But on this day, as she threw on a gray nylon sweater and corduroy jeans cinched by a snazzy black belt and matching socks, she thought would be an exception.
And when she walked into the briefing room a few minutes late, an overwhelming sense of dread dragging behind her and saw Dan's face and he wasn't upset, she knew something else bigger had happened. She couldn't shake the words he screamed at her out of her mind as she raced down the hallway to get her cameraman.
"I don't know what happened. People are saying somebody flew a fucking plane into the side of it! The whole thing looks like it's about to collapse. Get your ass down there, now! We have to get it as it falls. These images are going worldwide!" Dan gasped at the end like he was having a heart attack.
Amy couldn't find her cameraman Jose so she pushed through the front doors she'd just walked through, notepad and phone in hand, and jumped back into her crappy two-door sedan. She turned and looked as the screeching wail of sirens blew past her in the crowded street. She flicked on the radio, turned to the public news station.
The woman on the radio kept saying: "There has been an attack."
Amy Greatman washed the soapy water into her dark brown hair. She caught a glimpse in the mirror above her sink that portions were now shaded gray. She traced the small curve of the scar hooked over her left eye with her index finger, then let her weathered palm fall into the clean white of the porcelain sink. Her reflection emanated stone dedication honed over decades of investigation. Amy held certain tenets, a major one was never be late. Not once in her entire damnable life had she ever shown up at that newsroom with anything less than ten minutes to spare preparing for the morning meeting. Her producer Dan expected it now that staff was dwindling from the recent budget cuts. Independent media was a brutal landscape at any time, let alone one where the major media groups controlled most of it. Amy threw on a gray nylon sweater and corduroy jeans cinched with a black belt and matching socks, and was out with the door with plenty of time to spare.
The first thing to strike her was the silence. Manhattan had never been a place of concentration, of slowness, of still behavior. But this was next-level. Amy could hear the wind blow the boughs of the few trees planted along her street. It was eerie. The main location of her indie news program Instant Freedom!, which streamed its episodes to half the globe, was a few train stops away. She walked into the briefing room with a sense of dread, brought on from the train passengers and their dead stares and the lull that entered her car as it rattled. Dan's face confirmed it when Amy walked into the room. The words he screamed at her echoed through her mind as she raced down the small carpeted hallway to find her cameraman.
"I don't know what in the hell happened. The first wire reports say somebody flew a fucking plane into the side of it. The whole fucking tower is about to collapse. Get your ass there now! We have to get that image. It's going worldwide," Dan gasped.
Amy ducked her head into Jose's small changing room, but he was not there. She left a message on his small desk, then tromped further down the hallway to Gary's office. He was the senior journalist on staff, but as of late had taken to commentary. She knew he would have interest, even if he couldn't work a camera. She gave two tiny knocks on his door, but he didn't turn around. She said his name, but then picked up on the fact that he was listening to the radio, the giant public news station.
The woman on the broadcast repeated: "There has been some sort of attack..."
"I'm going down there," Amy said to his back. When he turned, his face was ashen and torn with fear. She had never seen it on his tough face.
"Be careful," he said. He never said that. "I am going to stay with this for a bit."
Amy went back out to the hallway to her office, grabbed her notepad and a small film camera, and headed up to the front doors. She jumped back into her beat up two door sedan, then whipped her head around as a screeching wall of sirens blew down the street. She twisted the knob on the radio.
"There has been some sort of attack..."
The major change would be the introduction of a character (Gary) who I had introduced much later in the book but found it made little sense. I have since decided to flesh out more scenes with Amy and Gary in another chapter, and thought he could use a basic introduction here. And there are of course many other differences. This passage got a couple hundred words longer, but that won’t always be the case. In general, there should be a good balance over the drafts between cuts and additions, and over the course of this process there should begin to appear a novel. The number of drafts isn’t the main thing to consider, it is how the plot, characters and entire story is changing through each one. Now that I have a good pattern to establish for my rewrites I have a good rhythm to my churning them out. I’m not sure where the next entry in this series will go but it will continue to follow the course of this manuscript.
Hello readers and welcome to the long-delayed first entry in the 2020 Reading List. I know there is a lot going on in the world but I hope that means we are all taking stock of what is important in life. For me that is a close read of a phenomenal novel. And I had that in my first title for the year: Ursula Le Guin’s landmark 1969 science fiction work The Left Hand of Darkness. This was without a doubt the greatest sci fi book I have ever read. Better than Gibson or Heinlein, and maybe even Vonnegut, who was just hitting his stride around the same time. There are many reasons for this so let’s start from the top.
First, the entire novel was a master class in how to say a lot with very little prose. There are so many layers to this work: the world itself, its inhabitants and its societal structure, but far beyond this are the androgynous aspects to the people of Gethen and those of its various regions. We are brought into the story by an anthropological envoy named Genly Ai whose sole mission is to bring this world (Gethen, or Winter to the envoy) into the Ekumen, or collection of planets. He visits both regions and is treated poorly by both. Throughout there are deft allusions to the geo-political situation on our planet at the time, but Le Guin is so masterful with her prose you have to ponder how those are drawn out. There is no simple statement within saying one nation is better than the other, but there are quite a few nods toward the notion that an androgynous society is much less susceptible to the quarrels and demons of our world, the chief being warfare. War is shown as something that has to be manipulated into, and there are very interesting passages where Genly is considering how their society is different from his own.
Second, this novel is also a master class of how to world build by breaking all the rules. I’ve gone over this on the blog before, but most “rules” for writers are nonsense for those who have the talent to break them. Many of us, myself included, might think to put the details of the world in the first part of the book. Instead Le Guin dumps a bunch of terms and mannerisms on us from the outset (not to mention changes in perspective that aren’t always recognizable) and starts a slow download of what they mean as we progress through the work itself. We don’t find out the origin of a major term (“shifgrethor”) until almost the end of the novel, but the word itself is shown so freaking well through the story that it does not matter. That’s how skillful the prose is here. The entire last portion where the two major characters are traversing the ice back to the start, was one of the most gripping and stunning passages of prose I have ever encountered.
I must thank you readers for sticking with me as I took almost two months to devour this novel, and it was worth every chapter. As I stated I may not be getting to as many titles per year as before but I am going to analyze the heck out of each novel as I get through them. To that end, the next title in this continuing march through science fiction territory will be an author I have avoided until now: Dave Eggers and his dystopian 2013 novel The Circle. And I’m getting scary close to finishing both Orange is the New Black the Netflix series and the memoir, so stay tuned for a post on that next month.
And of course in these scary times it’s important to truly reflect on what matters in life. I hope as we are all self-quarantined and distancing ourselves we all are noticing the beauty of life that does exist, and the wonderful connection we all share. As great books like this show us, this is pervasive despite the many attempts at division. Stay safe and healthy out there and thanks for reading.
Hello and welcome to a new decade. Long-time readers will surely know what to expect out of me around this time: a look back at all the reading and work I did over the last year and a reflection upon the (revamped) 2019 Reading List. And like last year I won’t disappoint, but I’m also hoping to use this post as a re-envisioning of John Abraham the author. First I wanted to get to the books I read this year now that I’m taking a deeper dive into each work.
First of all, I’m not counting books I technically read in 2019 but considered part of the previous year’s reading list, which does shorten things a bit. But I am also realizing that I gained a lot more in my close reading despite not getting to as many books. Ann Patchett proved she is a genuine great storyteller, Emma Cline showed me a contemporary woman author can have as much punch as anyone before or after, and unfortunately Edan Lepucki displayed some of the opposite qualities. As readers know this year continues a trend of reading more contemporary female authors, and Katherine Dunne was one of the best I have encountered. I rounded out the group on a local note with Julie Schumacher.
I then pivoted to the genre of my current manuscript (science fiction) by reading Robert Heinlein, considered a master of the form. And possibly my closest read of the year was also my most disappointing, as I struggled for two months puzzling through why many of the stories of an anthology I read were considered the “best.” And on the last day of the year I posted my review of a book my editor suggest I read when she got through an initial (and awful) first draft of my own manuscript. And just like last year, eliminating most of my “other” types of reading left open a larger chunk of time to catch up on my non-fiction at work. This allowed me to read quite a few books I have wanted to for a long time: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Understanding Media by the late great Marshall McLuhan, The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, Failed States by the legendary Noam Chomsky, and a couple that found their way to me through the bookstore where I work: Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump by Rick Reilly and Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Account Right Now by tech pariah Jaron Lanier.
All told I fell quite a bit short of my total last year, getting through 14 books, which is much less than the 25 from last year. While I could feel bad about that, lately I’ve been reading the travails of those who got to way more books and it has confirmed for me that I'm on the right track regardless of how many titles I hit in a year. While it is great to catalogue each book you read one should not put too much stock in the number. While I did not get to as many books this year, for those that I did I took my time and really considered my reaction, as well as what I learned (about myself, about society, about writing, about whatever). And I have to say this has been a very successful year of reading.
So, how did I do on my other goals for the year? I would say major accomplishments were posting a much better short story to the blog, and finally starting on the Writing Life Series (parts one, two and three are here if you missed them). And the original post (“What’s a Writer For?”) still languishes on my computer, but I hope to finally post that and a similar one (“What’s a Reader For?”) by the time I reach five years writing for this site in the summer. I am also planning a fourth entry in the “How to Write a Book” series now that I’m deep into rewrites on my manuscript.
Long-time readers will once again recognize that I’ve been compiling these reflections on my years for a long time now, and while I enjoy them I don’t put such pressure on myself to complete goals like I once did. So what’s on tap for the next year and decade? Not much in the way of change. Even though I didn’t make much headway on it this year, I am still planning on mixing up the series with other genres (drama, poetry, graphic novel) and still hope to write more about other mediums (up next in the Netflix series will be Orange is the New Black). And while I’m still working on earlier goals (don’t over-promise and under-deliver, keep diversifying the list with non-old white guy authors) after doing this for years now I can see how it has affected and improved my writing. Simply having a broad comparison of other writers can help you hone your own voice.
Until then, as I stated last time the next book on my list will be Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. And thanks to all of you who have stuck around reading my posts on this here website blog for the past (almost) five years.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! At this point I am diving deep into the science fiction realm, last time getting through what is still considered an earlier masterpiece of the form. I decided to pivot from Heinlein to more contemporary work in the genre and picked up a collection I had almost no familiarity with, Houghton Mifflin’s long-running Best American series. The Science Fiction and Fantasy version was only in its third year by then, and while I am a little behind the times with this entry, this was a great look at the genre authors making waves in 2016, which as we all know was an important year in this country for a lot of horrific reasons. The series editor is John Joseph Adams, who in addition to editing runs his own imprint. The esteemed science fiction author Charles Yu was the guest editor. And while there were yards to learn from these talented authors I found there were only a few of the supposed “best” stories I thought deserving of the title.
I enjoyed the fantasy stories in this collection much more overall, which was a surprise for me. Leigh Bardugo’s Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail was an all-around show stopper, with excellent dialogue, setting and characters that stuck with me. This collection was also my first encounter with the extraordinary N. K. Jemisin, whose subversive and immersive Cthulhu-inverted The City Born Great towered over every other story. The legendary Peter Beagle told a fascinating eastern-inspired tale in The Story of Kao Yu, and Alice Sola Kim contributed a fearsome yarn inspired by her writing group in Successor, Usurper, Replacement. All of these stories were incredible examples of how to use the genre to say far more than what is on the surface, and I am looking forward to reading more of these authors.
There were a few science fiction stories I really liked, including a very Black Mirror-esque tale by Alexander Weinstein called Openness. Joseph Allen Hill scored with the final entry, The Venus Effect, a powerful allegory about police brutality. And there was a darkly funny “choose your own adventure” type of science fiction story in Caroline Yoachim’s Welcome to the Midnight Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0.
Before I get to what I didn’t like about this series, I must again stress that this was a great assemblage of talent. And yet, I found myself wondering if these tales were really the “best” of that year or if it was more of a subjective thing. There were a number of stories in here (Dale Bailey’s Teenagers From Outer Space, Debbie Urbanski’s When They Came to Us) that appeared to be less-great workings of Neil Blompkamp’s epic alien film of nearly a decade ago, District 9. And if I’m being nit-picky, Catherine Valente could have used a bit more research on her subject (the great garbage patches of the seas) in order to present it more realistically (they are not giant islands of refuse, as she seems to suggest). Some of the other stories Adams mentions in the introduction that did not make the cut (especially Sarah Pinsker’s Nebula finalist Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea) seemed like better work that could have been incorporated here.
I hate to end this on a downer note, but after spending two months on what is a very popular anthology series, I have to say I was fairly disappointed and am going to look elsewhere for my next genre collection. The subjectivity of the selection process, despite finding some amazing and talented authors, left something to be desired. But I did learn a ton about writing stories and as I’ve stated before, I am celebrating the publication of my very first short story this month.
Thanks for bearing with me as I eked out the time and space to for this collection and my thoughts on it. I will be continuing in the science fiction realm for the rest of the year, heading back into novel territory with another suggestion of my editor Libby: Omar el Akkad’s revolutionary 2017 book American War. Thanks as always for reading and writing!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.