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!
Hello readers and welcome to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here if you missed it. And without further ado, here is the second installment in the Writing Life.
Embrace the failure. I know, it sounds counterintuitive and perhaps like every other piece of writing advice you’ve encountered on the internet and elsewhere. But there is perhaps no other more important part of the writing life than this one. Because it will be all consuming, and inescapable. Forget the general people out there who may be repelled by your work, or never even find out about it; there are yet to be legions of lit mags, online outlets, editors and publishers who all will reject your work for various reasons. This is a huge part of refining our skills. I suppose I should lead all this failure announcing that I am finally going to have a short story published this October, after a half-decade of writing them and not getting anywhere (more on where to find this particular story coming soon). This represents the culmination of getting an idea, drafting a basic concept story, showing it to a few people, getting some great feedback, rewriting and rewriting it, looking it over a few more dozen times, submitting it and receiving (at least) ten rejections, from lit mags in Minnesota and beyond, until finally it will be published by an outlet that has also published my editor, Libby Copa.
Speaking of Libby, a while back she pointed me to this essential LitHub article by Kim Liao about the importance of seeking 100 rejections per year. I know that I didn’t even get close to that with this story, and that feels pretty great but doesn’t make me underestimate the amount of work required to get even more published. If the dream is having some kind of story collection ready to go by the time my other manuscripts can get shopped, I will need to get hundreds of rejections piled over a dozen stories (at least). I have come to find the necessary rotation should be around five-six stories sent out to as many places as you can, while keeping track of them through a spreadsheet or document. And while it felt odd to have to withdraw the piece from other places I’d submitted it, I didn’t mind the reason.
This essay was also inspired by some thoughtful reviews of my books on GoodReads, which is another great resource for feedback (even if they point out errors I too have gone on about at length). And as much fun as it was to see someone created a profile just to give my first novel a one-star review, it is all a part of dealing with the fact that some people just won’t like your work. It seems hard to overcome that at first, but the more you embrace it, the more you will see how it doesn’t define you but is used to make your writing better. I have a lot more confidence now that an independent party has verified that I might know what I’m doing. This will in turn help me get my current manuscript in the best shape it can be, and eventually get it published as well. So learn to embrace the failure, for your own good.
I never noticed that small crack in the upper left corner of the bathroom, winding its way toward the pinnacle of the ceiling. A bit of mold grows around the base, a sick greenish-black splotch. I open the old mirror and its hinges squeal in protest. From within, the remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small rectangular box. It taunts me; reminds me of what used to be.
Sylvia used to make me floss every night. Said it was good for me. I haven't touched the stuff since she left and took the kids. I don't notice a difference in my teeth. I feel around with an index finger to make sure. As I am doing this, my eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought the week after she moved out. It's not as good as what she got me, but I don't care. I don't have to care anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the overhead bulb. A pack of cotton swabs she would use to clean the disgusting wax from the caverns of my ear cavities. My mother used to do the same thing when I was six years old. I see peroxide for my little cuts, bandages for the larger ones. My gaze shifts to the tweezers sitting next to the bandages. She used to use those to pull little hairs right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it.
Sylvia left behind what she didn't want at her new place, the overstuffed plaid couch we found at a garage sale the year we were married. Our cat Diana, before we even started talking about having children, used to eat the white fluff that poured from its sides when she scratched it with her long, merciless claws. Diana lives with Sylvia and my children now. I think they even got another cat.
I see Sylvia took all the "female" stuff from this squeaky cabinet. The makeup, the hair ties, the pins, facial cleanser, hair spray. All the pills she had to take for allergies, headaches, muscle injuries. And the bottles that would make her smell nice when we were alone without the kids. I don't need to smell like a damn thing now. I'm still a man, aren't I? Our gender was never supposed to smell like roses. Just like we were never meant to clean up after ourselves. Don't even think on that kitchen right now. Focus on the task at hand.
My eyes arrive back upon the tiny white box of string. If I am going to do this, affirm that I'm ready to move on, it's best to get it over with while I can. I don't see or feel anything wrong with my teeth. But I'm not looking hard enough. I reach out and pull the little box down to the sink. A string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and pull out a length of it. Start on the back, I tell myself. That was always the hardest. Six months ago my dentist said a cavity was forming here. Sylvia said to just take care of it; we'd worry about how to pay for it later. I should have listened to her. On the bright side, there is nobody to nag me about what to eat now. I wonder what's left in that refrigerator. Ouch. Focus.
Damn, this hurts. More than it did last time. I shouldn't have broken this habit. I shouldn't have done a lot of things. We thought new trips would help our situation. Did our ski vacation in Denver last winter? Not according to my bruised ass, and damaged ego. I didn't know the pain of snow grinding against flesh quite until then. Charlie, our oldest, almost slid right into a tree. And the traveling out east to see some of Sylvia's judgmental relatives? When we left screaming out the door on the way out to our rented minivan, Uncle Mike said in mighty plain language we were not welcome back. Sorry I brought up how good I thought oil was for the country at large. Didn't realize it was still so communist out there. What's been happening to this country.
My thoughts return to the slow movement of my fingers, moving along the right side. This side hurts even worse. Could there be another cavity forming here? Why wouldn't the dentist have told me this?
Sylvia, you shouldn't have taken the kids. I lost control of the narrative. Christ knows what she's telling them about their absent father. About what a jerk, what a loser he is. He doesn't even floss, Charlie. Did ya know that? Doesn't even take care of himself. What kind of man is not able to continue basic hygiene once his partner is gone? Not somebody she wants you to know, Lisa. I suppose it's more important she knows what men are like, now, before she grows up. Before she goes into this world, and finds out what it's really like.
Forget about all of that. Keep going. I am doing this because I want to, not because it was a routine, like all the others only you could keep me doing. Not because it reminds me of the ways you affected my life. I'm conducting this painful exercise, this tour of duty because I want to, and not for any other reason.
This part, in the front, doesn't hurt so much. This is what it's supposed to feel like. Gives the mouth a nice clean feeling. Doesn't that feel better, Sylvia would say. Yes it does, I would say in grudging reply. You were right. I got used to saying that quite a lot. She nailed the fact that I wouldn't be able to keep that job in her father's firm. Of course, there was more to it than that. Besides, I got this new job at the diner. Pays the bills for this place, for now. I'll find work elsewhere. It's not like I'll be working at a suck hole restaurant down the street for the rest of my life.
Now it's time to floss the other side. This hurts like hell in the back. I must be developing more cavities. It's in my diet. Sylvia used to force me to eat the most disturbing foods. Healthy crap like broccoli, potatoes, carrots, and fish. Can you imagine much worse? And this was every night. She said it was good for the kids to grow up with healthy bodies. What about what might be good for me?
Sylvia and I used to have routines. Go out to the potholed street to pick up our mail together each night after work, dodging the kids on bicycles and then old folks out for their stroll. Sometimes we'd walk further too, out into the park across the way. We'd sit up late at night reading, her with a book and me with a hunting magazine, as the fire warmed. I don't even remember the last time we went out to see a movie. Not since the kids came along. They went to see their own stuff now, and we didn't because we were too exhausted. Routines are only held together by commitment. I'm finding that out now. I keep telling myself I'm doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I'm doing this because she used to make me do it. I can't not do it. I want to be told to do it. To be held to a standard.
I pull out another strand of floss, circulate it to the lower regions. It still hurts, but not as bad as at the beginning. I should just go to the dentist. You would want me to do that, even after all of this. You forced these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance. You knew I wanted better. But maybe I don't want to be better anymore. You're not around to make me. Not since that night.
You had your suspicions. Lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker in your father's office. I know you had your father spying on me. In the break room, in my office, in the hallways. He even had his secretary looking through my mail. Why was I so stupid? I left that envelope out on my desk, knowing she would see it. Knowing you would find out. Maybe I wanted to be found out. Maybe I knew it was wrong all along. Plus it never could have worked out. The girl was half my age, didn't even know who Ronald Reagan was. I was a damned fool.
Truth was, I didn't think I was happy. I couldn't imagine getting that from you and the kids. I wanted out. And now that I am, it's everything I thought it would be. But much worse.
Back to the flossing, I have rounded third and am getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier is flung at the mirror. I watch as it smacks the glass, falls a few centimeters and gets plastered in place right above my left eye in the mirror. It takes up room among the other stains: toothpaste, soap, my own sweat, water marks. These things she would have washed off so I wouldn't have to look at them. It is time to be done.
I hold a lingering glance at the cabinet after I swing open the creaky door. The floss was left in there. You knew I'd want to use it again someday. My eyes fall on the rest of my products; drop to the sink as I close the door. I have to get that door fixed. Along with the crack in the ceiling. And the mold. You would have noticed that months ago.
My gums are on bloody fire, the pain is excruciating when I open my jaw. I recall you one evening yelling at me, telling me I had to endure the pain before I could understand it. The worst pain of all I brought upon you, and the children. I can never be forgiven for this. I'm not sure if I even want to be.
Back to the main room, where the ratty, comfortable couch remains. Nobody around to tell me I can't set my food plates right on the cushions, either. Like a disgusting hog in a pen.
I have everything I could ever need. Sylvia took all of her clothes, leaving metric feet of space in the bedroom closet. This is my chance to see how long I can make it with my current wardrobe. I told her once I could live in these clothes for years. Now is the time to prove it. I think it's time to get some beers from the liquor store across the street.
I will miss you. I will always miss you. I cannot dwell on the past, not when I have this sweet bachelor pad. Not when I have the opportunity to meet new people. It's easy to make friends after you turn forty, right? You moved on with your friends quite well. None of them want to speak to me, and it serves them right. I never liked them, anyways. Once the girl in your dad's office found out I was married, it was over. I guess women don't like to be deceived. Now I am on my own, for the first time since before I met you. I did it before, I can do it again. Right?
Shit, it is chilly out here. I wish I remembered to bring my coat. No bother. A few vagrants linger around the shelves in the liquor store, harsh white fluorescent light blasting the scene for the closed circuit cameras. I grab a twelve pack of brew from the cooler and hoof it to the counter, where two meth heads are dueling it out for supremacy over a large forty ounce bottle. See, there are a lot of people in this neighborhood to meet. Back in the apartment building, I run up the three flights since the elevator remains out of order. I need the exercise, just like I needed to floss.
Now I just want to settle in for some television. I click the button, but nothing happens. Damn, I forgot she paid for it. I should have asked her to transfer it to my name. I need my Spike-TV. Oh well. I suppose now I can relax on my own. Do some quality reading. Like we used to in front of the fire. Where's that Norman Mailer novel.
Now it's 2:00 am and darkened in this house we used to share. I forgot the damn light bulbs. I hear myself moan in the darkness as I lift myself out of the ratty couch. Leave those beer bottles for tomorrow. You have all the time in the world before you have to walk back into that kitchen. The stack of dishes can remain a mystery until tomorrow.
Sylvia, you were right to take the kids. Charlie and Lisa will grow up the right way under your guidance. I'm an unfit parent. Can't even take care of my fucking teeth. No child should have to endure that. I had do with my father, as I told you on our second date. You saw it coming a mile away.
I stumble into bed, using my phone as a flashlight. I forgot to brush my teeth. After all that work. This thought is borne away on a stream of false consciousness. When I think I am back in reality I see Sylvia, Charlie and Lisa in front of me, standing in front of this apartment, waving but moving out of my vision. And then they are gone, and I'm alone in this bed, in this apartment with my rotten teeth and my eternal misery.
Short stories - what are they? How do they work? This is a topic I have been struggling with since I began writing for this website (almost) four years ago. The first short story I ever posted here was a re-posting of a terrible story I wrote for a creative writing class back in my university days (if you’re a glutton for punishment, here are parts one and two of that initial workshop).
Since that time I have carved out a dedicated space each year to simply read short story collections. Beginning with Jack London and Neil Gaiman, I later moved the “pivot” into these collections toward the end of each reading year before finally realizing this type of writing cannot be constrained to when I would like to think about it. I began reading pairs of authors but also spent some deeper time with those I thought were the best. I also posted a few more stories to the blog in that time. One was political in nature and got a few good responses, but without a doubt the story that made the biggest splash was “Flossing,” which I posted in September 2017. (Here is a link for those who’d like to read the original.)
Since then I have continued working on it, combining aspects of another story and cleaning up the perspective and emotional tenor. To that end, I sent the revamped story to my “other” editor Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial to get her take on how this story could be improved. I also asked her if I could use some of our editing conversations for this post in order to try and show the process of how to write a short story, something that has bedeviled me for quite a while. Those who do choose to go back and read the original will see a clipped, single-perspective story concerning a man who has lost everything in his life. While I decided to keep that overall theme, I wanted to say more about the concept of toxic masculinity through what happens when we of the male gender act as is our wont. Thankfully this came through enough for Anne to see as well.
Of course, every editing partnership contains some give and take. My “main” editor Libby could attest to that, as most of our early working relationship involved her telling me how to make my books better and me not being willing to listen to some (or all) of it. I have since learned how to trust her expertise, and I am trying to do the same here even on our points of divergence. In the case of this story, there were two places in which I told Anne I didn’t take her advice, and here was her very thoughtful consideration when we discussed the second case:
“Everything I change or comment on are suggestions, for you to take or leave as you wish. After all, this is your story, and you know best what message you're trying to get across and how you want to get there. I see my role as being an outside eye and making those suggestions, but I certainly don't expect that every author will accept 100% of them.”
The first case was more subjective, involving the main character getting a job at his (now ex-) wife’s father’s firm and how that led him into temptation. Anne suggested I cut most of this, and I decided to go a different way and pull more of a narrative from that. When I told her so, she actually said she liked the changes. This is an example of how sometimes you should stick to your original thought, but be respectful in exploring how you came to that understanding. I’m very grateful that Anne is such an amazing editor (you should follow her on Twitter too) and is very open to such a back and forth.
There was also another point of contention regarding a change of setting, and while I’m still not sure I made the right decision in whether to keep it, sometimes writers are just bull-headed and want to keep stuff in their work. This is an impulse you should listen to every once in a while, but always keep it carefully weighed against what your (very smart, talented) editor has to say on the matter.
Besides those points of divergence, every other suggestion Anne had made this story much better. It is my hope that in posting it to the blog readers can see how much it has changed in nearly two years. I am also open to any thoughts/criticism regarding the theme, which I am still not sure I have hit correctly even with this rewrite, but I am trying...
In the interest of keeping this part to its own topic of introduction, I will be putting the actual story in its own post. And I look forward to any and all reader comments, since this thing will never see the light of day for publication in an actual literary journal but is a piece that will live on my blog for demonstration purposes. I do have a few other stories I have been circulating through journals and contests over the past month; more on that if I am lucky enough to hear back from any of those outlets (all rejections so far, but they’ve come with notes from editors which are usually great).
Thanks as always, for reading my work.
Hello readers and thanks for sticking with me as I continue to jam in the rest of the 2018 Reading List into January before taking a different tack with it going forward. Last time I read through a collection it turns out was not recommended to me by my editor as I thought (although she has read some of the same stories): Rock Springs by Richard Ford. As my final collection of this period, I wanted to take a look at who may still be considered one of the greatest American short story writers, JD Salinger and his 1953 anthology, Nine Stories.
I thought this was indeed a collection much stronger than his novel Catcher in the Rye, and while I did have some issues overall with this author I want to envision some of the key lessons from this writer.
Use of dialogue. This is without a doubt Salinger’s ultimate skill, and he weaves it deftly in and out of his prose. I would say the stories in which this works the strongest is “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos.” The conversational quality between characters is natural and believable, and he even includes things like writing something twice when a character repeats themselves, as we often do in real life.
Use of character. I would have to say this complements the other lesson, in that Salinger can draw a character with just a few lines of simplicity far better than almost anyone. I found this especially true in the final story, “Teddy” in which he describes the youth’s features in a paragraph and lets his conversation do the rest. And this is obviously the case in “For Esme - with Love and Squalor,” which I must say found to be one of the greatest short stories I have ever read. The way the author captures the highs and lows of emotions resonates off the page, despite the fact that it was written by a fairly creepy guy.
So about that. I kinda came to understand a more dark side of this author as I was reading this collection, and it made me come to think even more about criticism I’ve received about this reading list over the years. Mainly, it concentrates on a lot of dead old white dudes and not enough on contemporary, diverse, or otherwise non-gender-conforming work. Some of this I have tried to fix and I hope to do the same over the course of 2019. And if I’m really being honest I need to reexamine how I approach this matter in my own writing, especially in the manuscript I’ve been working on for the past half-year. I have come to understand that the Reading List will need to endure some changes this year, but will write a separate post on that after I finish the last bit of the 2018 list.
To that end, I’m getting to one other genre/type of work I promised I would last year: the graphic novel. I’m going to take on an author in that realm I’ve admired from afar but read, Craig Thompson and his 2004 masterwork Blankets. (Supposedly the subject matter may hit home with me.) After that, I’ll be back with a post looking back at the last year and looking forward with how the 2019 Reading List is going to evolve. Thanks as always for coming along on this journey.
Hello readers and thank you for hanging in with me as I front-load the remainder of the 2018 Reading List into January. Now that this series is continuous I hope to initiate further changes this year. But more on that later. First we need to take a look at another short story writer, who while maybe not as good as Chekhov definitely holds his own in a certain time and place: Richard Ford and his 1987 debut collection, Rock Springs. This book was initially recommended to me by my editor Libby and centers around small towns in Montana and the fascinating people that populate them. While I had some issues with decisions he made (more on that later), I want to take a look at what Ford gets right in these realist stories.
Use of character. Each of these tales contains at least a few memorable characters, people whom it is quite clear are based off those Ford must have encountered in his life, and situations that seem almost too ridiculous (and sublime) to have been totally made up from whole cloth. I would have to say the story “Winterkill” may be the best example of this, with a main character in a wheelchair snagging a dead deer in a river. This can work the other way too, though, with each story seeming to also contain different versions of the same character (which could also be considered a general running theme, along with…)
Use of place. This Ford uses to his advantage perhaps even better, evoking a parched, dry and dirty landscape in which his seedy characters go about their business conducting affairs in motels, going into the wilderness, or generally living miserable lives in which there are glints of happiness. The final story (“Communist”) is a great example of how to build up to a scene of nature and wildlife and then let it play out around the characters.
Overall I would have to say the main story “Rock Springs” was my overall favorite, a stunning almost thirty pages that shows this guy as a true master of the form. Unfortunately I found some (“Children”) to be downright creepy and one (“Empire”) that could have easily been cut in half, and for some reason contains an additional paragraph after what I thought should have been a masterful closing line. My bellyaching aside, there is more good to be found here than bad and a lot of instructions for those who want to follow in the Raymond Carver tradition of short story.
Up next, I’m still going to take on Salinger’s Nine Stories and then I may take a brief pivot into the one genre/type I didn’t make it to in 2018: the graphic novel. I also have some more ideas (inspired by my wife) for the 2019 Reading List that I hope to be able to share in an upcoming piece looking back on last year and my goals. And for those who do enjoy my fiction writing, I got one back from my “other” editor Anne that I will be posting here again (last time it was called “Flossing” now it’s just “Floss”) to try and deconstruct the process. Happy New Year and let’s have a slightly better 2019!
Hello readers and thank you for bearing with me as we march through this last part of the 2018 Reading List! After getting through a few pairs of books I made my annual “pivot” to short stories, taking on a writer highly admired by Francine Prose, whose book Reading Like a Writer I read two years back. She turned me onto the work of this 19th century Russian but I had no idea of Anton Chekhov’s true legacy until I read his stories. They are are that good. Normally I head into the major lessons to be learned from such a phenomenal writer (and I will) but the best lesson for me was: read Chekhov. You will be hard pressed to find a better short story author at any caliber, at any time period. So now let’s take a quick look at two major factors of why that is:
Use of setting. This is not arguably Chekhov’s strongest suite, but the playwright in him shines through in the introduction of many of these stories (I had Norton Critical Edition collecting his best known). Nature is described quite beautifully and flowing, but is only allowed a few sentences at the beginning of sections. This was all Chekhov considered was necessary in telling a story about human drama. The characters are also set in the stage in this literary way, placed either in favor or against each other, just as the master wants them.
Use of character. This is what critics have spent their entire lives trying to figure out, and I’m hardly going to say it’s the use of one specific description or story that really shows it. It’s in all of them; that’s how amazing every story he wrote was. But for just a few examples - in “Misery” the poor carriage driver is reduced to explaining his daughter’s death to his horse because no one else cares; in “The Teacher of Literature” a man starts out in what he think is a great life only to end up miserable; and in “The Lady with the Dog” two people wind up in love at the worst possible time. These are but three examples of the incomparable control Chekhov exercised over these character’s lives in order to present life just as it is, not as we would like it.
I also tremendously enjoyed “The Bishop,” “The Betrothed,” “Anna on the Neck,” “Sleepy,” the list goes on. I am at a loss to go any further than my first piece of advice regarding this author: read him. He wrote several hundred stories in his lifetime, so it’s possible you may encounter an entirely different collection than I did, and have your own experience. I also must add that in Reading Like a Writer, Prose recommends checking out Chekhov’s letters. In the edition I had there were quite a few excerpts he wrote to his contemporaries about writing that I found enormously interesting and helpful. Which goes back to my major point - if you are studying someone to see how they did what they did, take it all in, not just the stories but the process and how they accomplished it, and their own thoughts about it (if they offered them). Not all authors were good enough to leave such a trove when they passed. I also was lucky enough to read a few literary essays contained in this edition, which helped my understanding of the author and his stories.
So what’s left to close out the year? Readers who have been with me for a while probably recognize that I usually get in a few more novels after “short story” time. Well I have realized that short stories are not something I am going to have the convenience of shoving into a certain part of the year, so they are now going to be worked on all year round. This means more short story collections added to the yearly Reading List, so send me your recommendations. This year, I hope to get through another few collections and get an essay done about them by the end of the year - Rock Springs by Richard Ford (recommended by my editor, Libby) and Nine Stories by JD Salinger. I have also sent a short story to my “other” editor and hope to get a post about that process up here in the coming weeks.
To all my readers: thanks for sticking around while I spent close to two months poring over this legendary author. I still plan on mixing up the Reading List as I did somewhat this year, including adding more stage plays and graphic novels. And as always, thanks for reading and writing!
Hello all and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I covered a few other masters of the short story. For my final entry here in short story land (for 2017 anyhow), I read an author considered a legend in the field: Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. After viewing the soaring, Academy Award-winning film Birdman a few years ago, I decided to look into the source material. I found a rich tapestry of human emotion and detail. This guy was an utter genius of the human condition, but before I get to the effusive praise let’s peruse the lessons available in the work:
Know thy subject. There is a reason Carver decided to use this title. This collection is more about damaged, conflicted individuals talking about what they think “love” is rather than a more inclusive account. This makes the characters that much more real and compelling. So why did he pick this title? I think that can be interpreted best by the title story, which was my favorite of the lot. A conversation between two couples that endures for an unknown amount of time as they recount former lovers. One of the characters goes off on a long rant about how when someone dies, the other just picks up the pieces and finds someone else. This passage in particular is an incredibly poignant depiction of some people's’ very realist outlook on the world. I found it very striking as I seem to have found exactly what this character was looking for: love so deep it cannot be replaced. A very interesting rumination in a very fascinating story.
Using dialogue to show people. There are fairly minimal physical descriptions throughout the collection, so Carver chooses to show the characters through dialogue. The way he does this in each story is uniquely brilliant, and possibly the best use of this technique I’ve ever read. Whether it’s internal or external, the words on the page add up to people questioning the very meaning of their lives.
Keep it simple. As Hemingway before him, Carver keeps things short and in their own self-contained universe. Each is a master class at how to keep all the major elements of storytelling and do it well in a few pages.
Some of my other favorites were “Gazebo,” “The Bath,” “After the Denim,” and “So Much Water So Close to Home.” But as I’ve stated, I would fully recommend this collection or any of his others, which I hope to get to in the future.
Well, that about wraps up the short story portion of our trip through AYOF. Thanks to everyone who responded to the stories I posted on the blog! I will continue to submit the stories I wrote this fall to some dead-tree and online lit mags through the end of the year, but mostly will be working on manuscript re-writes of Observe and Detach.
To that end, I’m going to pivot the reading list back toward novels and tackle one that is similar in nature to what I’m crafting now: Then We Came To the End, by Joshua Ferris. Until then, thanks for reading!
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). So far in this tour of short story land I’ve read the works of Neil Gaiman, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. (I have also posted two short stories of my own to the bloggy). For my second update, I took a turn in a fairly opposite direction with two well-known but perhaps not quite as well understood authors. This would be the beloved children’s writer Roald Dahl, who had a second life writing bizarre stories for adults, and Kate Chopin, one of the earliest feminists whose own work ostracized her for decades. Can’t get much different than that, so let’s dig right into the major writing lessons I gained from diving into each collection (The Roald Dahl Omnibus and The Awakening and Selected Short Fiction):
Tell a good story. I can’t stress this enough as the major lesson to pull away from Dahl. While I’d argue I still like his stuff for kids better than these weird tales, they are no doubt memorable and creepy in ways I’m still processing. From a man feeding his small child royal jelly in the hopes of turning it into a bee, to a story about proposed wife-swapping, to one about a landlady who kills her tenants, these stories hook you immediately with a sense of the bizarre and reel you in through ‘til the end. Chopin obviously does this in her own way, using strong characters and interior narrative to drive the story forward.
Using a short story to speak about society. This is a lesson I’ve drawn from many works over the years, and once again Kate Chopin was showing us how to do it before the last century was dawning. The Awakening was by far one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read something that tears at one’s very soul. That might seem a bit dramatic, but Chopin was writing about women’s liberation decades before society even allowed such talk in “polite” company. The fact that she was considered offensive due to the short story ending in the main character’s suicide should bear this out, as Chopin was attempting to put on display the emptiness/ennui that many women of her day felt (and feel today in Trumpistan).
Use of symbolism. Both authors are quite good at this in various ways. The first story I read of Dahl’s involved a parlor bet about wine tasting that quickly gets out of control, portraying family life versus money in a rather harsh light. But Chopin is the true master of this form, deftly weaving feminine insights into her short fiction, telling untold stories of affairs, unplanned pregnancies, and unbeckoned thoughts that occupy a woman’s mind when she think she might finally be free of her husband. These were all very real problems Chopin chose to grapple with, and we must all be thankful the feminist revolution gave her work the prominence it deserves.
While I will stop short of recommending Dahl as some of his stories put me off, they were all wonderfully written and worth the effort. It also gave me a newfound respect for his children’s work, as my wife and I read the BFG together at night (yes, we are old). And true to the opposite nature of this post, I can do nothing but highly recommend any of Chopin’s work, as it certainly deserves to sit within the American literary canon.
Up next I’m taking a foray into Raymond Carver, finally catching up with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. And yes, it was the film Birdman that impelled me to want to read it. I’ll say no more, but please stay tuned until then. And as always, thank you 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.