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.
Hello and welcome to the first part of a new, ongoing series! It is my earnest attempt to document my own process of composing a new 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 in the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into my process and how I come up with this stuff.)
The idea. First of all, you need to have the idea for the book. This can literally be anything. Look around your life. What do you see? Injustice? Hilarity? Torment? Wonder? Characters? Setting? These can all be a starting point. Obviously I can’t tell you how to come up with your own ideas, but I can offer a few guidelines that have worked for me.
The most important point: don’t stress about it, the ideas will come. I wish I could offer a simple timeline of when my ideas hit me, but the truth is I never knew when I would have enough to create a book. True, the first two novels (as I’ve stated elsewhere) I carried with me for years before I committed them to paper. And that’s not a bad way to start - if you have something you think should turn into a proper book, then you are ready for the next step. But for those of you who aren’t there yet, don’t fret; it will come.
The next point: what do you bring to the table? How do you see the world differently from others? What kind of “hot take” (to use an awful current expression in the journo world) do you have on an important issue that you could translate into a fictional universe?
I can only illustrate this with my own work, so here goes. My fourth novel is going to be a dystopian tale set around the year 2050, and features a major struggle concerning humanity and its existence in the age of climate disruption and geoengineering. Obviously I didn’t come up with all of that at the same time (but that would have been awesome). I was very much influenced in a few essays I read over the past four years - this one in The Point about genetic manipulation, this one in the NYRB about geoengineering, and this one (big time) in the LARB about the writer Amitav Ghosh and his request for stories about the largest issue of our time. But of course the list of influences is never ending - the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her radically altered my perspective of where Artificial Intelligence was heading, and the 2015 film Ex Machina made me terrified of a similar notion. Books such as Gibson’s Neuromancer showed me how to craft a compelling, futuristic narrative. That’s the great thing about prompts like these - each writer can take away their own message.
The major lesson to draw from all of this is to overload your circuits with what you follow the most, and eventually, if there is a story there, you’ll find it. I had to percolate this novel idea for years, in random locations, pondering over what it was going to be. Then I created a Google Doc where I kept all my notes and considerations, links to those pieces so I could re-read them, and even some beginning drafts. You can do the same in a simple notebook. The important part is getting it down.
The outline. Once you have the idea, and its solid, you can move on to the outline. Here is where my advice is going to be a little more tailored, and it may not fit your book at all.
Essentially an outline is the plot, characters, and themes all put together in some kind of coherent fashion that you understand enough to refer back to when you need it. Again, all I can do here is explain my own process in the hope that it is helpful. For Our Senior Year, I literally broke the entire story down into its seasonal parts, in different ways. I’m attaching a picture of my notebook from that time to give an idea -
Last Man on Campus was a pretty similar operation, in which I had the basic idea of the story broken down into the two semesters, and then had to work backward as I was writing to fill in some of the mythology of the society running the show (*spoiler*). Both of the outlines were basic - start with a major plot point, how it shows your characters, and their reactions. Et cetera.
I won’t even delve into the insane process I followed for my current manuscript (Observe and Detach) as the story has evolved quite a bit in two years and I’m not too keen on showing where some of it comes from just yet.
And unfortunately novel #4 is not following these outline steps at all, which I must stress is perfectly all right. In lieu of creating much of an outline as of yet, I sat down and cranked out what I think are going to be the major themes of the book -
After almost four years of thinking about this, I have just enough story and character to begin the first drafts, and to be honest I have no idea where they are going to take me. There will be a lot more grist on this topic (Drafts) in the next post, so all I will say here is to not worry about how dense (or not) your outline of the novel is - if it contains the major characters/plot/themes that you want to get on the page, you’re getting there. Thankfully the wonderful technology of the notebook allows for you to always add more stuff - mine is crammed with papers and clippings but I still go back to it when I’m preparing a book.
These are the techniques that have worked for me in getting a book through its initial stages. Short stories or essays (or really anything that’s not a novel) are different beasts, and if/when I ever get better at those forms I’ll try my hand at explaining how to come up with them.
Next up will be the initial (as Anne Lamott would say “shitty first”) draft. I hope to get a post about that process up by the end of this month, again following my own process and how I’ve done it in the past. I also plan on sending my current manuscript of Observe to my editor by then, and may write a little something about that as well.
Feel free to send any and all questions and comments my way, through email or in the comments. I want to hear about your own projects, if my advice is helpful, and how you come up with your own ideas and outlines I will also have an essay on the first book of the 2018 Reading List (The Handmaid’s Tale) up by the end of the month. Thanks for reading!
Hello out there readers, and welcome to 2018!
As you are aware, I extended the reading experiment into 2017, and I think overall it was a roaring success. Another Year of Fiction (AYOF) taught me many more lessons about writing. Jane Austen showed how an extraordinary command of language and dialogue can create a masterpiece; Tim O’Brien and his maddening inability to resolve plots showed how we can reconsider the idea of the novel; I read a ton of short stories I’d never encountered (including what I considered was the best ever - Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”); and at the end of the year Conrad and Kafka gave master classes in the use of symbolism and interpretation.
I also need to double down on the major lesson of the first experiment, which is to simply read fiction, and a LOT of it. A lot of different kinds. A lot of different writers. It was pointed out to me this year my list did not contain many (especially contemporary) women writers, so I aim to correct that starting this year (more on that in a bit). I should note this year I did not give up reading non-fiction and got to several I thoroughly enjoyed (Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72 and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion). All told I read nearly twenty books, which is an improvement for me. I hope to read a similar amount (if not more) this year.
And in an attempt to correct for the first experiment’s other big lesson (don’t over-promise and under-deliver, regarding a book list) I am no longer going to make this an official experiment, with a certain number of titles I hope to get to within a year’s time. Rather it will become another in a series of posts/projects that I hope to tie together in some way over the next twelve months.
Regarding those other projects, here are what I have lined up for the new year:
How to write a book. Seems easy, right? :-) In fact I hope to dive into every facet of such an enterprise as I attempt to do the same in my own life. The goal here is to have some kind of working draft of novel #4 ready by the end of the year. I will break the posts down by process: first the outlining and the idea, then the first drafts, then the revision process, and finally other things to take into consideration like character, plot, dialogue, and vision. I hope to be able to post some of my own work on the book with the posts for this project so readers can see what I’m doing in these areas.
Writing. I plan on doing a series of very basics posts on writers and what we are here for. That’ll be the first, but I hope to delve into the “why, who, and what else” and try to explain what would possess anyone to want to try this career in today’s connected and distracted age.
The Reading List. As stated, this will be an extension of an previous experiment of reading fiction. I’ll be starting this year’s list out with female writers, starting with Margaret Atwood and her brilliant 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Other female authors I plan to get to this year: Donna Tartt, Emily St. John Mandel, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates). I also plan to intersperse a few short story collections as well.
Other sources of inspiration. I also hope to broaden the posts this year to a variety of other artistic influences, including graphic novels, film, music, artwork, and perhaps even a few stand-out TV programs (I’m taking a ten-year-late detour through the Golden Age of Television by concluding The Wire and Deadwood before taking on some Netflix, such as Black Mirror and Orange is the New Black). While a writer should primarily be digging into the litany of books that have existed before you came on the scene, it never hurts to be interested in other ways to tell stories. (And as usual, feel free to toss me your recommends for this type of stuff - I’ll be asking.)
This the plan for year number three of the author blog, and I hope to be able to stick to most of it. The manuscript of my current novel Observe and Detach is done with its third rewrite, and I hope to get it to my editor by the end of this month. That leaves me plenty of time to start working on the next book project and the rest. Stay tuned to this space for all the details.
And of course, thank you all out there for reading my work. Website traffic has increased quite a bit for me this year, and I hope part of the reason is because people like my blogging. I hope to keep your interest as we follow this path of the writer’s life.
Hope everyone has a safe and prosperous 2018!
Hello and welcome to what will be the final installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After reading and analyzing Heart of Darkness I found I was able to cram one more influential book into the year: Franz Kafka’s novel (published posthumously in 1925) The Trial. A viewing of Orson Welles’ 1962 film years ago inspired me to want to get to this one, and there are many obvious parallels to the current “legal” system in our nation that I will get to after the lessons for writers. So let’s get to those first.
Keep it simple. The story, while twisted and surreal, is actually pretty straightforward. It’s in the language and details where Kafka let his abilities shine. The shabbiness of the courtroom building is a reason for Joseph K. to both despair and for the reader to find bizarre amusement at his situation. There are long passages of characters speaking to K. about the banal bureaucracy that he is attempting to penetrate that are dosed with a sense of irony about the world and humanity. Not once did the translation I had (Breon Mitchell 1999) escape the laws of understanding and kept the story and characters firmly in weird territory.
Symbolism/Interpretation. I found Kafka’s use of these notions to be quite different from Conrad’s, but that doesn’t mean either approach is flawed. Kafka was more interested in the interplay of man’s rule of law and the internal struggle imposed by religious orders of his day. While Conrad was open to showing the ugliness of the human heart, Kafka shows us how that ugliness can be used against us politically and socially. The court is never revealed, and despite K.’s best efforts he is no closer to success at the end of the story than when his ordeal begins in the first chapter.
There are quite a few more things apparent in this book that will attract the individual reader and writer, so I would strongly recommend this surreal tale to anyone wanting to hone these talents. This is the first work of Kafka I’ve read and I’m eager for more. I wanted to wrap up this review by taking a quick look at the parallels to our current justice system. This book also began to interest me during the initial phases of the “War on Terror.” It is staggering to think a century ago Kafka was already anticipating the impervious bureaucracy and state spying that was to come in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. While he was writing about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the way he describes the corruption and unreachability of the court echoes through history as demagogues (even now) seek to control these systems for their own gain. This novel both made me laugh and feel afraid for the future. It was that compelling.
This will wrap it up for another experiment in reading nothing but fiction. I’m going to take a bit of a break over the holidays and won’t be starting this up as a formal experiment next year. Rather I’m planning on trying to incorporate it as a regular post on the blog, taking place alongside some other projects I have in mind. And as promised, I’m including more female writers this time around, starting with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ll also have some concluding thoughts about pursuing this experiment for another year and what it has taught me about writing. Thanks for reading everyone, and happy 2018!
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I’m tackling a few more novels before the end of this experiment. After blazing through some Cormac McCarthy I decided to take a plunge into a universal piece of modern literature: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
This novella, first published in serial form in 1899, should be familiar to students of literature or anyone who has followed the many ways it has influenced art since its release. While over the years there have been substantial criticism of this work (most notably the racist imagery), I felt this was worth the time to sit and read over the course of a few days. I’ll get to some of the critical considerations after we first take a look at some of the major lessons writers can draw from this work.
Use of symbolism. This is arguably the profound lesson to be drawn from this work. Conrad uses an amazing tapestry of words and images to describe Marlow’s horrific journey up the river to “rescue” Kurtz from his entrenched madness. This includes stunning passages involving the steamer enveloped in a white shroud of fog, and also terrifying illusions of the heads of “rebels” placed on spikes before the domain of Kurtz. Conrad was attempting to show the barbaric nature of the Belgian mission in Congo at the time, and while some have argued he should have gone more descriptive in this territory, I feel this lines up nicely with the next lesson.
Write what you “don’t” know. Conrad was taken to task by critics for specifically not describing some of the worst things Marlow sees on his journey, using such words as “inscrutable” or making it known that Marlow doesn’t even want to describe what he sees. While this is a tough strategy for an author to take, in my opinion the advantages can be many. Even a simple epigraph as Kurtz utters before he dies (“the horror”) can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. To me, this lines up with the essential unknowability of the human heart and its capacity for wondrous good and appalling evil.
Being open to interpretation. The fact that this landmark work can tell us things today should be an indicator of how deeply enmeshed into the human condition Conrad takes us as we journey along with Marlow (who in the story is regaling some other sailors outside London with the entire tale). Conrad made the deliberate choice to not be completely moralizing regarding the destruction wrought by Kurtz, indicated somewhat in the closing paragraphs of the tale when Marlow is forced to lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” so as not to besmirch his reputation.
All of that being said, there are still a ton of critical responses to this work, and I was lucky enough to read a few of them in the Norton Critical Edition I had. Of particular note is the African author Chinua Achebe, whose massively influential lecture on Conrad’s racism was included here in a revised form. Achebe’s major argument is that despite on the surface seeming to indict white European greed and recklessness, Conrad’s inability to show us much of the African characters (even refusing to allow them to speak very much) is just another form of the same problem. The entire essay was well worth reading and I would highly advise it as a counterpoint to this work.
Overall I would recommend this novella to anyone who wants to see a pristine example of how literature is supposed to operate. True, this story has accumulated a number of flaws over the years, but I feel the reader needs to at least engage with it and find out what he or she thinks before delving into the many levels of interpretation and criticism.
I should add that two other works I’ve encountered over the years have finally led me to reading Conrad’s original vision: Adam Hochschild’s stunning 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost, and Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now. I would also recommend engaging with these if you are planning a deep dive into Conrad.
This was a pretty short book so it leaves me time to cram one more novel into this year’s experiment. I’m taking another weird turn into a massively influential author I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read: Franz Kafka. A viewing some years back of Orson Welles’ film rendition of The Trial got this book on my list; I hope to read it and get an essay up by the end of 2017.
As always, thanks for reading.
Hello and welcome to this installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I’m back to novels as we approach the end of this year’s experiment, last time wrapping up an analysis of workplace comedy and now pivoting toward an author who is a favorite of mine: Cormac McCarthy and his masterful 2005 work No Country For Old Men.
This author is quite established as one of the greatest contemporary storytellers. I had already read (and been blown away by) The Road several years ago, and wanted to take another dive into McCarthy’s western worlds. This was without a doubt one of the best novels I’ve read in some time, but I want to pull out the major lessons before I get to why I felt it was such a great book.
Finding your voice. There can be no doubt that this author provides a master class in how to do this throughout the work. It is well known that McCarthy is possibly the only author to get away with using the most minimal punctuation required. Character speech is never demarcated by quotation marks (he only ever uses “Chigurh said” this, or “Moss said” that), he constantly jams up two or more words into one (“shirtpocket,” “domelight,” “dumbernhell”) and generally plays with language in ways that most editors would never let an amatuer get away with. This indicates an author in supreme command of his skills, and it never really distracted from the text for me. It was that good.
Using the novel to talk about society. McCarthy sets this novel in 1980, enabling him to populate it with veterans of two wars: Moss (Vietnam) and WWII (Bell). This shades their experiences in many ways, with Moss seeing how his life can change with stolen drug money and Bell attempting to rectify leaving his men on the battlefield in Europe. This is masterfully interwoven with the drug runner story, told partially through interludes with Bell as he describes the falling away of the country over the last few decades. Some critics weren’t fans of McCarthy’s pseudo-sermonizing, but it’s worth mentioning that not a lot of “good guys” come out on top at the end of the book. Take from that what you will.
Overall, if you can stomach the appalling levels of violence, this book can teach yards to any aspiring writer. If nothing else it’s worth reading just for the stunning control over his writing that McCarthy displays on every page. I’ll even go as far as to say no other author comes close to displaying how to find and use one’s voice than this guy.
(I also made an exception and re-visited the astounding, Oscar-winning film adaptation directed by the Coens ten years ago to see how much it represented the novel. While not quite as good, you’ll hardly find a better example of directors using source material in every way to tell a gritty and great story.)
It’s looking like I have room to fit at least one more work before this year wraps up, so I’m going to take on an epic that has echoed through the ages: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was lucky to pick up a Norton Critical Edition which contains a ton of extra essays, criticism and analysis of the work, so I hope to be able to add some commentary on this story and how it has affected literature for decades.
Hope everyone has safe travels over this holiday weekend, and thanks as always for reading.
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-Watne 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.