Category: Literature

Best Books Read in 2021

ministry

Fiction:

Ministry For the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall

Franz Kafka: Lost Writings edited by Reiner Stach (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

Sensation Machines by Adam Wilson

Cascade (Short Stories) by Craig Davidson

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit by Mark Leyner

The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel

Honorable Mention:

Quicksand by Emmanuel Bove

Appleseed by Matt Bell

Things About Which I Know Nothing (Short Stories) by Patrick Ness

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison

Phase Six by Jim Shepard

Joe’s Liver by Paul Di Filippo

A Man At Arms by Stephen Pressfield

Poetry:

Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis

Graphic Novel:

Berlin by David Lutes

Love&Capital

Non-Fiction

Love and Capital: Karl & Jenny Marx by Mary Gabriel

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens

Pictures At a Revolution: Five Movies & the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography by Francis Wheen

Germany: From Revolution to Counter Revolution by Rob Sewell

Essays After Eighty by Don Hall

After the Apocalypse by Srecko Horvat

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Honorable Mention:

The Commandant edited by Jurg Amann

What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction by Alice McDermott

Mutant Thoughts (ii)

This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.

It’s been a long time since we last touched base and, as always, the fault is mine. I’m a lousy friend, a terrible correspondent, constantly getting sucked up into a project and completely forgetting those nearest and dearest me.

I fully admit it: I am a selfish, thoughtless bastard.

But I’ve been working and so that erases all sins, all culpability. A brand new, 40-page story under my belt, plus a number of solid poems, ideas bouncing around in my skull like pingpong balls in a dryer. So no apologies: as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to my writing, the ends always justify the means.

* * * * * * *

  • Our thirty-first anniversary yesterday. Sherron and I half a country apart but still talked on the big day, and I sent her a couple of poems, as well (what can I tell you? I’m an old school romantic). We have an amazing relationship, a partnership of equals. She keeps me honest and human—without her I’d be much more nihilistic and misanthropic (believe it or not). Friend, lover and comrade. To the end.
  • More fun on Twitter this past week: some twerp who writes urban dragon novels putting me in my place because I dared offer a few words of advice to a fellow colleague. He had posted about doing research for his next book, I responded with my thoughts and he told me not to attempt to communicate with higher order beings such as himself. And remember, folks: he writes books about dragons.
  • The great “de-cluttering” continues, as we divest this house of decades of accumulated stuff. This has been in the works ever since we started renos in late spring. Boxes and boxes of books and VHS tapes hurled out the door. Old clothes, crap we haven’t used in years, taking up space, gathering dust. No more. And not a single regret, only relief, the house seeming lighter since we started the process.
  • My mantra this week: “What does it cost me to be tolerant?”
  • There’s a possibility (however slight) that my second hip surgery might happen in September. Inconvenient, since we’ll also have another grandchild arriving around that same time but, damnit, just to be able to walk normally again…won’t believe it until I get the call to report for pre-op. Then the game is on.
  • Hoping that the forecast is right and we’ll get some decent rain in the next few hours. Like a lot of North America, it has been a hot, dry summer on the Canadian prairies, the skies reeking of burning boreal forests. Dystopia is here, folks, the future you refused to believe in banging on your door.
  • Finished two great books in the past month: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future and The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens. Movies that impressed me: Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant” and Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire”.
  • That’s it for now–hopefully it won’t be a month before you hear from me again. But, in the meantime: let’s be civil to each other, shall we? At least try it…and see what happens.

My new office space (and a new beginning)

Yes, can’t hold back any longer. The second floor renovations almost done, the restored hardwood floor an enormous improvement over the ancient, dusty, shag carpet that once covered it (said aged, toxic carpet being one of the suspected “hot zones” for the initial onset of COVID-19, report from the CDC still pending).

My office is now up and running, stocked with some new book cases, hundreds of volumes surrounding me…and yet there seems to be more space than ever, each square foot fully utilized. Gone is the clutter and torn, sagging posters. Even minimized my display of toys and miniatures. This is the space of a grown, mature artist, not a terminal juvenile (that stuff goes down to my “man cave” in the basement). 

Here are some pictures to show you what we’ve done. First a “Before” shot, once the carpet had been ripped up and the office virtually emptied out:

Now here’s a couple of pictures taken this morning:

Just looking at these snaps has my left hand twitching in anticipation of some serious writing. I’m talking about a binge that leaves me emotionally and physically mangled (ah, the good old days). Imagine having a space completely designed around your wishes and specifications. It’s a dream come true. The beautiful little touches that make it completely mine—

Including, as a grand finale, one wall that my wife and I layered with papier mache…incorporating fragments torn from an old, tattered copy of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I had lying around.

I call it the “Joyce Wall” and a closeup looks like this:

Work on the upper floor still isn’t complete—there’s scraping and crack-filling and painting…and then all the furniture has to be put back in the proper rooms. It’s been a process but we’re getting there.

My new creative play area excites me beyond belief. There’s a sense that my career and approach to writing are getting a reboot, a fresh beginning, distant, unexplored horizons beckoning.

What dreams may yet come

NOTEBOOKS: 2010 – 2020 (The Cover Reveal!)

Here it is, ladies and gents.

Chris Kent’s rendition of the cover for Black Dog Press’ 15th book, a collection of my jottings and authorial asides we’ve dubbed Notebooks: 2010 -2020.

Official release date mid-April, but you can buy it right now from either Smashwords or Kindle.

A Word of Advice (I)

I’ve been a professional author for 30-odd years now and I think it can be fairly said that I’ve earned a reputation as someone who stubbornly (ruthlessly?) defends my aesthetic autonomy.

With that in mind, I guess it’s understandable that I field the occasional question from other artists who find themselves wondering whether or not they have the right or strength of character to resist the suggestions and/or demands of editors, agents and fans.

I tell them:

Listen, as far as I’m concerned your inner editor should always take precedence over any external influences. It’s your name on the story or book or painting or piece of music, not someone else’s, which means you have a personal, vested interest in making sure your work is presented exactly the way you envision it. Brook no compromises or attempts to dilute the power and integrity of your project. 

Editors and agents aren’t collaborators, that is a mindset that must be impressed upon them right from the get-go. You might welcome their opinions, but their input is not necessarily required and won’t be followed if it runs counter to your own thinking. I have encountered more than a few inept, dim-witted editors in the past three decades and I’ve learned to take everything they say with a grain of salt. They aren’t all bad, of course, but, truthfully, most are poor-to-mediocre, their contributions to literature existing largely in their own heads.

Agents, well, agents want to make money. That’s their primary focus and never think otherwise. They aren’t interested in developing the next DeLillo or Nabokov, they’re seeking clients who follow trends and deliver bright, shiny, commercial product. For which they will collect a tasty percentage. It’s all quite cold-blooded and transactional. Why should they hold your hand when they’re more interested in the contents of your wallet?

As for fans, who gives a shit? Your role as an artist is to frustrate expectations and short-circuit preconceptions. Your work shouldn’t reassure or offer words of comfort; if it does that you are kowtowing, truckling to popular opinion. Wrap everything up into a nice, tight bundle, adhere to formula, offer happy endings and you might as well be a ten-dollar hooker on a seedy street corner. You’re laboring on behalf of filthy lucre, rather than contributing to the legacy of creative endeavors extending back to the timeless cave paintings of Lascaux. 

Art that resists imitation, that refuses to be derivative, is the work that lasts, achieving posterity because of its uniqueness, a courageous, unprecedented approach to your chosen discipline.

Why yearn for fifteen minutes of fame when you should be seeking something far more permanent and profound?

*******************

Finally, on a completely unrelated topic, let me say to those idjits who insist there are no new stories to tell, that they’ve all be told, you are out of your tiny fucking minds.

Every single minute of every single day, billions of human beings are interacting with each other, talking, engaging, sharing space, and each of these encounters represents a narrative that is distinctive and unrepeatable. 

Each restorative walk you take, a trip to the bank or back fence discussion with your neighbor is a short story waiting to happen. No two individuals are exactly alike, every encounter potentially fraught with drama or humor (or, ideally, a bit of both).

Open your eyes, ears, hearts to possibility and it will find you.

Remember that the next time you’re out and about.

Turning a corner, bumping into a stranger…watch what can happen when two ancient souls meet for the first time.

Sometimes it makes for great Art.

Photo: Sherron Burns