Category: writing

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

A Future Imperfect

moon

The future is nothing like I expected.

In 1969, watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gambolling about on the surface of the moon, I honestly believed that before long there would be monthly shuttles to Mars and, for the super-rich, luxury holiday excursions to the outer planets and far reaches of our solar system…

That future never arrived.

Instead we have: cell phones, laptops and social media. Not quite the same thing as faster-than-light travel and flying cars, is it?

I wanted something grander, something worthy of a curious, ambitious species with big brains and clever hands. Fleets of silver, finned rockets, navigating between the nine planets as easily as my dad’s old Ford got us to town and back. Intelligent robots. Permanent colonies on the moon and Mars. What a letdown when I look around today and realize ordinary citizens are far more interested in cyberspace than outer space. Ambitious schemes to leave our safe cradle and challenge that “final frontier” have devolved into, let’s face it, a sparsely manned space station parked only a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the earth, serviced by a private, for-profit company because NASA can no longer afford to maintain a shuttle to supply it.

A human footprint on Mars? Unlikely, at least during my lifetime.

Which makes me feel cheated. That six-year-old boy, glued to a black-and-white TV, witnessing history, men on the freakin’ moon, wouldn’t have believed me if I told him that’s it, that’s the absolute high-water mark in terms of our presence in space. Sorry, kid, after this it’s robot probes and science on the cheap.

My younger self would be outraged to see his dreams dashed by the cowardice and stupidity of those who make policy and manipulate the levers of power.

A smart lad, he would have recognized a failure of nerve when he saw it. And he would have been the first to point out: a computer is not a robot.

Some might contend there’s no difference but, I assure you, there is.

Those who think otherwise are operating on an entirely different wavelength than me. They likely see nothing wrong with the way the world has turned out and wouldn’t change anything if they could.

I, on the other hand, am appalled by the reality that has been presented to me as a fait accompli and since childhood have made it my mission, my calling to reimagine the whole thing so it conforms to the better tomorrow we were all promised back in those heady, halcyon days when everything seemed possible, the universe ours to explore, the stars our destination.

I don’t intend to forsake those youthful fancies, surrender my dreams, lose my sensawunda because of other people’s temerity and lack of vision.

It’s a major reason why I started reading science fiction almost fifty years ago…and why (for better or worse) I’m the writer I am today.

“How do we change the world? By changing the story.”

(Charles Eisenstein)

Apollo 11:plaqe

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.

Ambient

I love the sounds Nature makes
when she’s happy and none trouble
her serene countenance, vexing
her with their tireless machines

She hums contentedly
tending her bursting flower boxes
attentive to each seed or shoot
showering them with maternal love

She likes to get her hands dirty
except for the blood
which flows so copiously
it inevitably leaves a stain

She would say she’s blameless
as an iris, tender as a fawn
but we know her as a ruthless foe
when her existence is threatened

Leave her to her graces
praise her in word and deed:
the many shades of green she grows
the beauty she won’t concede

 

Written on my back deck June 2, 2021, while being serenaded by several varieties of bird song.

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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

A poem for “wannabe” writers & other miscreants

An Intimation of True Genius

Before I sit down and write my masterpiece

I think I’ll take a few minutes and go over my notes

check my sources and of course compose a brief 

biography of the author who despite his apparent 

lack of credentials has achieved true greatness with

his soon-to-be completed debut novel a sensation on 

all seven continents endorsed by the glitterati honors and

prizes pouring in optioned by Hollywood dining with

royalty hobnobbing alongside jetsetters existing in

a social whirlwind object of adoration and naked envy

topping every bestseller list appearing on all the right

programs lionized by my peers no limit to my reach and

power once I finally find the time to buy pen and paper

take a seat at my humble desk and commence work on what

will undoubtedly become a pillar of the Western canon

my much-anticipated long-awaited magnum opus

the only story left untold

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

The context of this poem:

I don’t know how many of my fellow scribblers have been annoyed by some arsehole you encounter—perhaps after a reading or literary gathering—who assures you that they’ve got a great book idea and “one day” hope to have occasion to commit it to paper. Or a total tool who, upon hearing you’re an author, gets very excited because “I’ve had some amazing things happen to me, you should write them down, I bet it would be a bestseller”.

If you’ve had a similar experience, you have my permission to print this poem and carry it around in your wallet, to hand out whenever you come across one of these utter, contemptible fuckwits. That ought to shut them up.