My book count was down 40% in 2018.
Gad, that’s embarrassing.
For the first time in ages I read less than one hundred books last year—blame that on Netflix and podcasts, both of which have been stealing my time like a furtive thief.
Below, you’ll find my list of favorite reads, fiction and non-fiction.
How does it compare with your choices?
The World to Come (Stories) by Jim Shepard
Sweet Nothing (Stories) by Richard Lange
All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (Translated by Anthea Bell)
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
The Implacable Hunter by Gerald Kersh
To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann (Translated by Shaun Whiteside)
The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem
Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell
American Rust by Philipp Meyer
Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante
Neon Rain by James Lee Burke
Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson
No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald
The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla
Tunnel At the End of the Light (Essays) by Jim Shepard
Fighting Fascism by Clara Zetkin
Reporter, A Memoir by Seymour Hersh
Stanley: An Impossible Life by Tim Jeal
The Bending Cross (Life of Eugene Debs) by Ray Ginger
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler
Space Odyssey (Making of 2001) by Michael Benson
A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain
St. Paul, The Apostle We Love to Hate by Karen Armstrong
The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Seymour Hersh
Remember, Remember (Essays) by Charles Beaumont
The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain
Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
Note: You’ll find a list of my favorite films of 2018 over at Cinema Arete.
He’s one of my literary heroes—he and George Saunders are the two best short story writers in the English language.
For a number of years he wrote a column for The Believer and in 2017 Tin House Books (great little press) released a collection of those pieces titled The Tunnel at the End of the Light.
It is, needless to say, a smart, articulate book and I wanted to quote a passage from Shepard’s Introduction to give you an idea of why I revere the man so much:
“The Republican Party has for decades claimed that the American government is the implacable enemy of the American people. This administration (Trump) is working to make that statement true for the first time for a very large majority of citizens.
That leaves the streets, and we can already see what’s in store for us there. The militarization of the police over the past forty years, begun with the war on drugs and amped up a thousandfold by the war on terror, was never really about threats from without and has always been about anticipating threats from within: as in, What happens when economic inequality and political irrelevance become so grotesque that they lead to civic unrest? The solution to the problem, for the Republicans and the corporate Democrats who have held power, has never been, So I guess we should do something to alleviate economic inequality. It’s always been, When the have-nots have nothing left but the streets, we need to be ready to take the streets away as well. And of course the exponential growth of the surveillance state will help with that. Hence our leaders’ seeming lack of concern over the last decade or so about all the metadata about US citizens—citizens who haven’t been suspected of a crime—that’s being hovered up.”
At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then I was hit with a wave of nausea…a short story machine? Tales pumped out of a dispenser like junk food?
Sherron, bless her heart, anticipated my reaction and printed up a number of stories to bring home for my examination. Without exception, the offerings were inept, tuneless, unoriginal, poorly executed, childish. There was no professional vetting in terms of quality and it showed. Apparently the company in question, ShortEdition, has over 80,000 stories, of varying genres and length, for potential readers to choose from. Based on the examples I scanned, you’d get more aesthetic satisfaction reading the back of a cereal box or instructions for using a pay toilet.
Awful, awful stuff, printed on thin tape for speedy consumption, as disposable and forgettable as most of the other crap we produce these days.
And the horrible thing is that we’re living in an absolute golden era in terms of the short story format. Geniuses like Jim Shepard and George Saunders are gracing us with tales that can move us deeply, while maintaining the highest literary standards. Daring, innovative prose that shatters preconceptions and offers entirely new perspectives of the world around us.
This ridiculous gadget is yet another example of the dumbing down of society, offering blatant mediocrities and tone-deaf amateurs a platform to exercise their egos. It is junk food for the post-literate, the mental equivalent of fucking Pez.
Anyone who pays for this service is a moron, anyone who enjoys the “writing” needs to stop wearing their hats so tight.
How about spending your money on real authors, men and women who devote an enormous amount of time and effort ensuring their prose is as tight and polished as it can be? Masters of the printed word.
They deserve your support, whereas the ShortEdition wannabes warrant only a snort of derision and a sad shake of the head.
I’m got a brand new book on the way, the most important people in my life are healthy and reasonably happy…oh, and I mustn’t forget that the fifth anniversary of this blog is rolling around. St. Patrick’s Day marks the unofficial birthday of Beautiful Desolation—raise a pint of Guinness in honor of a site that’s managed to beat the odds. Five years and still going strong. Surely that’s worth a toast or two, innit?
Today I put the finishing touches on a CD’s worth of ambient material and added it to my Audio page. Forty-six minutes of my oddball offerings; “Emanations” features some genuinely whacked out and trippy music. I’ve posted a 3-song sampler below. Check out my audio page for several hours of music and spoken word pieces, all of it available for FREE listening:
And while I’ve been waiting for the proof of The Last Hunt, I’ve been cleaning up my office, prepping it for the next project on my plate. Finally settling down and doing some reading as well, including a novelette by the great Jim Shepard.
Attended “Silence is Golden” at the Roxy Theater in Saskatoon and posted about it on my film blog. I’ve vowed to go on a reading and movie watching binge now that my book is done. My wife and kids are skeptical but I truly intend to ease up on the workload for awhile. Kick back and relax. Surely a few hours of leisure won’t kill me…will it?
Bit of sad news today as I was trolling through headlines. Ralph McQuarrie has passed away. Serious “Star Wars” fans will know exactly who I’m talking about. I remember seeing some of his production paintings in science fiction magazines like Starlog long before the film came out. George Lucas gives McQuarrie a good deal of the credit for the eventual look of his movie. Let’s hear it for ol’ Ralph. He helped imagineer a whole franchise. There aren’t many who can say that…
The titles I tackled reveal the diversity of my tastes/interests: Michael Palin’s latest set of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, along with some readings on cinema (Dark Knights and Holy Fools), history, science fiction, theology, a novella by Roberto Bolano (Monsieur Pain)…
Yesterday I finished a collection of stories by one of the best English language writers on the contemporary scene, Jim Shepard.
Love & Hydrogen brings together close to two decades of Jim Shepard’s magnificent short fiction. Here’s the citation I wrote up for Love & Hydrogen in my book journal:
“Jim Shepard is a marvel. He and George Saunders and Ken Kalfus are the kind of writers who make you want to sweep everything off your desk and apply for a job as assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen. Aesthetically, they make no mistakes, the scope and diversity of their work dazzles.
Love & Hydrogen displays scope and diversity all right: in spades. The stories transit spans of time, the subject matter encompassing everything from the final flight of the Hindenberg to ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’. To my mind, any number of these tales could be included in an anthology of the finest writing of the past fifty years. I’ve read that Shepard’s research is meticulous and that is evident in historical reconstructions like the title story, ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’, ‘Krakatau’, ‘Batting Against Castro’, etc.
There’s a shiver of authenticity present in all of his fiction, an emotional honesty that defies sentiment and still manages to be heart-wrenching. No one in Jim Shepard’s universe is blameless, everyone complicit; perhaps it’s his version of original sin. We quickly recognize ourselves in Jim Shepard’s peerless short stories and novels and that (among numerous other things) is what makes him so great.”
* * * * * *
…and along with that reading I’ve been spending most nights of late snuggled up on the couch with Sherron, watching one or two episodes of the first season of “Mad Men” (a Christmas gift from my sons). Intriguing and addictive. A little bit more of Don Draper’s past swims into focus with each episode, some of the murkiness dissipating…and a very scary picture emerging.
Next month: the first season of “The Wire”.
After “The Wire”, my friend Gene assures me, everything else on television pales in comparison.
We shall see.
This is the view from my window. Notice the old, dessicated oak tree struggling for life alongside our big maple. It’s a “witch tree”, all right, look at it. Entangled in the strangling roots of its neighbor but somehow surviving, year after year.
Cold this morning, with a nut-cutting wind chill. A good day to stay inside, build a fire and read. Yesterday, I finished the new Lee Child novel, Worth Dying For, in about five hours. Just tore through it. Give Child credit, he’s got a sweet franchise going. Sometimes his “Jack Reacher” novels are suspenseful, sometimes they slip into formula. Reacher the unstoppable superman (yawn). This one is better. The story hums along and there are good supporting players.
January 1st, if you recall, I start my “100 Book Challenge”. I’ve already set aside 18 first-rate tomes, fiction and non-fiction, that I’m hoping will get me going, build up some momentum that will carry me through the year. These include some of the smashing great books Sherron, er, Mrs. Santa left under the tree for me. Stuff I’ve wanted to read for ages. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Jim Shepard’s Love and Hydrogen, Ken Kalfus’s first short story collection, Thirst, and Huston Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder.
I’ll be spending most of the next two days finishing my year-end cleanup. A ritual that goes back many years. Remove all material related to last year’s projects and prepare for new work. New Year’s Eve, sometimes pretty close to midnight, I clean and vacuum the crappy old carpet in my office and that’s it: I’m ready for whatever comes.
I know, my family thinks it’s weird too.
And there are my resolutions to prepare, a roster of promises I try very hard to keep (and usually end up batting around .500). Then I write out a list of “pending projects”, big and small jobs I’d like to focus on in the coming year. Need to straighten up in the basement too; the workbench overflowing with crap that has to be put away (or shit-canned).
I find I’m feeling pretty good as 2010 draws to an end. Two books released this year, a number of solid shorter efforts…plus there’s the music I’ve created with Garageband, two disks of weird ambient tunes that still make me smile. I’ve discovered I love noodling around and experimenting with different media—Sherron has infected me with her belief that making art shouldn’t always be work, there can also be an element of play involved. In 2011, I want to do some photography, stills and short videos. Sometimes I get tired of working exclusively with words and need a break. A chance to explore non-verbal, non-narrative concepts. I’ve even tried my hand at painting. I hope to do more visual experiments in 2011 (and beyond).
But the main focus, of course, continues to be improving as a writer, growing and developing, moving the bar ever higher with each book or story I take on. I’m certain the “100 Book Challenge” will introduce me to different influences/perspectives and it will be interesting to see how that affects my work. God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I started writing more like Italo Calvino or with the ferocity and power of a Celine?
Er, I forgot. Louis Ferdinand Celine’s not exactly a popular figure these days. Very difficult to find his work. Awful man…but even Beckett admired his writing and those two were miles apart, ideologically speaking. Celine’s malign nature is as undeniable as his genius. They probably went hand in hand. But anyone who denies themselves the opportunity to read Death on the Installment Plan or Journey to the End of the Night because of his personal failings (however despicable) is missing out on some of the finest writing of the 20th century.
All that said, the first book I’ll likely tackle in the New Year is Michael Palin’s Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-88. A volume I can zip through in less than a day. Something fast and breezy and fun to get me started.
And then only 99 more to go…
Where does time fly? Over two weeks since my last post and, in that interval, I’ve been occupying myself with hours of scribbling. Filling dozens of notebook pages…unfortunately, very little of this material will ever make it to publication. Lots of meditations, strange aphorisms, gleanings from the subconscious. Here’s one example:
“How many failures turn out to be posthumous geniuses? Not very many, as it happens, the proportion disappointingly low.”
What does that mean? A subconscious dig from my wily Muse, a nugget of wisdom…or mere prattle? And there’s pages and pages of the stuff, much of it spiritually oriented. Many of the entries make for uncomfortable reading, nakedly honest and personal. What should I do with these raw ramblings? This is material not intended for public consumption…but at the same time some of it packs undeniable power. Save it for the archives, hope someone will find it interesting or insightful. Bury it deep, amid old tax receipts and early drafts of stories.
The end of the year is always a time for reflection for me; I settle into introspective fugues where I consider the past 365 days and look with anticipation (and trepidation) to the year ahead. What have I accomplished? Where do I go from here? Point me to the next mountain to climb…
A few things have become clearer to me during this time—the first is that I’d like to make the act, the process of writing more fun, not bear down so hard, subjecting my system to so much abuse and stress. I’m obsessive-compulsive by temperament, a perfectionist in every aspect of my life. Everything has to be done just right or I go ballistic. No half-measures, no band-aid solutions, no excuses for failure. That’s the kind of cat I am.
But that has to change. I’m older and my body is starting to manifest some of the punishment it has absorbed over the years. My fingers, neck and shoulders. My back—Christ, my back. The mental and spiritual damage has been even more substantial, but I won’t get into that. A different approach is required…and I’m not exactly the best person when it comes to new approaches (see: aforementioned obsessive compulsiveness). Maybe voice recognition software is part of the answer, I dunno. I recently bought myself a better office chair, adjusted the height of the monitor so it’s more ergonomically placed, added padding under the keyboard—that will, hopefully, allay some of the physical symptoms. But in terms of approaching my vocation/obsession from a healthier psychic perspective, well, that requires an effort of a whole other magnitude.
I need to write in order to feel settled, sane. But how can I make writing more of a pleasure, less of a chore? I’ve devoted a lot of thought to that over the past while and I think I’ve come up with a few answers, partial solutions. Some of it involves very personal mini-epiphanies that presented themselves to me, insights that are, frankly, too private to share. They relate to my spiritual beliefs, the ridiculous expectations I place on myself. The pain that causes. It’s also about deriving a sense of accomplishment from some of the fine writing my pen has produced over the past quarter century. I don’t have to keep trying so hard to prove my worth, establish my artistic credentials. The work speaks for itself. Stories like “Invisible Boy”, “Daughter” and “Bedevilled”; the novellas and prose poems. And, of course, my two novels.
Just write. Write without a sense of self-consciousness; write from instinct, letting the words flow unimpeded from their original source.
It’s all about the words. The right one in the right place. Over and over again, sentence by sentence, until something precious and timeless has been created. The masters of language show us how it’s done. They showed me. It was reading that made me want to compose stories of my own, tales no one else has told. I read voraciously, learned my craft at the feet of giants. Books were entertainment and professional development all at once.
But something’s happened over the past decade. I’ve read less and less. In the past few years I think I averaged between 60-65 books a year and that’s a pathetic number for someone who fancies himself some kinda hotshot author. I’m talking about books read for my own enjoyment, stuff not related to research or my work.
So one of the other changes I’m making for the new year is that I’m resolving to read more.
I’m taking my own, personal “100 Book Challenge”. I want to recommit to the printed word in a big way. It means switching off, tuning out. “Off the grid” days, spent hunkered in my rocker recliner, reading a novel or collection of stories.
Because I have no doubt all the hours I’ve spent reading on-line, scanning news articles and items of interest, has screwed up my concentration. I find it hard to focus on a book for more than ten pages at a time without needing to get up, make some tea, stack the dishwasher…and then come back for another crack. Ditto movies. How many times has Sherron complained because I’m pausing a film to go to the john or grab myself a drink? Okay, part of that has to do with a pea-sized bladder but I also think all that time in cyberspace has had a deleterious effect on my attention span.
I read an article in the Manchester Guardian that talked about similar matters so I know I’m not alone in this feeling. The piece quotes me old chum John Miedema, who is a noted proponent of the “slow reading” movement and I found myself nodding along at various points. And then a chap in my LibraryThing group posted a lecture by Susan Greenfield in which she talks about learning and brain plasticity. Fascinating stuff. Ms. Greenfield makes a distinction between the information one finds on-line and “in-depth knowledge” that can only be gained from reading a book. I hope folks out there are apprising themselves as to some of the new theories that are emerging relating to how computers are fundamentally changing the way we think. I think the evidence is absolutely compelling and parents, in particular, must be educated re: how all those hours playing video games and “World of Warcraft” are rewiring their kids’ brains.
Years ago, when we were still living in Iqaluit (on Baffin Island), I gave a presentation on books and reading to an audience of about twelve people. I remember becoming quite emotional as I spoke about how books had literally saved my life. I believed then—and believe to this day—that was not mere hyperbole. My childhood was hardly idyllic and my love of reading gave me, at once, an escape from worldly travails and spurred and fired my imagination.
I want to recapture that, the allure and beauty of the printed word. The thoughts and visions reading inspire in me.
A hundred books in one year? Can I manage it? Will my hellish work ethic fight tooth and nail with my desire to settle into an armchair with some Jim Shepard stories or the latest David Mitchell effort? I’ll let you know via periodic blog posts how I’m doing. My progress (or lack of same). I won’t cite every damn book I’m reading but I’ll drop in the occasional review (maybe even resuscitate my “Burning Moonlight” column, you never know). God knows, I’ve got enough good books lying around, gathering dust. I search them out, I buy them…but can’t seem to free up the time to actually, y’know, read the f***ing things. Pathetic.
But no more. I’m turning over a new leaf. 2011 will involve a serious reboot. I’ve made my resolutions and I firmly intend to keep them. Ease back on the throttle. Stop trying to impress. Create for the sheer love of creating. Rediscover the joy and wonder of my craft through reading the best contemporary authors and the finest of past masters. Work to improve myself through a process that doesn’t involve self-flagellation.
I wrote in a blog entry a couple of years ago that after more than two decades as a professional author I finally felt like the apprenticeship period was over.
But, I amend, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be too old to go back to school.