Image by Liam Burns
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
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
Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis
Berlin by David Lutes
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
The Commandant edited by Jurg Amann
What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction by Alice McDermott
Image by Liam Burns
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.
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.
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…
A solid week of windchills in excess of forty below.
So, I’ve been hunkered down, editing my Notebooks, prepping for a May release of what will be my fifteenth book.
Fifteen books, not one of them a dog, all of them written out of love for the printed word, rather than for the purpose of fulfilling a contract or meeting some hairy-palmed editor’s neolithic expectations. Let’s see you top that, all you hacks and wannabes.
The editing process is always incredibly intense for me, driving myself nuts finding the exact right word (and, as Don DeLillo insists, “the right sounding word”).
At the same time I am still not back to 100% from my hip replacement surgery so can’t stay seated for the prolonged periods of time I’m accustomed to—gotta get up frequently to stretch, move about, which, of course, interrupts my train of thought and then it takes me awhile to re-focus on the manuscript. I’m having trouble adapting to the new regime but that’s the reality I have to deal with now, no use bitching about it.
When I’m not editing, I’m reading and some of the excellent books I’ve finished since the beginning of the year include N.K. Jemsin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, The Cold Millions (Jess Walter), The Great Glass Sea (Josh Weil) and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, a stunning exposé of how wealthy special interest groups are undermining democracy.
Movies with Sherron to unwind after a hard day of polishing my book: last night it was “Hud”, a classic starring Paul Newman; other favorites are David Fincher’s “Mank” (best movie of the year so far), Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” and the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit”.
I tend to devote the first part of the morning to catching up on Twitter, checking out the headlines and snorting with laughter as I read other writers’ self-congratulatory posts about their latest zombie novel or slasher offering. Sometimes I can’t help firing a comment their way and am always amazed by the sheer vitriol of their replies. The moment you bring up literary standards to these arseholes they completely lose their shit. Their reactions always serve as a reminder that genre people tend to have the smallest brains and thinnest skin.
But once I’ve had my fun it’s back to the business at hand.
Giving myself a deadline/release date is always an effective way of directing my nose to the grindstone. Otherwise I’d drag the process out past the point of sanity.
As I wrote in the introduction to the Notebooks, I have absolutely no idea why anyone would have even the slightest interest in the thoughts and reflections of a cult author with a tiny readership and a marked propensity for misanthropy.
Nonetheless, come May Notebooks: 2010-2020 will be released into the world and we will just have to wait and see how it’s received.
I’ll probably be posting some teasers in the coming weeks so I hope you’ll pop in for a look.
Have to say, I love having another title in the publishing pipeline.
It’s not for all tastes but, then again, that pretty well sums up my entire body of work, don’t you think?
After 30+ years, why would I change my approach now?
I try to read at least a hundred (100) books a year but in 2020, due to various circumstances, I didn’t quite make that goal.
Ninety-three was the best I could manage; not bad, but still, c’mon, Cliff, you should be able to make it to the century mark. There was a roughly equal split between fiction and non-fiction and, as usual, my tastes were all over the place.
Here’s my “Best of…” roster for 2020 and, man, when compiling it I had to make some very difficult choices:
PROCESSED CHEESE by Stephen Wright
YELLOW EARTH by John Sayles
VANISHED BIRDS by Simon Jimenez
RED PILL by Hari Kunzru
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad
AUSTERLITZ by W.G. Sebald
RULE OF CAPTURE by Christopher Brown
METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr
PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf
GROWING THINGS (Stories) by Paul Tremblay
A CHILDREN’S BIBLE by Lydia Millet
PROVIDENCE by Max Barry
THE ASSAULT by Harry Mulisch
MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES (Stories) by Amber Sparks
THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
RABBIT FACTORY by Larry Brown
HITLER: ASCENT (1889-1939) by Volker Ulrich
POETRY FROM THE FUTURE by Srecko Horvat
SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari
ON TYRANNY by Timothy Snyder
THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich
IN TRUTH: A HISTORY OF LIES FROM ANCIENT ROME TO MODERN AMERICA by Matthew Fraser
CULT OF GLORY: THE BOLD AND BRUTAL HISTORY OF THE TEXAS RANGERS by Doug J. Swanson
CHURCHILL AND ORWELL by Thomas E. Ricks
THATCHER STOLE MY TROUSERS by Alexei Sayle
SONGLINES by Bruce Chatwin
ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING by Bill Bryson
HOW THE SCOTS INVENTED THE MODERN WORLD by Arthur Herman