On Books – The Stories That Changed Me

Along the course of a lifetime of reading, some stories have a greater effect than others. These are the writings that changed me.

1: Cask of Amontillado Edgar Allen Poe – The story that made me fall in love with short stories. It began my journey to understand that storytelling was more than just telling the story.

2: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – The series that showed me that stories could be richly detailed and complex.

3: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a college reading assignment that stunned me. Again, a new way of telling a story, new ways of dealing with character.

4: Are You Running With Me Jesus by Malcolm Boyd – Showed me new ways to think about faith and prayer.

5: Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas – Poetry has never been my thing, but this one made me think about it. The power of words used artistically to tell a story. I’ve been a poetry dabbler ever since.

6: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift and Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress by Benjamin Franklin – More required college reading. The idea that an essay might be interesting, sly and funny was the revelation. Decades later that wonder sticks with me.

7: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams – Again, new ways of telling a story, and a role that brought out whatever talent I possess as an actor. I will remember Tom Wingfield to the day I die.

Looking back over the list, I am surprised to see it came up as one each of a play, a poem, a pair of essays, a religious book, a novel, an epic series, and a short story. That wasn’t the plan, because there was no plan. I just thought about the stories that have stuck with me over the years and how they have changed me as a reader and a writer. Some them I have read again and again (LOTR, Amontillado, and Are You Running), others I haven’t read in years (the Thomas, Swift and Franklin). But change can happen in an instant and stay with you forever.

Which stories have changed you? What are the stories that have made you the reader and/or writer you are today?

Peace.

Jay

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What I’m Reading – Trafalgar

Trafalgar by Nicholas Best (2018) – One of the greatest sea battles in history is placed within its full historical context and introduces us to the actors in very human terms

I will get my only quibble with this book out of the way first. The subtitle, “The Untold Story” borders on the absurd. I can’t imagine that any sea battle has been more examined more often or in greater detail than this one. I would be hard-pressed to come up with another naval engagement that gets the attention this one has over the years. There’s good reason for it. If Napoleon and his allies had won this battle, or even damaged Nelson’s fleet seriously, the change in the history of Europe is profound. He might have been able to complete an invasion of England (although, as the author points out, there were still many problems to overcome).

While I’m not sure it offers much that is “untold”, the telling of the story here is a good as any I’ve ever read. Best doesn’t restrict his focus to the action on the sea. Instead, he places the battle into the larger context of what was going on in England, France, and Spain that brings those powers into conflict in the waters of the Atlantic. He also sidesteps two bits of lazy history in the telling. Napoleon is shown in both his brilliance and egotism (and at his actual height, an ongoing historical canard that has always annoyed me). The same for Nelson. The admiral’s story, especially those written by hero-worshiping English authors, too often falls into hagiography. Both men were brilliant in the ways that led them to greatness, but also bore flaws that created complications throughout their lives.

Best of all, this is history presented almost in the format of a thriller. This is not a linear repetition of the facts. It is a well-told story that weaves together the many characters and events surrounding the action at Trafalgar. Thus, this book is readable to an extent you rarely get in military history.

If you love history, military history, naval history or European history, this book will fit comfortably on your “To Be Read” list. Combining the attention to detail that history buffs demand with the kind of storytelling that makes those details accessible to mainstream readers, “Trafalgar” is an early star in my reading in 2019.

Rating – **** Recommended

(I received an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of this book.  The review is consistent with my published Review Policy)

What I’m Reading – Best of 2018

Every year I try to keep my reading list varied. I get bored reading the same kinds of things over and over. So when I assemble a list of what to read I try to include older works I’ve never read, recent books, and Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of books that are about to be published. I have found wonderful books in all three categories.

As always, let me remind you of my guidelines when it comes to this list. I am not presenting them as “great” books, or the “best of the year”. That’s not how I approach my reading. I love stories, and I love reading. After decades of reading and writing, my understanding of what makes good writing and a good story has been honed. But it remains my personal judgment. I prefer great storytelling to “great writing”. When the way an author writes gets in the way of what they are writing about, you lose me. Books like that may receive critical acclaim but they won’t score highly here. This list is of the books that stuck with me after I read them.

I read/reviewed around thirty books this year. Here are the Top Nine:

  • The Djinn Falls In Love by Various Authors (2017) – In my personal “Year of the Short Story”, it’s not surprising that four of the list are short story collections. This one was listed as one of the best collections of 2017. It offers a different look at the cultural icon of the djinn, what most of us think of as “genies”. Written from a different cultural point of view than most readers know, the stories are amazing.

  • Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)– The only author to make the list twice. My experience of Fitzgerald was zero prior to this year. I’d never read anything. Last Christmas I was given a huge anthology of American short stories which included “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz”. Which I hated! A kind of science fiction thing with strong racist overtones, it didn’t do a thing for me. But F. Scott Fitzgerald is F. Scott Fitzgerald. So I tried again. This collection turned me around. Some brilliant wordsmithing in service to the storytelling. That led me to read…

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) – The first reaction from most people is “How have you never read this before?” I can’t explain it. I don’t remember it ever being required reading for me. After loving the short stories so much, I decided it was time to read his best-known work. It was every bit as stunning as promised. That he could bring such depth to characters who are so shallow is the work of genius.

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016) – Another Christmas present book. The story of the cultural changes when women receive a great physical power that changes the relationship between the male and female of our species. This is an “I couldn’t stop reading” kind of book. Loved the story, loved the writing.

  • Male of the Species by Alex Mindt (2011) – Third of the short story collections on the list. Recommended by my writer/editor child, I didn’t know Mindt’s writing at all. These are stories of men and boys and fathers and sons. The quality of the collection has moved him firmly onto the “Must Find More” list.

  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (2016) – The first of a series, I suppose you might call this a post-apocalyptic novel. The world as we know it is gone, replaced by a new system of worldwide clans and laws. The punishment for the worst crimes has changed as well. These criminals must serve society, owning nothing but what is given to them by the people they serve. It is a punishment to serves justice and offers a level of punishment that makes our current system look comfortable. In the middle of this comes a special boy with what may be very special powers. One of two books where the author took me someplace unknown, unexpected and utterly amazing.

  • Seven Icelandic Short Stories by Various Authors (1950s?) – This collection was put together in the 1950s by the Icelandic government to highlight great writing going back to the earliest days of their culture. The stories begin in a different writing tradition and take the reader to some very different places. This selection was a total flyer. I was looking for something different for the Year of the Short Story, something unlike anything I’d ever tried before. The collection was all that I hoped for and more.

  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuinn – Another author that I had little to no experience with, despite their reputation. I have read in the science fiction and fantasy genres for decades but I don’t think I’ve read anything by LeGuinn. Here she creates a human species that has adapted to its environment on another world. The adaptation is an ability to shift their physical gender between male, female and a neutral form. A human from the mainstream of the species finds himself trapped on the world and in an increasingly complicated relationship with one of the natives. The story is fascinating, complicated and legendary in the genre.

  • The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018) – A first novel and the book I have recommended most often to fellow readers this year. The book is part mystery, part horror, part science fiction and endlessly fascinating. The main character finds themselves jumping from body to body in the mystery, trying to determine why and how Evelyn Hardcastle is killed. As the mystery slowly unwinds, more questions are added. Still, the book that I am most excited about reading this year.

There were lots of other great books on my reading list this year. Looks like 2019 is already shaping up as another great year.

Agree? Disagree? Want to make a comment or a suggestion? Put it in the comments!

Peace,

JD

On Writing – Reading for the Writer

I see this question pop up in various forms, on the writers’ forums and pages I follow. The essential question is “Do writers need to read?” The overwhelming response is always yes.

I am intrigued by the small but vociferous minority that says “no”. From the perplexing (I hate reading and I never read) to the astonishing (reading has nothing I need), the concepts are appalling to this lifelong reader.

Photo courtesy of BarnImages: http://barnimages.com/

The first thing I had to grapple with was how much of this was my own pro-reading bias. I have read as long as I can remember. The story cliché of the kid who would rather read than go outside and play is a replay of my own life. My mother once told me to get my nose out of that book and go outside. I took my book with me and read under a tree. Incorrigible then, incorrigible now. Given that I maintain that the argument “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” is logically faulty, I knew that I had to push for a better reason to push back.

So why should writers read? One of the more common responses is that we read for inspiration. I’m not a fan of this justification at all. Reading great authors often serves as a dis-inspiration as I wonder if I’ll ever be that good. Bad authors may increase the desire to put better writing out there, but there must be a better way than inflicting bad writing on yourself.

If it is to get ideas for stories, I’d suggest you have deeper writing issues to confront. A lack of story ideas speaks to, at best, a fettered imagination and, at worst, a lack of one.

So, I reject reading for inspiration. It may be viable for some writers, but I don’t believe it is the most important function for reading in a writer’s routine.

Before I jump into my primary thesis, I want to note something boldly. I read for enjoyment. It is one of the great joys of my life. I changed my approach to blogging about books because my previous method had made reading a chore. I sacrificed the system for the joy. I also understand that not everyone finds that same enjoyment. I believe that what follows provides a rationale for all writers to read.

Writers should read so that we can learn and grow our artistic and technical skills. How is a story woven together, how are words used to create atmosphere and emotion? What is the structural difference between a romance, a thriller, or an epic? When you read a favorite author, what is it that “works” for you as a reader?

I come across writers that claim they don’t need any of this. It makes me shake my head in wonder and pity. Wonder at the astonishing ego displayed in believing that at any point in life, someone can think that they have learned everything they need to know. Pity because these writers consign themselves to re-inventing the wheel, the axle, the wagon, everything. One writer noted great poets that went off into the wild and wrote words we remember today. The style he chose to spotlight is a highly precise form that the writers in question would have learned through long exposure – by reading or listening.

Writers should read so that we are exposed to different styles of storytelling, to different techniques, to new words (!) and ideas. Without that infusion of fresh examples, the writer is trapped within the confines of their own experience, education, and imagination. While I will grant that genius could carry a writer beyond the need for that freshening source, few of us are geniuses.

Writers should read for the simplest of reasons. Through reading, you will become a better writer.

Peace.

Short Stories – Best Short Stories of 2008

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

Best Short Stories of 2008 with guest editor Salmon Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor

Most of the collections I’ve read this year have been works by single authors. This one collects some of the best writing published in magazines or other resources during the course of the year. The book is part of a larger annual series. Each year features a renowned author as the guest editor to help choose the stories. These have included Stephen King, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, John Gardner, Garrison Keillor, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, and many others.

What the reader gets from a collection like this is a wider range of writing. The focus is on the quality of the writing rather than genre or style. This volume fell into my hands when I was visiting the Green Valley Book Fair near Harrisonburg, VA. This is a book lovers dream, several barns filled with books of all descriptions. Because they are remainders, the prices are very low. The selection is amazing. Fiction and non-fiction, books on almost any subject imaginable. I walked out with four or five books and a shirt (you’ll find all kinds of bits and pieces there!) for less than $25. This book cost less than $5.

You can find these same kinds of bargains at used books stores and even by watching for sale bins or shelves at your favorite bookstore.

Inside I found a great collection of stories that I might never have discovered, authors that were almost all new to me. All of them are well written.Keep Calm and Focus on the Short Stories

 hey showed me different ways of approaching storytelling. As writers, we should never pass up the opportunity of studying the work of other writers. As readers, we have the chance to discover new worlds, new stories and new ways of telling those stories. It’s comfortable to stay with what you “always read”, but you never know when you might find something new to “always read”.

Here’s the list of stories and authors: (I’ve starred my favorites)

Admiral by T.C. Boyle – A story of genetics, politics and a twisted kind of love.

*The Year of Silence by Kevin Brockmeier – Strange moments of complete silence transform the world.

Galatea by Karen Brown – A young woman marries a man she doesn’t truly know.

Man and Wife by Katie Chase – A story of an arranged marriage with a twist.

Virgins by Danielle Evans – Two teenage girls on a journey towards a goal they may or may not want.

Closely Held by Allegra Goodman – A young programmer struggles with the changes that come with success.

*May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes – Family, sex and death.

From the Desk of Daniel Varsky by Nicole Kraus – Through her involvement with a young man, she is drawn into life, death, poetry, and Chile.

The King of Sentences by Jonathan Lethen – Fans can strange. So can the object of their devotion.

The Worst You Ever Feel by Rebecca Makkai –

The Wizard of West Orange by Steven Millhausen – What kinds of experiments did Edison abandon?

Nawabdin Electrician by Daniyal Mueenuddin – Through remarkable ingenuity, a poor Pakistani man with many daughters makes a living to support them all.

Child’s Play by Alice Munro – Two women face a childhood secret.

Buying Lenin by Miroslav Penkov – The end of the Communist era in Bulgaria brings new tension to a man and his grandfather.

*Vampires in the Lemon Grow by Karen Russell – What if being a vampire isn’t what you thought it was?

Puppy by George Saunders – Every story has two sides.

Quality of Life by Christine Sneed – Freedom to choose isn’t always freedom.

Missionaries by Bradford Tice – A young missionary faces a personal test.

Straightaway by Mark Wisniewski – What do you do when you agree to dump a barrel with an unknown content? You don’t look, you run.

Bible by Tobias Wolfe – A high school teacher is kidnapped by the father of one of her students.

Picking favorite stories has been tough all year. This collection is no different. I liked every single story in the collection. These were the ones that my mind keeps coming back to again and again. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

I will continue to read and review short story collections as part of my

 “What I’m Reading” series in 2019. If you have a short story author or collection you really like, please leave me the title/name in the comments.

Peace

Jay

What I’m Reading – Invasive

Invasive by Chuck Wendig (2016) – A new breed of aggressive ants kill a man in rural New York State. FBI futurist Hannah Stander gets called in to try and discover what happened. The answer will take her halfway around the world and to the doorstep of the world’s end.

Chuck Wendig, NY Times best-selling author and John W. Campbell Award finalist, has been on my list of “Authors I Should Read” for a while. Turns out, I should have grabbed one of his books sooner.

If you love thrillers, you will love this book. On the other hand, if you hate ants, you should read some other Wendig novel. There’s a concept called “formication”, which describes the feeling that an insect is crawling on your skin. “Invasive” will trigger that feeling over and over again.

The story looks at the questions and challenges that can arise out of scientific advances like genetic engineering. Like the question raised by Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, we need to examine not only the question “can we?”, but also “should we?”

All the familiar thriller parts are included here – a flawed hero, an ego-driven villain, a fascinating technical aspect, and plenty of twists and turns. Here the internal challenges facing Hannah Stander are rooted in her parents’ “prepper” paranoia. They raised her in the belief that civilization would end in catastrophe. That background supplies Stander with a honed set of survival skills and profound anxiety issues. This makes her an interesting and unique character who has to deal with the peculiar situations of the book.

Wendig provides everything you want in a techno-thriller – tension, tightly constructed action, interesting characters, and a fantastic but realistic problem.

You just have to learn to deal with the creepy crawly feelings.

Do yourself a favor, don’t wait as long as I did to check Wendig out!

Rating – ****