Reaching My Goal — 101 Fiction Novels

Dec 6, 2018 by

Heather Sellers’ 2007 writers’ guide Chapter After Chapter prods anyone interested in becoming a better writer to read 101 Fiction Novels. In December 2016, I set out to do just that, having suffered an injury that was keeping me from working like most, one that continues to plague me even today.

Heather Sellers’ Chapter After Chapter.

Other complications and illnesses have been added since, making working and concentrating even harder, but thankfully, I’ve been able to keep reading, and on Nov. 29th, I put down Javier Marías’ The Infatuations, book number 101, satisfied and fulfilled in a way I could not have imagined two years before.

You see, while I have been physically disabled the past two and a half years, I have been able to mentally travel around the world and through time through the power of fiction.

I’ve made a study of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, the three geniuses edited and managed by Maxwell Perkins. Through them I’ve been bullfighting in Spain in the 1930s, been all over Italy and Europe during World War I, and Paris afterward.

Then through various authors I’ve been in Paris as the Germans invaded it during World War II, and in many ways I felt what it must have been like, to have gone from such heydays after World War I with the Lost Generation to the starkness of the Nazi invasions, their lists, the killings.

But I’ve also been to Australia for a road race around the continent in the 1950s with Peter Carey in his book A Long Way From Home, and returned to experience the power of Big Little Lies with Liane Moriarty; experienced The Plague in Africa via Albert Camus, a non-existent war in Africa during Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and been to South America for a hostage situation via Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (I’ll read  anything now written by Ann Patchett–Commonwealth was so good, too.)

I have been to Tennessee and South Carolina to figure out the mystery of the woman who stole river children in the 1900s for adoption in Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours. (Lisa is under the impression US senators ride around in limousines all the time. Reporters should know better.)

My thinking about trees was forever changed by Richard Powers’ The Overstory, one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read. To think about living in the canopy of a redwood in Oregon for nine months, 100 feet off the ground. Something I’d never thought of, but might consider, given the chance and with better health. A wonderful, wonderful book that haunts me now whenever I see someone cutting down a tree because I know how long it takes for a tree to grow, the history behind it and how we snuff out a tree with a chainsaw and don’t give it a moment of thought.

Gosh, I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve been to England. Ian McEwan’s Atonement. What a great story about the power of love. Don’t forget to also read his On Chesil Beach. If you want to read some of the first murder mystery genre setting books, don’t forget John Fowles’ The Collector, who kidnaps a woman he fancies and drags her off to live in his flat north of London. The Lodger is another prolific book that brilliantly explores the murders surrounding the mystery of Jack the Ripper. Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje was also one of my favorites from my journey.

Then there are the books about the States. The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel remains a favorite, a story about a boy who shows up in an Ohio town the summer of 1984 claiming to be answering an ad in the local paper calling on the Devil to present himself. Steven King’s The Outsider was something new for me. It wasn’t scary, but definitely a different read. Tommy Oranges’ There There shed new light on the Native American culture I did not know about. A.J. Finn and The Woman in the Window, Ottessa Moshfegh and Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, as well as Lauren Weissberger’s When Life Gives You Lululemons all gave me new perspectives about the modern woman.

Celeste Ng took me back to Ohio in Little Fires Everywhere, a very good book, and Rachel Kushner seemed to have much the same thematic in The FlamethrowersFac Ut Ardeat (made to burn); perhaps that theme was also being explored in The Summer that Melted Everything as well. Even Stephen King’s The Outsider.

Thomas Wolfe intrigued me for days with his You Can’t Go Home Again. The language and writing is beautiful.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. Funny, at times. But with an important message nonetheless.

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was strange to me at first, but I came to enjoy the writing once I got my bearings. The initial passages about the blind assassin himself, and the girl, were just strange, and I’ve found I’m not much for reading sci fi or dystopian nonsense.

I also flat out skip sections in books about explicit gay sex. Chloe Benjamin, Adam Haslett, take note. Your books were good, but I skipped large portions of The Immortalists and Imagine Me Gone and don’t think I missed anything, which means, those sections could have been left out (note to authors, agents and publishers). Those sections didn’t add anything. And in the case of Andrew Sean Greer’s book Less, once I learned that’s what it was, I’d actually ordered it from Amazon, I cancelled the order. I have no desire to read anything like that. Period.

I’ve read my share of spy novels: Daniel Silva’s The Other Woman, T. Jefferson Parker’s Swift Vengeance, Karin Slaughter’s Pieces of Her, and the over-hyped ridiculous Bill Clinton/James Patterson The President is Missing.

In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone I spent time in Washington state and Oregon, and then the wilds of Alaska. This was not a great book by any means, but people recommended I read Hannah’s The Nightingale and I honestly believe it is the best book I’ve ever read. Goodreads has it rated at a 4.65 or something close and that seems to be the highest rating I could find. I highly recommend this book above all the rest. It is the one I described above as helping me understand what it must have been like when the Nazi’s invaded France in World War II. Maybe you should read some of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their antics in Paris beforehand to learn about how gay and charming the city was 10 years before, that way you may get the full impact.

WHAT’S NEXT?

I’m going to start revising my second novel once again, with new knowledge.

And I’m going to keep writing.

It’s my 53rd birthday today and I’m getting a copy of War and Peace. I’m planning to also read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as a study in the next few weeks. I also need to finish Anna Karenina. The movie version is good, but not good enough.

I also have asked my girls for a series of books that PBS and my local book store, Interabang Books put together this summer–100 supposed best loved novels–that I intend to read. Some of them I don’t think belong on the list and won’t read, but a good many I will. Some I already have and just have never read.

The goal in all of this is to make me a better writer, but what it’s also doing is making me a better person. Opening my mind and horizons. Making me think and relaxing my soul. My body is not in a condition to do what it once was able. I’ve been doing all I can the past two and a half years to get help from doctors to get it fixed. In the meantime, I’ve been getting my heart, mind, soul and writing ready for when I am free to walk normally in the world again.

Two years later, that’s the greatest gift I can give myself.

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Thanksgiving 2018

Nov 21, 2018 by

Thanksgiving 2018

My how the year has flown. Preparations are underway for Thanksgiving 2018. The Christmas decorations are already in place–three trees inside this year–four if you count the Charlie Brown tree–and the special Christmas City across the bar between the dining room and kitchen needs to annex another area, perhaps it moves to under one of the trees next year. Some say I should wait to decorate for Christmas until after Thanksgiving, but I never do anymore. I want to get the most out of what Christmas can be and decorating, particularly early, gives me hope.

Maycee, looking for Janet’s damned stray cats or Santa Claus, Thanksgiving 2018.

My three girls are coming tomorrow. This year Chandler, the eldest, is bringing a cheesecake. The elder twin, Reagan, has made dressing for her friends at work by having me FaceTime with her and talk her through the process. Haley, the younger twin (by seven minutes) has made a family favorite–chicken broccoli casserole. I don’t know if she’s bringing any with her tomorrow, but it has been a joy the past few months to see traits in me come bursting out of the girls that I didn’t realize I’d ingrained in them so deeply.

This is an unexpected side of parenting that I’ve not experienced before, at least not to this degree–not since they have become so independent as they have become. They are encountering the hardships that life has to offer and to break the pain or strain of a situation, they’re resulting to some of my jokes to cheer each other up, and doing so when I’m not there. “This is when Dad would say … ” and then they all chuckle and giggle and it’s funny to them because they know I’d be there to add levity to a situation that has none.

That gives me comfort as I grow older, as I deal with the pain that has been inflicted upon my body the past two and a half years and feels like it’s never going to leave. But things like what I’ve mentioned above, the cooking of my recipes, the telling of my bad jokes, gives me hope, courage and comfort. I’ll be missed when I am gone, but I’ll also keep on living through my girls–no sons.

And that realization is probably the best and truest blessing God could bestow on me this Thanksgiving.

It’s been another hard year of dealing with the pain in my back. The lumbar is still wreaking havoc. This summer and fall, the thoracic spine has been out of whack. Hopefully, before New Year’s and the out-of-pocket reverts to a massive sum on the first, a lot can be done to at least settle my thoracic down. Other ailments have cropped up I never would have guessed possible. My doctors are working on those.

But my daughters are growing up into fine young women and I’m more proud of them each and every day. My church family has stood by me even though my attendance, largely because of the fatigue from the Crohn’s disease and back pain, has been dismal. And I’ve met some great people in the medical field who truly care about the health and well-being of others.

And of course, I have to mention Maycee, my dog. Yes, she barks to ward off my next-door neighbor Janet’s damned stray cats, and she can’t stand the neighbor at the end of the building who owns the German Shepard, but Maycee loves me in a way I cannot describe. Anyone who says dogs don’t know how to love their owners clearly has cats.

I will miss lunch tomorrow with my three brothers, sister and Mom as they gather in Montgomery, Alabama. Dad will eat with family in Northern Indiana. I wish I could be in three places at once. Nonetheless, I am so thankful for the love of my daughters and dog, Maycee. I could not have made it through 2018 without the four of you. There is just no way. Thank you. Now God bless us every one.

 

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Passively Suicidal

Oct 27, 2018 by

Passively Suicidal

Passively Suicidal–That’s a new term I’ve learned, something I’ve become because of the pain I’ve been in the past two and a half years. Mental health professionals who are treating me say I am at risk.

I am not having ideations, I don’t have a plan, I don’t want to harm myself or anyone else. That’s what makes it passive. I’ve just been through so many surgeries, procedures to evaluate what’s causing pain in my back, had my hopes raised and dashed, had epidurals, rhizotomies, an ENG, a needle while I was conscious put into my Lateral Femoral Cutaneous Nerve, haven’t been able to walk 15 yards without wanting to cry out in pain, (I can go about 100 yards at present), can’t stand up without being in great pain, can’t roll over without pain shrieking around from my T9-10 discs around my rib cage making me not want to breathe, and then this week, after a colonoscopy last Friday–one I had to have again this year because last year I had a  large obstruction and we had to do it again this year to ensure I didn’t have cancer–my doctor found I have a new problem, Crohn’s Disease, one that explains the incredible fatigue and lack of ability to concentrate that’s been increasing in recent months–well, all that is what makes it passive.

That is what led me to get in the car Wednesday of this week and drive to a local psychiatric hospital in Dallas and ask whether or not I needed to be admitted. They decided I didn’t since I’m not having ideations. Since I have no plan to harm myself or anyone else. Since I just feel hopeless and helpless.

In February of 2017, a psychiatrist interviewed me before they put in my pain stimulator and said he was surprised I wasn’t depressed already.

“Welcome to the party, pal,” said John McClain.

So Why Should I Share This With The World?

Wouldn’t it be better to keep all of this private? Well, maybe. But here’s the thing. God has me on a journey. I’m supposed to be learning from all of this. And what good is all this knowledge if it is kept secret? The whole point of learning and telling stories is for them to have some meaning. For the person on the journey to have gained some knowledge and to share some secret elixir gained from his/her quest.

A few years ago I lost a brother-in-law who wasn’t passive when it came to suicide.

My precious sister still struggles with the mess of his decision. Her kids, too.

November 11, my sister Kim is having a walk in her neighborhood as part of a national program to raise awareness about Suicide Prevention. If you’re in Montgomery, Alabama you can sign up at AFSP.org/MontAL

Now that I have seen the light of this darkness, I feel obligated to share.

I am in a scary place.

I believe in God. But I have been so ill, sore, hurting, and tired, I’ve not been able to make it to church in months. My sleep schedule is shot to hell and back. Last Sunday I got up on time to go. By the time I was shaved and showered and ready to get dressed, I was still in the window of time where I could make it to first services. But I was exhausted from the exertion of getting ready. So I got back in bed. And slept. I got up at 11:30. Ate lunch. Read a little. And then slept another two or three hours. Read some more. Had dinner. Read some more. Then went to bed.

But here’s the thing. When I sleep, I don’t sleep for more than two or two and a half hours at a time.

A Hard Thing To Do

Getting out of the car Wednesday and walking into the hospital was hard. I kept hearing the voice of my father, a former Air Force instructor pilot scoffing at me. An Air Force pilot would, in his days, never have been caught near a hospital like that. When I came out afterward, Dad had seen the group texts and called me. Said he was proud of me for going to the hospital.

Regardless, it was hard to go in there. Would they keep me? What about my dog? Who would take care of her? What about all the other doctors’ appointments I have scheduled? How would I get to them? If they took my phone how would I schedule the mylogram (spinal tap with dye and then CT scan of my spine) I have for this coming Wednesday? I could think of so many reasons not to walk through that door.

But I knew the depth of the tunnel was getting further and further from the light.

Don’t Be Afraid

If you are in the same place, (maybe not in the same pain, but discouraged–not wanting to kill yourself, but wouldn’t be sad if you didn’t wake up tomorrow) I encourage you to be brave and take the step toward the light. The medical professionals whom I have met all have been kind and caring. I’ve yet to meet Nurse Ratched. They want to help. In my day program yesterday, even the other clients/patients were friendly and wanted to help. At first I had trouble deciding if they were patients or therapists they were so helpful. I was overwhelmed with kindness.

Take the first step if you need to. Please. Don’t live with this elephant on your shoulder. Get some help. Your family needs you. That’s what I have kept telling myself all along.

And somewhere in all of this, God has a plan for me.

And as my friend Kim has told me from Bible class, I have a biblical name I’m supposed to adopt from my trials. At this writing, it seems like it must surely be Job.

 

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When Life Gives You Lululemons

Oct 1, 2018 by

When Life Gives You Lululemons

It was something out of character for me to read Lauren Weisberger’s When Life Gives You Lululemons, almost like picking up Cosmopolitan magazine I would think and reading it cover to cover. But several weeks ago it was big on the New York Times Bestseller Hardcover List and it spent several weeks there and in my quest to become a better reader, I bought it, read it, and studied the novel in hopes of it making me a better reader.

When Life Gives You Lululemons

To her credit, Weisberger at least knows that U.S. senators don’t ride around in limousines all the time like Lisa Wingate errantly seems to think in Before We Were Yours in modern day South Carolina.

Weisberger’s plot hinges on a senator being in cahoots with a local police department being able to frame his wife with DUI on a holiday and a Hollywood-based spin doctor being able to get her out of trouble after finding the senator’s wife and the spin doctor have a mutual friend in the suburbs of Connecticut. So the story winds around the three women who learn new things about themselves–mostly about the spin doctor who learns that she’s not a washed up spin doctor and that there is more to life than helping the country’s elite lie their way out of their sick problems. So much so that at the end of the book … well, I don’t do spoilers, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

When I read books I usually actively underline passages that I might like to come back to or find insightful about the human experience. I didn’t underline anything in this book.

This is/was not my genre and it does have a happily ever after ending. How nice. But if you want to read anything that’s based upon reality or anything that will advance the cause of humankind, this is not the book.

 

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One of those ‘God Things’

Sep 22, 2018 by

One of those “God Things”

There are times in life when I’ve found myself saying I’m in the middle of one of those “God Things.” Where no amount of my own pushing seems to be getting my anywhere, and then when it’s God’s time, things click right into place.

The seal of The Grammatic Artist.

Over the past three or four weeks now I’ve been working on the premise for a book project. I actually have a very well developed Hero’s Journey. The story takes place in two worlds. One where my primary character is having a dream/encounter where an angel has appeared and is taking him to a meeting with God. On the outside world, he’s on his way to the funeral of his maternal grandfather, the last of his grandparents, and the woman who takes the seat next to him on the flight, not his wife–she has declined to go with him–tells him it sounds like to her he’s grieving a lot more than the loss of his grandfather.

The day I really got to working on the plot of the Hero’s Journey, I found myself at Kinkaid’s Hamburger’s with my own personal mentor Ron Rose. The discussions we had were timely to what each other were doing. The conversation itself became on of those God Things.

As I continued working, things have fallen into place in like manner.

This past Monday I spent an hour with my preacher who suggested I do more to punch up the ferociousness my lead character has when he has his meeting with God, assuming this is a work of fiction. One I’m trying to make more mainstream than a Christian novel.

Then tonight, I met someone at a Mexican restaurant who it sounds like can help me punch up some of the scenes I’ve been struggling with. Another God Thing. She herself has written a book about finding God in unlikely places. I ordered hers from Amazon already. What are the odds?

I’m behind in my book reviews–nine books behind right now–When Life Gives You Lululemons, The Summer that Melted Everything, Imagine Me Gone, My Name is Lucy Barton, Are you There God? It’s Me Margaret, The Outsider, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, Across the River and Into the Trees, and Tailspin, all because I’ve been working on this new book idea.

But that’s okay, because I’m into one of those “God Things,” and when those are happening, well, anything can happen from there….

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My Summer Vacation 2018

Sep 6, 2018 by

My Summer Vacation 2018

During my summer vacation 2018 I travelled the world and never left North Texas. How’s that? I read 40 novels and visited at least three other continents, eight other countries, and many other US cities, all from my living room. And I’ve tried to keep a list of the people I’ve met, but it’s well over 100, so I’ve quit counting. Oh, and I traveled back and forth through time. That is an important point I need to emphasize because when it came to Paris, that really sent my mind for a whirl.

The seal of The Grammatic Artist.

So what did I read this summer and how did I pick the books?

My Summer Reading List

I have been reading straight fiction with a purpose since December 2016. My goal is to read 101 works of fiction in order to improve my writing as a fiction author. Already I have seen improvement in my work, but it was midway through this summer’s reading when a light bulb came on in my head and showed me that I need to work harder at raising the stakes and writing more passionately about the human condition. My perspective about writing, the innocence of telling a story shifted, and as much as I disliked reading Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, I have to admit, I think that’s the book that awakened me to what I just explained. I didn’t like his book because I thought he was a little too much like Henry James, and packed what he could say in four pages into 20. But the realness of the book, the human emotion, the rawness, that spoke to me, and I’ve seen it, looked for it, or been aware of it not being there in every book I have read since.

So what are the 40 books I read this summer?

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

The Torrents of Spring, Ernest Hemingway

The Figure in the Carpet Henry James

The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway 

EileenOttessa Moshfegh

Animal Farm, George Orwell

The OverstoryRichard Powers

The Captives, Debra Jo Immergut 

10 Scoop, Evelyn Waugh

11 Warlight, Michael Ondaatje

12 The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin

13 Your Destination is on the Left, Lauren Spieller

14 The President is MissingBill Clinton and James Patterson

15 Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler

16 The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

17  Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Oscar Wilde

18 A Long Way From Home, Peter Carey

19 My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh

20  The Pearl, John Steinbeck

21 The Human StainPhilip Roth

22 The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante

23 The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne 

24 Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

25 There There, Tommy Orange 

26 The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

27 The Woman in the Window, A. J. Finn

28 When Life Gives You Lululemons, Lauren Weisberger

29 The Summer That Melted Everything, Tiffany McDaniel

30  Across the River and into the Trees,  Ernest Hemingway

31 Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout 

32 Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett

33 My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout 

34 Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume

35 The Outsider, Stephen King

36 On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

37 The Paris Wife, Paula McLain

38 To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

39 The Waters and the Wild, DeSales Harrison

40 Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate

Where Have I Been This Summer?

In reading 40 books, you’d think I’d been to a lot of unique places, but that’s the thing, it seemed like I ended up in some more frequent locations, just at different times. But that’s okay. There were lessons to be learned in this regard as well, particularly when it comes to Paris.

And this happened by chance, it was not planned. You see, I have been making a careful study of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and their days in Paris in the 1920s and early 1930s. Add in Paula McLain’s perspective with The Paris Wife, told through the point of view of Hadley Hemingway, fictionally, then you have a pretty good idea of what Parisian life was like pre-World War II. Then when you pick up The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and read about the Nazi’s invading Paris and rounding up the Jews, well, then your head does a weird emotional turn–probably something very similar to what it was like when the Nazis were taking over and rounding up the Jews and sending them away, shooting people in the streets, and it becomes hard to comprehend and imagine in juxtaposition to the color and magic described by Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

I would not have had this experience had I not invested so much time with Fitzgerald, Hemingway and McLain in advance and then read Hannah.

But this is just one instance.

I came to the belief that drunken women on pills should be its on genre in bookstores, only to realize that this is an old trope itself–Valley of the Dolls, which I’ve not read. Regardless, it is prolific in today’s modern literature. And it sells. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but it does. Ottessah Moshfegh’s book this summer hit the New York Times Bestseller list for one week with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window spent weeks this summer on the NYT bestseller list. (Both stories centered in NYC).

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home  took me on a road race in the 1950s around the continent of Australia and then got side tracked in an Aboriginal camp.

The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway took me fishing and bullfighting in Spain. I didn’t realize it got so hot there in the summer. 

I re-read The Pearl by John Steinbeck and had forgotten about the racism and greed and evil that can come from having found a gem like that. 

I made it to Africa with Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Though the book was somewhat confusing at times, it was nonetheless a good commentary on the news media.

Then there were the books on Maine–Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. How it was I managed to read them back-to-back the Lord will only know, but that’s how my reading adventures seemed to work out.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything brought me to Ohio.

There and Back Again

What have I learned? I think in many ways, I’m still figuring that out. I have noted that I need to do more in raising the stakes in my writing. I’m not going far enough in my negation of the negation–I’m not getting to the very end. But like I said, The Human Stain helped me see this more clearly. I do not, however, see myself reading another “Roth.” The guy is just too wordy.

I read 14 novels in August. I’ve finished one so far in September. Off pace already. Right now I’m 20 pages into Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and I’m wondering why in the world it was necessary to describe her getting a Hollywood wax job by page 16.  Has including that much sexual detail become completely necessary to entice someone to keep reading a story that might not otherwise be able to stand on its own? Or is this something for a book club? I’m beginning to see a pattern in books for book clubs–lots of explicit sex, presumably to keep housewives interested in the reading to keep them coming back for more? I don’t know, because to me it seems like–well, it’s not the best of literature, that’s for damned sure.

Okay, time to do some writing for the day.

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