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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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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Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale

Aug 22, 2018 by

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is one of the best books I have ever read. On Goodreads, it scores a 4.55 out of 5. There are few books out there with a cumulative score that high.

The Nightingale

Kristin Hannah’s fine work, The Nightingale is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I read The Nightingale having recently read Hannah’s latest bestseller, The Great Alone. A book I reviewed and said there were several issues I had with it.

This was not the case with The Nightingale. The Nightingale far and away is the better of the two books. There almost is no comparison.

Set in World War II France, the story involves two sisters who are at odds with each other following the death of their mother and subsequent abandonment of their father. As France is invaded by the Germans, the older sister, Vianne, remains home with their daughter, Sophie, and is compelled to billet German officers. The younger sister, Isabelle, goes from the country home to Paris to join their father, who is said to be working for the German high command. This disgusts the younger daughter who has decided she is going to resist the offensive Germans. The story then evolves into an account of what each of the three do to resist the foreign invaders in their own ways.

Quotes from the Book

In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. pg 1

Generally, Madame, the failing of a student to learn is the failing of the teacher to teach. pg 21

Because of them I know now what matters, and it is not what I have lost. It is my memories. Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain. pg 438

This was not a book I spent a lot of time underlining for great phrases or prophetic insights. But the writing is excellent and the story compelling.

Modern v. Old Frame

This story uses a modern day frame to leap back into the old. Right up until the end, Hannah seeks to make it unclear about who the narrator of the story is–which of the two sisters. She also begins in the story in Oregon, 1995, and then retreats to August 1939. This works. It helps make it so she can hide the identity of the narrator until the end, and then pull the survivors out of the past into the present. And she does it quite well.

Paris

I have never been to Paris, perhaps one day. But what I found the most troubling in my mind was the chronological timeline. What I mean to say is that I have been reading a lot about Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the others of the Lost Generation and their time in Paris–all BEFORE the World War II, in the 1920s and early 1930s. I have that imagery well planted in the visual descriptions of my mind. Given all that, it is hard then to supplant those thoughts with what happens in this book, what happened in real life, to Paris, with the invasion of the Nazis.

Reading The Nightingale truly played tricks with my mind, as in, how could this possibly have happened?!

I think that is the magic and power of reading. Reading history, even if it is fiction.

This makes me all the more understanding of what life must have been like for Parisians when the German tanks came rolling in. And then when the Germans began rounding up non-French born Jews and sending them off.

The way I have done my reading, a totally random act, reading the Hemingway and Fitzgerald stories and accounts of 1920s Paris and then contrasting that with a book like The Nightingale really created a stark amplification for me personally. I am not sure I would have received the same impact had I read The Nightingale first.

Conclusion

I encourage you to read this wonderful book. The writing is excellent. The drama and story is superb and realistic. There weren’t any moments when I jumped out of the story and said to myself, “Come on….” I was under Ms. Hannah’s spell from page one until it ended. And several days after having read it, I still am and probably will be for a long time to come.

 

 

 

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Aug 1, 2018 by

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

I recently read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, and was surprised by some of it, discouraged by other parts, and amused at others.

Throughout 2018 I have been reading everything I can find about F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald presents a unique perspective of the life and times of the Fitzgeralds.

From my reading list, where I’m seeking to read 101 works of literary fiction, I’ve devoured several of Scott and Ernest’s books already. And I’ve read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s book where he talks about the Fitzgeralds, (some say this book has been disproved) and I’ve also seen the Amazon Season One series of Z: The Beginning of Everything, which is based loosely on this novel about Zelda.

Seeing the relationship between Scott and Ernest through a woman’s point of view certainly cast new light on Scott’s writing career. In this case, Fowler has taken an interesting twist, to suggest that Hemingway doth protest too much in his machoism and was really a closet homosexual. If you Google such, there is a fair amount of discussion about this topic on the Internet, all written long after Hemingway’s death. In many ways I wonder if this isn’t led by those who were holding grudges for having to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school and college and this is their way of getting revenge.

Nonetheless, the book is fiction and Fowler admits at the end that she merely is speculating based on what she’d researched and drawing her own conclusions about many aspects about the lives of the three.

The book is worth reading. It shed light on Zelda I’d not seen before. Fowler suggests that the blame for Scott not writing was more so on Scott than where Hemingway laid it, on Zelda. That probably is more fair to Zelda, though I have to admit, I’ve tried to live in a home where there is chaos and drama and when it’s there, getting much writing done isn’t possible.

Give the book a read.

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My Reading List Last Week

Jun 4, 2018 by

My Reading List Last Week

Last week my reading list included Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, his first novel, The Torrents of Spring, one of Hadley Richardson Hemingway’s favorites by Henry James, The Figure in the Carpet, and the incomplete novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon.

At present I’m reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

A Farewell to Arms is a lovely book, a simple love story about a wounded soldier. An American in Italy during World War I who fell in love with an British nurse. He met her before getting wounded, and then once wounded, their affair really takes off. The book is semi autobiographical. Hemingway really did get hurt and really did fall for a nurse and once he got back to the states she wrote him and broke it off. Hem intended to marry the woman who was several years older than him. The story is very well composed and a must read for any Hemingway fan. Plus it is marked as great American literature.

A Farewell To Arms

Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms is still a wonderful read in 2018.

The Torrents of Spring took an afternoon to read. This is a book Hemingway wrote in a few week’s time and is a satirical attack on Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter. I will tell you, it is much easier to read than Dark Laughter. And that is in part the point. Anderson uses a lot of lofty language that is often hard to follow. I’m about 70 pages into Dark Laughter and have wandered down the Mississippi River with its main character and I honestly don’t know where we are going. The Torrents of Spring made fun of the Anderson book, though I am certain I missed half of the attack.

Henry James’ The Figure in the Carpet is an interesting read. A critic has written a review of a famous author’s book and is presented to the author who says he really doesn’t read reviews. But he reads this one, and goes on to tell the critic that he has a theme that runs through all of his works but it is clear that the critic has missed it. The critic begs for the author to part with this secret and he tells him to look further. This sets the critic on a mad chase to figure out what it could be. He has two friends who join him in this quest and finally, one of the two says he has figured it out. But before he can reveal it to the critic, he is killed in a car wreck. But he is said to have told it to the other, but she says she will not part with the secret. She marries another man, and then dies later. The critic befriends the man and approaches him about the secret well after the woman has died, and the widower takes offense when he learns that his wife never shared with him this secret. And does the critic ever figure it out?

The Last Tycoon is a novel that Fitzgerald wrote in his late 30s early 40s. He died at 41 of a heart attack. He never finished the book. But just reading what is complete is a wonderful reminder of how wonderful a writer Fitzgerald really was when he was writing and not under the spell and distractions of Zelda. Maybe she will haunt me for saying such, but it becomes more and more clear the more I study about Fitz that the world lost out on many a grand novel by the distraction she brought into his life–by keeping him from writing–once they were married, once he had money and they were consumed by fame, fortune and flappers. I enjoyed the book and wish it had a real ending. But it is also a good read.

 

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