2020 has ridden into that good night, ever so not-gently. I always wrap up the year with a look back at the books I read – who wrote them, what they did for me, and where they could take you if you read them, too.
In order of how I read them:
1. The Little Friend, Donna Tartt
2. The Tempest, Shakespeare
3. As You Like It, Shakespeare
4. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
5. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest J. Gaines
6. The Ways of White Folks, Langston Hughes
7. A Mercy, Toni Morrison
8. The Mirror and The Light, Hilary Mantel
9. Between The World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
10. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin
11. The Book of Night Women, Marlon James
12. Twelfth Night, Shakespeare
13. Richard II, Shakespeare
14. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt
15. Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights, Dovey Johnson Roundtree
16. El Libro de Rosy (The Book of Rosy), Rosayra Pablo Cruz (Spanish edition)
17. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
18. The Street, Ann Petry
19. Uncle Tom’s Children, Richard Wright
20. Goodbye, Darkness, William Manchester
21. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
22. Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth
23. Julius Caesar, Shakespeare
24. The Sonnets of Shakespeare (collection)
25. What Jesus Meant, Garry Wills
26. The Mercy Seat, Elizabeth Winthrop
27. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
28. Nemesis, Philip Roth
29. What Paul Meant, Garry Wills
30. The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
Taken together, these thirty books run 8,237 pages and average 275 pages apiece. Yes, I have some time on my hands; but that time is for books :)
If I had to name the best among the great, I would say:
Favorite Fiction: The Mirror and The Light. The conclusion to her Tudor-era Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s 800-page novel is a phenomenon. Fans like me waited eight years for the final book. It was worth it. Mantel could be the best historical novelist working today.
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian are American epics that would top my list in any year that Mantel hadn’t published.
Favorite Nonfiction: Between the World and Me. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book-length essay, a letter to his son about growing up as a black man in America, had sat for several years in the back of my mind. Finally, like so many others motivated to seek new reading amid this summer’s protests against racism, I read it. I won’t forget it. Coates speaks forcefully of people as “bodies,” emphasizing our physical dimension to a degree that most writers reserve for the soul and the mind. He demolishes the idea that “race” exists as anything other than an idea created to control and subjugate. He made me look with renewed attention at how slavery’s legacy reverberates in our present culture.
This book is an education. Read it.
As I mentioned back in December, Dappled Things, a Catholic literary journal, accepted my story "A Single Fragment of Bone" for publication. The story is about a suburban Catholic priest trying to recover a stolen relic. I loved writing the story, wasn't sure where it would end up, and now it's a pleasure to see it in this beautiful new edition of the journal. I was humbled to have my work alongside some truly gifted contributors. If you want to read some great stories and lyrics (from other writers!), consider ordering a copy.
Beginning a new tradition, I want to list out all the books I was fortunate to read in 2019. Some people orient their memories of a year around what they ate, what they bought, whom they met. I tend to do the same with books, mingling their characters with particular seasons or life events.
A writer-friend once asked his class to tell the story of a year in 100 words or less. I'll tell the story of 2019 in 23 books:
1) Them - Joyce Carol Oates
2) Beloved - Toni Morrison
3) Indignation - Philip Roth
4) Aerialists - Mark Mayer
5) The Human Stain - Philip Roth
6) Andersonville - MacKinlay Kantor
7) The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
8) The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
9) Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout
10) A Shout in the Ruins - Kevin Powers
11) La Casa en Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros
12) Songs for the Missing - Stewart O'Nan
13) The Ghost Writer - Philip Roth
14) The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo - Ian Stansel
15) The Assistant - Bernard Malamud
16) The House of the Spirits (originally La Casa de los Espíritus) - Isabel Allende
Drama: (all Shakespeare)
1) Wrestling with God - Ron Rolheiser
2) Narrative of Sojourner Truth
3) That All Shall Be Saved - David Bentley Hart
4) The Mueller Report
You can see what happened this year: New friends arrived just as the world was saying goodbye to them (Toni Morrison, Philip Roth; I have Morrison's A Mercy in my to-be-read pile).
Dark stories became beautiful just because of words (Shakespeare - five plays and a biography in the TBR).
Reality followed art (MacBeth and The Mueller Report were read around the same time ;)
For the first time, I used all the residual power of my high-school Spanish education - and my pocket dictionary - to read a novel in another language. La Casa en Mango Street was a perfect gateway - compact, poetic, both deeply moving and deeply challenging. I took three or four times longer to finish it than I would have in English, but I'll always remember the story as it was expressed in Spanish. Maybe I'll remember some of the vocab, too.
And finally, I found my religious beliefs shaken, seasoned, and strengthened by two spectacular nonfiction works. Rolheiser's Wrestling with God relates to people young and old, in unpretensious language, the struggles that result from a lifetime of doing just what the title says; and in the process he confronts the actual substance of people's religious doubts and longings, their "headaches and heartaches," as he phrases it. David Bentley Hart's small but incendiary That All Shall Be Saved argues for Christian universalism, the belief that all human beings will eventually be reconciled to God through the death of Christ. Whatever your belief, Hart's unsparing reasoning and formidable knowledge of the New Testament may force a personal reckoning with a view that mainstream Christians often prematurely rule out.
Below I have made myself pick out some favorites from the above lists. May your 2020 be well rested, well regarded, and well read!
Best Fiction: Toni Morrison's Beloved
Best Drama: Hamlet
Best Non-Fiction: Rolheiser's Wrestling with God
Dappled Things, a Catholic literary journal, has accepted my story "A Single Fragment of Bone" for publication in its next issue. This short story follows a jaded Catholic priest whose suburban parish is entrusted with a relic from a famous saint. When the relic is stolen, despite all its keeper's misgivings about the supernatural, some inconvenient miracles begin to occur...I had some (vaguely irreverent) fun writing this piece around the time of my first Easter Vigil as a Catholic, and I will be sure to let you know when the issue is available for sale.
Dos Madres Press has published a collection of art and writing to celebrate the mystery, beauty, and power of the Ohio River. I am pleased to say my short story "Cloud, Fire, Flood" made it into the mix. "Cloud" explores the transience of life and memory through Helen, an elderly woman struggling with the recent losses of her husband and best friend. In the story it soon becomes clear that only the river behind her home remains unchanged, because it is always changing.
I hope you will consider enjoying the anthology and the many talented perspectives who contributed to it. You can pick up a copy in the Dos Madres Press shop by clicking here.
My story "Rivertown" has been chosen by Appalachian author Michael Croley as the winner of the 2019 Still: The Journal fiction contest.
"Rivertown" draws from a place close to my heart, following a truck driver who becomes president of his Teamsters local during a strike. Hardworking but barely literate, the driver turns to his teenage son for help with the treacherous dealings ahead. "Rivertown" can be read easily in a sitting, and I hope you will enjoy it. You can click here to find the story.
And many thanks to everyone who has written with humbling words about it. Enjoy the beauty of fall and find something good to read!
I'm pleased to say that my story "The Vigil" has won the 2018 Write Prize for Fiction from the literary journal Able Muse and will appear in their Winter 2018 edition. The contest was judged by New York Times-bestselling author Bret Lott. It is terrifically encouraging to have a story recognized in this way, especially after seeing it not find a place in a few other publications. Editors, readers, and judges all have divergent preferences, and sometimes the difference between a story's acceptance or failure is only your willingness to keep submitting it.
"The Vigil" is just under 1,000 words, a work of flash fiction, and concerns a woman who hears a dark confession from a dying man in a hospice care facility. You can read the judge's comments and/or subscribe to the journal here.
Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the journal of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, has reprinted my story "The Bloodhound," which is about a chaplain at a college in the mountains trying to fend off, and then find, a surly beggar he inherited from his predecessor. "The Bloodhound" appeared first in Jabberwock Review, where it was a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. A short excerpt is in the photo at left.
This year's theme was "Appalachia Acting Up" - stories of rebellion, resistance, and plain fed-up-edness among which "Bloodhound" is fortunate to have found a second home.
To order an edition of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, you can click here. #21 is filled with authors I admire deeply, and I'm honored to have my work sharing the pages with them. I hope you will get a chance to enjoy their writing as much as I have.