I’m Writing Again!

Back in 2020, I stopped writing fiction. At the time, I was working on two different novels. One was tentatively titled Second Chances, and the other, Leaving Home. I had recently ended a relationship, and I needed to take a break. I wasn’t in the right head space to concentrate on the two novels.

As time went on, I got busy doing other things. I contracted to build a new house, and I eventually moved into that house. A while later, I started working on finishing a master’s degree, which took up a lot of time (I wrote about it here). A little over a year later, I sold that house and moved back to Wisconsin (which I wrote about here).

One thing after another kept me away from writing fiction. I continued to write  weekly (usually) blog posts (like this one), but I just couldn’t find the time, energy, or interest to write fiction. Even so, it bothered me that I wasn’t writing. For the past several years, I have felt the almost constant need to work on a short story, novella, or novel, and when I don’t, I feel uneasy. It’s a weird phenomenon feeling compelled to do something, while simultaneously not feeling like doing it.

Of course, just because I wasn’t writing, that didn’t mean I wasn’t still coming up with new ideas for books. I currently have 20-25 book ideas in various stages of production, but when I’m not writing, the ideas just stack up. And the more they stack up, the worse I feel.

Thankfully, three or four months ago I started writing fiction again. Best of all, the words have been coming fast and easy. I started working on Leaving Home again (I’m not sure if that title is going to last) and I’m pleased to announce that I completed the first draft of the novel last week.

Leaving Home is the story of Brian Ross, an American who moves to Paris in the 1920s. He’s disillusioned with his life and his relationship with his father, and he wants to get as far away from his home in Chicago as possible. In Paris he meets a young woman, they fall in love, and he moves to London to be with her. They marry, have a child, and live a wonderful life. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if they simply lived happily ever after. War breaks out and their lives are torn apart in ways they could have never imagined.

I still have a lot of work to do. Revisions will take a month or two, but I’m getting close. I’m not planning on publishing the book until this summer, so I have time. But the sooner I can finish the book, the sooner I can start working on the next one.

I’m excited to continue work on Leaving Home and all the other books to come. But most of all, I’m excited to be writing fiction again.

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The Best Books I Read in 2023

There is a Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” To be certain, we live in extraordinarily interesting times. And the times we live in affect our lives in various ways, including impacting my reading habits.

Because of what has been going on in politics and world events over the past year, I have been reading much more nonfiction to help me understand these interesting times. I want to better understand the founding of the United States. There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings that tend to find their way into the media and public conversations.

I also want to understand times in our country’s history that are similar to what we are living through right now. How did our ancestors react? What can we do? What should we expect in the future?

I want to better understand the Supreme Court. The current Court is overtly political and dysfunctional. Perhaps more than at any other time in history. I want to understand how we got here and how we can fix it.

Because of my desire to better understand these issues, the list of the ten best books I read in 2023 is heavily skewed toward nonfiction. Of course, that doesn’t mean I didn’t read any fiction this past year. I read some excellent works of fiction that I am excited to include in my list.

Before we begin, let me tell you about the worst book I read all year. The name of the book is Fear the Wolf, and the reason it is noteworthy is because of who wrote it. Fear the Wolf was written by James Patterson and Mike Lupica.

I’m sure you’ve heard of James Patterson. He has sold more books than any other American author. In fact, he probably sold more books in the time it took me to write this sentence than I likely will sell in my entire writing career. His writing often gets criticized as simple and formulaic, but I respect the business he has built around his writing. He found a way to get rich writing books. We should all be so lucky.

Lupica is a well-regarded former sports writer who turned his attention to writing fiction several years ago. I used to read his writing (mostly about baseball) when he was still writing for newspapers, and I thought he was quite good. I also liked watching him on the ESPN show, “The Sportswriters.”

Patterson and Lupica should have produced good, well-written genre fiction. But together, they created a truly horrible book.

Okay, enough complaining. Let’s get to the ten best books I read in 2023.

10. Nine Black Robes by Joan Biskupoc and The Supermajority by Michael Waldman – The Supreme Court has been an interest of mine for years. I’ve followed it closely, and I even wrote my master’s thesis on proposed reforms to the Court (and posted a multi-part series about Supreme Court reform proposals last year based on my thesis). Nine Black Robes and The Supermajority both examine the current Court and explore how it came to be so far-right and reactionary. Both books do an excellent job of dissecting the Court; not only how it came to be so ideologically lopsided, but what the results have meant for the country. I understand that most people do not find entertainment in reading about the Supreme Court, but if you do, I recommend both Nine Black Robes and The Supermajority.

 

9. The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey – Let’s start with this: Timothy Gallwey is a tennis coach. The title of the book is the The Inner Game of Tennis. Even so, this is not a tennis book. It is a book about peak performance and how to achieve it, regardless of whether you are playing tennis, running a business, or teaching a class. I’m a little late to the game, considering that the book was first published in 1997, but the information is still groundbreaking and cutting edge. Gallwey tells stories from his days as a tennis coach, but in many ways, those stories serve as metaphors for the concepts he is teaching. No matter what pursuit you are trying to master, The Inner Game of Tennis can help you strengthen the mental side of your pursuit and perform at your highest level. It’s a relatively short read, but it packs a mighty punch.

 

8. 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think by Brianna Wiest – I read this book at the end of 2023 and I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of the ideas and concepts Wiest shares. When I say “read,” I should clarify that I listened to the audiobook. I love audiobooks. In fact, audiobooks may be my preferred way to “read.” But I think listening to 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think may have been a mistake. I listened straight through, from essay number one to essay number one-hundred-and-one. It was too much, too quickly. I think it would have made sense to read one essay at a time, let it percolate a bit, think about it, and let it settle in my brain or subconscious or wherever great concepts and ideas settle. I think I’m going to read the book again and give that a try. Regardless, I can tell you that if you are searching for a way to think differently about your life, your career, your relationships, and the world around you, this is the book for you. But don’t rush through it. Allow each and every essay to sink in. Consider each essay on its own merits. Unlike most books, this one is like a hundred-and-one separate books, each needing to be consumed individually, like bite-sized Hershey Kisses. And like Hershey Kisses, which are more enjoyable when you eat just one rather than an entire bag all at once, these essays are best consumed one at a time.

7. Drowning by TJ Newman – Finally, a work of fiction. Drowning is the second book in two years by TJ Newman to make my top ten list. Admittedly, Newman’s books are not my usual read. For whatever reason, I usually enjoy quieter reads that are more character-centered. That doesn’t mean I don’t love a good plot. I absolutely do. But I prefer my plots to occur in the real world (usually) involving situations we can all relate to. Newman’s books are not that. For instance, in Drowning, a plane crashes shortly after takeoff and plunges into the Pacific Ocean. The Navy is dispatched to rescue (or, more likely, recover) the passengers, but then a government contractor–an engineer working nearby for the Navy–gets involved, and it becomes clear that she and her crew are key to saving the doomed souls onboard the plane. Oh, and it just happens that her husband and daughter are among the passengers. Granted, this isn’t a plot most of us can relate to. But what we can relate to is the love a mother and wife have for their daughter and husband. We can relate to the desperation such a woman would feel. And we can understand and relate to the subtle (and not so subtle) misogyny involved when a woman challenges the Navy and questions their methods and resolve. Drowning is an exciting thriller, and Newman is relentless in the way she moves the story forward, with one cliff-hanger after another. If you want to get the book, see the link above. If you want to learn more about the author, TJ Newman, and her journey to bestsellerdom, I wrote a bit about it here.

 

6. The Nation That Never Was by Kermit Roosevelt III and The Second Founding by Eric Foner – Academically, these were the two best book I read in 2023. I say they were the best, not because of the quality of the writing (I’ll get to that in a minute), but because of the eye-opening way they both view the original founding of the United States and the way the Civil War and the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution so profoundly changed our country. In fact, I would argue, we are still discovering just how profound those changes were. The story we tell ourselves as Americans—that our core values as a nation were stated in the Declaration of Independence, fought for in the Revolutionary War, and made law in the Constitution—not only no longer serve us, but the story isn’t even true. The values we hold dear—particularly personal liberty and equality before the law—were not part of our Founding Fathers’ vision. Instead, those values were stated in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, fought for in the Civil War, and made law through the Reconstruction Amendments. Roosevelt (the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt) and Foner both mine this idea in different ways and from slightly different perspectives. The one criticism I have of both books (Honestly, who am I to criticize) is that the books, which are written by academics for a lay audience, fall somewhere in between academic and popular nonfiction. They’re not quite dense and detailed enough to be considered academic tomes, yet they aren’t entertaining enough for the average layman. After all, they are telling an exciting story that most of us are at least a little familiar with. Both books would have benefited from more storytelling and less step-by-step progression. But to be clear, I still enjoyed reading both books and would highly recommend them both to anyone that wants to better understand the history of our country and our constitution.

5. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – This is the book that launched the popular HBO series (which I have never seen). I said in an earlier review that I prefer realistic fiction, but there’s something about time travel that I just love. I’m not big on other science fiction, but I really do enjoy most time travel novels. The Time Traveler’s Wife is no exception. The book tells the story of Henry and Claire, a couple that is living two very different lives. Claire is living a normal, sequential life where one minute comes at a time and each day follows the one before it. Henry is a time traveler, jumping around in time from the past to the future, and he can’t seem to control when or where he goes. The book has rich and interesting characters, and a plot that is intricate, and at times, heartbreaking. But it can be hopeful too. I mean, think about the endless complications uncontrolled time travel can wreak on a relationship, yet Henry and Claire remain fully committed to one another no matter what situations arise or tragedy befalls them. Which is kind of the secret of this book. It involves time travel, but it’s really a love story.

4. Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson – Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College who came to prominence a few years ago because of her Facebook and Substack essays entitled “Letters from an American,” where she views the day’s political news through a historic lens. Democracy Awakening takes a similar tack, but also looks forward, considering what the United States will look like if the country chooses a leader in 2024 that has authoritarian (or even, fascist) leanings. I’ve listened to and read a lot of writing that Richardson has done, and it seems to me that her superpower is that she has an academic’s ability to research and understand history, and the ability to convey what she knows so even mere mortals like me can understand and appreciate it. In Democracy Awakening, Richardson examines the state of our nation, including recent events like the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection, and analyzes them using her knowledge and understanding of history. In particular, Richardson looks at the way a group of wealthy elites has for decades—in some cases dating back to the founding—made war on the idea that “all men are created equal.” This group believes only “true Americans”—once identified as property-owning white men, and more recently defined as primarily wealthy, “right thinking,” white men—should have the right to vote and are ordained to run the country. However, as has happened so many other times in our country’s history, Richardson points out that marginalized groups are rising up, demanding that we renew and expand our commitment to the values espoused in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution. There’s a lot in this book that is frightening and disturbing, but in the end, Richardson strikes a hopeful tone, believing we are capable of reclaiming the freedom and equality that is our birthright. If you want to understand how we find ourselves at this particular juncture in history, you need to read Democracy Awakening.

3. Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning by Liz Cheney – Liz Cheney has as impeccable conservative political credentials as nearly anyone in politics. She comes from conservative and Republican royalty. Her father served as a Congressman, Chair of the House Republican Conference, Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford, and Vice-President in George W. Bush’s administration. Liz served in the State Department, was a Congresswoman, and served as the Chair of the House Republican Conference. But after the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Liz Cheney became the most outspoken critic of Donald Trump on the Republican side of the aisle. She has been unflinching in her criticism of Trump and she never wavered, even as other Republicans excused the behavior of the former POTUS. Her outspoken criticism of Trump cost her her position in the House Republican Conference and eventually led to her defeat in the 2022 election for Congress in Wyoming. That hasn’t slowed her down. In Oath and Honor, Cheney offers a detailed account of the events leading up to January 6, the harrowing hours while Congress was under attack by right-wing terrorists, and the evidence collected and presented by the House January 6 Committee, where she served as its vice-chair. Her descriptions are raw and detailed, and Cheney brings the receipts to back up her claims and warnings. Although I knew the details of the January 6 insurrection, listening to Cheney recall the events of that day sent a shiver up my spine. The book is a stark reminder of what can happen when we elect someone not committed to the Constitution and country, and who works for his own benefit, not for the good of the nation.

2. Pappyland: The Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last by Wright Thompson – Wright Thompson is arguably the best sportswriter in America. His long-form features, which he writes for ESPN the Magazine, are always terrific. I look forward to everything he writes. In Pappyland, Thompson steps out of the sports world (albeit, not too far) to tell the story of the legendary (and often expensive) Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon and the family behind the name. As with much of Thompson’s writing, he injects some of his own story into the tale he is telling. His relationship with his father often plays a role in his stories, as does his young and growing family. Perhaps more than anything, Thompson injects his southern heritage and love for southern food, drink, and tradition into the Pappy story, which is already chock full of southern heritage and tradition. Thompson is not only a superb writer but also a master storyteller (those do not always go hand-in-hand). In Pappyland, he presents his characters in all of their vibrant and bent-halo glory, and tells their story in a intriguing and heartfelt way. I didn’t know anything about the Van Winkle family when I picked up Pappyland. By the time I put it down, I cared about them and wanted to raise a glass with them. That’s the Wright Thompson way.

1. Liberation Day by George Saunders – George Saunders is the finest living short story writer in America. There’s an argument to be made that he holds that title among both living and dead short story writers. In Liberation Day, Saunders offers more of his trademark wicked humor, excruciating heartbreak, and uber-human (a phrase I just made up) characters. The stories are all terrific, but the one that has stuck with me the longest and most relentlessly is “Love Letter.” I wrote previously about this awesome story. It was originally published in the New Yorker in May 2020 and served as a warning about what life in the United States could become if we didn’t protect our democracy. The story is even more prescient and important now as we get ever closer to the 2024 election. In a nutshell, the love letter in question is written by a grandfather to his grandson, warning him not to get on the wrong side of the new authoritarian government, and trying to explain how the grandfather and his generation could allow our proud and powerful country to fall into the hands of such an unfit, immoral tyrant. As he does with all of his stories, Saunders displays a gentle touch, telling the story in a subtle manner, yet getting his point across with the same ferocity as if he were wielding a sledgehammer. I read a lot of good books in 2023, but Liberation Day was the best of them all.

 

 

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Three Prose Poems by Louis Jenkins

A Happy Song

We know that birds’ singing has to do with territory and breeding rights. Male birds sing to attract females and warn away other males. These songs include threat and intimidation, and perhaps, in the more complicated songs, the insinuation of legal action. It’s the grim business of earning a living in a grim world. Each song has its own subtle sound, the idiosyncracies of its singer. It turns out, though, that the females don’t really value innovation and invention and generally mate with males that sing the most ordinary, traditional tune. There is always, though, some poor sap that doesn’t get it, sitting alone on his branch practicing and polishing his peculiar version until it flows as smoothly as water through the streambed, a happy song that fills us with joy on this first warm day of the year.

Football

I take the snap from the center, fake to the right, fade back…
I’ve got protection. I’ve got a receiver open downfield…
What the hell is this? This isn’t a football, it’s a shoe, a man’s
brown leather oxford. A cousin to a football maybe, the same
skin, but not the same, a thing made for the earth, not the air.
I realize that this is a world where anything is possible and I
understand, also, that one often has to make do with what one
has. I have eaten pancakes, for instance, with that clear corn
syrup on them because there was no maple syrup and they
weren’t very good. Well, anyway, this is different. (My man
downfield is waving his arms.) One has certain responsibilities,
one has to make choices. This isn’t right and I’m not going
to throw it.

 

Black Bears

I like black bears. They are relatively common around
here, and they are usually not aggressive. Actually,
they are generally affable, loners mostly, but not
opposed to hanging out with humans now and then.
In fact, I’ve found that in many ways they are a lot
like us.

My friend, Richard, an older male, drops by now and
then and we hang out down on the shore, have a
couple of beers, but mostly we just sit and look out
at the water. We don’t have a lot to say. We aren’t
friends exactly, but we enjoy the company. Richard
says, at our age we don’t have friends. We have
associates.

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How Fascism Will Come

The following prose poem, “How Fascism Will Come,” was written in 2011 by Terry Ehret, an American poet, novelist, and teacher. In it, Ehret predicts a future that is dark, violent, and sadly, all too prescient.


How Fascism Will Come

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” —attributed to Sinclair Lewis

When fascism comes, it will greet us with a smile. It will get down on its knees to pray. It will praise Main Street and Wall Street. It will cheer for the home team. It will clap from the bleachers when the uninsured are left to die on the street. It will rally on the Washington Mall. It will raise monuments to its heroes and weep for them and place bouquets at their stone feet and trace with their fingers the names engraved on the granite wall and go on sending soldiers to die in the mountains of Afghanistan, in the deserts of Iraq. It will send doves to pluck out the eyes of its enemies, having no hawks to spare.

When fascism comes, it will sit down for tea with the governor of Texas. It will pee in the mosques from California to Tennessee, chanting, “Wake up America, the enemy is here.” It will sing the anthems of corporatization, privatization, demonization, monopolization. It will be interviewed, lovingly, on talk radio. It’ll have talking points and a Facebook page and a disdain for big words or hard consonants. It won’t bother to read. It will shred all its books. It will lambast the teachers and outlaw the unions.

When fascism comes, it will look good. It will have big hair, pressed suits, lapel pins. It will control all the channels. It will ride in on Swift Boats. It will sit on the Supreme Court. It will court us with fear. It will woo us with hope. When fascism comes, it will sell shares of itself on the stock market. It will get rich, then it will get obscenely rich, then it will stop paying taxes. It will leave us in the dust. It will kick our ass. It won’t have to break a sweat to fool us twice. It will be too big to fail.

When fascism comes to America, it will enter on the winds of our silence and indifference and complacency. And on that day, one hundred thousand poets will gather. In book stores and libraries, bars and cafes, in their houses and apartments, in schools and on street corners, they will gather. In Albania, Bangladesh, Botswana, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Finland, Guatemala, Hungary, Macedonia, Malawi, Qatar, crying, laughing, screaming. They will wrap the sad music of humanity in bits of word cloth and hang them, like prayers, on the tree of life.

–Terry Ehret

 

Author’s note: This was written for the 100 Thousand Poets for Change reading, September 23, 2011, Santa Rosa, California. The poem is woven with images and fragments of rants and blogs and online articles I found when I googled the Sinclair Lewis quote. These appear in italics.

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T.J. Newman’s Advice to Creatives

If you’ve never heard of T.J. Newman, you can be forgiven. Until fairly recently, T.J. was a flight attendant. To be more precise, she was a flight attendant with a dream. T.J. wanted to be a writer. In her spare time–and at times while she was working as a flight attendant–T.J. wrote a novel about a pilot who has to choose between purposely crashing his plane, killing everyone onboard, or having terrorists kill his family. It seemed like a great plot idea. Agents disagreed. Forty-one agents turned her down. Many of them didn’t even bother to read her writing. Forty-one rejections.

T.J thought about giving up. Who wouldn’t? But she reached out to a forty-second agent, and this one said “yes.” A few months later, T.J. had a two book deal and an advance of $1.5 million. Since then, her first book, Falling, has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller, has been distributed to more than thirty countries, and is soon to become a major motion picture. T.J. has another book, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421,  coming out at the end of May 2023, and a $1.5 million movie deal.

T.J. recently penned an “Open Letter to Dreamers” in which she encourages creatives to never give up on their dreams. Here’s what she had to say:


*Originally published on Deadline.com (May 9, 2022)

I know that a lot of famous people — writers, directors, agents, lawyers, and powerbrokers — read Deadline every day.

But so do a lot of dreamers.

I know because for many years I was one of them.

This is an open letter to all the dreamers reading Deadline today.

After nearly two decades of trying and failing — and being rejected by 41 agents — last month, Warner Bros purchased the film rights to my second book, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421, for $1.5 million against $3 million in a heated bidding war where five separate studios and streamers put up seven-figure offers. This is the part where I would normally say I never dreamed of something like this happening to me. But I did. I did dream. And dreams are important. They’re what keep us going. My dreams kept me going.

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The Best Books I Read in 2022

Wow! What a year 2022 was for books. I read more great books this past year than I have in the past two or three years combined. I continued reading more nonfiction than I have in the past (with the exception of 2021), but I also had the great good fortune to spend time with terrific works of fiction. From a reading perspective, 2022 was a great year!

Although it’s a good problem to have, after reading so many good books, some really terrific books didn’t make the top 10 list. For instance, there were five books I read in 2022 that just missed this year’s top 10, but which would have easily made the list in any other year. Those books (in alphabetical order) are:

All five of these books were terrific, and there’s a part of me that feels guilty for not including them in my top 10.  Of course, that means that the books that did make the top 10 were exceptional. Here they are:

!0. Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution by Elie Mystal — Americans–particularly white Americans–take a lot for granted when it comes to the Constitution. We’ve been taught things about what different parts of the Constitution mean, and that has become common knowledge. And often, that common knowledge is wrong. Mystal does a great job of explaining the history of the Constitution in clear, easily digestible language, and then goes on to show how what we believe about the Constitution today is simply wrong. In fact, in many cases, what we believe about the Constitution is often unconstitutional (i.e., not in compliance with the Constitution). Throughout the book, Mystal is not only informative, but entertaining and often righteously indignant. The title of the book might lead readers to believe this is a book for black Americans, but it’s a book that should be read by all Americans who care about the history of the Constitutional and the truth of its meaning.

9. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman — I tend to be a realist. If a story takes place in the real world (as opposed to a sci-fi created world), I expect things to make sense. People should act the way people act in the real world, which usually means, they should act in their own best interest (If you’ve never heard my rant about the implausibility of the novel Gone Girl, you don’t know what you’re missing). Anxious People breaks this rule. Even so, I’m okay with it. Backman has a way of creating characters that the reader comes to care about so deeply, that they accept just about anything the character does, even if their behavior is unlikely. So, when an otherwise law-abiding citizen decides to rob a bank and the police investigating the crime choose to overlook the criminal behavior, what is a realist to do? In the hands of a master like Fredrik Backman, even a realist like me can accept the unlikely behavior. Why? It’s the characters. With Backman, it’s always the characters.

8. The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders — George Saunders is the best short story writer of his generation. But he’s not limited to short stories. In 2018, he published Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the finest novels I have ever read. The Braindead Megaphone is neither short stories nor novel. It is a book of essays. And true to Saunder’s form, it is brilliant. The Braindead Megaphone is not a new book. In fact, it was first published in 2007. Yet, much of what Saunders writes feels fresh and relevant today. Like all of Saunders’ writing, the essays are smart, witty, and exceptionally well written, with the unique Saunders’ voice. The essay that has stuck with me the longest is “Buddha Boy,” which was originally published in GQ Magazine. It is a travelogue of sorts, chronicling Saunder’s transcontinental journey to witness a meditating boy, purported to be the reincarnation of the Buddha. It is at once absurd, deeply spiritual, and steeped in the beauty of the human condition that Saunders brings to all of his writing.

7. Life’s Work: A Memoir by David Milch — Back in 2019, I wrote a blog post listing my favorite TV shows of all time. The top two shows on that list (Spoiler Alert!) were Hill Street Blues and Deadwood. In fact, I loved Deadwood so much, that I wrote a two-part deep dive (Part 1 and Part 2) into the show. The one common denominator between Hill Street Blues and Deadwood: David Milch. Milch was a writer on Hill Street Blues, and he created and wrote Deadwood. Both were groundbreaking shows. Sadly, Deadwood ended after just three years. Milch had much more of the story he wanted to tell, but he couldn’t reach an agreement with HBO to continue. For ten years, viewers and Milch yearned to return to Deadwood, but the deal with HBO was dead, the show’s actors had moved on to other projects, and Milch himself, who was the driving force behind the show, was in failing health, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  But in 2019, Milch was able to get the band back together to do a movie. It wasn’t a return to the series, but it was mighty good just the same. Throughout his career, Milch was a creative genius, as both a show creator and writer. But he was also troubled, struggling with alcohol and drugs. He made a lot of money, lost most of it, and always relied on the strength and loyalty of his wife and kids. In Life’s Work, Milch brings his raw, gritty, unflinching style to his most personal story; his own. It was sad knowing his life story would be the last story he would ever share with the public, but it was also satisfying hearing it from the man who lived it.

6. The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant –In literary circles, Matt Bondurant is well known. His books have won several prizes and have been made into movies. He teaches creative writing at the University of Mississippi. I knew of Bondurant, but I had never read his writing until this past year. I’m glad I did. It’s an overused cliché to refer to literary writing as “rich” or “lush,” but that’s exactly what Bondurant’s writing is. It surrounds the readers, enveloping and engrossing them. In The Wettest County in the World (a moniker given to Franklin County, VA by famed writer Sherwood Anderson), Bondurant tells the true story of his grandfather and two grand uncles, all notorious moonshiners and tough guys in prohibition-era Virginia. The three men lived outside the law, protecting what was theirs with their fists and, when necessary, with guns. The Wettest County in the World was made into a movie (entitled Lawless) starring Shia Lebeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jessica Chastain. I’ve never seen the movie, but if it’s half as good as the book, it would be worth watching.

5. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles — In my 2021 list of the ten best books I had read, I commented that Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow may be the best written book I had ever had the pleasure of reading. I went on to say that Towles plot, despite being so well written,  was plodding and uninspiring. In The Lincoln Highway, Towles writing isn’t quite as brilliant (it’s still really good), but his plot is better. The story takes place in mid-1950’s Nebraska. Emmett Watson returns home from a juvenile work camp to his family’s empty farm. His mother ran off years before, and his father has died. His precocious younger brother, Billy, who worships Emmett, is living with the neighbors. To Emmett’s surprise, two of his pals from the work farm have escaped and joined him in Nebraska. Their appearance derails Emmett’s plans and sends him and Billy off on a cross-country adventure. They want to go to California to find their mother, but instead end up in New York City. Along the way, they meet interesting characters, suffer indignities, and experience the expansion of the nation along the Lincoln Highway.

4. Reimagining Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing by Kristen Ziman — Kristen Ziman and I share a couple things in common. First, we were both born and raised in Aurora, IL. When we graduated from high school–me 13 years earlier than Kristen–we both joined the Aurora Police Department. I decided I really didn’t want a life as a cop. Kristen went the other direction, becoming a patrol officer, moving into leadership, and eventually becoming Chief of Police in Aurora. I wrote a complete book review of Reimagining Blue previously, so I won’t re-do that here. Instead, I’ll simply say that Ziman’s book caught me off-guard. I did not expect to be so entertained or inspired by her stories. Neither did I expect to be so impressed with her writing. Reimagining Blue is part history, part memoir, and part treatise on leadership. It is also a deep and badly needed look at policing in America. Ziman is unapologetic in her support of local law enforcement, but she refuses to turn a blind eye to the corruption and bad behavior that plagues many departments across the country. She believes that law enforcement plays an important and noble role in our society, but thinks we are getting it wrong when police departments take actions to separate themselves from the communities they are sworn to serve and protect, rather than enmesh themselves within those communities. Reimagining Blue is both an entertaining read as well as an invaluable resource when it comes to American law enforcement.

3. Heat 2 by Michael Mann — In 1995, Michael Mann wrote and directed the movie Heat, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, and Amy Brenneman. It was a blockbuster and went on to earn more than $180 million. For years, ideas for a prequel or a sequel rolled around in Mann’s mind. He wanted something big that would be worthy of the success he experienced with Heat. But as time went on and the nature of big blockbusters changed, the opportunity to make a prequel or sequel to the film vanished. Instead of a film, Mann turned his attention to a book. And instead of choosing a prequel or a sequel, he chose both, all in one book. Reading Heat 2 is like watching a movie. Mann’s descriptions and characters are cinematic in nature. His dialogue evokes dialogue from a movie. I can’t fully explain it, but reading Heat 2 was a unique experience for me. Other books reminded me of a movie. Heat 2 was like watching a movie. It is fast-paced, switching between timelines, relentlessly moving the story forward. Heat 2 was a fun, non-stop thrill ride.

2. The Dispatcher/Murder by Other Means/Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi — Imagine this: The world is exactly as it is today, but suddenly, people cannot die at the hands of another human being. In other words, people still die from disease, including old age. They still die from suicide. They still die from car crashes and other types of accidents. But they can’t die at the hands of another human. If another human is the cause of a death, the victim disappears from the site of the murder and reappears, usually at home, naked, but otherwise uninjured. Imagine how that would change our world. That’s exactly what John Scalzi did in these three short novels. And in this new world, the government employs people called dispatchers who, in certain circumstances, are empowered to kill another human in the name of saving their life. For instance, let’s say a young woman is critically injured in an auto accident and is rushed to the hospital. Doctors agree they cannot save her. Or perhaps she’ll never walk again. In this case, a dispatcher is called in to end the young woman’s life. Once killed, the young woman will disappear from the hospital and reappear at home, in the same condition she was in six or ten hours previous. It’s an intriguing premise and one that takes a lot of twists and turns throughout Scalzi’s three books. I’m not sure if there will be a fourth book, but I’m hopeful.

1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman — Everyone has heard of A Man Called Ove now that it has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks (somewhat oddly retitled, A Man Called Otto). I hear the movie is good, but I seriously doubt that it is as good as the book. As I stated in my review for Anxious People (see above), Backman is a master at creating characters that find their way into the reader’s heart and wedge themselves there. Often, these characters start out as unlovable. Maybe they’ve made a mess of their lives, or in Ove’s case, they are grumpy beyond reason. He has built a metaphorical suit of armor around himself to repel any sort of human affection. Of course, as the suit comes down and the real Ove emerges, we are sucked in. We care about Ove. We want to see him make friends and open up to the world again. Despite whatever missteps or hardships he’s had in the past (in fact, precisely because of these missteps and hardships) we want him to win, to experience some good in his too dark and callous life. This is Backman’s formula, and it works time and time again. A Man Called Ove will melt the heart of even the most curmudgeonly reader.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips for Writing Great Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut is an interesting guy. I’ve written about him a couple of times before, and each time I do, I tend to learn something about Vonnegut, something about myself, and above all, something about writing.

Vonnegut was not only a great writer, most well-known for writing the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. He was also a veteran of World War II, a former POW, and a unique and deep thinker.

In the introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box, his 1999 collection of previously published magazine stories, Vonnegut offered eight tips on writing great short stories.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Despite his advice, Vonnegut admitted that the best writers often break these rules. For instance, Flannery O’Conner, who Vonnegut considered to be the greatest short story writer of her generation, often broke these rules. “She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that,” Vonnegut is quoted as saying. Even so, he maintained that it is important to know the rules and learn how to follow them before breaking them.

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Book Review: Reimagining Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing

I graduated from high school in June 1978, and a few months later, I joined the Aurora (IL) Police Department as a cadet. In Illinois, police departments can hire people under the age of twenty-one to become cadets, which prepares them to become police officers. At the time, I was eighteen years old, immature, and had no real direction in my life. I needed to figure out what I was going to do for a living, and being a police officer seemed like a reasonable career path to follow.

Thirteen years after I joined the police department, Kristen Ziman became a cadet in Aurora. Unlike me, Kristen knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. Her father was a police officer in Aurora, and she wanted to follow in his footsteps. And while I gave up on becoming a police officer, Kristen followed through, finishing her time as a cadet, became a police officer, moved up the ranks within the department, and eventually became the first female chief in the history of the Aurora Police Department.

I did not know Kristen, but I knew a lot of the same people she knew. I worked with her dad, Hans Kjendal-Olsen, an immigrant from Norway and former US Marine. Hans was always very nice to me. I remember him as a quiet man, a bit of a loner, who I always saw as a bit exotic because of his hyphenated last name. He was the first man I’d ever met with a hyphenated last name (I was not particularly worldly).

I also knew Mike Nila, a fellow police officer and one of Kristen’s main mentors. Mike unknowingly influenced my decision to quit the police department and instead go to college. For Kristen, Mike encouraged her to read widely and seek further education in her chosen profession. Mike had a profound impact on us both.

After Kristen retired as Police Chief in Aurora in 2021, she wrote Reimaging Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing. The book is part memoir, part treatise on what it means to be a cop in modern day America, and part leadership lesson. I’m not exactly sure what I expected when I picked up Reimaging Blue, but I can say that it was much better written, much more interesting, and much more inspiring than I could have expected.

Kristen opens the book by recounting what must have been the worst day of her professional career, the mass shooting at Henry Pratt Company, where six people—including the shooter—were killed, and six people—including five police officers—were injured. In Ziman’s telling, the shooting comes to life. As I read, I could feel my pulse quickening and my heart racing.

The book has several police stories, but it’s much more than just memories of her time as a cop . Ziman shares personal anecdotes including stories about her dad’s drinking problems, her marriage to and divorce from a fellow police officer, and her coming to terms with her own sexual orientation. One of the things I appreciated so much about Ziman’s book is the rawness of her story, how she takes responsibility for many of the challenges she faced, and what she learned by dealing with those challenges.

I came to know about Ziman following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I was sickened when I saw Floyd murdered by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, and my disgust was multiplied when I started reading comments from other police officers defending Chauvin or excusing his behavior.

Kristen Ziman was not one of those cops. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, she wrote on her Facebook page:

“When I first watched the video of the Minneapolis police officer, I didn’t need to wait for more information to come in. I didn’t need to wait for the investigation to conclude before I made an assessment. When you place your knee on the neck of a human being for over eight minutes—a human being who is handcuffed and pleading that he can’t breathe—there is no defense…Resisting suffocation is not resisting arrest.”

Although I didn’t know Ziman personally, I sensed a kindred spirit who saw the job of police officers in much the same way I did. Ziman saw cops as community defenders and community builders. Without a doubt, she is a supporter of law enforcement officers, who she views as doing a noble and necessary job. However, she sees big problems with the warrior mentality a lot of cops exhibit. While far too many cops view their jobs with an “us against them” mentality, Ziman says there is only “we.” She advocates a police-servant mentality, building relationships in the community and being a good, respectful, and dependable neighbor.

Let me put a finer point on Ziman’s approach to policing. She has no time for cops who abuse their power or use their position for personal gain. She is a tireless promoter of the profession, but she understands that in many communities, police are not always welcome. She supports a more compassionate approach to policing that builds a partnership with the communities being served.

One thing that has impressed me about Ziman is the way the people she leads willingly and happily follow her. She really didn’t discuss this in the book, but I have seen it from afar. Ziman is a petit female in a profession dominated by macho males. Yet, she rose to the level of chief of her department on her own merits despite the obstacles that were thrown at her along the way.

For Ziman, “leadership is about aligning a vision and taking people where they need to go but otherwise wouldn’t. It’s about setting clear goals for your people and getting work done through others.” This is pretty standard stuff, but it’s foundational to being a leader.

When Ziman attended a three-week course at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, she learned another definition of leadership from Prof. Marty Linksy. Linsky suggested that leadership is about disappointing people at the rate they can absorb. Initially, Ziman rejected the idea. Disappointing people? Isn’t leadership about building people up, motivating and encouraging them? What was Linsky talking about?

Ziman left Harvard not understanding Linsky’s message. But when she got back to her office and had time to reflect on what her professor had said, she had a light bulb moment. As she describes in the book:

“When you are the top person in an organization, you can no longer point to someone above you and shift responsibility. That means that every decision is yours and yours alone. And even if you’ve collected other opinions and data, and made an informed decision, it’s still not going to please everyone. Even with the best of intentions, a leader is going to upset someone. Whether it be through a policy decision, a choice for promotion, or administering discipline, leaders disappoint people. Even when attempting to implement something new and big, that will change an organization for the better, people resist because it’s different from what they are used to. People are creatures of habit and they don’t particularly like to be forced out of their comfort zones. When their environment shifts, they stand their ground in defense of it…Being a leader who actually transforms an organization invariably means that some people are going to get left behind. It also means that you (the leader) have to find the precise amount of transformation, because people who walk in and decide to scrap everything are making a mistake. Every organization has a lot of wonderful in it, and those things should be left exactly as they are. But the things that need to be changed should be changed, even if it means that people are going to be disappointed in the process.”

Weeks after reading Reimaging Blue, I continue to be struck by the stories told and the lessons shared by Ziman. She shared them with authenticity, competence, hard-earned wisdom, and compassion. And she offered them in a way that is extraordinarily accessible to the reader.

Ziman is a young woman who, despite being retired, has much still to offer the police profession. I don’t know what the future holds for her, but I suspect she will play a leadership role in transforming another police department or law enforcement organization in the same way she transformed the Aurora Police Department.

Reimagining Blue is an informative, entertaining read that can be enjoyed by anyone. For law enforcement officers—particularly those in leadership positions—Ziman’s book should be required reading.

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It’s Time to Get Busy

If you read my last post, you know that I’ve been busy for the past year or so completing a master’s degree that I started in 1984. Between re-certifying classes, researching my thesis topic, and writing my thesis, I’ve been really busy. Sadly, I haven’t had any time to write fiction. I’ve missed it, and for months, I’ve looked forward to getting back to working on my next novel.

Now that I’ve completed my master’s degree, there are a few things I’d like to accomplish.

There are two things I definitely want to complete by the end of the year. First, I want to complete the audio versions of my first three books. I’ve put this off for too long. I’ll be reading the books myself, and my daughter (a sound engineer) is going to be helping me out. I’m looking forward to getting this done.

Second, I want to complete (at least) the first draft of Second Chances, the novel I’ve been working on for nearly two years, and which was interrupted when I decided to finish my master’s degree. Second Chances is the story of former high school basketball players–all now in their 50’s–who get a chance to redeem the biggest, most demoralizing lose in team history.

The novel may be the most complicated book I’ve ever worked on. It involves telling the stories of six-eight different characters, the struggles they face, and the second chances they’re being given. It’s trickier than writing about just one character, but it’s much more satisfying to get right.

If I can finish those two things in the next five or six months, I’ll be happy. If by some miracle I finish both with time to spare, I’ll turn my attention to Leaving Home (formerly Paris), which is already in pretty good shape and shouldn’t take too long to get ready to publish. If there’s not enough time to get to Leaving Home this year, it will be first on the agenda for next year.

Today starts the countdown to the end of the year. It’s time to get busy.

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How to Make Your Soul Grow: A Life Lesson from the Great Kurt Vonnegut

In 2006, an English teacher at Xavier High School in New York gave her students an unusual assignment. The teacher, Ms. Lockwood, instructed her students to write to their favorite author and ask for the author’s advice. The assignment was designed to help build the student’s persuasive writing skills.

Five students chose to write to Kurt Vonnegut, author of several novels and short stories, including his most famous work, Slaughterhouse Five. As it turned out, Vonnegut was the only author to answer any of the letters sent by the class. Here’s what he had to say:

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

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