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


The Best Books I Read in 2021

In a lot of different ways, this past year was an odd one for me. One way it was odd was in the books I read. I read fewer works of fiction in 2021 than I have in several years. Instead, I found myself reading a lot of nonfiction. Part of the reason for this is the political times we are living in. There’s so much going on, and it takes time and effort to understand it all. Also, I’ve been working on a project that required reading a lot of nonfiction books. I enjoy most of the nonfiction books I read, but I miss spending more time with fiction.

Despite not reading a lot of fiction, I did read several really terrific works of fiction. In fact, I read one book this year that might be the most well written book I’ve ever read. Trust me, that’s saying a lot.

Once again this year, I had trouble deciding what kind of “books” to include in my list. I decided to include traditional books in print as well as audio-only books and Audible Original “Words & Music” books, which are audio books about musicians which include music. I didn’t include limited series podcasts, which are basically books split up into segments.

I also decided not to include audio lecturers, such as those in the Great Courses series. I’ve listened to dozens of these audio lectures over the years, mostly dealing with various religions, history, and biographies. This year, I listened to a history of the Supreme Court. They’re almost always terrific. Even so, I’ve decided not to include them in my top ten list. I’m not sure I can defend the decision to exclude these limited series podcasts or Great Courses audio lectures, but at least for this year, I’m not including them.

With these caveats out of the way, here are the ten best books I read in 2021:

10. It Was All a Lie by Stuart Stevens – Author Stuart Stevens is a former Republican political consultant who became disillusioned with the Republican party following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. Over the next few years, Stevens watched the Republicans become a political party he no longer recognized. They did things and said things with Trump in the White House that were contrary to the values—the American values—he thought the Republican Party stood for. And, as the title suggests, Stevens came to the conclusion that all of the things the Republicans said they stood for before Trump were nothing more than lies. The book is a stark rebuke of Republican politicians and the Republican Party, including candidates that Stevens worked for and, in some cases, helped elect. Personally, I don’t buy everything Stevens says in the book. I knew too many Republicans who truly believed what they were saying and what they were working for prior to 2016. Even so, Stevens makes a strong case that Republicans weren’t practicing much of what they were preaching. And its clear that in some instances, many Republican politicians were simply ambitious opportunists who changed their tune in order to ride Trump’s coattails and take advantage of his base.

9. Playing to Win by Michael Lewis – If there’s a better nonfiction writer than Michael Lewis, I don’t know who it is. Lewis, the writer of such classics as The Blindside and Moneyball, never fails to impress. Playing to Win, while a smaller, more personal book, is no exception. In the book, Lewis chronicles the extent parents go to to prepare their kids for big-time college athletics. From running kids around for travel ball teams to attending expensive, high-pressure camps, to hiring private coaches, Lewis details the grind on both parents and players, and he does it using his own daughter, Dixie, who is a talented softball player, as an example. Lewis took a rather mundane story, something a lot of people experience, and turned it into an interesting read with characters that we come to really care about. That’s what a good writer does. Sadly, just a few months after reading Lewis’ book, his daughter, Dixie, was killed in a car accident.

 8. To Balance on Bridges by Rhiannon Giddens and The Moment in 1965 When Rock ‘n Roll Became Art by Steve Earle – Both of these books are part of Audible Originals “Words & Music” series. In To Balance on Bridges, Giddens talks about growing up in North Carolina, the daughter of a black mother and white father, about how her parent’s different cultures influenced her musical tastes, about her time in the Carolina Chocolate Drops bluegrass band, and about her partnership, in both music and in life, with Francesco Turrisi. Steve Earle takes the reader (listener) on a journey through his, at times, chaotic life, growing up in Texas, living as a singer-songwriter in Nashville, and ending up in New York City. In particular, Earle discusses the world in 1965 and how it impacted his life and his music. For music lovers, and lovers of great stories, I highly recommend both books.

7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – I’ve wanted to read Colson Whitehead for some time. This year (2021), I got to read two of his books, The Nickle Boys and The Underground Railroad. I thought The Underground Railroad was better than The Nickle Boys, but The Nickle Boys was really good too. In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead tells the story of several slaves, either escaped from or released by their owners in the South, making their way to freedom  in the North via the underground railroad. The main character, Cora, encounters new worlds on her journey to freedom. She can never be sure who to trust, who to believe, or who to fear. Along the way, she meets other former slaves who face challenges of their own. Some get captured, some are killed, and some make it to freedom. Whitehead does an admirable job of weaving their stories together.

6. The Devil May Dance by Jake Tapper – Did you know that Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and host of “State of the Union” is an author? This past year, I had the opportunity to read both of his books of fiction, The Devil May Dance, as well as The Hellfire Club. Of the two, I thought his second novel, The Devil May Dance, was the better read. In Tapper’s book, Congressman Charlie Marder, along with his wife, Margaret, go to California at the behest of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to look into a potential threat, not only against the president, but against the security of the United States. In the process, the couple endears themselves to Frank Sinatra, and become honorary members of the Rat Pack. But does Sinatra have a connection to the threat the Congressman and his wife are there to investigate? Through plenty of twists and turns and famous faces, Charlie and Margaret get ever closer to the truth, but will it cost them their reputations, or even their lives?

5. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – Every decision we make has an impact on the direction of our lives. Imagine if there was a place, a library out on the edge of the universe, where there were books that chronicled every decision we make, and tells the story of how our lives would have been changed if we had made a different decision. This is the concept behind The Midnight Library. Protagonist Nora Seed, existing somewhere between life and death, has access to the Midnight Library. She must decide if she should change her life by changing her career, her relationships, her dreams, and her desires. By making these changes—or not—Nora learns what makes life worth living.

4. Falling by T.J. Newman – Imagine you’re a pilot of a commercial airliner. As you take off from Los Angeles enroute to New York, you learn that your family has been kidnapped and the only way to save them is to crash your plane, killing all one-hundred-forty-three souls onboard. There’s one person on your plane aiding the kidnapper, but you don’t know who it is. If you don’t crash the plane, your family will die. If you do crash the plane, you’ll die along with everyone else on the plane. What would you do? That’s the conceit behind Falling, a suspenseful thriller by debut novelist and former flight attendant, T.J. Newman. The plot is fast-paced, and at times, a little unbelievable, but Newman pulls it off. Warning: I would suggest not reading this book on an airplane.

3. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow may be the most well written novel I have ever read. That’s not just hyperbole. The writing is beautiful. So, why isn’t A Gentleman in Moscow the number one book of the year? Fair question. The problem with the book is that, while the writing is spectacular, the plot is just so-so. A more cynical critic might say A Gentleman in Moscow is the epitome of literary fiction. I’m not that cynical, but I’d understand the criticism. The book tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat in Moscow just after the Bolshevik Revolution. Rostov is deemed unrepentant by a government tribunal and sentenced to house arrest at the hotel across the street from the Kremlin that he calls home. He is exiled to a small room on one of the upper, less desirable floors in the hotel where he establishes a routine for himself. Rostov loses the freedom he once enjoyed in the outside world, but his confinement in the hotel opens up a world of emotional discovery and freedom previously unknown by the Count.

2. The Sum of Us by Heather McGee – This is from the description of The Sum of Us: “Heather McGhee’s specialty is the American economy–and the mystery of why it so often fails the American public. From the financial crisis to rising student debt to collapsing public infrastructure, she found a common root problem: racism. But not just in the most obvious indignities for people of color. Racism has costs for white people, too. It is the common denominator of our most vexing public problems, the core dysfunction of our democracy and constitutive of the spiritual and moral crises that grip us all. But how did this happen? And is there a way out?” I couldn’t have said it better myself (That’s why I quoted so liberally). If you want to really understand how racism effects people of color, and how often, it also effects lower- and middle-class whites, you need to read The Sum of Us. It was the best nonfiction book I read this year, and one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read.

1. Bearskin by James A McLaughlin – This book was a real surprise to me. I’m not sure where I even heard about it, but when I first cracked open the book, I wasn’t expecting much. From the first chapter of the book, I was hooked. I like this kind of surprise. The book tells the story of Rice Moore, a former drug smuggler who thinks he’s put his troubled life behind him. He moves to Virginia to take over caretaker duties at a remote private forest preserve, owned by a mysterious and eclectic widow. But Rice doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. When bears begin turning up dead in the preserve, Rice stumbles into a world of poaching, with a dose of rape and murder thrown in. Rice fights back against the poachers. But by fighting back, he runs the risk of revealing his whereabouts to the drug smugglers he worked for–and stole from–who are still looking for him.


New Year, New Goals

This past year didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned. Early in the year, I set a goal to write or edit four short stories, then submit them all to literary publications by mid-year. The good news is, I finished all four stories, but I never submitted any of them. In the end, I decided that it just wasn’t important enough to me to go through the headache of getting published in literary journals.

During the year, I also worked on two different novels, but didn’t make much headway on either. I’m still working on both but am considering turning one into a novella and abandoning the other.

Despite these challenges, it’s a new year and I’m excited to get it started. I have some plans for the year and I’m ready to share them. Here goes!

My first goal for the year is to record the audiobook version of my books Road Stories, Driven, and The Ones That Got Away. I’ve been wanting to do this for some time, and I’m determined to get it done this year.

I also want to figure out what I’m going to do with the two novels I’m working on. It’s time to move forward. I’ve spent too much time with these books and there are other books I want to write. I’d love to finish them and get them published, but that may not be in the cards. I need to make that decision soon.

There’s also a chance I may publish another collection of novellas and a book of short stories. That’s a bit of a stretch goal and it’s going to take a little work to get it done, but I have the material for both books nearly ready to go, so we’ll see.

I’m also working on two other non-writing projects in the first half of the year that are going to take up a good deal of my time. One involves competing in the National Senior Games in May. I’ll be competing in pickleball mixed doubles with my friend Linda. I have a lot of work to do to get ready for the competition—improving my game and building my endurance—so that will take a little time.

I’m also working on another project that I want to keep quiet for the time being. Very few people know about it at the moment. I’ll probably reveal more around April or May. Stay tuned.

I’m excited to get started and determined to be more productive in 2022 than I was in 2021. It’s time to get busy.


The Black Swallow of Death

Several years ago, I was working on a writing prompt based on Jimmy Buffett’s song, “He Went to Paris.” I did some research and found out that “He Went to Paris” was loosely based on the life of Eddie Balchowsky, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who, after being injured, was taken to Paris to recuperate. The injury resulted in Balchowsky losing a hand, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a well-regarded poet, artist, and piano player.

Buffett’s song was largely fictional, and I wanted my writing prompt to be the same way. Eddie Balchowsky’s life was the inspiration for Buffett’s song, and Buffett’s song was the inspiration for my novel (or maybe novella), tentatively entitled Leaving Home.

While researching Paris in the 1920’s, I came across a character that makes a cameo in my book, but who deserves a lot more notoriety. His name is Eugene Bullard and I’d like to tell you a little about him.

Bullard was born in 1895 in Columbus, GA to William and Josephine Bullard, former slaves from Stewart County, GA. Eugene attended school in Columbus and completed the fifth grade.

Bullard’s father believed strongly that black people should always display dignity and self-respect, even in the face of overwhelming white prejudice. The elder Bullard was once the victim of an attempted lynching, the attack coming in front of young Eugene. Even after the attack, his father continued to encourage Eugene, the seventh of ten children, to hold his head high and act with dignity. Eugene never forgot that lesson.

The elder Bullard used to tell his son stories about France, a place where slavery had been abolished and blacks were treated the same as whites. Young Eugene dreamed of someday going to France where he could be judged by his character rather than the color of his skin.

At the age of 11, Bullard ran away from home, with the intent of going to France. He landed in Atlanta, where he took up with an English clan of traveling gypsies. He tended horses for the gypsies, eventually learning to race. The gypsies told him stories about the equal treatment blacks received in England, which changed his ultimate destination goal to England.

As a 16-year old, Bullard developed a reputation as a competent jockey, and was hired by a family in Dawson, GA to ride their horse in the 1911 County Fair races. But his dream was not to be a jockey. He still wanted to make his way to Europe, where he could live a life free of racial discrimination.

In 1912, he stowed away on a German freighter out of Norfolk, VA and landed in Aberdeen, Scotland. From there, he made his way to London, where he earned a living as a boxer, and as a performer in a slapstick troupe known as the Freedman Pickaninnies. He trained with a well-known boxer known as Dixie Kid, who arranged a fight for him in Paris. It was this trip to Paris that convinced Bullard to settle there. He continued to box in Paris, and also worked in a music hall until the beginning of World War I.

Although Bullard was an American, he wanted to fight for France. A few months into the war, he joined the 3rd Marching Regiment of the Foreign Legion. Because he wasn’t French, he could only join the French Foreign Legion. He saw action as a machine gunner at Picardy, Artois, and the second Champagne offensive.

Later, he joined the 170th French Infantry Regiment, known as the “Swallows of Death.” It was during this time that Bullard received the nickname, the “Black Swallow of Death.” In March 1916, at the Battle of Verdun, Bullard was severely injured. He was cited for his acts of valor at Verdun and received the croix de guerre.

While he recuperated, Bullard learned to fly. When he was well enough, he received further flight training, and received his pilot’s license in May 1917. During a two-month period in 1917, Bullard flew 20 successful combat missions. When the Americans joined the war, Bullard applied to be a pilot in the United States Army Air Service, but was declined because only white pilots were allowed.

For his service to France, Bullard received several medals, awards, and citations, including the Medaille militaire, Croix du combattat volontaire, and the Medialle de Verdun.

Following his discharge, Bullard returned to Paris where he found work as a jazz drummer at Zelli’s, a nightclub owned by Joe Zelli. Bullard partnered with Zelli, and obtained a club license, which allowed the club to stay open past midnight. This was a boon to the club, and it thrived, becoming one of the most celebrated clubs in Montmartre. But Bullard was restless. Despite his success, he quit Zelli’s and joined a jazz ensemble that travelled to Alexandria, Egypt. He also began boxing again, competing in two fights while in Alexandria.

After his time in Egypt, Bullard returned to Paris where he earned a living hiring musicians for private parties, giving massages, and as an exercise trainer. He later managed Le Grand Duc, a jazz club, where he befriended and hired the American poet, Langston Hughes. In 1928, he bought Le Grand Duc from famed jazz singer Ada “Bricktop” Smith. It was at Le Grand Duc that Bullard became acquainted with such luminaries as Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and French flying ace Charles Nungesser. Bullard’s fame in Paris garnered the attention of Ernest Hemingway, who based a minor character on Bullard in The Sun Also Rises.

In 1923, Bullard married Marcelle Straumann, a woman from a wealthy French family. They had two children, but divorced in 1935. Bullard was granted custody of their children.

When World War II began, Bullard agreed to spy on his German customers for the French government. Despite the war, the Germans still often frequented his club. But following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Bullard joined France’s 51st Infantry Regiment and was injured fighting in the Battle of Orleans. He escaped to Spain, then was flown to New York City, where he was hospitalized for his wounds.

Bullard’s return to the United States was not a happy one. The fame he enjoyed in France, as both a war hero and a club owner, was gone. He found work doing odd jobs, including selling perfume and as a security guard. He even worked as an interpreter for his old friend, Louis Armstrong. But life in the states was not nearly as good for him as it had been in France.

In 1945, at the conclusion of the war in Europe, Bullard returned to Paris to reclaim his club. Unfortunately, it had been destroyed during the war. He received a settlement from the French government, and used the money to purchase an apartment back in New York.

Despite fighting side-by-side during World War II, whites and blacks returned to their pre-war animosity in the United States. In 1949, during a concert by Paul Robeson in Peekskill, a riot erupted. Bullard was beaten by an angry mob, including local law enforcement officers. The beating was captured on film and was included in the Oscar-winning documentary, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Despite the photographic evidence, no one was ever prosecuted for Bullard’s beating.

For the next several years, Bullard lived in near anonymity. His daughters had married and he lived alone in his Harlem apartment, which was decorated with photos of his famous friends in France, as well as the 14 French war medals he had earned. He found work as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center, and in 1959, was interviewed by Dave Garroway from the Today Show, about his military service and heroism. Following the interview, he received many letters of support. Bullard died in October 1961 of stomach cancer.

Despite his death, the honors continued to come in. In 1989 Bullard was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 1994–thirty-three years after his death–he was posthumously awarded the rank of second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. In 2019, a statue of Eugene Bullard was erected in his honor at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, GA. Today, a sign stands near his home in Columbus, GA describing his early life.

Eugene Bullard may not be a household name, but what a life he lived. I’m glad I got to know a little about him.


The Genius of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is, by many accounts, the greatest American crime writer in history. Many of his books, like Freaky Deaky, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch, were turned into big Hollywood blockbusters. His Raylan Givens series was adapted into the popular TV series Justified. What’s less known about Leonard are the westerns he wrote, including 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre, and for purposes of this post, his book on writing, aptly titled, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

For Leonard, who died in 2013, writing was a job. He didn’t approach it as a hobby or wait until inspiration struck him. He sat down at his desk each morning, usually writing in longhand, and didn’t stop until 6:00 pm. He even worked through lunch, often snacking while he wrote.

Surprisingly, at least to me, Leonard didn’t care about plot. He started with characters, first naming them (a process that could take weeks), and then he let them loose. They’d talk to him, and their words would lead to the action that determined the plot. This is a very literary way to approach writing and it surprised me that Leonard, the king of the crime novel, employed it. Obviously, it worked for him.

During a talk at the New York Writers Institute, Leonard explained his approach to creating characters by assuming one of their personas and tattling on their creator:

“What he does, he makes us do all the work, the people in the books. Puts us in scenes and says go ahead and do something. No, first he thinks up names. Takes forever to think up names like Bob and Jack. Jackie for a woman, a female lead. Or Frank. Years ago anyone named Frank in one of his books was a bad guy. So then he used Frank as the name of a good guy one time and this Frank wouldn’t talk, refused to come out and become the kind of person Elmore wanted. So he changed his name to Jack after thinking of names for another few weeks, and it felt so good he couldn’t shut the guy up, I mean this Jack, not Elmore. So he names us and he says okay start talking. So that’s what we do. Sometimes if a character has trouble expressing himself he’s demoted. He’s given less to do in the book, or he might get shot. What can also happen if a minor or even a no-name character shows he can talk, he can shove his way into the story and get a more important part. So Elmore names us, gets us talking to each other, bumping heads or getting along okay and then I don’t know what happens to him, I think he takes off, leaves it up to us. There was a piece written about him one time in The Village Voice called ‘The Author Vanishes’ and it’s true.”

Leonard’s book on writing is a short tome, weighing in at only 96 pages, but it’s chock full of good, practical advice. The rules are geared toward crime writers, but writers of all stripes can find something useful in Leonard’s thoughts.

Here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing:

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

As a writer trained in literary fiction, numbers 8 & 9 from the above list jump out at me. MFA programs train their writers to include rich, detailed descriptions of characters, places and things. We’re trained to paint a detailed picture of the scene and the characters in it. Leonard says no. He believes that overly specific descriptions slow down the story and tends to tug on the reader’s sleeve reminding them of the writer’s presence. Interesting. This is something I’ll have to think about.

In an interview with writer Martin Amis, Leonard expounded on his ten rules and came up with what can be thought of as eight addendums to his rules. Here they are along with some of his thoughts from the interview:

Addendum 1: Pick a routine. Stick with it.

“I write every day when I’m writing, some Saturdays and Sundays, a few hours each day. Because I want to stay with it. If a day goes by and you haven’t done anything, or a couple of days, it’s difficult to get back into the rhythm of it. I usually start working around 9:30 and I work until 6. I’m lucky to get what I consider four clean pages. They’re clean until the next day, the next morning. The time flies by.”

Addendum 2. All good writing has a point-of-view.

“First of all, I’m always writing from a point of view. I decide what the purpose of the scene is, and at least begin with some purpose. But, even more important, from whose point of view is this scene seen? Because then the narrative will take on somewhat the sound of the person who is seeing the scene.”

Addendum 3. Dialogue feeds narrative.

“From his dialogue, that’s what goes, somewhat, into the narrative. I start to write and I think, “Upon entering the room, “and I know I don’t want to say “Upon entering the room.” I don’t want my writing to sound like the way we were taught to write. Because I don’t want you to be aware of my writing. I don’t have the language. I have to rely upon my characters.”

Addendum 4. Writing in the third person lets you switch to the bad guys.

“I like third person. I don’t want to be stuck with one character’s viewpoint because there are too many viewpoints. And, of course, the bad guys’ viewpoints are a lot more fun. What they do is more fun. A few years ago, a friend of mine in the publishing business called up and said, ‘Has your good guy decided to do anything yet?’”

Addendum 5. It all starts with character, and they better be able to talk.

“I start with a character. Let’s say I want to write a book about a bail bondsman or a process server or a bank robber and a woman federal marshal. And they meet and something happens. That’s as much of an idea as I begin with. And then I see him in a situation, and I begin writing it and one thing leads to another. By Page 100, roughly, I should have my characters assembled. I should know my characters because they’re sort of auditioned in the opening scenes, and I can find out if they can talk or not. And if they can’t talk, they’re out.”

Addendum 6. Minor characters ought to assert themselves, too.

“[I]n every book there’s a minor character who comes along and pushes his way into the plot. He’s just needed to give some information, but all of a sudden he comes to life for me. Maybe it’s the way he says it. He might not even have a name the first time he appears. The second time he has a name. The third time he has a few more lines, and away he goes, and he becomes a plot turn in the book.”

Addendum 7. Bad guys also have mothers they should call more often.

“When I’m fashioning my bad guys, though (and sometimes a good guy has had a criminal past and then he can go either way; to me, he’s the best kind of character to have), I don’t think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank. Because that’s the way they are. Except for real hard-core guys.

Addendum 8. Appreciate the craft and you’ll never get tired of it.

“It’s the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing. To write that scene and then read it and it works. I love the sound of it. There’s nothing better than that. The notoriety that comes later doesn’t compare to the doing of it. I’ve been doing it for almost 47 years, and I’m still trying to make it better.”

Here is the video of Leonard giving a talk at the New York Writer’s Institute:

In 2006, BBC Two did a special on Leonard, allowing him to talk about his background and his writing process. There are a few more “writing advice” gems in this video as well:


The Greatest Catch

Dad’s truck wasn’t in the driveway, so I knew he had already left for work. I wheeled my second-hand Schwinn out of the garage and shut the big overhead door behind me.

My siblings and the neighborhood kids laughed and played in our pool, staying cool in the steamy northern Illinois summer heat. I was not allowed in the pool on game days. Coach’s rule. Spending the day swimming out in the hot sun, he believed, exhausted us come game time.

I was disappointed that Dad wasn’t there to take me to the game, but I wasn’t surprised. He was becoming less and less of a presence in my life, rarely making it to my practices or games because he was busy working or asleep on the living room couch with another one of his headaches. He took several different pills for several different ailments. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with him, just that the pills made him generally unavailable.

I was already sweating as I climbed aboard my bike and rode the mile-and-a-half to Coach’s Frantzen’s house. Coach had chosen me for his baseball team the previous two years, and now, in this new league for fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, he chose me again. Coach was always willing to fit me into his overstuffed car, along with his son and a couple of other players. I apologized for relying so heavily on him to take me to games. I was embarrassed that my dad was so often unable to.

“It’s no big deal,” Coach said. “I’m going anyway.”

Dad’s shift at the city water department changed every month. Occasionally, when he was working, he would secretly take me to the game in his work truck, something he wasn’t supposed to do. More often, he begged off, saying that he’d try to stop by later.

Coach drove a big white station wagon that didn’t have air conditioning. His son, Mike, always sat in the front passenger seat, his window down and his arm hanging out. The other players who were bumming a ride, including me, sat in the back seat. All of our bats and balls and gloves and other equipment took up the space at the back of the car, giving the station wagon a unique aroma of leather, wood, and sweat.

At Copley Park, we were leading 4-2 against, Lyon Metal, the team we were battling for a spot in the playoffs. With a man on second, their best hitter came to the plate. He was a big, powerful kid, and Coach yelled at the outfielders to move back.

I was in center field and backed up a few steps. Our left fielder, who everyone called “Spud,” didn’t move. I yelled at him, but he stood his ground, peering in toward the batter. I yelled again. He was oblivious.

Spud was not our regular left fielder. I never knew why, but Coach changed some players around that night. He moved Spud from third base to left field. Spud was a good hitter and a decent fielder, but he had trouble with fly balls. Coach went back into the dugout and left Spud where he was.

I leaned over, pulled up a few blades of grass, and threw them into the air so I could tell which way the wind was blowing. I had seen one of the outfielders for the Cubs do it, so I did it too.

On the first pitch, the batter hit the ball foul down the left field line. It drifted far out of play, but Spud still gave futile chase. When he ran back into position, he was playing even more shallow than before. I yelled over at him to move back. He took one step back, not nearly enough. I looked in at Coach hoping he would reposition Spud, but he was too busy giving instructions to our pitcher. I wanted to yell again, but felt self-conscious being too aggressive about telling other players what to do.

From center field, I saw our pitcher struggling. He stood listlessly on the mound, his shoulders slumped forward. I wondered if he had gone swimming earlier in the day.

The players’ parents cheered. “One more out.”

“Strike him out, Brian.”

“Let’s go.”

It seemed winning the game meant as much to them as it did to us. Some of the parents were standing in the bleachers. Others had come up closer to the backstop. I was keenly aware my dad was not among them. Even so, I looked for him from my perch in the outfield.

The next pitch, the batter swung hard and hit a deep fly ball into left field. At the crack of the bat, I took off in case I had to backup Spud. When I looked over at him, I saw him standing flat-footed in the exact spot he had been before the pitch.

The arc of the ball told me Spud had no chance of catching it. I ran toward left field, hearing nothing but my own breathing. I saw the ball falling out of the sky and Spud feebly trying to get back to catch it. The stands, the parents, the cheers all faded.

Even though I was too far away, I dove for the ball. To this day, I don’t know what prompted me to leave my feet. As I did, an unnatural force took hold of me. My body should have fallen to the ground. Instead, I kept going, faster and farther. As God as my witness, I was flying.

My left arm was extended as far in front of me as it could go. My glove open, waiting. The falling ball, a matter of inches from the ground now. I slid my glove under it, cradled it in the webbing, and held on tight.

Once again subject to the law of gravity, I slid across the grass behind Spud, who tripped and fell as he backpedaled toward the ball. I came to a stop and raised my glove to show the umpire I had made the catch.

Cheers erupted from the stands. As I ran toward the dugout, my teammates mobbed me. Someone jumped on my back and screamed. Our shortstop pulled my hat down over my eyes as he rubbed my head and said, “Great catch!” Spud ran alongside me from the outfield, shaking his head and asking, “How did you do that?” I was unable to answer or explain what had happened.

Coach met me at the dugout and hugged me with one arm, an unusual gesture from a man who was normally quiet and understated. “That’s the greatest catch I’ve ever seen.”

I looked up on the hill behind the backstop. I looked toward the bleachers. I looked for Dad’s truck in the parking lot. There was no sign of him.

When we got back to Coach’s house after the game, he congratulated me again. “Good game tonight. That was a heck of a catch.” I thanked him, then jumped on my bike and rode home in the dark, imagining my parent’s excitement about my catch. But when I got home, I realized my mom knew nothing of baseball. She might be happy for me, but she wouldn’t truly understand what I had done. Only Dad would, and he was still at work. I changed out of my uniform and sat down to watch TV.

The next morning, I found Dad in the kitchen. He popped a couple pills into his mouth, and washed them down with a glass of milk.

“Good morning,” I said, wanting to say more.

Dad returned the greeting and rinsed his glass. He went into the living room, and I knew my window of opportunity was closing. I wanted to tell him about my miraculous catch, but couldn’t find the words. Dad paid me no mind. He lay on the couch, pulling a blanket over his head. He was in his cocoon, and I was stuck outside.

I didn’t understand what was going on with Dad. I knew he took a lot of medicine and he slept a lot, but I couldn’t put a name to what he was going through. All I knew was that he was a lot less involved in my life than he had been. When I was younger, he’d attend my games and occasionally played catch with me, but that didn’t happen anymore. Whatever he was going through, it was clear it was taking him away from me, and I blamed him for it.


Dad eventually went through drug rehab, and for the next forty years, he was a different person. The farther he got away from the pain pills and the addiction, the happier, more talkative, and more outgoing he became.

Many years later, after Mom died, Dad moved into an assisted living facility. I visited him frequently in his final years. He’d often suggest that we watch a baseball game together, even though he never watched baseball alone. When one of the players made a nice catch, he’d often say, “You could have made that catch. You weren’t much of a hitter, but you could really field.”

I often thought about telling him the story of the catch I made that summer night so many years earlier, but I could never find the right words to make him understand. I wasn’t even sure I understood what had happened that night at Copley Park. It was a miracle, I knew that much. And I’ve been searching for another one ever since.


Raymond Carver Reads “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

In 2015, the Oscar for Best Picture went to Birdman, a strange film that garnered critical acclaim, but left a lot of people scratching their heads. The film was about an actor who had become famous playing a movie superhero. The actor, played brilliantly by Michael Keaton, felt he had more to offer than just being a a guy in a mask. He wanted to be known as a serious actor, and he set out to prove his worth by starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

BIrdman was popular with a certain crowd. I’ll call them the “literary crowd,” and I include myself as a member. I liked Birdman. But I have to admit, as movies go, it was a little bizarre. I saw the film with my then 16-year old son, and he didn’t like it at all. I understood his dislike for the film, even though I didn’t feel the same way.

After seeing Birdman, we got into a conversation about Raymond Carver. My son wasn’t familiar with him and had no idea what the “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” play in the movie was supposed to be about. That made me a little sad. Raymond Carver is perhaps the greatest American short story writer in history. He revolutionized short stories in the United States and should be better known outside of literary circles.

Author Sara Jane Gilman, writing for NPR, had this to say about Carver:

“Confession. The first time I read a Raymond Carver story, I didn’t get it. It was so spare, so lacking epiphany. I thought: “Huh?”

“But then, I read his story, “A Small, Good Thing.” And “Cathedral” and “Neighbors.” I read his collection, Where I’m Calling From. And then, I got it. Carver’s stories are gritty, unadorned tales of ordinary people. Their very simplicity and elegance gives them a deep, emotional punch. This is why Carver has been extolled as a master of “minimalism.”

I think a lot of people who read Carver feel the same way as Gilman. His writing is different from what we are used to. His descriptions are lacking, albeit adequate. His action is often truncated. His prose unadorned. His stories sparse and simple. His characters gritty and real. Carver gets to the point without a lot of fluff or fanfare. Yet, his stories hit their target with masterful precision.

Here is a rare video of Carver reading his classic short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Listen closely to the story. I think you’ll like it.

(Right after I posted the video, it was removed from Youtube. What’s up with that? In any case, here is A Poetry Channel reading “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”)



Revisting Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

One of the most beloved, but misunderstood, poems in American literature is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” For a lot of people, the poem is a call to live an exceptional life, eschewing the usual script and instead embracing the extraordinary. However, that wasn’t Frost’s intention with the poem.

“The Road Not Taken” is a relatively short poem, but it packs a lot into a few words. Perhaps the most famous line from the poem is:

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference

It’s not unusual for people to read that line and think Frost’s narrator is encouraging them to take the road less traveled in order to live an amazing, successful life. But that’s not what the narrator is saying. Four different times in the poem, the narrator tells the reader that both paths are equally untraveled. He’s not saying to take the road less traveled. Instead, in the lines preceding the famous line, the narrator says:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence

The narrator did not take the less traveled road, but he knows that at some point in the future, he will lie to himself and say that his life is what it is because he took the road less traveled.

There are two things I want to do with this blog post. First, I want to examine the background of “The Road Not Taken.” It has a funny, but tragic, backstory. Then, I want to share an analysis of the poem by writer Hugh Howey. I was struck by the thoughts on the poem Howey shared on Twitter, and I’d like to share them here.

First, let’s take a look at the entire poem:


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

–Robert Frost

In 1912 Frost moved to England and befriended fellow poet Edward Thomas. Frost and Thomas often took walks to clear their heads after a day of writing, and to discuss each other’s lives. These walks were very important to both men.

Thomas had a tendency to regret his choices. After their walks where Thomas would choose the route, he would express his fear that a different route would have been better. His dissatisfaction over the path they had taken became a joke between the two men.

Upon returning to the United States in 1915, Frost sent a copy of the poem to Thomas. As discussed earlier, the poem was not intended to be a call to action. Instead, it was a wry jab at Thomas for worrying so much about the path that was taken and the decisions that were made. But like so many people in the years after the poems publication—first in The Atlantic in 1915, and a year later in Frost’s poetry collection, Mountain Interval—Thomas took the poem to heart and read it as a call to live boldly, choosing the path less traveled.

Frost couldn’t have known that the poem would encourage his friend to give up his life as a poet and join the British Army during World War I. And he must have been devastated when he learned that, two years after enlisting, Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras.

Despite Thomas’ untimely demise, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has encouraged countless people to shun the common and live exceptional lives. But, of course, that was never Frost’s intention. Hugh Howey makes this point quite eloquently, and he compares The Road Not Taken with another of Frost’s most popular poems, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.

From Hugh Howey:

Frost’s greatest gift — and the one most difficult to access — is his use of the unreliable narrator. His poems lie to us. These untruths conceal deep and profound truths.

Frost’s most famous poem is perhaps the most famous poem of all-time, the Mona Lisa of poems, his THE ROAD NOT TAKEN.

The most fascinating thing to me about THE ROAD NOT TAKEN is that most people get the title wrong. Which is incredibly meta. Because I’m about to blow your mind. The poem is about two paths that are identical in one aspect: Neither path has ever been walked down.

People often refer to this poem as “The Road Less Traveled.” This comes from a line toward the end that is 100% a lie. And here is the genius I mentioned in the opening Tweet: Robert Frost lies to us, because he’s writing about us, and we lie to ourselves all the time.

Frost tells us FOUR TIMES that the two paths are the same in terms of wear. This is not a long poem — he has to be economical with his words — but he tells us FOUR TIMES that neither path is the one less traveled.

See if you can find all four times.

The reason they have the same lack of wear is because these are life choices yet to be taken. The narrator has come to a crossroads in life, a great decision. College or gap year? Get married or keep dating? Settle down or move abroad?

These decisions give us pause, and so we sit at the crossroads and we study our choices, try to gauge how much we’ll enjoy each of the two paths before us. As Frost demonstrates, it’s impossible to tell! We haven’t walked either one before.

The lies begin in the third stanza with this line:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

The only exclamation mark in the poem. The excitement of childlike mania. The insanity of naiveté.

The lie hardly lasts. Over the next two lines, we see the excitement of that exclamation mark dissolve into resignation. The narrator knows they’ll never come back. You can’t live both lives:

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

We’ve all felt this, the desire to live two mutually incompatible lives. Nest, but roam. Dabble, but commit. Sample, yet dive deep.

We want to live unconventional lives, but have all the comforts of convention.

The big lie comes at the end. What’s amazing is that the narrator KNOWS they are going to lie to themselves. At the end of their life, they will say that they took the path less traveled, and that it was the correct choice, but they will never know.

The hint isn’t just the four times we were told the paths were the same for lack of wear. The hints are the sigh with which the lie is told, and the halting nature of the telling of the lie.

… and I–

I took the one less traveled by…

He hesitates. He almost tells the truth. But the only way to hold the ego together is to convince himself he didn’t make a mistake, because the tsunami of regrets for all the paths he couldn’t walk down would drown him.

The lie is the thing.

And so we can’t even remember the name of the poem, so deeply do we want to believe the same lie. We claim we took the road less traveled, when the OPPOSITE is true.

Each of us took the only road we traveled. The other road we left undiscovered.



Whose woods these are I think I know.  

His house is in the village though;  

He will not see me stopping here  

To watch his woods fill up with snow.  


My little horse must think it queer  

To stop without a farmhouse near  

Between the woods and frozen lake  

The darkest evening of the year.  


He gives his harness bells a shake  

To ask if there is some mistake.  

The only other sound’s the sweep  

Of easy wind and downy flake.  


The woods are lovely, dark and deep,  

But I have promises to keep,  

And miles to go before I sleep,  

And miles to go before I sleep.

–Robert Frost

Can you spot a possible lie in this poem? Even if your brain can’t, your heart might. Your subconscious might. I think all of our hearts do.

Like THE ROAD NOT TAKEN, this poem gives us three stanzas of truth before we get a final stanza of outright rebellion.

The dark woods are death. The narrator recognizes the end:

Whose woods these are I think I know

The absence of a farmhouse, this place between a frozen lake and the woods, no place to support life.

The primal urge to resist, our subconscious fear of death, is his horse, ringing its bells, shivering and confused, urging him forward.

To ask if there is some mistake.

Such a brutal line. Brutal.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

Something enticing about the end of a long and difficult journey. Almost alluring to succumb to it. But then we get the final BUT:

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

The last sad lie is right here, repeated twice, as we often repeat things while our attention is drifting or our energy flagging.

I have so much I want to do before I die.

I have so much I want to do before I die.

I promised myself I would do these things. I promised.

But I know whose woods those are. And the animal inside me is ringing a bell, hoping there is some mistake.

The two poems tell the same story of a life too short for all it hopes to contain.

Both poems are about the things left undone.

In one, the lie is that the choices were the correct ones.

In the other, the lie is that there’s time yet to live.

The truth is simple and sad:

We have but one life; it will be shorter than we wish; live it deliberately and wisely.



Update on My Writing

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been writing much in recent months. Actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve been writing a lot about our current political reality, but I haven’t been able to make any progress on the two books that are in process.

The truth is, I’ve been consumed by politics for the past 8-10 months. That’s not like me. I like to think that I am politically aware, but I’ve never let politics take over my life before. I spend good parts of my day scouring the Internet, following social media, reading books and articles, and keeping an eye on TV news. I feel a bit like a political junkie. That’s not the person I want to be, but recently, I haven’t been able to help it. As a result, I’ve made precious little progress on Second Chances and Paris, the two books I’m working on.

They say the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. Trust me, I have a problem. I also have a plan to pull myself away from politics and start spending more time on writing.

For the next several months, I will be working on revising short stories and submitting them to literary journals. I find it easier right now to focus on smaller projects, so I’ll focus on essays and short stories. In time, I should be able to start focusing on larger projects, like the two books I’m working on.

The deadline for my first project, a nonfiction essay, is February 22. I plan on meeting that deadline, then revising and submitting one short story a month for the next four months. That will take us to the middle of the year, when I should be ready to return to my longer works.

Let’s put some dates to these smaller projects:

  • 2/22/21 – Revise and submit “The Greatest Catch”
  • 3/31/21 – Revise and submit “The Art of Charcuterie”
  • 4/30/21 – Revise and submit “Little Bass Lake”
  • 5/31/21 – Revise and submit “Pie”
  • 6/30/21 – Revise and submit “The Barking Dog”

That’s the plan. Now it’s time to get busy.


The Best Books I Read in 2020

As you’ve probably heard, 2020 was a strange year. In addition to a worldwide pandemic that changed all of our lives, we had an economy in ruins, country-wide protests for equal rights for black Americans, and a dysfunctional government that became more and more authoritarian as the year progressed. As a result, my reading habits were a bit different than usual.

For one, I read a lot more nonfiction in 2020, especially books about Donald Trump and his attack on our government. As you’d expect, some were good, some not so good, and some were exceptional.

I also consumed many more Audible Originals (AO) in 2020. These are audio books produced by Audible and available only to Audible members. Last year, I debated whether or not to include AO with other books. This year, I decided to include them. Even so, none of them made it into the top ten. There were several excellent AO books (along with a few duds), but in the end, the best ones fell just outside the top ten.

In the interest of transparency, the two best books I read this year are not on the list. Those books are 11-22-63 by Stephen King and Deadwood by Pete Dexter. I re-read both books this year, and since both were on previous top ten lists, I didn’t include them here. However, they are both excellent and highly recommended.

Unlike previous years, I did not read any books this year that I was really disappointed in. To be sure, I read a few books I didn’t like, but I wasn’t disappointed in them the way I have been in some books in the past. Part of that is that I didn’t have high expectations for the books I ended up not liking.

Without further ado, here are the ten best books I read in 2020:

10. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris – What our country went through over the past four years with Donald Trump had me thinking about the purpose of government. I heard historian Heather Cox Richardson mention that the purpose of our government was viewed differently by Abraham Lincoln than it ha been by any president before him, and that his views were, in essence, handed down to Theodore Roosevelt, and then to his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I found this intriguing, and the comment reminded me that I had heard great things about Morris’ books on Theodore Roosevelt (he wrote three), but I had never read them. Finally, I took the time to read the first of the three, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and was not disappointed. If you’re interested in reading the book, let me warn you, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is extremely detailed. Some would say, way more detailed than necessary. While the book did get bogged down from time to time with too many details, overall, I came to enjoy the little facts, comments, and interactions that, while not necessarily moving the story forward, added color and depth to an already interesting story. If you read it, give yourself some time. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is long (816 pages)

9. A Day in the Death of Walter Zawislak by Molly O’Keefe – All I knew about this book before I read it was what it said in the book’s description. I can’t remember who recommended the book to me, although I’m fairly certain it was recommended. Otherwise, it would not have been very likely that I would have read it. It’s just not a book that would have come up on my radar. However, I learned about it, I’m glad I did. In A Day in the Death of Walter Zawislak, author Molly O’Keefe tells a story, not of redemption or second chances, but of seeing our lives in a new perspective. As the protagonist, Walter, is about to die, he is given the opportunity to relive one day of his life. Problem is, Walter doesn’t want to relive any day of his life. He feels he’s wasted his life and doesn’t want to relive any specific day. Even the thing he cherishes most–his marriage to Rosie who predeceased him–doesn’t inspire a certain day to relive. With the help of Peter, a kind of benevolent angel of death, Walter comes to see that he didn’t waste his life, and helps him to choose which day to relive.

8. Chances Are… by Richard RussoChances Are… is the most recent book from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo. It’s a quiet book without a lot of action (no car chases or shoot ‘em ups) and is a good example of the saying that in literary fiction, not much happens, but what does happen happens in great detail. Russo has a unique way of telling a story. I saw this same skill in Empire Falls, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. He tells a leisurely story, introducing us to the characters and unobtrusively brings us into their lives. Most of all, he takes his time to make us care. In the first half of his books, you’re hooked, but you’re not exactly sure what the story is about. You have an idea, but you can’t pin it down precisely. In the second half of the book, he delivers the goods. All of the questions you had are answered and all of the care you’ve built up is rewarded. Chances Are… is no different. The story is about three college friends who get together after many years of separation, and re-visit a mystery that helped shape all of their lives. The mystery, the disappearance of a woman they all loved, was never solved. But at their reunion, they learn the truth of not only what happened to her, but what happened to each of them.

7. Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes – I don’t think I was supposed to like Evvie Drake Starts Over. I mean, I don’t think it was written with me—or my demographic—in mind. Evvie Drake Starts Over is a book for women, what some might call Chick Lit (a term I understand, but don’t really like). Even so, I really, really liked it. It is one of the few books that stuck with me months after I read it. That is unusual. One of the things that I like about Evvie Drake Starts Over, and which I admire about a lot of books, is the way the author takes a relatively simple story idea and turns it into a captivating book. I don’t need a plot that contains a convoluted set of circumstances. Maybe it’s that I’m simple-minded, but if you want to impress me, take everyday humdrum life and make it interesting. That’s what Linda Holmes did with Evvie Drake Starts Over. The story centers around Evvie Drake, a woman whose husband has died and who, for the first time in her life, is truly on her own. At times, she navigates her new reality with all the grace of a water buffalo, but through it all, maintains a charm and sense of humor about herself and the world, until she doesn’t. Sometimes, life’s hardships are too much even for Evvie Drake.

6. Beneath A Scarlett Sky by Mark T. SullivanBeneath A Scarlett Sky is based on a true story that took place in Italy during World War II. Pino Lella is a typical Italian teenager at the start of the war. He has no interest in the Nazis or politics. Instead, his concern is first and foremost for the ladies. Although Pino ignores the Nazis that have taken over his town, his parents haven’t. They worry about their son and eventually convince him to join the Nazi army. They think he’ll be safer being in the army, rather than in the resistance. They don’t support the Nazis. In fact, just the opposite. But they want their son to stay safe. Pino lives a double life, escorting Jews out of Italy, across the Alps, to safety, while also serving as the driver for a mysterious Nazi officer. His position as a driver allows him to spy on the Nazis and funnel information to the resistance. His work helps defeat the Nazis, but has dire personal consequences for Pino. Author Mark T. Sullivan does a masterful job of keeping the reader engaged and turning pages. If you enjoy World War II era stories, this is the book for you.

5. Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson – Brad Watson was a highly respected literary writer who died in 2020 at the all too young age of 64. I had heard a lot of good things about Watson over the years. My friend, Nick Rupert, even studied with Watson at one point, and spoke very highly of him. Until his death, Watson taught creative writing at several different schools, including the University of Alabama, Harvard University, University of West Florida, University of Mississippi, University of California-Irvine, and since 2005, at the University of Wyoming. Sadly, I had never read any of Watson’s work, so I made a point after his death to read one of his most popular short story collections, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. The bad news is that I bought just the story, not the story collection by the same name. The good news is that Watson’s writing was every bit as good as I had been told it was. I very much enjoyed the story, and now want to make sure that I read the entire collection. Maybe I can get that done in 2021.

4. (tie) Lake Life by David James Poissant and Bosses of Light and Sound by Nick Rupert – You could say this is a bit of a cop out on my part. Jamie and Nick are both friends and I would feel a little strange claiming one was better than the other. But their place on the list is not a cop out. Both of their books are terrific. Not only is it hard to separate them on the list, it is also difficult to compare them. Lake Life is a fully-realized debut novel. Bosses of Light and Sound is a wonderful short story collection. In fact, I gave input on several of Nick’s stories. He ignored my input, and the collection is better for it. Lake Life follows a dysfunctional family as they navigate the potential sale of their beloved family lake house. The characters are richly rendered, and Jamie describes their flaws and struggles with wide open eyes and a healthy dose of compassion. He does a masterful job of weaving together disparate stories into a wonderful novel. In Bosses of Light and Sound, Nick gives us quirky characters living lives of largely unseen struggles. Whether it’s an older woman seeking a sort of cockeyed redemption at a miniature golf course, a potentially suicidal man who is the unofficial savior of others wanting to commit suicide, or a pair of friends reliving a night they’d rather forget as a sort of tribute/apology to their dead compatriot, Nick offers his characters in all their flawed, all-too-human glory. Bosses of Light and Sound is Nick’s first publication, but it certainly won’t be his last.

3. Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore – Here’s the deal: You get to live up to 2,000 lives in order to perfect yourself and become enlightened. It usually doesn’t take all 2,000, but if you need that many, you can have that many. But no more. Milo, the protagonist, is getting dangerously close to having lived 2,000 lives. He’s down to just a few, and he doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to perfection. With the help of Suzy, a sort-of-god and sexual partner, Milo makes his way through his final few lives, learning along the way what it really means to live a life of sacrifice and service. Reincarnation Blues is not for everyone. At times it is confusing and chaotic, skipping around from life to life, never stopping to explain how one life impacts another. But if you’re willing to open your mind and do a little of the heavy lifting, Reincarnation Blues is a terrific, deeply philosophical novel.

2. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder – I mentioned earlier that I spent a lot of time reading nonfiction this year, especially as it related to Donald Trump. On Tyranny is not specifically about Trump, but the book did an excellent job of pointing out the authoritarian action he was taking and gave the reader a roadmap to follow to avoid authoritarianism and fascism in the future. Snyder is a history professor at Yale University who specializes in the rise of fascist regimes. His insights, while not taking aim directly at Trump and his administration, laid out a strong, detailed case that what we saw during Trump’s four years in office was a progressively strengthening authoritarian administration hellbent on betraying our democracy for their own political gain. I turned to Snyder’s book several times in my own political writing to better explain what we were witnessing. I found On Tyranny invaluable as a resource, and as a ray of hope that we would find our way out of one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history.

1. Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior – The best book I read all year was Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah Kendzior. Unlike On Tyranny, Hiding in Plain Sight took aim directly at Donald Trump and explained, in no uncertain terms, what he intended to do to the United States. Kendzior was not alone in her warnings about Trump, but she was on the record long before others sounded the alarm, and she was as prescient as anyone about what Trump held in store for our country. One thing that separated Kendzior from other writers is that, unlike those other writers, she was not ensconced in Washington D.C politics. Kendzior wrote from her home in St. Louis where she had a clearer view of what was happening in the heart of the country. Too often, we forget that, while our politics often emanate from Washington, lives of ordinary Americans are lived outside the beltway. From her perch in the Midwest, Kendzior saw the shift to authoritarianism taking place, and understood the danger of such a rise. She also identified early on what kind of harm someone like Donald Trump could do with this burgeoning authoritarian bent taking hold around the country. Hiding in Plain Sight is a must-read for anyone who wants to not only understand Trump, but also understand the movement that brought him to power and empowered him to threaten our democracy.