An Essay "2019: A Year of Magical Reading" By Randall Silvis
Author Guest Blog An Essay With Internationally Acclaimed Author RANDALL SILVIS "Randall Silvis is a masterful storyteller."
—The New York Times Book Review CONNECTING READERS & WRITERS We are delighted to have with us one of my favorite writers—Internationally Acclaimed Author, Randall Silvis — to share his personal reading experience for the year 2019.
"2019: A Year of Magical Reading"
By Randall Silvis
For me the year 2019 was not a good year for reading in a quantitative sense, but qualitatively it was one of the best since I was twenty years old and discovering the masters of literature for the very first time. I spent most of the summer afternoons of 2019 piling up miles on one of my motorcycles, a sexy candy-apple red Honda CTX cruiser, as a way of avoiding my neighbor’s dogs’ incessant barking and my neighborhood’s incessant mowing and hammering and other noise-making. My neighborhood is a tiny little piece of suburbia consisting of six houses shoulder-to-shoulder beside a private lake, and like all suburbs it is a hive of busy bees in slavish labor to their homes. Me, I adhere to the theory of the survival of the fittest when it comes to landscaping, preferring to sit by quietly and watch nature taking care of itself. Consequently, I also used up a good portion of the year by driving around five states in search of a home with quiet sun-filled days, dark night skies, and no neighbors. I’m still looking.
And of course I used up a lot of time by writing and thinking about writing. On average, six to eight hours each day, every day. In total I composed two new novels and two new novellas, edited and revised one novel, three story collections and three collections of personal essays, wrote three new short stories and six new essays and a handful of poems, added approximately 200 new pages to five novels in progress, and engaged in as much publicity and self-promotion as I could stomach. Overall it was a productive year creatively, but it did not leave time for more than 30 or so minutes each day of reading for pleasure.
I estimate that of the forty or more books I started to read in 2019, I finished a third of them. The rest went into my Give Away pile. Of those books I finished, here are the five best, in no particular order. None of them are new or even recent works.
A. Scott Berg’s excellent biography, Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, not only revealed the many undercurrents of uber editor Perkins, but also the warts and wonders of his three most famous authors. Perkin’s influence on Hemingway appeared to have been limited to getting Hem to delete many of his f-bombs, but the always hatted editor kept Fitzgerald writing and financially afloat, if not always sober. He even put Fitzgerald’s daughter Scotty through college. In the meantime, Perkins virtually created author Thomas Wolfe, whose work, without his editor’s tireless whittling and reshaping, might have remained a self-indulgent mess.
As I made my way slowly, savoringly, through Berg’s portrait of the industry’s most revered editor, I found my admiration and my annoyance steadily growing for Perkins. As an editor, his tolerance and generosity and support for his writers was unparalleled, but as a man outside of his office, he embraced life timidly, as if obsequious to a previous generation’s social norms.
At the same time, I found myself admiring Fitzgerald less, Thomas Wolfe about the same as always, and Hemingway more. In these pages there is a soft, effete, whiny quality to Fitzgerald, whereas Hemingway embodies the kind of disciplined, workmanlike writer I have always striven to be. I never learned to enjoy Thomas Wolfe’s self-indulgent and self-obsessed autobiographical fiction, and the man who created that prose, despite Perkin’s attempts to tame it, comes across as a kind of huge, impulsive, and pretentious child instead of as a journeyman writer—a diva who believed that every word he penned, and every thought he thought, was golden, and that his only job was to scribble it down so that lesser men, like Perkins, could whip it into a saleable structure.
Fitzgerald was said to be a perfectionist when it came to writing, but he allowed his personal life to peter out in an almost hysterical mess of posing and alcoholic self-pity. Hemingway certainly wasn’t perfect as either a man or a writer, and many of his attitudes, when juxtaposed (unfairly) upon current social attitudes, have been condemned (as some of Max Perkins’ would be), but Hemingway lived the life he consciously chose to live and he wrote the books he chose to write. I doubt that he ever referred to himself as an “artist,” though Fitzgerald and Wolfe did so repeatedly and unashamedly, yet in my mind Hemingway stands alone among the three as an artist to admire and emulate.
For me it all comes down to the prose. Despite my repeated readings over the years, I am always moved by the subterranean quality of Hemingway’s work. His use of understatement and subtext and insinuation, as well as his careful employment of cadence and rhythm, are nothing short of masterful. He is remembered by those who don’t know his work well as a writer of short sentences, but he wrote plenty of long sentences too, descriptive phrase after descriptive phrase, laying on details like carefully calculated brushstrokes. As an innovator—even a revolutionary—in the matter of prose style, he remains unequaled—or, as he would say, undefeated—by any other American writer.
Fitzgerald’s prose, on the other hand, though as clean and polished as prose can be, has none of Hemingway’s depth. It moves along the surface like a clear but shallow stream, its bottom readily visible. Wolfe’s prose, on the other hand, can be a twisted thicket of tangled vines, brambles, branches and weeds. A reader can easily exhaust herself in trying to crawl through to the other side. And when she does manage to do so, what is the reward other than an assortment of pricks and scratches?
Still, reading is a subjective pleasure. In reading, as in life, it is the presence of mystery that most compels me. There is something numinous about Hemingway’s prose that is missing in Fitzgerald’s and Wolfe’s. Hemingway understood what the other two writers did not—that the unsaid will always exert a greater hold on the reader than the overstated or even the simply said. To employ a mixed metaphor, Wolfe’s prose was the bellow of a wounded bull, Fitzgerald’s a polite dinner party tale trying to be risqué, and Hemingway’s a hypnotic half-whisper delivered through a hole in the wall. Max Perkins, to his enduring credit, championed those three voices and many more. Although a lamb in his personal life, in his professional life he was a lion.
And now to the novels. There are a lot of great storytellers at work today, but only a rare few can couple that gift with an individualistic yet wholly accessible style. Out of the many novels I read in 2019, these three stand out as the most memorable: Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels, Sebastian Barry’s Days without End, and William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake. All three authors are, first and foremost, brilliant prose stylists. Add their deep characterization and compelling storylines and you have the perfect recipe for a novel to win my admiration and envy.
Smith’s and Krueger’s novels are both crime novels but of different sorts. Smith, best known as a literary novelist and poet, writes in the 2013 Men in Miami Hotels about a petty gangster on the run from just about everybody, and the tale leans only lightly on a plot, which consists of spur-of-the-moment decisions made by the unfortunate protagonist, and heavily on character development and personal relationships. The noir elements in this novel are strong, but don’t come to Smith’s novel looking for standard crime fare. There is music in his prose and pathos in his characters. I loved every page of this novel for its unpredictability and jewel-like sentences.
Krueger’s Iron Lake, originally published in 1998, unfolds within the framework of the first book of a traditional mystery series, but his endearingly flawed protagonist, Cork O’Connor, the disgraced former sheriff of small-town Aurora, Minnesota, is the real focal point here. And Krueger’s wonderful descriptions of O’Connor’s milieu are clean, precise, and graceful—as bracing as a gulp of chilled whiskey. I will be starting 2020 by reading Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, a stand-alone novel from 2013.
Sebastian Barry’s Days without End is the most recent book on my list, published in 2016, the most original and individualistic, and the hardest of the three novels to describe. It’s a kind of picaresque, I suppose, that follows two young men in the 1850s, one an Irish immigrant and the other an American black man, who fall in love and travel throughout the violent American landscape seeking not fortune but survival, trying on this profession and that, sometimes dressed as men and sometimes as women. The journey itself is mesmerizing, as is the Irish author’s portrayal of America, but it was the often stream-of-consciousness voice of the protagonist that first captured my attention and never released it. Barry’s countryman James Joyce wrote in a similar style, but I read Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake with ambivalence and even resentment at times because of the prose’s turgidity and undisciplined focus. Barry’s prose, on the other hand, though equally dense with introspection and observation, is always clear and evocative and hypnotic, and generates nothing but attention and an enduring admiration.
The fifth book to leave a lasting impression on me is Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Another brilliant stylist, (and one who claimed Hemingway as an influence on her own writing), Didion in this book turns her extraordinarily keen observational skills upon herself and death and grief and how to cope with it all. Before reading this book, published in 2005, all I knew of Didion’s work were individual essays such as “At the Dam,” “The Santa Ana,” and “On Keeping a Notebook,” which I used as texts to teach my students the importance of close observation and of melding telling details with personal reflection on the deeper implication of those details. The Year of Magical Thinking should be a text for all of us who will someday experience the death of those we love and the grief that accompanies it. In other words, it should be a required text for all of us.
None of these books were new releases, but I am so glad that I finally got around to reading these very talented authors. It means that I now have their other work to look forward to. If I am half as enthralled by their other books as I was by these first encounters, my Give Away stack will grow no taller, and 2020 will be yet another year of magical reading.
Note: The essay was used herein with the author's permission. Please refrain from using the essay in any part other than short quotes without the author's permission. All Rights Reserved.
Thank you for joining us today, Randall!
For my recent in-depth Q&A Interview with Randall and his latest book. View: An Elevator Ride with the Author
I cannot wait to catch up with Ryan DeMarco in #4, coming 2020.
Look at this cover!
About the Author
Randall Silvis is the multi-genre author of 18 critically acclaimed novels, two story collections, a book of creative nonfiction, and three new novels scheduled for publication in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
The first Pennsylvanian to win the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize, he is also a prize-winning playwright, produced screenwriter, and prolific essayist.
His work has appeared on Best of the Year lists from the New York Times, the Toronto Globe & Mail, SfSite.com, Strand magazine, and the International Association of Crime Writers, and has been hailed as “masterful” not only by the New York Times Book Review but also by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Mystery Scene magazine, and several other review sources. The recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships, a Fulbright Senior Scholar Research Award, and numerous other literary awards, he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania for “a sustained record of distinguished literary achievement.”
Connect with Randall
Coming August 4, 2020
No Woods So Dark as These
(Ryan DeMarco Mystery #4)
There are good reasons to fear the dark...
Former Sergeant Ryan DeMarco's life has been spent in defiance―he's defied death, loneliness, and betrayal all while fighting the worst parts of humanity. He's earned a break, and following the devastation of their last case, DeMarco and his girlfriend Jayme want nothing more than to live quietly in each other's company. To forget the horrors they've experienced and work on making each other whole again.
But dreams of a peaceful life together are shattered when two bodies are discovered in a smoldering car in the woods, and another is found brutally mutilated nearby. Much as he'd like to leave the case to his former colleagues, dark forces are at play and DeMarco cannot escape the vortex of lies, betrayal, and desperation. He and Jayme are dragged back into the fray, where they must confront the shady dealings of a close-knit rural community.
In the highly-anticipated fourth installment in his critically-acclaimed series, Randall Silvis returns with a case that might break Ryan DeMarco for good.
for The Ryan DeMarco Mystery Series
"Silvis is at it again, striving for a blend of crime story and literature, mutilated bodies and lapidary prose."
—Booklist for A Long Way Down
"...deeply satisfying....this solid procedural offers heart-pounding moments of suspense. Silvis smoothly blends moments of exquisite beauty into a sea of darker emotion to create a moving story heavy with the theme of the 'past is never past.'"
— Publishers Weekly for Walking the Bones
"a stellar work…. The author’s insightful portrayal of small-town secrets and loyalties plunges readers deep into a Southern mystery that will keep them wondering right up to the end.”
—IndiePicksMag.com for Walking the Bones
HAMMETT PRIZE NOMINEE for Two Days Gone
"Beneath the momentum of the investigation lies a pervasive sadness that will stick with you long after you've turned the last page."
— Kirkus Reviews
"...impressive novel...an intriguing thriller." — Booklist
"...[a] skillfully written thriller."
— Publishers Weekly for Two Days Gone
"...a suspenseful, literary thriller that will resonate with readers long after the book is finished. A terrific choice for Dennis Lehane fans."
— Library Journal, Starred Review
"A gripping new literary thriller....The fact that this book will be marketed as genre fiction is misleading; it's more than that. It's literature posing as a mystery, like works from Attica Locke or Louise Penny. Two Days Gone will be one of the best reading investments you make this year. "
—- BookPage TOP PICK IN MYSTERY January 2017, and Top 10 Notable Book for its January 2017 reading list
"...this novel [will] linger in readers' minds well after Two Days Gone." — Shelf Awareness
"Two Days Gone is a quiet, intense, suspenseful mystery about a man who has lost everything. Rich with descriptions and atmosphere....Two Days Gone is relentless in its suspense, and the final twists in the novel are sure to not disappoint."
"[a] chilly suspense novel."
—The New York Times Sunday Book Review
"Randall Silvis' Two Days Gone is a smart, twisting, vividly written thriller anchored by two deeply flawed yet fascinating protagonists. Yes, the novel provides cat-and-mouse suspense as a horrific murder in a college town is investigated, but it's also a deeply rewarding story about friendship, family, fame, and the complicated relationship between readers and writers. Anyone who wants to dismiss thrillers as mere genre fluff should read Two Days Gone."
— David Bell, author of Since She Went Away
"An absolute gem of literary suspense... told in a smooth, assured, and often haunting voice, Two Days Gone is a terrific read." ―Michael Koryta, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Wish Me Dead
A Long Way Down
Ryan DeMarco Mystery Book #3
Just when you think you've reached the bottom...
Ryan DeMarco would rather not go home. Not now, maybe not ever. But when his estranged wife attempts suicide, he has no choice but to return to western Pennsylvania, and all the memories that wait for him there. Unfortunately, it's not only ghosts from the past waiting to greet DeMarco upon his return. An old high school classmate has risen through the ranks to become a county sheriff, and he is desperate for help investigating a series of murders that might tie into a cold case from his and DeMarco's school days.
DeMarco and his new love, Jayme, agree to join the team working on the case. But it's not easy for DeMarco to be walking the streets of his troubled past, and the deeper he and Jayme dig into the disturbing murders the less likely it is that either one of them will escape the devastation.
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