What I Read and Wrote and Did in 2020

What did I do in 2020? Who the hell knows! I spent a couple months of it flat on my back with a slipped disc, and then a couple more months of it doing physical therapy every day (I’m fine now, thanks). Beyond that, I mostly watched a lot of movies. At some point (& for some reason) I decided to see every horror movie that came out in 2020; I don’t know if I actually accomplished that, but I definitely watched at least 100 of them. My favorite by far was the Australian Relic, which was perfect, one of the best haunted house movies I’ve ever seen. I also enjoyed Sputnik, Swallow (which was not properly represented by its trailer), the Korean telephone-as-time-travel-device movie The Call (which was kind of amazing (until the final 10 seconds)), Promising Young Woman, After Midnight, VFW (wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but…), Sea Fever (my kind of ending!), Gretel & Hansel (visually, at least), The Deeper You Dig, The Assistant (not sure it’s a horror movie, but I’m counting it), Platform (though I had questions), The Dark and the Wicked, and the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. I didn’t think much of The Hunt itself but Betty Gilpin was incredible in it, and I thought Freaky and Spontaneous were both really charming. My least favorite 2020 horror movie was the Hollywood remake of the The Invisible Man, which I found to be idiotic and infuriating garbage. So there you go! That was pretty much my year. I also loved the entire 7 UP documentary series (RIP Michael Apted), but that’s not exactly horror, unless you deem life itself to be horror, which is certainly your prerogative IN THESE UNPRECEDENTED TIMES.

Reading-wise, I had an off-year. I couldn’t concentrate, mostly I guess because of the overwhelming fear of death. (Hence the horror movies.) But I did read, I think, around 75 books? It got a little harder to calculate than usual because I also finally gave myself permission to stop reading books I didn’t like… which led to me abandoning more novels than I actually finished. Which felt great! Why did I wait so long? And why do people write so many novels?? (Anyway I didn’t count the ones I didn’t finish.)

Some of my favorite books I read this year were: All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer (which made a weird Kermit Roosevelt one-two punch after The River of Doubt, which I read in 2019), The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott, Aventine by Lee Killough (perfect little film noir-esque SF stories about murders in a futuristic Palm Springs-like artist colony), The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, Cult of Loretta by Kevin Maloney (also one of the best covers I’ve ever seen), The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography by Charles White (EYES EMOJI GOES HERE), Sleepovers by Ashley Bryant Phillips, Serotonin by Michel Houllebecq (his worst book so far but still so much gleefully malicious fun), Heavy by Kiese Laymon, A Good Fall by Ha Jin, The Night Visitor and Other Stories by B. Traven, Foe by Iain Reid (maybe even better than I’m Thinking of Ending Things), The Throat by Peter Straub, Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories by Sholem Aleichem, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose (which I still think about all the time), Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami, The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard (can’t believe nobody told me to read this book decades ago??), The Nix by Nathan Hill (the book as a whole was just okay, but the chapter about Pwnage’s in-game walk to the sea was the best thing I read all year, just marvelous), Gilded Needles by Michael McDowell, How Far She Went by Mary Hood, When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes by Lawrence Block, and the spectacular new translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley.

I also had the pleasure of blurbing seven books I really loved this year: Babel by Gabriel Blackwell, Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty, Death, Desire, and Other Destinations by Tara Isabel Zambrano, Road Seven by Keith Rosson, The Reincarnations by Nathan Elias, There is a Man by Pete Hsu (one of my old students!), and Zero Zone by Scott O’Connor. Check ’em out!

Storywise, my favorite discoveries of the year were: “Her Favorite Story” by Mark Richard (one of the best stories I’ve ever read), “The Seventh Man” by Haruki Murakami (a single brilliant image), “Flying to Byzantium” by Lisa Tuttle, “A Friend of Kafka” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Firelight” by Tobias Wolff, “Broken Stairways, Walls of Time” by Lee Killough, “The Pink Cloud” by Alireza Mahmoudi Iranmehr, “Who Invented the Jump Shot” by John Edgar Wideman, “Previous Condition” by James Baldwin, “Lonesome Road Blues” by Mary Hood, “Desertion” by Clifford Simak (which makes a nice pairing with “Shape” by Robert Sheckley), “The Strange High House in the Mist” by H.P. Lovecraft, “Honeymoon” by Leonard Michaels, “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, and “When the Priest is Not at Home” by B. Traven (which has exactly the kind of sparse & timeless mythological power I’m always looking for but so rarely find).

Writing-wise, what can I say? I wrote a lot but didn’t publish much. I had a new story called “God” in Bomb Magazine (which has since been nominated for The Best Small Fictions), and one called “Pictures of Heaven” in the Tiny Nightmares anthology. My story “Death and the Lady” (from Tales of Falling and Flying) was reprinted in an anthology called Devil’s Ways, and “The Man, the Restaurant, and the Eiffel Tower” (also from Tales of Falling and Flying) appeared on the Selected Shorts podcast again (as read by actress Stana Katic). I had three stories (“God,” “Mystery (The Third Man),” and “The Friend with the Knife in His Back“) translated into Chinese and published in the journal 外国文艺 (Foreign Literature and Art), which was an incredible honor. I was interviewed by Tommy Dean for his blog about flash fiction. I read a story every day on Instagram Live through the first three months of the pandemic, mentored two high school writers as part of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, taught my usual Short Story I & II classes at UCLA Extension, ran some private workshops, taught a class called “Writing Modern Fables & Fairytales” at The Los Angeles Writer’s Grotto, and did a bunch of readings and appearances, including (live) at The Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore’s Grand Re-Opening Celebration in San Diego, and (via Zoom) at College Place High School in Washington State, Orani National High School in The Philippines, Alice Cai’s Student Novel Writing Class at Buzz Online, and at the Adroit Journal 10th Anniversary Party. I also appeared (voice only!) on the OtherPpl Podcast‘s Holiday Spectacular (Episode #686).

As a teacher, I had past or current students accepted into writing programs at NYU, Rutgers, the American Film Institute, and Clarion, and another who was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship to Brazil (!). Others published stories in The Los Angeles Review, Augur Magazine, Atticus Review, The Paris Review, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Southwest Review, New England Review, Speculative City, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Craft Literary, among others, and were nominated for Pushcart Prizes and inclusion in The Best Small Fictions. (For some reason their accomplishments make me prouder than my own, even though I didn’t do anything? Kind of a neat trick…)

Anyway, here’s hoping 2021 will be a better year… for everybody… in every way. (Except those who are impeached and/or sent to prison for treason & sedition & suchlike.)

Oh! One last thing! My favorite albums of the year were Gillian Welch’s sublime Boots No.2: Volumes One, Two, and Three, and the gloriously infectious Lapse of Luxury by Brian Wright & the SneakUps. (As well, of course, as the usual Danzig II: Lucifuge (the gift that forever keeps giving.))

One thought on “What I Read and Wrote and Did in 2020

  1. Ben, so good to hear from you! It’ll take me a while to digest all you’ve said. You did so much. During this helluva year.

    I’ll write some more when I’ve had a chance to digest what you wrote.

    All my best, Helen



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