What I Read and Wrote and Did in 2021

I published two new stories in 2021: “Muhammad Ali’s Ballpoint Pen” in Kelp Journal, and “The Pot” over at Jellyfish Review (which also nominated it for a Pushcart Prize). My story “God” (which first appeared in BOMB Magazine) was reprinted over at Greg Olear’s Sunday Pages, and my story “Joan of Arc” (which first appeared in The Adroit Journal) was reprinted in the Angel Tears book Nicolas Cage. My story “The Book” (from Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day) was read live in London by actress MyAnna Buring as part of the WordTheatre Missing You show, and “The Cape” (from Tales of Falling and Flying) appeared again on the Selected Shorts podcast, as read by Tony Yazbeck. I got a nice mention from Albert Liau over at Craft Literary in his essay “Art of the Opening: Move Fast and Make Things Happen“, and my story “The Tunnel” popped up on a list of favorite short horror stories put together by Sam Reader at Tornightfire.com. I did a reading (via Zoom) at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and placed four stories which will appear in early 2022: “The Wheelbarrow” in The Sewanee Review, “Bear” at Craft Literary, “The Ship on the Horizon” at Air/Light, and “Dandelions” in the upcoming anthology Small Odysseys: Selected Shorts Presents 35 New Stories (which will be out on March 15). (There will also be an all-day (480-minute!) performance of those 35 stories (plus music, dance, and film inspired by them) at Symphony Space in New York on March 26, 2022. Tickets will be free at the door the day of the show.)

Life-wise, not a whole lot happened. I sat in my house a lot. I watched a lot more horror movies (my favorite from 2021, by far, was The Night House), then got heavily into The Expanse and then, when that dried up, Babylon 5, which I hadn’t watched when it was on in the 90s because it looked so stupid, but which turned out to be one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. The writing is tremendous—they routinely turn ridiculous-seeming premises inside-out to arrive at unexpectedly profound and truly wrenching emotional conclusions (which is really my main interest as a writer). I’m so sad I’m almost done with the series (I’m currently 88 of 110 episodes in); I even bought a Vorlon ambassador t-shirt off the internet (don’t tell anybody).

What else? Rachel and I traveled across the country to go to a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard, where we ate 90 lbs of delicious lobster salad. We watched Succession like everyone else in the world, and then promptly forgot all about it. I am still doing my daily exercises which I started a year and a half ago when I hurt my back; nothing hurts anymore and I’m getting really good at pull-ups. I had a great monthly sock subscription which brought me much joy, but at the end of the year the company went out of business, so I am currently navigating the grieving process. Here is my favorite picture I took this year:

On the teaching front, I continued to run my usual short story workshops, both privately and at UCLA Extension. I had current and past students accepted into MFA programs at UC Irvine, UC Riverside, NYU, CalArts, UNM, and SIUC, while others published stories in Freeman’s, Wigleaf, Maudlin House, Atticus Review, Faultline, Apex, Prismatica, Down & Out, and Narrative Magazine, among others. I also mentored another two high school student writers through The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. I’m very thankful to all my students; I don’t know how I would have gotten through the pandemic without them (knock wood!).

Reading-wise, it was an excellent year. I went on a haunted house jag and read about 20 haunted house novels I hadn’t read before. I enjoyed The Elementals by Michael McDowell, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, The Cipher by Kathe Koja, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R.A. Dick, The House on Abigail Lane by Kealan Patrick Burke, Slade House by David Mitchell, and The Good House by Tananarive Due; but my favorites were The Uninvited by Dorothy McCardle (I’ve always loved the 1944 movie but somehow it never even occurred to me it was based on a book before I suddenly found out), the creepy-as-hell Marigold by Sara Gran (available only in podcast form on Audible), and—especially—the complete Blackwater novellas by Michael McDowell, which is really much more than a simple (or even complex) haunted house novel—it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life, and easily the most fun I’ve had reading in years. I really can’t say enough about it—it’s like a Depression-era small town Alabama family saga version of Twin Peaks; no FBI and no diner, but possible river monsters instead. The new version from Valancourt even includes an introduction by Nathan Ballingrud, one of my favorite living writers. Pick it up, people! You won’t be disappointed. (There’s also a fantastic audio version available.)

Some other favorites of the year: the Vernon Subutex trilogy by Virginie Despentes, Body by Harry Crews, the mysterious and delightful Duplex by Kathryn Davis, The History of Bones by John Lurie (an extremely funny and very sad book about trying to stay true to your art in the face of tremendous opposition (from both within and without)), The Immaculate Void by Brian Hodge (a terrifying cosmic horror novel which I read three times (or rather, listened to, as it’s only available on audio)), A Riot of Goldfish by Kanoko Okamoto, P.G. Wodehouse: The Authorized Biography by Frances Donaldson (Wodehouse’s life was mostly boring (all he ever did was write), except for one noteworthy exception (in which he was accused of treachery and sedition during the war)), Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris (probably the most informative book I read this year), Hardcore by Mik Grantham, When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck, Essays and Fictions by Brad Phillips (which is kinda like if Tao Lin and Brian Evenson got together to write a collection of Henry Miller stories), The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez, When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom (I suspect I read this when I was little because it felt eerily familiar, though it might just have been That Kind of Book), The Trees by Percival Everett, Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, The History of America in My Lifetime by Brooks Sterritt, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch, and The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (the Great Viking Novel).

I read two great books related to stand-up comedy: the harrowing Running the Light by Sam Tallent, and the hilarious faux-memoir Based on a True Story by Norm MacDonald (RIP); two books by Donald Westlake (The Hook and The Ax); two by S.A. Cosby (Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears); two by Sjowall & Wahloo (The Locked Room and The Abominable Man); two by Stephen Graham Jones (Night of the Mannequin and My Heart is a Chainsaw (I can still see the town from this book so clearly in my mind)); and Three by Yuri Herrera

My favorite story collections I read this year were Antisocieties by Michael Cisco (extremely creepy and mentally bothersome!), The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, and Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (which I’d been meaning to read for 35 years (felt good to finally tick that one off)). My single favorite story I read this year was “The Match” by Jeffrey Ford, which you can find in his wonderful collection Big Dark Hole. I also loved “The Wind” by Lauren Groff, which you can read here (you should probably have your Kleenex ready), “Flotsam” by Deborah Eisenberg, “Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart” by Sam Miller, “How Soon Until We’re Deadly” by Kevin Moffett, “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff, “Seven” by Edwidge Danticat, and “56-0” by T.C. Boyle.

I also had the pleasure of blurbing 9 books I loved this year: Here is a Game We Could Play by Jenny Bitner, Love Stories & Other Love Stories by Justin Brouckaert, Daughters of the State by Leigh Chadwick, Scales of the Ouroboros by Mark Jednaszewski, Turmeric & Sugar by Anna Vangala Jones, Body High by Jon Lindsey, Family Solstice by Kate Maruyama, How the Moon Works by Matt Rowan, and last but by no means least, The Nothing That Is by the brilliant Kyle Winkler.

And finally, to close things out, The Worst Book I Read This Year was Peter Benchley’s Jaws, which was made even worse by the fact that halfway through I suddenly realized I’d read and hated it just as much only two years ago! Apparently I had then banished it from my mind until the ongoing misery brought back the repressed memory. Anyway… stick with the movie! Would be my recommendation. The book doesn’t even have Quint’s great speech about the sinking of the Indianapolis in it! It’s like a donut with no hole. A terrible donut. A terrible, boring, stupid, tasteless donut that I have now somehow eaten twice.

Anyway, here’s to 2022! I bought a new mug to see me through:

2 thoughts on “What I Read and Wrote and Did in 2021

  1. Really enjoyed your year-long book odyssey. Please explain what to do re the event at Symphony Space: Tickets range from $150-$400, but I can’t figure out about the option which is free! Any help?

    Thanks, Helen



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