2020: A Year of (Mostly) Fiction in Review

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to take this final moment in 2020 to look back at the reading I’ve done this year. Reading is no less a part of writing than the moments spent putting words on paper. It’s research, and what a joyous and wonderful research it is! I’ll be sharing two books that stood out to me — one fiction and one nonfiction — plus a list of honorable mentions. A complete reading list is included at the bottom of this post. I’d love to discuss any of them, so feel free to leave questions or comments.


The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin


The Left Hand of Darkness focuses primarily on Genly Ai, a human serving as a diplomatic envoy to the planet Winter (also known as Gethen) with the mission of convincing them to join the Ekumenical confederation of planets. The Gethenians are androgynous. One physical sex becomes biologically dominant only during mating, known as kemmer, when either partner may become male or female. Ai must overcome not only the cultural differences inherent in traveling to a distant and previously uncontacted planet but the social differences of a place where no perceived gender binary exists.

Yet for all of that, the book takes a decidedly masculine tone. The Gethenians, despite having no specific physical sex or gender are identified with the pronoun “he.” Whether this reflects Ai’s inherent biases, the world Le Guin was writing in, or an intentional subversion of our understanding of the word’s normal usage is up to the reader to decide. Le Guin wrote a wonderful article on the dilemma of pronouns and the restrictions of our language: read it here. It’s a struggle that continues to be fought today not just by writers but within our evolving society.

Le Guin is a master of world and culture building, unsurprisingly, considering her parents were both anthropologists. The main storyline is interspersed with historical and scientific documents, revealing Gethenian culture through not only scientific observation but legend and story. Le Guin creates the illusion of a vast world just beyond our line of sight, rich in history and existence, full of life and breath.

In Shadow and Act (which I will discuss below), Ralph Ellison discusses our heritage as writers. We can’t choose our blood ancestors, but we can choose our writing ancestors. Le Guin is absolutely one of mine. This book made me consider not the stories I wanted to write but what I wanted to say with them. Telling an interesting story isn’t enough. If your reader isn’t changed, isn’t a different person at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, why should they have read it at all? This book, at its core, is not about distant planets or spaceships or telepathy (yeah, that’s in there too). It’s about humanity, about existence, and she guides us to faraway lands and distant stars so that we can better meet ourselves. And by stepping out of our world for a moment into another that is so completely different, we can look back with changed eyes.

I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.*

If you read this book, she will take you through the winding streets of Karhide and across the snowy mountains of Winter. And what you find there might be a fascinating thought-experiment on the possibilities of existence within our galaxy or perhaps it will be something more. Le Guin said it best: “…truth is a matter of the imagination.”

*from the Ace Books 1969 edition with introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin


Shadow and Act by Ralph Ellison



Shadow and Act is a collection of essays, critiques, and interviews discussing everything from literature to society to politics to race to jazz to being a writer. But Ellison is not satisfied with a mere analysis of what is.

He delves further, into the psychological, into the human condition, into the factors and influences that make us who we are regardless of social status or skin color. Ellison rejects the idea that we are trapped within our circumstances but believes that the innate human desire to assert our humanity and simply be, freely, can and must be fulfilled.

Accordingly, each patient, whether white or black, is approached dynamically as a being possessing a cultural and biological past who seeks to make his way toward the future in a world wherein each discovery about himself must be made in the here and now at the expense of hope, pain, and fear — a being who in responding to the complex forces of America has become confused.*

This thread leads us through his discussions of jazz and the genre’s trajectory from small dance halls to a cultural revolution to his discussions of literature where he shares his desire to be seen not as a Black writer but simply a writer expressing his own condition. This desire and his preference for writers like Hemingway earned him criticism for not being loyal to his perceived social group. We are not strangers to these challenges today. How does one simultaneously take pride in being a woman writer while raging against a system that requires such a distinction be made?

Ellison draws back the elusive curtain over the American dilemma, diving into the psychological, rejecting the idea of an America divided simply by color, a tenuous distinction at best, and drawing our attention to the underlying refusal to acknowledge the humanity of all those who live within it. America cannot be seen as two distinct entities but only a deeply flawed whole.

Ellison not only provides insight into a situation that continues to torment America but also shares through his own life the journey we all make as we progress from our beginnings, fighting ever upward to find our place within the world.

*from “Harlem is Nowhere” discussing the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic


Honorable Mentions

Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Children of Hurin tells the tale of Turin and his struggle against the ever-present shadow of Morgoth that lies over his family.

I pride myself on having read much of Tolkien’s Middle Earth literature, but this book caught me by surprise. I’ve never known Tolkien to be a particularly poignant writer (his writing can tend to be a little dry), but again and again, I found myself drawn into Turin’s struggle and despair.

If you’re a fan of Tolkien, I would recommend this and “Aldarion and Erendis” from Unfinished Tales.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

In The Turn of the Screw, a governess takes on the care of two children in a remote English manor, and as expected in a remote English manor, dark deeds transpire.

It’s a twisting and ambiguous ghost story that will leave you wondering what was and wasn’t real. James gives nothing up easily, and if you’re like me, you’ll dive back in to find the answers yourself.

James does tend to ramble, so if you’re not a fan of long-winded monologues, you may want to pass.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Another twisting and psychological horror story, The Haunting of Hill House follows Eleanor who, with a group of others, is invited to visit a house with a dark past.

Like Henry James, Jackson leaves you wondering what is and isn’t real as the line between the preternatural and the psychological grows ever thinner. However, don’t expect white-knuckle reading. Neither this book nor The Turn of the Screw is a scary read.

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf

Moments of Being is a collection of essays and autobiographical writings. The title is taken from Woolf’s description of life as a series of scenes, vivid and bright with importance, surrounded by a fog of normal existence.

It’s an excellent glimpse into the fragility of life during her era. Her family was haunted by death and tragedy, and she, her sisters, and her mother struggled to carry the heavy emotional burdens placed upon them.

I recommend this book if you want to understand more about Woolf’s style as a writer and the events in her life that influenced her stories.


I could talk forever about these books and their authors. They all left little sparks behind, but another year is coming and with it another stack of books to be read. For now, these will be lovingly tucked onto their shelves for next time.

May the last few days of 2020 be the best yet, and may you have a Happy New Year! I will see you in 2021.

~ R. E. Rule


All 2020 Reads (in no particular order):

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
Sylvie and Bruno (Lewis Carroll)
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin)
The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett)
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels (Henry James)
Unfinished Tales (J. R. R. Tolkien)
The Children of Hurin (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
Stardust (Neil Gaiman)
The Phantom Toolbooth (Norton Juster)
Holidays on Ice (David Sedaris)
Dark Tales (Shirley Jackson)
The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)
Mirrors (Eduardo Galeano)
Shadow and Act (Ralph Ellison)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Moments of Being (Virginia Woolf)
The Voyage Out (Virginia Woolf)
The Shining (Stephen King)
Kings of the Wyld (Nicholas Eames)*
H is for Homicide (Sue Grafton)*

*did not finish

Other References:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Ellison
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_K._Le_Guin

Tiny Tales Podcast Ep. 29: Kismet

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

Sometimes when you just want breakfast, the universe has other plans.

Voices in Order of Appearance:
Frank Nawrot (https://www.franknawrot.com/)
Gretchen Pille (https://www.gretchenpille.com/)
R. E. Rule (https://www.rerulewrites.com/)
Matthew Ferrandino (is a music theorist, composer, and teacher. His scholarship focuses on the analysis of popular music and music videos.)
Dutcher Snedeker (https://www.dutchersnedeker.com/)
Kristin Newbegin (https://www.kristinnewbegin.com/)

Check out our website: www.tinytalespodcast.com
Support us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/rerule

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule

Tiny Tales Podcast: REPLAY

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

Revisiting two of our favorites.

Check out our website: www.tinytalespodcast.com
Support us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/rerule

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule

Aftermath

Leaves skittered across the cabin floor, caught in the whirl and eddy of a night-time breeze. The door creaked on broken hinges. On the hearth, graying embers hissed and spat as cooling tea crept from the shattered mug into the red glow.

A chair lay on its side, one leg mangled. The end of the heavy bed jutted out into the room, lines in the dust where it had reluctantly moved from its place. Blankets lay crumpled over deep grooves carved into the heart of the wooden floor.

A scarlet drop ran along the jagged glass in the windowsill. With a soft moan, the tattered curtains gave way and fluttered to the floor. A red splash was painted there, leading out into the darkness, across the soft dirt, disappearing among the brooding trees.

Through the oppressive night shuddered a mournful cry.


Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Tiny Tales Podcast Ep. 28: Leaving Town

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

You can take the town out of the person, but you can’t take the person out of the town.

Check out our website: www.tinytalespodcast.com
Support us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/rerule

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule

Friday Flashback: Wait! There’s More…

“Wait! There’s More…” was inspired by a very unfortunate encounter with a used car salesman.

Read:

The ground wavered far below as I uneasily stepped over the gap to the top of the building. The door slid shut behind me, and with a whoosh, the airbus rejoined the lanes of aerial traffic whizzing past. Rows of dormant aeromobiles lined the rooftop, and at the far end, a sign emblazoned with ‘Fergin’s Discount Transportation Sales & Services’ hovered in midair, affixed to the transparent, electrostatic walls of an office… [keep reading]

Listen:


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The Weather Is Turning Cold

The weather is turning cold.

It makes me hungry for surf-battered shores and sharp-bladed grasses,
for the smell of salt and snow in the air,
for grim, gray rocks carpeted with lichen.

The weather is turning cold.
It makes me hungry for the sea.


Photo Credit: Dartrider
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rocky_shore_on_St._Croix_US_Virgin_Islands,_habitat_of_Cittarium_pica.jpg

Tiny Tales Podcast Ep. 27: X Marks the Spot

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

If you don’t have anything nice to say, consider burial instead.

Check out our website: www.tinytalespodcast.com
Support us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/rerule

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule

X Marks the Spot

                There’s nothing left of our village but a big charred spot and a few blackened logs still valiantly standing upright. It was razed to the ground, and seeing that we were a small coastal community located next to pirate-infested seas, you’d think it was them that did it.

                In a way, it was the pirates that set the whole thing off. They were always coming in and pillaging and being a general all-around nuisance until some clever person years back decided the best way to fend them off was to beat them at their own game. If we buried all our valuables and made out to be nothing but a poor sea village, they’d have no warrant to come and bother us. It wasn’t long before the citizens rivaled the squirrels for nesting away their goods in the forest, and you could hardly stick a spade in the ground without hitting someone’s forgotten chest or sack of gold.

                Eventually the pillagers, being a naturally lazy lot, showed up less often until they stopped coming together. Unfortunately by the time it was safe to retrieve our valuables, everyone had forgotten where they’d buried what. It wasn’t for lack of looking, but inevitably you found something that belonged to somebody else.

                At first, the finders generously took a finder’s fee, pocketing a portion of the re-discovered goods in return for the hassle of finding the owner, which was all well and good until it came to paying for your own valuables when the whole deal suddenly seemed a lot less fair. Fed up with that, we decided to forget the whole system and the finders could just keep whatever they found. The forest soon turned into a field of pits and exposed roots surrounded by a ring of growing dirt mounds you had to clamber over as everyone frantically tried to dig up whatever they could. This system certainly motivated, but it crumbled when the blacksmith, a seven-foot man with arms the size of barrels dug up a chest full of silk dresses and decided he neither wanted nor needed them. And the previous owner of the dresses, who had unearthed his broadsword beneath a copse of oaks, decided she’d much rather keep the weapon.

                As chaotic as this sounds, it would have settled itself in the end. The real problems began when we unearthed the journal. The original owner declined to reveal themselves (which was a wise choice as it turns out), and the finder delved into the brittle pages to see if they could puzzle out who it was. What they found was a collection of gossip so vile, so despicable, that they promptly shared it with everyone in the immediate vicinity.

               Once we started reading it, we obviously couldn’t stop. Whoever wasn’t mentioned within the pages must be the author, so it had to be carefully read from cover to cover and the vicious gossip identified. But nobody trusted anybody else to do the reading, in case they were the one who had penned it, and it became a public event which any and all could attend (and they did). And as there were quite a few names to be checked off before we got to the end, wild suspicions and accusations were flying before we’d even gotten ten pages in.

                On page three, the tavern keeper, a large and balding man, was described as “a lump of rancid lard” who smelled about as bad, and his ale was only slightly preferable to drinking the seawater that dripped from dead fish as they hung in the sun to dry. The outraged tavern keeper was convinced that the fisherman had done it, having always harbored a deep dislike for the man despite their feigned friendship, and sliced all his nets in the night. Again, it might have blown over except he just couldn’t hold back from telling the fisherman that maybe he should worry about his own smell. The fisherman, who had genuinely believed they were friends up until that moment and just now realizing the truth of the matter, poked holes in all the barrels of ale, flooding the tavern, and left behind a very generous and very fishy gift. (The tavern keeper opened his door the next morning to find a collection of very drunk eels.)

                After that, the entire village dissolved into chaos. Every secretly remembered insult and offense came barreling back into the light of day until people barricaded themselves in their homes at night and refused to speak to each other in the streets.

                The last straw (or the first spark) was the lengthy section describing the ineptitude, inability, and complete lack of imagination the town builder displayed in whatever project she touched. This was crowned by an assertion that the inhabitants would probably prefer to live in piles of cow dung over the buildings she created which so closely resembled them. She, the victim of a failed romance with the farrier, focused all her rage on him, and that night set fire to the stable she had so lovingly built, rather stupidly forgetting that all the houses were made of wood and built rather close together, and it wasn’t long before the whole thing went up like a great big hunk of dried dung.

                So now the village is nothing but a smoking black spot on the coast. The citizens cleared out shortly afterward, preferring to take their chances sailing with the pirates than staying one more moment with their loving neighbors. The journal disappeared in the fire, and the author, whoever it was, was never revealed. I have to imagine they were just expressing well-deserved and rather artfully described grievances. But it was rather disconcerting to watch a group of seemingly civil people descend into a pitchfork-wielding mob over a few innocent observations.

                In my defense, when I buried the thing, I didn’t think anyone would find it.


Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charred_Log,Park_Point_Beach,_Duluth(33615120923).jpg

Tiny Tales Podcast Ep. 26: Missed Connections

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

One day on a bus. A moment in the never-ending journey we call life.

Check out our website: www.tinytalespodcast.com
Support us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/rerule

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule