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:



One day while traveling along the road, a man came across a small blossom of truth. Its petals were pure white and its stem soft and delicate. Fearing for its safety, he carefully picked it, wrapped it up, and put it in his pocket before continuing down the road.

                As he went, he met a woman sitting next to a tall flower. Its petals were a deep red, and the vines of its stems crawled up her arms.

                “What is that?” he asked, amazed.

                “Truth!” she said, inviting him to sit beside her and enjoy the scent of the flower, but he turned away.

                “That is not truth. I have seen it, and its petals are white as snow.”

                He continued on, clutching at the tiny blossom in his pocket as he went. Still further down the road, he passed a man leaning against a tall tree stretching up into the sky.

                “What is it?” he asked, astounded. “I have never seen anything like it.”

                “Truth,” said the man under its great branches.

               “That is not truth,” he scoffed. “I have seen truth; I carry it with me even now. Its stem is soft and delicate, not hard and rough.”

               He turned away and continued down the road, clutching at the blossom in his pocket still harder. Eventually, he came to a field filled with bright yellow flowers where several children were running and playing.

               “What is this that grows here?” he called to them.


               “This is not truth!” he cried, angered. “I carry truth with me!”

                “Let us see it then.” And the children gathered around, curious.

                He pulled it from his pocket, but to his dismay, the flower had withered, its stem becoming twisted and the petals blackened in the darkness. The roots clung to him, digging into his skin, and he hastily hid it away again.

                “You are children. If I say I have seen truth and this is not it, then you would be wise to listen.”

                He rushed away down the road, but as he tried to walk, the roots grew around him, tripping him and making it hard to breathe until he had to stop.

                “Curse this truth,” he sighed. “I wish I had left it where I found it.”

                With great pain, he ripped his truth from himself and cast it aside. But even as he did, he noticed another flower beside him, its petals a dark blue.

                “I will leave it where I found it this time,” he said as he studied the flower. “But I will visit it again to see if the rains have swept it away or the sun burned its leaves.”

                So, he went on his way, passing many blooms of different shapes and colors as he went, but he returned often. And each time he did, the flower had grown and changed, its roots digging deep and its leaves reaching for the sky.

               —Hold your truth in an open hand


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~ R. E. Rule

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The Best Lies

This boy had a VERY upset stomach the past few days. He is usually rambunctious and full of energy, so seeing him with no appetite, tail hanging, moping around behind me was emotionally/mentally draining. He’s thankfully on the mend now and back to his happy self. He wants to play; I want to sleep.

Little writing — and by little I mean none — was accomplished this week. Not that I wasn’t thinking about it. I do that constantly, whether I want to or not, especially at 1 AM when I’d prefer to be asleep. But somehow, that’s when my best thoughts come.

Last night yielded this: “Sometimes there were dreams, hazy half-remembrances of brighter colors, but they were followed by pain, an iron taste filling her mouth, and she let herself forget.” (I’m really proud of that sentence.)

This marks the 60th post on my blog since I began at the end of January. I don’t recognize myself as the same writer I was then. I won’t say I’m better, just different. I’m starting to understand that a writer’s job is to shape the negative space, manipulate the reader’s eye into thinking they see what is invisible and finding patterns that were never there. “The novelist’s business is lying.” (Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness). Good lies contain a grain of truth. The best lies start in the teller’s mind and finish in the listener’s. Then it must be true. It was the listener’s idea all along.

So I write, and I re-write and I re-write until I find the words I was looking for from the beginning. The voice must speak with confidence, even if it cracks and breaks, mumbles and mispronounces, stutters and forgets. Yesterday’s wisdom will be tomorrow’s folly, but nothing is gained standing still. And perhaps along the way, we can fool ourselves into thinking we are one step closer to perfection.

Or perhaps… I’m just sleep-deprived.

More soon.

~ R. E. Rule