Posts Tagged ‘Charles Behlen’

The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I Have Read in 2020


This being the year of the lockdown, I had time to read a couple of lengthy doorstop novels (‘The Maias’ and ‘Life A User’s Manual’) just like I used to do before I began writing regular blog posts. Also this year I discovered that there was some amazing fiction from the past which I had missed previously.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the cover image to see my original review for each work.


The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós (1888) – ‘The Maias’ is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Readers new to Eça de Queirós can start with the short novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ to determine if you like his style of writing or not.


‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – ‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred. ‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.




‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) – A most intense depiction of family life and death in the late 16th century. Imagine an entire novel about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.




‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2017) – ‘Tyll’ is a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Missionaries’ by Phil Klay (2020) – ‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is most focused on the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. It is a novel that will change your entire worldview.


‘Woe From Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.


‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – Someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ does. Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.


‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – ‘Hurricane Season’ is not for the squeamish or easily offended. The characters in this novel tell the truth about some very rough things. They are angry and the words they use are coarse and direct. Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.



Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – These eloquent stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite. This is a collection of short stories which will move you if you are willing to be moved.


‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – ‘Such a Fun Age’ is a novel with a light touch that captures the dialogue of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women. Kiley Reid’s enthusiasm for her story rubs off on the reader.


Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain (2020) – ‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create. One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.


‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – I just cannot leave this novel off my year’s best list even though at times I loathed, loathed it and at other times I loved, loved it.






Also this year I read two excellent works of non-fiction – ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson and ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan.





My favorite collection of poems in 2020 is ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen.










‘Failing Heaven’, Poems by Charles Behlen – The Real, Sometimes Cruel, World


‘Failing Heaven’, Poems by Charles Behlen     (2014) – 103 pages

The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen are ones to which I could easily and fully understand and relate. These poems are forthright, blunt, explicit, and candid. These are valuable qualities that you don’t often find in poetry.

My problem with much other poetry is that I cannot empathize with the writer. A lot of poetry seems to be written by the Lord or Lady of the Manor as he or she surveys the flora, fauna, and fowl on their estate. It is all so very restrained and refined, but the poetry doesn’t hit me where it hurts. The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ hit me where it hurts.

I was born on a small farm near a Wisconsin town where the local Rod and Gun club during their annual event hung up a canvas in which a guy, my uncle’s hired hand Harry, was paid to stick his head through a hole in the canvas, and the local townspeople would pay money to throw ripe tomatoes and raw eggs at his head. Harry was happy to get a little extra beer money. I watched this when I was a kid, but it was discontinued when I was about 6 or 7.

So in the first poem, ‘Iron Lung’, when the county fair has a display of little children with polio on ventilators, I remembered when county fairs pulled stunts like that.

A couple of the farms in our neighborhood were rented out to poor families. Sometimes a landlord would kick a family out of their home on short notice for not paying the rent or for some other reason. The short poem ‘Home’ captures that sense of hurried abandonment.


by Charles Behlen

Someone must have given up                                            halfway to the alley.

In backyard weeds                                                                            a rocking horse

lies upside down                                                                              on a wadded dress,

shoebox swollen                                                                           with cancelled checks.

Now the rain starts to fall                                                           and the bell in the horse’s

broken-out chest                                                                         sings to a house

that is silent, cold                                                                         and growing dark.

Even though many of these poems take place in Texas, I am a guy from up north in Minnesota who could easily identify with them.

Not all of these poems are about the coarse side of life in the sticks. The poem ‘Uirsche’s First Three Decades ‘ deals with the battle of Arnhem in World War II, and the poem ‘National Corpse’ concerns the battle of Verdun in World War I. These lines from ‘National Corpse’ express my own view of World War I:

But the big and obvious question remains:

How did a bunch of interrelated royals

churn this earth into a boiling barbed-wired mass

of blasted trees, blown-off faces

face-up on the roads – all hung with the unshake-

able stink of cordite, alcohol-soaked bandages,

dead horses, dead men?

These poems aim directly for your senses, and they are accurate. Not every poem hit home for me; that would be too much to ask of any poet, but enough of them did to make reading these poems several times a rewarding experience.

Finally, the scenes of nature in ‘Failing Heaven’ are not your typical serene idyllic scenes of nature. Here is from “Ballad of MacKenzie Park”:

A swan lay in the rushes,

killed with a bottle of beer.

It’s neck lay in the water,

one white wing on a tire.”

The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ depict the real, sometimes cruel, world.


Grade:    A




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