May Recommended Reading

I’m late posting this because it’s already been a busy month. And the list is short, since I taught a workshop. Reading a lot of student manuscripts cuts into my reading time. (Mostly proposals and queries this time. By the end of the workshop, they were very, very good–but I can’t recommend them, since most folks will never see them.)

I also read a lot of books that passed the time, but just didn’t excite me. So here’s what I did enjoy in May:

Barth, John, “Toga Party,” Best American Short Stories, edited by Stephen King, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Talk about judging a writer by his reputation. I’d always heard that Barth was lit’rary—which to me often means snobby and unappealing. His books look dry as toast as well. Needless to say, I’d never picked one up. I don’t read for intellectual pleasure or to impress my friends with my profound choices. I read for sheer enjoyment.

But I read the year’s bests every year to find new authors, and to look at trends. I also love short fiction, and every year, the BASS has some gems. Not as many as Best American Mysteries or the sf/f collections, but enough to keep me reading.

Imagine my surprise when I realized Barth was one of this year’s gems. Imagine how my surprise grew when I realized (from reading his bio) that I’d never given a story or novel of his a chance before.

“Toga Party” is set in an East Coast suburb, at a neighborhood party. The Toga Party, which comes from the movie Animal House, was a big deal when I was in college (yes, when Animal House came out—we even had a guy in my dorm who could take a mouthful of potatoes, like Bluto, and slap his cheeks, spraying them everywhere—popping a zit, as Bluto would say. And yes, in those days, that was impressive). So I was familiar with the concept of the party, which Barth got exactly right.

Only he set it among a community of older adults. So the togas didn’t drape shapely forms, like they did when I was in college, but aging bodies. The entire story is a wonderful treatise on growing older, on death, and on living. It’s beautifully written as well, and packs a hell of an emotional punch.

Surprised me. In a good way. Now I’m off to read more of Barth’s work.

Burke, James Lee, Jesus Out To Sea, Simon and Schuster, 2007. I almost didn’t buy this book. I’d read half of the short stories somewhere else—one or two in the Year’s Best Mystery, “Jesus Out To Sea,” and “The Night Johnny Ace Died,” in Esquire. The thing was, I remembered all the stories I’d read. I didn’t think the slim volume would be worth the $14 cover price.

Boy, was I wrong. First of all, the stories I hadn’t read, like “Texas City, 1947,” and “The Burning of the Flag,” were spectacular. Even better were the stories I’d already read. I had no idea that “Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine,” involved the same characters as “The Burning of the Flag.” I’d liked “Bugsy Siegel” without knowing that; I loved it once I knew.

And the title story, “Jesus Out To Sea,” is just plain heartbreaking, no matter how many times you read it.

I was going to single out the stories I liked, but I liked each and every one of them, as well as the collection as a whole. It’s marvelous. Burke is one of our very best writers.

Clark, Rod, “Voice Over: The Beast of Asje Road,” Rosebud, Spring, 2008. It’s been my privilege to have known J. Roderick Clark for nearly thirty years. We used to work together at WORT radio in Madison, on the old Wednesday night news crew. Rod would write a commentary on a manual typewriter, and read it live on-air an hour later. Even after 25 years, I still remember most of those commentaries (and sometimes quote them). Eventually, both Rod and I turned away from the news business and went into publishing. Rod has published Rosebud magazine for 41 issues now—and they’re always fiesty, interesting, and filled with excellent fiction.

Of course, I read his column, “Voice Over,” before reading the rest of the magazine. And this month’s VO is just plain charming. Even though I have trouble envisioning my now domesticated friend walking his dog every evening, at least he walks through the wilds of Wisconsin and imagines werewolves. Now that’s the Rod I know. Beautifully written and memorable, the essay is from the Rod I know as well. Order a copy and enjoy.

Cowdrey, Albert E., “Twilight States,” The Year’s best Fantasy and Horror 2006, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007. I bought Albert Cowdrey’s first short stories at F&SF when he returned to writing after a thirty year absence. I adore his work, and this story is no exception. It’s rich and detailed and the characters are beautifully drawn. Worth reading.

Epstein, Joseph, “My Brother Eli,” The Best American Short Stories, edited by Stephen King, Houghton Mifflin, 2008. I’ve been thinking about this story ever since I read it. It’s about the impact a writer has on his family, not just the writer in the story, but any writer. I’m not sure I agree with Epstein’s conclusions. I’m not sure I disagree with them either. But they sure caught me. The story was riveting and the characters memorable. And I’m still debating his theme–with myself, of course.

George, Elizabeth, Careless in Red, HarperCollins, 2008. I love Elizabeth George’s mystery novels. I’d forgotten, however, that George is one of the few writers who slows you down as a reader. Her writing demands word-to-word attention. Not only are the characters wonderful, the setting superb, and the plot interesting, but the writing itself is excellent.

Midway through this long (621 pages) novel, I had the thought that the novel was a small book. By this, I did not mean that the book was short or tiny; I meant that the subject matter didn’t seem grand enough for a bestselling novel. I didn’t mind; I figured a long-time bestseller like George could get away with that.

But in the last 100 pages, she upended my assumptions and made me realize that this tiny murder—the death of a boy rock climbing—was much, much larger than the single event. Heartbreaking, amazing. Elizabeth George wrote another marvelous book.

Jones, Chris, “The Things That Carried Him: The True Story of a Soldier’s Last Trip Home,” Esquire, May, 2008. Esquire and one or two other publications seem to be the only ones in America that realize 1) There’s a war going on; 2) America is fighting in it; and 3) the troops are citizens, with real lives, real families, and real pain. This particular article talks about something the Bush administration doesn’t want us to think about—the soldiers who’ve died.

The article itself is ingenious. Written in reverse order—starting at gravesite and going to the soldier’s actual death—the article has power because it does the unexpected. I had to read it over the course of several days. But read it I did. And read it you should. Just to honor the troops—and their families.

So there.

Klosterman, Chuck, “Chuck Klosterman’s America: Anyone Seen My $4.2 Billion?” Esquire, April, 2008. Finally, an answer to the decline in CD sales in the music industry, a decline that did not lead to an increase in on-line sales (even if Napster got counted). Worth checking out, just to give you something to think about.

Mamet, David, “The Audience; or Lessons from Duck Hunting,” Bambi vs. Godzilla, Patheon, 2007. This essay which focuses on convincing the audience is as much about politics (I kid you not!) as it is about moviemaking. And worth reading for the little nuggets of wisdom that appear throughout.

Mamet, David, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, Pantheon, 2007. As you can tell from all the highlighted essays, I loved this book. Everyone who is contemplating a career in Hollywood needs to read it, particularly the essay “Manners in Hollywood,” which begins with the phrase, “manners do not exist in Hollywood,” and goes on from there. At least, if you read this essay (and book) before you go, you won’t be surprised by what happens to you.

Those of us who have spent time in Hollywood just nod in recognition. But even if you’re not contemplating a career (or even a toe-dip) into that gigantic pond, you’ll find great stuff in here. Not just on critics or on writing (even though there is much here—and some great advice), but also on the movies themselves. For Mamet is a movie lover and it shows.

Mamet, David, “Reverence as Opposed to Love,” Bambi vs. Godzilla, Patheon, 2007. Finally, finally! Someone who agrees with me about actors. Much as I liked Olivier in Marathon Man, I thought he was vastly overrated in everything else. And so does Mamet. He lists Tony Curtis as one of the best actors of our time, citing Some Like It Hot and so many of his other films. Not because Tony Curtis was Acting, but because he became the characters. Yes! That’s it. That’s it exactly.

Sedaris, Dave, “April & Paris,” The New Yorker, March 24, 2008. It’s not often I laugh aloud when I’m reading. When I do, I’m startled by the writer’s sheer artistry and sheer audacity. Sedaris makes me laugh more than most humor writers do, maybe because he often writes about working from home. Not that this essay is overtly about working from home. It’s about one of those little obsessions that we self-employed homeworkers get. In Sedaris’s case, he became fascinated with the spiders on his window ledge. Um. Yep. That sounds familiar. Only my experiences with these tiny obsessions are never quite as funny….