I got behind this month, since I’m moving my office, but here’s April’s list. It’s another long list, without a lot of nonfiction on it, since most of what I’ve been reading for research is somewhat dry (she writes with great understatement). The essays and fiction reading have been wonderful this month, and I rediscovered a few authors I forgot about, found a few I had meant to read, and one I had mistaken for someone else.
All in all, a very good month.
Allyn, Doug, “The Valhalla Verdict,” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April, 2009. Doug Allyn has a gift for the double reversal, one that fits with both plot and character. “The Valhalla Verdict” is a case in point—a strong story that has its share of surprises for the reader and for the main character. I don’t dare say much more except read the story. It’s excellent.
Balogh, Mary, Then Comes Seduction, Dell, 2009. I nearly stopped reading this novel in the middle. I set it down for days, and wondered why. As I’ve said before, I love Mary Balogh’s work. So I picked it up again and realized what had bothered my subconscious.
The book’s hero is the victim of severe verbal abuse. He begins the novel drunk, and does something horrible to our heroine—although midway through, he realizes what he is doing and stops. The main action of the book takes place three years later, when the events of that night become public.
While this is an historical romance novel, it is at its core a novel about the cycle of abuse and how to break free of that abuse. Because I’ve lived that cycle, I often abandon books on this topic out of sheer personal discomfort.
I’m glad I didn’t quit this time. The book is sensitive and beautifully done. It treats almost everyone involved (except the initial abuser—long dead when the story opens) fairly and with compassion. The romance is damn fine, the characters excellent, and the writing lovely. I can’t recommend the book enough.
Child, Lee, Bad Luck and Trouble, Dell, 2007. I kept seeing Lee Child books and hearing how wonderful they were. But I had read one a dozen years ago and hadn’t liked it—or so I thought. Then in the middle of April, I was reading a review in Publisher’s Weekly (yes, I know, I occasionally have positive responses to reviews, and I do read them) and realized that I had confused Lee Child with another author who debuted about the same time and had a similar name.
So I headed to the local used bookstore to see if my assumption of mistaken identity was correct. It was. I bought a Lee Child book on the spot.
Child has a series character named Jack Reacher. Reacher is, according to some reviewers, “a tough rough Superman of the crime-busting genre,” but he isn’t. He’s Travis McGee updated for a modern generation. (Of course, most modern reviewers have never read Travis McGee, but I digress.)
In Bad Luck and Trouble, Reacher’s old friends from his special investigations unit in the military start disappearing. The rest of the unit gets together to solve the case. The opening is terrifying and quick, the middle of the book a solid investigative mystery, and the end a slam-bam thriller. I wondered how Child would keep Reacher the hero when the rest of the team was so fascinating, but I needn’t have worried. He pulled it off.
The novel is a strangely moral bit of fiction as well. (Or maybe not so strange. If Child’s model is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, then morality is to be expected.) Except for one dog dying rather horribly off-scene, innocents seem to be off-limits (children, families) at least in this book. By the time I got to the dog, I was so deeply involved in the book that I didn’t care. (Often I quit novels when pets and children die needless gruesome deaths. It’s the needless part that I dislike, done purely for sensationalism. In this case, the dog’s death makes sense, sadly, and it makes me wonder how many animals do indeed die in this way.)
Anyway, I’ve got the upcoming novel on order, and I’m heading back to the used bookstore for the rest that store has in stock. (My tiny town doesn’t have a new bookstore—and the grocery stores only carry the current bestsellers.) What I can’t find, I’ll order. Now. Great job, Child. Highly recommended.
Child, Lee, The Killing Floor, Dell, 1998. I liked Bad Luck and Trouble so much that I picked up the entire inventory of Child’s work at the used bookstore. Then I ordered the rest of his oeuvre. I plan to read them all in order, with something else in between so that I don’t o.d. (I did that with Jim Butcher. I’m just about ready to start reading him again. One year later.)
This book was a complete shock. It’s in first person and it’s introspective. Bad Luck and Trouble is anything but. The POV character—Jack Reacher—is the same.
I like the first-person Reacher and wonder why Child abandoned him. In fact, I like him a lot more than 3rd person Reacher, whom I also liked. But by the second book (which I’ve just picked up), Child is writing in 3rd person. Dunno why. Would love to ask someday.
I loved this book. It’s much more powerful than Bad Luck and Trouble, which I enjoyed. Definitely one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a long, long time.
Gibson, William, Spook Country, G.P. Putnam, 2007. It’s been years since I’ve read a Bill Gibson novel. Dunno why I stopped, perhaps because he publishes so infrequently that I just forget. In fact, I picked up the paperback edition (the premium paperback edition, one of those annoying too-tall paperbacks designed to cost too much money and not fit on your shelves) at a local department store. I had seen the book there (with a nicely designed cover) and remember that I wanted to read it.
I’m glad I did. Spook Country follows three rather disaffected characters: Hollis, a rocker turned journalist; Tito, a young man who is involved in something shady (sponsored by someone who knew his dad in Castro’s Cuba); and Milgrim, a drug addict who may or may not have been kidnapped.
Of course, all of their stories come together. The stories also intersect on a metaphorical level. Hollis meets artists who create ghosts of dead rockers on sidewalks (spooks in other words); Tito might be a spy (another spook); and Milgrim doesn’t seem to exist except in squalid hotel rooms paid for by his possible captor (a third kind of spook). Spook country may be the worlds they inhabit, or it may be the United States, which became, after 9/11, a shadow of its former self, afraid of everything and filled with spies.
This novel is billed as a mainstream spy thriller, but it’s much more than that. It’s a meditation on where we find ourselves now, yet it has the distance that Canadians have when it comes to the U.S. (Yes, Bill is a Canadian and the climax takes place in Vancouvery, B.C.) It’s also a wry and somewhat humorous take on the ridiculous seriousness that crept into our lives under the Bush administration. And it’s got hints of the future. Bill had to have written this book in 2006, yet some of the technology he describes here has only just filtered into the public consciousness, three years later. Bill is one of our most visionary writers, and in that, Spook Country does not disappoint.
In fact, it doesn’t disappoint at all. It’s excellent. Read it, even if the annoying paperback edition doesn’t fit on specially built paperback bookshelves.
Gopnik, Adam, “Talk it Up,” The New Yorker, March 2, 2009. A lovely little critical essay on Damon Runyon, occasioned by the revival of “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway. Gopnik looks at Runyon’s writings, the biographies of Runyon (all of which he finds wanting—not because they’re bad, but because they aren’t deep), and the musical itself. He links Runyon to Raymond Chandler (which makes sense to probably everyone) and also to David Mamet, which was a stretch to me at first, but I was convinced by the end. Gopnik finds similarities in their dialogue, stylized and slang-filled. I’ll grant him that. The essay did what good essays should, made me want to explore the subject myself, even though I’ve read Runyon and Chandler and Mamet, and see “Guys and Dolls.” Now I want to do it all again.
Kamp, David, “Rethinking the American Dream,” Vanity Fair, April, 2009. Fascinating article on the history of the American Dream. Not just the history of the phrase, which he does explore in this piece, but the history of the concept as well. While I knew that the innate optimism of Americans is one of our best (and most unusual) qualities as a nation, I did not know most of this. Kamp looks at how this dream got twisted into a materialistic dream beginning in the 1950s and becoming a frightening spiral by the 1990s. Now that the materialistic American Dream is imploding, Kamp has some suggestions for ways to view our future—without losing our optimism. Worth reading just for the history, but his take on the future is good too.
Keeffe, Patrick, “Teachers Who Changed My Life,” On Wisconsin, Spring 2009. The alumni magazine for the University of Wisconsin-Madison always has excellent articles. It’s one of the best alumni magazines I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. This essay by a fulltime writer on learning to write at the UW is excellent. Maybe I identified with it because I had one of the same teachers. But I like to think that excellent teaching is universal, and the lessons Keeffe learned here are ones that all great teachers impart.
King, Stephen, “The Pop of King: In Bad Company,” Entertainment Weekly, April 3, 2009. For EW’s heroes and villains issue, King serves up a list of ten of the worst fictional book bad guys ever. It’s a great list,truly notable for its use of books instead of movies or television. In fact, King lists a few bad guys I’d only encountered in film (the Robert Mitchum character in Cape Fear ) and says the book is better. In this case, the book is The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. Since I’m about to go on a John D. MacDonald binge in preparation for a new project (don’t I have a great job?), I was happy to see this one.
But the others are good too. I agree with the ones I’ve read, although I’m really not sure I’d even put Voldemort on the list, particularly when you have mega-baddies like Sauron on there. But to each his own. I can think of one or two King baddies who would be on my list, like Jack Torrance of The Shining—not the movie version, but the book version, a man too human and too sad to be anything but truly evil.
King, Stephen, UR, Kindle Books, Amazon.com, February, 2009. I loved this story. Midway through reading it, I announced to the cat asleep on the pillow beside me that I loved the story. She didn’t care.
As I started the story, however, I didn’t think I would like it much, even though I’m a big King fan. The story, available only on the Kindle, is about someone resistant to reading on computer who, for personal reasons, finally orders a Kindle. Of course, since this is a King story, he gets an ominous magic Kindle (bubblegum pink instead of white). King gets to describe all the gadgetry of the Kindle and the reading experience on the Kindle, which gives the opening a very meta-fiction feel. I was beginning to think I was reading a Kindle ad.
Then…oh, then…he got into the really seductive part of the Kindle for the reader—all the books available for instant download—and expanded it. What if you could get not just all the books in the universe, but all books in every universe? And that’s only the first conceit of the story. It gets better from there.
Borrow someone’s Kindle. Download. Enjoy.
Price, Jenny, “Bedtime Story,” On Wisconsin, Spring 2009. Usually articles on current research are interesting, but not recommendation worthy. This one is because it’s about cutting edge sleep research at the University of Wisconsin, one of the main research institutions in the world.
The article is notable, not just for what the scientists are doing, but for the facts it has on sleep. I learned a lot about the importance of sleep (beyond get your 8 hours) and how sleep effects the brain. There’s also a nifty, nifty graph on the way humans use their time (36% of our lives are spent eating as opposed to 5% spent eating and drinking). Some of the information in here made me think of Nancy Kress’s classic novella Beggars in Spain, which is about children who’ve been engineered so that they don’t have to sleep (she later turned it into a series of novels). Even though this research didn’t exist when Nancy finished the original novella, she extrapolated very well.
Read the article; learn something about yourself.
Purdom, Todd, “Children of Paradise,” Vanity Fair, March, 2009. A nice little nostalgia piece about a strange world, now gone. The children of Hollywood grew up in a protected mid-century normal environment, going to Hollywood High, and hanging out in what they called the Village. Most of the interviewees, like Candace Bergen, Marlo Thomas, and Robert Wagner, are in their sixties and seventies now. They view their pasts with forgiveness (something Bergen did not do twenty years ago) and a longing for time gone by. This is fun, if only as an alien environment story mixed with ancient Hollywood gossip.
Raffles, Hugh, “Cricket Fighting,” The Best American Essays 2008, edited by Adam Gopnik, Houghton Mifflin, 2008. The breadth and depth of the world’s differences often stuns me. The essay here, about gambling on cricket fights in China, surprised me with its science fictional qualities. Cricket fighting is apparently an old tradition in China, and might just be dying off. Like so many things here, it has become a victim to a faster-paced culture.
But among middle-aged and older Chinese, cricket fighting remains a grand tradition. Crickets are venerated and studied. I learned a lot about crickets in this essay, and loved the bits of wisdom imparted. This essay is worth the price of the volume all by itself.
Rhodes, Stephen, “At the Top of His Game,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2008, edited by George Pelicanos, Houghton Mifflin, 2008. I love great con men stories, and what better place to set a con man story than the high-powered Wall Street firms of pre-2008. Rhodes, who works on Wall Street himself, obviously saw this whole debacle coming, which is just a sidebar on this marvelous story.
This is a con on top of a con on top of a con story, well written and well done. It’s going to be expanded into a novel, which I already have on order, based on the story. Wonderful stuff.
Shaw, Sam, “Run Like Fire Once More,” The Best American Essays, 2008, edited by Adam Gopnik, Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Apparently, every summer, a group of runners run a small urban course in Jamaica, Queens. They run a race that covers 3,100 miles, so they run for weeks, usually covering fifty miles per day.
Sam Shaw ran with them for one day, didn’t make his fifty miles, and studied them for the rest of the race. These runners don’t get paid; they do this for the spiritual value. As a person who runs a track daily with my trusty iPod, I found this particular essay fascinating. I couldn’t imagine running from sunup to sundown, fifty miles on the same course, every day, until I’d covered 3100 miles.
But Shaw helped me understand both what it was like to do such a thing and why someone would. That’s one of the best things the essay form can do—explain inexplicable behavior, and make that behavior worthy, even poetic.
Slater, Lauren, “Tripp Lake,” The Best American Essays 2008, edited by Adam Gopnik, 2008. A lovely personal essay about fear and the beginnings of fear. Also about growing up and growing away from your nuclear family. Beautifully written and emotional.
Zacharias, Lee, “Buzzards,” The Best American Essays 2008, edited by Adam Gopnik, 2008. Someone needs to teach Lee Zacharias how to paragraph. Seriously. Paragraphing is more than just a way to separate topics in an essay; paragraphing also involves pacing. It also signals whether a piece reads quickly or slowly or not at all.
I almost opted for not at all, based entirely on the structure of the page. The visual presentation of Zacharias’s essay said, “boring textbook” to my mind’s eye. The first three-quarters of a page of blocky text is one solid paragraph. Since it was split over two pages, it may actually have been the first page.
Why do I tell you this? Because I love The Best American Essays volumes, and I’ve learned to trust the editors. I dip into each piece before deciding to continue or to pass. I dipped and stayed, but struggled with each page, mostly because I got lost in the big unnecessary blocks of text.
The essay itself is marvelous—an examination of the hated carrion birds over time and from a scientific perspective, interspersed with a sad personal essay about Zacharias’s unsympathetic father. I’m so glad I read this, but I almost didn’t, and I’m sure many people who bought the volume skipped right over the essay because of that stylistic quirk.
So when you get to Zacharias’s essay, read it. It’s one of the best essays in the book.