Recommended Reading List August 2009

With this, I officially catch up from the computer meltdown in June. Next month, I’ll post September’s list.  Here’s August.

August was the longest month on record. I have no idea why. It just seemed to last forever. I’m rather startled that it’s over.

I started a lot of books in August, and am still reading most of them. Because of all of our commitments, I lost reading time—or I was too tired to focus on words when my day ended. I can only see more lost reading time ahead. What I did read, I enjoyed, as you can tell from the recommendations below.

August, 2009

Buzbee, Lewis, Steinbeck’s Ghost, Feiwel and Friends, 2008. Last year, well-known mystery bookseller, Sheldon McArthur, who retired to our little town in Lincoln City, read this book and loved it. He brought a copy to the weekly lunch to give it away to all of us, and no one wanted it. Finally, he pushed it into my hands. “You have to read this,” he said.

So I set it on my to-read shelf, and one particularly stressful night when I was out of YA novels to read, I picked up Steinbeck’s Ghost. The cover said middle grade to me. In fact, it said skews young, but I remembered Shelly’s rec and decided to give the book a chapter or two.

I finished it in one reading. Shelly was right; the book was excellent. It’s about libraries and Steinbeck and losing friends and pursuing money instead of family and California and all kinds of things, but mostly it’s about the importance of books. Good books. (It also has a great lesson for writers tucked in the book’s yummy ending—although that lesson isn’t want the book is about. You’ll know it when you read it.)

The book doesn’t skew young. It doesn’t skew too old either. It’s just right, and it made me want to go back and reread Steinbeck—not just the school stuff, but the haunting stories as well. (It amazes me how much of Steinbeck I remember, even after thirty-mumble years. I can even tell you where I was when I read The Pearl.)

A neat added feature of the book is that it has a bibliography at the end, so if the book inspires you to read about California or Steinbeck, you have a handy-dandy guide. Highly recommended—and I’m sorry, Shelly, that I waited so long to read it.

Gopnik, Adam, “The Last of the Great Metrizoids,” Through the Children’s Gate, Vintage, 2007. Gopnik is probably the only writer I know who can combine football, the Met, and dying into one heartwarming essay. The title refers to a friend of his, an art historian who used to play football, who is dying of cancer. In his last year, he coaches a football team for eight-year-olds. I don’t want to say much more, because that will spoil the essay for you, but let me just add that the part about the Hail Mary pass is priceless in and of itself.

Gopnik, Adam, Through the Children’s Gate, Vintage, 2007. A fascinating book, particularly after reading Paris to the Moon, which ends in 2000. That year, Gopnik and his family move back to New York City. The following year, on his daughter Olivia’s birthday, the terrorists strike the Twin Towers, and everything changes.

But the book isn’t about 9/11. Instead, it’s about raising a family in the most complicated city in the United States. The mood shifts from happy to destroyed to hopeful. Each essay does stand alone. (I’ve pointed out two, but there are others that I liked as well.) This book and Paris to the Moon should be read together. They’re marvelous.

King, Stephen, “My Screen Addiction,” Entertainment Weekly, July 31, 2009. Oh, I resemble this column. I identified with it, perhaps too much. King read that the average American spends 8.5 hours per day in front of various screens, and then he decided to see if he fit into that category. Courageous man, he did the math. I’m afraid to. Because I loves my screens. And I have even more of them now than I did when the column came out. Check out the column and see if you recognize someone—maybe even yourself.

Larsson, Steig, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Knopf, 2008. I’ve had this book since last summer. I meant to read it when I got the ARC (from Shelly, natch, after he finished and reviewed it), but I didn’t get around to it. Then the book started racking up award nominations and stellar reviews—and, honestly, that sort of thing intrigues me but also turns me off. You see, it activates my inner critic, the one who is determined to make sure I argue with conventional wisdom.

So I gave the book that proverbial single chapter, and I couldn’t put the damn thing down. The story’s structure is odd—more like the structure of a fantasy trilogy (over-arching story, with a lot of little conflicts and resolutions [which in a fantasy trilogy make up the individual books])—and the ending even odder. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does.

In fact, nothing about this book should work. The girl in the title has Asperger’s Syndrome and should be utterly unsympathetic, yet she’s marvelous. Reviews mention her all the time. But they ignore the other balancing point: the crusading journalist who decides to hire her. The journalist has to be based on Larsson himself, who was a crusading journalist before he had a heart attack and died much too young. Fortunately, he finished three of these books. I plan to read the next one as soon as I pick up a copy, and the third when it gets released.

Rayner, Richard, A Bright and Guilty Place, Doubleday, 2009. I bought this book on its topic alone which is, as the dust jacket says, “Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age.” Then I saw reviews, which were none too kind. They called the book a poorly written mess, disorganized, and hard to follow.

And, yes, they have a point. The organization isn’t a standard non-fiction history organization. Rayner’s writing style is odd to say the least. (Occasionally I actually had to stop to parse a sentence.) Yet the book is extremely compelling. It reads like a novel and sent me on a long-overdue quest to read all my other books on L.A. My office is now stacked high with them.

In addition to all the scandal, there are some nice bits on Raymond Chandler and Earle Stanley Gardner. Fun and dishy about people long dead. Read and enjoy.

Spinrad, Norman, “On Books: What Killed Tom Disch?” Asimov’s April/May, 2009. Norman and I don’t always agree on things, so when I saw the title of his book review column, written shortly after Thomas Disch died, I put off reading it. I figured I knew what it said—that science fiction killed Tom Disch or publishing killed Tom Disch. And in some ways, Norman makes that point. But to say that’s what this compassionate and heart-felt essay is about is to cheapen what he has does here. He writes an excellent memorial to a friend who committed suicide and explored what led up to that death, with clarity and insight. And I can’t agree more with his point of view. Read this. You’ll be moved even if you never met Tom Disch (or even if you have).

Stabenow, Dana, “Wreck Rights,” Wild Crimes, edited by Dana Stabenow, Signet 2004. A story about car accidents in which nothing is as it seems. Set in Alaska and featuring her detective Kate Shugak, the story doesn’t feel like part of a larger piece. It has power and an intriguing mystery at its core.

Stabenow, Dana, editor,Wild Crimes, Signet 2004. Aside from the two stories I mentioned this month and last, there are no real stand-outs in this volume, but there are no duds either. Not a one. Every story has power and every story is worth the time it takes to read it. All are set in “the wild,” usually meaning the west or Alaska or a little explored part of the United States. Worth picking up if you can find it.

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