June was the longest short month in existence. Each day felt like it was two days long. I have no idea why.
We traveled in June. Dean taught. I did a lot of work. And I read. And read. And read. So it was a good month.
In fact, it was a spectacular month, considering how much of what I read I enjoyed. This is a long list and I got a bit picky. If I had a few reservations about a book, I didn’t recommend it. An abundance of riches for once.
So far, however, July is starting slow…
Balogh, Mary, A Secret Affair, Delacorte, 2010. This is the book I was waiting for in the Huxtable series. It featured the most interesting of the Huxtables, Con, who couldn’t inherit because he was born two days early. He was a mysterious character in the previous books about the various Huxtables, and always the most fascinating whenever he was on stage. The novel itself didn’t disappoint, although I worried it might at the beginning. By the time we got to the middle, I was unable to put it down, and 75 pages from the end, I was in tears. An excellent novel. Now I want another.
Bowden, Mark, “The Professor of War,” Vanity Fair, May, 2010. I’m always two months behind in my magazine reading, so as I read this profile of General David Petraeus, he was testifying before Congress (and fainted—which was a surprise). The testimony made the article more interesting.
No matter how you feel about the various wars we’re fighting, you might want to look at this profile of the man running them. He’s impressive (as you might imagine) and has a vision for what he’s doing, based on a view of history that is quite different from the view held by the so-called Greatest Generation. That view alone made the profile worth my time. I got a better understanding of the man and what he’s trying to do. And the article itself challenged a few of my assumptions, something I adore. I like being forced to revisit my own opinions.
Read this, if only to understand a person with a lot of influence in the world at the moment.
Brinkley, Alan, “The Time of The Lives,” Vanity Fair, May, 2010. An utterly fascinating article about the start of Time Magazine back in the 1920s. This is an excerpt from the book, which I’m going to have to order now. You’ll see why below. I love the history of publishing, and this is another wonderful example. I didn’t realize the influence Time had on the language, let alone on publishing. Take a peek, and see if you want the book like I do.
Chabon, Michael, “Imaginary Homelands,” Maps and Legends: Reading And Writing Along The Borderlands, Harper Perennial edition, 2009. “Imaginary Homelands” is about writing, reader reaction, and the reactions of experts. It’s also about the genesis of Chabon’s award-winning, bestselling novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. If you like essays about a writer’s process, this essay is for you.
Chabon, Michael, Maps and Legends: Reading And Writing Along The Borderlands, Harper Perennial edition, 2009. After reading last month’s Recommended Reading List, you knew the Chabon book of essays had to be on my list. For the individual essays that I liked, see last month’s list, as well as the others that I liked in June. This slight collection is well written and fascinating.
Chabon, Michael, “Secret Skin,” Maps and Legends: Reading And Writing Along The Borderlands, Harper Perennial edition, 2009. A version of “Secret Skin” first appeared in The New Yorker. I liked the essay when I read it then and I like the slightly revised version now. The trade paper edition of this book includes the essay as an extra, and it’s a worthy extra. The essay is about important things like Superman’s cape and superheroes and how necessary they are. Pick up the book for this essay alone—but make sure you get the right edition.
Child, Lee, 61 Hours, Delacorte, 2010. I devoured this book in an instant. Okay—a night or two—but still. It’s a Jack Reacher novel, set in the dead of winter in the Dakotas. I felt the cold, and the hopelessness, and the sheer emptiness of the space. I got angry at Child for doing something he needed to do, and I admired his skill at ending the book properly (something some other authors, trying the same thing, weren’t able to do this year).
I don’t dare say any more without ruining the book for you. Suffice to say this is a spectacular Jack Reacher novel, and one you should buy immediately.
Dubé, Marcelle, On Her Trail, Carina Press, June 2010. When I’ve said in previous months that I’ve read some wonderful unpublished fiction, and editors should get off their butts and buy it, I am often talking about Marcelle Dubé. I’ve been lucky enough to read Marcelle’s work for years now. Most of you haven’t had the opportunity. Now you do.
Carina Press has just published her first novel. For those of you who don’t know about Carina, it’s an e-book only line started by Harlequin. They’re taking some risks in this line, and one of the risks they’re taking is to buy exceptional books that aren’t easily marketed.
Marcelle’s novel, On Her Trail, is one of those. I would call the story romantic suspense, but it also has ghosts. It’s almost a gothic, but not quite. What it is, however, is wonderful. It takes place in Canada, and has the richness of place I’ve come to expect from Marcelle’s work, as well as excellent characters. I couldn’t put the book (or the Kindle, actually) down.
You don’t need an e-reader to buy this book. Go to the Carina Press site and download a copy you can read on your computer. Carina keeps its prices low, so you can check out a number of writers you’ve never heard of for very little money. Marcelle’s book is selling for less than $4. I finished the novel in less than a day. Now I can’t wait to read the next.
Garrett, Randall, “A Case of Identity,” Lord Darcy, compiled and edited by Eric Flint, Baen Books, 2004. I’m rereading alternate history for an article I’m writing for a textbook. I have adored Garrett’s Lord Darcy series since I first encountered the stories in 1983. Eric Flint compiled all of them in this volume, doing us a great service.
For those of you who don’t know, Lord Darcy lives in a 20th century alternate history world in which Richard the Lionhearted did not die in 1199 and founded the mightiest empire in history. That empire uses magic the way we use science. The Darcy stories are mysteries. Darcy is a not-so-standard detective, using observation and magical deduction, to solve murders.
I thought I’d read all of the stories, but I hadn’t. I’m going through them slowly as rewards for other work I have to do. I read “A Case of Identity” first, back in 1983, and I loved it then. I like it even more now. It’s a great starting point for new Lord Darcy readers. Enjoy.
Granger, David, “Don’t Kill A Tough Guy,” Esquire, May 2010. David Granger clearly read Lee Child’s 61 Hours (see above) in galleys, so he didn’t see the offensive ad at the end of the book. Because of that, he has written a thought-provoking analysis of the Jack Reacher books. I don’t necessarily agree with Granger’s conclusions, but he sure made me think.
Hessler, Peter, “Go West,” The New Yorker, April 19, 2010. Peter Hessler and his wife Leslie Chang, both Americans, spent most of their adult lives living out of the country. Both writers, they finally decided to come home after years in China. They moved to Colorado.
Those are the broad outlines of this essay, but the actual essay itself is so much more than that. It’s about culture clash—written from the point of view of an insider-outsider. The differences in life here and life in China are profound, and Hessler perfectly conveys both worlds.
If I were editing this year’s Best American Essays, I’d make sure to include this one.
Jack, Ian, “Five Boys: The Story of a Picture,” Intelligent Life, Spring, 2010. Intelligent Life is a British magazine that I wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for an interview with The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown on NPR. I then searched for the website, More Intelligent Life. Talk about a multi-media roundabout way of finding an article.
Fortunately, the search was worth it. The article is about five boys in a classic British photograph, still used as an example of the class divide. Jack explores the history of the photograph, and then goes into the lives of the boys to see if the assumptions about the photo are accurate. The photo is seventy years old, and most of the boys are now dead, their lives closed books. A fascinating example of expectations and the misunderstandings that can come for a moment in time—or from appearances. Take your pick. But look up the article.
Junod, Tom, “Hillary. Happy.” Esquire, May, 2010. I try not to write about politics on my blog, but when the topic is Hillary Clinton, it’s tough not to mention them. So here you go: I’ve admired Hillary since she came on the national stage. The admiration comes not from her politics, but from her life. This woman has raised a child, maintained a difficult marriage, and pursued her own career. She survives setbacks better than anyone I’ve seen on the national stage. She’s an amazing woman, no matter what her politics.
And this article explores all of that. It also looks at Hillary now, the Secretary of State, the former Senator, and the woman still married to Bill Clinton. Read this whether you like Hillary or not. I can guarantee it will expand your view of this remarkable woman.
Larsson, Steig, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, Knopf, 2010. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is the third in Steig Larsson’s “Girl” trilogy. If you haven’t read the first two, hike to a bookstore and pick up the first, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, immediately.
I read this 563 page novel in three days. It would have taken less time, but I didn’t have a full day to devote to the novel itself. Still, I read it almost as soon as I got it. And I was up late every single night devouring this book. I probably would have stayed up all night the second night, except that Dean pulled the book from my hands and demanded that I get some sleep. (He was probably right, but jeez.)
Very different from the other two books and yet quite similar. I read breathlessly, hoping for the best, fearing for the worst. In addition to the rip-roaring plot and terrific characterization, the novel also had some fascinating insights into Sweden’s legal and governmental systems. A lot of things that happen there couldn’t happen here because our system is more formal.
I loved all three books and recommend them highly.
Lepore, Jill, “Untimely,” The New Yorker, April 19, 2010. Because the mainstream media believes that only five books are published every month, they tend to discuss the same work. (Genres are beneath them, and so are “pop” histories, among other things.) So I found myself reading about Alan Brinkley’s book The Publisher in two different publications in two days. I’d already decided to order the book based on the Vanity Fair excerpt (see above). Then I got to the “review” of it, in The New Yorker, which was more a navel-gazing example of the relationship between The New Yorker and Time.
For all the self-absorption, the article’s focus on the relationship between New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Time founder Henry Luce is fascinating. I doubt the book focuses as much on that relationship as The New Yorker (apparently it’s still fighting eighty-year-old battles), so that makes the article even more interesting. Real people are behind these iconic publications—real people who are as petty and visionary as the real people who toil in the genres the magazines ignore. If you’re an sf fan, you’ll recognize Ross as a type we’ve seen in sf nonfiction publishing. Worth reading.
Lewis, Michael, “The Mansion: A Subprime Parable,” The Best American Essays 2009, edited by Mary Oliver, Mariner 2009. Michael Lewis, who lives in California, moved his family to New Orleans while he wrote his “latest project.” He rented the largest mansion in New Orlean’s tony Garden District. This essay discusses the problems he did not foresee with the rental—like the maintenance costs and the effects the mansion had on his children’s sense of self. He uses this to explore the housing insanity that gripped America in the first decade of the 21st century, all the while recognizing that he really didn’t need such a huge home for such a short period of time. Excellent analysis of what keeping up with those evil Joneses feels like, and an excellent self-examination as well.
Moore, Ward, “Bring the Jubilee,” The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg, Del Rey Books, 2001. As I mentioned above, I’m writing an article on alternate history for an sf textbook, and I’m using it as an excuse to catch up on all the alternate history I’ve missed. I’m having a blast.
“Bring the Jubilee” is one of those classics of the form that I’d heard about over the years, but never had a chance to read. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1952, the novella holds up beautifully. In fact, it holds up so well that if I were still editing F&SF and Ward Moore were alive and he submitted the story, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. It is, in my mind, the perfect F&SF story.
But that’s neither here nor there. What is important is how it works as a piece of fiction. Set in a world where the Union lost the Battle of Gettysburg, the story occurs in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s—as well as other times. It believably incorporates time travel as well. Moore’s history is impeccable, not just his speculations about the Civil War, but his extrapolation. I can’t praise this story enough. Find a copy. You’ll be so happy you did.
Resnick, Mike, “The Incarceration of Captain Nebula,” Asimov’s, October/November 2010. At least once a year, Mike Resnick taunts me. He sends me a story that he has finished and informs me that if I were still editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, he would send that story to me. As an editor, I have never rejected a Mike Resnick story, and so far, I haven’t seen one that I would reject. Some are good, but many are just plain brilliant.
This one falls in the brilliant category. In fact, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get nominated for a Hugo. The story is short. It’s space opera—or is it?—and it’s just plain marvelous. If I say any more, I’ll spoil it for you.
I got to see it before the issue comes out. The issue should be on the stands as you read this list, so go pick it up.
Sullivan, Brendan, “The Grandmother of Pop,” Esquire, May, 2010. Sullivan knew Lady Gaga when she was Stefani Germanotta, a go-go dancer and song writer who worked in the bar where he was the DJ. This essay isn’t so much a shocker about Lady Gaga as it is a study of the way lives change when one member of a friendship becomes famous. Anyone who works in the arts should think about some of the issues he raises here.
Wilkinson, Alec, “The Ice Balloon,” The New Yorker, April 19, 2010. I plowed through this article as if it were a novel. The article is more of an essay about S.A. Andrée’s failed hot air balloon journey over the North Pole. The picture accompanying the article caught my eye: taken by one of the team, it shows the balloon crashed on an ice field.
The article begins with the 1930 discovery of a body on White Island. The body held a diary of the expedition, all the way to its tragic end. At this point, no one had known what became of Andrée’s 1897 expedition, and suddenly they had a record of it.
What a record. Dramatic, sad, and courageous. Fascinating stuff—and yes, there were movies made of it and books written about it. But now the assumptions in those publications are being challenged, and that is fascinating as well.
The essay was well-paced and compelling. If you like stories of exploration on far-flung places, this will appeal to you.