I taught a workshop this month and read a lot of great writing from the students, things I hope to see in print someday soon. In addition to that, I suffered a lot of disappointment. Books I had looked forward to for months came out and were adequate in one case and just plain awful in another. In fact the second book was by far the worst book I had read by that author, not in sentence- by-sentence writing, but in plot and lack of empathy. I’m hoping his next will be much better.
I decided not to recommend two articles that fascinated me in the October issue of Vanity Fair because they landed too squarely in the middle of topics I try to avoid on the blog—religion and politics. One essay I completely agreed with and found to be a fascinating perspective rarely seen in print. The other, an article, seemed like a hatchet job to me, but my personal bent made me wonder (desperately, fearfully) whether or not it was true. Rather than inflict it on you, I’ll just mention in passing that both pieces exist, and leave it up to you to ferret them out.
So not as much to recommend as September, even though I probably read as many words. Some I can’t recommend because you can’t buy it yet, some I’m avoiding for political (and religious) reasons, and some I simply won’t recommend due to disappointment.
The books and articles below didn’t disappoint me at all. In fact, I loved them and am happy to share them with you.
Gopnick, Adam, “Finest Hours,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2010.
Shortly after finishing Connie Willis’s All Clear (see below), I read this general critical essay by Adam Gopnick about Winston Churchill. Churchill, when asked which year he’d like to relive, said he’d like to relive 1940. And according to Gopnick, Churchill’s finest year was 1940, although it was a hell of a year for Great Britain and for the world. Gopnick uses many books as jumping points for this essay. My favorite section of the piece discusses Churchill’s use of language, comparing it to the language of other known orators, and even discussing it in Orwellian terms. I found this piece fascinating, even more so in tandem with the Connie Willis novel. Sometimes the universe just offers you these things. And you get to enjoy them.
James, Eloisa, A Kiss at Midnight, Avon Books, Kindle edition, 2010. A lovely Regency romance. James, the daughter of the poet Robert Bly and the essayist Carol Bly, apologizes a bit too much in her afterward because her novel wasn’t historically accurate. But most Regency fiction isn’t accurate. She calls the novel a “fairy tale,” but it’s not because there are no magic potions or spells or fantastic occurences. It’s a love story that takes the plot of the Cinderella story and mixes it up a bit. It also offers the only sensible explanation as to why Cinderella’s father married the evil stepmother in the first place.
Even though the story has a Cinderella plot, it really wants to be The Taming of the Shrew/Kiss Me Kate. James fights that impulse, but her character is Kate, her hero is a prince with a rather sour temper, and Kate’s younger (step)sister is quite a beauty. I kept expecting everyone to burst out into Cole Porter songs at any moment.
A fast and fun read, well written, with a marvelous godmother (named Henry) and three rather memorable dogs. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.
Kaplan, James, “The Night Sinatra Became Sinatra,” Vanity Fair, October, 2010. Fascinating look at Sinatra’s early career—the risks he took to succeed, the choices he made. This article glosses over a few things—the mob connection for one—but I’m not sure if that’s a function of the abridgement, since this comes from a book that will be released in November, or if it’s the fault of the author. But the history of Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey’s band is something I was unfamiliar with, and I found it intriguing. I’ve got the book on my “to-sample” list for the Kindle, and I will probably buy it—if I can only find the time to read it. (I have four other already purchased biographies ahead of it.) Still, the excerpt did its job; it interested me in the book.
Kirkpatrick, David, “With A Little Help From His Friends,” Vanity Fair, October, 2010. The article, timed with the release of the movie The Social Network, focuses on Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake in the movie), the “press-shy genius” behind several of the net’s major innovations. I have no way to judge if the article is a good job or just a well-timed puff piece to synch with the movie, but I did find it fascinating simply because I had read a lot about Parker, but never read an interview with him. Worth the look.
Sedaris, David, “Standing By,” The New Yorker, August 9, 2010. One of the funniest personal essays I’ve read in years. Of course, it’s about airline travel, but it’s also about being an American who travels. I love this line: “I should be used to the way Americans dress when travelling, yet still it manages to amaze me. It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, ‘Fuck this. I’m going to Los Angeles!’” Exactly. Read. Laugh. Enjoy.
Essentially, Blackout and All Clear are one book, severed by length halfway through. I thought that Spectra could have divided the book into thirds, maybe had Connie do some bridge material, and then release the books once per month.
Wouldn’t have worked. Connie’s writing in these two books is like a gigantic woven shawl. If you pull one thread, you’ll make a mess of the entire piece, no matter where you grab that thread. She writes like this: She starts at point B, then goes to Z, then to K, then back to B, then to C, and so on. Somehow the entire thing makes sense as she does it. But you can’t just write the Point B storyline, then move to Point C. There is nothing linear here.
That’s appropriate because she’s dealing with time travel, but almost impossible to market effectively if you’re a book publisher. That Spectra tried is a testament to Connie’s intrepid editor, Anne Groell, who somehow got the sales force to go along with this project.
For those of you who don’t know, the book is too long—about 1200 pages—to be a single volume. Binding wouldn’t hold it. It had to be divided up somehow. Spectra has released the trade paper edition of Blackout in September, with All Clear at the end of October (with a November publication date), so those smart people who waited can buy both at once.
I recommend you do so. Because, you see, this is Connie Willis’s masterpiece. A heart-wrenching, uplifting, amazing work of historical fiction as well as a heart-wrenching, uplifting, amazing work of science fiction. Despite its size it’s a page turner, and the characters—even the minor ones—are memorable. My favorite characters, Alf and Binnie, have a lovely payoff, followed closely by the story of Sir Geoffrey.
Because of the difficulties in marketing this work, Connie and Spectra have taken a huge risk. Buy both volumes. Get your friends to do so. Buy extra copies for the holidays. Reward them for taking this risk so that we can have more Connie Willis fiction. Reward them for taking the risk so that they’ll take more risks in the future. This is astonishing work. Read it now.