Recommended Reading List: July 2011
I am late on the Recommended Reading. For those of you who’ve been waiting for it, sorry! My life has been beyond hectic since mid-August. The RRL takes time to put up, with all the links, and I don’t have a regularly scheduled day, so I keep putting it off. I should really have an RRL day. I’ll think about that…tomorrow. 🙂 Here’s July’s! Enjoy.
July was one of those great months where I didn’t have to do anything except read and write. It went by all too fast, but I loved it all the same. I ended up reading a lot of short stories, probably because I had just come off of the short story workshop and I had short stories on the brain. I also came across a great collection and got introduced to some wonderful authors.
A good month all-in-all. And here’s the best of the best.
Almond, Steve, “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” The Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo, Mariner Books, 2010. Usually I complain about the custom that the Best American series have of putting their stories in alphabetical order by author. Sometimes that means the first story in the book is too hard to get into or a bad way to start an anthology or simply sets the wrong tone.
I don’t know if “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” sets the right tone for the rest of the volume—I haven’t gotten that far yet—but wow, is this a tremendous story. It’s about a psychoanalyst who plays poker on the side, and who ends up with a professional poker player as a patient. It sounds dull, but really this is a sports story, and a vicious one at that. I loved it.
Bilger, Burkhard, “The Possibilian,” The New Yorker, April 25, 2011. A fascinating article about an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine. David Eagleman studies how the brain works or, more precisely, how the brain processes time. The article begins with his fall off a roof at age eight, and how Eagleman noted that everything happened in slow motion—at least in his perception. From then on, he wondered how the brain perceived time and the limitations of that perception on time itself.
I’ve played with these ideas a lot in fiction, but have never encountered anyone who actually studied this or anyone who wrote about someone who studied this. (Of course, I haven’t looked either.) So I was especially intrigued by all of this. I think you’ll be as well.
Child, Lee, “Section 7(A) (Operational),” Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2011. Wonderful short story about…well, let’s put it this way. The story is in a volume of spy stories and this one is, from a writing perspective, maybe the most amazing story in the bunch. If I say more, I’ll ruin it. Enjoy.
Díaz, Junot, “The Dreamer,” More Magazine, May, 2011. More Magazine used to be one of my favorite magazines. I spent hours on each issue, reading cover to cover. Then it got a new editor, and I gave her a chance. I really did. I still subscribed for two years plus even after I realized I no longer liked the magazine. Part of it is that the editor came over from Vogue and seems to think that women can spend $500 on a “cheap” blouse. But mostly, the magazine, which used to have good essays, had become all about appearances. Essays got shortened, articles became about make-up, and oh—I can complain forever. Suffice to say, More and I are getting a divorce.
Then this month comes a series of essays called “In Praise of Strong Women,” written by male writers. A few are what you’d expect and they’re all a bit too short, but this one from Junot Díaz made me cry. Díaz writes about his mother whom, it seems, was determined to make something of her life from the age of seven onwards. It’s an amazing essay, one I hope someone discovers for The Best American Essays if only to honor this remarkable woman.
More and I are still getting a divorce, but this essay (and a few of its sister essays) reminded me why I subscribed in the first place. It was the equivalent of looking across the courtroom in the middle of the divorce proceeding at the man you used to love, and remembering what had attracted you in the first place. Nice memory, great essay, spectacular woman. Go forth, read, and recommend this one to your friends.
Fesperman, Dan, “The Courier,” Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2011. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful story of unintended consequences and regret. If I say too much about it, then I’ll spoil it, but let me share the lovely opening: “In this boneyard of Nazi memory where I make my living, we daily come across everything from death lists to the trifling queries of petty bureaucrats. Our place of business is known simply as the Federal Records Center and is housed on the first floor of an old torpedo factory down by a rotting wharf on the Potomac.” Nice, nice, nice. I was hooked from “boneyard of Nazi memory” forward.
Gardner, Marcy, “Walter’s Bucket List,” Smashwords 2011. I read this story a year ago at one of the workshops, and have never forgotten it. Marcy Gardner writes inspirational fiction, and this is one of the best of its type. It’s a lot of fun, quite memorable, and the characters are warm.
Hunter, Stephen, “Casey at the Bat,” Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2011. I have a rule when I read an anthology. I give every single story the good college try before I move on. I read the opening page of this one at least twice, found it confusing, and decided to give up. But I’d been hearing about Stephen Hunter for a while, so I did what I used to do at F&SF. I scanned for a page. Suddenly I was deep in a marvelous adventure story about blowing up an unimportant bridge. As with the Lawton below, I had missed an inventive and wry voice, plus some of the most memorable characters I’d read in years. Recommended.
Hyduk, John, “The Loading Dock Manifesto,” Esquire, May 2011. A lovely, beautifully written essay by a man who has done blue collar work all his life. He also writes nonfiction—spectacularly. He has great quotable lines in here: “You don’t go to therapy. You go to work.” Yep. I know these folks, have worked with these folks, usually prefer them to the hoity-toity lit’rary folks my profession forces me to spend time with. One of the best essays of the year, imho.
Kaplan, James, “Over The Rainbow and Then Some,” Vanity Fair, May, 2011. I love comeback stories, and Kaplan covers one of the greatest entertainment comebacks of all: Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. The cool thing about this concert is that Columbia Records recorded it, and in the fifty years since the LP was released, it has sold continuously. Live recordings give the sense that the concert is still going on, and this one is no different. It’s a fantastic recording, and the article gives a lot of behind the scenes stuff I didn’t know about. Interesting all the way around. (And a clear example of why artists of all stripes should have done estate planning before their death. I assume Garland’s children are getting the proceeds from that album, but I have no idea. She’s been dead since 1969, and that album’s been selling since ’61. Who knew?)
Lawton, John, Black Out, Penguin/Grove Press, 1995. I picked this novel up after reading Lawton’s story (below). Black Out sounded like the kind of book that would interest me. A murder mystery in England during the war. It is my kind of book, and it’s well done. It has some first novel problems: Lawton is an elliptical writer who likes subtlety, and a few scenes toward the end were almost too subtle. Writers, particularly mystery writers, make the mistake sometimes of trying to hide information with language to be “fair” to the reader, forgetting that if the writer remains in tight point of view then the deception will work anyway. Inspector Troy makes a mistake based on the evidence, a mistake he’s supposed to make, and Lawton dumps point of view for elliptical language. Given the quality of the short story below, I suspect he no longer feels the need to do this.
Still, Black Out is worth your time. I read it fast and liked it a lot. The next books in the series are on order. Lawton makes history come alive, and I just love that in a novel. The mystery was good too.
Lawton, John, “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,” Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2011. Compared to the previous story in this volume, “East of Suez…” moved quite slowly. So, as witty as the opening was, the story just didn’t interest me. But I kept reading because of the voice and the wit, and boy, am I glad I did. It took a while for the thought to penetrate that this is a very British story, written by a British author, when I had been expecting an American story. Word choice was different, pace was different, so I went back and started all over again. Set in the 1960s around the Keeler affair, this story has incredible power. It’s also quite subtle and inventive. Probably one of my favorite stories in a spectacular collection.
Lowe, Rob, “Lowe, Actually,” Vanity Fair, May, 2011. There are two “autobiographical” articles in this month’s VF. I didn’t recommend the Paul Allen piece, although I found it fascinating, because I suspect I found it interesting because I haven’t been reading about the Allen/Gates relationship. But also, Allen’s is clearly ghostwritten in that clear prose that most ghost writers strive for.
If Lowe’s piece is ghostwritten, then the writer did him a great service. It’s beautifully written and compelling. If Lowe wrote it, well, then, man, the guy deserves kudos.
This piece looks at the auditions for the movie The Outsiders. It provides a chance to see the Brat Pack back before they were a pack and were just brats. I didn’t know any of this and I found it fascinating—as well as well written.
Penzler, Otto, Agents of Treachery, Vintage Crime, 2011. This is a spectacular anthology, one of the best I’ve read in years—and considering how many I read, that’s saying something. The anthology is supposed to be a collection of spy stories, but really, it’s a collection of adventure stories (with one rather arty tale thrown in). There’s often a global crime, and some quite real and devastating treachery. Only one or two of the stories have the same structure, and none have the same theme. The settings range from England in the 1960s to Vienna now, and cover every war from World War I forward. With the exception of one writer whose story was well done but predictable, even the folks known for novels only outdid themselves, writing tight, compact stories about things that generally have nothing to do with their novels. I can’t recommend this volume highly enough.
Pierpont, Claudia Roth, “East is West,” The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont’s “Critic at Large” essay is about Freya Stark, whom I had never heard of. Stark was one of those intrepid Edwardian women who traveled the world, often alone, venturing into places like the Mideast and reporting back. It was more of a Victorian tradition to do this. Stark’s experiences went from WWI to WWII and beyond: her last major trip was to Afghanistan in 1968, but she kept publishing books until 1985. Of course, as Pierpont points out, Stark was a product of her time. So there are strange and objectionable things (from a modern perspective) in her books. But I love stories of intrepid women, particularly those who go against their accepted roles, and I’m going to be looking for Stark’s books as well as the two biographies that Pierpont mentions. I love learning something new!
Smith, Dean Wesley, “The Empty Mummy Murders,” WMG Publishing, 2011. More on Poker Boy and the Silicon Suckers. A very inventive addition to this series, with some laugh-out-loud lines.
Steele, Allen, “Emperor of Mars,” Asimov’s, July, 2010. I’m doing my reading for Hugo voting. I’d read a number of the shorter works in Jonathan Strahan’s Best of, but now I’m catching up on the rest. This is a marvelous story that manages to be both nostalgic and modern at the same time. It’s about a man going crazy while suffering a great tragedy during his stint on Mars. What saves him? Well, you’ll have to read the story. It’s delightful. (I linked to it as part of Dozois’s Year’s Best so you can find it.)