I got very far behind in posting my Recommended Reading lists in 2011. I’ll try to do better in 2012 by posting the month after the list was compiled. However, I have to catch up on 2011 first. So here’s October. Everything you see below was written then. Enjoy!
We had about six emergencies in our life in October, some involving health, some involving the estate. I made three impromptu trips, had to cancel a planned trip, and I managed to make it to the Yukon to teach. There wasn’t a lot of writing time, but I did manage to sneak in some reading time, mostly while waiting for something or someone. Fortunately, most of the reading was good.
Here’s the crème de la crème.
Best, Lyz, “The Call From Flight 93,” Runners World, September, 2011. Runners World ran a series of essays about 9/11 in its September issue. All are worth reading (although one is a bit…odd), but two stand out. I put them both in the recommended reading. The first is from Lyz Best. Her husband was Jeremy Glick, who called her from the doomed Flight 93. Heartbreaking and powerful, this essay is one you’ll remember for a long time to come.
Chabon, Michael, “The Amateur Family,” Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perrennial, 2009. In this essay, Chabon isn’t writing about a family of amateurs or even a family that hasn’t reached professional status yet. He’s really talking about fandom, a family that loves its obsessions—not as professionals taking part in that obsession, but as fans. He explores the nature of fandom—non-sports fandom—and the joy of shared obsession. It’s a lovely piece, and I’m not just saying that because he raised a family of Doctor Who fans. Some lovely stuff here.
Chabon, Michael, “Normal Time,” Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perrennial, 2009. Written after (in the midst of?) the financial crisis of 2008, this essay talks about our very human desire to return to “normal.” With the death of our friend Bill, and the increasing number of emergencies we went through this fall, I recognized the feeling Chabon describes here. I’ve been waiting for things to get back to “normal,” even though they won’t. We had a house full of stuff fall on us in August, and we’re still digging out. Plus we won’t see Bill any more. And I had a serious crisis in my work that I’m still finding my way through, plus my husband had some pretty serious health issues. “Normal” won’t come back for a while, if ever.
But that feeling, that desire for it, that’s probably a universal feeling, and Chabon captures it. Read this one. It’s lovely.
Chabon, Michael, “Radio Silence” Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perrennial, 2009. Chabon writes of a radio station that went from comforting oldies of his generation to songs that were popular after he graduated from college. It’s a disconcerting feeling, to realize that the songs you loved aren’t even “oldies” any more. I recognize it, and I related to this essay—a bit too much.
Chabon, Michael, “Surefire Lines,”Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perrennial, 2009. I love the opening of this essay. One of Chabon’s sons asks him if Chabon can help the boy “make a girl.” Chabon ignores the cheap jokes (kinda) and tries to teach his son how to draw a girl, which is really what the little boy wanted to do. Chabon then turns the essay into a rumination about boys versus girls, how his two daughters want to draw pretty things, and his boys want to draw action heroes. (The reason his son wanted to draw a girl—he needed to add Sue Storm to his comic book tableau.) Nifty analysis of gender, of drawing, and of fun. Plus the solution that Chabon found made me smile.
Chabon, Michael, Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perrennial, 2009. The cover of this book kept putting me off. I know why the publisher did it: It’s a picture of Chabon from grade school. But he looks like a writer should look in grade school—a bit dorky, a bit too eager, and very smart. Such pictures would be nice on the inside, but as a sales tool—not so much. Still, I knew that I love Chabon’s essays so I picked this up.
If you’ve read my Recommended Reading list over the past few months, then you know I’ve already cherry-picked the best essays from the volume to recommend. But the book itself is worth reading. Not all of the essays are brilliant, although all of them have some merit. The good ones are excellent and the mediocre ones are better than most essays you’d read elsewhere.
Ignore the cover, and pick up the book. You won’t regret it.
Chapman, Tim, “Kiddieland,” The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. Creepy, creepy story about a very creepy little boy and what happens to him. Perfect point of view, perfect understatement. Wonderful, shivery piece. Read this one.
Connelly, Michael, “Angle of Investigation,” Harry Bosch: Three Stories, BEA 2011 Edition, Little, Brown, 2011. For Book Expo in 2011, Little, Brown put out a limited edition collection of three Michael Connelly short stories, plus the first chapter of his upcoming book, The Drop. The limited edition sounds nicer than it is: it was poorly typeset and not copy edited. Riddled with mistakes, filled with tiny type, and almost impossible to read.
If I had been the publisher, and I had this particular book as a giveaway, I would have been ashamed of it. The paper product is awful. And giving it to booksellers is almost contemptible. There is now an e-book edition, called Angle of Investigation: Three Harry Bosch Stories, and I certainly hope someone proofed that puppy.
The problem here is with the production—the stuff the publishing company did. The stories themselves are top-notch Connelly. I’d read one before in a poker anthology. The other is also good.
But the best of the bunch is “Angle of Investigation.” It gives us some history of Harry, for those of us who love him, and it packs an emotional wallop as only Michael Connelly can deliver. If you like Connelly as much as I do, then you’ll want to read the stories. Order the e-book edition, and pray that it’s in better shape than this embarrassing giveaway.
Connelly, Michael, “The Blood Washes Off,” The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. Written as a transcript of a police interview after a man died, this is how the Bernie Madoff story should have gone. With only the dialogue here to carry the story, Connelly prevents this piece from being overwritten. Excellent work, as usual, from an excellent writer.
Cook, Frank, “The Gift,” The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. I thought I knew where this one was going when I started it. Turns out I was wrong—in a very good way. This one could easily fit in an sf magazine or a horror magazine as well as in a mystery anthology. Another shivery piece of revenge fiction. Nicely done.
DeLee, David, “Bling, Bling,” The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. I’ve had the privilege of reading David DeLee’s short fiction for many years now, even though he’s only had a handful of publications. Only most of what I’ve read is his sf fiction. This mystery story is original and interesting, with a fascinating point of view character that he’s carried over into other stories and a novel. He deals with rappers here, and bling, and money—and even though he’s playing in that familiar (mystery) world, he still managed to pull off a story that caught me by surprise. Wonderful stuff.
DeMille, Nelson, editor, The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. I generally buy the MWA anthologies. There’s usually one or two good stories in them. I’ve only been disappointed with one volume over the years—and that one had a sad sameness that reflected more on the editors than on the quality of the writers in the volume.
I figured this volume would be like that sameness one. Death among the rich. Yeah, everyone would write about the same thing. And if you really look at it, everyone did. But the stories have a lot of power, maybe because we have learned to our dismay that F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: The rich are different from you and I.
This book has its share of Bernie Madoff stories. It also (somewhat shockingly) has a few evil literary agent stories. There’s a bit too much botox, and a lot of diamonds in here. But there are some great revenge stories, some creepy subtle pieces, and some stories with real power.
This is one of the best of the MWA anthologies. I don’t think there’s a bad story in the bunch. Buy this one. It’s good.
Gopnik, Adam, “Dog Story,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011. Many years ago, some friends of mine—cat people—bought a dog for their middle child. My friends swore for years that this child was an original: he liked things from birth that the rest of the family didn’t. I thought that an interesting if odd observation, and filed it away.
Gopnik makes a similar observation in this essay about his daughter Olivia. Apparently Gopnik and his wife aren’t pet people, yet their daughter wanted a dog. The family lives in a New York apartment. Ten-year-old Olivia managed to work out all of the particulars before the family got the dog, and of course, she—like my friends’ son—triumphed.
Her triumph led to a reluctant relationship between Gopnik and the dog, and this lovely essay. Because Gopnik always seems to wonder about how something came about—in this case, how did dogs become domesticated? His fascination comes through the piece, and while he didn’t say anything new here, he said it in an entertaining way which almost—almost—made me, a cat person, want a dog. Almost.
Grisham, John, The Litigators, Doubleday, 2011. I haven’t had this much fun with a Grisham novel in years. Grisham uses the wry tone that he has in much of his short fiction. The novel is about three hapless lawyers—one a young associate who flees his large law firm one morning, the other two ambulance chasers (literally) who end up as his partners. The plot is pretty straightforward—if you’re paying attention, you know how this will end up—but the characters are funny and memorable, the writing top notch, and the novel impossible to put down.
Even better than all of that, though, is the fact that this novel has heart. A lot of heart. That’s what I like best about Grisham’s books, I think. His heart is always in the right place. The book is touching and sweetly memorable. One of his best.
Hale, Daniel J., “The Precipice,” The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. A story of lost money, revenge, and lost love. Again, I thought I knew all the players, but I was wrong. The story ended up with some nice characterization twists, which made the read even better. Nicely done.
Isleib, Rachel, “The Itinerary,” The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. A bored police detective on a forced vacation in the wrong town (in this case, Key West). Sounds familiar, right? Only it’s not. The point of view is interesting, the case is good, and the setting spectacular. One of my favorite stories of the favorite stories in this very good volume.
Kozak, Harley Jane, “Lamborghini Mommy,” The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. Excellent voice, great characters. Even though I knew how the mystery would play out, I didn’t care—and I almost peeked at the ending to see if one of my favorite characters made it through okay.
Set among the very rich in Los Angeles, this story hit all of my reader cookies—a downtrodden ex-wife struggling to do right by her child, a hint of romance, a touch of Hollywood sleaze. This one made me order one of Kozak’s novels, which I only hope I’ll like as much as I liked this story.
Lewis, Michael, Moneyball, WW Norton & Company, Kindle edition, 2011. I read this book after seeing the movie, which I liked quite a bit. Honestly, I love Michael Lewis’s writing and have recommended him previously for other essays and books, including The Big Short. I kept looking at Moneyball, thinking it sounded like my kind of book—baseball, business—but the blurb made the dang thing sound irrelevant and boring.
Well, it is neither. And the movie follows it much more closely than I would have expected. I found that, as I read, the book had a lot to say about publishing—if you would only take the words “owners” and “clubs” out of the mix and put “publishers” and “publishing companies” in its place. Particularly revealing is the “new” afterward about the reaction to the book that happened throughout baseball. I’ve had similar experiences in traditional publishing three times in my life, first as a co-owner of Pulphouse Publishing (in which we continually got told that we couldn’t do what we were doing), then as the first female editor of F&SF (in which I got told that 1) my gender was screwing up the magazine and 2) my taste [which increased circulation to the highest it had been in decades] was “ruining” the quality of the magazine [popular stuff might get readers (the point, I thought), but it apparently decreases literary value], and finally in m publishing blogs (in which I’m getting dismissed as a self-published writer who knows nothing [ignoring my 30+ years in most aspects of traditional publishing, I guess]).
Moneyball is worth reading from a business perspective, but it’s also well-written and a compelling book. One night, after a long day of teaching, all I wanted to do was sit in the restaurant in my lovely hotel in Whitehorse, have a snack, and read Moneyball, which I did.
Mullen, Carolyn, “Poetic Justice,” The Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and The Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. If I tell you about this story, I’ll ruin it. Suffice to say that it plays off something we’re all familiar with and we don’t even realize it until the end of the story. Niiiiiiiice.
Patterson, Richard North, The Spire, St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2010. I’d been slowly giving up on Richard North Patterson. While he and I generally agree politically, his books had become screeds and lectures instead of novels. When I saw the hardcover of The Spire, I thought it was going to be another of those. But after I finished Moneyball on my Yukon trip, I went to Mac’s Fireweed bookstore —an independent that stays open until 9 pm (and opens at 8 am—such luxury) and scanned the aisles (even though I had brought other books with me.) I saw the paperback of The Spire. The pull-quotes gave me hope, so I bought it.
And nearly regretted it. Somewhere in his long career, Patterson has forgotten how to open a book. The front section is wordy and difficult and somewhat dull. Stick with it, however, and you find a compelling novel about the past, relationships, and changes that happen because of other people. The mystery is truly obvious: I knew from the moment a character got introduced that this was our shadowy villain. But it doesn’t matter, because the book really isn’t about the mystery. It’s about the influence of the past on the present. I read it on my trip home, and was glad I had. It’s a good book, worth reading. I wish he would write more like this.
Pizzi, Ann Sommerlath, “Escape From Ground Zero,” Runners World, September, 2011. An excellent essay by a runner about her experience on September 11, 2001. She lived near the Towers and had to run for her life, literally. Well written, sad, worth reading.
Schmidle, Nicholas, “Getting Bin Laden,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011. In keeping with my reading of manhunts over the last few weeks, I found this article. I read a lot about the Bin Laden raid over the summer, but this is the best piece so far. It’s got an immediacy, it is filled with some interesting details, and I got a real sense of what happened. If you’re at all curious about what happened last spring, read this one.
Sullivan, Robert, “An Affair of The Feet,” Runners World, September, 2011. A fun and funny essay comparing a midlife decision to run a marathon to one of those decisions to have an affair. The sneaking around, the extra showers, and oh, so much more. Read this one if you want a smile.
Swanson, James L., Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer, Harper Perennial, 2007. Back in college, I considered myself a Civil War buff. It was Civil War historical fiction—popular in the 1970s—that made me interested in the war in the first place. I actually majored in history with the idea of writing a Civil War novel (historically accurate, of course) as my honors thesis. The history department quashed that, telling me I had to go to the English department for that, which I was not about to do. So I did what I always did when thwarted. I mentally said F*ck you, dropped the honors program, and graduated without writing a stupid thesis. But I wrote a lot of fiction about the Civil War, and some of it got published.
All of this was a long way of saying that I thought I knew a lot about the era, even though I haven’t read much about it since 1982 or so. I read the occasional book (Team of Rivals, [right?], which I recommended last year and several others), but I’d branched out in my historical reading.
So the old subconscious has been leading me to books about historical manhunts for the past six months, and I recommended one last month (Hellhound on His Trail). That book somehow led me to the Swanson, which I devoured in two nights.
This book is a stupendous read. Fast-moving, interesting, and a bit controversial. He cherry-picked historical details, like any good historian does, not for their drama, but because he has more than one source for them (like any good journalist does). He also dug up some old memoirs, including one written by the guy who helped Booth after he left Samuel Mudd’s house.
We know how this all ends, but we don’t know. Because the history books tell us that Booth died after being on the run, and the other conspirators were tried and hanged. But that is sooo not the entire story. If you like thrillers, if you like history, or if you like just a plain old good read, pick up this book. It’s fascinating.
Trillin, Calvin, “Back on the Bus,” The New Yorker, July 25, 2011. Trillin writes a deeply personal essay about his years as a journalist, covering the civil rights movement. This mostly focuses on the Freedom Riders, but it’s a good look at the importance of journalists, the difficulty that human beings have in being “objective,” and the uncertainty of the time period. Excellent stuff.