I was extremely busy in March, but somehow I managed to read a lot of good stuff as well. Some of my reading came at a workshop at the end of February, beginning of March. If the stories that I liked appear in print, I told the students to contact me with that information. So far, only one has, but I hope others will so that I can share with you.
I managed to catch up (sort of) on my nonfiction magazine reading (often at the expense of my newspaper reading), so I have quite a few magazine pieces below. I started some short story anthologies and some nonfiction anthologies, and I’m reading them slowly. I’ve listed some things below, and I’ll recommend others as time goes on (and I get to them).
I found myself scanning endings of novels a lot. Often the books would hold my interest until the middle, and then I figured I knew where they were going or they simply nattered on too long. I was usually right when I thought I knew where they were going. The ones that nattered usually got back on track toward the end, but I’m still not going to recommend them because they weren’t quite good enough to hold me.
One of my favorite romance authors had a new book out this month that I devoured, but I’m also not going to recommend it. I nearly quit reading in the first four chapters, and finally realized why. The heroine is a true doormat/victim, the first time this author has ever done anything like that. The book had a lot of neat things in it, but the heroine never overcame her passivity or even realized that she was a victim. So naw. Not recommending it.
However, I found a lot of things to recommend. I have listed them below. I hope you find some in here that will interest you.
Andrews, Ilona, Magic Mourns, Kindle edition, Penguin 2011. Originally published as a novella in Must Love Hellhounds, this short piece in the Kate Daniels universe follows Kate’s best friend Andrea. I’m not sure the story would stand alone without having read the novels. I think it will, but it provides a richer experience if you have read the novels.
What impressed me was that even though this follows the Kate Daniels plot rules (lots of personal interaction, a big crisis, a big battle, and a not-entirely happy ending), it feels different. The voice is different, and so is the perspective. Andrea is a different character, and it comes through in every word of this piece. If you’ve read the series, this answers a few questions. If you haven’t, I suspect you might want to start somewhere else.
Angell, Roger, “Life and Letters,” The New Yorker, January 2, 2012. I usually don’t recommend anything out of the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker, but I found two things in the January 2nd edition. In “Life and Letters,” Angell discusses regular mail—what we call “snail mail” these days—and how it’s all fading away. Surprisingly, at least for me, he doesn’t examine it from a nostalgic perspective, but from a practical one. In fact, he asks why we’re mourning its passage.
Good question. I miss the ritual of it: When I started writing, getting the mail was like getting a present every day—or at least having the possibility of a present every day. I don’t have that attitude with e-mail. It’s the attitude I miss, not the actual paper mail itself. I love e-mail, and I love the convenience. Now my snail mail is down to a few things from friends, bills, magazines, and special orders (only because Fed Ex/UPS can’t find my house). So I’m always disappointed when I go to the mail.
Anyway, in his short commentary, Angell got me to think about all that and more. Go take a look. It’s a good read—which, btw, I got in the snail mail, but you can get electronically if you but subscribe.
Brockmann, Suzanne, “When Tony Met Adam,” Kindle Edition, Ballantine, 2011. This is a short story related to some of Brockmann’s romance titles. I haven’t read them (although I own them). I planned to read the story after I had, but I changed my mind as I was trying to set up the reading list for a short story class I’m teaching.
When I’ve done the class in the past, I’ve been extremely frustrated with the quality of romance anthologies. Every other genre has a years’ best short story anthology that I can assign. Romance doesn’t. Romance anthologies are published by publishing company, with one or two big name authors from the company’s line and two relatively new authors. The stories are by invitation. I doubt that the big names get any editing at all, and I suspect the smaller names are edited to death. You’re usually lucky to get one good story out of the whole bunch.
So this year, I assembled my own from stories published electronically. I’ve owned the Brockmann since it came out, and I decided to read it because I wanted something contemporary and different.
I knew that this was a story of two men falling in love—that was the different, I thought—but it’s also a classic contemporary romance, extremely well done. One character gets redeemed and the other learns he’s not perfect either. The single sex scene is so hot I had to fan myself off when it was over. And then…the story made me cry. In the middle. I never cry in the middle of a romance. But I did here.
It’s a spectacular story, and really worth reading.
Chang, Leslie T., “Working Titles,” The New Yorker, February 6, 2012. First let me express some skepticism about this piece. The New Yorker published it under the heading “Letter From China.” The piece discusses reading for fun in China, and does an overview of a certain kind of book that appears in China. Now realize that China is bigger than the United States, and Chang only discusses a handful of books as representative. Realize too that whenever I read a similar article about US readers, the article always gets stuff wrong, is too general, and usually misses the point.
But…I know nothing about literature in China, so I have no way to judge if this piece is accurate or not, too general or just perfect, right on or misses the point. I only know that I found this essay (letter) riveting, because the Chinese have a class of fiction that we haven’t had here in this country for nearly 100 years. The “work” novel.
Chang cites the Horatio Alger novels of a century ago about young men finding success through industriousness as our literary equivalent, but even that seems wrong. The books she describes here sound like capitalism porn—they’re all about striving to get ahead, backstabbing, buying apartments and Louis Vitton purses with hard-earned gains.
The cultural differences that Chang points out seem profound. That might be the point of the article or they might actually be that profound. Again, I don’t know, but I did find myself thinking about this piece long after I finished it, which makes it worth sharing.
Denk, Jeremy, “Flight of the Concord,” The New Yorker, February 6, 2012. I don’t think I’ve ever read an essay like this one. It’s by a classical pianist who describes the art of recording a well-known piece of music. He discusses all the considerations—from the versions by the artists who recorded the piece before to the right amount of technique versus passion. Fascinating stuff, particularly for those of us who listen to a lot of classical music.
Gibson, Gary, “From Slide-Rules to Techno-Mystics: Hard SF’s Battle For The Imagination,” Strange Divisions & Alien Territories: The Subgenres of Science Fiction, edited by Keith Brooke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Great essay on the history of and the current attitudes toward hard science fiction. I particularly loved this:
“If you were to cut open hard sf’s body and tear out its beating heart, you might very well find yourself clutching a copy of [the August 1954 issue of Astounding]….Contained within its pages you would find a story written by Tom Godwin called ‘The Cold Equations.’”
His analysis of “The Cold Equations” importance to hard sf is spot-on and runs through the entire piece as both an example and a metaphor. This is one of the best pieces on hard sf that I’ve ever seen.
Hall, Donald, “Out The Window,” The New Yorker, January 23, 2012. A lovely essay being old. A lot of writers make it to old age. A lot of writers keep writing in their old age. But very few writers write about old age. Hall does so here. He talks about being old as alien to the young, and remembers how that was. Then he confirms that it is alien, even to one’s self. Fascinating essay. Worth reading, maybe more than once.
Harris, Robert, The Fear Index, Knopf, 2012. Someone at Knopf tried to make this package into something nice. Instead, this book has the most horrible dust jacket of the year. Not only is the dust ugly, but it feels awful to hold. Which just goes to show that everyone makes mistakes, I guess. If you take the dust off the book, it is lovely—with nifty endpapers and a nice interior design.
In The Fear Index, Harris takes on financial markets. It sounds dull. It’s not. When Harris is on his game as he was in Fatherland and The Ghost (later called The Ghost Writer), he’s one of the best writers in the business. He’s on his game here, although I wasn’t sure at first.
I found the book compelling from the start, but I wasn’t sure where he was going. I kept thinking it’s like a cross between a William Gibson novel and a Colin Harrison novel—the high-tech world of Gibson with the overly intelligent overly privileged fish-out-of-water hero of a Harrison novel. But in the middle of the book, that sense faded, and I felt a deep disappointment. Harris used a hoary old science fiction trope, and I nearly set the book down. I’d seen that a million times—in the movies, in books, in TV.
I’m so glad I continued. He took that trope and stood it on its head. I actually laughed out loud in pleasure and surprise. I cannot tell you what the trope is or how he twisted it without ruining the read, but I can tell you that once again, Robert Harris pleased me greatly with one of his novels.
He is on the top of his game with this one, but buy the British version or an e-book so you don’t have to put your fingertips on that dust jacket….
Hitchens, Christopher, “Charles Dickens Inner Child,” Vanity Fair, February 2012. I think it appropriate that Christopher Hitchens’ last column for Vanity Fair before his death was an examination of another writer’s work, influence, and influences. He has some interesting points about Dickens here, some of which I knew, and others I didn’t. Also in this issue, you might want to look at Salman Rushdie’s remembrance of Hitchens. I will miss the monthly columns. They were one of the highlights of Vanity Fair for me.
Kamp, David, “Freud, Interrupted,” Vanity Fair, February, 2012. I almost failed to recommend this piece, but I found myself quoting it and thinking about it for nearly a week after I read it. Lucian Freud was Sigmund’s grandson. I’m not a fan of Sigmund and his attitudes toward women. I knew his grandson was a famous artist, and I decided I’d skim the piece.
I found an interesting article about a fascinating man, who died with his boots on. Lucian Freud worked harder as he got older, upset that his body had slowed down. So to compensate for that, he put in more hours, not fewer. He believed he would never finish the work he had in his head.
I can empathize with that attitude. And what Lucian Freud said about selfishness and the artist is something I’ve said to people close to me (as they got close to me). I’d never seen anyone else be so blunt.
Worth reading and thinking about.
Lehrer, Jonah, “Groupthink,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2012. Fascinating essay on brainstorming. Apparently, it doesn’t work—not in a group—and it never has. Other ways of group thinking do work to come up with creative ideas, and Lehrer delineates them here. Fascinating stuff on the way the brain works.
Lizza, Ryan, “The Obama Memos,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2012. I debated listing this essay here because I try not to have political discussions on my blog. So here’s a warning, folks. If you want to comment on the books/articles/stories, fine, but please don’t have a political discussion here.
I posted this essay because it greatly disturbed me and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. I’m a political junkie, who reads everything she can get her hands on, no matter what side of the aisle it comes from. I don’t consider myself naïve. And yes, I voted for Obama, but with hesitation and a clear eye. I’m one of those people who, when a friend offered to buy me that Obama as Superman t-shirt, I said, “He’s just a man, and he’ll never be Superman. The job won’t allow it. People who own that shirt will be disillusioned come 2012.”
And those people are. And perhaps that’s what many will take from this essay. But what I took is the very level of dysfunction that exists in the workings of our current government, and how people on all sides capitulate to it. I actually had to walk away from this piece several times, and force myself to come back to it because my level of frustration was so high.
So I put this here to share my discomfort, yes, and because it’s one of the pieces I read in March that I’ll remember for a long time. Go read it. But if you want to discuss its points, please do so elsewhere. Thanks.
Morrow, James, “The Raft of the Titanic,” The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories, edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates, Running Press, 2010. The alternate history part of this story is that somehow the Titanic crew and passengers managed to build a gigantic raft out of the book before it went down, and 2000 people survived. Yeah, I had trouble suspending my disbelief on that part too, until I remembered that I was reading James Morrow, and he wasn’t going for a believable alternate history. He writes satire. He was going for a much larger point, one that had to do with governments and war and the lies we tell each other. The point, however, wouldn’t work if the story failed, and it doesn’t. It’s very well done. I particularly like his treatment of Margaret (Molly, the Unsinkable) Brown. Wonderful story.
Paumgarten, Nick, “Countdown,” The New Yorker, January 2, 2012. This is the second Talk of the Town piece I’ve ever recommended, and it’s from the same issue as the Angell above. This one also deals with technological change. This time, it’s about the way we can time everything. Or almost everything, from crossing the street (those crosswalk timers) to automobile navigation systems. He also recounts an experiment, started in 1927, and still going, that only has nine pieces of data because the thing experimented on is so slow and unpredictable. This one is—pun intended—worth your time.
Reed, Annie, “A Most Romantic Dragon,” Thunder Valley Press, 2012. I love this story. Morived, a dragon who merely wants to practice his comedy routines, has fallen in love. He wants to date the daughter of a very traditional dragon. The problem? Morived isn’t traditional—and knows that Daddy Dearest will hate him from the moment they meet.
I first read this story in our February workshop. Annie had written the story for the workshop, and I had no idea that Morived had appeared in a previous story—until I looked up the e-book version, and saw that she had paired the stories. (You get the previous story as a bonus with this one.)
I’m off to order the previous story now—and I can’t wait for more of Morived’s adventures.
Seabrook, John, “Streaming Dreams,” The New Yorker, January, 16, 2012. I already wrote in my business blog about the epiphany that this piece gave me, but the essay is about more than the change in the culture. It’s about the changes at YouTube, how companies grow from a small idea to something larger, and how a corporation can (and should) grow, maintaining old customers while attracting new. He doesn’t quite cover the minefields to my satisfaction. (Netflix’s adventures in minefields come to mind), but he does deal with how difficult the shift is. And he gives a good analysis of the personalities involved. Worth reading, no matter what you think of business or YouTube.