I read a lot in August, but at the beginning of the month I felt like I was paying for my successful July. A book I really looked forward to by a writer new to me turned out to be a slog. Characters I didn’t like saying disagreeable things about other characters I didn’t like. I’ve encountered this four times in “the book of the summer!” and I’m beginning to think that mainstream reviewers have such contempt for the world that they only like books that mirror that contempt.
That said, I also read some books in the various series I’m reading, and while I enjoyed the novels, they didn’t reach to the recommendation level. I read a mystery by a favorite writer—a whodunit—and knew who did it on page one. I still finished the book because the characters and the setting were so spectacular. But again, not worth recommending.
By the end of the month, things got better. I finished Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book which is probably the scariest thing I’ve read all year. Then I picked up Liz Hand’s Generation Loss, which I liked more than anything I’d read by her—which is saying something since she’s one of my very favorite writers. I found some marvelous short stories, a few excellent books I’d been saving for a groggy day, and some interesting articles. They all really improved my view of August. Here’s what I liked best:
Allen, John, “Farewell Cards,” On Wisconsin, Summer, 2012. I’ve known for decades that libraries across the country have taken their card catalog index card files and digitized them, but I had no idea about the work involved. Allen’s article on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s effort to finish putting all its 4 million cards onto files is fascinating, enlightening and rather overwhelming. What I found particularly interesting were the problems I hadn’t even thought of, like books with no cards, and books that were combined to save space (books in a nonfiction series, for example). Interesting and worth reading for anyone who remembers that old card catalog system in any library.
Balogh, Mary, The Proposal, Delacourt Press, 2012. I’d been saving this one until I finished the book I’m currently writing, but after a particularly long day, I could wait no longer. I finished this novel that night.
Regular readers of this list know that Mary Balogh is one of my favorite writers and this book did not disappoint in any way. She’s clearly starting a new series, The Survivors Club, about folks who made it through the Napoleonic wars. She begins with a man who has severe PTSD, although she doesn’t name it (she can’t, given the time period). He has worked through the worst of it with the other survivors, but he’s still damaged. A gentle giant, he’s a big scary looking guy with a heart of gold.
Our heroine has some bad stuff in her past as well, a husband who died in a horrible manner, and another loss that nearly destroyed her. These two timid souls find each other and slowly work toward each other. This is a delicate, finely balanced romance novel that works beautifully.
Bradbury, Ray, “Take Me Home,” The New Yorker, June 4-11, 2012. This essay, about Ray Bradbury’s childhood and influences, made me realize how much I’m going to miss his writing. Not that it’s going away, mind you. There just won’t be any new Ray Bradbury works. That’s sad.
This is a typical—if there is such a thing—Ray Bradbury essay, about childhood and Mars and imagination. It’s lovely.
Connelly, Michael, “A Fine Mist of Blood,” Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, 2012. Lately in the chronology of Harry Bosch, Connelly’s most famous hero, Bosch is working for the Open-Unsolved Unit of the LAPD. In this story, a DNA test comes back positive for a witness to another major crime, and Bosch has a hunch. How that hunch plays out is fascinating to read. I love Connelly’s short stories, and this one does not disappoint.
Cooper, Mike, “Leverage,” Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, 2012. Joe Beeker has lost his pension and damn near everything else, not just because of the financial crisis, but also because of the greed of the man who bought out the company Beeker once worked for. Beeker seeks vengeance, of course, but it’s dark and satisfying. Read and enjoy.
Gibson, William, “Olds Rocket 88, 1950,” The New Yorker, June 4-11, 2012. I love this short essay. Bill is talking about the world we both grew up in, which anticipated the science fiction world we write about. All the toys, all the designs, they were all about the future. They were wrong, of course, because by describing them as futuristic, they eventually became emblematic of the past. But still… This essay, like others in this issue, is about the discovery of science fiction by one of its main practitioners. And that makes the essay quite special.
Hand, Elizabeth, Generation Loss, Harcourt, 2007. I have loved Elizabeth Hand’s stories for decades now. I used to buy her fiction when I edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I find that she rarely disappoints.
She can, however, go dark, and Generation Loss is dark. It’s also powerful, lyrical, and compelling.
Critics are comparing her main character to Lisbeth Salander, but that’s really not accurate. Cass Neary is a damaged soul, yes, but she has a different core. The entire novel is about Cass finding her strength, when Lisbeth has already found hers before the beginning of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Cass Neary is also much more sympathetic. She’s a middle-aged woman who suffered two traumatic events before she turned twenty, freezing her in her teenage self. The first trauma came from too much success too early, an inexplicable success that she felt she couldn’t replicate and that she never profited from. The second trauma happened around the same time, a brutal attack that left her scarred, broken, and blaming herself because she hadn’t fought back. Teenage Cass had experimented with drugs and lived in New York’s punk scene. Adult Cass needs the drugs to cope with her unexamined traumas, and remains one of the few punks standing.
When she gets a pity assignment from a friend to interview a famous reclusive photographer in Maine, Cass goes, stumbling her way into problems through her own crazy ineptitude, the way that drug addicts do. Beneath the drugs, though, is a frightened brilliant woman who is struggling to save herself.
I’d love to tell you the ending, because the book points directly there, but suffice to say that this is ultimately a satisfying read, emotional and heartfelt. You mystery readers will know from the beginning who done what, but the book isn’t about that. It’s about Cass’s search for redemption.
The book works on all levels, plot to theme, characters to setting. It’s a rich, rewarding read that also happens to be beautifully written. It’s also short. You can finish it in one night, and I suggest you do so.
Hotchner, A.E., “A Legend As Big As The Ritz,” Vanity Fair, July, 2012. The Ritz hotel in Paris is a legendary hotel. It’s currently closed for renovations that will take two years. Vanity Fair decided to explore the hotel’s history while the renovations go on.
What a history. Everyone who was Anyone stayed there, and sometimes lived there. Good, bad, and indifferent. Hemingway wrote about it as did Fitzgerald. Then the Nazis took it over in World War II, preserving it, yes, but tainting it as well.
I stopped in the Ritz just to take a look around in 2007. It disappointed me. It was just a little shabby, with a touch of faded glory. I knew it still commanded outrageous prices—there’s a suite in the hotel that goes for roughly $17,000 per night—but it wasn’t obvious from the interior. Now, the magazine tells me, the hotel will be worthy of its prices. I’m still not sure how that’s possible, and I certainly don’t have that kind of money to burn.
Still, the history is fascinating, as are the anecdotes recounted here.
James, Darrell, “Even a Blind Man,” Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, 2012. Earl Lilly and his dog Melon arrive in Atlanta by bus. Earl’s here to save the granddaughter he never met from some very bad men. He has a gut feeling that things are awful—and I’ll tell you this much: his gut feeling is right. Stories of vengeance should be satisfying and this one really, really is.
Kelley, Christen Anne, Softball Baby, Kindle Edition, Blue Cedar Publishing, 2012. I love this story. I first read it in a workshop, and felt it truly captured the confusion of high school. Christen Anne Kelley writes wonderful stories about softball. I’ve recommended some before. In this one, Julie’s best friend Courtney gets pregnant and the shock that this sends through the high school softball team is profound. Courtney’s not the kind of girl who gets pregnant in high school—or is she? The story isn’t so much about teen pregnancy as it is about our perceptions of others. Worth reading.
Kleypas, Lisa, Dream Lake, St. Martins Griffin, 2012. This novel is part of Kleypas’s Friday Harbor series, but the book stands alone. There are two sets of main characters in the novel, Alex Nolan and Zoe Hoffman, and a ghost and his one-time love. The ghost, which at first haunted the house on Rainshadow Road (the previous novel) ends up haunting Alex, forced to follow him everywhere. In fact, the ghost’s point of view starts the entire novel and carries throughout. Nicely done. I have one or two reservations—Alex is an alcoholic who stops drinking, but never gets treatment. That bothered me. You can’t magic alcoholism away. But except for that one plot point, the book works. It’s one of those books you want to read when times are rough, because you know that everything will turn out well in the end.
Law, Janice, “The General,” Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, 2012. A former ruler of an unnamed country escapes to another country where he lives in luxury. He has one son whom he adores. He employees a small army of people to maintain his estate, and one person—a gardener—gives him pause. Yet he continues to employ the man. In an anthology called Vengeance, you expect a certain kind of vengeance. This provides another. Very good.
Le Guin, Ursula K., “The Golden Age,” The New Yorker, June 4-11, 2012. I admire the hell out of Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only is she one of my favorite writers, but she has balls. She was invited to write about science fiction for the New Yorker and what does she write about? The science fiction ghetto, where sf writers used to live when literary critics and literary magazines like The New Yorker hated all sf on sight. Her anecdote about Playboy is wonderful. Read this, if you read nothing else in the issue. It’s great.
Lehane, Dennis, “The Consumers,” Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, 2012. I don’t think our generation will ever get over the financial crisis of 2008. The entire anthology is about vengeance, and much of it deals with vengeance against the rich. This story is particularly effective. Of course, it’s written by Lehane, so it’s good. I can’t reveal more without revealing much of the story. Read. Enjoy.
Mitchell, Dreda Say, “The Hotline,” Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, 2012. Rukshana Malik gets passed over for a promotion at a London bank and her family swears it’s because she’s a Muslim who wears a headscarf. The true reason, as Rukshana discovers, is more complicated than that. But the bigotry she’s forced to endure has another purpose in this story, one that’s particularly satisfying. Perhaps the most surprising story in the book (in a good way). Well done.
The New Yorker, June 4-11, 2012. Yes, I’m recommending an entire issue of a magazine. Why? It’s the science fiction issue!!!! Of The New Yorker!!!! I have no idea what prompted them to come over to the dark side, but boy, oh, boy am I happy they did. Proof that we’re in an alternate timeline or something. It’s just plain great. I didn’t like everything in the issue, but I never like everything in the issue. I loved the cover, and I’m pointing out elsewhere in this column the things that I loved the most. Pick it up, or visit it online. This is a minor miracle, and one I never would have believed would happen in my lifetime. I am not kidding.
Nussbaum, Emily, “On Television: Fantastic Voyage,” The New Yorker, June 4-11, 2012. Nussbaum discusses both Doctor Who and Community, and she uses the shows to focus on fandom. I’ve never seen Community (and just might watch it now), but she’s clearly a Doctor Who fan. Lovely essay, quite interesting, and worth reading.
Parent, Marc, “The Newbie Chronicles: Why Run?” Runners World, July 2012. Parent’s column in Runners World, “The Newbie Chronicles,” is such a favorite of mine that when one issue got too big to include it, I noted its absence. Parent chronicles what it’s like to become athletic in middle age. I resemble that, so I get it. This particular essay applies not just to runners, but to anyone who is trying to develop discipline for something. He remarks that only a few people love running for its own sake. I’m told that there are writers who don’t like writing either (although I refuse to believe it). So he explores other motivations for doing something hard that takes a great deal of time and effort. Worth reading, particularly if you struggle with discipline.
Sorkin, Andrew Ross, Too Big To Fail, Penguin Books, 2010. It took me forever to read this book, not because it’s badly written or because it’s a slog, but because it’s so damned scary. Sorkin first published this in 2009, but the edition I read has an afterward written in 2010. If you want to know how close to the edge of a horrible cliff the entire world was during the financial crisis, read this book. It does read like a thriller. But what got to me as I read was just how much everyone—and I do mean everyone—was winging it. No one knew what to do, no one knew how bad the mess was, no one knew what the solution was. At a certain point, it would have been nice for a very wise person to step in and tell everyone what to do, but there was no such person at the time. Mostly people were cleaning up a spreading disaster, rather like the oil spill in the Gulf. They thought it small in the beginning, and then it grew, and grew, and grew. Only this particular crisis could have brought down the entire world’s financial system—and came just a hair’s breath from doing so.
Strangely, I read the last part of the book quicker, because by that point in the crisis, I had been following the news and the blogosphere and knew what was happening (as best a former journalist could, without sources). That all felt familiar and frightening (yes) but it was an old fear from four years ago. What terrified me the most were the events leading up to the crisis, and how long we were on that edge.
Read this one. It’s quite eye-opening about leadership, wisdom, and the potential end of the world.