Surprisingly to me, since October was a busy month, I got a lot of reading done. Most of the novels weren’t memorable, but the shorter works—from articles to short stories—were. Here’s what I can recommend from my reading this past month.
Baxter, John, The Most Beautiful Walk in The World: A Pedestrian in Paris, Harper Perennial, 2011. Nothing beats browsing in a bookstore for discovering new titles. In fact, nothing beats browsing in Powell’s City of Books on Burnside in Portland, Oregon, because there are soooooo many books.
I found this on one of my last visits there, a book on Paris that I just couldn’t pass up. The book holds up to its browsing promise. It’s one of those books you dip in and out of. There’s no real through-line (as my Hollywood friends say). There are mostly anecdotes, many of them literary.
Baxter is an Australian who lived in Los Angeles and London before moving to Paris. He was at a literary conference near his home in Paris and had the misfortune of taking a walking tour with some professor who bored everyone to tears. The conference planner asked Baxter to step in, and that was when his life as a guide for literary tourists began.
Baxter lives in the same area as my favorite hotel in Paris, and he frequents the café at the end of the street near the hotel. The last time I was in Paris, I ran into several writers there, and finally know why. It’s the literary section of Paris—for the locals, not for the tourists. Which explains why I was so comfortable.
Even if you’re not a writer, this book will interest you. His chapter on the catacombs is very familiar, and the chapter titled “Heaven and Hell,” about two clubs beside each other with those names (in the not-so-recent past) is just plain fascinating. You’ll find a lot in here to entertain you.
The book is full of literary anecdotes, personal anecdotes, and just plain nifty stuff. There are also some tips from a local in the back so that, as a tourist, you don’t seem like a total rube.
Clendinen, Dudley, “The Good Short Life,” The Best American Essays 2012, edited by David Brooks, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. The editorial setup for The Best American Essays drives me nuts every year. The mandated order for the essays is alphabetical. In this year’s instance, that means the book lead off with some horribly dull essays that should’ve been sloughed to the middle. This essay, “The Good Short Life,” would have made an excellent start. It was written by a man with ALS. He discusses his decision to die with dignity instead of dying by inches. It’s a fascinating, important essay, well written, and not too long. It’s marvelous.
I haven’t yet finished the book as of this writing, but this essay alone is worth the price of the volume.
Connelly, Michael, “The Safe Man: A Ghost Story,” Little, Brown, Kindle Single, 2012. Little, Brown released “The Safe Man” just ahead of Connelly’s next novel, The Black Box. Most of this Kindle edition is an excerpt from The Black Box, but I don’t really care. “The Safe Man” is still worth buying.
It is a ghost story, but not the usual kind. The title refers to a man who opens safes legitimately, and works as a locksmith. His wife is pregnant, so he’s short of money, and he takes a job opening the safe of a professional writer. None of what I just told you is important, and all of it is important.
The story left me with that delightfully creeped out feeling only the best horror can provide. Very subtle, very nice, very disturbing.
Gladwell, Malcolm, “Slackers: The Art of Exhaustion,” The New Yorker, July 30, 2012. Lots of good stuff in the July 30 issue. (The New Yorker works in waves for me: some issues stink, others have an article I like, and some issues I adore. This wasn’t quite to the adore level, but it was close.) Anyway, the Gladwell article is not about people who do nothing. Instead, it’s about the difference between “normal” people and people who are high achievers.
He uses sport here to illustrate, and for the first time, it gave me some insight into my husband. Dean has the ability to work through anything if he believes it important (which is how he got through last year). No matter if he’s exhausted or sick, he can do that. I can’t. (Except with writing—another matter altogether.)
Anyway, Gladwell uses Olympic medalist and coach of Olympic medalists, Alberto Salazar’s autobiography to help illustrate his point. Most people, Gladwell contends, have a place between efforts where they rest. Salazar (and Dean) don’t. Instead of realizing that doing something hurt and they’re not going to do it again, the painful thing gave them strength. In Salazar’s words, “I no longer doubted my toughness.”
This lack of slack does differentiate these people from the rest of us. I’m not sure—and Gladwell did not address—whether or not we all have places in our lives where there is no slack, but I suspect it’s true of most of us. We have places where we sacrifice everything continually, and places where we do not. But I don’t know. Clearly, I’m still ruminating.
Read this, and see if it makes you think about life and work differently.
Hitchens, Christopher, Mortality, Twelve, 2012. This beautiful little book is a collection of the essays Hitchens wrote as he got diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed him. These are fantastic essays and should be read by anyone who is hoping to live a long time. They make you think about what you would do in his circumstance. They’re also beautifully written and heartbreaking.
I’d read most of them in different form in Vanity Fair, and recommended them. But the book is worth reading as a whole unit. Like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, this book takes us to a place we will all eventually go, and probably should be prepared for. Read this one.
Hockensmith, Steve, “Frank,” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, October, 2013. Wow. That’s all I can say about this story. Wow. Frank lives in a care facility and he has dementia or some form of it. Yet he’s the point-of-view character here, and he believably handles a mystery. I’ve read other stories from the point of view of someone with dementia, and this one, this one, is both the most realistic and the most powerful. This is a do-not-miss short story. Find it, however you can.
Korbel, Kathleen, Don’t Fence Me In, Silhoutte Desire, 1996, Kindle version. Kathleen Korbel is a pen name for Eileen Dreyer. I thought I had found all of her category romances, but somehow I had missed this one. Categories are about 50,000 words, which is about half the length of a normal novel, and Korbel shines at this length. Lots of plot, lots of chemistry between the characters, lots of emotion.
In this, a movie star—yeah, I’m back on that kick—comes to the ranch he bought incognito. She actually figured out how this would work, and I bought it one-hundred percent. I also bought the reactions of others, since I live in a town where movie/tv people retire and/or buy fifth homes. Wonderful stuff.
The romance is credible, and unlike some book I read last year, where I was convinced that couple’s relationship would end a week or so after the marriage, in this case, I believe this couple will remain together. Great book, easy to find if you have an e-reader, and worth the few hours it takes you to read it.
Moore, Kenny, “This Is As Scared As I Get. Now Let’s Go Run,” Runner’s World, September, 2012. In 1995, I wrote a novel called Hitler’s Angel. Initially, it was supposed to be an alternate history, set at the Munich games of 1972, where a reporter interviews the cop who put Hitler away long before Hitler became a mass murderer. Only, I realized as I was writing the novel that if Hitler had been imprisoned around the time of his niece’s murder, no one would remember him, and no one would know what he was capable of. So I wrote the novel, and I did set part of it in 1972 in Munich, just before the Olympics, but only people who remember that time would get the subtext.
In 1972, terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and referees at the Munich games. It was horrifying, it was terrifying, and it was so sad. Like all of the world, I watched, and I remembered it. But I had trouble with the research. Twenty-three years after the 1972 Olympics, very few people had written about it. (A film came out later.)
Kenny Moore was there, competing in the marathon. The quote that became the title of this article was Frank Shorter’s, just before the marathon began.
This article is amazing, in its memories, its healing powers, and in its writing. Please read this. It’s tremendous.
Nussbaum, Emily, “On Television: The Allure of the Cliffhanger,” The New Yorker, July 30, 2012. Nussbaum points out that cliffhangers really didn’t exist in great numbers on television until the rise of the video, so that we could all catch up on our favorite shows. Until then, television was ephemeral, and treated as such (even though radio programs used cliffhangers all the time). I thought of this just last night as I watched two different network TV shows that were running several different plotlines, all with cliffhangers.
If that had been all she said, I probably wouldn’t recommend this. But she explores the history of the cliffhanger in fiction, and for that alone, every writer should read this essay. She ignores a lot of important cliffhanger milestones (I love that phrase), but she didn’t have a lot of room to explore them either. Take a peek at this one, especially if you write fiction.
Remnick, David, “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two,” The New Yorker, July 30, 2012. For fans of the Boss, the title says it all. But if you’re not, and you do work in the arts, you need to read this as well. Long-term careers in the arts—which is what I deal with on my blog—are a rollercoaster ride, and Remnick portrays that well in this piece on Springsteen. Worth every word (and let me recommend a Springsteen soundtrack as you read along).
Swanson, James L., Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase For Jefferson Davis, Harper Perennial Edition, 2011. I’ve read a lot of Civil War history, but generally everything I’ve read has glossed over this period of the war. The books dealt with the Lincoln assassination and the political intrigues after, the changes in policy and so on, but not on the nationwide grief for Lincoln, nor on what really happened to Jefferson Davis. At that point, somehow, he became a footnote.
Bloody Crimes isn’t as compelling as the book Swanson wrote about the search for John Wilkes Booth, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s still fascinating. The funeral details and the thought of keeping a corpse visible (and smelling sweet) in 1865 as it travels the country is the stuff of horror novels. Jefferson Davis went through his own travels during this period, and spent much of the time in denial.
Every now and then, books make me think of my family. This one made me think of my grandmother and the great-grandmother I never met. My great-grandmother was born one hundred years before me to the month. My grandmother said that her mother’s earliest memory was of seeing Lincoln’s funeral train. When I looked at the map Swanson presented of the train’s travels in the book, I realized that either my great-grandmother never saw the train or her family traveled from Wisconsin to Illinois (probably Chicago) to see it, which would have made it a very big deal indeed.
I now wish I could ask for details. (Ironically, one of my earliest memories is of John F. Kennedy’s funeral. The procession was modeled on Lincoln’s funeral.)
Anyway, back to the Swanson book itself, you’ll find this material elsewhere, but not in this order, and not as clearly presented. This is a fascinating, if a bit ghoulish, read.