I initially started this list because I was no longer editing, and I wanted to recommend what I’m reading to you. I’m editing again in a limited capacity for Fiction River, and I’m reading some marvelous stories. You’ll have to see those, especially the ones in the volumes that list me as editor (not just overall editor) as stories I recommend as well. I’m not going to share them here to whet your whistle, except to say in passing that I’m reading some really, really good work.
I also read a lot of good stuff in November. It was one of those jackpot months, even though a few of my favorite authors disappointed me greatly with their new releases. I thought maybe I was being too harsh, until I saw a review of one of those books in a major mainstream publication, and the reviewer had exactly the same complaints that I did (and in a more aggrieved tone, I might add). So, it wasn’t just me. The author just screwed up. L
The authors below did not screw up. They wrote marvelous things. I hope you check out all of these works.
Allyn, Doug, “An Early Christmas,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2010, edited by Lee Child, Mariner, 2010. I fully admit that I don’t understand the metaphor at the end of this story, but it still hit me hard. An attorney’s car goes off the road and burns, but the case is a murder, not an accident. Everything spirals from that incident, including a rather sad vision into a difficult but short life. Allyn is a spectacular writer, and he’s in rare form here. The story is a punch in the gut—and I mean that in the best possible way.
Brooks, David, editor, The Best American Essays 2012, Mariner, 2012. David Brooks is best known as “the conservative” on The New York Times op-ed staff. He also serves as a pundit on the 24/7 talk shows. I always find him interesting to listen to whether I agree with him or not, but I’ve only seen him through this particular political prism.
This annual book of essays picks a different editor each year, and sometimes the editor does well for me, and sometimes not. (I’ll never get over the year of the poet, I swear. I hated her essay choices.) Brooks confirmed how wonderful this method is. I had no idea how diverse his reading tastes were, nor how catholic (and I mean that with the little “c”). The points of view expressed here are fascinating, and often unexpected.
Even though I mentioned last month that I really didn’t care for the opening few essays, that’s not Brooks’s fault. The system the Best American uses is to place the material alphabetically by author, and it seemed to me that the most difficult essays came first this year. Too bad. Skip around, find some other essays, and you’ll find some great reading. (I’ve listed a few favorites below.)
For my tastes, this volume is one of the best ever in the series. I skipped only one or two essays and learned or enjoyed something in all the others. If you pick up this volume irregularly, this year is a year to add it to your collection.
Grisham, John, The Racketeer, Doubleday, 2012. What I love about John Grisham is that once he became a bestseller, he continued to challenge himself as a writer. He didn’t rest on his laurels.
The Racketeer is exactly what you would expect from Grisham: a revenge fantasy with a twist that you know is coming but can’t quite see. I blew through this novel in about two hours, and loved it.
Then I thought about the craft. He made some point-of-view choices that no beginner would have known to do or to try. The only way this book could work is with some narrative tricks that most readers will never ever see. I wondered why the voice in the seeming point-of-view changes didn’t change as well, but I was reading so fast I didn’t have time to think about it.
Well, there’s a reason for that, and a reason for all the other choices that Grisham makes here. He takes a snarky poke at his critics in the afterward, and they deserve it. The level of craft here is tremendous, and the fact that he can make any of us read without noticing is even more tremendous. Fantastic.
Hand, Elizabeth, Errantry: Strange Stories, Small Beer Press, 2012. Liz Hand’s latest collection is extremely strong, with lots of great stories, and spectacular writing. The first story, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon,” was one of my favorite stories when I encountered it in a year’s best last year. The next two stories are equally strong, and I’ve listed them below. The remaining stories vary from traditional fantasy to very subtle literary tales. All have an emotional impact, and all are worth reading.
The cover is perfect—if you’ve read the story Errantry. If not, the cover can be off-putting for those of you who don’t like literary fiction. If you’re one of those people, pick this book up anyway. You’ll find all sorts of wonderful fiction herein.
Hand, Elizabeth, “Hungerford Bridge,” Errantry: Strange Stories, Small Beer Press, 2012. When I finished this story, I thought it beautifully written but slight. Still I can’t get it out of my head. The imagery, the moment, the strangeness, all work together well. One of the best stories in the collection.
Hand, Elizabeth, “Near Zennor,” Errantry: Strange Stories, Small Beer Press, 2012. This wonderful novella explores loss in a fascinating way. Jeffrey’s wife Anthea has died. As he goes through her things, he finds letters to an author she loved, letters that spoke of a strange time in her teenage past. He decides to investigate, mostly to put his own ghosts to rest. Instead, he finds something both sinister and magic. Both gothic and memorable, “Near Zennor” is a triumph.
Hessler, Peter, “Dr. Don,” The Best American Essays 2012, edited by David Brooks, Mariner, 2012. A long profile of a man who isn’t famous. Don Colcord is a pharmacist in rural Colorado, the only person with anything even passing as medical knowledge within hundreds of miles. Hessler uses this essay to show what it’s like to live in one of those places, which so many people do. He also writes about a very good man who has spent a lot of his own money to make sure people have the medications they need and the confirmation they might need to drive the distance to a real medical facility. Plus Colcord himself is just plain interesting. Worth reading.
Kamp, David, “The Birth of Bond,” Vanity Fair, October, 2012. If you’re a James Bond fan, go see Skyfall. When you do, you’ll realize why the Fall of 2012 was filled with 50th anniversary Bond articles. Some were pretty lame, but this one, in Vanity Fair, deals with Ian Fleming, copyright, the problems of getting a movie made, and the way that some things grow beyond original intentions. If you’re a writer, you need to read this with one eye to the sales and copyright side of things (not the financial side), and if you’re a Bond fan, you’ll see how close we came to a world without Bond, James Bond.
Keizer, Garret, “Getting Schooled,” The Best American Essays 2012, edited by David Brooks, Mariner, 2012. Keizer is a poet who retired from teaching decades ago. In his fifties, he went back to the same school he had started at just to get health insurance. (How many writers have done that?) In this essay, he writes about the differences he experiences teaching now as opposed to twenty years ago, and the things he’s learned—or hasn’t learned. Fascinating stuff, from someone with enough distance from the education wars to have a different opinion and enough closeness to bring personal experience to that opinion. Good stuff.
Lepore, Jill, “The Lie Factory: How Politics Became A Business,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2012. I’m not sure why the editors put this in the Cartoon issue, but I have a hunch that little decision was a commentary all by itself. Lepore’s article is about the folks who invented the modern campaign—or at least the advertising part of it. She begins with Upton Sinclair’s 1933 campaign in California and moves forward from there, mostly focusing on Campaigns, Inc, founded by Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker that same year. Fascinating stuff, and familiar in a creepy way. Definitely worth reading.
Loh, Sandra Tsing, “The Bitch is Back,” The Best American Essays 2012, edited by David Brooks, Mariner, 2012. Fantastic essay on menopause and being part of the sandwich generation. Very well written, very blunt (as you can tell from the title), and very passionate, this is a don’t miss, particularly if you’re a woman or in love with one.
Murray, Ken, “How Doctors Die,” The Best American Essays 2012, edited by David Brooks, Mariner, 2012. I’ve heard this before, but haven’t read anything that laid it out quite so clearly. Doctors rarely use extreme measures in end of life care. They just die naturally, unlike so many of us non-doctors. This essay is short, and worth your time.
Price, Jenny, “[mis]guided light,” On Wisconsin, Fall 2012. A fascinating article on the current research into psychopaths. Specifically, if discovered at a young age, can a psychopath be directed toward a “normal” life? This piece challenges assumptions and—at least for me—suggests a mountain of story ideas.
Reed, Annie, “Carl of the Bells,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January, 2013 (2013, really? Isn’t it still 2005?). When I started this story, I thought I knew where it was going to go. Christmas, Salvation Army bell ringers, scam. Seemed obvious. And it wasn’t. It’s short, and surprising, and you should read it.
Rushdie, Salman, “The Disappeared,” The New Yorker, September 17, 2012. I almost didn’t read this personal essay. Then I saw that it was about the early days of the fatwa against Rushdie, and what happened to him almost minute by minute. I read this long piece in one sitting (usually I don’t do that with New Yorker articles), and found it as suspenseful as a piece of fiction. Only it’s all true, and somewhat terrifying.
We writers all want to make an impact with everything we write, but we want to make a J.K. Rowling or Ernest Hemingway kinda impact, not an impact that results in demonstrations, hundreds dead, and lost lives. Rushdie had no idea that his novel would get this reaction, and in another time period, it might not have. A terrifying piece about a writer on the run.
Strahan, Jonathan, “Introduction,” Edge of Infinity, Solaris, 2012. This is just a short introduction to Strahan’s latest book of short stories, but he has some fascinating ideas here. He explores what he calls “the Fourth Generation” of science fiction. And he has this lovely quote: “Science fiction publishing is a somewhat morbid sub-culture. It is rather obsessed with the death of SF and SF publishing.” Not, he says, because the folks with that obsession are particularly depressive, but because “…science fiction is being killed…by science. Not just today, but always.”
Yes, exactly. It’s a fine, short essay on the state of sf today, and worth reading. I haven’t gotten to the rest of the volume yet, but the introduction certainly caught my attention.
Toobin, Jeffrey, The Oath, Doubleday, 2012. Yes, I know we all have political opinions. No, we’re not going to discuss the politics of this little book in the comment section of my blog.
I love Toobin’s work. He makes complex legal matters simple, usually by developing a theme and writing the book with the theme in mind. This time, the theme bit him in the ass.
The opening two-thirds of this book, published in early fall, are stellar. Toobin interviews a lot of people in the Supreme Court, including some of the Supremes themselves, plus folks in the Obama administration. The theme was to have been the way that the Supreme Court and John Roberts in particular butted heads with Obama, culminating in Roberts’ rejection of Obama’s signature health care plan. (You can see this on the cover—the two men squaring off.)
Only, at the end of June, Roberts didn’t reject the health care plan, but upheld it. He was the deciding vote and the person who wrote the opinion. Coming as this book went into production, it’s clear that the decision turned the ending of Toobin’s wonderful book into a hot mess
It’s clear that Toobin did not have time to digest this opinion in the week or so before he had to turn in the final manuscript. There are all kinds of infelicities, repeated language, repeated details, and stuff that seemed true at the end of June and is now known to be false.
Ignore the ending. The rest of the book is well researched, extremely well written, and fascinating. It’s a look at the Roberts court under the changes brought to it by the Obama administration. There’s a lot of good material here. Look to Toobin’s next book to examine the Supreme court decisions of 2012, and read this one for the material from 2008 to 2011. It’s fascinating.
Vargas, Jose Antonio, “Outlaw,” The Best American Essays 2012, edited by David Brooks, Mariner, 2012. Vargas came into the United States as a pre-teen and didn’t realize that his papers were false until he went to get a driver’s license at sixteen. The DMV employee slid his fake papers back at him, and whispered that he needed to leave now. He did. He continued to pretend that he was as normal as any other American, but now he had a really big secret, one that prevented him from doing all kinds of things that other people did routinely. He managed to go to college, and end up as a journalist, working at places like The Washington Post.
Eventually, he couldn’t take the secrecy any longer and came out—as an undocumented illegal. The essay is his saga. I want to read the follow-up; how he’s managed to survive since he wrote this essay. Courageous piece of work, under his real name. Please read this to understand what’s going on for so many young people in this country. (Again, as with the Toobin piece, I’m not going to have political discussions in the comments.)
Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America, Harper Collins, 2001. I found this book at Robert’s Bookshop here in Lincoln City, sitting on top of a stack of World War II books, of all things. This is why bookstores are important. Had I searched an online store, I never would have found this book.
It’s beautifully written, and it makes its case remarkably well. Without the decisions made in April of 1865, the America we know would not exist. Fascinating, with lots and lots and lots of anecdotes, this book is worth the time of any history buff.