Again, I did a lot of Fiction River reading this month, and you will see the results over the next year. The first volume of Fiction River, Unnatural Worlds, appeared on April 23, and please consider the stories in there as part of this recommended reading list. I’m not going to tell you my favorite stories—that would be like confessing I have favorite children—but I am going to say that each story in that volume is memorable in its own way.
Somehow I managed a lot of non-FR reading this month as well. I spent the entire month reading a mainstream novel that received accolades from everywhere. The New York Times called it one of the top 100 books of 2012; NPR called it a literary miracle. (Not kidding.) I figured it would be up my alley since it deals with Hollywood and the writer is an acclaimed mystery writer.
Honestly, I was on the fence about recommending the book, which is why I’ve given you a few clues above. It’s beautifully written, has great characters, and tremendous settings. The voice is spectacular. If it had been a short story, I would have recommended in a heartbeat. But it was a novel, and it took me a month to read. In the middle, I read Fiction River manuscripts, other novels, a few short story collections, and a lot of essays.
In other words, the novel didn’t do what I personally believe that novels should do. It didn’t carry me from one word to the next, demanding all of my attention. It caught my attention like a handsome but vapid man. At first I was fascinated by the novel’s artistry and beauty, but I really wish the author had told me a story. And that’s why I’m not recommending it. Beautiful writing, great voice, marvelous settings only take me so far as a reader. Had the book been longer than 300 pages, I would have quit. But I didn’t. I finished it. And, now, as I write this a week later, I’m having trouble remembering everything but the writing. Not a good thing.
The other reading I did, except for the research reading, was mostly wonderful. I’m sharing the great non-Fiction River stuff below.
Bronstein, Phil, “The Shooter,” Esquire, March, 2013. Phil Bronstein is the last of the famous newspaper men. He is a celebrity journalist of the old school, like Woodward and Bernstein, a manly man who broke stories then married an actress (whom he later divorced) while running a major newspaper. I saw his name and wondered what he’d write about for Esquire.
He got an exclusive from the Navy Seal who actually shot Bin Laden. I believe this account more than I believe “Mark Owen” primarily because of the fact that this guy wouldn’t reveal his name. And while the stuff on the Bin Laden raid is interesting, what’s sad and heartbreaking and wrong is that this Seal—like so many others—left before he hit retirement age, so he is without a safety net. Bronstein spends as much time, or maybe more, on the fact that one of our elite warriors (several of them, in fact) have no income, no insurance, and very little help from the government they worked for, if they left the service before they were eligible for retirement.
Read this. Think about some of the points brought up here. This country is weird sometimes, and conflicted, and real people pay for that conflicted weirdness. Here’s one.
(And the writing is great, natch.)
Colapinto, John, “Giving Voice,” The New Yorker, March 4, 2013. Probably the most fascinating article I’ve read all year. Colapinto profiles Steven Zeitels, a surgeon who specializes in throat surgeries for cancer patients and high-end musicians. He’s the guy who operated on Adele, and he’s the one who has been trying to revive Julie Andrews’s voice (it’s not really possible).
When I was a kid, people who got cancers of the throat had their voice box removed and had to speak through some little device. A few surgeries still resulted in that as much as fifteen years ago, but new techniques, some pioneered by Zeitels, have done away with that option for the most part. Until I read this, it hadn’t even crossed my mental landscape that folks who had received mechanical voice boxes because of throat cancers had pretty much disappeared. I thought throat cancers were just down because of better cancer treatments. That’s some of it, but much of it is surgeons like Zeitels.
I have no hand-eye coordination, so to read about someone who can use teeny tiny instruments to make exceptionally minute movements in side a patient’s immobilized throat and restore something that might have been lost, well, that sounds just like a miracle to me. Read this and marvel at the world we’re living in.
Frank, Thomas, “All That You Can Be,” Oregon Quarterly, Spring 2013. When someone dies, there are a million things you should do, like notify the alumni association of that person’s university that he is no more. Well, we are behind on those little things in regards to our friend Bill Trojan, so we’re still getting the University of Oregon alumni magazine, Oregon Quarterly. I think the spring issue is the first one I’ve ever read. It’s really good. I read Dean’s University of Idaho magazine and well, it’s on par with Beloit College’s (which we also get because of me). Those two, together, take me about five minutes to read. Oregon’s had some great articles in this issue, well-written and interesting.
The first one, written by Thomas Frank, is about Brigadier General Tammy Smith, an Oregon grad, who became the first gay general officer to serve openly in the United States military. This piece is a short biography, and it’s fascinating. The article does focus more on her sexual preference and gender than it does on her actual accomplishments, and that’s its only flaw. After all, not every officer becomes a brigadier general. She’s had a fantastic career, and I would have loved to have heard more about it.
But as the first (and so far only) female editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I can tell you that a lot of people focus on the “first” stuff and not the stuff that actually qualified you for the job.
Still, this piece is worth reading, just so that you can find out more about an amazing human being.
Henderson, Bonnie, “Big Wave, Small World,” Oregon Quarterly, Spring, 2013. One fascinating thing about reading the U of O’s alumni magazine is that the articles are based in the state I live in, not the state I used to live in (Wisconsin), so in some ways they’re more relevant to me now.
This article is about the Japanese dock that floated up on a Newport beach last spring. The dock came from the Japanese tsunami in 2011. That tsunami also hit here, but we were lucky to have a low tide at the time or the damage would have been far worse. (The beach communities had damage, just not as much as we could have and clearly not as much as Japan.
This article traces the dock’s history, how it got loosed from its moorings, and its last sighting before it arrived here. The article deals with several Japanese families and the impact the earthquake/tsunami had on them, and what has become of the dock since it arrived—as well as the impact it had on the locals on the Coast. Fascinating, fascinating stuff. Very well done.
Heidenry, Margaret, “When The Spec Script Was King,” Vanity Fair, March 2013. Fascinating article on the rise and fall (and rise?) of the spec script, the script written on speculation in Hollywood. In the 1990s, such scripts could and did sell for millions. By this century, the sales all but dried up. Heidenry believes the change was because of technology, the merging of studios into only a few corporate entities, and the need to make tent-pole movies instead of smaller films. Plus a lot of the previous decade’s spec scripts either never got made or got made into flops, so the willingness to invest went down.
If you want to see the cycle of the entertainment industry (and the impact of technological disruption), read this piece.
James, Eloisa, The Duke Is Mine, Avon, 2012. I had a down day where I couldn’t read with an editorial eye, and I couldn’t write. So I read an Eloisa James title I had saved up for this exact kind of occasion. The book was perfect for that. Just wonderfully fun and light. Inadvertently, it re-engaged my brain as well. Let me explain why.
James is doing a series of fairy-tale-based Regency romances. They’re nothing like my Grayson fairy-tale novels, except that James’s novels are light, fluffy fun, just like mine are intended to be. How can you go wrong with chapter titles like “‘Turdy-fancy-nasty-paty-lousy-fartical-rogue!’”?
The Duke Is Mine is, nominally, a retelling of The Princess and the Pea, but it is much more than that. We have hints of Ben Jonson, Black Adder, Forest Gump, and, yes, Hans Christian Andersen. Sometimes things pass by in a line or two, and if you miss them, you miss them. But my slowly engaged brain caught them—like a possible hint as to whom Sherlock Holmes’s parents actually were. Fun, fun, fun.
The plot is surprisingly tense: Olivia Lytton has been engaged since childhood to the Duke of Canterwick, who is—unusual, to say the least. Against his father’s wishes, he goes off to war, leaving Olivia to care for his dog Lucy (whom he loves above all else), and, everyone assumes, to die. By the time the duke leaves the stage, we love him, even though he’s not the hero of the novel. Well, that’s not true. He is the traditional hero of an adventure novel (or, perhaps, an untraditional man in the role of hero), but he is not our romance hero.
That’s the Duke of Sconce (yes, Sconce), and he is a mathematical genius who really has no use for human beings. Theoretically, he’s about to become engaged to Olivia’s sister Georgiana, and we all know how that will turn out. Or rather, we don’t exactly, which is always what makes romances work.
I loved all of the characters here, including Lucy the dog, Sconce’s hideous mother (who has a real reason for her hideousness), the two Dukes, and Olivia. Wonderfully done. One of the best romance novels I’ve read this year. (Although, I gotta tell you that just before it, I read two short stories for Fiction River’s Christmas Ghosts volume that are absolutely amazing. But I’ll save that for the volume itself.)
Lizza, Ryan, “House of Pain: Eric Cantor and the Republicans,” The New Yorker, March 4, 2013. First, let me say that I don’t allow political discussions in the comments section of my blog. That always makes me hesitate before recommending an article that’s purely about politics. But I’ve done it in the past, and I’ll do it here, with little editorial comment as well.
I found Lizza’s profile of Eric Cantor fascinating. Cantor often receives two-dimensional treatment in the media (on both sides, right and left), and so he has become a rather dyspeptic cypher to me. The profile lifted the veil and told me many things I didn’t know, like the fact that Cantor’s wife is a liberal Democrat.
As is always the case in politics—and in life—people are never what you expect them to be from first glance. Cantor’s a fascinating man, and he’s well portrayed here. If you’re at all curious about an indepth piece about one of our nation’s most influential politicians, you should read this.
Nagata, Linda, The Red: First Light, Mythic Island Press, Kindle version, March, 2013. Linda sent me an advance copy of this book, which I wasn’t able to start immediately because of Fiction River. Right now, because of what I’m writing, I’m gravitating toward science fiction and literary fiction in my reading. I love Linda’s writing anyway, so this book nagged me to read it right away.
Right away turned out to be later than I had hoped. But dang Linda, she wrote a near-future sf thriller that’s so compelling, I couldn’t put the thing down. Excellent, well-imagined, great characters, fast-moving, great writing, everything I want in my science fiction (in my fiction really) and rarely get. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
It’s the first in a series, but it doesn’t leave you hanging. This part of the story ends. And then, when you finish the last words, you can breathe again. Because if you’re anything like me, you’ll be holding your breath to the very final sentence.
Owen, David, “Hands Across America: Why Purell is Everywhere,” The New Yorker, March 4, 2013. I thought I’d glance at this one, and move on, but I got stuck deep in germs, hand lotion, soap, and the rise of a business. Those of you who come to this site regularly know I’m a sucker for business articles, and this is an extremely good one.
Honestly, from the title, I thought this would be a fluff piece, very pro-Purell. Instead, it’s about hand-washing and the passing of germs and whether or not these solutions are good, helpful, or just in the way. Lots to think about here, from both a mystery and a science fiction perspective (writer first!) as well as from a health perspective. Read this. Then go wash your hands.
Reed, Robert, “Bonds,” Solaris Rising 2, edited by Ian Whates, Solaris, 2013. An oddly told story about a mad genius who comes up with a fascinating way to understand human interactions. The sf idea here is so cool that I exclaimed out loud when Bob explained it. The story, hard science fiction, told dispassionately at first, becomes more and more personal as the piece goes on. Fantastic technique, fantastic idea, and fantastic story. It’s worth the price of the entire volume in my opinion.
Roberts, Nora, Whiskey Beach, Putnam, 2013. I’ve been buying my Nora Roberts books carefully these days, reading the cover copy and trying to decide if they were for me. After decades of good reads, either I was getting tired or she was. When I first read about Whiskey Beach, I thought it was something she would do very, very well. I had thought that about a previous book and had been extremely disappointed, so I picked this up with great trepidation.
I needn’t have worried. Roberts is in top form here. The romance is good, the suspense works, the plot makes sense, the setting is good, and the characters are all strong (with one exception). I blew through this book like a good wind. It’s very well done, and I highly recommend it.
Schwartz, Todd, “The Trouble For Harry,” Oregon Quarterly, Spring, 2013. A fascinating article from the point of view of a 91-year-old Oregon graduate who was taken from the university and put in one of the internment camps in World War Two. It was a shameful time in our history, and it still resonates. But Harry Fukuda is a fascinating man, and he did not let that experience defeat him. In fact, he believes that it took him on a path he never would have walked, a path that brought him his livelihood, his wife, and his family. Fascinating perspective, wonderful man. Read this.
Williamson, Neil, “Pearl in the Shell,” Solaris Rising 2, edited by Ian Whates, Solaris, 2013. Making copyright interesting is a tough thing to do, but Williamson manages it here. The world, filled with avatars and digital downloads and “shells” instead of handheld phones and devices, has also succumbed to corporate thing when it comes to who owns what. Music is tightly defined worldwide. Williamson’s story, about a group trying to break through with something new, finds the musical underbelly, and plays it for all its worth. Truly marvelous.
Wondrich, David, “Regarding This ‘Brooklyn’ Everyone Keeps Talking About,” Esquire, March 2013. Wondrich usually writes about bars, bartenders, and alcoholic beverages. I sometimes read his stuff, but not as often as he and Esquire would probably like. This, though, this is a marvelous essay on all the changes that have occurred in Brooklyn the last thirty years. It’s the best kind of personal essay, the kind that brings you into one person’s life and yet makes his experiences relevant to all of us. And it gives you a contemporary history of Brooklyn. Worth reading.