Considering how busy I was in July, I’m surprised at how much reading I managed to get done. It’s that chair, I’m sure of it. I also read a lot of books not on this list, some truly awful books from some of my favorite writers. I realized that I loved one writer because she was doing something unique back when she started 30 years ago. No one else was doing that. And she’s still doing it, without improvement, over all those years. I’m still reading, but I’m not recommending. I always finish her books now with a sense of disappointment, but I still loyally read them. They’re not bad. They’re just not good either.
Also read a lot of short stories on my Kindle from Big Name Authors. The stories were “meh” for me, but they did entertain me after a few very long days.
And as I said before, my Fiction River reading is down to normal levels. I read a lot of good short fiction this month, some of which you’ll see in future FR issues. The next issue is coming out soon, edited by Dean, and it’s all time travel. Those were some of the stories I was reading in the spring, when I talked about FR. Now you know. I recommend those too.
Here’s the non-FR stories and books that I read and loved in July.
Bilger, Burkhard, “The Martian Chroniclers,” The New Yorker, April 22, 2013. This is one of The New Yorker’s long articles—maybe 10,000 words?—on something the magazine deems interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention for that long. I began this one with the thought that I probably knew most of what it would discuss, and I didn’t. I did know bits of it; I’ve been following the Mars program for years, and I know some of the people who’ve been involved (though not the ones profiled here). But I didn’t know some of the other things.
Bilger’s continual comparisons between Mars and Earth—one live planet, one dead planet, to paraphrase—is also something I’m familiar with. But he put it all into a scientific context that I hadn’t seen before. So I read the piece all the way to the end and greatly enjoyed it. I suspect people less familiar with the Mars research will enjoy it even more.
Holson, Laura M., “Brad’s War,” Vanity Fair, June 2013. If you want to see how complicated getting a movie made and funded can be, read this article. Also, as writers, you should also read this if you have any desire to work in Hollywood. You’ll see how difficult that can be. I know a couple of the parties involved here, although neither has spoken about it to me, although I did see some of the side workings. It’s amazing any film gets made. Seriously. Take a look.
Kamp, David, “The Road To Manderley,” Vanity Fair, June, 2013. And if you think things are easier on writers/backers/talent in the theater think again. While the problems named in Kamp’s article on the beleaguered show based on the book Rebecca are extreme, his difficulties finding financing, reserving talent’s time, and dealing with others aren’t extreme. Big business in the arts is really crazy. All of this, by the way, makes Smash look like a sweet fairytale, and The Producers as a bit too prescient. Enjoy!
King, Gilbert, Devil in the Grove, Harper Perennial, 2012. Wonderful, wonderful book about one of Thurgood Marshall’s lesser known cases. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction last year, and deserves it. I couldn’t put the book down.
The book tells the tale of four young black men, falsely accused of rape by a white teenage girl in 1940s Florida. The case received national notoriety, and eventually, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund stepped in to defend some of the men. Marshall took over the case, although he didn’t argue it initially.
King captures the menace, terror, and sheer horror of those times. He adds detail upon detail which brings to life a time period only sixty some years in the past, where law enforcement could murder someone, brag about it, and get away with the crime; where some humans were considered less than others; where a life sentence was considered a victory over murder or the death penalty.
Riveting, important, extremely well done. I can’t say enough about this book, except that you should go read it.
King, Stephen, Joyland, Hard Case Crime, June 2013. Stephen King writes a variety of books. I call some his booga-booga books because they’re icky and gory and everyone dies. They’re not my favorites, but they’re worth reading because King’s always worth reading, in my opinion.
I’d put off reading Joyland when I got it because I was afraid it was a booga-booga book. Hard Case Crime publishes hard-boiled, often noir, books, which I love. King’s first book for them, The Colorado Kid, wasn’t even close to hard-boiled. It was barely a mystery. And I was disappointed.
This time, I didn’t expect noir. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but I can tell you this: King, the master of horror, can’t write hard-boiled to save his life. It takes a certain worldview to write hard-boiled, a cynical somewhat sad worldview, and even in his goriest novels, King doesn’t achieve that. There’s a cock-eyed optimist inside that man, and the optimist prevents him from writing hard-boiled, let alone noir.
So, back to the cover, and my booga-booga expectations. I think I figured King would go gory if he couldn’t go hard-boiled. The cover suggests it. And the cover, while it has elements of the book, is wrong. Terribly, awfully wrong. The worst cover this book could have. Honestly, the book shouldn’t be in a hard-boiled line at all, although I do hope it infuses Hard Case Crime with much-needed dough.
Joyland is one of King’s literary novels—and I mean that in the best way. He’s a fantastic writer and he loves people and he has a great perspective on the world, all of which show up here. I personally think this is one of King’s best stories ever, right up there with my personal favorites, “The Body,” and The Green Mile.
Joyland takes place in a dying amusement park, the kind that was almost gone by the early 1970s. Its hero, Devin Jones, is a 21-year-old boy on the verge of growing up. The book is narrated by Jones forty years later, and the perspective is marvelous. That accepting tone of loss and love and wisdom is perfect. There’s nothing booga-booga here. There’s barely any blood. And the deaths, for the most part, are the real-life kind.
There are echoes of other novels here. This is a direct relative of Something Wicked This Way Comes, arguably Ray Bradbury’s best novel. And there’s an echo of Hitchcock’s version of Strangers on a Train (the merry-go-round sequence) although not a whiff of Highsmith at all in this novel.
Find Joyland. I know some of you are mad there’s no e-book edition. There will be. But King wants to support a small publisher, and I think he should. He can. You should too. This book is wonderful.
Joyland made me cry. It gave me some insight into life, and a few hours of fantastic entertainment. What more can you ask from a novel?
Smith, Martin Cruz, Stalin’s Ghost, Pocket Books, Kindle edition, 2007. The last Martin Cruz Smith book I read was Polar Star. I loved Gorky Park, thought it utterly brilliant. And then, somehow, I lost track of Martin Cruz Smith. I was reading an article about thriller writers when his name came up, so I looked on Amazon and was stunned to see that not only was he still writing, he was still writing about Arkady Renko. And I had missed several books.
I chose a mid-series book, Stalin’s Ghost, just to make sure I still liked what he was doing. And oh, did I love this. Smith has updated his series to modern Russia, and (apparently) has dealt with the transition from the Soviet state to Russia herself. Renko is still a detective, but has even more baggage now. And some of that baggage appears when Stalin’s ghost shows up in a tube station, and causes a media sensation.
Of course, this is a mystery, not a fantasy novel, so the ghost is metaphorical. But this novel is filled with ghosts. Smith does something really courageous in the middle of the novel as well; he makes his detective’s injury part of the book. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling this, but oh, wow, is it wonderful.
The other books are on order; I prefer to read in paper if I can. But I expect a summer Renko binge.
Talbot, Margaret, The Entertainer: Movies Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century, Riverhead Books, 2012. I loved this book. Talbot’s father, Lyle Talbot, was born in 1902 and got involved in traveling tent shows in the late teens. He went from there to Vaudeville, from Vaudeville to the movies in the 1930s, from the movies to Broadway and back again, and then to television in the 1950s. If you watched Ozzie and Harriet as well as other shows, then you’ve seen Talbot. Not to mention all the 1930s movies he did for Warner Brothers.
Margaret Talbot uses her father’s life to tell the story of visual entertainment in the 20th century. She was born in the 1960s, a late child of his last wife. Being the daughter of a man over 50 is familiar to me, since my father was in his late 40s when I was born, and I understand that sense of straddling generations that she brings here.
But even if the biography weren’t compelling (and it is), the history of entertainment is even more compelling. Margaret Talbot does her research and mixes it with anecdotes that her father told, as well as old photos. Her father’s life really was a microcosm of 20th century entertainment. I learned a lot here, and enjoyed it all. I highly recommend this book.
Ware, Laura, Choose You This Day, JJ Press, Kindle edition, 2013. As a kid, I read a lot of religious fiction. Not just Christian fiction (which is the tradition I was raised in), but fiction from all different faiths. I think I was exploring. I had a lot of favorites: from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Sholom Aleichem, from CS Lewis to Paul Gallico, and beyond. I read a lot less religious fiction now, in part because I’m not trying to absorb an entire small-town library full of books ( like I did as a kid), and partly because everything is labeled now, and I prejudge. I didn’t prejudge as a kid or maybe I didn’t see the labels. I dunno.
I do know that I loved Lloyd C. Douglas back then. I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and I remember all of the books fondly, particularly The Robe. This story, by the marvelous writer Laura Ware, reminded me of that book. I read the story at a workshop and just loved it. I hadn’t read anything Douglas-y in years, and realized how much I missed his books—and how much I loved Laura’s story for evoking them.
I’m comparing her to Douglas, but this story stands alone. (I’m not even sure she’s read Douglas.) It’s quite good and memorable. I hope she does more in this vein. I will read the stories.