Recommended Reading List: April 2014
This is late because of me, which I’ll explain in a moment, and because we’ve changed the website. (Let me know if you’re having issues or if you like the changes.)
However, I was already late when the website design went live. I made notes about what I read, but mostly I didn’t write them up. (I was really swamped in April.) I only wrote up the pieces that had such an immediate impact I had to tell someone about them right now. So I’ve been catching up as I sit down every day, and revisiting some fantastic stories and essays. April was a very good reading month.
I did read novels too, but they didn’t do much for me. I read a lot of research books, which were fantastic, but fantastic for my project, not fantastic because you’d enjoy them. Although I did list one here that I think you might enjoy.
The short stories and essays, though, impressed the hell out of me. So here they are…
Arnold, Carrie, “Online, Forever After,” AARP The Magazine, February/March, 2014. I consider myself very savvy about online things and estate things. I even know about making sure my passwords are findable in case something happens to me. This article still shocked me, mostly because of some of the things contained in terms of service in social media sites.
I always read terms of service, with an eye to copyright. I don’t want the site to take my copyright away from my writing. (Some things I don’t care about.) I also value my privacy, so I protect that as well. I suspect I just glazed over the “after death” provisions. Whoops! Not a bright thing to do.
Read this now. And then start implementing changes.
Auletta, Ken, “Outside The Box,” The New Yorker, February 3, 2014. The subtitle of this piece is “Netflix and the future of television.” A fascinating piece on the recent history of the way we consume television programs. I don’t agree with all of Auletta’s conclusions, but his history (if you want to call it that) is fascinating, with great implications for the publishing industry. Every day, it seems, there’s a new article on the changes in the way Americans consume their entertainment. We’re in a great disruption, and it’s worthwhile to pay attention to the way that other parts of the entertainment industry are or are not coping with the changes. This is one of those articles you should read, just to start thinking historically.
Coben, Harlan, editor, The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Yeah, I got behind on my Best American reading. Other anthologies got in the way, then I was writing mysteries, and oh, I don’t know. I quit reading this one about halfway through, not because I disliked it, but because other priorities rose to the top. Plus, I have to admit, it’s really hard for me to read an anthology straight through that the editor put together alphabetically, with no idea as to how the stories flow.
If you want to know what I mean by flow, check out Past Crime (Fiction River 10) when it comes out. We have two editions of it: the regular edition, and the Kobo edition with four extra stories. The extra stories caused me (the editor) to reorder the table of contents. There’s a way to ease those of us who read in order into and out of the volume, and going alphabetically ain’t it. (I always thought it was mandated by HMH, and then I saw the Cheryl Strayed essay collection from this year. She actually put some time into the tough work of editing.)
It’s pretty noticeable here because of something that happens later on (see the McFadden note below). But, that said, most people don’t read in order, so for them, this way of editing is fine. And there are some spectacular stories here…
Coben likes noir, and a steady diet of it makes me want to slit my wrists. Still, I too like noir (perhaps best) in mystery fiction, and there’s a lot of noir here. Great noir, much of it in the second half of the volume. Some of the stories are from Agents of Treachery, which I said in my July 2011 Recommended Reading list was one of the best anthologies I’d read in years. I recommended the entire volume, so I’m not going to reiterate the names of the excellent stories here. I’m just glad he agreed with me.
Daniloff, Caleb, “Running Conversation: Bruce Dern,” Runner’s World, March 2014. I’ll be honest here. I’m not much of a Bruce Dern fan. I find some of his performances—including the one in Coming Home—a bit one-note. I don’t go out of my way to see a film he’s in. But this interview impressed me. Not only has he survived for decades in Hollywood, but he also ran every day between the ages 28 and 70. He clocked 2500 to 4000 miles per year. That takes dedication, determination, and drive. I respect those things a great deal.
The interview talks about his acting career, his running career, and long-term survival, as a runner, an artist, and a human being. I learned a few things, and gained some appreciation for Dern.
Doyle, Brian, “His Last Game,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Marvelous, marvelous short essay about a man and his brother and what should have been a small incident. Circumstances made it a larger one. If I describe this more, then I’ll ruin it. I’ll just say that I love this piece.
Fennessy, Christine, “Running Back From Hell,” Runners World, March, 2014. Fantastic article on the ways that exercise might help people suffering from PTSD. The article focuses on soldiers, but many of us suffer from PTSD. Exercise does help, and finally, scientists are confirming this through study after study. If you or anyone you know suffers from PTSD, for whatever reason, have them read this article. It’ll give them hope, and something that they can do, daily, to feel better without pills or doctors appointments. (And a side note: You don’t have to run to feel better. You can walk, or do other aerobic exercises.) An important article, not just for runners and soldiers, but for all of us who care for people who are struggling.
Gilb, Dagoberto, “A Little Bit of Fun Before He Died,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. For someone who likes to pay attention to things like copyright, I sure miss the mark sometimes. I love Sheryl Crow’s song, “All I Wanna Do,” and I own the CD (yes, CD, get over it) of Tuesday Night Music Club, which I bought when the song came out. Guess I didn’t read the liner notes, because I never realized that “All I Wanna Do” is adapted from a poem called “Fun” by Wyn Cooper. (Apparently, Cooper was going to give them the poem for free, but changed his mind. Good thing. This is why you never ever ever give your work away.)
The poem “Fun” includes an encounter with a man who calls himself Bill but might have a nickname, and sure enough, he did. It was Ripley. The man was a character—enough that it showed up in a song—and he clearly had an impact on all of the writers he ever met, including Dagoberto Gilb, who met him years before Wyn Cooper did.
This essay is about Ripley (and Gilb) and writing and living. It’s a fascinating piece, made even more fascinating by the vibrancy of that poem, encased in that song.
Gorman, Ed, “Flying Solo,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, edited by Harlan Coben, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. I love this story. Two retired cops in their sixties, both suffering from cancer, make a pact to help a nurse who needs some muscle on her side. Fantastic story about love, loss, revenge, and taking control of your life. Ed’s work is always marvelous, and this story does not disappoint.
Holm, Chris F., “The Hitter,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, edited by Harlan Coben, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. It’s not often a story surprises me. This one did. I thought I knew what it was about and where it was going—and I was really wrong. I loved that about this story. The writing’s good, the characters are good, and the story itself is stellar.
Hunsicker, Harry, “West of Nowhere,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, edited by Harlan Coben, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. The voice in this story is superb, starting with “Danny the Dumb-Ass fires once into the ceiling of the bar.” Dean tries really hard to get writers to put character opinion into narrative. Hunsicker nails it in one sentence. We don’t know who is speaking yet, but we know what he thinks of Danny. And Danny makes mistakes so often that he has an impolite nickname. Nicely done, and a great introduction into yet another story that surprised the heck out of me.
Kelley, William Melvin, “Breeds of America, The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. A fascinating, fascinating essay about a little boy learning about race and racial stereotypes. Not just black and white, but the gradations and expectations of all of the definitions of race. Kelley grew up in the 1950s, so things were more blatant then. But he really captures that confusion and learning that children go through when they’re learning something not just awful, but something that makes no sense at all.
Kerstetter, Jon, “Triage,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Fascinating, fascinating essay on the way doctors are trained to practice the age-old habit of triage, and the way this practice manifests in the field. And how hard it all is. It seems so black-and-white in the textbooks and of course is not. Read it. You won’t forget it.
Kirn, Walter, “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. When I started this essay, I hadn’t put the name Walter Kirn together with the book Up in the Air. I hadn’t read it (only saw the movie). So I knew I’d heard of this guy; I just hadn’t known where.
I live in the American West, so I know a lot of ex-Mormons, just like, when I lived in the Midwest, I knew a lot of lapsed Catholics. I also know a lot of practicing Mormons, and have gained, in my nearly thirty years out West, an outsider’s understanding of the religion (just like I have one of the various forms of Judaism and Catholicism. I was raised Protestant).
I had actually expected this essay to be a screed against Mormonism, because my experience with ex- or lapsed anythings is that they are as diligent about proselytizing against their anything as they were once diligent about proselytizing for it.
But that’s not what this essay is. Instead, it’s about Kirn’s experience with the Mormon church, and how Mitt Romney’s presidential bid revived Kirn’s memories of an organization that may have saved his life. What prompted the essay, though, was the way that the East Coast centric media treated Mormonism as a cult rather than a religion, something I had noted as well. The large media (on both sides of the aisle) seemed baffled by Mormons, not sure how to handle them. The conservatives were vaguely ashamed of this “strange” religion, and the liberals thought it something to be afraid of—rather like the way the media treated John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism the year I was born.
So in its own way, this essay is both a defense of and an explanation of Mormonism, from someone who tried it and then abandoned it. Read it. Learn something. (Plus it’s really well written.)
McFaddin, Dennis, “Diamond Alley,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, edited by Harlan Coben, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. As I write this, it’s been 24 hours since I read this story, and I’m still blown away by it.
The story, “Diamond Alley,” comes from a collection of loosely related stories by McFaddin, which I will have to pick up, set in a small town called Hart’s Grove.
He wrote “Diamond Alley” in first person plural (“we”) and because of that, a story that’s pretty run of the mill in its plot is brilliant and chilling and very, very, very memorable.
When I finished, I thought I hadn’t seen another mystery story written in first personal plural, and then I turned to the very next story and saw that it took was first person plural. And not nearly as effective. (This is why you should not put an anthology together alphabetically; it creates all kinds of problems and comparisons and roadblocks for the reader.)
McFaddin’s story won’t work without the plural point of view—that’s the point of the story, and the point of life in small-town American circa 1960. Behavior was mandated for various age groups. And, boy oh boy, if I say more I spoil this story for you.
Honestly, though, this is one of the best stories I think I’ve ever read. It’s amazing.
McWhirter, Cameron, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 And the Awakening of Black America, St. Martins Griffin 2011. I read this book for research and whoa, boy, did I learn a lot. 1919 makes 1968 look like a cakewalk. Seriously. Riots, towns burned out existence, so many people dead that no one knows exactly how many died. And for what? Defense of Jim Crow laws by whites, that’s for what.
These kinds of rages have threaded through all of American history (sadly), but this time, the crisis led to the empowerment of the NAACP and the Harlem Renaissance and was, in many ways, the beginning of the movement that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.
Okay, that’s the history. What’s the book? I’ve read a number on this topic since, and Red Summer is the one that puts it all into glorious (and readable) perspective. The book is hard to put down, and feels contemporary even though it’s not. Really, really, really worth your time.
Rozan, SJ, “Chin Yong-Yun Takes A Case,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, edited by Harlan Coben, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Full disclosure: I’m aware of S.J. Rozan’s work, but this is the first story of hers that I remember reading. I realized, midway through, that this character is a recurring character in her series when the character mentioned that her daughter was a detective.
The story stands alone. I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise. It’s a cozy mystery with great characters—and I’m not a big cozy fan. I still liked it. Read. Enjoy.
Spillane, Mickey and Collins, Max Allan, “A Long Time Dead,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, edited by Harlan Coben, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Mickey Spillane instructed his wife to let Max Allan Collins handle his literary estate—and to finish things that Spillane started. This is one of those found pieces. I haven’t read a lot of Spillane, but I like what I’ve read, and this is no exception. Somehow Max manages to make the collaborations seem smooth. I never saw where Spillane started and Max finished. Well done.
Stielstra, Megan, “Channel B,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Nifty short essay about a woman who suffered post-partum depression after the birth of her first child. She used a baby monitor in a cluster of apartments, and occasionally heard/saw another baby on a different channel—someone else’s baby, someone else who used the same monitor. That baby, and what she imagined the mother going through, saved her emotionally. Memorable and powerful.
Strayed, Cheryl, editor, The Best American Essays 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. I had an interesting experience with this book. I loved so much of it. The essays are, for the most part, spectacular.
I positively reviewed a few of them last month, and in finding the link to the book, I also saw some of the reader reviews. I hadn’t finished reading the book yet. Many of the reviewers complained that the essays were all the same type—the personal essay, which I have to admit, is one of my very favorite forms.
I just figured that was a lot of whining. A few years back, a poet edited the Best American essays, and I struggled to get through the thing. She mostly liked short pointless essays that were beautifully written. I figured the complainers on Amazon were folks who didn’t like personal essays—and mostly, that’s who the complainers were.
But I read these books in order, and by the middle, I got tired of “my” sickness, “my” loss, “my” horrifying, death-defying, sad and tragic experience. I had to step back from the book and think about it.
The ratio of spectacular essays to crummy essays is amazing. Most of the essays fall in the “wow” range for me and not a one was crummy. The problem with the book wasn’t really a problem at all. If you expect a book of personal essays (I did not), then you will enjoy this immensely.
What I loved about this book as much as the essays is that Cheryl Strayed didn’t phone in her editing. She didn’t send a list of top choices and then let the overall editor put it in alphabetical order. She actually did the hard work of editing.
The essays are not in alphabetical order. They flow, one to the next, improving the reading experience greatly. She didn’t start with the emotionally rawest essay (which she might have, had it been alphabetical): she started with an essay that truly brings you into the anthology. And so on, all the way to the end.
Kudos to Cheryl Strayed. Great job. I think this is the first time any guest has bucked the stupid Best American trend and actually done a spectacular job of editing. And the essays are stellar. If you want to try essays, this is the volume to buy.
Veselka, Vanessa “Highway of Lost Girls,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Very creepy first person essay by a woman who was, once upon a time, a teenage runaway who hitchhiked through truck stops. She’s pretty certain she met up with one of the truck stop serial killers and managed to escape; either way, whoever the guy was who threatened her was scary in his own right. She spent time trying to track down who and what happened, years after the fact, and had little luck, which is sad in and of itself. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.
Yoshikawa, Mako, “My Father’s Women,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Beautifully written, disturbing essay about how little we know our parents. Also, about how hard it is to be the child of a mentally ill parent—one who is mostly functional, but not entirely. I don’t want to spoil this too much. Just read it.