Recommended Reading List: June, 2014
Wow. It took me forever to finish this list. I made a bunch of notes throughout June, but I’m deep in the Retrieval Artist, plus life was kicking me in the butt, so I didn’t have time to write everything up the way I usually do.
I ended up more than two weeks late posting this because it’s longer than the usual list, and it took me forever to write about what I liked.
I liked a lot in June. I read short stories and novels and essays and magazines—I guess I retreat to the written word when life is difficult.
Life may have kicked me in the butt, but reading was a true pleasure. Here’s the best of the best.
Alexander, Gary, “The Essence of Small People,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. An absolutely wonderful story set in Ho Chi Minh City, in the shaky years after the Vietnam War. Somehow, in only a few thousand words, Alexander manages to convey the culture, the characters, the crime, everything. And the last line is absolutely perfect.
Barlow, Tom, “Smothered and Covered,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Well written, tough story, set mostly in a Waffle House. A young girl shows up, gets in a car with the wrong man, and the people inside watch it all happen. Events unfold exactly the way you’d expect—at first—and then, well…there’s a reason this is in the best-of-year volume.
Clark, Rod, “Voice Over,” Rosebud, Spring, 2014. Rod Clark’s essays that start every issue of Rosebud are always worth reading. This one, about the death of an old oak tree, is particularly good. At his best, Rod can be lyrical, and this is one of Rod’s best. Check it out.
Cook, Alan, “Checkpoint Charlie,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. No one except historians, people over forty, and readers of spy fiction know what Checkpoint Charlie is any more, and that’s a good thing. Checkpoint Charlie was the name of the area where you either left or entered “the West” at the Berlin Wall. For someone like me, who loves historical fiction, spy fiction, and reading about that time period, the title alone caught me.
The story holds up to the title. The story opens as Gerhard Johnson, an American, crosses from West Germany into East Germany. The Wall wasn’t up the last time he had been to the GDR, and he was going back, for a reason we slowly understand. A taut suspense story which had me at the edge of my seat.
Deaver, Jeffery, and Benson, Raymond, Mystery Writers of America Presents Ice Cold, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. An anthology of Cold War spy stories. I love the MWA anthologies, for the most part. Only one has been a total dud for me. This one is one of the best.
Honestly, I expected it to be pretty mediocre, not because of the writers involved, but because I thought it would be hard to do a good Cold War mystery at the short length. I was wrong. While there were one or two duds, and one great disappointment for me, the bulk of the stories were spectacular. I’ve listed the best of the best throughout this list.
De Noux, O’Neil, “Misprision of Felony,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. I think O’Neil is doing some of the best writing about New Orleans post-Katrina that I’ve seen anywhere. This story ties the events post-Katrina to other dark places in New Orleans past. As with so many mystery stories, if I say more, I give it away. Read it.
Dreyer, Eileen, “The Sailor in the Picture,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Eileen Dreyer is one of my favorite writers. Usually, she writes romance or romantic suspense. (She also writes categories as Kathleen Korbel.) She’s moved into historical romance and her voice is a bit dark for that sub-genre, but worth reading all the same.
Here, though, she writes a spectacular mystery story, set on V-E day in New York City. The picture referred to in the title is the famous picture of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square. Well written, heartbreaking and empowering, this story does so much in such a small space that you should, y’know, read it.
Dubois, Brendan, “Crush Depth,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. Marvelous, twisty story set near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine. If I say much more, I’ll ruin it, except I’ll add that this story has Brendan’s wonderful characterization and empathy. Excellent.
Finder, Joseph, “Police Report,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. What starts like a typical police procedural set on Cape Cod proves to be anything but a typical story. I haven’t read a lot of Finder’s work, but I’ll look for it now. Again, another story that I can’t tell you much about except to ask you to read it.
Friedman, Steve, “Blown Together,” Runner’s World, May, 2014. We know what happened at the 2013 Boston Marathon. We know people were injured and people died. We know that one bomber died and the other is awaiting trial. We know how they planned the bombing. But generally, we know little about the impact the bombing had on people’s every day lives.
The May issue of Runner’s World dealt with the bombing in anticipation of this year’s marathon (run in April). Most were short 100-word pieces, but Steve Friedman’s piece is much longer. It’s about an aimless college student, a runner who was watching the race, a police officer, and a firefighter. The woman who was watching the race nearly died in the explosion. The college student saved her life in the immediate aftermath of the bombing—he ran into the chaos, not away from it—and got the cop and the firefighter to help quickly enough to keep the woman from bleeding to death.
They’ve become friends over time, and that one moment has changed all of their lives forever. Read this. It’s amazing.
Howard, Clark, “The Street Ends at the Cemetery,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Clark Howard has an amazing talent for titles. The title tells you what will happen in the story, and yet the title comes organically from the story itself. By the time you get to the end, you’ve forgotten the title, and then you look back—and wow, you remember everything.
This little gem starts with a prison guard who breaks a rule by driving a female visitor home from the prison during a rainstorm. And everything happens from there. Enjoy. Howard is a master.
Kocsis, Andre, “Crossing,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. This story is utterly fantastic, maybe the best story I’ve read all year. An adventure tale which originally appeared in The New Orphic Review (which I’ve never heard of), the piece uses every single detail in the opening to pin the reader to her seat. A guide who lives in Canada because he was evading the Vietnam War occasionally smuggles people into the United States over the border that goes through the western mountains—dangerous, dangerous country.
This group that the guide takes across looks wrong from the beginning, but for good story reasons, the trip happens. And goes horribly horribly awry. There’s a reason this tale appears in the best mystery stories of the year. There’s a mystery here, and many crimes, and a lot of snow and heroics and scenes that rival the best thrillers. I loved the story, and suspect you will too.
Krigman, Eliza, “Radio Daze,” On Wisconsin, Spring, 2014. I admit: back in the day, I was an incredible snob. By the time I got a tour of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s little lakeshore radio station, WHLA, I already worked at WORT and freelanced for WHA and NPR. I was very unimpressed.
I did not know the history of that little radio station—until I read this article. The way the students fought for the station, the way they sacrificed time to build it, the passion they had for it. And how difficult it was to run.
I apologize for my private snobbyness. I had no idea. And now I do.
Lahr, John, “Joy Ride,” The New Yorker, March 31, 2014. Thank God I don’t live in New York City. Because if I did, I’d go broke seeing every single show on and off Broadway. (Not to mention the amount of time I would spend in the theater, and away from writing!)
This article is about Susan Stroman’s Tony-nominated musical “Bullets Over Broadway,” based on the Woody Allen film. All of the previews and press happened while Allen was again under suspicion of abusing his daughter Dylan. So in addition to the usual Broadway stuff these articles have, it also featured the difficulties of dealing with possible problems, caused by the artists involved.
Stroman herself is an interesting woman, and there’s much of her history here as well. If you find Broadway or the arts interesting in any way, read this piece. It makes those of us who write our own little entertainments in the quiet of our own homes seem like we’re not working at all.
Mallory, Michael, “The Amazing Clayton Rawson,” Mystery Scene Magazine, Winter 2014. One of the things I love about Mystery Scene is the way it respects the history of the mystery field. This article, by Michael Mallory, discusses a writer and editor I’ve never heard of—yet I should have. Clayton Rawson wrote books about magic and murder, and worked all over the publishing industry. He was an art director, an editor, and a co-founder of Mystery Writers of America. Fascinating article, just the kind of thing that I love reading and learning about.
McPhee, John, “Elicitation,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014. McPhee has been publishing a lot of pieces on writing in the New Yorker lately, some I agree with, some I don’t, and some that are just plain fascinating, because it’s cool to see another writer’s process. This piece is about reporting, and since I consider McPhee one of the best reporters of his generation, I found this essay particularly fascinating. I doubt things would be done the same way now, but still, worth the read.
Medsger, Betty, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, Knopf, 2014. Fascinating well written book about the burglars who stole the secret FBI files from FBI headquarters in a small Pennsylvania town in 1971. These folks were non-violent anti-war protestors, and were trying to stop the Vietnam War. Instead, they discovered thousands of pages of illegal activity by Hoover’s FBI. (I used some of the information they found to write The Enemy Within—after someone else published that information, of course.)
Betty Medsger is one of the reporters who received the information directly from the burglars, without knowing who they were. In those long past days, copy machines were hard to come by, and the burglars—after discovering this stuff—copied it and sent it to a handful of reporters, some of whom did not publish. Medsger, who was with The Washington Post, did.
The burglars never got caught. The statute of limitations passed, and finally, one of them confessed to Medsger, who knew the person through other means. All of the burglars but one (I think) spoke to her for this book, giving their side of the story for the first time. Most spoke under their real names, although two insisted on anonymity.
The book is well written, vivid, and unbelievably tense. It goes sideways toward the end when she tries to tie everything to stuff going on now. I slowed down there. (I wondered as I read it if her publisher hadn’t asked her to add that bit to sell the book to a modern audience.) But the burglars, their motivations, and their subsequent lives are interesting.
I could never imagine doing what they did—even for something I believe in—and then living with it for decades. All of the burglars went on to fruitful lives. Many, for a variety of reasons, believe that their anti-war stance was wrong. Others still believe what they did was important.
This book is fascinating, not just for the historical details or the time period stuff which she manages to capture beautifully, but also the way she handles the legal, ethical and moral conundrums here, not to mention the horrors these burglars stumbled upon. If you write mystery, you will want to read this. If you read mysteries, you’ll enjoy this as well.
Scottoline, Lisa, editor, The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Jon Breen’s review of this volume in Mystery Scene calls it the very best volume in this series ever and I’m inclined to agree. I had to skip one or two stories for personal reasons (there are certain types of stories I’ll never read, no matter how well written), but otherwise, I read and enjoyed everything. I’ve pointed my favorites throughout this list, but really, you can’t go wrong with anything in this volume. Pick it up. It’s marvelous.
Schulz, Kathryn, “Final Forms,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014. A fascinating article on the evolution of the death certificate. How it came about, why it came about, and what it tells us about our culture. Also, how it helped determine diseases and causes and oh, just read this one. It’s wonderful.
Shoumatoff, Alex, “The Devil and the Art Dealer,” Vanity Fair, April, 2014. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Nazi art thefts (and yes, I saw the movie, but I’ve been doing research in this area for years before Clooney ever discovered it). We’ll talk about some of that reading more next month. But because of The Monuments Men movie, the press has picked up on all the missing art. And then there was the big discovery of the treasure trove in Munich, held by the son of a Nazi art dealer. This article discusses the German laws governing the artwork, the recluse who held onto this stuff for decades and decades, and the art itself. It’s one of the more complete articles I’ve read on this particular case, and interesting in its own right.
Silva, Daniel, The English Assassin, Signet, 2002. While I’m working on this long Retrieval Artist project, I’m having trouble finding novels that engage my mind. Mostly, the brain is busy with my own novels, so whatever I read needs to have excellent writing (yeah, I get snobby about word usage when I’m distracted), great characters, fantastic setting, and a plot that’s just engaging enough to hold me, but not so wonderful that it takes my mind off what I’m doing.
The Silva ended up being the perfect thing. He’s a fantastic writer, and his settings come alive. The plot here was a basic thriller plot—until the end, when it became both surprising and just plain perfect, in my opinion. I’m now working my way through the rest of Silva’s Gabriel Allon series, starting with the first one, and I suspect this will continue until I find a new mystery short story collection (mystery shorts are incredibly well done, and they’re…um…short) or until I finish the big project which I hope is any day now. (But realistically, it’s not until the end of the summer.)
This novel was a pleasant surprise, and the fact that Silva has more than a dozen books is also good news. I’ll be bingeing this summer. Yay!
Silvis, Randall, “The Indian,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. The Indian in the title of this story is a motorcycle. As in the Clark Howard, above, the title factors into the story in the very best way, and you don’t realize it until you’ve finished reading.
One of the longest pieces in the book, “The Indian” features an incredibly dysfunctional family and the thing that destroys them. This train wreck is apparent from the first paragraph. Once I read it, I was hooked, and I couldn’t look away. You won’t be able to either. Really, really well done.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “Morning Song,” Smith’s Monthly, June, 2014. Dean includes a full novel (which he then publishes separately) in each Smith’s Monthly. Somehow, in this month’s novel, he managed to combine what Gardner Dozois calls “pure quill” science fiction (hard sf) with a romance and a hint of space opera. This is set in Dean’s Seeders universe, which I would have called space opera until he put the science fiction underpinning into the series with this novel.
I’ll be honest: the science fiction aspects of this book interested me way more than the relationship. But I enjoyed it all nonetheless. And admired his world building skills, and his ability to write something this vast, and yet keep it focused on two people (really, a small group of people). Well done.
Spoon, Marianne English, “Creative License,” On Wisconsin, Spring, 2014. I remember when I first encountered the cartoons of Lynda Barry. She published them in Madison, Wisconsin’s weekly free newspaper, Isthmus, which published me (under a different name) back in the day. I loved her cartoons, and figured she lived in Madison. I remember being stunned to learn she lived in Seattle. But she was born in Richland Center, and in 2002, moved back to the Madison area. Now, she teaches a course in interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin. And oh, oh! I want to move back just to take that course.
Barry’s ideas on creativity are so nifty, and the class sounds like so much fun, at least the way it’s portrayed here. If you’re at all working in the arts, you need to read this article. Even a little taste of Lynda Barry wisdom is worthwhile.
Valby, Karen, “The Cure For Pop Culture Exhaustion,” Entertainment Weekly, April 18/25, 2014. Yes, I’m behind on everything, including my Entertainment Weekly’s. Yeah, I read the TV recommendations when the magazine arrives, and then it goes into a pile for those nights when I’m too tired to even look at a novel. And in June, that was very few nights.
When I read this short little essay by Karen Valby, I felt a moment of kinship. She follows pop culture, just like I do, and does it for her job, just like I do, and for enjoyment, just like I do, but there are times…days…weeks…months…when the sheer volume of stuff becomes overwhelming.
The gift of community – of Twitter, or your book club, or a magazine like Entertainment Weekly – is that it invites conversation around united passions. But it can also make it hard to respond intuitively to a creative work with an open mind.
So she recommends what she calls “a cleanse.” Go it alone on something everyone else has already discussed. Shut down the Twitterstream and silently watch something, read something, and do it alone.
Which I do. Often. I had started this long before the whole social media thing (yes, when I had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to crank the phonograph just to listen to music), because my home is the sf community which has always taken snark and know-it-all-ness to an unbelievably high level. Or maybe, I started this in school, when teachers told me that what I read would pollute my mind. Or at home, when my mother would throw out my comic books (yes, she was one of those; in her defense, she thought they were periodicals, like [ahem] Entertainment Weekly or a newspaper, and should be disposed of after the week of issue).
Anyway, if you’re in need of a cleanse or if you just had one, read Valby’s lovely essay for taste of community—without the snark.
Vincent, Bev, “The Honey Trap,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. I’d never heard of Bev Vincent before I read this story, and midway through, I was thinking that this woman really knew her men. The story was about a phenomenon I’d heard my husband and other middle-aged men discuss—the fact that at a certain age, men seem to disappear from everyone’s radar, particularly from the radar of attractive women. I was so surprised that Vincent got this right, I flipped to the biography, and realized I had oopsed. Bev Vincent is a man.
Doesn’t take anything away from this story. It’s still incredible. But it’s a bit more understandable—rather than a reach, something a woman wouldn’t think of, it’s something men know and rarely discuss. Vincent uses this to great advantage. Read the story. It’s marvelous.
Wallace, Joseph, “Deep Submergence,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. Probably the most memorable story in the book for me. It took a moment or two to absorb the voice, but once I was in, I went in deep.
A story about a Deep Submersion Vehicle and its operators off the coast of California in 1968, this piece taught me some history I didn’t know, and really put me back in the Cold War mentality. Well done.