March Recommended Reading List
Someone e-mailed and asked if I record every book I’ve read in a month on my recommended reading list. Not by a long shot. Nor, if you’ll note, do I put down entire books of essays or short stories, unless I like everything in the volume. If I were to put everything I read on the list, it would go on for pages. I read at least one daily newspaper and maybe a dozen or more magazines as well as novels, non-fiction, anthologies, and collections. Lots of reading, but only a few things to recommend. Here are the recommendations from my March reading:
Beagle, Peter S., “El Regalo,” reprinted in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2007. An absolutely delightful story about a girl and her younger brother. The story captures the frustrations and joys of having a sibling. It also has moments of great whimsy, such as when young Marvyn (the brother who claims to be a witch) plays Monopoly with his elderly cat. (The cat already has an hotel on Park Place.) The incident is a throw-away in the middle of a paragraph, which makes it all the better. Beagle doesn’t belabor the point. All of which served to remind me why Peter S. Beagle is one of the great American fantasists.
Blight, David W., Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. This is a scholarly book that probably won’t appeal to the general reader. I loved it, though, for a variety of reasons. It’s a new take on the Civil War and the fifty years following the war—from the perspective of the Yankees, the Confederates, and most importantly, the freed slaves.
I had a secondary reading experience, however. David W. Blight, who is now (according to his bio at the back of the book) a history professor at Yale, used to be the graduate assistant in a Civil War history class that I took at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Some of the books he mentions here and many of the ideas that cross the page, I first encountered in that class.
The class was remarkable in a variety of ways—it informed a lot of my writing, and is perhaps the most memorable course I had in college. I also met one of my best friends on the first day of class, an amazing man who is now a judge. That I also remember David Blight tells you how influential a TA he was, and how good a teacher—he often stepped in for the remarkable professor, Richard Sewell (whom Blight credits in his acknowledgements).
This book won the 2001 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, and richly deserves it. I recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in the Civil War.
Butcher, Jim, White Night, Ace Books, 2007. I like Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, but usually not enough to recommend. It has a lot going for it—interesting characters, great dialogue, and some fantastic set-ups. His setting (Chicago) has gotten better over time. But his plots often leave me cold, especially toward the end. I find myself reading for the dialogue and the characters, but not for what happens next. In the case of White Night, however, I did turn the pages rapidly. He’s beginning to figure out this plot thing. This book does stand alone. I found that out accidentally, when I read this one before its predecessor. I was confused about a few things, but figured Harry had a few adventures off-stage which was fine with me. I am getting the next book, so that tells you I like the series well enough.
Cabot, Meg, Princess Mia, Harper Teen, 2008. I read almost everything that Meg Cabot writes. The only series that hasn’t worked for me is the Babble series. The others are marvelous. But nothing quite compares with her Princess series—the one that made her famous. I adore Mia and her friends, and I’m happy to catch up with them once or twice a year. Not to mention the fact that Fat Louie reminds me of a certain chubby orange cat who lives in my house….
Chiarella, Tom, “How to Gift,” Esquire, February, 2008. A really neat little essay on gift-giving. How, when, and why. All you’ll ever need to know. Well written too.
Crosby, Molly Caldwell, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History, Berkeley, 2006. I put off reading this book for some time, but finally had to because of research that I was doing. That subtitle is daunting. But the book itself is riveting. (And, for the squeamish among you, not at all gross.) Fascinating stuff from the history of the disease in the U.S. (brought in by mosquitoes that traveled on slave ships) to the discovery of a vaccine. This book reads like a thriller. Recommended.
Gaiman, Neil, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” reprinted in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2007. Somehow I missed this absolutely delightful short story, which is one of the best short stories I’ve read in years. In a few short pages, Neil manages to capture all the truths about adolescence as well as the dangers of relationships, and he wraps it all in a believably subtle science fiction story. He even adds a few musings on art and growing older. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.
Keizer, Garret, “Loaded,” reprinted in Best American Essays 2007, edited by David Foster Wallace, Houghton Mifflin 2007. “Loaded” is the first essay that I’ve read which presents reasonable arguments in favor of gun ownership. In fact, the entire essay calls for a reasonable discussion of the issue. The issue might be moot next year when the Supreme Court hands down its decision on the Second Amendment. But, before they do, pick up this essay and see if it changes (or reinforces) your opinion.
Klages, Ellen, “In the House of the Seven Librarians,” reprinted in the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2007. I think this is the first short story by Ellen Klages that I’ve read. It’s certainly the first that I remember reading. Set in a shut down Carnegie Library that sounds just like the one I frequented when I grew up, the story is about a young girl who is raised by a group of “feral librarians,” as she calls them. Lots of truth about growing up reading, lots of truth about libraries—and dang! If I could’ve, I’d’ve lived in our library. The story reads like the best fairy tales—echoing our world, but with enough fantasy to make it Not Our World and enough whimsy to make the story perfect. Yep. I don’t use that word about fiction very often. Perfect.
Lahr, John, “Petrified,” reprinted in Best American Essays 2007, edited by David Foster Wallace, Houghton Mifflin 2007. I first read John Lahr’s marvelous essay on stage fright when it appeared in The New Yorker. I reread it as I’m going through last year’s Best American Essays volume (Note to guest editor David Foster Wallace: Some of us do read the book in order from cover to cover). The essay talks about fear and art, and how they often go hand in hand. It has a great quote, which I’ll paraphrase here: the feeling of stage fright takes an actor from the attitude “Look at me. I’m flying” to “Look at me. I might fall.” Art—of all types—can only be pursued with the “I’m flying” attitude. Worth reading for anyone who suffers stage fright, as well as for writers who have trouble committing words to the page.
Parker, Richard, “Why The New Deal Matters,” The Nation, April 7, 2008. Just like the essay on gun ownership, this marvelous essay on the New Deal is a must-read no matter what your political persuasion. It accurately explains what the New Deal was (not the crap that usually appears in the press) and how the New Deal still has an impact on our life now. It also talks about the changes to the New Deal that started with Jimmy Carter and went all the way through George W. Bush. (It wasn’t just Republicans who monkeyed with it.) With so many economic news stories now starting with the words “Not since the 1930s…” it’s time that most people learn what really happened in the 1930s and why those changes were important.
Sullivan, Robert, Rats, Bloomsbury, 2004. One of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, Rats is creative nonfiction about “the city’s most unwanted inhabitants” as the dust jacket says. Of course, the city means New York City, because to New Yorkers there is only one city. (And to some of the rest of us too.) The book is extremely well written and utterly fascinating. Not only does it give the history and biology of the rat, but also the history of sections of New York as well. Written and researched during 2001, Sullivan has to deal with his ratty observations before, during, and after 9/11. That makes the book worthwhile all by itself. Pick it up; you’ll find it strangely compelling.