June Recommended Reading List

Recommended Reading

I didn’t have a lot of leisure reading time in June, and what I did read disappointed me greatly. For a while, I thought I’d only have two entries in the June Recommended Reading. Fortunately, the last two weeks of June provided an abundance of great stories and books, so much that I stayed up late several nights in a row, finishing not just the novels, but the non-fiction as well.

June, 2008

Crais, Robert, Chasing Darkness, Simon & Schuster, July, 2008. When I first picked up my copy, I was disappointed at how thin this book was. I shouldn’t have been. Bob packed a lot of story into a small area. The sparseness of the tale reflects the horrors he’s dealing with.

The book also feels very current, since it’s set during a California wildfire. Extremely well done, tense, Chasing Darkness is vintage Robert Crais.

Deaver, Jeffrey, The Broken Window, Simon and Schuster, June, 2008. You know you like an author when you know the release date for his next book. I made sure I was in a bookstore on the Tuesday this book was released (and had to ask a manager why the book wasn’t up front where it belonged. He literally paled, went to the fiction section, removed 20 copies [leaving at least 20] and took them up to the front of the store).

The problem with loving an author’s work, particularly in a series, is that you, the reader, have expectations. And the writer must meet those expectations to give you a satisfying read. To give you a great read, the author has to exceed those expectations.

Deaver didn’t exceed my expectations here. He wrote his usual excellent novel, which I blew through in just a few hours. On the recommended reading, though, I want to recommend stellar books—books I’d hand out if you were a friend, and I realized when I was done, I wouldn’t hand out this book.

So I considered: Why not? Simple. There are better introductions to the Lincoln Rhyme series. This is a good mid-series book. It’s not the place to start.

But the book is scary. The characters are fascinating and true to themselves as usual. And the hot topic this time—data mining—is true to my science fiction soul. Nicely done. Terrifying. I want to go off the grid now. Really. That’s why I’m posting this on-line. 🙂

Didion, Joan, Where I Was From, Vintage, 2004. One of the best book I’ve ever read is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. I’ve been reading Didion since college, when I discovered her Slouching Toward Bethlehem abandoned in the UW-Madison’s Rathskeller. (Why anyone would abandon that book is beyond me.) I savor Didion’s work, because I like it so very much.

Where I Was From is marvelous, a mixture of personal history and real history. She blends essays I’d previously read in such places as The New Yorker into a seamless whole, one that winds up being touching. This short book is about change, about loss, about family, but most of all it’s about California and the West. I’m not sure I would have understood this book when I was in my twenties, living in the Midwest, having never been to the Left Coast. But I’ve lived here for twenty-three years now, and I see my home in this book, even though I live in that state north of California, the one everyone forgets, Oregon.

Beautifully done, exquisitely rendered. Didion at her best.

Jensen, Beverly “Wake,” Best American Short Stories, edited by Stephen King, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. I spent most of the month avoiding this book, after a few short stories met my habitual low expectations of lit’rary fiction. Since the mid-1980s, lit’rary fiction (and I call it that to distinguish it from true literary fiction) became a place to impress rather than one to entertain. In other words, it became about the writer, not the reader. The writers worked at letting me (the reader) know just how very brilliant they are. I don’t care about brilliance. I care about a good read—whatever that means. So needless to say, I approached the Jenkins story with great trepidation.

The story surprised me. Not only was it well written, not only was the voice stellar and the characters fine, but the plot was just plain charming.

The story begins as two hapless adult siblings lose their father’s corpse on a journey to his funeral in 1956. The tale goes back and forth between the siblings’ journey and the reactions of the mourners waiting in the church. The wake is impromptu and marvelous, the journey harrowing, and the story worth every single moment.

Beverly Jensen wrote this story and several others about the main characters before she died. Her husband is marketing her work. I’m disappointed that her oeuvre is limited, but pleased to have discovered her. And kudos to her husband, venturing into the strange world of publishing to keep his wife’s memory—and her exceptional writing—alive.

Kim, Stellar, “Findings and Impressions,” Best American Short Stories, edited by Stephen King, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. The very next story in the volume after the Jensen restored my faith in the book. This is also a piece of debut fiction, quite different from the Jensen which is a straightforward piece.

Kim’s story has medical entries woven throughout the prose, which is a difficult technique. It only serves to enhance the story which, in her bio at the end, Kim calls a romance. She’s right. It’s touching, sweet, and heartbreaking. Worth the price of the book right there.

Mahler, Jonathan, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics and the Battle for the Soul of a City, Picador, 2005. Sometimes I learn about books from friends, sometimes from reviews or from wandering through a bookstore, and sometimes from television or the movies. Television helped me find Mahler’s book.

In the summer of 2007, ESPN ran a wonderful miniseries called The Bronx is Burning, starring Oliver Platt as George Steinbrenner and John Tuturo as Billy Martin (of the New York Yankees, for those of you who don’t know your baseball). The miniseries focused mostly on the 1977 Yankees and the Son of Sam killings, using a lot of real time footage, and allowing excellent actors to chew up the scenery. In the credits, I saw a small notice that this miniseries was based on Mahler’s book.

The book is, as books usually are, different from the miniseries. The book is truly about New York in 1977. Son of Sam gets a chapter. The Yankees (not the Mets, sorry, folks) become a microcosm for the changes going on in New York at the time. Politicians like Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, and Bella Abzug get almost as much space on the page as do Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, and the Yankees.

The book is a joy to read. It’s well written. Mahler’s voice is strong and authoritative, filled with wry humor. The narrative is compelling—or at least it was for me. But I remember that year very well, even though I didn’t live in New York, and I found myself routinely startling the cat by saying, “I remember that!” in a tone of wonder.

I bought the book because I thought it would be about baseball, which I love. The book is about baseball. But it’s also about New York (which I also love) and a time now almost completely gone, although its remnants echoed through American life, politics, and sport for the next thirty years.

Nicholas, Lynn H., The Rape of Europa, Vintage, 1994. I have no idea where or when I got this book, only that it has sat on my to-read pile for a very long time. Of the book, the Washington Post said, “A scholarly work that reads like a gripping adventure story,” and that’s exactly right.

Countless books have recounted the horrors of the Holocaust. Others talked about the changes in Europe before, during and after World War II. This is one of the few that covers the wholesale theft of art and possessions that the Nazis managed.

Even though I knew the outcome of the war, I would often find myself reading with my fist against my mouth, worried about some priceless artifact or the person sent to rescue it. I read the book in two sittings, fast for me with a history volume.

Peretz, Evgenia, “James Frey’s Morning After,” Vanity Fair, June, 2008. This one’s on here for my students. So often they worry about making a mistake—getting an editor’s name wrong, mailing a manuscript to the wrong house—that it freezes them. They don’t write or they don’t mail what they write.

I tell them that mistakes happen; editors understand; publishing is a large, large industry, and you’ll survive, pretty much no matter what you do.

The Clifford Irving movie, Hoax, proves that. But the hoax happened in the 1970s and means nothing to these modern writers.

So now they have James Frey. Frey, who published a memoir that embellished, sparked countless lawsuits and some memorable Oprah invective, has a new book out. A reporter at Vanity Fair managed to interview the now-reclusive writer, and learned exactly what his life was like during the hell years (and his side of the story as well).

He said he went back to writing, “one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time,” which is, in the end, the only way to do it.

It’s an inspiring article for writers, and anyone who wants to come back from a mistake or, in this case, a massive public humiliation. Dunno if I would have survived as well as he did. Dunno if many people could have.

Rankin, Ian, Exit Music, Little Brown, 2008. This book isn’t out yet in the States, but will be soon. I almost bought a copy when I was in England last fall, but didn’t want to have the weight of a hardcover on my flight home. So when a friend gave me a copy, I read it immediately.

Rankin is doing a gutsy thing here: He’s retiring his most famous character, John Rebus. Rebus ages in real time. Since the series started twenty years ago, when Rebus was forty, Rebus has aged those twenty years as well. Apparently in Scotland, police detectives have a mandatory retirement at age 60. Otherwise, Rebus would never have retired. The man (and yes, he’s real to me—that’s how good this character is) has no other life.

The novel is a balancing act—several important cases, as well as Rebus’s trademark bad attitude toward authority, and the impending retirement. Rankin also has to deal with Big Ger Cafferty, the long-time villain of the series. It all fits together in “fuss, mess, and blood” as he says. It’s a worthy retirement novel for Rebus.

Makes me wonder what Rankin will do next. Unlike Rebus, Rankin is in his forties, with decades of work ahead of him. It should be interesting…

Waxman, Sharon, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, Times Books, November 2008. Like the Rankin, the Waxman isn’t out yet. A friend who went to Book Expo America handed me his galley when he finished it, since he knew I had an interest in the topic.

Loot looks at the art world through the practices of four museums—three of the greatest in the world, and the Getty Museum, which had to be included, since it’s involved in the biggest scandals.

The Getty, which I’d read about before, is the least interesting of the museums. The fascinating stories belong to the Louvre (which is one of my favorite places in the whole world) and the British Museum, where I had a marvelous experience as a teenager. The fourth museum covered, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York isn’t quite as interesting to me, probably because it doesn’t carry the weight of its own history, unlike the other two.

This book is a good introduction to the topic. The author is a reporter, so her breezy style makes for a fast read. The book lacks depth, which is fine. I read it for the overview, and that was wonderful, pointing me in some new directions in this part of my leisure non-fiction reading.