December 2008 Recommended Reading
My goal in 2008 was to read every story in EQMM. Of course, I decided to catch up on 2007 first, and got overwhelmed by the task. By the end of November, I decided I’d better get cracking to read every single EQMM story published in 2008. I am not reading as fast as I want—I have to do research reading and it’s getting in the way of my reading time—but I’m finding a lot to enjoy. The stories are listed below. I didn’t make it, of course, because I got distracted, but I’ll finish early in the new year.
I got caught up on my Asimov’s in 2008 (which made me feel comfortable voting in the Readers Choice awards for the first time in years), and I decided I’d better keep up. Not that it’s hard. I’m really enjoying the issues these days. Sheila Williams and I must have very similar taste in science fiction.
December was a much better reading month than the few before it. I read quite a few novels and even more short stories. I’m wending my way through some heavy historical tomes for a series of short stories and novels that I plan to write, so getting to read fiction when I’m done is a relief.
Here’s what I recommend.
Allyn, Doug, “The Sonnets of September,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July 2008. This story isn’t as powerful as “Pig Party” earlier in the year, but it’s still strong. Of course, saying that a Doug Allyn short story is strong is somewhat redundant.
“The Sonnets of September” is novella—long for EQMM—and it’s still too short. It cries out to be a novel. It would be a strong novel, with memorable characters and a nice ethical dilemma. It’s also a good piece on the power of writing to inspire. Very good.
Blain, W. Edward, “Other People’s Litter,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July, 2008. I had figured out part of this story before the ending, but it wasn’t the important part. Great characters in a unique setting with a very nice twist.
Buckell, Tobias S., “A Box Full of Words,” Locus Magazine, October, 2008. Three articles in this issue of Locus are worth looking up the back issue (or ordering it). Tobias Buckell’s interview is just one of them.
His personal story is fascinating, but more than that, for me, he reminded me of the importance of storytelling. He says, “When I was reading science fiction as a kid it was more than just reading for fun; it was survival reading….It wasn’t just escapism, but the ability to see people in tougher place than I was getting through them. That was a powerful thing for me.”
He’s not the first writer or reader to say such things. Just the most recent one that I’ve read. It served as a good reminder of why I do what I do.
The article is also fascinating to see how an sf writer develops. Buckell explores this with unusual clarity. Worth reading.
Estleman, Loren D. “Who’s Afraid of Nero Wolfe?” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June, 2008. A laugh-out-loud story about a Nero Wolfe wannabe and the grifter who goes to work for him. It’s charming on its own, but ever better if you’ve ever read any Nero Wolfe. I’m hoping there will be more of these in future issues.
James, P.D., The Private Patient, Knopf, 2008. P.D. James is one of my very favorite writers. She’s nearly 90 now, and reviewers are saying this is her last book. There’s some evidence for that. The ending to this one finally gives her long-suffering detective some peace.
But I felt like the previous book could have been her last as well, and was a bit surprised when The Private Patient was announced. I think she’s tying up loose ends, yes, but also continuing with her career. After all, Jack Williamson wrote until his very last year (dying in his mid-nineties).
I certainly hope this isn’t the last of her novels. It’s a wonderful book, which I tried to savor. But of course, I had to read the last 200 pages all at once. James writes mysteries that take you beyond the small country house (or lighthouse or apartment) where the first murder happens. She uses the books as commentaries on society—just like the best modern mysteries do. Only she was the first mystery writer I had ever read who had done so, so I feel like she introduced me to this type of writing.
Early on this website, I wrote an essay on reader expectations. I have extremely high expectations of James, and this novel hit all of them, and more. Buy it, even if it is your first introduction to her work. She’s tremendous.
King, Stephen, “Introduction,” Just After Sunset, Scribner, 2008. This essay explains the very thing I try to pound into the head of other writers: why you must read fiction if you plan to write it. And not just before you become a published writer. Afterwards as well. It’s an excellent essay on how important reading is to the art form of writing short stories. (But it might just as easily apply to novels as well.) Read it.
King, Stephen, “Stationary Bicycle,” Just After Sunset, Scribner, 2008. This story really resonated for me. It’s about a guy whose doc tells him (quite graphically) that he must lose weight. So the guy buys a stationary bicycle, sets it up—and well, it’s a Stephen King story, so lots of spooky stuff happens.
But really, it’s a metaphor for the weight loss/exercise thing. And moderation. And all that good stuff.
And, um, dammit, King did it to me again. Some 25+ years ago, I read Firestarter. In it, he viscerally described a man putting his arm down a working garbage disposal. I think of that damn moment every single time I turn on our garbage disposal. And in here, King (through the doctor character) mentions something about mold…and, oh, ick. Let’s just say the buffet I went to the next afternoon wasn’t as enjoyable as usual because I was people watching and thinking of mold….
King, Stephen, “Rest Stop,” Just After Sunset, Scribner, 2008. For some reason, I thought I had read this story and nearly skipped it. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s a good adventure story, filled with what-ifs, using a common every day situation. This one is haunting me too (but not for the mold reason) simply because it’s so good.
Le Guin, Ursula K., “The Age of Saturn,” Locus Magazine, October, 2008. This isn’t an article. It’s an interview. Locus’s strange habit is to quote the author without the questions and then attribute everything to the author. With some writers it works, and with others, you have to imagine the question (or guess at it).
It works with Ursula. This past year, I’ve been studying writers who have had long term careers and this interview fits right into that study. She talks a lot about her career, about the passage of time, and the ups and downs. What I find fascinating is that she’s never had a national bestseller. (I seem to recall one in the early 1980s, but as usual, my memory is faulty. I trust the author on this.)
She is fortunate (and she mentions this) that her books have stayed in print. I noticed a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness at Borders the day after I read this interview. A lot of writers who a great debt to Ursula K. Le Guin. She opened a lot of doors for us, in subject matter, in a willingness to share her knowledge, and in the manner in which she wrote her stories.
This interview is fascinating from those perspectives, and just from the human one. And if you haven’t read any of Le Guin’s work, I recommend you immediately pick up a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness or her short stories or something, and get reading.
Martin, Steve, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, Scribner, 2007. I read an excerpt of this book in The New Yorker and was entranced. So when I saw the hardcover, I bought it immediately. Of course, it always takes me time to work my way to a book once I’ve bought it, and it took nearly a year for this one.
But the wait was worthwhile. It’s a book about being an artist. It’s also about being a writer. And it’s about performing. I think doing stand-up is the hardest form of writing there is. Not only do you write your work and present it in front of an audience, you know immediately if the work is failing. It takes a lot of guts for an introvert go to onstage and Martin, like most writers, is an introvert.
He’s also insecure, which surprised me, and prone to panic attacks, which didn’t surprise me when I figured out how introverted he is. The fact that he continued to perform for years with panic attacks shows how dedicated he was to doing stagework.
A quick read, a wonderful read. I’ve known for years that Martin’s prose is spectacular, but here it really suits the tale he’s telling—a memoir of his early career.
Pohl, Frederik, “Sir Arthur and I,” Locus Magazine, October, 2008. A fantastic article on writing, on collaboration, and on having a long career (my theme in the upcoming year, I think). Any aspiring writer should read it, if only to understand that there is no perfect story. When Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl collaborated, they also compromised—on words, scenes, characters—and even in his 80s, Fred says he learned things about writing during the process.
Process is the key word. Writing is a process, one that doesn’t end, until we end. This is a good reminder, and an excellent essay, not just on writing, but on long-time friendship as well.
Rosenblum, Mary, “Lion Walk,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, January, 2009. The story features an unusual nature preserve, murders, and some excellent world-building. Catnip for me, even without the giant cats. Excellent story about nostalgia, life, what we value in nature…and lions.
Shepard, Lucius, The Best of Lucius Shepard, Subterranean, 2008. A lot of my favorite stories are in this book. I didn’t list them individually because many of them I read (and reread) years ago. But particular favorites are “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” and “Only Partly Here,” one of the best 9/11 stories written. The collection—all 300,000 words of it—is definitely worth your time. Heck, “Dragon Griaule,” which is a classic, I think, is worth buying the book for all by itself.
Shepard, Lucius, “Beast of the Heartland,” The Best of Lucius Shepard, Subterranean, 2008. I couldn’t shake “Beast of the Heartland” after I finished it. When I started the story, which is ostensibly about boxing, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. But as I got into it, I couldn’t put it down.
This is a very macho story about a macho subject. The writing is lyrical and lovely, and yet somehow, it reminds me strongly of Hemingway. Some of it is the characterization, and some of it is the attitude. If you had ever told me I would compare Lucius Shepard to Ernest Hemingway, I would have laughed. Lucius rarely writes a short sentence and Hemingway rarely wrote a long one.
Yet their writing holds a lot in common, especially when Lucius deals with gender issues. This story isn’t a gender story per se, but it is a story about a predominantly male world, and his character could have been a Hemingway character. I ended up enjoying it a great deal.
Silverberg, Robert, “Reflections: Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, January, 2009. Bob’s essays get better and better, at least as far as I’m concerned. This one deals with the universal translator trope in sf. Linguists often say it can’t work, but Bob actually shows why it would be difficult. (Although I did chuckle when he mentioned that he checked his Latin on Google. I love the Google translation feature, but it didn’t exist five years ago—and is, in its way, as close as we have to a universal translator on Earth at the moment.)
Silverberg, Robert, “Reflections: It Wasn’t All That Easy,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, February, 2009. This is a wonderful essay about Bob’s early years as a science fiction writer. Heck, about his early years as a writer. In some ways, his title says it all.
Bob suffers from the same expectations that Dean and I do. When we tell our students to try something, they often say, “Well, you can do that. You’re Dean & Kris. I certainly can’t.”
Of course, they forget that we became Dean & Kris, well known writers, by trying the very things that we’re telling them to do. (One [extremely talented] former student wrote a novella for a contest, but didn’t win. He wrote me a letter lamenting that he had nowhere to send it. I wrote back and reminded him of all the markets that take novellas, and got the “You can sell to them because you’re Kris Rusch. I certainly can’t.”
Well, I sold to novellas to them before I was well known, and made my name (became Kristine Kathryn Rusch, if you will). Because I tried.
Bob Silverberg’s essay deals with this phenomenon and much, much more. In a short few pages, he reminds us of his climb up the ladder of professional writing—and how hard it was for him. (But he’s Robert Silverberg! Well, once he was as unknown as my [extremely talented] former student.)
I think the difference between me and Bob, and so many of the people I teach is quite simple: Bob and I tried. We didn’t let rejection discourage us (for too long) and we kept writing. So if this short review (which is more about writing than about Bob’s essay) strikes a chord with some of you wannabe writers out there, perhaps you should stop looking for rules and start writing more.
Oh, and read this essay. It’s wonderful.
Smallwood, Christine, “Stewartsville,” The Nation, December 8, 2008. This is actually a book review of one of George O. Stewart’s books, something he wrote in the late 1940s. George O. Stewart is one of Dean’s favorite writers. Stewart wrote a disaster novel called The Earth Abides that Dean has been wanting me to read for decades. I’m not fond of disaster novels, so I keep putting it off.
That’s all I knew of Stewart until this review, which is actually a mini-biographical essay. What a fascinating man. Very writerly in that he held many jobs and was a bit of a cussed personality. But he wrote all kinds of novels and non-fiction books, from books about place names (that’s what Smallwood reviews here) to novels about the future. Smallwood actually calls him one of the first eco-fiction writers. I’m not sure of that. I’m wondering if Verne might have been. But no matter. Read this, just to get a taste of a fascinating writer. I have a hunch I’ll be picking up his place names book—or seeing if it is in our library already.