March 2009 Recommended Reading List
A much better month for reading as you can tell from the length of the list. I found a lot that I enjoyed. I was beginning to worry in previous months that I had just become too critical to enjoy anything, but I think the problem was more with my choices of material than with my attitude toward it.
March brought a nice mixture of essays, short fiction, nonfiction, and novels. So much, in fact, it takes much more space than usual to record everything I liked. Hope you find things to enjoy below as well.
To buy most of the items on the list, either click here or click the title of the book. If I could find the article for free on the web, I linked to that too.
Balogh, Mary, First Comes Marriage, Dell, 2009. Dell is releasing four of Mary Balogh’s books this spring, one a month until the big hardcover release at the end of May. The books are about a family that finds itself suddenly weathy and thrust into the upper class of British society during the Regency period.
The first book deals with the second sister, Veronica, a widow who moves with the family, and the man who is the executor of the estate her brother has inherited.
Balogh’s books seem small enough—a romance between two apparently ill-suited people—but they always touch on larger things. In this case, betrayal and its effect on trust. Balogh is one of the few authors still writing true historical romances (so many are costume dramas these days—modern people in period dress), and I love her work for that alone.
But the characterization is always fine, and more than that, the emotions she brings out are powerful. This book actually brought me to tears toward the end, which I did not expect. Sweet and powerful and recommended.
Barron, Laird, “Strappado,” Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow, Solaris, 2009. Anyone who has traveled overseas a lot knows just how badly “Strappado” will go wrong. Even though the main character in this story does something no one should ever do in a foreign country, Barron writes us past it to create one of the most terrifying horror stories I’ve read in a long time.
In fact, the story wouldn’t work if the main character were more sensible. The tension between what someone should do in his situation and what he does plays wonderfully—and the end result is something you hope will never happen to you or to anyone you love. A memorable piece.
Berry, Steve, The Amber Room, Ballantine Books, 2003. I’ve passed over Berry’s books in the bookstore more times than I care to count, figuring they were simply Da Vinci Code rip-offs. I was right and I was wrong.
After someone becomes a surprise bestseller—meaning no one thought that book on that topic would sell so many copies—the author often doesn’t follow up or follow up quickly enough. Someone else—a faster writer (often a better storyteller)—fills the void for that kind of book.
William Peter Blatty, a slow writer, became a surprise bestseller with The Exorcist in the 1970s, but didn’t follow with another book for a few years. Into the void came Stephen King’s Carrie, followed by ’Salem’s Lot and all of his other books. Dean Koontz also filled that same void.
The same pattern repeated with Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, which was a huge hit. Turow is a slow writer, and didn’t publish another book for a couple of years. When he did, the book was more literary than thriller. Into the void came John Grisham with The Firm. Grisham, who writes a book a year, became the legal thriller writer, even though Turow started the genre. Grisham is not a better sentence by sentence writer than Turow, but he is a better plotter, and is much more interested in story than in character.
Well, Berry has filled the void left by Dan Brown. If you read Berry’s books, you realize he isn’t trying to write like Dan Brown. Berry was writing these kinds of books before Brown, but The Da Vinci Code enabled Berry’s books to become bestsellers. Berry is a better writer than Brown, from characterization to setting to plot. He has a wider grasp of history and culture.
I picked up The Amber Room because of its title. I’ve always been fascinated by the Russian Amber Room—which is, as it sounds, a room made of amber—dismantled and lost or misplaced at the end of World War II.
Berry does justice to that Amber Room, convinces me of a conspiracy to keep its location secret, and writes a fine thriller plot. So fine, in fact, that I had no idea how he would wrap it up. I knew he would—thrillers follow a formula; I just didn’t know how he would. And these days, that’s rare, at least for me.
So I’ve picked up other Berry works, and the next time I’m in the mood for a thriller, I’ll read one of his.
Bissinger, Buzz, “Inventing Ford Country,” Vanity Fair, March, 2009. When I went to France in 2001, one of my French editors told me that he was a film buff. So much of a film buff, in fact, that for his honeymoon, he planned a trip to all of the places where his favorite films were made. “I did not understand how big your country is,” he said. “We spent days and days driving.”
I thought of him when I saw this article by Bissinger, because one of the places my editor went was the Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border. (“It is in the middle of nothing!” my editor said to me, mangling the idiom, but getting the concept right.)
Bissinger’s article tells how the Monument Valley became an iconic site for John Wayne and John Ford movies. How, in fact, the Monument Valley became the backdrop for hundreds of westerns filmed over many decades. In some ways, this article dovetails with Jack Williamson’s autobiography, mentioned last month, since it was a rancher who pioneered a dusty spread who first contacted Hollywood during the Depression, as he tried to keep his ranch alive. I won’t spoil too much of this, but do look it up. It’s a fun bit of Americana.
Datlow, Ellen, editor, Poe, Solaris, 2009. Normally I don’t read reviews of anything before sampling it myself, but I had no choice in this instance. I have a story in this volume, and Ellen has been forwarding reviews (something I appreciate from my editors). The reviews have been 99% positive (the one harsh review came from a non-horror reader, who complained about the emotion in the stories. Why he was reviewing a book inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, I have no idea).
The problem with me and reviews is my contrary nature. If someone says a movie is good before I see it, I will sit through the movie analyzing it, seeing if I agree. If they deem the movie bad and I enjoy it, I spend half the film arguing with the reviewer in my head. The same goes for books.
I approached Poe at a complete disadvantage as a reader, with expectations already set. However, the book met, matched, and surpassed them. I haven’t enjoyed an anthology this much in years. I read the volume quickly (pausing only for a break to teach a 10-day long workshop), and enjoyed every story. I liked some more than others, however, and I made note of my favorites throughout the list.
One thing: Ellen knows how to edit. She doesn’t just pick the stories and toss them into a book. She builds her anthology like a writer builds a novel, with an eye to emotional highs and lows. She has reasons for the stories she opens with and the stories she ends with. (She actually remarks on the opening story in her introduction.) Even though the anthology is composed of various stories, it feels like a unit. To appreciate it at its fullest, read the stories in order, as the editor intended.
Frost, Gregory, “The Final Act,” Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow, Solaris, 2009. Perhaps more than anyone else in the volume, Greg Frost captures the spirit of Poe in a modern story. Wonderful psychological horror, great characters, well written, with a gotcha ending, “The Final Act” is damn near perfect. And that settles it: Greg Frost needs to write a lot more fiction.
Gopnik, Adam, “Introduction,” The Best American Essays 2008, edited by Adam Gropnik, Houghton Mifflin, 2008. A nice analysis of all the forms an essay takes as well as what it takes to write one, from one of our best essayists.
Holmes, Rupert, “The Monks of the Abbey Victoria,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2008, edited by George Pelicanos, Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Sometimes I think the best measure of a writer’s success is that other writers react with a slap to the forehead and an exclamation of “Why didn’t I think of that first?” “The Monks of the Abbey Victoria” struck me that way. Set in the era of Mad Men and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, “The Monks of the Abbey Victoria” is about an elaborate con. And that’s all I say about it. Even those two words might be too much.
LaSalle, Peter, “Tunis and Time,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2008, edited by George Pelicanos, Houghton Mifflin, 2008. All a story needs to be considered for The Best American Mystery series is a crime. Traditional cozies don’t usually find a home here, unless they’re unbelievably good. (For the best cozies of the year, check out the Agatha Awards list, as well as the Best volume edited by Ed Gorman.)
The crime in “Tunis and Time” is subtle and mostly off-stage. The main character, an older CIA agent, is at the end of his career and really doesn’t care much. Yet he finds a lot to admire in Tunis, more than he cares to admit.
The writing is vivid, the characters excellent, and the setting so alien that this almost feels like a science fiction story—except that it’s not. Well done.
McPhee, John, “Checkpoints,” The New Yorker, February 9 & 16, 2009. A fascinating essay on a little known and little understood (and too little practiced) part of the publishing community—fact checking. Of course, McPhee focuses on The New Yorker, which was one of the first publications in the U.S. to use fact-checkers. (And, after reading about Harold Ross in a variety of books [including the Meade mentioned below] it’s easy to see why.)
Not only does McPhee deal with the value of fact-checkers, but what they must go through to verify even the smallest details. It soon becomes clear why newspapers can’t employ them (and never really did, not even in the good old days when they had a lot of money), although it’s not clear why book publishers don’t create a position like this, particularly for controversial non-fiction books, leaving it all to the lawyers and the writers themselves.
Worth reading even if you’ve never heard of fact-checkers.
Meade, Marion, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, Harcourt, 2004. I’ve been meaning to read this book for five years now, and finally got around to it. I’d dipped into it before while researching a few things, but never read it.
It’s written in a series of vignettes with a “jittery style” that the author claims was inspired by John Dos Passos in U.S.A. and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Interesting that she chose Fitzgerald, since he comes off as a complete cad in this book (and in most other books).
The book focuses on the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, satirist Dorothy Parker, occasional writer Zelda Fitzgerald, and continual bestseller Edna Ferber. Only Ferber comes out well—both in life and in the book. She didn’t party her way through the 20s, although she occasionally went to the Algonquin Roundtable, and almost every opening night of her own plays on Broadway. Ferber worked and researched and lived alone, rarely leaving New York except when she needed real details for a book.
The others…well, my. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s promiscuity made my eyebrows rise, and I grew up in the 1970s when everyone was sleeping around. Parker’s humor came from her pervasive sadness. She attempted suicide at least five times. And Zelda Fitzgerald died in a mental institution in the 1940s (and after the things she went through with Scott, the institution must have seemed quite sane).
Some truths remain: the writers who worked the hardest (Ferber) made the most money and sold the most books. The writers who got caught up in their own mystique (Millay, F.Scott Fitzgerald) ran into real emotional difficulties that made the work hard.
Parker reminds me of a few writer friends who end up with careers, not because they’re working at it, but because they occasionally turn out really memorable works, usually when forced into it by someone else. (If you’re only interested in Parker, pick up Meade’s biography, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? It’s a more complete portrait of this interesting and influential woman.)
This book itself is fascinating. Meade tries to give it shape by following the entire decade with little snapshots of everyone (and their friends, like Harold Ross of The New Yorker and Edmund (Bunny) Wilson, the famous critic), but the book just ends. The lives continue—and in some cases flourish—in the 1930s. Parker lived to the late 1960s. So individual stories don’t end either.
It’s a good read because the lives are so fascinating. But the book itself needed a real ending. It just stopped. Like the party stopped, around 1929. So I guess that’s appropriate. Kinda.
Newman, Kim, “Illimitable Domain,” Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow, Solaris, 2009. I liked everything about “Illimitable Domain” except its title, which is thoroughly unmemorable. In fact, as I was getting ready to type this, I realized I had to look up the name of that “really great Kim Newman story” because for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what it was called.
The story itself is a marvelous, funny insider’s view of the Vincent Price/Poe movies of the 1960s. I have no idea how much is true, how much is false, and how much is…strangely right. And I don’t care. The story itself is such fun that its early veracity doesn’t really matter. (And as you’ll discover, the farther you get into the story, the more you know it’s not true. [Or is it?])
Packer, George “The Ponzi State: Florida’s Foreclosure Disaster,” The New Yorker, February 9 & 16, 2009. A very sad article about the real victims of the real estate bust. I’m sure most of you know people like the ones he chronicles here. I certainly do. He probes into how the losses, the foreclosures, the bad loans, are hurting individual lives, from people who lived above their means (and never should have gotten a loan) to people who saved every dime and then lost their jobs.
Hard to read, yet worthwhile. It’s this kind of chronicle that historians will use in the future to try to convey this mess to people who never lived through it.
Parker, Robert B., Night and Day: A Jesse Stone Mystery, Putnam, 2009. I love Parker’s Jesse Stone books. I’ll read Parker’s Spencer novels and the novels featuring his other continuing characters when I get around to it. But I buy Jesse Stone the moment the book appears and read it that week. Which is what I did here.
Parker wrote an entire mystery novel about obsession. And it wasn’t obvious, either. Stone’s obsessed with his ex-wife. Our bad guy is obsessed with naked middle-aged women. And everyone else in the book has an obsession as well. The plot is less important than the theme, but that makes the book sound boring. It isn’t. I finished it almost as quickly as I snatched it off the bookstore shelf.
And that’s saying something.
Robinson, Peter, All the Colors of Darkness, William Morrow, 2009. I do like Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks novels. All the Colors of Darkness is the latest, set in the world of espionage and in the amateur theater. The book takes its heart from Othello—love and jealousy, manipulation and murder—and explores, as the title says, “all the colors of darkness.” In other words, all the shades of evil.
Riveting, and a bit hopeless, as most British fiction (both televised and in print) has been lately. Still one of the best reads of the year so far.
Sherman, Delia, “The Red Piano,” Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow, Solaris, 2009. “The Red Piano” is a marvelous modern gothic tale about matching pianos, lost loves, and lost identity. Riffing off The Fall of the House of Usher, Delia Sherman creates a new tale with hints of the old. Beautifully done.
Totten, Michael, “Baghdad in Fragments,” www.michaeltotten.com, March 27, 2009. Michael Totten is a web-based reporter, whose readers fund his travels to the Mideast. That allows him to write pieces like this one, which is an atmospheric article about Baghdad right now. Regular media doesn’t have the space or inclination to publish pieces like this. Michael’s blog is worth checking out regularly, especially if you’re at all interested in the Middle East.