May 2009 Recommended Reading List
Didn’t post this in June due to computer malfunction. So here’s May’s list, better late than never.
Not a lot on this list since this month has been exceedingly busy. I taught a workshop and read a mountain of book proposals (Note to editors out there: Beware—good writing ahead lurks in your mail). I’m moving my office, and I’ve had some emotional days such as losing my cat. I’ve been reading a lot of YA, but none of it rises to a recommended level—it’s just comfort reading to get me through. I’m also reading quite a few series novels, but none are better than the others in the series, so not really worth recommending.
Here are the things that stand out from one very long month.
Balogh, Mary, At Last Comes Love, Dell, 2009. Even though this book is the third in the Huxtables series, romance series don’t run like sf series or even mystery series. The romance series generally look at a group of people and how they find love. The other characters make cameos in the book, but the book isn’t dependent upon any knowledge of any character.
I liked this book the best of the series so far, perhaps because it hits some of my favorite themes—people who are suddenly thrown into a circumstance and must cope or lose everything. Of course, everything, in this case, is one innocent child, with a horrible horrible back story.
I don’t dare say much more. But I finished this book and saw that the pub date for the final in the series is nigh, so I ordered that book immediately. And I know I’ll be reading it before the month is out.
Butler, Charles, “A Second Life,” Runner’s World, March, 2009. Runner’s World is my favorite nonfiction magazine, bar none. Most of the magazine is about discipline, inspiration, and performing at your best—all lessons that can be applied to writing as well as running.
The profiles are beautifully written and fascinating. This one, about New York firefighter, Matt Long, is especially well done. Biking to work one day, Long got crushed by a 20-ton bus. His good physical condition allowed him to survive, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He went through dozens of surgeries, lost most everything, and still came out the other end. This article goes through his saga from before the bus crash to his decision to run the entire New York marathon this year, despite debilitating injuries—any one of which would discourage most people from exercising altogether.
Excellent human interest story, but an even better profile in courage. Worth reading.
Connelly, Michael, The Scarecrow, Little Brown, 2009. Connelly brings back his hero from The Poet, the book that broke him out of the mystery genre. I wasn’t that fond of The Poet, but I find I remember it more than a decade after I read it, which says something. Connelly uses The Scarecrow to discuss the internet and the dying newspaper industry, and those parts of the book are the most alive. The rest is a serial killer drama which is good and compelling, but not the best part of the book. Lots of tension here, from the killer to the layoffs to the future of journalism. I devoured the book in a few hours and wanted more—always a good thing.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Tales of the Jazz Age, Scribners, 1922. Kindle edition, 2008. I thought I had read every single story F. Scott Fitzgerald had written. So when the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was announced, imagine my surprise to learn it was based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, one I had never read. I ran to my copy of The Collected Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald only to discover the book’s real title was The Selected Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Good old Edmund “Bunny” Wilson, the famous critic, writer, and editor, had left all of Fitzgerald’s fantastic stories out of the volume except for the very famous “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”
I finally found a copy of “Benjamin Button”—actually, I found the entire book Tales of the Jazz Age, available for free download from Amazon and discovered it contained several stories I’d never read (damn that Bunny!). I snapped up the story immediately, and read it, cringing as I began because I still trusted Old Bunny Wilson. I figured it was one of Fitzgerald’s failures if it didn’t make the Selected volume.
It’s no Great Gatsby (but then, what is?) but “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a very charming story with some wry twists, all of them unexpected. I haven’t seen the movie yet (I really do like to read the source material first if I can, particularly if the source material is by one of my favorite writers), so I had some lovely surprises right from the start.
This isn’t a story, per se, but a chronology of Benjamin Button’s unusual life. The story has a poignancy it shouldn’t have for all its narrative tricks. It’s actually sad that Benjamin Button doesn’t live a normal life. And the ending with his growing so young that he no longer understands things echoes Alzheimers.
The story appears to be the precursor to one of my very favorite novellas, “Flowers for Algernon.” (The shorter version is better than the novel.) “Flowers for Algernon” is heartbreaking; “Benjamin Button” merely sad. But they work off similar principles and make us look at life and living in a brand new way. Find the story—I’m sure it’s readily available now in all kinds of forms—and read it. It’s very well done.
Gopnik, Adam, “The Rookie,” Paris to the Moon, Random House, 2000. Gopnik’s book, Paris to the Moon, is a collection of essays that he wrote mostly for The New Yorker while he was living in Paris with his wife and very young son. Somehow, they work together seamlessly, and I was only going to discuss the book as a whole when I eventually finish it, but this essay jumped above the rest.
“The Rookie” is about Gopnik and his young son, who is an American growing up in Paris. Only the boy moved to Paris while still in diapers, and doesn’t understand truly American things, like baseball. So one night, Gopnik decides to change that. He tells his son a bedtime story about the Rookie, a three-year-old phenom pitcher in 1908, who plays for the Giants. The little Rookie faces down the greats of the era, including Ty Cobb (who nearly destroys the Rookie by calling him a baby—which upset Gopnik’s son), and helps win the World Series. (Gopnik figures he can dislodge the Cubs since his tale already has a 3-year-old pitcher.)
It’s a lovely essay, which turns out to be about much more than a bedtime story. The essay covers what it feels like to be an ex-patriate, how different cultures evolve and what’s important to each, and how touchstones differ from person to person. Tucked inside of all this are two things: Gopnik’s relationship to his son and the magic of baseball, which the boy understands even though he has never seen a game.
This essay is so powerful, it’s worth a look, even if you don’t buy this excellent book.
Torres, Dara (with Elizabeth Weil), “Age is Just a Number,” More Magazine, April, 2009. This is an excerpt from Torres’ upcoming autobiography. It’s quite inspiring, but it’s also illuminating. She clearly defines how much work it is to be a worldclass athelete, particularly one in her forties. What I found particularly fascinating are her attitudes—how much perspective time gives us all. Based on this excerpt, I will pick up the autobiography.
van de Wetering, Janwillem, “The Bleeding Chair,” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April, 2009. Okay, so I’m unsure about the proper reference format for the last name here, but that doesn’t really matter. The story is wonderful. Janwillem van de Wetterling was a Dutch born writer who wrote a great deal in English. He died not too long ago, and this might be the last story he’ll publish. Too bad. He’s always been one of my favorite short story writers.
“The Bleeding Chair” accurately captures a small coastal village in the U.S. He set this on the east coast, but as a person who lives in a small coastal village on the west coast, I can tell you that he mostly got this right. Nicely atmospheric, with a great twist at the end and marvelous characters. Worth looking up.