June 2009 Recommended Reading List
I’m still behind on my posting. This should be July, but I haven’t finished preparing it for uploading. I hoped to have June up a month ago. Ah well. Here’s what I wrote at the end of June:
Another strangely busy month, but I got a lot more reading done—and it was good reading. Some months it hasn’t been.
In fact, as a reading month, it was one of the best, since I discovered a new writer, rediscovered an old favorite, and fell madly in love with a book. Haven’t done that last in quite a while.
Bascomb, Neal, Hunting Eichmann, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. I’ve been reading a lot of research books for the stories I’m writing for Jim Baen’s Universe. Many are unbelievably dull, even when dealing with fascinating topics. Some are just dated, like many I’ve been reading about hunting down former high-ranking Nazis in South America. (One, written in 1973, urgently tried to convince me that if we didn’t catch Martin Bormann soon, the Fourth Reich would begin. I do remember the fear from the period that the Nazis would take over again, but I hadn’t realized just how pervasive it was.)
Bascomb’s book reads like a spy thriller, primarily because it is. It deals with the escape, capture, and arrest of Adolph Eichmann, who was directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the camps. Eichmann himself was a chilling man, partly because of what Hannah Arendt called at his trial “the banality of evil,” but he wasn’t good at living outside of National Socialism.
The book follows Eichmann’s journey—which the man himself documented many times—as well as the fascinating journeys of those who tried to find him (and the others). It also explores the early state of Israel and the founding of the Mossad. It’s fast paced, extremely interesting, and suspenseful, even though we all know the bastard got caught.
Buckley, Christopher, Supreme Courtship, Twelve, 2008. Just so that we’re clear here, Christopher Buckley’s political views are slightly to the right of mine. I say slightly because I know how he voted for president in the last election, and we voted for the same guy. Had I written this little piece before the election, I wouldn’t have included the qualifier. I would have said “to the right” of mine.
Why am I even mentioning this? Two reasons. First, some writing students of mine made it very clear to me recently that they believe there’s acceptable reading and unacceptable reading. Unacceptable reading is, if I can get this right, any books that espouse a point of view that the reader doesn’t believe in. Second, Supreme Courtship is a political novel. I went into it knowing that Buckley and I would not agree.
Our political differences made no difference at all. As I said to the students, writers represent the entire world. If you block off part of your reading because you don’t agree with what you assume the writer’s point of view to be, then you’ll never learn anything. (And, writers, you won’t be able to write from any point of view except your own.)
Supreme Courtship is one of the funniest novels I’ve read all year. I put it at the top of my to-read stack when Justice Souter announced his retirement. I figured it would be fun to read a book about choosing a Supreme Court justice while we were choosing a Supreme Court justice. Turns out, I was right.
Buckley sets up a deliberately absurd situation—a president who has no desire for a second term—and throws a Supreme Court nomination into it. The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee (a thinly disguised Joe Biden [he was in the Senate at the time]) asks for the seat himself, and the Prez turns him down. So the Biden character gets revenge by tanking two extremely qualified and exemplary nominees.
So the Prez nominates a thinly disguised Judge Judy. The book goes on from there, lampooning everyone from Justice Scalia (told you that Buckley is only slightly to the right of me) to Bush v. Gore. He manages to skewer Washington politics, Hollywood, reality television, and the legal system all in 285 pages. Well done. Lots of fun. Read it quick, before the new court comes into session.
Franklin, Ariana, Grave Goods, Putnam, 2009. I love Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death novels. They’re steeped in history (12th century England) and they’re crackling good mysteries.
This one combines the legend of King Arthur with the reality of life in Glastonbury. Queen Eleanor makes no appearance at all (dang!), and King Henry is only onstage for a short time (which is enough). But Adelia, our mistress of the art of death (in reality, a coroner), has quite an adventure, along with the usual characters. The forensics are excellent, the suspense so intense that I almost (almost) peeked ahead, and the outcome satisfying. The ending promises another book, which can’t come soon enough.
Gaiman, Neil, The Graveyard Book, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. I’d been planning to read The Graveyard Book long before it started stacking up awards. From the moment the sale was announced, it sounded like my kind of book. But I didn’t get around to searching for a copy until late last year, and by then our local bookstores didn’t have a copy at all—which shocked me.
Then the book won the Newberry Award (congrats, Neil!!!), and voila! the book returned to the local bookstores. My copy is the ninth printing of the hardcover, so it’s doing very well indeed.
Now, after reading the book, I can see why it has stacked up so many awards. For the first time in my adult memory, a novel has taken me back to my childhood reading experiences—the complete loss of self as I sink into the book, the sense of wonder at a completely unknown setting, and a breathless worry about how the book would end. I’ve often had one of those three things as I read, but rarely all three.
In the afterward, Neil says he got the idea for the book as his son rode a tricycle through a graveyard. Neil combined that with his love of Kipling’s The Jungle Book and came up with this story. Knowing that, I can see where much of the book comes from—some of it an obvious reimagining.
But it’s only obvious in hindsight. As you’re reading, the book is an entirely original experience. It’s scary, as a book called The Graveyard Book should be, but never so terrifying that it would be impossible to sleep. The old-fashioned illustrations by Dave McKean make the book all the more wonderful. They don’t help you imagine the story—they augment the story; it’s clear where the illustrations came from.
I read this entire book in one breathless gulp. One of the pull quotes on the back says that the reader wants more books about Nobody Owens, but I don’t. I think more would spoil the magic. This book is perfect as it is. Buy it, read it, then give it to your friends—not just the young ones. All of your friends.
Gopnik, Adam, Paris to the Moon, Random House, 2000. As I mentioned last month, 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. The essays thread together well, and manage to give a real sense of ex-patriate life in Paris at the end of the 20th century. The writing is beautiful, the setting lovely, and the incidents so real that they feel like I lived them through Gopnik. Highly recommended.
Roberts, Nora, Vision in White, Berkely, 2009. I’ve been disenchanted with Roberts lately. I have been slow to buy her newest books, which made me a bit sad, considering I’ve read her work since I discovered it in the Silhouette Intimate Moments book line in the early 1980s (starting with Once More With Feeling). I felt like we’d grown up together, she and I. Her as a writer, and me as her reader.
I actually downloaded Vision in White as a free sample on the Kindle and read a few pages to see if I was even interested in the book. (That’s how disenchanted I’ve been.) I was extremely dissatisfied with the Kindle format on the book—a doublespace between paragraphs—and soon discovered that the format is in all of Penguin/Putnam’s books (including my own). So I ordered the book on Amazon, not realizing that the book was a trade paper (I got it at a regular paperback price).
The book itself is pretty, with a lovely cover and a wonderful interior design. I don’t find the actual physical product that pretty all that much any more, but this book was a pleasure to hold.
It was also a pleasure to read. Roberts has returned to her roots. This novel is a straight contemporary romance, no vampires, no serial killers, no werewolves. It’s wonderful. I hadn’t realized how much I missed a good contemporary. Right now, romance publishers have cut back on straight contemporaries in favor of paranormals, leaving many of us out.
(There are very few paranormal romances that I enjoy—almost none, some of which I blame on editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for so many years. A fantasy, or paranormal in romance terms, has to be topnotch to catch my attention at all. To hold my attention, it has to be spectacular.)
Not every reader wants a jazzed up romance, with serial killers or zombies. Some just like a good historical or a good contemporary, and if what I’m reading in the romance forums is correct, most readers are feeling the lack at the moment. So—publishers! Bring back the contemporary, please. And the accurate historical. Not the costume dramas of recent years.
Enough of the rant. Now to the book. This is the first in the Bride Quartet, four novels about a wedding planning agency run by four female friends. Roberts begins with Mac, the photographer, who falls in love with a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, a true beta hero, who does discover his inner alpha for only one scene in the middle of the book. He’s delightful, so is she, and the romance proceeds along a surprising path.
I have happily reserved the next three books. Roberts and I are back together again. (And I’ll bet she didn’t even know I was gone.)
Surowiecki, James, “The Financial Page: Hanging Tough,” The New Yorker, April 20, 2009. Fascinating article about how businesses have survived previous recessions/depressions. Mostly he focuses on Kellogg and Post and how they made it through the Great Depression, applying lessons from their experiences to now. If you’re running a small business (or are a freelancer) or are a major publisher, running a large business, check this article out.
Willett, Jincy, The Writing Class, Picador Crime, 2009. If one of my writing students had asked me whether or not their novel about a has-been writer, now teaching a writing class, and the members of that class could sell, I would have said, “Well, it’ll be a tough sell,” because I didn’t want to completely discourage them. Privately, I would have thought the novel would never sell, or if it did, it would do so to a specialty press.
Shows what I know. I also tell my writing students to never, ever prejudge the market, and yet there I was, prejudging.
I bought The Writing Class because I picked it up. The cover—yellow & black, like Cliff Notes, with a dead body silhouette that had a pencil through the heart—caught my attention. I’d never heard of Jincy Willett.
I read the back—sounded intriguing. Read the opening and suddenly found myself on page 12. So I bought the book, and finished it in a single sitting.
The Writing Class is a cozy mystery novel, complete with dead bodies, poisonings, mysterious letters, and unbelieving almost willing victims. Oh, yeah, and it talks about writing as well. All the way through.
Jincy Willett shows us the writings of every member of the class, including the instructor, which means she has to write in a dozen voices. It’s a literary tour de force, but it’s also a great book about writing. It’s an excellent mystery as well. Lots of fun. Now I’m off to find Jincy Willett’s other novel and see if I enjoy that half as much.