September 2009 Recommended Reading List
I’ve been doing a lot of nonfiction reading this month as I research a few large (and thankfully related) projects. I’m astonished at two things: 1) the lack of scholarship in some popular histories and 2)the lack of entertainment value in some scholarly histories. I just read one scholarly tome about the biggest pre-Madoff scandal in the U.S. in which four of the principles get murdered and the rest eventually commit suicide—and the damn thing was dull. I’m still a bit astonished about that.
Baxter, Stephen, “Turing’s Apples,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martins Press, 2009. A wonderful story about a successful search for extraterrestrials. Creepy and plausible, this one will haunt you.
Carriger, Gail, Soulless:An Alexia Tarabotti Novel, Orbit, 2009. This is a marvelous first novel. The cover attracted me as did the tag line: “A novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols.” I’m beginning to think vampires and werewolves overdone, so it took quite a bit for me to pick this up—including the wonderful opening paragraph with ends with this: “She had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.”
As if there are expected vampires. As if vampires were nothing more than an annoyance.
Of course, in Carriger’s world, there are expected vampires as well as other creatures of the dark. The worldbuilding here is lovely, as are the characters. Essentially, the tone and voice of this novel belong in a regency, even though the book is set in the Victorian era. It’s almost as if Georgette Heyer wrote urban fantasy. Laugh out loud funny, this novel is worth every minute of your time.
Like so many books marketed as thrillers, this one has an utterly unforgettable title. In fact, I was going to write about this book last night, but couldn’t remember the title at all—and I was going to mention it in a tweet today about crime novels set in Indianapolis, where Bouchercon will be this year—and didn’t have time to look up the book. So. Never happened. Ah, well.
The book is wonderful, aside from the crummy title. A nice hook, an even better reason for our hero, Reacher (third person this time), to come onto the scene. Some nice twists and surprises, and a real sense of Indianapolis, where I’ve been going on and off since I was a child. (My brother has lived in Indiana since the 1960s.) I learned stuff I didn’t know about a city I thought I’d seen, which was nice. It made me a little happier that I’m going to Indianapolis in October (although I’d rather go to Paris [wouldn’t we all?]). I simply hope I don’t get in the middle of a mass murder case, like Reacher does. Worth reading.
Crais, Robert, The First Rule, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010. Robert Crais and I have a lot of mutual friends, and he dedicated The First Rule to one of them: Harlan Ellison. I thought that an appropriate dedication for a Joe Pike novel, since Pike is the toughest of Bob’s characters and yet has the truest heart.
We see a lot of Pike’s layers in The First Rule. One of Pike’s old friends gets murdered, and Pike has to solve the case, mostly on his own. He runs into the Russian mob and human trafficking and some very nasty gun runners. At first, I was a bit disappointed: I thought Bob had taken what could be an Elvis Cole novel and gave it to Pike.
Then I got to the twist. Ah, the twist. The twist gives the book heart, the twist made me cry at the end. The twist makes this a classic Bob Crais novel and a marvelous Joe Pike story. I won’t spoil it for any of you, since I got an advanced copy. But let me simply say this spare book with its emotionally reserved main character is one of the most moving novels I’ve read this year.
Creighton, Joanne Vanish, “Reflections on Joyce Carol Oates,” On Wisconsin, Summer, 2009. Joyce Carol Oates got her masters degree from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The lovely male brains heading the graduate committee refused to make her a PhD candidate. This was 1961, where the men were startled (according to Oates [and I believe it]) that a married woman wanted to continue her education.
I had known that Oates had graduated from the UW. (So, I learned from this issue of the alumni magazine, did Peter Straub and Michael Mann.) I first met her there in the early 1980s when she got an honorary degree on the same night one of my closest friends graduated from law school. But I didn’t know about the difficult time she had at the university, and how much that influenced her later on. Creighton wrote the biographical article, but On Wisconsin also excerpted an essay Oates wrote about the entire experience, which I’ll deal with below.
Friedman, Steve, “The Longing,” Runner’s World, July 2009. Okay, this is a first for me. A nonfiction profile written in the second person. Yep, you read that right. The second person. For those of you who have forgotten high school English (or never covered that concept), second person is written from the point of view of “you.” If I wrote the opening line of this recommendation in second person, it would go like this: This is a first for you. You’ve never read a magazine profile written in the second person. You weren’t even sure it could be done, let alone done well. And so on.
I’d left the issue lying around, and Dean glanced at the opening line. He said, “Why the hell would anyone write a piece like that?” Why indeed? The second person turned him off. It made me curious.
I’m glad I read it. The profile broke my heart (in a good way) and wouldn’t have been at all effective in third person. Check this out—both for the innovative writing and the fascinating woman it profiles.
Kosmatka, Ted, “N-Words,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martins Press, 2009. An excellent short story about prejudice. The n-word here is Neandertal, which some enterprising scientists managed to bring back as a viable species. Heartbreaking and to the point, this is a do-not-miss short story.
Oates, Joyce Carol, “Nighthawk,” excerpted in On Wisconsin, Summer, 2009. Full essay @ http://jco.usfca.edu/ray/nighthawk.html .As I mentioned above, this essay is just an excerpt from a larger piece, published in the Yale Review in 2001. I read the excerpt and loved it. Then I searched for the entire piece and found it online.
Oates deals frankly with something she sees as a personal failure—her inability to qualify as a PhD candidate in 1961. She talks about its impact on her career and on her own emotional state. (Those of you who read my three posts on setbacks might want to look at this essay.) As an FYI for those of you who don’t know, she went on to teach at Princeton and has been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize.
She wrote this essay in 1999, in Madison, when she returned to receive yet another honor (unnamed in the essay) from the university. She writes, “Honored at the age of sixty-one as an indirect (and yet irrefutable) consequence of having failed at the age of twenty-two!”
Ironic, yes, but she looks below the irony at the pain, humiliation, and understanding that comes from failure, the path it leads us down, and how we respond to it. This is an incredibly powerful piece, made more powerful by the fact that Oates rarely writes personal essays.
And a side note here: She writes of the honorary degree the university gave her in the 1980s. This part is in the full essay, not the excerpt. As I mentioned above, I was there that night, and forced my shy self over to meet her. She shook my hand, but said little, and I, embarrassed, moved onto congratulate my friend on his graduation.
But Oates was going through her own difficulties that night. She writes, “…I returned to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to be given an ‘honorary doctorate of humane letters’ in an elaborate commencement ceremony, the occasion would seem surreal to me; I couldn’t help brooding on the irony of the situation, and perhaps the perversity, hearing my name amid those of other ‘distinguished alumni….’”
I knew none of this, of course. I do remember the ceremony vividly—it was elaborate (and long) and had an impact on me, even though I didn’t graduate that night. In addition to Oates, one of the other recipients was Meredith Wilson who wrote The Music Man. He talked of his Midwestern heritage and how it influenced all that he wrote. I watched both Oates and Wilson, and hoped I could do half of what they had done so far.
So I was admiring her and her achievements, and she was reflecting on the past, in a place that made her think of failure. This is a prime example, to me, of the way in which others’ perceptions of us are so very different from our own.
Read this essay. Of course, you’ll have a different reaction to it—most of you never went to the UW (it strikes me as appropriate that the one place she found comfort is a place all students seem to find comfort at the UW, on the Union Terrace). But anyone who reads this piece will sense the power in it, and perhaps find a bit of hope for themselves.
Reynolds, Alastair, “The Six Directions of Space,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martins Press, 2009. I thought about this story for days after I finished it. So many concepts combined with a whiz-bang plot and some marvelous characters. I’m glad space opera has come back into fashion—and that Reynolds is one of its chief practitioners.
Wendell, Sarah & Tan, Cindy, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Fireside, 2009. For those of you who read romances and aren’t at least glancing at Tan and Wendell’s blog, www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com, remedy that now! They write great, insightful work about romances, out of love and affection, but with a whole lot of snark.
They know how ridiculous it is to sit in public and read a book with someone undressing someone else on the cover, and yet still expect to be taken seriously. They explain the covers, discuss trends, look at the history of romance, and take on the controversies. They’ve even started a few controversies themselves.
If you’ve never read romance, pick up this book as an introduction. They list writers they like and why. They talk about what’s good and what’s bad, and why bad is sometimes good. As a romance reader, I love this. As a science fiction and mystery reader, I wish someone would do this for those genres. But it won’t be me. I don’t have the cast-iron balls that Wendell and Tan do. But I sure can enjoy reading everything they write.