Recommended Reading List December 2009
I read a lot in December. Sadly, much of it wasn’t memorable. I checked my calendar (where I record what I read) to see if I had missed anything for the list—and was startled to see books that I barely remembered reading one week later.
I’m also doing some very dishy research, so I’m reading a lot of salacious downmarket books from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I’ve about had it with exclamation points!Yes! Honestly! That’s true! I do feel like a gossip maven, even though everyone I have gossip about is dead…
Here are the few memorable books I read in December.
Bray, Libba, A Great and Terrible Beauty, Delacorte, 2003. Oh, how times change. I put off reading this book a dozen times because the early back cover copy did not mention the supernatural. In fact, I kept confusing the book with the Luxe series, partly because of the cover.
I missed a marvelous treat. This is a gothic novel, the good old-fashioned kind. Only without the dark brooding hero. Gemma Doyle grows up in India, but when her mother gets murdered, Gemma moves to England and goes to a boarding school that makes Hogwarts look gimicky. Wonderful scary stuff, much of it to do with trust (but isn’t that what all Gothics are about?). Highly recommended.
Brenner, Marie, “Anatomy of a Siege,” Vanity Fair, November, 2009. A long article about the terrorist take-over of the Mumbai hotels in 2008, which is also called India’s 9/11. Brenner also deals with the aftermath—what happened in Indian culture because of those events. Terrible stuff and oddly fascinating because of the cultural differences between the U.S. and India.
There were, of course, pockets of heroism—things we didn’t hear as this siege occurred. Some amazing quick-thinking people managed to save many lives. Fascinating, frightening stuff, about the new century that we all live in.
Buckley, Christopher, Losing Mum and Pup, Kindle edition, 2009. Christopher Buckley is the son of William F. Buckley. Christopher is also a wonderful satirist, whose fiction I’ve enjoyed immensely. I also liked his father’s spy novels as well as his columns, even though William F. and I almost never agreed.
I read an excerpt of this book in Vanity Fair, and realized I had to read the entire thing. Buckley’s parents were famous—both of them. His mother was a famous socialite, and his father was, of course, William F. This book isn’t so much about them as it is about losing our parents. Christopher’s died within a year of each other, a harrowing year for him, since he was an only child.
His writing is conflicted and honest. His mother sounded a lot like mine—a woman who never could quite tell the truth about anything. Only Christopher figured that out about his mother at a young age; I didn’t figure that out about mine until I was in my thirties. (He says this tendency of hers inspired him to write fiction. Hm, wonder if that happened to me as well.) It’s the first time I’d ever encountered anyone else with a mother who had a loose relationship with the truth, and that part of the book alone was spellbinding for me.
But on the merits and not on the personal side, this book is very well done. Heartbreaking and funny. The e-mails he sent out during one of his father’s illnesses were wonderful. Since I’ve been getting a lot of e-mail updates lately about sick close friends, I’m (unfortunately) gaining an appreciation for the form, and Buckley’s were interesting, sad, frightened, and funny.
If you’ve ever lost someone close—or even if you haven’t—this is the book for you.
Cach, Lisa, “Puddings, Pastries, and Thou,” Wish List, Leisure, 2003. I have no idea where I got this anthology, which also features Lisa Kleypas, Claudia Dain, and Lynsay Sands, but I read it for two reasons: First, I’m still puttering through my Kleypas binge, and second, I always read a Christmas romance anthology over the holidays.
I have to say, though, that I really hated the design of this book. It doesn’t do what romance anthologies (heck, all anthologies) should, which is point you to the authors’ other work. In fact, the stories themselves have no byline. You have to look at the table of contents to see who wrote what.
The Cach story was a nice surprise. I’ve probably read two dozen such anthologies over the years and the stories are often sweet but predictable. This one wasn’t predictable. I’ve discovered Mary Balogh through such an anthology, and now I’ll seek out other work by Cach.
This is a witty story of a down-and-out woman whose immediate family was dead and who depends on the kindness of her distant relations. Only they stuck her with an elderly woman who had either dementia or Alzeheimers (of course, the story doesn’t say since it’s set in Regency England). She was the 24/7 caretaker, and she barely had time for herself. She also barely got enough to eat.
When the story begins, our heroine Vivian has just moved in with another set of distant relatives, and must contend with a jealous 17-year-old who is about to debut. I’m all set for a Mean Girls story—the 17-year-old doesn’t want to share her glory days with a lesser cousin—but the story doesn’t work that way.
The 17-year-old does set Vivian up with a seemingly undesirably hero, who is a bad influence not because he’s a rake or an alcoholic, but because…well, let me simply say that it has to do with morals that no longer exist. He had done something honorable in our world, but dishonorable in theirs.
The entire story centers around the feasts over the holiday, and Cach delineates them with loving care. It’s pretty clear that Vivian will go from being a bony distant relation to a fat lord’s wife, and we’re cheering for her the whole way.
And the story made me hungry for pastries. Enough said.
Esquire Staff, “The Language of Men,” Esquire, November, 2009. An utterly fun series of articles about words—particularly words men should and shouldn’t use. The best part is “The Esquire Lexicon: Common Words to Use More Often, Words to Discard And Suggested Usage” which includes things like “sweet” about which they say “Only when talking about food.” (It also comes with a chart: Biblical Figures Who Can Be Invoked as “Sweet” If Need Be.) Or “bro” about which they say simply, “No.” The list of profanity alternatives is also fun, but not nearly creative enough, imho. Click the link above and have a good laugh. (In fact, you can click the link on most if not all of the mentioned articles in the Recommended Reading sections of my blog and find the article.)
Hogan, Michael, “Our Man Dominick,” Vanity Fair, November, 2009. A tribute to Vanity Fair’s late columnist, Dominick Dunne, who died in August. I loved Dunne’s work and was sorry to hear about his death. This tribute is both heartfelt and honest, talking about the man that the editors of the magazine worked with for two decades.
Dunne himself was amazing. He wrote six novels, a few nonfiction books, and hundreds of articles for Vanity Fair including 67 monthly diary enteries (or columns) in the eight years after he had been diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed him which was, as Hogan says, “a remarkable feat for a man in his 70s and 80s writing for a magazine that comes out only twelve times per year.”
Dunne didn’t even begin writing until he had a great personal and public collapse as a Hollywood producer at the age of 50. He was just getting his feet underneath him when his daughter Dominique was murdered. He had been searching for justice ever since.
Take a peek at this article for a fascinating glimpse of a working writer, and an odd one in that Dunne didn’t mind celebrity. In fact, he courted it. Amazing how many fascinating influential people we lost in 2008. Dunne was one of them.
Holden, Anthony, Behind The Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards, 1993. This book is obviously dated—it’s nearly 20 years old!—and I was reading it as research for another project. On the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, it’s unreliable, particularly when Holden talks about the way that Spielberg will always be too tainted to win an Oscar, and how Julia Roberts is a passing fad. But on the history of the Oscars itself, this book is marvelous fun. He covers the voting scandals from the awards’ 1920s inception to the modern era, and the 1930s stuff is particularly nasty fun. Worth picking up if you can find an old copy. Ignore his predictions and read about the past.
Kamp, David, “Norman Rockwell’s American Dream,” Vanity Fair, November 2009. Wow, did I learn a lot about Norman Rockwell while reading this article. I’ve always liked Rockwell, something my “cultured” friends tried to make me ashamed of. Kamp explains why Rockwell was considered “lowbrow” and how that’s changing. But even more importantly, he talks about what makes Rockwell’s work so striking.
However, in that a picture is worth 1000 words category, what makes this article work are the paintings side by side with the photographic studies he used to help him paint the paintings. The first that you see, After the Prom, stopped me cold. The photograph that he took is very, very similar to the painting—the models he used greatly resemble the painted figures and they’re in a similar position. But the painting is alive. It just jumps off the page, where the photograph is static and clearly posed.
I showed this to Dean and what he said as he looked at it, as stunned as I was, was, “The painting tells a story.” Indeed it does. And more than that, the figures aren’t figures. They’re characters in that story, with an agenda, and opinions, and goals. Amazing, amazing work, which makes me want to buy the Rockwell books he discusses in the article—which has to be part of the point.
Mockenhaupt, Brian, “We’ve Seen The Future And It’s Unmanned,” Esquire, November 2009. A behind-the-scenes look at unmanned drones that are doing much of the fighting for us in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not a political article at all—just informational, and utterly fascinating. It reminds me of “Ender’s Game,” Orson Scott Card’s award-winning short story, first published in Omni nearly thirty years ago. For once, science fiction did predict the future—and it’s…well…wow.
Putney, Mary Jo, Loving a Lost Lord, Kensington, 2009. Mary Jo Putney is back, writing straight historicals. She has an interesting set of four men who are not your typical Regency heroes. She starts with Adam, who suffers amnesia in a shipping accident. This is physiologically correct amnesia—it’s temporary, and it slowly eases in the proper manner—which makes it all that much more interesting. My only quibbles with the novel (MJ!) is that the ship was named Enterprise and our hero has a valet named Wharf. As a Star Trek writer, this threw me out of the story every time. But most folks will appreciate the homage, if they catch it at all. Pick it up before the next in the series appears in the spring.
Stewart, James B., “Eight Days,” The New Yorker, September 21, 2009. It’s not often that a real life event that I’m reading about, an event that I’ve lived through, scares the living daylights out of me. But this article, which details the week in September of 2008 during which Bernanke, Paulson & Geithner among others worked to prevent a global financial collapse, scared the bejesus out of me.
I knew at the time that a lot was happening behind the scenes. I also knew that almost everyone who was reporting this story knew nothing about a) history or b) finances, so much of what they said was utterly clueless, based on the tidbits coming out of Treasury. But I knew things were bad. We all knew things were bad. I just didn’t know how bad.
The article goes through that time detail by detail, fact by fact, in a magazine known for its factcheckers. (Unlike so many others these days.) And I read with horror—and a great appreciation for the attempt at saving things. Time will tell if they were truly successful, but it seems like they were.
The other thing that struck me as I read this—and has been striking me over and over in the past year—is an assumption of mine that’s finally been debunked. For some reason, I expected that “adults,” meaning the people in charge, knew something I didn’t know. That assumption made sense when I was 16. In fact, it was true then. But it started to get shaken when Bill Clinton was elected, got rocked when George W. Bush was president, and got shattered when Barack Obama—who is two years younger than I am—got elected. I know what I don’t know now. I know he doesn’t know it either. And neither does Sonya Sotomayor, who just joined the Supreme Court. In her photos from high school and college, she has the same hairdo I had at that time. Because we’re the same age. I have finally, finally realized that we’re all guessing and doing our best. This article simply reinforces that. (And a part of me wants my old assumption back. Now.)