In April, I deliberately read books that I thought wouldn’t suck me in (because the novel I was writing at the time wouldn’t let me get involved in other works, jealous novel that it was). As a result, my recommended reading list for April was unbelievably short.
I more than made up for that in May, despite the fact that I was teaching a very intensive mystery workshop for professional writers. Those writers each produced 20,000+ words of fiction during that week. The stories in that workshop alone were better than almost anything I read in April. Those twelve writers hit everything out of the park, and I can’t wait to see the stories/novels in print.
But I’ll have to wait to recommend them because you can’t find them yet. (Note to editors: buy those stories!) However, you can find the works below. I read so many good books and essays and articles that I felt overwhelmed by the riches before me. What a month! As I write this (on June 1), I’m midway through three other books I will recommend, with two more in the queue that I expect to love. Let’s hope the next novel isn’t as jealous as the novel I was finishing in April…
Callahan, Michael, “Sorority On E. 63rd Street,” Vanity Fair, April, 2010. This article had a personal fascination for me. The article, about the Barbizon on 63rd and Lexington Avenue in New York City, gave me a window into my own past. In December of 1990, I took my first solo trip to New York, and asked my then-agent where I should stay. He recommended the Barbizon Hotel. The rooms were tiny, but the lobby was impressive, and the restaurant was good. The neighborhood was better. I felt safe there—and NYC in 1990 wasn’t the safest city in the world (the Port Authority Terminal scared the bejesus out of me—and that was my introduction to the city).
All I knew about the Barbizon was that it had once been a hotel for women, but was now co-ed. When I mentioned the hotel, my mother told me that my former sister-in-law stayed there when she went to an upscale finishing school in the city. So I imagined my beloved former sister-in-law, who had been in my life since I was two, wander those tiny hallways, and I wondered if she had had my room.
I didn’t know that Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen, Joan Crawford, Phyllis Diller, Ali McGraw, and Sylvia Plath (among others) had stayed there as well, back when they were young as I was and as frightened of the city as I was and as green behind the ears as I was. I wish I had known. It might have made me feel better.
This article tells the history of the Barbizon—which is no more. Brought back a lot of memories for me, and a question. Did my then-agent, a man of a certain age, still think the hotel was a dormitory for single women? I don’t know. But it would have been just like him to watch out for me, poor naïve dear that I was.
Chabon, Michael, “Diving into the Wreck,” Maps and Legends: Reading And Writing Along The Borderlands, Harper Perennial edition, 2009. I’m still reading the essay collection that contains “Diving into the Wreck,” so I don’t yet know if I’m going to recommend the entire book. If the other essays are like this one, I probably will. “Diving into the Wreck” is a marvelous essay on the process of writing. In particular, it’s a great essay about the process of writing a second novel, especially when the first came out to great acclaim.
Chabon went into his office with the weight of all that acclaim, the expectations of his readers, editor, and agent on his shoulders, and wrote—and rewrote—his second novel for five long years. Then, while it was still unfinished, he started a third novel and…oh, you’ll have to read this. But it’s worth the read. Particularly if you’ve read his novel The Wonder Boys (or seen the movie with Michael Douglas and Toby McGuire). Because there’s some autobiography in that story, and the autobiography gets explained here. Any writer interested in how other writers work needs to read this essay.
Chabon, Michael, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” Maps and Legends: Reading And Writing Along The Borderlands, Harper Perennial edition, 2009. Chabon got a lot more out of reading Holmes than I did, but in this essay, he managed to share his enthusiasm without going over the edge that topples some Holmes fans. The essay talks about the importance of Holmes to Chabon and to writing in general. It also explores the history of Conan Doyle and the stories themselves. A must-read for mystery fans, Holmes fans, and writers.
Chabon, Michael, “Kids’ Stuff,” Maps and Legends: Reading And Writing Along The Borderlands, Harper Perennial edition, 2009. Chabon, who wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is an unabashed comic book fan. This essay, first written as the keynote speech for the Eisner Awards Ceremony in 2004, is a call for comic book writers/artists/publishers to return to the days when comic books were written for kids. Not that Chabon wants comics to be dumbed down; he doesn’t. But his complaint in this essay about comics is the same as mine has been about book-length science fiction. We have lost the entry level works into our own genre. He makes a strong case for “kids’ stuff” comic books, written from the perspective of someone who adores comic books. It’s a manifesto worth reading.
Denby, David, “Out of the West,” The New Yorker, March 8, 2010. My March 8 issue of The New Yorker arrived deformed. Something happened in the printing process that pulled signatures (pages) out of order. When signatures are out of order, you get weird pagination like 59, 26, 27, 62. And the problems seemed to fall in the middle of this article. Once I got everything put into place, I read a fascinating piece on Clint Eastwood, and his influence on film.
I’d read a biography of Eastwood years ago, and didn’t get as much out of it as I got out of these 5,000 words. A great (if snobby) analysis of Eastwood’s contribution to American cinema. Also worthwhile for artists out there who are struggling to follow their own vision. Eastwood is a great example of someone who balances commercial and artistic. Good stuff.
Feige, David, Indefensible, Little, Brown, 2006. Indefensible is a stunningly written account of one day in the life of a public defender in the South Bronx. Feige is that defender, and he chose the career over many others, including being a defense attorney at a private firm. Terrifying for the horrors he deals with on a daily basis, but ultimately uplifting for the hope he still holds for humanity, Indefensible is one of the best books I’ve read in years on the criminal justice system—its faults and its strengths. Highly recommended.
Goodman, Carol, Arcadia Falls, Ballantine, 2010. It’s no secret that I like Carol Goodman’s work. The fact that the books are falling into a formula—highly educated but down on her luck woman goes to a retreat/hidden school/academic program, discovers long-lost secrets, nearly dies, but reveals all in the end. Goodman writes modern Gothics—very little romance, lots of strong women, lots of discussion of literature, art, theater, history—and they work. These books are catnip for me, well written with great atmosphere, and excellent characters.
This time, she writes about a private high school in the made-up town of Arcadia Falls—where women occasionally fall to their deaths. Not a safe or secure place, but an interesting one. I liked the book enough to recommend it, although not as much as I liked her first The Lake of Dead Languages. Maybe I liked that one so much because it was my introduction to her work. If this is your introduction, you’ll enjoy it as well.
Lewis, Michael, “Betting on the Blind Side,” Vanity Fair, April 2010. Vanity Fair is doing the best writing on the financial crisis that led to our recession bar none. I’ve been reading essays in places from The New Yorker to The Washington Post and Forbes, and I’m getting the most fascinating, frightening, and insightful information out of Vanity Fair. Who knew?
This piece is an excerpt from Lewis’s book, The Big Short, which I have not read yet, about Michael Burry, a trader who figured out what was going to happen long before other “experts.” Fascinating and frightening doesn’t cover the financial part. It goes beyond both. Also interesting is Burry himself who happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome, and how that has benefited his career. Worth reading.
Paretsky, Sara, Hardball: A V.I. Warshawski Novel, Putnam, 2009. Hardball was my reward for successfully teaching a mystery writing workshop for professionals who want to move into mystery. Critical voice on high, I went into this novel defensively, much as I love Paretsky. And the opening was bumpy—I was afraid that I hadn’t remembered something from the previous book which I’d read years before. But nope, she started this one in exactly the right place, and didn’t rely on the previous book at all. It was my highly critical brain on alert that made the opening seem bumpy.
Once I was in, I stayed up all night to finish the damn thing. I had forgotten how much I love Paretsky’s work. Now I want her to write faster. I want more.
If you haven’t read Paretsky, Hardball might be a good place to start. The novel is relatively self-contained and has an incredible emotional pay-off. I loved it.
Seal, Mark, “Big Trouble at 11:35,” Vanity Fair, April, 2010. I expect Vanity Fair to do well with celebrity reportage. I also expect it to do well with upscale sleaze. (Not the financial stuff [see above] but this stuff) This article is like reading about a particularly riveting train wreck—the blackmail of David Letterman. Whatever made Joe Halderman go off the deep end? Who knows? But the behind-the-scenes stuff is page-turning.
Turow, Scott, Innocent, Grand Central, May, 2010. Let me state here and now that this is 7/8ths of the most brilliant book I’ve ever read. I was nearly to the end and I couldn’t figure out why the reviews of the book came in mixed. Now I know. One of three things happened: Turow rewrote too much and decided his original ending was “bad”; Turow had too many “advisors” in the mix, and they told him to back off his original idea; or Turow couldn’t face what he was about to put his characters through. I’m guessing it was #3. He didn’t have enough courage, as an author, to go the distance with this plot scenario.
So why, if the book is flawed, am I recommending it to you? Because it is 7/8ths of the most brilliant book I’ve ever read. Just because it’s not the most brilliant book I’ve ever read doesn’t mean it fails. It’s still a spectacular novel, just not as good as it originally promised to be.
What the novel actually is, once you get passed the missed opportunity, is a meditation on growing older. I think it’s no coincidence that the book begins with Presumed Innocent’s protagonist, Rusty Sabich, turning sixty. Twenty years have passed since Presumed Innocent, and everyone’s lives have changed because of the events of that book, although some lives haven’t changed enough.
If you haven’t read Presumed Innocent, you must read it before Innocent. You’re in for a treat. Presumed Innocent is the book that began the modern legal thriller genre, and it’s a hell of a ride. Innocent isn’t a ride—Turow hasn’t written a ride since Presumed Innocent—but Innocent is still a page-turner, keeping me up all night during a week when I actually needed the sleep. The mystery is good, the characters excellent, the insights superb.
If you read Presumed Innocent twenty years ago and still remember it, I’d recommend that you not reread it. Twenty years have passed in book-time as well as real life, and the events fade to memories, which is how they are in Innocent as well. Turow does so many things right here that it’s a primer on how to write a mystery novel. Because that’s what this is. Not a legal thriller. A mystery novel. Something that looks at life as it is, and as we want it to be. Maybe that’s what he was going for. Because life is never as neatly wrapped up as a thriller would have you believe. Pick up the book. It’s very good.