July 2010 Recommended Reading
I’m sorry I’m so late in posting this. August was a busy month, and this promises to be an active September. But I thought I should keep you updated on the Recommended Reading….
My months seem to vacillate between great and crappy when it comes to reading. I read a lot in July, including some wonderful student manuscripts (buy these, you editor types). But when it came to actual published books…sigh. The best word I have for most of them is dull.
In fact, one book was so dull, I quit halfway through. I told Dean the next time I picked up a hardcover by that author, he was to hold an intervention, by reminding me that I hadn’t finished the last four of her hardcovers. This from an author I’ve been reading for 20 years. At first, I thought it was me, but I talked to several friends about it, and they’re having the same reaction to her fiction. Apparently she’s forgetting that books should have some conflict in them. <sigh>
Another favorite author wrote a passable book about the Iraq war. I struggled through it, expecting it to improve. But if you follow the news, you would not be surprised by any of this book, including the part marked “The Secret.” Oh, except for the icky incest stuff that he just glosses over. Yuck.
So I’m complaining. But I read as many books in July as I read in June. I just don’t have hardly any to recommend. One more cranky note: Esquire’s redesigned website is utterly unsearchable. I can’t find any of the articles on it, and actually had to Google the Jacobs. That didn’t work with the Jones. So order the back issue. And because I’m feeling cranky, I’m not adding a link. (Ah, technology. I want it now…) However, I did find a link to the photographer, which is what I have below. You can find the issue (or essay, which is brilliant) on your own.
Bensen, Raymond, “Can The Cinematic Bond Ever Be The Literary Bond?”, James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007, edited by Glenn Yeffeth with Leah Wilson, BenBella Books, 2006. Bensen, who has written Bond novels, gives a history of James Bond the character here, and it’s utterly fascinating, particularly for writers. He tells how Ian Fleming struggled with Bond, and had difficulties with money, how the movie deals influenced the novels, and how some of the movie deals fell through. Bensen explains why the cinematic Bond had to be different from the literary Bond. If you’re a writer or a Bond lover, read this essay. You won’t regret it.
Bethke, Bruce, “James Bond: Now More Than Ever,” James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007, edited by Glenn Yeffeth with Leah Wilson, BenBella Books, 2006. Perhaps a more important pop culture essay before Daniel Craig’s Bond, Bethke’s essay still helps us understand why Bond matters, even when he’s an embarrassing relic of the Cold War. Fun, interesting, and a perfect end to a very good volume of essays.
Blumenfeld, Laura, “Up All Night,” The Washington Post, July 4, 2010. I almost never recommend newspaper articles, primarily because they date quickly. This article, like so often happens on Sunday, reads more like a magazine article. It’s long—3300 words (most newspaper stories are 600)—and fascinating.
Even though this article is about people within the Obama administration, it’s not about politics. Instead, it’s about the people who prepare the national security briefing for the president—everyone from the Attorney General to the National Counterterrorism Center Director. I know that people did similar work in all modern administrations.
What fascinates me is how hard the work is. After they finish the daily part of their jobs, they do this part. And frankly, reading about, sorting, contemplating all the various threats to the U.S. must be the hardest job of all. I have no idea how they manage to catch those four hours of sleep they seem to survive on.
Take a look. If you think being at the high end of government is easy, this article will change your mind.
Curtis, Jamie Lee, “Bye Bye Beauty: Memories of My Mother,” More Magazine, May, 2010. Toward the end of her life, actress Janet Leigh reminded me of my mother in her last few years. Both women were thin to the point of brittleness. Both women’s bodies radiated tension. Jamie Lee Curtis mention that Janet Leigh’s hands were always clenched. A candid photo of Leigh illustrates this, and that photo, more than any other, reminded me of my mother…and her constantly clenched fists.
There are other similiarities between the two women and I wondered for a while if that was why I liked this essay. But I don’t think so. The women were very different: Janet Leigh was married four times, the last happily. She had a decades-long career. She was a famous beauty. My mother married once, and my parents’ happiness came and went. Mother was a homemaker most of her life. She probably could have been a famous beauty in her youth, but no one discovered her the way that they discovered Leigh.
I think the fact that they were both tense, slight women allowed me to identify with the essay. But the fact that Curtis wrote from the perspective of an adult daughter trying to understand her mother was probably the thing that kept me in the article. I guess we all struggle with this, particularly if our parents are difficult people. The essay is wise and warm, worth reading.
Dreyer, Eileen, Barely A Lady, Forever, 2010. I’m so happy to see Eileen Dreyer’s books again. I love her work, whether she’s writing romantic suspense or category romances as Kathleen Korbel. In fact, her category, A Rose For Maggie is one of the best examinations of post-traumatic stress syndrome I’ve ever seen—and yes, it’s a romance. It’s so good that I recommended the book to a therapist friend of mine, who happened to hate romance (until she read it). Then she bought a dozen copies, and gave it to her clients with PTSD, to show them that you can recover and have a good life.
Anyway, Dreyer’s career got sidetracked by Hurricane Katrina. She wrote a wonderful romantic suspense novel set in New Orleans about a hurricane bearing down on the city—and the book premiered in hardcover in the summer of 2005. I don’t think there was ever a paperback. The book, prescient as it was, was too painful to read that year. (Fortunately, I read it before Katrina.)
So this book. It’s a departure for her. It’s historical romance. And I mean good old-fashioned historical romance. The kind with real historical details. The kind with a war that is a war. The kind with a plot, and characters who act like people in their time period. When I finished the book, I noticed that a few readers in their reviews complained that the characters were “not nice people” and I had an epiphany. That’s why I’ve been finding romance so dull lately. The characters are “nice” and there’s no real conflict.
Yep, the characters in Barely A Lady are flawed. Yep, our hero can be a bastard. Yep, our heroine made a singularly bad choice as she tried to save her own life. That’s how life is. And it provided tension and it makes this book a fascinating, unputdownable read.
I loved this novel. Buy it. Keep Eileen Dreyer writing books, because I want to read more.
Ebert, Roger, “Whole Lotta Cantin’ Going On,” Chicago Sun-Times blog, July 18, 2010. Fascinating short essay on the uses and purposes of criticism by a man who spent his life as a successful movie critic. Inspired by the varied reviews of the Christopher Nolan film, “Inception,” Ebert writes about why reviewers differ, and when that difference of opinion is useful, and when it is not.
What’s fascinating here is the tone of respect Ebert has not just for filmmakers but also for his colleagues. That respect is sometimes lacking in the newer film critics and used to be lacking in the blogosphere. As more and more people come online, however, that tone is shifting to something more constructive.
If you’re interested in what purpose a film critic sees in his work, take a look at this. Excellent stuff.
Jacobs, A. J., “How To Raise Men,” Esquire, June/July, 2010. The tagline for this article says it all: “I mean, a lot of us are dicks. So how do you make one who isn’t?” Lovely essay on fatherhood, raising boys, and how boys biologically differ from girls. (And it’s not just genitals, you people.) When the boy’s “Y-chromosome” kicks in, Jackobs writes, it’s a remarkable thing to see. He adds, “If anyone thinks gender is a purely social construct—as I once did—they should spend a few hours with my sons.” His line about how his sons try to stay quiet when his wife is sleeping just about had me rolling off my chair. Read this.
Jones, Chris, “The Madness of Men,” Esquire, June/July, 2010. Above I noted Jamie Lee Curtis’s tribute to her mother. Here is a very different tribute to the other parent. Chris Jones’s father counsels people in deep trouble, people who often rescue other people from their troubles. As children, Jones’s friends called his dad Dr. Death because of the pictures he often had in the house of horrors his clients had seen. What this man has heard, what he’s counselled people through, are worse than anything I can imagine. Yet he manages to keep his own equilibrium. A tremendous essay that I hope makes it into next year’s Best American Essays. Read this for a remarkable portrait of a remarkable man.
Lahr, John, “Master of Revels,” The New Yorker, May 3, 2010. Lahr used the occasion of a revival of “Promises, Promises” on Broadway as an excuse to write a piece about Neil Simon. I’ve read both of Simon’s memoirs, Rewrites and The Play Goes On, and still there were things in this essay that I either didn’t know or didn’t remember.
I particularly like this passage: “When [Simon] was writing his masterpiece ‘The Odd Couple’—which was turned into a movie and a TV series that ran from 1970-1975—Simon thought it was ‘a grim, dark play about two lonely men’ that ‘would probably be the end of my career.’” That passage again shows me something I know, but forget in context with my own work: A writer never understands what he’s writing—and never will.
Excellent piece on a superb writer, and on art in general.
McPhee, Martha, “Finding Love Over Lasagna: My Life in Recipes,” More Magazine, May, 2010. In the year before my mother died, I asked her to write down the family recipes. I’m glad I did; so many of them would have died with her otherwise. After her death, I sent copies to my sisters at their request. We all use the recipes, written in my mother’s spidery hand along with her short comments (“your favorite”; “Aunt Esther’s specialty”). I think about her whenever I open the notebook she wrote the recipes in.
I just never thought of recipes as a map of a life. But they are. I have dozens of recipes that are unique to me. Those, yes, which my sisters share, but also the recipes I’ve collected over the years from newspapers and magazines, pasted into my own notebook. A handful of recipes in my own hand. Some favorite, food-stained cookbooks. I could write a history of my life in recipes, and it would be a very different history than one I wrote about my writing career or one I wrote about my travels.
In this essay, Martha McPhee wrote a short history of her life in recipes. It’s lovely, and as you can tell from the above, clearly made me reflect. It’ll do the same for you. And—bonus!—it comes with recipes, so you can try some of the food she discusses.
Morefield, David, “So You Want to Be an Evil Genius: How To Avoid The Perrennial Mistakes of Would-Be Conquerers,” James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007, edited by Glenn Yeffeth with Leah Wilson, BenBella Books, 2006. Fortunately for James Bond (who according to Lawrence Watt-Evans, below, is something of an idiot), his opponents are really dumb. With luck, they won’t read Morefield’s essay, which advises everything from not hiring “the hot chick” because she’ll always fall for Bond to “do not kill your minions” before Bond does. Enough said. Go giggle your way through this one.
Quinn, Julia, To Sir Phillip, With Love, HarperCollins 2003. Somewhere in the mid-2000s, I got grumpy at romance novels for no apparent reason. I stopped reading some of my favorite authors again, for no apparent reason. I quit reading Julia Quinn’s delightful series about the Bridgertons, for no apparent reason. When I ran out of reading material one night, I picked up To Sir Phillip, remembered the Bridgertons, remembered why I liked Julia Quinn, and got back into her work.
Although Quinn’s novels are often humorous, they have a serious undertone. This one deals with post-partum depression, the cycle of child abuse, and learning how to love. Sounds like a downer. It’s not. And Sir Phillip’s children, twins, whose mother was never the same after they were born (and who committed suicide) are wonderful out-of-control monsters who need someone from a large family to understand them. Enter Eloise Bridgerton, a spinster not because she hasn’t had an opportunity to marry but because no one has measured up.
I loved this book, and will happily read the remaining Bridgerton novels—trying to scatter them out between the dark reading I’m doing for other things.
Robinson, Kim Stanley, “The Lucky Strike,” The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove with Martin H. Greenberg, Del Rey, 2001. I had heard about this story for years, and had never had the chance to read it. It’s solid alternate history about the flight to drop the first nuclear bomb over Japan. At first, I wasn’t sure how the story would end up being alternate. Then it became clear.
The story also did what good alternate history does. It made me question—especially Truman and our generals, and why they picked the particular target that they did. Yes, it’s a political story, and yes, it’s worth reading, just to get you to think. Top notch.
Roberts, Adam, “‘An Englishman’s Word is His Bond’: Is Bond English?” James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007, edited by Glenn Yeffeth with Leah Wilson, BenBella Books, 2006. This is my favorite essay in the volume as I detailed in a blog post on the Smart Pop website. Go look there for the long version. The short version—I found this essay full of fun surprises. It’s memorable, well written, and—you guessed it—thought-provoking.
Steele, Allen, “The Death of Captain Future,” The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove with Martin H. Greenberg, Del Rey, 2001. First, let me simply say that this story had no business being in a book marked “alternate history.” The story is not in any way alternate history. I’m going to do something here that I normally don’t do: If you want to buy this anthology because it has “the best alternate history stories of the 20th century,” don’t waste your money. The book has mostly stories from 1980 on, and most don’t qualify, in my mind, as alternate history at all.
However, and this is a major “however,” if you like good fiction, go ahead and buy the volume. There are lots of good stories here, including the Ward Moore I mentioned last month. “The Death of Captain Future” is one of those good stories, definitely worth reading.
I missed “The Death of Captain Future” when it first came out because I simply did not have the time to read it. I was editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction at the time, and Allen didn’t send the story to me first (dammit). The story won the Hugo, deservedly so. It’s a space opera tale about a man who likes the old pulp heroes, and wants to model himself after them. Only he’s unpleasant and difficult and—well, it’s a marvelous story, and I suggest you find a copy wherever and whenever you can.
Vukcevich, Ray, “Over Here,” Boarding Instructions, Fairwood Press, 2010. Ray Vukcevich has long been an unsung Great American Writer. Only a few of us seem to know how wonderful he is. And as wonderful a writer as he is, rarely does anyone label his fiction “heartbreaking,” and “moving.” Generally, his work is considered weird or odd or intellectually intriguing; often it’s just plain amusing.
But “Over Here” is utterly brilliant. A heartbreaking story of war and the results of war, told through music and imaginary friends. Ray Vukcevich’s work is always good; “Over Here” goes beyond good to excellent.
Watt-Evans, Lawrence, “Chinks in the Armor: James Bond’s Critical Mistakes,” James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007, edited by Glenn Yeffeth with Leah Wilson, BenBella Books, 2006. When looked at from a cold, clear eye, Bond—James Bond—is an idiot. And Lawrence Watt-Evans points out why, in a very funny if politically incorrect essay. For a while this was online on the Smart Pop website. Check to see if it still is.
Yeffeth, Glenn with Leah Wilson, James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007, BenBella Books, 2006. This collection of essays came out before Daniel Craig’s first Bond film which makes it a little incomplete (not that you can fault a book for being ahead of its time). Other than that, I found this to be one of the best Smart Pop books I’ve read.
BenBella has published Smart Pop books, essays about popular culture, for about ten years now. I’ve written for a few of the books, and I’ve read more than my share. This is one of the few that I’ve enjoyed from cover to cover. All of the essays are good. Some are lighthearted fun and some have excellent analysis about Bond and his iconic role in our culture. I’ve listed some of the best essays individually, but I recommend the entire book.
Zettel, Sarah, “Covalent Bonds,” James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007, edited by Glenn Yeffeth with Leah Wilson, BenBella Books, 2006. This essay had me from the line: “Every time a new [James Bond] movie comes out, my inner adolescent smacks down my outer feminist, and we all buy a ticket, grab a tub of popcorn, and enjoy.” Yep. Me too. Zettel discusses the two Bonds in a completely different way than Bensen does. Bensen gives us the history; Zettel tells us why one is more enjoyable than the other, even from a politically correct position. Well done.