November 2010 Recommended Reading List

free nonfiction On Writing Recommended Reading

Even though I extol the virtues of electronic books, there’s still something to be said for going to the bookstore.  I picked up the Barrowcliffe below because it was on Powells Books (airport) recommended shelf.  I found half a dozen books in stores this week that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

I read a lot in November, but much of it was newspapers and research materials. When I did read books, they were thick and dense.  One (recommended below) made me read slowly for 700 pages.  I loved what I read, but it took some reading time away from other things.

Still, in November, I found a lot of literature to love.  Here’s what I believe is worth recommending:

November, 2010

Barrowcliffe, Mark
, The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange, Soho, 2010.  Hmmm.  As I type the title, I think, “Shouldn’t that be The Elvish Gene?”  Which tells you where I fall on the geek spectrum.

The Elfish Gene is, as of the moment I type this, November 15, 2010, my book of the year so far.  Mark Barrowcliffe wrote a memoir about being a geeky teenager in the 1970s.  Even though he grew up in England and I grew up in Wisconsin, we have a lot in common.  I found myself nodding in recognition all the time.

What I didn’t expect when I picked up this book was that it would endear itself to me.  Nor did I expect to find it funny.  Yes, yes, I know.  The Christian Science Monitor told me this book is “Laugh-out-loud funny.”  Or it would have if I bothered to read the quote above the title of the book.  I tend not to read those.  Nor do I pay attention to anything that says I’ll laugh out loud when I read.  I don’t laugh like that when I read.

Or at least I haven’t until I read this book.  In fact, at one point, I laughed so hard I couldn’t keep reading because my eyes filled with tears.  The scene was an absolute knee-slapper. And no, I won’t spoil it for you, except to say it involves fireballs and a teenage boy with a too-active imagination.  Another scene involving a laundry hamper is damn near as funny.

Other sequences are a bit cringe-worthy, but only because I was a teenager once and I remember exactly how those moments feel.  Kudos to Barrowcliffe for his honesty and his willingness to explore all of the awkwardness and wonder of being not quite an adult.

Read this book.  Even if you never played D&D.  Even if you weren’t a geek.  Even if you weren’t a teenager in the 1970s.  It’s wonderful, endearing and charming—and yes, laugh-out-loud funny.

Brande, Robin, Fat Cat, Knopf, 2009.  Cat is fat.  She eats to feel better, only it makes her feel worse.  Cat is also a serious science geek, and as part of her honors science class, she decides to experiment on herself. She’s going to cut out as much of modern life as possible, and that includes processed foods.  You know where this is going.  Cat loses weight. But she also learns what she likes about modern life.

Put that way, the book seems like a crushing bore.  It isn’t. It’s a fascinating look at modern culture through the eyes of a heroine we can empathize with.  Except for one (somewhat) preachy section in the middle, this book flew along.  Because it’s all about perception and science and understanding and relationships.

Both of Robin Brande’s young adult books have been about science.  I love that about them.  It gives her a unique voice and a perspective I don’t find often outside of science fiction.  Worth the read.

Crusie, Jennifer, “ ‘You Think This Is Hard? Try Being An Antagonist, That’s Hard,’” Filled With Glee, edited by Leah Wilson, Smart Pop Books, 2010.  If you don’t watch Glee, this essay won’t make much of an impression on you.  If you do watch Glee, and you’re a writer or a studier of literature, then read this essay.  It’s about Glee’s antagonist, Sue Sylvester, and in addition to being a lovely article about that character (and Jane Lynch, who plays her to perfection), it’s also a marvelous essay about how to write successful, memorable antagonists.  I learned a few things, and I thought I knew a lot about being a villain.

Ephron, Nora, “I Remember Nothing,” I Remember Nothing And Other Reflections, Knopf, 2010.  The title essay in Nora Ephron’s new collection of essays hits too close to the mark for me.  She talks about all the things she should remember and doesn’t.  Things that would have had significance—probably did have significance—at one time.  I love her slightly skewed perspective (she remembers where she was standing at the Beatles’s 1964 performance on Ed Sullivan, but not the performance itself), and her wry voice which really comes out in this piece.

Ephron, Nora, I Remember Nothing And Other Reflections, Knopf, 2010. As you can probably tell from the essays I’ve singled out here, I loved this book and blew through it quickly.  Not that it was hard to do. The book was very short.  But I enjoyed it.  Some essays were funny and fluffy.  Others had that wry tone that Ephron often gets, the one that makes you laugh at yourself ruefully, regretfully, and with complete understanding.  Considering the price, you might want to wait until this slim volume comes out in trade paper.  Then scoop it up.

Ephron, Nora, “Journalism: A Love Story,” I Remember Nothing And Other Reflections, Knopf, 2010. Nora Ephron captured the romance of journalism for those of us raised in one of its heydays. She’s 19 years older than I am, but somehow I absorbed the same attitudes she did.  (Only her ex-husband also had an influence on me: all of us young writers wanted to be either Carl Bernstein [without the drugs] or Bob Woodward, and bring down a president.)  She’s quite clear about the New York journalism world in the 1960s, about its ups and its downs, as well as the sexism she faced as a female college grad who wanted to write.  She eventually got her wish, through the auspices of another woman who had survived those tough times.  I particularly love the closing quote about New York:

“I’d known since I was a child that I was going to live in New York eventually, and that everything in-between would be just an intermission. I’d spent all those years imagining what New York was going to be likeI thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live; a place where if you really wanted something you might be able to get it; a place where I would be surrounded by people I was dying to know; a place where I  might become the only thing worth being, a journalist.

“And I turned out to be right.”

Ephron, Nora, “The Legend,” I Remember Nothing And Other Reflections, Knopf, 2010. Whenever I read Ephron, I feel like we are kindred souls. Some of that is simply because she’s a good writer.  But some of it is her point of view. And I’m beginning to understand why:  We both had alcoholic parents.

I am sixteen years younger than my closest sibling.  My siblings, who are Ephron’s age, had different parents than I did.  Theirs were active, engaged, and functional. Mine were bitter, disillusioned, and difficult.  The same people at different ages.  In this essay, Ephron discusses having alcoholic parents who tell marvelous stories—like mine did.  In fact, my parents had oddly similar lives to her parents, even though hers were famous screenwriters in Los Angeles and mine were a professor and a housewife in Wisconsin.  We had the same routines, the same expectations—and Ephron had the same shock my siblings did.  Her mother “became an alcoholic overnight” when Ephron was fifteen.  (Really, that’s when her mother ceased to be functional.)  The reactions Ephron has to all of this, particularly separating lies from truth, is the core of this essay.

It’s spot-on.  And worth the price of the book.

Gladwell, Malcolm, “Small Change,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2010.  I’m not sure I always agree with Malcolm Gladwell’s conclusions, but his arguments are always interesting.  Something set him off here—the whole idea that social networks made revolution more likely—and he wrote a long piece disproving that hypothesis.  Given what I know about the Civil Rights movement, and the other historical movements he talks about, I’m inclined to agree with him.

But his dismissal of the uses of social media in the context of revolution sound a bit like a cranky old man who woke up in the future.  I think his analysis is a bit too black and white.

Whether or not I agree, I did find myself ruminating on this piece for days.  It’s certainly worth a look, which is why I’m mentioning it here.

Griffin, Anna, “No Whining On The Yacht,” The Oregonian, November 24, 2010.  Great little column about attitude.  It made me laugh out loud more than once.  Plus its characterization of Portland, Oregon, is absolutely right.  Enjoy.

Haung, Yunte, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History, W.W. Norton & Co., Kindle Edition, 2010.  Fascinating book about perception, written by a native of China who now lives in the United States.  Huang likes the Charlie Chan books and felt guilty about it because Charlie Chan was considered racist.  Haung tries, in some ways, to rehabilitate the character—showing that, unlike Fu Manchu, Chan is a hero whose wit and wisdom solves cases.

Haung also puts Chan into the context of his time, pointing out what an unusual character he is to have become a hero in the 1920s, when anti-Chinese laws went into effect, a period of time when anti-immigrant, anti-outsider racism was at one of its peaks.

Haung also found the inspiration for Charlie Chan, a detective in Hawaii named Chang Apana. A little man who used a bullwhip instead of a gun, Apana was one of the most decorated men on the police force.  He was also Chinese, didn’t read a word of English, and broke some of the biggest cases in the islands at the time.  He’s as fascinating, or more fascinating, than the history of Charlie Chan.

Still, this slim book is quite wonderful.  Filled with all kinds of analysis, from historical to literary; filled with anecdotes about a time long gone; filled with movie lore, both American and Chinese, Charlie Chan is one of those books you want to share with everyone you meet, whether they’re a mystery fan or not, whether they’ve heard of Charlie Chan or not.

Houston, Pam, “Mad Women,” More Magazine, October 2010.  A wonderful essay about mood changes that women experience as they get older.  Houston, who wrote one of my favorite short story collections (Cowboys Are My Weakness), is one of those women who prided herself on being very controlled and reasonable.  Suddenly, she found herself getting angry—not without cause.  She would lash out, and be shocked and surprised.

I recognize the emotion.  Not because I’m getting older (though I am) but because I’ve always reacted that way.  I’m not one of those calm, controlled women.  The things she said to her rude students in her creative writing class are things I would have said, had the situation gotten that bad.  Of course, the situation would never have gotten that bad in my class; I long ago decided that blunt was best.  My students have never been that far out of line—because they know they can’t compete with my rather quick tongue.

“Mad Women” is a fun essay, and one I identify with.

Moody, Rick, “Tweets About The Future,” Publishers Weekly, October 25, 2010.  Earlier this year, Rick Moody wrote a short story for Electric Literature.  His story was published 140 characters at a time, on Twitter. This is a short essay about that experience and the future of literature. Good, fun, and fascinating.  (Each paragraph, btw, is 140 characters long.)

Oates, Joyce Carol, “I.D.”, The New Yorker, March 29, 2010.  So I was going through my to-read pile and I found this old New Yorker.  I read New Yorkers relatively fast—within a month or two—and I couldn’t figure out how I missed this one.

Then I remembered I had set it aside to read the Joyce Carol Oates story.  I’m glad I did.  “I.D.” is a dark story about a young girl whose family is falling apart, whose life is falling apart.  The story is close-in—you’re living inside this girl—which is a technique that Oates has mastered.  You both understand the girl and have compassion for her. And you know what she won’t allow herself to know.

Impressive story from an impressive writer.  I’m hoping someone picks it up for a year’s best.

Pears, Iain, An Instance of the Fingerpost, Berkley Books, 1999.  I’m such  a contrary soul.  For more than ten years, my friends have told me to read this book because I would “love it.”  Well, I tend not to do anything anyone tells me to, especially if they tell me what my opinion will be beforehand.  So somewhere along the way, someone gave me a copy of the book.  And the other night, I wandered over to the unread books on my shelf and grabbed the copy.

First, let me confess that I’m dyslexic and my survival mechanism has been to see words as pictures not as a combination of letters.  So for eleven years, I have read the title of this book to be An Incident of the Fingerprint which, for a book set in 1663 England, is quite an unusual (and impossible) title.  Needless to say that when I actually look at the real title, I was much more interested.

The title is not explained until 200 pages from the end, at which point it becomes the heart of the book. But I get ahead of myself.

This book is a mystery kinda sorta.  It’s an historical novel, in truth, and an excellent one.  The book tells the same story from four different points of view and instead of using those points of view to alternate chapters, it uses them one at a time.  So each section is a new point of view, which often contradicts the previous point of view.

Wonderfully, each point of view’s contradiction has its roots in the original manuscript.  So at one point, when a character says he doesn’t understand why someone would shave his head to wear a wig, then later mentions that he wears a wig—which bothered me, but didn’t stop me—the later explanation of that man’s opinions make complete and utter sense.

Not only is the story good and so are the viewpoints, but also, the history is wonderful.  The book is set just after the Restoration in England at the beginning of the Enlightenment, so we have science and scientific method mixed with superstition, Puritans and English Protestantism mixed with Catholicism mixed with mysticism, Oxford—not London—and on and on and on.  Fascinating stuff.  The only thing I missed was a female point of view, but that’s a tiny, tiny exception to a book I enjoyed immensely.

So, my friends, you were right.  Just give me the book next time and don’t tell me how much I’ll like it.  I’ll read it sooner.

Raab, Scott, “Philip Roth Goes Home Again,” Esquire, October, 2010.  The most amusing thing about this article is that the writer, Scott Raab, got what my husband calls “the gosh-wows” over Philip Roth, and admits it throughout.  It was probably an uncomfortable interview for Roth, who took Raab back to Roth’s boyhood home, but it’s an interesting one about a writer who has had a long-term career.  Most interesting to me is the section that begins with the question: “Has writing gotten any easier?”  Roth’s answer is fascinating, complex, and a bit of a surprise.  Check it out.

6 thoughts on “November 2010 Recommended Reading List

  1. My impression has always been that the Charlie Chan novels are like Uncle Tom’s Cabin — the books thmselves are progressive for their time, but they’ve been tarnished by later adaptations — minstrel shows for UTC, and the films with white guys in yellow face and dentures for Chan. The Chan movies are frustrating because they feature the most heroic non-white character in a Hollywood film before Sidney Potier came along, yet they had to go and screw it up.

    1. That’s part of his point, Sean. The historical stuff in the book is quite cool, but so is the literary analysis. And he doesn’t just analyze the U.S., but China as well. It’s really fascinating.

  2. Kris, I think “The Elfish Gene” is making reference to Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” which, if it is, just makes me want to read it even more. =)

  3. I always look forward to your reading list. It’s varied and your reviews include pieces of you in them that add a flavor of personal that makes me look forward to each one. “I.D.” was brilliantly and vividly heartbreaking. “Tweets About The Future” was another favorite, I felt Moody hit the nail on the head when he says that the “reading public” will always want to read stories and uses this line to describe them:
    “who are hungry, despite the gloom and doom, the apocalyptic anxiety, for stories, and for the pathos and the drama thereof.”

    He’s so right, reading stories is my “Calgon…” moments of my day.

    “The Elfish Gene…” is on my to-read list. I have a thing for endearing, funny geeks that grew up in the 70’s. I shall name no names.

    Happy New Year Kris!

    1. Thanks, Jen. For a while, I didn’t think anyone was reading the RR list, and then I looked up my stats. I was quite surprised! I’m glad you’re enjoying them. I agree with Moody too. I hope you like The Elfish Gene. It is still my favorite book of the year. 🙂

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