December 2010 Recommended Reading List

free nonfiction On Writing Recommended Reading

I know, I know.  I read the Christmas stories before Christmas, to prep myself for the season, but I’m telling you about them here. Ah, well.  Buy the issues/books now and save the stories for next year….

As you can tell from the list, I went on a short story binge in December. For some reason I hadn’t read a lot of short fiction in 2010—and I started to make up for it in the last month of the year.  I even abandoned novels that I was enjoying to read more short fiction.  I’m sure I’ll get back to the novels soon enough.

All in all, December was a great way to close out the reading year.  I enjoyed much of what I read.  Here’s what I recommend:

December, 2010

Bear, Elizabeth, “Dolly,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, January 2011.  A fine mystery story set in a somewhat creepy future. The story is filled with ethical dilemmas.  I’d love to see this world expanded into a novel, in which Bear doesn’t just posit the ethical issues, but actually explores them.  Still, thoughtful and heartfelt.  Well done.

Block, Lawrence, “Keller in Dallas,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, February, 2011.  I held out for all of 12 hours from the moment the magazine arrived in my house until I read “Keller in Dallas.”  I love the Keller stories and I vowed, when I got the magazine, to wait until I’d finished the January issue to read it.  My goal in 2011 is to read every issue of the digests, and I figured this would be a good carrot-and-stick.  But I have no self control.

In this story, Keller has left the business (I must have missed a story!) and is living in New Orleans (!).  But he gets roped back in by Dot, and he’s supposed to kill a cheating wife.  A nice look at a man who has always had a twisted version of a conscience, a man whose conscience is slowly untwisting, and confusing him.  I’d say it was worth the wait, but I didn’t wait.

Christopher, Lauryn, With Friends Like These, Kindle Edition, 2010.  I first read this marvelous story in one of our workshops.  It’s a powerful piece about friendship, loss, death, and secrets.  If I say much more, I’ll ruin it.  Read it for yourself and enjoy.

Conroy, Pat, “The Old New York Bookshop,” My Reading Life, Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2010.  People who own rare and collectible bookshops seem to have similar personalities. Opinionated, brilliant, but worth making friends with if you can break through their difficult exteriors.   Pat Conroy writes about just such a man here in this essay about the bookshop itself.  Of course, Conroy isn’t the easiest person on the planet to get along with either, if his own writing is to be believed.

He discovered this bookshop on a sidestreet in Atlanta, and became a part of the store, occasionally working the register when the owner had errands.  Conroy discusses the personalities who came through the shop, the parties held there for all of Atlanta’s literary elite, and the things he loved, not just about the shop and its owner, but about the books that he bought there.

This is a long essay, but wonderful.  I’ve read a lot of Conroy, so I’m familiar (overly familiar?) with his life’s story.  But I hadn’t heard about this place or these people before.  And that makes the essay special as well.

Dittrich, Luke,The Brain That Changed Everything,” Esquire, November 2010.  I almost did not read this article.  I started it, wondered if I really wanted to spend time with dissected brains, and just about stopped right then and there.  I’m glad I didn’t.  This was fascinating and a bit terrifying.  In the mid-20th century, so many brain surgeons believed themselves God. They could slice into anyone’s brain and solve any problem, leaving most of those anyones even worse off than when the problem started.

In this case, the brain belongs to Henry Molaison, who had severe epileptic fits and seizures.  The author’s grandfather thought he could solve those seizures by removing the hippocampus.  Henry awoke, and didn’t have any more seizures. But he had lost his longterm memory.  Each day was quite literally new to him, the same way it is for Drew Barrymore in Fifty First Dates.  He was studied his whole life, and now his brain is studied after his death.

That’s interesting enough. But what’s even more fascinating is the human perspective—that of a grandson about a grandfather who arrogantly made such a horrible mistake.  Check this one out.

Gladwell, Malcolm, “Talent Grab,” The New Yorker, October 11, 2010.  Gladwell’s article on the recent history of the way “talent” gets paid really caught my attention.  In some ways, it dovetails with the Business Rusch articles I’ve been writing in December on writers and the changing publishing environment, but more importantly, it puts the history of agents in perspective.  Not as someone who can get big bucks for a client—the majority of agents do not get large money for the majority of their clients, no matter what the business—but the paradigm shift that businesses which use talent went through in the past fifty years.  Honestly, I’ll have to do quite a bit of rereading and thinking about this piece to process it.  Read it. See what you think.

Grisham, John, Ford County Stories, Dell, 2009.  The pull quote from Pat Conroy on the cover of this book says this is the best writing John Grisham has ever done.  I’m not sure I would agree with that, but I suspect Conroy and I differ on “best writing.”  Sentence by sentence, yeah, probably.  But this volume provides a different kind of storytelling than Grisham usually does.  It’s lean, mean, and stark.  Grisham’s narrative drive is present in every story, but that’s less important than the characters. The characters here are mostly unpleasant, sidelined in one way or another, and fascinating.  A writer can sustain characters like that in a short story; it’s tougher to do so in a novel.

Not all of the characters are unpleasant, however.  They get more tolerable as volume goes on.  If you read in order, as I do, you might have to take a break between stories.  (I would have organized the volume differently.)  But this slim book of short stories is worth your time.  Even if you’ve never liked John Grisham’s novels, read this collection.  It’ll introduce you to a side of this writer you’ve never seen before—and it’s a side that’s worthwhile.

Grisham, John, “Funny Boy,” Ford County Stories, Dell, 2009.  Set in 1989, Grisham’s story is about an AIDs victim who comes home to die.  The story reflects its time extremely well—the prejudice against anyone with AIDs, the uncertainty caused by the disease, the casual bigotry of small towns.  Yet the story also has heart and compassion, a lot of love, and a wish that we would all treat each other well.  I cried my way through the end of this story, which is the first time Grisham’s writing has ever brought me to tears.  Beautiful and well done.

Grisham, John, “Quiet Haven,” Ford County Stories, Dell, 2009. Grisham’s story is of uncertain ethics, difficult people, and a scam that has a tinge of justice to it.  I loved this story and felt a kinship with it, since it’s similar to something I would have written.  At the beginning of the story, Gilbert Griffin gets a job at a nursing home, Quiet Haven.  Already we know that he’s not on the up-and-up.  From that moment forward, Grisham takes us to a world of sad lost lives—not all of them in the home—strange compassion, and stranger theft.  Powerful short story.

Hitchens, Christopher, “Tumortown,” Vanity Fair, November, 2010.  Christopher Hitchens is dying.  He knows it, and he’s letting us know it.  In June, he got diagnosed with cancer.  He went on a book tour to promote is memoir, Hitch 22, and the grueling schedule felled him.  He had to go to an emergency room in New York City (after a scheduled television appearance that he shouldn’t have gone to; this man is a warrior), and that began this saga.  His type of cancer is particularly aggressive, and it was pretty far along.

He’s been chronicling his experiences with the disease in a forthright fashion.  I didn’t mention last month’s column, except obliquely, because it’s about religion and I tend to avoid politics and religion on this blog.  This month’s column is about hope in the midst of despair.

Hitchens doesn’t flinch as he looks at the cancer, the treatments, other people, and of course, himself.  The full-on honesty inside these columns is amazing.  Because he’s a spectacular writer, the columns themselves are both riveting and wrenching.  I’ve attached the link to this column.  If you’re so inclined, go back and read the others.  Hitchens is doing some of the best, most honest writing here I have read since Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

I hope Hitchens beats the odds and survives.  I hate it when powerful voices are silenced.  But before he goes, he’s writing as much as he can.  I have no idea what it’s costing him in both time and energy, but I, for one, am glad he’s doing so.

Hockensmith, Steve, “Fruitcake,” Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010.  I love Steve Hockensmith’s short stories, partly because they’re so memorable.  I couldn’t get fruitcake out of my mind for days—much as I wanted to.  I’m not fond of fruitcake.  Many others aren’t either which is the impetus for this story of regifting and murder.

Hockensmith, Steve “Naughty,” Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010.  Funny story about a down-on-her-luck woman, Christmas “elves,” a department store, and a rather unexpected crime.  Fun and memorable.

Hockensmith, Steve, Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010.  I have no idea how many of Steve Hockensmith’s short stories I’ve read in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine over the  years.  Quite a few, judging by the ones I remembered and reread in this collection.  It’s a collection of Steve’s Christmas stories, all of which I liked, many of which I loved.  Even the copyright page is funny.  My only quibble with the volume?  In it, Steve mentions he’s too busy to write short fiction these days.  So I say, Stop sleeping, Steve!  Write your books, but write short stories too.  Whatever it takes.  Maybe it takes y’all to buy this book to get him to write more short stories.  So do it.

King, Stephen, “Big Driver,” Full Dark, No Stars, Scribners, 2010.  King is one of my favorite authors.  When he’s working at the top of his game, he’s spectacular.  “Big Driver” is one of those stories he does best—a story of crisis and revenge, so filled with suspense that I was tempted to skip ahead and make sure our heroine lived.  I didn’t peek ahead, but probably only because the story was a novella, not a novel.  I raced through “Big Driver,” and then my heart raced for an hour or more.  Good stuff.

King, Stephen, Full Dark, No Stars, Scribners, 2010. To be honest, after the first story, I wasn’t going to recommend the volume. The first story is long and it’s one of King’s gross-out stories.  Sometimes I like them; often I don’t.  I figured, once I finished it, that because it was a third of the volume, I couldn’t recommend the rest.  Clearly I’ve changed my mind.

What changed it for me? The two stories I’ve singled out here, and the afterward.  I’ll get to the afterward in a moment.  The third story, the one I didn’t mention, is an extremely creepy “Deal With The Devil” story that puts such a jaundiced eye on human nature that I wonder if the tale is closer to the truth than I want to believe.

Finally, the afterward.  I can’t say enough about that.  I didn’t single out the afterward because I’m afraid you’ll read it without reading the book.  And you must read the book first.  If you’re a writer, you really need to read this afterward.

Here’s one choice quote:

Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do — to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes do help old ladies cross the street.

Read this book. There’s a reason the Mystery Writers of America made him a Grand Master, why he got a National Book Award, why he’s still selling extremely well after all these years.  He’s one of our best writers.  Period.

King, Stephen, “A Good Marriage,” Full Dark, No Stars, Scribners, 2010.  A great novella about marriage and the secrets that people keep.  Of course, Bob Anderson’s secret is huge, and his wife Darcy’s discovery of it makes her question everything.  Still, this is one of those stories that resonates, even if your spouse would never do the things that Bob Anderson did.  King based it on an actual case and asked the kind of question that always interests me:  What about the spouse? What about the family?  Marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.  This is King at the very top of his game.

Klavan, Andrew, “The Advent Reunion,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January, 2011.  A Christmas ghost story that packs a heck of a punch. Very short, very powerful.  If I say any more, I’ll ruin it.

Kleypas, Lisa, Smooth Talking Stranger, St. Martins Paperbacks, 2009.  I avoided Lisa Kleypas’s contemporary romances in part because the book blurbs just don’t sound interesting to me. Alpha men in Texas?  I can do without that.  But I was in a romance mood one night and not in the mood for an historical.  So I picked up this one—and read it in a single sitting.  It’s a heartfelt book and it’s not really about the romance between a woman and a Texas playboy.  It’s really about a woman and a newborn her sister dumps on her before disappearing.  The man in Ella’s life is little Luke, defenseless and unlucky enough to be born to a selfish woman.  I cried twice while reading this book and had to read fast to find out what happened (or I would have peeked ahead to the end).  It’s good enough that I’ll be buying her other three contemporaries.  Dammit.

Kroupa, Susan,Walter’s Christmas-Night Musik,” Laurel Fork Press, Kindle Edition, 2010.  A wonderful story about Christmas Night visitors.  Unlike the previous Christmas night visitor stories you’ve read, these visitors are a surprise.  I’d like to be visited by these folks.  I found myself thinking about this story long after I finished reading it.

Reed, Annie, “The Case of the Missing Elf,” Thunder Valley Press, Kindle Edition, 2010.  One of the nice things about the revolution in e-publishing is that you can buy a single short story of an author’s work just as a sample.  I already knew that I liked Annie Reed’s stories, but I also know she’s not a household name.  I hope that changes.

This is one of her Dee and Dix fantasy detective stories.  Dix is an elf, although not a traditional one, and Dee is a woman with an added gift.  There’s a bit of romantic tension involved, but that’s not at the heart of this story.  Like so many stories on this month’s list, this is a Christmas tale.  And the missing elf is not the Jolly Old One, but his occasional impersonator, Norman.  Fun, and thought-provoking, in a Christmasy kinda way.  It’s only 99 cents—a nice introduction to Annie’s work.

Robinson, Peter, Bad Boy, William Morrow, 2010.  Somehow this book had been out for months before I became aware of it.  This is the problem of not visiting brick-and-mortar bookstores every week like I used to do when we had a bookstore that specialized in new books only in this town.  (Now we have one new/used, and some of the best used stores in the country.  I’m not complaining except…I’d really like a new bookstore somewhere close.)

I started this book after dinner on a Wednesday night, and finished it before the late evening news.  I could not put the book down.  It’s a superb British mystery, that begins with an event that is purely British—a woman turning in her own daughter for bringing home a gun.  Owning a gun is illegal in England, which I knew, and involves serious punishment, which I did not know.  The ethics of turning in your own child for something she owns (or has stolen or has found) are a thread in the novel, which deals with adult children living their own lives.

Everything goes wrong after the gun notification, escalating into something so serious that I can’t tell you about it without spoiling the book.  Let’s just say that the title is spot-on, the tension is high, the consequences huge, and the book superb, and leave it at that.

Smith, Dean Wesley, “Jukebox Gifts,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2010.  I love Dean’s jukebox stories.  The conceit is this: for the duration of a single song, played on a jukebox, the person who chose the story can time travel to their strongest memory of that song—and maybe change the past.  “Jukebox Gifts” is set at Christmas and is both heartwarming and heartwrenching.

Smith, Dean Wesley, “Music in Time,” Love and Rockets, edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Kerrie Hughes, Daw, 2010.  A short romantic short story about a down-on-his-luck musician on a space station.  If I say much more, I’ll ruin the story (a problem with short fiction).  The voice is wonderful, the setting crisp, the characters good.  I love Dean’s science fiction stories, and wish he would write more of them.

Surowiecki, James, “Later,” The New Yorker, October 11, 2010.  Surowiecki reviews a book and writes a long analysis essay on procrastination.  He delves into the history of theories on procrastination, what it is, why it exists, if it serves a purpose.  Honestly, I’d love to buy the book of essays he reviews, but in no way am I paying $65 for the privilege to read any book.  So I’ll read the fascinating analysis of the volume of essays instead.  Lots of food for thought here.  Made me evaluate my various bouts of procrastination.  Whether I’ll do anything about them, however, remains to be seen.

Westlake, Donald, “Give Till It Hurts” Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop, edited by Otto Penzler, ?, 2010.  Losing Westlake last year was a tragedy.  I love his Dortmunder stories and this one, written for the customers of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, is marvelous.  Laugh out loud funny, as most Dortmunder stories are.

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