Recommended Reading: February 2011
I got a lot of reading done in February, and I’m not sure how. I was writing every minute I could and I also co-taught a workshop with Dean, Denise Little, and John Helfers. Did lots of reading there, but you won’t see those stories until they hit print. Very good stories they were too.
What amazes me is how much I read and discarded in February as well. I started a lot of books and didn’t finish them. Some of that comes from sampling on my Kindle, but some of it comes from the fact that when I return to a book, I realize I was bored or I had been arguing with it between sessions (thinking, say, no one would do that).
Even so, I still ended up with all of this stuff to recommend.
Allen, John, “Head-On Collision,” On Wisconsin, Winter, 2011. I’m fascinated by all of this brain science stuff, and it seems some of the cutting edge research is being done at my alma mater. In addition to featuring one of the scientists who is studying traumatic brain injury, the article also gives a history of that very recent science, particularly as it relates to sports. Interesting stuff. I’m glad folks are studying it.
Batuman, Elif “The Death of Leo Tolstoy,” The Best American Essays of the Year, edited by Christopher Hitchens, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010. The first thing that caught me in this essay, the first in the anthology, was the self-depricating voice. The essay is written like a short story, in which our Author, a Russian Literature specialist, goes to a Tolstoy conference. She tries to get funding by proposing that she will learn about the “murder” of Leo Tolstoy, even though all other scholars believed that the old cantankerous man died of natural causes. She nearly had me convinced, by the way, but that’s a side point. It’s an essay about an excellent traveler in the face of adversity, with a side of Russian literature. So good that I’m going to look for her book of essays now.
Bentley Toni, “Bad Lion,” The Best American Essays of the Year, edited by Christopher Hitchens, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010. A very short essay about a safari and a lion named Satan, whom the safari leaders called a “bad lion.” Yep. I more than agree. By the end of this short (1500 word?) essay, I was so thoroughly creeped out by this lion’s unnatural behavior that I found myself wondering about the same unnatural behavior in humans and contemplating some kind of mammalian biological malfunction. Creepy, creepy, stuff. In a good way.
Conroy, Pat, My Reading Life, Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 2010. Initially, I wasn’t going to recommend this book, just because of the price. It’s a tiny little book, smaller than the usual hardcover size, and as lovely as the packaging is, my first response on opening my Amazon order was disappointment and a vague feeling of being ripped off. I finally understood what the Washington Post meant when it called My Reading Life “a small book.” I thought the Post meant “insignificant.” Nope. It meant “small.”
Well, the small book is filled with gems. I read through it slowly, as anyone who follows my recommended reading list knows. I loved quite a few of these essays, liked even more, and didn’t find one to skip or hate. One challenged me—the essay on Gone With The Wind—which discusses the merits of that very racist novel. But I did read the novel before I knew what racism was, and as much as its treatments of blacks disturbed me even then, I did enjoy the book. I remember reading it quite vividly. It was the first time I realized that books could be ever so much better than a movie.
(The book also provided a strange interaction with me and my mother. I wanted to know what happened after Rhett carried Scarlett up the stairs, and the book wasn’t any clearer on that point to young me (ten? Eight? Eleven? I’m not sure) than the movie was. So I asked Mother what happened. She smiled and said, “It’s private between Rhett and Scarlett.” And you know, I accepted that answer. Weird.)
Anyway, if you look at this book as a wonderful keepsake on writing and reading, something you’ll enjoy repeatedly, then buy the very pretty $25 hardcover edition. If it’s something you just want to read, get it from the library, order the electronic version, or wait until the paperback arrives (if there will be a paperback). But do read it. It’s worth your time.
Crais, Robert, The Sentry, Putnam, 2011. I love Bob’s work. It’s well written, suspenseful, and impossible to put down. Like the previous book, The First Rule, this one focuses on his character Joe Pike, who is unbelievably tough and hard and compassionate all at the same time. I was quite concerned for Pike throughout this book, and read even faster than I normally would have. I can’t say much more about it than that because of the twists, but I’ll say that Crais gets better and better with each book—which is quite impressive.
Fennessy, Christine, “The World According to Louie,” Runners World, January, 2011. While the world has focused on 93-year-old Louie Zamperini, thanks to Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken (which I have not read and doubt I will: the two excerpts I’ve read aren’t that interesting to me [although she can write well]), Runners World interviewed Zamperini himself. And the interview is interesting. I’d love to sit at this guy’s feet and listen to him tell stories. His voice is tremendous, and you just know that he speaks with a little glint in his eye. It’ll take you about five minutes to read this and I promise: those five minutes won’t be wasted.
Gill, Glenda, “All’s Well That Ends Well,” On Wisconsin, Winter, 2011. A fantastic personal essay on getting an education in the dark days of the early civil rights movement. I had no idea that states like Alabama were so intent on keeping schools segregated that they actually provided money to black students who wanted to go to college—provided those students went to college out of state. Gill ended up at the University of Wisconsin, which was quite a culture shock. But she made a career out of her dreams, starting in Madison. I love learning about things I thought I knew through the prism of someone else’s experience.
Gopnik, Adam, “The Man in the White Suit,” The New Yorker, November 29, 2010. The neat thing about reviews in The New Yorker is that they’re often excuses to write a longer piece about a particular topic. In this case, the topic is Mark Twain. The occasion is the rerelease of yet another version of his autobiography, which Gopnik didn’t like the first time he read it, and doesn’t like now. But he’s clearly a Twain fan, and he has read a lot about Twain. He recommends good biographies, and the best of Twain’s works, as well as giving us a short history of Twain’s life. This “critic at large” piece is worth reading, especially since Twain ever seems to be in the news.
Lahr, John, “Method Man,” The New Yorker, December 13, 2010. Like the Gopnik piece, the Lahr piece is also a “Critic at Large” essay. Lahr’s is on Elia Kazan, the writer/director. Kazan is probably best known for On The Waterfront, as well as his testimony in the McCarthy hearings. In fact, Lahr mentions Kazan’s Lifetime Achievement Academy Award, given in 1999. I still recall that night, and how many people in the audience turned their backs on the 90-something director for something he had done nearly fifty years before.
Lahr doesn’t skimp on this, nor does he skimp on his examination of Kazan’s work. He also discusses Kazan as a writer and as a man who understood the dramatic form better than most. I knew the vague outlines of Kazan’s life, but not the indepth ones. I was fascinated by this piece.
Lawrence, Greg, “Jackie O, Working Girl,” Vanity Fair, January 2011. Personally, I’m getting tired of Vanity Fair’s Kennedy obssession. When I saw this, I sighed heavily and read the first few paragraphs with reluctance. And then I realized that this piece was an excerpt from one of the two books that came out over Christmas about Jackie Kennedy’s time in publishing. I know people who used to work with her, and had only kind things to say about her. So I read with even more interest.
Somewhere in the middle of this article, I realized two things: 1) I once worked at the same job that Jackie Kennedy did (!) which would have startled my teenage self, and 2) the article provides its own history of the publishing industry, something I understand but am always fascinated by. Long story short, I bought not only Lawrence’s book, but the history of publishing cited in the article. And if they’re as good as this piece, you might see them in a future Recommended Reading List.
Oates, Joyce Carol, “A Widow’s Story,” The New Yorker, December 13, 2010. Oates’s account of the last week of her husband’s life is heartbreaking and of course, brilliantly written. The piece reminds me of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Both are astonishing in their clarity, particularly at times when their authors were probably functioning at their worst.
Oates’s husband died unexpectedly of pneumonia. He became ill one morning and was dead less than a week later. He was eight years older than Oates, and they had been together nearly fifty years.
Sometimes I think I read these things as cautionary tales or warnings from the future. Dean is ten years older than me, and both my gender and my family’s longevity make it statistically likely that I will have a moment like the ones both Didion and Oates describe.
Or, realistically, Dean might. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Either way, one of us will outlive the other, and one of us will have that unclear foggy day that we’ll remember in vivid detail—and there’s no way to know which of us it will be until it happens.
That uncertainty is also in the Oates’ piece, the way she blames herself for not doing something that, in hindsight, she should have done. Things that she wouldn’t even remember had her husband lived through this illness.
Brilliant piece. But save it for a day when you’re feeling emotionally strong.
Reed, Annie, “Omens and Oracles and Eros, Oh My,” Thunder Valley Press, Kindle edition, 2011. I love these Dix & Dee short stories. They’re like really great candy to me. In this one, our intrepid heroes solve a case involving Cupid, um—Eros, and his daughter. (Yes, daughter.) Such fun!
Smith, Dean Wesley, “Hand and Space: A Captain Brian Saber Story,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. Dean’s Brian Saber stories are space opera with a twist. They involve nursing homes on Earth and battles in outer space. And, oh, yeah, they’re romances. If I was still editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I’d buy these short stories in a heartbeat. I’ve been trying to get Dean to write the great futuristic romance buried inside this short stories, but so far he hasn’t. I hope he does—soon.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “On Top of The Dead,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. You have to understand: I hate end-of-the-world stories. My husband is writing a series of them. He has an unpublished romance novel (!) that is an end-of-the-world story. He wrote it before paranormal romance/sf romance became big. (Back then, I called it his “dead-body romance.”) I love that novel and think it would do well these days, but I can’t get him to publish it. So nag him.
Anyway, “On Top of the Dead” is set in that world. Only the novel is set in Portland, Oregon, and this story is set in New York City. A completely different reading experience and somewhat terrifying. What I find reassuring, though, is that Dean always picks characters who have a plan. No matter what goes wrong, these folks figure out how to survive. Read it. If you like it as much as I do, nag him to put that novel in print. Thank you.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “Shootout at the Okey Doke Casino,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. This is another Poker Boy story, and it’s so funny, I was laughing out loud. A shootout is a poker term as well as a Wild West term. When you add a war between trolls and elves, the gambling gods, and Poker Boy…well, see for yourself. It’s fun.
Smith, Deborah, The Crossroads Café, Belle Books, Kindle edition, 2006. I downloaded this book when it was free on Kindle, and it’s the first free novel that I’ve downloaded that I feel is worth recommending. In the past, the free novels that I’ve downloaded from big names have confirmed my thoughts: I’m not the reader for those writers. And the books I’ve downloaded from small names haven’t been to my taste either.
I’d heard about Deborah Smith’s writing for years, mostly through Romantic Times, but I’d never seen one of her books before (that I had noticed). This one is billed as romance, but buried in the pull quotes are references to great Southern writers like Anne Rivers Siddons and Pat Conroy. Smith’s prose isn’t as overwrought as theirs are. In fact, she reminds me of a gentle version of Anita Shreve, but her writing is top-notch. And she is writing about the South from a particularly Southern point of view. (The book ends with a variety of recipes for southern biscuits which, fortunately, are on my Kindle which I don’t want any where near my cooking facilities.)
The Crossroads Café constantly surprised me. It’s not a whitewash romance; the characters have suffered—and suffered greatly. This book has echoes of Princess Diana’s car crash (our heroine, an actress, survives a horrific car crash that leaves her disfigured), complete with evil paparazzi taking pictures instead of helping. The book faces 9/11 square on, looking at how the survivors have fared since the tragedy (in our hero’s case, not that well). Plus we have some realistically drawn abandoned children (in other words, they’re not cute and lovable [well, one is]), a murdered dog, and a terrible loss in the middle of the book. When the plot calls for melodrama, Smith provides it and then some. And she can pull it off. (My only objection to the book? The sex scenes. Very few writers can write detailed sex scenes and make them interesting; Smith can’t—she gets into too much detail without the emotional context, so for a brief moment, the book veers into 1960s porn.)
The book is occasionally an uncomfortable read (and not just because of the sex scenes). It ventures into emotional territory no polite American will discuss, and then examines that territory unflinchingly. The book is about surviving a crisis, and about what victimhood is versus the power of survivors. I will pick up Smith’s other books, so in this case the free offer worked. However, I am going to wait until I recover emotionally before venturing into that territory again.