Recommended Reading List: April 2011
As usual, I’m late posting this. I wanted to get it on the site in May. Ooops. Maybe I’ll get May’s up in June. Maybe. 🙂 Here’s what I wrote about April:
In April, I binged on romance novels featuring celebrity heroes or heroines (not celebrity romances, which are romances written by celebrities). I don’t know why I binged, but I was reading those books like candy.
I dithered about sharing one with you. I hated the hero (a fictional People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive), and hated the resolution in which our feminist heroine gives up everything she’s worked for to be with this guy. I also am absolutely convinced the relationship will not last, which is a big no-no for romance novels. But I wanted to recommend it because I couldn’t put the damn thing down. Then I realized that I couldn’t say much nice about the book, so I decided against recommending it. But it’s a tribute to the writer that I continued reading despite my loathing for that hero, whom I should have fallen in love with, and the fact that I didn’t believe one word of the plot.
Then I read the Suzanne Brockmann book Heartthrob, listed below, and I understood why I couldn’t recommend the above book. It was cynical, without a lot of heart, which is what I read romances for. The Brockmann book, on the other hand, was marvelous. I’ll explain why I liked it a bit further on.
Also, in April, I read quite a few mysteries. One, by one of my favorite writers, isn’t his best, not because of the writing or the plot, but because of conviction. He has a character he doesn’t quite believe in, and I chuckled when, at the end of the latest book, the character changed jobs altogether. The former job? Defense attorney. Yep, the character is going over to the side of law and order. Fascinating from a writerly point of view, but not something to recommend.
So I had good reading experiences, but for writerly/former editorly reasons, not for sharing reasons.
Here are the excellent works I can share. Enjoy.
Adams, Alice, “Winter Rain,” Americans in Paris: Great Short Stories of the City of Light, selected by Steven Gilbar, Capra Press, 2002. Lovely story, set after the Second World War, about an American student and the older French woman she ends up boarding with. It’s a delicate piece about sensibilities and cultural differences, and it clearly evokes a time now lost. Beautifully done.
Brockmann, Suzanne, Heartthrob, Ivy Books, 1999 Kindle edition 2009. I’d heard of Suzanne Brockmann for years, but I was only familiar with her military romances. I hadn’t read them; I didn’t think military romances were my cup of tea. But in my quest to read as many celebrity romances as I could find, I discovered this one on a bunch of top ten lists. So I downloaded the Kindle edition, and read it quickly. If I hadn’t enjoyed the book so much, however, I would have waited until I could get a used copy. Because the Kindle edition is a mess. The publisher scanned it, but didn’t proof it, so the book is filled with wrong words—wildly wrong, like “fluffy” for “hotty” and things like that. Sometimes the sentences were completely unintelligiable. I’d have to guess at meaning and continue.
Even with the format problems, this book belongs on the list of top ten celebrity romances. The book itself is somewhat dark. Kate O’Laughlin, a former horror movie scream queen, has bankrolled her own art film, and Jericho Beaumont, a former People Magazine sexiest man alive (yes, there are a lot of romances about these guys), has agreed to star so he can prove to the world that he’s back. Jericho had flamed out years before, a washed-out Robert Downey style drunk (not a Charlie Sheen style drunk) with a terrible childhood and no real help surviving. He’s uninsurable but five years sober, and he really wants the job. To get the insurance companies to go along, Kate guarantees that Jericho will have a 24-hour body guard.
The original body guard turns out to be a sadist, and you guessed it. Kate has to babysit our hero for a short time. Which turns out to be just long enough to fall in love. But nothing’s easy in this book, and we readers spend a lot of time wondering if Kate should even try. We know how risky it all is.
One of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and good enough that I’m making a pilgramage to the nearest used bookstore to find more of Brockmann’s work. Normally, I’d buy the Kindle editions, but this last one burned me. Clearly her publisher doesn’t give a damn about old titles. So the publisher is losing some revenue from me because I’m not paying 2011 prices for 15 year old novels. Not that I’m cheap or anything. But I’m not entirely sold on military romance, so I have to figure out if I will read more. And I don’t want the format to get in the way.
(And no, I’m not going to the library. Libraries are good for other people. For me, they equal three-figure library fines.)
Calisher, Hortense, “Il Ploe:r Dã Mõ Koe:r,” Americans in Paris: Great Short Stories of the City of Light, selected by Steven Gilbar, Capra Press, 2002. I don’t have the title quite right because it uses phonetic symbols to replace the French words. The story is all about learning language, and how important language is. The writing here, as befits a story like this, is astonishingly lovely. I particularly like the sentiment in the opening line: “I was taught to speak French with tears.” Wonderfully done.
Gopnik, Adam, “The Information,” The New Yorker, February 14 & 21, 2011. Another critic at large piece from The New Yorker. This one looks at books on the digital age, and compares them. I like Gopnik’s system. He divides them into three categories: The Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The categories are relatively self-explanatory: the Never-Betters think the digital age is the greatest thing ever, the Better-Nevers think it’s the worst thing ever, and the Ever-Wases think that our complaints and optimism are just like they’ve always been and always will be. A fun analysis, that actually does make you assess which category you’re in. (I flop between Never-Better and Ever-Waser.)
Hitchens, Christopher, The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010. I loved this book. As you can see from the recommended reading the past two months, I found a great deal to recommend. I could probably have recommended more, but I only chose the most memorable essays.
This more than makes up for the previous year’s volume which was one of the most disappointing I had ever read. I look forward to this anthology every year, and only last year disappointed me. But I don’t always recommend the book, even when I like a few essays. This year, I liked nearly everything I read.
Clearly, Hitchens and I read for the same thing: good writing, information, a new perspective, and some glimpses of worlds we don’t normally see. What a great experience. I only wish that the book had been even longer.
Howe, Barton Grover, “Galling for Gulls,” The News Guard, March 30, 2011. Our local paper has a great humor columnist. I’ve been meaning to share his work with you for some time (and publishers take note: he’s working on one wonderful nonfiction book and a few novels). Most of what he writes in the column is of necessity local. But this column, while local, is also quite funny.
A bit of set-up: I live on the Oregon Coast in a beach/resort town. We are literally at the end of nowhere, and we suffer things like power outages all the time. We had two rather bizarre outages in March when within days, two seagulls died on power poles. (The first happened about thirty seconds after I walked past the pole on my daily exercise route.)
Barton decided—perhaps because he’s Barton—to write the column from the point of view of a local seagull newspaper modeled on The News Guard. Click the link above for the results.
Howe, Barton Grover, “Oh, Bright Shining Orb,” The News Guard, April 13, 2011. When Barton wrote this column, Oregon had just gone through a record-breaking streak of precipitation—all of March (except for one day) with measurable rain. I know, I know, most of you think the entire Pacific Northwest is like that—and it is in some places (I’m looking at you, Seattle), but not in our tiny coastal town. In fact, we usually have sunshine every day even with the rain, so 30 days of continuous rain, with more in April, just about drove us all nuts. Barton, our local humor columnist (who really needs a national audience) wrote about it, and I thought I would share because it made me chuckle.
Lehane, Dennis, “Animal Rescue,” By Hook and By Crook and 27 of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Ed Gorman & Martin H. Greenberg, Tyrus Books, 2010. I tried five times to start this story, which also meant I tried five times to start reading the anthology, because it’s the first story in the anthology. And that first sentence stopped me every time. It is: “Bob found the dog in the trash.”
Now given that Lehane is not the most cheerful writer in the best of times—his work is extremely noir—I was terrified where he was going to go from here. I thought it was going to get extremely, awfully, horribly, dark. And while the story is dark, it’s not what I expected at all. In fact, the dog of that sentence is alive, which I had not expected. And then we have the character of Bob who is a loser of the kind we’ve all met. Maybe.
The story really is not what I expected—in a good way. There’s some lovely twists and nice turn, and an ending that I really liked. And thank heavens I made it past the story, so now I can finish the anthology.
Lewis, Michael, “When Irish Eyes Are Crying,” Vanity Fair, March 2011. I’m quickly becoming a fan of Michael Lewis—and I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been writing these Recommended Reading Lists. I have to type his name in every time I like an article, and he seems to be turning up a lot. I probably would only have noticed his essay in 2009’s Best American Essays. But it seems like I’m mentioning him every few months.
He’s doing a series on the economic crisis for Vanity Fair. Sometimes the pieces don’t interest me as much as they should—the one on Greece, for example—but this one, on Ireland’s crisis, did. For one thing, Lewis writes about the people involved, always seeing what happened through someone else’s eyes. For another, the man can write.
Part of this for me goes all the way back to childhood. I met a girl one summer who had been shipped to America by her family to avoid “the Troubles.” She explained her life to pampered little me, and I was appalled. I’ve been reading about Ireland, Irish history and present, ever since.
In this essay, Lewis explores the roots of the Irish economic crisis, and how Ireland fits into the entire worldwide pattern of the crisis. Fascinating and somewhat unexpected stuff. Worth reading, even if you’re not into Irish history.
Rankin, Ian, The Complaints, Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Rankin has chosen a new hero for his first major book after retiring his series character, John Rebus. Malcolm Fox works for The Complaints division of the Edinburgh police force or as we would call the division, Internal Affairs. We’ve all watched a lot of cop shows, so we all know that IA are the bad guys, right? Rankin walks that shady line, showing us all the power that the Complaints division has and all of its unpopularity too. Fox becomes a hero in this book, but he starts as a nebbish, a guy who has no life at all besides visiting his father in a nursing home and dealing with his sister and her abusive boyfriend. He spends his free time listening to the Birdsong channel (which is what it sounds like) and reading.
Until push comes to shove, and he has to step up. He does, because that’s what Malcolm Fox does: he steps up when no one else does. The plot gets a bit murky at the end, but I don’t care. The characters are stellar and I’d love to see more of Malcolm Fox. I hope he’s Rankin’s next series character. I read the book in two short bursts. It’s very well done.
Reed, Annie, “My Cousin, The Rabbit: A Diz and Dee Mystery,” Thunder Valley Press, Kindle edition, 2011. Diz and Dee seem to get cases on holidays. This case involves Easter—not the religious holiday, but the big fluffy bunny holiday. With cheesy show magicians and wood elves and lots of furniture. I discovered the story had been published, so I downloaded and read it the very same night. I have a number of Annie Reed’s stories on my Kindle, and I’ll get to them eventually (I have a lot of stories that I’ll get to eventually), but these Diz and Dee stories are musts for me. I hope Annie writes a novel with these characters one day.
Shea, Neil, “Under Paris,” National Geographic, February, 2011. Anyone who has read my fiction, particularly “Dark Corners,” knows that I’m fascinated by the world beneath Paris. Neil Shea’s article gives the history, plus the current underworld life of Paris under ground. And, of course, the photos are spectacular. Take a look.
Starr, S. Frederick, “Rediscovering Central Asia,” The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010. For me, this essay should have been called “Discovering Central Asia.” I didn’t know any of the history, and it’s important history. (I knew some of it, but didn’t realize it had happened in Central Asia.) Fascinating analysis of the past and how it influences the present, particularly our war in Afghanistan and our attitude toward the countries in that region of the world.
Wideman, John Edgar, “Fatheralong,” The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010. Fascinating article on Emmett Till, the Civil Rights movement, and most importantly Emmett Till’s father, whom I had never read about. The things that Till’s mother went through after her son was brutally murdered are horrific. I had known some of it, but not all of it. This is a powerful essay about injustice and love and the influence of society as well as the influence of parents. Fantastic.