Recommended Reading List: August 2011
I was well on my way to a spectacular reading month when I left to go to Worldcon in Reno. Still, managed to finish one book and start another. Then my friend Bill died. I didn’t even read a newspaper for days. So the pickings were slim in August, but they were good pickings, just the same.
Chiarella, Tom, “What Is A Man: An Experiment,” Esquire, June/July, 2011. Esquire does essays like this on occasion, where the author (usually a guy) tries something socially unacceptable. Chiarella decided to drop the trappings of manhood—from things as trivial as holding a door for a woman to deeply personal behaviors which I’m not going to mention here. He did so partly as a thought experiment, partly to understand himself. I found it all fascinating, and I found him a bit…ballsy. Although I did find it funny that he says he never met a woman who reads in the bathroom. Clearly Chiarella doesn’t know the right women since I read this essay…in the bathroom.
Elrod, P.N., “Beach Girl,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November, 2011. I thought I had this short story figured out one page in. But I should have trusted P.N. Elrod. Because, yes, I had the initial killing solved, and that wasn’t the point of the story. Not even close. She packed more surprises into this short piece than I could have predicted. Wonderful, wonderful story.
Gladwell, Malcolm, “Creation Myth,” The New Yorker, May 16, 2011. Gladwell writes about innovators here, trying to get at how they think. He focuses on the tech industry (although he has a neat digression about the Rolling Stones), but some of what he writes here also applies to writers. A lot of what he writes about here will apply in the next ten years to the writers who survive in this new age of publishing. Worth reading—and thinking about. (Those of you reading this for your writing, note the Bach section in particular.)
Hitchens, Christopher, “Unspoken Truths,” Vanity Fair, June, 2011. For those of you who don’t know, Hitchens got diagnosed with cancer last year. He’s been writing a series of essays about this (still finding time, of course, to write about his other concerns). This essay is particularly heartbreaking. Apparently the cancer has attacked his vocal chords and he finds it difficult to speak. For a man who loves to talk, this is difficult, but he seems to accept that. What he has the most difficulty with is the loss of his voice—and how that impacts his writing. In addition to being a good essay on the difficulties he’s facing, this is a marvelous essay on writing. If you (as a writer) are having trouble finding your voice, take some lessons from a man who is losing his.
Lawton, John, A Little White Death, Grove Press, 1998. I thought Old Flames was brilliant (see below). But A Little White Death is even better. A Little White Death takes place in 1963, using Lawton’s character Inspector Troy. Troy’s older, wiser, and a bit defeated in this book. But it works.
Lawton’s dealing with the rapid change in the culture that occurred in 1963 in this book, but he’s not doing it from the point of view of those who are doing the changing (the young people), but from the point of view of the long-established adults, most of whom don’t even know anything is happening. The adults are more concerned with politics, the Cold War, and their own lives, histories, and problems.
Because Lawton’s character, Troy, is an international figure (Russian parents, British citizenship, spies for friends), the book takes place in various places from Beirut to Moscow (!) to London to New York. The Moscow sections are the most fascinating, because Lawton convincingly gets Troy there, and because it feels as if we’re in Soviet Russia. The entire book feels convincing, which is the hallmark of a great writer.
Lawton’s first three novels, Black Out, Old Flames, and A Little White Death, take place in different eras with the same characters. I didn’t have a suspicion as to why until I was most of the way through Old Flames. When I finished A Little White Death, I knew why.
Lawton wrote a trilogy about Troy’s relationship with two people (whose names I can’t mention or I’ll spoil Black Out). The high—or low—points in those relationships appear in these three books. The relationships end in A Little White Death—and Troy might be done too. But there are still four books left in the Troy series. After this, Lawton takes Troy back in time, and I’ll wager that we start a new trilogy. (As I write this little piece, I haven’t yet read the others.)
I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s spectacular. I haven’t read an author who excites me this much in years.
Lawton, John, Old Flames, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996. Wow. Wow. Wow. Amazing, powerful book, which the reviewers compared to Le Carré and Alan Furst. Yet it’s not like their books, and perhaps that’s the problem that Lawton ran into early on. Old Flames was hard to get in paper, although you can find e-book editions. (I like reading British books in paper—the differences in punctuation don’t look like typos to me then.)
Old Flames set in April, 1956, at the dawn of the Suez Crisis, which I knew about vaguely, but not in the way that I’m sure some readers will know. My sense is that setting the book then, in London, for British readers would be like setting a story in D.C. during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yes, the world was aware of it, but not in the middle of it in quite the way people of each country were.
Lawton’s hero, Inspector Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard, is fascinating. He isn’t too savvy about people, particularly women, and he’s occasionally plodding in his investigations. It’s almost like reading a novel in which Dr. Watson is the hero, not Sherlock Holmes. He gets there, but through blundering and an occasional misstep, not through brilliance.
Although Troy has flashes of brilliance. And he’s not dumb. He’s just not…American. No righteous sense of right or wrong, no guilt (not really), and a willingness to live with shades of gray that American heroes, particularly of detective stories or spy thrillers do not have. This makes him tolerant, so when he’s finally pushed to the brink, as he is in this book, it’s amazingly powerful.
The book stands alone brilliantly, but it is better if you’ve read Black Out, which I recommended last month. In comparison with Old Flames, Black Out is clearly a first novel, with a great number of flaws. (It’s still a fine book.) Old Flames takes some of Lawton’s problems as a writer—his extreme subtlety, for example—and uses them to his advantage. Old Flames is also longer, with room to develop some quirky side characters (The Fat Man, Angus) who are a pleasure to read. I get the sense that either Lawton didn’t feel comfortable doing that in Black Out or some goofy editor made him cut those digressions and hurt the book.
Anyway, that’s all writerly analysis which has nothing to do with Old Flames. Let’s just say this: it’s a brilliant historical mystery/thriller, so realistic that I felt like I lived in London in 1956, with incredibly powerful characters whom I will never forget. Read this book. You won’t regret it.
Lepore, Jill, “Objection,” The New Yorker, May 23, 2011. This is a longish piece about Clarence Darrow. Lepore uses the release of two “new” biographies as her excuse for the piece, although I’m not sure how new the biographies are, since Dean has owned at least one of them for about a year now. Anyway, Lepore focuses on a case in Oshkosh, Wisconsin that I, as a good Wisconsin girl, did not know about. Apparently, the case made Darrow’s name. Interesting stuff, and so was the short biography of Darrow.
You can’t be a history major and an amateur historian without knowing about Darrow. But since I haven’t done a lot of research in the Gilded Age, I wasn’t as familiar with his biography, just what he did during early 20th century. So I found all of this very interesting. If you’re at all interested in the larger-than-life characters who exist throughout American history, then you’ll be interested in this.
Thanks for sharing, Kris.
I was thrilled to see that the Gladwell piece features Gary Starkweather prominently. I worked with Gary for many years at Microsoft Research, often chit-chatting with him in our hardware lab where we were both wont to hang out, disembowling old mice with dremel saws or jury-rigging new contraptions with hot glue and soldering irons.
Gary is just a wonderful man. He always had a great joke to share or fun stories about the old days at Xerox PARC and elsewhere.
He would tell one story about he would evaluate start-up companies. He would go and talk with the executives and the marketing guys and sit through their presentations.
Then, when the day was over, he’d sneak out back and see what they had in the dumpster.
If it was filled with memos and forms and discarded office supplies, he knew there was nothing to it.
But if it was filled with sawed-up old junk with wires and discarded scraps of sheet metal, he knew they were really doing something. They were making stuff. They were trying and they were creating and yes, they were failing with many attempts ending up in that dumpster.
The lesson was that you had to fail, over and over again, if you wanted to build something great.
That’s a lesson that applies to just as well to writing as it does to scientific research, and one which I try to keep at the fore of my mind in both endeavors.
In fact, I just won a significant award for one of those “dumpster” projects (on mobile sensors, now commonplace) that I worked away at while Gary regaled me with his tales of the laser printer. He taught me how to succeed by failing.
Thanks again and hope sanity soon returns to your world (and Dean’s) with all the estate stuff.
Great post, Ken. Thanks. (And thanks for the good wishes!)