I got back to reading in September, but bumped along on my choices. I had trouble concentrating in the first part of the month, since so much was going on in my life. I read a celebrity memoir and enjoyed it, but don’t feel it was good enough to recommend. Then I read two other series novels, neither of which were the best of the series (and one probably put me off that series for good because of an incest scene with the hero & his sister (!)), and a couple of romance novels that were so unmemorable that I couldn’t remember the character names or plot when I went back to the book every evening. I think the only reason I kept reading was inertia, which really isn’t like me.
Then I read one of my favorite writers and discovered that her latest book was one of her weakest ever. I kept expecting it to get better, but it never did. I finally read the cover copy and realized that even the editor had problems with it, since the cover copy described 85% of the book. Before I read the copy, I thought it described the opening of the book. [sigh]
So I went back to short fiction, and finally got back on track in the middle of the month (thank heavens!). I found some really great stuff. This is what I can share:
Baggott, Jim, The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-1949, Pegasus, 2010. I found this book in Powell’s on the way to the conference in Reno last month. I hadn’t heard about it or heard anyone talk about it, but it looked fascinating. It is.
Baggott is a science writer for various journals, so his prose is easy to follow, even when he’s explaining the discoveries that led to the atom bomb. Mostly he follows the personalities involved all over the world—from the U.S. to England to France to the Soviet Union to Germany and beyond. It sounds daunting and complex, but the nifty thing about this book is that it examines an aspect of World War II that gets mentioned in other histories but not explored in this depth. It is not just a popular history book with all the goodness that entails, but an excellent history of science book as well.
And because Baggott is dealing with nuclear bombs, the book also deals with all of the philosophical arguments for and against such weaponry, the very ideas that the physcists themselves ended up grappling with. The book is riveting. I read it in the middle of the post-Worldcon Bill mess, and the book kept my attention, something other books weren’t doing. Worth the read.
Butcher, Jim, “The Warrior,” Mean Streets, Roc 2009. A novella that takes place in between a few of the Harry Dresden books, but it can stand alone. I can’t say too much about the story because it might spoil some things for folks who haven’t read all of the novels yet, but suffice to say there’s some nice fights, a bit of good investigating, an appearance by Butters, and a little bit of speechifying. A very nice addition to the series.
Chabon, Michael, “Art of Cake,” Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perennial, 2009. A great little essay on the way that we pass our habits onto our children. Chabon talks about how he learned to cook from his mother, and how he’s now using her recipes—which include recipes from her mother, and her mother, and so on. He’s teaching his children, of course.
It’s a cool bit of heredity that he’s passing onto his children. The one time I regret that I don’t have children is that I can’t pass on the family cooking traditions. I have a lot of stained recipes from my mother and grandmother. I’ve sent copies to my siblings, since apparently, I was the only one who asked Mom to write things down before she died. Even then some of the recipes are difficult—no measurements, for example, and in one case, no cooking time or stove temperature. But I had watched as a child, and remember quite a bit of it, so was able to reconstruct it.
Chabon is just enough younger than me that his mother got caught in the 1970s gender revolution. She taught her son things normally taught to daughters. And his essay about this is wonderful.
Chabon, Michael, “The Binding of Isaac,” Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perennial, 2009. Chabon wrote this essay after standing in Grant Park on the night Obama got elected. Chabon had his five-year-old son on his shoulders so the boy could see the historic event, and Chabon found himself reflecting on the Obama girls and the changes their lives would now go through. I wondered those girls as well that night, but I’m not a parent. Chabon looked at it from a parent’s point of view, what the Obamas were asking of their girls, what parents ask of their children. Thoughtful and interesting.
Chabon, Michael, “Legoland Station,” Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perennial, 2009. A fascinating piece on the imagination, and the way that Legos channels it. Chabon discusses the difference between Legos when we were kids and Legos now, and worries (frets?) that his kids aren’t learning how to imagine things. I have no idea if this is a perennial parenthood worry or if he’s onto something, but I found the essay fascinating anyway.
Chabon, Michael, “The Losers Club,” Manhood For Amateurs, Harper Perennial, 2009. A lovely essay on being young, being a fan of something, being a bit of a geek. I love the analysis on the way fannishness turns into writerlyness. Good stuff.
Deaver, Jeffrey, “Bump,” Dead Man’s Hand, edited by Otto Penzler, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007. Wonderful story about a reality TV poker show. Unlike the poker shows on TV now, this one features has-beens (usually TV stars) betting $250,000 of their own money. Because it’s in a mystery anthology and because Deaver’s writing it, you know something criminal will happen, but it’s fun finding out what that criminal thing is. He also captures what it really feels like to be behind the scenes in Hollywood—how cheesy, fako, and plain old uncomfortable it can be.
King, Stephen, “Mile 81,” Kindle Short, 2011. A marvelous, traditional King horror story about a person-eating car at a rest stop. But oh, it’s so much more fun than that. Some nice insights into childhood, and the way things can change in an instant. And the story is riveting. I couldn’t put it down.
Kogan, Deborah Copaken, “America’s Real Favorite Pastime? Judging Women,” More Magazine, July/August, 2011. I’ll be honest. I was astonished to see this piece in More. As I’d mentioned before, I’d pretty much given up on the magazine. Its focus had changed from something for older women to Vogue Lite. When it did cover anything political, the politics were conservative, almost Tea Partyish, which is decidedly not me.
So when I saw this piece, I started reading it with a bit of hesitation. I didn’t need to hesitate. Kogan, a photojournalist, writes about her experiences abroad in support of Lara Logan, the CBS reporter who got brutally raped last winter while covering the Middle East. Kogan also got sexually assaulted on assignment and she claims that most female journalists overseas, particularly in more repressive countries, do get attacked. Most women don’t report it for fear of losing their jobs. And considering how many people (men) I heard complain that Logan was in the Middle East in the first place (She’s too pretty. What’s a blond doing there?), I understand completely. I started into the workforce in the late 1970s and often didn’t report inappropriate behavior on the part of men either, figuring I had to endure it or lose my job. (And in those days, pre-Anita Hill, that was probably true.) One of the (many) reasons I hesitated about becoming an investigative journalist/overseas correspondent was my gender and a fear that I would be unprotected over there. Turns out my fears were justified.
But that doesn’t mean that women should avoid those areas. Logan is back to work now, and Kogan writes about continuing on in the face of all the obstacles she encountered. Her essay is raw and powerful. Worth the read.
Parker, T. Jefferson, LA Outlaws, Dutton, 2008. I have always liked T. Jefferson Parker’s short stories. In fact, I use one of them to show my students how important punctuation is (without the punctuation—which is unique and not English-teacher perfect—the scene makes no sense). I hadn’t tried one of his novels before. I’m not sure what made me pull LA Outlaws off the shelf, but I did, and I’m happy I did.
LA Outlaws follows a criminal, Allison Murrieta, and a sheriff’s deputy, Charlie Hood, after they meet. They meet when he pulls her over as she’s fleeing a crime scene with a satchel full of diamonds. Only he doesn’t know that, then. Things get out of hand, of course, and it’s all very LA, and very fascinating. The writing is stellar, the characters great, and except for one quibble in the plot (there’s a missing scene that he should have written; you’ll find it), I thought the book fantastic. Worth reading, particularly if you’ve never picked up any Parker.
Sedaris, David, “Easy, Tiger,” The New Yorker, July 11-18, 2011. Apparently Sedaris travels as much as I do, and has the same kind of attitude toward it. He tries to learn a bit of the language before he goes. This is a funny essay about doing that, about the various programs he uses (and I do too), and the cultural attitudes he gets from them. (These lessons have saved my butt more times than I want to admit—not because of the words I absorbed, but the way of doing things. Such as the way that Germans refer to time. If I hadn’t known that, I wouldn’t have understood something as simple as setting a wake-up call or making an appointment.)
The essay is fun. Sedaris is always worth reading, but this one really struck my funny bone.
Sides, Hampton, Hellhound on His Trail, Anchor Books, 2010 & 2011. I’ve done a lot of reading on the Martin Luther King assassination for my Smokey Dalton novels (which, before you ask, will be reissued next year, and a new one sold but no pub date yet). I never read about the manhunt for James Earl Ray because it had nothing to do with the novels. So while the pre-assassination stuff is familiar to me, at least as it pertains to Dr. King, the rest of the book wasn’t.
This book is riveting and almost impossible to put down. I don’t remember a lot of what happened here from my childhood. (I was nearly eight when the assassination occurred.) But I do remember Ray’s later escape from prison, also covered here. I think anyone who likes a good nonfiction book will like this. It’s extremely well written and vivid, paced properly, and memorable. It’s really worth your time.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “Just Shoot Me Now!” WMG Publishing, 2011. A wonderful Poker Boy story…featuring cherubs. Yes, cherubs and poker and the wacky world of Poker Boy. What more could you want?
Valentino, Claudia, “Welcome to the Fun House of Memory,” More, July/August, 2011. Valentino writes a lovely essay about finding truth buried in your memories. We’ve all wondered if something that we remember actually happened, especially if it occurred when we were very young. I often talk about John F. Kennedy’s death. I don’t remember the actual shooting. I was three, and such things really aren’t appropriate for a child. I do recall the funeral however. I knew I was at home, that my parents were gone, and that my newborn nephew had died that very week. My parents and my brother (and presumably his wife) were driving from Iowa to Wisconsin that day to bury my nephew next to my dad’s father, whom my brother loved dearly.
I recall looking at John Jr. salute the casket and someone telling me that I should pay attention to him, because he was my age, and look how he was holding up in the face of such grief. (This started a lifelong obsession with the Kennedys for me.) I don’t remember who said it. I still don’t remember it. But I now know who told me. It was my sister Peg, all of 19 at the time, struggling to cope with the loss and the grief herself. I know this because I told the story of JFK’s funeral at a family gathering and Peg looked at me, startled. “You remember that?” she asked in great shock. Then we talked about the day and she told me about it from her perspective. Me, I was stunned that I had confirmation that the memory—so fragmented—was real.
The fragments are what Valentino is dealing with in this essay, and how she got confirmation. Her parents are dead and she’s an only child, so she actively sought evidence of the things she remembered—and found more of it than she expected. This is a heartfelt essay, even if all of your memories are intact.