Recommended Reading List: May, 2014
I finally read the New Yorker piece on Amazon that so many of you asked me about. Oh, boy. The company rag in the company town has no idea what it just did. George Packer couldn’t interview anyone from Amazon, so he settled for disgruntled employees. Apparently he couldn’t Google actual statistics so he relied on “might haves” and “maybes” (where were the fact checkers here? The New Yorker brags that it has so many!). He didn’t interview any authors who ventured out on their own into self-publishing or indie publishing. And he talked to a lot of people in New York publishing, who repeated all the crap that they have made up—which he acknowledged by saying none of these people ever work directly with Amazon. Whoops!
And what is this about writers making less money? If he’d actually talked to writers working as hybrid writers (or indie writers), he would discover that more writers than ever are making a living with their art.
Packer interviewed the monks who copied books and illustrated them beautifully (to keep knowledge alive) and asked them what they thought of this printing press thing. “It’ll never work; It gets knowledge into the wrong hands”; and the kicker (which is actually in the article) “Publishing is slow. When you speed it up, you only get crap.” Sorry, have to laugh, monks. Yes, your method is slow. The new world isn’t.
Such a sadly delusional and misleading piece, poorly researched and written from a conclusion reached before any work was even on the page. It happens in all publications. I’m sad to see it happen here, only because I usually enjoy the magazine. But it’s no surprise, given the magazine’s name and location. The company town is losing one of its industries to the plebs in flyover country (and the horridly business-oriented West Coast). Wah.
I’m only going on this screed because so many of you asked me about the article and I will recommend some other pieces from the same issue below, so I know you’ll know I saw it.
As for my other reading in May, I managed to read a surprising amount of stuff, much of it good. I started into one of my favorite anthology series, realized that the guest editor and I had wildly divergent tastes, and spent a few days dithering about that. Then I stopped being a completist and moved to the next volume. I’m happier now. 🙂
Got halfway through a romance and gave up, started a mystery novel that has fantastic voice but I couldn’t remember who the characters were, let alone the plot, so I gave that up too. Read some books for research which were great for me, but not recommendable. And then the wonderful pieces below. It really was a good month.
On another note, if you want to see some of the other things I’ve been reading in 2013/2014, pick up the latest Fiction River, Fantasy Adrift. This issue has some amazing stories by relatively new (and new!) writers, as well as some marvelous stories by old favorites. Since I’m the editor on the volume, I (obviously) recommend them all.
Below are the pieces that I recommend that I didn’t edit.
Angell, Roger, “This Old Man,” The New Yorker, February 17-24, 2014. Beautiful essay with a terrible subtitle (“Life in the nineties” which I thought meant the 1990s, but actually means his nineties). I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read it, and I’m writing this little review weeks afterward. What prompted me to record this right after I read it is that we’ve been dealing with cat issues, and we had to put two cats down. It’s sad for us, tragic for them, and hard.
The thing is, we’ve done it more than a dozen times. It’s part of the contract we make with the shorter-lived pets we adopt. Death itself, though, is part of life’s contract.
Why do I mention my personal life in connection to Angell’s essay? Because in the midst of this cat turmoil, I keep thinking about something he wrote here:
Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight…. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?
Normally, we tell stories about our long-gone cats, and rarely about the day they died. It’s astonishing how long they’ve been gone, and how raw the pain can still be about the heart-cats. He mentions pets briefly here (his new dog [yes, he has a dog that might outlive him] he named after his stepfather, which I find weird), but the dead he’s referring to are the multitudinous human dead we all accumulate as we age.
It only gets worse the older we get, the list of names of people who exist only in memory now. And that’s part of the point of Angell’s essay. But not all of it. He writes about the way people ignore him, this incredibly successful 93-year-old man who is still writing beautiful essays. He writes:
Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”
I’ve seen all of this, and done some of it, especially when I was younger. Old age is an as yet undiscovered country, but I sense it looming on the horizon, so I’m always reading dispatches from there. Writers who make it that far—and write about it—are few and far between, so I value the essays a great deal.
I’ve read a lot of them, and Angell’s is, perhaps, the best. He’s not complaining here; he writes with a lot of humor and some pathos, but not as much as you’d expect.
The question I’ve been thinking of this past month in regards to the dozens of cats I’ve dealt with isn’t “why am I not constantly grieving?” but “how many more times do I want to go through this turmoil of making a life-and-death decision for a living creature?”
As I read dispatches from the country of old age, I am reminded that it’s part of the contract I somehow agreed to before I was born; if you love, you will suffer loss. But you will also gain so much happiness, that it’s startling when it becomes something only you remember and something no one else will know if you don’t write it down.
So…click the link and read this essay. The New Yorker has it up for free.
Dubois, Brendan, “The Plow Guy,” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August, 2014. Fascinating story about a man who retires from his government job (doing things best left undiscussed) who moves to a small New England town with the idea that he’ll clean things up. He buys a plow, and plows people’s driveways as a way to make extra money. Or maybe he has a different reason for doing that. Biting, original story, well worth your time—as all Brendan’s stories are.
Edidin, Rachel, “The Other Side of the Desk,” Chicks Dig Comics, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis, Mad Norwegian Press, April 2012. A lovely short essay on the joys of editing. I’m more of a writer than an editor (she considers herself more editor than writer), but I empathize with all she’s written here. If you want to understand why people edit, read this.
Ellis, Sigrid, “Kitty Queer,” Chicks Dig Comics, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis, Mad Norwegian Press, April 2012. If you ever doubted the importance of fiction in general and comics in particular, then read Ellis’s moving essay on the way that comics helped her realize who she is and gave her the courage to come out.
If you read the fan essays about comics in particular, you’ll see a lot of essays about the ways that comics empowered their readers to accept their lives or the difficulties they face. Ellis’s essay is a beautiful tribute to the way that fictional characters save and change our actual lives. Spectacular.
Garrison, Tammy, “I’m Batman,” Chicks Dig Comics, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis, Mad Norwegian Press, April 2012. I love this essay. It’s about choosing between being a victim or a survivor, someone who reacts horribly to the things done to you or choosing to do something positive. And it’s also about being a jerk. (Batman is; I am.) Batman is my favorite superhero precisely because he’s dark, and sees the world in shades of gray. (I have a lot of trouble relating to Superman; His relentless optimism clashes with my worldview.) This essay articulates what I love about Batman despite his flaws. Well done.
Kashner, Sam, “The Class That Roared,” Vanity Fair, March, 2014. I had no idea that Walt Disney funded the California Institute of the Arts or that many of the students from the 1970s have become today’s animation auteurs. Lots of good art, writing, production stuff here—plus the way that community comes together (along with a bit of estate planning as well).
Kuhn, Sarah, “Me Vs. Me,” Chicks Dig Comics, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis, Mad Norwegian Press, April 2012. Flame wars, fights, arguments about seemingly unimportant things to the people who don’t understand those things. The internet makes them so much easier, and seem so much more important. Sarah Kuhn starts with the classic comics question—who would win in a fight?—and then looks to see if that’s even relevant.
It’s important, because there’s so much political correctness now that harms our enjoyment of the work of storytellers. We storytellers are a cranky and unlovely bunch, when it comes down to it. We’re often not nice people, but our stories often reach to people who are nothing like us and who take what they need from our fiction. It’s our job to keep our personal lives and politics and selves in the fiction, but not in public as us so that it destroys the enjoyment of fans and readers. In my opinion anyway.
I have my opinions about who would win in a fight, based on my own interpretations of everything. Why do we have to pick between Betty and Veronica, Batman or Superman? One worldview over another? As Sarah Kuhn neatly states, each person is different, and when we are forced to choose, no one wins. It’s hard to be accepting of others, but it’s necessary even when—especially when—their view of the world differs from ours.
I love how she states all of that here, and also shows how harmful some worldviews can be to some people, as well as how we have to learn how to accept the “who wins in a fight” between different aspects of ourselves as well. Nicely done, and worth the price of the book all by itself.
Lewis, Michael, Flash Boys, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. I love Michael Lewis’s work. Somehow he takes complex topics and breaks them down in understandable ways.
This book, Flash Boys, discusses the high-speed traders and the problems building in the stock market because of them. The book came out this year, and already some are calling for regulation because of it (finally). While the sensational aspects of the book are interesting, to me they are the least interesting. What I find fascinating is the way that high speed trading works, and how the people in this book discovered it was circumventing the system.
The front part of the book is about computers, tech, and what looked like an insolvable (and hidden) mystery. I blew through that part. The ending—which isn’t an ending at all, because this is real life—discusses the solution that Our Heroes came up with in late 2012. The solution hasn’t had time to prove itself, and so I found this part of the book less compelling.
Still, it’s worth reading, and it won’t take you long. It’s as if you’re reading a thriller with a poorly conceived ending. Take the thriller part, and then remember you’re reading nonfiction. You will enjoy.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “The Life of A Dream,” Smith’s Monthly, May, 2014. Dean includes a full novel (which he then publishes separately) in each Smith’s Monthly. This month’s novel is the first Earth Protection League novel. I’m sooooo happy about this, because I’ve been nagging him to write this series for about ten years now—and he’s finally doing it!
The EPL stories seem like space opera, but really, they’ve got so much more depth. Because of the way that time, space, and matter work in Dean’s universe, traveling quickly across the galaxy accelerates the aging process one way or another. So, in this book, elderly people are taking from their nursing homes to fight as young people on the far side of the galaxy, in an attempt to defend Earth.
This conceit has all of the danger inherent in good space opera, a lot of sweet romance, and that hint of sadness that comes from aging, death, and dying. The tension at the end of this book comes from all of those things, and this reader actually told the author to stop yapping at her while she was reading so she could scurry to the end of the manuscript. Yep, that intense, and that good.
I hope Dean writes more in this series. I just love it. I hope you will too.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “A Taste of How Rosie Lived,” Smith’s Monthly, May, 2014. Heartbreakingly beautiful fantasy story set—of all places—in a nursing home. Read this one. I think it’s award quality.
Surowecki, James, “Twilight of the Brands,” The New Yorker, February 17-24, 2014. The same issue that had that poorly done Packer article had this fascinating short piece on the Financial Page. Somehow Surowecki manages to give a short history of brands and branding in a very few words. He also explains why brands are less important now than they were 40 years ago. If you want to understand what branding is, why it is, and how it might move into the modern world, read this.
Tartt, Donna, The Goldfinch, Kindle edition, Little, Brown and Company, 2013. I’ve been intrigued by this book since it came out. When I learned that the book was 755 pages long, I realized that I would end up buying the Kindle edition no matter what (755 pages is too heavy to hold in hardcover; print too tiny in paper), so I just ponied up and bought the thing.
Honestly, I couldn’t put it down. I have no idea why. Our hero is, in the words of the romance writers, TSTL (too stupid to live), but I gave him a pass because the first incident happens when he’s a child—and children often don’t know how to deal with things.
The book’s structure is fascinating. It begins near the end, with Theo Decker an adult in Europe, but he then indulges in a 500 (or so) page flashback, letting us know how he got to Europe and why.
The plot is strong and compelling, even if it is based on Theo’s sheer dumbness, but that’s not the joy in reading this book. The joy comes from the characters, the setting, and the way the prose never ever ever lets you free. Sometimes I worried about Theo, sometimes I worried about his friends, sometimes I worried about a little yappy dog. These tiny worries moved the book forward at a brisk pace. One problem would get solved as another came up.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, I called the book “alarmingly Dickensian,” to a friend, and it is. Very rarely do American authors have the ability to create such a memorable world with such abundant and larger-than-life characters. That seems the provenance of the Brits who seem to do it in their sleep. All the joys of Dickens are here—the memorable characters, the impossible but somehow real world—combined with a modern pacing that keeps the pages turning.
I loved this book, and when I finished it, I realized that I shouldn’t have. Tartt broke every single rule of writing that I know, and she made it work. That’s why writers should know the rules first, and then feel free to break them.
Read this book. You’ll be happy you did.
Thomas, Lynne M., and Ellis, Sigrid, Chicks Dig Comics: A Celebration of Comic Books By The Women Who Love Them, Mad Norwegian Press, April 2012. A dear friend gave me this book after he attended Emerald City Comic Con. He says he saw it and thought of me. He and I differ politically on almost everything, but we understand that about each other and discuss it—value it—rather than try to change each other. This book is just one example of how we both celebrate our differences. He found it, and knew it was right for me.
Somewhere in the essays contained herein, a writer mentions how it felt to be a young girl in the 1970s and to venture into a comic store or a place that sold comics (usually alongside porn). I remember that. I couldn’t take the looks and the comments. I left, and stopped reading comics, except the ones my cousin gave me when he was done with them. (Since I only saw him once a year—and he was ten years older—I got very few comics.) My mother, when she found the comics, threw them away because they were periodicals, like magazines, in her opinion. Not worth saving. (She also threw away my father’s Playboys which he’d had in the attic from the very first issue. [sigh])
This book covers the gamut of being female and loving comics, everything from the older fan like me, who had a lot of trouble maintaining her geek cred because she didn’t have access to the stories as a child and teenager, to the younger fans coming in late to the various storylines that had gone on for generations. The essays herein explore all aspects of female geekness, from gender issues to sexual issues to expectations to romance, and perhaps, most important from my point of view, acceptance of all forms of humanity.
I used to love sf conventions for that reason: it didn’t matter who you were; you were accepted. Right now, the small sf community is eating its young—they’ve actually chosen sides (you and your friends are evil; me and my friends are good) and it breaks my heart. I can only hope that some day sf conventions return to their inclusive roots, and I hope that books like this, given from a friend whom some would now think was on one side of a divide to another friend who was perceived to be on the other side of the divide, will help readers find their way back to understanding each other instead of condemning each other.
A girl can dream, right? (And she can also read a great collection of essays like this.)
Van Meter, Jen, “Vampirella, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Page Turn,” Chicks Dig Comics, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis, Mad Norwegian Press, April 2012. Another essay on the importance of comics, especially for those of us who had no other way to understand the world. This essay is fantastic, with its analysis of the difficulties of bad people, the potential for evil, and the strength it takes to find your own path. Easier now than it was for those of us who grew up forty and fifty years ago, but still not that easy. Really well done.
Wheaton, Wil, “YOU STAND AT THE EDGE WHILE PEOPLE RUN YOU THROUGH”, WIL WHEATONdotNet, May 23, 2014. An amazing personal essay on depression. Clearly, Wheaton battles it as so many of us do. This is the first essay of his I’ve read about it, and it’s fantastic. He’s writing about how even success can throw someone into a dark place. There’s no logic to it, but there can be understanding. Please read this, particularly if you or a loved one battles with depression.
That is similar to my response.
I’ve been a reader and subscriber to the New Yorker for over a decade. What I’ve discovered when reading an article about a subject I know anything at all about is that they always get several crucial facts wrong.
New York is a great city and might or might not be the most cosmopolitan city on earth. But the explosion of creativity in the digital age is more than any single city could hope to “curate.” But so much of the publishing industry’s “power” and self image depends on the myth of New York as the cultural hub of the world. It’s not. It hasn’t been for a long time, if it ever was.