Recommended Reading List: November, 2014
Finished the Linda Fairstein binge. I am now caught up. Yay! The last time I did this was with Lee Child. Before that, Michael Connelly—but that was in the days before Kindle, so I had to haunt used bookstores and read out of order. (Did that with Ian Rankin as well. Hmmm, mysteries and binge reading—must be something I do.)
I had a lot of time for reading in November, and I took advantage of it. Even with some missteps, I managed to read lots of good things. One misstep in particular disappointed me: a bookseller gave me an extra ARC he’d received from a writer we both love. The book was so dark, so depressing, and so hard to read that I finally gave up halfway through. Much as I loved that writer’s work, I would actually avoid my reading chair so I didn’t have to delve deeper into that novel. I don’t mind dark, usually. But I do mind unrelenting and hard to read. [sigh]
This month reaffirmed something I’ve always known about myself: I hate literary pretentiousness. And I found it in a lot of my reading. It didn’t help that the guest editor of The Best American Essays has wildly different taste than I do. I really don’t care about essays with one-page block paragraphs or lovely language. He also didn’t do the real work of editing, by putting stuff in an easily digestible order—instead having a raped/dead child section because the authors’ pieces were alphabetical instead of easing us in and out of the difficult essays. He didn’t do the worst job I’d seen of editing the year’s best essays—that was the poet a few years ago. But it was close. (And his introductory essay was almost unreadable.)
Of course, if he were to see this recommended reading list, along with the bestsellers and the tie-in novel, he would consider my opinion worthless. Because good people don’t let their friends read popular books. My mind must be cheese or something.
Some of the magazines had entire literary-pretension issues, which they do at times. It just happened to coincide with this year’s best essay reading—and ick. [sigh] One magazine had a long essay about the “problem” with The Goldfinch. The problem was that it was a bestseller—and it’s winning awards. That bestseller thing makes it trash, you know, so the awards are going to hell. At least, according to everyone quoted in that article. This is why we need gatekeepers. So that they can protect us from the books we want to read.
Enough snark. Moving on.
Thank heavens, I discovered Roxane Gay this month. Her essays have provided a tonic. I feel about her work the way I felt about the essays of Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, Alice Walker, and Ursula K. Le Guin when I discovered them. Finally, someone who gets it. Since I’m reading a collection of Roxane Gay’s work, you’ll see her mentioned here (and next month) quite a bit.
Atwan, Robert, “Foreword,” The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Usually I don’t recommend series editor Robert Atwan’s forewords to the Best American essays. They’re usually similar, and informative.
This year, though, he got a bee up his butt or something. He goes on about political correctness and how it’s harming the essay, which means it’s harming thought. He goes on for pages, writing an impassioned essay himself about expressing ideas and doubts that aren’t in the mainstream. Wonderful stuff.
Balogh, Mary, Only Enchanting, Signet, 2014. As regular readers of the Recommended Reading List know, I love Mary Balogh’s work. She often writes in series as defined by the romance world—books about related characters. In this case, the related characters are members of The Survivors Club, a group of Napoleonic war survivors who were badly injured and unable to return to normal life.
This book’s survivor, Flavian (don’t ask), has a traumatic brain injury. Only of course, in the early 19th century, it wasn’t called that. He has a lot of repercussions from the head injury, and lost his fiancée because the entire family thought him so damaged he would never recover. Initially, he couldn’t speak and had to relearn everything. He also had dark rages and holes in his memory.
Balogh doesn’t take the easy romance way out, where the hero overcomes his issues, and is finally able to be “normal” again. She works with the flawed material, gives the injured party a well matched partner, and lets the romance happen.
As a result, this book is surprisingly sweet. It’s a good, quick read.
Brenner, Wendy, “Strange Beads,” The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Brenner suffered a severe health crisis in the last decade, which, combined with the death of her ex-fiancé, sent her spiraling into depression. Oddly, a listing on EBay might have saved her. She explores collections and collecting, and their ties to identity and loss. Fascinating.
Child, Lee, Personal, Delacourt, 2014. When Child is on his game, he’s one of our best writers. He knows how to pace, has a firm command of viewpoint, and can write some of the best descriptions in popular fiction. His writing is light-years above any writing I saw in the pretentious literary reading I mentioned in the introduction.
The book’s title fits. Reacher gets called back to service by the U.S. government for an odd reason—he arrested a possible world-class sniper back in the day, and the government wants him to track the guy again. Only Reacher understands immediately that the government wants him as bait. The book proceeds from there.
Let me have a writerly geek moment, however. Child varies his Reacher books. Some are told from multiple points of view, in the third person including Reacher. Others are told in first person only, just from the perspective of Reacher.
Child doesn’t do this randomly. He makes sure form suits the function. When a Reacher book is first person, it’s because the plot wouldn’t hold if we were in the other characters’ heads. If the book is in third person, it’s often because Reacher can’t be everywhere and see everything the reader needs to understand for the novel.
Child presents a master class in point of view whenever he writes. Personal wouldn’t work in third person. And, you know what? It wouldn’t be personal either.
Dermatis, Dayle A., “Desperate Housewitches,” Uncollected Anthology: Winter Witches, Soul’s Road Press, 2014. I’m behind on some of my Uncollected Anthology reading from the previous group (including Dayle’s story), but I couldn’t pass this one up, just based on the title.
Trust Dayle to write a winter holiday story about the solstice and magic. She manages to combine the claustrophobia of a suburban neighborhood with the competitiveness that women sometimes engage in with holiday ritual. Only the holiday ritual here isn’t decorating a Christmas tree or singing carols (although there is a discussion of carolers that made me chuckle). Nope. This one is about pagan rituals. The story’s wonderful, funny, and a do-not-miss.
Fairstein, Linda, Death Angel, Signet Select, 2014. Very creepy book that I thought would be about the Brooke Astor problem. Turned out to be something else entirely.
A woman is found dead in Central Park beneath the statue of the Bethesda angel, Alex Cooper and the gang think maybe this is the first act of a deranged psycho. But it’s so much more. She takes us through the history of the park and the expensive buildings nearby like the Dakota, which I found just plain fascinating.
Fairstein, Linda, Night Watch, Signet Select, 2013. I almost didn’t mention this one because it makes me really uncomfortable. Cleary based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case a few years ago, the book made me feel like I’m reading a roman a clef. I probably was, despite all of her protests at the end. Still, I found myself thinking about it, and the difficulties of prosecuting a high profile case in this media culture. Because it wouldn’t let me go, I’m recommending it.
Fairstein, Linda, Terminal City, Dutton, 2014. This book came out in June. Again, I almost didn’t recommend it because the relationship between Mike Chapman and Alex Cooper had devolved into something verbally abusive. I’m still disturbed by that, even though they patch things up in the middle. That relationship—which has been becoming romantic—has gotten more verbally nasty in the last few books, and that makes me uncomfortable.
That said, I found everything else about this book fascinating. The Grand Central Terminal history, the Waldorf-Astoria stuff—much of which I knew. But Fairstein describes everything so very well that I really feel like I’m there as I read. I’m truly disappointed that I’ve come to the end of the binge. So it looks like I’ll be picking up the 17th book in the series when it appears next year.
Gay, Roxane, “I Was Once Miss America,” Bad Feminist: Essays, Harper Perennial, 2014. I cannot express how much I love this essay. It is, essentially, about being the nerdy kid who wants to belong. Gay starts with discussing the Miss America contest, and how empowering it was for all of us when Vanessa Williams won. (I now find it even more empowering that she has persevered after the “revelations” that forced her out of the crown, and how that incident is mostly forgotten.)
Gay starts there, but she doesn’t stop there. Instead, she moves to high school, the cool kids, and the Sweet Valley High books. She’s an unabashed fan of those books, and I find that marvelous. I wish I knew where this essay originally appeared, because I suspect she wrote in about Sweet Valley High in a respected literary journal, which is even more fun.
Her attitude toward the cool kids makes me think of the Echosmith song, “Cool Kids,” but Gay wrote the essay before that song appeared.
I’m amazed this essay didn’t appear in a year’s best. Probably because it discusses, in an almost fannish way, something that Lit Crit doesn’t allow (beloved books that are anything but canon). Wonderful. If you only read one essay in this book, this is the essay to read.
Gay, Roxane, “See Me, Feel Me, Hear Me, Reach Me,” Bad Feminist: Essays, Harper Perennial, 2014. Gay has divided her collection of essays into little sections. The section in which this essay appears is called “Me,” and while this essay is personal, it’s also a wise treatise on what we all think we have in common, and what we probably don’t. Just because we are the same gender or the same race or the same class doesn’t mean we are the same. She explores this in a quite moving way—actually starting and ending with the internet (internet dating sites to be specific)—and wanders, like personal essays do, into other equally fascinating territory.
Gay, Roxane, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” Bad Feminist: Essays, Harper Perennial, 2014. I never thought an essay about Scrabble tournaments would be so fascinating—and funny. Because she was bored in the small town where her new teaching job landed her, Gay started playing competitive Scrabble. (Dyslexic me would’ve watched more TV.) She describes her emotions, the other players, how competitive Scrabble works—and, oh my! The footnotes. They’re snide and fun. (“His name was Jim. [footnote: His name was not Jim].”) Lovely stuff.
Gay, Roxane, “Typical First Year Professor,” Bad Feminist: Essays, Harper Perennial, 2014. I come from a family of professors. I spent the first 21 years of my life in a university setting, and Gay nails it. The insecurity (of the professor), the difficulties with the students, the joys of teaching—all here, and delightfully portrayed.
Gordon, Mary, “On Enmity,” The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. A very disturbing essay on the meaning of the word “enemy.” She wrote it in little bits, and examines who and what could be someone’s enemy—from the seasons to a parent. Creepy and thought-provoking. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I read it.
Grisham, John, Gray Mountain, Doubleday, 2014. After I finished Gray Mountain, I combed the internet to see what the “real” critics had to say about it. I knew they would struggle: I had no idea how much.
The early critical journals that mostly write reviews for the book trade hated the book, because, they said, it wasn’t thrilling. Some newspapers (courageous types that still had review columns) mentioned the book, and then discussed Grisham’s stupid comments in October. (Don’t go there. I try not to.) Some papers and magazines actually got what he was trying to do.
Full disclosure: Despite the image of the running woman on the cover and the jacket copy, Gray Mountain is not a thriller. It’s not meant to be a thriller. It’s not even close to a thriller. It’s a literary novel.
Now, I know, as most publishers do, that the literary novel label will send 90% of you running in the other direction. And that’s too bad. Because Grisham combined two traditions: the literary novel about a single important turning point in a woman’s life and a muckraking novel of a kind we haven’t seen since Sinclair Lewis nearly 100 years ago. Grisham takes on Big Coal, and makes a case against it.
More to my taste, his case is also against the way that corporations and the law go hand-in-hand in some parts of America. Jeez, who else writes about corporations controlling the law—not someone who writes mysteries set on the Moon…? (I always love it when people tell me that the situations I set up in the Retrieval Artist novels would never happen. I smile to myself and move the conversation along.)
Anyway, because Grisham is an amazing storyteller, the book moves fast. Samantha Kofer loses her high-end lawyer job as the recession hits in 2008, and takes a position with a legal aid firm in Virginia. Cultures clash as she learns about small town life. Characters come alive, and Grisham even flirts with some romance tropes. The book made me laugh aloud in several places, particularly when it came to some estate business. About 30 pages from the end, I worried that Grisham couldn’t wrap up all the threads he had dangling—and yet he did.
Grisham has become the kind of writer I just love. I have stopped reading so many long-term bestsellers because they write the same book over and over again. Grisham does write about the little guy taking on a big bad corporation/evil a lot, but every writer has themes. Grisham uses different styles and different techniques to tell his stories.
Gray Mountain has more in common with Grisham’s short stories than it does with The Firm. And while The Firm was a kick-butt thriller, Gray Mountain is the kind of novel that introduces you to people, a way of life, and a point of view you might never have encountered before. Worth reading.
Lahr, John, “Caught in the Act,” The New Yorker, September 15, 2014. This long piece about the career of Al Pacino is fascinating. I didn’t know much of it, even though I love Pacino. I knew about his passion for acting, but not about some of the difficulties he encountered. (Everyone who works in the arts encounters difficulties throughout their careers.)
There’s a lot of good advice for writers here, mostly about perseverance. And then there’s this:
In mid-2010, Pacino learned that his business manager, Kenneth I. Starr, had been arrested for embezzling his clients’ money in a Ponzi scheme. (Starr is currently serving seven and a half years in prison.) There had been warnings. Early on, Mike Nichols, who had taken his money out of Starr’s company, had raised suspicions. “I’ll get to it,” Pacino told Nichols. “Then I never got to it,” he said. “Millions of dollars were gone,” [Lucila] Sola said. “Gone.”
Sigh. How often does this happen? Too often. Whenever someone else manages your money with carte blanche, that person will eventually either mismanage it to death or steal it. Most likely steal it.
The great thing about being in the arts is that you can generally earn your way back to solvency, which is what Pacino did. In fact he went beyond that.
It has taken Pacino four years to work himself back to a position where, he says, “compared to a normal person, I have a significant amount.”
The problem is that he had to take projects he wouldn’t normally take. They’re detailed in this part of the piece.
In the arts, money equals freedom. Managing your own money means managing your own freedom. Articles like this reinforce that lesson over and over again. At least for me.
Li, Yiyun, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Written in little sections like the Mary Gordon essay, mentioned above, Yiyun Li’s essay made me stop and think. Sometimes I had to stop between sections and contemplate what she was talking about. And the last few sections are just…amazing.
Smith, Dean Wesley, The Edwards Mansion, Smith’s Monthly, November, 2014. Another wonderful entry in Dean’s Thunder Mountain series. I have no idea how he keeps mixing time travel, westerns, and a touch of romance, and making it work, but he does. He starts with the woman who falls in love with an old mansion in downtown Boise, but she’s having trouble restoring it. Seems it has a ghost so terrifying that the contractors flee. Enter Bonnie and Duster Kendal, who have an idea about who that ghost might be. If you’ve read any Thunder Mountain books, you have an idea too—not that it matters. The journey is wonderful—and then there’s this twist in the middle… Oh, just read it.
Thomas, Jodi, Rewriting Monday, Berkley, 2009. I discovered Jodi Thomas through a Western romance anthology, and realized she’d published lots of novels. This one sounded like it would most interest me, and I ordered it. Turns out I was right.
I have no idea how the book was marketed, since I ordered based on the writer’s name, but I can tell you this isn’t a traditional romance—although the back cover makes it sound like one. Pepper Malone, on the run from her former boyfriend (and an embarrassing situation at her big-time newspaper job), ends up in Bailee, Texas. Desperate for money, she gets a job at the local weekly paper, run by Mike McCulloch.
McCulloch inherited the job, along with his niece, when his brother and father died within a month of each other. Sounds like you know where this’ll go, right? But it doesn’t go there in a traditional manner at all.
There’s some suspense here (a threat to the paper, for no reason anyone can comprehend), some small town family stuff (with other characters), and lots of no-one-is-what-she-looks-like going on here.
Delightful, heartwarming, impossible to put down—I have another Thomas book on the way.
Thomas, Rob, and Graham, Jennifer, Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, narrated by Kristen Bell, Random House Audio, 2014. Yes, I am a big Veronica Mars fan. Yes, I supported the Kickstarter. Yes, I literally bought the t-shirt.
I also love a well-written tie-in novel. However, I’ll be honest here: I can’t tell you if this book is well-written or not. I didn’t read it. I listened to it and, as Mystery Scene Magazine said about this audio book, you can’t go wrong with Kristen Bell narrating a Veronica Mars audio book. I do know a lot of the descriptions were Mars-worthy, and the pacing was off at times.
By pacing, I mean that the chapter ends felt random, and the places where I’m sure there were white spaces between sections felt more like chapter endings. For example, the entire main conflict resolves in the middle of a chapter and then the chapter continues for another 4 minutes (audiobook time). I was able to ignore most of that because I was listening, not reading, but I’m sure that would have annoyed me in book form.
But—and this is an important OMG kinda but—this tie-in is amazing. It does something that no tie-in novel is supposed to do. I’ve written more tie-ins than I want to think about and Rule #1 of tie-in writing is make sure the characters are the same at the end as they are in the beginning. (You know, like episodic TV used to be—no killing the main characters, no introduction of something life-altering, nada.)
In the middle of this book—something so breathtaking happens that I gasped aloud. And the changes continued all the way to the end. Wowza, wowza, wowza. It makes me believe that Rob Thomas really was involved with this book (like he said he was) rather than simply lending his name to it, like so many celebrities Dean and I ghosted for in the past.
If you’re a fan of Veronica Mars, do not miss this book. I’m actually waiting to preorder the next—which I will consume in audio, of course.