Wow. I didn’t even have a reason to start up this list until mid-June, and I’ve been reading a lot of stuff. Most of the magazines I’ve read have been of the entertainment or self-help variety; no great articles in any of them. The books, well, the books were a disaster until June 15 or so. I read about a writer who had published a time-travel novel set at my alma mater, and I was intrigued. Then I looked up her copious backlist, ordered a YA romance of a type I’m a particular sucker for, and mildly enjoyed it. Even though it was set all over Europe—and had no setting at all! And the setting was important to the plot. Fortunately, I’d been to most of the places she wrote about, so I could substitute. Not even close to recommendable, but readable.
The book I wanted to read of hers…well, it put me on the Analog Couch right from the start. The time travel was magic, which I could step over…at first. But then she tried to explain it. And explain it some more. And then we really got into a grandfather paradox. To top it off, she did clichéd stuff with history. The only intrigue—one character going backwards in time while the other went forwards—did not hold me. I finally gave up in the middle. Gave up on a romance too, about fifty pages from the end, when Our Hero became an abusive asshole. Jeez. And this from one of my favorite writers (albeit an early work).
Then I picked up a thriller by a writer I hadn’t read before. I simply can’t remember what the book’s about. I liked it enough to finish it though…
So, it took deep into June for what I read to improve.
I do have to say though that my manuscript reading has been great. I’m finishing up the final edits on my next Fiction River volume, Justice. The stories are so powerful. We’re lucky to have them. The volume will appear at the end of January 2018. (Which, terrifyingly, is not that far away!)
Here’s what I liked, after that bumpy start.
Ackerman, Elliot, “Goodbye, My Brother,” Esquire, April 2017. Some magazines get a new editor and are no longer to my taste. Esquire‘s new editor has grown on me, slowly. The experimental redesign of the magazine is a bit jarring, but I’m okay with that, as long as the magazine keeps publishing pieces like this one. Elliot Ackerman was in Fallujah during the Iraq War. He went back twelve years later to the place where a friend of his died. I’d like to say he went for some closure, but I think it was more complicated than that. This is a beautifully written piece about war, death, loss, and survival. I recommend it.
Conlon, Edward, “NYPD Black,” Esquire, April 2017. As many of you know, I write about the 1960s and 1970s as Kris Nelscott. (I also do so as Rusch on various projects. I’m just fascinated.) One phenomenon that I learned about as I read about the various groups that were around at that point was how many outsiders had infiltrated the groups, often for the FBI or for the police. The people I couldn’t understand were the ones who infiltrated groups like the Black Panthers. (The Panthers were quite different than the way the media portrayed them.) Conlon found some old undercovers and interviewed them. This is a harrowing article, and it clarified a lot of things for me. It’s going in my personal library. (This is why I get print editions.) Check it out.
Gabaldon, Diana, and Berry, Steve, “Past Prologue,” MatchUp, edited by Lee Child, Simon & Schuster, 2017. The conceit for this anthology is that two bestselling thriller writers take their main characters and combine them into a story. I read anthologies in order, and this is the fourth story I’ve read. The other three are as good as I had hoped, but they’re nothing special. This one, though, had a uniquely difficult problem to overcome.
Diana’s character, Jamie Frasier, exists in the past. He only came to our attention because his (future) wife Claire Frasier time-traveled through some standing stones. She lived in 1948.
Berry’s character, Cotton Malone, is a book dealer and former spy who lives in 2017. There is no magic or sf or time travel in the Berry novels. Yet this story is from his point of view, in the first person. It starts in 2017. There are standing stones. There is time travel. The story is less of a thriller, less of a mystery, and more of a time travel tale. And I loved it. Everything, from word one to the end, was unexpected. Delightful.
Added bonuses because some of Diana’s side characters made an appearance, from a different point of view than Claire’s. Nice. I don’t know if any of Berry’s side characters appear. I suspect they do. But I read only one Berry book a dozen years ago, and while I remember a general sense of it, I don’t recall enough about it to know.
Really enjoyable. Really well done.
Gottlieb, Robert, Avid Reader, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2016. Once upon a time, back in the days before indie publishing, some editors could achieve big name status. Names didn’t get bigger than Robert Gottlieb. For years, he was the editor at Knopf. Then in the 1980s, he became the editor of The New Yorker. He lost that job fairly quickly (in publishing terms for those years) and returned to Knopf where he remains. He’s still editing, even though he’s in his 80s.
Gottlieb invented a lot of the marketing things that major publishers do now, such as giving away ARCs and focusing on book fairs. He was the first to do a lot of those things, nearly 60 years ago. He also edited most of the books that have become canon in high school and college literature classes. If you had to read Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22, then you read a book edited by Robert Gottlieb.
The book starts slow. Gottlieb himself is a difficult man (although he doesn’t think so). The way he treated his first wife and son…well…I guess the only defense is that he was very young (20) and very immature and it was the 1950s, so men got away with a lot of crap. But he seems emotionally insensitive in a variety of things he describes, so that might simply be his nature. (Believe me, it helps to be somewhat focused on work and ignore messy emotions when it comes to editing. You hurt people more than you make them happy when you’re editing in the old traditional way.)
His descriptions of his early career, first at Simon & Schuster, then at Knopf, is just plain fascinating, though. That publishing era is long gone. It was mostly gone when I became a professional writer in the early 1980s, although bits and pieces of it remain. He alludes to the changes (as publishing became corporate) only by saying it had ceased being fun, so he moved over to The New Yorker. But for 20+ years he pretty much had free reign as an editor–he could buy what he wanted, pay as much (or as little) as he wanted, determine how to market the book, and not lose his job if the book failed. Seems more like indie publishing now than traditional publishing.
If you’re at all interested in the history of publishing or if you love to read about writers and editors, then this book is for you. You have to read the slow open, but you can probably skip the sections at the end on Dance and (pretentiously) Life. I liked a lot about this book, and got irritated at some of it as well. The irritation might have come from his starry-eyed vision of a system that destroyed more writers than it helped. Or maybe part of me still wishes that the publishing environment of the early 1960s still exists. I don’t know. I do know it took one year plus for Catch-22 to become a success, something that would not have happened in the 1990s, the 2000s, or the 2010s–at least in traditional publishing. Oh, how things change.
Grisham, John, Camino Island, Doubleday, 2017. I loved Camino Island. Doubleday is marketing it as a thriller. It barely reaches the level of crime novel. All the events happen because a crime was committed, but in truth, this book is a literary novel about books, readers, reading, writers, and booksellers. The book is deeply entrenched in traditional publishing, mostly as it used to be.
Here’s the plot, more or less. A gang of thieves steal the five original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. An insurance investigator hires a down-on-her-luck literary writer to ingratiate herself with the probable bookseller who will sell those manuscripts. She has to move to Camino Island (she has a family connection there) and get involved in the small literary community. This gives Grisham the chance to expound on books, writers, how to write, and the importance of reading. His bookstore owner is a bit too handsome to be believable, but is curmudgeonly enough and is probably the best character in the book. Loved him.
I can tell you that Grisham has never read a romance novel in his life. He describes three of them by his “romance” writer, and those things aren’t romance. They aren’t even erotica or even porn. I have no idea what he thinks a romance novel is, but I can tell you he thinks romance novels are junk, not worthy of respect. That is the only major flaw in this book, and it comes from the author himself. (And whoever edited him.)
Ignore that ignorance as you read. Enjoy the story. See if you can figure out who some of these characters are composites of. (I figured out a few, but not all. Grisham and I don’t run in the same circles.) If you go in expecting a thriller, you’ll be disappointed. If you want to read a great character novel about some interesting folks, with a good story and a lot of attitude, read this.
Slaughter, Karin, and Koryta, Michael, “Short Story,” MatchUp, edited by Lee Child, Simon & Schuster, 2017. Funny, dark, brilliantly written, this story caught my attention almost from the very first sentence. Set in the past of Slaughter’s character Jeffrey Tolliver, the story starts as he’s chasing his one-night stand across a parking lot. She’s stolen his badge, his wallet, his keys, and his pants. The scene is funny…until it isn’t. Which describes much of the story. I found myself laughing aloud at times; my hand over my mouth in fear at other points. Extremely well done. I’ve read some Slaughter, and this makes me want to revisit her work. I had not read any Koryta at all–I’m not even sure I had heard of him–and now I need to look him up. This is the longest story in the book, and worth the price all by itself.
Toobin, Jeffrey, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst, Anchor Books, 2016. First—seriously—the biggest shock I got from this book came as I was flipping through the pictures after I picked up my copy. Patty Hearst shows dogs at the Westminster Dog Show. Mind…blown. Life is just too weird.
But the entire Patty (she prefers Patricia) Hearst saga was weird. I remembered bits of it, but thought I remembered all of it. Not even close. 19-year-old Hearst was kidnapped as a political statement gone wrong in the weirdo 1970s, joined her kidnappers in a bank robbery, spent a year on the run when she could have turned herself in, shot at people on the street with an automatic rife, robbed another bank, and eventually got caught. She did time and got pardoned by Jimmy Carter, and went on to live a life that includes the Westminster Dog Show.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Toobin is a spectacular writer. Even when I knew where he was going, the wealth of detail, and the way he tells a story kept me turning pages. I’m not even going to call this true crime. It’s something else. If you think America’s crazy now, read this. You’ll realize the crazy has always been a part of our national story.