Recommended Reading List: November, 2017
November flew by for reasons I have yet to figure out. Almost all of my reading was wonderful, and I really had to work to find time to list everything. I started some of my holiday reading early, not because I want the year to end (which is different from last year), but because some books arrived that I couldn’t wait to read, so I didn’t wait. It’s like eating dessert first: one of the privileges of being a grown-up.
Some of you will note that I already covered the Debbie Macomber in my Holiday Recommended Reading List. I posted that and this little commentary on the same night.
I did have a few dud reads. One was of a writer who had been on the cusp for me for several books now. She has a lot of fun with voice and character, but can’t tell a compelling story except by accident. Her latest book, which came out a week or so before the Balogh book, bored me to tears. I gave up halfway through, and turned to the Balogh with pleasure. At first, I worried that I had binged too much last year on Regency romances and broke my interest in the genre. Nope. That particular author had simply failed to catch me as a reader. She’s popular, so she won’t miss me, and I certainly won’t miss her.
Since I’ve been complaining about some magazines here (cough:Vanity Fair which sent me another scented issue. Sigh), I thought I should mention one magazine I look at with great pleasure when it shows up in my mailbox. The University of Wisconsin alumni magazine On Wisconsin seems to be one of the best of the breed. I always find something of general interest in an issue, and sometimes the issues spark stories as well. I’m saving the issue marked Fall 2018 because there are all kinds of goodies.
I am actually astonished by the length of the list. I felt like I hadn’t read much at all in November. Seems I liked most of what I read. Here, some good stuff for you to read, now that I’m done.
Allen, John, “Map Quest,” On Wisconsin, Fall, 2017. I honestly didn’t think this article would interest me. Jungles aren’t my thing. But this turned out to be an article about science and technology. Archeologist Chris Fisher has started using aerial lasers to find lost cities in Honduras. Lost cities. Lasers. Finding things from the air. I’m so there. And this article won me over and fascinated me at the same time. Definitely worth reading.
Balogh, Mary, Someone to Wed, Berkeley, 2017. I absolutely love this series of books. Balogh created a unique situation in the first book in the series by having the patriarch of a very wealthy Regency family fail to divorce his first wife. Worse, he hadn’t told anyone except his lawyer that the woman existed. She had a daughter, and that daughter inherited, instead of the children by his second marriage–which wasn’t a legal marriage at all. In a society filled with such strict rules that failing to wear gloves to an event could cause banishment from certain social circles, this sort of thing is tantamount to an explosion.
Someone to Wed is the third book. It looks at the man who actually inherited the title the dead guy left behind. The title couldn’t be passed on to a woman (of course), but the daughter got all the money. So our hero, Alex, has land and property and a title, and no way to pay the people who work his land (or his staff). He has to marry money, even though the idea gives him the shakes.
The heroine of the story, Wren, is the most interesting character of all. Disfigured from birth, she had a traumatic childhood, but ended up adopted by a loving aunt. The death of the aunt and uncle have left Wren with a fortune, but she’s a recluse. She has no idea how to face the world.
I don’t want to spoil how these two meet, and how they manage to work around each other. Balogh is great at dealing with people who are strong but have devastating pasts. This book is the best of the lot so far, and I’ve enjoyed the previous two. If you like Regency romance, then pick up this book.
Brady, Tim, “Football Fight,”, On Wisconsin, Fall 2017. Okay, first, everyone else in the world, we’re discussing American football here. It seems that a major professor and famous historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, hated the way that football had infiltrated colleges…in 1906. Yeah, we’ve been having the same debates for more than a century. You see, apparently, Turner thought that football was dangerous. And considering that players could die on the field because they had no padding at all (and leather helmets), he wasn’t exactly wrong. About any of it.
Turner headed a meeting at the Western Conference to change the rules of the game, especially as it pertained to the behavior of universities. He wanted to suspend the season and implement the rules afterwards. And that caused…a riot. In front of his house. With pistols, and torches, and all kinds of scary stuff. Ultimately, Turner calmed the crowd—or at least got them off his lawn—and they went to the Red Gym, where they burned him in effigy (along with the president of the university and a few others).
Turner did get his way. The university adopted the new rules, and two seasons got canceled, and football cleaned up. Although if what they ended up with was clean, well, I’m glad I didn’t get to see the dirty game…
Connelly, Michael, Two Kinds of Truth, Little, Brown and Company, 2017. Connelly’s second book of 2017 brings back Harry Bosch, who is working cold cases in San Fernando because he’s persona non grata at the LAPD. His status gets infinitely worse when he gets accused of planting evidence on a major case back in the day, and that accusation looks credible. Of course, we all know that Bosch would never do such a thing, but no one else does. And because this is Connelly, who plays fair with the reader, there’s a distinct possibility that everything Bosch has worked for during his career will vanish in a puff of lies. The tension is good and the secondary case interacts with the main storyline beautifully, including a twist I did not see coming. Except for the ending, which reminded me yet again that Bosch is a humorless jerk of the first order, the entire book works well. I suspect that even the ending works. It just irritated me because Bosch seems to go out of his way to piss people off, even people who help him. Considering the space I’ve been in of late, having the jerk-ness of one of my favorite characters reinforced did not go over well.
But that’s more personal than not. I devoured the book in a short period of time, and considering how little time I had to read, that’s pretty amazing. Excellent entry in a good series.
Grisham, John,The Rooster Bar,, Doubleday, 2017. I finished this book at the first of the month, and thought I wasn’t going to mention it here. It’s classic, if unremarkable, Grisham. A couple of somewhat shady people who are a little too greedy end up stumbling on a scam and bringing the scam down while getting rich. And then I found myself thinking about the book. I loved the title and how it resonated throughout. I loved his afterward. I really liked one of the characters, who wasn’t shady at all, but had a firm moral compass. About once a week, my brain kept coming back to the book and the things he brought up in it. As with all Grisham novels, I had trouble putting it down. I just didn’t expect to think about it for an entire month. So…I’m recommending it after all. See what you think.
Hallinan, Timothy, “Chalee’s Nativity,” The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. Amazing story about two orphans on the streets of Bangkok. Apparently, Chalee has appeared in Hallinan’s work before. Well written, heartbreaking in a good way. Worth the price of admission.
Herron, Mick, “The Usual Santas,” The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. The title story of this wonderful collection is a title story for a reason. A group of Santas working at a disreputable mall discover a problem among them. When Dean and I teach, we talk about writer stages—Stage One Writers are learning grammar, etc. Stage Four writers have learned their craft and have added some tools to the bargain. Stage Four Writers break lots of rules because they know how.
Herron is Stage Four, and this story shows why. With the exception of one minor character named Joe, everyone else in the story is named Santa. And they have dialogue with each other attributed to Santa. And it all works beautifully. I love this story. I wish I had written this story. I wish I could read it for the first time all over again. Wonderful and worth the price of admission.
James, P.D., Sleep No More, , Knopf, 2017. I have no idea who is handling P.D. James’s estate, but kudos to whomever is. This is the second year that the estate has released a group of previously uncollected short stories in a beautiful edition just in time for the holiday season. None of the stories struck me as spectacular James, but regular James is still better than most writers out there. The opening story, “The Yo-Yo,” stopped me right at the beginning and made me check when it was first published. Not because it was dated, but because the observation at the beginning—that a simple item, found after death, might seem to have sentimental value, and that value might be completely misconstrued. That’s an observation someone older has, not someone young. And sure enough, she wrote that story in her 70s. Some of the stories here are Christmas stories, a few are not. All are worth reading.
Jamison, Leslie, editor, The Best American Essays 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. I read The Best American Essays every year. Sometimes I can barely get through the volume. Sometimes one essay makes the entire volume worthwhile (such as the year that had the essay which inspired the entire Smokey Dalton series). Sometimes the volume itself has more stellar essays than the previous five years combined.
This is one of the stellar years. I listed an essay from the volume in last month’s Recommended Reading List, and I’ve singled out six more below. That’s seven spectacular essays out of 20 or so, not counting the excellent forward by Robert Atwan. I’m going to reread Jamison’s introducion now that I’ve finished the volume, but don’t read that introduction beforehand. She highlights the wrong parts of essays, spoiling their impact. She’s trying to make a point, one that seemed good until I realized that she had spoiled essays. Now that I’ve read everything, I’m happy to reread the introduction to understand her point more clearly. I suspect the introduction would have worked better had it been at the end of the volume instead of at the beginning.
Even with that caveat, the volume is excellent and well worth your time. Pick it up and enjoy.
Kaaberbøl, Lene, and Friis, Agnete, “When The Time Came,” translated by Mark Kline, The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. A dark and brooding story featuring the duo’s main character, Nina Borg. Thieves break into what they believe to be an empty building during the holidays, only to discover someone in extreme distress. If I say much more I ruin it. But suffice to say I had no idea how this would end up, and loved the way that it resolved.
Macomber, Debbie, Twelve Days of Christmas, Ballantine Books, 2017. I have no idea how I’ve never read a Debbie Macomber book before. I’m not even sure I’ve read one of her Christmas books, and she’s the queen of Christmas romance. I have a hunch I thought I wouldn’t like the novels, because they’d be overly religious and dealing with people I didn’t want to read about.
This one caught my eye in the grocery store, of all places. I read the back cover blurb, and immediately picked up the book. Julia has troubles with her grumpy (and gorgeous) neighbor. She decides to kill him with kindness and blog about it for twelve days. Of course, this is fraught with issues. The blog’s witty, the characters are real, the situation is uncomfortable. I read the book in an evening, and found the novel charming. I’m not going to run out and buy all the back Christmas books of Debbie’s, but I’ll read a few when I find them. This was a lovely way to start my holiday season. The book is worth your time.
Maloney, Emily, “The Cost of Living,” The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. Apparently, Maloney tried to commit suicide some years back, due to a health condition that, once it was under control, eased the depression. She had no insurance, so was still paying off the emergency room visit and the hospitalization when she got a job doing billing for a hospital. (I don’t know if it was the same hospital.) She saw the bills float past, knew that these charges represented a heavy burden for people, and tried to pay attention. The essay is marvelous, warm and compassionate. And the ending is perfect. This one made the book for me.
Marshall, Greg, “If I Only Had a Leg,” The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. Marshall has cerebral palsy. As a child, Marshall wanted to be in theater, but his uncontrollable body made him wobbly and uncertain on his feet. He got cast as the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz (a children’s version) not because of his ability, but because of his disability. The essay, written from his adult perspective, gently takes us through the hopes and dreams of youth into the realities of who we are and why we do what we do. This is from a book, which apparently isn’t out yet, but I am going to try to remember to pick it up when it appears.
Matambo, Bernard Farai, “Working The City,” The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. Matambo received a scholarship to study in the U.S., but didn’t have the funds for the flight. An orphan, he didn’t have family support either. So he “worked the city,” every single day, trying to find ways to fund his travel. The essay is written in the present tense, and does not tell us if he succeeded. But given his biography at the back, I assume he did make his way here. Very real, very potent. I felt as if I were living his life with him, day to day.
McClane, Kenneth A., “Sparrow Needy,” The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. McClane writes about growing up in Harlem, in a neighborhood where everyone except the police knew what was going on. Two central figures in this essay are his brother and the neighborhood…”bully” is too small a word; “tough” is too West Side Story…”bad guy,” maybe? The brother became an alcoholic; the other man ended up in prison. Yet both of them had a profound impact on McClane. If I say too much more, I give away some of the beauty and brilliance of this piece. Read it. It’s marvelous.
Moore, Catherine Venable, “The Book of The Dead,” The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. Moore grew up in West Virginia, and had vaguely heard of a major tragedy that occurred there in the 1930s. However, no one really talked about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931 in Gauley Bridge. Then Moore found a series of poems by Muriel Rukeyser called The Book of the Dead, all about the disaster. The book was supposed to be accompanied by photos, but those got lost. (Although by the end of the essay, Moore had discovered some of them.) The tragedy, the search for its history, and the echoes of the poems make this essay lovely, lyrical, and quite simply amazing.
Morris, Wesley, “The Last Taboo,” The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. Morris writes about the way our culture looks at black male sexuality. The essay discusses the use of the penis in film and film criticism, and how white penises (peni?) are treated differently than black penises are. One reviewer called this a funny essay. I didn’t. I found it fascinating and quite serious. I hit a paragraph in the essay that actually made me stop and reflect for some time. He writes, “The history of American popular culture is an immersion in, if not loving white people, then knowing that white people can love. There’s been no comparably robust black equivalent. But there is a recent history of black people daring to create one.”
Yes. Exactly. That’s why people of color have had so much trouble selling to traditional book publishers, why films about communities other than the white middle- (or upper) classes don’t get green-lighted. I would add that the history of American popular culture is an immersion in knowing what white men can love. That’s why there are so few female directors and female-centric films.
We are in the middle of a sea-change. As the Harvey Weinsteins of the world finally get tossed out on their hairy creepy asses, there’s a chance to rebuild American culture in a way that reflects all of us, not just a privileged few. And that’s what I started thinking about as I read this essay. And thinking about things that I normally don’t conceive in quite the way that the author does is why I read essays in the first place.
Shalvis, Jill, The Trouble With Mistletoe, Avon, 2016. I bought this book last year and pulled it off my TBR shelf this year, after finishing something particularly bad and particularly dark. The book was the perfect antidote to that awful, dark novel. Shalvis has an incredible voice, and she creates spectacular characters, including the four-footed ones.
Willa owns South Bark, a pet shop that specializes in grooming and pet care. She’s covered in “puppies and poo” when who should walk in but Keane, the guy who stood her up on the only date she tried to have in high school. To make matters worse, he doesn’t remember her. His great-aunt dumped her tempermental cat on him because the aunt was having a health crisis and had no one else to turn to. He needs to board the cat, at least while he’s at work, because the cat—named Petunia by the aunt, rechristened PITA by Keane (Pain in the ass)—tends to show her displeasure by ruining anything she touches when she’s alone.
The meet-cute is so cute, I read it to Dean. Beneath the fun plot are serious issues, from abandonment to loveless middle class households to building your own family. I was halfway done with the book when I ordered the rest in the Heartbreaker Bay series. I had to refrain from ordering everything she wrote, because she’s written a lot. I’ve already worked my way through this book and a novella (which is fun and too slight to recommend), and I’m starting into another tonight. So, yeah. Read this. Everyone is great. Including PITA.
Stashower, Daniel,The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln before the Civil War , Minotaur Books, 2014. I had heard about the Baltimore Plot to murder Lincoln for years, but I had never actually read an indepth book about it. Stashower wrote a thriller, which is kind of amazing, considering we know how this particular plot worked out. Lots of great details in here, particularly the tight portrait of Kate Warne, the Pinkerton Detective who used her invisibility as a woman to learn a great deal about the upcoming plot. Sometimes books like this sound good and aren’t. This one is quite good. If you like historical mysteries, then you’ll probably like this true-life tale.
Tursten, Helen, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime,” translated by Marlaine Delargy,” The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. Delightful story about a regular character of Tursten’s named Maud. Maud is an octogenarian who uses people’s prejudices to change the world around her. She just wants a quiet Christmas, and she’ll resort to anything to get it. I’m definitely looking for more of Tursten’s work (preferably translated by Delargy, who found a perfectly wry voice for Maud).