I had a quieter December than I expected, which is just lovely. Lots of time to read. But, since I had a lot of reading to do, that was perfect. And wonderful.
I flailed around a bit with my holiday reading. I wasn’t in that romantic a mood. I wanted holiday mysteries which proved harder to find this year. I think I was spoiled by the quality of the holiday mysteries in the WMG Holiday Spectacular. (They’ll be released in a standalone volume in October.)
I did read two romance volumes and they were just…unsatisfying. The stories didn’t really end, which annoyed me. Then I found the Shalvis below (along with a few others by her that weren’t quite as good), and I felt better. Less cranky.
The holiday season went by quickly. I read some sf for an upcoming workshop, as well as a lot of nonfiction. My reading proved more eclectic this year than in some other seasons.
Here’s what I liked in December.
Ariza, Mario Alejandro, “Come Heat or High Water,” Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit, Mariner Books, 2019. Stunning essay about the realities of climate change already hitting Miami. Told in a very personal style by a man who grew up in Miami. This essay makes the changing climate personal, and shows how loss isn’t always about the people in your life, but the places, and the habits of your life. Stunning.
Asim, Jabari, “Getting It Twisted,” Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit, Mariner Books, 2019. Another stunning personal essay about the darker side of America. A friend recently asked me how people could believe all the big lies being told right now, and then said, “We’ve never been like that.” And I said, “Really? Have you heard about the Lost Cause, the noble description of the Confederacy…which was a bunch of traitors who went to war against the U.S. over enslaving human beings? That’s not noble or a ‘lost cause.'” That shut up my friend.
I’ve been making that argument for sometime, but I’m a blunt and rather confrontational human who assumes others know the nuances of American history like I do. Most don’t. Asim explores them in this short essay—all the big lies on which this country is based. Powerful and eye-opening, even for me.
Blakeley, Sherry, “Coming North,” Beloit College Magazine, Fall 2019. A fascinating article in Beloit College’s alumni magazine about the impact the Great Migration had on Beloit, Wisconsin. The college is participating in a history project to preserve living memories about the Great Migration, which took place from about 1910 to the 1970s, as African Americans moved north for opportunities. Students studied The Warmth of Other Suns, an award-winning book about the Great Migration, and then interviewed people who either participated in it or had relatives who did. The article is fascinating, and so is the project.
Burton, Mary, “Christmas Past,” anthology with Fern Michaels, JoAnn Ross, and Judy Duarte, Kensington Reissue 2017. I’ve clearly been in the mood for holiday mysteries and I was happy to find this one. I’d read half of this book two years ago, and finished it this year. This story is about a woman who fled (and survived) an abusive husband. He’s dead, but manages to torture her from the grave. (His plans are fiendish, and fascinating.) Well written and intriguing, this story made me look for more of her work. I wondered why I hadn’t bought any of it, since it all sounded like things I’d be interested in. And then I saw the covers. They were/are appropriate for the genre, but not to my taste. They actually sent me away from her books. I’ll see how the novels are, but this story is great. Perfect if you’re in a holiday mystery mood.
Chee, Alexander, “The Autobiography of My Novel,” Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit, Mariner Books, 2019. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better essay on the writing process. Yes, his methods are different from the methods Dean and I teach, but it doesn’t matter. This is honest and accurate and, in some cases, heartbreaking. Worth the price of the entire book.
Gessen, Masha, “Stories of a Life,” Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit, Mariner Books, 2019. As I scanned through this book before reading it, I worried that I would hate this essay. The subheadings looked daunting. Turns out they’re the seven words that Trump Administration banned the Centers for Disease Control from using—from “fetus” to “evidence-based.”
Gessen wrote the essay from a talk she had given in late December 2017, on the anniversary of the day her family emigrated to the U.S. She used each word to discuss her journey as from immigrant to naturalized citizen to professor. The essay is well written, and not the polemic I expected. Instead it’s personal and warm. I can imagine her speaking this to the New York Public Library, where she gave the talk.
Johnson, Lacy M., “On Likeability,”Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit, Mariner Books, 2019. I’ve been thinking about this essay a lot. It’s about the compromises some of us make to be liked. Lacy M. Johnson starts the essay talking about her daughter, who says no one likes her, which bothered me, because Johnson really doesn’t address her daughter’s journey much after that.
But the essay itself made me think about the way I reacted to “no one likes you.” My mother did not like me or want me, and told me that repeatedly, which ended up being a gift. Because I couldn’t overcome that. So I didn’t care. I did what I wanted because she was never going to like me. I did that throughout school and into adulthood, which, I learned is a rare thing. This essay reinforced that rareness for me, and gave me a lot to think about.
Johnson, Walter, “Guns in the Family,” Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit, Mariner Books, 2019. Many of the men in my life could have written this essay. It’s a very American essay, about being raised in a hunting household and learning not just how to shoot, but how to kill. The men in my life usually reacted badly to those lessons and vowed not to hunt, ever. The experiences scarred them and/or scared them. But I knew the families who trained them and who all had hunting stories, similar to the ones here. It felt familiar and odd to read this, realizing just how common these experiences are. Another essay I’ve been thinking about a lot.
Nordeen, Juliet, New Year’s Shenanigans, 2019. The first full length book in the Modesta Quinn series finds our heroine investigating a break-in at a legal pot-growing facility in the rainy New Year up in Washington State. Modesta Quinn made her first appearance in our Holiday Spectacular, solving a crime around Christmas. I loved that story, and had high hopes for the novel. It more than lived up to my expectations. Lots of great procedures, marvelous descriptions, a good plot with some surprising twists, and excellent characters. I hope Juliet continues with this series, because I’ll continue to read it.
Ross, Barbara, “Logged On,” Yule Log Murder, anthology with Leslie Meier, and Lee Hollis, Kensington, 2018. Surprisingly tense story about baking, of all things. Julia Snowden wants to make a french dessert called Bûche de Noël, but she can’t pull it off. Then her mother reminds her that an elderly neighbor used to make it for Christmases past, and it was good. Thing is, as Julia learns to bake with her neighbor, she also learns that a lot of people the neighbor knows have died of gastric issues around the holidays. Is the cranky elderly woman a serial poisoner? Or is something else going on?
I did not see the ending coming, which is lovely and surprising and fun for me. And the writing is excellent, and just thinking about the story makes me hungry. One of my favorite reads of December.
Shalvis, Jill, “Bah, Handsome!” Merry and Bright, Kensington, 2019. An early Jill Shalvis holiday novella that has most of what I love about her writing. (Not enough goofy animals, though.) Hope runs a B&B, and the lawyer for her mean-as-sin brother who loaned her money arrives to collect. In the middle of a snowstorm. During the holidays. Yes, yes, you know how it will end, but there sure is a lot of tension and how-will-this-resolve? in the journey. Lots of fun.
Singh, Nalini, A Madness of Sunshine, Berkley, 2019. When I first heard about this book, I preordered it. I’d read some of Singh’s shorter work and enjoyed the writing immensely. But I’m not a big fan of the kind of fantasy she writes. I would pick up her books, look at the topics with disappointment, and set them down.
So to have her write a mystery, well, I figured that would be worth my time. And it was. It had a lot of first mystery issues, most of them plot related, but there was more than enough here to interest me. She’s a master at creating characters, and her setting is marvelous. Also, her descriptions of people is a master class in choosing just the right word or words to make a character come alive. I’d love to have a lot of other writers learn how to describe skin color from her. She does it beautifully.
Because the plot is pretty thin, I thought about not recommending the book. But everything else is so wonderful, that I will pick up her next mystery, should there be one. And I figure that’s recommendation enough.
Sisterson, Craig,“Found in Translation,” Mystery Scene, Fall 2019. A spectacular article on the art of translation. This is a must-read for all writers. It’s also a good read for readers, especially American readers, who don’t often read books in translation (to be fair, there weren’t a lot of such books available for a very long time here in the States). I know a lot of readers don’t understand how translation works. This will help. There’s also a lovely sidebar on some of the best mysteries in translation. So go forth, read. Enjoy.
Suskind, Alex, “Who Art You?” Entertainment Weekly, December 2019. I had a heck of a time finding this article on EW’s website, so I finally ended up with a Scribd link. Sigh. EW is really getting impossible, and I am finding it more and more annoying. Anyway, this particular article is great from an art perspective, a music perspective, and a licensing perspective. Fascinating the way other art comes from some primary source (like music for an album). This short little piece is about album art for The Who’s new album, WHO. Fascinating.