For years now, I’ve kept up the reading list throughout the month, but that proved impossible in November. So I’m writing this introduction—heck, the whole list—on November 30, because I had zero time to do it otherwise.
I did manage to get a lot of reading in, more than I expected given the fact that Dean and I were glued (almost literally) to the TV from November 1 through 7, as we watched all the election events unfold. My family used to tell the story of my father, staying up all night in 1968 to watch the returns. He gave up smoking that night, probably because he smoked so much he made himself sick. He talked about that for the rest of his life.
I thought I had experienced the same thing with the 2000 election, but really, I hadn’t had a clue. It wasn’t the same kind of pins and needles as this year. There was no reading…of fiction or anything other than news…in that six day period. But I made up for it. I read a lot.
Here’s the best of what I read in November. (By the way, if the link takes you to Amazon, that’s only because I couldn’t get the link to work with Books2Read. It seems that some publishers (like HMH) don’t show up as ebooks, weirdly enough.)
Alameddine, Rabih, “How to Bartend,” Best American Essays 2020, edited by André Aciman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. Amazingly wonderful essay on survival. It’s funny and warm and sad and touching, and all in very few pages.
The writing is spectacular. Like this, from the middle of the essay. Alameddine was part of an amateur soccer team in the 1990s. He writes, “We began to encounter problems when our team improved. I believe it was during a game in the second season, against a team consisting of police officers, that we had our first bust-up. While the ref had his back turned, a cop sucker-punched one of our players in the face. A hockey game broke out.”
I just about died laughing at that simple sentence: A hockey game broke out. As someone who grew up around hockey players, I got the reference and the level of the fight, and the blood and nastiness and…you’ll see.
Please read this essay. It’s one of the best I’ve read in years.
Armstrong, Charlotte, “The Enemy,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. A beautifully written story about a seemingly small event. A little dog dies—poisoned, most likely—and a group of kids are convinced a neighbor killed the dog. Written in a floating viewpoint, we see the entire neighborhood, and root for the judge, his friend and a teacher to help these kids solve the crime. They pursue the crime as if a person has been murdered, which leads to…well, read it.
Also, note that the story is really a whodunnit about a claustrophobic neighborhood group, and the movie that it became (Talk About A Stranger) shares only the dog, the method of death, and a disaffected kid. The things that make this story work, indeed its very heart, were jettisoned in the act of making the movie. Which is just damn typical, and apparently was in the 1950s as well.
Breslin, Howard, “Bad Time at Honda,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. A little bit western, even if it’s set in the late 1940s. The story has the feel of “High Noon.” A stranger comes to a small town by train, seeking justice. The justice is a bit surprising, given the time period in which the story was published.
Connelly, Michael, The Law of Innocence, Little,Brown, 2020. I’ve been very disappointed in the Connelly books I’ve read recently, so I approached this one with a bit of trepidation. It seems like Connelly is getting tired of Bosch, his main detective, and the new female character he introduced is horribly unconvincing at best.
But I love the Lincoln Lawyer books and this one sounded intriguing. Mickey Haller gets accused of murder and must represent himself in court while being handicapped by a prison stay. (And, as Connelly reminds us, any lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.) The book is surprising and tense and a lot of fun. I think Connelly cheated us with the ending, but really, it was the only convincing way to get out of this tough and clever tale. One of the best books Connelly has written in years.
Huett, Ron, “Cosmic Latte,” Best American Essays 2020, edited by André Aciman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. Heartfelt personal essay about growing up mixed race. The incidents Huett writes about are by turns touching, cringe-worthy, and angry-making—sometimes all at once. There is also some wisdom here, and a bit of hope as well.
Kincaid, Jamaica, “A Letter to Robinson Crusoe,” Best American Essays 2020, edited by André Aciman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. Very short essay on colonialism, yes, but also on representation. Impassioned and heartfelt, Kincaid wrote a sensible little letter urging Crusoe to stay home. I know, I know. The sentiments aren’t new here, but the way she expresses them is. Really well done.
Matute, Ana Maria, “Los Chicos.” I have no idea where this was first published. I read it in my Spanish class, and there is no citation. I just tried to find first publication data in a quick search, and couldn’t. I linked to the entire story.
We read a number of stories in class, and most were muscular dated pieces by authors I read when I was a Spanish major 40 years ago. I’d never read Matute, though, and I fell in love with this story. There’s a breathless quality to it, which is appropriate, since it’s more a story of revelation about a single incident than a long plotted piece.
I found it inspiring, especially the point of view. Yeah, it’s first person, but she writes mostly in first person plural, which works, since the story is about two different groups of kids. The catalyst, an outsider named Éfren, is the only named character in the piece.
I have not read it in English. If you can read it in Spanish, you’ll want to do so. It’s short and memorable.
Quinn, Jane Bryant, “Lessons of the Fall,” AARP The Magazine, June/July 2020. Jane Bryant Quinn has been writing about finances almost as long as I’ve been alive. As a result, she’s been through a lot of market ups and downs, and knows how to survive hard times financially. She writes about all of this in shorthand in this article, which I found oddly comforting, even though I knew most of what she was discussing. You can read it for free on the magazine’s website. I suggest you do so.
St. James, Simone, An Inquiry Into Love And Death, New American Library, 2013. A pretentious and forgettable title meant that when I needed to write about my experience with the book (weeks later), I had to read the back cover to refresh myself. Titles are important, people!
The book hits all of my “reader cookies,” to quote Gardner Dozois. Historical fiction, ghosts, secret identities, lies, and ghost hunters, not to mention Scotland Yard and parents who are unbelievably distant. St. James’s books all sound the same when I describe them, but they have only the similarities of ghosts and a strong heroine. Each novel is quite different, and so far, I think I’ve recommended all that I’ve read…including this one.
St. James, Simone, Silence For The Dead, New American Library, 2014. I generally dislike books that take place in hospitals, asylums, and the like. But I love Gothics and I really like historical Gothics. This looks like a Gothic, although it’s not. It’s a historical novel with quite a bit of suspense and power.
In 1919, Kitty Weekes, on the run, poses as a nurse to get a job at a home for shell-shocked soldiers of the Great War. The home is unbelievably remote. It’s also poorly run, and haunted, not just by the war, but by actual ghosts.
The poor soldiers are strong characters, as are the family that mysteriously disappeared from the house, all the caretakers, and Kitty herself. She does fall in love (required in a Gothic), but St. James seems to know this isn’t Kitty’s book. This is a book about a haunted place and a haunted time.
I blew through this book in less than a day, and wasn’t surprised when the 1918 flu showed up too. It didn’t dissuade me from finishing. I figure any book set in 1918-1920 is going to have the flu, just like any future book set in 2020 will have to mention COVID. A terrifying read, but a good read, with great characters.
Sokolove, Michael, Drama High:The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, Riverhead Books, 2013. Oh, I loved this book with a deep and abiding passion. I didn’t want it to end. I grew up in a town similar to this one, only in Wisconsin, and I went to a high school that somehow managed to have a lot of arts education, thanks to some truly devoted teachers. Those classes saved me. Even so, none of my teachers were as dynamic as Lou Volpe. The things he did and tried to do for his kids shocked me, because they were so real.
Volpe’s theater program in disadvantaged Levittown was legendary, so good, in fact that more than once Broadway brought controversial shows like Rent and Spring Awakening to Volpe’s students as a test to see if the shows could catch on as high school productions. (I can’t tell you what an honor that is.)
I confess: when I finished the book, I looked up the school to see what was going on now. Volpe retired about ten years ago, and I hoped (prayed) the program hadn’t died with him. It seems to be going strong or at least it was, until 2019. Who knows what 2020 will do to anything.
If you have a favorite teacher or better, if you know school board members, make them read this book. It shows why arts education is so very important. And the book is a good read, as well.
Willis, Connie, “Take A Look At The Five And Ten,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, November/December, 2020. The arrival of a new Connie Willis tale is always great news. This is one of her holiday novellas. It’s good, but not great, Willis. Good Willis is still five times better than what anyone else is doing. Well worth your time.
Woolrich, Cornell, “The Boy Who Cried Murder,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. There are a number of Cornell Woolrich stories in this book. At the time of this writing, I haven’t read all of them, but I am seeing a pattern. Either I like them very much or I loathe them. It’s all about the subject matter, because his writing is breathtaking.
This story takes place on a hot summer night in New York before widespread air conditioning. A kid climbs onto the fire escape to try to get some sleep. When that doesn’t work, he moves up a few levels, thinking there might be a breeze. Instead, he sees a murder through a partially closed shade. In the past, the kid got in trouble with his family for telling tall tales, so when he tells his parents, they don’t believe him. And neither does anyone else. But this dogged kid wants justice, so he keeps trying, which of course gets him in trouble with the killers. The story is so suspenseful that I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I can still feel that hot summer night and the desperation. There’s a reason that Woolrich was considered one of the best crime writers of his day. This story shows it.
Woolrich, Cornell, “I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. Not as good as “The Boy Who Cried Murder” partly because the characters aren’t as likeable. (And they’re stupid.) But this thing also goes at a galloping pace, and it is quite inventive (and exceedingly well written). My second favorite (so far) of the Woolrich stories in the volume.