Recommended Reading List: December, 2020
What a month! I’ve been reading some things for editing projects. I also read a few holiday things. But 2020 has me deep-down angry and deeply sad, so saccharine was not to my taste this year. I only read one light holiday mystery and no holiday romances. I did read some holiday nonfiction (listed below). I did toss one book in the trash, though. Literally. It was a book of essays by a favorite author, written in the 1990s. Wowza, oh my heavens. Who knew he was such a bigot in those days? Either his editors have cleaned it out since or he has Learned Something. I’m not sure which, but I do know I’ll approach his work with trepidation from now on.
Instead of reading holiday books, I read mystery short stories. Not cozies either. Something noirish or with very vicious murders or a perspective I’ve never seen before. Novels really didn’t interest me, and they don’t right now either. I’m craving short stuff, and fortunately, I have a lot to go through.
I have quite a bit to share, too. Here’s the good stuff I found in December, that’s not going to be in an upcoming project that I’m editing.
Arnold, Jeremy, Christmas in the Movies, Running Press, 2018. This pretty little book provided a lot of entertainment for me in this dark year. I found some movies I hadn’t seen, so I watched them. I remembered ones I loved, and thought about watching them (which was enough). There were some delightful facts in here, and some lovely photos as well. And yes, that means I recommend you pick up the hardcover…
Black, Pat, “The Man At The Window,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December, 2020. Riveting story about a woman who died in her own kitchen, her son nearby. He says he saw a man in the window, but did that man kill her? We do find out at the end of the story, in an unexpected and somewhat sad way.
Blades, Nicole, “Alysia Montaño is the Hero of This Story—And It’s About Damn Time,” Runner’s World, Issue 5, 2020. The microaggressions pile up. Alysia Montaño is one of the best runners in the world—male or female—but runners with fewer accomplishments always got press attention because they were white. Montaño continually spoke up about it, and continually pointed out what she had done, and mostly got ignored—until 2020, when things finally started to change. This article is a beautiful example of the way that the curated press—like Runner’s World—protected a myth that only white people had value. Read this. It’s important.
Connell, Richard, “The Most Dangerous Game,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. I think I’ve read this story a dozen times for various classes, but it’s been about 30 years since the last time. It’s racist—deliberately so, because both of the men in this story are hideous human beings. They’re Great White Hunters, who have taken to hunting human beings. Their racism is done to illustrate how horrible they are, which is remarkable in a 100-year-old story. Still, some of the language is cringe-worthy. But, even though I knew how the story would play out, I still found it incredibly compelling. If you’re interested in the history of the suspense/thriller short, read this one.
Dengate, Jeff, “The Inside Lane,” Runner’s World, Issue 5, 2020. Runner’s World got lots of complaints for its lack of diversity, so it decided—or the editor decided, or the corporate masters decided—to become more inclusive. I’ve watched magazines struggle with inclusivity before, and frankly, I didn’t have high hopes. But in this editor’s note, Dungate outlines Runner’s World’s plans for the future of the magazine, and they’re amazing. If you have a magazine that’s struggling to become more diverse—or any business that is—you might want to check this out as a guideline.
du Maurier, Daphne, “Don’t Look Now,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. This story has everything that I hate in fiction: a dead child, careless parents, carnival freaks, and unbelievable situations. And yet…and yet…the damn thing was impossible to put down. I couldn’t figure out what was going to happen and how it was going to play out.
I’ve long mentioned that du Maurier’s Rebecca is one of my favorite novels. I haven’t read much of her short fiction, which is something I need to remedy.
Fleming, Ian, “From A View To A Kill,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. I haven’t read any Ian Fleming since I was maybe 12 years old. I was happily surprised with this story. Some of the stories in this volume are racist or otherwise objectionable, and I expected that of Fleming, considering that he was dealing with international relations in his Bondian way.
I was pleasantly surprised at the attitudes here. You won’t find the movie James Bond in this story. You find a man with a past, who isn’t completely confident in his abilities, who is restless and determined at the same time. The story is also a master class in technique. I suspect I’ll reread it with an eye to figuring out how he did a few things.
Fry, Hannah and Evans, Thomas Oléron, The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, The Overlook Press, 2016. A dense but fun little book that uses math to prove all kinds of things like Santa exists. Maybe. Kinda. Not in the way you’d expect. And how to wrap gifts properly. and how to divide dessert, and win at Monopoly, and many other fun things associated with the holidays. The book is pretty too, so I’d suggest the tiny hardcover edition.
Harbridge, Kim, “Maps,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December, 2020. Wonderful dark story about a criminal couple on a spree. I can’t tell you more than that without ruining the story. Enjoy!
Hutchings, Janet, editor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December, 2020. As I mentioned above, I’ve been craving short fiction, and mystery fiction in particular. So for the first time in a while, I read an entire issue of EQMM front to back. I didn’t love every story, but I enjoyed every one. And some were just wonderful (cited elsewhere here). I have a hunch I’ll do this more often.
Jackson, Mitchell S., “Twelve Minutes And A Life,” Runner’s World, Issue 5, 2020. Everyone should know Ahmaud Arbery’s name right now. He died on his morning run, murdered for being black in a mostly white neighborhood. The details are horrific, his last hour on earth terrible. I think about him often on my runs, particularly one I took in December on a 5K. As we ran through a beautiful park in an upscale neighborhood, one of the homes displayed a Confederate flag. It took all of my effort not to run into that yard and tear the offensive piece of shit down.
I get harassed routinely on my runs, but nothing like runners of colors do. This particular article explores Arbery’s life and intersperses it all with the in-depth details of his last run. Please read this. It’s amazing.
Levine, Laura, “The Dangers of Candy Canes,” Candy Cane Murder, Kensington, 2007. I love Laura Levine’s voice. As I mentioned in the overall note, I wasn’t in the mood for saccharine stories this year, and while this story is a cozy, the voice takes it out of the sweetly simpering. I started the story on Christmas Eve Day at breakfast and tore through the entire thing, often chuckling out loud.
Maugham, W. Somerset, “The Traitor,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. This story is breathtaking. Another master class in writing. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Maugham, and was surprised at his rich yet delicate style. The last page or so of this story is amazing. Written between the wars, about the world in the middle of WW1, this story explores the way that lives fall apart. Astonishing stuff.
McPherson, Catriona, “Mrs. Tilling’s Match,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December, 2020. “Mrs. Tilling’s Match” is part of the Dandy series that McPherson writes. I’ve never read the series, but this story stood alone just fine. (I have a hunch I might have missed a thing or two, but still…) The story is set at Christmas 1934, and deals with a note that the cook of the family receives. It’s emotional and creepy, in a good way, and the tension was quite surprising. Looks like I’ll have to investigate some of her books.
Rogers, Susan Fox, “The Other Leopold,” Best American Essays 2020, edited by André Aciman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. Oh, wow, did I resist this essay. It’s about the Leopold of Leopold and Loebe, the famous murderers. Apparently, Leopold was a birder, and Susan Fox Rogers is a birder, so she investigated his birding, and ended up ruminating about how someone who could do something so horrible could also nurture baby birds. I’m not sure I liked the essay, but it made me think.
Salesses, Matthew, “To Grieve Is To Carry Another Time,” Best American Essays 2020, edited by André Aciman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. Beautiful essay about the way time works, and the way grief works, and how they interact. Worth the price of the volume.
Schjeldahl, Peter, “77 Sunset Me,” Best American Essays 2020, edited by André Aciman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. Schjeldahl has been a writer for a long time. He always thought about writing a memoir, but couldn’t ever focus on himself enough to do so. He got a terminal cancer diagnosis and tried again. This essay is what came of it, and is still less about Schjeldahl, and more about his generation. Unique and moving.
Sharah, Jehane, “Words Don’t Kill,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December, 2020. I knew what happened, almost from the start, and at first, I thought that’s what made the story slight. But I’ve been thinking about the story ever since I read it, which is the sign of a good story. So, read this one.
Shaw, Irwin, “Tip on a Dead Jockey,” The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Movies, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2019. Irwin Shaw was A Very Big Deal when I was a kid, and his books were all over my parents’ house. I had thought I’d read something of his until I looked at his bibliography. Then I realized I hadn’t read any of it. I had just been exposed to it. Different thing.
The plot is that of a crime story—a broke pilot gets an opportunity to make illegal money in post-World War II Paris—but the style (all the way to the ending) is pure literary. The crime is less important than the mood, which is one of depression and betrayal. Vivid, dark, and well drawn, the story is memorable, although I’m more of a genre reader than I sometimes like to admit. I would have preferred an ending with more punch.
Shriver, Lionel, “Semantic Drift,” Best American Essays 2020, edited by André Aciman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. Shriver is what one of my friends dubs a Grammar Nazi. She wants everything perfect, except in fiction. (I applaud that.) The essay is about the rigidity that some people bring to English grammar including Shriver.
As I read it, I kept thinking about my most recent Spanish professor, who is a native Spanish speaker. Even as she dutifully taught us certain constructions, she was careful to let us know that they were formal and rarely used in conversation. It was clear from context that “rarely” meant “almost never.” I felt that way about much of what Shriver said here. Still, I found the essay diverting, and you probably will as well.