Recommended Reading List: January 2023
I taught a workshop, and spent a lot of January reading stories in manuscript. (I still have a lot to go because of a stupidly busy February.) I ended up reading a novel that was awful. The writing was good; the situation implausible; the characters all dumber than rocks. But I couldn’t figure out how this traditionally published author got to his ending. So I kept going…and found out that the book had no ending. No climax, no validation, just characters doing something they should have done in Chapter 3. If I had a fireplace, this novel would have gone in it. Unfortunately, because I was reading so many (good) manuscripts, I didn’t realize that stupid novel had sucked the air out of my leisure reading for half of the month.
Fortunately for me, I picked up the novel listed below, and even though I had other things I needed to read (plus some truly dense Spanish by that point), I found as many hours as I could to enjoy it. I also read a few magazines and two nonfiction books, even though I only list one. I looked at the marked articles and found that they no longer inspire me, except for two from Vanity Fair. So not the best leisure reading start to the year, but a good start nonetheless. I think you’ll enjoy what I listed here.
Clark, P. Djèlí, A Master of Djinn, Tor, 2021. First, a complaint. I’m not finding the next book in this series for sale anywhere. I don’t know if that’s because of the way that Tor mishandles series books (they rarely publish all the books they’ve contracted for) or if it’s because Clark hasn’t finished the next book or, if he has, then maybe it’s inp process…? Anyway, it would be nice to know, because I’m ready for the next book right now.
As you can probably tell from my complaint, A Master of Djinn is a wonderful book. I’d read the novella published in this world, and that’s probably what got me to buy the novel. The world is steampunk and magic, Victorian (well, Edwardian) era…Egypt. Because magic has been unleashed into the world, Egypt has become the major power, not Great Britain. (Although there’s influences…) The characters are spectacular, the worldbuilding is breathtaking, the story is compelling, and it all feels original, because Clark uses the setting so very well.
One of my favorite books in a very, very long time. I want more. If only I can figure out how to get more…
French, Christine Madrid, “The Angle of Suspense,” Vanity Fair, October 2022. I read this article while I was prepping for an in-person writing class in which I knew the writers would have trouble with setting. I hoped this piece would help them. I have no idea if it did or not. It focuses on the way that Hitchcock changed the language of villainy using architecture. Fascinating stuff.
Norman, Tony, “Kindred Spirits,” Vanity Fair, October 2022. When you click on the link, you’ll see that the web version of this piece has a different name. I have no idea why Vanity Fair does this, but it does. The piece is about August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Samuel L. Jackson originated the role that John David Washington now plays. Both men are in the show (directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who now becomes the first black woman to direct a play on Broadway). Of course, this piece focuses on the men, not on her, because…you know. Sigh. Anyway, this is a great article about being an artist for decades. Read it.
Richardson, Heather Cox, How The South Won The Civil War, Oxford University Press, 2020. This is probably the most important book I’ve read in a decade. Americans, you need to read this. I know American history. I majored in it, write about it, read it for fun. Heather Cox Richardson puts pieces together that I hadn’t considered at all. Or maybe that I didn’t know.
When Trump first lumbered onto the national political scene in 2015, my friends would tell me that he couldn’t win, and I would say, Given the history of our country, he has an extremely good chance of winning. He’s tapping into the things we pretend don’t exist. I hate that I was right. (I also told anyone who would listen, including friends running the Democratic party at the time, that Hillary should not be the candidate. She was badly damaged after two decades of being the subject of far right hatred. I hate being right about that too.)
This book isn’t about Hillary. It’s about the parts of America we as a nation have never dealt with. The reckoning might start with surviving the Trump era, but I’m not so sure. The stuff Cox Richardson writes about is baked into our national DNA. When we as a country failed to punish the Confederates, and let them set up the Lost Cause Myth, we continued the problems set up by our slave-owning founders. Barack Obama’s presidency did not make this a colorblind nation (sorry, Mr. Chief Justice. That’s not how it works).
Please read this book. I waited almost 3 years to read it, until my heart had healed enough to handle it. Then I devoured it and gave it to friends. (I’m still giving it to friends.) If you want to understand the past ten years (Hell, the past 250+), read this.
Thanks for the suggestion about Heather Cox Richardson’s book. I’ve been reading her nightly newsletter for a couple of years now, and I love her deep dive into the historical reasons for the things that are happening today. I’m glad you read a her too, because I often think of things you’ve said when I read her newsletters and things she’s said when I read the parts of your blog that talk about what’s going on in the US today.
Another good source for history/current events/foreign policy is Beau of the Fifth Column on YouTube. He puts out 2-4 short videos every day and I’ve learned a ton from them.
BTW, while I didn’t have your historical knowledge to inform my opinion of Trump back in 2016, I was one of those few who believe he was likely to win, and it terrified me. Fortunately, three years of utter madness, topped off by a pandemic, habituated me to that fear and made it tolerable. It sucked that it took that long!
Now I have enough knowledge to know that this is part of a repeating cycle, and it will likely get worse before it gets better, but after that we’ll rise from the ashes to a new beginning. If we don’t blow ourselves up or burn our world to a cinder first. 😉