Recommended Reading List: March 2023
I read a lot in March, and planned to write it all up quickly. But I had February to write up, and then some other projects hit, including a really annoying Spanish paper, and I ended up not doing much more than making lists. I loved almost everything I read, and what I didn’t love, I liked. That makes for an unusual month, but a good one. I also managed to read a lot because (and don’t tell my prof) I stopped reading the homework. She just recapped it in class anyway, and the reading itself was dry as dust. So I used that time to read other things, many of them fun. Since I liked so much of it, though, I got slowly overwhelmed by the writing/reporting task ahead. I kept putting it off. (And I’m getting a lot of writing done, so there’s that as well.)
I do want you to note how many books in my list come from my TBR shelf. Remember, writers, discoverability doesn’t happen immediately. It can happen years later. I’m just discovering some of these Val McDermid books even though I’ve been familiar with her and her work for years.
I’ve got a lot to recommend. Enjoy!
Abramovitch, Seth, “The Flood of ’38 Sunk Houses, Roads, and Hollywood,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 18, 2023. This is a short little piece about a bit of Hollywood history I did not know. I was reading it during the record rainfall we had in Vegas this year, and it put a few things in perspective.
Coates, Tyler, “We Didn’t Make This To Be A Guidebook,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 10, 2023. This article is about the women who put together a documentary on the Jane Collective, which existed in Chicago pre-Roe. (I wrote about them peripherally in my Kris Nelscott book, Stone Cribs). The interview talks about the making of the documentary, and Jane’s lasting legacy, plus what we can learn from them. It’s extremely sad to me that we are now in a world where Janes might spring up again. I hate that. I think the women who made this documentary do too.
Cole, Teju, Known And Strange Things: Essays, Random House, 2016. This is an amazing book of essays. I highlighted some of my favorites last month and highlighted even more of my favorites below. (I read this book in the last week of February and the first week of March, which is why they’re separated out.) I’ll be honest: I loved the first 3/4 of the book much more than the last third. I wanted more discussion of art than I did about politics. But the whole book is amazing and made me do a lot of thinking. There are a million (well, maybe not a million but a lot) of sticky notes in my copy as well as a ton of highlighted sentences, paragraphs, and pages, filled with stars and exclamation points. Many story ideas for me, many revelations. I have another book of his essays, but I need to digest this one before I get to the next. I’m still processing, and oh, I’m so glad I found this book.
Cole, Teju, “A Piece of the Wall,” Known And Strange Things: Essays, Random House, 2016. Not, as some of you might think, the Berlin wall. But the wall between Mexico & the U.S. Yes, there was one before Trump. Cole is examining that area, and the politics of it from ten years ago. Made me remember when I was a news director, and we sent a correspondent to Nogales to talk to migrants coming across the border. Depressingly similar, as if nothing changes. I hope it does at some point.
Cole, Teju, “Shadows in São Paulo,” Known And Strange Things: Essays, Random House, 2016. I keep turning this essay over and over and over in my mind. Cole got inspired by a 1960 black-and-white photograph of men on rooftop. He decided he needed to know where the photo was taken. He went on a quest to find the exact location where the photographer stood. Sounds easy, right? But cities change in 60+ years and he was having a lot of trouble figuring it out. I’m not going to spoil the moment of discovery for you, but it makes for a memorable piece from a memorable photograph.
Cole, Teju, “Touching Strangers,” Known And Strange Things: Essays, Random House, 2016. This book is filled with pictures, many of which Cole took himself. The ones he did not take are the subject of some of the essays herein. I look at the pictures before I read a book because–hey–I’m human, okay. And there was one photo that really disturbed me. It was of white cop in full uniform with his arm around the neck of a young girl wearing a flag t-shirt and cutoffs. Both of the cop and the girl look uncomfortable. When I saw the photo, I thought maybe they were a couple in a horrid relationship. I couldn’t quite parse it out.
Turns out that they were part of a project by photographer Richard Reynaldi called “Touching Strangers.” The project is exactly what you think. Reynaldi would ask strangers if they would pose together for a photo, and if they would allow him to pose them. That’s what this photo is: two people who had never previously met who were posed into this disturbing shot. Cole uses this essay to explore a lot of different things. He starts by discussing how photographs are nothing but surface…except in the hands of a truly skilled photographer. This essay–and that photo–are worth the price of admission.
Cole, Teju, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” Known And Strange Things: Essays, Random House, 2016. Heartbreaking, pointed essay on exactly what the title says. I read this essay twice, underlined a lot of it, and thought even more about it. What saddens me about it (and oh, there’s so much that saddens me) is that the essay was written maybe 10 years ago, and it feels like nothing has changed. Quite sad.
Feinberg, Scott, “Expectation is a Dangerous Thing,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 11, 2023. This is a roundtable with the possible Best Actor contenders for the Oscar, before they won, of course. It’s a good read. I love these round tables. But I really like this quote from Jeremy Pope:
“Audiences are unreliable, but you are not.” When you do the work and investigate and excavate and find out your why, the sky can be the limit. They will always be unreliable, but when you do those things, you are not.
In other words, trust yourself and your process. That works in all of the arts.
Keegan, Rebecca, “I’ve Grown Into Myself,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 27, 2023. A wonderful interview with Jane Fonda, filled with a lot of tidbits, including this one:
I’m not scared of dying. I think I’m telling the truth when I say that,” Fonda says. “But I am really scared of getting to the end with a lot of regrets when it’s too late to do anything. And when you figure that out, it instructs the way you live between now and the end.
As I’m getting older, I’m looking to others for wisdom on seeing the final third of my life. I like that quote. It focused me at a time I needed the focus. The entire interview is like that. Worth reading.
Kilkenny, Katie & Cho, Winston, “Attack of the AI Bots: Screenwriter Friend or Foe?” The Hollywood Reporter, January 11, 2023. If you read my blog, you’ll find a reference to this article. There’s a sidebar in which an actual screenwriter critiques some pitches written by ChatGPT. But there’s more here, with some analysis, and it’s all worth reading.
McDermid, Val, Broken Ground, Grove Atlantic 2019. After reading the Distant Echo in February, I looked up the Karen Pirie series and tried to decide if I wanted to read more. A few of the write-ups led me to believe that those particular books weren’t for me. So I skipped them. I missed some big events in Pirie’s life, a romance, a death, and a promotion, but honestly, I didn’t care. I caught up well enough. I wasn’t about to read about dead kids to get through the entire series. Weirdly, the books are titled such that you’re seeing my opinions in reverse reading order. This is the most recent one I read, from 2019, after I had read the other two listed below.
Karin Pirie investigates cold cases in Scotland, and this one involves a body found in a peat bog, pretty well preserved. The body’s underneath motorcycles, which were also buried. Lots of questions here, and some real twists. I did not figure the book out until McDermid wanted me to, which is a heck of a recommendation from me.
Each book in this series builds on the last, so if you are going to read the series, do so in order.
McDermid, Val, Out of Bounds, Sphere, 2017. I love how this book opens and what it leads to. Some kids go joyriding, and it ends badly. Investigators get called in, only to discover that the surviving driver’s DNA is a familial match for DNA in the system for a rape in the 1990s. The kid is a teenager, so obviously not him. Probably his father. But finding that father isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. And then the case gets really twisty, along with other cases that tie in. The only part of these books that I don’t like is the trope that every competent investigator must fight the brass, and the brass is stupid. I’m soooo tired of that.
Otherwise, the book is my favorite of the three I mention here.
McDermid, Val, The Skeleton Road, Sphere, 2015. I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book. I had very much liked Distant Echo, but the write-up of this one online made it sound like it was all about the Balkans. I really wasn’t that interested. But, I figured, I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did.
Climbers find a skeleton on a rooftop in Edinburgh. It leads to a mess, including a woman who believes she’s been abandoned by her charismatic lover. Lots of betrayal and secrets, lots of sad and aching people, including our heroine, who has lost someone she cares about very much. Well written and interesting with good characters, this book convinced me to read the others (except the dead children books).
Olson, Kayla, The Reunion, Atria, 2023. This is Kris Popcorn. I read about the book in a magazine and thought, Yep, sounds like my kind of book, and I ordered it. Then I had one of those pull-a-blanket-over-your head days, and thought I needed popcorn. So I read this. The book is about a former child star who tried to fix her life after a bunch of issues. The network has set up a reunion special and she’s going to reunite with her love interest on the show who is (not coincidentally) also the guy who broke her heart.
The writing is snappy, if thin on setting, and the characters are grand. The book is deliberately frothy. Kayla Olson write it during the worst of the pandemic when she needed an escape. What she ended up doing was providing a romantic escape for everyone else. This was a great deal of fun.
Paterson, Lesley, “Writing Is All About The Long Game,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 10, 2023. This wonderful essay is in the middle of some of the coverage for the Oscars. Every year, during awards season, The Hollywood Reporter puts out many, many, many extra issues, and it takes me forever to read through them. I’m glad I did.
Lesley Paterson is the screenwriter/producer for the remake of All Quiet on The Western Front. She’s also a world champion triathlete. She equates writing and being a triathlete. She also writes about her 263rd race as a triathlete in 105 degree heat, after she had crashed her bike. She had a broken shoulder and she needed to do the swim. She knew she could run, but swim? She needed to win this race so that she had enough money to option the book for her movie. I kid you not. Read this thing. It’s amazing.
Provost, Megan, “Mendota Remembers,” On Wisconsin, Fall, 2022. An unbelievably cool article about a discovery on Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. An archeologist was diving for a completely recreational reason when she saw what looked like a canoe. It was. An ancient one, from 800 C.E. by ancestors of the Ho Chunk Nation. In a lake that people dive all the time. A lake that’s constantly filled with activity.
The article is about the discovery, the recovery of this delicate canoe, and all of the work it took to confirm the find. Read this. It’s soooo cool.
Riedel, Michael, “How Hollywood Director Cameron Crowe Rebooted Almost Famous For Broadway,” Vanity Fair, October, 2022. I love articles on derivative works. I really love articles on how they get conceived and made. Cameron Crowe made a movie about his youth, featuring his mother, and that movie became something bigger than he was. Decades later, the opportunity to make it into something for Broadway arose as his mother was dying. (Prepandemic.) This is a sad and triumphant little piece about life and art and some other things in between.
Shelton, Ron, The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, And A Hit, Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. I loved this book, but it made me sad too. I’ll get to the sad part in a minute. The book itself is a lot of fun. I loved Bull Durham and the book helped me remember much about it. It also reminded me (before the Writer’s strike) just how much of TV/movie-making is serendipity and/or having the right people in the right place at the right time.
So…what made me sad? Agents. What else. Shelton writes this in his final chapter:
White Men Can’t Jump, which I wrote, directed, and coproduced four years after Bull Durham and was a bigger commercial success, is being remade by a writer-producer I don’t know. I called my agents to protest. They confessed that not only was it true, but they had packaged the remake idea and represented the filmmaker. Welcome to the movie business. It may be a betrayal, but it’s a betrayal within industry standards.
Me, I’d’ve fired those assholes. Apparently, Shelton shrugged and moved on. That’s why he can stomach working in Hollywood and I can’t.
There’s lot of other tidbits in here, baseball, writing, and otherwise. I think you’ll like it as much as I did.
One book I just finished was THE LITTLE WARTIME LIBRARY by Kate Thompson, about an underground library in WWIII London. It has enormous book love, feminism, spunky children who have to be too brave, a spot of blackmail, and random death in the life support system. The present day portion is during the pandemic.
It’s REALLY GOOD.