Recommended Reading: February 2019

The quest continues. For the last several months, I’ve been reading only unfamiliar authors, or authors that I haven’t read in a decade or more.

Here are some of the best books I’ve enjoyed lately. (All links Amazon US)

Rec Read image-Hayley Finn

Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann

Book-length narrative non-fiction, when done well, is top-of-the-line reading. I picked this up at Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse in Santa Fe, NM and had a feeling that it would be an astounding story. It did not disappoint.

The Osage tribe of Oklahoma was the richest group of people in America for a few years in the 1920s. Why? They were sitting on some very profitable oil leases, and many had expensive cars and chaffeurs and mansions. This alone would’ve been interesting – but then, horrifically, they began turning up dead. Two, then four, then eight, then twenty-two. Then the nascent FBI got wind of the murders and dispatched a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to investigate. What he found was a county-wide conspiracy among the white power structure to murder natives for the headrights, and no method was too terrible–bomb, strangulation, poisoned needles, hammer, auto accident.

It’s a peculiarly American story, focusing on sudden wealth, racism, and murder. There’s an investigator trying to make sense of all of it. And it’s all true. Nearly every sentence integrates something from the historical record—a quote, a statistic, a testimony. It’s unputdownable and should be required reading in schools. Rumor has it that Martin Scorsese will be filming the movie version with Leo DiCaprio later this summer. Don’t wait—find a copy of the book now. It won a 2018 Edgar Award.

 

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz

Last time my path crossed with Mr. Díaz, it was ten years ago, and I was travelling across part of South America. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had just been released, and I carried it in my hand onto buses, into restaurants, in hotel rooms, etc. That book was great. No—it wasn’t just great, but obnoxiously, incredibly, awesomely, choose-your-adverbly kind of great. His voice on the page was nothing like anybody had ever seen, and in my own reading life, voice is everything. I’ll follow a great authorial voice anywhere, even to subjects I don’t care much about. Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Kaye Gibbons, Frederick Exley—their fiction voices are/were amazing.

Díaz is right up there with those stars. He released this collection of short stories in 2012, and it’s got the same look-ma-no-hands kind of passion, the same structural artistry, as Wao did. In fact, I don’t think enough people give him credit for taking unusual story structures and making them emotionally compelling. It’s not easy.

The stories here are all based on the same point of view: a young poor Latino guy in New Jersey pursuing misadventures in sex. It’s clear that Díaz is obsessed with women—finding them, luring them, charming them, using them, getting used by them, analyzing them, dumping them, getting dumped by them, remembering them.

I’m aware that Díaz got nailed by the #MeToo movement, and has some sins to atone for. And reading this book, I can see some reason for that, because this book is drenched in the hormones of a young man’s sex-addled brain. Still, I do separate the artist from the art, and this collection is definitely worth the read. None of the stories here is heads and shoulders above any other. They’re all terrific. Whenever Díaz is ready to publish something new, I’ll be here waiting.

 

Sonata Mulattica, by Rita Dove

I’d been meaning to read modern narrative poetry for a while, because it seems like a genre that’s ripe for a comeback. I’d also been meaning to read Rita Dove for a while, because she was our Poet Laureate for three years back in the nineties.

Then, while I was wandering the streets of the Printers’ Row Literary Festival in Chicago last summer, this title leapt off the shelf into my hands. It’s Rita Dove’s book-length narrative poem about the real-life story of George Bridgetower, a biracial violinist of the 19th century who was friends with Ludwig von Beethoven.

Man oh man, it’s a tour de force. This series of poems is told from various different viewpoints, in various different poetic styles, even including a brief stageplay. Dove takes her sweet time telling the details of Bridgetower’s life, and uses some pretty highflown language to relate those details. But that’s the nature of a poet, choosing opacity over clarity. It reminds me of the famous saying that a scientist takes something that nobody knows and says it in a way that everybody can understand, while a poet takes something that everybody knows and says it in a way that nobody can understand. That’s not a criticism. Today, poetry is meant to obfuscate. That’s kind of the point, at least in our modern conception of it.

This book got me juiced for the possibilities of the genre. After all, narrative poetry, if written in a conversational tone, could have a potentially huge audience. To my way of thinking, a lot of readers who don’t have the patience or time or attention span to finish a novel might be surprised how much easier it can be to get through a story in poetic form. Robert Frost wrote like this. James Dickey wrote in this form back in the sixties and seventies.

Me, I’m going to explore this genre further. Ms. Dove has inspired me. Isn’t that what books are supposed to do?

 

“There’s No Place Like Home” by Edan Lepucki

This is new: Amazon has commissioned a series of novelettes by famous and less-famous writers. It’s called the Warmer collection, and all of them are connected by the same theme: each is set in a dystopian future in which society is suffering severe climate change. The ‘Zon swoons over the series as “a collection of seven visions of a conceivable tomorrow by today’s most thought-provoking authors. Alarming, inventive, intimate, and frightening, each story can be read, or listened to, in a single breathtaking sitting.”

That’s really purple marketing copy. A single breathtaking sitting. Someone fetch the smelling salts.

Seriously, those folks over in Seattle seem to have read my mind, because I’d thought of doing a series exactly like this. In fact, I did write a similar series of shorts for a ghostwriting assignment a couple years ago. I’d love to release them to the public, but, ya know, contracts, and, ya know, lawsuits. The pain of being a ghost. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Back to Lepucki’s story. It’s sharp and well-observed. The young girl who discovers her father’s suicide in an overheated Los Angeles of the distant future felt very, very real. The descriptions were accurate but understated. You could feel the slow way that oppressive heat and malnutrition wears down a family. And the small details, like Manitoba’s new role as a northern destination, a societal escape valve, were sharp.

Mostly I enjoyed the author’s world-building. It spoke to me. As someone who used to live in Los Angeles, I’ve glimpsed the future described here. In fact, the prospect of a dystopic waterless future of the haves v have-nots grappling under the broiling desert sun was one big reason I fled Southern California a few years ago. Returning to the upper Midwest, the land of great lakes and mild summers, has sent my happiness meter skyrocketing. There will be many more following this same path in future years as the desert Southwest slowly transforms into a kiln in coming years.

Anyways, read the story; it’s free in Amazon Prime as one of their Amazon Original Stories. I’ll be gobbling up the rest of the series shortly.

 

In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, edited by Lawrence Block

Another terrific anthology idea: Persuade America’s grandest mystery novelist, Lawrence Block, to put out the bat signal. He then persuades 17 respected writers to contribute one short story to his project–each inspired by a different Edward Hopper painting. Each story is prefaced by the canvas that inspired it.

Hopper was best known for Nighthawks, but all of his uniquely alienated American scenes are crying out for some noir-inspired moodiness and madness. This delivers. It’s a sharp collection, and a lot of these stories hit the mark. They include pieces by Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, Kris Nelscott, Stephen King, and many others. I didn’t care for King’s story very much—heresy!—but Craig Ferguson, the talk show host and comedian, contributed an expectedly wacky tale. My favorite was written by Joe R. Lansdale, who I’d never heard of. Michael Connolly and Lee Child round out the cast.

Fact is, we’re living in a golden era of short story writing at the moment, thanks to a digital world of publishing that has lifted almost all restrictions on story length. Oddly, I’ve been reading all these shorties on my phone, a Moto Droid. When I bought it a couple years ago, I swore I wouldn’t read on such a small screen, but that wall crumbled pretty quick, and I’ve found that it’s comfortable to use for short bursts. Also, this is probably the way more people around the world will be reading in the future, since a delivery platform for paper is downright impractical in many developing parts of the globe, such as Indonesia, which has ten thousand scattered islands. This is the best time in history to be a reader.

 

 

The Spain Tourmaline: $.99 Sale (Nov. 10 to Nov. 16)

Spain.Tourmaline.finalThe Spain Tourmaline is on sale for the next week (November 10 to November 16)! It’s only $0.99 — that’s 80% off regular price. Available wherever ebooks are sold:

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/2BZDp2D

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2DbEQKB

Amazon AU: https://amzn.to/2JVI0n1

Amazon CA: https://amzn.to/2DdMyUr

Apple iTunes: https://apple.co/2FcAG80

Kobo US: http://bit.ly/2OBljVK

Also available at Scribd, Tolino, 24Symbols, Google Play, and other retailers.

Description

Dissatisfied with the tourist beaches of Costa del Sol, gemstone detective Ainsley Walker dreams of discovering the real Spain…

THEN

Her life changes when she accepts an offer to help an aging bullfighter find his jewel-encrusted sword for his grand comeback—an assignment that plunges her deep into the wild, beating heart of traditional Spanish culture.

Andalucía.

In the blink of an eye, Ainsley finds herself on a fast-paced adventure that carries her from bullfights to bull ranches, from tapas bars to tearooms, from Catholic processionals to Moorish patios.

Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, agony—

—and the ancient bonds of life and death.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

… who was a finalist in a prestigious short story contest sponsored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald…

…comes a travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.

Length: 71,000 words
Sixth in the series.

If you haven’t read The Spain Tourmaline, grab a copy today!

Recommended Reading: October 2018

Earlier this year, I realized that I had been reading fewer books by unfamiliar authors. This hasn’t happened because of a newly shortened attention span. My mental state hasn’t yet deteriorated into a series of electrocuted-frog twitches. True, Twitter is a huge time sink, but it hasn’t changed my neural wiring or anything.

No, here are the real reasons:

  1. As a writer and editor, I stare at words for hours and hours every day. At night I often need a break.
  2. During the last few years, I’ve grown into the mentality of a professional. This means that I’m tougher on other people’s books now than I used to be. I’m not necessarily proud of this.
  3. We’ve living in a golden era of television. Between Netflix and Amazon alone, we have hundreds of thousands of hours of high-quality filmed entertainment. For example, most fiction I’ve read recently can’t hold a candle to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, whose scenes are brilliantly written, and which won enough Emmy trophies to build an army.

Anyways, it hit me earlier in the summer that I missed that habit of adventurous reading. You know, the one that I’ve enjoyed most of my life.

Rec Read image-Hayley Finn

(photo: Hayley Finn via Flickr)

So I assembled a list of books to read. Many websites such as Goodreads will help you curate a list like this, but I did it the old-fashioned way—on a Microsoft Word document. (Side note: Twenty-five years of market dominance, and Word still shows no signs of wearing out.)

I decided that the list would consist of either

  • writers whom I’ve always known about but had never read
  • writers whom I hadn’t read in the last ten years and had forgotten about.

Unfortunately, I discovered that my patience for other people’s fiction is still pretty thin. Again, I’m not proud of this. Several fiction titles I abandoned without finishing and won’t mention them here, with one exception.

Here are the six titles I enjoyed the most. All links Amazon US:

 

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

In so-called “literary fiction”, voice is everything. (Because plot usually doesn’t exist.) In Disgrace, the author’s voice is strong on the page—solid, serious, and with something always swimming just below the surface. Maybe that’s Coetzee’s Dutch Afrikaaner background, maybe that’s just his reported cantankerousness. Anyways, this book was appealing and weird and yet kind of off-kilter at the same time. This despite the fact that the first half of the story itself—a college professor who has an affair with a student and loses his job—felt incredibly tired. It made me think of Tom Wolfe’s admonition to writers to get the hell out of the ivory tower and see how people actually live for a change.

Halfway through, however, the story took a strange twist, and suddenly I found myself in a racially provocative sequence of scenes in rural South Africa involving the protagonist’s grown lesbian daughter. I was motivated to finish this one, and I think I can see why he won the Nobel Prize a few years back. It was unpredictable and fairly masterful, even if Coetzee doesn’t seem like the kind of guy I’d want to share a coffee with. Still, I’d definitely read another book by him. I remember Mark Sarvas enthusiastically recommending his title Summertime on his now-defunct blog The Elegant Variation.

 

My Misspent Youth, by Meghan Daum

For my money, Daum is the best essayist in America. I haven’t read another book of essays that were so nimble and supple. Her insights are as sharp as a diamond cutter’s tool, and each essay still feels contemporary. I say still, because it’s to my eternal shame that it took me nearly twenty goddamned years to finally get around to reading this book, her first.

My Misspent Youth is a collection of essays about Daum’s partly successful, partly agonizing time as a young person struggling in New York City, which ended when she fled to the hinterlands of Nebraska before the age of thirty. If you’re smart and educated and thoughtful and ambitious, and if you’ve ever moved to a new city as a twentysomething (and suffered financially for it), you’ll recognize yourself in these pages. I particularly loved “Variations on Grief”, her bitter essay about a friend who died young without having accomplished anything in his life. That was uniquely honest.

These days Daum apparently runs an occasional essay-writing class in New York. If her talent can rub off, I’d say don’t walk, but run to her doorstep, and beg for a sprinkling of that magic fairy dust.

 

Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso

A graphic novel about the murder of a young woman, and her boyfriend’s sense of grief as he goes to a friend’s house in Colorado to recover. I’m no expert on graphic novels, but I always enjoy them as long as nobody’s wearing colored tights, flying through the air, or shooting webs out of their palms.

Drnaso’s last book Beverly got a lot of attention, and though I don’t know that one, I can report that Sabrina is worth your time. The illustrations are pretty small and basic—honestly, there are better visual artists out there—but the story nonetheless had me turning the page. He’s not afraid to draw characters in mundane situations, which heightens suspense. He’s also not afraid to move to the next scene without resolving that tension. This may lead some people to derisively label the book “arty”, and make snide comparisons to David Lynch, but to me this unpredictability is a draw. It’s a story that takes its time and is not easily summarized.

 

Waiting, by Ha Jin

I need two things from fiction. First, if it’s a story about a radically non-Western culture, I need someone from my own culture to serve as an interpreter. You know, a Virgil to be my guide. Second, I also prefer writers with strong authorial voices, who aren’t afraid to make statements of opinion in the book.

Neither of these preferences should come as any surprise, since both of these qualities define Ainsley Walker, the protagonist in my own Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series. Let’s be honest. In the end, much of fiction really just boils down to a matter of taste. This pisses off critics to no end, but it’s really true. That zombie apocalypse novel with the ugly cover may seem awful to you and me—but to a twelve-year-old boy who can count the total number of books he’s ever read on his left hand, that bloody zombie tale is going to be a great book. He’ll remember it for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, this book didn’t have either of my two preferred qualities, so it wasn’t for me. Waiting is a story about a man in China who waited eighteen years to divorce so he could marry his nurse. Why did I include it on this list? Because Jin, who wrote the book in English, was born and raised in China. Holy Christ in a Happy Meal, is that all kinds of crazy talent. I mean, though I speak Spanish well, I can’t begin to imagine writing a professional-quality book in that language, much less winning the National Book Award for it. If he wrote Waiting by himself, Jin is otherworldly.

 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, by Ernest Hemingway

There’s nothing new I can say about Hemingway that hasn’t already been stated a thousand times by a thousand critics over the last century. What I can say is that I hadn’t read a word by him in a decade. I didn’t care much for his writing when I was younger, though that changed at age twenty-five, when I picked up A Moveable Feast, which stands to me as a supremely artistic way of telling a memoir, even if he didn’t finish it. (Or maybe because he didn’t finish it.)

Anyways, this particular title is a collection of various short stories, a couple of which were frankly boring, but most of which were vintage Hemingway, like the famous title story. Yes, he displays some sexism, and he chooses to draw women in a consistently negative light, but you should know that about him by now. Complaining about Hemingway’s machismo is like going to the hardware store and complaining that you can’t find any milk. You went to the wrong store.

As I was reading, however, I was fixated mostly on his style, trying to imagine how radical it must’ve looked to an America that was still in the throes of the Nathaniel Hawthorne type of hundred-word sentences, a chain of dependent clauses parading across the page nose-to-tail like a procession of pigs. Hemingway’s grandest achievement was to hack away a lot of that linguistic overgrowth, and as a result he became probably the most consequential writer in our history. Today, asking a writer to define Hemingway’s influence is like asking a fish to describe water.

 

No is Not Enough, by Naomi Klein

Ten years ago, at the end of a trip to Europe, I found a copy of Klein’s then-new title The Shock Doctrine in the English-language section of a bookstore in Madrid. I didn’t have anything else to read on the long flight home, so I bought it.

I read the book for eight straight hours. It was a brilliant, profound look at how governments and organizations exploit natural crises for their own ends. I was aghast at the Chicago School of Economics’ influence upon Latin American politics, especially in Chile. The stuff about the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina also put into context a lot of stuff happening during the W era.

This title, published last year, isn’t quite as good, but it’s not because of her lack of analysis, style, or passion—those are all still there. It’s just that this title is less shocking (ba-dum!) and less original. It’s a fairly predictable attack on the horrible actions of the current U.S. administration. Watching her take shots at the lizards in power felt too easy, maybe because they’ve already being well and deservedly ambushed by many other lesser intellects.

Klein is an unabashed leftist—she sits on the board of The Nation—which is too far out to la izquierda for my own tastes. Still, I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement as she identifies and discusses the two biggest threats to global civilization: income inequality and climate change. I’m still a fan, but I’d beg Klein to turn her enormous brain towards issues that are less obvious than the treasonous rat-bastards currently running the federal government. That crime family are going to be short-timers anyways; it’s Klein’s big-picture analysis of long-term trends that makes her so great.