Best of the Year

Taking a few minutes out of being a busy entrepreneurial executive at the hubby’s consulting biz to share my reading stats for 2018.  I finished 84 books — I read more than that, but I’ve made a separate list on Goodreads for “DNFs” (that means “did not finish,” for the uninitiated). I don’t rate those and I don’t include them on my list of what I’ve actually read.

I’m an avid audiobook fan and that led to my favorite discovery of 2018, Percival Everett. First I heard “The Appropriation of Culture” on Selected Shorts. Then, soon after, Levar Burton read “Graham Greene” on his wonderful podcast. After that, I went to the library and picked up a couple of Everett’s short story collections. I love his unique ability to combine a world-weary realism with an underlying sense of serenity. His stories feel kind of Buddhist in their world view.

Also “The Appropriation of Culture” manages to say some really important, insightful things about race while being freaking hilarious. Find it in his 2004 collection, Damned If I Do.

141202Besides Percival Everett, Levar Burton has featured works by Charlie Jane Anders, Octavia Butler and Daniel Wallace, among others. Burton’s podcast is a delight if you enjoy audiobooks. First there’s the creamy-smooth goodness of Levar Burton’s voice, but it’s also a wonderful forum for underrepresented authors. Many of the stories he’s chosen are by women and/or authors of color. It’s a fun way to discover authors who haven’t gotten as much exposure as they should have.

814-kplvc6lAnother great fiction discovery was Mick Herron. He’s been around for a while, but I finally picked up the first book in his “Slow Horses/Slough House” series and loved it. The Slow Horses are failed British intelligence agents. They’ve all done something egregiously wrong, but not quite criminal. Still, they know too much to be allowed back into ordinary society, so why not make use of them. The sad-sack screw-ups are relegated to Slough House (Slough House=slow horses, get it?!?!), where they are meant to shuffle papers and enter data until the end of time. They’re presided over by gruff, shambling, slobby Jackson Lamb, who may not be as washed up as he keeps trying to pretend to be.

And of course, they do NOT stay behind those desks and enter that data. They inevitably get drawn into various high-stakes adventures, which they botch up stupendously before generally getting their sh*t together in the final few chapters. It’s like Johnny English as written by Graham Greene (meaning the British novelist, not the Native American actor mentioned in the Percival Everett story cited above). Far less introspective than Percival Everett, but loads of fun to read. If you like a good caper story, especially of the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” variety, read these.

Ironically, one of the worst novels I read this year was also by Mick Herron. Called This Is What Happened, it was an utterly unconvincing dystopian tale blended with the now tiresomely familiar twisty domestic thriller genre. Skip this one and read the entire Slough House series instead.

downloadAs for nonfiction, I read so many, many fascinating perspective-altering books this year, it kind of exhausted me. I highly recommend Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. This book takes all the talk of climate change and brings it down to the personal level. Rush interviews people whose entire neighborhoods are now underwater and destined to stay there. She examines the faulty assumptions over the last fifty years that have made flooding even worse in places like New Jersey and New Orleans. It will definitely make you reconsider retiring to the seaside, I can tell you that.

9780252082122Another life-changing read was Goodbye iSlave by Jack Qiu. This under-noticed treatise is a bit dry at times but has so much important to tell us. Qiu writes about the morally questionable nature of our mobile device addiction — the slave labor that mines the materials, the toxic workplaces where people who are virtual prisoners assemble the things, the rising pile of toxic trash that comes from throwing all this crap away after just a couple of years. His book offers some possible solutions to the problems presented within the text, including the FairPhone, a repairable mobile device. I wanted so badly to get one after reading this book, but looks like they aren’t even available in the USA.

Last but not least, I read a lot more poetry than I have in years. Possibly this was because I was managing the poetry collection at the grouchy old-school library I last worked at. (You know the kind of library I mean: where the librarians all sit on stools behind a high desk, reading their own books and hoping you will go away and not ask them that question you’re about to ask. It was not a good fit.)

But at any rate, I got to read a lot of poetry. And what lingers with me now is Gabriel, the heartbreaking masterpiece of loss by Edward Hirsch. Published several years ago, this long poem/short book is a father’s elegy for the death of his beautiful, baffling, troubled son. Gabriel died at the age of 22, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, it was many days before Hirsch was able to find out what had become of his son and learn where the body had been taken. Truly, it is every parent’s worst nightmare turned into art. The poem will especially resonate with anyone who has a child struggling, as Gabriel did, with mental illness and developmental disorders.

Hirsch with Gabriel in happier times

And those are my most memorable books from 2018. Sorry if it’s a heavy list, but it was a heavy year.

Happy reading to all of you in 2019!



The man with no plot: how I watched Lee Child write a Jack Reacher novel by Andy Martin

British novelist Andy Martin spent much of the past year with author Lee Child as he wrote the 20th novel in his Jack Reacher series. Here he describes Child’s bold (and very, very “seat of the pants”) approach to writing.

Andy Martin, University of Cambridge

This article and the accompanying photos are reprinted by permission from the wonderful UK news website, The Conversation via Creative Commons license.

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Nobody really believes him when he says it. And in the end I guess it is unprovable. But I can put my hand on heart and say, having been there, and watched him at work, that Lee Child is fundamentally clueless when he starts writing. He really is. He has no idea what he is doing or where he is going. And the odd thing is he likes it that way. The question is: Why? I mean, most of us like to have some kind of idea where we are heading, roughly, a hypothesis at least to guide us, even if we are not sticking maps on the wall and suchlike. Whereas he, in contrast, embraces the feeling of just falling off a cliff into the void and relying on some kind of miraculous soft landing.

Of course he is not totally tabula rasa. Because he, and I, had a fair idea that the name Jack Reacher was going to come up somewhere in this, his 20th novel in the series.

It’s probably a defensive reflex gesture, but I sometimes like to joke that, when I had this crazy idea of writing a book about a novelist working on a story from beginning to end, I first contacted Amis/Tartt/Franzen/ Houellebecq and when they were unavailable I only asked Lee Child as a desperate last resort. The reality is he was the first writer I thought of. He has always struck me as a blessed (and I don’t mean by that successful) and exemplary incarnation of what Borges called “the spirit of literature”. He is, more than anyone I can think of, a pure writer, with a degree zero style. Maybe sub-zero. He doesn’t plan. He doesn’t premeditate. He loves to be spontaneous. Which explains two things: One: that he said yes to my proposal. “I’m starting Monday”, he wrote, “so if you want to do this you’d better get over here.” And, two: that he also said: “I have no plot and no title. Nothing.”

When I got there, on September 1 of last year, to his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, overlooking Central Park, just up the street from where John Lennon once lived (and where he was shot dead by a deranged fan), all he had was sublime confidence. And a title, which he had come up with the night before: Make Me. He just liked the sound of it.

Pencilled in

It had to be September 1. It’s a ritual with him: 20 years to the day since he went out and bought the paper and a pencil with which to write his first novel, Killing Floor. (It had to be a pencil: he decided he couldn’t really afford anything better, having just been sacked from his job in television). When he sat down to write the first sentence, all he had in his head was a scene, a glimpse of a scene: a bunch of guys are burying someone, a big guy, using a backhoe (or JCB). He had no idea who they are, why they are doing this, or who the big guy is either, other than that his name is Keever.

So he wrote the following sentence: “Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.” I was looking over his shoulder, but I was about a couple of yards or so behind him, perched on a couch, so I had to peer hard at the screen. All I could make out was the “-ing”. It was enough for me. Good start I thought: participle, verb, action. I had to know more. But he didn’t know more, at this point. We discussed the first couple of pages, when they popped up out of his printer. He knew it had to be third-person. No dialogue, but he tried to capture something of the vernacular in a Flaubertian style indirect libre. And Reacher, when he gets off the train in the small town of Mother’s Rest, in the midst of “nothingness”, has no absolutely no idea what is going on.

Lee Childs starts with this. EPA/Sergion Barrenechea

Which was exactly how Lee Child felt. For the next few months I looked on with a degree of anxiety. Maybe he would never finish this one. The whole project looked doomed. Reacher was wandering around this small town, trying to work out mainly why it was even called Mother’s Rest. He didn’t even know that Keever was a dead man at this point. He was a fairly useless detective, because he couldn’t even figure out what the crime was, let alone solve it.

Wandering spirit

So too Lee Child. He wandered around New York, then drifted off to the West Coast, then Madrid, then Sussex, and still had no idea what the hell was going on in his book. If it was a book. Around Christmas time I spoke to him on the phone and he said: “Maybe it’ll make a good short story.” And added: “Maybe I should go back and work in television. I hear it’s improved a lot since my day.” And tossed in stray remarks like: “I guess I’m all out of gas.” He was partly winding me up of course – if he didn’t finish then neither would I. But after Phase One in his writing (what he calls “the gorgeous feeling” of the beginning) there is a Phase Two, which puts him in mind of Sisyphus and his travails. He struggles and meanders. Smokes more and drinks more black coffee, if it is possible to drink more black coffee. Puffs on the occasional joint in hope of inspiration finally striking.

Some time in January, it started to crystallise in his mind and he gave me the Big Reveal. Looking back at my notes, I see that I said to him, in a tone of mixed awe and horror: “You evil mastermind bastard.” I realised that there was a simple mistake I had been making all along. I had been mixing him up with his hero Jack Reacher. Whereas I now realised what I should have realised long before that he was also every single bad guy he had ever dreamed up. All those fiendish plots were actually his. The role of Reacher was to stop him plotting and for all I know taking over the world. Reacher keeps the author in check.

‘He stopped, so I stopped’

Then, in his phrase, it was the “marathon sprint” to the end. He got to the final page on April 10, 2015, surviving on a diet of Sugar Smacks and Alpen and toast, garnished with mucho caffeine and nicotine.

The finished product: Make Me / Random House

Having feared he would never get to the end, I was not sure I really wanted him to finish. Or whether I should be there to watch. It really seemed as if I was transgressing and crossing the line into some sacred place. I was bearing witness to the creative process dying. But without which the book itself could never be born. Last word: “needle”. “Moving … needle”. The whole book was there.

He stopped, so I stopped. That was the rule. I started when he started, so I had to finish when he did, or the day after anyway. No additions, no time for further reflection. It all had to be done according to the same principle he had adopted. Even before he had written the first sentence, he turned to me and said: “This is not the first draft, you know”. “Oh – what is it then?” I asked naively. “It’s the ONLY DRAFT!” he replied, with definite upper case or at least italics in his voice. He didn’t want to change anything, so neither could I.

Hence it took me several months to work out why it was that he worked in this fundamentally terrifying, angst-inducing way. Actually several explanations have occurred to me: sloth for one. He just can’t be bothered. And then there is what he says, which is that he would be “bored” if he knew what was coming next. But contained in that statement is a hint of what I think is the case and in fact is the secret of his whole writing.

Made man: Andy Martin’s meta-novel. / Random House

Lee Child writes his books as if he were the reader not the writer. When he is sitting at his desk in that back room in Manhattan he is only typing. The real work takes place when he is “dreaming”, when he is being just another reader, wondering what is coming next, waiting to find out. It probably explains too why he allowed me to look over his shoulder and watch his sentences taking shape even before he knew how they would end. He feels a natural sympathy with readers because he is one.

I sometimes like to claim – with absurd grandiloquence – that my book is some kind of first in the history of mankind, sitting around watching another guy write a whole book: but in fact that would be a lie, because I had to run off from time to time so as not to curl up and die of involuntary inhalation. But the “first” that I really would like to lay claim to is this: I am the first reader of a Lee Child novel to read it slowly. I had to keep stopping because he kept stopping. Because he really had no idea what was coming next. “Why did you stop there?” I asked him one day, feeling he hadn’t really written enough for that day. “I had to stop there,” he said. “I have no idea who that guy in the Cadillac is.”

The Conversation

Andy Martin, Lecturer, Department of French, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The White Man’s Burden Just Never Stops

white-mans-problems.w250Funniest quote about books this week  (or possibly ever) has to go to Michael Wolff of USA Today. . .

In a recent article, Wolff bemoans the fate of middle-aged white guy Kevin Morris who, despite being a successful entertainment lawyer, couldn’t get a book contract with a mainstream publisher. The article goes on at length to talk about what a hard thing it is to be a white guy in the entertainment industry these days (?!) and how little entertainment is geared toward such folk.

Because you know, Jack Reacher, Tom Clancy, Liam Neeson, Duck Dynasty, football  — apparently none of that counts. Although if those things are not for middle-aged men, I can’t imagine who they’re actually for.

And if you’re grousing about wanting a more literary level to your middle-aged white guy entertainment, what about Updike, Cheever, Jonathan Franzen, and almost any freaking short story published in The New Yorker? What about the hundreds of years of accumulated writing and work that has already been written by and aimed at middle-aged white guys? I guess Mr. Wolff has already read all of that.

Now I have no idea of the quality of Kevin Morris’ writing. I haven’t read his book yet. And I have to confess that as a non-middle-aged-white-man, it’s not at the top of my list. My quibble is not with the quality of his writing, the state of entertainment for middle-aged men, or his feeling of being marginalized.

In fact, I applaud Morris for doing what so many other successful writers of all ages and colors (myself included) are now doing — self-publishing his collection of stories, White Man’s Problems. My quibble is not with Morris at all, but rather with this truly priceless line, found near the end of Michael Wolff’s bafflingly outraged column about this book:

“Amazon’s legion of self-published authors is perhaps just more evidence of our infinitely fractured culture. Too many stories is just another sign of a broken world.”

That’s right, the same columnist complaining about the lack of representation for middle-aged white men in literature and praising the brilliance of Kevin Morris’ self-published book is the same columnist suggesting it’s a BAD THING that absolutely anyone can now self-publish a collection of short stories whenever they so desire.

Wait, what?

Telling more stories is bad? The fact that human beings have stories to tell and new ways to share them is a BAD THING?! A sign of a broken world?

If a burning desire to tell your story and the ability to share it with anyone is a sign of disaster and brokenness, I guess it’s clearly been one long downhill slide since the first caveman picked up his brush. And frankly, if more people wanting to tell stories is a sign of a broken world, then I’d be happy to live in one that’s crumbling to pieces.

Rant done. Thanks for the laugh, USA Today.

Book in a Minute: Amy Falls Down

Amy Falls Down: A NovelAmy Falls Down: A Novel by Jincy Willett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Curmudgeonly heroine Amy Gallup returns in Amy Falls Down , the delightful new book from her real-life alter ego, Jincy Willett.

Amy was a literary sensation in her youth, and now gets along by teaching writing classes at the local community college and online. In a previous book, Amy and her class dealt with a murderer in their midst. There’s no mystery in the new book, but in its place, there’s some brilliant, biting insight into the “instant celebrity” phenomenon of modern society.

After a bad fall in her garden, a mildly concussed Amy gives an interview to a worshipful admirer who works for the local newspaper. The barely coherent article gets circulated around the Internet and voila! Amy, who hasn’t written a book in decades, is suddenly hailed as a contemporary philosopher and becomes a literary sensation again. She becomes a regular on NPR, speaks at assorted writers’ conferences, and even makes a triumphant appearance on a Rush Limbaugh-like talk radio show. Along the way, Amy rediscovers her love for the written word, works through the lingering grief over the death of her first husband, and ultimately winds up playing second fiddle to an adorable and heroic basset hound named Alphonse.

Amy Falls Down is uproariously funny in places and it moved me to tears in others. Jincy Willett uses an ostensibly funny, lightweight story to sneak in some major truths about pop culture, the writing business, and life as a woman of a “certain age.”

I loved it. Go read it now.

View all my reviews

Book in a Minute: The Revisionists

The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Billed as a science fiction tale about time travel, The Revisionists is really a political thriller with an intriguing subplot about the nature of reality. Despite that misleading publisher’s blurb, this was an awesome book. The kind that makes me say, “Why the hell do I write? Even this guy’s grocery lists are probably better written than mine.”

Zed is a sort of time cop from the future – or is he really? While the true nature of his identity is somewhat mysterious and open to interpretation, Zed manages to come across as a complex, sympathetic, and believable character — as are the two main female characters, Sari and Tasha. The weak link is Leo, a rather unbelievably gullible former intelligence operative.

To be honest, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me was more of a true science fiction tale than this one. But even though The Revisionists wasn’t the book I expected it to be, I still enjoyed it immensely.

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Some Wise Advice for Frustrated Writers Everywhere

I love Chuck Wendig. This guy is hilarious and profane and completely true. His blog about the writing life is very appropriately called Terrible Mind and today it features his list of twenty-five reasons why you should just quit writing NOW.

They’re all hilarious, but #5 is my fave:

5. Hell, Maybe You’re Too Good

Alternately, you might be too talented. Your works are literary masterpieces, as if Raymond Carver, James Joyce and Don DeLillo contributed their authorial seed and poured it on the earth where it grew the tree that would one day be slaughtered to provide the paper for your magnum opus. And meanwhile, someone goes and writes porny Twilight fan-fiction and gets a billion-dollar book deal thanks to the tepid BDSM fantasies of housewives everywhere. You’re just too good for this. As you seem unwilling to write the S&M fan-fic version of The Hunger Games for a seven-figure-deal… well. This way to the great egress!


For his full list, click here.

WARNING: Lots of graphic language. I mean it. So don’t click on the link if you’re uncomfortable with that sort of thing.