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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Great Reads
Doing something you love for money can be dangerous. After over a decade at Booklist, I still love reading, but there are times when my relationship with books threatens to become dysfunctional. Back before deadlines and paychecks, I looked at books with a come-hither expression; now, too often, I find myself saying, “Not tonight.”
During my recent four-month sabbatical leave, I wasn’t exactly planning to abandon reading for a fling with reality TV, but I was looking forward to a break from the reviewing grind. And I had plans to attack my long-neglected personal reading list with a vengeance. The hardest part was deciding what to read first. At first I considered continuing to honor my 2011 reading resolution by tackling out-of-my-comfort-zone books suggested by readers. But that project originated at work and I didn’t want to think about work.
So what would it be? A Big Book that I longed to join the conversation about, such as Freedom or A Visit from the Goon Squad? Or an older book that people keep recommending to me and which I’m certain I’ll love, such as Straight Man? Or maybe a classic I missed (The Iliad) or one I’ve always wanted to reread (Moby-Dick)? Like a lot of people in Bilblioholics Anonymous, I have lists of books squirreled away in my desk, on my computer, within social media networks, and, of course, between the pages of other books. I haven’t made a list of those lists yet but it’s only a matter of time.
But the best-laid schemes of mice and men are doomed by procrastination and indecision. In the end, nearly all the books I read were those that happened to be at hand when I needed something to read. I may not have crossed any lists off my list, but I enjoyed every page—after all, I wasn’t required to write anything about them. Here are a few of my favorites.
Gutshot Straight, by Lou Berney
In September, at a crime-fiction conference called Bouchercon, I moderated a panel called “Write What You Know” and dutifully read all the books beforehand. Some of them were pretty good, but this one was great—funny and lively, surprising and swift-paced. I have to agree with our reviewer Tom Gaughan’s assessment that, “The estimable Elmore Leonard might be very pleased to call Gutshot Straight his own.”
Holes, by Louis Sachar
Because I am an accidental middle-grade author, there are many gaps in my middle-grade reading, particularly books published after I left the middle grades myself. (My own two sons aren’t quite there yet.) The most recent modern classic I’ve caught up with is Holes, which my editor suggested I read for its plotting. I thought reading it might feel like homework but ended up enjoying it immensely. The voice and premise are still fresh and original—and the plotting is well worth studying.
The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber
Despite having some Thurber books around the house while I was growing up, I had never heard of this offbeat fairytale. It’s just so weird that it’s downright refreshing. My own kids had mixed reactions to it—they might be a little bit young to fully appreciate some of its more fanciful conceits—but I loved it, in no small part because the language sounded so wonderful when I read it aloud. Well, I thought I sounded good, anyway.
The Way We Die Now, by Charles Willeford
At least once a year, I pick up a Willeford novel whether I’ve already read it or not. For my money, the Hoke Moseley series is one of the best in crime fiction. Willeford was a master of deadpan understatement, and his deceptively simple but carefully observed sentences contain both horror and hilarity. It’s not always likable but it’s always arresting, as when one character muses: “He had had to kill the Mexican after he blinded him; blind, the man wouldn’t have been able to find any work.”
What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes
I haven’t read the approximately 700 pages of Matterhorn—my sabbatical was only four months long, after all—but when I unearthed an unread copy of this, it caught my eye. I’m writing a novel about an ex-soldier, and I thought I might skim this for character traits. Instead, I read every word, fascinated. Both a training manual for would-be warriors and a caution to politicians who would deploy them (and an eye-opener to the civilian public), this is by turns horrifying and soothing, visceral and deeply profound. It’s a book I’ll never forget.
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