Lately I’ve been finishing books I started reading in the last year or two — and enjoyed, but left unfinished. Today I’ll tell you about some of those, plus some books I finished more quickly, without leaving them to languish for months or years.
Meanwhile, the poster child for my problem is still unfinished: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (first published in 1862). I got about 150 pages in, loved it, and stopped. I recently restarted from the beginning. I’m further in now, but I still have over 1,200 pages to go; it’s the unabridged translation. I’m still loving it, but it’ll be a while before I can report completion.
Among the books I’ve finished, I read some just to read them. Others I read for research, because I’m attempting, as time permits, to learn the art, craft, and business of writing fiction. I enjoyed most of the books I list below in printed form and the rest as audio books.
After I decided this topic might make a fun blog post, I asked myself why I wanted to write it. There was time enough to wonder; some of my writing languishes unfinished for months, like my reading.
On reflection I don’t think my motive is to dazzle you with the breadth and depth of my reading; I know too many people who read far more than I do to be impressed with myself in this way, or to think you’ll be impressed. Besides, if I were trying to impress you, I’d probably exclude at least two or three of the books I’m about to mention. You’ll know which, I think, when you get to them.
It’s more a matter of my enthusiasm for books in general, for some (not all) of these particular books, and for people who read books. When I read a book, I want to talk about it. You’re welcome to join me.
Books I Read to Read Them
These I read for entertainment, enlightenment, diversion, etc., but not for research related to my fiction writing.
David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story About the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (2019)
This isn’t about the Mormon pioneers, and it doesn’t reach far enough west for the Oregon trail. It’s about the people who founded and settled Marietta, Ohio, in what was then called the Northwest Territory, beginning in 1788.
As usual, David McCullough brings ordinary and extraordinary people to life, as they struggle with the forest, smallpox, hunger, Native Americans, transportation, and in many cases a life far different from what they knew in New England. He connects these people with a new and growing nation through national politics, notable figures who pass through on their way up and down the Ohio, and even a conspiracy involving historical figures whose names you’ll recognize.
David McCullough is always a good read. Last year I read The Wright Brothers, which is equally fine.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985)
Cormac McCarthy is widely regarded as one of the great American writers, and Blood Meridian as a top-shelf American masterpiece. I had never read any of his writing, until two writers I know recommended independently that I read this novel. Then a neighbor asked me about it too, because a family member loves it.
I was fairly warned: it’s a bloodbath. It focuses on events near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, but it’s not the glamourized Wild West we’ve seen in countless books, films, and television series. It’s more like hell; there are, in fact, some echoes of Dante’s Inferno.
I cannot say I enjoyed the book, but its themes and brilliant language kept me reading. I will say that, for me, it’s a good book to have read. Maybe I’ll write more about it sometime.
Cary Elwes, “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride” (2014)
The Princess Bride is one of my and my family’s favorite movies; a family member gave me this book as a gift. Late one summer evening, having read the first chapter at least a year earlier, I picked it up and started over. I figured it would help me wind down from the day, and I’d soon be ready to sleep. I didn’t have to go to work the next day; I was briefly quarantined, pending a family member’s COVID-19 test results.
At about 3:00 a.m. I closed the book, having read it from cover to cover in one sitting. It reads quickly, compared to many other books on today’s list, and it kept me turning pages. I thoroughly enjoyed the window into the making of a film I know and love. For me the highlights included how long and hard they worked to perfect the swordplay, and the book’s portrait of Andre the Giant.
I’ve done ghostwriting, where the actual writer isn’t even credited, and I know what it can mean when a celebrity writes a book “with” someone — in this case, “with Joe Layden.” So I suspected I might get a carefully cultivated and sanitized impression of Cary Elwes himself. In the end, however, I decided his charm, intelligence, candor, and enthusiasm were probably authentic.
Orson Scott Card, Empire (2006)
Beginning in college with Ender’s Game, I read a fair amount of Orson Scott Card for a while. I haven’t read much of him in recent years — not because I share the social, political, and religious animus which has made him a hiss and a byword among many writers, but because my reading went in other directions.
Early in this year’s COVID-19 adventure, I thought it likely that I wouldn’t be going to work for a while. Happily, I was wrong; I’ve worked many extra hours at the office. But early on, I hauled about 200 books down to my garage and created my own little lending library, where my neighbors could come and safely browse some books (with me at a safe distance and the garage door open). There were hundreds more books upstairs, I told them; I just needed to know what interested them.
My library never took off; I had little time to attend to it or promote it. And I suppose people who love to read already have stacks of their own books they want to read, given the opportunity.
In the process, though, I liked the shelf space I was clearing in my upstairs office so much that I chose several dozen books, mostly mass market paperbacks, that I’d happily give away instead of lending them, or donate somewhere when my library project was done. I happened upon Empire, which I had never read. I read the blurb and thought it might be interesting to see Card write a contemporary thriller instead of his usual science fiction/fantasy books, for which he is justly renowned, or his less known but excellent historical fiction. The man can spin a tale.
For my part, I’ve read many military, political, and legal thrillers, and I’ve reread a couple dozen of the best. As for this one …
The character development was excellent and mostly convincing; I expected that from Card. But the plot seemed forced; it seemed to be going where the author needed it to go, because he needed it to go there. It needed more work and less of a heavy authorial hand — and maybe an extra 100 pages or more, so complexities and plot twists could develop organically and not feel rushed.
John Grisham, The Confession (2010)
I’ve read most of John Grisham’s legal thrillers; they’re an enjoyable ride, even if they don’t have Scott Turow’s depth and power. I enjoyed this one too.
A death row inmate is a few days from execution, when a parolee tells a priest that he, the parolee, actually committed the crime. I won’t spoil the rest.
If you enjoy Grisham generally, you’ll most likely enjoy this.
Harold Evans, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters (2017)
If you know me, you won’t be surprised that I am constitutionally incapable of walking past this book title in a bookstore, provided the store is not currently on fire. (In this case the bookstore was a gem I just discovered in Reno, Grassroots Books, to which I must return.) I picked up the book and it passed first muster, so I bought it and read the first third that evening.
Part reference book, part essay, part memoir of an editor who was knighted for his work, this one’s a keeper. He’s a tad up front with his politics, I think, but that doesn’t diminish the value of his analysis or examples. He’s quite good at illustrating the difference between merely adequate, technically correct writing and writing which soars — and moves the reader. He’s particularly good on techniques to strip out jargon and other unnecessary complexity, to make writing clearer and more energetic, which keeps people reading.
Some parts of the book will be a useful and entertaining reference for me.
Three consecutive chapters, occupying nearly 130 pages, are excellent self-help for writers: “The Sentence Clinic,” “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear,” and “Please Don’t Feed the Zombies, Flesh-Eaters, and Pleonasms.”
Full disclosure: a zombie isn’t what you think. In a New Zealand professor’s terminology, it’s a noun that has devoured a verb: “I call them ‘zombie nouns’ … because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”
Here’s Evans’ first sample zombie sentence: “The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”
His translation: “Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract” (p. 141).
Bravo. It’s a siren song, if you can hear it.
Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (1971)
I have an undergraduate degree in political science and a graduate minor in political thought, and for good or ill I keep reading and writing about politics and government. So I thought I should finally read this book. It’s a bible of sorts for the American Left, the community organizers and would-be revolutionaries and such. It was a formative part of Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s education, for example.
I don’t share Alinksy’s politics, but this is an excellent read with some genuine insight, even if you don’t want to overturn Western society. It reminds me of Macchiavelli’s The Prince, which I highly recommend.
I’ll say more at the political blog sometime. (I’ll add a link here, when I do, on the chance that I can lure you to the dark side.)
Books I Read for Research (and Enjoyed on Their Merits)
I’ve been writing and rewriting a novel in my spare time, these past six and a half years. It’s my first, and I haven’t hurried — because it’s also my laboratory for learning to write novels. (It’s finally ready for beta readers now.) I still vividly remember the major challenge with which I began writing it, once I figured out that the best way to handle my themes involved a teenage girl as my first-person narrator.
I’ve never been a girl of any age. (I don’t count 50 or 60 performances of a short bit of historical theater, where I dressed as a woman to hide from a US Marshal.) So I’ve made a point, these past several years, to read and study books written by women about women and girls. Only the latest few are in this list.
That novel-in-progress is about life in a religious community, so I’ve also been reading others’ portrayals of various religious communities in fiction.
Hence most of the books listed below are part of that research — which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them.
Liane Moriarty, Three Wishes (2004) and Big Little Lies (2014)
We might call Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novels women’s fiction, so I’m not their primary audience, but I thoroughly enjoy her characterization and dialogue, among other things. If I can still call it study when it’s fun, I recently studied these two delightful novels on audio for the second time.
Chaim Potok, The Chosen (1967)
My laboratory novel is a coming-of-age tale involving contemporary youth in a religious community. This redoubles my interest in The Chosen, a coming-of-age tale set in Brooklyn in 1944.
I enjoyed it for several reasons when I finally read it several years ago, at my wife’s and my daughter’s recommendations. I lately returned to it for the third time, as an audio book, mostly to study how Potok manages to write such a thoroughly Jewish book, yet make it accessible and meaningful to non-Jews.
My project is similar, but with Latter-day Saints — and there the similarities end, perhaps. Mine is unpublished. Potok’s is an American classic. I loved his sequel, too, The Promise. My sequel is mostly hypothetical, maybe 100 pages of notes and fragments, so far.
Jodi Picoult, Plain Truth (2000)
This is an excellent, readable, contemporary tale — part legal thriller — set mostly among the Amish. Here too I studied the mostly-sympathetic portrayal of a religious community, but the book stands on its own merits. I read it as an audio book.
Louise Rennison, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (1999), and On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God: Further Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (2001)
In a conversation on narrative voice, especially teenage, female narrative voice, a writer I know recommended Louise Rennison’s series of short novels. These are the diaries of one Georgia Nicholson, who is 14 years old as the book begins. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have come to them on my own.
There are ten books in the series; these are the first two. For the record, there’s no sex. A certain obsession with snogging, though.
The narrative voice is brilliant and absolutely juvenile. I found it laugh-out-loud delightful. Stina Nielson’s audio performance is splendid — so good, in fact, that I read the third book in print, without audio, to see if the charm was purely in the audio performance.
It wasn’t. Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas: Further, Further Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (2002) was plenty delightful in black and white.
Fun fact: Wikipedia says Angus is #35 on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned books from its decade. The Bible, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Huckleberry Finn are on their respective lists too, but this isn’t in their league in literary terms. I suppose it earns some librarian displeasure by its fascination with body parts and its articulate disdain for adults, as well as bullying, somewhat destructive horseplay, and (admittedly childish) views of social issues which may not play as well two decades later.
I’m not sure I’d be eager to teach these books in a junior high English class. That might depend on the community, not to mention my teaching junior high English at all. But I freely confess that I, a plainly age-inappropriate adult reader, thoroughly enjoyed them.
Flash in the Attic 2: 44 Very Short Stories, Ed. Michelle Richmond (2016)
This collection of 44 very short stories by as many authors (if I’m not mistaken) started slowly but kept me reading. It’s all flash fiction, stories only 1,000 words long, if not much less, so if you don’t like one, you’ll be done with it in two or three pages anyway.
My initial impression was that too many of the stories were trying to be too literary, too subtle, too ambiguous, too meaningful. But that faded as I kept reading. They are widely varied in style and subject, and I enjoyed most of them.
I read this book for research too, because I also write short stories, including some flash fiction. It’s is a fun challenge, besides being a useful exercise for a writer of longer fiction. (If you’re into that sort of thing, here’s some of my own flash fiction, published and unpublished.)
There You Have It
So … fourteen books, each with its merits and delights; some you’d expect me to read, I suppose, and some you surely wouldn’t. Sometimes I surprise myself too.
When I pick up a book this evening, it will likely be one of three I’m reading now:
- The aforementioned Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.
- An odd, delightful volume by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klien, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar … Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.
- Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.
After that, I have about 200 candidates shelved or piled, waiting to be next. Or maybe I’ll buy something new. Or old.
From the Author
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