What I read last month: September

bookshelfBecause I cannot fully control my inner gold-star-seeking preening child, and because this is a book blog, I’m going to start posting a monthly roundup, with capsule reviews, of what I’ve been reading. And because I have a lot more reading time on my hands now, and can’t really resist bragging about it.

In September I read:

The Fever by Megan Abbot – The highest praise I can offer for this book is that it isn’t really my thing … and I still couldn’t put it down. High school girls mysteriously get sick, around the same time they are discovering their sexuality and getting vaccinated for HPV. While high school remains, for me, a mostly dreaded land where I have no wish to return even in fiction, I was fascinated by this book. And I didn’t see the end coming, which is always a plus.

Lost by S.J. Bolton – Since the Key West Literary Seminar focused on crime fiction, last January (see Megan Abbot, above), I have been slowly expanding my reading of contemporary crime which had before then been mostly limited to P.D. James and Kate Atkinson. S.J. Bolton is harder-edged than either of those and not as good a writer. But I’m enjoying her Lacey Flint series … and I’ll keep going if only to find out if she’s EVER going to finally jump Mark Joesbury’s bones like they’ve both been wanting for several books now.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory – I reviewed this one for the Miami Herald. It’s the final entry in Gregory’s Cousins’ War series about the Wars of the Roses, and brings us up to Henry VIII. This time our narrator is Margaret Pole, a York cousin who has a front row seat for Henry’s increasingly desperate search for an heir, growing tyranny and the turmoil England experiences as it breaks away from Rome. I haven’t loved every entry in this series (I liked The White Queen and the Lady of the Rivers, the others not so much) but this is one of the good ones.

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Gen X-ercise

redoaksGeneration X is having a moment. I base this assertion on two items of media I consumed over the weekend.

The first was an episode of Slate’s The Gist, which is an excellent new podcast by Gen X-er Mike Pesca. Specifically, it was Pesca’s spiel at the end of the episode about Schoolhouse Rock, those classic cartoon shorts from the 1970s that taught us about grammar, math and legislative process. They are the subject of a special this Sunday on ABC. If I had cable, I’d watch it.

The second was the pilot of a new TV series on Amazon called Red Oaks. It’s set in a New Jersey country club in the summer of 1985, which is the summer between high school and college for the main characters. It was also that summer for me.

Gen X-ers have to grab our moments because we don’t get many of them. And we treasure them because it feels like that’s all we get. It’s the inevitable consequence of being caught in the sociocultural demographic vise between the Baby Boomers and their progeny, the Millennials. So we got to spend our youth resenting the Boomers and our maturity watching Millenials take center stage. Based on everything I’ve read and the word of many people I trust, I’d probably like Girls, the Lena Dunham show on HBO. But I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it.

(Important note: While I am going to continue bitching throughout this post about both generations, I am aware that these are gross generalizations — and that some of my favorite people on earth and good friends are in each of them. So please don’t take it personally.)

Both of these media experiences — especially coming on the same day! — were sweet because we Gen X-ers, even as we head toward our 50s, don’t get much of a chance for nostalgia. The Boomers own that territory, from the Wonder Years to classic rock (does anyone really need the Eagles or Led Zeppelin on the airwaves any more?????). The Millennials are already going there, rhapsodizing about shows that were apparently on Nickelodeon while we Gen X-ers were working crappy jobs and sporting unflattering hairstyles.

So I’m going to revel in our little moment here, while we’ve got it. I hope Amazon picks up Red Oaks. I may watch some YouTubes of Schoolhouse Rock or go see if the library still has that DVD. And I would like to point out that while the generations before and after us have had their cultural impacts — oh, have they had their cultural impacts — that a few of us have managed to stand out. Specifically, I’d like to appreciate:

  • Jon Stewart. If I had to choose one person as the voice of our generation, it would be him. Because he is funny as hell, and smart as hell. If there is any legacy bestowed on us by the Boomers that we have enthusiastically furthered it is the erosion of institutional authority. Stewart embodies our generation’s tightrope walk between idealism and cynicism and he embodies it by constantly pointing out that the emperor has no clothes — whether that emperor is Ronald Reagan or Jerry Garcia.
  • Wes Anderson. Speaking of nostalgia — almost every one of his movies is designed to hit that late ’60s, early ’70s analog sweet spot in our memory banks. And if his films have one overarching themes, it is fathers — and father relationships from the generation before parents thought they were supposed to be their kids’ friends.
  • Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz. I remember, in college in the ’80s, when Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were all the rage, I came across a copy of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and immediately knew this guy was the real deal. I didn’t hear about Diaz till later because he’s even closer to my age but wow, what a talent. One thing I really appreciate about both of them is their appreciation for weirdness in the genre/scifi/comics/whatever sense.

I know this Moment isn’t going to last long. And just thinking about it long enough to write this blog post has me wondering: Maybe there’s an advantage to our squeezed-in-the-middle demographic position. There’s the pleasure of feeling aggrieved, which is always satisfying, but more importantly there’s the pleasure of being part of a more select club. I always attributed my underdog sympathies to growing up as a Red Sox fan … but now I wonder if it’s more of a generational tendency. Our time was going to come, and then it was already gone. But we’re still here.




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Aren’t they fantastic?

book coversI recently reviewed two books that are right in my realistic fantasy wheelhouse for The Miami Herald — both are the final installments in trilogies and both were just great, in different ways. I’m going to link to the reviews here but they will eventually go off the Herald’s free site so I’ll try to remember to change this once that happens. In both cases, I strongly recommend reading the entire trilogy and not starting with the third volume.

First up was The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness, the finale in her All Souls Trilogy. The first book was called A Discovery of Witches; the second is The Book of Night. Harkness writes for those of us who are open to stories of the supernatural but don’t really want to deal with Twilight and its ilk. As I said in my review, despite most of their characters being witches, vampires and daemons, these books share more DNA with A.S. Byatt’s Possession than they do with Twilight. They start out in Oxford’s Bodleian library and its main characters, witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont, are brought together by a long-lost manuscript that Diana accidentally conjures up during her research into medieval science (ie. alchemy). That manuscript is, of course, the titular Book of Life but to re-find it Diana and Matthew have to, essentially, change the world. And travel back in time to Elizabethan England (that’s the setting for the second book, The Book of Life). So if you like Tudor stuff, as I do, that’s another gold coin for you.

The second was The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. This also includes the supernatural but it is a more conscious riff on other books, especially The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Mostly they are the story of Quentin Coldwater; at the beginning of the first book, The Magicians, he is a hyper-intelligent super-dorky kid who likes to practice sleight of hand (coin and card tricks) and can’t quite let go of his devotion to the series of books about Fillory, the rough equivalent of Narnia. What is supposed to be a college interview turns into his introduction to Brakebills, an academy of magic that is kind of like Hogwarts with sex and drugs. The second volume, The Magician King, recounts Quentin’s post-Brakebills adventures. The third has him back in the real world, ie. the Earth that we know, and confronting adulthood as he nears 30. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers but if you loved Narnia as a kid, these books are a must-read. And the final volume, especially, is in many ways a love letter to books and reading — I think it captures the way we all want to — and in fact, do — practice a little alchemy when we’re really immersed in a book no matter how unrealistic or different from our own lives it may be. Not surprising, since Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine, I suppose. I can’t wait to see what both these authors do next.


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Audiobooks: What’s my problem?

Photo by Curious Expeditions via Flicker Creative Commons license.*

I want to be an audiobook user. Reader? Listener? OK, I don’t even know the correct term. I love the idea of experiencing books in a different way, of having someone literally tell me a story. And I like the potential multitasking, too. I could be reading and knitting. Or cleaning. Or driving.

But it just keeps not happening. This despite the fact that I have once joined Audible, multiple times laboriously downloaded books on CD from the library, then transferred them to various iDevices and even tried Playaways, those self-contained audiobooks.

My most recent attempt was with The Quick by Lauren Owen. It’s a book that appears to be in my wheelhouse and the only format the library had it in was audio. So I got it. On a trip up the Keys last week, I started listening.

But the problem was that my attention just kept wavering. And it wasn’t the story’s fault — the story was interesting! I want to read this book. In fact, I want to read it so much that I requested the library purchase it as an ebook, which they did. The rest of you who are into historical/supernatural/British/literary fiction can thank me later. I’ve already got it checked out.

A similar thing happened over the summer, when I tried so many times I’m embarrassed to admit it to listen to The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I love Sarah Vowell. And she reads the book, along with a bunch of special guest stars like John Hodgeman and Stephen Colbert. I love history, and don’t mind if it’s got a bit of snark to it. It should have been like the best extended episode of  This American Life ever. But again, my attention kept drifting. And this despite the fact that some of the time I was listening to it I was on buses of various species, traveling across the state of Massachusetts. There could not be conditions better suited to listening to that book.

Another work about some of the same characters, John Barry’s book on Roger Williams, is very useful for putting me to sleep on plane trips, I have learned. But I still don’t feel like i know much about Roger Williams. And I’d like to. And I like John Barry.

I’ve only found audiobooks really successful a couple times in my life. During really long car trips where you just have no choice. During long, boring projects like painting a room. And back in the 1990s when I used to cover the county for the Miami Herald and spent a lot of time driving up and down the Keys. The two-cassette abridged versions of John D. MacDonald novels were perfect for a single trip — and maybe it didn’t matter so much if I zoned out a little along the way. They were abridged anyway.

Even though I’ve given up on The Quick, I’m going to keep trying. Though it might take me until my next long car ride, or painting project.





* Image above, as the caption says, comes from Flickr’s Creative Commons. The terms say you’re supposed to link to the license, which I couldn’t figure out how to do in the photo caption. But there it is, if you’re interested.

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The impressive old ladies of Cape Cod

While I was in Cape Cod learning how to make radio at Transom, I produced two pieces.

My final project started out being about the local candlepin bowling alley, but became a story about one bowler — the inimitable 94-year-old Nellie Kenyon. You can listen to it here.

The first story, produced as an assignment for WCAI’s Creative Life series, was about the Provincetown Public Press, a project of the awe-inspiring-especially-for-its-size Provincetown Public Library. Reporting that story, I met one of their authors, Marilyn Colburn, who was really nice — and turned out to be the friend and neighbor of several of my Key West friends. Small world, many connections between outposts.

Here’s a take-home lesson I didn’t expect: Older folks might want to consider staying up north for the winter. Because the Cape seems to be full of energetic, intelligent people in their 80s and 90s. My classmate Alison Byrne produced a great piece about the senior center’s poetry group and Falmouth’s 99-year-old poet laureate — I’ll link to it as soon as it airs. I’m starting to think I should make Cape Cod my retirement plan. Meanwhile, my journey home starts this evening — I’m taking the Silver Meteor train from DC to Miami. Once I get home, get unpacked and get geared up, I’ll be making more radio. So keep an ear on this space.

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What I’m up to. And my classmates, too!

eel pond raw fileNormally, I wouldn’t just make a blog post that simply links to another blog post. Because that’s what Facebook and Twitter are for, right? But since I’m all about the radio at the moment, I thought I’d provide this link. And this excellent photo, which is our class photo (we had to top or at least match the previous class, which had arranged a Last Supper kind of deal).

Anyway, here’s what we have to say about what we’ve learned in the workshop, so far. A lot of it is very helpful for writing in general, radio writing in particular, and how to approach storytelling. As you can see, we were all very impressed with Nancy Updike, one of the founding producers of This American Life, who came and spent a class with us.

If you’re at all interested in radio storytelling and how it works, I encourage you to check out other features on Transom. The site includes stories about/interviews with great radio producers, as well as just plain great radio stories. Check it out. And if you can’t just up and leave your life and loved ones to hang out in Woods Hole (applications for the fall workshop are now open!), check out the online offerings.

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Old print dog starts learning new radio tricks

radio_wireless_towerI feel like I’ve crossed some kind of Rubicon by spending more time over the last three weeks listening than reading.

It makes perfect sense since those three weeks have been spent in an immersive radio school — which for an old print person with extremely limited radio experience like myself feels a bit like entering Radio Grad School without having taken Radio 101.

Fortunately, the instructors and fellow students are as nice, smart, helpful and encouraging as could be.

Sometime in the last week between a presentation by a talented podcaster named Jonathan Groubert (whose podcast is called The State We’re In) and grilling a talented classmate half my age who doesn’t own an actual radio, I think I finally Got It about podcasts and how radio reaches people now. I am familiar with podcasts — I used to laboriously download the BBC Newspod and NPR Books podcast to my computer via iTunes, then transfer them to an iPod, then listen while folding laundry or whatever. But that’s a pain in the ass and I got out of the habit. I have occasionally downloaded episodes of This American Life or On the Media to my phone and listened there. But mostly, in a pretty old-fashioned, analog kind of way, I get my radio from the radio.

It turns out nobody, or at least nobody under the age of 30, does this anymore.* And that podcasting, now around for 10 years, is hitting its stride in a really interesting way. I had been thinking of podcasts as a way to catch up to radio shows that you missed, or that are not carried on your local station. They are that, but there are also smart, creative people out there making podcasts that aren’t carried on many stations, or any stations at all. And you can get them .. for free! On your phone!

If you have a smartphone, you probably have a built-in podcast app. There are also lots of apps out there that make it even easier (Talented Classmate Half My Age recommended one called Downcast, which seems to be well worth the $2.99).**

So what I have been listening to? Of course This American Life, because how can you not? And I subscribed to some old favorites like On the Media, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and a bunch of podcasts from the BBC and KCRW.

But I’m most excited about the ones that are new to me. Start at Radiotopia which gathers seven really cool podcasts — my favorite is 99% Invisible but they are all good. It’s not all new stuff either; Fugitive Waves is work from the archives of the Kitchen Sisters and Radio Diaries has the work of producer Joe Richman. These are people whose stories are used as “texts” in radio grad school — with the added benefit that they are a pleasure to listen to. You learn stuff and you’re engaged/entertained.

You know what else I found out? John Oliver has a podcast! It’s called The Bugle and it’s done with Andy Zaltzman and it’s very funny, especially if you’re an aficionado of Anglo-American humor/satiric political commentary. Since I haven’t talked anyone into handing over their HBO Go password to me yet, I was excited to learn I could get some free Oliver on a weekly basis. Another comedy podcast I haven’t listened to yet is WTF with Marc Maron — and classmates whose judgment I trust say it’s great.

There are tons more and I won’t list them all. But if you’re curious, leave a comment and I’ll try to find a recommendation in your area of interest.

And since this is supposed to be a book blog, I’ll make a reading recommendation. I finally broke down during a trip into Falmouth this week and went into the really nice Eight Cousins bookstore. I bought a copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It was a quick read and exactly what I needed. And it’s set in these parts — on fictional Alice Island, which doesn’t exist in real life but which you reach via ferry from Hyannis.

The titular A.J. Fikry is a cranky widower who owns a bookstore on Alice Island. His life is changed entirely when a 2-year-old girl is left in the bookstore aisle. Blurbs and jacket copy recommend it for readers who liked The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society — books I always felt I should have read when I was working at the library but avoided because I’m allergic to sentimental, uplifting stuff. But this book (A.J. Fikry) manages to be sweet while avoiding the saccharine. And it is suffused with a love of books and reading and writing. So I recommend it, though probably not to my more skeptical reading friends, or those looking for something with sharper edges.

* It’s not just people under 30! Turns out this group also includes … Ira Glass, the godfather of the public radio revolution (wait that’s a bad metaphor — the Fidel Castro of the Radio Revolution? The Leon Trotsky of the radio revolution?). Anyway here’s what he said in response to a reader question in the Guardian:

When do you listen to the radio?

In the morning, when I shave. And really, not for very long. I don’t hear the radio that much. I don’t own a radio. I listen to everything through apps, or on my iPhone. And then I download the shows I like. Shows like Fresh Air,Radiolab, Snap Judgement, all those shows.


** TCHMA and I had a funny moment yesterday in class when we realized we were both thinking about the story of the guys behind the @Horse_ebooks Twitter feed (and more projects that may or may not constitute Internet performance art). I read the story in The New Yorker. He heard it on TLDR, the On The Media spinoff podcast. The title stands for Too Long Didn’t Read — in other words, it’s the anti-New Yorker. We then raced to see which outlet had it first. Turns out Susan Orlean broke the story on the New Yorker’s blog. I think.


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