My Favorite Reading—2016

As far as my reading went, 2016 was a good year. (As long as I wasn’t reading the news— fivethirtyeight.com should be out of business by now, right?). I didn’t rank these books, but the top three would make my list of all-time faves, if such a thing existed.

41riqoyjocl-_sx428_bo1204203200_Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami. The first book I ever read by Murakami. I was a little leery as I began to read because the story had surrealist notes and my tolerance for surrealism decreases as I age. But the narrative became more realistic as it went on and reached a conclusion that made total, satisfying, revelatory sense.

Then I read Murakami’s Kafka by the Shore and had the reverse experience. But still, this one rocked.

Stone Arabia , by Dana Spiotta. Rock music, imaginary histories artistic failure—it’s like Spiotta designed a guitar with some of my favorite strings and then started wailing on it.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. An epic dismantling of more shallow renderings of manliness. Also, at one point in the story, as a horseman rides alone, McMurtry reels off an amazing appreciation of silence. It made me want to drive the Lonesome Dove trail from Texas to Montana specifically in the hope that I’d never see anyone on it.

51p-t65s84l-_ac_us480_ql65_The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott. A young girl growing into adolescence = perfect circumstance for a noir mystery. Abbott has an eye for what is really frightening.

The Cry of the Owl, by Patricia Highsmith. This book reminded me of why Highsmith is one of my very favorite writers. The story is all about being an odd fellow, and the trouble that can ensue.

Dark Passage, by David Goodis. Nasty, crazy old-school noir.

The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder. Middle-aged guys get together every year to re-enact the Monday Night Football game when Lawrence Taylor broke the leg of Joe Theismann. A funny and smart rendering of middle-aged dudes, and the part that stayed with me the most was his riff on the value of marriage—how having a person watch you day to day helps you believe your personal dramas matter.

•Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link. Fantasy is generally not by bag, but these short stories are dark and weird and insightful in a way I’ve not encountered before.

The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle. Not flawless—in this story about Mexican immigrants in Southern California, the lead female is named America, for instance—but Boyle is ridiculously talented and for a book that’s a couple decades old, it’s depressingly relevant in 2016.

Euphoria, by Lily King. A few decades ago a book like this, with its highbrow love triangle of anthropologists in the South Pacific, would have already been made into an Oscar-nominated movie. Now it’s all superheroes and Sausage Party. Which was fun, but still….

Hungry Heart and The Littlest Bigfoot, by Jennifer Weiner. The wife hit a couple out of the park this year. I am biased, obviously, but others have agreed. For instance, check the good people at the PEN Awards.

 

Leather & Lace, and balloon songs

The other afternoon my eight-year-old stepdaughter and I were playing Keep-It-Up in the kitchen with an under-inflated purple balloon, and Leather and Lace came on. It turned out that the Stevie Nicks and Don Henley duet, with its ultra-plaintive tone, was the perfect (and I perfect I mean absurd and melodramatic) background music for me and the little girl whacking a balloon and watching it float across the room.

 

Naturally, I asked myself: what are some other great balloon songs, as I will now be terming them. Here’s my top five:

 

  1. Leather and LaceStevie Nicks. See above anecdote.

 

 

2. I’ll Keep It With Mine—Nico

  Nico’s icy flat delivery meets Bob Dylan drama. I’m giving this the Nobel Prize for Balloon songs.

 

 

3. Helpless—Neil Young

I considered at several possibilities from Neil Young—that voice is just built for this, right?—and nearly settled on After the Gold Rush. But then I read something about The Last Waltz and remembered the background vocals of Joni Mitchell, which are the best thing in the entirety of the Last Waltz, let alone this track. And this selection gets some much-needed plaintive harmonica onto the list.

 

 

4. Love Hurts—The Everly Brothers

In college I would sometimes go to parties hosted by this woman who went to NYU. One of the trademarks of these parties was that around 1 a.m. she, or perhaps her sister, would put on Love Hurts, the Nazareth version. It was only this year that I discovered this song was originally recorded by the Everly Brothers. P.S. The woman who hosted these parties went on to became a director of notable Hollywood motion pictures, but I won’t say who she is because name-dropping is so lame.

 

 

 

5. Wichita LinemanFriends of Dean Martinez

 

I honestly have no idea how I came to be aware of this version of this song, but it came up on my Spotify while I was thinking about this topic, and holy crap this really embodies it. This is the one.

 

 

 

To My Wife’s Fans

20160319_weiner_0010Hello. Judging from traffic numbers, and how they spike after my wife mentions my name in public, I assume a good many readers have arrived here because of an interest in Jen. Welcome. These comments for you:

  • First, congratulations on being a fan of Jen’s. You’ve made a wise choice. Not only is she prodigiously talented—I’ve seen her write, and it’s like Mozart’s composition scenes from the movie Amadeus—but she is amazingly genuine and conscientious. She strives in every book to be herself and to give her fans their money’s worth.
  • Second, while you’re here: my choice for most underappreciated Jennifer Weiner novel: Then Came You. In addition to presenting four classic heroines, Jen’s story, without drawing attention to it, quietly outlines how economic status can influence the most personal of life choices. I would love for this book to become the foundation of a television series.
  • Third, if you’ve looked around here, you may have noticed that in addition to being a reader and writer, I am a sports guy. I worked for many years at Sports Illustrated as a staff reporter and editor, and continue to work for SI on freelance projects. I also wrote a novel in which the protagonist is a punter. Jen likes exercise but is not a fan of spectator sports. How does this play out in our marriage? Let me give you a real piece of dialogue from this past Sunday morning:

JEN (reading news on her phone): They think they’ve figured out Elsa Ferrante’s real identity.

ME: Is it Arvydas Sabonis, who Bill Walton said was one of the top five centers he’d ever seen play, when Sabonis was back in Russia, before his knee injuries?

  • Finally, Jen and I were married on March 19, 2016. The full story of our relationship is told in her new nonfiction book Hungry Heart, in a chapter titled “Men and Dogs.” The above Elsa Ferrante scene notwithstanding, if you are wondering, “How will being married to a 6’4”, 202-pound, semitic Adonis change Jen’s outlook on life?” I suggest you ask her that, using those terms, at her next reading.

Thank you.

Rollie Fingers, 1982 Topps

 

51COefRkv+LHow did this card happen?

As I have previously mentioned, I like to use old baseball cards as bookmarks. I reach into an old shoebox and blindly pull one out at the start of each new book. On the last fishing expedition I landed this 1982 Rollie Fingers.

The book, Stephen King’s On Writing, is as outstanding as everyone says. But a few words about this card. The back offered its share of curiousities. His hometown in recent years became famous for something awful—Steubenville, Ohio. Fingers is listed as 6’4, 195, which is not far from my current dimensions of 6’4, 205—oh, what an athletic career I could have had, if only I was athletic.

But the front of the card had me wondering, “Who chose this photo and why?”

There is nothing in-your-face atrocious about it, and there are literally thousands of cards that have been issued over the years with similarly bland fronts. But just look at it. It’s a photo of a man adjusting his hat.

In my time as an editor at Sports Illustrated and SI Books I have sat through many of what is called a “color show.” In a color show, representatives from photography, design and editorial sit in a dark room, looking at photo after photo projected on a screen, and select the best images to illustrate a story.

I am having a hard time imagining the color show that resulted in this photo of Rollie Fingers being chosen. It is not a standard portrait, of the kind that you see on many of those cards. This is an action shot, only of a static and unatheletic action. His face is in shadow, his expression unremarkable. My best guess is that pitcher’s jacket caught someone’s attention. At least the jacket gives a visual indication of his job

I wondered if Topps issued this card when it still had a monopoly on the baseball card market, as it had through the 1960s and ’70s, but no, Fleer and Donruss joined the fray in 1981. So Topps was actually facing competition, and this is what they sent into battle.

As a kid I was felt such anticipation when I tore open a pack of cards. Looking at this card, I sense that the excitement was not mutual on the part of the maker.

The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder

51cQBVzxKCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Read the The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder this past weekend. It’s good. Smart. The book is about a group of men who have been getting together for years to re-enact the gruesome play where Joe Theismann had his leg broken by Lawrence Taylor on Monday Night Football. It’s a funny idea, and the object of satire here is less football or fandom than  middle-aged men, always a ripe target for comedy. The book reads like a literary cousin to a m Gaffigan stand-up routine (I mean this as a compliment, FYI. Although if the book’s punches drew more blood, I might have compared it to a Louis CK special.)

Bachelder will have you reading his best bits out loud to the nearest person. I recommend a graffiti-ed story that one of the characters writes on the hotel’s pristine bathroom wall. Much is great here, even though many of the 22 reenactors blur into one another, and as do their disappointments. Also, the book, at a brisk 224 pages, takes care of its business a little too quickly.

But Bachelder captures well that feeling of arriving at an age where you see your letdowns more clearly than your possibilities. For these characters the break didn’t manifest as sharply as it did for Joe Theismann, but they know they’re on the other side of it all the same.

Dark Passage, by David Goodis

My novel HANGMAN’s GAME is dedicated to my parents and brother, and in that dedication I thank them for their reading recommendations. One recent recommendation from my dad: an anthology of David Goodis novels from the 1940s and ’50s.

DarkPassage_Messner_1946_tnMy dad actually gave me the book last year, but I only cracked it recently, in part because I don’t like the anthology format, specifically the way it condenses distinct works into a homogenous run. Also, I don’t like to read books by the same author one after the other, because in my mind they tend to blur together. Currently I am slow-reading my way through the works of Patricia Highsmith, and also John McPhee’s five geology books, but I am limiting myself to one a year of each.

I will now also be slow-reading Goodis as well, because I read Dark Passage, the first novel in the anthology, and I loved it. The book has the misanthropic energy of the best noir novels, and a hammering, repetitive prose style that presages David Mamet.

Also, this book has to have been read by Stephen King, as the closing grafs are clearly echoed by certain lines in The Shawshank Redemption. Except King has given the lines a cheerier spin.

Which should tell you all you need to know about how dark Dark Passage is.

And the reading list grows…

Came back from this weekend’s Annapolis Book Fair (so well run, Liz Klein Glass!) with a complimentary tote bag and plenty of books to add to the reading list. Including:

51-lAVO3v2L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_One Man Against the World, by Tim Weiner. I mention Tim not just because, like my wife, he has the last name Weiner and once worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer. There’s more! In college I read (and loved) Jonathan Schell’s book about the Nixon presidency, The Time of Illusion. Tim’s new history has received great reviews and is supposed to go even deeper into some of the strangest days ever in White House.

Also, after the festival Tim and I ended up on the same train home and he told me stories that had me spellbound from Amtrak’s BWI stop all the way to Philadelphia. That ride will be my most vivid memory of the weekend.

51HoWdUtuUL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Bourbon Empire, by Reid Mitenbuler. A history of the bourbon industry, which contains enough drama that the book has been optioned for a television series. Reid and I were lodged at the same hotel and shared many rides together in Annapolis. He came across as thoughtful, decent, diligent, and best of all he assured me that, because the process of creating bourbon is relatively simple, there isn’t great difference between the high-end gourmet bourbons and more reasonably priced brands such as Wild Turkey and Jim Beam. I don’t drink a ton of bourbon, but I am a cheapskate, which means I welcome any information which reveals luxury to be a myth.

Run, Don’t Walk, by Adele Levine. Ms. Levine is a physical therapist who spent nine years working with amputee soldier at Walter Reed. The stories she told at her panel were eye-opening, and I have a selfish motive in reading her book, which would be: I hope that stories of people coping with genuine hardship can maybe help me deal with my own melodramas.

9781632862167Thirst, by Benjamin Warner. A literary thriller in which all the non-bottled water vanishes from the Earth. Benjamin was on my panel. He was clear-eyed and calm and just seemed like a guy who would write a good book. This may seem like an inane way to judge literary possibilities—according to the histories, a great many masterpieces were penned by asswipes. But I would like for my theory to be true, and so I am going to act as if it is.

I’ll be talking page-turners at the Annapolis Book Festival

 

gong-show-inlineOn Saturday April 16 at 2:30 p.m. I will be appearing at the Annapolis Book Festival, on a panel titled “Page Turners” with authors Benjamin Warner and Allison Leotta.

Or, to put it another way, is literature like The Gong Show? I think it is, and that’s why I write with a bag over my head and two holes cut out for eyes. The Unknown Comic is a major influence for me.

As a reader I always have a gong at the ready, especially in those opening pages. I’ve dropped more mysteries than I would care to admit after the first chapter, because when the “whodunit” question was presented, my brain answered, “I don’t care.”

the-unknown-comic-2But with a mystery or thriller, if I make it past those early pages I’m usually in until the end, whereas in literary fiction, there’s a greater chance I will drop out midway through. More than once I’ve begun books dazzled by a writer’s talents, only to bang the gong because I felt like I was unlikely to get anything at page 456 that I hadn’t experienced by page 118. These books felt more like a flavor than a story. And I need a story.

My favorite books—from canon classic Don Quixote to Patricia Highsmith’s thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley—had me invested in their characters’ fate even as they presented narratives of great depth. It’s the standard to which every book should be held.

If you’re near Annapolis, please come out on the 16th. The festival’s entire slate looks great. It should be a fun day.

 

 

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

LonesomeDoveI am not the speediest of readers, so it is with some trepidation that will I pick up a 900-plus page book. Especially a book that was the basis for a 1980s TV miniseries. But a friend who is an outstanding writer (of restaurant reviews) told me that Lonesome Dove was his favorite book ever, and that sort of enthusiasm always draws my interest. We had a copy sitting of Lonesome Dove in the house, but even so, it took me a couple years to actually pick up the book.

The reward was my most enjoyable reading in years.  Lonesome Dove is engrossing, surprising, funny, and an unsparing dissection of the masculine mythology of the Old West. I am not a fan of Westerns—this is the first one I’ve read since I was assigned Shane in middle school—and as I began the book I had some leeriness as McMurtry introduced the cast of cowboys, a kindly prostitute who is the most notable female character in the first sections, and a vicious Cherokee outlaw named Blue Duck. Even though the prose was masterful and I was enjoying myself, I also felt the story tended toward an adolescent fantasy early on. I found myself thinking of Charlie Brown—all the characters in the same generation, with no parents above or children below.

But as the book continues and the cattle drive heads north, McMurty turns the fantasy inside out. The central romance bends in an unexpected direction, and characters’ limitations are hammered fiercely, as a story of parenthood moves to the fore.

The book is not without its limitations. But it is also, undoubtedly, time well-spent.

Left Coast Crime: the report

A couple weeks ago I attended Left Coast Crime and enjoyed it very much. If you’re a mystery fan or author I recommend going. One of the many people I met there was Janet Rudolph, who runs a mystery blog. She asked me to contribute a guest post, and I wrote about the convention, concentrating on what I learned from attended the author panels that run throughout the day.

I also participated in my own panel. They say you never learn anything from listening to yourself speak, but after my panel, in which I told stories about cornerback D’Angelo Hall, an NFL/college coach who shall remain nameless on the record, and a couple other sports figures from my out-in-the-field years with Sports Illustrated, I discovered that under stress I will name-drop quite shamelessly.