What the Writers Are Reading

Kate Flora here, facing Labor Day, and the end of summer, and that sense that things will start cranking up and my leisurely summer afternoons reading in my L.L. Bean rocking chair are coming to an end. So for this weekend, despite the relatives, my grand dog Daisy, and a darling three-year-old to distract me, I’ve got a whopper of a book to read: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. It took me three years to get around to reading the first book about Thomas Cromwell and Henry the VIIIth, Wolf Hall. Now I’m looking forward to seeing where Cromwell goes next in his efforts to please King Henry and keep his own head. What are the rest of you reading?

James Hayman:  I just finished a fascinating novel about Africa called Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo (who won a Pulitzer for his memoir about Vietnam, “A Rumor of War.)  This is the first of Caputo’s half dozen or so novels that I’ve read and I loved it.  It’s a terrific yearn about the civil war in South Sudan. The cast of characters includes UN aid workers, Doctors without Borders, bush pilots hired to fly in relief supplies to the tribes in the Nuba mountains, religious missionaries eager to convert the Nubans to Christianity and wealthy white colonials who couldn’t or wouldn’t move back to England when their day had ended.  There’s a lot of action, suspense and a great love story between a white Evangelical Christian woman from Iowa and the black commander of the South Sudanese rebel forces which, not surprisingly, leads to all sorts of complications.

Kaitlyn Dunnett here. I’ve got one book going on each of my ebook apps on my iPad. In iBooks I’m reading Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night, second book in a trilogy about a witch and a vampire who fall in love, although at 500+ pages per book, there’s obviously a lot more to it than that. I liked the first one better, oddly enough, since book one was set in the present and this second volume takes place in 1590 (yes, they time travel). On my Nook app, I’m trying out the books on which the TV show Longmire is based. The first in the series is The Cold Dish. The author is Craig Johnson. It’s not my usual cuppa, but my husband likes the series, so I’m giving it a try. On my Kindle app, I have Maddy Hunter’s Dutch Me Deadly, since our recent interview with Maddy reminded me that I enjoyed the earlier books in this series.

Truthfully, when I’m trying to get started on a new book of my own I have trouble concentrating on reading someone else’s novel, so I’m only reading a little bit at a time in any of these. Attention span of a gnat. But of course I’m skimming tons of research material, so I guess that’s some excuse.

Paul Doiron: My recreational reading seems to veer from the suspense genre in which I write to narrative nonfiction to more expressly literary works. The last book I finished falls into the third category.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is one of the most exquisite pieces of writing I’ve read in ages. This slim volume—really a novella—was first published in the Paris Review in 2002, but was reissued last year as a hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It went on to win all sorts of accolades; the New York Times named it one of its Notable Books of the year, as did the Economist and NPR. But it’s the award it didn’t win that caught my attention. Train Dreams was one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize last year when—for obscure reasons I have never heard adequately explained—the committee decided that none of the nominees was deserving of the award. I haven’t yet read the other two finalists (The Pale King and Swamplandia!), but Denis Johnson’s “epic in miniature” is a masterpiece, and decades from now people will still be scratching their heads about the Pulitzer committee’s non-decision decision.

On its surface, it is the tale of a plainspoken day laborer in the West during the early part of the twentieth century. Robert Granier is a simple yet soulful man who helps build the first railroad tracks across the northern Rockies, suffers an unbearable loss, but survives into old age, long enough to see Elvis Presley waving from the back of one of the passing trains. The New York Times described the novella as “a powerful American story of backwoods tragedy and isolation,” and it’s true that the narrative, touched with moments of magical realism, has an unexpected potency. But it’s Johnson’s use of language that elevates this book onto a higher plane:

“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.”

Johnson won the National Book Award for Tree of Smoke and is the author of one of my favorite story collections of all time, a book I used to teach at Emerson College, Jesus’ Son. You should read him.

Barb Ross: I’m moderating the Top Guns panel at The New England Crime Bake this year, so I’m busy reading the panelists’ books.  Right now, I’m reading William Landay’s powerful Defending Jacob. The story of an ADA whose son is accused of murdering another boy, it takes place in the town where I brought up my own children and vividly describes places I’ve walked and even people I think I know. Normally that would make the book all the more enticing, but in this case I wish it was set somewhere else. The story is so strong and the writing so good, I don’t need the distraction. Luckily, I’ve read all of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s books, but I’ll be going to her launch next week to make sure I have her newest, The Other Woman. Then it’s on to Joseph Finder’s books and Archer Mayor’s latest.

BUT, this long weekend, I’m going to take a break from it all, go down to my local independent bookstore and buy Louise Penny’s latest, The Beautiful Mystery. Her new book is a highlight of my year, every year. The weather is supposed to be wonderful and I’m already picturing myself in the lounge chair, reading happily away.

Sarah Graves: I’m having trouble turning off my writer’s eye when reading current fiction, so I’ve turned to Rachel Maddow’s Drift, about the way we go to war in this country, and how our founders meant to make it difficult to do so, and how times have changed. Maddow’s crisp, readable style makes it easy for me to absorb a lot of things I missed noticing while they were going on. Before that it was Bleak House, Dickens’ novel about the lawsuit that poisoned everything and everyone it touched: for style, and characters, and descriptions, and just the sheer wonderfulness of the prose, I can’t say enough good things about it.

Lea Wait:  Barb, you and I are reading some of the same books! But I’ll add another couple I’ve read recently. Two authors I missed along the way were Tana French and Thomas Perry, and I read French’s In The WoodsIt was suspense which shook me because one of her characters was all too real … I won’t even give you the plot other than to say it’s set in Ireland, it involves two children who disappeared years ago, and one who’s been killed in the same woods today. It won an Edgar, and there’s no doubt in my mind why. Thomas Perry’s Vanishing Act is his first Jane Whitefield novel. Jane’s a native American woman who helps people who need to disappear. It’s a fascinating concept – and she and those she depends on to help her are fascinating characters. I can’t wait to read another in the series. Next up for me? Fellow Maine Crime Writer’s Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Bagpipes, Brides and Homicides, and Paul Doiron’s Bad Little Falls. They’re sitting on my bedside table calling to me, right now …..

Kate Flora: The next two books I’m planning to read, too, right after I finish William Landay’s book, which has been in my TBR for months. Then on to Hank Phillippi Ryan and Lucy Burdette. And Paul, I will definitely take your advice about Denis Johnson. I loved Tony Earley’s first book of short stories, Here We Are in Paradise, and have another book of his, captured at the Orrs Island Library booksale, waiting in the wings. Still working on learning to write short stories.



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3 Responses to What the Writers Are Reading

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    I am never going to finish the passel of To-Be-Read books now teetering like the leaning tower on my nightstand. I keep reading, but [thankfully] my favorite authors keep writing, hence the never-ending stack. Come Tuesday, I’ll be reading Hank Phillippi Ryan’s “The Other Woman” and Lucy Burdette’s “Death In Four Courses.” I’ve got one of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels on my Nook and I’m looking forward to reading J. D. Robb’s next Eve Dallas offering, “Delusion In Death.”

  2. SO lovely to see my name on your list..it so exciting, and brings tears to my eyes. Thank you! ANd I hope you will come to the launch parties…Wednesday at 7 at Brookline Booksmith, and Thursday at 7 at Concord Books.(Very intimidating–Kate flora had SRO when she read at Concord…! That;s a lot to live up to. So–bring friends.)

    I’m reading Tess Gerritsen’s LAST TO DIE–she was so incredible at New England Mobile Book Fair last week.

    See you all soon..and thank you so much for everything…

  3. John Clark says:

    I’m awaiting William Kent Krueger’s latest which I checked out to a fellow who I introduced to the series several years ago. He’s leaving to go back to Florida right after Labor day, so I let him have dibs on it. I read Two really good YA titles last week. One was The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder (fastest read in years). Written in poetic form, it’s the story of one day in the life of Amber whose world has been turned completely around by events beyond her control. She wants one day with nothing from her messed-up life clouding her mind, so she hires a limo, sneaks out of the house before dawn and goes to the beach. Her day is enhanced/complicated by meeting Cade, another teen on a similar mission. Part mystery, part love story, it’s a great evening killer.
    Easy by Tammara Webber, is an example of where self-publishing can be wildly successful. Sitting at #640 in Amazon books, it’s language is a bit salty, but the story is well-crafted and has an excellent message about the realities of date rape and what happens emotionally to those who don’t speak up after an attack. It has a secondary love story that’s pretty good as well.

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