Monday, October 19, 2009

Five Good Books I've Read this Month

Yesterday morning I had coffee with the fabulous Carol Fitzgerald, marketing genius and compulsive reader. As always when we get together, we traded book recommendations and lamented the fact that we never seem to have enough time to read. Carol ticked off a dismaying list of all the modern technological advances that steal our reading time: email, Facebook, blogs (erk), texting, television, video games, DVRs, On Demand.

I had been only vaguely aware of how much time I spend on electronic distractions, and this brought me up short. I'm home now with a new awareness that I do have time to read more books, and have been choosing to spend that time on other things.

So now I'm choosing to change that. I brought four books home with me from Indianapolis (three I bought, one a gift from an author pal), and found two more waiting for me, to be read on a client's behalf. That's six new books on a to-be-read pile that was already completely out of control, but I know I can get back to my old four-books-a-week pace if I just quit playing online word games.

In the meantime, here are five of the best things I've read this month.

1. Karen Armstrong, BUDDHA. I don't know very much about Buddhism, so was glad to read this short, accessible biography, which is also a primer on the religion. We know little about Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, and the Buddha would say that the details of his personal life were unimportant. Armstrong is always clear, concise, and to the point.

2. Tod Goldberg, OTHER RESORT CITIES. Tod's a friend and a former writing instructor of mine, as I noted when he answered Five Random Questions for the blog earlier this month. He's also one of the best authors of short fiction writing today. The ten stories in this extraordinary collection shine like jewels, showing us the inner lives of people we pass and never think about. They range from the grimly funny ("Mitzvah," about a rabbi with a past, and "Rainmaker," about a professor with a dangerous second career) to the heartbreaking ("Walls," "Palm Springs," and "The Models," which offer very different takes on the many ways parents fail their children). Goldberg never condescends to his characters, and finds things to love in even the most unsympathetic.

3. Lev Grossman, THE MAGICIANS. A friend described this book as "Harry Potter meets THE SECRET HISTORY," and that's not far off, although the book owes just as much to Narnia and generations of British children's adventure novels. Quentin Coldwater and his friends have magic powers, but must still deal with the basic pain of growing up. Late in the book, one character says to another: "Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever." Good advice for all of us.

4. Bryan Gruley, STARVATION LAKE. A solid debut set in northern Michigan, from an author to watch. Small-town newspaper editor Gus Carpenter has returned to his hometown after an incident that ended his big-city career. On a winter night, pieces of snowmobile wash up on the banks of Starvation Lake; the snowmobile appears to have belonged to the town's beloved hockey coach, who drowned in mysterious circumstances 15 years earlier. Characters, the small-town setting, and the gritty reality of working for a small newspaper make this book worthwhile.

5. Joseph Kanon, STARDUST. A sweeping novel that tries to do too many things, but succeeds at most of them. The first half of this book is stunning, a fascinating look at post-war Hollywood and a compelling mystery: why did Daniel Kohler go over the balcony of his Hollywood apartment — and what was he doing there at all, since he had a beautiful house and a beautiful wife? Danny's long-estranged brother Ben, an Army filmmaker, investigates and is drawn deep into the German expatriate film community. The first signs of anti-Communist paranoia are emerging, and Ben discovers that his brother was at its center, but it's unclear on what side.

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