By Eric Olsen (with Dick Cummins, Dan Guenther, and Don Wallace)
This is the second in a five-part series in which word-mongering friends discuss their favorite recent reads. See Part 1 here.
Dick Cummins started at The University of Iowa as an undergrad on a track scholarship. Interested in writing, he signed up for an undergrad fiction workshop taught by Robert Williams, author of Shake This Town, who, on the first day of class, announced that there would be “no stories about getting laid.” Dick asked to be transferred to another class, ending up in the first class Kurt Vonnegut taught there. See more about that here.
After Iowa, Dick taught English at several community colleges, a high school in Key West Florida, and then at the U. of Montana. Then with venture capital, he started an educational software company. He’s now retired, and writes full-time, does lots of open-mic stand-up comedy—hoping to get free cruises in return for some laughs—and in his free time, plays “large-print league” senior softball in San Diego.
Dick’s favorite reads of the past year:
The Comedy Bible: From Stand-up to Sitcom—The Comedy Writer’s Ultimate ‘How To’ Guide by Judy Carter (Touchstone, 2001). I’m still working on this one. It’s filled with wisdom and insight into what’s funny, how to deliver funny under prison-break lighting in front of sullen audiences who have been sentenced—evidently—to sit through open mic nights instead of community service, guaranteeing of course that whatever they did, they will never do again.
Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson (Penguin, 2012). Just finished. With its numerous references to Dante, it should have been named Dante’s Inferno Just Froze Over! It’s number seven in the mystery series featuring Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire, an action-mystery-western-sheriff genre—not for lit crits for sure—but can’t put ’em down. My wife reads them a book a day when at rest. Go Hawks!!
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair by Anne Lamott (Riverhead, 2013). I will read anything she writes, to observe what having heavy smoking and drinking progressive parents and growing up in Marin, in a town she calls “Mayberry on Acid,” does to a sensitive and oddly hinged young girl, then mother who is saved by, well, God the Utterly Indifferent, I guess.
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book by Wendy Welch (St. Martin’s Press, 2012). Not exactly Elmore Leonard, but the voice is comforting and sensibility keen—Welch is a PhD ethnographer and lets us watch her customers come and go as cameo characters—and there is a list of books recommended at the end, some to be loved, others eschewed.
Drowned Hopes: A Dortmunder Novel by Donald E. Westlake (Mysterious Press, 2011). If there’s a more entertaining writer I’d like to find him–dead now sadly. This is number seven in a series of novels featuring John Archibald Dortmunder and a returning cast of shady, sometimes criminal, sometimes incompetent characters. It was first published in 1990. Drowned Hopes is about Dortmunder’s attempts to help an aging thief to retrieve $750,000 of loot he’d stolen and hidden years earlier, now submerged beneath a reservoir. Westlake wrote more than 100 novels and story collections under a variety of pseudonyms. As Richard Stark, he wrote more than a dozen novels featuring relentless criminal Parker. One of these novels, The Hunter, was made into the 1967 movie Point Blank starring Lee Marvin, and then again in 1999 as Payback starring Mel Gibson.
Dick concludes, “I don’t know why I should be, but I’m embarrassed to say that Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday is probably my all-time fave.”
Next week, Don Wallace’s favorite recent reads.