This is the final installment in a five-part series of email exchanges among writer friends about the best books they’ve read in recent months—in some cases, ever. Catch up here: Part 1 with Dan Guenther, Part 2 with Dick Cummins, Part 3 with Don Wallace, Part 4 with Eric Olsen.
Here’s Dick Cummins with more.
I Looked under our bed and found some more interesting titles from last year: additional reads, like found money.
Elizabeth the First Wife by Lian Dolan (Prospect Park Books, 2013). Lian is one of ABC Radio’s “Satellite Sisters.” This book was reviewed variously as: “A knockout debut novel that mixes up the classics with class structure…a witty romp!” and ”A send-up of a 40-something mom who finds herself suddenly widowed, broke, and forced to reinvent herself…opinionated, energetic, and sassy.”
The plot involves Liz, a Pasadena Junior College Shakespeare instructor, who embitters her family by joining her semi-literate, bed-hopping ex-husband, cad and movie star FX Farley, to work together at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival!
The upper crust Pasadena social set suffers as Liz’s attitude works over her dad (a little), a Nobel Laureate in Physics, her mother (more), an entitled planner of other people’s parties and lives, one sister who’s research is curing cancer and another who’s married to a semi-snooty Republican Congressman.
Did I mention her grandmother has just croaked, leaving her saddled with an Early California hacienda in need of more TLC and cash repair than a Roy Rogers original movie set? Liz learns that: Sensitivity-challenged exes can change—this is very relative to starting point, I add—and that political aides can be sexy even if serving Republicans, that dogs of course rule, and that ole Bill Shakespeare can still teach the southern left coast elite a thing or two about relationships…”
The God Particle or If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? by Leon Lederman (Mariner Books, 2006). “The funniest book about physics ever written,” says The Dallas Morning News.
Who would have thought that quantum physics could be amusing? This guy is a cross between Einstein and Mel Brooks!
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (Vintage, 25th Anniversary Edition, 2009). Her introduction is personal and resonant due to our mutual experiences with the Workshop and I loved the stories of the denizens of her neighborhood. This is a tone poem of vignettes, “…the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago… precise spare prose (that) create[s] unforgettable characters… a gifted writer,” writes B. M. Campbell in The New York Times Book Review.
The Gentlemen’s Hour: A Novel, by my home-boy Don Winslow (Simon and Schuster, 2011). Writes Peter Howe in The San Diego Union-Tribune, “…pure, uncut hammock heroin served with a side order of social relevance.” In Booklist, it gets a starred review: “Winslow is the perfect balance between surf and substance…” It gets another starred review in Library Journal, “A commentary about an iconic coastal community with too much money, sunshine and terminal greed!”
I tried surfing when still “young” (46) and had just moved here to stay for good, 24 years ago. I tried the beach a block from our apartment called “Wind and Sea” in La Jolla. This is the area that Tom Wolfe wrote about in the Pump House Gang. I immediately encountered some unpleasantness. A rude individual pointed out that W&S Beach was surf-turf for the Big Dogs only, not the semi-old equivalent of a patzer in chess. And BTW, no hero, I knew what was good for me too. My wife, who was there to watch me try to catch a wave, said she still loved me even afterward, though she looked back a little too long at the tanned and muscular blond surfer thug in boardshorts and huaraches.
Looking for War and Other Stories, by Douglas Unger (Ontario Review Press, 2004). I got Doug’s book because he is a fellow Workshop grad and I had never read anything of his before, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for Leaving the Land (Harper & Row, 1984). I loved the short story about a laboratory rhesus monkey and the lab assistant who bond just before the monkey will be put to sleep the next day and the young woman goes home, scribbles a note on the one left on their fridge door by her boyfriend—who of course will not marry her after he gets his Ph.D. “…I have decided to avoid you for the rest of my life…” she writes.
The novella Looking for War is gripping and detailed, describing a firefight between government troops and rebels in Paraguay: wounds, the smell of human blood, the dead, some killed after capture, a “natural history of the dead,” writes Unger, death described with a discerning eye—and what does all this killing mean in the end?
Any rediscovered faves under (or next to) your bed?