It never fails. When I have a lot of books to assign for review, I make the same mistake again and again. Sorting through the piles of books on my desk and on my floor and on every other available surface in my office, I invariably wind up throwing far too many galleys into a new pile of titles I want to review myself. I really should know better, but I don’t. Oddly, I’m especially likely to succumb to this form of literary gluttony after I’ve just finished editing our annual Mystery Showcase issue, the 2016 edition of which was dispatched to the printer yesterday. You would think that after completing that Herculean task, I would be ready for a break, eager to do a little binge watching of The Americans or my latest passion, Mozart in the Jungle. But somehow it never works that way, perhaps because, having been living with crime fiction for nearly a month, I always find myself craving other kinds of books. So when I’m sorting all those galleys that have accumulated in my to-be-assigned piles, I can’t resist thinking “that might be fun to read right now.” And so it goes.
Here are some of the books that made the perilous journey from the piles on my office floor to the top of my mother’ much-scarred cedar chest, which sits in front of my bed. I think the chest probably once held her dowry—frankly, I’ve never quite known what constitutes a dowry—but now the inside of the chest has become a repository of my own memorabilia. I haven’t looked inside in years because the top of the chest is constantly covered with all those books I’m going to read right now (or at least before deadline), but I have a hunch that if one were to shove those volumes aside and peer inside, prying eyes might find an old Sports Illustrated with Willie Mays on the cover (on the occasion of his 600th home run); a photocopy of the first book review I ever published (I’ll admit it was in Library Journal), and, God help me, a tattered, typewritten copy of a term paper on Vanity Fair in which I was chastised for beginning too many sentences with throat-clearing devices like “That is,” and “In other words.”
The point here, though, is not what’s inside the chest but what’s on top of it. Here are three books I’m either reading now or just about to read:
The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers, by Terry McDonnell
A magazine editor for more than 40 years, McDonnell has worked at all the hot spots on the major media map, including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and Outside, and along the way he has edited, among many others, Thomas McGuane, Hunter Thompson, and Jim Harrison. These short pieces are jam-packed with war stories, juicy insider stuff on putting a magazine together, and examples of great writing from McDonnell’s friends. Take this nugget from Edward Abbey: “One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.”
Perfume River, by Robert Olen Butler
This one has me very excited. I’ve been loving Butler’s richly textured series of historical thrillers starring Christopher Marlowe Cobb, but I’m equally thrilled at the prospect of a new Butler novel about the complex byways of human relationships—terrain that Butler knows very well indeed (A Small Hotel, for example). That Perfume River looks at those relationships in the context of the lingering effects of the Vietnam War pretty much clinches the deal for me: this is a novel I’ll be diving into tonight, if I can drag myself away from Terry McDonnell and Hunter Thompson playing “acid golf.”
Champion of the World, by Chad Dundras
Now here’s a horse of a different color. I’m not a wrestling fan, but this debut novel about the early days of the sport in the 1920s was calling out to me from the moment the galley rumbled by my office on a book truck. A disgraced wrestler relegated to the carny circuit returns to the ring to train a down-and-out African American heavyweight hoping to launch a comeback in the wilds of Montana. Naturally, there are rowdy goings-on aplenty in the disreputable world of wrestling—gambling (our hero’s wife is a chardsharp), fixed matches, etc. I love a big, rambunctious historical novel, especially one set in the West, and, of course, I’m a sucker for sports fiction, too. So, Mr. Dundras, you’ve got me hooked at the get-go; up to you to keep me on the line.