Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010)

August 15, 2010 at 1:33 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

One is, of course, grateful to Newsweek for doing this. First, in his editorial, Jon Meacham writes about the pleasure he takes in the reading of crime fiction. A friend’s condescending dismissal of the genre caused him to reflect on why he enjoys it so much. He names some favorite authors – Rex Stout, Tana French, Denise Mina, and Lee Child among them – and even weighs in on the much-discussed question of the difference between mysteries and thrillers.

I particular like – and agree with – this:

The appeal of both genres for me is precisely the appeal of any other piece of fiction, from Jane Austen to Peter Taylor, or George Eliot to John Cheever. The narratives give us a glimpse, however fleeting, of what William Faulkner called the “old verities and truths of the heart…?love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Later in the issue, there’s an annotated list of What You Need To Read Now. The categories are interesting: Rebels with a Cause; Economic Survival; Immigration; Man-made Disasters; Adultery; Food Wars; Taliban Territory; The Pope. Each category has four or five entries.

Whenever I see a list like this, I check first to see what I’ve already read. Here’s the breakdown:

In Rebels with a Cause: None. In Economic Survival: None. In Immigration: One: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a book I enjoyed but did not consider to be about immigration – at least, not primarily. In Man-made Disasters: None. In Adultery: Three: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. In Food Wars: One: Michael Pollan’s wonderful path breaking manifesto, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As for the last two – Taliban Territory and The Pope: None, alas.

As a category representing my personal reading taste, adultery is the clear winner. In real life, it has been my experience that extramarital activity is a form of self-indulgence characterized by excuse-making and deception, guaranteed to cause pain for the individuals affected by it. But there’s no getting around the attendant penchant for high drama, both in life and in literature. After all, to the suggestions in this issue of Newsweek could be added Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.

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At the conclusion of his piece, Jon Meacham suggests that we readers make further recommendations of crime fiction to his “hapless friend.” My first response to this was the following: Donna Leon, Donna Leon, and Donna Leon. But no – there are, of course others: Alexander McCall Smith, both the No.1 Ladies Detective novels and the Isabel Dalhousie series; Archer Mayor‘s wonderfully intelligent procedurals; Ross MacDonald, whose crafty plotting and eloquently spare prose style brought the American private eye tradition to its zenith; Karin Fossum, a Norwegian whose novels probe the universal pain and longing inherent in the human condition; Steven Saylor, whose stories of ancient Rome are both enlightening and great fun to read; and Ruth Rendell, with her sly, ironic, dead-on depiction of the vagaries of the heart and mind. Enfin – there  are so many, many more!

I too know passionate readers who disdain crime fiction. They are of course entitled to their opinions. But crime fiction is where I encounter the most ingenious plotting, the most evocative creation of atmosphere, the most memorable characters, the best writing. It’s as simple – and as complex – as that.

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Newsweek has recently been purchased by Sidney Harman, a pioneer in high fidelity and hero to my husband the audiophile. This is also the moment that Jon Meacham has chosen for his departure from the magazine, where he has been managing editor since 1998. I have been enjoying his enlightened, beautifully written articles. I am sad to see him go and wish him the best of luck in his new endeavors.

Jon Meacham

As for Newsweek itself, I’ve had my issues with some of its issues over the years. I’ve been happier lately since the magazine has scaled back its rather intense focus on health, diet, and medicine ( or “health and nutrition – its prevention and cure,” as my husband gleefully refers to it). I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s, and I plan to continue as such, for the foreseeable future.

3 Comments

  1. Thomas at My Porch said,

    Other interesting notes about 92-year old Sidney Harmon is that he was in Jimmy Carter’s administration and his wife is a Democrat in the House of Representatives. And, he insists on being called Dr. Sidney Harmon even though I am pretty sure his doctoral degree(s) is(are) honorary. I heard that last bit years ago but wasn’t able to confirm it online.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for the comment, Thomas. This is one amazing man!

  2. kathy d. said,

    An important aspect of crime fiction is that it has so many genres and can fulfill so many tastes. And everyone I know who reads it has definite likes and dislikes, but can find books to read, whether they’re hard-boiled, soft-boiled, thrillers, suspense, psychological, cozies, historical, international, home-grown U.S., medical, legal, introspective, action-packed, with women protagonists or men, with dogs as companions or talking cats, with cops, detectives–whodunnits, whydunnits, etc.

    Everyone can find books to suit their tastes. And if one finds a book boring or brutal, one can just put that book aside, give it to a friend or return it to the library–and find something else.

    And I have to keep track of my friends’ tastes, who likes what, when I’m offering book suggestions or a loan, because woe be unto anyone who makes a mistake about this. Wow: Mystery readers know what they like and do not like.

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