Paul McComas’s Best Reads of 2014

UnpluggedAuthorShotMy name is Paul McComas, and I came to Evanston in 1983 after growing up in Milwaukee; these remain my two favorite cities. I’m the author of five books: two short-story collections, Twenty Questions (1998) and the award-winning Unforgettable: Harrowing Futures, Horrors, & (Dark) Humor (2011); two novels, Unplugged (2002) and Planet of the Dates (2008); and the award-winning novella Fit for a Frankenstein (2013), coauthored by Greg Starrett. My next two books are also collaborations: Logan’s Journey, a sequel-novel to Logan’s Run, coauthored by LR author William F. Nolan; and Edgar G. Ulmer: A Life on Film, coauthored by David Luhrssen. Since 1998, I’ve taught writing, literature, and film at multiple levels and numerous sites, including the University of Chicago and Northwestern, Lawrence, and National-Louis universities. I founded the teen-suicide-prevention program Rock Against Depression, and I serve on both the National Leadership Council and the Speakers Bureau of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. I enjoy writing songs and playing bass and guitar in a couple of benefit bands, but most of all I enjoy spending time with my wife Heather and our rescue greyhound, Sam.

1) Accidentally on Purpose by Michael York (1992)

Always one of my favorite actors, Michael York has in recent months become a crucial collaborator (we’ve co-founded a charity program) and a dear friend. He’s also become one of my favorite authors. I’m currently reading his fine 2000 collaboration with Adrian Brine, A Shakespearean Actor Prepares, but have finished and thus can fully and enthusiastically endorse his 1991 autobiography Accidentally on Purpose. For fans of screen and stage, the cast of friends and associates (Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier, Raquel Welch, Christopher Isherwood, Liza Minnelli, etc.) would be reason enough to dive in; for me, the book’s main selling points are its exceptional craft, York’s keen observational eye, and the depth of feeling with which he reflects on his first 49 years of life. I learned from this book not only about York, show biz, and the ins and outs of stage and screen acting, but also about the human condition. His voice is, at once, cultured yet casual, authoritative yet approachable, highly intelligent yet utterly accessible. Three words — the same words that come to mind at the conclusion of each of his performances — did so as I read this book: “Bravo, Michael. Bravo!”

To contribute to our program fighting amyloidosis, for which Michael is currently in treatment, visit the following: Medical College of Wisconsin Amyloidosis Research

never let me go2) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

Having taught this incredibly affecting novel several times, I know it as well as any book that I myself didn’t write. How I wish I’d written this one! Perhaps better known for Remains of the Day, Ishiguro is at his peak here. His bicultural perspective (first 5 years in Japan; England ever since) qualifies him uniquely to channel/create/chronicle the lives of outsiders, as he expertly does here. Crossing the gender line, as real fiction writers dare to do, he gives us Kathy H., a protagonist more real and more relatable than most actual people I know. She is an ideal guide into an alternate world which our own, Ishiguro warns, may quickly be coming to resemble, slippery-slope-style. I won’t give away the secret of the boarding school at the heart of the book, revealed fairly early on; I’ll just say that the impact of the revelation — and of the remainder of the novel — makes for a singularly impactful, poignant, and ultimately heartbreaking read.

NOTE: Ishiguro executive produced the fine 2010 film adaptation, starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley.

3) Mr. Tall by Tony Earley (2014)

Perhaps it’s because Earley and I were born just a few months apart (in late 1961), but I found his first four books (a story collection, two novels, and a compendium of personal essays) remarkably relatable as well as beautifully executed. While this fifth doesn’t quite move me as its predessors did, Mr. Tall shows off the author’s considerable range as never before. In these two novellas and five stories, Earley sometimes insinuates his characters right up to the edge of magical realism (American South version) but not quite over it, leaving the reader to wonder as to the precise nature, ethics, and even the sanity of these people and the world around them. As always, Earley is great company and proves to be a master of what I call “the plausible surprise”: the plot development (often a climax or resolution; other times occurring fairly, uh, “earley” in the story) that one didn’t see coming but which, in retrospect, makes perfect sense.

the-age-of-miracles-book-cover4) The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012)

Recommended to me by my always astute wife Heather, this may or may not have been written as a YA novel; the heroine is a teenager, but a youthful protagonist never defines a book as YA (see Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, my own Planet of the Dates, etc.). Walker begins with a singular premise: Planet Earth, for no discernible reason, has begun to orbit farther and farther from its sun. In imagining the impact on our world and its people — particularly one suburban adolescent, her family, her friends, her community, and her “crush” — the author is not only spot-on but also dramatic, sensitive, knowing, and frighteningly convincing. I too set my coming-of-age novel against a backdrop of change (the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s); Walker pushes this “internal change during external change” to the limit, with ingenious and unforgettable results.

5) The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (1999)

I read and thoroughly enjoyed Bank’s debut collection shortly after its publication; this past September, I greatly enjoyed re-reading and teaching it as part of a week-long writing workshop through Lawrence University. It was gratifying, though not surprising, to find that Bank’s story cycle (a series of short narratives that stand alone individually, as well as fitting within a single, shared arc) rings true for adults of all ages. Jane, her first-person narrator, is endearingly quirky without ever straining credibility or alienating the reader as she grows from precocious girl to semi-naive yet insightful adolescent and, finally, into a young woman struggling with her identity, romance, various kinds of relationships, subtle yet stinging old-school sexism, and the New York City literary world. The icing on top is Bank’s keen sense of humor; even the more serious stories generate unexpected laughs in a way that seems unique to this author and her sensibility.

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