After his much-acclaimed biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, Blake Bailey reflects on his own family's difficult story in The Splendid Things We Planned, which our reviewer calls "an unforgettable look at a family doing its best in the most trying of circumstances, those where no good outcome exists." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Bailey has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend some recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
MS. HEMPEL CHRONICLES
By Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
I was a school teacher for several years, and if someone were to ask me what was the least likely book I'd ever want to read, my answer would be (in effect) a collection of thematically linked stories about a quirky but lovable seventh-grade teacher. Unless, that is, such a book were written by a genius, as in this case. Ms. Hempel is, I think, one of the most enduring creations in American literature: tolerant, obliging to a fault, a little feckless, gifted in her own right but overwhelmed by the sheer endearing quiddity of each and every one of her students. It's not a book about teaching, really, so much as a study in human endurance, and yet I think it's the best thing ever written about teaching: the joys, sorrows and downright horrors of giving up the best years of one's life so that other (potentially less deserving) souls may thrive.
THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS
by Edward St Aubyn
There are five Patrick Melrose novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk and At Last. How I wish there were 50; how I wish I could depend on reading them for the rest of my life—the way I read Wodehouse's novels, say, whenever (blessedly) I don't have anything else to read. And indeed there's something of Wodehouse in St Aubyn, I think, if Wodehouse were inclined to write about sociopathic child-molesting fathers, heroin addicts, a whole gruesome family blighted by narcissism of every sort. But of course Wodehouse would never write about such people, so I'm all the more grateful for St Aubyn, who proves that one can be funny without losing a whit of gravitas where gravitas counts. Along with his humor and almost peerless elegance of style, St Aubyn is an Olympian judge of character: He puts us into the heads of monsters, and manages to make them comprehensible and even—almost—sympathetic. Proust is something like that, though not nearly as funny.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out The Splendid Things We Planned or any of Bailey's recommended books? By the way, see which other author recommended the Patrick Melrose novels.
(Author photo © Mary Brinkmeyer)