Usually, the magic happens on Christmas Eve. But not in Marie-Helene Bertino's debut novel, 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, in which the eve of Christmas Eve proves to be a pivotal night for almost-10-years-old Madeleine Altimari. Her goal is to become a jazz star, and she sets out to find the infamous club The Cat's Pajamas and make her debut. Our reviewer writes: "Bertino’s prose easily dips in and out of the lives of her characters as she weaves them together, including insight into secondary figures at each turn. With vivid description and great character development, Bertino brings Philadelphia and its inhabitants to life in an unforgettable tale." (Read the full review here).
We were curious about the books Bertino has enjoyed reading, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
I confess: I am a slow-ish, picky reader. I would rather read Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters for the hundredth time than just about anything—I’m that kind of bird. Maybe it’s because I find it difficult to turn my editor’s mind off—I am always twisting and turning words as I’m reading them. Those books that are able to turn my mind off secure my lifelong devotion. Here are three of them.
A book for dreamers and originals:
By Deb Olin Unferth
I can’t remember what fortuitous circumstance led Deb Olin Unferth’s work into my path, but the very first time I read it, I was gobsmacked. She can be wildly specific, totally universal and make a miraculous reversal, all in one line. In the story called “Deb Olin Unferth,” she places a fingertip on every person’s fear (every writer, at least), and presses. In “La Pena,” the unraveling of a couple’s relationship is chronicled in a shatteringly beautiful anecdote. Deb has lines that hold the whole world in them. But, she also has lines like:
He held my hand and we were brave.
I’ve read and taught this collection many times, but it still always manages to surprise me.
I’ve owned this book for several years but it wasn’t until a recent vacation that I chucked it into my suitcase thinking I’d give it a try. The first voice in the book, main character Leopold Gurtsky, frustrated me, charmed me, and held me rapt. By the time I met the second main character, Alma, I knew I was involved with something very special. Kraus reveals decades of pain while leaving room for life’s lightness. Even the physical pages feel important. The History of Love contains some brilliant musings on devotion and aging, and contains an anecdote about a telephone made out of two cans and string that you could read at your wedding. No matter how skillful the body of a book, its overall success is tied up in the way it lands. The last few pages don’t just satisfy, they soar.
A book for all time:
The Little Prince
By Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Little Prince is a baffling and perfect book. It works on the line level, the story level, the character level, the level of insight, and the last level that has no name but is the most essential, if you will—the quality Hemingway referred to as “what butterflies have on their wings.” It also has the #1 dedication ever written. I still struggle with the “lesson” the fox teaches the pint-sized main character, that if you “tame” something, you make it special. Every time I read the book I am newly distressed by that word, “tame.” Yet, at the heart of The Little Prince is an author who understood something about human beings that goes unnoticed by most. Saint Exupery’s exactness makes my exact mind delight. He tried many different manifestations of its most famous line. Can you imagine how the meaning of the book would have changed if he had gone with one of the following?
What can be seen does not matter.
What is important is always somewhere else.
What is important is always invisible.
Both Antoine de Saint-Exupery and another of my favorite writers, Roald Dahl, were pilots. In a biography filmed about the latter, a researcher wondered if the cramped space of a cockpit counter-intuitively sparked an expansiveness of imagination. Dahl famously wrote in a small house on his property, on a wooden lap tray that constricted movement, until he died. I think about this sometimes when I am in my sacred, cramped apartment.
Do any of Bertino's books pique your interest?
(Author photo by Ted Dodson)