This fall, Jesmyn Ward followed up her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones with Men We Reaped, a poignant memoir in which she reflects upon the untimely deaths of five men in her life over the course of five years. Our reviewer calls the book—which came in at #4 in our list of the Best Books of 2013—"searingly honest and brutal." (Read our full review here.) We were curious about the books Ward has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites. She graciously agreed, sharing four recommendations, in fact:
SON OF A GUN By Justin St. Germain
Justin St. Germain’s memoir Son of a Gun has stuck with me like few other books this year. He and I have both written about our losses, to understand them better, and so others will, too. Although the circumstances are quite different, we bonded over these shared experiences. Justin tragically lost his mother to murder, in 2001, just after the World Trade Centers came down. She was shot by Justin’s step-father, his mother’s fifth husband. I remember that time clearly: a whole nation suffering from grief. I had recently lost my brother, so spent those days doubly reeling, as did Justin. We both began our books as Stegner Fellows and spent time talking about how to approach these challenging topics. Son of a Gun is not a who-done-it, and it’s more than simply a memoir of loss, although that would be enough. Justin looks at the wider context of guns and violence in the United States, particularly in the West, where he’s from. And he examines the terrible plight of women who are victims of domestic violence. In his careful telling, Justin helps us all understand not only his mother but the culture of violence that leads to stories like these.
THRALL: POEMS By Natasha Trethewey
I am a new mother and I teach, so poetry, which I’ve always loved, has real appeal for pleasure reading. Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall is among my recent favorites. Natasha was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, not far from where I grew up, and she and I have tread some similar terrain in our work, too, about race and history, complicated family, the South, but she does it with so much elegance! Her use of imagery, the precision and grace of her language, the overall craft of her work. She is rightly our Poet Laureate.
Beloved and best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith is back with a new book that is sure to enchant readers everywhere. In Trains and Lovers (published June 11), four strangers traveling by rail from Edinburgh to London pass the time by sharing stories illustrating how trains have featured at critical points in their lives. The four tales intertwine to create a truly romantic ode to love—and to the romance of train travel.
We asked McCall Smith to share three books that he's enjoyed reading recently, and here are his recommendations:
World War Two: A Short History
By Norman Stone
I read this book in two sittings. The author's style is lively, and his views on the history of those years are very thought-provoking. If only more historians would write like this! One of the conclusions that one reaches at the end of this book is this: this was a narrow escape. Another conclusion is this: what an egregious example of human folly.
James Salzman is a professor at Duke and an expert in many aspects of environmental change. This is a marvelous book that will be of great interest to anybody who has ever paused to think about how that glass of water he or she is holding came to be potable. Salzman tells an extraordinary tale, and tells it exceptionally well. One interesting development he explores is that of how water is being commercialized. It used to be free—will that change? Have you noticed fewer water fountains around? A fascinating read.
I must confess that until recently I was unfamiliar with this poet's work. I am glad that I have now addressed that. This is a beautiful, searingly honest account of how a marriage ends. You will be very moved if you read this book. It will linger in your mind—which is exactly what poetry should do.
When Beth Hoffman's agent submitted Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, five publishers came back with offers and a deal was made—all within the span of 18 hours! Hoffman's charming debut novel about a 12-year-old southern girl with a neglectful father and mentally ill mother won rave reviews and became a bestseller. Our reviewer called it "a gem of a story, lovingly told." (Click here to read a Q&A with Hoffman about the book.)
Hoffman's much-anticipated follow-up, Looking for Me, comes out on May 28 and introduces another unforgettable narrator in Teddi Overman, who returns to the rural Kentucky home she left 18 years ago as new clues emerge regarding the mysterious disappearance of her brother.
We asked Hoffman to recommend three books that she's enjoyed reading recently. Here they are, in her own words:
By William Kent Krueger
The cover stopped me in my tracks. I was drawn in by the atmospheric quality and the structure of the bridge, so I put the title on my reading list. Shortly thereafter, I read what several book bloggers had to say about the story, and I was immediately hooked. Besides being a terrific story that examines a powerful range of human experiences and emotions, it was the authentic voice of the teenage narrator, Frank Drum, that kept me reading late into the night. Though the tone is quiet, Krueger artfully layered the story with suspenseful examinations of family life, death, fury, spiritual fiber and redemption. In some ways it reminded me of one of my favorite movies—Stand by Me.
I love poetry and try to read several pages each night before bed, not only because I enjoy it, but because poets have a lot to teach novel writers: for an ill-chosen word in a lengthy novel is forgivable, in poetry it would be disastrous. Sometimes delicate and reflective, other times smoldering with hurt and disappointment, Laux’s work exposes human frailties with a keen eye. I particularly enjoy her sensitivity to the wonders of nature, and she’s gifted in illuminating the essence of an otherwise unremarkable moment.
By Reynolds Price
What prompted me to read it: pure reading pleasure. I’ve read this fine novel before, and have no doubt that I’ll read it again. The prose is sublime. Price crafted a story of an ordinary, unassuming woman into an extraordinary piece of literature. Just as people remember where they were when they heard the news that the Challenger space shuttle had exploded, I will always remember where I was on the day Reynolds Price died. The news came over the radio on January 20, 2011, while I was being driven to an author event in South Carolina. The world had lost an important literary voice, and I had lost a personal favorite author.