Meghan Daum's collection of searingly honest essays, The Unspeakable, is our Top Pick in Nonfiction for December. Her first collection, My Misspent Youth, expertly zeroed in on the collective feelings of a generation, and Daum doesn't disappoint in her latest as she fearlessly explores life nearing middle age. Our reviewer writes, "The Unspeakable is a stunner of a book about settling into one’s skin." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Daum has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Recently I watched the HBO documentary Regarding Susan Sontag and that put me on a Sontag binge. I reread Notes on Camp and Illness as Metaphor, as well as Sigrid Nunez’s slender, perfect memoir Sempre Susan, about her experience living with Sontag in the 1970s. I’ve also been reading a lot of really great stuff I can’t tell you about yet—advanced readers copies of some terrific novels that will come out next year, as well as a couple of memoirs that should make a splash when their publication times come. One I can hint at is Bernard Cooper’s My Avant Garde Education. On the surface it’s a coming-of-age story about going to art school. But it’s really an inquiry into the way that aesthetics can shape our identities and how (forgive me if this sounds twee; there’s really no other way to say it) the visual can become the visceral. It’s quite original and magnificent, and it’ll be out in February.
In the meantime, since I’ve been championing the essay lately, here are a few of my favorite books of essays.
The 10 essays in this 2010 collection are dazzling, wicked and somehow both terribly sad and fundamentally joyful. Rakoff, who wrote in this book that his “internal age” was “somewhere between 47 and 53 years old,” died of cancer in 2012—at 47. Often compared to David Sedaris, not least of all because his name was also David, Rakoff’s work is just as funny as Sedaris’ but also darker and slyer and imbued with the wisdom of someone who was born internally middle-aged.
I don’t know what it says that the first two books on this list are by writers who died from cancer within a year of each other. Hitch, who died in late 2011, was often exasperating and sometimes wrong, but never anything less than brilliant. Half-drunk on bourbon, he still wrote circles around anyone amped up on black coffee.
You might know Als from his recent book, White Girls, and his criticism in The New Yorker. But before all that, back in 1996, Als published The Women, an extended essay—or perhaps three long essays—about the influence of three major figures in his life and how their complicated, conflicted relationships to their own race and gender identities helped imprint his own. Each time I read it, I still say to myself “I’ve never read a book quite like this.”
Thank you Meghan! Readers, do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
(Author photo by David Zaugh)
Andrew Maraniss' Strong Inside details the life and struggles of Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the SEC. Our reviewer writes that the biography is "is superbly written, hard to put down and fascinating for sports fans and non-sports fans alike." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Maraniss has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
When BookPage asked if I would recommend three books to readers, I had a moment of panic. As a first-time author, I have no idea if other authors have had similar experiences, but the truth is that for the last several months I have been so focused on completing my book and launching it to the public, that I have found myself reading other books a lot less than normal. I come home from work, help my wife feed and bathe the kids, read them their books, do some work related to my book and nod off to sleep. Pretty much every day.
And that’s when it dawned on me—in that description of my routine, I just admitted that I read books every day! They just happen to be children’s books. And I’m sure that just about every parent, author or not, can relate to that.
The book I’ve written, Strong Inside, is a biography of Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. Wallace overcame tremendous obstacles and all forms of racism to succeed in life. He’s now a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. So in the spirit of Strong Inside, I’m recommending four children’s books that my four-year-old daughter Eliza enjoys, all of which feature pioneers of one form or another.
We love reading Meltzer’s series of books about everyday heroes who have made history, both for the storytelling and the wonderful artwork by Eliopoulos. I’ll never forget the moment Eliza and I read the Rosa Parks book for the first time. When we got to the part where Parks was asked to move to the back of us the bus, she looked at me and said, “Why did they want to make her move? I don’t like those people.”
Eliza thinks nothing of Grace, an African-American elementary school student, winning her class election and then eventually becoming President of the United States. And my daughter makes her Packer-obsessed dad happy by recognizing the “G” logo on the Wisconsin delegate’s shirt.
I am completely in love with the paintings of old Negro League Baseball scenes in this beautiful book. One of the sad ironies of integration was the demise of strong institutions such as the Negro Leagues—this book brings figures like Rube Foster, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige back to life in stunning color.
This story of an African-American girl who goes shopping at a downtown department store with her mother has been around since 1968, so it’s not new, but I now see it in a new light. When I read it now, I can’t help but think about the sit-ins at the downtown Nashville department stores that took place just a few years before this book was published. I’m thankful my little girl is growing up in a much more inclusive city.
Thank you, Andrew! You can read a Q&A with the author here. See any books you'd like to read to the children in your life?
Anita Diamant's latest novel, The Boston Girl, is our December Fiction Top Pick. It tells the life story of Addie, who was born in 1900 to immigrant parents. Our reviewer writes, "Fiercely independent, frequently awkward and quite witty, Addie is simply fun to hang out with, in a literary sense. Her journey through the 20th century is one readers will relish." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Diamant has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
For the most part, I read contemporary novels based on the recommendation of friends. So after the fifth person told me how much they enjoyed Americanah, I bought a copy and was happily hooked from the first page. The protagonist, Ifemelu, is a young Nigerian woman who writes a successful blog about her experiences of race in America, a minefield that Adichie travels with wisdom, humor and honesty. The book chronicles Ifemelu’s childhood in Nigeria, and her experiences in the United States as a college student, nanny and writer. We get to know her lovers (white, black and the One True) friends (Nigerian and American) and—very eloquently—her hair.
I keep at least one book of Billy Collins poems handy at all times: on the nightstand at home, in the vacation cottage, loaded on my tablet and laptop. I read poetry at bedtime to slow my overactive, over-stimulated brain. You can’t skim a poem and expect to get much from it; poems need to be read word-by-word, line-by-line. Collins’ poems are full of sweet-tart images about the precarious beauty of life, but without the gloom or doom. He shows you a world worthy of attention and love, “The clean white shirt, the hot evening shower, the highway that cuts across Florida.” Even a bar of soap, “so patient and soluble.”
When asked about his use of humor, Collins said, “Humor is simply an ingredient . . . I don’t see why it needs to be questioned. You could just as easily ask why is there so much seriousness in poetry?”
Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) is often cited as one of America’s first “food writers.” She produced 26 books about food and eating and this volume contains five of them: Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets. The titles are a tip-off: Although recipes are scattered here and there, her true subject was the human heart.
When asked why she wrote about food rather than loftier topics, Fisher responded, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” I re-read Fisher every few years not only because of her intelligence and insight, but also for the pleasure of her style. W.H. Auden said it best, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.”
Thank you, Anita! See any books you're apt to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Gretje Fergeson)
The Cynster family sojourns at their Scottish mansion for the holidays in Stephanie Laurens' latest novel, the lovely Regency romance By Winter's Light. Our reviewer writes, "Observing this very popular dynasty enjoying themselves and the season makes for wonderful, heartwarming holiday reading." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Laurens has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
I’m always reading, and it’s always genre fiction. I read in several genres, and for me, reading novels is all about relaxation and pure enjoyment. The following are books I’ve finished in the last month and thoroughly enjoyed.
My friend Victoria Alexander got me hooked on Rhys Bowen’s Royal Spyness Mysteries. Set in England during the early 1930s, the books give unique and humorous insight into the life of the upper echelons of British society at that time, especially the royal family. The heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch, is 34th in line to the throne, and while penniless, she must keep up appearances. However, she falls in love with a dashing, intriguing, but unsuitable son of an Irish peer. She is also often summoned by the Queen to assist with missions too delicate to delegate to anyone but family. The books are a hoot and commence with Her Royal Spyness. Thus far, there are eight in the series, and all are highly entertaining.
I’ve read Christie Ridgway’s romances for years, but her recent Rock Royalty series breaks new ground. The allure of a group of people who share a common childhood history reconnecting as adults defines this series, and the group's implicit and explicit search for “family” is touching. Add characters who are simultaneously larger than life, yet completely believable, and we have a winning combination. The series opens with Light My Fire, and the second book, which I adore, is Love Her Madly, with the third, Break on Through due in January. Can’t wait.
(Editor's Note: Christie Ridgway is also our very own romance columnist)
As must be apparent by now, I enjoy series, and one of my current favorites is Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock paranormal/urban fantasy series. I stumbled upon these books by accident earlier this year, and I raced through the first seven. Jane is a Cherokee skinwalker, and the series opens with her riding her motorcycle into New Orleans as a vampire hunter for hire. As the series progresses, she learns a lot more about herself and possibly more than she ever wanted to know about life with vampires. The series is set in the South, primarily in New Orleans, and the world Faith Hunter has crafted is detailed, consistent and believable. Book 1 is Skinwalker, and the most recent, Book 8, is Broken Soul, with Book 9, Dark Heir, out this April. If you enjoy an absorbing read in an alternate-history universe, the Jane Yellowrock series comes highly recommend.
Thank you, Stephanie! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
Lydia Millet's dark and funny Mermaids in Paradise follows a couple on their tropical honeymoon— a vacation that is disrupted when mermaids (mermaids!) are discovered on the island's reef. Our reviewer writes, "Though they often deal in dark themes—humanity’s rampant destruction of the earth is a common backdrop—Lydia Millet’s books are also, paradoxically, hilarious." We were able to talk with Millet, and you can read the interview here.
We were curious about the books Millet has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
This nonfiction book by the author of When Elephants Weep—which I initially picked up, full disclosure, because he used to be my mother’s boyfriend, but I subsequently grew to love on its own merits—is an accessible, intriguing survey of the ways we elevate the human race over other creatures. Masson has written numerous books about our relationships with, and treatment of, animals, from pets to livestock to those still living free. This 2014 volume focuses on the rationalizations we use to debase other animals and achieve our own sense of rightful privilege over the rest of the living kingdom—as well as to justify our massive-scale production and slaughter of other animals for food. Beasts touches on so many crucial parts of the puzzle of our perverse and tragic behavior toward our fellow creatures that it’s a great read for both newcomers to the subject and veterans.
Tillman is a writer’s writer—a writer many other fine writers deeply admire because she’s super-smart, philosophical, cleaves to a rigorous aesthetic and, perhaps best of all, commands a powerful, deadpan sense of humor. But the truth is, her fiction should make her anyone’s writer—it’s too good not to be read. I’d been reading and loving Tillman for years when my dear friend, and then publisher, Richard Nash published her 2006 novel American Genius, nominally about a woman with sensitive skin, which is one of my favorites. Tillman’s both quintessentially New York and incredibly European — a perfect combination for those of us who love Beckett and Bernhard and Musil but also yearn for the intellectual company of women. Specifically, of women who don’t suffer fools gladly—and Tillman’s one of those for certain. Also, check out her new essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, which has an excellently written introduction by Colm Tóibín.
Ever since Watership Down I’ve loved books with nonhuman narrators, especially if they live in underground burrows and have large ears. So I was delighted to hear of this tale, written by a concert pianist who abides in Europe, about the battle of Waterloo seen through the eyes of an erudite bunny. Named for William of Orange, the rabbit in question lives in a hutch on the grounds of a Belgian chateau called Hougoumont, where 200 years ago the famous battle that brought about Napoleon’s final downfall was fought. The kept rabbits of modern Hougoumont have a mysterious relationship to the rabbits that lived there two centuries ago, and this relationship is the subject of William’s obsessive study under the tutelage of his corpulent and wise grandmother, Old Lavender. It's dignified and poignant, as well as sad, with a gentle humor befitting gentle lagomorphs. But it’s not coming out till 2015, so wait for it. . . wait for it. . .
Thank you, Lydia! See anything you're apt to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Ivory Orchid)
The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron stars a man in a slump. Ruddy, a failed football pro, has a lame job and no friends. And then he starts hearing the voice of a dead real estate agent in his head. Our reviewer writes that Cameron's smart, humor-filled novel "is a light, breezy read that is pure entertainment." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Cameron has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
Because he writes thrillers, this very literary novel by Nelson DeMille, while a bestseller, is rarely mentioned on the same list with important American works. Yet, for me, this is The Caine Mutiny for the Vietnam generation, and I read it every few years just to marvel at how well it holds up: suspenseful, profound and superbly crafted.
According to Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the fascinating book Outliers, it takes an “expert” about 10,000 hours to truly master his or her craft. Looking at the bibliography of Andrew Gross, one can easily see he’s got his 10,000 hours in—and it shows up magnificently in Everything to Lose, his latest thriller. Don’t open the front cover for a quick look if you don’t have the money to purchase the book—you don’t want to be caught shoving it in your coat and running for the door, but there’s no way you are going to abandon this novel once you’ve started it.
This is very literally “what I’m reading”—I just started it. I was immediately struck by the POV—The book is written in first-person, in the voice of Jack Reacher. I have not yet ventured far enough into the novel to know much more than the fact that this character, Reacher, is as comforting and habit-forming as the first cup of coffee on a cold morning. I cannot wait to get back to the book!
Thank you, Bruce! Readers, do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
(Author photo by Ute Ville)
In his memoir, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Lev Golinkin looks back on his childhood in a floundering Soviet Union and his journey to American identity. Our reviewer writes, "A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka blends memoir and history into an intimate tale of personal growth." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Golinkin has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
This book takes you behind the curtains of industries that I didn’t even know had curtains, much less mysterious happenings behind them. You go into the world of cross-country truckers, UPS handlers, riverboat captains and train engineers; by the time I was done, I felt like McPhee could have written an entire book about any one of these. For example, there is a giant (I imagine Rube Goldberg-esque) machine in a UPS center in the Midwest. He also explores the logistics behind trying to operate a gigantic riverboat (which brought on terrifying memories of my parallel parking failures) and tours a built-to-scale training center in Switzerland, where future boat operators learn how to eventually captain their own boat.
I bought this book a while ago and finally picked it up because I was tired of not knowing the details of Israel and Lebanon’s conflicts. Friedman is fascinating in that he is somehow able to present what seems like a balanced and sympathetic description of the bewildering and conflicting parties involved. He doesn’t pull punches from PLA, Israeli forces, various factions of Israel government or the different Lebanese sects; however, he also strives to show why individuals and organizations acted the way they did and what comprises their mindset. Friedman does it so effortlessly, too: He doesn’t draw parallels, but simply narrates, and you can’t help but feel like you’re riding behind these people’s eyes.
I started reading this after The Name of the Wind, the first book of Rothfuss’ trilogy. Halfway through The Wise Man’s Fear I realized that Rothfuss has been putting these little, seemingly background details into the story, which wound up playing crucial roles down the road. I found myself planning to reread the first book even before finishing the second one. The best thing I love about it is how Rothfuss plays with the way the reality of a story is warped and reshaped through the years and by various narrators.
Thanks, Lev! See any books you're interested in picking up, readers?
Suki Kim's memoir, Without You, There Is No Us, is a fascinating, first-hand look into the strange world of the North Korean elite. Our reviewer writes that "her nuanced account is loosely chronological, covering the two semesters she taught at PUST between July and December 2011, based on secret journals she kept with great care, and informed by the heartrending stories of her family members split asunder by the Korean War." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Kim has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
Since my second book was published last week, I have not been reading much of anything other than emails, reviews and the messages on twitter and Facebook, neither of which I have ever participated in the past because I am a bit too quiet for social media. Soon, I hope to return to the three books on my nightstand, some of which are still work related. The bothersome aspect of being a writer is that often reading is still work.
Do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
(Author photo by Ed Kashi)
Lin Enger's second novel, The High Divide, follows a family's struggle to stay united as their way of life on the Western plains falls apart. Our reviewer writes: "Enger’s gripping story is a marvelous blend of strong characters and a brilliant depiction of a land and time now lost." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Enger has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
Reviews of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad focused on the novel’s postmodern qualities and its rock music milieu, and I thought, ‘Nope, this one’s not for me.’ But one day in an airport bookstore, I found myself carrying it to the register. I must have been telling myself, ‘Well, it won a Pulitzer after all.’ And then I read it! Wow. These characters, unbelievably hip and groovy though they are—rock stars, music moguls, writers—are rendered with exquisite insight and love. And the novel’s structure is both inventive and accessible, each chapter offering a seductive new beginning. The best novels conduct a tour into exotic new territory and make the reader happy to be along for the ride, and Goon Squad is a trip I’m glad I didn’t miss.
An old college friend recently told me, apologetically, that he’d just read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. Not to be outdone, I told him I’d never read it. Then I went home and found a copy on my shelves and started in. Yes, it’s long and descriptively dense, and yes, it can be overtly sentimental. But it’s also brilliantly exhaustive in its depiction of 1930s economic forces and unabashed in its humanity. There is nothing sterile, careful or self-consciously arch about this story of one family’s journey west during the desperate dust-bowl migrations. Steinbeck is ruthlessly clear-eyed—yet at the same time he wears his heart on his sleeve. I understand now why this novel has been a staple in English classes for decades, but I’m glad I waited. This is a book for adults.
One of my favorite novellas of all time is Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, a big wide story of the American West that he managed to tell in less than 100 pages. But I’m not writing about that one here. I’m writing about the novella I’m reading right now by Denis Johnson called Train Dreams. It’s subject is the West, of course, and its focus is the outsized, tall-tale life of a man named Robert Grainier, who works on railroad crews and lumber gangs and who suffers more setbacks than any man should. Like Harrison, Johnson is able to render in just a few pages an epic American vision. The vastness of the mountain west and the yearnings it evoked in those who were drawn there are made palpable—almost painfully so—by Johnson’s unadorned, eloquent language.
Thanks, Lin! Readers, have you read any of his picks?
(Author photo by Hope Larson)
Lauren Oliver, known for her YA books, succesfully ventures into adult territory with Rooms, a novel focusing on a family haunted by their painful pasts, as well as the ghosts that live in their dead relative's home. Our reviewer writes, "Rooms doesn’t scare so much as haunt, and for a tale narrated in part by ghosts, it is remarkably full of life. Utterly captivating and electric, this richly atmospheric ghost story is excellent reading." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Oliver has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
People often ask me why I’ve chosen to write books for all age groups and in a variety of genres. I think my desire to do different things stems in part from the diversity of my reading. I’ve always been a kind of omnivorous reader, devouring fiction, nonfiction, narrative essays, short stories, books about science—you name it. The three books currently doing rotating duty on my bedside table are a great example.
Full disclosure: I picked up this book initially because I’ve been writing a book that takes place in part during the 1920s, and I am ashamed to admit it’s the first Bryson book I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’m sad I’ve waited so long. Woven together seamlessly are narrative strands about the seminal political, social and cultural events of an astounding year: Charles Lindbergh’s first flight, the Yankees’ record-shattering season, the advent of the “talkie” pictures and the floods that rocked the Mississippi Delta. America in 1927 was a country on the brink, and Bryson’s book practically vibrates with the energy of growth and distension, fracture and change.
One of my deepest pleasures is a great locked-door mystery. I’ve read all of Agatha Christie’s canon multiple times, delighting in the fact that since I can never remember what happens in any particular book, I can enjoy her work ad infinitum. When I discovered that A.A. Milne, of the beloved Winnie the Pooh series, had written a single work of armchair detective fiction, I had to have it. It does not disappoint. Secret passageways, English manors, decorative ponds and ne’er do well brothers—this book has it all.
A middle grade book that can easily be enjoyed by older audiences (a fact of which I am proof), The Glass Sentence is an immensely imaginative book about a world in which different continents have slipped into different eras. Its protagonist, Sophia, niece of a famous mapmaker, must go on a rescue mission after her uncle disappears, accompanied by a boy from an entirely different time. It’s an epic, expansive and marvelous story that reconceives the relationship between time and place and even invents new and fantastical ways of getting from Point A to Point B.
Thank you, Lauren! See any books you would like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Charles Grantham)