Do you remember life before the internet? Most of us still recall, if not vaguely, the days before our boredom could be instantly assuaged by cat videos. But what will in mean to future generations, when they truly do not remember a world without cellphones and the internet? In the very-near future, will there be such a thing as being alone? Michael Harris explores these questions in The End of Absence. Our reviewer writes: "Harris’ book is a sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing look at the relationships we have with the technology in our lives, as well as the human beings we know and love and increasingly view through the lens of our various technologies." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Harris has enjoyed reading, so we asked him to recommend three favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
I try to buy everything Anne Carson publishes; this obsession began a dozen years ago when I saw her read some poems at U.B.C. (She has this oracular way of speaking. . .) The writing itself is bracing and new in a way that always kicks my ass in the best possible way. Most recently, she published this little 44-page cahier called Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, which includes an essay about the complicating gaps (physical and metaphysical) that show up when we try to translate things. She drives her point home (hilariously and brilliantly) by delivering multiple translations of a poetic fragment from the Greek writer Ibykos: one translation uses only words found on London Underground signage, another only uses words found in her microwave’s manual. . . you get the idea. She’s weird and weirdly wonderful. Then again, if you haven’t discovered Anne Carson at all, you’ll want to begin with her heartbreaking (and more straight-forward) novel Autobiography of Red, which takes the tale of Hercules and Geryon (the red monster Hercules slays) and turns it into the oddest, most beautiful (and modernized) romance.
The French have always known that graphic novels are for grown-ups. Americans (and Canadians) are just starting to catch on. Myself, I’ve been tearing through realist work by Jillian Tamaki and Craig Thompson—beautiful writers both, but they left me hankering for a proper adventure story. So it was great to discover Delilah Dirk, a popcorn-on-the-couch tale that straddles adult and teenage markets. Delilah Dirk is a swashbuckler in the classic sense—cocky, lovable and deadly. But she’s also a decidedly female hero. She ransacks an early 19th century Turkey, confounding the male authorities that seek to imprison her. And, on a meta-level, she’s also ransacking a male-dominated genre, of course. The titular lieutenant, Selim, is her hapless sidekick, whom Cliff wisely keeps from becoming a love interest—or maybe he’s just holding off till book two comes out (in a year or so). It doesn’t hurt that Cliff is a masterful artist, too; the drawing is lush and propulsive (probably because the guy has a background in Vancouver’s bustling animation scene). A seriously special debut.
This one isn’t exactly new, but I keep coming back to it. A couple of years ago, I asked Douglas Coupland which technology writer I should read, and he immediately started rummaging through his shelves and thrust this book into my hands. I’m forever grateful for the introduction. Gleick is one of the smartest technology writers at work today and this hefty history traces the emergence of the Information Age all the way back to African talking drums (nothing like a little perspective). All the heroes of information theory and media studies are here, including Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, Samuel Morse and Ada Byron. Gleick makes their twisting, complicated work completely accessible without dumbing things down—and the book’s a joy to read, too. The thing is packed with fascinating anecdotes: there’s Napoleon’s announcement of his son’s birth across a country-wide network of “telegraphs,” which aren’t what you think; and then there’s the woman who tried to wire her son a plate of food. . . It’s the sort of book that’ll become a mandatory text once universities and high schools wise up and start creating more Critical Media Studies programs.
Thank you, Michael! Readers, do you think you'll be picking up any of his suggestions?
(Author photo by Hudson Hayden)
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)
John Bemelmans Marciano has had quite the varied career as an author. The grandson of the creator of Madeline, Marciano is known for his children's books, and now, he has written a book exploring why America never took a shine to the metric system. Whatever Happened to the Metric System? is an intriguing look into the history and ramifications of America's inability (or refusal) to adopt a more universal style of measurement. Our reviewer writes that the metric system might seem like "weighty stuff, but the gifted Marciano makes light work of it." (Read the full review here.)
Blood Brotherhoods: A History of Italy’s Three Mafias
By John Dickie
This is an epic update of Dickie’s earlier, excellent book on the history of the Sicilian Mafia, Cosa Nostra. This new volume encompasses all of southern Italy, bringing into account both the Neapolitan Camorra and the ferocious ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian organization recently discovered to be the worst—and most far-reaching—of all Italy’s criminal societies. Written with righteous and at-times feverish indignation, Dickie strips away all romanticism from the mafias and brings out their squalid truth. Happily, the British academic is able to do so with such verve and style that the text never feels like a lecture.
Through the Woods
By Emily Carroll
Carroll sparkled in her contribution to First Second’s brilliant anthology, Fairy Tale Comics. Her debut graphic novel is most definitely for adults, though it is not so much a novel as a collection of short stories. That said, these tales of gothic horror visited upon individuals in isolated places build upon one another, opening with the quiet danger of “Our Neighbor’s House” and reaching a crescendo in the gross-out conclusion of “The Nesting Place.” Carroll’s art is spare in palette and line, but her textured backgrounds shows a searching tendency to throw everything against the wall, adding to the aching beauty and tension of her work. Her text is similarly economical, ideal in its weight to the pictures and adding strong poetic accompaniment to the imagery. Carroll offers little explanation for what is going on, but by the end you feel like you have been on a most satisfying—and harrowing—sensory ride.
In the Land of Invented Languages
By Anita Okrent
Of all the books and articles I read in researching my latest book, Okrent’s was the guiltiest pleasure. The drive for creating a universal language came out of the same mentality and had many of the same supporters as those who succeeded in spreading the metric system and the gold standard. Okrent searches out the movement's obscure roots in the 17th century, hits its apogee with Volapuk and Esperanto, and brings the reader up to present day by placing herself at the scene of Klingon language conferences. Informative and funny—the two things I like best in my books.
Will you be picking up Whatever Happened to the Metric System or any of Marciano's suggested reads?
(Author photo by Andromache Chalfant)
A chain of names leads to a chain of murders in Timothy Hallinan's latest hardboiled mystery, Herbie's Game. When a list of names linking back to a burglary goes missing, people on the list start popping up dead. Professional crook and sometimes detective Junior Bender takes up the case, and soon discovers that his recently murdered mentor and father-figure might not be all he claimed to be. Our reviewer says of the book: "With complex characters, spicy dialogue, clever plot devices and a liberal dose of humor—as is always the case with Hallinan—Herbie’s Game is a fine read." (Read the full review here.)
Murakami is my favorite living novelist, and he has a new book coming out in a month or two, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, so I went back to his most recent book to get ready for the new one–sort of like a wind sprint in preparation for a race. Murakami is a dazzler and a magician: his books are as much cascades of imagination as they are conventionally organized stories. A young Tokyo woman caught up in a traffic jam abandons her taxi and climbs down a ladder leading from the elevated roadway into a new world— an urban rabbit-hole that ends in a Tokyo with two moons. Here a love affair with God only knows how much karma behind it takes place and events follow a kind of dream logic; a jazz-like riffing on themes of love and disappointment. I hope that doesn't make it sound too forbidding. Like all great magic, it's fascinating even when you don't know how it works.
Jade Lady Burning
By Martin Limon
Limon owns the impoverished world of Vietnam War-era Korea the same way James Lee Burke owns the Louisiana bayous. His Eighth Army investigator heroes, the sensitive Sueno and the combative Bascom---who's never seen a wall he isn't willing to walk through-- are (in my mind) among the great pairs in detective fiction. This, the first book in the series, sees the team pulled into the murder of a Korean prostitute, a crime no one, Korean or American, is eager to investigate. Limon nails two conflicting worlds: the U. S. Army with its rigid codes and knuckleheaded, cover-your-butt officers and occupied, pre-miracle Cold War Korea, a place marked by the truculence of an ancient society knuckling under to a new one. The New York Times named this one of their Best Books of 1992, and they got it right.
This is the most recent book by one of the world's funniest and most level-eyed writers. In this, her third novel, Amy Gallup, a reclusive writer whose moments of (relative) fame are safely behind her, takes a fall one day and hits her head against a birdbath. In a concussed state, she gives an interview to a hilariously earnest young reporter who sees profundity in everything Amy says and—voila!—Amy's on NPR and on her way to becoming America's most reluctant celebrity. Like all writers, I sit alone over a keyboard for months on end in a dark room like Howard Hughes (minus the Kleenex-box shoes) and am then hauled out for the performing-seal part of the job called “promotion,” so Amy's adventures on panels, etc. literally made me laugh till I cried. And Willett is a tough, one-of-a-kind piece of work, as you might expect from someone whose Facebook page is anchored by a photo of an adorable baby behind a sign that says PLEASE DO NOT KISS ME.
Thanks, Timothy! Will you be checking out any of the books on his list?
Deborah Harkness is a busy woman. A professor of history at the University of Southern California, Harkness somehow managed to write a bestselling trilogy in between classes. The enormously popular All Souls fantasy series comes to a close with the final installment, The Book of Life. In our interview with Harkness, our interviewer remarks that the trilogy is an "addictive blend of history, science, romance and fantasy that chronicles the complicated relationship between a witch named Diana Bishop and a vampire named Matthew de Clairmont." (Read the full interview here, and a few extra tidbits we couldn't fit into the print issue here.)
We were curious about the books Harkness has enjoyed reading, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve been so busy writing and teaching lately that I haven’t been able to do much reading for pleasure. So I’m going to have to fall back on three of my favorite books—books that I’ve read and re-read and can recommend with enthusiasm. They may not make a list of literary classics, but these are my desert island books. So long as I have these three books, I’d be perfectly occupied for years.
Gone With the Wind
By Margaret Mitchell
I first picked up Mitchell’s classic book because it was so thick I knew it would keep me busy for days. There was no library in town, and the Bookmobile only came once a week so you had to plan carefully. No matter how many times I read it, I still wonder how the book will end. It’s exactly the kind of character-driven storytelling that I most adore, with two unlikeable central characters and a huge supporting cast. If you’ve only seen the movie, read the book. It is a very different experience, I promise.
By Anya Seton
The true confessions continue. My mother recommended this book to me when I was a history-mad teenager. She had loved it and thought I would enjoy it, too. She was right. I absolutely adored the story of Katherine Swynford’s illicit relationship with one of the most powerful men in medieval England. Katherine is a smart, politically astute heroine who knows her limitations as well as her strengths. It’s a terrific read.
The Game of Kings
By Dorothy Dunnett
My undergraduate advisor suggested I read this—after I finished my honors thesis. She was right not to tell me about it before the thing was filed, or I wouldn’t have graduated. Dorothy Dunnett’s sprawling, epic Crawford of Lymond Chronicles (this if the first of six volumes) and its House of Niccolò prequels (eight volumes) kept me going through my first year of full-time employment and for many years after that. The Game of Kings is set in 16th century Scotland and is so well researched that I have been known to recommend parts of the trilogy to students who are confused about what happened at the Battle of Lepanto. Crawford of Lymond is another adoringly unlikeable main character, and the dialogue and plot move at a blistering pace. You will never keep all the twists and turns straight—don’t even try. Just settle in and enjoy the read.
Have you read any of Harkness' favorites?
(Author Photo by Scarlett Freund)
In Abroad, Katie Crouch's latest novel, things spiral out of control for a group of girls on their semester abroad. Freed from their parents' supervision and eager to redefine themselves amidst the beauty of Italy, the bad choices pile up and lead to horrible consequences. Our reviewer says that Abroad is "gorgeously written, with a steady drumbeat of dread infusing every page." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Crouch has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
I’m at the beach right now with my family. I rip through books when I’m here, mostly because every two minutes some child wants to bury me in sand, so I’ve got to move fast. I like a tasty plot, but the writing has to be excellent, or I pass it on to my mother. (No offense, Mom.) Also, the book can’t be too lengthy, because undoubtedly someone will drop my novel into a bucket if I have it for too long. Two-three days, that’s about how long I have with it. A short, furious affair.
The Painted Veil
By Somerset Maugham
This week I started with The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. It’s so wonderful and nasty. It’s 1925, and Kitty Garstin has married a lowly doctor because she’s twenty-five and running out of time. He takes her to Hong Kong, where she embarks on an affair that her husband soon discovers. Kitty is so wonderfully self-absorbed and silly. As they travel through China, her husband attempting to contain a cholera epidemic, she looks “unseeingly” at the presumably stunning landscape. The game changes once they get to the interior; but what I love about Kitty is that she transforms—but not enough to be unbelievable. And the setting is so seductive.
You Are One of Them
By Elliott Holt
This novel has become a bit of a cult hit among my friends. One of the main characters, Jennifer Jones, is based loosely on Samantha Smith, the young peace activist who wrote a letter to Yuri Andopov. She paid an official visit to the Kremlin in 1982, only to die in a plane crash in 1985. In the novel, our protagonist, Sarah, is best friends with Jennifer, and as Jennifer’s good fortune rises, so does Sarah’s jealousy. But then, in the middle, the book takes a wonderfully unexpected twist into intrigue and espionage. An unsettling, extremely satisfying read.
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill
This is a creepy ghost story that is just beautifully written and not too over-the-top in terms of horror. It’s reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw, but creepier. At the beginning, a young lawyer has been charged with going through the papers of a dead client in an old, spooky house. Naturally, he unearths horrible, deadly secrets. The novel is written in a Gothic style that was enough to give me nightmares. A wonderful lesson for writers in taking your time when exploring what might be behind that doorway down the dark hall.
Thanks, Katie! Will you be reading Abroad or any of the books on this list?
Author photo by Piro Patton.
In her tense new mystery, The Stranger You Know, Jane Casey poses a chilling question: How well do you really know the people that wander into your life? That's the dilemma Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan is faced with when she begins hunting down the elusive and sadistic killer stalking the streets of London. This task would be disturbing enough, but soon, the evidence begins to point toward the one man she would never suspect: her partner. It's a thrilling read, and it just might inspire you to take a closer look at that new co-worker. Our reviewer writes: "Casey expertly dangles the solution just out of Kerrigan’s reach, putting readers in the roles of the pursuer and the pursued until the final pages." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Casey has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
By Donna Tartt
This is a book I’ve waited twenty years to read. The Secret History was like a door that opened on new possibilities in crime writing and novel-writing in general, and I still feel a thrill of excitement when I reread it. I loved The Little Friend but The Goldfinch is a true successor to Tartt’s debut. The book is about a missing masterpiece, and in some ways it’s a crime novel, with gangsters and art thieves and blackmailers all pursuing the painting. Really, however, it’s an 800-page meditation on art, trust, love, grief and friendship, and it’s still a page-turner. Her ability to capture an atmosphere is second-to-none; her descriptions are ravishing and her characterization is delicately shaded but unforgettable. She brings the same intense scrutiny to bear on down-at-heel suburban Las Vegas as the antique-filled elegance of New York or the narrow streets of a wintry Amsterdam. I lived in this book, and I wouldn’t have minded if it had been twice as long.
By Daphne du Maurier
After The Goldfinch I needed to read something dark and brooding, with beautiful settings for ugly deeds. Du Maurier’s classic novel was the perfect choice. The second Mrs. de Winter comes to Manderley, her husband’s enormous country house by the sea, and discovers that her dead predecessor is still a presence there, refusing to be forgotten. The descriptions are vivid and the atmosphere appropriately stifling as the new bride is threatened and overwhelmed by her new role. There is nowhere for her to hide – no privacy with the house full of servants and no guidance from a husband who seems to expect her to pick up where Rebecca left off. The dark figure of Mrs. Danvers is like a shadow across the page, and du Maurier never goes too far with her; she’s threatening but always believable. As the dream-like haze of the first half dissipates and the reality of what happened to Rebecca intrudes ever more forcefully, the book becomes as accomplished a thriller as you will find.
Never Look Back
By Clare Donoghue
I don’t read crime novels when I’m writing one – I find it hard enough to keep track of my own plots without puzzling through other people’s twists and turns! When I finish a book I always have a huge stack of novels waiting for me. I try to keep up with new crime writing, especially debut authors. There’s nothing more exciting than finding a fresh new voice. Never Look Back is a London-set police procedural about a stalker who is hunting young women. For me, its strengths lie in the characterization, particularly Detective Inspector Mike Lockyer and his second-in-command, Detective Sergeant Jane Bennett. Lockyer has a troubled past, an autistic brother, concerns about his adolescent daughter and a whole host of other issues, but they never weigh down the plot. Bennett is more self-contained and I can’t wait to find out more about her.
What have you been reading lately?
(Author photo by Annie Armitage)
In Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse, machines turn on humans and threaten to annihilate mankind. The battle appears to have been won by the humans, but in the sequel, Robogenesis, it soon becomes clear that the war is far from over. As the survivors of the robot uprising begin to regroup, a greater threat assembles and looms on the horizon. Our reviewer writes, "As the stage resets for even bigger problems, Wilson’s imagination gains new heights." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Wilson has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
By Kenneth Calhoun
This is Calhoun’s debut novel, and I read it to prepare for an interview with the author on a local Portland show called Late Night Debut (put on by Literary Arts). But I really wanted to get my greedy mitts on Black Moon because I love the premise: What happens if one day, for no reason, nobody can sleep anymore? You can guess that the novel pretty quickly spirals off into dystopia. The plot is great, but I love that Calhoun has the perfect excuse to indulge in literary writing. Characters are not sleeping and so they begin hallucinating and dreaming while they’re awake. As a result, the prose becomes fractured and surreal. Black Moon has some very pretty writing without sacrificing the plot.
Writing Movies for Fun and Profit
By Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant
I picked up this book for two reasons: 1) I am hired to write screenplays occasionally, and 2) a long, long time ago the authors Tom Lennon and Ben Garant were hired by Paramount to write a screenplay based on my first book, How to Survive a Robot Uprising. They were surprisingly nice guys and the screenplay they wrote was hilarious. Alas, the movie wasn’t meant to be, but Tom and Ben are real working writers and they know about making movies. The most important lesson in this book, which they reinforce again and again because it is hard to swallow, (and I hope they don’t mind me paraphrasing) is that your number one job as a screenwriter is to eat shit and grin. Unlike writing a novel, screenwriting is a “people job” that involves juggling a lot of personalities. That means a lot of patience, compromise and shit-eating. Not a fun lesson, but it is may be the most important one to being a successful screenwriter.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
By Lawrence Wright
I don’t often get drunk and buy books online, but when I have it has always worked out. So, I guess I’m saying that I can’t recommend against it. I didn’t remember buying this book until it was delivered. Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard are not that interesting to me on their own, so I’m pretty sure I grabbed this book because I’m a fan of Jack Parsons – the guy who founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the blue-collar Jack who pioneered solid rocket fuel. I like Jack because he wasn’t as smart as his peers, but he still did great stuff – mostly fueled by passion. (Judge my personality from that as you will.) For a few years, L. Ron Hubbard lived with Parsons in a mansion slash sex club slash house of occult worship. Then, Hubbard took Parson’s wife and his yacht and sailed away. The brass balls on this guy! Reading about Hubbard’s absurd life is a revelation – it makes you realize how close to the mean most of us stick.
Thanks Daniel! What do you think readers? Will you be picking up Robogenesis or any of Wilson's reccomendations?
Author photo by Anna Camille
Lisa See is a master of historical fiction and the complexities of friendships between women, and these facts are on display in China Dolls. In her latest novel, See follows the lives of three very different women of Asian descent as they navigate 1930s San Francisco. Vowing lifelong friendship, the women find fame as dancers in The Forbidden Garden, a glamorous and exclusive nightclub. However, after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the friends must face racism and a betrayal that threatens to tear them apart. Our reviewer writes that China Dolls is "backed by meticulous research into the Chinese-American nightclub era, making her portrayal of this little-known period in history all the more memorable." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about what books See reads in her spare time, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
When I’m writing, I try to read within the subject of the current novel I’m working on or the one that will be next. I’m kind of superstitious this way. I don’t want someone else’s voice to seep into my own work even inadvertently. As a result, I only read for pleasure when I’m on vacation or have just finished a novel. When I was in China on a research trip recently, I brought Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being with me. I’m such a huge fan of her work! The main character—also named Ruth—is walking along the shore in British Columbia when she comes across a lunchbox hidden among the driftwood and seashells. Inside are letters, a notebook and other ephemera collected by Nao, a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Japan—and possible victim of the tsunami. The novel moves back and forth between Ruth and Nao, who somehow both manage to be wickedly funny, heartbreakingly pathetic and courageous all at the same time. And the story is so wide-ranging! Kamikaze pilots, quantum physics, anime, Zen Buddhism, with a little Proust thrown in for good measure.
The Prairie Trilogy
By Willia Cather
For another trip, I decided to bring along a classic: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I loved O Pioneers! so much that when I came home I looked up information on the life of Willa Cather and discovered that this book was the first in a series called The Prairie Trilogy. For my next trip, I read The Song of the Lark, the second book in the trilogy. These are devastatingly sad and sorrowful stories. They are also vividly American—with the beautiful yet cruel landscape, the precariousness of life on the untamed prairie, the unending heartache and heartbreak of love and the ways families fail us, save us, and push us into doing things far beyond our capacities. Summer vacation is coming, and I plan on finishing the trilogy by reading My Ántonia.
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
By Pu Songling
But as I said, in my day-to-day life I’m reading for “work.” For the last year or so, I’ve had Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling on my nightstand. Back in the 17th century, Pu Songling, a scholar who failed China’s imperial examinations fourteen times, spent the rest of his life roaming the country and collecting 500 eerie stories of ghosts, shape shifters, demons and vampires. He was writing down these strange but supposedly “true” stories literally centuries before Stephen King, Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. My favorites feature fox spirits—typically young women who take human form and then seduce and confuse young men. Sometimes entire households can succumb to “fox influence,” which usually means trouble but can also mean good fortune. Pu is a beautiful but spooky chronicler: “The wind sighs coldly outside and the chill on the table is like ice.” I read one or two of these stories a week when I go to bed, but I can’t say they’re much help in putting me to sleep!
What have you been reading recently, readers? Will you be picking up China Dolls or any of See's recommendations?
(Author photo by Patricia Williams)
In her new memoir, Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, Sarah Payne Stuart reflects on a life enmeshed in WASP culture. Despite fleeing the white-picket-fenced neighborhoods of her childhood as soon as she got the chance, Stuart later returns to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, to raise her family. In the course of Perfectly Miserable, Stuart comes to terms with her conflicting emotions about her family and hometown, as well as delving into the historical and not-so-perfect lives of other literary Concordian women. From our reviewer: "Stuart writes honestly and lovingly about her aging parents, her childhood, money, the trials of parenthood and keeping her marriage afloat. In other words, everything." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Stuart has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
First Love and Other Sorrows: Stories
Stories by Harold Brodkey
Whenever I reach for First Love and Other Sorrows, I find I have given it away once again in a rush of emotion. Last week I bought the book (for under $3) on my new Kindle because it was, as it is from time to time, shamefully out of print. The next day, my husband landed in the hospital (short term, all’s well), and I rushed over with my kindle. The last thing he felt like doing was reading, my husband said grumpily, but ok, leave him the Kindle, if it made me happy, though he didn’t even know how to work the thing. I didn’t really know how to work the thing either, but before I left that night I had called up “State of Grace,” Brodkey’s story about a disgruntled 13-year-old boy babysitting a 7-year-old boy who has had every benefit saving the only one that matters—the devotion of a parent. “He was a precocious and delicate little boy, quivering with the malaise of being unloved. When we played, his child’s heart would come into its own…” My husband prefers nonfiction books about Al Qaeda or the CIA, but nothing ventured, etc. When I returned to the hospital the next morning, I glanced over at the kindle, wondering if I could steal it back, only to have my husband say, “I don’t know what it is about that story, but I’m on to the next.” I, too, am at a loss to explain the power of this story collection. But trust me, you will take this book to your heart, only to give it away.
I’m not a fan of graphic novels (or put another way, I’ve never given them a chance). But I am a fan of Roz Chast, whose hilarious New Yorker cartoons come, clearly, from a deep place. I had no idea how deep until I was swept away by her new graphic memoir about her parents. How does one survive being brought up by a mean mother, who then must be cared for until she reaches an unrelenting 97? And why do mean mothers always live on and on and on? After Chast’s mother finally goes into hospice, she rebounds miraculously, as if even God is chary of being in her presence. “Where in the five stages of death is EAT A TUNA SANDWICH?” Chast writes. Sitting by her dying mother’s bed, Chast asks if she should stay or go. “It doesn’t matter,” her mother replies. Roz was an only child with no siblings to blunt the pain of an angry mother and a gentle, but weak father, who, despite loving his daughter, put his adored if unadoring wife first in every instance. “I had no nostalgia for the Carefree Days of Youth, because I never had them. . .” Chast writes. There is no nostalgia in this book and yet, in the hilarity and richness of its yearning, it is sweet.
The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Palliser Novels
By Anthony Trollope
When life gets complicated, I slather jam on toast and reach for Trollope. Trollope’s romping novels about love, class and politics in Victorian England always make me happy. Great, funny books that end happily? Not enough can be said about the strength of that. And unlike Dickens, Trollope really gets women. Though Trollope wrote 44 novels (before going to work!), the twelve interrelated novels in The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Palliser series are by far his best. College survey courses often kill one’s appetite for Trollope by assigning The Warden, the first in the Barsetshire series and his driest book, assigned because, I suppose, it is one of his shortest. My suggestion is start with Barchester Towers, the second book, and go straight through the series. After that, read straight through the Palliser novels. Then re-read them all (this time, you’ll want to include The Warden) at your leisure––until the day you die. I always have a Trollope going on the side: on my kindle or under three books on my bedside or in the side pocket of my overnight bag protected (hopefully) from the toothpaste. Who can forget the termagant Mrs. Proudie ruling her Bishop husband by burning his toast whenever he dares to disagree? Or the beautiful, so earnestly in-the-wrong heroine of Can You Forgive Her? Has there ever been a better title than that?
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading Perfectly Miserable or checking out any of Stuart's recommended books?
(Author photo by Nina Subin)