Chris Belden's satirical novel Shriver is about a man who, after being mistaken for the elusive, genius author Shriver, gets swept into the world of narcissistic, pretentious authors and their devoted fans. Our reviewer says, "The wacky cast of characters, inane situations and a whodunit subplot brings to mind the 1980s cult classic movie Clue. At every turn in the satirical story, someone who could unmask our protagonist lurks. . . Shriver’s fear of being outed as an impostor rings true for any writer—wannabe or bona fide—who’s ever doubted their abilities." (Read the full review.)
We asked Belden to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
I’m in the middle of writing what I call a “neurotic mystery,” and I wanted to go back to the master for a shot of hard-boiled prose. I’m glad I did because I’d forgotten how hilarious Chandler can be. He describes a police official as “a cold-eyed, hatchet-faced man, as lean as a rake and as hard as the manager of a loan office.” Here he is on a two-bit crook: “Hair like steel wool grew far back on his head and gave him a great deal of domed brown forehead that might at a careless glance have seemed a dwelling place for brains.” He’s also great at action: “He shot at me like a plane from a catapult, reaching for my knees in a diving tackle.” But the big lesson I take from Chandler is that the mystery plot is just an excuse to let private eye Philip Marlowe observe and comment, in his unique voice, on humanity’s foibles. Even Chandler wasn’t sure about certain plot points—when director Howard Hawks called to ask who killed off a particular character, Chandler reportedly confessed that he didn’t know.
The Listener by Rachel Basch
I like to write scenes with therapists (see my first novel, Carry-on, as well as my neurotic mystery) so I was especially excited to read The Listener, which is about a shrink who is counseling a male college student who identifies as female. In the wonderful opening scene, an especially anxious new female patient suddenly rips off her wig in the middle of a session and—voila—she’s a he! The rest of the novel toggles back forth between the therapist and the patient, both of whom are learning to deal with life’s unpredictable developments. Maybe because I’ve been in therapy for about a million years, I find this stuff absolutely fascinating. With all that’s going on in the world about transgender issues (Caitlin Jenner, Transparent, etc.), this novel should be making some waves. It should be making waves, anyway, because it’s so beautifully written.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Lerner’s more recent novel, 10:04, might be even better than this one, but Leaving the Atocha Station was my introduction to his work and thus had a greater impact on me. The whole fiction vs. nonfiction thing is really interesting, and both novels blur the line in a way that excites me as a writer. Leaving the Atocha Station is narrated by an American poet in Spain on a fellowship (Lerner spent time in Spain on a Fulbright Scholarship). The novel is an episodic chronicle of his misadventures there, and includes photographs and cerebral meditations on such topics as the turbulence of Spanish politics and the art of translation. But most of all, the novel is hilarious, never more so than when the poet tells a young woman his perfectly healthy mother is dead, which of course leads to all sorts of complications. The narrator’s struggles with the Spanish language are hysterically rendered, and there’s a long transcript of an instant messaging session that perfectly captures the awkward stop-and-start of this kind of modern communication.
Thank you Chris!
How much is too much when it comes to helping others? Larissa MacFarquhar examines the extremities of altruism in her fascinating book, Strangers Drowning. Our reviewer writes, "New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar quite brilliantly focuses on [. . .] individuals she calls “do-gooders” in her thoughtful and wide-ranging Strangers Drowning." (Read the review.)
We asked MacFarquhar to tell us about three books she's been reading lately.
Uncollected Stories by William Faulkner
Thinking about a writing class I’m teaching next year, I’ve been remembering a great gift a writing teacher once gave me. He handed out a story and told us students to critique it. It was dreadful, but we thought it might be by someone in the class, so we hesitated. He assured us it wasn’t, so we shredded it. Afterwards, he said, “That was by William Faulkner, aged 26.” We were astounded, and I’ve always remembered that as proof that there is hope! Now I want to give my students the same gift, so I’m reading through Faulkner’s Uncollected Stories in the hope of finding that inspiringly terrible one, but I haven’t yet. Unfortunately so far they’re all pretty good.
Profiles by Kenneth Tynan
With this same writing syllabus as an excuse, I’m indulging myself by re-reading some of my favorite profiles by Kenneth Tynan, a marvelous English theater critic who died young in 1980. His early writing has a kind of Noel Coward vim to it and is dizzyingly baroque—six adjectives to every noun, it seems, and he never uses one metaphor when three will do. He’s not for everyone, but I find him bracing not only because he’s funny but also because he works so hard: there’s never a lazy, literal description, no sentences that merely get you from A to B, and every phrase is polished till it glitters.
My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Like a lot of people, I’ve been addicted recently to Knausgaard’s memoirish six-novel series, My Struggle, and now I’m onto the third volume. I admire his harsh, humiliating honesty, and I love the moments of beauty so ecstatic they feel almost unhinged. But I’m also enjoying the books for nonliterary reasons: Knausgaard was born the same year I was, and even though he grew up in rural Norway and I grew up in London, he listened to the same music as a kid, and something about the texture of childhood in the ’70s and ’80s as he describes it feels deeply familiar.
Thank you, Larissa!
In Parnaz Foroutan's debut novel, The Girl from the Garden, an elderly woman ambles through her garden, remembering her youth in Iran at the turn of the 20th century. Our reviewer writes, "Though the reader gets a taste of what the Iranian Jewish community was like, this is really a novel about the culture of women, from the ritual baths and other religious traditions to the gardens and distinctly gendered spaces of the home." (Read the full review.)
We asked Foroutan to tell us about three books she's been reading.
City by Alessandro Baricco
Baricco is a master storyteller, and this book is perhaps the modern day—and more playful version—of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. The story is about a young boy who is a child genius, his caretaker and their adventures. Baricco weaves in and out of this boy’s psyche with such ease and grace. He completely ignores the notion that an author has to hold the reader’s hand and walk them gently through the chronological steps of a story in some sort of simplistic manner, and he just dances in and out of time and thought and sequence. Magnificent. A beautiful story; writing that is utterly poetic. A style that is unique, complex, brilliant.
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Another fantastic approach to constructing narrative, Harding writes about the moment before a man’s death and the story of that man’s father’s life as a traveling peddler. The reader shifts between a classic narrative style, which Harding uses to tell the peddler’s story, and a more innovative narrative approach, describing the delusions, memories and dreamscapes of a man on his deathbed. What expert weaving of stories and what courage to tell it, thusly. And I am in utter awe of Harding’s ability to write. There is a passage in the book where Harding describes the wood of a porch, and that description is so vivid, so beautifully wrought, that it moved me to tears. I tell you, if a writer can move you to tears by describing a porch, you know you’ve got the real thing in your hands.
The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis
De Robertis is a brave, brave writer. It is the first time I’ve read a story that explores so courageously the ideas of gender and sexual identity. The book is about a woman in the early parts of the 20th century who immigrates to Argentina and dresses as a man in order to participate as a violinist in the underground world of the tango. De Robertis is a powerful storyteller, and this topic is so timely. I can see this author blazing a trail, so to speak, and opening the sanctimonious Canon of American Literature to these historically silenced voices.
Thank you, Parnaz! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Debbie Formoso)
After a health scare, Alex Sheshunoff decided that it was time for a radical change. So he left his old life behind and set out in search of true paradise, a search he recounts in A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise. Our reviewer writes, "A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise is extraordinarily entertaining, one part guidebook to two parts love story. This heartfelt account reveals what can happen when you leave everything behind—and find more than you ever hoped for." (Read the review.)
We asked Sheshunoff to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradel
I loved this book. Funny and spare and character driven, this lovely debut novel made me appreciate everything from the culture of food (of the Midwest, even) to the unreliable assessments we make of those closest to us (our parents, even). Most of all, though, I was struck by Stradel’s writing. His similes—or is it metaphors?—stayed with me long after I’d finished the book. Among my favorites: “Cousin Randy was an untouchable demigod—an angel’s wing broken from an ancient statue, sent here to help her hover above all things insipid and heartbreaking.” Most aren’t nearly as heavy. For example: “He […] went on dates about as often as a vegetarian restaurant opened near an interstate highway.”
I haven’t seen the movie, but I do find myself often rereading this hilarious book about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Bryson was a British copy editor for years before writing his first book, and it shows in his control of the language. For example, describing a bunk bed in a hostel along the trail, he looks up and writes, “If the mattress stains were anything to go by, a previous user had not so much suffered from incontinence as rejoiced in it.” Funny stuff. At least to me.
Ants by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler
My 8-year-old and I are slowly making our way through this seven-pound, 732-page book about, well, ants. It’s been really fun for him (and me) to go beyond volcanoes and dinosaurs and see just how deep and rich science can be. Who knew, for example, that monogamous ants have 75 percent female offspring whereas polygamous ants have almost 75 percent male offspring? I didn’t. Oh sure, you’re probably thinking, A 500 page book about ants, that’d be reasonable, but do you really need those extra 232 pages? The short answer? Yes! Otherwise, you’d miss the 63-page bibliography. And that colonies of Eciton burchelli, an army ant found on an island in Panama, migrate between bushes by constructing thick chains of ants—formed by the interlocking of mandibles—that subsequent ants use for transportation. OK, Ants could probably still honor its incredible subject with a few fewer pages, but not many!
Our September Nonfiction Top Pick, Once in a Great City by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss, is a fascinating look at Detroit in its golden days. Our reviewer writes, "David Maraniss didn’t set out to write a ghost story, but Once in a Great City, his glimmering portrait of Detroit, has a lingering, melancholy quality that will leave the reader thoroughly haunted." (Read the review.)
We asked Maraniss to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This was a book that reached me on many levels. First, the young blind girl was one of the most touching and unforgettable characters I've encountered in fiction in many years. Second, the way the stories were fitted together stunned me. And third, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful and precise use of language.
I Will Have Vengeance and other Commissario Ricciardi detective novels by Maurizio de Giovanni
No book seemed more relevant to the issues of this year than this illuminating biography of one of America's forgotten heroes, the Jackie Robinson of the Southeastern Conference, a brilliant student and quietly powerful force who endured the worst of human indignities and paved the way for thousands of African American athletes to follow.
Thank you, David!
(Author photo by Lucian Perkins)
Lauren Groff's new novel, Fates and Furies, follows the beautiful love story of a couple—and the vicious dissolution of their marriage. Our reviewer writes, "Groff’s writing is intelligent, knowing and deliciously sexy." (Read the review.)
We asked Groff to tell us about three books she's read recently.
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
It’s summertime, which means I need to flee Florida because excessive heat does bad things to my psyche. I found cheap tickets to France, and for the past three weeks, I have installed my two little boys and myself in a series of Airbnb apartments in Paris and Normandy. I had the idea that my sons would pick up French as easily as they breathe, but beyond the ability to order any cake they want from any boulangerie, they're proving resistant. There's an animated version of Le Petit Prince in movie theaters, and I love the book excessively, so I bought it at a Fnac store and have been reading it to the boys, first in French, then in a spontaneous, slightly awkward English translation afterwards, in the hope that they'll at least pick up a few words. It's as beautiful as I remember it.
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
I get lots of books to blurb, and wish I could respond lovingly and fully to every single one, but my time is so tight that I can't seem to get to more than one or two a season. That said, I brought a few with me to France, and I didn't sleep on the plane because I was so entranced by this beautifully written, exciting, atmospheric book; it's political, but in a human and empathetic way. Jonathan Lee is such an economical, sensitive writer that I think we're going to hear quite a lot about him in the future. This book comes out in the U.S. in March 2016.
L'histoire du pied et autres fantaisies by J.M. Le Clézio
At the edge of this tiny fisherman's village in Normandy where we're living, with its single baker and butcher and church and vast white cliffs, is a beach of fist-sized stones. Perched like a seagull between the beach and the Casino is a little white free library where my boys and I spend hours every day in the cold wind, reading Tintin and Guy de Maupassant and children's books, which I sometimes have to scramble back into English. One day I accidentally stole L'histoire du pied when I was rushing a child somewhere, and read the stories from the Nobel Prize winner all night long; they are brilliant, very different, very strange. They are mostly about African women, and all are extremely sensitive and beautiful. Yes, I gave the book back the next day. And yes, I wish I'd kept it.
Thank you, Lauren!
(Author photo by Megan Brown)
Take a cross-country road trip with the father of pop art in Deborah Davis' The Trip. Our reviewer writes, "In Deborah Davis’ impressive recounting of this adventure, The Trip, Warhol’s experiences mark the turning point in his life between “Raggedy Andy” Warhola, a small-town kid from Pittsburgh, and Andy Warhol, filmmaker and pop art impresario." (Read the full review.)
We asked Davis to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
Readers and reviewers alike use one word, “unputdownable” (and I’m not even sure it’s a word), when describing I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes’ best-selling suspense thriller. I tore through this spellbinder so quickly and so compulsively that I was actually sneaking reads on my iPhone when I was supposed to be otherwise engaged. In addition to delivering a smart, inventive and involving story, this book offers a kaleidoscopic vision of global politics in the tense and terrifying world we occupy today.
China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
The sensational sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan’s China Rich Girlfriend is a 24-karat exploration of money, mores and extreme affluenza in modern-day Asia. But Kwan delivers more than a panoramic portrait of fabulous excess (The clothes! The jewels! The cars! The homes!), and in the tradition of the very best social observers, he wisely reminds us of what’s truly important underneath all those intoxicating frills. His heart is always in the right place, yet he never denies us the thrill of our favorite new spectator sport: watching the crazy rich spend crazy amounts of money in crazy new ways.
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian is a classic shipwreck story with a very clever twist. This new millennium castaway has been abandoned in outer space, on the notoriously inhospitable planet Mars. I’m not a big science fiction fan, but Weir creates a completely credible “what-if” world, with a charismatic hero at its oxygen-less center. Time is astronaut Mark Watney’s enemy, as he confronts new and seemingly insurmountable obstacles every day. But our unlikely hero’s wit, intelligence, ingenuity and irresistible boy-next-door personality (although in this case, “next-door” is an angry red planet) have us hanging on his every action, rooting for his survival. Read it before the Matt Damon movie comes out in the fall!
Thank you, Deborah! See anything you think you'd enjoy, readers?
(Author photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)
If you couldn't tell from her impressive author photo, Cara Nicoletti is a butcher, but she also loves literature. She combines her passion for food with her love of reading in Voracious, a collection of essays inspired by eating, reading and the delightful combination of the two.
Here, Nicoletti tells us about three books she loves.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
I’m a huge fan of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but for some reason, I had never picked up any of her other novels until this summer, when a friend recommended Jamaica Inn to me. The book has all the creepy intrigue and romance that I crave in a summer read, and the writing is fantastic, which can’t always be said for spooky, romantic thrillers.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I’ve been unable to put Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy down since this past spring, when I was given My Brilliant Friend as a gift. The series follows the lives of two women, Elena and Lila, through their childhood in Italy up into adulthood, and is one of the most complicated and realistic portraits of female friendship I have ever encountered.
Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis
I love reading short stories and essays in the summertime—I find that my attention span is much shorter when I’m hot. Lydia Davis has long been one of my favorite short story writers, and I’m really enjoying Can’t and Won’t: Stories, which came out last spring but I’m only just getting to now.
Thank you, Cara! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
In Born on the Bayou, Blaine Lourd looks back on a childhood spent deep in the humid marshes of Louisiana. Our reviewer writes, "A dazzling storyteller, Lourd so skillfully describes the hazards of growing up in the bayou with a larger-than-life father that we can’t help but read with wonder that he survived his upbringing and lived to tell these tales." (Read the full review.)
We asked Lourd to share three of his favorite books with us.
Many great books kept me company during the several years I worked on my new memoir, Born on the Bayou. Southern writers—Faulkner, Welty, Warren and Harper Lee—provided inspiration in the strong sense of place they evoked. Entering a writer’s world is such a gift, made possible only by one’s true talent of moving mountains on a page—and the writers above demonstrate that talent again and again. But I also read and would recommend a few other books that have moved me over the years . . .
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast is a book that I, perhaps like many writers, re-read from time to time. Hemingway, nearing death, reached deep one last time into his well of incomparable artistry to deliver this memoir of a time long lost to him—his youth in Paris. The intimately conversational quality of this work is the kind of tone a writer working on a memoir should read again and again, I think.
In God’s House by Ray Mouton
In God’s House is a life-like fictionalization of an important historical event—the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandal. Writing a fast-paced, character-driven narrative, Mouton’s authentic Southern voice delivers a suspenseful tale of tragically flawed characters unfolding in a twisting, dark plot that ultimately shatters the great institutions of Rome.
Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Self-Reliance is one of the books I keep on my desk in Lake Bruin, Louisiana, and in my office in Beverly Hills. Although aspects of Emerson’s style might seem archaic or outdated to some modern readers, upon closer inspection it’s also evident that no word is ever wasted, and that he had a measured elegance that remains unmatched. "But the soul that ascends is plain and true; has no rose color, no fine friends, no chivalry, no adventures, does not want admiration; dwells in the hour that now is, in the earnest experience of the common day,—by reason of the present moment and the mere trifle having become porous to thought, and bibulous of the sea of light. "
Emerson always said, “Insist on yourself, never imitate”—some of the best advice a writer, or any person, can ever follow.
Thank you, Blaine! See any favorites on the list, readers?
(Author photo Gene Fama)
Two Across by debut novelist Jeff Bartsch is the story of two spelling bee champions connecting over words and, of course, a sham wedding. Our reviewer writes, "As Bartsch unravels Stanley’s charades and how they affect people around him, he weaves in enough crossword clues to keep any puzzle fans curious." (Read the full review.)
We asked Bartsch to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
I’ve been a fan of Gary Shteyngart since his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. He’s a hilarious writer with a very inviting—I would even say gregarious—style, as if you’re in conversation with him rather than reading a book. It’s clear from his novels that the life he’s lived has given him a rich perspective, so I was eager to read his memoir the moment it came out. It is indeed an interesting journey he’s been on, and he describes it so well. His self-deprecation and wit are awesome to behold, and there’s something very life-affirming about his quest for happiness amid this mess that is life. From his Russian childhood through his struggles to assimilate in Queens, then at Stuyvesant High School and again at Oberlin, his funny yet touching take on his life reminds us that we’re all always striving to fit in, in one way or another. Read this book, but read his novels first.
I had read and enjoyed Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s 2001 novel Gould’s Book of Fish, and for some reason I felt like I was the only one on the planet who read it. It’s a very unusual book and I thought the writing was excellent, but I think my opinion of it was tainted, strangely enough, by the exuberance of its design: it was printed with purple ink on colored paper and bound in a narrow format. It left me with the lingering notion that the book seemed a bit light. So I was surprised to see that his latest novel won the Booker Prize. My initial impression of his writing was confirmed by this brilliant book. The story moves back and forth between the protagonist’s present and his past as a POW in a Japanese WWII prison camp. This back and forth can feel a bit ragged at times, but that was the only negative for me. His writing is beautiful, smart and original. He conveys emotion with subtlety and honesty. If you can handle a story that’s rather dark, I highly recommend this master craftsman’s work.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Whenever I’m working on a writing project, I keep a book in the rotation that reminds me what the human imagination is capable of, something that makes me feel both humble and inspired. Calvino’s work is one of those sources of spiritual refreshment. I’m making my way through this mind-blowing creation for the third time, like a starving man at a gourmet-food tasting. The book is composed of short vignettes, some only a page, each a wonderful little appetizer describing in gorgeous prose a city of fantasy, a city whose design speaks to an aspect of the human condition. I’m a lover of lists, and Calvino is a genius list maker, layering traits upon his cities that make a reader gasp at the strength of his descriptive abilities. Like all his work, it’s a highly conceptual book with flawless execution—a treat to savor.
Thank you, Jeff! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo Jon Davis)