As a copy editor at The New Yorker, a bastion of grammar perfection, Mary Norris knows a thing or two about the oddities of the English language. In her memoir, Between You & Me, Norris mixes grammar tales with personal stories, and the result is fascinating. Our reviewer writes, "While Norris may have a job as a “comma queen,” readers of Between You & Me will find that “prose goddess” is perhaps a more apt description of this delightful writer." (Read the full review.)
We asked Norris to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
When I had finished my book about grammar and usage and copy editing at The New Yorker, and was free to read about other things, I poked around on my shelves for books that I had been saving as a reward for good behavior. Here are three that I especially enjoyed.
Frank Delaney, an Irishman transplanted to Connecticut, uses his boyhood fascination with ships and the sea to extol Kurt Carlsen, the real-life captain of the Flying Enterprise. Soon after leaving Germany, in December of 1951, the ship gets hit by a rogue wave and cracks, then gets hit by a second rogue wave and lists precariously. Carlsen does everything in his power to bring passengers and cargo to safety. I read this while commuting to work on a ferry and soaked up all things nautical: the etymology of the word knot, the strategy of the ship’s owners, and sailors’ superstitions about renaming a ship (don’t do it!) and leaving port on a Friday.
One might think that after revisiting The Elements of Style while writing a book about writing, I would want to take a break from E. B. White, but this book made me fall in love with him all over. Elwyn (En) White had an old-fashioned patrician upbringing in Mount Vernon, New York, and spent summers at a lake in Maine. (His parents gave him his own canoe.) His early interest in nature informed Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. In addition to all the influences and arachnid research that went into Charlotte’s Web, Sims includes gossip about White’s editors and publishers and about children’s librarians.
One of the things I have always loved about journalist John McPhee’s writing is the way he keeps himself out of it. This study of his work and life made me feel like a stalker. McPhee is from Princeton, New Jersey (where he still lives). His upbringing and education and the summer camp he spent time at all inform his work. He once wrote a novel! Pearson organizes his critical remarks around McPhee’s own topics, from Bill Bradley to physics and geology, and analyzes the techniques through which he raised journalism to an art. I was heartened to see that after Oranges and The Pine Barrens I still have plenty of McPhee to read, and beguiled by the realization that some of my favorite writers—White, McPhee, Thoreau—started out in canoes. Did paddling canoes make them better writers? If I tried it, would I capsize?
Thank you, Mary! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
Award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang explores perceptions of time, tragedy and the human experience in her latest collection, The Last Two Seconds. Our reviewer writes that this collection "demonstrates Bang’s rare gift as a writer: her uncommon capacity to shake and awaken us." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Bang to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
This is the third part of a six-part autobiographical novel by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard in which a character named Karl Ove recounts in mesmerizing detail how he navigated the vicissitudes of growing up, leaving home, marrying twice, having children and becoming a writer. I read Volume II because I loved Volume I and read Volume III because I liked Volume II. Volume III is, unfortunately, limited to Karl Ove’s early childhood. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make years one to 14 of a life interesting to a reader—especially if an author insists on including the names of every playmate and the locations of their houses. Whatever drama is in Volume III comes from the narrator’s experience of having a mercurially abusive father. The boy’s horror of the father is just enough to keep the story moving, especially if you have read I and II and know there’s karmic justice in store. Volume IV will be published soon, and it will be interesting to see how that volume measures up against the pleasure of the first two volumes. Volume I is nothing short of amazing. Read that and then you may feel, as I have felt, compelled to read the others.
Suspended Sentences consists of three novellas written between 1988 and 1993. This book was my—and many other American’s—first introduction to Modiano following his 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Like Knausgaard, Modiano uses a steady stream of minor but precise quotidian detail, including place names and secondary characters, to create both the narrating character’s interiority and an atmospheric sense of place. In the work of both, there’s a muted undercurrent of suspense. The suspense in Modiano’s novellas rests not on what happens in the narrator’s life as much as what happened to others who lived and died before the narrator became an adult, namely those who suffered through the Vichy years in France. The menace is far greater in Modiano and also less easy to identify. The Occupation years are long gone in the Paris of these stories, and yet, what can’t be reclaimed can't be vanquished. While the engine that drives Knausgaard’s books forward is personal memory, in Modiano, it is memory inhabited by history. Or history inhabited by memory. The two constructs, once they marry, are impossible to tease apart and haunt every aspect of the present.
Dora Bruder, also by Modiano, was first published in France in 1997. The Occupation of Paris under the Nazis (a geographical placeholder for the massive destruction of the Holocaust) is again the theme. The subject is a 15-year-old girl, the eponymous Dora, whose disappearance comes to the narrator’s attention in 1981 when he happens upon a “missing” notice in the personal ads of a December 31, 1941, Paris Soir. Using archives, and eventually interviews with a few remaining family members, he documents the facts of Dora’s short life, obsessively tracing her lifeline back to before she was born—documenting her parents’ lives: where they lived, met and may have worked—and forward to that moment in September 1942, when both Dora and her father are placed on a train bound for Auschwitz. The thread at that point is lost, which only confirms the tragic outcome. The narrator’s own father, who abandoned him and his mother and brother when the narrator was quite young, just missed, possibly because of Gestapo connections related to extra-legal activities, being sent on a similar transport. The narrator’s early losses become entangled with the loss of this girl who goes missing not just once, but twice: first when she runs away from a strict Catholic boarding school (which gives rise to the newspaper advert) and again once she boards the train headed for the death camp. The narrator, who lives with an ineradicable sense of bereavement, finds in Dora an object for his grief. For readers, the story of an unremarkable, and only slightly rebellious, teenager brings home the crude randomness of the destruction suffered by many and refreshes our sense of bewilderment.
Thank you, Mary Jo! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Kellie Spano)
Hannah Nordhaus explores her family's history and its fabled connection to a restless spirit in American Ghost. Our reviewer writes that while she focuses on history, "inevitably, Nordhaus’ journey really is a search for self, and we are privileged to be able to accompany her." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Nordhaus to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
I discovered Mary Doria Russell’s books recently, and frankly, I’m furious that I haven’t been reading her longer. Russell is most famous for The Sparrow, a science-fiction tale of alien first contact that is so much more than that. She knows how to tell a story in striking language, and she also knows how to make us think. Epitaph is a follow-up to her 2011 novel, Doc, which traced the paths of the true-life Western icons Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp through the duo’s time in Dodge City, Kansas. Epitaph takes up where Doc left off, following their trail—and that of Wyatt Earp’s common-law, Jewish wife, Josephine Marcus—to Tombstone, Arizona, in the days leading up to the famous OK Corral shootout. Yes, there are guns and cowboys and horses aplenty, but this is no stock shoot-em-up Western; it’s a majestically wrought, intricately detailed, thoughtful, surprising and provocative examination of memory, heroism, character and mythology in the 19th-century West.
I recently stumbled upon Kent Haruf’s most celebrated novel on the remainder table at my local bookstore, which just seems wrong. He’s the iconic writer of the Colorado plains and my state’s finest literary product—and yet I had never read his work. A few weeks later, I learned that Haruf had died. I fished the book from the stack on my bedside table and read it through. And then I read it again. Every word matters in that book; Haruf’s language is taut and carefully considered, the story so lovely, the characters so human and flawed all at once, that you want to hold them close long after the book has ended. In Haruf’s hands, the flat and seemingly unexceptional lives of his characters are, like the furrowed grasslands in which they live, transformed into something wondrous. I live at the intersection of mountains and Haruf’s immense and exacting prairie. It extends far beyond what the eye can see. Now, when I look east, I look to Haruf.
I’ve recently developed a fixation on the Spanish Inquisition, and I decided it was time, finally, to read that era’s most famous piece of literature. The critic Harold Bloom has called Don Quixote the first modern novel—and it’s modern all right. One might even describe it as postmodern: The book is ironic, intertextual, meta-fictional and deeply weird. There’s tilting at windmills, yes, and blood-drenched beatings, burning books, horse-on-pony sexual assault, serial vomiting, cruelty, burlesque and all manner of lunacy. I have used the word “quixotic” often in my writing; only now do I realize that I have been using it wrong. Don Quixote may be lovable, mostly, but he’s no impractical idealist; in my opinion, he’s downright demented.
Thank you, Hannah! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Casie Zalud)
James Hannaham's bold debut novel and our March Fiction Top Pick, Delicious Foods, centers on a mother's search for her son as she struggles with grief, addiction and the diabolical business of Delicious Foods Farm. Our reviewer writes, "Few novels leap off the page as this one does. Delicious Foods is a cri de coeur from a very talented and engaging writer." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Hannaham to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately, and he graciously agreed to share.
Last year, indie publisher The Dalkey Archive released the first 14 of a planned 25 translations of modern Korean works of fiction. And if you think K-Pop, bibimbap, and Kias are all that nation has to offer, the books that have appeared so far are already revelatory. No One Writes Back exemplifies a lot of what’s terrific about Dalkey's Library of Korean Literature: It’s ostensibly the story of a man compelled by a family tragedy (unnamed until late in the novel) to wander purposelessly, accompanied by his aging and blind dog, Wajo, sending letters to everyone he meets. But the story isn’t as thin as it seems; Jang deftly illuminates the alienated tone of our times through the hero and his animal companion, balancing hipness and heartbreak.
When I visit a new place for the first time, I sometimes read a well-known novel set there, hoping it will deepen the experience culturally, perhaps emotionally. My partner and I visited Cartagena, Colombia, recently, so I chose this one, which is supposedly based on his parents’ relationship. Gabo, as they call Marquez there, was on my mind after he died last year, and I’d already read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabo never mentions the old city of Cartagena by name in his mordant and ironic, yet intensely romantic, tale. But as I meandered, entranced, through the gorgeously well preserved, 16th-century walled city on the Caribbean coast, with its belated Christmas decorations still glittering everywhere, it was unmistakable. I sometimes felt as if I had opened the book instead of going for a walk.
Almost like a black remake of Jennifer Egan’s first novel, The Invisible Circus, Bridgett Davis’ Into the Go-Slow is also a story about a young woman who idolizes an older sister who perished in a foreign country and decides to re-trace the older woman’s steps. In Egan’s case, the protagonist travels from San Francisco to Italy; Davis’ heroine, Angie, flees a dead-end life in Detroit to follow her late sister's adventures in Lagos, Nigeria. As she learns shocking new details about her sister, she begins to discover herself, Africa and how different the realities of these things are from everything she expected. Davis makes all these moves feel fresh and almost effortless in this wonderfully engrossing book.
Thank you, James! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Ian Douglas)
In Jill Ciment's Act of God, things begin to fall apart for four women, as well as the entire city of New York, when a dangerous mold takes over. But Act of God goes far deeper than a typical bio-suspense novel. As our reviewer writes, "Ciment has pulled off an admirable literary feat, creating a novel that moves at the speed of light, all the while urging us to pause and look inward." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Ciment to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately, and she graciously agreed to share.
This novel, recently reissued by New York Book Classics, follows the life of William Stoner, an everyman. Stoner might have become a farmer as his parents had, but in college, studying agriculture, his life is diverted by literature. One of the great gifts of this novel is watching a mind come awake and then alive. What I most admired is the novel's tempo—slow, precise, correct and private—a life lived before contemporary media.
This book, by one of the great memoirists, explores the transformative power of art. As an alumni of Cal Arts, where much of the memoir is set, I was enraptured by the way Cooper captures the fearlessness and rapture of falling in love with the avant-garde.
This fascinating study of Ted Bundy is more than a recreation and delineation of a monster. Rule knew Bundy personally: she worked beside him on a crisis hotline for eighteen months and continued her friendship with him for the remainder of his life. What makes this true crime book exceptional is that it is an exploration of denial: Rule, an expert in all matters of crime, misses what is beside her.
Thanks, Jill! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Arnold Mesches)
Lili Anolik's Dark Rooms is an impressive, taut debut following Grace, a young woman with an unsettling suspicion that her sister's murder has not truly been solved. Our reviewer writes, "With complex characters and a multilayered narrative, it can be hard at times to know whom to root for; thankfully it’s equally difficult to put this stunning debut down." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Anolik to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately, and she graciously agreed to share.
I love a mystery more than I love just about anything. I find the genre irresistible, just totally seductive and compelling and can’t-get-enough. For me, when something is unknown or unresolved, it has a tremendous pull to it. And finding out can become this fanatical thing, this impulse that you have no control over, that controls you. One of the best mysteries I’ve read recently is Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source. It’s about a young guy, Ike Tucker, who leaves his hick town in the desert to move to Surfing, USA: Huntington Beach, California. His older sister vanished the year before, and he’s trying to find out what happened to her. In the process, he’s getting mixed up with all kinds of seedy type individuals: beach bums and dope fiends and bikers and runaways and rich guys who traffic in snuff films. Plus, the prose is great—unfussy yet lyrical. And this shouldn’t matter but it does: Kem Nunn also did a polish on the script of Wild Things (1998), one of the great trash movies of all time.
The Secret History is also a mystery, but it’s a completely different kind of mystery than Tapping the Source. (You know whodunit in the first couple of pages.) What’s so knockout about this book is the mood it creates, the atmosphere: so gripping, so obsessive, so unrelenting. The Secret History is one of those books that I reject in certain ways—it’s borderline pretentious, and it’s totally devoid of a sense of humor—and yet respond to very powerfully on an emotional level. I love this book. It gets under your skin and haunts you the way a fairy tale does. It’s not just a compulsive read, it’s a compulsive re-read—the ultimate compliment.
I’m a Bret Easton Ellis freak, and this is my favorite of his books. (Ellis and Tartt were at Bennington at the same time. I read somewhere that the two went on a date as undergrads. It’s probably totally a made up, baseless rumor, but I so want it to be true. Did they go to dinner and a movie? Who paid? What did they talk about?) Lunar Park is a mash-up of fake memoir, schlocky horror splatter-fest and straight-ahead traditional novel about fathers and sons. The protagonist is Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and the brattiest member of the literary Brat Pack. The first 50 pages had me in hysterics—Ellis makes brutal fun of himself, he is absolutely without mercy—and the last 50 had me in tears. It’s an oddball novel—totally weird and wild, it’s like no other book I know.
Thank you, Lili! See any books you'd like to pick up, readers?
George Hodgman recounts caring for his ailing mother in the small, fading town of his childhood in his poignant and hilarious memoir, Bettyville. Our reviewer calls Bettyville a "masterpiece," written "with wit and empathy." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Hodgman to tell us about three books he's been reading lately, and he graciously agreed to share.
I wish I could say I had just reread Tristram Shandy or something and found new depths and brilliance, but I will always hate Tristram Shandy, and most of what I am reading now is stuff that a lot of people are also finding wonderful. I love Lily King’s brilliant Euphoria and her fascinating depiction of her characters’ work (anthropology).
I am nuts, completely passionate, about Jenny Offill’s novel, Dept. of Speculation. It’s a wonderful example of how a great writer can put a voice on the page that is just, well, a world—a voice that reveals so many facets of a personality and the small complexities of everyday experience. Here is a woman—a writer, wife, and mother—struggling with herself (a battle I understand), her art, the pressure of trying to love a child who sometimes drives her crazy, and a husband who breaks her heart. And it’s enough, more than enough to fill the book—this vulnerable woman’s ordinary journey. There is no especially unique plot or conflict—just a tenderly rendered depiction of the heart of a unique woman of sensitivity and humor and intelligence. I wanted to keep her with me and protect her. I loved this character. She sent me back to another book that is a very idiosyncratic presentation of a complicated self on the page: Speedboat.
Speedboat by Renata Adler is a book I struggled to connect with when I was younger. Adler’s Jen Fain is much more sophisticated than the wife in Dept. of Speculation: more glamorous and cerebral, less self-doubting, but like Offill’s character, she is absolutely all there and very, very human. I was happy to be able to appreciate her more now that I’m older.
I’ve also just finished Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. I love contemporary English novelists, and St. Aubyn may be the most dazzling. He’s sharp, piercingly observant, very funny, but also, because of his experience and the decadence around him, dark. Edward St. Aubyn is heavy company. I found him brilliant, but was more than ready to part ways when the time came.
Thank you, George! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Sigrid Estrada)
Amanda Filipacchi takes a darkly comedic stab at friendship, identity and the value society places on women's appearances in her latest satirical novel, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. Our reviewer writes that the novel "takes on some thorny issues and speaks to both the mind and heart at the same time. Not to mention the funny bone." (Read the review here.)
We asked Filipacchi to tell us about three books she's been reading lately, and she graciously agreed to share.
I read somewhere that Lionel Shriver only eats one meal a day, in the evenings. I wanted to see what kind of writing that produced, so I chose to read the novel of hers that’s about eating a lot and then starving. The experience of reading the book was made even more interesting by my knowledge that the author had starved while writing parts of it. To be more specific, it’s a novel about a very overweight man who goes on a diet and loses a lot of weight with the help of the novel’s main character—his sister. I learned that starvation produces excellent writing, making it much more enjoyable for the reader than it is for the writer.
My favorite novels are the ones that change my perception of reality. And that’s what I always try to do for readers in my own novels. Up In the Air changed my perception of the reality of airports. It’s a funny, intriguing and ultimately moving novel about a man whose job (of firing people in so gentle a manner that they’re supposed to almost not notice they’re being fired) requires him to travel so much that he doesn’t have a home—he lives in airports. I am certain that for the rest of my life I will never again be in an airport and not think of Walter Kirn’s novel. Thank you, Walter. I’ve never liked airports much, and you’ve made them a little more homey.
On a more serious note, The Blazing World is a novel about gender-bias in the art world; in other words, the unfair difference in the way men and women’s artistic endeavors are received and perceived due to prejudice and sexism. This is an important book about an important and tragic topic. There is a line in the novel that sums up the problem brilliantly: “All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls." There is the same problem in the literary world (and in all arts). Thank god we female writers have the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts helping us out by doing the essential work of “counting” the men vs. women who are reviewed or hired as reviewers at various publications. VIDA has been helping to bring more attention to this problem, and some improvements have started happening, thanks at least in part to them.
Thanks so much, Amanda! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
Author photo by Marion Ettlinger
Alan Lightman explores his family and past through the lens of cinema in his memoir, Screening Room. Our reviewer writes, "In episodic prose that shimmers with cinematic quality, Lightman recalls a time when aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings, parents and friends gathered in the Memphis moonlight to drink, talk in hushed tones about neighbors, sort out perplexing and slowly evolving attitudes about race and ponder the ragged ways people fall in love and out of it." (Read the review here.)
We asked Lightman to tell us about three books he's been reading lately, and he graciously agreed to share.
Reading only Michael Ondaatje’s big novels, one would be scarcely aware of his delightful sense of humor and wit, demonstrated in his memoir Running in the Family. This short book, poetic as all of Ondaatje’s writing, begins with his return to his native island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in the late 1970s. There, through conversations with aging relatives, he imaginatively recreates his childhood, his Dutch-Ceylonese family history and the painful marriage of his parents—all set against the drug-like heat of the luxurious countryside. The throbbing heart of the book is Ondaatje’s strained relationship with his father, Mervyn, whose drunken antics hide a deeply troubled man who ultimately abandoned his family. With understated subtlety, in these pages Ondaatje aches to find peace with the father he never really knew.
The elderly British writer William H. Hudson was laid up for six weeks in a London hospital at the beginning of World War I when, to his astonishment, he suddenly remembered in photographic detail his entire childhood growing up on the pampas of Argentina in the mid-19th century. The resulting memoir is an extraordinary portrait of that place and time, including luxuriant descriptions of the local flora and fauna and the daily existence of an English family living far from civilization. With no schools being nearby, the children were instructed by a wandering schoolmaster, a fat little man with a crooked nose who owned nothing but his horse. The tutor, Mr. Trigg, spent a year or two at a time with English and Scottish settlers, mostly sheep farmers, and hated teaching as much as children in the wild hated being taught.
In 1815, a Connecticut sea captain named James Riley was shipwrecked off the Western coast of Africa. He and his crew were captured by wandering Arabs and turned into slaves, forced to care for the camels, sleep on the rock hard desert floor and live on practically nothing except camel’s milk as the caravan made a nine-month trek across the burning Sahara. Half starved to death, with their skin nearly burned off their bodies by the ferocious sun, forced to drink their own and camels’ urine to stay alive, Riley and his crew faced a fate of either death or being sold to other caravans. Abraham Lincoln said that Sufferings in Africa, along with the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, were the three books that most shaped his thinking.
Thank you, Alan! Readers, do you see any intriguing suggestions?
In her third memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller reflects on her African childhood and the dissolution of her marriage after moving to America. Our reviewer writes, "Fuller’s blend of wry honesty and heartfelt environmental consciousness will resonate with both new readers and longtime admirers of her distinctive style." (Read the review here.)
We asked Fuller to tell us about three books she's been reading lately, and she graciously agreed to share.
I’ve read and re-read this spellbinding memoir of growing up with all the privilege and unconsciousness of a doomed elite in pre-war Liberia. Now, with West Africa and Ebola in the headlines, I found myself drawn back to Cooper’s lyrical, clear-eyed work. Anyone who wants to understand the political dynamics that have led to the current state of paranoia and suspicion in Liberia could do worse than start here. Anyone who loves beautiful, honest writing—or tales about families or coming-of-age stories—will find themselves smitten by Cooper’s descriptions of an exotic other time and the price we have to pay for paying too little attention to those less fortunate than ourselves.
I was completely smitten by this nonfiction novel (read it, you’ll see what I mean). It started life as four lectures delivered in Oxford in 2012 and appears in these pages more or less as given. An absolutely hypnotic, fiercely erudite meditation on art and literature, but also a reimagined love story (what if your lover could come back after her death? What if your connection to her was the ways in which you spoke about art and literature to one another? What if you missed your dead lover back to life?). Artful is not only about what art can do, but also about why we cannot do without it. Smith’s ambition is to break open the musty parchment of the way we typically think about literature and blow the reader’s heart open in the process.
I think Olivia Laing could write about the inside of a brown paper bag for 300 pages, and I would still be enthralled. Her prose is so gorgeous, so evocative, so sumptuous, I had to keep stopping to catch my breath and to ask myself, “How did she just do that?” In this work, Laing follows the drinking lives of six of the most brilliant writers—and tragically heavy drinkers —in modern U.S. history. What the reader learns—or doesn’t—about Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al from these pages is, in my view, completely beside the point. It’s more of an adventure story into the internal lives of familiar writers, their struggles and demons—perhaps somewhat partly familiar to many of us—and Laing’s own attempts to glimpse what early trauma can do, or undo, in a person.
Thank you, Alexandra! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
Author photo by Wendell Locke Field