Legendary food writer and editor Ruth Reichl's first novel, Delicious!, tells the story of Billie Breslin as she begins a new career as the assistant to the editor of an esteemed but struggling food magazine. The book is "like a family-style meal around a big table: fun, loud, at times messy and, ultimately, completely satisfying." (Read our interview with Reichl here.)
We were curious about the books Reichl has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites. Instead, she shared not three but FIVE memorable reads.
I’m reading this again because, of all the books I’ve read in the past few years, this is the one I most admire. Normally I prefer novels to short stories, but Saunders offers up an entire universe in a few short pages, creating such memorable characters that are impossible to forget. Sometimes I’ll find myself sitting on the subway, looking at the guy across the way, imaging he’s the father in the tale that most haunts me, “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” It’s a heartbreaking story of people with good intentions that go inexorably wrong. Saunders’ dystopian visions are devastating, and yet he’s so generous with his characters that they curl up inside your mind and take residence. How does he do it? I imagine I’ll be reading this book again next year, and the year after.
By Toni Morrison
I was recently asked to recommend books about New York, which made me think about this one. I hadn’t read it since it first came out in 1992, but I remembered that I loved it. I went to the bookshelf, took it down, opened to a random page and became a prisoner of the writing, unable to put it down. This is Toni Morrison in a new mood; the language is like the title—a liquid riff with no beginning and no end, winding itself around you, resonating inside your skull, until you are understanding it in a way that transcends words. The story moves back and forth through time, telling us of a young couple who leave the South and arrive in Harlem filled with hope. It’s a story of love betrayed, of violence, and also redemption. And it’s a story of the city between two wars, a time when people still believed that “all the wars are over and there will never be another one. At last, at last, everything’s ahead. . . . Here comes the new.”
By Dorothy Dunnett
I love wandering into a book and finding myself in another time. I’d never heard of Dorothy Dunnett until a friend, knowing my passion for historical fiction, gave me the first of her long Niccolò series. I’m on book four of this fantastic 15th-century saga, following the brilliant Nicholas vander Poele who begins life as a dyer’s apprentice and ends up conquering worlds and making fortunes. The books take Nicholas and his friends on adventures across what was then the known world, traveling by land from Flanders to the city-states of Italy, and by sea to Turkey, Trebizond, Greece and Africa. Along the way we meet kings, soldier, courtesans, slaves . . . and people of every race. Dunnett is a fine historian; she creates memorable characters, and she brings the past vividly to life. I’ll be so sad when I close the last of these books.
What if everything you thought you knew about yourself turned out to be wrong? That’s the premise of Restless. When Ruth, a doctoral student, drops her young son off with her mother for the evening, her mother drops a bombshell. She is not Sally Gilmartin, the staid upper-class English housewife Ruth has always known, but Eva Delectorskaya, a former spy who has been on the run since the end of World War II. Ruth thinks her mother has gone crazy, but as she slowly absorbs her story—the details on how Eva was trained in spycraft are fascinating—she begins to think it might be true. Is it? Part cloak-and-dagger story, part psychological mystery, this is one of those books I literally stayed up all night reading. It’s a hugely fun read, but one that ultimately questions whether it is ever possible to know the truth—about anyone.
I’ve loved every book Geraldine Brooks has written. I’m awed by her ability to take such different subjects—an abolitionist in the Civil War (March), a Wampanoag Indian in early America (Caleb’s Crossing), a maid in plague-ridden England (Year of Wonders)—and bring them vividly to life. I’d never read People of the Book, and idly picked it up one day when I was browsing through a bookstore. I was instantly hooked by the story of Hanna Heath, a rare-book expert trying to unravel the mystery of a 500-year-old haggadah. Hanna’s a great character: A caustic loner, she is passionate about her work as she follows minuscule clues that take us to 15th-century Spain, 17th-century Venice, 19th-century Vienna and finally to the Bosnian war. It’s an adventure, a love story and a mystery that travels back in time while remaining firmly anchored in the present.
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading Delicious! or checking out any of Reichl's recommended books?
This week's edition of BookPageXTRA is all about beach reads. We're also celebrating beach reads in the June and July issues of BookPage. In fact, in the issues, you will see this symbol (at the left) designating which books are vacation-worthy and perfect for your summer reading list.
In my personal opinion, a "beach read" is simply a page-turner—a book with a compelling enough story to keep me interested in the pages under my nose rather than the waves in front of me. :)
However, I thought it would be fun to highlight some book that actually take place near the water. Here are 15 beachy beach reads. They're not all easy-breezy . . . but I can guarantee that they're all worth reading.
Anything to add to the list? What are you reading this summer?
The Art of Keeping Secrets by Patti Callahan Henry
Southern writer Patti Callahan Henry has been compared to Anne Rivers Siddons, Mary Alice Monroe and Dorothea Benton Frank. With a touch as graceful as a twilight breeze, she explores the lives of women—old and young and in-between—in novels like Losing the Moon and Between the Tides. Her fifth book, The Art of Keeping Secrets, is a delicately wrought exploration of the unlikely relationship that forms between two women, Annabelle and Sofie, after the untimely death of Annabelle's husband, Knox Murphy, in a plane crash. Read more>>
Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Brooks approaches her latest novel through the character of Bethia Mayfield, a minister’s daughter with a hungry mind who has picked up her learning a piece at a time while eavesdropping on the lessons of her older (and less intellectual) brother Makepeace. Bethia meets Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk while gathering clams on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, near Gay Head. The daughter of a minister and the granddaughter of the island’s governor, both of whom pride themselves on their good relationships and just dealings with the native tribes, Bethia is less intimidated by an Indian boy her own age than the average colonial girl. When she speaks to him in his language, a friendship is born. Read more>>
Fortune's Rocks by Anita Shreve
Written in a richly wrought style evocative of the age, Fortune's Rocks is set a century ago, in an affluent seaside community in upstate New York. It follows the life of self-possessed Olympia Biddeford. Fifteen years old when the book opens, Olympia has reached the moment when, as a character tells her, "a girl becomes a woman. The bud of a woman, perhaps. And she is never so beautiful as in this period of time, however brief." Read more>>
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick details the little-known incident that provided Melville with the foundation of Moby Dick. In 1820, the whaling ship Essex, out of Nantucket, was deliberately hit and sunk in the south Pacific by an enraged sperm whale. The ship's stunned crew of 20 was forced to make their way across 3,000 miles of open ocean to the western coast of South America. It took three months, and along the way they faced death, dehydration, starvation, and ultimately, cannibalism. Read more>>
The Land of Mango Sunsets by Dorothea Benton Frank
Frank's work explores the themes of childhood memories, loss and, above all, the beautiful islands of South Carolina. The Land of Mango Sunsets features Miriam Swanson, a late-40s desperado who is barely clinging to a joyless New York high society lifestyle. Married at 18, Miriam now finds herself bitter and demoralized by a messy divorce. She fought gracelessly against the rift and drove a wedge between herself and her beloved sons, her future daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. With no college degree and no career to buffer the blow, Miriam's days stretch out in a series of desperate, panic-ridden moments. Read more>>
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Maine revolves around the Kelleher family, a large Boston Irish-Catholic clan that has been vacationing for nearly 60 years at the same beachfront cottage, which fell into their laps in a bit of uncharacteristic luck. Weather-worn but packed with years of sun-soaked memories, the cottage was once a uniting force for the Kellehers, but in recent years, it seems to have been little more than a nuisance, and the family matriarch is preparing to make a rash decision about its future. Read more>>
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The crucial action in On Chesil Beach takes place within just a few hours on the wedding night of a young English couple in 1962. The year is key, for though chronologically part of the decade, 1962 was, culturally, eons away from the Swinging Sixties that would usher in new freedoms and laissez-faire attitudes about sex just a few years later. Newlyweds Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, not long out of university, are both still virgins on their wedding night, and the overlapping anticipation and anxiety of what they will encounter in the marriage bed provide the drama of the story. They live, we are told, in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. Read more>>
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster, has just moved to Lyme Regis, a town on the southern coast of England, with her sisters. She falls in love with scouring the beaches for fossils, and meets a young girl and fellow fossil-hunter, Mary Anning. As Mary grows up and the two follow their shared passion, they find themselves making discoveries that cause a stir in the scientific community and hold implications for science and religion that they could never have foreseen. Read more>>
Siren's Surrender by Devyn Quinn
Devyn Quinn crafts an imaginative romance about mermaids and the human men who love them in Siren’s Surrender. FBI agent Blake Whittaker returns to his hometown of Port Rock, Maine, to investigate an odd undersea earthquake and an archaeologist who went missing as a result. There, Blake comes in contact with Gwen Lonike and her two sisters. His attraction to the innkeeper is immediate, but so is trouble. Read more>>
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
An unscrupulous marine biologist with "Ken-doll good looks" and "priapic affability," Chaz Perrone was sure he'd seen the last of his wife when he pushed her over the railing of the Sun Duchess cruise ship off the coast of Florida. But Joey Perrone, a former championship swimmer, survived the fall and clung to a bale of Jamaican hashish long enough to be rescued by retired cop Mick Stranahan. Read more>>
Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel
Susanna Daniel’s Stiltsville is rooted in a community of stilt houses towering above Biscayne Bay, Florida, where the author spent much of her childhood. Daniel masterfully evokes the sticky Miami heat and refreshing ocean breezes, but there is so much more to these pages than fetching seaside images. Read more>>
Swim by Lynn Sherr
Journalist Lynn Sherr, best known for her work as a correspondent on ABC’s “20/20,” describes her interest in swimming as "an obsession, benign but obstinate." In Swim: Why We Love the Water, she chronicles her love of the sport, culminating in her landmark long-distance swim of the Hellespont, the strait that separates Europe from Asia. Along with her personal journey, she offers a quick trip through the history of swimming, with fascinating tidbits about swimmers of old and their modern counterparts. Read more>>
The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw
Under Holly LeCraw’s spell, what could have been pure pulp is instead a passionate and suspenseful family drama and murder mystery, set during the sultry summertime of Cape Cod. LeCraw skillfully alternates between past and present, allowing the reader to observe Marcella Atkinson’s affair with Cecil McClatchey; the consequences it has on both her family and his; and her later relationship with Jed, Cecil’s son. Read more>
The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine
As the world she knows unravels, Betty’s daughters—the passionate Miranda, a famous literary agent, and the more subdued Annie, a sensible library director—rally around her in support. Forced out of her elegant New York apartment by her husband’s mistress, Betty, joined by her girls, takes refuge in her cousin Lou’s cramped, run-down beach cottage in Westport, Connecticut. As they mingle with suburban socialites, they discover love in unexpected places—and truths about themselves and each other. Read more>>
When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle
Trouble is brewing on the Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara. Here, on America’s version of the Galapagos Islands, many unique species are under assault. Someone has inadvertently introduced a species of rat—rattus rattus—to this fragile and ecologically rich area, and the rats are driving out rare, more exotic animals. The problem creates two warring camps. On one side, crusader Alma Boyd Takesue proposes to kill the rats with a method as humane as possible, so that the Islands’ delicate biological balance can survive. Read more>>
As part of our Best Books of 2011 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Geraldine Brooks has a genius for finding history's most fascinating stories. In Caleb's Crossing, she turns to the early days of American history to craft an intensely smart and vibrant story. Her hero, Caleb, was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard—in the 1660s. Brooks portrays him through the eyes of Bethia, a Puritan minister’s daughter who strikes up an unlikely childhood friendship with Caleb that their society makes it difficult to sustain. Moving and memorable, this is a tale of crossing boundaries and quiet strength.
We're creeping ever-closer to the top of our best books of 2011 list. Watch for our Top 10 in just two days! In the meantime, tell us what your favorite book of 2011 was. If you do, you could win 10 books in the genre of your choice.
11. Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean
12. The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
13. Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
14. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
15. Bossypants by Tina Fey
16. This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
17. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
18. Blue Nights by Joan Didion
19. Life Itself by Roger Ebert
20. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Our interview with Geraldine Brooks about Caleb's Crossing is BookPage's May cover story. The novel is about a Wampanoag boy who graduated from Harvard in 1665—and the Puritan woman he befriends, and who longs for an education.
In the interview, Brooks explains some of the history behind her fiction, like how some women in the 17th century were literate and longed for a better lot in life.
For some fantastic visuals to go along with the interview, watch this trailer from Viking, which takes us from Martha's Vineyard to Harvard, the settings of the novel:
Do you want to read Caleb's Crossing?
What's your favorite novel by Geraldine Brooks?
Today marks the publication date for Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, the subject of our May cover story. Telling the tale of an early part of American history, the book follows a young Native American boy who becomes a Harvard graduate—in the 1660s.
The book is being published at a time when Wampanoag culture is on the rise again. Not only will Tiffany Smalley, the first Martha's Vineyard Wampanoag since Caleb be graduating from Harvard this spring, there's also been a resurgence of the language.
"A young native linguist named Jessie Little Doe Baird got her linguistics degree at MIT and has been working on a dictionary of the language and language classes," Brooks told me. "Her child is the first native speaker in several generations and there are a number of people now who are fluent. She got a MacArthur Genius grant for her work in the language reclamation. . . . it really is of great interest to everyone on the island seeing this come back. When the tribe's medicine man died the year before last, the language was heard on the cliffs at his graveside ceremony, probably for the first time in very many years."
Brooks and I went on to talk about the importance of language, and how the way it is constructed can shape or reveal things about a society. "I lived in the Middle East for a while and Arabic is structured so differently," she said. "The way the root words have developed give you such insight into the thinking of people. Maybe if you're a native speaker, you're not aware of all the echoes of the words that share a common root, but you know, it really struck me that [Arabic has] a word for 'child' that relates to things like 'dawn' and 'soft clay' but also 'one that arrives at an inopportune moment,' " she laughed.
In Caleb's Crossing, the way that Bethia describes her discovery of the Wampanoag language echoes these thoughts.
Over time I had come to grasp that the chief principle of their grammar is whether a thing to them is possessed of an animating soul. How they determine this is outlandish to our way of thinking, so profligate are they in giving out souls to all manner of things. A canoe paddle is animate, becuase it causes something else to move. Even a humble onion has, in their view, a soul, since it causes action—pulling tears from the eyes.
Will you be picking up Caleb's Crossing this week?
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has announced the editors for its 2011 Best American series (via Shelf Life), and there are a lot of BookPage favorites in the bunch. Click on the editors' names for our reviews of their past books.
The Best American Short Stories: Geraldine Brooks (The anthology will come out on October 4, a few months after Brooks' novel Caleb's Crossing.)
The Best American Essays: Edwidge Danticat
The Best American Comics: Alison Bechdel
The Best Anerican Nonrequired Reading: Dave Eggers (with an introduction by Guillermo del Toro)
The Best American Travel Writing: Sloane Crosley
The Best American Science and Nature Writing: Mary Roach
The Best American Sports Writing: Jane Leavy
Do you like to read this series? I always enjoy the short stories collection, but this year I may have to branch out—with Mary Roach at the helm of the science and nature anthology, I know it will be good!
As a fan of Brooks' fiction and nonfiction, I just couldn't omit the exclamation point from the title of this post. Her second novel, March, a riff on Little Women, won the Pulitzer for fiction [read our interview with Brooks about March] and her two other novels were also BookPage favorites.
Her third novel, Caleb's Crossing (Viking), takes place in the 1660s and is also inspired by a historical event—this time, the graduation of the first Native American from Harvard University. Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck is taken under the wing of a minster who sees the opportunity to convert his tribe through education. Caleb's story is juxtaposed with that of the minister's own daughter, who, despite a similar yearning for knowledge, becomes an indentured servant.
Brooks writes some of the smartest historical fiction around, and I can't wait to read her take on this era of American history—and see if there are any allusions to her debut novel, Year of Wonders, which took place in England around the same time.