Jennifer Wright's It Ended Badly, a fascinating and well-researched catalog of 13 of the worst breakups in history, is too hilarious to be read in public. I had to stop reading it at the office, as I couldn't stop reading passages out loud to everyone while shrieking with laughter. Our reviewer writes that this book is "the perfect Valentine’s Day read for anyone who’s still daydreaming about setting their ex’s car on fire." (Read the review.)
We asked Wright to tell us about three books she loves.
I wrote It Ended Badly: Thirteen of The Worst Breakups In History so that people would have a book they could take to bed with them the first night of a breakup. But that book did not always exist! These were always my favorite books to read when heartbroken, all of which are excellent follow-ups once you have bought my book, read it and sent copies to all of your friends.
In what a teacher once called “deeply reductive reading of the novel, seriously, that is not what it is supposed to be about at all,” this can be approached as the best breakup work of all time! First of all, it’s not a novel, it’s a novel-in-verse, and second of all, I stand by my reading of this 19th-century Russian classic. Spoilers ahead: The plot revolves around Eugene Onegin, a city gentleman who moves to the country to inherit an estate. While he’s there, Tatyana, a shy teenager, becomes infatuated with him and writes him a letter proclaiming her love. Eugene tells her not to be ridiculous. Duels follow! Years later, back in St. Petersburg, he spies Tatyana at a ball. She’s insanely beautiful and married to a Prince. Eugene realizes he’s in love with her now, but she says, “Nope, nope, too late, dude, wow, way too late.” Who runs the world? Shy literary girls who love writing letters run the world! Damn right Eugene regrets all his decisions. He regrets them because he was dumb, just like everyone who ever spurned you and your literary gifts. (Regardless of your gender, you are Tatyana, and never forget it.)
The Portable Dorothy Parker edited by Marion Meade
The best compliment you can give any funny female writer is to compare her to Dorothy Parker. Unfortunately, her martini-dry wit didn’t lead to an especially happy love life. That’s a shame for Dorothy, but a boon for you, because her heartbreak led to some amazing short stories. There are a variety of her collected works around, and you should obviously buy them all, but make sure you get one that contains “A Telephone Call” and “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl.” Both deal brilliantly with the anxieties and stupidity surrounding heartbreak—and the fact that we often can’t stop ourselves from doing things that go against our own best interests. If you’ve done those things, these stories will reassure you that you’re not alone. Besides, if you’re heartbroken, laughter is the best medicine, next to scotch. And when you get back into the dating scene, you’re going to appreciate having a copy of “The Waltz” handy.
The Love Books Of Ovid
These may have been written 2,000 years ago, but human nature doesn’t change. Now, look, if you’re heartbroken you’re going to want to skip over the numerous positive elegies Ovid wrote to love. Those are garbage lies (or at least they might seem that way now). You can begin with the elegy in which “He Upbraids His Mistress Who is Acting Falsely Towards Him.” It’s filled with choice outraged lines like “Away with thee, Cupid and thy quiver! Love's not such a priceless thing that I should so often and so desperately long for death!” Or there’s the one in which Ovid “Beseeches Cupid Not To Discharge All His Arrows At Him Alone” and he laments, “who dost never weary of tormenting me, who never givest me any peace of mind, why, Cupid, dost thou treat me thus, who never ceased to march beneath thy banner?” I don’t know Ovid! Why do bad romantic things keep happening to us!? We’re so nice! Anyhow, Ovid is a perfect whining kindred spirit if you’re going through that phase of your breakup. And surely everyone goes through that phase.
Thank you, Jennifer!
Author photo by Eric T. White
In Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky, a tech whiz and a witch reconnect after a long-ago falling out in order to use their powers for the good of humanity. Our reviewer writes, "Anders adeptly twines magic, surrealism, technological innovation and machinery into a quirky story that, at its base, is about searching for common ground in a world of differences." (Read the review.)
We asked Anders to tell us about a few books she's been reading lately.
Trekonomics by Manu Saadia
“Star Trek” contains many thrilling inventions, from the transporter to the replicator. But Saadia, who works with tech startups in Los Angeles, argues that this series' most important and thrilling innovation is its economic system. Not only does Starfleet exist in a society that has gotten rid of scarcity and deprivation, but it's a future without money and without any economic imperatives as we think of them. But what does that actually mean? Saadia digs into the nitty-gritty of this utopian future, and it's utterly fascinating, as Mr. Spock would say. I went to a panel about the book at New York Comic Con, featuring Saadia alongside Paul Krugman and io9 founder Annalee Newitz, and Saadia asked me to look at an early copy of the book. It's keeping me pretty jazzed so far.
Pretty Much Dead by Daphne Gottlieb
Gottlieb has been one of the most thrilling voices in San Francisco's spoken word and literary scenes over the past dozen years or so, writing poetry and short fiction that burst with emotion along with keen observations about power, self-destruction, sex and salvation. (Full disclosure: She's also a friend of mine.) But her latest collection of stories is a whole new level of indispensible. For the past several years, Gottlieb has also been working as a social worker with various agencies catering to the homeless in San Francisco. She's been right there on the front lines, helping the city's most vulnerable people in the middle of gentrification and displacement. Pretty Much Dead is a collection of incredibly potent stories about poverty, but also about love and desire, drawing on the real-life stories she's encountered. The result feels like a kick in the teeth, but also hits you with incredible moments of beauty and transformation.
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
This supernatural Western is just so exciting, on so many levels. The plot moves at a frenetic speed, racing through plot twist after plot twist like Pac-Man eating dots, but meanwhile Bowen somehow packs in a ton of character development and also delves into some incredibly deep themes about identity and personhood. Somehow, she's managed to create a page-turning introspective thriller. Nettie Lonesome is a mixed-race girl who's stuck living on a tiny farm in the middle nowhere where her adoptive parents treat her like a virtual slave—until she meets a vampire, and her world suddenly becomes much bigger and weirder than she could ever have imagined. And that's just the first few pages. You should discover this one for yourself. I told my friend about Wake of Vultures—and the next time I talked to her, a day later, she'd already burned through it and wanted more.
Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
On the surface, this is sort of a sword-and-sorcery novel in the grand tradition of Fritz Leiber and countless others. A band of mercenaries gets hired to protect a caravan of merchants who are bringing their goods to the far-off city of Olorum, but their route goes through the Wildeeps, a scary, magical place where terrifying monsters lurk. And there's only one safe road through, except that it's not always safe. But once you delve below the surface, this action-packed novella is also about what it's like to be a professional grunt—not a heroic champion, just a workaday soldier—and the relationships that spring up. It's also about one unusual relationship, in particular. And it's about just how far the main character Demane (the titular Sorcerer) will go to save his friends. There's a lot going on here, but there's also awesome swordplay.
Thank you, Charlie Jane!
(Author photo by Tristan Crane)
In Carrie Brown's novel The Stargazer's Sister, Caroline, the brilliant sister of 19th-century astronomer William Herschel, struggles to find her place in the world. Our reviewer writes, "Brown brings the true story of the Herschel siblings to life in exquisite detail and deftly explores what it meant for Caroline to be an intelligent woman far ahead of her time. " (Read the review.)
We asked Brown to tell us about three books she's been reading lately.
Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
I read Paul Yoon’s exquisite short novel, Snow Hunters, over the course of a few days— mostly between the dark hours of 2 and 4 a.m.—during a week when I was sleeping poorly. One is rarely happy to be awake at that hour, but after that first night, when the story’s magic worked so thoroughly on me—making those loathsome hours disappear—I turned to it with gratitude and relief on every subsequent night until I finished it. My experience of the novel surely was colored by the silent, stop-all-the-clocks quality of the hours in which I read it, when the novel’s beauty seemed to shine forth from the page, bright in the circle of light from my bedside lamp, but I believe it would be equally magical at any hour. Snow Hunters tells the story of a young Korean War POW refugee, Yohan, who defects from his country at the war’s end and washes up in a small port-town in Brazil. Here he begins to reconstruct a life for himself as an apprentice to the local tailor and to reckon with the trauma of his past, the immediacy of his present and the possibility of his future. The novel is visual to a painterly degree; events move carefully and slowly and simply, the sentences precise and deft as brushstrokes: “The beam of the lighthouse swept across the harbor. In the sea were stars, millions of them, reflected in the water. The rain had stopped.” Like many performances delivered quietly, the inverse scale of its effect is enormous—think: snow falling. The novel’s beauty, as redemptive as it is tragic, is of the marvelous sort: timeless and unforgettable, as if it had always existed.
The Theater of War by Brian Doerries
It’s difficult to imagine an enterprise more humane, more generous than the one behind this book. For the past decade, Brian Doerries, a classical scholar, translator, writer and director, has been bringing performances of the ancient Greek tragedies to communities devastated by loss and grief, and with them a surprising and cathartic healing. It turns out that the ancient Greeks have plenty to say to audiences of today. “The tragic poets,” as Doerries writes, are the “de facto healers of the polis.” Driven by his love for the ancient texts and by his own need to find healing following the cruel and protracted deaths of his girlfriend and his father, Doerries began reaching out through his theater company to people whose lives had been devastated by forces beyond their control—members of the military and their families, health professionals, guards and prisoners inside the giant American incarceration system, individuals and towns and cities reeling in the wake of natural disaster. His account of the palliative—sometimes transformative—effect of the performances on these people is deeply moving. Doerries knows suffering is lonely business. To find one’s own suffering mirrored in the experience of others, especially those who lived 2,500 years ago, is to allow sufferers to share their stories, and by sharing them they discover that they are not, in fact, alone. Doerries chooses particular plays to speak to particular audiences, and the performances are followed by opportunities for audience members to talk—to testify—about their own lives. Doerries has given people in their darkest days a way to be heard and seen, to know and be known. Tragedy has a dark face, and we are inclined, perhaps, to turn away from it; with Theater of War, Doerries has given us a way to encounter tragedy so that it might heal, and a story of moral and spiritual redemption: his own, and ours along with him.
The Door by Magda Szabó
In her introduction to the Hungarian writer Magda Szabó’s The Door, first translated into English in 2005, 30 years after its original publication, Ali Smith describes the novel as “full-blooded and stately,” the events and characters achieving “mythological status.” Szabó, who died in 2007, was one of Hungary’s greatest writers; her lifetime coincided with decades of Soviet occupation of Hungary, the brutal eclipse of the revolutionary government in 1956 and the dark years of Stalinist rule that ensued, when the suppression of the revolution threatened to silence writers and their work entirely. The Door, set in modern postwar Hungary, is the story of the relationship between a writer, Magda, and the woman, Emerence, whom she hires as her servant to cook and clean and care for her and her husband. Though the balance of power in the relationship would seem to belong to Magda, whose writing at last begins to achieve significant public notice and acclaim, it is the extraordinary Emerence and her apparently inscrutable code of moral conduct—she is independent, secretive, primitive, ruthless and gentle at once, tempestuous at one moment and stiffly formal at another, recklessly demanding, contemptuous of religion and yet steely in her own notion of what constitutes true charity—who towers above the relationship with her employer. Emerence takes care of everyone in the neighborhood, sees through every deception and cruelty and weakness. She appears clad either in enormous snow boots and wielding a birch broom with which to sweep snow or filth from doorsteps and pavements, or meticulously dressed in polished shoes and with an ironed and scented handkerchief at the ready. She seems invulnerable, working with the strength and endurance of a Valkyrie. Yet the revelation of her private, heroic suffering throws Magda into a powerful reexamination of herself and the world around her. The Door is a novel of great dramatic tension, a formidable and deeply involving work of art, and brilliant evidence that the world’s greatest moral and psychological crucibles are enacted as often on the domestic stage as on the battlefields of war.
Thank you, Carrie!
(Author photo by Aaron Mahler)
In his novel Thomas Murphy, Roger Rosenblatt eloquently explores the life of an aging Irish poet. Our reviewer writes that Thomas Murphy is "a brief but lovely rumination on one man’s irresistible impulse to savor life’s riches, even as losses mount and the ravages of age take their relentless toll." (Read the full review.)
We asked Rosenblatt to tell us about three books he's been reading lately.
These days, I read as much for usefulness as for pleasure, trying to pick up as many valuable literary qualities as I can—shoplifting, while avoiding grand theft. Two older books I've reread recently are Lolita and Seamus Heaney's Opened Ground. A newer book is Carl Phillips' The Art of Daring. Please don't be put off by my larcenous motives in reading these books. Their authors were writing for sane, sensible, decent citizens, not other writers.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita stuns me every time (I've gone to it a lot more than once), principally because Nabokov makes a thoroughly immoral man admirable, to the edge of being likable, by applying controlled intelligence to uncontrollable—not to say illegal—passion. Humbert Humbert is twice a criminal, his lesser crime being murder, yet the way he thinks his way through his story—without explaining or excusing himself—makes his crimes understandable, if not forgivable. Forgivable? Humbert could not care less whether we forgive him, and he lives on too high an intellectual plane to forgive himself. Here is a hero in charge of a wholly unique realm of thought and action. That such a man should be undone by an over-sexed teenager who in the end seeks regular old American normality, not Humbert, makes for a loud, bitter laugh. Also, Nabokov writes like a dream. It's one thing to write without waste, another to make every word something strange and beautiful. No one but Nabokov has ever met anyone like Humbert Humbert. He can tell you his mad story again and again, forever.
Opened Ground by Seamus Heaney
Heaney's Opened Ground represents 30 years of selected poems, all of which one can nearly taste. Sometimes the taste is fresh-mowed grass, sometimes dirt, plowed and unplowed. In my novel, Thomas Murphy, the hero is a poet who says a poem should consist of two parts rock, one part daisy. This is the gift Heaney had—of disclosing the beauty poking its head out of the hardness of things. I did not read Opened Ground from front to back when I first read it, and I do not reread it that way now. Rather, I stroll into the poems, looking here and there, as I imagine Heaney looked around Ireland, letting the power of what I see flow through me, and come and go. Like Heaney, I think with my senses as a writer, though not as well as he. But I do understand how one may leap from the sight of a horse shying in a field to the memory of a gate or of a love, and how all the disparate images live together covertly in one's soul. I keep Heaney close for his soul.
The Art of Daring by Carl Phillips
The Art of Daring by the poet Carl Phillips is new to me, though not Phillips poems, which I’ve long admired. This is not a book of his own poems, but rather a book of poems and writings of others that illustrate the art of choosing to dare in life. Technically, the essays here are on discrete facets of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, every piece containing at least one touch of brilliance. More than that, though, the book is a primer on artistic and spiritual restlessness, the nerve it takes to let the creative mind wander everywhere, especially into the dark. Sometimes Phillips is an advocate of shape and order, sometimes of shapelessness and wonder. Every choice demands its own courage. What comes through most strongly in the book is the poet's own confidence in his lack of confidence, his violating inviolable truth. The glaze on the duck is that he wishes the same daring for the rest of us.
(Author photo by Chip Cooper)
Former Atlanta paramedic Kevin Hazzard takes readers on a ride in his ambulance at breakneck speed in his memoir, A Thousand Naked Strangers. Our reviewer writes, "Hazzard is no gleeful voyeur; the respect he accords his patients and many—though not all—of his colleagues imparts a kind of honorable dignity to this work. . . . His story may well inspire others to take a chance on this vital but often overlooked vocation." (Read the review.)
We asked Hazzard to tell us about three books he's been reading lately.
Into the Silence by Wade Davis
For whatever reason, I’m a huge fan of paperbacks and often torture myself waiting for much-anticipated books to come out in my favorite form. This was the case with Into the Silence, Wade Davis’ account of the first three attempts to conquer Mt. Everest. It proved worth the wait. The moment I heard Davis—National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and author of The Serpent and the Rainbow—had written about George Mallory on Everest, I was in. But once I began reading, I found myself sucked deep into a sprawling story I hadn’t anticipated. Coming as it did on the heels of World War I, the quest to reach the world’s highest peak transcended mere mountaineering, ultimately becoming a journey of healing for England’s Lost Generation, while also embodying Britain’s desire for hope and renewed national purpose. Though unsuccessful, the expeditions overcame tremendous odds to map and explore a region where few, if any, outsiders had ever tread. With fine writing and a wonderful sense of story, Davis corrals a sweeping saga with an unwieldy number of characters and delivers a remarkably simple tale of redemption and perseverance.
The Fish That Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen
The Fish That Ate the Whale is perhaps the book I’ve recommended more than any other. In just over 240 pages, Rich Cohen manages to tell the ultimate parable of the American Dream. The book charts the all-but-unbelievable rise of Sam Zemurray from broke immigrant in 1891 to the very heights of global power upon his death more than a half-century later. Zemurray started out as a fruit peddler on the docks of Mobile, Alabama, and—through that classic combination of tenacity and instinct—eventually became the head of United Fruit, one of the wealthiest and most influential companies in American history. His rags-to-riches story spans the American Century and includes corporate piracy, mercenaries, the CIA, peasant revolts and the overthrow of Central American governments—all in the name of bananas. Cohen is a remarkable writer who not only gives us the history of the banana we never knew we always wanted, but lays out the binary nature of America as both land of opportunity and imperialistic behemoth. I’ll never look at a banana, or the U.S., the same way.
The Tiger by John Vaillant
If you’re looking for a book that will pull you out into deep water and then drag you under, you couldn’t do better than The Tiger by John Vaillant. The book recounts the story of a tiger who’s gotten a taste for human flesh in Russia’s Far East. The village, not only thousands of miles but many time zones away from Moscow, squats in a lawless region populated by poachers and outcasts and those who, for any number of reasons, want to be left alone. It’s also home to Russia’s remaining tiger population. I’ve always admired and feared the great cats, but it wasn’t until reading Vaillant’s book that I realized just how incredibly smart, how perfectly capable, how remarkably deadly these animals are. As a primer, consider this: Siberian tigers reside so comfortably on the top of their food chain that they’ve been known to climb trees and then leap into the air to swipe their paws at passing helicopters. The book follows Yuri Trush, the government tracker sent to find the tiger before he strikes again. Trush is a man straight out of Russian fiction, and his true journey into this wasteland of dangerous men and even more dangerous tigers will stick with you.
Thank you, Kevin!
(Author photo by Lauren Pressey)
Elizabeth Day's Paradise City explores four very different yet interlocking lives in contemporary London. Our reviewer writes, "London is the novel’s silent fifth character, a city that here welcomes those who come to change their life for the better or simply seek new fortunes." (Read the full review.)
We asked Day to tell us about three books she's been reading lately. She did us one better by suggesting a best-selling series and a nonfiction title.
The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
So many of my female friends were raving about Elena Ferrante's The Story of a Lost Child that I read all four of her Neapolitan novels in a month. I was swallowed up whole by Ferrante’s writing: the intensity of it, the unapologetic focus on every rendered nuance of a lifelong female friendship. I've never read anything quite like it. It is so, so good on women: the ones trapped by men and violence and the ones who break free, with all the associated costs.
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
I suppose that's already four books and you've only asked me for three, but if I can sneak one more in without you noticing it would be Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. Leovy, a former LA Times journalist, was embedded with the Los Angeles Police Department for several years. Ghettoside is an account of the "homicide epidemic" engulfing the southern districts of the city and costing the lives of a disproportionate number of young black men.
Leovy focuses on one particular case—the random killing of a police detective's son—and through this examines a broader problem. There's no doubt that Ghettoside is impeccably researched, but what makes it a brilliant book is Leovy's ear for the human story behind the statistics and her sharp, intuitive understanding of the people she meets. It's a fantastic piece of narrative nonfiction journalism and asks profoundly important questions about race, policing and media bias.
Thank you, Elizabeth! See any suggestions you're interested in, readers?
(Author photo by Jenny Smith Photography)
Winston Groom, a formidable historian and the author of Forrest Gump, delves deep into the lives of three major players in World War II—George Marshall, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur—in The Generals. Our reviewer writes, "Groom balances the strictly biographical data with well-researched historical accounts, and along the way he offers invaluable perspectives on the world politics that critically influenced his subjects’ lives." (Read the review.)
We asked Groom to tell us about three books he's been reading lately.
History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Volume IV: Coral Sea, Midway, and Submarine Actions, May 1942-August 1942 by Samuel Eliot Morison
Since my next book is The Fighting Admirals, I have been engrossed recently in reading literature about the U.S. Navy in World War II—in particular, the Pacific Theater of Operations. One of the finest chroniclers of this imposing period in American history, Morison—an avid yachtsman and distant cousin to the noted poet T.S. Eliot—was a brilliant Harvard historian when the war broke out. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he convinced his friend Franklin Roosevelt that the history of the Navy during the conflict should be written “from the inside,” meaning by someone involved in the action. Accordingly, Eliot was commissioned as lieutenant commander, and he spent the war winning battle stars aboard U.S. warships and ultimately being promoted to the rank of admiral. His excellent 15 part series published over the next 20 years won much acclaim and many prizes, and it is indispensible for anyone truly interested in the Navy’s World War II.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
This is the fabulous story of the 1936 U.S. University of Washington Rowing team and the eight sturdy varsity oarsmen who astonished the world and annoyed Hitler and the Nazis by winning a gold medal in the Berlin Olympics. Anyone who hasn't read it, should. It is a hardy American story.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Like The Boys in the Boat, to which it has been compared, Unbroken is truly a tale of high American character under the greatest pressure and longest odds. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, also a star at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, who later piloted a bomber in World War II. When it crashed into the Pacific, he and a companion, given up for dead, survived 47 horrible days in a life raft, only to be made prisoners by the Japanese and spend the next three years tortured and tormented by sadistic Japanese guards. (Several years ago, I had the opportunity to lunch with and introduce Mr. Zamperini on his book tour and moderate questions for him from a large crowd at the Battleship USS Alabama Park in Mobile, Alabama). Distinguish yourself by buying this book now.
Thank you, Winston! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
Alex Goodwin (pictured left) is the co-author of A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice, an interpretation of Jane Austen's classic novel featuring photos of (you guessed it) guinea pigs going to balls and belaboring love matches while wearing Regency regalia. Our reviewer writes, "This affectionate, quietly dramatic homage is the perfect gift for Austen-philes, Austen-newbies, guinea-pig aficionados and anyone who appreciates a tale well told." (Read the review.)
We asked Goodwin to tell us about three books he's been reading lately.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
I’m probably not the only one who finds themselves turning to Dickens when it gets cold and the nights draw in. I think that Christmas is his best season: Dickens essentially invented our idea of Christmas, and reading him at this time of year adds a certain gloomy romance to my experience of London, which otherwise seems just a bit damp and full of shoppers. This year I’ll be picking up David Copperfield, but for those who haven’t read Bleak House, I think it’s the perfect book (aside from A Christmas Carol, perhaps). Nominally the story of an interminable inheritance case which has dragged through the courts, the book’s actual reach is staggering, a broad sweep of Victorian society from poor Jo the road sweep to Lady Dedlock at her estate and, in the shape of Inspector Bucket, one of the first detectives in fiction. Dickens’ language is ravishing, so full of color, texture, humor and suspense, and his characters have never seemed more, well, Dickensian. It’s the kind of book to relish and get lost in (and you probably will—the plot is pretty haywire). If in any doubt, just read the first page: fog has never sounded so menacing!
Outline by Rachel Cusk
I just finished this the other day and thought it a masterpiece. The book’s central ‘idea’—of a narrator with no interior life—may sound dry and a little capricious, but in Cusk’s hands it is transformed into an incredibly powerful narrative device for drawing out the lives of the characters the narrator meets while on a trip to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop. But the effect of these cumulative encounters is almost magical; despite being given no glimpse of the narrator, we begin to see her through the people she meets as images and themes touching her own experience begin to recur in their stories. It’s a thought-provoking and quietly devastating book about love and loss, one which operates on a high-wire of technical ability and writerly control, yet the end result changes the way we understand our relationship with the world. Written with a feather, delivers a knockout.
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
I just bought this book after reading a recent piece in the New Yorker about Mitchell, who was a staff writer there for years and years, originally producing character pieces about the people he met in the backwaters of old New York before suffering terrible writer’s block in the latter part of his career. The blurb maps a territory of visionaries, obsessives, lost souls, fanatics . . . I imagine that if Tom Waits wrote a Dickens novel, it might be something like this! I loved Sketches by Boz, Dickens’ own account of the London underworld – even if it’s hard now to imagine chic Seven Dials in Covent Garden as the epicenter of Victorian villainy—so I’m looking forward to reading this, especially as the New Yorker piece suggested that some of the characters may have been fictional; I suspect this may well turn out to be that rare and wonderful thing, a novel in disguise . . .
Thank you, Alex! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
("Author" photo from A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice with permission from Bloomsbury.)
An Alcatraz inmate's haunting past is revealed in Kristina McMorris' latest historical novel, The Edge of Lost. Our reviewer writes, "Kristina McMorris evokes such a strong sense of place in her writing that to open her books feels less like reading and more like traveling." (Read the review.)
We asked McMorris to tell us about three books she's been reading lately.
Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton
From a craft standpoint alone, Lupton’s use of second-person, present-tense narration intrigued me from the start. But it was the whodunit twists and turns that pulled me along for the ride. In Afterwards, a school fire lands a teenage girl in critical condition, and her mother races to find the arsonist, though not in the usual manner. With a touch of otherworldliness, so much about this novel struck me as unique. All the while, the creative, lyrical prose—at times reminiscent of my all-time favorite novel, The Book Thief—often left me in awe.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
I confess, this is a novel I’m actually rereading with my sons, who are now 9 and 12. It’s hard to believe almost three years have passed since I originally read the book aloud to them in parts before bedtime. When it was time to sleep, they would inevitably beg me to read “just one more chapter,” not wanting to break from the captivating story of a special boy named Auggie, whose facial abnormalities brought about sizable challenges—and rewards—during his first year in a real school. Similar to the movie Mask with Eric Stoltz, Wonder made us laugh heartily and cry repeatedly (four times for me, even though books rarely make me teary). Most importantly, it prompted us to discuss the decency of treating people with kindness, regardless of appearance or other differences. I’ve gifted copies to many teachers and friends, and am happy to report that our family’s second read-through has been just as bonding as the first.
The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck
In my 11th-grade English class, a beloved teacher known as “Carp” (for Carpenter, not the fish) was giving a lecture on The Scarlet Letter when he suddenly hopped onto a table—a makeshift scaffold—and became Dimmesdale reincarnate. (We half expected him to reveal a red “A” on his chest!) His passion was utterly infectious, and to this day I remember that book fondly. But not until picking up Erika Robuck’s latest novel did I ever wonder about the life of the author who penned a story that has continued to impact readers for more than 160 years. Nor was I familiar with his artistic wife, Sophia Peabody, whose sacrifices and support through tragedies and her own physical ailments enabled Nathaniel to compose his masterful works. Now halfway through the novel, I’ve found much more than a vivid portrait of an iconic literary figure, but also historical details so rich and prose so lovely, I want to savor every page.
Thank you, Kristina!
Journalist Jackie Copleton, who lives in Scotland, makes her fiction debut with A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, our Fiction Top Pick for December. In the novel, Ama Takahashi has rebuilt her life in America after the bombing at Nagasaki, where she believes her entire family died. So when a badly scarred man arrives at her home claiming to be her grandson, she must relive the painful memories of the past. Our reviewer writes, "Jackie Copleton—who lived in Nagasaki for two years—manages to sensitively portray Japanese culture as well as the utter horror and devastation of August 9, 1945, an angle often unexplored in Western writing. Characterized by heartache, memories and promise, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a gripping narrative about family and loss that will appeal to readers of historical and literary fiction." (Read our review.)
We asked Copleton to tell us about three books she's been reading lately.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
I decided to read this book after watching the wonderful film adaptation of Bennett's play, The Lady in the Van. Foremost, this funny, sweet novella is a celebration of reading. The Queen of England, while walking her corgis on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, stumbles upon a mobile library. Out of politeness, and being only one of two customers, she chooses a book last borrowed in 1989. Luckily, her next choice of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love sparks a passion that becomes so all-consuming that her royal duties begin to suffer, much to the unease of her equerries. Despite their best efforts to scupper her reading—one book is stuffed down a servant's breeches—she remains unbowed, describing herself as an opsimath, one who learns only late in life. And what a realisation she makes. Bennett reminds us that the reward of reading is similar to strengthening a muscle, all it takes is regular exercise. It’s utterly charming, even if you are a republican.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
I read Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo as a teenager and am still haunted by Joe Bonham, the U.S. soldier who loses his arms, legs and face in the First World War, but not his mind. Remarque was a veteran of that Great War—the conflict that was supposed to end all wars—and his book is told from the perspective of a young German soldier, Paul Baumer, sent to battle a near-invisible enemy. The fighting is ugly, desperate and without heroism. Remarque refuses to sanitise the war, or make sense of it. Death shatters any conviction of the wisdom of the adults who sent these boys to the front line. Moments of relief shine as bright as the Verey lights: the cat they capture, the pigling roasted under attack, the bread they take to the French girls. Paul sees two butterflies settle on the teeth of a skull. These child soldiers are isolated, alone in their trauma. Their futures seem hopeless, home alien, and yet the spark of life refuses to peter out. This is a book that will no doubt sadly remain as powerful when future generations mark the bicentenary of the 1914-1918 war, and all the senseless brutality that continued beyond its end.
My Struggle: Book 1, A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I've been a member of a book group on and off for around 15 years, and following a long absence, it was my turn to host. Then, the pressure of what to choose. I was intrigued by the fallout from this memoir, which describes with plain honesty Knausgaard's adolescence in Norway and his father's death. His prose is functional, the minutiae of life dwelled upon with as much attention as his views on writing, which he believes is an act of destruction, not creation. Some relatives seem strangely absent, others such as the ailing grandmother are described with an unflinching eye. He admits of the reaction: 'It never occurred to me that it might cause problems – I was just telling the truth, wasn't I? It was like hell.' Inevitably, his troubling, moving and tense recollections made me reflect on my own family, and how those seemingly closest to us can remain unknowable. Thankfully, the book prompted loads of discussion, and I've asked Santa for the other five volumes. Although, I doubt there will be much ho-ho-hoing when I come to read the content.
Thank you, Jackie!
(Author photo courtesy of the author)