Caitlin Doughty's delightfully morbid memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, is our Top Pick in Nonfiction for September. In the book, Doughty, a licensed mortician, delves deep into the funeral business and takes an unflinching look at the realities of death and America's obsession with a sanitized death experience. Our reviewer writes that Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is "by turns shockingly gruesome, mordantly funny and, ultimately, [a] richly thought-provoking memoir." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Doughty has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites. Unsurprisingly, her picks are fabulously macabre.
Paul Koudounaris is a macabre bon vivant, traveling the world with his repertoire of velvet frock coats and gaining access to crypts and ossuaries that the average death-interested tourist could only dream of. What comes of his travels are bizarre stories, historical insight and gorgeous photography. The Empire of Death is not only a lovely book aesthetically, it also holds the lesson that how we "do" death in America is not how death has always been done or how it has to be done in the future. When you see examples of artisans decorating entire chapels with bones, it shifts your perspective on what is possible and acceptable to do with dead bodies.
Choosing to be in a monogamous relationship is fine (it better be, I'm in one) but there is increasing evidence suggesting that we may not be not as well designed for monogamy as we thought we were. Sex at Dawn shifted my perspective on relationships as well as my understanding of primal female sexuality. The idea that women have slower sex drives and want nice little monogamous lives with one man forever is deeply flawed as a cultural idea. But this book isn’t all science and anthropology, it’s also sarcastic and readable. The goal of my own writing is to call into question things we just assume to be true in 21st-century America. In that sense, Sex at Dawn is an inspiration as well as a learning tool.
I tried to pick a novel, I really did, but I'm a nonfiction girl. What can I say? My degree is in medieval history, specifically medieval death and the late-medieval witch-hunts. The persecution of women as "witches" accused of having sex with the devil is fascinating history, but you'd be surprised how dry some of the academic offerings can be. How you can make torture and demonic coitus boring, I'll never know. This book is the antidote to that problem—excellent research, none of the dry discourse. Lyndal Roper brings everything into this book: first person stories from the period, feminism, environmentalism, psychology and fears of the aging female body.
Thank you, Caitlin! Are you inspired to pick up any of these suggestions, readers?
It's the Queen of Crime's birthday, and we've got two book suggestions (outside of her massive and brilliant canon of mysteries!) to help you celebrate. You love her books, but how much do you know about the life of the woman who has only been outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare? In An Autobiography, Christie reflects on a childhood spent dreaming up stories, a marriage that did not go as planned and surfing. Yes, Agatha Christie surfed. I wonder how her crown stayed on?
In her autobiography, Christie also explains the inspiration behind the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. And just in time for Christie's birthday, a new Hercule Poirot mystery written by Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders, has been released! Authorized by the Christie estate, this new Poirot novel follows the beloved, quirky detective as he attempts to crack a string of bizarre murders in 1920s London. We had the chance to interview Hannah and Christie's great-grandson, Matthew Prichard, in the September issue, which you can find here.
Happy birthday to one of the greatest crime writers in history!
Katheleen Weber's Della Fattoria Bread is our September Top Pick in Cookbooks! With her unique knowledge and artisinal take on breadmaking, Weber takes you through the whole process of baking—from yeasted and naturally leavened breads to enriched doughs. Looking for the perfect entry-level recipe? Try this one-bowl recipe for Arborio Rice Bread.
Arborio Rice Bread
Makes 2 standard loaves
Inspired by a recipe by the brilliant British cookbook writer Elizabeth David, this is one of the easiest breads I’ve ever made. It comes together fast, is mixed entirely by hand in a single bowl, and is baked in two standard loaf pans. Almost no kneading is required.
It’s also one of the most unusual yeasted breads I’ve seen, as the dough calls for rice. I use Arborio rice instead of regular white rice. Arborio is, of course, the rice that gives risotto its creaminess, and, sure enough, those fat, starchy grains give the bread a similarly creamy texture. If you’re calculating exact ratios, the weight of the cooked rice will be 520 grams (18.3 ounces/2½ cups plus 2 tablespoons), which is 70 percent of the flour weight.
When toasted, this bread has a remarkably delicate crunch.
Arborio rice 158 g 5.5 oz ¾ cup
Water 525 g 18.5 oz 2¼ cups
All-purpose flour 735 g 26 oz 5¼ cups
total flour 735 g 26 oz 5¼ cups
Instant yeast 13 g 0.5 oz 1 Tbsp plus ¾ tsp
Fine gray salt 19 g 0.6 oz 1 Tbsp
Water, at room temperature
(65° to 70°F/18° to 21°C) 468 g 16.5 oz 2 cups
Total weight 1,755 g/1.75 kg 61.9 oz/3.8 lbs
14 to 32 grams (0.5 to 1.1 ounces/1 to 2 tablespoons) olive oil or milk, or a combination
1. To cook the rice, combine the rice and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover, turn the heat down to low and cook until the water is absorbed and there are little holes across the surface of the rice, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the lid and let the rice cool slightly. The rice should still be very warm when incorporated with the other ingredients.
2. Lightly oil or spray a deep 4½- to 5-quart ceramic or glass bread bowl. (The amount of dough for this bread will work well in a 3-quart bread bowl if you have one.)
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, yeast, and salt.
4. When the rice is still very warm but cool enough to touch, mix it into the flour until the mixture has the texture of a gummy meal. Pour in the water and continue to mix with your hands, gently gathering the mixture together, turning it and pressing it with the heels of your hands, until it all comes together. It will be very sticky, similar in texture to a milky biscuit dough; do not be surprised if you have quite a bit sticking to your hands.
5. Using a plastic bowl scraper, get what dough you can off your hands, pressing it back onto the dough, and turn the dough into the bread bowl. Cover the bowl with a lightly oiled or sprayed piece of plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free spot until the dough has at least doubled in volume and there are delicate bubbles across the surface, 1½ to 2 hours.
6. Fairly generously oil or spray two 8 ½-by-4½-by-2¾-inch loaf pans.
Flour the work surface. Turn out the dough, using the bowl scraper, and use a bench scraper to divide it in half. With your fingertips, very gently shape each portion into a bâtard, about 3 by 7 inches. Set in the prepared pans and very gently brush the tops with the wash. (This dough is not brushed again before baking because the loaves will be too fragile once proofed.) Cover the tops with a lightly oiled or sprayed piece of plastic wrap. Set the pans in your warm spot to proof until the dough reaches the tops of the pans, 1½ to 2 hours; remove the plastic wrap.
7. Meanwhile, position a rack in the lower third of the oven, set a baking stone on it, and preheat the oven to 450°F.
8. Place the pans on the stone and immediately lower the oven temperature to 400°F. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the tops are a rich golden brown. The loaves will be delicate, but they can carefully be taken out of the pans to brown directly on the stone: place the loaves on the stone and let brown for about 3 minutes, to brown the sides and bottom more evenly.
9. Transfer the breads to a cooling rack and let cool completely.
How many writers manage to publish a novel and an essay collection over the course of one summer? Roxane Gay's debut, An Untamed State, was published in May, but before she became a novelist she was known for her penetrating essays and cultural criticism. Bad Feminist contains both of these, alongside deeply personal writing—including a depiction of her assault at the age of 12—and more lighthearted pieces about Scrabble tournaments and reality TV.
The collection takes its title from the final two essays, which explore how prescriptive the definition of "feminist" can sometimes be, and how Gay at times feels she comes up short.
Alas, poor feminism. So much responsibility keeps getting piled on the shoulders of a movement whose primary purpose is to achieve equality, in all realms, between men and women. I keep reading these articles and getting angry and tired because they suggest there's no way for women to ever get it right. These articles make it seem like, as Butler suggests, there is in fact, a right way to be a woman and a wrong way to be a woman. The standard for the right way to be a woman and/or a feminist appears to be ever changing and unachievable.
Gay's insightful exploration of this topic makes readers worry less about their occasional shortcomings and more comfortable with being human.
What are you reading this week?
I know this will sound unbelievable. But I have never seen an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Granted, I was more involved with Nickelodeon during the peak-Oprah years of the '90s (although some would argue we are still in the peak-Oprah years).
But her new book, What I Know For Sure, is a lovely, clothbound book of wisdom that resonates—regardless of your level of familiarity with Winfrey's work. Released last week, What I Know For Sure features selections from the popular, eponymous monthly column in her O Magazine. The column was inspired by a question the late film critic Gene Siskel used to ask during interviews: "What do you know for sure?" Through this question, Oprah reflects on the knowledge she's garnered throughout her varied, massively successful career.
Organized by themes like joy and power, these short essays are cherry-picked from the 14-year-old column's archives. With this book of bite-sized revelations, Oprah hopes to help readers discover the important things they know for sure, and to be thankful for them.
What do you think readers? Are you excited about this new book of Oprah-isms?
Marriage is hard enough, but you're adding a whole new level of trouble when you and your spouse share the same hopes, dreams—and career avenues. David Bajo, author of the new medical thriller Mercy 6 and husband to novelist Elise Blackwell, knows all about that. But it's not like he's keeping score or anything.
You have no idea how hard it is to pretend you are the second best writer in the house. I should have married a doctor. That way I could have spent my late mornings indulging in biscotti and cigarettes while composing brilliant novels in the inner sanctum of my study. I could have taken long afternoon walks to clear my mind’s canvas. But no, 25 years ago I made that great MFA workshop mistake and married another writer.
For the first eight years, we lived in a Victorian farmhouse and grew rare subtropical fruits to supplement our income. We gardened, using the Seed Savers Exchange to grow endangered vegetables and grains. She somehow translated this into an idea for a novel. Right? Who wouldn’t want to read about people who desperately try to save seeds. I said “we” gardened. But I was the one slipping pollen filters fashioned from pantyhose over heirloom okra flowers—while she took notes and corresponded with other seed savers. I was the one who made like a bee every afternoon at four when the cherimoya blossoms began to morph from female to male, using a paint brush to swipe and insert pollen—while she composed elegant sentences (that I would help her revise once my fingers stopped cramping).
Okay, so she published her novel first, a well-received and timeless piece of work about starving Russian scientists who saved seeds. It’s built up a nice following over the years. The Decemberists wrote a song about it. I’m not even in the acknowledgments. Look, I would have published first if I hadn’t been so busy trying to control the sex lives of cherimoyas and okras. And once you fall one novel behind, it’s almost impossible to catch up.
When event organizers find out about us—and factor in the cost of one accommodation instead of two—they think it’s cute. Married novelists. I bet we can make them squirm and fight and dish during the Q&A. We got invited to a festival in Ireland. I’m pretty sure it was my book that first caught their eye, but once they got a look at her dark hair and pale beauty, they put her photo on the flyer and her name first. I understand. Marketing is a shallow pool.
Speaking of shallow pools, we did a panel in Los Angeles. We sat on opposite ends. I think we were fighting over some bookfest swag, you know, like who gets the Pynchon coffee mug and who gets the Philip K. Dick glow sticks. The audience had no idea we were together, but as the Q&A progressed, they started to smell the scintillating ozone of domestic tension, the battle for literary number one. It became a game and the ignored panelists in between us were pissed. I fielded one question, she fielded the next. Why do you keep pointing at her? Why does she say your name like that? Which one of you two got the biggest advance? Who got the most foreign deals? Did any cool bands record a song about your novel? I let her win because I knew that would look best and sell the most stock.
Mercy 6 keeps me one novel behind. The first time she knew anything about it was when I read from the first draft during a reading series held in a bar. “I didn’t know you were writing a medical thriller,” she said to me, ready to take the stage after I had wowed the room. “Can you fetch me another Jameson’s? The show’s about to start.”
Thanks, David! Readers, Mercy 6 is out now!
The 2014 shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize has been announced! The six novels deemed to be among the best of 2014 by a panel of acclaimed judges are (drumroll here, please):
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (U.S.)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Australia)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (U.S.)
J by Howard Jacobson (Britain, publication date March 2015)
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee (Britain, publication date October 1)
How to be Both by Ali Smith (British, publication date December 2)
For 45 years, the prize was only awarded to authors from the UK and Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe. But this year, for the first time, any author writing in the English language was eligible for the prize. The decision was met with the concern that big-name American authors would dominate the winner's circle, but with only two Americans on the shortlist this year, that concern appears to be unfounded. The winner will be announced on October 14.
What do you think about the selections? Will you be picking up any of these noted novels?
Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel's artfully haunting new novel Station Eleven is our September Top Pick in fiction!
After a major flu pandemic wipes out a huge portion of the world's population, a group of traveling performers strive to bring art back to those left behind in the rubble: “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still so much beauty.”
Post-apocalyptic stories may seem a bit overdone for some, but Mandel's is an especially unique take.
Watch the trailer from Knopf below:
What do you think, readers? Interested in reading more about Station Eleven? Check out an interview with Mandel here.
So, you did it. You made it through all 700+ pages of Donna Tartt's epic, Pulitzer-winning third novel, hauling it on the plane, balancing its considerable weight on your knees at the beach, or trading sympathetic looks with those who were also struggling to turn the pages while clinging to a pole on the subway.
Now you're hungry for a book that's just like it. Let's go with the bad news first: There is no book that's exactly like The Goldfinch. But the good news is there are plenty of books that should resonate with Goldfinch readers in various ways. Read on for our list.
If Tartt's wrenching portrait of a young boy coping with the loss of a parent was your favorite thing about The Goldfinch, pick up Foer's emotional second novel. This story of a vulnerable young boy, Oskar, who is mourning the death of his father in the 9/11 attacks, is heartfelt and poignant.
James Wood's takedown of The Goldfinch in The New Yorker accused the novel of hewing too close to the tropes of children's literature, with the quaint basement shop in the West Village and the Hagrid-like figure of Hobie being the worst offenders. These elements just added to the novel's charm for me, and recalled childhood favorites like Nesbit's Five Children and It—highly recommended for readers of any age who don't mind a little magic in their literature.
Was the art underworld drama what kept the pages turning? If so, don't miss Theft: A Love Story, the 2006 tale of a formerly famous artist who gets caught up in a scheme to produce fake expressionist paintings. As you'd expect from a two-time Booker winner, Carey is a top-notch writer, and his first-hand experience with the New York art scene provides a satire as authentic as a reader could hope for.
Readers who thrilled to the backstory of Fabritius and Amsterdam's Golden Age should pick up The Miniaturist, Burton's meticulously detailed first novel set in 1689 Amsterdam, where a newlywed country girl must negotiate the secrets of her new family—and of the city's high society. Though the mystery element is a bit flawed, Burton's writing chops—especially when it comes to her depiction of Amsterdam itself—are strongly evident.
The permanence of art vs. the impermanence of human life is one of the strongest themes in Tartt's book—and it's also the focus of the fourth novel from Canadian writer Mandel, Station Eleven. Years after a devastating flu decimates the population, a young woman is on the deserted roads with a traveling theatre troupe, performing Shakespeare plays and playing music. Her talisman is a one-of-a-kind graphic novel that she guards carefully.
If the "bromance" between Theo and his Eastern European best friend, Boris, was what got you hooked on The Goldfinch, we recommend the work of Andrew Smith, especially Grasshopper Jungle. Smith can hold his own with Tartt when it comes to teenaged-boy speak, and the BFFs in this book, Austin and Robby, are almost as debauched as Theo and Boris—and Austin is even Polish.
What do you think, readers? What would you suggest reading after The Goldfinch?
RELATED CONTENT: Read our previous "Read it Next" posts.