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
In Jonathan Odell's Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, two women unite to change their community in pre-Civil Rights Mississippi despite their seemingly opposite lives. Our reviewer says, "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is quintessentially Southern in its frank discussions of friendship, marriage, family, feminism, grief and redemption." (Read the review here.)
We asked Odell to tell us about three books he's been reading lately, and he graciously agreed to share.
The next book I’d like to complete writing is a memoir about growing up as gay boy in Fundamentalist-crazed Mississippi. This will include making public the craziness of my own particular family. My editor recommended The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók. When it comes to crazy, her family puts mine to shame. Bartók writes poignantly about her schizophrenic mother whom she goes to extreme lengths to escape, including moving away and changing her name. But of course, all roads lead home again, and Bartók, after years of separation, must return to her still mentally unstable mother to tie up loose ends. I want to write a book that tells a hard truth as compassionately and as unsentimentally as Bartók.
Abandonment to Divine Providence was written during the 1700s by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a French Jesuit priest. Caussade was the original “power of now” kind of guy, but he called his method “the sacrament of the moment.” The subtitle of the translation I'm reading is “Classic Wisdom from the Past on Living Fully in the Present.” I chose this little book because I’m about to embark on an over-scheduled 25-city tour and, as an introvert, am seriously worried about my sanity. Written passionately yet simply, Caussade’s work is a meditation on how to stay open to, and trust, the gifts of the present moment. He may be too religiose for most readers, but as a Southerner, religion for me is not so much a belief system but a way of talking about things that matter. And Caussade employs the language beautifully. I’ll tell you in March how it worked.
George Hodgman’s Bettyville, like The Memory Palace, tells the story of a child’s return home to care for his mother. That’s about where the similarity ends. Hodgman’s memoir, though tenderly told, is one spiked with perfectly timed wit and a kind of irreverent gothic humor that it seems only a Southerners can get away with when speaking of his own family’s dysfunction. Though hilarious, there is not an iota of meanness. Hodgman proves once again, that in the South, we are proud of our crazy.
Thanks, Jonathan! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Jim Kuether)
In her debut collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow, Katherine Heiny writes about women stuck in a variety of relationship issues with heartbreaking humor. Our reviewer writes, "[Single, Carefree, Mellow is a] smart exploration of love and betrayal, and that fine line between happiness and pain." (Read the review here.)
We asked Heiny to tell us about three books she's been reading lately, and she graciously agreed to share.
I often read for comfort, especially when I’m writing, which means I reread constantly. It’s like comfort food: I need something familiar and delicious and satisfying—and superbly written.
It’s always a pleasure to lose myself in this novel and realize once again that I haven’t lost my fascination for the post-apocalyptic world described here, or my desire to know the characters even better. King is so smart, so talented, so inventive—sometimes I think he must be a little more highly evolved than everyone else.
Last weekend I re-read Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and I was completely captivated—you would never guess it was my fifth or sixth read. The economy of the language, the subtlety of the horror, the brilliance of the final reveal—it knocks me out every single time.
I keep a copy of Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler on my desk, and often when I’m struggling, I’ll pick it up and read a chapter at random, just to remind myself of how beautifully it’s put together. The sense of humor and the depth of character and the descriptions that make me realize I hadn’t seen the world clearly up until that point. Tyler’s work is everything—everything—you could ever want fiction to be.
Thank you, Katherine! See any books you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Leila Barbaro)
In his debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher Scotton follows teenager Kevin Gillooly as he spends the summer in a small, impoverished Appalachia mining town. Our reviewer writes, "This affecting coming-of-age story faithfully portrays environmental concerns alongside rich family histories." (Read the review here.)
We asked Scotton to tell us about three books he's been reading lately, and he graciously agreed to share.
The only time I have for pleasure reading these days is about five minutes in the evening before bed. Novels can take months to unspool for me in that limited time of quiet, so I’ve turned to short story collections for my night reading. Short stories allow me to wade in and out quickly but still take some meaning and satisfaction from the best of them. Here are three that seem to have attached themselves to a permanent place on my bedside.
Sure, it’s a great “on ramp” to reading and understanding Joyce—a not-too-taxing wend around middle class, turn-of-the-century Dublin—providing a necessary set-up for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man then Ulysses (read in that order if you can). But in my mind, Dubliners stands on its own as one of the best short story collections in the English language, primarily on the shoulders of “The Dead,” the final piece in the work.
“The Dead” is perhaps the most perfect short story I’ve ever read—flawlessly constructed, subtly rendered to devastating effect. When asked by young writers for advice on how to develop compelling characters, I send them sprinting to “The Dead” and to Joyce’s delicate unwrapping of Gabriel Conroy.
While others in the collection don’t achieve the rare air of “The Dead,” “The Sisters,” “Araby” and “Eveline” will certainly leave you breathless.
Goodness . . . where to begin with this one. Unlike The Dubliners, which is a bit top heavy with the outsized magnificence of “The Dead,” every story in Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge is note-perfect, stunningly original and just flat-out great.
While the stories are dark Southern Gothic, the characters are so acutely drawn that they transcend setting. We all have encountered the self-absorbed idiot intellectual Julian of the title story—perhaps we even were him for a while when the ink was still wet on our Masters. How many smug, self-righteous Mrs. May’s, gored by a bull in “Greenleaf,” have populated our neighborhoods? Then there’s the moral outrage of Thomas in “The Comforts of Home” combusting with the smoldering sexuality of Star Drake.
Although O’Connor’s novels were, for me, clumsy affairs, when reading her short stories you’ll know you’re in the deft hands of a virtuoso. These stories will amuse, astound and stun you sleepless.
If Joyce invented the short story, Saunders reinvented it with Tenth of December. Strike that—He didn’t just reinvent it, he blew it up, shook it down and reassembled the smithereens into something so completely unique and compelling and dazzling I was nearly left in thrombosis. Okay, not an actual thrombosis but maybe a state of joyful apoplexy.
Seriously, people, is there a better, more topical, more heart-rending story in this cannon of ours than the “Semplica Girl Diaries”? I don’t think so . . . except maybe “Tenth of December” or “Victory Lap.”
So much has been written about the genius of George Saunders that I don’t need to add to the blather—just read the damn thing. Or read it again if you already have. It’s the shit.
Thanks, Christopher! See a personal favorite or anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Lee Kriel)
Wes Moore's The Work, his latest book after the haunting and fascinating The Other Wes Moore, focuses on finding purpose in life and work. Our reviewer writes, "These stories underscore Moore’s point that the meaning of life is clearer when we are willing to serve others, whether as an inner-city principal or a social entrepreneur. The Work will resonate with people seeking their own purpose in life." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Moore has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
This is a wonderfully compelling book about the subtle, yet life-altering changes our choices and circumstances make.
I love the constant battle between proving a model while always challenging it. The work we do with BridgeEdU and reinventing the freshman year of college takes a lot of lessons from this book.
This book had me from the beginning with the Confucius quote: “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it, is committing another mistake.” Enough said.
Thank you, Wes! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Amun Ankhra)
Ravi Howard's second novel, Driving the King, follows Nat King Cole's African-American friend and driver, Nat Weary, as he navigates the discriminatory and oftentimes cruel world of 1950s America. Our reviewer writes, "Through unfussy language and well-formed characters, Howard takes readers of all races, ages and classes into the world of pre-civil rights era black people, offering insight on and understanding of one of our country’s most tumultuous periods." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Howard has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
I admired the way Jackon split the first-person narration between a mother and son, because this turned the novel into a chapter-by-chapter conversation. I’ve never been to Portland, Oregon, so I saw the city through Mitchell’s rendering. The visual storytelling was as strong as the language, so the writing showed the toll drug addiction took on these lives and voices. The writer Albert Murray once described a “spyglass tree,” where characters find a place to show what they observe, remember and imagine. That approach is very much alive in Jackson's work.
Of the many moments that stuck with me from this short story collection was when a young woman, Rosa, saw a beach she’d never visited by closing her eyes in a bathtub and listening to her lover, Yauba, describe it to her—the memory of one lived in the imagination of another. What I admired in these stories of migration, family and love was the way that feelings and memories became currency. Gautier’s characters moved through Puerto Rico and New York, and their notions of home were a function of distance, race and love. Even favorite songs of characters had nice layers of weight and longing. I enjoyed the way the stories were strong individually and had a nice chorus effect when read together.
I heard Rita Dove read from this book of poetry in New York in 1999. It was one of those readings that helped sustain my resolve to write. In “Testimonial,” Dove writes, How could I count my blessings when I didn’t know their names? I enjoy the notion of historical narratives honoring those names. Like most folks, I was more familiar with Rosa Parks than Claudette Colvin, a teenager who was arrested months before Parks’ arrest. The poems show both women as well as the harshness and elegance of that time. Being from Montgomery, I used Dove’s work as a lesson in making a setting feel like someone’s home. Like the work of Mitchell Jackson and Amina Gautier, the writing gave me an insider’s experience of these spaces and moments.
Thank you, Ravi! See any books you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Beri Irving)
Our Top Pick in Nonfiction for January is Elena Gorokhova's second memoir, Russian Tattoo. In it, Gorokhova explores her identity as a Russian immigrant to America and her often difficult relationships with her mother and daughter. Our reviewer writes, "If Elena Gorokhova’s splendid second memoir merely conveyed to readers a vivid, almost visceral understanding of the sometimes paralyzing sense of dislocation she experienced arriving in the United States in 1980 from the Soviet Union, that alone would be reason enough to read it." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Gorokhova has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
It is difficult, at first glance, to connect the three books I would like to recommend. They belong to different genres and appeal to different audiences, yet they share common threads: these books don’t offer neat resolutions, and they are—in one way or another—about Russia, my insane and complicated Motherland.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is a graphic novel by the Russian-born Anya Ulinich, a story of a 37-year-old divorced immigrant from St. Petersburg not unlike the author herself. It is a complex journey of searching for love, told in striking drawings and hand-written dialogue. Lena is a self-described “toddler of relationship experience,” and we read about her encounters with different men until she falls in love. Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is both hilarious and heartbreaking. When a professor in St. Petersburg asks the protagonist why she paints such an unflattering portrait of Russia in her novel, Lena replies, “I paint unflattering portraits of everything.” She is self-doubting and self-effacing, and there is no happy ending to this story. “No one truly arrives. We just nudge each other along muddy ruts of suffering, occasionally peeking over the edges of our ruts in search of a better way.”
In Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Karen Dawisha describes Putin’s rise to power. With the help of exhaustive evidence from multifarious sources, Dawisha argues that Putin and his KGB cronies, terrified by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, did everything in their power to restore the authoritarian state. The author painstakingly shows how Putin, using mafia and KGB methods, systematically destroyed the emerging democratic systems in post-communist Russia by politicizing the courts, fanning nationalism and xenophobia, and launching an unprecedentedly massive disinformation campaign. “… from the beginning Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal,” Dawisha writes. It is appalling and frightening to witness Russia being ruled by a gang of KGB thugs who have shamelessly and deliberately robbed my country of wealth, dignity and the world’s respect.
In The Master of Petersburg, J.M. Coetzee writes from the point of view of Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom the author immerses into the abyss of grief and despair after the death of his son. Having combined the plot line of Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed (also translated as Demons) with the facts of Dostoevsky’s own life, Coetzee creates a multi-layered narrative that examines the process of writing. The Master of Petersburg is set in the Haymarket district of my hometown where Dostoevsky lived—only a few blocks from where I grew up—with its smells of “cabbage and boiled beef” and “evenings thick with the hum of mosquitoes.” In a classically Russian way, Coetzee travels “to the dark side of the soul,” capturing the relentless melancholy of Russian life. In this novel, as in all Coetzee’s work, there are no closures, no tidy endings. As the dark, tragic event of his son’s death becomes Dostoevsky’s material for creating art, the writer realizes in the end that he has “to give up his soul in return.”
Thank you, Elena! Readers, do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
Meghan Daum's collection of searingly honest essays, The Unspeakable, is our Top Pick in Nonfiction for December. Her first collection, My Misspent Youth, expertly zeroed in on the collective feelings of a generation, and Daum doesn't disappoint in her latest as she fearlessly explores life nearing middle age. Our reviewer writes, "The Unspeakable is a stunner of a book about settling into one’s skin." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Daum has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Recently I watched the HBO documentary Regarding Susan Sontag and that put me on a Sontag binge. I reread Notes on Camp and Illness as Metaphor, as well as Sigrid Nunez’s slender, perfect memoir Sempre Susan, about her experience living with Sontag in the 1970s. I’ve also been reading a lot of really great stuff I can’t tell you about yet—advanced readers copies of some terrific novels that will come out next year, as well as a couple of memoirs that should make a splash when their publication times come. One I can hint at is Bernard Cooper’s My Avant Garde Education. On the surface it’s a coming-of-age story about going to art school. But it’s really an inquiry into the way that aesthetics can shape our identities and how (forgive me if this sounds twee; there’s really no other way to say it) the visual can become the visceral. It’s quite original and magnificent, and it’ll be out in February.
In the meantime, since I’ve been championing the essay lately, here are a few of my favorite books of essays.
The 10 essays in this 2010 collection are dazzling, wicked and somehow both terribly sad and fundamentally joyful. Rakoff, who wrote in this book that his “internal age” was “somewhere between 47 and 53 years old,” died of cancer in 2012—at 47. Often compared to David Sedaris, not least of all because his name was also David, Rakoff’s work is just as funny as Sedaris’ but also darker and slyer and imbued with the wisdom of someone who was born internally middle-aged.
I don’t know what it says that the first two books on this list are by writers who died from cancer within a year of each other. Hitch, who died in late 2011, was often exasperating and sometimes wrong, but never anything less than brilliant. Half-drunk on bourbon, he still wrote circles around anyone amped up on black coffee.
You might know Als from his recent book, White Girls, and his criticism in The New Yorker. But before all that, back in 1996, Als published The Women, an extended essay—or perhaps three long essays—about the influence of three major figures in his life and how their complicated, conflicted relationships to their own race and gender identities helped imprint his own. Each time I read it, I still say to myself “I’ve never read a book quite like this.”
Thank you Meghan! Readers, do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
(Author photo by David Zaugh)