Deborah Harkness is a busy woman. A professor of history at the University of Southern California, Harkness somehow managed to write a bestselling trilogy in between classes. The enormously popular All Souls fantasy series comes to a close with the final installment, The Book of Life. In our interview with Harkness, our interviewer remarks that the trilogy is an "addictive blend of history, science, romance and fantasy that chronicles the complicated relationship between a witch named Diana Bishop and a vampire named Matthew de Clairmont." (Read the full interview here, and a few extra tidbits we couldn't fit into the print issue here.)
We were curious about the books Harkness has enjoyed reading, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve been so busy writing and teaching lately that I haven’t been able to do much reading for pleasure. So I’m going to have to fall back on three of my favorite books—books that I’ve read and re-read and can recommend with enthusiasm. They may not make a list of literary classics, but these are my desert island books. So long as I have these three books, I’d be perfectly occupied for years.
Gone With the Wind
By Margaret Mitchell
I first picked up Mitchell’s classic book because it was so thick I knew it would keep me busy for days. There was no library in town, and the Bookmobile only came once a week so you had to plan carefully. No matter how many times I read it, I still wonder how the book will end. It’s exactly the kind of character-driven storytelling that I most adore, with two unlikeable central characters and a huge supporting cast. If you’ve only seen the movie, read the book. It is a very different experience, I promise.
By Anya Seton
The true confessions continue. My mother recommended this book to me when I was a history-mad teenager. She had loved it and thought I would enjoy it, too. She was right. I absolutely adored the story of Katherine Swynford’s illicit relationship with one of the most powerful men in medieval England. Katherine is a smart, politically astute heroine who knows her limitations as well as her strengths. It’s a terrific read.
The Game of Kings
By Dorothy Dunnett
My undergraduate advisor suggested I read this—after I finished my honors thesis. She was right not to tell me about it before the thing was filed, or I wouldn’t have graduated. Dorothy Dunnett’s sprawling, epic Crawford of Lymond Chronicles (this if the first of six volumes) and its House of Niccolò prequels (eight volumes) kept me going through my first year of full-time employment and for many years after that. The Game of Kings is set in 16th century Scotland and is so well researched that I have been known to recommend parts of the trilogy to students who are confused about what happened at the Battle of Lepanto. Crawford of Lymond is another adoringly unlikeable main character, and the dialogue and plot move at a blistering pace. You will never keep all the twists and turns straight—don’t even try. Just settle in and enjoy the read.
Have you read any of Harkness' favorites?
(Author Photo by Scarlett Freund)
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?