We love books about books, bookstores, book lovers—anything to do with books! In Gabrielle Zevin's new novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the titular character is the prickly proprietor of a seen-better-days bookstore—Island Books—whose life is turned upside-down . . . in a good way. The enchanting book has a little of everything: romance, books, friendships, second chances. Read our interview with Zevin about it.
We were curious about the books Zevin has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
The Sisters Brothers
By Patrick DeWitt
When I was in college, I read that Vladimir Nabokov loved Westerns, and because I loved Nabokov, I thought I should make a point to read Westerns, too. For years, I’ve struggled through Westerns, but I don’t think I’ve ever truly enjoyed one until The Sisters Brothers. I loved reading about Eli Sisters’ struggles with oral hygiene, weight and romance. I wept for his horse, Tub. After a long dry spell, this is the Western I have always wanted to read.
My Accidental Jihad
By Krista Bremer
I ended up reading My Accidental Jihad because I met the author, Krista Bremer, at a book event. I’m not sure I would have read the book if I hadn’t met her. That one provocative word in the title might have led me to make assumptions about what kind of story this was going to be. In a way, this is the point of such a title. Though the word has a specific connotation to an American reader, jihad, as Bremer explains, means struggle. The context of this memoir is Bremer’s marriage to an older, Libyan, Muslim man, but at the heart of the story are the issues with which many women struggle: feminism, spirituality, love and children. The book is gently humorous, too: At one point, Bremer’s young daughter gives a Western makeover to a Muslim Barbie doll. [Look for our review of My Accidental Jihad in our May issue.]
Not so long ago, I wrote a Young Adult series, and to an extent, the writing of it burnt me out on ever wanting to read another one. That said, I was irresistibly drawn to the premise of The Winner’s Curse. A young noblewoman buys a slave, and then the two slowly fall in love. But how can she love a person whom she owns, and vice versa? This is a fascinating book, with interesting things to say about race, class, gender, history and power. In an odd way, it reminded of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. I can’t think of a more perfect, provocative read for a mother-daughter book club.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry—or any of Zevin's recommended books—to your TBR list?
Peter Stark has an affinity for adventure—whether it's writing about it or engaging in it himself. His latest book, Astoria, chronicles John Jacob Astor's early 19th-century attempt to settle the frontier of the Pacific Northwest by financing two expeditions—one by land, the other by sea—to the remote region. A couple of the adjectives featured in our review of the book are "sweeping" and "spellbinding." Check out the full review right here.
We were curious about the books Stark has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend some recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
In the course of doing research for a book like Astoria, which my agent has called “historical adventure,” I find myself reading bits and pieces of all sorts of works of nonfiction, as well as explorers’ journals and memoirs, history, anthropology and many other eclectic subjects.
But here are a few of the nonfiction books I’ve read (or am in the course of reading), and enjoyed recently, that weren’t directly related to research:
FORGET ME NOT
By Jennifer Lowe-Anker
The author was married to one of the world’s best-known mountain climbers, American Alex Lowe, and is a passionate artist as well as outdoorswoman in her own right. The couple climbed together; they traveled together; and they had a family of three boys together. While Jennifer took on the role of mother, Alex continued to travel around the world for long stretches, pursuing his passion for climbing, out of which he had made a career. In 1999, he was killed in an avalanche while climbing in Tibet, leaving behind Jennifer and their three young sons in Montana. One of his closest friends, and climbing partners, Conrad Anker, survived the avalanche. Their shared grief over Alex’s death brought Conrad and Jennifer closer together, and eventually they married, with Conrad helping to raise the three boys.
As a writer of adventure and exploration, and adventurer in my own right, as well as a father, I was attracted to Jennifer Lowe-Anker’s story. It offers a deeply personal insight into the risks and rewards of pursuing a life of adventure in the outdoors.
THE FOOTLOOSE AMERICAN: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America
By Brian Kevin
Kevin takes to the road in the footsteps of Thompson’s yearlong, 1963 journey through South America, in which Thompson sent some of his first dispatches back to publications in the U.S. There’s a certain eerieness in witnessing the young Thompson’s observations and experiences abroad, knowing, as we do, the role he would have in shaping the “new journalism” over the next several decades and what he branded “gonzo journalism.” It seems odd to call the young Thompson “innocent,” but there are glimmers of it in some of his dispatches and letters, as well as the beginnings of the provocative, confrontational stance he would adopt in print in subsequent years. Kevin also provides an intriguing modern-day travelogue to the places that Thompson visited, places where I haven’t been, but have wondered about.
By Ted Tally
This is actually a play, not a book. I’ve been interested in the dramatic possibilities of explorers’ stories, and an actor friend, Jeremy Sher, recommended I read this play. Based in part on letters and journals, it follows the Scott party in the early 1900s in its valiant British attempt to reach the South Pole before a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen, and especially focuses on the fatal return journey where the Antarctic winter caught Scott and his deteriorating men. I’ve been curious to see how dialogue and flashbacks can capture the spirit and the context of one of the great adventure stories of our time.
AMERICAN SPHINX: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
By Joseph J. Ellis
I’ve read a good deal of Jefferson biography, and I read this one specifically while researching Astoria. While it doesn’t cover in any depth the expeditions Jefferson launched to the West, which has been my focus, American Sphinx gives a multidimensional character portrait of the man who shaped so much of the North American political geography. I also love the title, which, for Jefferson, is utterly appropriate.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding Astoria—or any of Stark's recommended books—to your TBR list?
(Author photo by Amy Ragsdale)
In The Story of Charlotte's Web, it was E.B. White. In his new book, The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, accomplished nature writer Michael Sims turns his eye to one of 19th-century America's most iconic figures. Our reviewer deems the book—which focuses on Thoreau's youth—"an amiable and fresh take on the legendary sage of Walden Pond." (Read the full review right here.)
We were curious about the books Sims has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
The Ghost in the Glass House
By Carey Wallace
I read a lot of children's and YA books, and lately my trend has been ghost stories. Most have been picked up randomly at library book sales—excellent older stories such as Betty Ren Wright’s The Dollhouse Murders and Colby F. Rodowsky’s The Gathering Room. But I've just read a fine new one by Carey Wallace, the author of the gorgeous 2010 novel The Blind Contessa's New Machine. Her first YA novel is elegant, witty, poignant and just as rich for adults. During the Jazz Age, 12-year-old Clare Fitzgerald travels with her wealthy, restless mother from hotel to rented house, from Europe to the United States. The mother is on the edge of having to address her demons, the daughter on the edge of adolescence. Then Clare meets Jack—or rather his ghost.
Wallace writes beautifully: “The unfinished walls were hung with a whole museum of curiosities: garden tools with handles rubbed smooth as driftwood, a pail full of the stubs of beeswax tapers, a few of Mack’s work shirts, soft with age, and a neat collection of herbs tied with scraps of ribbon and labeled. . . . As Clare’s eyes adjusted, she realized the shadows beyond the jars were full of roses, dozens of them, dried and stacked bloom to bloom like the skulls Clare’s mother had taken her to see, packed cheek to cheek in the Paris catacombs.”
By Marcel Proust, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, revised and annotated by William C. Carter
I’m always rereading. I reread my favorite writers from childhood and everything else that I love: Kenneth Grahame, Jim Kjelgaard, Ruth Rendell, Dickens, Rilke, Hazlitt, Kevin Henkes, Philip Pullman, Annie Dillard, Thoreau, E. B. White, Beverly Cleary, Ovid, Raymond Chandler, Homer. Currently I’m re-reading Swann’s Way, which I’ve read twice before in its entirety and dozens of times in pieces. I’ve read the whole vast In Search of Lost Time, originally in the Moncrieff (and Kilmartin & Co.) translation, and I’m working my way through it a second time now in the multi-translator Penguin edition from several years ago. Now, thanks to this annotated revision of Moncrieff, I find myself returning again to the first volume. It’s a handsome deckle-edged trade paperback with crisp type, broad margins, and helpful annotations by the foremost biographer of Proust in English, William C. Carter (who is rivaled only by Jean-Yves Tadie, whose French masterwork was translated by Euon Cameron). Most importantly, it’s a full revision of Moncrieff, with endless corrections and thus a spectrum of restored nuances. Also it’s easy to hold in bed. And it smells great, which is only appropriate.
I read Proust for his psychological insight and his breadth of vision, but mostly for the cinematography. Has any other writer so beautifully captured the fleeting experience of everyday life? “For many years have now elapsed since the Combray days, when, coming in from the longest and latest of walks, I would still be in time to see the red reflections of the sunset in the panes of my bedroom window.”
The Letters of Pliny the Younger
I’m reading these vivid, lively, elegant letters in a sturdy red cloth edition from the original 1909 set of Harvard Classics. I grew up in the country in eastern Tennessee and never made it to college. The seeds of my personal library were the 50-odd volumes of the Harvard Classics, which I bought in a cardboard box at a library book sale for four dollars when I was in my mid-20s. I’m still reading and re-reading them.
They include Pliny’s account of the death of his esteemed uncle, now called Pliny the Elder, and a terrifying eyewitness account of the latter’s death during the eruption of Vesuvius, because he was determined to get closer to the volcano and understand what was happening. The letters provide a time-machine panorama of the intellectual, moral, and social issues dominating Roman life in the first century. They make me want to write about this era. Pliny also brings to life his ordinary days and the surprising comfort of his villa: “Adjoining this angle is a room forming the segment of a circle, the windows of which are so arranged as to get the sun all through the day: in the walls are contrived a sort of cases, containing a collection of authors who can never be read too often. Next to this is a bed-room, connected with it by a raised passage furnished with pipes, which supply, at a wholesome temperature, and distribute to all parts of this room, the heat they receive. . . .”
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding The Adventures of Henry Thoreau—or any of Sims' recommended books—to your TBR list?
(Author photo by Lauren Sloan Patterson)
Bich Minh Nguyen's enthralling second novel, Pioneer Girl, offers a version of the immigrant experience that's different from the one we usually read about: the Middle America Asian-American experience. Our interview with Nguyen about Pioneer Girl highlights the fascinating inspiration behind the book, also offering a peek into her creative process.
We were curious about the books Nguyen has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Happiness, Like Water
By Chinelo Okparanta
I love the distilled experience of reading short stories, and Okparanta’s debut collection is powerful and heartbreaking in the best way. Set in Nigeria and the United States, the stories follow characters struggling in their relationships, families, and social and political circumstances. The question of identity, especially for women, is always at the forefront, as in two of my favorite stories here, “On Ohaeto Street,” about a couple’s doomed marriage, and “America,” about a woman whose decision to emigrate creates hope but also signals the loss of family heritage.
Son of a Gun
By Justin St. Germain
I recently taught this memoir, which is as clear-eyed, beautiful and intense as one could hope for in a work of nonfiction. While St. Germain focuses the narrative on his search for understanding in the years after his mother’s murder, he also reflects on the landscape of Tombstone, Arizona, and its culture of myth-making and violence. With restraint and care, St. Germain weaves together ideas about past and present, rage and stillness, loss and reinvention.
By Natalie Baszile
I just started this lovely and absorbing novel about a mother and daughter who move from Los Angeles to Louisiana, drawn by an inheritance of 800 acres of sugarcane land. The farming life and the Southern country life are completely unfamiliar to Charley Bordelon and her daughter Micah, and they have to learn quickly. Much is on the line here, as Charley feels like this is her one big chance to start over and make a life for herself and Micah. And there’s a tantalizing mystery, too: Who was Charley’s father? Why did he leave all this land to her? I can’t wait to see how the stories and secrets unfold.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding Pioneer Girl—or any of Nguyen's recommended books—to your TBR list?