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?
Laila Lalami's latest novel, The Moor's Account, expands upon the life of Mustafa, one of the four survivors of a 1527 Spanish-led expedition to the New World. Mustafa, a Moroccan slave, struggled to survive for eight years before finally reaching a Spanish settlement, yet his phenomenal story was never written down. In The Moor's Account, Lalami imagines what Mustafa might have to say about his prolonged search for Western civilization. Our reviewer writes that in the novel, "fact and fantasy coalesce in a masterful story that shines a new light on one of the darkest eras of history." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Lalami has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
Last summer, I spent ten blissful days in Wyoming with my family. We hiked through Grand Teton National Park, a place of breathtaking natural beauty. But every night I would curl up in bed with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which imagines a future in which global warming has destroyed many of our cities, genetically engineered animals are created, and an incurable disease overwhelms humanity. The last human on earth, a hermit by the name of Snowman, struggles to survive in what has become an environmentally dangerous world. He tends to the only other survivors—the Crakers, a bioengineered species of people who resemble humans in appearance but not in desires or instincts. Oryx and Crake is a gripping novel, keenly characterized and carefully plotted. It is rich in detail and made me think in new ways about class, science and faith.
When my daughter turned 10, I started reading classics to her. So far, we’ve made our way through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, and a few others. It’s been a joy for me to go back to books I haven’t read in many years and to witness my daughter’s discovery of them. Right now, we’re reading The Great Gatsby. It’s an easy book to love because all the characters in it are so flawed and so real. Gatsby has everything, but he pines only for Daisy’s love. Daisy is beautiful and sophisticated, but she is also fickle and selfish. Their doomed love affair is told to us by Nick Carraway, a keen and reflective outsider. A wonderful book.
I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s essays and criticism online for many years. She writes well on a wide range of topics: feminism, gender, race, sexuality, sexual violence, politics, privilege and pop culture. So this summer I was really excited to get Bad Feminist, which collects many of her essays on these subjects. In the book, she explores why so many young women today are afraid of the label ‘Feminist’ and she makes a case for why it’s important to own the label, while also accepting a pluralistic notion of feminism. This book brims with intelligence and honesty, and I’ve already recommended it to many friends. A must-read.
Thanks, Laila! Readers, do you think you'll be picking up any of these suggestions?
(Author photo by Alexander Yera)
Katy Simpson Smith's eloquent debut, The Story of Land and Sea, follows three generations of a family as they struggle, each in their own way, to come to terms with the premature loss of a young woman, Helen. Set in the twilight of the Revolutionary War, this story of love and grief follows those Helen left behind— her father, husband, daughter and former slave. Our reviewer writes that the novel is "a striking debut novel that reads like poetry and will linger like mythology." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Smith has enjoyed reading, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
I got to hear Trethewey read from her work at the New Orleans Public Library a couple of years ago, and it was so inspiring to see a fellow Mississippian tackling our past with such bravery and beauty. I read a lot of poetry, but rarely does it reflect my own complex corner of the world. Reading is about accessing new lands, unimagined lives—that’s the pleasure it gives us, especially when we find the familiar there—but sometimes it feels good to see your own self clearly in the mirror of the words. Trethewey weaves the past with the present, blacks with whites, and concocts a nuanced version of race and history that reminds us of all the wrongs that still need addressing. The poem recounting the trials of the all-black Louisiana Native Guards during the Civil War is alone worth the price of admission. And Trethewey was the U.S. Poet Laureate, which we’ll be telling our Mississippi kids for generations to come.
This slim book was found at a used bookstore’s going-out-of-business sale (alas), read by my mother, and then passed along to me. It’s a charmingly wry narrative about a small community of people living on barges on the Thames in the 1960s, and if you have any preconceptions about what kinds of people live on barges, Fitzgerald will overturn them. One of her many talents is animating characters with no more than a few keen swipes of description; thus, in under 150 pages, we can know a half-dozen characters intimately. My favorites are the two young sisters, one half-wild and one surprisingly demure, who run from barge to barge across unsteady planks and spend their evenings stopping up leaks; and their cat Stripey, who stalks the boats “in a kind of nautical crawl, with her stomach close to the deck, as though close-furled and ready for dirty weather.” There is as little plot as there are stable dwellings, but the humor alone, both mordant and sweet, makes this a book to cherish.
I seemed to have missed this when it was assigned in high schools across America (though I also missed junior-year English altogether, so maybe that’s where it was lurking), but I finally got around to this masterwork of race and political identity. (I blame the delay on its forbiddingly tiny typeface in my 1952 paperback edition.) While it didn’t hold my love throughout, especially after the narrator left the surreal and provocative South, the first few chapters made me entirely re-imagine what fiction can do, what images a writer can present to a reader, and with what effect. The scene where boys are forced to scrabble for fake coins on an electrified rug! After almost every page, I had to stop and say, “Katy, you need to be a better writer.” This reaction, which is regular, is what makes me adore reading so.
Thank you, Katy! Have you read any of her suggested picks?
(Author photo by Elise Smith)
I cut my activist teeth in the Southern Civil Rights movement, so I've long been interested in how we humans respond to institutionalized evil. Given this, I considered it majorly serendipitous that I read these two books one after the other: Strange Glory as preparation for interviewing Charles Marsh; and Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, because I saw Francine Prose had a new book out and couldn’t imagine not reading it. Both these books are studies of people up against the institutionalized evil of Fascism.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose, sprang (according to Prose) from a Brassai photograph she saw at a museum show in Washington. It begins in Paris, is told in different voices, and progresses through the Second World War. Hitler sits solidly at the center of the action (he actually appears briefly) like an evil, all-powerful toad. Lovers is driven by each character's response to the Fuhrer's expanding power. To resist or to join in: that is the question. Prose's novel is a study in how, in the end, each of us can only do that which we are in our wounded and damaged hearts.
As someone raised agnostic in the southern Bible Belt who got prayed over in elementary school for my beliefs, I have long been a fan of Mr. Bonheoffer, a Protestant theologian and Nazi-resister, and his theologically-inspired courage. But I didn't really get a feel for the man himself until I read Strange Glory. Charles Marsh had access to boxes and boxes of Bondhoeffer's personal stuff, out of which he lifts a strangely endearing and complex human being who evolves from a stiff intellectual into a pretty wily subversive. I mean, who knew that Dietrich Bonheoffer, martyred for his faith, was also quite the dandy?
My gym buddy, Mike Riordan, Professor of Accounting at James Madison University, has long managed my Netflix selections, but The Son was the first book he ever told me to read. Suffice it to say, I will be following Mike's literary orders in the future.
The Son tells the story of one Texas family across many generations. Yes, its scope is sprawling. But what blew me away—and no, that is not too strong a descriptive—is how much I missed Meyer's characters once I had (dadgum it!) finished his novel. Bless Ecco Press for publishing an 800-plus page novel and so giving Meyer's enough space not only to tell his great big story, but to populate it with people detailed enough to allow me to miss them. Philipp Meyer's character development is flat-out delicious.
Do any of Woodroof's suggestions pique your interest?
(Author photo by Charles Woodroof)
Do you remember life before the internet? Most of us still recall, if not vaguely, the days before our boredom could be instantly assuaged by cat videos. But what will in mean to future generations, when they truly do not remember a world without cellphones and the internet? In the very-near future, will there be such a thing as being alone? Michael Harris explores these questions in The End of Absence. Our reviewer writes: "Harris’ book is a sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing look at the relationships we have with the technology in our lives, as well as the human beings we know and love and increasingly view through the lens of our various technologies." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Harris has enjoyed reading, so we asked him to recommend three favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
I try to buy everything Anne Carson publishes; this obsession began a dozen years ago when I saw her read some poems at U.B.C. (She has this oracular way of speaking. . .) The writing itself is bracing and new in a way that always kicks my ass in the best possible way. Most recently, she published this little 44-page cahier called Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, which includes an essay about the complicating gaps (physical and metaphysical) that show up when we try to translate things. She drives her point home (hilariously and brilliantly) by delivering multiple translations of a poetic fragment from the Greek writer Ibykos: one translation uses only words found on London Underground signage, another only uses words found in her microwave’s manual. . . you get the idea. She’s weird and weirdly wonderful. Then again, if you haven’t discovered Anne Carson at all, you’ll want to begin with her heartbreaking (and more straight-forward) novel Autobiography of Red, which takes the tale of Hercules and Geryon (the red monster Hercules slays) and turns it into the oddest, most beautiful (and modernized) romance.
The French have always known that graphic novels are for grown-ups. Americans (and Canadians) are just starting to catch on. Myself, I’ve been tearing through realist work by Jillian Tamaki and Craig Thompson—beautiful writers both, but they left me hankering for a proper adventure story. So it was great to discover Delilah Dirk, a popcorn-on-the-couch tale that straddles adult and teenage markets. Delilah Dirk is a swashbuckler in the classic sense—cocky, lovable and deadly. But she’s also a decidedly female hero. She ransacks an early 19th century Turkey, confounding the male authorities that seek to imprison her. And, on a meta-level, she’s also ransacking a male-dominated genre, of course. The titular lieutenant, Selim, is her hapless sidekick, whom Cliff wisely keeps from becoming a love interest—or maybe he’s just holding off till book two comes out (in a year or so). It doesn’t hurt that Cliff is a masterful artist, too; the drawing is lush and propulsive (probably because the guy has a background in Vancouver’s bustling animation scene). A seriously special debut.
This one isn’t exactly new, but I keep coming back to it. A couple of years ago, I asked Douglas Coupland which technology writer I should read, and he immediately started rummaging through his shelves and thrust this book into my hands. I’m forever grateful for the introduction. Gleick is one of the smartest technology writers at work today and this hefty history traces the emergence of the Information Age all the way back to African talking drums (nothing like a little perspective). All the heroes of information theory and media studies are here, including Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, Samuel Morse and Ada Byron. Gleick makes their twisting, complicated work completely accessible without dumbing things down—and the book’s a joy to read, too. The thing is packed with fascinating anecdotes: there’s Napoleon’s announcement of his son’s birth across a country-wide network of “telegraphs,” which aren’t what you think; and then there’s the woman who tried to wire her son a plate of food. . . It’s the sort of book that’ll become a mandatory text once universities and high schools wise up and start creating more Critical Media Studies programs.
Thank you, Michael! Readers, do you think you'll be picking up any of his suggestions?
(Author photo by Hudson Hayden)
Usually, the magic happens on Christmas Eve. But not in Marie-Helene Bertino's debut novel, 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, in which the eve of Christmas Eve proves to be a pivotal night for almost-10-years-old Madeleine Altimari. Her goal is to become a jazz star, and she sets out to find the infamous club The Cat's Pajamas and make her debut. Our reviewer writes: "Bertino’s prose easily dips in and out of the lives of her characters as she weaves them together, including insight into secondary figures at each turn. With vivid description and great character development, Bertino brings Philadelphia and its inhabitants to life in an unforgettable tale." (Read the full review here).
We were curious about the books Bertino has enjoyed reading, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
I confess: I am a slow-ish, picky reader. I would rather read Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters for the hundredth time than just about anything—I’m that kind of bird. Maybe it’s because I find it difficult to turn my editor’s mind off—I am always twisting and turning words as I’m reading them. Those books that are able to turn my mind off secure my lifelong devotion. Here are three of them.
A book for dreamers and originals:
By Deb Olin Unferth
I can’t remember what fortuitous circumstance led Deb Olin Unferth’s work into my path, but the very first time I read it, I was gobsmacked. She can be wildly specific, totally universal and make a miraculous reversal, all in one line. In the story called “Deb Olin Unferth,” she places a fingertip on every person’s fear (every writer, at least), and presses. In “La Pena,” the unraveling of a couple’s relationship is chronicled in a shatteringly beautiful anecdote. Deb has lines that hold the whole world in them. But, she also has lines like:
He held my hand and we were brave.
I’ve read and taught this collection many times, but it still always manages to surprise me.
I’ve owned this book for several years but it wasn’t until a recent vacation that I chucked it into my suitcase thinking I’d give it a try. The first voice in the book, main character Leopold Gurtsky, frustrated me, charmed me, and held me rapt. By the time I met the second main character, Alma, I knew I was involved with something very special. Kraus reveals decades of pain while leaving room for life’s lightness. Even the physical pages feel important. The History of Love contains some brilliant musings on devotion and aging, and contains an anecdote about a telephone made out of two cans and string that you could read at your wedding. No matter how skillful the body of a book, its overall success is tied up in the way it lands. The last few pages don’t just satisfy, they soar.
A book for all time:
The Little Prince
By Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Little Prince is a baffling and perfect book. It works on the line level, the story level, the character level, the level of insight, and the last level that has no name but is the most essential, if you will—the quality Hemingway referred to as “what butterflies have on their wings.” It also has the #1 dedication ever written. I still struggle with the “lesson” the fox teaches the pint-sized main character, that if you “tame” something, you make it special. Every time I read the book I am newly distressed by that word, “tame.” Yet, at the heart of The Little Prince is an author who understood something about human beings that goes unnoticed by most. Saint Exupery’s exactness makes my exact mind delight. He tried many different manifestations of its most famous line. Can you imagine how the meaning of the book would have changed if he had gone with one of the following?
What can be seen does not matter.
What is important is always somewhere else.
What is important is always invisible.
Both Antoine de Saint-Exupery and another of my favorite writers, Roald Dahl, were pilots. In a biography filmed about the latter, a researcher wondered if the cramped space of a cockpit counter-intuitively sparked an expansiveness of imagination. Dahl famously wrote in a small house on his property, on a wooden lap tray that constricted movement, until he died. I think about this sometimes when I am in my sacred, cramped apartment.
Do any of Bertino's books pique your interest?
(Author photo by Ted Dodson)
John Bemelmans Marciano has had quite the varied career as an author. The grandson of the creator of Madeline, Marciano is known for his children's books, and now, he has written a book exploring why America never took a shine to the metric system. Whatever Happened to the Metric System? is an intriguing look into the history and ramifications of America's inability (or refusal) to adopt a more universal style of measurement. Our reviewer writes that the metric system might seem like "weighty stuff, but the gifted Marciano makes light work of it." (Read the full review here.)
Blood Brotherhoods: A History of Italy’s Three Mafias
By John Dickie
This is an epic update of Dickie’s earlier, excellent book on the history of the Sicilian Mafia, Cosa Nostra. This new volume encompasses all of southern Italy, bringing into account both the Neapolitan Camorra and the ferocious ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian organization recently discovered to be the worst—and most far-reaching—of all Italy’s criminal societies. Written with righteous and at-times feverish indignation, Dickie strips away all romanticism from the mafias and brings out their squalid truth. Happily, the British academic is able to do so with such verve and style that the text never feels like a lecture.
Through the Woods
By Emily Carroll
Carroll sparkled in her contribution to First Second’s brilliant anthology, Fairy Tale Comics. Her debut graphic novel is most definitely for adults, though it is not so much a novel as a collection of short stories. That said, these tales of gothic horror visited upon individuals in isolated places build upon one another, opening with the quiet danger of “Our Neighbor’s House” and reaching a crescendo in the gross-out conclusion of “The Nesting Place.” Carroll’s art is spare in palette and line, but her textured backgrounds shows a searching tendency to throw everything against the wall, adding to the aching beauty and tension of her work. Her text is similarly economical, ideal in its weight to the pictures and adding strong poetic accompaniment to the imagery. Carroll offers little explanation for what is going on, but by the end you feel like you have been on a most satisfying—and harrowing—sensory ride.
In the Land of Invented Languages
By Anita Okrent
Of all the books and articles I read in researching my latest book, Okrent’s was the guiltiest pleasure. The drive for creating a universal language came out of the same mentality and had many of the same supporters as those who succeeded in spreading the metric system and the gold standard. Okrent searches out the movement's obscure roots in the 17th century, hits its apogee with Volapuk and Esperanto, and brings the reader up to present day by placing herself at the scene of Klingon language conferences. Informative and funny—the two things I like best in my books.
Will you be picking up Whatever Happened to the Metric System or any of Marciano's suggested reads?
(Author photo by Andromache Chalfant)
A chain of names leads to a chain of murders in Timothy Hallinan's latest hardboiled mystery, Herbie's Game. When a list of names linking back to a burglary goes missing, people on the list start popping up dead. Professional crook and sometimes detective Junior Bender takes up the case, and soon discovers that his recently murdered mentor and father-figure might not be all he claimed to be. Our reviewer says of the book: "With complex characters, spicy dialogue, clever plot devices and a liberal dose of humor—as is always the case with Hallinan—Herbie’s Game is a fine read." (Read the full review here.)
Murakami is my favorite living novelist, and he has a new book coming out in a month or two, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, so I went back to his most recent book to get ready for the new one–sort of like a wind sprint in preparation for a race. Murakami is a dazzler and a magician: his books are as much cascades of imagination as they are conventionally organized stories. A young Tokyo woman caught up in a traffic jam abandons her taxi and climbs down a ladder leading from the elevated roadway into a new world— an urban rabbit-hole that ends in a Tokyo with two moons. Here a love affair with God only knows how much karma behind it takes place and events follow a kind of dream logic; a jazz-like riffing on themes of love and disappointment. I hope that doesn't make it sound too forbidding. Like all great magic, it's fascinating even when you don't know how it works.
Jade Lady Burning
By Martin Limon
Limon owns the impoverished world of Vietnam War-era Korea the same way James Lee Burke owns the Louisiana bayous. His Eighth Army investigator heroes, the sensitive Sueno and the combative Bascom---who's never seen a wall he isn't willing to walk through-- are (in my mind) among the great pairs in detective fiction. This, the first book in the series, sees the team pulled into the murder of a Korean prostitute, a crime no one, Korean or American, is eager to investigate. Limon nails two conflicting worlds: the U. S. Army with its rigid codes and knuckleheaded, cover-your-butt officers and occupied, pre-miracle Cold War Korea, a place marked by the truculence of an ancient society knuckling under to a new one. The New York Times named this one of their Best Books of 1992, and they got it right.
This is the most recent book by one of the world's funniest and most level-eyed writers. In this, her third novel, Amy Gallup, a reclusive writer whose moments of (relative) fame are safely behind her, takes a fall one day and hits her head against a birdbath. In a concussed state, she gives an interview to a hilariously earnest young reporter who sees profundity in everything Amy says and—voila!—Amy's on NPR and on her way to becoming America's most reluctant celebrity. Like all writers, I sit alone over a keyboard for months on end in a dark room like Howard Hughes (minus the Kleenex-box shoes) and am then hauled out for the performing-seal part of the job called “promotion,” so Amy's adventures on panels, etc. literally made me laugh till I cried. And Willett is a tough, one-of-a-kind piece of work, as you might expect from someone whose Facebook page is anchored by a photo of an adorable baby behind a sign that says PLEASE DO NOT KISS ME.
Thanks, Timothy! Will you be checking out any of the books on his list?
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)
In Abroad, Katie Crouch's latest novel, things spiral out of control for a group of girls on their semester abroad. Freed from their parents' supervision and eager to redefine themselves amidst the beauty of Italy, the bad choices pile up and lead to horrible consequences. Our reviewer says that Abroad is "gorgeously written, with a steady drumbeat of dread infusing every page." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Crouch has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
I’m at the beach right now with my family. I rip through books when I’m here, mostly because every two minutes some child wants to bury me in sand, so I’ve got to move fast. I like a tasty plot, but the writing has to be excellent, or I pass it on to my mother. (No offense, Mom.) Also, the book can’t be too lengthy, because undoubtedly someone will drop my novel into a bucket if I have it for too long. Two-three days, that’s about how long I have with it. A short, furious affair.
The Painted Veil
By Somerset Maugham
This week I started with The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. It’s so wonderful and nasty. It’s 1925, and Kitty Garstin has married a lowly doctor because she’s twenty-five and running out of time. He takes her to Hong Kong, where she embarks on an affair that her husband soon discovers. Kitty is so wonderfully self-absorbed and silly. As they travel through China, her husband attempting to contain a cholera epidemic, she looks “unseeingly” at the presumably stunning landscape. The game changes once they get to the interior; but what I love about Kitty is that she transforms—but not enough to be unbelievable. And the setting is so seductive.
You Are One of Them
By Elliott Holt
This novel has become a bit of a cult hit among my friends. One of the main characters, Jennifer Jones, is based loosely on Samantha Smith, the young peace activist who wrote a letter to Yuri Andopov. She paid an official visit to the Kremlin in 1982, only to die in a plane crash in 1985. In the novel, our protagonist, Sarah, is best friends with Jennifer, and as Jennifer’s good fortune rises, so does Sarah’s jealousy. But then, in the middle, the book takes a wonderfully unexpected twist into intrigue and espionage. An unsettling, extremely satisfying read.
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill
This is a creepy ghost story that is just beautifully written and not too over-the-top in terms of horror. It’s reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw, but creepier. At the beginning, a young lawyer has been charged with going through the papers of a dead client in an old, spooky house. Naturally, he unearths horrible, deadly secrets. The novel is written in a Gothic style that was enough to give me nightmares. A wonderful lesson for writers in taking your time when exploring what might be behind that doorway down the dark hall.
Thanks, Katie! Will you be reading Abroad or any of the books on this list?
Author photo by Piro Patton.