Lisa See is a master of historical fiction and the complexities of friendships between women, and these facts are on display in China Dolls. In her latest novel, See follows the lives of three very different women of Asian descent as they navigate 1930s San Francisco. Vowing lifelong friendship, the women find fame as dancers in The Forbidden Garden, a glamorous and exclusive nightclub. However, after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the friends must face racism and a betrayal that threatens to tear them apart. Our reviewer writes that China Dolls is "backed by meticulous research into the Chinese-American nightclub era, making her portrayal of this little-known period in history all the more memorable." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about what books See reads in her spare time, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
When I’m writing, I try to read within the subject of the current novel I’m working on or the one that will be next. I’m kind of superstitious this way. I don’t want someone else’s voice to seep into my own work even inadvertently. As a result, I only read for pleasure when I’m on vacation or have just finished a novel. When I was in China on a research trip recently, I brought Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being with me. I’m such a huge fan of her work! The main character—also named Ruth—is walking along the shore in British Columbia when she comes across a lunchbox hidden among the driftwood and seashells. Inside are letters, a notebook and other ephemera collected by Nao, a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Japan—and possible victim of the tsunami. The novel moves back and forth between Ruth and Nao, who somehow both manage to be wickedly funny, heartbreakingly pathetic and courageous all at the same time. And the story is so wide-ranging! Kamikaze pilots, quantum physics, anime, Zen Buddhism, with a little Proust thrown in for good measure.
The Prairie Trilogy
By Willia Cather
For another trip, I decided to bring along a classic: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I loved O Pioneers! so much that when I came home I looked up information on the life of Willa Cather and discovered that this book was the first in a series called The Prairie Trilogy. For my next trip, I read The Song of the Lark, the second book in the trilogy. These are devastatingly sad and sorrowful stories. They are also vividly American—with the beautiful yet cruel landscape, the precariousness of life on the untamed prairie, the unending heartache and heartbreak of love and the ways families fail us, save us, and push us into doing things far beyond our capacities. Summer vacation is coming, and I plan on finishing the trilogy by reading My Ántonia.
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
By Pu Songling
But as I said, in my day-to-day life I’m reading for “work.” For the last year or so, I’ve had Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling on my nightstand. Back in the 17th century, Pu Songling, a scholar who failed China’s imperial examinations fourteen times, spent the rest of his life roaming the country and collecting 500 eerie stories of ghosts, shape shifters, demons and vampires. He was writing down these strange but supposedly “true” stories literally centuries before Stephen King, Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. My favorites feature fox spirits—typically young women who take human form and then seduce and confuse young men. Sometimes entire households can succumb to “fox influence,” which usually means trouble but can also mean good fortune. Pu is a beautiful but spooky chronicler: “The wind sighs coldly outside and the chill on the table is like ice.” I read one or two of these stories a week when I go to bed, but I can’t say they’re much help in putting me to sleep!
What have you been reading recently, readers? Will you be picking up China Dolls or any of See's recommendations?
(Author photo by Patricia Williams)
In her new memoir, Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, Sarah Payne Stuart reflects on a life enmeshed in WASP culture. Despite fleeing the white-picket-fenced neighborhoods of her childhood as soon as she got the chance, Stuart later returns to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, to raise her family. In the course of Perfectly Miserable, Stuart comes to terms with her conflicting emotions about her family and hometown, as well as delving into the historical and not-so-perfect lives of other literary Concordian women. From our reviewer: "Stuart writes honestly and lovingly about her aging parents, her childhood, money, the trials of parenthood and keeping her marriage afloat. In other words, everything." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Stuart has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
First Love and Other Sorrows: Stories
Stories by Harold Brodkey
Whenever I reach for First Love and Other Sorrows, I find I have given it away once again in a rush of emotion. Last week I bought the book (for under $3) on my new Kindle because it was, as it is from time to time, shamefully out of print. The next day, my husband landed in the hospital (short term, all’s well), and I rushed over with my kindle. The last thing he felt like doing was reading, my husband said grumpily, but ok, leave him the Kindle, if it made me happy, though he didn’t even know how to work the thing. I didn’t really know how to work the thing either, but before I left that night I had called up “State of Grace,” Brodkey’s story about a disgruntled 13-year-old boy babysitting a 7-year-old boy who has had every benefit saving the only one that matters—the devotion of a parent. “He was a precocious and delicate little boy, quivering with the malaise of being unloved. When we played, his child’s heart would come into its own…” My husband prefers nonfiction books about Al Qaeda or the CIA, but nothing ventured, etc. When I returned to the hospital the next morning, I glanced over at the kindle, wondering if I could steal it back, only to have my husband say, “I don’t know what it is about that story, but I’m on to the next.” I, too, am at a loss to explain the power of this story collection. But trust me, you will take this book to your heart, only to give it away.
I’m not a fan of graphic novels (or put another way, I’ve never given them a chance). But I am a fan of Roz Chast, whose hilarious New Yorker cartoons come, clearly, from a deep place. I had no idea how deep until I was swept away by her new graphic memoir about her parents. How does one survive being brought up by a mean mother, who then must be cared for until she reaches an unrelenting 97? And why do mean mothers always live on and on and on? After Chast’s mother finally goes into hospice, she rebounds miraculously, as if even God is chary of being in her presence. “Where in the five stages of death is EAT A TUNA SANDWICH?” Chast writes. Sitting by her dying mother’s bed, Chast asks if she should stay or go. “It doesn’t matter,” her mother replies. Roz was an only child with no siblings to blunt the pain of an angry mother and a gentle, but weak father, who, despite loving his daughter, put his adored if unadoring wife first in every instance. “I had no nostalgia for the Carefree Days of Youth, because I never had them. . .” Chast writes. There is no nostalgia in this book and yet, in the hilarity and richness of its yearning, it is sweet.
The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Palliser Novels
By Anthony Trollope
When life gets complicated, I slather jam on toast and reach for Trollope. Trollope’s romping novels about love, class and politics in Victorian England always make me happy. Great, funny books that end happily? Not enough can be said about the strength of that. And unlike Dickens, Trollope really gets women. Though Trollope wrote 44 novels (before going to work!), the twelve interrelated novels in The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Palliser series are by far his best. College survey courses often kill one’s appetite for Trollope by assigning The Warden, the first in the Barsetshire series and his driest book, assigned because, I suppose, it is one of his shortest. My suggestion is start with Barchester Towers, the second book, and go straight through the series. After that, read straight through the Palliser novels. Then re-read them all (this time, you’ll want to include The Warden) at your leisure––until the day you die. I always have a Trollope going on the side: on my kindle or under three books on my bedside or in the side pocket of my overnight bag protected (hopefully) from the toothpaste. Who can forget the termagant Mrs. Proudie ruling her Bishop husband by burning his toast whenever he dares to disagree? Or the beautiful, so earnestly in-the-wrong heroine of Can You Forgive Her? Has there ever been a better title than that?
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading Perfectly Miserable or checking out any of Stuart's recommended books?
(Author photo by Nina Subin)
Jason Good is both a family man and a funnyman, and that's made pretty clear in his new book, This is Ridiculous This is Amazing. Presented in list form, Good offers hilarious advice on how to navigate the waters of parenthood. Our reviewer shares some tidbits: There are some things "hard-pressed parents shouldn’t feel guilty about ('Pretending to be asleep. Pretending to be deaf.') Freshman fathers will find a kindred spirit in Good, who writes from the heart about the rearing of kids, aka the “tiny people who have no idea that they’re slowly killing us.” It might just be the perfect Father's Day gift. (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Good has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend some recent favorites, which he shared in a predictably hilarious fashion.
Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety
By Daniel Smith
I met Daniel at a birthing class in Brooklyn. Our wives were both pregnant—a fact I probably didn’t need to clarify. We struck up a friendship, and I’ve followed his career since. His latest book is brilliantly written and one of my favorite memoirs.
If you pick up Monkey Mind looking for a cure to anxiety, forget about it. If, however, you’re seeking someone who can graphically and comically describe exactly what it feels like to be anxious, this book delivers all the insight, schadenfreude and hilarity you could possibly handle. Dan is a sweaty, quivering mess of a man who constantly gets in his own way, and you can’t help but grow to love him for it. As he puts it, “. . . anxiety is an inherently comical disorder. It destroys lives, but it destroys them with absurdity. To witness a person in the throes of true anxiety is to witness a person actively tripping himself. Anxiety is the intellect gone feral.” From life’s most important junctures (losing his virginity) to its most mundane (choosing between two condiments), Dan focuses on himself (as those with anxiety are so prone to do), with the steady aim of a journalist. He loads the chamber with comedy, pulls the trigger, and never misses.
I recently discovered that not everyone has read this book. I’m on my second go around. The only other book I’ve read twice is The Phantom Tollbooth, but that hardly counts because I was 9 years old. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius lives up to its name, and I plowed through it, mouth hanging open like a scientist observing an alien aircraft. Dave Eggers' creativity, metaphors and playful use of language in this heartfelt, funny, angry book blew me away. The fact that it’s about the tragic loss of his parents when he was 19 and how he was forced to become its unwitting patriarch makes me want to quit writing and celebrate being a writer all at the same time.
Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude
By Neal Pollack
One of my best friends went to college with Neal and insisted that I read this book. Luckily, I trusted him, because Stretch made me laugh at least twenty times (I rarely laugh, so that’s a lot). It’s easy to make fun of yoga culture—it’s self-righteously crunchy, there’s copious farting. It’s not quite as easy to skewer it when you’ve unwittingly become one of its devout followers. That’s what Neal does in this book. After finding himself unable to let go of his anger when a reviewer refers to him as “fat” Neal decides to change his life—not an easy transition, because Neal’s a cynical ex-punk rocker. From his first class through to nailing a headstand and then publishing articles in yoga magazines, Neal writes hilariously about negotiating his old and new selves, and finding a calm place somewhere in between where he can practice mindfulness and still hate things.
This book sits next to mine on all the Barnes & Noble “Books Dads Will Love” tables. I would prefer that if people are buying only one book, they buy the one adjacent to Dave’s, but I have to admit that it is 99.99% as good as mine. Though his popularity was sparked by the imaginative, “how’d he do that?” photographs he took with his daughter, it’s the three or four paragraph captions that provide the fuel to turn this into a great read. It’s absurd, hilarious and at times, touching. Next to a picture of his daughter poised to drop a whole turkey into a vat of bubbling oil, Dave writes, "Alice Bee did a pretty good job getting the fryer set up while I was watching football on TV, but as usual, her attention to detail was a bit lacking—not only did she neglect to fill the fryer all the way to the top with peanut oil, I even caught her earlier in the day trying to defrost the turkey."
I think it’s a near perfect work of satire that people will love and return to often. I know I do. It’s sitting right next to me. . . taunting me.
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading This is Ridiculous This is Amazing or checking out any of Good's recommended books?
(Author photo by Ben Toht)
Sarah Lotz's unsettling horror novel, The Three, gave us some serious goosebumps. Three children are the sole survivors after four commercial airlines simultaneously drop from the sky. No one can find the cause of the plane crashes, and as the children's behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, an apocalyptic cult forms around the mystery of the three survivors. Our reviewer says, "The Three is the real deal: gripping, unpredictable and utterly satisfying." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Lotz has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
By Nnedi Okorafor
I read this is one greedy session. Lagoon has a terrific premise: What if the world’s first contact with aliens happened in Lagos, rather than, say, London, Tokyo or New York? But the novel is far more than this, as the alien invasion motif is effectively used as a mirror through which the city is reflected. Corruption, greed, manipulation and gender violence are all under the spotlight here, as various factions scramble to seize control of Ayodele, the alien ambassador who has risen from the sea. It’s focalised via multiple perspectives – the main protagonists include a marine biologist reeling from spousal abuse, a Ghanaian rapper and a soldier scarred by a failed attempt to prevent a sexual assault (incidentally, not all of the POVs are human. . .). These disparate viewpoints complement each other without jarring the reader. The prose is tight, the dialogue sharp and there’s a satirical streak weaving through it (Nnedi brilliantly lampoons governmental corruption and inertia, for example). A cracking and often surprising story, terrific social commentary and great fun to read.
By Lauren Beukes
Lauren read out the opening chapter of this wholly original speculative thriller at the Open Book literary festival in Cape Town last year, and I’ve never seen a crowd so entranced. The book is too rich and complex to sum up in a few words, so I’m lazily going to crib from the blurb: ‘Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half boy, half deer, somehow fused together. As stranger and more disturbing bodies are discovered, how can the city hold on to a reality that is already tearing at its seams?’ Bambi, this isn’t. It’s a gut-puncher of a novel, with some of the most evocative turns of phrase I’ve ever read, and thanks to her superb flair with characterisation and realism, there are several characters I still can’t get out of my head (and I read this months ago). (Publishing on September 16, 2014)
By Sarah Pinborough
I read and loved Mayhem last year, the first in this murder-mystery-but-so-much-more series set in a Victorian London that has a unique – and chilling – supernatural twist. In the first novel, police surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond was really put through the mill as a murderer savaged his way through London in the shadow of the Ripper (it’s based on the real-life "Torso Murders," but I’m forced to be vague here as I really urge you to read it). In Murder, Dr. Bond is back, and he’s forced to confront the fact that the events that took place in Mayhem might still be casting a pall over his life – and face the possibility that he could be losing his mind. The plot is full of ‘oh no she didn’t’ twists, and the atmosphere and sense of place is so compellingly executed, you’ll taste the fog and smell the foul breath of the river (and you’ll never look at the Thames the same way again). But what really got me was the extraordinary love triangle that runs through the novel. It’s devastating (in the best way). If you haven’t already, check out Sarah’s novella, The Language of Dying which is almost unbearably beautiful and powerful.
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading The Three or checking out any of Lotz's recommended books?
(Author photo by Christine Fourie)
Laline Paull's The Bees peeks into the hive of the honeybee, an extraordinary world that worker bee Flora 717 must navigate, defend and ultimately challenge in this fabulously imaginative debut novel. Our reviewer says that "The Bees is a tremendous work of literature, told with suspense and passion. You will never look at the activity in your flower garden the same way again." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Paull has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Horses of God
By Mahi Binebine, translated by Lulu Norman
I read this slim novel (182 pages) in just over an hour last week – and I haven’t stopped talking about it since. I was tired, but this book required nothing from me – except letting myself get dragged by the neck through its beautiful, brutal, elegant and honest story of an 18 year old Moroccan suicide bomber, and it brought tears to my eyes. It makes no excuses, but it does shine a most humane light on the atrocity of poverty, the root of so much suffering. Mahi Binebine writes with anger and compassion, and this book is a call to arms: to protect innocence, to stand up to corruption and greed and to prove that good writing can make a political difference.
Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honey Bee
By Hattie Ellis
Here’s a wonderful non-fiction book that is so lightly and entertainingly erudite that you can open it anywhere and be delighted by the writing. It effortlessly informs the reader about the magic of a creature that I’ve spent a long time studying, writing and talking about, yet this book still entrances me. I love books that make me feel more intelligent for having read them, and this is one of them. Hattie Ellis writes in an accessible, vivid and unpatronizing way. I’m going to keep this book handy for when I need to remind myself just why honey bees really are amazing creatures, and that I’m just one in a very long line of writers who have become obsessed by them.
By James Lever
A satirical Hollywood memoir told through the jaded innocence of the chimp who ‘played’ Cheeta in the Tarzan films. What a brilliant conceit! I remember hearing about this when it was first released and thinking, “Ooh I must read that!” But I somehow got distracted and didn’t think of it again until I recently met the author. I remembered how intriguing it sounded, and then, what a relief to genuinely love this funny, bitchy, kind and original novel. Highly recommended.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding The Bees—or any of Paull's recommended books—to your TBR list?
Kaui Hart Hemmings follows up her best-selling debut novel The Descendants—which was made into an award-winning movie starring George Clooney—with The Possibilities, a moving story of a mother struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of her 22-year-old son. Our reviewer says of the book: "While [it] is a book ostensibly about death, it is at its core really about life—in all its messy, funny, hurtful, confusing and transcendent moments." (Read our complete review and a Q&A with Hemmings about the book.)
We were curious about the books Hemmings has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Bread and Butter
By Michelle Wildgen
I’ve been a fan of Michelle’s work ever since our first workshop at Sarah Lawrence. This novel was rich, page-turning and simple, in the best way. Two brothers, two restaurants, one small town. The characters seriously sizzled with life—they were so utterly real, and the writing—the writing!—sings. Michelle is a master storyteller.
Another book about brothers that was captivating and fluid. This time the brothers are attorneys who return home to help their sister and her son who has been accused of hate crime. It’s an intimate book—clear-eyed, gripping and beautifully written.
The Stories of John Cheever
By John Cheever
I may as well stay the course. “Goodbye My Brother” is one of my favorite short stories of all time. A simple premise: The Pommeroy family—three sons and one daughter—meet at their summer place on the shore. One brother is so pessimistic and aggravating that he provokes his brother to hit him on the head. Small, profound and lyrical. Transcendent and enduring. It is, to me, a perfect story.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding The Possibilities—or any of Hemmings' recommended books—to your TBR list?
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?
Critically acclaimed, award-winning writer Mona Simpson has just published her sixth novel, Casebook, in which a teenage boy recruits his best friend to help investigate his mother's new boyfriend. Our reviewer calls the book "a wistful and knowing novel." (Read the full review right here.)
We were curious about the books Simpson has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
The Story of a New Name
By Elena Ferrante
If you've read and reread Alice Munro, William Trevor and William Maxwell, your first hours spent reading Elena Ferrante, an Italian novelist translated by Ann Goldstein and published in English only in the last decade, you'll feel you've not only been given a gift but also that you're being shown a huge store. Elena Ferrante is a pen name. All we know about the author is from her books; she does not make appearances, give interviews or submit to book tours. This is the second novel of her Neopolitan trilogy about an abiding friendship between two intelligent girls who strove to transcend the brutality and poverty of their childhoods through the fragile nets of education.
Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews
By Calvin Tomkins
This is how this beguiling slim book starts:
Paul Chan: When did you first meet Duchamp
Calvin Tomkins: That would have been 1959. I was working for Newsweek Magazine at the time. Newsweek in those days had no art coverage. But occasionally—two or three times a year maybe—there'd be a story on art some editor thought we should cover and so they'd pull a writer maybe—there’d be a story on art some editor thought we should cover and so they’d pull a writer from another section. I was writing for the foreign-news section at the time.
PC: Newsweek put you on the Duchamp beat.
CT: Right. I got the call one day to go and interview Marcel Duchamp, which was a complete surprise to me because I knew nothing whatsoever about art. And I guess I probably thought that he was long in the past. I’d heard of him, of course. The first monograph on him and his work ever published came out in ’59 in Paris and in New York, and the editor gave me a copy of the book. I only had a couple of hours to skim through it. The interview was already arranged. It was at the King Cole Bar in the entering the place and locating Duchamp. We sat down at a table, and he motioned toward the mural and said, “I like that, don’t you?” I assumed he was kidding, so I laughed. But then I started to realize that he did like it. That was the initial surprise: he thought it was wonderful. I don’t think I had a tape recorder in those days. But anyway we started talking, and I was taking notes.
PC: What was your first impression of him.
CT: The thing that really surprised and delighted me was that even though all my questions were very dumb and ignorant, he somehow managed to turn every one of them into something interesting. He had the most enchanting and easy manner. He was at home in his own skin, and he made me—and everybody around him—relaxed. I remember asking him, “Since you’ve stopped making art, how do you spend your time?” And he said, “Oh, I’m a breather, I’m a respirateur, isn’t that enough?”
After just this first part of the introduction, I was hooked. I wanted to know about both these men—the enigmatic Duchamp and the foreign-news reporter who begins to care about art.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
By Daniel Kahneman
This is an amazing book for the insights it reveals about the way our minds trick us. Even memory turns out to be subject to its own narrative conventions, and so the truth of experiences as we having them does not match what we later believe them to have been. There are a dozen discrepancies, fallacies, illusions and incongruences unearthed and revealed by Kahneman's research, but I love reading this book for its own submerged narrative about how he and his collaborator, Amos Tversky, gave each other the best years of their working lives.
It is a love story, about the romance of work.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding Casebook—or any of Simpson's recommended books—to your TBR list?
(Author photo by Gasper Tringale)
Evie Wyld's thought-provoking new novel, All the Birds, Singing, introduces readers to Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman who tends sheep on a remote island off the coast of England and who has been trying to track down the beast that's threatening her flock. A second narrative explores what led Jake to the isolated island in the first place. Of the book's highlights, our reviewer says, "Wyld excels in the intimate details that make up the relationship between humans and animals." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Wyld has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
By Richard Flanagan
I was in Perth recently and on the way to a radio interview the lady who was taking me there told me I had to read it. I’d recently met Richard, and enjoyed his company and so it seemed like a good idea. The book has the dark feeling of great art to it. It’s based on Flanagan’s father’s experiences as a POW working on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. I want other people to read it, because I need to talk about it with someone.
By Colin Barrett
This is a book of short stories that my editor sent. He never sends me books, and so I knew it’d be excellent. I love this for its brutality and also its humanity. The ordinary way extreme violence is described, and the domestic nature of the lives of his characters. It’s one of those books that makes you wonder if the characters are good people doing bad things or bad people doing good things.
The Night Guest
By Fiona McFarlane
This was sent to me in my capacity as a bookseller. The cover was so beautiful and unusual that I really wanted to sell it in my shop, so it was a relief when the book was fantastic too. It’s very funny, and also incredibly dark and harrowing. It’s been a long time since I read a book with an elderly protagonist who isn't a caricature of old age. Fantastically enjoyable to read.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding All the Birds, Singing—or any of Wyld's recommended books—to your TBR list?
(Author photo by Roelof Bakker)
Maggie Shipstead's second novel, Astonish Me, is our Top Pick in fiction for April. Our reviewer describes it as "a request, a demand, a dare, all wrapped up in two little words, heavy with promise. And like the prima ballerina at the heart of the novel itself, Shipstead delivers a glorious story that does exactly what it says it will." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Shipstead has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This had been on my to-read list forever, and when Adichie won the NBCC Award for fiction, I finally remembered to go out and buy it. What a truly spectacular book. Everything about it is alive and essential and harmonious: the flawless prose, the fully-realized characters, the looping shape of the narrative, the vividly textured settings. Although Adichie's story speaks to big, thorny issues like race and class and immigration (not to mention love), her characters all feel like complete, complex people, not props for an argument, and the novel has a gentle archness and lightness of tone that makes its remarkable depth and insight seem effortless.
I was at a book festival with Arthur Phillips this winter but shamefully hadn't read his books, so I decided to start with his first, Prague, a novel that came out in 2002 and revolves around a group of ex-pats living in Budapest, not Prague, in the early 1990s. (The cheeky fake-out of the title alone is reason enough to love this book.) It's full of wit and casual brilliance and a pleasantly convoluted nostalgia-that-is-also-a-deep-suspicion-of-nostalgia and characters who, like real people, are capable of holding all sorts of endlessly shifting, often contradictory convictions and delusions. On a technical level, the omniscient voice, which I think is incredibly difficult to sustain, is used masterfully and acrobatically throughout to deliver all kinds of structural surprises and to convey a sense of overarching vision.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
By Adelle Waldman
Waldman's debut novel is so sharply observed it's a little frightening. I've read it twice, and both times I felt the continuous sense of recognition that the best fiction inspires, where you keep thinking, "Yes, that's exactly how it is!" The consciousness of the protagonist, Nate, is rendered with an intricate completeness that I found immensely satisfying, but I was also fascinated and moved by the novel's many insights about fickleness of desire and its resistance to intellectual governance. There's a formidably critical mind behind this book, but I'd hesitate to call the novel satirical: Waldman forgoes comic exaggeration in favor of precise, measured, unflinching truthfulness tempered by compassion, even tenderness.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding Astonish Me—or any of Shipstead's recommended books—to your TBR list?
(Author photo by Michelle Legro)