In his memoir, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Lev Golinkin looks back on his childhood in a floundering Soviet Union and his journey to American identity. Our reviewer writes, "A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka blends memoir and history into an intimate tale of personal growth." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Golinkin has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
This book takes you behind the curtains of industries that I didn’t even know had curtains, much less mysterious happenings behind them. You go into the world of cross-country truckers, UPS handlers, riverboat captains and train engineers; by the time I was done, I felt like McPhee could have written an entire book about any one of these. For example, there is a giant (I imagine Rube Goldberg-esque) machine in a UPS center in the Midwest. He also explores the logistics behind trying to operate a gigantic riverboat (which brought on terrifying memories of my parallel parking failures) and tours a built-to-scale training center in Switzerland, where future boat operators learn how to eventually captain their own boat.
I bought this book a while ago and finally picked it up because I was tired of not knowing the details of Israel and Lebanon’s conflicts. Friedman is fascinating in that he is somehow able to present what seems like a balanced and sympathetic description of the bewildering and conflicting parties involved. He doesn’t pull punches from PLA, Israeli forces, various factions of Israel government or the different Lebanese sects; however, he also strives to show why individuals and organizations acted the way they did and what comprises their mindset. Friedman does it so effortlessly, too: He doesn’t draw parallels, but simply narrates, and you can’t help but feel like you’re riding behind these people’s eyes.
I started reading this after The Name of the Wind, the first book of Rothfuss’ trilogy. Halfway through The Wise Man’s Fear I realized that Rothfuss has been putting these little, seemingly background details into the story, which wound up playing crucial roles down the road. I found myself planning to reread the first book even before finishing the second one. The best thing I love about it is how Rothfuss plays with the way the reality of a story is warped and reshaped through the years and by various narrators.
Thanks, Lev! See any books you're interested in picking up, readers?
Suki Kim's memoir, Without You, There Is No Us, is a fascinating, first-hand look into the strange world of the North Korean elite. Our reviewer writes that "her nuanced account is loosely chronological, covering the two semesters she taught at PUST between July and December 2011, based on secret journals she kept with great care, and informed by the heartrending stories of her family members split asunder by the Korean War." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Kim has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
Since my second book was published last week, I have not been reading much of anything other than emails, reviews and the messages on twitter and Facebook, neither of which I have ever participated in the past because I am a bit too quiet for social media. Soon, I hope to return to the three books on my nightstand, some of which are still work related. The bothersome aspect of being a writer is that often reading is still work.
Do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
(Author photo by Ed Kashi)
Lin Enger's second novel, The High Divide, follows a family's struggle to stay united as their way of life on the Western plains falls apart. Our reviewer writes: "Enger’s gripping story is a marvelous blend of strong characters and a brilliant depiction of a land and time now lost." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Enger has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
Reviews of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad focused on the novel’s postmodern qualities and its rock music milieu, and I thought, ‘Nope, this one’s not for me.’ But one day in an airport bookstore, I found myself carrying it to the register. I must have been telling myself, ‘Well, it won a Pulitzer after all.’ And then I read it! Wow. These characters, unbelievably hip and groovy though they are—rock stars, music moguls, writers—are rendered with exquisite insight and love. And the novel’s structure is both inventive and accessible, each chapter offering a seductive new beginning. The best novels conduct a tour into exotic new territory and make the reader happy to be along for the ride, and Goon Squad is a trip I’m glad I didn’t miss.
An old college friend recently told me, apologetically, that he’d just read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. Not to be outdone, I told him I’d never read it. Then I went home and found a copy on my shelves and started in. Yes, it’s long and descriptively dense, and yes, it can be overtly sentimental. But it’s also brilliantly exhaustive in its depiction of 1930s economic forces and unabashed in its humanity. There is nothing sterile, careful or self-consciously arch about this story of one family’s journey west during the desperate dust-bowl migrations. Steinbeck is ruthlessly clear-eyed—yet at the same time he wears his heart on his sleeve. I understand now why this novel has been a staple in English classes for decades, but I’m glad I waited. This is a book for adults.
One of my favorite novellas of all time is Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, a big wide story of the American West that he managed to tell in less than 100 pages. But I’m not writing about that one here. I’m writing about the novella I’m reading right now by Denis Johnson called Train Dreams. It’s subject is the West, of course, and its focus is the outsized, tall-tale life of a man named Robert Grainier, who works on railroad crews and lumber gangs and who suffers more setbacks than any man should. Like Harrison, Johnson is able to render in just a few pages an epic American vision. The vastness of the mountain west and the yearnings it evoked in those who were drawn there are made palpable—almost painfully so—by Johnson’s unadorned, eloquent language.
Thanks, Lin! Readers, have you read any of his picks?
(Author photo by Hope Larson)
Lauren Oliver, known for her YA books, succesfully ventures into adult territory with Rooms, a novel focusing on a family haunted by their painful pasts, as well as the ghosts that live in their dead relative's home. Our reviewer writes, "Rooms doesn’t scare so much as haunt, and for a tale narrated in part by ghosts, it is remarkably full of life. Utterly captivating and electric, this richly atmospheric ghost story is excellent reading." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Oliver has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
People often ask me why I’ve chosen to write books for all age groups and in a variety of genres. I think my desire to do different things stems in part from the diversity of my reading. I’ve always been a kind of omnivorous reader, devouring fiction, nonfiction, narrative essays, short stories, books about science—you name it. The three books currently doing rotating duty on my bedside table are a great example.
Full disclosure: I picked up this book initially because I’ve been writing a book that takes place in part during the 1920s, and I am ashamed to admit it’s the first Bryson book I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’m sad I’ve waited so long. Woven together seamlessly are narrative strands about the seminal political, social and cultural events of an astounding year: Charles Lindbergh’s first flight, the Yankees’ record-shattering season, the advent of the “talkie” pictures and the floods that rocked the Mississippi Delta. America in 1927 was a country on the brink, and Bryson’s book practically vibrates with the energy of growth and distension, fracture and change.
One of my deepest pleasures is a great locked-door mystery. I’ve read all of Agatha Christie’s canon multiple times, delighting in the fact that since I can never remember what happens in any particular book, I can enjoy her work ad infinitum. When I discovered that A.A. Milne, of the beloved Winnie the Pooh series, had written a single work of armchair detective fiction, I had to have it. It does not disappoint. Secret passageways, English manors, decorative ponds and ne’er do well brothers—this book has it all.
A middle grade book that can easily be enjoyed by older audiences (a fact of which I am proof), The Glass Sentence is an immensely imaginative book about a world in which different continents have slipped into different eras. Its protagonist, Sophia, niece of a famous mapmaker, must go on a rescue mission after her uncle disappears, accompanied by a boy from an entirely different time. It’s an epic, expansive and marvelous story that reconceives the relationship between time and place and even invents new and fantastical ways of getting from Point A to Point B.
Thank you, Lauren! See any books you would like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Charles Grantham)
Terrence Holt's compelling collection of essays, Internal Medicine, is an intimate exploration of the realities of life in the medical field. Our reviewer writes, "Dr. Holt never settles for easy answers, and the questions he poses—reflecting the frequent uncertainties of doctors and patients alike—will leave readers thinking long after the final page is turned." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Holt has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites. (P.S. You can win Internal Medicine in this week's contest!)
Peter Matthiessen was the writer whose work first gave me hope that it was still possible to write about something besides the tediousness of contemporary sub/urban life. This early novel, ostensibly about the crew of a fishing boat working its way across the Gulf of Mexico, comes as close as possible to realizing my ideal of what the novel should be: beautiful (the grace and precision of Matthiessen’s writing is continually breathtaking), serious, moving, thrilling. He’s the only writer who has ever made me weep over a blank page.
I spent the better part of the past 20 years reading aloud to my children, and I probably enjoyed it more than they did—not least because the books marketed towards children/young adults include some of the best fiction being written today. I would have chosen something by Diana Wynn Jones to illustrate this point, but The Mennyms eclipses everything I’ve read in any genre in the past decade. Waugh’s series, about a family of sentient rag dolls living in small-town England, takes its improbable premise and follows it into territory few writers alive or dead have ever had the nerve or skill to enter. There are moments (especially in the fourth book in the series, Mennyms Alone) that made my heart race to the point where I thought I would have to put the book down—but I couldn’t. It’s a tour de force.
William Carlos Williams’ short stories, collected as The Farmers' Daughters or The Doctor Stories, possess all of the economy and grace of that other great writing doctor, Anton Chekhov (and the stories don’t labor, as Chekhov's must for most of us, under the burden of translation). The luminous clarity of his prose, and the uncanny clear-sightedness of his vision, give these pieces that mysterious shimmer that makes the short story of the latter half of the 20th century such an important literary form—and puts these stories at the foundation of that tradition. It seems almost incidental that he writes as a doctor—except, of course, that it isn’t. For anyone looking to meet Lear’s “bare, forked animal” in the vulnerable flesh, and see the world through a doctor’s eyes, this is the essential source.
Thank you, Terrence! Readers, do you see anything you would like to pick up?
In John Scalzi's science fiction novel Lock In, a murder mystery becomes incredibly complex when a strange virus comes into play. Our reviewer writes, "Scalzi shows that being a master storyteller isn’t so much about finding new ingredients as it is about combining old standards in ways that are fresh and engaging. But here Scalzi does both, and his novel twist on robot lit alone would make Lock In worth the read." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Scalzi has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
This is Leckie's follow-up to Ancillary Justice, the novel that won just about every major science fiction fantasy award in the last year—the Hugo, the Nebula, the Clarke and more—and established Leckie as one of the best new voices in the genre (and also made me look super smart for blurbing the book). I'm doubling down on my Leckie fandom because Ancillary Sword is a very fine follow-up, featuring her fascinating protagonist Breq heading right back into the thick of things with a new mission and new troubles. Get it—you won't regret it.
I knew James Cambias when we were both working on the student newspaper at the University of Chicago, and he was a master storyteller even then, writing about the history of Chicago. In A Darkling Sea, the setting is vastly different—under the water of a distant planet—but Cambias spins an enthralling tale of (accidental) first contact with an alien species and all the complications that arise from it. Old school science fiction told in a new way.
Hurley has been writing smart, tough, vivid fantasy for a while now, but this book feels like a breakout for her. Set in a world where competing magic systems wax and wane with the movement of moons, the characters respond to an encroaching war—and to a wrinkle in the magic systems which brings into question the idea of individuality. It’s fantastic, in the many senses of the word.
Thank you, John! See anything you'd like to read?
(Author photo by Athena Scalzi)
Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests is set during the bleak years following WWI in a London home occupied by a widowed woman and her lonely spinster daughter, Frances. To avoid falling into poverty, the Wray women take in a married couple as boarders. But the companionship Frances finds in the young wife soon turns into something dark and devastating. Our reviewer writes, "Waters once again provides a singular novel of psychological tension, emotional depth and historical detail." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Waters has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
One of my most memorable reads lately has also been one of the most enigmatic. In After Me Comes the Flood, a man loses his way on a parched landscape and stumbles upon a country house, only to find himself greeted by name and made welcome by its odd but charming occupants. Slowly but surely in the days that follow, their stories unfold and tangle with his; the result is a beautiful, dream-like, unsettling narrative in which every word, like a small jewel, feels carefully chosen, considered and placed. Rarely do debut novels come as assured and impressive as this one.
I don't tend to think of myself as a fan of short fiction, so when a friend recently pressed The Persephone Book of Short Stories on me, I was, to say the least, dubious. But, oh, how wrong I was. This lively anthology features thirty stories by mainly British and North American women writers of the past hundred-and-odd years, and is by turns poignant, funny, thought provoking and uplifting. It mixes work by well-known authors of whom I was already a fan—Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner—with stories by writers new to me, about whom I'm now inspired to find out more. A terrific read from this wonderful small British publisher.
This year we're understandably preoccupied with commemorating the start of the First World War. Margaret MacMillan's account of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 reveals what the war left in its wake. It's a brilliantly vivid and readable study that captures the clash of egos, interests, political enmities and ambitions that took place when the major powers met to redraw the national boundaries of Europe and beyond. It details the successes of the conference, but also its compromises and failures—many of which, of course, led directly to the global rifts and tensions with which we are still dealing today. Riveting, necessary stuff.
Thank you, Sarah! What are a few of your favorite books, readers?
(Author photo by Charlie Hopkinson)
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)