Ravi Howard's second novel, Driving the King, follows Nat King Cole's African-American friend and driver, Nat Weary, as he navigates the discriminatory and oftentimes cruel world of 1950s America. Our reviewer writes, "Through unfussy language and well-formed characters, Howard takes readers of all races, ages and classes into the world of pre-civil rights era black people, offering insight on and understanding of one of our country’s most tumultuous periods." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Howard has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
I admired the way Jackon split the first-person narration between a mother and son, because this turned the novel into a chapter-by-chapter conversation. I’ve never been to Portland, Oregon, so I saw the city through Mitchell’s rendering. The visual storytelling was as strong as the language, so the writing showed the toll drug addiction took on these lives and voices. The writer Albert Murray once described a “spyglass tree,” where characters find a place to show what they observe, remember and imagine. That approach is very much alive in Jackson's work.
Of the many moments that stuck with me from this short story collection was when a young woman, Rosa, saw a beach she’d never visited by closing her eyes in a bathtub and listening to her lover, Yauba, describe it to her—the memory of one lived in the imagination of another. What I admired in these stories of migration, family and love was the way that feelings and memories became currency. Gautier’s characters moved through Puerto Rico and New York, and their notions of home were a function of distance, race and love. Even favorite songs of characters had nice layers of weight and longing. I enjoyed the way the stories were strong individually and had a nice chorus effect when read together.
I heard Rita Dove read from this book of poetry in New York in 1999. It was one of those readings that helped sustain my resolve to write. In “Testimonial,” Dove writes, How could I count my blessings when I didn’t know their names? I enjoy the notion of historical narratives honoring those names. Like most folks, I was more familiar with Rosa Parks than Claudette Colvin, a teenager who was arrested months before Parks’ arrest. The poems show both women as well as the harshness and elegance of that time. Being from Montgomery, I used Dove’s work as a lesson in making a setting feel like someone’s home. Like the work of Mitchell Jackson and Amina Gautier, the writing gave me an insider’s experience of these spaces and moments.
Thank you, Ravi! See any books you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Beri Irving)
Our Top Pick in Nonfiction for January is Elena Gorokhova's second memoir, Russian Tattoo. In it, Gorokhova explores her identity as a Russian immigrant to America and her often difficult relationships with her mother and daughter. Our reviewer writes, "If Elena Gorokhova’s splendid second memoir merely conveyed to readers a vivid, almost visceral understanding of the sometimes paralyzing sense of dislocation she experienced arriving in the United States in 1980 from the Soviet Union, that alone would be reason enough to read it." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Gorokhova has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
It is difficult, at first glance, to connect the three books I would like to recommend. They belong to different genres and appeal to different audiences, yet they share common threads: these books don’t offer neat resolutions, and they are—in one way or another—about Russia, my insane and complicated Motherland.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is a graphic novel by the Russian-born Anya Ulinich, a story of a 37-year-old divorced immigrant from St. Petersburg not unlike the author herself. It is a complex journey of searching for love, told in striking drawings and hand-written dialogue. Lena is a self-described “toddler of relationship experience,” and we read about her encounters with different men until she falls in love. Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is both hilarious and heartbreaking. When a professor in St. Petersburg asks the protagonist why she paints such an unflattering portrait of Russia in her novel, Lena replies, “I paint unflattering portraits of everything.” She is self-doubting and self-effacing, and there is no happy ending to this story. “No one truly arrives. We just nudge each other along muddy ruts of suffering, occasionally peeking over the edges of our ruts in search of a better way.”
In Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Karen Dawisha describes Putin’s rise to power. With the help of exhaustive evidence from multifarious sources, Dawisha argues that Putin and his KGB cronies, terrified by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, did everything in their power to restore the authoritarian state. The author painstakingly shows how Putin, using mafia and KGB methods, systematically destroyed the emerging democratic systems in post-communist Russia by politicizing the courts, fanning nationalism and xenophobia, and launching an unprecedentedly massive disinformation campaign. “… from the beginning Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal,” Dawisha writes. It is appalling and frightening to witness Russia being ruled by a gang of KGB thugs who have shamelessly and deliberately robbed my country of wealth, dignity and the world’s respect.
In The Master of Petersburg, J.M. Coetzee writes from the point of view of Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom the author immerses into the abyss of grief and despair after the death of his son. Having combined the plot line of Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed (also translated as Demons) with the facts of Dostoevsky’s own life, Coetzee creates a multi-layered narrative that examines the process of writing. The Master of Petersburg is set in the Haymarket district of my hometown where Dostoevsky lived—only a few blocks from where I grew up—with its smells of “cabbage and boiled beef” and “evenings thick with the hum of mosquitoes.” In a classically Russian way, Coetzee travels “to the dark side of the soul,” capturing the relentless melancholy of Russian life. In this novel, as in all Coetzee’s work, there are no closures, no tidy endings. As the dark, tragic event of his son’s death becomes Dostoevsky’s material for creating art, the writer realizes in the end that he has “to give up his soul in return.”
Thank you, Elena! Readers, do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
Meghan Daum's collection of searingly honest essays, The Unspeakable, is our Top Pick in Nonfiction for December. Her first collection, My Misspent Youth, expertly zeroed in on the collective feelings of a generation, and Daum doesn't disappoint in her latest as she fearlessly explores life nearing middle age. Our reviewer writes, "The Unspeakable is a stunner of a book about settling into one’s skin." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Daum has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Recently I watched the HBO documentary Regarding Susan Sontag and that put me on a Sontag binge. I reread Notes on Camp and Illness as Metaphor, as well as Sigrid Nunez’s slender, perfect memoir Sempre Susan, about her experience living with Sontag in the 1970s. I’ve also been reading a lot of really great stuff I can’t tell you about yet—advanced readers copies of some terrific novels that will come out next year, as well as a couple of memoirs that should make a splash when their publication times come. One I can hint at is Bernard Cooper’s My Avant Garde Education. On the surface it’s a coming-of-age story about going to art school. But it’s really an inquiry into the way that aesthetics can shape our identities and how (forgive me if this sounds twee; there’s really no other way to say it) the visual can become the visceral. It’s quite original and magnificent, and it’ll be out in February.
In the meantime, since I’ve been championing the essay lately, here are a few of my favorite books of essays.
The 10 essays in this 2010 collection are dazzling, wicked and somehow both terribly sad and fundamentally joyful. Rakoff, who wrote in this book that his “internal age” was “somewhere between 47 and 53 years old,” died of cancer in 2012—at 47. Often compared to David Sedaris, not least of all because his name was also David, Rakoff’s work is just as funny as Sedaris’ but also darker and slyer and imbued with the wisdom of someone who was born internally middle-aged.
I don’t know what it says that the first two books on this list are by writers who died from cancer within a year of each other. Hitch, who died in late 2011, was often exasperating and sometimes wrong, but never anything less than brilliant. Half-drunk on bourbon, he still wrote circles around anyone amped up on black coffee.
You might know Als from his recent book, White Girls, and his criticism in The New Yorker. But before all that, back in 1996, Als published The Women, an extended essay—or perhaps three long essays—about the influence of three major figures in his life and how their complicated, conflicted relationships to their own race and gender identities helped imprint his own. Each time I read it, I still say to myself “I’ve never read a book quite like this.”
Thank you Meghan! Readers, do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
(Author photo by David Zaugh)
Andrew Maraniss' Strong Inside details the life and struggles of Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the SEC. Our reviewer writes that the biography is "is superbly written, hard to put down and fascinating for sports fans and non-sports fans alike." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Maraniss has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
When BookPage asked if I would recommend three books to readers, I had a moment of panic. As a first-time author, I have no idea if other authors have had similar experiences, but the truth is that for the last several months I have been so focused on completing my book and launching it to the public, that I have found myself reading other books a lot less than normal. I come home from work, help my wife feed and bathe the kids, read them their books, do some work related to my book and nod off to sleep. Pretty much every day.
And that’s when it dawned on me—in that description of my routine, I just admitted that I read books every day! They just happen to be children’s books. And I’m sure that just about every parent, author or not, can relate to that.
The book I’ve written, Strong Inside, is a biography of Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. Wallace overcame tremendous obstacles and all forms of racism to succeed in life. He’s now a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. So in the spirit of Strong Inside, I’m recommending four children’s books that my four-year-old daughter Eliza enjoys, all of which feature pioneers of one form or another.
We love reading Meltzer’s series of books about everyday heroes who have made history, both for the storytelling and the wonderful artwork by Eliopoulos. I’ll never forget the moment Eliza and I read the Rosa Parks book for the first time. When we got to the part where Parks was asked to move to the back of us the bus, she looked at me and said, “Why did they want to make her move? I don’t like those people.”
Eliza thinks nothing of Grace, an African-American elementary school student, winning her class election and then eventually becoming President of the United States. And my daughter makes her Packer-obsessed dad happy by recognizing the “G” logo on the Wisconsin delegate’s shirt.
I am completely in love with the paintings of old Negro League Baseball scenes in this beautiful book. One of the sad ironies of integration was the demise of strong institutions such as the Negro Leagues—this book brings figures like Rube Foster, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige back to life in stunning color.
This story of an African-American girl who goes shopping at a downtown department store with her mother has been around since 1968, so it’s not new, but I now see it in a new light. When I read it now, I can’t help but think about the sit-ins at the downtown Nashville department stores that took place just a few years before this book was published. I’m thankful my little girl is growing up in a much more inclusive city.
Thank you, Andrew! You can read a Q&A with the author here. See any books you'd like to read to the children in your life?
Anita Diamant's latest novel, The Boston Girl, is our December Fiction Top Pick. It tells the life story of Addie, who was born in 1900 to immigrant parents. Our reviewer writes, "Fiercely independent, frequently awkward and quite witty, Addie is simply fun to hang out with, in a literary sense. Her journey through the 20th century is one readers will relish." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Diamant has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
For the most part, I read contemporary novels based on the recommendation of friends. So after the fifth person told me how much they enjoyed Americanah, I bought a copy and was happily hooked from the first page. The protagonist, Ifemelu, is a young Nigerian woman who writes a successful blog about her experiences of race in America, a minefield that Adichie travels with wisdom, humor and honesty. The book chronicles Ifemelu’s childhood in Nigeria, and her experiences in the United States as a college student, nanny and writer. We get to know her lovers (white, black and the One True) friends (Nigerian and American) and—very eloquently—her hair.
I keep at least one book of Billy Collins poems handy at all times: on the nightstand at home, in the vacation cottage, loaded on my tablet and laptop. I read poetry at bedtime to slow my overactive, over-stimulated brain. You can’t skim a poem and expect to get much from it; poems need to be read word-by-word, line-by-line. Collins’ poems are full of sweet-tart images about the precarious beauty of life, but without the gloom or doom. He shows you a world worthy of attention and love, “The clean white shirt, the hot evening shower, the highway that cuts across Florida.” Even a bar of soap, “so patient and soluble.”
When asked about his use of humor, Collins said, “Humor is simply an ingredient . . . I don’t see why it needs to be questioned. You could just as easily ask why is there so much seriousness in poetry?”
Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) is often cited as one of America’s first “food writers.” She produced 26 books about food and eating and this volume contains five of them: Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets. The titles are a tip-off: Although recipes are scattered here and there, her true subject was the human heart.
When asked why she wrote about food rather than loftier topics, Fisher responded, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” I re-read Fisher every few years not only because of her intelligence and insight, but also for the pleasure of her style. W.H. Auden said it best, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.”
Thank you, Anita! See any books you're apt to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Gretje Fergeson)
The Cynster family sojourns at their Scottish mansion for the holidays in Stephanie Laurens' latest novel, the lovely Regency romance By Winter's Light. Our reviewer writes, "Observing this very popular dynasty enjoying themselves and the season makes for wonderful, heartwarming holiday reading." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Laurens has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
I’m always reading, and it’s always genre fiction. I read in several genres, and for me, reading novels is all about relaxation and pure enjoyment. The following are books I’ve finished in the last month and thoroughly enjoyed.
My friend Victoria Alexander got me hooked on Rhys Bowen’s Royal Spyness Mysteries. Set in England during the early 1930s, the books give unique and humorous insight into the life of the upper echelons of British society at that time, especially the royal family. The heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch, is 34th in line to the throne, and while penniless, she must keep up appearances. However, she falls in love with a dashing, intriguing, but unsuitable son of an Irish peer. She is also often summoned by the Queen to assist with missions too delicate to delegate to anyone but family. The books are a hoot and commence with Her Royal Spyness. Thus far, there are eight in the series, and all are highly entertaining.
I’ve read Christie Ridgway’s romances for years, but her recent Rock Royalty series breaks new ground. The allure of a group of people who share a common childhood history reconnecting as adults defines this series, and the group's implicit and explicit search for “family” is touching. Add characters who are simultaneously larger than life, yet completely believable, and we have a winning combination. The series opens with Light My Fire, and the second book, which I adore, is Love Her Madly, with the third, Break on Through due in January. Can’t wait.
(Editor's Note: Christie Ridgway is also our very own romance columnist)
As must be apparent by now, I enjoy series, and one of my current favorites is Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock paranormal/urban fantasy series. I stumbled upon these books by accident earlier this year, and I raced through the first seven. Jane is a Cherokee skinwalker, and the series opens with her riding her motorcycle into New Orleans as a vampire hunter for hire. As the series progresses, she learns a lot more about herself and possibly more than she ever wanted to know about life with vampires. The series is set in the South, primarily in New Orleans, and the world Faith Hunter has crafted is detailed, consistent and believable. Book 1 is Skinwalker, and the most recent, Book 8, is Broken Soul, with Book 9, Dark Heir, out this April. If you enjoy an absorbing read in an alternate-history universe, the Jane Yellowrock series comes highly recommend.
Thank you, Stephanie! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
Lydia Millet's dark and funny Mermaids in Paradise follows a couple on their tropical honeymoon— a vacation that is disrupted when mermaids (mermaids!) are discovered on the island's reef. Our reviewer writes, "Though they often deal in dark themes—humanity’s rampant destruction of the earth is a common backdrop—Lydia Millet’s books are also, paradoxically, hilarious." We were able to talk with Millet, and you can read the interview here.
We were curious about the books Millet has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
This nonfiction book by the author of When Elephants Weep—which I initially picked up, full disclosure, because he used to be my mother’s boyfriend, but I subsequently grew to love on its own merits—is an accessible, intriguing survey of the ways we elevate the human race over other creatures. Masson has written numerous books about our relationships with, and treatment of, animals, from pets to livestock to those still living free. This 2014 volume focuses on the rationalizations we use to debase other animals and achieve our own sense of rightful privilege over the rest of the living kingdom—as well as to justify our massive-scale production and slaughter of other animals for food. Beasts touches on so many crucial parts of the puzzle of our perverse and tragic behavior toward our fellow creatures that it’s a great read for both newcomers to the subject and veterans.
Tillman is a writer’s writer—a writer many other fine writers deeply admire because she’s super-smart, philosophical, cleaves to a rigorous aesthetic and, perhaps best of all, commands a powerful, deadpan sense of humor. But the truth is, her fiction should make her anyone’s writer—it’s too good not to be read. I’d been reading and loving Tillman for years when my dear friend, and then publisher, Richard Nash published her 2006 novel American Genius, nominally about a woman with sensitive skin, which is one of my favorites. Tillman’s both quintessentially New York and incredibly European — a perfect combination for those of us who love Beckett and Bernhard and Musil but also yearn for the intellectual company of women. Specifically, of women who don’t suffer fools gladly—and Tillman’s one of those for certain. Also, check out her new essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, which has an excellently written introduction by Colm Tóibín.
Ever since Watership Down I’ve loved books with nonhuman narrators, especially if they live in underground burrows and have large ears. So I was delighted to hear of this tale, written by a concert pianist who abides in Europe, about the battle of Waterloo seen through the eyes of an erudite bunny. Named for William of Orange, the rabbit in question lives in a hutch on the grounds of a Belgian chateau called Hougoumont, where 200 years ago the famous battle that brought about Napoleon’s final downfall was fought. The kept rabbits of modern Hougoumont have a mysterious relationship to the rabbits that lived there two centuries ago, and this relationship is the subject of William’s obsessive study under the tutelage of his corpulent and wise grandmother, Old Lavender. It's dignified and poignant, as well as sad, with a gentle humor befitting gentle lagomorphs. But it’s not coming out till 2015, so wait for it. . . wait for it. . .
Thank you, Lydia! See anything you're apt to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Ivory Orchid)
The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron stars a man in a slump. Ruddy, a failed football pro, has a lame job and no friends. And then he starts hearing the voice of a dead real estate agent in his head. Our reviewer writes that Cameron's smart, humor-filled novel "is a light, breezy read that is pure entertainment." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Cameron has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
Because he writes thrillers, this very literary novel by Nelson DeMille, while a bestseller, is rarely mentioned on the same list with important American works. Yet, for me, this is The Caine Mutiny for the Vietnam generation, and I read it every few years just to marvel at how well it holds up: suspenseful, profound and superbly crafted.
According to Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the fascinating book Outliers, it takes an “expert” about 10,000 hours to truly master his or her craft. Looking at the bibliography of Andrew Gross, one can easily see he’s got his 10,000 hours in—and it shows up magnificently in Everything to Lose, his latest thriller. Don’t open the front cover for a quick look if you don’t have the money to purchase the book—you don’t want to be caught shoving it in your coat and running for the door, but there’s no way you are going to abandon this novel once you’ve started it.
This is very literally “what I’m reading”—I just started it. I was immediately struck by the POV—The book is written in first-person, in the voice of Jack Reacher. I have not yet ventured far enough into the novel to know much more than the fact that this character, Reacher, is as comforting and habit-forming as the first cup of coffee on a cold morning. I cannot wait to get back to the book!
Thank you, Bruce! Readers, do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
(Author photo by Ute Ville)
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)