Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday Martin’s snarkily delicious anthropological portrait of wealthy Manhattan moms, has stirred up a hornets’ nest. On one side are the detractors, who question the book’s timeline and veracity; on the other side are scores of eager readers who sent the book to the #2 spot on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Then there’s MGM, which gleefully bought film rights to the book after a bidding war.
Responding to complaints about factual inaccuracies, Primates of Park Avenue publisher Simon & Schuster promises that the ebook and future editions will contain a statement noting that some details in the book have been changed and timelines altered in order to protect the identities of Manhattan moms.
Martin took time during a very hectic week to tell us about three books on her own reading list.
Jeff Nunokawa's Note Book is perfect for a reader like me—his literary and cult criticism musings on everyday life, George Eliot, soccer hunks, insomnia, his mother and the finer points of Dickens are both enlightening and impressionistic. And physically it is the heaviest book relative to its size I have ever held. In an age of iPhones, I'm a sucker for that.
I attended a conversation with Cokie Roberts and Lesley Stahl at the New York Historical Society where they discussed this book about the role of women in Civil War-era Washington DC. Turns out that—as during World War II—when the men were away, the women ruled. Fascinating, rigorous and, yes, dishy in a way only Cokie Roberts can pull off (the detail about navigating the House in a hoop skirt—genius).
I admire the way Oliver Sacks has always managed to cross genres and make science not only accessible but fun, human and informative. Then I saw how he looks on the cover of the book and was just so gone. It's the story of how an extremely unconventional thinker came to be and a compelling look at the person behind the brain.
Thank you, Wednesday! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Elena Seibert)
Father's Day is this Sunday, so we asked one of the authors featured in our Father's Day feature to suggest three books he loves—and we got a bonus!
In Year of the Dunk, Price takes on the mission of learning how to dunk a basketball, a seemingly straightforward goal that leads to some surprisingly heartfelt moments. Our reviewer writes, "Year of the Dunk, an exploration of what [Asher] calls the 'limits of human talent,' is an informative, inspiring and often moving story of how life’s tough challenges can motivate us." (Read the review.)
Despite, or maybe because of, my being a nonfiction writer, one whose professional career is spent dealing with facts, I like reading fiction in my spare time. I recently read a galley of a forthcoming novel by my brother-in-law, Benjamin Markovits, You Don’t Have to Live Like This. It’s about a group of Yalies who decide to set up a commune in Detroit; things don’t go smoothly. As with his other novels, this one is beautifully crafted and a pleasure to occupy—even when things get uncomfortable. It’ll be published in the U.S. in early July by HarperCollins.
Most of what I read comes to me as gifts; I figure if it was good enough for a dear friend to recommend it, I’ll probably like it. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend gave me A Pale View of the Hills as my birthday gift, and I sped through it. The novel, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first, is a story of isolation and dislocation in Japan, probing at intergenerational and husband-wife relationships after the war. One thing I especially like about Ishiguro’s work is the peculiarities of his narrators; he so fully commits himself to the narrator’s character as the work unfolds.
I read my first Jonathan Lethem novel earlier this year and loved it. Dissident Gardens, largely set in Queens, tells the story of raucous family wrestling with their Communism, Jewishness and American identity over many decades. The book especially resonated with me because my own grandmother lived in Forest Hills in Queens; she was not quite a fellow traveler of the left-wing activists that populate Lethem’s novel, but she was quirky and flinty in some similar ways. I’m sometimes defeated by long novels, but in a sign of the grip this one had on me, I happily spun through to the end.
Finally, it’s not exactly a book, but my bed-side reading each night is the latest issue of American Short Fiction, which—full disclosure!—is edited by wife. I find the stories, each first-class, are just the right length to settle my mind as I drift off to sleep.
Thank you, Asher! See any books you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Rebecca Markovits)
Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the best-selling Wench, returns to 19th-century America with her latest novel, Balm, which follows a group of refugees as they attempt to survive in the wake of the Civil War. Our reviewer writes, "Perkins-Valdez . . . has a genius for placing the reader in the postwar welter of a city and the quieter but no less troubled farms of the South." (Read the review.)
We asked Perkins-Valdez to tell us about three books she's read lately.
Mitchell Jackson's debut has been described as an "autobiographical novel" and as I read it, I cannot help but wonder: "How autobiographical is it?" I want to read everything that ever flows from Jackson's pen. What intrigues me about his work isn't just its subject matter—its gritty look at the lives of a drug-dealing son and his drug-addicted mother—but the unique and confident voice of the author. I do not exaggerate when I say that he takes a dark tale and elevates it to poetry. The lines burst with energy and verve. "Now having an idea is one thing, but the real work is turning a blank screen into words, into sentences, into a few fucking paragraphs." Jackson has done that and more.
I fell in love with Jay Porter in Attica Locke's first book, Black Water Rising. Here was a hero I could sink my teeth into: smart but troubled, idealistic but scarred. Now I am delighted to see Porter is back in Locke's third novel Pleasantville. What I appreciate about Locke's work is her ability to infuse politics into a page-turning thriller. When I pick up a thriller, I still want to read smart fiction, and Locke is as smart as they come. Her second book was about a murder on a historic slave plantation in Louisiana where a cadre of African-American employees hosts tours and events! How genius is that!
Robin Oliveira's first novel My Name is Mary Sutter took me right into my own backyard—the Civil War era in Washington, DC. I was absolutely captivated by this story of a woman whose quest to become a nurse and surgeon is well beyond her time. Oliveira's second novel I Always Loved You moves forward in time a bit to narrate the relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. In 2014 the National Gallery of Art organized an exhibit to examine the relationship between the famous painter and his "pupil." It was a fascinating intellectual exchange, and Oliveira's narrative reminds me of why historical fiction is such an important contribution to the historical record.
Thank you, Dolen! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
You may know David Crabb from the Moth storytelling podcast. His touching, hilarious memoir, Bad Kid, focuses on growing up as an outsider with a penchant for trouble in small-town America. Our reviewer writes, "If Crabb was truly a Bad Kid, at least he grew into a man with the chops to tell the tale, and it’s one we’re lucky to have." (Read the review.)
We asked Crabb to tell us about three books he's read lately.
Although I like John Waters' films, it's his writing and solo performances that I really connect with. His last book, Role Models, was such an unexpected read for me. I had a complete emotional breakdown on a crowded, Brooklyn-bound L-train reading about his dear imprisoned friend, former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten. The way he uses their relationship to document his own fascination with trash culture, transitioning into genuine care for the real people behind those stories, is masterful and, dare I say, sentimental. I got to ask him about their friendship at a Q&A in New York last year. Throughout his 5-minute answer he looked at me directly, and continued to thoughtfully and thoroughly interact with anyone who asked him a question that night. He's the genuine article and a pretty complex character, traits that his writing communicates in a way that his films aren't as concerned with. I've just started this new book, about hitchhiking cross-country. I've already laughed a lot. I think the tears come later. I'm a huge fan of that kind of emotional contrast. The salty/sweet element is something I really wanted to capture in Bad Kid.
Drew was a student of mine in a storytelling workshop and is now a multiple Moth Slam story winner. He's also one of those rare birds whose voice exists on the page in the same way it does in person. I've always envied that quality in writers like Sedaris, whose writing feels and sounds just like his spoken voice. It was a struggle for me as a performer and character-actor to figure out a not entirely different, but altered voice in my writing. Drew's book of humorous essays reads just like he speaks. It touches on a few things, including his yearly quest to conquer a fear—snakes, skydiving, relationships—it’s all here. There's an especially harrowing account of mingling with great white sharks. Alas, Drew self-published only a handful of these for holiday presents as he continues to edit the manuscript. So you'll just have to wait until a smart publisher prints a few thousand.
Jillian has told some fabulous stories at the Moth and other events about her time in a harem during her troubled twenties. (Yes. A real harem belonging to the Sultan of Brunei.) This new memoir is about the process of building her family after that experience. I’m only a few chapters in, but I’ve already had my heart strings plucked several times. There is a scene in the first chapter in which Jillian is on a date with a man that you hope will become a boyfriend. As the details of her checkered past come tumbling out, Lauren makes you feel her anxiety in a way that is so palpable and relatable. I’m loving that Jillian’s writing seems less focused on shame and the judgements of others and more about finding her tribe. I think we all long for those people who are strong, smart and loving enough to accept who we are (or were) without apology. The book hasn’t even delved into its focus: her adoption of an Ethiopian child with special needs. So I’m preparing to cry a lot. And I love crying. A lot.
Thank you, David! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Julia Gillard)
In his frequently hilarious memoir The World's Largest Man, Harrison Scott Key recalls his Mississippi childhood, his domineering father and how both shaped him into the man he is today. Our reviewer says, "Both laugh-out-loud funny and observant about the ways we become our parents while asserting ourselves, The World’s Largest Man is a wise delight." (Read the review.)
We asked Key to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
It's hard to imagine Twain as a debut author, age 34, looking like a young game show host with a black coiffure and a bed skirt attached to his lip. Published in 1869, his first book may also be the first funny, creative nonfiction book ever written, a story about a cruise to Europe and the Holy Land, long before David Foster Wallace made us want to jump overboard with A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Twain writes such terrible things about Muslims that if he said them today I'm sure he'd be stoned by every tolerant progressive in North America, although they'd probably feel bad about it once they see how he treats the Church and her relics. Nevertheless, everything we love about Twain is here, especially that tenuous balance between cynicism and a genuine wonder at how beautiful the world can be anyway.
Many of these stories were first published in The New Yorker, including the longest one in the collection, a novella called "Sell Out", which is easily the funniest novella ever written by a human being in the land we know as America. In it, Rich tells a timeless tale about a Jewish immigrant who is preserved for a hundred years in a large vat of pickle juice and then reanimated. I know, I know, you've heard that story before. But Rich has a fresh take. For example, there's a character in the story named Simon Rich, and the pickled immigrant is his great-great-grandfather, and if you think that sounds too silly to be very funny, then maybe you should fall into a vat of something vinegary and see how it feels.
I remember a theologian making reference to this book as being very sad and depressing, a sort of portent of the meaninglessness of postmodernity, and I've already got enough sadness in my life, thank you very much, what with Facebook and bloating. But then I remembered that Heller was the guy who wrote Catch-22, and that book was sort of funny, so maybe the theologian was confused? Turns out, the theologian was right! It is sad and depressing! But it's a very funny kind of sadness, for example, when the narrator says this about his job: "It's a real problem to decide whether it's more boring to do something boring than to pass along everything boring that comes in to somebody else and then have nothing to do at all." I guess theologians are sometimes wrong.
Thank you, Harrison! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Chia Chong)
Best-selling author Lisa Lutz's latest novel, How to Start a Fire, follows the lives of three women who became friends during their college years. Our reviewer writes, "With wit and a gift for capturing the repartee between siblings and old friends, Lutz brings us a memorable and ultimately uplifting saga of three strong, unique women." (Read the review.)
We asked Lutz to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker
I’m interested in medicine in general, but pre-modern medicine especially fascinates me. Blood Work is an absorbing and gruesome account of the history of blood transfusions, with a bizarre cast of characters from the procedure’s vanguard. It focuses on the 1600s and the physician Jean Denis, who is framed for murder after a failed transfusion attempt between a calf and a madman. But it’s also about the public’s perception and the politics of medicine, and it’s a great murder mystery. Although I must admit that I had to time my reading very carefully, away from meals.
This was the novel that stuck with me the most from last year. I read it cold, without having any notion of what it was about, and that’s how I’d want everyone else to read it. But if you must know something: It’s narrated by Rosemary Cooke, the daughter of two psychology professors. She has a brother on the run from the FBI and a sister, Fern. That’s all I’ll give away. This insanely brilliant, complex and funny novel is about family and much, much more. The writing is just so perfect and alive. I can’t recommend it enough.
Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
I’ve had Stewart’s Wicked Plants on my coffee table for ages, so I was thrilled to get a galley of her first novel, which is apparently the first in a series. It’s basically the origin story of the first female deputy sheriffs. In 1914, Constance Kopp and her two sisters go into town one day, and a silk factory owner runs over their buggy. Constance goes to great lengths to get reimbursed for damages, soon igniting a full-on war. With the aid of a local sheriff she learns to defend her property, and the first female “lawman” is born. It’s a totally absorbing, often funny tale based on real characters who make you proud that women like them existed back then. I’m looking forward to the next installment.
Thank you, Lisa! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
Patricia Park reimagines the perennial Jane Eyre as a Korean-American young woman in Queens in Re Jane. Our reviewer writes, "Park’s portrait of Korean-American life feels authentic and is ultimately endearing. Charlotte Brontë would be proud." (Read the review here.)
We asked Park to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
After I turned in the last manuscript pages for Re Jane, I finally turned my eye back to the stack of books on my TBR (To Be Read) list. I read fiction and nonfiction, and I’m thrilled to share my latest reading rotation with you now:
I was woefully late to the Frank McCourt conversation; I finally read it because my dentist told me Frank McCourt was her teacher at Stuyvesant High School. Angela’s Ashes touched me on so many personal levels—themes of migration and reverse migration, steeped in the blue-collar world. It reminded me of my father’s own immigrant struggles—scrapping and saving to make it to America (or in McCourt’s case, making it back to America) with nothing more than a suitcase and a dream. I have never read more delicious descriptions of floury potatoes or milky tea or fried toast (pig heads, maybe not so much). And all told with such humor! I don’t come from a family of big readers, but it was the kind of book that immediately made me want to buy it for everyone I loved. I forced my older brother to listen to the audiobook, and as we laughed at McCourt’s hilarious retellings of his otherwise miserable childhood, I think the experience brought us (if a little) closer together.
I’ve read Lahiri’s short stories, but hadn’t read her first novel until just recently. Then I reread it for a conference presentation I was giving on Show Vs. Tell in literature. Lahiri does an enviously skillful tell—one expository paragraph with details like “ashtrays the size of serving platters” and whiskey and wine bottles stacked on top of the refrigerator will do the work of pages and pages of scenes. I love the way she presented the main character Gogol’s attempts to fit in—with both his Bengali and his American identities. I think his struggle is one that many of us “hyphenated-Americans” deal with on a daily basis.
What a wealth of information about the Brontës! With each page turn I found myself learning a new Brontë fact, and it changed the way I (re)read Jane Eyre. Brontë had set out to show that a female lead “as plain and as small as myself” deserved her own novel, at a time when convention dictated that only beautiful female characters got airtime in literature. There was a real-life St. John Rivers—modeled after Brontë’s friend Ellen’s brother, a rather straight-laced clergyman who saw in Charlotte the makings of a good pastor’s wife. But she turned him down with the following quip: “I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you—but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you.” There was also a real-life Rochester. While teaching in Brussels, Brontë carried on an emotional affair with the married professor Monsieur Heger, whom she first described as “small, ugly, short-tempered and, above all, Catholic.” The Brontës is a 1,000-page whopper, but what a comprehensive and quite readable biography of a prolific family.
Thank you, Patricia! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Allana Taranto)
In The Year My Mother Came Back, Alice Eve Cohen explores the ways in which her deceased mother re-enters her life as she copes with an onslaught of unwelcome difficulties. Our reviewer writes, "This thoughtful memoir shows how our past and present remain constantly intertwined, and how being a mother is a complex journey that’s often full of stunning surprises." (Read the full review.)
As we prepare to celebrate our mothers this Sunday, we asked Cohen to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
Two years after first reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, I still dip into it on a regular basis, savoring the language of favorite passages, or trying yet again to unravel its mysteries. I’ve had the good fortune to meet Ruth Ozeki on several occasions. We had coffee together a few years ago while I was worrying that the memoir I was writing contained too much fantasy and read like a novel. Her encouragement gave me the courage to continue in that direction. When I read A Tale for the Time Being, I found that it was a novel that read like a memoir. A middle-aged woman named Ruth (like the author), lives on a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest, where she finds a zip-close bag, loaded with stuff, washed up on the beach. Ruth thinks it’s detritus from the recent 2011 Tsunami. Inside the bag is a diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl with a fabulous imagination, sardonic wit and suicidal fantasies. Fictional Ruth becomes entranced with the girl’s diary and deeply concerned about its author. The diary writer fantasizes about her imaginary reader. Ruth Ozeki is a writer and a Zen Buddhist priest. Philosophical and spiritual questions are intricately woven into the fabric of the book. Edgy, contemporary storytelling is juxtaposed with ancient, timeless stories. It’s a brilliant book.
I recently read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, because my daughter was studying it in her 10th-grade English class. Though I’d read other powerful novels by Morrison, I found myself overwhelmed by this tragic tale. The first lines of the book fracture the seemingly innocuous patter of Dick and Jane—Remember those very white children from the ubiquitous schoolbooks of the 1940s and ’50s? Dick and Jane, fragmented and reassembled, becomes a ghoulish leitmotif when we meet the young black protagonists whose sense of self-worth is warped by the white standards of beauty exemplified by Shirley Temple and Dick and Jane. Reading The Bluest Eye was so heartbreaking that I had to enlist my daughter to talk with me about it every day, surreptitiously reaping the benefits of her high school English teacher’s smart questions and comments. While the book is unbearably sad, it provokes new ways of thinking, and the staggering beauty of Toni Morrison’s writing is redemptive.
I teach playwriting to undergrads, and I always assign my students Tony Kuschner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. It’s one of my very favorite plays, so I reread it each year. It’s a great read—even better on the page than on the stage, in my opinion. With each new reading, more layers are revealed. The canvas is huge—NYC at the end of the millennium, ravaged by the AIDS epidemic, Reaganism and homophobia; It covers loss, death, religion, politics, homosexuality, gender ambiguity, spirituality and on and on and on. Kushner is a brilliant writer, his dialogue alternately realistic and otherworldly, comic and tragic, and always deeply musical—his dialogue and split scenes are as rhythmically nuanced as a jazz ensemble. He combines realism with magic and in so doing, he arrives at a greater truth than if he’d stuck to the plain ole real.
Thank you, Alice! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Janet Charles)
In British author Nina Stibbe's latest novel, Man at the Helm, the children of an unconventional single mother do their best to find her a new husband. Our reviewer writes, "Man at the Helm is a beguiling, often wickedly funny look at an unusual family trying to find its place in a conventional world." (Read the review here.)
We asked Stibbe to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
H is for Hawk is by historian and naturalist Helen MacDonald (who, by the way, begins writing about nature for the New York Times Magazine any minute now), and while I knew I’d like this book, I had no idea I’d love it so much. It begins when the author's father, acclaimed photographer Alisdair Macdonald, dies suddenly from a heart attack. Macdonald descends into a kind of grief-stricken madness in the midst of which she buys a captive-bred female goshawk called Mabel and takes her home. She stocks up on hawk food and begins the gruelling task of training her. Along the way we come to know of similar endeavours, notably, T.H. White's 1951 memoir The Goshawk. But mostly we share Macdonald's extraordinary quest, and though it’s sad and sometimes brutal, it is utterly beautiful and unforgettable.
Shortly after I read H is for Hawk, MacDonald wrote a piece for The Guardian about books that had influenced her. One of them was My Side of the Mountain, the story of Sam Gribley, a boy who runs away from his family in New York City to the Catskill mountains, taking only an axe, a flint-and-steel, $40 and a ball of string. It’s a book I was completely captivated by as a child. It’s relatively unknown in the UK—though, looking it up now, I notice it has almost 700 reviews on Amazon.com (compared with 21 on Amazon UK)—so, I guess you don’t need me to tell you about it. I reread it in the ‘80s with the children I was nanny to and then, more recently, with my own children. I’d probably over-egged it, because they were slightly underwhelmed. Still, it remains one of my favourite books of all time.
This is a wartime romance told through real letters discovered recently and bequeathed to a British national archive. In September 1943, Chris Barker was serving as a signalman in North Africa when he wrote to a former work colleague, Bessie Moore. Bessie’s warm and enthusiastic reply changed both their lives forever. You might expect (as I did) much humorous British reserve, silliness and jingoism—But not at all, these letters are incredibly candid, loving and sensitive. And, they’re a lovely reminder of the power of a good letter.
Thank you, Nina! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Rebecca Dawe)
As a copy editor at The New Yorker, a bastion of grammar perfection, Mary Norris knows a thing or two about the oddities of the English language. In her memoir, Between You & Me, Norris mixes grammar tales with personal stories, and the result is fascinating. Our reviewer writes, "While Norris may have a job as a “comma queen,” readers of Between You & Me will find that “prose goddess” is perhaps a more apt description of this delightful writer." (Read the full review.)
We asked Norris to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
When I had finished my book about grammar and usage and copy editing at The New Yorker, and was free to read about other things, I poked around on my shelves for books that I had been saving as a reward for good behavior. Here are three that I especially enjoyed.
Frank Delaney, an Irishman transplanted to Connecticut, uses his boyhood fascination with ships and the sea to extol Kurt Carlsen, the real-life captain of the Flying Enterprise. Soon after leaving Germany, in December of 1951, the ship gets hit by a rogue wave and cracks, then gets hit by a second rogue wave and lists precariously. Carlsen does everything in his power to bring passengers and cargo to safety. I read this while commuting to work on a ferry and soaked up all things nautical: the etymology of the word knot, the strategy of the ship’s owners, and sailors’ superstitions about renaming a ship (don’t do it!) and leaving port on a Friday.
One might think that after revisiting The Elements of Style while writing a book about writing, I would want to take a break from E. B. White, but this book made me fall in love with him all over. Elwyn (En) White had an old-fashioned patrician upbringing in Mount Vernon, New York, and spent summers at a lake in Maine. (His parents gave him his own canoe.) His early interest in nature informed Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. In addition to all the influences and arachnid research that went into Charlotte’s Web, Sims includes gossip about White’s editors and publishers and about children’s librarians.
One of the things I have always loved about journalist John McPhee’s writing is the way he keeps himself out of it. This study of his work and life made me feel like a stalker. McPhee is from Princeton, New Jersey (where he still lives). His upbringing and education and the summer camp he spent time at all inform his work. He once wrote a novel! Pearson organizes his critical remarks around McPhee’s own topics, from Bill Bradley to physics and geology, and analyzes the techniques through which he raised journalism to an art. I was heartened to see that after Oranges and The Pine Barrens I still have plenty of McPhee to read, and beguiled by the realization that some of my favorite writers—White, McPhee, Thoreau—started out in canoes. Did paddling canoes make them better writers? If I tried it, would I capsize?
Thank you, Mary! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?