In Jonathan Odell's Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, two women unite to change their community in pre-Civil Rights Mississippi despite their seemingly opposite lives. Our reviewer says, "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is quintessentially Southern in its frank discussions of friendship, marriage, family, feminism, grief and redemption." (Read the review here.)
We asked Odell to tell us about three books he's been reading lately, and he graciously agreed to share.
The next book I’d like to complete writing is a memoir about growing up as gay boy in Fundamentalist-crazed Mississippi. This will include making public the craziness of my own particular family. My editor recommended The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók. When it comes to crazy, her family puts mine to shame. Bartók writes poignantly about her schizophrenic mother whom she goes to extreme lengths to escape, including moving away and changing her name. But of course, all roads lead home again, and Bartók, after years of separation, must return to her still mentally unstable mother to tie up loose ends. I want to write a book that tells a hard truth as compassionately and as unsentimentally as Bartók.
Abandonment to Divine Providence was written during the 1700s by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a French Jesuit priest. Caussade was the original “power of now” kind of guy, but he called his method “the sacrament of the moment.” The subtitle of the translation I'm reading is “Classic Wisdom from the Past on Living Fully in the Present.” I chose this little book because I’m about to embark on an over-scheduled 25-city tour and, as an introvert, am seriously worried about my sanity. Written passionately yet simply, Caussade’s work is a meditation on how to stay open to, and trust, the gifts of the present moment. He may be too religiose for most readers, but as a Southerner, religion for me is not so much a belief system but a way of talking about things that matter. And Caussade employs the language beautifully. I’ll tell you in March how it worked.
George Hodgman’s Bettyville, like The Memory Palace, tells the story of a child’s return home to care for his mother. That’s about where the similarity ends. Hodgman’s memoir, though tenderly told, is one spiked with perfectly timed wit and a kind of irreverent gothic humor that it seems only a Southerners can get away with when speaking of his own family’s dysfunction. Though hilarious, there is not an iota of meanness. Hodgman proves once again, that in the South, we are proud of our crazy.
Thanks, Jonathan! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Jim Kuether)
In her debut collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow, Katherine Heiny writes about women stuck in a variety of relationship issues with heartbreaking humor. Our reviewer writes, "[Single, Carefree, Mellow is a] smart exploration of love and betrayal, and that fine line between happiness and pain." (Read the review here.)
We asked Heiny to tell us about three books she's been reading lately, and she graciously agreed to share.
I often read for comfort, especially when I’m writing, which means I reread constantly. It’s like comfort food: I need something familiar and delicious and satisfying—and superbly written.
It’s always a pleasure to lose myself in this novel and realize once again that I haven’t lost my fascination for the post-apocalyptic world described here, or my desire to know the characters even better. King is so smart, so talented, so inventive—sometimes I think he must be a little more highly evolved than everyone else.
Last weekend I re-read Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and I was completely captivated—you would never guess it was my fifth or sixth read. The economy of the language, the subtlety of the horror, the brilliance of the final reveal—it knocks me out every single time.
I keep a copy of Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler on my desk, and often when I’m struggling, I’ll pick it up and read a chapter at random, just to remind myself of how beautifully it’s put together. The sense of humor and the depth of character and the descriptions that make me realize I hadn’t seen the world clearly up until that point. Tyler’s work is everything—everything—you could ever want fiction to be.
Thank you, Katherine! See any books you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Leila Barbaro)
In his debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher Scotton follows teenager Kevin Gillooly as he spends the summer in a small, impoverished Appalachia mining town. Our reviewer writes, "This affecting coming-of-age story faithfully portrays environmental concerns alongside rich family histories." (Read the review here.)
We asked Scotton to tell us about three books he's been reading lately, and he graciously agreed to share.
The only time I have for pleasure reading these days is about five minutes in the evening before bed. Novels can take months to unspool for me in that limited time of quiet, so I’ve turned to short story collections for my night reading. Short stories allow me to wade in and out quickly but still take some meaning and satisfaction from the best of them. Here are three that seem to have attached themselves to a permanent place on my bedside.
Sure, it’s a great “on ramp” to reading and understanding Joyce—a not-too-taxing wend around middle class, turn-of-the-century Dublin—providing a necessary set-up for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man then Ulysses (read in that order if you can). But in my mind, Dubliners stands on its own as one of the best short story collections in the English language, primarily on the shoulders of “The Dead,” the final piece in the work.
“The Dead” is perhaps the most perfect short story I’ve ever read—flawlessly constructed, subtly rendered to devastating effect. When asked by young writers for advice on how to develop compelling characters, I send them sprinting to “The Dead” and to Joyce’s delicate unwrapping of Gabriel Conroy.
While others in the collection don’t achieve the rare air of “The Dead,” “The Sisters,” “Araby” and “Eveline” will certainly leave you breathless.
Goodness . . . where to begin with this one. Unlike The Dubliners, which is a bit top heavy with the outsized magnificence of “The Dead,” every story in Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge is note-perfect, stunningly original and just flat-out great.
While the stories are dark Southern Gothic, the characters are so acutely drawn that they transcend setting. We all have encountered the self-absorbed idiot intellectual Julian of the title story—perhaps we even were him for a while when the ink was still wet on our Masters. How many smug, self-righteous Mrs. May’s, gored by a bull in “Greenleaf,” have populated our neighborhoods? Then there’s the moral outrage of Thomas in “The Comforts of Home” combusting with the smoldering sexuality of Star Drake.
Although O’Connor’s novels were, for me, clumsy affairs, when reading her short stories you’ll know you’re in the deft hands of a virtuoso. These stories will amuse, astound and stun you sleepless.
If Joyce invented the short story, Saunders reinvented it with Tenth of December. Strike that—He didn’t just reinvent it, he blew it up, shook it down and reassembled the smithereens into something so completely unique and compelling and dazzling I was nearly left in thrombosis. Okay, not an actual thrombosis but maybe a state of joyful apoplexy.
Seriously, people, is there a better, more topical, more heart-rending story in this cannon of ours than the “Semplica Girl Diaries”? I don’t think so . . . except maybe “Tenth of December” or “Victory Lap.”
So much has been written about the genius of George Saunders that I don’t need to add to the blather—just read the damn thing. Or read it again if you already have. It’s the shit.
Thanks, Christopher! See a personal favorite or anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Lee Kriel)
Wes Moore's The Work, his latest book after the haunting and fascinating The Other Wes Moore, focuses on finding purpose in life and work. Our reviewer writes, "These stories underscore Moore’s point that the meaning of life is clearer when we are willing to serve others, whether as an inner-city principal or a social entrepreneur. The Work will resonate with people seeking their own purpose in life." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Moore has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
This is a wonderfully compelling book about the subtle, yet life-altering changes our choices and circumstances make.
I love the constant battle between proving a model while always challenging it. The work we do with BridgeEdU and reinventing the freshman year of college takes a lot of lessons from this book.
This book had me from the beginning with the Confucius quote: “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it, is committing another mistake.” Enough said.
Thank you, Wes! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Amun Ankhra)
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?