After a health scare, Alex Sheshunoff decided that it was time for a radical change. So he left his old life behind and set out in search of true paradise, a search he recounts in A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise. Our reviewer writes, "A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise is extraordinarily entertaining, one part guidebook to two parts love story. This heartfelt account reveals what can happen when you leave everything behind—and find more than you ever hoped for." (Read the review.)
We asked Sheshunoff to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradel
I loved this book. Funny and spare and character driven, this lovely debut novel made me appreciate everything from the culture of food (of the Midwest, even) to the unreliable assessments we make of those closest to us (our parents, even). Most of all, though, I was struck by Stradel’s writing. His similes—or is it metaphors?—stayed with me long after I’d finished the book. Among my favorites: “Cousin Randy was an untouchable demigod—an angel’s wing broken from an ancient statue, sent here to help her hover above all things insipid and heartbreaking.” Most aren’t nearly as heavy. For example: “He […] went on dates about as often as a vegetarian restaurant opened near an interstate highway.”
I haven’t seen the movie, but I do find myself often rereading this hilarious book about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Bryson was a British copy editor for years before writing his first book, and it shows in his control of the language. For example, describing a bunk bed in a hostel along the trail, he looks up and writes, “If the mattress stains were anything to go by, a previous user had not so much suffered from incontinence as rejoiced in it.” Funny stuff. At least to me.
Ants by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler
My 8-year-old and I are slowly making our way through this seven-pound, 732-page book about, well, ants. It’s been really fun for him (and me) to go beyond volcanoes and dinosaurs and see just how deep and rich science can be. Who knew, for example, that monogamous ants have 75 percent female offspring whereas polygamous ants have almost 75 percent male offspring? I didn’t. Oh sure, you’re probably thinking, A 500 page book about ants, that’d be reasonable, but do you really need those extra 232 pages? The short answer? Yes! Otherwise, you’d miss the 63-page bibliography. And that colonies of Eciton burchelli, an army ant found on an island in Panama, migrate between bushes by constructing thick chains of ants—formed by the interlocking of mandibles—that subsequent ants use for transportation. OK, Ants could probably still honor its incredible subject with a few fewer pages, but not many!
Our September Nonfiction Top Pick, Once in a Great City by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss, is a fascinating look at Detroit in its golden days. Our reviewer writes, "David Maraniss didn’t set out to write a ghost story, but Once in a Great City, his glimmering portrait of Detroit, has a lingering, melancholy quality that will leave the reader thoroughly haunted." (Read the review.)
We asked Maraniss to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This was a book that reached me on many levels. First, the young blind girl was one of the most touching and unforgettable characters I've encountered in fiction in many years. Second, the way the stories were fitted together stunned me. And third, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful and precise use of language.
I Will Have Vengeance and other Commissario Ricciardi detective novels by Maurizio de Giovanni
No book seemed more relevant to the issues of this year than this illuminating biography of one of America's forgotten heroes, the Jackie Robinson of the Southeastern Conference, a brilliant student and quietly powerful force who endured the worst of human indignities and paved the way for thousands of African American athletes to follow.
Thank you, David!
(Author photo by Lucian Perkins)
Lauren Groff's new novel, Fates and Furies, follows the beautiful love story of a couple—and the vicious dissolution of their marriage. Our reviewer writes, "Groff’s writing is intelligent, knowing and deliciously sexy." (Read the review.)
We asked Groff to tell us about three books she's read recently.
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
It’s summertime, which means I need to flee Florida because excessive heat does bad things to my psyche. I found cheap tickets to France, and for the past three weeks, I have installed my two little boys and myself in a series of Airbnb apartments in Paris and Normandy. I had the idea that my sons would pick up French as easily as they breathe, but beyond the ability to order any cake they want from any boulangerie, they're proving resistant. There's an animated version of Le Petit Prince in movie theaters, and I love the book excessively, so I bought it at a Fnac store and have been reading it to the boys, first in French, then in a spontaneous, slightly awkward English translation afterwards, in the hope that they'll at least pick up a few words. It's as beautiful as I remember it.
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
I get lots of books to blurb, and wish I could respond lovingly and fully to every single one, but my time is so tight that I can't seem to get to more than one or two a season. That said, I brought a few with me to France, and I didn't sleep on the plane because I was so entranced by this beautifully written, exciting, atmospheric book; it's political, but in a human and empathetic way. Jonathan Lee is such an economical, sensitive writer that I think we're going to hear quite a lot about him in the future. This book comes out in the U.S. in March 2016.
L'histoire du pied et autres fantaisies by J.M. Le Clézio
At the edge of this tiny fisherman's village in Normandy where we're living, with its single baker and butcher and church and vast white cliffs, is a beach of fist-sized stones. Perched like a seagull between the beach and the Casino is a little white free library where my boys and I spend hours every day in the cold wind, reading Tintin and Guy de Maupassant and children's books, which I sometimes have to scramble back into English. One day I accidentally stole L'histoire du pied when I was rushing a child somewhere, and read the stories from the Nobel Prize winner all night long; they are brilliant, very different, very strange. They are mostly about African women, and all are extremely sensitive and beautiful. Yes, I gave the book back the next day. And yes, I wish I'd kept it.
Thank you, Lauren!
(Author photo by Megan Brown)
Take a cross-country road trip with the father of pop art in Deborah Davis' The Trip. Our reviewer writes, "In Deborah Davis’ impressive recounting of this adventure, The Trip, Warhol’s experiences mark the turning point in his life between “Raggedy Andy” Warhola, a small-town kid from Pittsburgh, and Andy Warhol, filmmaker and pop art impresario." (Read the full review.)
We asked Davis to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
Readers and reviewers alike use one word, “unputdownable” (and I’m not even sure it’s a word), when describing I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes’ best-selling suspense thriller. I tore through this spellbinder so quickly and so compulsively that I was actually sneaking reads on my iPhone when I was supposed to be otherwise engaged. In addition to delivering a smart, inventive and involving story, this book offers a kaleidoscopic vision of global politics in the tense and terrifying world we occupy today.
China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
The sensational sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan’s China Rich Girlfriend is a 24-karat exploration of money, mores and extreme affluenza in modern-day Asia. But Kwan delivers more than a panoramic portrait of fabulous excess (The clothes! The jewels! The cars! The homes!), and in the tradition of the very best social observers, he wisely reminds us of what’s truly important underneath all those intoxicating frills. His heart is always in the right place, yet he never denies us the thrill of our favorite new spectator sport: watching the crazy rich spend crazy amounts of money in crazy new ways.
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian is a classic shipwreck story with a very clever twist. This new millennium castaway has been abandoned in outer space, on the notoriously inhospitable planet Mars. I’m not a big science fiction fan, but Weir creates a completely credible “what-if” world, with a charismatic hero at its oxygen-less center. Time is astronaut Mark Watney’s enemy, as he confronts new and seemingly insurmountable obstacles every day. But our unlikely hero’s wit, intelligence, ingenuity and irresistible boy-next-door personality (although in this case, “next-door” is an angry red planet) have us hanging on his every action, rooting for his survival. Read it before the Matt Damon movie comes out in the fall!
Thank you, Deborah! See anything you think you'd enjoy, readers?
(Author photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)
If you couldn't tell from her impressive author photo, Cara Nicoletti is a butcher, but she also loves literature. She combines her passion for food with her love of reading in Voracious, a collection of essays inspired by eating, reading and the delightful combination of the two.
Here, Nicoletti tells us about three books she loves.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
I’m a huge fan of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but for some reason, I had never picked up any of her other novels until this summer, when a friend recommended Jamaica Inn to me. The book has all the creepy intrigue and romance that I crave in a summer read, and the writing is fantastic, which can’t always be said for spooky, romantic thrillers.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I’ve been unable to put Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy down since this past spring, when I was given My Brilliant Friend as a gift. The series follows the lives of two women, Elena and Lila, through their childhood in Italy up into adulthood, and is one of the most complicated and realistic portraits of female friendship I have ever encountered.
Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis
I love reading short stories and essays in the summertime—I find that my attention span is much shorter when I’m hot. Lydia Davis has long been one of my favorite short story writers, and I’m really enjoying Can’t and Won’t: Stories, which came out last spring but I’m only just getting to now.
Thank you, Cara! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
In Born on the Bayou, Blaine Lourd looks back on a childhood spent deep in the humid marshes of Louisiana. Our reviewer writes, "A dazzling storyteller, Lourd so skillfully describes the hazards of growing up in the bayou with a larger-than-life father that we can’t help but read with wonder that he survived his upbringing and lived to tell these tales." (Read the full review.)
We asked Lourd to share three of his favorite books with us.
Many great books kept me company during the several years I worked on my new memoir, Born on the Bayou. Southern writers—Faulkner, Welty, Warren and Harper Lee—provided inspiration in the strong sense of place they evoked. Entering a writer’s world is such a gift, made possible only by one’s true talent of moving mountains on a page—and the writers above demonstrate that talent again and again. But I also read and would recommend a few other books that have moved me over the years . . .
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast is a book that I, perhaps like many writers, re-read from time to time. Hemingway, nearing death, reached deep one last time into his well of incomparable artistry to deliver this memoir of a time long lost to him—his youth in Paris. The intimately conversational quality of this work is the kind of tone a writer working on a memoir should read again and again, I think.
In God’s House by Ray Mouton
In God’s House is a life-like fictionalization of an important historical event—the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandal. Writing a fast-paced, character-driven narrative, Mouton’s authentic Southern voice delivers a suspenseful tale of tragically flawed characters unfolding in a twisting, dark plot that ultimately shatters the great institutions of Rome.
Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Self-Reliance is one of the books I keep on my desk in Lake Bruin, Louisiana, and in my office in Beverly Hills. Although aspects of Emerson’s style might seem archaic or outdated to some modern readers, upon closer inspection it’s also evident that no word is ever wasted, and that he had a measured elegance that remains unmatched. "But the soul that ascends is plain and true; has no rose color, no fine friends, no chivalry, no adventures, does not want admiration; dwells in the hour that now is, in the earnest experience of the common day,—by reason of the present moment and the mere trifle having become porous to thought, and bibulous of the sea of light. "
Emerson always said, “Insist on yourself, never imitate”—some of the best advice a writer, or any person, can ever follow.
Thank you, Blaine! See any favorites on the list, readers?
(Author photo Gene Fama)
Two Across by debut novelist Jeff Bartsch is the story of two spelling bee champions connecting over words and, of course, a sham wedding. Our reviewer writes, "As Bartsch unravels Stanley’s charades and how they affect people around him, he weaves in enough crossword clues to keep any puzzle fans curious." (Read the full review.)
We asked Bartsch to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
I’ve been a fan of Gary Shteyngart since his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. He’s a hilarious writer with a very inviting—I would even say gregarious—style, as if you’re in conversation with him rather than reading a book. It’s clear from his novels that the life he’s lived has given him a rich perspective, so I was eager to read his memoir the moment it came out. It is indeed an interesting journey he’s been on, and he describes it so well. His self-deprecation and wit are awesome to behold, and there’s something very life-affirming about his quest for happiness amid this mess that is life. From his Russian childhood through his struggles to assimilate in Queens, then at Stuyvesant High School and again at Oberlin, his funny yet touching take on his life reminds us that we’re all always striving to fit in, in one way or another. Read this book, but read his novels first.
I had read and enjoyed Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s 2001 novel Gould’s Book of Fish, and for some reason I felt like I was the only one on the planet who read it. It’s a very unusual book and I thought the writing was excellent, but I think my opinion of it was tainted, strangely enough, by the exuberance of its design: it was printed with purple ink on colored paper and bound in a narrow format. It left me with the lingering notion that the book seemed a bit light. So I was surprised to see that his latest novel won the Booker Prize. My initial impression of his writing was confirmed by this brilliant book. The story moves back and forth between the protagonist’s present and his past as a POW in a Japanese WWII prison camp. This back and forth can feel a bit ragged at times, but that was the only negative for me. His writing is beautiful, smart and original. He conveys emotion with subtlety and honesty. If you can handle a story that’s rather dark, I highly recommend this master craftsman’s work.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Whenever I’m working on a writing project, I keep a book in the rotation that reminds me what the human imagination is capable of, something that makes me feel both humble and inspired. Calvino’s work is one of those sources of spiritual refreshment. I’m making my way through this mind-blowing creation for the third time, like a starving man at a gourmet-food tasting. The book is composed of short vignettes, some only a page, each a wonderful little appetizer describing in gorgeous prose a city of fantasy, a city whose design speaks to an aspect of the human condition. I’m a lover of lists, and Calvino is a genius list maker, layering traits upon his cities that make a reader gasp at the strength of his descriptive abilities. Like all his work, it’s a highly conceptual book with flawless execution—a treat to savor.
Thank you, Jeff! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo Jon Davis)
In Julie Iromuanya's debut, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, a Nigerian couple in America attempt to appear successful to their families back home, when in reality their lives are anything but perfect. Our reviewer says, "Iromuanya weaves this tale of a mismatched couple with dark humor and careful observation. [...] Her insights into assimilation—its difficulties and pitfalls—are astute and at times, eye-opening." (Read the full review.)
We asked Iromuanya to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
Now We Will Be Happy by Amina Gautier
I love story collections that seemingly collapse time and space by reintroducing and circulating themes and characters. “Muñeca,” one story in Amina Gautier’s second award-winning story collection Now We Will Be Happy, is a haunting foray into the psyche of a character, but part of the richness of the story is how the protagonist’s narrative competes with the other narratives of love, loss, migration and displacement. Presences are heightened by absences in this story collection, as are the complexities at the core of racial and ethnic identity.
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant
The stories in David James Poissant’s The Heaven of Animals feature animals in bizarre and exotic poses. Take, for example, the first story in the collection, “Lizard Man,” in which two down-on-their-luck deadbeats end up locking horns with a giant alligator. And one night the protagonist in “What the Wolf Wants” is face to face with something that might as well be a werewolf. The writing is energetic but also poignant, as many of these highly imagined stories engage with raw and disturbing realities.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Disgrace, written by J.M. Coetzee, is an oldie-but-goodie for me. I come back to it when I need to be reminded of how a light hand can be impactful in my writing. I’ve been a fan of his utilization of allegory since I first read Waiting for the Barbarians years ago. Disgrace opens like a pedestrian novel about a philandering professor, but it is ultimately a novel that addresses the emergence of the new South Africa as vestiges of the old remain. It is brutal and searing at every turn, but it is also subtle in its revelations.
Maggie Mitchell's debut novel, Pretty Is, follows the two grown victims of a bizarre kidnapping as their paths reconnect. Our reviewer writes, "As she peels back layers of her protagonists’ lives and memories, Mitchell carries readers through a thrilling, literary psychological adventure that examines how pivotal moments can echo throughout our lives." (Read the review.)
Here, Mitchell tells us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
I have long loved the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle’s band, so I was quick to order his novel when it came out. I was blown away by its strange beauty. A tangle of memory and imagination, love and pain, Wolf in White Van is narrated by a young man who runs a post-apocalyptic role-playing game through the mail and struggles with crushing, disfiguring injuries, the story of which unfolds gradually. Real life and fantasy intersect, blur—sometimes whimsically, sometimes dangerously—drawing us back and back to the devastating choice at the novel’s heart. I am excited to introduce my creative writing students to this novel, deservedly long-listed for the National Book Award.
Paris, He Said by Christine Sneed
I encountered Christine Sneed’s work through her short story “Quality of Life,” which features a young woman involved with a much older man who gives her money while keeping his own life strictly secret. Paris, He Said revisits this basic premise and complicates it in provocative ways: Sneed’s second novel is a richly layered narrative about interesting, likeably flawed, sometimes frustrating people. Jayne Marks, a young artist struggling (and not painting) in New York, takes up with a much older Frenchman, a wealthy gallery owner who invites her to come live with him in Paris. Rather shockingly, she says yes, and thus begins the novel’s exploration of desire and ambition, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and our motives, and—above all—Paris itself, half modern city and half romantic myth. Narrated in turns by Jayne and by her lover, Laurent, skirting both sentimentality and cynicism, Paris, He Said is both unflinchingly honest and unfailingly sympathetic to its characters’ quests for love, pleasure, success and beauty.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
My Kindle died in the midst of my recent trip to Italy, and I dashed into a bookstore in the Rome airport with minutes to spare before my flight. I can’t explain why it was The Godfather, a runaway bestseller from 1978, that spoke to me, but I stuffed it into my carry-on with my water and gum. I don’t even know the films as well as I should. But it quickly drew me into its world of crime and vengeance, love and loyalty, and I was glad enough to trade my own muddled life for the company of gangsters and their long-suffering wives on the long flight home.
Thank you, Maggie! See any suggestions you'd enjoy, readers?
(Author photo by Jill Sutton)
Brenda Bowen updates the classic Enchanted April with her summery novel, Enchanted August. Bowen, who writes children's books under the pen name Margaret McNamara, sets her novel in coastal Maine, where a cast of characters are relieved of their real-world woes by a summer diet of lobster, lazy days and long strolls. Our reviewer writes that Bowen "has created a charming and witty update with a setting that could not be more appealing." (Read the full review.)
We asked Bowen to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
I’m crazy about Nick Hornby. He’s a guy’s guy, a bloke’s bloke. Yet in Funny Girl, he writes about a talented comedienne who comes out of nowhere (well . . . Blackpool), and takes the young medium of television by storm. This is a book about a dazzling moment in recent British history—the Swinging Sixties—that reminds us of just how fresh and original and exciting popular culture was then. Mike Myers’ Austin Powers is a send-up of a mod, but Nick Hornby’s very funny girl, Sophie Straw, is the real thing. Read this book for the period detail, for the beautifully observed characters, for an evocation of a “golden moment” of creative collaboration, or just to put yourself in the hands of a master of comic writing (which, by the way, is so much harder to pull off than it seems).
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
If you had any doubt that the American medical system was failing patients at the end of their lives, this book will make you absolutely sure it is. We all know that we throw too much money at desperate measures in the last six months of life; Gawande’s fluid, eloquent prose dramatizes the emotional cost of those measures. He asks terminally ill patients some simple questions: What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not? And most tellingly: What would a good day look like? And then he really listens to the answers.
The fact that this book has become a major bestseller is testament not only to the clarity of Gawande’s writing and thinking, but to our own desperate need for change. I had been putting off making out a living will for years before reading Being Mortal; I completed one the day after I finished it.
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
This is my first Penelope Fitzgerald, and I am actually in the middle of it right now. In bracing prose, Fitzgerald uses only the sparest words and simplest sentences to bring to life the complicated, petty, generous, conflicted, extremely human denizens of her fictitious town of Hardborough, a place as flinty as its name. Florence Green bravely opens a bookshop in the un-picturesque seaside town in East Anglia in 1959. She is determined to make a go of it, although almost everyone and everything—including the town’s oppressive social arbiter, the neighboring fishmonger and the poltergeist that apparently haunts the building—seem to want to get in her way. I’m up to the part where she has just decided to stock Nabokov’s Lolita, the much-banned, most scandalous book of the year—and so far the reception is profitable, but not happy. I fear for dear Florence and her fragile bookshop, but I think—hope—she will prevail. (No spoilers, please!)
Thank you, Brenda! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Elisabeth Koch-McKay)