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Monica WoodMonica Wood  

Book Recommendations

 

Like most writers, I'm a passionate reader.  If you're looking for something to add to your list, check out these recommendations.  Most of my suggestions are books that have not received the attention they deserve.  I know how much I love discovering buried treasures, so I hope you will, too.  When buying books, put your money where your house is: buy local.  Happy reading!

 

FALL 2017:

First recommendation for fall is Unknown Caller by Debra Spark. It's a riveting tale, told backwards, of tangled relationships. I COULD NOT PUT THIS DOWN. Spark's writing...well, it sparkles. She's got the right name.

Stay tuned for more.

 

SPRING 2016:

Naturally I'm recommending that you read my new novel, The One-in-a-Million Boy. Otherwise I'm recommending a classic: The Warden by Anthony Trollope. As per usual with the Victorians it takes some patience to get into, but you'll be rewarded with an engaging story about, of all things, a lawsuit that has huge reverberations throughout an extended family. I loved it. Also I think you'll love Howard Norman's latest novel, Next Life Might Be Kinder. I couldn't put it down, this tender, hair-raising tale of a young bride shot by a deranged bellman at a hotel. The story is told in before-and-after segments by the griefstricken groom. It's thoroughly engaging and gorgeously written. And if you want to laugh your head off, read The Haters by Jesse Andrews, about three hapless teenagers stuck at jazz camp. The writing is spectacular, and spectacularly funny. Also, for fans of Paul Doiron's murder-mystery series starring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch, Widowmaker is out very soon, the latest entry in an engaging series. I haven't read it yet but I can't wait. 

WINTER 2016:

It's been a good winter so far for good books. For heartwarming, try A Man Called Ove, translated from Swedish, about a curmudgeonly widower thwarted in his suicide attempts by unwitting, meddlesome neighbors. It was surprisingly moving to me. I also liked Maggie O'Farrel's The Hand That First Held Mine, a quiet, beautiful, cross-generation tale of human connection. Her prose is so lovely. Another find (and another Brit) is Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, a slim, subversive, endearing novella about what happens to the monarchy when Queen Elizabeth discovers the diverting pleasures of reading. Oh, and The Wind Is Not a River, a riveting, beautifully written tale with the backdrop of a little-known epoch of WWII in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. It is part war story, part romance, part survival adventure, and wholly humane and satsifying.

Summer 2015:

Wow, I'm on a roll of great reading! Several stellar books right in a row. I went into each book knowing nothing about them, so I'm just going to list them here, say not much about them, and hope you are as enthralled as I am with these novels:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce: A British retiree sets out to walk 500 miles to see a dying colleague. Somehow, the author makes you believe it. Devastatingly poignant and often funny.

Euphoria, by Lily King A beautifully written love triangle involving three anthropologists looking for un-researched tribes on the Sepik River.

My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning Riveting and eye-opening "diary" of Madame X, New York City's most infamous provider of "female remedies." The narrative spans a lifetime and contains not a single less-than-wonderful sentence. 

 

 

Winter 2014:

I'm reading a lot, but not a lot is really catching my fancy, though Benediction by Kent Haruf is one of the most beautiful novels I've ever read. I am going to get the rest of his oeuvre and gobble it up. I also loved Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, one of the rare "big" books that lives up to the hype. The first section, in which young Theo and his beloved mother are caught in a bomb blast at the Met, is a masterpiece. I also reread Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. They are still holding up for me though beginning, at long last, to show their age. I always feel like a teenage reader again; they take me back to a time when contemporary literature was a new, unfolding landscape. 

Fall 2013:

I'm on a reading binge right now--so many really good books! Transatlantic by Colum McCann is just sublime, a sweeping yet personal history of Ireland told in intersecting family histories, with an especially marvelous chapter imaging George Mitchell's inner life as he works to get a peace accord. Archangel is Andrea Barrett at her most recognizable: long "short stories" that explore the enormous science and technology changes in the 19th- and early-20th centuries, through the small but rich lives of various (mostly female) protagonists. I always end up feeling smarter after reading Barrett. As readers of this web page know, I'm a huge Middlemarch fan, so imagine my joy in My Life in Middlemarch by the always-erudite Rebecca Mead. It's a bio of George Eliot, a reader's reaction to the novel, and a memoir of growing up with this book as a touchstone. I've already read it twice. If you like historical fiction--or even if you don't--read Orphan Train by my pal Christina Baker Kline. It illuminates a little-known part of American history--the orphan trains of 1870-1929--while telling an emotionally engaging story of women's friendship.

 

Spring/summer 2013:

So many excellent books!  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain just blew me away. Probably the best novel I've read in 10 years and certainly the best war novel I've ever read. The writing is fresh, original, simply astonishing. I'm also reading his excellent story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. Let's see, what else...oh, yes, The Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Stedman, a well written melodrama about a lighthouse keeper and the baby that washes ashore. Great summer read, though terribly sad, and a marvelous evocation of the storm-tossed Australian southeast coast. I also liked Where'd You Go, Bernadette for its preposterous plot, zippy comedy, endearing kid narrator, and its structure of narrative, emails, voice messages, memos, and the like. Really entertaining--take it on vacation. And finally, I highly recommend a book that's unique: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston. It's a gorgeous thing, a compilation of memoribilia from the 1920s, connected by "diary entries" by the fictional Frankie, a plucky Vassar grad trying to make it in the publishing business. Just LOOKING at this book is a pleasure. I'm keeping it on my coffee table. Oh, and don't miss One Way Bridge, Cathie Pelletier's first "Allagash" novel in years, was funny, poignant, and really entertaining. Perfect for the airplane trip to put you in the perfect, open frame of mind to tangle with the in-laws And if you want to laugh out loud, read Pete McCarthy's memoir McCarthy's Bar, about his travels through Ireland. My husband read this to me and at times--many times--I honestly couldn't stop laughing. A real gem.

 

Winter 2013:

I discovered a huge talent through a short novel: We the Animals by Justin Torres.  Wowee writing about a trio of brothers, their heedless parents, and their painful, ferocious bond. The prose laid me flat. Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach was the most compulsively readable novel I've read in a long time. It's stuffed to bursting with plot, crazy oversize characters, and lovely prose. I also got to an old but greatly praised story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander, published back in 1999. The first story alone--a heartbreaker about an unpublished writer accidentally swept up in a Stalin purge of the literati--is truly astonishing.

Fall 2012:

This was the season for reading books about men looking back on their lives. The English Major by Jim Harrison was my favorite. An endearing narrator, age 60, who has lost his wife, farm, and dog, embarks on an odyssey to rename all their states and their state birds. Odd, hilarious, poignant. Two British novels with men-looking-back plots: Old Filth by Jane Gardam was heartbreaking, slow-moving, so very worth the journey. It reminded me of Any Human Heart, another fave by William Boyd.

I also liked Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, about a quintet of people living in the long aftermath of a fatal accident. And I absolutely loved The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a set of tightly linked stories in which we meet the editors of a dying English-language newspaper in Rome. Marred only by a gratuitous and hard-to-believe (I thought) act of cruelty in the final chapter, this book is a marvelously written and deeply engaging read.

Summer 2012:

Of course I must recommend my new book, due out July 10. It's called When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine. Gratifyingly good pre-pub reviews so far. See my home page, or the book page, for more. 

In the meantime, because I try to read what my teenage nieces are reading, I rolled my eyes and opened The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. And stayed up all night. It's really good. No, I am not kidding. So, so much better written than other teenage dreck I've tried, with an inventive, endlessly interesting plot and wonderful characters. I lost myself for hours, much the way I read when I was, well, a teenager. Ripped through the rest of the trilogy in two days.

I also recommend The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. If you can forgive her for  being so wise at the age of 23, you will love this if you somehow missed it in your youth, as I did. Depressing, absorbing, heartbreaking, and filled with understanding about the human condition. The dialogue alone is a treasure.

Spring 2012:

The best novel I've read lately isn't out until next winter, but make a note: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer. It's a novel in letters, the characters loosely based on Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell. A gorgeous exploration of love, friendship, and God. Wow.

I just finished Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. This guy really knows how to tell stories, which is how he marries the science and art of creativity. It's one of the few bestsellers that I've liked as much as everybody says I should.

I'm reading Howard Norman's What Is Left the Daughter, another novel in the form of a long letter from a Nova Scotia father to his estranged daughter. It's melancholy, riveting, and beautifully written, like all of Norman's work.

 

Midwinter 2012:

On a tear these days. Just read Anne Fadiman's devastating The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, about a Hmong family in Merced, California, their severely epileptic baby girl, their complete inability/refusal to assimilate into American culture, and the frustrations of the medical establishment in dealing with this amazing, child-loving, family-oriented, brave and talented people. They fought with the Americans in Laos during the Vietnam war and expected to be welcomed in America as heroes. They are farmers by nature (high mountain farmers) and now largely subsist on welfare. It's a stunning story with no villains and many heroes. Wow wow wow.

Also discovered the novels of Kitty Burns Florey--which are uniformly wonderful--through a book I picked up at my local store. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog is a whimsical, entertainingly written history of sentence diagramming, and honestly, I read it in one sitting. Loved it! It's about language--our marvelous mother tongue.

I was sick for a week and read three Agatha Christies and was not disappointed. Go back to her--if you enjoy mysteries as a way to soothe your fevered brow--because she is the true mother of this invention.

 

Winter 2012:

Looking for a courtroom thriller to read by the fire? I highly recommend Innocent by Scott Turow, the 20-years-later sequel to Presumed Innocent. This guy can write; his books are full of character; and you don't feel guilty afterward for wasting your time on junk. You can't call this junk; it's too well written.

I recently read Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell, a memoir about friendship. It's rare to make a "best friend" later in life, but that's what the author did. The book is about the devastating loss of that friendship. I cried my eyes out. 

If you haven't discovered the whimsical genius of Maira Kalman, do pick up one of her gorgeous, uncategorizable books. She's a kid-lit illustrator with a kind of faux wide-eyed wonder that, amazingly, never wears thin. Her latest is The Pursuit of Happiness, in which she makes hilarious paintings of things like Ben Franklin's fur hat while waxing rhapsodic about the miracle of democracy. I adore this gal.

Another "book" I'm keep by the bedside is a leather-bound notebook I bought over Christmas that I'm using as a shorthand journal. One sentence a night, usually something with gratitude in it.

Summer 2011:

When Will there Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson is uncategorizable and unputdownable. It's sort of a thriller--there's a missing person and an old murder--but it's a novel of such deep characterizations that I can't think of it that way. Deeply, deeply absorbing and highly recommended. I'm going to get her other books.

Townie by Andre Dubus III doesn't need a recommendation here, since it's burning up the bestseller lists, but don't miss this one. I was extraordinarily moved by his man's tale of growing up virtually fatherless and in dire straits in a dying Massachusetts mill town, despite his famous-writer father living at a nearby college. Andre's portrait of his heedless father (a revered short-story writer) is gorgeously rendered, for what shines through is a son's undimming love for an imperfect man, and an enormous affection and gratitude for a tough, lonely, often violent childhood. Big, big wow.

My pal Hannah Holmes has a new book out that I adore. It's called Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality. Hannah has no peer when it comes to writing about science and human biology (and destiny!) in the most accessible, witty, engaging fashion. You'll love this one--it's even got quizzes!

I reread The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran. This is the most luminous, graceful, insightful, gorgeous memoir I've ever read. I wanted to EAT this book. It opens with the suicide of the author's beloved younger brother, but it's really a life-affirming portrait of a flawed, loving, beautiful family. I'm not even sure it's still in print--it's one of those gems that never got its proper chance.

For fiction, I'm recommending the collected stories of Tobias Wolff. I also really liked Lily King's Father of the Rain, about a WASP family with a raging alcoholic father and ultra-dutiful daughter. Lily writes with great tenderness and delicacy about searingly hard things.

Poetry--if you've never read Betsy Sholl, you're missing out. She is, in my view, one of the best American poets. Rough Cradle is her latest. I've had it by my bedside for three months, reading and rereading almost every night. She's smart and generous.

 

 

Fall 2011:

In the midst of all the Franzen frenzy over Freedom (call it a "franzy"), I'd like to nominate Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan as the Great American Novel. This is the most moving, lovely, American novel I've read in a very long time, and it bears no resemblance to the usual nominees. It's brief, it's not about the white middle class, and the plot is modest at best. However, if you would like the immense pleasure of a full immersion into the ordinary life of a guy named Manny running a Red Lobster on its last night before closing--as a monster New England blizzard closes the next-door mall--then get this book right now. This instant! I can't wait to read it again. It's about work, friendship, striving, disappointment, resilience... And the writing is sublime, as it is in all O'Nan's work. I love this writer. LOVE him. (I like Franzen, too, in case you wondered.)

Next up: In bookstores soon, The Foremost Good Fortune, a memoir by Susan Conley. This is an account of the two years the author spent in China with her husband, an American businessman, and her two little boys. Halfway through this dislocating journey, the author is diagnosed with breast cancer. The book is heartbreaking, funny, and educating. Loved it.

Let's see, what else lately: Oh, yes, if you remember the awful art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston 20 years ago--Vermeers and Rembrandts gone forever--then you'll really like The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser. He speculates quite convincingly about how it all went down, and his profile of the elderly "art detective" who literally died trying to solve the case is so compelling.

Also The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, an enormously entertaining account of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be. Believe it or not, this is a page-turner!

Come February, look for Quirk by brainy, entertaining writer Hannah Holmes. This is a witty and wide-ranging exploration of how DNA shapes our personality. It's nature over nurture every time, folks.

 

Summer/Fall 09:

Lots of great books lately. If you want to laugh, read How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, which skewers the world of bestsellers (he even takes aim at us "literary" writer types) by creating a slacker character who comes up with a unique way of making his girlfriend sorry to be marrying somebody else. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles is a fictional screed by an alcoholic stuck at O'Hare en route to his estranged daughter's lesbian commitment ceremony. He's thoroughly unlikeable but with a voice you can't resist: corrosive, hilarious, witty. The former novel is funny ha-ha, the latter funny-ouch.

I discovered Dorothy Sayers, reading Gaudy Night after it was thrust upon me by a friend. It's ostensibly a mystery (one of the Peter Wimsey series), though the crime is beyond-belief trivial, but the characters are so...British! It's like reading a smarter, better educated, wittier Agatha Christie. Thoroughly enjoyable--save it for a winter blizzard. I've got two other of her titles (they smell so old, written in the thirties) that I'm saving for just those circumstances.

If anyone out there likes science fiction you've got to read a collection called The Wreck of the Godspeed by James Patrick Kelly. This guy is a wonderful writer, period. SF is still not my cuppa tea, but good writing is.

I also loved Sam and His Brother Len by John Manderino, a linked-vignette portrait of two brothers. Though each chapter is seemingly slight, they gain cumulative power until at the end you're just about undone. And Manderino one of the best scene-makers I've ever read.

For armchair adventurers, I recommend The Boys of Everest by Clint Willis. It's about the "greatest generation" of British extreme climbers of the nineteen-sixties. Willis uses novelistic techniques to bring us into the half-crazy minds and hearts of these young men, making poetry out of their motives, their death-defying climbs, their wild off-mountain drinking and fighting binges, and, finally, their solitary deaths  I cried more than once.

I also discovered a poet I can't forget: Li-Young Lee. I started with a book called Behind My Eyes. He writes poems that I read twice, three times, ten times--something I haven't done since college.

Finally The Spare Room by Australian novelist Helen Garner, an incandescently beautiful, brutal story of the friendship between two older women, one terminally ill and seeking a quack cure, the other offering her spare room for the duration. I read this in one sitting.

Oh, and I finally broke down and read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wau by Junot Diaz, thinking it would be as overrated as many everybody's-reading-this novels I've been disappointed by. Well, I really, really liked it. It's like getting on a fast-moving circus train, the voice dazzling and relentless, a real pleasure.

 

Fall/Winter 2008-09:

OK, time to plan your 2009 reading pleasure. I always begin the new year with a classic, usually Middlemarch, but this year I'm going back to either Dickens or Austen. I've read all of Austen, which matters not at all, and only about half of Dickens. Believe it or not, I've never read David Copperfield, which was the author's own favorite, so I'll probably start there.

Speaking of classics, I reread Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence recently and found it even more sly, revealing, smart, poignant, and consuming than ever. If you've never read this one, do it before the snow flies.

As for contemporary fare, don't miss this sleeper: The Punch by Noah Hawley. My editor sent this to me, thinking I'd like it, and he was wrong: I LOVED it. Fresh, zippy writing, and a hugely entertaining story about two brothers trying to bring their alcoholic mother across the country to commit dear old Dad's ashes to the sea. This crazy family was so easy to love, and the writing will keep you reeled in.

I was also taken over by Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, a book of stories linked by the continual appearance of the title character, a lumpish, aging, sometimes mean-spirited math teacher with an inner life ever more intricately revealed as the stories progress. The writing is sublime. One of the best books I've read in five years.

I'm a sucker for animal stories--it's a real blind spot where I can't tell good from bad--but this one, I just know, is really good: Tell Me Where It Hurts by Nick Trout, who encapsulates his years as an emergency veterinary surgeon by telling the story of a single day. The story is beautifully structured, with a built-in engine of suspense (will the German shepherd make it???) and enough goodness and empathy to, you know, teach the world to sing. Well, I surrendered. Three guesses on the German shepherd.

Swimming with Strangers by Kristen Sundberg Lundstrom is another sleeper. This is a young writer with a preternaturally mature sensibility, writing stories about love and marriage and children and parents with stunning precision. I was so very impressed with this one--you'll find a blurb from me on the jacket, in fact, and I don't do many blurbs. (P.S. You have every right to be suspicious of blurbs; I certainly am. This writer is not related to me, nor has she ever been a student, nor even have I ever met her. My editor thought I'd like this one, and again, he was so right.)

A final recommendation, with many caveats: I finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, an inventive British writer who's made a big splash on this side of the Atlantic. It's a huge, crazy novel divided into four long stories, each written in a separate style and evoking a separate genre, and each cut in half, the first half appearing in order, 1,2,3,4, after which the centerpiece story arrives, set in a post-Apocalypse future, and after that the second halves appear in descending chronological order, 4,3,2,1. The book got mostly raves for the sheer audacity of this youngish author's structural trickery and remarkable wordsmithery. I was enthralled, sentence to sentence, even when reading far outside my natural tastes--science fiction and faux seafaring journals, to name just two of the genres that compose this novel. Each two-part novella within the larger novel is a world unto itself, and the act of reading is such a joy all the way through that I hardly minded when the structure collapsed on itself and ultimately added up to less than the sum of its parts. The ending makes much ado about not much, but at that point I didn't mind. This guy won't appeal to everybody, but I can't think of anyone who could read this and not appreciate the enormous talent and interesting mind at work here.

 

Summer 2007:

Several standouts this summer, books I absolutely adored for varying reasons.

 First, break out the champagne: Anne Fadiman has a new book of essays, At Large and at Small. She revives the art of the "familiar essay," and expounds in her amusing, enlightening, and erudite way on topics as varied as ice cream, night owls, the essayist Charles Lamb, and moving, among many others. What marvelous company. I had to look up an average of one word per page, given her fondness for arcane words and Britishisms. She makes me feel smarter for having read her. Her previous book of essays on bibliophilia, Ex Libris, is a perennial favorite of mine.

I also loved a debut collection of linked stories by Waterville, Maine, writer Ron Currie, Jr.  God Is Dead is a bracing read, utterly fresh and original. Like nothing I've read since early Vonnegut. After God literally dies in the first story, the others take place in the outrageous yet utterly familiar aftermath. Currie laces his stories with both unbearable sorrow and acid humor, and every character--from God to hapless functionaries to talking dogs--feels so plainly human. Each story can stand alone, but they gather immense power in ensemble. I plan to read the book again, with a fuller appreciation of the stories' interconnection and long, intelligent arc.

The shining star of my summer reading, though, is Five Skies by Ron Carlson, one of my favorite short-story writers. This time out he brings us a novel, a sweeping, intelligent, poignant, emotional tale of three misfit men who, during the course of a goofball building project in the wilds of Utah (or possibly Wyoming, I forget), become a convincing family constellation that I will never forget. The writing is so beautiful I wanted to eat it.

April 2007:

Memoir is not my usual recommendation--I find the genre suspicious and often lugubrious--but I read a real corker this month: Girls of Tender Age by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith.  It's a twined story, threading the tale of the author's upbringing in a Hartford housing project in the fifties with the gruesome cross-country odyssey of a child murderer making his way east.  Despite the grim (but never gratuitous) detail, the author manages to spin a tale of loss and redemption that is moving, witty, insightful, and unforgettable.

Another one--I'm about three-quarters of the way through--I am loving is Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler.  It's the story of an innkeeper on an island off Nova Scotia who hosts grieving family members who wish to visit the closest spot to a plane crash that took their loved ones.  Sorrowful and gorgeous, it's the kind of book that makes you feel fully human and less alone.  It's a wow.

And if you're one of the five or six American who haven't read it yet, 1776 by  David McCullough will not let you down. It read like a thriller, and got me so interested in the humanity of our founding fathers that I'm also reading biographies of Franklin and Washington.

Winter 2007:

Winter is a great time for the classics, especially if you live in northern climes.  So fire up the woodstove and heave in.  I'm currently reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and after that I'll either get to some of his other stuff or switch gears a bit and return to George Eliot and Felix Holt, her third-to-last novel.  Over Christmas I read two corkers: The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits was thoroughly engrossing, about a teenager who either was or wasn't abducted, and the ever-evolving chain of events that result.  Sentence to sentence, it's marvelously written, with much fascinating wordplay between the teenager and her therapists as they all try to fulfill their cross purposes.  I was really impressed with this one.  And, building on my newfound knowledge of the neo-Holmes genre, I enthusiastically recommend The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King.  It imagines Holmes in 1915 taking on a brilliant young girl as a protegee.  Beautifully written and deeply imagined -- escape reading of the finest kind.  I just loved it, and there are several more books in the series.

Fall 2006:

I've been on a Sherlock Holmes jag, enjoying those marvelous tales all over again.  So clever and devious!  Then I discovered (I don't know how I missed this) an entire industry of neo-Sherlock literature, in which contemporary writers revisit the great detective and give him additional cases.  The most moving and literary of the bunch is A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin.  I loved this beautiful novel, which imagines Sherlock Holmes as a 93-year-old in retirement.  It's a gorgeous meditation on old age, among its other virtues.  

Speaking of old age, one of the best novels I've read in ten years is now out in paperback.  It's called Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey.  This is his first novel, and he's in his late sixties.  The prose is so gorgeous and seductive, and though the story is slow and deliberate (like the narrator), it is thoroughly absorbing.  It's the story of an old man, recently widowed and dying himself, who aims to write a "story" before he dies.  Give this one a chance--you won't be sorry.

Another book that crossed my path this summer now holds a permanent place on the bedside table -- The Literary Companion, an eccentric and entertaining compendium of literary miscellany.  Did you know that Lewis Carroll invented the modern dust jacket?  That Charles Dickens favored David Copperfield over the rest of his books?  The book also contains quotes, literary puzzlers, and tons of amusing and useless information.

 

August 2006:

The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories by Valerie Martin has enchanted me for a couple of nights now.  The stories are strange and sad, with unhappy artists (painters, writers, actors) as the main characters.  Her prose unrolls so effortlessly, and I feel as if I'm learning something about people I'd have no other way of knowing.

I also just finished an interesting memoir by Dan Koeppel called To See Every Bird on Earth. It's the story of the author's father, Richard, one of the few beings on earth to have seen more than 7000 bird species.  I especially liked the forgiving and inquiring tone, from a son who grew up with a man with an unquenchable obsession. This could have been a mean-spirited diatribe, and yet it's a gentle attempt to understand an outsized passion.

 

June 2006:

Because I'm on a book tour, I'm getting lots of great recommendations from booksellers.  Many thanks to Lola at Books Etc. in Falmouth, Maine, for making me read My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki.  This utterly original novel is almost impossible to describe, but I found it both touching and entertaining.  Jane Takagi Little, an American documentary filmmaker with a Japanese mother and Minnesota botanist father, takes on a job producing a Japanese TV show sponsored by the beef industry.  She has to find "typical American wives" to profile for a weekly show, each of which ends with the theatrical cooking of a beef recipe.  The wives are hilarious and/or heartbreaking, but when Jane begins to investigate the beef industry on the side, the plot thickens.  It's one of the most enjoyable novels I've read in a long time.  Take note: you'll never eat beef again.

April 2006:

I've just discovered the sublime Kate Chopin, whose scandalous little novella The Awakening ended her career after it was published in 1899.  It's about a woman who turns her back on her family for reasons that may or may not convince you, but the prose is so very enchanting, and the story takes place in New Orleans at the turn of the century.  The edition I have includes a smart intro by Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead and Housekeeping), plus several other Chopin short stories, including the much-anthologized "Desiree's Baby."  Her insight in to Creole culture--Chopin married an upper-crust Creole, from whom she was widowed at 32 with six kids--is also a pleasure. 

 

January 2006:

I have begun the year on a George Eliot jag, beginning with Middlemarch, my favorite novel of all time.  This time through I was enthralled anew by her wit, her penetrating observations about human nature, her delicious plotting, her electrically modern thinking, her dizzying, syntactically precise sentences, her sly, caustic wit.  I'm now in the middle of Daniel Deronda, her final novel, written in the late 1870s, and I'm just as in love as can be with this marvelous woman. Instead of making me feel like throwing all my own books into the Sea of Despair, her sympathy and genius lead me in quite a different direction.  She will inspire any writer who strives to one day create something called art.  And winter is the perfect time to read her--those long, dark evenings so conducive to settling down with a long, good book.  Why, oh why did she die at age 60?  Surely she had another four or five novels in her!

For Christmas/Hannukah 2005:

Have I got a deal for you.  My friend Bill Curtsinger has a book out that will knock you flat.  It's called Extreme Nature, a compilation, with commentary, of many dozens of the most soul-filling, awe-inspiring color photographs I've ever seen.  Bill was the first photographer to photograph harp seals underwater, and that's just the beginning. He has been to the ends of the earth and back to photograph creatures that are seldom seen by man.  This is a celebration of his life's work (many of these photographs were taken for National Geographic), and some have already become so iconic you'll recognize them instantly.  The accompanying prose is what really makes this book a poignant and thrilling package.  It looks like a 200-dollar coffee-table book, but it's a mere forty bucks at a bookstore near you.  What a steal!

For Fall 2005:

The best novel I've read recently is so painful that I hesitate a bit in recommending it.  We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is narrated by the mother of a boy who perpetrated a school shooting. There are so many layers to this searing, breathtaking novel that it keeps overwhelming you anew, days after you've finished the last page. Of the author's many, many strokes of genius, the most moving for me is her narrator's artful, formal, and vaguely false use of language--the only thing she has left to shield herself from the raw pain of her tragedy. Unforgettable.  

Another marvelous novel is Intuition by Allegra Goodman, a darkly comic and often moving account of a medical-research lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose discovery of a virus that cures cancer unleashes a premature blitz of publicity, shining unwanted light on a great cast of players.  The characters are well drawn and the prose is snappy, smart, and full of heart and, well, intuition.  This will be out soon in hardcover.  

Also, two story collections that I discovered belatedly, and happily: First, Reasons for Leaving by John Manderino, a light (but not lightweight), good-hearted coming-of-age story told through a unique structure of employment mishaps (from delivery boy, age 12, to writer, age 30) is a constant pleasure, and contains the funniest, sharpest dialogue I've read in years. It's not a novel, however, despite what the cover says; it's a series of linked vignettes, and every single one of them sparkles. I LOVE this guy's prose--clean, clean, clean, with a musical flow: not a single thud in the entire book.  The other is Slow Monkeys by Jim Nichols, another new voice I just loved.  This guy's beautifully crafted characters, most of them hapless ne'er-do-wells trying too hard, are rendered with lots of heart and an authentically dry, wry Maine humor. What a shame that gems like these (small press, probably a short print run, no publicity) don't get to shine in a marketplace fogged over with subpar bestsellers. 

For May 2005:

Anybody with a backyard--even a teeny one--will adore Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn by Hannah Holmes.  She's been called a "goofball Rachel Carson for the 21st century," and I can't imagine a more apt description.  Thoroughly researched yet shamelessly unobjective, this book reveals as much of its witty, loveable author as it does about the natural world of weeds, bugs, crows, squirrels, and other critters.  Get to know Hannah Holmes and her teeming backyard.  Your own yard will never look the same.  

 

For February 2005:

I've recently come across two books that enthralled me for entirely different reasons. The first is Warp & Weft by Edward J. Delaney, a quiet, deeply moving story of four guys working at a Massachusetts textile mill during the summer of 1978. Delaney captures this milieu with heart-crushing accuracy in a way that makes you forget you're reading.  The other is The Siege of Salt Cove by Anthony Weller, a touching and hilarious tall tale of a small coastal community that takes up arms against the Massachusetts Department of Public Works.  Weller employs about 20 different narrators, each unique and engaging, in this fetching parable of Us versus Them.

For September 2004:

Ann Hood is such a graceful writer, and her new book, a collection of stories called An Ornithologist's Guide to Life, showcases her gifts especially well.  Each story is a gem of economy and style, with interesting characters making unusual choices. 

For June 2004:

Allow me to recommend a book by Thomas Urquhart, not because he is my friend but because his book seizes the moribund genre of nature writing and infuses it with life and wit and a crackling intelligence.  (If you don't believe me, read the rave from the LA Times.) Its first pleasure is the title: For the Beauty of the Earth: Birding, Opera, and Other Journeys.  A memoir of sorts, this unique book follows the elliptical, witty, and often moving observations of a man whose eclectic life and many passions lead, one way or another, back to Mother Nature.   The author is a well-traveled, ferociously observant raconteur who will capture your attention, your conscience, and your heart.

For May 2004:

For relief from the blizzard of books on "closure," I recommend the searing, angry, and gorgeous One Day My Sister Disappeared, by Christine Orban, whose beloved sister died at age 37.  It's almost unbearably raw, but the prose, in translation from French, is hauntingly staccato and poetic.  Fascinating.

For anyone interested in competition, obsession, birds, or all three, The Big Year by Mark Obmascik is a can't-miss.  A Denver post reporter and marvelous prose stylist, Obmascik treats the reader to an account of three competitive birders (yes, there is such a thing) who try to rack up the highest number of bird species ever seen in North America in a single year.  It's hilarious and engaging, full of human foolishness and human spirit.

For February 2004:

I'm a sports fan, with the female sports fan's usual caveat: anything but boxing.  Nevertheless, I came across a book on boxing that I couldn't put down.  Cut Time, by Carlo Rotella, is a collection of connected essays ranging far beyond the usual cliche of boxing as a metaphor for life.  Rotella himself is not a boxer; he's an English professor and sometime sports reporter.  Boxing is his obsession, and human nature is his business.  In his marvelous book you'll meet characters in all their tough and tender humanity: heavyweight champ Larry Holmes; Rotella's stiff-jawed grandma; a trio of college bullies who pick the wrong fight in a bar; an accident victim who carries a pre-surgery photo of his mangled leg to keep himself in a perpetual state of awe.  Rotella's writing, like his subject, is packed with poetry, muscle, and surprise.  This is literature.

For January 2004:

I've got two books, acquired over Christmas, that I am happy to recommend with gusto.  First, The Hazards of Good Breeding by Jessica Shattuck, a beautifully written novel about the various members of an upper-crust family from Concord, Massachusetts.  Shattuck is clearly writing from within the fold, and yet she casts a clear, unforgiving, and ultimately compassionate light upon a broken family struggling to right itself.  Especially moving (and often comic) is her portrayal of Eliot, the ten-year-old son, who yearns to re-create Paul Revere's ride.  A gem!  

The other book, equally luminous but so different in subject and sensibility, is Joan Leegant's story collection An Hour in Paradise.  The main character in each story is an earnest seeker, each a slightly different type of Jew -- from Orthodox to ambivalent -- fumbling toward decency and light in fraught circumstances: a rabbi trying to maintain a makeshift shul in Boston; a Florida widow in old age marrying again, this time for love; an engineer reluctantly deciding to help his obnoxious immigrant neighbor.  These are rich, insightful stories, full of heart and hope.

For November 2003:

Some suggestions for Christmas/Hannukah gifts for the bibliophiles on your list.  You can never go wrong with the year-end anthologies: Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Best American Sports Writing, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. 

 And for the writers on your list, don't forget my own The Pocket Muse, which fits perfectly into a stocking!

For September 2003:

This month, after a bit of a drought,  I've discovered some writing that gushes with life.  First up: My Life in Heavy Metal by Steve Almond, a slim but linguistically packed volume of short stories about people mistaking sex for love, love for sex, and occasionally getting the formula right.  A line in the first paragraph hooked me but good: "She was one of those women invariably referred to as striking, a great big get-a-load-of-that: gleaming black hair, curves like a tulip."  Warning to schoolmarms: sex in this book is profligate and enthusiastically written.

Next up: I'm tearing through my first Meg Wolitzer (The Wife) and already vowing to read everything else she's written.  This novel, her latest, is narrated by the exhausted wife of a leonine literary blowhard.  Her prose is wicked and witty, strafed with psychological direct hits.  "I knew how he operated: I knew everything about him, the way wives do. I even knew the inside of him, having been there that day in Dr. Ruffner's office to review the footage of Joe's colon ... When you watch your husband's colon at work, at play, see the shy, starburst retraction of his sphincter, the amble of barium through an endless human hose, then you know that he is truly yours, and you are his."

Finally, I got around to Three Junes by Julia Glass, a novel I'd been avoiding because it had been over-hyped in a way that usually means overrated.  Au contraire, mes amis!  This lovely tale traces a constellation of people through ten years and various griefs, yet it never feels maudlin or gratuitous.  Glass's portrait of a gay bookstore owner in Manhattan, his Scottish father, and the people who orbit around them is insightful and absorbing.  And her prose -- yes, prose is the theme this month -- truly earns that blurbmaster's word "crystalline." 

For July 2003:

I'm re-reading the exquisite Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher by poet Leonard Nathan.  For word lovers and bird lovers alike.  And fiction writers, watch for the forthcoming manual by John Dufresne, called The Lie That Tells a Truth.  It's fresh, informative, with lots of personality--just what a writing guide should be.

 

For June 2003:

Recently I heard somebody refer to reading murder mysteries as "cleansing the palate" between courses of more serious fare.  I had to laugh, because that's exactly how I think of them in my own reading.  Even palate-cleansers, though, have to live up to certain standards.  I've stopped reading mysteries that contain gratuitous gore, bad writing, and/or impossible plot twists.  This is by way of saying that I've just discovered a new mystery series, by Julia Spencer-Fleming, that is exceptionally well written.  Her sleuth is -- get this -- a lady priest (Episcopal, obviously) who used to be an army pilot.  This character really gets under your skin, and her author respects her intelligence by giving her fresh, plausible, complex puzzles to crack.  There are two so far: In the Bleak Midwinter and A Fountain Filled with BloodNothing too icky, just good old-fashioned sleuthing served up with zesty prose.  The Adirondacks setting is sumptuously rendered.

Another writer I recommend is Peter Cameron.  If you haven't had the pleasure of meeting his characters -- intellectual types who go on for pages engaged in the kind of conversation you wish you heard more in real life --  you might start with The Weekend. I just finished The City of Your Final Destination, about a hapless grad student trying to get permission from a dead writer's bizarre family to write an authorized biography of the deceased.  Another of his books, Andorra, is a nearly surreal tale of a damaged man reclaiming his life in a place that does not quite exist.  He's also the author of one of my favorite story collections, One Way or Another.

For May 2003:

Believe it or not, this week I've been riveted by a book about dust.  The Secret Life of Dust by Hannah Holmes is a layman's explanation of what dust is and what it can tell us about our origins.  Did you know that a mote on your curtains might contain anything from polar-bear dandruff to space diamonds to a speck of a dinosaur skin?  And the prose--oh, it's lovely enough for a novel.

I also read Isabel Allende's new memoir, My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey through Chile.  It's an unfettered flow of memory, and fans of this writer will appreciate meeting some of the real-life relatives (eccentric would be putting it mildly) who show up as characters in her fiction.  She's also funny and irreverent when describing the national character ("our parties are like funerals"), and exceptionally moving when reliving the 1973 coup and the subsequent Pinochet dictatorship.

For March 2003:

The best book I read last month was a re-read: Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett.  Like her earlier story collection, Ship Fever, this collection reveals a preoccupation with science and scientists past and present.  Each story, some approaching the length of a novella, gleams with intelligence and insight.  Readers of Ship Fever will be thrilled to meet up again with Nora Kynd, the Irish immigrant who, last we knew, had left Montreal to search for her little brothers.  Barrett is among my top-ten favorite contemporary authors.

 

For February 2003:

If you're in the mood for something really different, I highly recommend Carrying the Body by Dawn Raffel.  This is a novella, heavily lyrical and impressionistic and experimental, about a prodigal daughter who returns home with a baby, both burdening and liberating the sister who stayed behind.  The prose is astonishing -- reading this book feels more like dreaming than reading.  It's not for traditionalists, because the author makes you work to decipher the story.  The effort, though, is thrilling.  

At the other end of the spectrum I found The Letters of John Cheever, compiled by his son, Ben.  Cheever kept a voluminous correspondence all his life, and it's instructive to find mundane preoccupations with money and family life interspersed with more artistic concerns.  The letters are grouped in such a way as to make a shapely picture of a literary life.  Cheever's letters sent from boot camp, for example, sound altogether different from those sent ten years later during his sojourn in Rome with his family.

For January 2003:

The reading year ended beautifully, thanks to a novel I stumbled upon at the last minute.  Snow Island by Katherine Towler is a moving coming-of-age story set on an island off Rhode Island in 1941.  Island life has not been portrayed this genuinely since Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.  The prose is nothing short of mesmerizing, and the goings-on of the islanders on the eve of war make for fascinating reading.  This is one I hated to put down, and the good news is that the author is reportedly working on the second part of a planned trilogy.  I read it in hard cover, but it's coming out in paperback shortly.

For December 2002:

I've got a real treat from last month's reading: Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn.  It's short, witty, and a joy for wordsmiths.  The eponymous Ella lives on the island nation of Nollop, named for Nevin Nollop, author of the pangram "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."  In the town square is a centaph with the famous sentence written on tiles.  Because the Nollopians are enthusiastic letter-writers, the novel takes an epistolary format, beginning with Ella's frantic note to her aunt on the other side of the island, describing the previous night's catastrophe: The letter "z" has fallen overnight and broken into a thousand pieces.  The High Council has interpreted this accident as a beyond-the-grave order from Nollop that the letter "z" must heretofore be banned from all communication.  Heavy penalties will be meted out to lawbreakers, including flogging and exile.  ("I am bezide myself!" writes Ella's sassy Aunt Tassie upon hearing the news.] When other tiles begin to fall, the letter-writers (and the author] find clever ways to communicate with an increasingly handicapped alphabet.  This little book is a good-natured satire and lots of fun. Paperback.

For November 2002:

Despite reading as much as usual, I had no recommendations for October and I've come up nearly empty again for October.  I need some recommendations!  Anyone?  

I did come up with a single gem in two months: All Is Vanity by Christina Schwarz.  It's about a writer writing a novel -- a subject that's almost always fatally tedious and self-aggrandizing.  But Schwarz avoids every pitfall of the genre by creating a character whose ratio of talent to hubris is so out of whack that the novel is a hoot.  She creates a voice that is at once acid and clueless.  The novel is light, mean, hilarious, and a tour-de-force of narrative voice.  And I really did laugh out loud. Hardcover.

Until I find a good contemporary novel to read, I'm settling in with Dante's Inferno and Beowulf (Seamus Heaney's translation) to fill in a couple of my literary gaps, which are considerable.   I confess to finding Dante slow going, but Beowulf rocks!

 

For September 2002:

After a series of book events that kept me on the road for most of August, I have been pretty much prone for the last week, doing nothing but reading murder mysteries.  The three best ones all turn out to be the first in a series.  Knockout Mouse by James Calder takes place in Silicon Valley and packs a caboodle of science into a well-paced, zippily written whodunit that turns on genetic hocus-pocus by a corrupt startup company scrambling for cover after the dot-com crashes.  In Sharpshooter, another California writer, Nadia Gordon, introduces the extremely likeable Sunny McCoskey, a restaurant owner and down-to-earth wine snob who stumbles upon the first of what will be, I hope, many delectable murders.  Lots of  wine arcana and very little gore, unless you count acres and acres of crushed grapes.  Last and most literary is On Night's Shore by Randall Silvis, who takes us convincingly to 1840 Manhattan, where Edgar Allan Poe and a young street urchin solve the murder of a shopgirl found floating in the Hudson.  The tale is unputdownable, despite or because of the lugubrious, Poe-like prose and its poignant narrator, a clever, love-starved boy who latches onto Poe as an unlikely father figure.  Historical figures flit in and out of this fresh, well-plotted, well-researched story. All in paperback.

For August 2002:

I read two story collections last month that are well worth passing on.  The first, Among the Missing by Dan Chaon, was a splendid surprise, since I'd never read this author.  The stories are mostly about young men struggling with authority figures (often their fathers).  This is the rare book from which it is possible to learn something new about human nature.  The book contains two especially breathtaking pieces: "Prodigal," about a man coming to terms with his father; and "Big Me," a truly original tale of a young boy who convinces himself that his adult self has come back from the future, in the guise of a new neighbor,  to deliver either a warning or advice.  The other book is The Whore's Child from Richard Russo, who needs no introduction, but because this is his first story collection it deserves special notice.  The title story is one of my all-time favorites, about a nun who crashes a creative-writing class and discovers a hard truth through fiction.   The other stories are equally engaging -- the book's a delight from start to finish.

For July 2002:

I am just finishing Ron Carlson's new book of stories, At the Jim Bridger, and it's a winner! Many of the stories center on young men fumbling through adolescence, but there are plenty of older fumblers to cheer for as well.  The stories are vintage Carlson: generous, funny, and exquisitely pleasing.

The other book that stayed with me last month is a first novel by Alice Sebold called The Lovely Bones. Don't be put off by the premise: a young girl speaks from heaven to tell of her brutal murder and its repercussions on her family.  It is painful to read, but the narrator's voice is so bright and beautiful that a story of unthinkable loss becomes life-affirming.  I'm going to watch this writer very closely; she's the real thing.

For May 2002:

If you have not yet discovered novelist Ann Patchett, it's high time.  Her writing is elegant, and her storytelling unfolds both gracefully and unpredictably.  I'm a fan!  In April I read Bel Canto, in which a ragtag group of terrorists in Peru overtakes a party at the Vice President's home.  The catch: one of the hostages is the world's greatest soprano.  The other, my favorite, is The Magician's Assistant, the story of a young widow whose literal and figurative sleight of hand captivates an endearing family whom she is meeting for the first time.  You can forget about turning in early.

For April 2002:

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton was far and away the highlight of last month's reading.  Romantic, multi-layered, heartbreaking, and slyly comic, this novel deserves its place in the canon.  A doomed love affair serves as the lightning rod for a small, painfully changing society, i.e., the upper-crust New York in-crowd of the 1880's.  The epilogue, which takes place thirty years later, is a small masterpiece of suggestion and metaphor.

 

For March 2002:

My, my, my.  Last month I discovered Jane Shapiro, the acidly funny author of The Dangerous Husband, a slim and lethal little novel about a match made in heaven and ignited in hell!  In this tale of a well-intentioned marriage gone awry, every sentence crackles with wit and wordplay.  An unmitigated pleasure, even in its most farcical, outlandish, and outright creepy moments.

For February 2002:

I have always found the short stories of Alice Adams addictive, if occasionally infuriating.  She tends to drop you into the middle of her characters' lives and then pluck you right back out again at seemingly random moments.  And her prose is plain, even pedestrian at times, as if a really good friend were gossiping to you about people she knows.  I guess that's the allure: the gossip is great, and the people she knows are fascinating: sculptors, art dealers, aging actresses, reporters, all of them having doomed love affairs and embarrassing themselves and making the same mistakes five times over.  In The Last Lovely City she casts her inimitable spell, exploring all those confusingly gray areas of human interaction.  Especially satisfying is Part II, several long stories that follow three damaged, enthralling characters through several years of a triangle of love and betrayal.  This, alas, was the author's last lovely book.  She died just after it was published.

Another delight from January, for those who love birds and words: 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells.  The author gives each bird three or four vivid pages containing odd facts, etymologies, lore and legend, and unabashed admiration.  Even the illustrations are vivid and pleasing.

 

For January 2002: 

Wow, have I got something completely different from my December reading:  Rising to the Occasion: A Practical Companion for the Occasionally Perplexed by Edith Hazard and Wallace Pinfold.  It's a witty, urbane, often hilarious guide to handling those moments you're never quite sure about.  This sweetly sized paperback contains instructions on how to shake hands, entertain a child, wrap a present,  jump-start a car,  write a thank-you note, arrange flowers, carve a turkey, unclog a drain, and much more.  Don't think Martha Stewart; think Cary Grant.  I plan to get a cartload for graduation presents.  

Another winner this month: A Barn in New England by Joseph Monninger, a fetching account of the author's first year in a gigantic barn he converted into a year-round home.  Books like this normally bore me blind--i.e., long on self-congratulation and short on story structure--but this reads like a novel from the get-go.  And in case you're wondering, this guy is no yuppie spending his trust fund.  The trips to salvage yards for two-dollar cupboard doors make for grand entertainment.  His wife and stepson become wonderful characters, as does their seventy-something handyman, Clarence.  New in hardcover.

December is also my escape-reading time, for reasons I haven't quite figured out, so I would like to present the "skeleton detective" mystery series by Aaron Elkins as Exhibit A.  Briskly written, these murder mysteries feature Gideon Oliver, a forensic paleontologist who cracks old cases by studying old bones.  The one I just read is called Skeleton Dance, and it's a dandy.

 

For December 2001: 

Would you like to laugh really, really, really hard?  Read something by David Sedaris.  I rediscovered him with Me Talk Pretty One Day.  He is howlingly funny, whether telling tales about his accidental gig as a creative-writing teacher or his father's ill-fated attempt to turn his tin-eared children into a jazz combo.  Living in Paris seems to agree with him: the humor here is less misanthropic than usual, and many of the pieces are downright touching.   

And as long as you're already laughing, take a crack at Blue Angel by Francine ProseHer prose is caustic and playful and her merciless wit is dead-on.  In her hands, a weary tale of a professor/student liaison becomes both hilarious and horrifying, and she makes a few well-aimed swipes at campus sex politics while she's at it.  

For November 2001: 

If you have never read George Eliot's Middlemarch, now might be the ideal time.  It's long, rich, passionate, and old--the perfect book for these lengthening nights and fraught times.  Eliot, whose observations of human behavior are both generous and unflinching, is surely at the peak of her powers in this masterpiece.  At 700 pages or so, it's a commitment, but the last paragraph alone is worth the entire journey.

One of my favorite contemporary writers is Ron Carlson, who possesses humor and heart in abundance, not to mention the eye of a master observer and the technique of a true craftsman.  I recommend especially two short-story collections, The Hotel Eden and News of the World. You're gonna love this guy!

 

For October 2001:

Only one thing I read after September 11 gave me any measure of comfort, and I reproduce it here in the hope that it will do the same for you.  It's from a piece in The New York Times by Stephen Jay Gould, zoology professor and all-around smart guy, defender of evolution theory, a man who looks upon the human species with the dispassionate eye of the scientist.  Here's what he has to say about evil:  

   "The patterns of human history mix decency and depravity in equal measure. We often assume, therefore, that such a fine balance of results must emerge from societies made of decent and depraved people in equal numbers. But we need to expose and celebrate the fallacy of this conclusion so that, in this moment of crisis, we may reaffirm an essential truth too easily forgotten, and regain some crucial comfort too readily forgone. Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the 'ordinary' efforts of a vast majority."

Good and kind people, remember your vast numbers and take your comfort there. 

 

For September 2001:

The Pleasing Hour by Lily King takes a sweet protagonist, a nineteen-year-old who has just given her baby to her beloved married sister, and plunks her on a houseboat on the Seine where she has been hired as an au pair for a French family.  The plot is loosely woven and possibly too meandering for some readers, but this woman writes like an angel, and I found her characterizations deep and true.  As an unabashed Francophile, I love the connections she makes between language and power, language and culture, language and passion. Paperback.

You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard.  The title speaks for itself.  This book is a treat for lovers of the short story--not a clinker in the lot.  In addition to a splendid reading experience, you get a funny little insider's glee from the pairings: Bobbie Ann Mason touting Tim O'Brien, T.C. Boyle gushing over Don Barthelme, Robert Coover foisting Angela Carter upon the unenlightened.  Paperback.

 

For August 2001:

Big Bend by Bill Roorbach is a collection of short stories that will lay you flat.  This guy is funny, sweet, big-hearted, and a hell of a writer.  The Flannery O'Connor award winner for this year, hardcover.

One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty.  In memory of the recently departed Queen of American Letters, I got this and read it right up.  It's a modest, exquisitely written memoir of her love affair with the written word.  Paperback.

For July 2001:

I love books on books and writing.  Herewith are two favorites, one a perennial pleasure and the other a recent find:

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.  Anne Fadiman is eloquent, frighteningly smart, and really, really funny.  This is a compilation of essays in which she emerges as a cheerful bibliophile with a family you won't believe.  In one essay on the shrinking American vocabulary, she offers a list of unfamiliar words (try "grimoire" on for size) then polls friends and acquaintances for definitions.  Score: friends, 0; father and brother: 100.  These are the same people who, in another essay, can't order dinner before scanning the menu for typos.  In paperback.

The Writing Trade: A Year in the Life  by John Jerome.  I loved this book, which exposes the day-to-day existence of a journeyman writer.  Jerome eschews all flimflammery about summoning the muse and instead lets us in on the daily distractions, the long-range plans, the continual problem of money, and the bursts of joy.

 

For June 2001:

In May I found a new author, courtesy of my friend Susan, who gave me her copy of The Old Ballerina by Ellen Cooney.  I'd never heard of Cooney but you can be sure I'll be watching for her from now on.  This book knocked me out!  It's an impressionistic pastiche of voices and vignettes that gradually coalesces into a portrait of Mrs. Kamsky, the "old ballerina" who has lost her skills but none of her art.  A tribute to art itself, this novel moved me in many unexpected ways.  It's unconventional, poetic, disarming, and weirdly suspenseful.  In hardcover.

 

For May 2001:

I wrote so much in April (hooray!) that I didn't read a lot of fiction, but I did read some nonfiction that thrilled me.  To wit:

The Tender Land, a memoir by Kathleen Finneran.  In a word, stunning.  This 40ish author tells the incandescent story of her family, a blue-collar Irish Catholic clan haunted by the inexplicable suicide of the youngest and most beloved sibling, Sean.  This is not some weary tale of dysfunction; instead, miraculously, Finneran paints a portrait of a family whose grief does not destroy either their life or their faith in goodness.  I will never forget this book, and I will never look at my own family the same way again.  In hardcover.

All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg.  Wow.   This improbable story -- Bragg begins life in a series of shacks in Possum Trot, Alabama and winds up winning a Pulitzer for journalism -- is told with equal parts gratitude and attitude.  That this guy managed to graduate from high school is a miracle, never mind going on to work for the New York Times.  Most memorable is the author's enduring respect for his mother and his ability to forgive his no-account father.  In paperback.

Of Time and Memory, by Don Snyder.  I picked this up because the author lives near me and I had not yet read any of his work.  The book was a real surprise, unlike any memoir I've read.  At the age of 47, the author decided to reconstruct the life of his mother, who died at the age of nineteen after giving birth to him and his twin brother.  The tale reads like a mystery and packs an emotional wallop I was completely unprepared for.  I loved it.  In paperback.

 

For March 2001:

What riches I've encountered lately! I discovered two new writers and rediscovered an old one.  Herewith are the highlights of last month's reading:

And Give You Peace, a novel by Jessica Treadway, is the best novel about family I've ever read.  Her prose is breathtaking, and the story -- about an ordinary family shattered by a murder-suicide -- practically vibrates with wisdom.  The narrator, Anastasia Dolan, struggles to reconcile her father's darkness and light and in the process matures before our eyes.  Redemptive and full-hearted, this novel will stay with you long, long after you've finished reading.  In paperback.

My Russian, a novel by Deirdre McNamer, is a literary page-turner of the first order.  How's this for a premise: A woman tells her family she's going on a Greek cruise.  Only days later she returns, having assumed another identity.  She checks into a motel eleven blocks from her home in order to spy on her family.  It sounds like a mystery, I know, but it's much more than that.  McNamer's prose is lyrical and packed with insight: the real mysteries here have to do with the nature of marriage, friendship, parenthood, and identity.  A real stunner.  In paperback

Franny and Zooey, two linked novellas by J.D. Salinger.  OK, I know you've read it, but have you read it lately?  Franny and Zooey are a sister and brother, former child prodigies from a family of child prodigies.  The two stories trace the subtle changes that happen in their relationship as a result of Franny's religious crisis, disguised as a nervous breakdown.  Or maybe it's a nervous breakdown disguised as a religious crisis; depending on how old you are, you'll see it differently.  When I first read this I was in college myself and naturally believed Franny was going nuts.  Now I'm not so sure.  The dialogue is so good you truly forget you're reading.  In paperback--for the last 50 years.


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