A bunch of summer-reading recommendations from writers. via New York Times
We asked a handful of writers what books they’ve enjoyed most over the last few months, and why. Their choices — from best sellers to poetry collections to a philosophy of science — are idiosyncratic and instructive.
“Caught Stealing,” by Charlie Huston: Great suspense and New York ambience, headlong pace, brilliant dialogue.
“Fieldwork,” by Mischa Berlinski: Stories within stories, and a surprisingly compassionate look at Christianity in conflict with anthropology. I kept expecting tirades, and instead got sweetness and thoughtful good humor. A remarkable novel.
“Then We Came to the End,” Joshua Ferris: It’s hilarious in a “Catch-22” way, but with an undercurrent of sadness that works counterpoint to all the absurdity.
These are all wonderful “summer reads.”
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan. I have tried on countless occasions to convey to my friends how incredible this book is. I have gone on endlessly about Pollan’s brilliance in finding a way to write about food — but it’s not really about food, it’s about everything; in fact, it even has a theory of everything that makes perfect sense and explains absolutely everything, as theories of everything are supposed to do ... and, what’s more, it’s completely charming because he has the most amazing voice ... well the point is, I have tried and failed to explain it, so I just end up giving them a copy, and sooner or later they call to say, you were right, it’s fantastic.
“The Ministry of Special Cases,” by Nathan Englander. I guess this is truly what they mean when they say a novel is long awaited, because I have been waiting for this novel ever since I read Englander’s short-story collection in (whenever). And worth waiting for — an amazing amalgam of wit and heart-stopping suspense, with a cast of characters I fell in love with. Once again, a description of the plot doesn’t begin to convey what Englander manages to do with Argentina in the time of the Disappeared. When I began to near the end of the book, I became truly miserable, and when I was done, I reread the last 50 pages not once but twice — partly in the hope that I could make it turn out differently, and partly because I couldn’t bear that it was over.
C. D. Wright, “One Big Self.” For a long while now, C. D. Wright has been writing some of the greatest poetry-cum-prose you can find in American literature. “One Big Self” does to the contemporary prison-industrial complex what James Agee did to poverty — it reacts passionately and lyrically (and idiosyncratically) to a sociopolitical abomination. This book, while angry and sorrowful and bewildered, has humor, constant levity and candor, and countless moments of incredible beauty.
Michael Taylor, “Rembrandt’s Nose: Of Flesh and Spirit in the Master’s Portraits” (coming in July). Anyone who took art history (or lots of art history) will laugh with recognition — we’ve all wondered why the hell Rembrandt painted all of his men with enormous drunkard’s noses. Finally the answers (or speculations) in book form. Surprisingly readable.
John Prendergast and Don Cheadle, “Not on Our Watch.” Prendergast has been fighting for Sudan for years, and there’s no one better at explaining what’s happening in Darfur and how it might be stopped. This book is a guide to effecting change — in East Africa or anywhere — through grass-roots vigor and vigilance.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.” The second volume by the author of “Fooled by Randomness” continues his theme — our blindness to the randomness of life — in an even more provocative, wide-ranging and amusing mode. A book that is both entertaining and difficult.
P. K. Feyerabend, “Problems of Empiricism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2.” From 1981, a brisk reminder that the conflicts of contemporary science are not in any way new or unique. The author is reviled in many quarters, mostly by those who have not read him. He is invariably provocative.
Anthony Bourdain, “Bone in the Throat.” Wonderful fun, a perfect book to read at the beach.
I recently moved to New Jersey and, in honor of that bold act, revisited two terrific books about the state — “The Pine Barrens,” by John McPhee, and “The Meadowlands,” by Robert Sullivan. Both are lovingly researched, beautifully explored histories of some deep, hidden natural ecosystems that linger in New Jersey beyond (but not very far beyond) the famous turnpikes and exit ramps. I find these books terribly inspiring, both for the expertise of the prose and the example of writers discovering exoticism and mystery right in their own backyards.
Also (although for no reason that I can link to New Jersey), I just started reading “Bleak House” again, for the fourth — but hopefully not the last — time.
José Saramago, “The Cave.” I am rereading this quiet, kind, deep and devious piece of science fiction/social satire with even more pleasure than when it came out five years ago. This time I can let it sneak up on me slowly.
Donna Leon, “Suffer the Little Children.” Leon’s 16th Commissario Brunetti mystery is brilliant; she has never become perfunctory, never failed to give us vivid portraits of people and of Venice, never lost her fine, disillusioned indignation.
Lorna Crozier, “The Blue Hour of the Day.” What a joy to have a volume of selected poems by this marvelous Canadian poet, storyteller, truth-teller, visionary.
Howard Jacobson’s “Kalooki Nights” is the best book I’ve read in a long time. (Sadly, it hasn’t been reviewed in these pages.) I can’t remember having laughed so hard, or been so surprised by observations about families and Jews. Jacobson is called the English Philip Roth, but I think his aims are even higher than Roth’s, and energies even greater. Ultimately, “Kalooki Nights” is a tragedy, and a work of genius.
Something old: “He Knew He Was Right,” by Anthony Trollope. I love the meticulous analysis of the jealous husband’s mental disintegration and the way the passions of both husband and wife contribute to the destruction of the marriage, but I especially love the gallery of finely drawn women characters of all ages and social classes and temperaments! So rich and smart.
Something new: “Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia,” by Orlando Figes. Gracefully and eloquently written, and packed with authoritative information. When I was reading this, I couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning and get to it.
Something new new: “White Ghost Girls,” by Alice Greenway. I admire this for the way the dreamlike, lyrical voice is juxtaposed to the unsentimental, and you might say brutal, but entirely believable, plot. Short but (or “and”) powerful.
“Call Me by Your Name,” by André Aciman, is a beautiful and sensuous evocation of summer in the Mediterranean, of desire and of lost love.
“The End: Hamburg 1943,” by Hans Erich Nossack, was written three months after the destruction of Hamburg by a talented novelist who saw the bombing take place and then wandered in the dead city in its aftermath. A piece of chilling, memorable reportage.
“Langrishe, Go Down,” by Aidan Higgins, is the masterpiece of the Irish novelist who is 80 years old this year. It seems even more evocative now than when I read it first more than 30 years ago; the use of cadence and rhythm in the prose is a lesson to us all.
Daniel Mendelsohn, “The Lost.” A profound and personal look at Jewish history, as well as at the tragedy of the Holocaust.
Douglas Wilson, “Lincoln’s Sword.” The master of Lincoln’s mastery over the word.
Robert Richardson, “William James.” An intimate look at a quintessentially American thinker.
I have a 2-year-old daughter, so my reading time has been considerably reduced in the past several months. A few weeks ago, however, after my daughter went to bed, I picked up J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” which I had been opening and closing and flipping through for nearly a year. Once I made my way into the first chapter, I simply couldn’t put it down. So many powerful questions are raised in this stunning and devastating tale of complicated relationships in post-apartheid South Africa. It made me want to read all of Coetzee’s work, which I hope one day to have time for.
In the meantime, I am reading more contemporary poetry, especially the work of Nikki Giovanni, one of my favorites. The poems in her recent collection “Acolytes” range from odes to the singer Nina Simone and the poet June Jordan to a meditation on the best midnight snack (something a sleep-deprived mother can truly appreciate). The fire, eloquence and lyricism in these poems show why Giovanni was able to turn tears into cheers at an April 17 convocation following the Virginia Tech massacre. In what seems like a direct address to writer-readers, in one poem she outlines a possible mantra:
We seek and hide
We break and mend
We teach and learn
“The Last of Her Kind,” by Sigrid Nunez. Nunez, one of the most dizzyingly accomplished of our writers, delivers that rarely spotted animal, a literary drama about families that is also a page-turner. Few writers can tread the oft-explored terrain of class and race with the sophistication, grace and wit of this author. “The Last of Her Kind” explores the difficult friendship between two Barnard students in the 1960s; it also contains some of the most moving and devastating prison scenes to ever appear in American literature.
“Hotel De Dream,” by Edmund White (coming this fall). This brilliant portrait of an artist as a dying young man fictionalizes the last days of Stephen Crane and also contains a novel Crane never quite got around to — the chronicle of a disastrous love affair between a wealthy banker and a “painted boy” in turn-of-the-century New York. With a sure hand White ranges over the twin tragedies of love and death, while gleefully roasting literary luminaries like Henry James and Joseph Conrad.
“The Nimrod Flipout,” by Etgar Keret. The kind of work that makes you gently worry for the author’s mental health. This collection of stories manages to crawl back on my nightstand no matter how many times I try to return it to the stacks. Subjects include a girlfriend with some glandular difficulties — she turns into a fat, short, hairy man at night — and parents who shrink as their son grows. Keret lives in Israel, a country with its share of grief and uncertainty, but his tales are oddly buoyant, not to mention supremely addictive.
I reread “Gordon,” by Edith Templeton, yet again, and pressed it on a friend, telling her it was my favorite love story. She read it and said, “That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard you say.” But it’s true, it is.
I read “Boyhood,” by J. M. Coetzee, because I’m a great admirer of his fiction and I wanted to see how he pulled off the trick of a third-person memoir. So gracefully that it seemed almost conventional.
Upon booking a night’s stay at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, I read Angela Carter’s “Saints and Strangers,” which opens with the completely beguiling story “The Fall River Axe Murders.” I find Carter’s work mysterious and mischievous and unexpectedly wrenching — usually all at once.
My favorite recent book of American history is, perhaps surprisingly, by an English scholar of the history of Spain. A model of comparative history, “Empires of the Atlantic World,” by J. H. Elliott, succeeds in placing the formative years of the area that became the United States in a consistently illuminating hemispheric perspective.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about Abraham Lincoln, although it is almost impossible to keep up with everything that pours from the presses. But I find myself returning again and again to “The Lincoln Nobody Knows,” by Richard N. Current. Written half a century ago, it remains perhaps the most judicious analysis of everything from Lincoln’s family life and political career to his ever-controversial views on slavery and race.
Finally, I’ve greatly enjoyed Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Snow,” a powerful, disturbing account of the clash between secularism and fundamentalism in a Turkey poised on the threshold of modernity and not quite able to cross it.
I first encountered Roberto Bolaño in 2003, the year he died and the year “By Night in Chile,” the first of the English translations of his books, was published by New Directions. A single, exalted paragraph like the slow-burning fuse of a bomb (a bomb that is always and forever about to explode in Bolaño’s work), “By Night in Chile” is the deathbed confession of a Catholic priest and literary critic who slept too soundly during Pinochet’s regime. There is nothing predictable about Bolaño: the beginning of his sentences give no clue as to how they’ll end, and to read him is to accustom yourself, as far as is possible, to walking along the edge of an abyss. In a matter of hours Bolaño became my favorite writer. Since then four more of his books have been published here, most recently “The Savage Detectives,” which begins in the literary underworld of Mexico City in the 1970s and then moves outward in every direction, becoming an ark bearing all the strange salvage of poetry and youth from catastrophes past and those yet to come.
Another ark sailing on flood waters is “Sepharad,” by Antonio Muñoz Molina, whose many separate parts — stories of those sent out of Spain during the Inquisition, or sent to the camps by Hitler, or tormented by Stalin, or just caught out in the storm of the 20th century — move together to create a kind of exile’s clock that keeps lost time, and measures silence.
“Our Horses in Egypt,” by Rosalind Belben, published by Cape in England and not here by anyone, I think. A very original, rather strange book set after the First World War, about an English woman who travels to rescue her horse that had been left behind by the British Army. The novel is partly narrated from the point of view of the horse.
The second is an Italian novel by Rosetta Loy, “Hot Chocolate at Hanselmann’s,” the story of an Italian family during the Second World War ... a completely new slant on the time and situation.
Finally, Maxine Swann’s “Flower Children” is a novel made up of linked stories about children raised by hippie parents in the 1970s ... a gorgeously observed and rendered view of a rich but chaotic childhood.
“The Lay of the Land,” by Richard Ford. From his days as a supposed “dirty realist,” Richard Ford has developed a prose style second to none in American letters — fresh, easygoing, effortless-seeming but supercomplex and hard-wrought, full of encyclopedic knowledge about every inch of the U.S.A. and wildly funny, as well as wise. This was a book that reminded me why I wanted to write in the first place.
“Love in a Fallen City,” by Eileen Chang. Chang was a literary sensation in China and Hong Kong during the 1940s. Though she immigrated to the United States and died in Los Angeles in 1995, her work isn’t well known here. This is now changing, thanks to the NYRB reprint series. Chang views the world with the eye of the most jaundiced European master — Somerset Maugham with gout, maybe — but that eye is trained upon an altogether different world. All of Chang’s stories are love stories, more or less. They’re merciless and surprising and suffused throughout with the marks of an original.
“Herzog,” by Saul Bellow. Rereading Bellow in preparation for writing an introduction to a new edition of “Humboldt’s Gift,” I was bowled over, as I always am, by this, the best of Bellow’s great novels. It’s the book I perennially recommend people read, and so am doing it again here.