7 writers to read now

I am always obsessing over something, and right now, it’s these seven writers. I consider them essential, and now I shall badger you to move them to the top of your reading list.

Image result for clarice lispector

1. Clarice Lispector

Want to feel unsettled and amazed all at once? Look no further than the brilliant (and beautiful) Clarice Lispector, a Ukrainian-Brazilian socialite with a wild mind and incandescent, hypnotic prose. She’s unlike anyone else out there.

Where to start? The Complete Stories and then The Passion According to G.H.

Image result for anne carson

2. Anne Carson

What must it be like to have a brain as powerful as Anne Carson’s? Anne Carson is a classics professor, poet, translator, and essayist, and she writes some of the smartest, strangest books I’ve ever encountered.

Where to start? Eros the Bittersweet and then Glass, Irony and God and then Autobiography of Red

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3. Joy Williams

There’s nothing quite like a Joy Williams short story: Everything is familiar and foreign all at once. The humans behave in mostly unhuman ways and yet you feel like you know them, like you’ve also felt this strange conglomeration of emotions and desires, like you also have been trapped in a moment like this one. I could read her all day long (and have).

Where to start? The Visiting Privilege and then Escapes

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4. Yukio Mishima

His florid, intense personality (and infamous suicide) garnered him almost as much attention as his writing, but he remains the master of modern Japanese literature. Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy is incredible and moves you seamlessly into another world, wrapped in mystery and expressed with power.

Where to start? Spring Snow and then Confessions of a Mask

[not pictured]

5. Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, and she’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I re-read My Brilliant Friend while in Ischia last month, and experiencing that story again in a portion of its setting was a magical, transformative experience. Her novels will stick with me for years to come.

Where to start? My Brilliant Friend and then the rest of the Neapolitan novels

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6. Simone Weil

This irritable, beleaguered genius wrote some of the most unusual and lucid modern philosophy on faith, reason, government, and individual agency. Eminently quotable and pleasantly readable, Weil was a woman that her troubled world needed.

Where to start? Simone Weil: An Anthology

Image result for penelope fitzgerald

7. Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald gets far less attention than she deserves. She produced these tidy, perfect little novels, masters in form, and did it all quietly while raising a brood of children in England (her literary career began when she was 58!). They’re quick and surprising, delightful from start to finish.

Where to start? The Blue Flower and then Offshore

Who are you reading and loving right now?

10 best books I read this winter

Winter is a time for burying yourself under a faux-fur blanket by the fireplace and disappearing into books while your German shepherds whine for attention. Here are the 10 best things I read this winter.

The Complete Stories

01. The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

The marvelous strangeness of Clarice Lispector is a never-ending delight. I read her Complete Stories with deliberate patience, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. The delicious sorcery of Lispector is that she changes you. I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory, all-encompassing logic. In the excruciating darkness of the world, during which I still felt weighed down by the election, I read Lispector and thought, At least we still have this.

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

02. The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t just love this because there’s a German shepherd on the cover. I’m utterly smitten with Joy Williams and with this collection of stories, which are incredibly strange and gorgeously written. The Visiting Privilege is dense with delights, with characters who are at once familiar and foreign.

War and Peace

03. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

I devoted myself to re-reading War and Peace over the winter, and it was the perfect thing. It was my first time with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s celebrated translation, and it was as purely enjoyable as everyone says it is. It is immensely readable and spiritually nourishing. We may never have a genius like Tolstoy again. What a pleasure it is to live in a world where art like this exists and can be returned to again and again.

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

04. The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer

If there’s only one book you read about America’s involvement in Iraq, it should probably be this one. George Packer writes an impressively incisive and concise history of America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq under the George W. Bush administration and presents all of the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. Packer is a gift, and in these days of the Trump regime, we could all do more to study the mistakes presidents have made—and will continue to make—in the days to come.

A Streetcar Named Desire

05. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

This is the third time I’ve read this play, but every time feels like the first time. Don’t care if that sounds cliché; it’s true. It kills me every time. It’s a superbly readable play, a play that seems to be intended to be read, and I recommend it to everyone.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments

06. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

Here is a saying worthy of all to be received: Read DFW avidly. And then do not read him, for five or six years. And then read him again. The pleasures are manifold in this collection of essays.

Giovanni's Room

07. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a star-crossed couple in Paris. I’m always grateful to be reminded of James Baldwin’s extraordinary gifts with each encounter. He has such range and impressive economy of language.

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

08. Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Susan Sheehan

They don’t make journalism like this anymore. In this incredibly researched and riveting book, Susan Sheehan follows a woman with schizophrenia for the better part of two years. It’s a gripping and heart-rending portrayal and calls into question most of our commonly held assumptions about mental illness and psychiatric care.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

09. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

Guion got to hear Lydia Davis, Queen of my Heart, speak at UVA this fall. In the lecture, she said that she loved to refer to Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences when she wrote or when she felt stuck, if merely to be reminded of the extraordinary variety of English and all the innumerable ways one can put a sentence together. I studied and devoured this delightful and useful book. I keep it on a shelf at work and turn to it in moments of crisis.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde

A powerful and extremely relevant collection of essays and lectures from Audre Lorde. It is galvanizing and exciting to read her work back to back in this fashion; I had only ever read snippets and quotes before. And I am neither the first nor the last to say this, but Lorde is an essential member of the American feminist canon. It’s a good time to shut up and listen to her.

It’s going to be a beautiful spring for books, too. What have you read recently that you enjoyed?

How to read a book

133/365If you own the book, bracket thought-provoking or beautiful passages with your favorite Japanese pen. Write the page number of the passage on the last blank page of the book, in a column, for future reference. You will then be able to pluck the book from your shelves during a dinner party and annoy/bore your guests with the passage when you judiciously drop it into conversation.

If you are borrowing the book, flag thought-provoking or beautiful passages with those plasticky flags you hoarded and then stole from your old job. Record the quotes in your Google doc before you have to return it to the library or to your friend, and remove all the flags.

Remove the dust jacket of all hardback books and neatly, gently slide it into your nightstand, lest you forget it. Forget about this dust jacket when you re-shelve the book.

If you are sitting down for a heavy reading session of multiple books, read 20 pages at a time from each book. Arrange the books in a stack next to you by alternating genres (fiction, nonfiction, fiction, nonfiction), lest your stamina begins to flag. This alternating pattern will hold your interest for some time, until a fatal interruption arrives.

If other humans are not home, read aloud from fussy passages. Sometimes, if you are feeling very bold, you will read with accents, preferably a stilted approximation of high-class British (think: Woolf’s watery, unbearably snooty dialect) or a very poor French accent.

Use bookmarks that are composed of a sturdy cardstock. Receipts and other thin tissue-like papers simply will not do. Bookmarks are often cast-offs from calligraphy projects gone wrong, and sometimes they contain obscene statements you have written on them in the throes of a bad job. Never use the bookmark to take notes, because it will be used with other books in its short lifetime, and these notes will be a distraction to you.

Always peep at the author photo and make a judgment about the author’s personality based on looking at this photo for four or five seconds. Judge especially harshly modern authors who elect to have their photos in black and white and who are making a particularly hard, erudite scowl at the camera.

Write down words you don’t know in your Moleskine notebook. Look them up later. If you look them up now on your phone, you will never go back to your book; you will get sucked into an Instagram sinkhole and never emerge.

Always read with a pen nearby. If you do not have one nearby, you will invariably need one, according to the laws of nature, and have to get up and go stomping around the house to find one, which will disrupt your flow in such a way that you may never sit down again for the rest of the day.

It is best to read by a window during the day and to not use a lamp. Read until the light goes dim in the sky. Then, you may sit in the faded blue chair under the lamp and cross your legs on the faded blue ottoman covered with faux fur and wait for Eden to bring you a slimy ball. She will endeavor to drop it right in your lap and smear the pages with drool. She will not rest until you engage her. She hates it when you read.

Never read the foreword. The only instance in which it is appropriate to read a foreword is if it is written by a famous author you already love and trust, like Eudora Welty or Guy Davenport or Annie Proulx. Otherwise, you will find the foreword irritating and if it is bad, it will color your opinions for the rest of your time with the book.

You will only be able to read for about 10 minutes on your side before falling asleep in your bed. If you must read in bed, you must prop pillows up on the headboard and read sitting up, with the book on your knees. In this posture, you may read for hours on end. You will always want to read at least five pages of some book after having sex. If you do not have a book nearby after sex, you will have to go find one, and this will ruin the pleasant mood.

Avoid reading books with ugly design. Never ever read a mass-market paperback, not even if it’s the only book on a six-hour flight. Never ever read a book with a cover that shows the actors in the film adaptation. Never ever read a book that has tiny margins or Times New Roman as the primary typeface.

Stop writing things in books. You will be embarrassed by the old books you have that are filled with your high-school-era marginalia, because your husband will confront you with them when he finally gets around to reading that classic novel, and he will poke fun at you, in a loving way, but you are still embarrassed because you thought you were rather clever at the time and now you realize that you were just a moony teen with too much time on her hands and this will shatter your sense of self in a way that feels uncomfortable right after dinner.

Black in America: Essential reading list

We read to broaden our minds, and nowhere does this seem more vital right now than for white America to read black America. Following is a list of books that have challenged, enlightened, and inspired me.

Have read and heartily recommend

James Baldwin. Creative Commons license.
James Baldwin. Creative Commons license.

Nonfiction

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
  • White Girls, Hilton Als
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, Beverly Daniel Tatum
Toni Morrison. Creative Commons license.
Toni Morrison. Creative Commons license.

Fiction

  • Go Tell It on a Mountain, James Baldwin
  • Another Country, James Baldwin
  • The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  • The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • Passing, Nella Larsen
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • A Mercy, Toni Morrison
  • Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • Cane, Jean Toomer
  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  • Native Son, Richard Wright
Malcolm X. Creative Commons license.
Malcolm X. Creative Commons license.

Memoir/Autobiography

  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Rita Dove. Creative Commons license.
Rita Dove. Creative Commons license.

Poetry

  • Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis
  • Selected Poems, Rita Dove
  • Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove
  • Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney
  • Against Which, Ross Gay
  • Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  • Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
  • Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey

And I still have a good many books that I want to read, including the following.

Audre Lorde. Creative Commons license.
Audre Lorde. Creative Commons license.

On my reading list

  • Collected Essays, James Baldwin
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
  • Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin
  • Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
  • Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, James Baldwin
  • Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball
  • Blacks, Gwendolyn Brooks
  • The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. du Bois
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
  • Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, Peniel E. Joseph
  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde
  • Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, Diane McWhorter
  • Freshwater Road, Denise Nicholas
  • The Street, Ann Petry
  • Citizen, Claudia Rankine
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright

What would you add to either of these lists?

There is no person without a world

Pink dogwood
View from the living room.

By all accounts, spring has been emotionally tumultuous for us, but I feel like we are now on firmer ground. The sun shines on a regular basis, even if the wind blows cold.

Things that bring me joy these days:

  • Those dogwoods
  • Anne Carson
  • Planning our little excursions from London (I love booking places to stay but I hate booking flights; I make Guion do that)
  • Not thinking about the election
  • Penelope Fitzgerald
  • Taking on the write_on challenge again this year
  • Preparing my packing list for the summer and scheming about how minimalist I can make my wardrobe
  • A silk pillowcase
  • Post-work walks with the pups
  • Guion’s face
  • Throwing or giving possessions away
  • Broad City, always and forever Broad City
  • Chopping my hair off again (see sleepy proof of second-day, less curly hair below)

(c) abby farson pratt

“I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do.” — Gertrude Stein

2016 goals

Early Christmas camellia
My tiny camellia in the front yard.

Mom instilled in us the annual tradition of goal-setting, and although we tend to approach it more loosely now, I still feel like I can’t start a new year without some vague ambitions.

Assessment of last year’s goals:

  1. Read 120 books. Read 152.
  2. Continue the pursuit of minimalism and eschewing clutter in my approach to our home and my wardrobe, specifically. This is a continual pursuit, but I feel pretty happy with what I accomplished, by way of throwing things out and taking care of what I have. 
  3. Invest in higher-quality and ethically made clothes and shoes. Stop buying cheap crap. Jump off the fast-fashion train. I also feel like I’ve done this; I am no longer tempted by Target T-shirts and Old Navy sweaters.
  4. Style myself like a French woman, as much as it is within my power. Maybe? I’m going to say yes. I don’t wear bright colors anymore, and stripes are the only pattern I don.
  5. Take either a Japanese or a French class, for credit. Maybe both, if I’m feeling extra-ambitious. Fail. I still want to do this, though.
  6. Eat healthier lunches. Maybe. I am very lazy about this still.
  7. Figure out how to read the Bible for pleasure. Not really, but we are in a Bible study now, and that has been enjoyable.
  8. Practice morning prayer/meditation/timid yoga sessions at home on weekdays. Nope, but I am taking a yoga class once a week, which is a big deal for me.

2016 Goals

  1. Continue the pursuit of minimalism at home.
  2. Achieve and practice some basic conversational French before we leave for London. Keep up with my Duolingo practice; take some pronunciation lessons with friends who are French PhD candidates; watch an abundance of French film in the Criterion Collection.
  3. Read through and translate the entire book of Japanese short stories. Keep listening to the audio of it while driving. Keep making your brain sweat and weep for all that it has forgotten over the years.
  4. Be a better dog owner and housekeeper; mainly, groom them once a week and wipe their paws every day; keep working on their leash reactivity; train them more thoroughly. Figure out how to keep your floors clean so that you do not live in domestic misery.
  5. Write that thing that’s been rattling around in my brain for years. Share it with a select few for editing and criticism.
  6. Keep doing yoga, even though I hate it; get stronger, more flexible.

What are your goals for the new year?

 

Favorite books from November

The best things I read in November, in no particular order.

Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis. Good grief, everyone should read these poems. Really so pleased and delighted that Lewis received the National Book Award for this. Very well-deserved. (With thanks to Wei for giving us a copy.)

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Hold Still, Sally Mann. Difficult and beautiful and strange all at once. I felt a particular bond with Mann, owing to the fact that she lives about an hour from here, in the green, rolling paradise that is the Virginia countryside.

Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Why did I wait so long to read these letters? Silly of me. Should be required reading/inspiration for writers.

The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene. Greene always surprises me. I tend to expect something stuffy from him, which is unfair, and then he eludes me.

As We Are Now

As We Are Now, May Sarton. An unflinching and yet moving portrait of a dying woman, locked away and seemingly forgotten in a nursing home, who is striving to stay human and sane.

The Charterhouse of Parma

The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal. What a crazy, unexpectedly fun romp through the Napoleonic era! We follow the air-headed romantic Fabrizio, who is constantly saved from death/torture/exile by women.

What did you read and enjoy in November?

Favorite books from October

The best things I read in October, in no particular order.

The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever. What is wrong with me that I waited so long in my life to read John Cheever? Good grief. These stories wrecked me. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more thrilling and perfect collection of short stories. They stuck with me; I think about them still all the time.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander. This came out a few years ago, but I’d still consider it vital reading for all Americans. It is shocking and grim.

Moon Tiger

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively. Despite the title and cover, I was thoroughly enchanted by this novel, a multifaceted portrait of a British historian’s life and loves.

2666

2666, Roberto Bolaño. I felt breathless and tired, having finished this emotionally and (literally) physically heavy novel. But also proud. And grateful.

What did you read and enjoy in October?

The world being what it is

An October morning
The backyard on an October morning.

We expect Armageddon; the Bible has trained us well. We assume either annihilation or salvation, perhaps both. Millennarian beliefs are as old as time; the apocalypse has always been at hand. People have lain quaking in their beds waiting for the year one thousand, have cowered at the passage of comets, have prayed their way through eclipses. Our particular anxieties would seem on the face of things more rational, but they have an inescapable ancestry. The notion that things go on forever is recent, and evidently too recent to attract much of a following. The world being what it is, it has always been tempting to assume that something would be done about it, sooner or later.

— Moon Tiger, Penelope Fitzgerald

Things to be happy about:

  • I am reading again, which makes me feel like myself. I am also reading with the drive to read everything that I own but haven’t read yet. This means I have a lot of formidable, giant tomes to get through (Edith Grossman’s translation of Don QuixoteBleak HouseTristram ShandyThe Charterhouse of ParmaTom JonesThe AmbassadorsThe Gulag Archipelago). Sheesh. None of those sound even remotely fun.
  • Celebrating Lulu, the bride-to-be, this weekend!
  • The weather.
  • Fumiko found a good home! Our dear friends Ethan and Hannah have adopted her into their flock. Here is a photo of her new siblings checking her out (Fumiko is the tiny one in the cage):

Introducing Fumiko to her new flockWe are hopeful that she will survive, but regardless, we are grateful for kind, generous friends, taking in our lone hen. We are going to try again with the backyard chicken gambit next year.

Favorite books from September

The best books I read in September, in no particular order.

A Little Life

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. Good grief. I almost hesitate to recommend it, because of how intense it is, but wow, what a novel. It eats you alive. And it’s fully deserving of all of the accolades and nominations it has been raking in lately.

Stuart: A Life Backwards

Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters. A gripping, unusual biography and a riveting portrait of homelessness in England.

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut. This is the sort of thing I should have read in high school, but I am glad I finally got around to it; so surprisingly funny in all of its bleakness.

The Folded Clock: A Diary

The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits. A well-told and well-curated diary spanning two years of Heidi Julavits’s life.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Neapolitan Novels, #3)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante. Despite the book covers, Elena Ferrante can do no wrong.

Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations

Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, David Ferry. A surprising array of poems; I particularly liked his translations, especially of Rilke.

What did you read and enjoy in September?