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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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?

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

Best fiction I read in 2015

I read a tremendous amount of five-star fiction this year, and it was a year notable for the number of authors I read for the first time. Without further ado, here are the 10* best books of fiction I read in 2015 (*with a bit of fudging).

1. The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever

[Insert sturdy expletive!] Maybe Cheever is all I have ever wanted in a story. I do not think I will ever be able to get over this. The pitch-perfect prose, wrapped around a bunch of sad, rich, white New Englanders, left me breathless. Yeah, it’s a narrow subject matter, on the whole, but I am incapable of denying his clear genius. Six stars.

2. The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3)The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)

Cheating, but I blazed through all four of the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) this year, and I feel like they can all count as one formidable work. As I have said to many friends, I am at a loss for words when I try to explain the draw of Elena Ferrante’s power and brilliance. I can’t say what she does that is so affecting, but these novels are not to be missed. They appeal to everyone. (Yes, even men. If you can get over yourself/the intentionally bad cover art, you will not regret it.)

3. My Struggle (Books 1 and 2), Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

Another cheat, but I was also seduced by Karl Ove Knausgaard and his sprawling Proustian novel My Struggle this year. It lives up to all the hype. I read books one through three this year, but the first and second were the ones that genuinely moved me.

4. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

As a rule, I am not someone who cries when reading, but I sobbed (I think actually sobbed) a few times while reading this novel. Good grief, Hanya Yanagihara; have mercy on us. This is an extremely dark and extremely moving novel. The characters are rich, complex, and heartbreaking. A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all who have suffered, for all who have received (and yet wanted to reject) unconditional love. It’s a beautiful portrait of the love and grace that broken people can to extend to each other despite the horrors of life. Whew. I read all 720 pages in about two days, and upon finishing, I felt like I needed to recover from the death of friends. What a tremendous literary accomplishment.

5. Independent People, Halldór Laxness

Independent People

Where has this book been all my life? Never have I read a novel so beautifully, darkly comic and moving, all at once. Bjartur, a sheep farmer in Iceland, has determined that he will be an independent man, and rely on no one for anything. His singleness of purpose and pride bear out the action of this gorgeously written novel, as his desire for independence drives his family and his farm into despair, starvation, heartbreak, and death. Sounds fun, right? And somehow it is.

The humor is especially surprising. There are these moments of complete absurdity (everyone is talking about worms in the dogs and livestock; ghosts on the heath; the high-minded poetess who pretends to be a friend to the common farmer; trying to tell the neighbors that he found his wife dead, frozen in a pool of blood, after having given birth to a daughter, who is found barely alive under the dog, who is keeping her warm, and instead tells them stories about his sheep and asks them about the weather), and extremely dark humor, and then there’s this lyrical vein that runs through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to say what the quality is, but it’s beautiful. (It also was the perfect literary prelude to our visit to Iceland this past summer.)

6. Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts

Upon my third reading of this novel, I am happy to say that the pleasures of revisiting Woolf are manifold. Years later, I still feel like I never left this novel. I read it twice in 2009 in preparation for my undergraduate thesis, and then, in 2015, I was happily astonished that it felt so fresh and memorable to me. Rereading Between the Acts felt like visiting an old friend in her garden. My undergrad marginalia in my copy was often embarrassing to reread, but I think these copious, juvenile annotations served to cement a strong recall of the themes and overall emotions of this novel. Mainly, I’ve come away with this impression: Snob as she was, Woolf noticed everybody. And here we notice ourselves in these characters, as at the end of the play, when the (literal) mirrors are held up to the audience, casting a chilling democracy over the crowd. “So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how.”

On a summer evening in the English countryside, a family and their neighborhood friends gather to put on an annual pageant that spans the history of noble Britain. As to be expected with Woolf, a multiplicity of psychological distress simmers under the social surface. Isa is the quiet center of this novel, and we live in her sad, observant mind. As with most Woolf heroines, she is a secretive poet and an unhappy wife and mother, imprisoned by the luxuries of her domestic situation. And yet she is still sympathetic and very human.

This is not her strongest novel, and it’s not the one I’d recommend to newcomers, but it has all the trappings of Woolf’s timeless appeal as a novelist: the incisive characterization, the lush prose, the beautiful meditations, the moments of playfulness.

7. The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower

If 2014 was the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Lydia Davis, I’m going to declare 2015 the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Penelope Fitzgerald. This is only the second novel I’ve read by her, but I am perpetually enchanted by her effortless style, wit, and perfect characterizations. (She also writes children very well, in a very clever, realistic manner. “The Bernhard,” the protagonist’s little brother, was a consistently hilarious character to me. Everything about him is delightful.) I am eagerly looking forward to reading everything else from her (and remain perplexed that she seems to get consistently low numbers of Goodreads stars).

In the lush and dramatic time of Goethe, we meet a young Friedrich “Fritz” von Hardenberg, later known as the German Romantic philosopher/poet Novalis. In the middle of his university education, he meets and falls desperately in love with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kühn, despite the fact that she seems to have not much to recommend herself (except, according to him, being the spitting image of a woodcut of the painter Raphael). His family and friends are appalled. The young genius is so taken in by this very normal kid, who is 10 years his junior, and no one can understand the deep attraction he has for her. Fitzgerald is hilarious to me, throughout her depiction of the sincere and yet puzzling romance. A lovely little novel. It is funny and light and strangely, whimsically profound.

8. In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders

In Persuasion Nation

Brilliant and weird and funny and meticulously executed. This is such a delightful collection. Not as beloved, in my mind, as The Tenth of December, but here we have all of the characteristic blend of quasi-sci-fi American-life criticism, poignant family dramas shown from odd angles, and that biting and somehow wise wit.

9. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger

Masterful. Claudia Hampton, a brilliant and unorthodox historian, looks back over her life and loves as she dies. I was a touch skeptical at first, by the jumpy perspectives and narration, but Penelope Lively’s unerring control won me over. I was thoroughly charmed by this short, beautiful novel and didn’t want it to end. Easily the best Booker Prize winner I’ve read.

10. Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar

Coup de Grâce

I typically find war novels extremely dull, but in Marguerite Yourcenar’s capable hands, not even a war novel can be tedious. (And, besides, Coup de Grâce is not really a battlefield narrative but rather psychological tension in the midst of wartime.) I think I might love Yourcenar; I don’t think she can do anything wrong. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read, and all three have been flawless.

Erick, the narrator, is a young, emotionally cold Prussian who becomes entangled with Sophie, a beautiful, serious, and tragic young woman. Sophie loves him despite his detached and even unkind nature, which gives the misogynistic Erick plenty to brood and philosophize about while the bombs are falling around them. And, oh, the ending! I won’t say a word about it, but the fact that Yourcenar says this was based on a true story makes it all the more romantically tragic and perfect.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  2. The Sweet Cheat Gone, Marcel Proust
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  4. Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
  5. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  6. 2666, Roberto Bolaño
  7. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton
  8. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  9. Mating, Norman Rush
  10. The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
  11. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  12. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
  13. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  14. Mislaid, Nell Zink
  15. As We Are Now, May Sarton
  16. Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  17. Victory over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist
  18. Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino
  19. We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver
  20. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories, Alexander Pushkin
  21. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  22. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  23. The Life and Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee
  24. Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

What fiction did you read and enjoy in 2015?

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 April

A list of the best things I read in April.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. It is as good as everyone says it is.

On Immunity: An Inoculation

On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Beautifully written meditation on the history and language of vaccines.

The Blue Flower

The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is my latest lady novelist obsession.

The Diary, Vol. 3: 1925-1930

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. III (1925–1930). Her happiest, most productive years.

The Writer in the Garden

The Writer in the Garden, ed. Jane Garmey. Charming collection of essays, poems, and thoughts about gardening from talented writers.

Life and Times of Michael K

Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee. Darkly moving.

What did you read and enjoy in April?

Favorite books from March

I read a lot of very enjoyable things in March. Particular favorites from the past month:

A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West. Utterly charming in every way! A delight for literature-loving gardeners.

Offshore

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald. My first introduction to Penelope Fitzgerald, and I found myself totally smitten by her. Continuing my newfound obsession, I am currently reading The Blue Flower, which I stumbled on at the library book sale.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

The Unspeakable, and Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum. I might just share a brain with her, for better or worse.

Electric Light: Poems

Electric Light, Seamus Heaney. The most delightful neologisms.

Between the Acts

Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf. This was the third time I’ve read this novel, Woolf’s last, and I was so pleased to discover that I enjoyed it just as much now as I did as an undergrad. I like how loose and playful it is. It is not her best, but Woolf’s “not best” is far superior to the majority of fiction. So. There’s that.

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast. Funny and heartrending in all the right ways.

All the King's Men

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren. This was on my to-read list for many years; it’s stirring and interesting, in ways that I didn’t expect.

Selected Poems

Selected Poems, Rita Dove. I also finally got around to the work of Rita Dove, one of my town’s resident famous poets. Deeply enjoyable. She has such an enchanting musicality to her work.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison. Borrowed from Celeste, my personal purveyor of good things to read. A well-written account of the author’s life with manic-depressive illness and its juxtaposition to her career as a psychologist.

Mr. Palomar

Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino. Some people may find this plot-less collection of observations frustrating, but it is just the sort of thing that I love.

What did you read and enjoy in March?

Lately

I am so eager for spring. I saw a photo of what our garden looked like last June and was nearly weeping with anticipation and desire. The sun dappling the barely fuzzed zucchini leaves! The warm earth! The gnats! The sweat beading your legs as you toil in the dirt! Today, I feel like spring will never come (we’re due for more snow this Thursday). But we spring the clocks forward this Sunday and that makes me feel the faintest stirrings of hope.

Tulips
Tulips, circa April 2013.

Today, to tempt myself in the 45 degrees, which now feels practically tropical, I stood out on the back porch in the sun, in my coat, and read Rita Dove on my lunch break. The dogs wrestled in the half-snow/half-mud slush. A blue jay dive-bombed into boughs of the giant spruce tree. I thought about Dove and her childhood, about her dancing with Fred, about her mystical economy of language.

My year-old orchid rebloomed over the weekend and I feel so VICTORIOUS about it. I want someone to congratulate me.

This past week, I was introduced to Penelope Fitzgerald, via her delightful and tiny novel Offshore, and I am going to call myself a fan. I am eager to read more. I was inspired by a recommendation from our lay preacher/the New Yorker‘s coverage of her recently published biography. Read her before? Any favorites?

Playful Edie
Eden in play stance; swipe of mud on the nose.

I am trying to love and understand Eden more. She is still a baby with a ton of energy, which is why she is often so annoying. She also just has one speed: RUNNING. I’ve never seen her walk anywhere. (Except for when you call her in from the backyard, where she is patiently waiting by the shed for someone to come out and play with her. Then she really drags her feet. She slowly, slowly tiptoes to the door, looking so terribly disappointed in life and in you, especially.) Remembering that all she wants is to play with someone is helpful in moderating my patience levels. Also, she is quite sweet when she wants to be. And she adores us. Last night, two episodes of House of Cards were watched with her little shepherd head in my lap. So that helps.