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?

10 best books I read this spring

I read less in the spring than in other seasons, mainly because I start obsessively monitoring my garden, but I still got through an enjoyable assortment this year. Here are my favorites from the past few months.

01. Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996

Can anyone, really, compare with Seamus Heaney? I think not. You can drink of him all day and never have your fill.

02. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

“A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. He runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole curve?”

A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it.

03. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. George Saunders is able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character.

04. In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caryn Zucker

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name — and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails — has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present.

That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.

I’ll admit that I harbored a good deal of fear about autism (and receiving that diagnosis for a potential child), but a lot of that misinformation I was carrying was been addressed by the thoroughness of this book. And while there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been — thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved.

05. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

I first read this novel when I was a teen, years ago, and I liked it so much more upon a second reading this time around, about a year away from 30. I re-read it in preparation for a book club in which all of my fellow members bailed, citing there was “too much sex” in it. Cue eye roll.

The Handmaid’s Tale shocks me less than it did then, and that’s perhaps the depressing element. But I’d forgotten how enjoyable and incisive Margaret Atwood’s prose is. It is somehow skillfully plain but never boring; she embellishes at all the right moments.

In the tradition of a slave narrative, Offred is a complicated and compassionate narrator, and I enjoyed listening to her.

Could this happen now, in the United States, or even in the future? Doubt it. (Atwood can seem a little high-strung to think that this is where we could be in the 1990s, but it makes sense that this is what she was thinking about, because she wrote the novel while living in Berlin in the early 1980s.)

But some aspects of Gilead don’t seem that far off. Obsession with women’s bodies and controlling reproduction has always been a hallmark of any fundamentalist religion. There are whispers of Gilead-like policy even now.

(No, I haven’t seen the Hulu series yet; yes, I’d like to.)

06. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain

All the darkness and heaviness of a Christianity built on a foundation of guilt and shame. God bless James Baldwin and all he went through to bring us this tidy, transformational masterpiece of American fiction.

Read for the second time, again for book club, but this time the members actually showed up, and we had a lively discussion.

07. Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, Charles Wright

Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems

“There is so much that clings to us, and wants to keep warm.”

Breathtaking, marvelous poems. I have always enjoyed Charles Wright, and this was a far-ranging and enjoyable collection of his later work. It is a pleasure to merely live in the same town as Wright, to know that a poet of this matchless caliber lives in my county.

08. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

The Sportswriter

“I have become more cynical than old Iago, since there is no cynicism like lifelong self-love and the tunnel vision in which you yourself are all that’s visible at the tunnel’s end.”

I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs.

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

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

They just don’t make journalists like they used to.

Marvelously researched. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia.

10. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller

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“Women are all female impersonators to some degree.”

For women readers, this book doesn’t contain much new information, but it’s a thought-provoking collection of all the ways that femininity is impressed and enforced upon us.

I appreciated the moments when Susan Brownmiller divulged that she too, despite being a pants-only, makeup-less feminist, is sucked into the femininity vortex (obsessing about her hair, modulating her posture to appear smaller or more deferential, etc.); it makes you feel less alone, and just as confused as every other thinking women about what to perform and what to eschew.

The book left me feeling the same as I always do when I contemplate the masculine-feminine binary, which is, simply: frustrated. Useful to have a collection of all of these cultural rules in one place, though, I suppose, if only to wonder about their origin and how to rebel against them.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
  • Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  • Simple Matters, Erin Boyle
  • The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

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.

Best books I read this summer

The best books I read (and re-read) while living in Europe and then upon returning home.

May

Troubling Love

Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante. Creepy, sexy, unsettling; filled that Ferrante need in my life.

Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington. Gripping and yet also very sad, to think about how grieved Washington would be if he saw America in its current state.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. Really fascinating and super-relevant, even today.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. I cannot even begin to describe what a sincere pleasure it was to read this novel, for the fifth time, in the city of its occurrence. London! “Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

My Struggle: Book 4

My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Teenage boys are terrible things.

Hunger

Hunger, Knut Hamsun. Read the entire thing, in a feverish terror, on an old Kindle on a runway (waiting for our plane to take off for Berlin).

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope. Apparently, not much has changed in England: Everyone is still obsessed with class.

June

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, James Wood. James Wood makes me feel good about myself, because he validates all of the opinions I already hold (e.g., Paul Auster is shallow and Lydia Davis, once married to Auster, is an absolute QUEEN).

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki. A small, beautifully written novel about the slow dissolution of a marriage.

Summer, Edith Wharton. In this short, under-read novel, Wharton pulls of a great trick of characterization. (I won’t tell you what it is.)

The Seagull, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov persists in perfection.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco. While it was hard to get Sean Connery out of my head, I enjoyed this; I was surprised by how academic it was.

July

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Fantastic portrait of a very complex and important American leader and activist. I regret it took me so long to read this one.

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust; translation by Lydia Davis. A true delight to savor this one for the second time, in preparation for a book club discussion of it.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman. A gorgeously written and compelling portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and Western medicine. Who is “right,” and what does that even mean in this context?

Persuasion, Jane Austen. Read for the second time. Such a mature and measured novel. Austen exhibits such impressive restraint.

In Defence of Dogs, John Bradshaw. Yeah, I was even able to read dog books while in London. This one is great.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos. China is complicated! Like we all have known for a long time. But Osnos explores a variety of issues with skill and well-researched brevity.

August

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector. Clarice Lispector wants to melt your brain. (Seriously. Prepare for a novel that will implant itself in your mind and keep feeding on you.)

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois. Powerful and chastening, especially considering how many challenges America still has to overcome.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers a lot of ground here and holds everything with such admirable looseness.

Loving, Henry Green. A novel about people who don’t quite seem like people.

A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester. If you have even a passing interest in domestic American architecture, this book will be a total delight.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan. An active and skillful novel about the intimate ramifications of terrorism.

What did you read and love this summer?