If you cooked, what did you make? I began Monday with a trial run of a puréed chestnut dessert, and it was an epic fail. I had much better luck with good old pumpkin pie—which disappeared in very short order.
Thanks so much for all the kind words about last week’s gift guide. It has been such great fun for me to geek out with some of my favorite bookworms. There are so many who could have contributed to these issues that I may have to make these guides a quarterly feature. I’ve had such a gratifying response to my calls for recommendations that I’m actually going to reserve “Poetry, Art, and Music” for a third edition next week. Wahoo!
Just a quick reminder that you can support my work and share the love for books and nature with friends and family via a gift subscription.
Or, simply spread the word. Thank you!
Before we get to this week’s array of Fiction recommendations, I’d like to pass along two additional contributions in the Nonfiction department.
Eric Michael Garcia is the senior Washington correspondent for The Independent, and the author of We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. Eric recommends:
Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century edited by Alice Wong, a sweeping collection of classic and new essays that encapsulates the ways in which people with disabled bodies and minds navigate the world. As the pandemic, exacerbated by our indifference to disabled people, killed thousands of them, this book is more relevant than ever.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is the web editor at Jewish Currents. Nora wrote an important and lyrical piece about butterfly conservation efforts, and I am thinking of it often as I prepare to write to you about Dave Goulson’s Silent Earth. Nora offers this:
I’m recommending a book that I’ve gifted to more than a few friends and family members: Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments. Set first against the backdrop of the Jewish immigrant Bronx of Gornick’s childhood, and then amidst the radical feminist movement that shaped her coming of age, the memoir turns on Gornick’s relationship with her mother, a woman whose insistent romanticism clouds her view of both her daughter and herself. Gornick’s own life is defined not by the kind of love affair her mother would understand, but by devotion to her literary vocation. No one writes more beautifully than Gornick about the deadening frustrations and hard-won satisfactions of writing itself—or about the pain and pleasure of forging an existence for which one sees no precedents, and finally achieving a kind of happiness that is invisible to the people whose judgment one never escapes.
Let’s lead off with the indie bookstore we are linking to this issue: our beloved local resource The Bookshop of Beverly Farms. Amy Henderson, an ace bookseller at TBoBF, recommends Open Water by British writer Caleb Azumah Nelson, which she says:
captures with photographic clarity the fraught fragility of the moment when friendship turns into something more. I savored each chapter as the protagonist navigated the limits of language, and the experience of vulnerability in a society that sees him as other.
This book has been recommended to me several times as a major debut, and I am so much looking forward to reading it.
And now for something completely different: an epic of the American West. Dorian Stuber is a Professor of English at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and he reads widely and with great perspicacity. His blog Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau is rich with insight. Dorian is a specialist in literature of the Holocaust, and I commend to you his thoughtful recent piece on teaching Holocaust literature in the South, published in The Oxford American. Dorian offers for your consideration a book that I have been wanting to read for a long time: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtury.
Last summer I drove from Arkansas to Montana. It was hot and dry. Too hot, too dry. Waves of heat radiated from the highway, sloughs were nothing but bowls of cracked earth, smoke smudged every view. The rivers we crossed—the Missouri, the Platte, the Yellowstone—took on outsize significance, oases of green among the brown, but alarming in their clearly diminished state. Hurtling across even the largest of them with ease, I thought of the memorable river-crossing scenes in Lonesome Dove (1985), so harrowing and deadly. I saw the present-day landscapes through the lens of this epic story of a cattle drive starting at the Rio Grande and ending near the Canadian border in the 1870s. But I’d have been thinking about Larry McMurtry’s novel even if I weren’t loosely following its route. Of all the books I’ve read in the past few years, Lonesome Dove has stayed with me the most. With its sweep, its verve, its love of life, the novel captivated me, a reader who had never thought much about Westerns one way or the other. Driving across the plains, I recalled its portrayal of human folly, now, as already in the supposed arcadia of the American past, centered on a particular sort of cognitive dissonance: our ability to lament what we’re doing to the land and its living things even as we keep on doing it.
Also vibing the West is Emily Raboteau. Friends of the Chariot may recall my love (there is no other word) for Emily’s recent essay “Spark Bird” in Orion. I’m currently reading her gripping memoir Searching for Zion.
I just spent ten days quarantined in an isolation hotel with Covid-19, and loved listening to Charles Portis’s amazing Western True Grit, read by Donna Tartt. It is one of those rare books, like something by Twain, that appeals to nearly everyone, regardless of age or taste, for its rollicking plot and voice.
You’ll be glad to know that Emily is recovering well. Speaking of maladies, musician and writer George Watsky, whose hilarious and tender memoir How to Ruin Everything may depict the most revolting college fridge in all of world literature, recommends Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a work that includes, if I recall correctly, a marvelous kitchen scene of a very different sort.
If you like elegant but straightforward writing, and keen and compassionate observation, Jhumpa Lahiri is for you! This is her debut short story collection, and it’s fantastic.
Lahiri wrote her latest novel Whereabouts in Italian, which she only recently learned (!!), and has translated it into English. Readers whom I admire have enjoyed that book very much as well.
I seize every opportunity to tell English-language readers about Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian writer who for me is one of the vital voices of the 20th century. Reading a Ginzburg novella is like drinking the perfect amaro—it’s bracing, clear-eyed, and invigorating. My favorites are All Our Yesterdays and Family, but really you can’t go wrong. Happy holidays to all!
Matt has had a busy week: his opera Eurydice debuted at the Metropolitan Opera! Eurydice runs through December 16th, and you can experience it in cinemas via the Met’s simulcast on December 4th at 1 PM Eastern. Oh, and his new book of essays The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera is being published on December 7th. It’s a great choice for the opera lover (or potential opera lover) in your life.
Also, having a busy fall is writer Nicky Gonzalez, who was just named a finalist for the Granum Foundation Fellowship. Her kickass story “Ghosting” was recently published by the Kenyon Review Online, and she has a story forthcoming in McSweeney’s. Nicky’s pick is Venita Blackburn’s story collection How to Wrestle a Girl.
A story collection that perfectly balances humor and heartbreak. These stories about grief, love, and childhood are gorgeous on the sentence level and innovative on the structural level. The second half is a novella-in-flash that shines as a whole and as individual pieces. A masterful book!
I really want to read more short stories in 2022, so I was psyched that collections were suggested not only by Nicky but also by Beverly Mire, a retired media arts teacher,. Beverly was moved by Friday Black, the debut collection by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
In his collection of short stories, Adjei-Brenyah brilliantly gives voice to the surreal Twilight Zone-ish feeling many of my fellow Black/African Americans get when experiencing racial inequity.
Sarah Despres is a health policy expert with a particular focus on vaccines and public health. She’s currently a Counselor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services in Washington, and she offers up the chance to release some of our Covid stress via one of our most vivid and hilarious writers, Gary Shteyngart.
Our Country Friends is a delightful combination of the Big Chill, the pandemic, and Russian absurdity.
I’m always famously behind on my reading, to the extent that it’s almost a badge of honour to dismiss the new and the faddy and go for something that’s stood the test of time. So this choice is remarkably current. I absolutely adored Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. An extraordinary intertwined tale of (mostly) black women in (mostly) modern Britain, it’s a wonderfully deft, experimental-in-all-the-right-ways novel, brave, heartfelt, wise, true, surprising and funny.
If you're into fiction set (and written) in Weimar era Germany, you've probably read some Isherwood, some Döblin, maybe some Vicki Baum and Irmgard Keun's Artificial Silk Girl. But chances are pretty high that you don't yet know about one of the best of the lot! Journalist Gabriele Tergit's 1931 novel Käsebier Takes Berlin, about a second-rate stage-singer who turns into a celebrity overnight with the help of a press hungry for any topic that might help distract from the bigger issues, is an extremely witty satire of a society slowly but inevitably inching closer towards fascism. In the three and a half years I've been working as a bookseller now, this is probably the book I've hand sold the most copies of. It's that good!
And finally from me, and keeping it classic, I am just about finished reading War and Peace, along with the #TolstoyTogether group on Twitter led by Yiyun Li and sponsored by A Public Space. While I might blether on about this to greater length at some future time, for now I simply want to underscore just how much this book speaks to the experience of living in a period of crisis. This book will reward you for every hour you spend with it, and adopting a slow pace of just 15 pages or so per day is perfect.
A Public Space has also produced the reader’s guide Tolstoy Together, which rounds up the best commentary from their initial group read of W&P on Twitter, conducted during the early stages of the pandemic.
I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, but—and here is your really hot tip— there is a brand new audio version of the Maude translation performed for Audible by Thandiwe Newton, whose spectacular reading of Jane Eyre is still echoing in my skull. If you know someone who loves audiobooks and would be up for a long listen, this would be a perfect gift. Newton is absolutely brilliant.
There is a special frazzled joy to dancing and doing the dishes after a holiday dinner. This week we punched up some vintage Soul Train episodes on YouTube. This duet version of “Ooo, Baby Baby” performed by Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson was such a poignant surprise, and a reminder of her gifts as a pianist.
See you next week. Stay cozy! xo Nicie