Category Archives: great books

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The book made me do it!

I walked out at lunch time on this scorching, humid day in New York City, and immediately felt like I was in a tropical jungle—only this was the concrete kind.  As I tried to get my errands done quickly so I could scurry back to the relative coolness of my portable air conditioner (my office windows are of a vintage that makes standard units impossible to install)Air Conditioner, I found myself thinking of literary jungle settings—Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lily King’s Euphoria, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, etc.  In part, this had to do with the sliced mango stand I ran across on the corner of Broadway and 14th Street…but I digress.

Back in the office, while eating my chilled pea and mint soup, I happened upon this piece in Galleycat about Riverhead soliciting essays for a collection about “how Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous memoir [Eat Pray Love] served as inspiration for readers to go on life-changing adventures” and, having just been thinking about her recent novel, I had one of those moments where I felt the universe was trying to tell me something.

I decided that what it was telling me was not to pack up my bags and head for the Amazon (where Jane will be in a month or so, btw), but that I should do a blog post about what books have inspired us to do things.  For instance, reading Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak in high school made me want to learn Russian in the worst way.  And, so I took three years of this beautiful, complicated language while in college (I remember nothing, in case you’re wondering).

It’s a great exercise, in my opinion, to consider how books have influenced our actions.  For those of us who are obsessed with literary works, it’s an exercise that can turn up some fascinating (and maybe disturbing) insights into our psyches.  So, have books influenced actions for you?  If so, what books…and what actions?

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The Magic of Realism in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth

I rarely reread a book, but there’s something about The Good Earth that gives me literary cravings. I just reread it for the fifth time in order to relive the magical world of rural pre-WWI China. I know “magical” would be the last adjective anyone would use to describe the poverty and struggle described in the book, but every time I read it, I feel as mystified as if I were reading a fantasy—a genre I associate with losing myself in another world with powers unlike those you’d find in reality.

So, how does she create this beguiling effect in a realistic book?

I’d like to attribute my mystification about the setting and characters to that fact that the world is so completely different from my own. It’s no easy feat trying to find similarities between 2015’s Los Angeles and rural China in the early 1900’s. However, there are plenty of books written on different times and places which I can barely slog through. This book is a classic for a reason, and I attribute it mostly to the way Buck makes magic out of realism. Not magical realism, every part of the book is taken from history, but she describes China using the same approach a fantasy writer would use to describe an unknown world. She mixes nature and earth with the interactions of humans, illustrating the soil and land in ways that makes it feel like it isn’t the same Earth I inhabit. The way Wang Lung appreciates the land, touches it, worships it, brings to mind a sacred connection. When Wang Lung loses his bond with the earth, we see his fall, much the same as if he were losing a supernatural power. And isn’t he?

It’s not often that I’m reminded about the enchantment of reality, and when an author can teach me this, I have a better appreciation for it. After reading this novel, I want to dig my hands into the dirt and plant seeds in order to experience the creation of life from dust. And believe me, I’m no farmer. I only want a piece of the good earth’s power as described by Pearl S. Buck.

Can you think of any other books that highlight the magic of our world?

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Start ‘Em Young

My friend the biographer Brian Kellow (ETHEL MERMAN: A LIFE, PAULINE KAEL: A LIFE IN THE DARK, and this Fall’s upcoming CAN I GO NOW? THE LIFE OF SUE  MENGERS, HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST SUPERAGENT) came up with a great Facebook post last week that got a lot of us to thinking. He included a photo of a half-dozen original copies of his mother’s favorite books, and went on to indicate how his parents’ taste in reading helped define them, and helped shape him along the road to adulthood.

My own parents didn’t always have a lot of time to read. When they did, their inclinations were pretty straightforward. Dad always preferred non-fiction. I remember him reading David Ogilvy’s CONFESSIONS OF AN ADVERTISING MAN and William Shirer’s THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. But when he was younger, he developed an affinity for Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. I loved the old 1920s leather-bound editions of these authors that he had kept since college, and that held pride of place on our family’s bookshelves.

Mom used to like to disappear into the latest sprawling historical epic, be it Leon Uris’s EXODUS or James Michener’s HAWAII or THE SOURCE. I was somewhat distressed when she chose to buy and read a paperback novelization of the romantic-comedy movie FOR LOVE OF IVY in 1968. Well, that was a tough time in her life, for a lot of reasons, and I shouldn’t have begrudged her that search for a bit of  escapism.

It was always a sad feeling I got whenever I would enter the homes of friends whose parents didn’t seem to read; who had no bookcases in the living room. And I’m grateful that my parents taught me to read at a young age and, without really even trying, instilled a love of books in me right from the start.

What books do you remember your parents reading when you were growing up? And did you ever go on to read the same books?

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London Calling

I’m off to London, catching the tail end of events connected to the London Book Fair and attending a conference on literary translation at Oxford. I love London unabashedly, with the kind of nostalgia-tinged enthusiasm folks reserve for the place that was their first trip abroad, their first experience with independent city life.  I studied in London as an undergraduate and have returned at every opportunity I could manage. (I still mourn the demise of the Virgin Atlantic 99£ fare, which bore me across the ocean on an editorial assistant’s salary.)  In London I find a wonderful mashup of my childhood fantasies (surely there is a wardrobe into which I may wander? A chance to swoop past Big Ben and fly straight on ‘til morning?) and the rich, contemporary, polyglot literary scene that exists atop it,  a palimpsest of history, language and cultures.  Like many bookish kids, I was an Anglophile. I grew up reading C.S, Lewis, E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, J.R.R. Tolkien, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Noel Streatfield, J.M. Barrie, and later Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Iris Murdoch, A.S. Byatt—and the list goes on. Although it dates me to admit it, I was already a full-grown muggle and working in publishing when a colleague brought me back a first UK edition of Harry Potter and urged me to read it. I was foolish enough to pass that copy along to a friend, who passed it to a friend, who passed it to a friend who never quite returned it, but I found my way back to Hogwarts later, and also found ample consolation in the magical landscapes of Philip Pullman’s Oxford, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and in the less fantastical (but no less transporting) works of post-colonial experience—books by writers like V.S. Naipul, Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, and Zadie Smith.

My own literary map of London would surely be less beautifully detailed than the one I found on-line, here and below. I’m not much of a cartographer and there are titles here that I’ve not read—but  it would be fun to make a personal version.  What books, or what city, would feature in your own literary map? What book would you nominate as the quintessential London read?

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Cold weather books to keep you warm

For those of us on the East Coast, it has been another rough winter. I’ve started to compare being outside to spending time in a freezer. In the suburbs, everything is layers of ice on bottom followed by layers of fresh snow on top that eventually freeze because we haven’t seen a thermostat above freezing in what seems like weeks. There have been mornings where the temperature outside is zero with wind chills far below. My crazy husband is marathon training and running outside. What? This is what we call a different kind of slush pile (#publishingpuns)! All I want to do is stay inside, drink hot chocolate (or wine, even better) and read books.

It got me to thinking about great books that evoke the cold. I was thinking about THE SHIPPING NEWS by Annie Proulx, a favorite of mine where the weather is a lead character. Or SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW (one review on Amazon highlights “the language of snow and ice”) or the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. The seventh book in the series is called THE LONG WINTER! How did people live back then with no heat?

So, I’m wondering what your favorite cold weather books are. Or just your favorite books that you like to snuggle up with on a cold winter’s day. Please share, and stay warm!

 

 

 

 

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The best books we read last year

Happy New Year! The last month has been a blur of holiday parties, vacations, birthdays, book deals, and lots of presents, both giving and receiving. Now it’s back to reality, and I thought before we get into more titillating conversations about the inner workings of book publishing that I’d share a link I read at the end of last year from the editors over at The Atlantic discussing their favorite books of the year. They’ve been doing this since 2010 and it’s a fun exercise to look at a sampling of the year in books over at The Atlantic from a very savvy literary perspective.

They’re not all new books, and they are wide-ranging in their categories. There really is something for everyone, even those of you who have small children will find Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site on the list! And read the descriptions by the staff at The Atlantic. They are quite entertaining.

How many of these have you read? And which books are you putting on your to-read list? I haven’t read nearly enough, but I will share a couple of my favorite books that I read last year. I thoroughly enjoyed The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty in the commercial fiction department (with thanks to the lovely Amy Einhorn, who gave me a copy at our lunch date), and I was completely mesmerized by Susannah Cahalan’s memoir Brain on Fire on the nonfiction side. There are so many wonderful books published every year, and I look forward to reading as many as I can in the year to come!

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What I’m looking for in 2015

Happy New Year everyone! I’m a bit swamped catching up on work that accumulated over the holidays, so I’ll keep my blog post today short and sweet.

I’m looking to acquire character driven fiction.

I’m currently reading David Mitchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS, and the first thought I had was: wow, this is a character (referring to Holly Sykes—one of the many characters in THE BONE CLOCKS). Holly Sykes is vividly drawn; she has her own slang and mannerisms, has hopes, dreams, desires—in short, she comes across as real person. She has a voice. Of course, Mitchell has a voice too, an exceptional one, and it’s the way he writes his characters, it’s his voice that gives Holly a voice.

All great books have a great voice. Some are plot-driven. Some are character-driven. I’m looking for the latter. Is anyone currently working on a project that fits this description? If so, please query me and reference this blog post in the subject line. I’d love to read what you’ve got.

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Rory’s Reading List

I’ve started watching this great show on Netflix. It’s called Gilmore Girls – ever heard of it? Okay, so maybe it’s not a hidden gem; when the series hit Netflix a month or so ago, my Twitter exploded with glee from ecstatic fans who began planning marathons, comparing favorite episodes…and chastising in shock and horror those of us who have never seen an episode (even our own Miriam Goderich was appalled at me).

So this weekend I finally bowed to the pressure. And I found something to love right away – Rory Gilmore has a book in her hand in almost every scene. In fact, her high school sweetheart first notices her when she is so utterly absorbed in a book that she is oblivious to a fight breaking out nearby.

And it turns out I am not the only one to notice the bookwormyness of Gilmore Girls. From this EW list highlighting seven titles to this massive Buzzfeed post on all 339 books mentioned in the show, the internet seems to love Rory’s reading lists as much as they love the show itself. One superfan even pledged to read every one of those 339…and this Goodreads list will make it easy for the rest of us to add a few to our own TBRs.

Reading is not a spectator activity, usually, so hats off to Gilmore Girls for making the love of literature so prominent in such a lively show. And now I’m thinking how to add more bookishness to my favorite shows…maybe one of the firms on The Good Wife could represent a library facing an FBI subpoena of patron activity! And come to think of it, The Mindy Project just finished an arc in which one of Mindy’s party-boy coworkers dated a romance author and learned authors a lot more fun than he expected.

What other shows would you like to see add a book-loving character? Ever discovered a favorite book recommendation through a character on television?

 

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I’ll take mine with a twist

TwistI’m still reeling from Atonement.  Charlotte Brontë destroyed me with Villette.  And, I’m glad the Huffington Post agrees that Liane Moriarty’s bestseller ends with a, well, twist because I was bowled over.

Thing is, I hate surprises.  Really, I do.  I actually break out in hives at the thought of a surprise birthday party.  Whether the surprise is good or bad is irrelevant.  I don’t like to be there when it’s happening.  My peripatetic childhood, which involved periodically arriving in a new place whose culture (and even language) I didn’t understand made me wary of the unexpected.   That, combined with my type-A, OCD nature makes me dread anything I can’t see coming from a good distance.  (I will be taking all of this up in therapy some day, do not fear.)

As a result, I am one of those rare people who also appreciates a certain amount of predictability in my reading.  Rather than finding a book whose ending I can intuit or guess at a waste of time, I enjoy being able to focus my attention on the author’s prose, character development, and attention to detail.  I like category fiction because it generally follows a formula and it’s the skill of the author at things other than surprising us that tends to set these works apart.

So, of course, it irks me no end to admit that some of my most memorable reading experiences have involved not just a surprise ending but a shocking one.  My initial response is usually rage and confusion, followed, after a while, by admiration at the author’s ability to yank the rug so forcefully out from under me.  It’s so hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, it tends to make the narrative it closes unforgettable—especially when the finale seems organic and not gimmicky.  I hate surprises but I tend to end up loving books that surprise me.

What are your favorite surprise endings?  And why?

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A list is a list is a list

Recently, I was challenged by a friend on Facebook to list 10 books that had “stayed with me.”   Normally, I enjoy those types of FB challenges as much as I do folding three weeks’ worth of laundry and I often decline to participate.  But, given my line of work, it feels churlish and ungenerous to refuse any opportunity to share what I consider to be one of my life’s  great passions, so despite the ambiguity of the challenge—“Stayed with me” how?  In a good way?  In a throw-it-across-the-room-in-a-fit-of-rage way?  I mean, I hated everything about The Scarlet Letter, but it stayed with me.  And don’t even get me started on The Goldfinch—I went ahead and posted my list.  

Thing is, I find listing books for any purpose—favorites, tree killers (those that are a waste of paper), recommendations, etc.—a trying activity simply because there is so much to choose from and there is such judgment implicit in every choice.    In fact, no one is as judgmental as a book lover.  Admit it, you have mentally demoted friends and lovers based on their book preferences.  You have gloated (internally or otherwise) about how much better your taste in literature is than anyone else’s.  You have shamed people publicly after finding out they’ve never read a certain author’s work (okay, maybe that’s just me…and, the rest of the DGLMers).  So, there’s no way to pick the best of any category of books without great screeches of dissent, anger, hostility, possible projectile throwing.

And the weird thing is that I love book lists.  Other people’s that is.  I love nomination lists, seasonal lists, lists about books featuring animal protagonists, whatever.  I will happily read lists about lists of books.  In fact, you can keep your Booker and Pulitzer and National Book Awards, just hand me their shortlists.   Given the proliferation of lists on the Internet, I suspect I’m not alone.

To that end, and because it’s back to school, time to get serious about reading again, here’s The Millions’ Lists page where you can get as lost as the kid from The Phantom Tollbooth.   Go crazy and then tell me what your favorite book of the year thus far is.