Category Archives: great books

Books on politics

I’m guessing (hoping) many of you tuned into the first presidential debate last night, and if you’re anything like me, you probably cycled through a range of emotions from frustration and anger to despair and hope. Now I won’t get into my personal political views here—although I’d just like to reiterate that choosing between an unpredictable lunatic with the vocabulary of a 5-year-old and a history of discriminatory tendencies and zero political experience (or knowledge) and a proven policy expert with a lifetime of experience in public service shouldn’t be that difficult. But I digress.

Regardless of who you vote for in November, you have a responsibility to yourself and your country to be as informed as possible. First off, get your facts straight. It’s bad enough that politicians lie and conceal their meaning behind half-truths, but allowing yourself to be lied to is worse. Consult nonpartisan fact checking organizations to verify any and all claims. FactCheck and PolitiFact are both great resources, but there are others.

Second, read books about politics. Know the players AND the game. Here is a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order:

  • On Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Republic by Plato
  • Dark Money by Jane Mayer
  • The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  • The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
  • The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman (just started but so far so good)
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • Two Treatises of Government by John Locke

Some of these are difficult reads, but they should give you an outstanding foundation on which to approach political discourse. (And yes, I realize some of the above aren’t strictly about politics, but they’re relevant and revealing reads nonetheless.)

So now I ask our readers: What did you think of the first debate? What are some of your favorite political books?

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When it’s good, I’m really good, and when it’s bad, I go to pieces

My musical hero and idol David Bowie died on Sunday at the age of 69, and it felt to me like a light had gone out in the world. He was, along with Jim Henson and Stanley Kubrick, one of the three great artistic influences on my life. (That combination should explain me and my taste pretty perfectly.) I wanted to join in the celebrating and singing like they were doing in Brixton, but I kept bursting into tears. (Am I the only one who cries about ten times more easily as I get older?)

I really don’t remember there being a before-Bowie time in my life. He was there in my childhood, on MTV looking all sweaty in Australia in the “Let’s Dance” video. There he was in Labyrinth, which I remember watching at my friend Paul’s house (Paul knew all the cool movies), laughing hysterically and rewinding over and over to watch him step from the bottom of a platform to the top, in what at the time seemed like mind-blowing special effects. Then there was my obsession with the “changesbowie” album, which got me really hooked on his music. From there, my love only accelerated.

I was lucky to see Bowie live several times 2002-2003, including at an amazingly intimate show at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe during his New York Marathon tour. The man couldn’t have been more than 25 feet away, playing songs from the brilliant Heathen, but also favorites like “Starman,” “Be My Wife,” and even “Ziggy Stardust.” I might have smiled for days afterwards. When he had a heart attack on stage in 2004, I had a feeling we weren’t going to see him play live again. And he disappeared, for the most part, for so many years. (Though this cameo on Extras in 2006 cracks me up every time I watch it.)

When Bowie released The Next Day last year on his birthday, I was hopeful that we’d entered a new era of music. And I was thrilled when it was announced that yet another album, Blackstar, was coming on his birthday this year. It’s clear now that this period of creativity was a goodbye, and what a way to go. The man’s been dealing with mortality and dying since the beginning, but relistening to this new album through the lens of his dying…damn.

So, while this post was mainly a way for me to deal with my own grief, it also has to do with books! Because, as I’m sure you’ve heard many times over, Bowie was quite the reader. And boy was his taste varied, as evidenced by this list of his 100 must-read books. If you’ve been following along with him at all, many of the books aren’t much of a surprise, and also not surprising is where our reading overlaps: The Gnostic Gospels, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, The Great Gatsby, The Iliad. Those works influenced some of my favorite Bowie albums, like Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, and Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, and it’s fun to try to make other connections between the books and his own work.

Looking at this list and thinking about his lyrics, I can’t help but wonder what a Bowie novel would have read like. It would have been weird and likely esoteric, and I likely would have spent ages trying to decipher it. And I would have loved every minute of it.

Saying goodbye to friends is hard. I miss knowing that David Bowie is another person in our world, making things brighter, shinier and weirder. But I will continue to celebrate his music and spirit, and I’m going to try my damnedest to grab life and knowledge by the throat the way he did.

“Should’ve took a picture

Something I could keep

Buy a little frame, something cheap

For you

Everyone says hi”

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A truth acknowledged

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I was smitten by Austen’s acerbic wit, her depiction of a woman with a mind (and sense of humor) of her own, her good humored (and, okay, sometimes a little bitter) skewering of Regency mores, her prose, her storytelling, and, okay, yeah, the most swoonworthy hero ever.    Over the years, my affection for the book has not waned.  If anything I appreciate its subtleties and charms more than ever before.  And, I get why  the novel has become the prototype of the modern romance novel.  It’s a formula that never gets old: Independent minded attractive female meets disdainful but hot male  and a battle of wits ensues; sparks fly, love blossoms, marriage results.

But, is the formula overused?  Is it time to step back from the P&P retreads?  Should we leave Lizzie and Darcy alone for a while to enjoy the glories of Pemberley without fear of encroaching rodents?  Can we agree that guinea pigs and Austen is just a “No”?

Really.  Despite what Sharon Pelletier may or may not say publicly, just no.

Are you with me blog readers?

 

5

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?

1

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?

1

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.