I was a teenager when I first read Octavia Butler and had recently begun rebelling against my mother. Deeply rooted in her Christian faith, she forbade me to watch certain movies, read certain books, or participate in certain activities. In her eyes, she was protecting me from temptation, showing me the path, and working toward keeping me focused on it. I, on the other hand, felt limited and emotionally abused. I wanted to read and watch everything she said would reserve me a one-way ticket to hell.
For two years in high school, I had a long-suffering crush on a guy named Randy, who only saw me as a brainy, funny friend and not the coquettish sexpot I so desperately wanted to be. We talked on the phone often, exchanged book recommendations, and watched movies together. Meanwhile, I desperately yearned to crawl underneath his arm or for his hand to brush mine and for him to spontaneously decide that OF COURSE he loved me, too.
“I don’t think I’m a food writer any more than I am a love writer or a fish writer or a fowl writer. I just write about life.”
This quote might seem surprising since M. F. K. Fisher is synonymous with food writing. Her 30+ books are largely centered on food, as clearly exhibited in THE ART OF EATING, which has been in print since 1954. This masterful tome contains her five most popular books—SERVE IT FORTH (1937), CONSIDER THE OYSTER (1941), HOW TO COOK A WOLF (1942), THE GASTRONOMICAL ME (1943) and AN ALPHABET FOR GOURMETS (1949). An eclectic mixture of instruction, opinion, and autobiography, her writing is straightforward but beautiful, giving the reader a sense of familiarity with every story told.
In my own internal reference library, the brilliance of Denis Johnson’s minimalism is almost without compare. He fashions his most arresting prose from moments of tough, heartbreaking realism. In TRAIN DREAMS, Johnson depicts the hard-fought life of Robert Grainier, a gentle-natured day laborer in the Great Northwest during the first half of the twentieth century. This stunning epic novella brims with striking and spontaneous outbursts of beauty.
MRS. BRIDGE is one of those books that writers love to pass along to other writers, although there’s nothing difficult or “writerly” about it: it’s funny, even hilarious, and written in fleet, nimble, sparely elegant prose. I forget who urged me to read it first—I remember a classmate in grad school raving about it—but my near-instant infatuation with the book had to do with marijuana.
The tiny country of Belize packs a lot into its 9,000 square miles—an area about the size of New Jersey. The Central American nation boasts stunning Mayan ruins, a vast network of caves, extensive undeveloped regions (more than 60 percent of the country is forested, and much of that area is protected), extraordinarily diverse wildlife and human culture, beautiful beaches, and the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Belize is also home to the scarlet macaw, considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world.
THE BEAN TREES begins with a tire exploding and a woman leaving home in a battered car and changing her name. From this description, it may sound as if I’m speaking of a high-octane thriller, but THE BEAN TREES is a beautiful literary novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s first (before she was famous for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE). Missy-turned-Taylor Greer is neither running from a killer nor from the law. She’s a part Cherokee, twentysomething, down-home Kentucky girl who never could quite sit still.
Twenty-nine years ago, my agent, who was also V.C. Andrews’s agent, changed my life. “We would like you to think about finishing Virginia Andrews’s latest novel,” she said. “She’s too sick to do so.”
The idea was at first overwhelming. V.C. Andrews was a major worldwide publishing success. I was, at the time, a high school English and creative writing teacher who graded papers and wrote thrillers, but I had never before been asked to write in another author’s voice. I attacked the challenge with all my research skills and spent hours reading and rereading Virginia Andrews’s works until I understood what made her writing distinct. Her vocabulary and syntax, images, and dialogues were truly special.
You may say there is no such thing as a perfect book. You’re probably right. But the one book that comes closest to it, in my mind, is SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW by William Maxwell. If you’ve not read it, you should. Immediately.
In 1988, I lived near the Verrazano Bridge, and whenever the temperature was above freezing I’d walk down to the Narrows and read on one of the benches that ran along the bike path. Laurie Colwin’s HOME COOKING quickly became (and remains) one of my favorite bench reads—no surprise, considering I have loved every one of her novels. Her gift for creating authentic characters extends even to herself. At the time, I was 22 years-old and the kitchen in my New York City studio apartment was barely 3 feet wide. It didn’t have an oven or cabinets, and the refrigerator was dorm-sized (with no freezer); but this didn’t stop me from loving my little oasis, and cooking every day.