Ever since I read A THOUSAND ACRES, I have loved the work of Jane Smiley. That novel has it all: love, lust, rivalry, betrayal, loss, grief, conflict, wisdom. It reworks Shakespeare’s tale of King Lear—that “fond, foolish old man.” By locating her story in a farming community in contemporary Iowa, Smiley shows us how all the best stories are timeless. They deal with what it is to be human, to find our way through a world that is often hostile and always confusing.
Decades before Elena Ferrante gifted us with Lenù and Lila in her Neapolitan novels, Carmen Laforet gave us Andrea in NADA. The works have a great deal in common: in both, passionate young women try to wrench themselves from the poverty and close-mindedness of their society. The specter of World War II looms over both books, along with the reality that for many that war never ended but continued on in broken hearts and crooked streets all across Europe.
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I recently revisited Aravind Adiga’s THE WHITE TIGER to discern what about it so riveted and enchanted me when I first read it in college. I figured it had to be the first sentence. This was a book that enraptured me with its utterly distinct and unrelenting voice, and I thought it must have been the first sentence where I got a glimpse of that.
I picked up Colm Tóibín’s THE MASTER a few months after finishing his brilliant novel BROOKLYN. When I curled up with THE MASTER, I looked forward to falling into a similar story: one about an expatriate grappling with immigration, homesickness, and growing up.
I am not a surfer. I have never spent a day on big, rough waves in Hawaii or on small but perfect waves in Tonga. I am, however, a rubbernecker. If there’s a stretch of beach where I can watch surfers bob up and down in wetsuits waiting for a break, I’m there. William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE, is the literary equivalent of sitting on the beach on a day with good breaks.
I know there are some snobby über-literary types out there who scoff when they’re told that one of the best—if not the best—writer about writing is Stephen King. I know, because I probably used to be one of them. Sure, back in the day I might have granted that his memoir ON WRITING is really useful and brilliant when it comes to learning the craft of writing. But what about the art of it? What can a super-commercial novelist like that teach me about my creative demons?
At a wedding I attended years ago, the father of the bride said something that’s stayed with me. He talked about growing old, and losing the wonder and hope we were flush with as kids. Careers, marriages, and children occupy all our time. They begin to chip away at our hope and innocence. Whether it’s the manic excitement of a sleepover with friends, the endless promise of your first love, or summer days that seem to last forever, those feeling are never as pure or as acute as they were when we were young. He stressed that as we aged, it takes work to preserve those feelings, to even have the capacity to experience hope and wonder.
On my Goodreads shelf, you can pretty distinctly divide the books I’ve read into three categories. The first is the classics (Austen & Co.). The second, contemporary hits (yay, publishing!) that I’ve got to stay on top of to know what’s what. The third is a bit harder to define: they’re the ones published in the last fifty years or so by masters like Junot Díaz, Jay McInerney, Joan Didion, and Toni Morrison. They’re books that have lasted, but we can’t yet predict where they’ll be in a century (though if they’re not on our bookshelves, we’ve done something terribly wrong). I call them “the modern classics,” and one of my favorites is Meg Wolitzer’s THE INTERESTINGS.
As evidenced by my reviews of/obsession with EMPIRE FALLS and & SONS, stories about small towns and big families just hook me. I can’t really explain it—there’s just something about people and drama stuck in a contained space that’s guaranteed to please every single time.
Which is why, when I first heard of Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award–winning novel THE SHIPPING NEWS, I knew it was probably for me.
One day in the spring of 1995, when Frank McCourt was sixty-four years old, I received a box from literary agent Molly Friedrich, containing the first 159 pages of the memoir ANGELA’S ASHES. Several of us read the pages, as Frank would say, with alacrity. And loved them, swiftly seduced by the opening sentences: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood; the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”