A friend of mine recently told me about his relationship with a girl more than 300 miles away. They met by exchanging glances at a party while she was in town for a wedding. He impulsively gave her his address, but they parted ways with him wondering if he’d just turned himself into a punchline by asking her to write to him. He was happily surprised on opening his mailbox two weeks later.
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.
I love reading novels with dysfunctional characters. Something about their utter inability to get it together makes me feel so much better about my own moments of ineptitude. I may have accidentally forgotten to pay my electric bill last week, but I’ve never been so overwhelmed with responsibility that I disappear on my family like Bernadette in Maria Semple’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE. Sure, I’ve embarrassed myself after a drink too many once or twice, but I certainly haven’t squandered an entire inheritance after a drunk driving accident like Leo in Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s THE NEST.
And I may be a poor twentysomething trying to make it in New York City, but I’m so glad I’m not a grad-school dropout living at home and unable to face reality like Cal in Kris D’Agostino’s THE SLEEPY HOLLOW FAMILY ALMANAC.
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.
Lisa Genova has created her own niche in women’s fiction. With a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University, she is exceptionally qualified to write about the medical, emotional, and interpersonal afflictions of neurological disorders. Genova’s medical expertise, coupled with her incredible ability to create authentic characters with nuanced emotional growth, is why every novel she writes feels so original.
My job sends me to a lot of comic book conventions, so I’ve spent many hours in a 10×10 booth chatting with science fiction, fantasy, and horror enthusiasts. Whenever someone raises the subject of “favorite author,” my Comic-Con friends are usually surprised by my answer: Anne Tyler, author of so-called “family novels” and “marriage novels” like DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT, BREATHING LESSONS, and A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD. She’s my go-to writer any time I need a shot of inspiration; I’ll just open any of her books and start reading, and within 30 minutes I am fully recharged. There’s something about her style and voice that I find irresistible.
Two years ago, I packed up my suitcase and flew halfway across the world to live in Beijing for a summer. While I experienced all the classic tourist moments, what most struck me was that my time abroad revealed to me how much of my identity is based on my being an American. I became part of the local expat scene, frequenting joints known for their western crowds. I lived in Beijing, but specifically within a small, privileged sect of Beijing that was paradoxically both international and isolated at the same time. In her novel THE EXPATRIATES, Janice Y. K. Lee perfectly captures this strange sense of community and life in a foreign, yet oddly familiar, culture.
I’m a sucker for smart historical fiction that dives into the heart and mind of a woman who fights to become the heroine of her own life. THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS, Allison Pataki’s stunning jewel of a novel, does just that. Set against the lush, epic backdrop of Viennese splendor, the glitter of the Hapsburg Court, and the political chaos of an empire about to erupt, this immensely readable novel is the true story of Austria’s last empress—“a girl who, having seen nothing of people or the world, had believed that love was all one needed to be happy.”
I just finished rereading THE LAST SAMURAI, an excellent novel by Helen DeWitt about a genius grad-school dropout named Sibylla, who is raising a genius, her son Ludo. Because Ludo has no father, Sibylla brings him up on repeat viewings of Akira Kurosawa’s film “Seven Samurai,” figuring Ludo might as well be exposed to the best male influences, if any at all.
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.