We love books for different reasons. We might love the language and imagery they evoke (God of Small Things) or be blown away by the pathos or moxie of a specific character (Lisbeth Salander). We become lost in the world the author creates (Harry Potter) or exposes (Thank You For Smoking).
Here is a selected list of books I’ve read recently and why, as a reader, I enjoyed them and why, as a writer, I found them instructive. We writers can learn much from authors that we adore. It behooves the beginning writer to seek out books that perform handily what we in our own work strive to accomplish. What books have you read recently that have moved you? I especially want to hear about books by women writers; we don’t hear enough about them in the mainstream media. Share your favorites in the comments below.
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. This novel is laugh-out-loud funny, quite an achievement considering there isn’t anything innately humorous going on: only humans, their fuck-ups and foibles, and the love that, despite it all, we feel for each other—in this story, the love among friends in particular. Fowler’s magnificent wry and earthy voice enlivens this pleasantly meandering tale, which uses the work of Jane Austen and book club meetings as an organizing principle (design principle, in the words of John Truby). The story is told in the third-person plural voice; the book club itself is the omniscient narrator.
Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong. A sumptuous, inventive novel. The main character suffers from synesthesia: she tastes words. This curious affliction, adeptly conveyed by the author, sets the stage for a complex and deeply satisfying family drama. Truong is positively masterful with language, deft with character. And the story will make you sit up and keep reading for hours: this beautifully written novel is rich with surprises.
Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison. No one does heartbreak better than Dorothy Allison. Here, the heartbreak is between women and their men; and mothers and fathers and their daughters. Allison is superlative at revealing the emotion of characters, and her wisdom about the human condition knocked me over on almost every page. Her characters are electrically charged with passion, not a dull or poorly developed one in the house.
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards. A unique narrative that breaks many writing-workshop rules but nonetheless drew me in with its powerful voice and kept me glued to the pages until the shocking and poignant end. Written in plain, urgent language, with a narrative line that moves between the past and the present. It’s about coping with long-buried tragedy and the vagaries of love.
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen. Two sides of New York City—high-society glamour and gritty poverty—are adroitly depicted in this contemporary story of two sisters. The complexities of the relationship between Bridget and her rich and famous sister Meghan, as well as Meghan’s husband and teenage son, drive the story. A solid family drama set against the vibrant backdrop of New York, which is really its own superbly developed character.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Exotic setting—the Brazilian Amazon—and a whirlwind plot plays a significant role in this book, as they did in her masterpiece Bel Canto. Patchett’s prose is as lovely as ever. I didn’t realize how skillfully plotted this book was until I got to the end, at which time I turned back to the first chapter and reread it and marveled at how brilliantly it’s all set up. Many readers can’t get pack the protracted midsection of the novel, when Marina Singh is stranded in Manaus. Keep reading past that to when Marina finally finds the elusive Dr. Swenson. It’s worth it.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This book has been widely lauded; not much I can say about it that hasn’t been said before. Simply put, it’s brilliantly researched and powerfully told. Skloot’s book explores, through the story of one black woman and her family, the history and legacy of racism against African-Americans and lays bare the persistence, pervasiveness, and insidiousness of racism—from the perspective of a middle-class white woman. Want to deepen your perspective about racism against African-Americans even further? Listen to this discussion about the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the “fatal condition” of being a black man.