As August ends, Arthur Phillips, Laura Hillenbrand, Lev Grossman and others reveal their reading records to Salon
Arthur Phillips, author of “The Tragedy of Arthur”
I’ve had a damned successful summer, book-wise:
Four manuscripts/galleys looking for a blurb, and one of them I gladly deliver:
“A Partial History of Lost Causes” by Jennifer DuBois
Four visits to the back catalogs of my much-admired masters:
“The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise” by Georges Perec
“Collected Plays, Vol. 3″ by Tom Stoppard
“House of Meetings” by Martin Amis
“Everyday Drinking” by his dad, Kingsley Amis
Three much-discussed recent books, recommended both by trusted friends and dubious critics:
“Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray
“Curfew” by Jesse Ball
“Blood, Bones, and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton
And, in progress, one classic, selected for his nationality, reputation and relationship to other favorite authors:
“Kornel Esti” by Dezso Kosztolanyi
The wonderful news is that there were no clunkers. Nothing left unfinished, not even the manuscripts I chose not to blurb. I have had the most wonderful season, on beaches, in lounge chairs, on the F train, in airplanes, on benches waiting for the camp bus to drop off the heirs … Asked to recall, forced to turn my head sideways and examine the spines on my shelf, my overwhelming emotion is one of deep gratitude.
Erin Morgenstern, author of “The Night Circus” (out Sept. 13)
My summer reads were chosen by whims and serendipity. I tried not to think too much about the matter and fell into whatever book turned up in my hands or called to me from my shelves.
I ended up with “The Last Werewolf” by Glen Duncan (signed, even) because of the magic of Twitter. The physical book itself is gorgeous with its red-edged pages and the story inside is equally blood-soaked and beautiful.
I spent a lot of time on trains this summer and because of Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” every time there was an unexpected stop I suspected zombies. I had been on zombie overload but I had so many moments of “oh, of course that’s what would happen” reading this particular version of the post-zombie apocalypse world that I completely forgot about my zombie fatigue.
“The Gargoyle” by Andrew Davidson was given to me as a gift and I ended up reading it mostly on airplanes, which worked out well because it was a complicated tale so entrancing that I could disappear into it for hours, though fortunately I reached the end safely curled up at home in bed because it made me cry.
I am not a gamer by any means but I am a child of the ’80s so “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline was an ingenious, fantastical ride on the nostalgia coaster. (I got my copy at Comic-Con, which I hope adds to my geek cred.)
I was in a crime mood at the beginning of August so I finally got to “Faithful Place” by Tana French. I think “The Likeness” is still my favorite French but all of her books are gloriously absorbing and atmospheric and this was no exception.
“The Devil All the Time” by Donald Ray Pollock was one of those books that I kept encountering over and over until I had to read it for myself and I’m thrilled that I did; it is compelling and bleak in the best of ways, that deep-rooted sense of story buzzing off the pages.
And I am easing my way into the autumn with a long wander through Haruki Murakami’s marvelous “1Q84,” which means that there are several potential summer reads left on the shelf that will be autumnal reads instead, including “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind and “Mr. Fox” by Helen Oyeyemi.
Charles C. Mann, author of “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created”
I just finished a long, serious nonfiction book and craved something that was fast-moving, fun and fictional. I found exactly what I wanted in Mat Johnson’s “Pym,” which tickled me no end. In the first couple-three chapters, a grouchy, recently fired African-American professor discovers that Edgar Allan Poe’s single (totally bonkers) novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” is based on the recollections of an actual voyage to Antarctica taken by a 19th-century African-American sailor. The novel’s protagonist hornswoggles his way to Antarctica to retrace that voyage. After that, things turn really weird. Dark, funny, satirical, adventurous, politically aware — what’s not to like?
Because I am a big fan of Roberto Bola
Lev Grossman, author of “The Magician King”
Because I work as a professional book critic, at least by day, I do two kinds of reading: work and pleasure. Though they overlap a lot: For example, I read George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons,” Neal Stephenson’s “Reamde” and Michael Holroyd’s “A Book of Secrets” with a hell of a lot of pleasure this summer, mostly on the subway going to and from work. As for what I didn’t read, my official position, as a book critic and a novelist, is that I have read everything ever published anywhere. But the truth is that I’ve been on book tour for most of August and as a result failed to read some of the big literary titles this summer, including “The Family Fang” (by Kevin Wilson) and “The Submission” (by Amy Waldman). I did, however, somehow manage to read “What Ho, Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse, which pretends to be a light comic novel but is really a treatise on the resilience of the human spirit. I recommend it to everybody as a cure for unhappiness.
Laura Hillenbrand, author of “Unbroken”
One of the sweet pleasures of this summer has been sitting outside with my iPod, listening to the audiobook for “West With the Night,” Beryl Markham’s memoir of her youth as a racehorse trainer and bush pilot in 1930s Africa. Markham lived a singularly intrepid, tumbling life, and she could craft a sentence, and tell a story, like no writer I’ve ever read. Calling it a “bloody wonderful book,” Hemingway said Markham “could write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.” I’ve been listening to it slowly, savoring each paragraph and replaying passages to marvel at Markham’s lovely storytelling.
On a similar theme, I’ve just begun reading “Images out of Africa,” the 1938-39 diaries of a young newlywed named Virginia Garner. In 1938, Virginia and her husband, Ray, packed their bags, climbed aboard a ship in New York Harbor and embarked on a 17-month adventure making documentary films among indigenous people of the Belgian Congo and the French Cameroons. Virginia’s diaries capture life in an Africa on the verge of monumental change, and make a nice companion to Markham’s memoir.
Tom Perrotta, author of “The Leftovers” (out Aug. 30)
My summer reading was dictated by a variety of impulses — the arrest of Whitey Bulger led me to the excellent “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill; an ongoing interest in cults and new religions made me snap up Janet Reitman’s mind-blowing “Inside Scientology” the moment it came out; curiosity (and bewilderment) about the conservative idolatry of Ayn Rand got me reading Anne Heller’s biography of the novelist/ideologue, as well as Mary Gaitskill’s intriguing novel “Two Girls, Fat and Thin,” which examines the psychology of Rand’s followers with surprising sympathy. My enthusiasm for Colm Toibin’s story collection “The Empty Family” inspired me to read his lovely novel “Brooklyn,” which I’d somehow missed when it came out. For a late August week on the beach (sadly just concluded), I saved Richard Stark’s “Butcher’s Moon,” an epic novel featuring the coldblooded thief named Parker (I can’t praise Stark’s hard-boiled novels highly enough), and “Sweet Soul Music,” by the great Peter Guralnick. Unread for yet another summer was the Lydia Davis translation of “Swann’s Way,” as well as any number of novels by Anthony Trollope.
Thomas Mullen, author of “The Revisionists” (out Sept. 28)
As the father of two little kids, I’ve found that I don’t get much time to read on vacations anymore. Beach days, pool trips and plane rides have been transformed from opportunities for literary escape into gleefully chaotic moments of full-contact child entertainment. So what reading I managed to do this summer was usually at home, on the porch beneath a running fan (badly needed here in Atlanta) or at the kitchen table. I loved Tom Franklin’s “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” a wonderful tale of friendship, crime and race in a small Southern town. Because I’m researching a new historical novel set in Boston, I’m currently knee-deep in J. Anthony Lukas’ fabulous “Common Ground,” about the desegregation and busing of Boston schools in the 1970s. I also enjoyed two delightfully weird, genre-bending novels, Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” and Doug Dorst’s “Alive in Necropolis” (the second of which I did read on a plane, on the way to Comic-Con, which was fitting). Of the many books that are patiently waiting in my to-read stack, the ones I’m most anxious to tackle are Ron Rash’s “The World Made Straight,” Daniel Woodrell’s “The Bayou Trilogy” and Howard Bryant’s “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.”
Paul La Farge, author of “Luminous Airplanes” (out Sept. 27)
In the middle of the summer I had surgery for an unexpected and kind of catastrophic back problem, and I spent the second half of July and all of August immobilized on the sofa. The good part of this was that I had time to read the guilt-inducing stack of books by people I know. You might think, oh, people he knows, he’s just going to say nice things, and in a sense you’d be right, I am going to say nice things, but these books are good. First of all, Mat Johnson’s “Pym,” a brutally funny retelling of Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” which sends a crew of African-American explorers to the Antarctic to mine ice for a bottled-water company, and culminates in the artificially sweetened pleasure dome of a delusional landscape painter. Then Rebecca Wolff’s “The Beginners,” a coming-of-age story about a girl who lives in the insular New England town of Wick, and befriends two strange newcomers, who are either graduate students on the lam or ghosts returned from an ugly moment in the town’s past. The beautiful thing about Wolff’s book is that it keeps almost turning into a story of supernatural horror, but it doesn’t; it’s languid like a teenage summer, although much, much more interesting than any summer I ever experienced as a teenager. Then Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia,” which, my God, you don’t need me to tell you to read it, but, yes, read it. And finally the poet Ben Lerner’s first novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” which I read in galleys — it comes out in September. It’s about a young American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, and it’s as much about poetry as it is about anything else — there is, e.g., a good long section about Ashbery in the middle — but as our narrator wanders through parks and parties, downing anti-anxiety pills and making awkward conversation in his possibly broken Spanish, somehow everything comes into the picture: love, politics and, above all, truth, which Lerner turns inside-out and outside-in again with Thomas Bernhard-like doggedness, until you feel that something profoundly elusive, self-knowledge, maybe, or self-blindness, has finally been hooked, and hauled up for you to see.
Alma Katsu, author of “The Taker” (out Sept. 6)
I’m behind on my reading this summer because I’m on deadline — past deadline, truth be told — for my next book, and seem to spend every minute at my computer. I’ve managed to squeeze in a little reading, though; for instance, I started the summer with Keith Donohue’s latest, “Centuries of June,” which turned out to be much more of a fabulist tale than his previous novels; [I also read] “Graveminder,” Melissa Marr’s first adult novel. Aside from those two, there are half-started books scattered throughout the house: Erick Setiawan’s “Of Bees and Mist” is in the bathroom, David Bajo’s “The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri” is in the family room, GRRM’s “A Game of Thrones” on the nightstand. If I find a book at hand, I try to get through a few pages before running back to the computer, guiltily.
Ned Beauman, author of “Boxer, Beetle” (out Sept. 13)
Although I’ll never truly be one of those frictionless nomads you see in “Monocle” who bounce from city to city without their Margiela calfskin sneakers ever quite touching the ground, this summer I have been doing my best to imitate one, so a lot of my reading has been on my Kindle in airport lounges. And perhaps the most memorable book has been “Treasure Islands” by Nicholas Shaxson, because it has produced in me such a persistent cognitive dissonance. From a hotel room, I write an email to my dad fuming about how the unregulated global flow of capital benefits no one but the greedy and the corrupt, as Shaxson very readably demonstrates. A few minutes later, I write an email to my agent whining about how unfair it is that there’s all this red tape tying up the rent for my sublet in New York or the royalties from my Turkish publisher just because I have no fixed abode and was too lazy to pack any important documents when I left London. I like to think that, in a crunch, I wouldn’t still be on the side of the money launderers, but it’s hard to say: The main thing I learned from Bola
Amor Towles, author of “Rules of Civility”
The Diminutive Inquisitor
Earlier this summer, three friends and I read the Volkhonsky and Pevear translation of “Anton Chekhov’s Stories” (Bantam 2000). I suppose we imagined it lighter fare for the season having spent the winter-into-spring with “War and Peace.”
The central men and women in Chekhov’s tales range from rural peasants to urban professionals and landed aristocrats. The events and imagery tend to spring from the quotidian. There are conversations at dinner tables, concerns over money and health, generational friction, muted expressions of romance — all relayed in a manner to suggest they are part of a recurring pattern of lives without much threat of change. Yet, in at least half of the stories these everyday events suddenly conspire to prompt a character to ask: “Why?”
The renowned professor in “A Boring Story”: “Why am I, a famous man, a privy councilor, sitting in this small hotel room, on this bed with its strange gray blanket?”
The new widow in “The Darling”: “My sweet Vanechka … Why did I meet you? Why did I know and love you?
The society woman on the verge of an affair in “The Lady With the Little Dog”: “Oh how you frightened me! I’m barely alive. Why did you come? Why?”
The aging bishop in “The Bishop”: “Sweet, dear, unforgettable childhood! Why does this forever gone, irretrievable time, why does it seem brighter, more festive and rich, than it was in reality?”
The chief physician in “Ward 6″: “Oh, why is man not immortal? … Why brain centers and convolutions, why sight, speech, self-awareness, genius, if it is all doomed to sink into the ground and … whirl without sense or purpose, for millions of years, with the earth around the sun?”
These brief inquiring moments are worthy of our close attention, because they are typically the axis upon which the intent of the stories turn.
Taking the example of “the lady with the little dog,” we can see that her question is not meant to be taken literally. In saying “Why did you come?” she knows perfectly well that her paramour’s passion has brought him. Her query is thus pointed toward a bigger uncertainty: “Why has fate arranged for me to love a man other than my husband, despite the fact that this love will upend every aspect of my comfortable existence?”
For Chekhov’s characters, “Why” is the word that follows upon some mysterious final straw. Having plodded along for years content with illusions or fatalism while safely ignoring the central challenges of human life (I am aging, I’m unhappy, I’m lost), something has shaken them from their somnolence and prompted them to demand of God or no one in particular with an uncharacteristic metaphysical urgency: Why is life thus? And perhaps, it is the surfacing of this little question in its various forms from the midst of all those lovely Chekhovian details, that give his stories their lasting power.
Though having raised my eyebrow a little at Chekhov’s characters, on this lovely August afternoon (much like any other), when there promises to be wine with lunch, I’d probably just as soon put off any questions of “Why” myself. At least, until autumn.
Amy Waldman, author of “The Submission”
“Say Her Name” by Francisco Goldman. In constructing a “novel” — mostly memoir — about the death, in a freak body-surfing accident, of his young wife, Goldman writes in a style that’s both jagged and rich, tumbling from his mournful present to his past with Aura to her life before him, in a manner that somehow reminded me of the Internet — link-link-link, until you’re so deep in his chasm of grief you can’t climb out. He re-creates his wife as she was, and creates her as he would have us see her: The resulting portrait is unforgettable. And everything — from her melancholy childhood to his own lifetime of loneliness to ominous portents recognized only in hindsight — make her death seem as inevitable as it was shocking.
“The Convert” by Deborah Baker. I chose it because its themes — the encounters and collisions between Islam and the West — are of interest to me. It’s a strange, almost surreal, but fascinating book — one writer’s attempt to understand the tension between Islam and the West through a biography of a subject who proves elusive and maddening, not least because she’s not, as Baker initially thought, dead. Maryam Jameelah, raised Jewish in a New York suburb, migrated to Pakistan as the prized convert and prot