It is a plight universally acknowledged that a Great Books Teacher in possession of a large bookshelf and a lengthy list of required reading materials must be in want of something fun to read. Here are some fun things I read recently, or some rather not so recently, but still felt compelled to share about because they’re excellent books that everyone should read. Really, this is a list of Ten Books That Are Unconnected To Time And Space. (What does it even mean to read a book? Sometimes I think I've never read a book.)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
This work of fiction was published in 2017, is set in the 90’s, I read it in 2018 and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The protagonist is a young woman in her early years of university, attending Harvard, studying linguistics, and dealing with the introduction of computer technology and email as a means of communication. She sleeps through her classes, struggles with relationships, deeply misunderstands the nature of her connection to most of the people around her, and overall worms her way into your heart as an emblem of what it was like to grow up in an era where there was a dearth of communication but being understood came at a premium.
Stoner by John Williams
I brought this book to a Bookshelf Warming party recently, where the hosts had requested everyone bring a book they thought everyone should read or own. This was an easy choice. I read this book within the last 5 years, and have re-read it every year. It’s a heartbreaking, lovely, introspective novel about the impact an education can have on an individual, and the loneliness that can come from a life spent in pursuit of study. There is beauty in academia, but Stoner asks us to contemplate whether a life of study comes at the expense of human relationship, or if it deeply enables it.
Circe by Madeline Miller
A controversial choice in my immediate circle, as it’s a quite romantic re-telling of portions of The Odyssey. This novel focuses on the character of Circe - the witch who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs when they come across her island. Miller turns the focus onto the minor goddess, inventing a compelling backstory of a woman scorned and outcast, who lives a life of solitude, until she is interrupted by a handsome and dangerous stranger. A little romantic, a little irreverent (if you can BE irreverent about The Odyssey - I say no), some really nice writing, this one is a nice interpretation of a familiar story. I do not recommend her other work, but this one is great.
Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
I became obsessed a few years ago with non-fiction food writing. Ruth Reichl is naturally to blame, but I came across this book - Blood, Bones, and Butter (that title, though!) - and then bought copies for several friends. Autobiographical and fanciful, Gabrielle Hamilton tells the story of her life-long romance with food, beginning with her parent’s wild, bacchanalia-esque lamb roasts in her childhood backyard, through her years studying and working as a chef, and her relationship with her Italian husband, and frequent visits to Italy eating his family’s cooking. Have some snacks at the ready.
The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
Continuing the theme of food writing, and another absolute smash-hit of a title, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese came crashing into my life at a time when I really needed to escape to a small cave in Spain and think about cheese and drinking wine in the afternoon and listening to stories about generations-deep drama, romance, and squabbles. I spent months trying to find this cheese after I read this book so I could try it, but so far no luck. Michael Paterniti is at his best here, doing long-form investigative journalism, heavy footnoting, and he tells a story that even he isn’t sure is true, but all the way through asks “Does it matter? It’s a good story.”
Augustus by John Williams
Oh, you thought I was only going to talk about ONE John Williams book? How wrong of you. How absurd. I picked this up while I was buying a copy of Stoner for the aforementioned Bookshelf Warming party, which was mere months ago, and I LOVE this book. Historical fiction at its finest, Williams here writes in the epistolary form - the favorite form of nosy people - and tells through a series of journal entries and letters the story of Rome and the men that ruled her. One for the history nerds, for sure.
The Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo
I have to give a spot on the list to some YA Fantasy, because I am a simple woman, with simple desires, and I want to read about some cool magic stuff. However, I am cheating and recommending a trilogy, so you get three for the price of one! The Shadow and Bone Trilogy first caught my attention as a Netflix series, and then Mr. Yee recommended the books, and boy howdy, are they a good time. Vaguely steeped in Russian Orthodox symbolism, this book is full of magic and religion and war and some deeply likable characters and a truly troubling antagonist. Alina Starkov discovers a latent magical ability that just might let her save the world, but at the cost of everything she loves.
100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write on Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by Sarah Ruhl
Don’t have time to read a whole book? How about a paragraph? This book of essays by contemporary playwright and author Sarah Ruhl is an easy one to pick up and put down and pick up and put down… 100 times. Because that’s how many essays are in the book. They range from the odd to the introspective to the heartbreaking to the beautiful, and if you like art or kids or theater or umbrellas, you’ll find something in here that speaks to you.
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
This recommendation is absolutely a contemporary non-fiction flex. No, I haven’t read “My Struggle” because I am going through my own struggles, and didn’t think I could handle Karl’s. But when he released this series of contemplative novels about the beauty of the world - that felt like something I was ready for. Written as a love letter about the world to his unborn daughter, Knausgaard paints a picture of a world “crammed with heaven” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning says. As he describes the beauty and meaning inherent in a beam of sunlight hitting the ground, he is both commemorating and convincing himself, his future daughter, and the reader that maybe there’s something here to love. This is one of four, and I can’t wait to read the rest.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was recommended to me by Mr. Martin and Mrs. Mueller continuously for several years until I finally broke down and read it and now I agree with them that it is one of the best historical books about magic ever written and everyone should read it. Clocking it at around 800 pages it does represent a significant time investment, and it truly took me 3 good runs at the first few hundred pages before I got enough momentum to get going, but once you’re hooked, you’re hooked. I like to describe this as if Jane Austen and Charles Dickens co-wrote a book about magic during England in the 19th century. A masterwork by Susanna Clarke, one of our greatest living writers.