I wanted to start a series, and it didn’t take me long to come up with the topic. As anyone who knows me, even a little bit, can tell you, I am a major bibliophile. There are only two things I absolutely must do every single day, and one of those is read (the other is eat, and that could really be the subject of another series…). I am always, always reading.
One of my favorite things about reading is the community it brings between people. I love asking and being asked the question, “What are you reading these days?” It’s so much more personal than a bland, “How are you?” and it opens up a whole new side of someone that you might not otherwise get to see. Books are by far the best educators I can think of; they bring playfulness and creativity to a subject, open up imagination, teach history and language, unfold the human condition, and evoke all the emotions you can imagine. What classroom have you been in that does all of that? Books are my friends. Books are the path I have traveled on my entire life. They show me myself, they show me the unknown, they show me the faces and facets of so many things. I would not be who I am, and I would not have the passion for life that I do were it not for the books that brought me here.
So, I’m starting a series on books I’ve recently read and loved. They will cover a pretty wide range of topics, so hopefully you’ll come across something you haven’t before. I’d like to be clear that I certainly don’t think I know everything about books; quite the contrary. A lot of the things I tend to read these days are things I probably should have read years ago. Most of the titles you’ll see today, for example, were written back when I was in high school, almost a decade ago. I’m a little late in catching up, you see. But it’s ok! I’m here now, awakening to authors whom the rest of the country have lauded for years, and now I’m understanding why. That’s what I love about books; they tend to find you right when you need them. It’s kind of spiritual, in a way.
I hope you enjoy this series, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading these days! It is, after all, my favorite question. So without further ado, the first installment of Recommended Reading. With each title I’ll give a super-brief summary and/or why I liked it, and a favorite snippet. Here we go!
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
I loved this book- it was a quick and easy read that kept me on my couch for two straight days. Weighing in on the importance of both technology and books, this novel undertakes one of our modern debates: how do we improve our world, what can (or can’t) technology do for us, and why do we still need books and the people who love them? Take all of this and throw in a Dan Brown-type secret society, and you’re in for a fun, yet thoughtful ride.
“I pushed open the bookstore’s glass door. It made a bell tinkle brightly up above, and I stepped slowly through. I did not realize at the time what an important threshold I had just crossed.
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up–three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever.
The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest–not a friendly, California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.”
Runaway, Alice Munro
This was my first time reading this award-winning author, and her short stories are absolutely breathtaking. Understated yet powerful, Munro weaves tales of small-town folks where most of the action happens under the surface. Her lyricism alone is enough to keep you enthralled. Like the show Mad Men, it’s what ‘s not being said that gives these stories their depth and impact.
“After that they spoke about the coolness of the evening, how welcome it was, and how the nights had lengthened noticeably, though there was still all August to get through. And about Juno, how she had wanted to come with them but had settled down immediately when he reminded her that she had to stay and guard the shop. This talk felt more and more like an agreed-upon subterfuge, like a conventional screen for what was becoming more inevitable all the time, more necessary, between them.
But in the light of the railway depot, whatever was promising, or mysterious, was immediately removed. There were people lined up at the window, and he stood behind them, waiting his turn, and bought her ticket.” (from “Tricks”)
Heat, Bill Buford
A somewhat bumbling but energetic home cook, Buford wanted to know what it was that separates a restaurant cook from a home cook. So he went to work for Mario Batali at his famous Manhattan restaurant, Babbo, and his journey from kitchen slave, to Italian pasta-maker and butcher is hilarious, eye-opening, and just plain fun. It made me realize that I will never be a professional chef, but I certainly do love reading about their swashbuckling ways back in the sweat and heat of a restaurant kitchen.
“Again the ticker tape. This was starting to feel like a sporting event. Sweat was running off my nose, and I was moving fast, as fast as my concentration allowed, flipping, turning, poking, being burned, one row pointing to the right, another to the left, poking again, stacking up meat here, rushing over the branzinos that had been waiting for a spot, turning, the flames in the corner of the grill still burning, fed by the fat cascading off the new orders. Again the ticker tape. My mind was at full capacity, with only one stray thought, a question, repeated over and over again: What happens if I fall behind? And still there were more: lamb medium, lamb m.r. What’s wrong with these people? I was surrounded by meat. Meat on the grill. Meat on the seasoning tray. Meat on the resting tray, in big heaps. So much meat that it no longer seemed like meat. Or maybe it seemed exactly like meat. It was tissue and muscle and sinews. And still more orders. ‘This is the buzz,’ Memo whispered, still behind me. ‘This is what you live for,’ Andy said, picking up plates from the pass, adding, mysteriously, ‘it feels really fucking good.’ And the remark remained in my head for the rest of the night, and I thought hard about what I was feeling: exhilaration, fear, weirdness, some physical-endorphin-performance thing. But good? It was, I concluded, my first glimpse of what Mario had described as ‘the reality of the kitchen’– a roomful of adrenaline addicts.”
On Beauty, Zadie Smith
A rivalry between two men becomes heightened when their families begin to intermingle against their wishes. The more these families get to know the others, the more the cracks in their own worlds begin to show. Some of the most beautiful writing I have come across in a while, where the simplest of sentences can stop you in your tracks.
“Her little audience guffawed, pretending to a worldliness none of them had earned.
Ron gripped her chummily round the shoulders. ‘The wages of sin, etcetera,’ he said as they began to walk, and then, ‘Whither morality?’
‘Whither poetry?’ said Hannah.
‘Whither my ass?’ said Daisy, and nudged Zora for one of her cigarettes. They were smooth and bright, and their timing was wonderful, and they were young and hilarious. It was really something to see, they thought, and this was why they spoke loudly and gestured, inviting onlookers to admire.
‘Tell me about it,’ said Zora, and flicked open the carton.
And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petaled flower of being here, in the world, with other people. Neither as hard as she had thought it might be nor as easy at it appeared.”