In this soon-to-be-regular feature, we ask our staff a literary question that we’re dying to have answered, and we also want to hear from you! Please use the comments section to tell us about your literary tastes, recommend some reading, or even call us out on something if you disagree.
PHOTO BY ALBA MACHADO
This time, we want to know:
What book do you find yourself returning to despite all of the other reading you’ve got on your plate?
Julia Fine There are so many books I find myself coming back to, but right now my most indulgent reread (if only because my copy is 846 pages long) is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Jane Austen meets Harry Potter meets the Grimm Brothers meets European History in this sprawling tale of magic’s return to 19th century England. It’s like Clarke read my mind and combined all of my favorite things into one, crafting a tome that is alternately hilarious and terrifying. It’s hard to believe this is her first novel, the voice is so strong and her hand so deft. A lovely book to curl up with during crazy summer thunderstorms, or to lose yourself in on the CTA. I’m on my third read (not counting a listen to the fabulously creepy audiobook), and I foresee many more to come.
Karen McKinley Wonderful, weird book! I loved it. How about Michael Crichton’s Timeline? A great story about going back in time, and the problems of money and technology and arrogance. The foreword always gets me when he says that as you read the novel and consider whether time travel could ever be possible, you should think of all sorts of technology that would have been considered ridiculous science fiction 100 years ago, including the concept of people traveling to the moon, which now seems commonplace. I reread it again last summer.
Danette Chavez Hard Times (or For These Times) by Charles Dickens. I’ve been reading it about every two years since high school. Its critiques of a utilitarian approach to education and the abysmal conditions of workers caught in the wheels of progress (i.e., the Industrial Revolution) could easily be confused with contemporary works. The Coketown education model championed by one of the main characters has found its real life successor in the Common Core. And oh, those Dickensian names: Gradgrind for an educator and Sparsit for an old gossip, to name a few.
Daniel Camponovo I have a bunch of books I return to far too often (including The Red Pony, every year on my birthday, for 19 years running), but the book I just returned to was The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. The book, split into four narratives each focusing on a German emigrant’s relationship to the narrator, is a stunning meditation on memory and belonging and collective guilt and the reverberations of war, felt even among those who left the country before it was destroyed. Sebald’s voice is clear and level, and he weaves in these beautiful black-and-white photographs, wrapping the text around the images and incorporating them so they become as much a part of the narrative as the words themselves. If I ever got a tattoo it would be a #3 for Allen Iverson, but if I ever got a second tattoo it would very probably be “There is mist that no eye can dispel.”
Jess Millman A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. I’ve combed through the essay with a highlighter and a No. 2 many times, but these days I prefer to pretend I’m a virgin reader and let her knock me out. I like the reality check and the clean, rolling rightness of Kincaid’s anger. I like the one hundred-page microburst of being made to look at and feel the rot of a wrong that is so plainly indefensible. Her lessons on imperialism continue to be relevant as exotic-destination beach tourism becomes more popular across different areas of the middle-class spectrum. The trivialization of people who live in these so-dubbed “exotic” places and the cycle of devaluation is a kind of disgrace I, as a beneficiary of this racist system (no matter how compassionate I am, how concerned I am, or how much I try to educate myself) can only come close to fully appreciating by having someone sear me with it. Her prose shakes me and it does it every time. So, for me, there’s no blue like Kincaid’s Antigua.
Todd Summar One of my favorite novels, and one that I return to every so often, is Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. It just celebrated its 25th anniversary, so I took the occasion to reread it recently. I discovered this novel in high school, at a time when my fascination with David Lynch, William S. Burroughs, and all things weird was just beginning to develop. There’s nothing worse than when you return to something you loved when you were younger only to find that it didn’t quite retain its luster. I was happy to discover that Geek Love holds up, and that it is crafted in a much more complex and three-dimensional way than I was originally able to appreciate as a teenager. Not just the gimmicky genre story of a family of circus freaks, Geek Love is rich with character development, morally ambiguous characters, and expertly woven language—at times gruesomely poetic, and at other times harsh as a slap in the face. The only shame is that Dunn has not written another novel since.
Alba Machado Mine is both canonical and made into films presented on late-night TV with rubber chickens and mustachioed skulls. Growing up, Frankenstein was the big, green guy with a flat head, hemorrhoids, and bolts sticking out of his neck, the guy we hang on the door at Halloween. And that was fun. But then in high school I read the story, and discovered the story behind the story—and I never tire of either one. Often cited as the first science fiction novel to be written in English, Frankenstein explores big, important ideas about the ethics of scientific discovery that are relevant to this day, nearly 200 years later, while still giving its readers one hell of a thrill ride. Despite its flowery language, it feels modern, too, far ahead of its time, given its layers of text forms: letters, journals, inscriptions, and courtroom accounts. And how great is it that it was written by nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley in a scary story competition against literary giants Percy Shelley (her husband), Lord Byron (the cad), and John Polidori (the guy who wrote the first published vampire story—the first, but not the best)? I think it’s safe to say she won that one.
Scott Eagan The two books I’m chronically rereading now are Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Hey! Wake Up! (Like five reads a day, and that’s a lie because it’s more like seven.) A novel that I come back to frequently, and there are several, is Catch-22. I have this love affair with science fiction, and while I know Catch-22 has nothing to do with that, Joseph Heller utilizes the paradox so masterfully in this satirical anti-war polemic that it resonates in everything. It is, to date, the funniest book I’ve ever read, coupled with some of the most complex and batshit crazy characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. However it’s not one note. There’s variance. It’s very somber at times, very tragic, but also poignant, beautiful, and terrifying. The non-linear structure is so complex, yet is packaged in such a way that the reader never feels lost in time. I love it.
Sophie Nagelberg Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis. It’s full of these concise little stories that leave you thinking. Gigantic by Mark Nesbitt is one I’m always recommending. It’s another short story collection with a powerful voice and these down and out characters that you really root for. Finally, Flannery O’Conner is an author I’ve long been drawn to, perhaps because of our shared Georgia roots, and her infamous use of the grotesque.
Do you have a question that you’d like us to answer in a future installment of Staff Q&A? Let us know in the comments!