Joe Pinsker looks at the question of “why some people grow up to derive great pleasure from reading, while others don’t.” Here’s no surprise: “a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.”
“Since Reese’s Book Club launched in 2017 in partnership with the actress’s media company, Hello Sunshine, it has become an industry phenomenon with the power to catapult titles to the top of the bestseller lists.” According to the article, “Reese really picks the books.”
James Parker, a staff writer for The Atlantic, praises English novelist Mick Herron on the publication of his latest novel, Joe Country. “Mick Herron writes about the broken spies sworn to protect today’s broken England,” the article’s subtitle proclaims.
“Like John le Carré—with whom he has been much compared—Herron is obsessed with that area of human experience, that area of the human brain, where paranoia overlaps with an essential, feral vigilance.”
Here’s another look at the age-old, ever-recurring question of the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.
This omnivorous selection of stories chosen by series editor John Joseph Adams and World Fantasy Award finalist Machado is a display of the most boundary-pushing, genre-blurring, stylistically singular science fiction and fantasy stories published in the last year. By sending us to alternate universes and chronicling ordinary magic, introducing us to mythical beasts and talking animals, and engaging with a wide spectrum of emotion from tenderness to fear, each of these stories challenge the way we see our place in the cosmos.
Harvard Ph.D. candidate Manvir Singh discusses what he calls the sympathetic plot, which pervades world literature and controls how we respond to stories. One common trope of the sympathetic plot is the story of orphans, “parentless protagonists [that] are everywhere.”
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Examining the Off the Shelf list made me consider exactly what qualities make me want to reread a book. Often it’s the enjoyment of seeing how a writer makes a particular story work—the mechanics of getting plot and character to mesh to produce a satisfying whole. Sometimes it’s the experience of spending time with characters who feel like real people, and other times it’s seeing how characters react to situations that we hope we’ll never have to face in real life. Usually it’s the emotional realization that, although we are all individuals, we all share a common humanity.
Many times rereading a book is more pleasurable because I already know, in general terms, what’s going to happen and who I’m going to meet along the way. Yet there are still some books that I wish I could read again with fresh eyes.
For that reason, here, in no particular order, are a few books I would add to this list:
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
“The Lottery” (short story) by Shirley Jackson
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
How About You?
What makes you want to reread a book? And what books do you wish you could read for the first time again?
If you find it hard to keep up with all the cool kids who use Goodreads to track their reading, this article will put you in the know about some of the more esoteric aspects. The main subject here is how to create a DNF (did not finish) shelf that won’t include the books placed there in your number of books read statistics. But there are a few other nifty nuggets of knowledge here as well, along with links to several other articles explaining how to use Goodreads. An avid reader’s bonanza!
When We Need Diverse Books was founded by a team of writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals, it was meant to shake up the publishing industry from the inside. Led by the original Executive Committee — Ellen Oh, Lamar Giles, Marieke Nijkamp, Miranda Paul, Aisha Saeed, Karen Sandler, and Ilene Wong — and supported by the original PR team — Stacey Lee and SE Sinkhorn — We Need Diverse Books was created to fight for more diversity in children’s and young adult book publishing at every level, among authors, editors, marketers, agents, publishers, and more. First and foremost, they wanted authors from marginalized communities to be given opportunities to have their voices heard in the overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, cisgender industry. And the results have been clear.
Fifteen publishing professionals discuss “why they believe We Need Diverse Books has changed publishing forever, and what they hope for the future.”
Emily Lordi discusses how much Toni Morrison was influenced by contemporary musicians:
Her work resonates with the music of those soul artists alongside whom she honed her craft: the grand ambition of Isaac Hayes, the moral clarity of Curtis Mayfield, and the erotic truth-telling of Aretha Franklin. But the soul artist who is most closely aligned with Morrison is Nina Simone. “She saved our lives,” Morrison said of the singer, after Simone’s death, in 2003. Simone meant so much to her, and to other black women, I think, in part because of how she turned social exclusion into superlative beauty and style. It was this recuperative alchemy that defined soul, as a music and an ethos. And, if Simone was soul’s “High Priestess,” Morrison was one of its literary architects.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, writing in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, addresses the current literary fascination with witches:
There has been a perennial literary fascination with witches; they are, as Marion Gibson, professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at Exeter University says, “a shorthand symbol for persecution and resistance – misogyny and feminism in particular”. In a #MeToo world, where Donald Trump – a fan of the term “witch-hunt” – is US president, it is really no surprise that female writers are examining the role of the witch in new ways.
Cosslett explains that women of her generation, who came of age in the 1990s with TV programs such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are now producing literature and films that grapple with perennial questions of power and agency. She also looks a bit at the history of witches in literature, from novels such as Jane Eyre to John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick.
In my effort to read more science fiction, I often come across references to Samuel R. Delany’s seminal novel Dhalgren. Here novelist Jordy Rosenberg discusses how Delany’s fiction “reflects and explores the social truths of our world.” He includes a list of works to start with for readers looking to introduce themselves to Delany’s body of work.
When I was younger, I felt that I had to finish every book I started. But some time around my 40th birthday I realized that I had probably completed about half my life and no longer had the luxury of time to waste on books I wasn’t enjoying or learning from. I was therefore glad to come across this article by Sarah Shaffi, who writes:
It’s taken me decades to get to the point where I can start a book, realise I’m not liking it, and then just stop reading it. The first time I put DNF – Did Not Finish in book geek parlance – on my book spreadsheet (what? I read a lot for work and a spreadsheet is a good way to keep track), I felt relieved, freed, and a little rebellious.
Life is too short, and there are too many books to carry on reading one you’re not enjoying. Think of it less as quitting one book, and more as making room in your life for another that you could potentially love.
And while I completely agree with her here, I also think there’s a certain etiquette for discussing books that you DNF. First, when you discuss the book, you don’t have the right to simply declare it a “bad” or “badly written” book or a book that you simply “didn’t like.” You DO have the right to say that you didn’t finish it and then explain why it didn’t work for you or what, specifically, you didn’t like about it. The keywords here are specifically and why.
Second, if you belong to a book club and for some reason can’t finish the book by the meeting time, please resist the urge to say, “Don’t talk about the ending. I haven’t finished it yet.” Sure, life happens, and sometimes you won’t be able to finish on time. But the ending is a major aspect of any book, particularly novels, and often a meaningful discussion requires analysis of the ending.
There’s still a bit of summer left, and if you’re still looking for that perfect “beach read,” Alison Fields has suggestions. After pondering the various definitions of that term, she settles on this one: “Books about beaches, seas, sand, and coastal destinations to accompany the end of the summer season and the first stirrings of the fall.
We learn a lot about life from literature, including how to process various kinds of traumas. But I was surprised to find this article by Kate McQuade, who has for more than 10 years taught a high school class on trauma literature.
By now I’ve accumulated a lot of answers, particularly for those skeptical that young people should be exposed to literature about war, genocide, and violence. I tell them that learning about trauma is not the same thing as experiencing trauma; I tell them that even though the literature we cover is difficult intellectually and emotionally, my course is less about mourning traumatic events than exploring what it means to depict them in art; and I tell them that shielding teenagers from the world’s historical truths not only fails to protect them, but does them a disservice as young people about to inherit that world.
And here’s why, McQuade says, she teaches such a course:
Most people think trauma literature is about trauma. In fact, trauma literature is at least as much about the problematics of storytelling as it is about actual traumatic events. It’s about the difficulty of representing the truth of an experience so horribly extraordinary that it cannot be contained within the human mind, let alone within the borders of a page. It’s about, in the words of trauma scholar Dori Laub, the simultaneous “imperative to tell” and “impossibility of telling.”
Read about seven of the literary works she uses to demonstrate the paradox “of how to represent the unrepresentable.”
Why should I be reading when there are children and adults in “detention centers” with horrific conditions? Why should I be flipping through pages when people are being murdered for being themselves? How can I justify a few hours of contentment with a book when the so-called leader of my country is, at a minimum, a blatant racist?
(If you doubt the accuracy of the assertions in these questions, Harreaves provides links to supporting material in the article.)
“The thing is, resistance fatigue is a real thing,” she writes. “If reading is how you recharge, it is well within the realm of morals to read.”
What a time-consuming yet fruitful project this turned into. When I started looking back at my long-term reading log for the 6 Degrees of Separation meme, I discovered a lot of authors and/or series that I had begun to enjoy in the past but had not kept up with more recently. Many of these authors and series I discovered back in the early days of recorded books, which were called books on tape back then because they came as a series of cassettes in a cardboard box that we mailed back when we were done with them so that we could order more. Back then our daughter was swimming competitively, and we spent lots of time in the car driving to and from swim meets. I therefore went through a lot of recorded books.
Eventually CDs replaced cassette tapes, and then the CDs gave way to downloaded audio files. Those changes combined with the end of my daughter’s swimming meant that I listened to fewer audiobooks. That was when I lost track of many authors and their next publications.
There are a few authors whom I’ve followed faithfully and have read every one of their books in some format (printed book, ebook, or audiobook):
(formerly) Sue Grafton
The list below (ordered alphabetically by author’s last name) comprises authors whose works I’ve lost touch with over time. Only a few of them are authors I gave up by choice because their novels no longer worked for me. So unless stated otherwise, assume that I haven’t read these authors recently because of this most cruel fate for book lovers:
I first learned about Kate Atkinson back in 1997 when my library book group read and loved her debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I next read Case Histories for another book group, the introductory novel of her Jackson Brodie series, in 2006. Over the intervening years I’ve read a couple more of Atkinson’s novels but none of the Jackson Brodie series. There are now four more, which I’m looking forward to reading after rereading Case Histories.
I know I’m in the minority here, because a lot of people love this series. But after reading the first novel in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I had no desire to read any more. I like a good child narrator, but little Flavia just annoyed me right from the beginning.
I’ve missed Edna Buchanan. In fact, I thought she might have died until I recently came upon this article. Now in her early 80s, she’s still a fixture in Miami but hasn’t published a work of fiction since 2011, a fact that explains why I’d heard nothing about her for a while.
Buchanan first made a name for herself by reporting on crime for Miami newspapers. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her newspaper work in 1986. I discovered her back in 1992 when I read her nonfiction work The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, a compilation of cases she’d reported on. But I most enjoyed her crime novels set in Miama featuring reporter Britt Montero.
For a further look at Edna Buchanan, see the New Yorker profile by Calvin Trillin from 1986.
James Lee Burke
My husband and I both love Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, which we discovered in the mid 1990s, in our heyday with books on cassettes. I’ve listened to seven Robicheaux novels, but I have some catching up to do, since the series is now up to 11 books.
Sarah Caudwell was the pseudonym of British barrister Sarah Cockburn. She wrote her four-book Hilary Tamar series over the course of 20 years.
Reminiscing about Sarah Caudwell in Mystery Scene Martin Edwards writes, “Sarah Caudwell’s books are admittedly an acquired taste. . . . Readers who crave penetrating social comment or in-depth characterisation in their mysteries should look elsewhere.”
I read both the first (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) and the last (The Sibyl in Her Grave) books in this series but never felt compelled to read the two middle ones. What I remember most about them is that they never reveal whether Hilary Tamar is a man or a woman. This is harder to accomplish than it might seem. Imagine having to construct every sentence so as to avoid using either he or she—and to do so without having the sentences sound awkward or unnatural.
According to her publisher, Penguin Random House, Sarah Caudwell died in 2000.
I initially liked Cornwell’s series featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. But I quit that series after book #9, 1998’s Point of Origin because, as Kay Scarpetta became more shrill and self-centered, the story lines also became more improbable. According to Patricia Cornwell’s website, she has published 14 more Scarpetta novels since Point of Origin. She also has two additional series and a bunch of other books, but I won’t be reading them.
I discovered Stephen Dobyns back in 1994 when I listed to a book (on tape) from his Charlie Bradshaw series, all of which contain Saratoga in the title. The series comprises 10 novels published between 1976 and 1998, plus an 11th book published in 2017. These are entertaining mysteries featuring a former police officer now working, by choice, as a private investigator. One of the recurring themes is Charlie’s mother’s complaints that he should get a real job and his attempts to convince her that he’s a PI because he WANTS to be. These mysteries features some of the quirkiest yet most lovable minor characters you’ll ever meet.
I also have to mention Dobyns’s stand-along novel The Church of Dead Girls, an unflinching depiction of mob mentality couched in a murder mystery. And his novel Cold Dog Soup is, no kidding, about the weirdest yet most engaging novel I’ve ever read.
Dobyns is also well known as a poet and a writing instructor.
Earl Emerson was a firefighter in Seattle, WA, for 32 years. He began publishing mysteries and thrillers in 1985. I discovered him when our daughter entered the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA, the city where Emerson was born. He’s the author of two series—the Thomas Black series and the Mac Fontana series—as well as several stand-alone novels. His books have won several awards.
More information about Emerson and his books is available on his website.
I discovered author G.M. Ford at about the same time I became aware of Earl Emerson because both lived in Seattle. (But according to Ford’s current publisher, Harper Collins, he now lives in Oregon.) I’ve read a few of Ford’s
Leo Waterman novels, which feature a fiesty private detective living and working in Seattle. Ford’s first published book, Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca? (1995) introduced the Waterman series and was nominated for three mystery awards. There are currently 11 Waterman novels, of which I’ve read only a few, but I have several more waiting on my Kindle.
Ford also writes the Frank Corso series, which is now up to six novels. In addition, he has published three stand-alone novels.
Like just about every other mystery fan, I loved Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. I usually preferred the audiobook format of these novels because I liked hearing a spoken version of Kinsey’s quirky voice.
Unfortunately, Sue Grafton died in December 2017, after the publication of “Y” is for Yesterday. She had planned to name the next book “Z” is for Zero, but complications from cancer treatment prevented her from doing much work on it. After she died, her family stated that, for them, “from now on, the alphabet ends with Y.”
I first read some of P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh series back in the early 1990s, although I didn’t read them in order. These novels use most of the classic mystery plot devices but rely on well-developed characters to hold the reader’s attention. Her Inspector Dalgliesh is an introspective, deeply moral character. The last of the 14 Dalgliesh novels, The Private Patient, was published in 2008. I hope to read the rest of this series.
James also wrote two novels featuring Cordelia Gray, a young private detective, and a few stand-alone novels, which you can read about on the author’s website.
P.D. James died on November 27, 2014.
I discovered Jonathan Kellerman’s series featuring clinical psychologist Alex Delaware back in 1992, with the fifth book in the series, Time Bomb. I’ve read eight of these books, but, as the series is now up to book #34, I have a lot more to look forward to. I have #10, The Web, on my Kindle now.
For more information about Jonathan Kellerman and his books, see his website.
Salvatore Albert Lombino (born in 1926) legally adopted the name Evan Hunter in 1952. For more than 50 years he was a prolific writer of fiction, screenplays, and television episodes but is probably best remembered for his fictional 87th Precinct series, 55 novels published under the pseudonym Ed McBain between 1956 and 2005. This series set the standard for what would develop into the genre of police procedural fiction.
The 87th Precinct novels are set in the fictional city of Isola, a thinly disguised version of New York City’s Manhattan. Although several characters appear in many of the novels, the focus is always on the squad as a whole rather than on individual detectives as they work to solve crimes.
In addition to crime fiction, Evan Hunter published science fiction and wrote many film and television scripts under several names before his death in 2005.
I also discovered Scottish crime writer Val McDermid on tape. She currently has four series going, but I’ve only read (or listened to) several from the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. This series features clinical psychologist Tony Hill working with detective Carol Jordan to solve crimes by getting inside the mind of the criminal. With the next installment of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, How the Dead Speak, due out in the U.S. on 12/3/2019, I have some catching up to do here.
I should also mention McDermid’s stand-alone novel A Place of Execution, which is so good I’ve read it twice.
Back in 2001 one of my book groups read Garnethill, Scottish writer Denise Mina’s first novel, which won the CWA John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel. Since then, I’ve been aware of Mina’s subsequent publications and the prominence they have brought her. According to just about everyone, her fame is well deserved, so I should try to catch up with her work.
Her complete publication list appears on her website, along with other information about the writer and her career.
I discovered Marcia Muller back in 1996, when I got interested in contemporary portrayals of female detectives. Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first novel in Muller’s Sharon McCone series, was published in 1977. McCone therefore preceded both Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, both of whom were introduced in 1982 (Milhone in “A” Is for Alibi and Warshawski in Indemnity Only).
Back in 1996 I read the first two Sharon McCone novels. According to Goodread’s Sharon McCone page the series is now up to more than 30 books, with the most recent, The Breakers, having been published in 2018.
Along with Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky revolutionized the portrayal of women detectives with her V.I. Warshawski series.
I’ve read several of those novels, but by no means all. Paretsky lives in Chicago and is an outspoken critic of efforts to silence women’s voices and to take away their rights. More information about both her fiction and her nonfiction is available on her website.
Ann B. Ross
I discovered Ross’s Miss Julia series back in 2000 when my library book group read the first novel, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind. Miss Julia is a Southern widow of a certain age, with a sharp tongue and crazy friends. I should read more of these books now that I myself have attained a certain age.
More information is available on the author’s website.
When I realized that I hadn’t heard anything about Walters, including any new publications, I went looking and found this article in The Guardian dated May 8, 2017. According to the article, Walters helped create the genre we now know as the psychological thriller with “an unbroken run of bestsellers from 1993 [that] ended abruptly in 2007 with her last crime novel, The Chameleon’s Shadow.” Walters attributes this long break to burnout over writing crime fiction. The article heralds Walters’s shift to historical fiction with the publication (in November 2017) of her first novel in 10 years, The Last Hours, about the Black Death.
I love to innovate and, while it pleases me greatly that I’ve helped create the genre of psychological crime fiction, I’d be going against my nature if I didn’t look towards different horizons.
A look at my reading database and Minette Walters’s website reveals that I’ve read the first seven of her novels, so I have many more—including a few of her early psychological suspense and several more recent pubications—to look forward to.
I particularly recommend her first novel, The Ice House, and her third, The Scold’s Bridle.
I discovered the Alan Gregory series by Stephen White back in the early days of books on tape. I listened to the first eight books in this series featuring clinical psychologist Alan Gregory but then lost touch with the series as technology changed and books on cassettes transitioned to audiobooks for download. Finding book #9, The Program (2008), recently on sale as an ebook reminded me of this excellent series.
A recent check of Stephen White’s website revealed that his latest novel, Compound Fractures, is the 20th and final installment of the Alan Gregory series. But White assures his fans that he can’t imagine himself not writing. He’s currently working on the development of two television dramas and has several ideas for novels bouncing around in his head.
I don’t remember exactly what lead me to author Stuart Woods, but I know I discovered him back in those heady days of books on cassette tapes. I have first-hand knowledge of four of his series:
After Chiefs, I started reading Woods’s series featuring former NYPD detective now turned lawyer Stone Barrington. I began with the first novel in this series, New York Dead (1991). I read several more of the books in the series but eventually stopped because the stories became progressively more and more outlandish and just plain silly.
I’ve read only the first book, Santa Fe Rules, in this series featuring New Mexico lawyer Ed Eagle.
4. Holly Barker series
I’ve also read only the first book, Orchid Beach, in this series.
Woods also has three more series, which you can read about in Liberty Hardy’s article A Definitive Guide to All of Stuart Woods’ Series. But the Stone Barrington series, now at more than 50 books, is obviously the author’s baby. The other series are all much shorter, and many of their main characters appear at least tangentially across more than one series.
Stuart Woods has also written several stand-alone novels, of which I’ve enjoyed several. For more information, including a downloadable PDF checklist of all Woods’s books listed by series, see his website.
Content Warning: This piece discusses recent sexual assault headlines.
I want to be as frank with you as is possible: it is increasingly hard for me to find joy or purpose in reading lately, specifically novels. I find myself asking, why read fiction at all when the world is falling apart around me?
D.R. Baker, “a transgender, nonbinary person,” continues to grapple with this question as the distressing headlines continue to pile up.
Because I was born, and spent the first 19 years of my life, in Connecticut, here’s a literary tour of significant places in and around the state’s capital of Hartford. Featured writers include “Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wallace Stevens, and more.”
Bestseller lists and book recommendations of best books to read abound, but in this piece Kelly Jensen discusses the Panorama Project, which “looks at the books most frequently requested at libraries across the U.S. and breaks down the popularity by region.” This project can produce a glimpse below all the big, popular titles for “a more micro level look at books which are popular by specific areas of the country.”
The result is lists of fiction and nonfiction for both adults and YA readers exclusive of “well known bestsellers, book club selections and other heavily promoted titles.” Look here for suggestions of books your regional neighbors are checking out from their local libraries.
the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and the “sensation” fiction she pioneered, left an imprint on literature that remains today.
At age 17 Braddon began acting “in everything from comedies to burlesques to Shakespeare.” This background in theater gave her a sense of story and plot that allowed her to turn to writing novels for the masses, books that “earned [her] a reputation as a writer with a knack for presenting the more scandalous side of the upper classes.”
Welcome to solarpunk, a new genre within science fiction that is a reaction against the perceived pessimism of present-day sci-fi and hopes to bring optimistic stories about the future with the aim of encouraging people to change the present. The first book that explicitly identified as solarpunk was Solarpunk: Histórias ecológicas e fantásticas em um mundo sustentável (Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastic Stories in a Sustainable World), a Brazilian book published in 2012. In 2014, author Adam Flynn wrote Solarpunk: Notes Toward a Manifesto.
Tom Cassauwers reports that this new genre began to take off in 2017.
Colm Tóibín recently revived the age-old, snobbish distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction by declaring “I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing.”
Mikaella Clements writes about her enjoyment of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, published in 1963 and set in 1933, which she describes as “alarmingly modern”:
Though its politics are deeply rooted in the 1930s—the novel addresses the idea of the New Woman, the optimism of socialism before WWII and the Eastern Bloc, and the rise of fascism—it is as much about the feminist movement of the 60s and the pitfalls of cultural movements that posit themselves as revolutionary and instead find new ways to minimize, cage, and hurt women.
Novelist Laura Lippman discusses Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, “which I have re-read every year for almost 35 years.” She calls it “a unicorn of a book—a so-called women’s novel, written by a man, that takes its heroine very seriously.”
Lippman says that she doesn’t know whether Marjorie Morningstar is a great book. “But it is a serious book that finds a big, sprawling story in what seems like a small, narrow life. More novels, even crime novels, should dare to do the same.”
When we hear the word “noir,” our minds flash to black-and-white movies driven by hard-boiled, big-city detectives. But in the 21st century, a new genre of crime fiction has risen from the swamps, mountains, and suburbs of the South. Norris Eppes interviews seven rural noir masters to make sense of a thrilling literary genre that rings true to our region.
The authors interviewed here are Brian Panowich, Ace Atkins, Karin Slaughter, Attica Locke, Tom Franklin, James Sallis, and John Hart.
June is World Refugee Awareness Month. To bring insight into the diverse experiences of refugees, we’ve rounded up some of the best books by and about refugees. Whether you’re interested in reading a memoir, a reported work of nonfiction, a novel, or sharing a story with a young reader, there’s a book here for everyone. Read on, and enjoy some deep conversations inspired by these thought-provoking books.
When I posted about The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, I wondered how many people actually engage with the text of mysteries or thrillers instead of just skimming to find out how the story ends. Michaelides leads the reader along so scintillatingly that a large part of the pleasure of reading this novel lies in recognizing the significance of its stylistic details.
A good example of how this process works occurs early in the novel, when first-person narrator Theo Faber joins his wife, Kathy, an actress, at a bar: “I went to meet Kathy at the National Theatre café on the South Bank, where the performers would often congregate after rehearsal” (p. 45). Kathy is telling “a couple of fellow actresses” the story of how she and Theo met. “It was a story she enjoyed telling,” says Theo.
Kathy begins her story of the night she was at a bar with a guy she wasn’t really interested in “‘when suddenly it happened—Mr. Right walked in.’ Kathy looked at me and smiled and rolled her eyes. ‘With his girlfriend’” (p. 46).
“This part of the story needed careful handling to retain her audience’s sympathy,” Theo tells us.
Notice what is actually going on here. Kathy, an actress, is performing for her acting friends. This is a well rehearsed story that she enjoys telling with melodramatic effect.
Theo’s narrative of Kathy’s performance continues: “No, but . . . darling . . . seriously, it was love at first sight. Wasn’t it?” Kathy asks, turning to Theo.
“This was my cue,” Theo says. “I nodded and kissed her cheek. ‘Of course it was. True love.’”
Once again, notice what is actually going on here. Kathy is performing, but so is Theo. They have obviously told this story together several times. The statement “This was my cue” lets us know that he is in on the performance.
So Theo, like Kathy, is a performer. Maybe the entire narrative he’s telling in this book is a performance, too.
Theo’s story of coming upon Kathy telling her friends how they met ends, but he continues with his own memory of what happened later that night. Theo tells us that he and Kathy went back to his apartment and made love all night:
I remember so much white everywhere: white sunlight creeping around the edges of the curtains, white walls, white bedsheets; the whites of her eyes, her teeth, her skin I’d never known that skin could be so luminous, so translucent: ivory white with occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface, like threads of color in white marble. She was a statue; a Geek goddess come to life in my hands. (p. 48)
It’s a dreamily descriptive passage. And it echoes something Theo has earlier described for us, the self-portrait she labeled Alcestis that Alicia painted in her studio while at home, under house arrest, awaiting trial. Here’s Theo’s description of the painting:
The painting is a self-portrait, depicting Alicia in her studio at home in the days after the murder, standing before an easel and a canvas, holding a paintbrush. She is naked. Her body is rendered in unsparing detail: strands of long red hair falling across bony shoulders, blue veins visible beneath translucent skin. . . . She is captured in the act of painting—yet the canvas is blank, as is her expression. (p. 9)
The whiteness of this mostly blank canvas mirrors the “so much white everywhere” of his description of making love with Kathy. Kathy’s skin is luminous, while the skin of Alicia’s self-portrain is translucent. Kathy’s skin reveals “occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface,” while the painting portrays “blue veins visible beneath translucent skin.”
By means of these descriptive echoes, Michaelides demonstrates that, from very early on in the narrative, Kathy and Alicia are associated in Theo’s mind. The two women are similar in another was as well: Kathy is an actress, and Alicia gives herself the name of a character in an ancient Greek play
The metaphors of drama and acting run throughout the novel. Such thematic and verbal repetitions reinforce and drive the meaning of Theo’s narrative.
As the tension builds and the novel nears its end, Theo’s narrative becomes surrealistically chaotic, with no clear timeline and no smooth transitions from one place to another or from one grouping of characters to another. Chapters tumble one after the other toward the inevitable ending. But like the earlier examples, such stylistic significance is easy to miss if one is skimming rather than reading closely.