Neuroses run rampant across three generations of the Middlestein family in Jami Attenberg’s sublime new novel, The Middlesteins.
See why Attenberg includes the families from the following books on her list:
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
- A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
- Townie by Andre Dubus, III
- Arcadia by Lauren Groff’
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
- Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
John J. Ross’s Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Great Writers is everything you need to know about the afflictions of history’s greatest writers. Ross (a doctor and writer) outlines a few of the maladies of the authors we love.
- The Brontës
- William Butler Yeats
- James Joyce
- George Orwell
Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2007 novel Middlesex won the Pulitizer Prize and was a favorite read at my book group. But Eugenides says that the writing of the novel did not always go smoothly. In 1999 he moved to Berlin with his wife and daughter, and his unfinished manuscript. The change of scenery helped for a while, but then the anxiety symptoms—chest constriction, irritability, paranoia—returned.
And then one night he had a dream:
All that happened in the dream was that an owl, descended out of nowhere, seized me in its talons and blew into my mouth a single breath tasting of blood. That’s it. The dream lasted no more than four or five seconds. But it was one of those dreams that seems somehow more real than a typical dream, as if it were playing out at a level just below my conscious mind, or as if it originated not from my mind at all but from a source outside of me.
The owl, by the way, was gigantic. And not particularly realistic. In fact, the bird was stylized in the manner of a Klimt, with lozenges of color running up and down its wings and over its breast, and a large helmeted ceremonial head. Its eyes were fierce, omnipotent, bright yellow. It fixed these eyes on mine. When the owl lowered its beak to my lips, I opened my mouth. And then the owl exhaled one long forceful breath. With a whooshing sound, my lungs inflated. This inspiration had a taste: the mineral, meaty flavor of a predatory diet.
I awoke from this dream feeling that a message had been delivered to me. The great Owl in the Sky had taken a personal interest in me and my book. The owl had come to give me the power to write it.
Ten years later, having moved back to New Jersey, Eugenides was struggling to finish the manuscript of his recent novel The Marriage Plot. And then one night, outside his window, he heard—you guessed it, an owl. The owl continued to return until Eugenides had finished the manuscript, then vanished.
What matters is that the experience—both of my dream owl and the living one outside my window—arrived at the point I needed it, and helped me persevere.
In the midst of my skeptical, cynical, often pessimistic nature exists a slender capacity to believe, if only temporarily, in a guiding, unseen power, and whenever this happens, I go with it. That’s what inspiration is. You don’t get it from the gods. You make it. The owl at my window was just a bird, after all, trying to get through the winter. The owl in my dream was my own creation. It was me, breathing into myself, in order to breathe out again in a flow of words.
What is it about lists of books that are so enticing? Can you list your top 50 favorites? Hans Weyandt, of Micawber’s Books in St. Paul, MN, challenged indie booksellers from all over the country to list theirs and posted them to the store’s blog, Mr. Micawber Enters The Internets (read his inaugural list and introduction to the project here). The series has gotten a lot of attention, and Weyandt recently compiled the lists and had them published in Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores, with an introduction by Ann Patchett.
Given here is the list submitted by Eowyn Ivey, owner of Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska, and author of the novel The Snow Child.
I’ve never even tried to compile a list of my 50 all-time favorite books. The closest I’ve come is my annual list of best books read that year.
How about you? Do you have a list of all-time favorites? Let us know in the comments what’s on—or would be on—your list. If we all start now, we might finish before the new year.
Pew Internet and American Life Project reports some good news on the status of reading by young people between the ages of 16 and 29:
More than eight in ten Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 read a book in the past year, and six in ten used their local public library. At the youngest end of the spectrum, high schoolers in their late teens (ages 16-17) and college-aged young adults (ages 18-24) are especially likely to have read a book or used the library in the past 12 months. And although their library usage patterns may often be influenced by the requirements of school assignments, their interest in the possibilities of mobile technology may also point the way toward opportunities of further engagement with libraries later in life.
According to our December 2011 national survey, Americans under age 30 are more likely than older adults to do reading of any sort (including books, magazines, journals, newspapers, and online content) for work or school, or to satisfy their own curiosity on a topic. About eight in ten say they read for these professional or educational reasons, more than older age groups. And about three-quarters of younger Americans say they read for pleasure or to keep up with current events.
Here’s a list by Scotland’s own Edd McCracken:
- The Eagle and Child – Oxford, England
- Vesuvio – San Francisco, USA
- Cerveceria Alemana – Madrid, Spain
- The Oxford Bar – Edinburgh, Scotland
- La Closerie des Lilas – Paris, France
- Toners – Dublin, Ireland
- The White Horse Tavern – New York City, USA
- Newman Arms – London, England
Be sure to check out McCracken’s notes on each, as well as the photos.
Two for Halloween
Finally, here are two entries to get you into the Halloween spirit:
Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn interviews Otto Penzler about his 833-page collection of 79 creepy, unsettling and suspenseful supernatural tales, The Big Book of Ghost Stories (Vintage, $25).
A list by Meredith Borders over on LitReactor.
I’ve actually read six of these, with a seventh near the top of my to-be-read-next stack of books. How many have you read?