First off, let me just say, I love to read. I love getting lost in a good plot, or bizarre history, but I also love the language in books. Okay, in good books. How it’s like the author’s palm print is right on the page, each voice unique. I love getting into a really good read and relocating around the house, from bed to couch to deck to chair to tent, like a cat constantly trying out new locations and furniture. I haven’t got into reading anything of length off of a screen, too much do I cherish the heft of the physical book, the rustle of stiff pages.
That said, I’ve been busy lately. There hasn’t been a lot of time for reading, so I’ve turned to my old standby and multitasking secret weapon: The Book on Tape. Oh, yes. I’ve always liked, no, needed a book on tape for any long distance car-ride. But lately I’ve been doing all of this microscope work, picking out invertebrates from stream samples, sitting in a chair for hours at a time. Prime listening habitat.
Our local library has a stellar inter-library loan system, and more than once I’ve walked out of there with a bag of cds. A well-narrated story will get you through your commute, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, mending jeans, sprawling on the floor and staring into space, a walk, even a long bath.
Here are some of the best of the best of my latest listens and reads, in case you’re looking for a new book to start.
1) The Brothers K, by David James Duncan
I liked The River Why and pretty much anything DJD has written, because he is magic, but damn. This is a good, good book. In fact, it’s now in my top ten books of all time. Baseball, brothers, eastern versus western religion, Vietnam, toe-to-thumb replacement surgery, philosophy, pacifism, Russian novels, love, family, redemption, spitballs, and Lucky Strikes. Gorgeously rendered.
“It’s incredible to me how blithely even intelligent people sometimes toss around terms like “transcendence” and “crucifixion.” The words move us on paper. They feel noble upon the tongue. But when they cease to be sounds and begin to caress the flesh and bones, when they leave the page and get physical, there is little that even the best of us woudn’t do to escape them.”
2) Things That Are, by Amy Leach
Amy writes like no one else. She has this playful, unusual, even antiquated way with words, that she uses to paint the natural world in a lush, blundering, buzzing, blustery mess of flimflams and whizzlepops and color tones you’ve never heard of. You can listen to or read a couple of the essays in this collection on Orion’s website here and here. I mean she’s got one in there called “Radical Bears in the Forest Delicious,” and who wouldn’t want to read that? I also happen to know she is a very nice lady, vegetarian, and expert pianist.
3) The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
If you’re looking for a different kind of book about the war in Iraq, try this one. Fierce, poetic, and haunting, the narrative manages to be both sparse and grandiose in its anguish. Powers is a young veteran, and the book was a finalist for last year’s National Book Award.
4) The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
An old classic I wanted to re-read before the new movie came out (which, incidentally, I loved, critics be damned). It is interesting reading about such utterly careless people in this new age of Real Housewives and Kardashians.
5) This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
This is the first Diaz book I’ve picked up, and it won’t be the last. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award last year, and previously Diaz won the freakin’ Pulitzer for The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. He is from the DR, but grew up in Jersey, and this book is about the Dominican immigration experience, told through various perspectives in a series of vignettes. Most of them center around doomed or drowning relationships, running around with slutty sucias, messing your life up, and recovering, or not. I listened to this one and really appreciated Diaz’s dialect and intonations.
6) NW, by Zadie Smith
Fiction darling Smith writes through the eyes of four different characters in London’s dodgy NW district who shuffle, strut, suffer, and collide in poignant, sometimes funny, and often catastophic ways. The book subtlely tackles race, class, and gender issues with a sort of modernist anxiety that swings from passionate to listless in a series of rash decisions.
7) With or Without You, by Domenica Ruta
I sort of know Domenica. We were both residents for a month at ESPY’s residency program several years ago on the Washington coast. I remember her giving a reading about Medea. Now I can see had direct experience with her. I recently reviewed this stellar memoir for Bust Magazine, and found it compulsively readable, valiant, layered, heartbreaking, and brutally honest. “Denial and the desire to self-destruct are elemental cousins,” she writes; “mining one yields the other in equal proportion.” You see Domenica and her explosive, crazy mother at their best, and more often, at their drug-addled worst, and you’ve got to give the woman mad props for chewing off a limb to get away from a dangerously toxic family relationship.
8) Tiny Beautiful Things, and Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Wild is a great book, but you can read all about it on Oprah. But Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is even better, in my opinion. I cried long and often reading these letters and responses from The Rumpus’s old Dear Sugar advice column. I think I’ve probably given about a dozen copies away as gifts by now. It gutted me, and stitched me back up. It also gave me the greatest quote I’ve read in recent memory:
“The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love. And, Johnny, on this front, I think you have some work to do.”
9) The Fault is in Our Stars, by John Green
“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”
I picked up this book because I kept reading about it in all these different places, and because John Green is the brother of Hank, the host of the SciShow which I write for. Yeah, it’s about teenagers with terminal cancer. But its also about every good thing in life, too: love, hope, humor, bravery, risk…I don’t want to sound to Hallmarky here, but Green nailed it. He writes to young adults, not about them. He gets it. The story of Hazel and Augustus is one I’ll never forget.
10) What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell
Representing a little nonfiction, I will always recommend Gladwell, that astute investigator of the random and curious. I love how he can make any story interesting, like when plagarism is fuzzy, or how the dog whisperer operates, or why legendary Ron Popeil can sell the shit out of anything, even at 3am.
11) Among Others, by Jo Walton
This one is like a love-song syllabus to classic sci-fi and fantasy literature. It takes place in Wales in the late 1970s and reads as the diary entries of Mor, a teenage girl who recently lost her twin sister in a vague, potentially supernatural accident that also left her crippled. The book offers a very interesting take on magic in the modern world. It won the Nebula and Hugo awards.
12) All of the Song of Fire and Ice books, by George R.R. Martin
Yep. I’m on that bandwagon. Yep, he kills off your favorite characters left and right, but damn, this is a seriously epic story written with such insane details, plot twists, and genuine character development, I’d have to recommend it even to folks who usually stay away from books with swords on their covers. Hodor!