A Year in Reading: Martha Southgate

December 11, 2007 | 6 books mentioned 5 2 min read

Martha Southgate is the author of three novels, most recently, Third Girl From The Left. Her previous novel, The Fall of Rome, was named one of the best books of 2002 by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children and is at work on a new novel. You can find out more about her work at her website www.marthasouthgate.com.

I’m not calling these books the “best” of anything – good literature ain’t a horse race. But the following books are the ones that leapt to mind as the most exciting and pleasurable I read in 2007 – the ones I wanted to grab people and tell them about.

coverThe Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: I wrestled a bit with putting this one on because he’s getting much respect from all over the place. But it’s well-deserved. This book sprawls, it brawls, it doesn’t apologize, it enlightens and delights. A welcome return from a major talent.

coverHalfway House by Katharine Noel: Remember not wanting to put a book down? Sometimes I forget the simple pleasure of a book that is so beautifully crafted, so alive, that I simply can’t do anything else until I’m done reading it. This first novel reminded me of what a great feeling that is. I loved it so much that I emailed the author – that’s when I know it’s love.

coverCall Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman: A really, really, really sexy book that is also an impressive work of literature. If you’ve ever been young and desperate to get your hands on the object of your desire (and lucky enough to find that he or she can’t keep his or her hands off of you either), you’ll vibe to this love story.

coverThe Soul Thief by Charles Baxter. Full disclosure: I am lucky enough to count Charlie Baxter as a friend, which is how I came by an ARC of this novel, to be published by Pantheon in February 2008. But just ’cause he’s my bud doesn’t mean I don’t know a hell of a book when I read one. Both a meditation on identity and on the nature of love, The Soul Thief is sexy, funny, romantic (without being sentimental) and strange (in the best of ways). It’s both a return to Baxter’s deepest preoccupations as a writer and an exhilarating departure from them. We already know he’s one of our best fiction writers. Don’t miss this one when it comes out.

More from A Year in Reading 2007

is the author of numerous articles and essays and of four novels. Her latest, The Taste of Salt, will be published in September. You can find out more about her work at her website www.marthasouthgate.com.


  1. Surprising for her omission of "Man Gone Down" by Michael Thomas, probably my favorite novel of the year and one of the New York Times editors' 10 Best Books of 2007. Maybe she doesn't want to appear too biased because she mentioned it in her NY Times editorial last July.

    In last week's review of Faint Praise by Gail Pool, James Wolcott quotes Pool on the positive influence that book reviewers can have: "Their commentary influences not only literary standards but also cultural attitudes, helping to shape what we think about many issues and whether we think about certain issues at all."

    Man Gone Down received no publicity and was published only in paperback by Grove, so I think the NY Times editors made a good call in giving this book some well-deserved attention.

  2. Man Gone Down is an extremely fine novel but it wasn't one of my *very* favorites that I read in 2007. As I made clear in my initial comments, I used my level of immediate personal excitement in making this very idiosyncratic short list. This is not the "best" of anything.

    I'm a little disturbed by the use of the word "surprising" about its absence from my list for two reasons: first, because the piece I wrote for the NYTBR was a reported essay, not an editorial, in which I spoke to Morgan Entrekin, an editor from Grove (not Michael's editor) and made no particular mention of Man Gone Down except as a book they had published this year that was prominently reviewed in the NYTBR (which, as I pointed out, hadn't prominently reviewed a work of fiction by a black man in some time)

    Two: I hope, hope, hope this isn't true and it may be a bit of the racial discomfort/paranoia that comes with being a black person in America but I really hope that the commenter isn't surprised I didn't mention Thomas because he and I are the same race. This crossed my mind because…well, why isn't it "surprising" that none of the other posters (none of whom are black) mentioned it. All of our lists are idiosyncratic and highly personal. It would really sadden me if race is expected, by anyone, to be part of my criteria. It certainly isn't part of the critieria if you're not black.

  3. Regardless of what "Steve" intended with his comment, there is no paranoia in Martha's tentative response to his words. The fact remains that writers of color have been, and still are, marginalized and isolated into our own special sections of this literary world we work within and outside of. The mainstream voice of the dominant white male has begun to lose its edge in this diversifying world, and what can white writers do now but step into the world people of color inhabit, and how can they truly inhabit what isn't their world but in the one way they can, by creating and controlling the very forums we are allowed to speak in and through. Dave Eggers co-opted the story of a Sudanese man and called it an "autobiography" and failed to let this man's voice, his African voice, live through his own story. The fact that 100% of proceeds went to a non-profit seems to have dulled any real resistance to what Eggers actually has done in taking this story and this man's history and creating a "composite" and slapping the gimmicky "autobiography" title on the front and then letting his own imagination dictate what we know of this Sudanese man's story. Ask any African whether it is an African story and you will hear at best, confusion, and most likely a 'no', and therein lies the truth of what happened to this man's story.

    Martha, your hesitation to see what this comment by Steve represents is commendable, but we write in a world that cannot seem to see us outside of race. This is why you will have readings given by so-called progressive hosts that pair African-American writers together when it would be more daring, more in tune with the world we all interact and live in, if different races and varied voices were allowed to live and breathe and expand in the same space.

    I was once asked to take part in a reading organized by a writer who prided himself on his progressive politics. I found out he'd paired me with another African-American writer. (And it wasn't even Black History Month) I was unable to take part, it turned out, so declined the invitation. This host could not think outside the racially confining box he'd established for the night and asked ANOTHER African-American writer to read with the already scheduled headlining African-American writer. That second writer also respectfully declined. We will continue to be marginalized until we refuse to let our voices and words be co-opted and pigeonholed by the very same people who feel they're doing us a favor by giving us a forum. The fact is that after all these hip, gimmicky literary works have run their course, people, a la Eggers, will realize that they need to find a story to tell, that they've relied on slick mental somersaults and called it literature and they will look to us and our stories to give their words weight and heart, and my hope is that we will deny them this right to our stories and we will continue to fight for the right to speak and read alongside writers who balance and challenge and create a dialogue with our words, regardless of color.

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