This guest post comes to us from Joan Silber. Joan Silber’s most recent book is the novel, The Size of the World, described as “magnificent fiction” by Publishers’ Weekly. She is the author of Ideas of Heaven, Finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, and four other works of fiction, including Household Words, winner of the Hemingway Award. Her work appears in the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories and in The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and has been in The New Yorker. You can click here to learn more about The Size of the World.I’m addicted to travel – particularly to Asia – and once I’ve decided where to go, the next question is: what to read? What I look for first is fiction by the country’s writers. A traveler is always gazing at the windows of houses, wondering what’s going on inside – I think of fiction as giving me a way in.Anyone going to Japan, India, and China has lots of novels to choose from – to Thailand and Indonesia, far fewer (Vietnam is somewhere in the middle, and Laos is off the map). This has to do with translators, money, and markets. But something can always be found.Family life unfolds in novels. For Thailand, I loved Letters from Thailand, by Botan (she only uses one name). It’s actually a portrait of a Chinese family in Thailand, but it gives a full sense of how group ties work in Bangkok. For Japan, my longtime favorite is The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, an Austen-like portrayal of a family’s trouble marrying off a middle sister; the social rules kept surprising me, until I came to see that the family itself (in the 1930s) is unclear about the rules. Japan is quite different now, but the book gave me a different angle on rigidities.In Laos, I was thrilled when I found, in a tiny museum shop in Vientiane, a booklet of Lao Folktales: Tales of Turtles, Tigers and Toads, collected by Steve Epstein. In one of them, three adventurous flies leave home to storm the king’s plate of chicken, only to be chased by fearsome guards with fly swatters – the flies escape with new appreciation for their humble home. The joke about wry resignation in this seemed quite Lao to me later.Often, I can’t help wanting the locals to see I’m hip enough to have a book by one of their writers. On a quiet beach in Lombok, the Indonesian island just east of Bali, I showed a woman vendor I was reading a novel by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a famous writer who was banned for many years. Oh, yes, she knew his work. I was so tickled by her familiarity (on an island with limited schools) that I flashed the book again the next day. Yes, yes, I know you have it, she said. Yesterday I saw.While reading intensifies my sense of place, it also fuses with what’s seen – I can’t always remember what I learned from observing and what I read. (Perhaps I am like that about everything.) During my stay, reading gives me the beautiful sensation that I’m an adept in whatever’s going on around me, just as reading sub-titles in a movie can convince me I know the language.I’m not above reading books by fellow foreigners, but I try to avoid those by travelers who only passed through (what do they know that I don’t?) in favor of writers who’ve spent real time in the place. The fabulous Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk was a great introduction to Kyoto, and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City cracked open Mumbai in ways I never, never could have gotten to myself.But what I really love is the past. I read composer Colin McPhee’s accounts of Balinese music in the 1930s, in his memoir A House in Bali, while hearing gamelan players rehearse next door to my hotel. Before I went to China, I read letters from a missionary wife in China Journal, 1889-1900, by Eva Jane Price, and began thinking about writing fiction that could draw on them. (This later became the title story in Ideas of Heaven, published by Norton in 2004). In Luoyang, a provincial city in central China, I met an older man in the square who asked if his students could practice English with me. He’d learned his very good English, it turned out, studying with missionaries from Oberlin College, direct descendants of the ones I’d read about. I was astonished – he himself thought everyone had heard of his teachers – and we corresponded for years afterward. It was very gratifying to me to send him the book, with its foil medallion saying Finalist National Book Award and thanks to him in the Acknowledgments.In Malaysia, I read Tales from the South China Seas, oral histories of the British in Malaya and Singapore, edited by Charles Allen, while taking the jungle railway up the spine of the peninsula. And these fed my next fictional project, a long narrative about Americans in southern Thailand in the 1920s. “Paradise,” as the tale came to be called, also relies greatly on a 1923 memoir, Impressions of the Siamese-Malayan Jungle, by a Swiss prospector named Hans Morgenthaler. “Paradise” is now a crucial section of my current novel, The Size of the World, just released by Norton. It’s a novel very much about travel, its pleasures and disturbances, and how history finds us.
When I was 16 or 17, it felt like Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather were my own personal discoveries. I had read through all of Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and T.C. Boyle after discovering their books and then working steadily through their bodies of work until there was nothing left to read. (And it’s amazing to think about how much time I had to read – time that I set aside for reading – back in those days.)Empty-handed, a self-taught reader as yet unaware of many literary greats, I turned to anthologies. They were plentiful at used bookstores and I was already enamored of the form thanks to the New Yorkers lying around the house and to my adolescent thoughts of becoming a writer. What I quickly realized is that these books could open me up to a new world (almost the whole world, really) of literature. Delightful little tomes like A Pocket Book of Short Stories packed an incredible punch, introducing me to the likes of Balzac, Chekhov, Ring Lardner, Somerset Maugham, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Cather – the table of contents is a chronicle of the weight of my discoveries. These discoveries would be made to seem mundane in college when I was instructed in the importance and context of these writers’ bodies of work, but discovering them first, in these beat up, little pocket paperbacks, bought for a dollar or two, was a revelation. Looking through all the tables of contents at the amazing, no frills “Miscellaneous Anthologies” site is like a walk down memory lane, not to mention an unparalleled catalog of the highlights of the form.I ended up collecting quite a few of these anthologies, which I suspect are still ferreted around my parents house, as I can’t seem to find any on my bookshelves now. As my reading horizons broadened, I saw that these anthologies were nearing extinction, brought on by the combined declining market fortunes of both short stories and the declining prevalence of pocket-sized (or mass market) editions of literary fiction.Nowadays, most short fiction anthologies you’ll see fall into three categories: academic (Norton, et al), yearly series (e.g. Best American and O. Henry Prize), and thematic. The latter two categories more and more have become known for the involvement of “celebrity” editors, typically big name authors who can grab a little press for the books. For example, Best American was edited by Stephen King in 2007 and Ann Patchett in 2006.Likewise, celebrity editors are at the helm of a pair of themed anthologies already released this year. Jeffrey Eugenides has put together My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. Of course, who’s ever seen a contemporary short story that plays out like a fairy tale? As Eugenides told NPR, “I started to realize that not only the love stories that I liked, but actually the love stories that everybody liked, had a certain bittersweet quality to them. The stories in this collection are by no means tragic, but in order to even get to a measure of happiness, the characters usually have to go through a lot of difficulty.” That sounds about right.The Book of Other People, Zadie Smith’s anthology effort, is even more “low concept” (not necessarily a bad thing) than Eugenides’s. We are told her only instruction to her contributors – which include the likes of David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, and a generous sampling of the McSweeney’s set – was to “make somebody up.” USA Today quips “just when you’re ready to howl in frustration at the anthologification of the book world – I’ve seen the best minds of my generation, live blogging about recipes that inspire them – along comes The Book of Other People,” but ultimately the verdict is that the book has flashes of goodness, as is echoed by the Washington Post: “Variety — in approach, style and, in some cases, quality — is certainly on display here.”At the very least, there’s much to applaud in the creativity of Eugenides and Smith in compiling these books, and, for that matter, in the yearly anthologies for insisting by their very existence that the year’s “best” short story is something that matters. However, the idea of carrying a varied compendium of literary goodness in one’s pocket appears to have gone by the wayside, consigned to the dusty shelves of second-hand shops. For those in the know, a treasure trove of short fiction is there for the taking.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy recommended by EdanYannick Murphy’s short story “In a Bear’s Eye,” from the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, stunned me with its beauty and strangeness, and led me to her new novel, which is just as lovely, and just as strange. Murphy’s Mata Hari tells her life story from a prison cell in Paris as she awaits trial for treason. The book fluidly moves from the Netherlands, to Indonesia, to various cities in Western Europe, switching points of view throughout, the language begging to be read aloud it’s so musical, so dream-like. This novel is erotic (oh lord, some parts left me breathless), sad, and fascinating. Check out Bat Segundo’s interview with Yannick Murphy for more.+ Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage) by Michael Ondaatje recommended by AndrewAfter cornet player Buddy Bolden suffered a mental breakdown during a parade through the streets of New Orleans about a hundred years ago and had to be put away, rumors began to swirl about his life. Michael Ondaatje’s first novel, from 1976, is a jazz riff on all the possibilities of Buddy Bolden. A work of fiction, the narrative line running through it involves his friend Webb’s search for Buddy after his sudden disappearance a few years before the breakdown, through the resurfacing, and then his final silencing on that fateful day at the parade.That’s the thread. But this short novel unfolds, or rather, explodes, like a scrapbook filled with bits and pieces of Buddy’s life. Interviews with his former lovers, with his friends and band-mates, with the denizens of the underbelly of New Orleans circa 1907. A poem here, a list of songs there, these fragments seem so haphazard, and yet these contextual glimpses all hang together, swirling around Buddy. And when the music ends, they leave you with a rich story of a jazzman who swung to his own rhythms.+ Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau recommended by GarthTexaco, by the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, won France’s Goncourt Prize in 1992. It has pretty much everything I look for in a novel: a sweeping plot, a great heroine, a rich setting (geographic and historical), an ingenious structure, and – especially – an exploration of the possibilities of language. In a resourceful translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Chamoiseau’s fusion of French and Creole seems positively Joycean. Recommended for fans of Faulkner, Morrison, and 100 Years of Solitude.+ My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony LoydRecommended by TimothyWar is not only hell, it’s also addictive, at least for British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who for severals years covered the conflict in Bosnia for The Times. In this honest and poetic personal account – no index of names and places – the young reporter breaks some of the traditional rules of journalism by taking sides in the multi-ethnic war and revealing how the high he gets from life on the battlefield is matched only by the high provided by heroin during the occasional trip back to London. “War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out but it never happens,” he writes. In the war zone, Loyd befriends civilians whose resilience is almost unfathomable. He also introduces us to modern-day mercenaries – not the highly organized and well-funded security details found in Iraq, but gritty thrill seekers from across Europe. These are fighters who don’t necessarily believe in a cause, unless that cause is war itself. The book is by no means a primer on the events that unfolded in Bosnia; it simply tells how in war some people get by and others die.+ Hellfire by Nick Tosches recommended by Patrick”The God of the Protestants delivered them under full sail to the shore of the debtors’ colony, fierce Welshmen seeking new life in a new land.” So begins the first chapter of the finest book ever written about rock and roll, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire. Not a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis? Hate rock and roll? Couldn’t possibly care less? Doesn’t matter. Tosches’ style – mock-biblical, profane, and wild – will amaze you:Old rhythms merged with new, and the ancient raw power of the country blues begat a fierce new creature in sharkskin britches, a creature delivered by the men, old and young, who wrought their wicked music, night after dark night, at Haney’s Big House and a hundred other places like it in the colored parts of a hundred other Deep South towns. The creature was to grow to great majesty, then be devoured by another, paler, new creature.+ Water Music by T.C. Boyle recommended by MaxI’ve read nearly all of Boyle’s books, but his first (and the first I read by him) remains my favorite. Boyle is now well-known for his mock histories that refigure the lives of prominent eccentrics. But if those books are sometimes held back by the inscrutability of their protagonists, Water Music sings on the back of Mungo Park, an 18th Century Scottish explorer who ventured deep into the heart of Africa, and Ned Rise, a thief from the gutters of London who meets him there. It’s part Dickens, part comic book, and, as one reviewer once put it, “delightfully shameless.”+ The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem recommended by EmreEmbedding Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, racial dynamics and the explosive 1970s at the heart of its narrative, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem delves into the white world of Dylan Ebdus in the black heart of a changing neighborhood. It is the story of a motherless white kid estranged from his father and “yoked” by his schoolmates. It is also the story of Dylan’s brilliant journey from solitude to friend of burned-out-soul-singer’s-son Mingus Rude, to neighborhood punk, to Camden College drug dealer, to San Francisco-based music reporter. The trip is outward bound, but the reader is given the benefit of also traveling through Dylan’s heart and mind – be it through a delicious sampling of the era’s music, fashion and city life, or through exploits with Mingus and a ring that gives them superpowers. Lethem paints a brilliant cultural portrait of the U.S. by presenting Dylan’s isolation, desire to fit in – somewhere, anywhere – and transformation to readers. And, for music junkies, there is the added bonus of identifying endless trivia.+ Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller recommended by EmilyStephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a smart yet approachable account of an art that most of us take for granted: the lively and friendly exchange of ideas among equals on topics lofty and commonplace, otherwise known as conversation. While Miller’s book is indeed a history – including different manifestations of conversation in the ancient world (the Spartans, for example, were known for their compressed, economical use of words and thus the word “laconic,” Miller tells us, comes from Laconia, the region surrounding and controlled by Sparta) – it focuses mainly on what Miller considers the heyday of conversation, eighteenth-century England, an age in which conversation was considered an art worthy of study and about which manuals and essays were written. Miller’s book – which he describes as an “essay – an informal attempt to clarify a subject, one that includes personal anecdotes” – is a nostalgic one, which views our own culture as averse to genuine intellectual and emotional exchange undertaken in a spirit of goodwill. We are either, he shows, too aggressive or too timid to converse about the opinions we seem to declare so boldly on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, and thereby we deny ourselves what the likes of Adam Smith, James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as a means of sharpening one’s intellect, polishing verbal expression, alleviating melancholy, and acquiring new knowledge. “Society and conversation” Miller quotes Adam Smith, “are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” A timely, thoughtful book and one not to miss.+ The Art of Fiction by John Gardner recommended by BenOnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, a friend told me that anyone who is serious about writing needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve since read the book a half dozen times and feel confident in amending the statement: “Anyone who is serious about reading needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.”Although Gardner is best known for Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view, The Art of Fiction, finds him at his most engaging. This is no mere how-to book. In simple, captivating prose, Gardner lays out his theory of writing, stopping along the way to add anecdotes about his own experiences as a novelist and commentary on works he admires. In the process, he thoroughly examines the structure of the modern novel, from plot to word choice. The first read changed the way I viewed both writing and reading, and I’ve come away from every encounter with new insight.If you only read one book about writing, this is the one.