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Joyce Carol Oates’s Book Bag

The American Gothic master’s new book of tales surveys America’s dark ripples. She picks her favorite short-story collections.

A novel is an entire world, a short story is a glimpse into a world. But in the very best short stories a glimpse can be a totally memorable experience—in fact, magical.The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks While Banks's ambitious novels are critiques of class in America, his short stories often take for their subject American masculinity, about which the writer is both enormously entertaining and relentless.

An Art House Book Bag

Alexander McCall Smith, the prolific author of the ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series, picks his favourite reads about the richness and secrets of the art world.

Besides being the creator of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, an author of more than 50 books (his novel The Importance of Being Seven from his “44 Scotland Street” series is out on paperback), an expert on bioethics and a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, Alexander McCall Smith is also a big art fan.

5 Underrated Crime Writers

Otto Penzler, proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, picks the authors he thinks should be more appreciated.

The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes By K.C. ConstantineThe creator of Mario Balzic etched a portrait of a dying town in the coal district of Pennsylvania that touches the soul. His blue-collar characters—protagonist, victim, killer, suspect—are all presented with empathetic humanity.

Vintage Summer Reads

Jeffrey Robinson, author of the new novel ‘Trump Tower,’ picks his favorite throwback beach reads where big characters lived big stories.

A common pursuit of old men is the rekindling of those days when life was yet to be conquered. The scent of the woman who lived up the stairs. The sound of the crowd at the end of that 90-yard run. The taste of tears when the train finally pulled away.

Books on the Writing Life

The suspense writer Thomas H. Cook picks his favorite works about what it is to be an author.
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On Becoming a Novelist By John GardnerI love a clarion call, so any writer who uncompromisingly declares that good suspense is about moral choices and consequences while bad suspense is about “just one damn thing after another,” has my ear.

5 Blasphemous Reads

Simon Rich, the author of the new novel ‘What in God’s Name,’ picks his favorite ungodly books, including Philip Roth and a lost gospel.

Goodbye, Columbus (1959) by Philip Roth “Conversion of the Jews,” Roth’s classic tale of Jewish hypocrisy, was recommended to me by my sixth-grade English teacher. The story undermined my entire Hebrew-school education and sucked all the pleasure out of my bar mitzvah.

Five Otherworldly Reads

Can’t get enough of London? Deborah Harkness’s yet-to-be-finished vampire-and-witches ‘All Souls Trilogy’ transports you to Elizabethan England. She picks her five favorite otherworldly reads.

Harkness, a historian of science at the University of Southern California, was researching at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library when she discovered an ancient book of spells. That discovery inspired her first novel, A Discovery of Witches, about a young scholar named Diana Bishop who accidentally opens a magical manuscript, which threatens an underworld war involving demons, witches, and vampires.

Maggie Shipstead’s Beach Reads

The debut novelist of ‘Seating Arrangements’ suggests bringing these books to your favorite seaside resort.

“Literary thinking relies upon literary memory, and the drama of recognition,” Harold Bloom once wrote. Maggie Shipstead’s first book, Seating Arrangements, can be read as a Harvard-tinted, golf-club obsessed WASP comedy about a wedding on an island off Cape Cod.

Kurt Andersen’s ’60s Book Bag

‘True Believers’ features a character haunted by her actions in the ‘60s—the author picks his favorites from the era.

All five of these books (except Mailer's) were written when their authors were in their mid-30s—old enough to write masterfully and have some grown-up distance on what was going on, but still just young enough to viscerally feel what was happening in real time.

Lincoln, Not a Vampire Hunter

The author of 'The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln' picks his favorite presidential thrillers—no, 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' did not make the list.

Presidents show up in a lot of thrillers—usually as victims of assassination attempts, nefarious or feckless plotters with their corporate buddies, or thoughtful approvers of wild but necessary schemes to stop the bad guys. I have limited my list to novels in which the president is central to the story, and, although many recent books are excellent candidates, I have chosen mainly from among the classics, tales that set the templates for many of the works that have followed.

5 Best ‘What If?’ Books

Karen Thompson Walker, the author of ‘The Age of Miracles,’ picks her favorite books that envision a world undergoing a great change.

I love books that envision some sort of alternate version of our world. For me, the key ingredient in these stories is a feeling of realism. I always want to feel as if I’m reading something true, no matter how imaginative the scenario is.

Food Writing To Make You Drool

The PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author Kate Christensen picks her favorite books about food.

The Kitchen Book and the Cook Book by Nicolas Freeling Freeling, a British crime writer, worked as a cook in restaurants and hotels in France and England for many years. This volume contains two short, lovely, memorable books: In The Kitchen Book, Freeling writes about his life in professional kitchens with understated, wry fluidity, conjuring a memorable group of characters with economy and wit.

Eagleton’s Favorite Criticism

After a distinguished career, the literary theorist goes back to the drawing board and poses the fundamental question, ‘What is literature?’ in a new philosophical work with a purposefully alchemic title, ‘The Event of Literature.’ He picks the works of literary criticism he’s cherished the most. Plus, more of our Book Bags, including from Hilary Mantel and H.W. Brands.

Literary criticism is unlikely to change the world, but every now and then it throws up a work of real intellectual stature. Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending is one such book, but here are five others:Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946) has a claim to being one of the most monumental works of criticism of the modern era.

How to Make Philosophy Fun

Professor and critic Carlin Romano picks his five favorite off-the-beaten path philosophy books.

Carlin Romano covers scores of philosophers and their extremely serious works in his new book, America the Philosophical. Here he notes five of his favorite idiosyncratic philosophy books—off the beaten path, but fun and illuminating.

James Fallows’s China Book Bag

‘China Airborne’ chronicles the country’s ambition to dominate the aerospace industry, and its author shares his five favorite China books.

Along with my wife and, when they were little, our children, I have spent several multiyear stretches living in Asian countries. Our longest stays have been in Japan, Malaysia, and most recently in China.The theme for my selection is “Outsiders in Asia.

About Book Bag

Need a book recommendation? We get asked all the time, but we've left the task to the experts: every week, great writers pick their favorite books and tell you why they are must-reads.

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