What is an unreliable narrator? Asking that question, or hearing someone else ask it, always activates my contrary streak (which is sizeable enough that some might say it constitutes almost my whole personality!) In many of the best novels I’ve read that feature unreliable narrators, their unreliability—for which some readers condemn them—is a much-needed defense against the other characters in the book, who are often reliably repellent.
Obviously, I know everything there is to know about marriage. Who else but a self-appointed expert would commit the hubris of writing a novel like You Should Have Known, in which a marriage counselor has, to put it bluntly, no idea what’s going on in her own 18-year marriage, nor even, really, the first thing about her husband? And then there’s the fact that I’ve actually made it to my own Silver Anniversary and beyond (26 years and 7 months of marriage, not that I’m keeping track).
Our culture is packed full at the moment with aspirational domesticity––home improvement television shows, inside peeks at celebrity houses, a general collective madness for expensive mid-century sofas and artisanal hand-woven rugs and organic wallpaper.
The Murder of Charles the Good, Count of Flanders By Galbert of BrugesThis is the earliest surviving journal of its kind, about a brutal assassination and its causes and consequences. In 1127, Charles the Good was attacked in church by the rival Erembald family, who sliced their victim up with swords while he was at prayer.
I am a man. A fact I don’t take for granted, by the way—as I was not born a man. But you know what? It turns out nobody else is born a man either. Sure, roughly half of us humans are born male—but only a fraction of that fraction actually grow into men.
One of my favorite things to do on a lazy weekend morning is to wake up, make a press of coffee, grab a bunch of cookbooks from the kitchen and get back in bed with both. John likes to go through a stack of cookbooks as much as I do although he probably has three times as many as I do.
Considering that I have no personal experience of either selling it or paying for it, I’ve been oddly preoccupied (as both reader and writer) with prostitution all my life. For me it’s the ur-job, the original trade, the one that stands for all the other bargains in which we rent out our time or energy.
Hugging the Shore by John Updike. For 20 months, between marriages, John Updike lived alone in Boston, “my foam-rubber reading chair three paces from my dining table and two paces from my bed.” Hugging the Shore, Updike’s fourth collection of assorted prose, grew out of this period, and shows what marvelous things can be done with readerly solitude.
We range widely, we readers of fiction, but I think we all need a home. Mine is science fiction. It’s my home shelf, my homeland, my home planet, my essential genre. Without science fiction, without the influence these books have had on me over the years, I'm not sure I would care much about reading or writing today.
1. Goodbye to a River by John Graves (Also anything else by John Graves.) A magnificent natural history of a place, a classic down-the-river narrative in which Graves and his dog float on a section of a river about to be buried by a dam.
1. The Nature of Prejudice by Gordon W. Allport. The classic about prejudice that was the gold standard when published and remains so today. A comprehensive survey of the issues and brimming with insight. 2. Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson.
The world of young adult fiction is a bridge to adult fiction and a world entirely unto itself. My taste in YA works was highly influenced by growing up with seven sisters—six of them dominatingly older than me—mixed with a dash of the swashbuckling masculinity that comes from being sent off to English boarding schools from the age of 7.
Prime of Miss Jean Brodie By Muriel Spark“Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” For any writer tackling the theme of dangerous mentors, it begins with Spark’s novel, and so it was for me. For the six pupils under the tutelage of the seductive, witty and poisonous Miss Brodie in 1930s Edinburgh, the risks extend well beyond the classroom, culminating in disillusionment and ultimately betrayal for some and far worse for her most devoted disciple, the lamentable Mary Macgregor.
The American West as Living Space By Wallace StegnerOnce when I asked a prominent historian what he thought of the many writings by Stegner, novelist and English-department star at Harvard and Stanford, about the background and the West, he didn’t hesitate: “He hits the nail on the head every time, damn him.
The Morning of the Poem (1980) By James SchuylerSchuyler, a New York School poet, is less famous than his friends John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, but his poetry, like theirs, is funny, ribald, noisy, erudite, and hospitable to every tangent and whim.
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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