By Darlene Cah
Like all of the writers I know, I have a serious addiction to books, getting lost in the lives of characters that come to life on the page, immersing myself in their problems, their relationships, their exploits, their worlds. I’ll order two or three books, then I’ll get one of the many newsletters I subscribe to—Shelf Awareness, Barnes & Noble, Publishers Weekly, Harper Collins Publishers, Algonquin Books, Reading Group Center, Book Riot, and so on—where dozens of new titles entice me and, without fail, steal my heart.
I have friends who can blow through a book in a day or two. Me? I’m a slow reader. Time is a big issue, so often I multi-task. At work, I take a break and go for a walk and read, often ending up at the café—a natural habitat for readers and writers! Reading forces me to go to the gym. If I didn’t have a book, I’d be walking on the treadmill, and five minutes would feel like an hour. Another reason, I’m a slow reader is because I want to savor every word. And as writers, you know, not only are we reading for entertainment, but at the same time, we’re studying craft—the writer’s choice of point of view, how they create tension in the plot, how they handle dialogue, overall structure, character development and much more.
I want to be delighted by a writer’s choice of a particular word, or be surprised at where the story goes. If a character has an accent, I’ll hear all the dialogue in that regional dialect, even if the writer, wisely, doesn’t write in the accent. You don’t want to know how many times I had to renew Nora Webster at the library!
Here is a small sampling, among others, of the books I’ve read so far this year:
Everything I never Told You by Celeste Ng
This is a beautifully-written, multi-layered story of a family torn apart by their daughter’s disappearance and the discovery of her body in the lake near their house. No, no spoilers. The first line is: “Lydia is dead.” In the ensuing investigation, everything the remaining members of the Lee family held true is strained to the limit.
Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff
On the surface, this is the story of a marriage, of a couple who are madly, obsessively in love. Lotto and Mathilde are glamorous, larger than life. Over 24 years together, they rise from poverty to wealth and fame. A soap opera? Not on your life. Dig deeper, these are quirky characters who make unexpected choices, come from unusual circumstances, and in one stunning plot twist the world turns upside down. Groff’s prose is always refreshing. Some of her word choices seem to be characters in their own right, but not in a distracting or self-conscious way.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
What seems like a short, quiet novel with a simple premise, actually packs a powerful emotional punch. Told in first person point of view, Lucy Barton recalls a time when her estranged mother visited her during a lengthy hospital stay. Over the course of the visit, Strout slowly and deliciously takes us from the superficial, tentative relationship between mother and daughter, to gradually revealing the deep-seeded feelings and memories that bind them to each other, ultimately to their mutual yearning for love.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
This was a fun read, at times funny, at times dark—and who doesn’t love a large, wacky dysfunctional family, each sibling, with a lot to lose, counting on their share of an inheritance! The good news is free-spirited, creative Leo Plumb is out of rehab. Months earlier, a terrible car accident, thanks to his addiction to cocaine and booze, left a young woman passenger (not his wife!) an amputee. The bad news is his wealthy, cold-hearted mother, more concerned with the family name than any of her kids, uses the entire inheritance due all four of the siblings to quietly “take care of” Leo’s scandal.
I admire novelists, how they weave entwining plots, navigate a cast of characters for the long haul, taking their time to build a world, relationships, secrets, lies, conflict, mystery, drama…
My true love is the short story. I love the layered complexity, the compact structure, how every word bears great weight. So, of course, I read as many short stories as I can. I subscribe to One Story magazine, which is exactly what the title implies. You receive one short story about every three to four weeks. Among the dozens of stories I’ve read, here are a few recent ones that stood out:
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell
A harrowing, dark first person story narrated by a woman who’s had a stroke and can’t speak, however, in her mind she tells her daughter the secrets of her life.
When in the Dordogne by Lily King
An entertaining, but ultimately revealing coming of age story. The narrator recalls the adventurous summer his well-off parents go to France for his father’s health, and two college boys come to house sit and care for him.
Durga Sweets by Chitra Danerjee Divakaruni
In this story, the writer takes us backwards in time from 1995 to 1965 to reveal a heartbreaking tale of unrequited love. Told in third person, Bipin Bihari Ghatak is an accountant with a promising future, with an offer for a well-paying job when he answers an ad for a bookkeeper at a sweet shop and impulsively convinces the owner Sabitri to hire him.
Catacombs by Jason Zencka
Told in first person 35 years after a traumatic event, George tells of a family vacation to Acapulco. At age eight, he helps his precocious older brother, Winnie, who’s determined to lose his virginity, sneak away from their parents, and the safety of the hotel, into the city. Winnie never returns. Devastated and feeling guilty, George heads out in search of his brother.
And there are so many more!
What have you been reading? Please share. My must-read list is not long enough!