From Our Staff | September 04, 2008

Welcome to a brand new feature of our blog, our List of the Week. This week, our staff would like to share some of the books they read over the summer of 2008. We welcome our readers’ own recommendations and reactions in the comments below!

Cover for Joan Acocella1. Joan Acocella, 28 artists and two Saints

Joan Acocella’s collection features essays about writers, dancers, and saints which were originally published in the New Yorker over the last few years.  Most of the writers are “writers’ writers” such as Maqrguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, and Dorothy Parker, and thus may be more interesting to litterateurs than to general readers.  Some of the essays were originally written as book reviews, for example “The Frog and the Crocodile,” which reviews A Transatlantic Love Affair, a book of letters from Simone de Beauvoir to Nelson Algren that she wrote in the late 40s and early 50s.  De Beauvoir of course had fallen in love as a young woman with Jean-Paul Sartre, and over the rest of her life — even during her relatively brief affair with Algren — remained a virtual slave to the priest of existentialism. Her affair with Algren affected the writing of The Second Sex, the book that marked the beginning of the modern women’s movement.  Acocella can be both amused and empathetic as she describes this woman who was at once a prophet of women’s liberation and at the same time enchained to Sartre, whose life was a boil of drink, amphetamine-taking and chasing girls, even after he went blind.  Her letters to Algren are particularly entertaining in their depiction of the chaotic and sometimes silly life on the Left Bank, where the postwar intellectuals of France were dancing their delicate dance between capitalism and communism.


In all, Acocella’s collection is highly readable and leads one to want to learn more about writers like Joseph Roth and Italo Svevo and dancers like Jerome Robbins.           –Speer Morgan


2. Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival

I got turned onto Frank Bidart by my thesis advisor, Liz Arnold, who was always trying to get us to imagine a new music beyond the iamb.  I still don’t know if it’s possible, but I do know that I am in awe of Bidart’s musicality-here is just the first part of the first two lines:  “Intricate to celebrate still-delicate/ raw spring…”  I read this and it’s like I’m hearing violinists when they hold their bows and pluck the strings-internal rhymes, plosives, unexpected stresses!  To me, Bidart’s use of words has the purposefulness of placing notes.  My mother bought this book at Grolier’s Books in Cambridge, where the bookseller told me his favorite in the book is “To the Republic”-a great pick.  Like Bidart’s other books, this one delivers re-imaginings of historical events and performances; it gives unflinching gravitas, a little shock, and mind-shifting insights that come from his steady look into the dark-depths of human motives, or into what betrays our hope to be good.  This book will absorb you!         –Katy Didden


3. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

My favorite novel of the summer was Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The novel’s setting is Sitka, Alaska, and homeland to displaced World War II Jews-an alternate history in the tradition of a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. It’s also a murder mystery. This novel brings to mind another literary genre-bender, Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. (I confess, I’ve been a science fiction fan ever since I read L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time as a kid.) Other science fiction fans also found The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to their liking, recently bestowing it the Hugo award [], science fiction’s highest honor.          –Richard Sowienski


4. Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

A memoir/travel journal/extended spiritual meditation. This is an easy, enjoyable read that I treated myself to this summer after taking my PhD comprehensive exam. The structure is well thought out — three sections for three countries: Italy, India, and Indonesia, and 108 brief writings divided equally among her experiences in each country. I loved Italy. It’s obvious she suffered tremendously during and after her divorce, and it was a privilege to accompany her as she ate and savored her way through Italy. India was intense, but rightfully so — it’s the most inward-seeking section of the book as she shares with the reader her deepest spiritual struggles. The Indonesia section wasn’t as strong as the other two. Here, the structure of the book might have forced her to focus on a part of her travels that didn’t need so much space. Much of her suffering has passed by the time she gets to Bali, and unfortunately, what makes for a good story is the pain. Of course I’m happy that she’s happy, but for the sake of the book, the happy ending went on a bit too long. Highly recommended.          –Lania Knight

5. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

I actually experienced Blink as an audiobook (it’s available at, read by the author. Blink is just the right kind of audiobook for those commuting/exercising/dog-walking parts of the day; it is the kind of popular science writing that is engaging without requiring deep concentration, anchoring discursive chunks within entertaining narrative anecdotes. The subtitle makes Blink sound like a terrible self-help book, but the premise is far more compelling. Gladwell explores the idea that our brains and powers of perception are structured to make optimal snap judgments, extrapolating from tiny, specific, and often subconciously perceived details. Gladwell spends about half the book describing research (in the form of those winning little anecdotes) that shows how the powers of intuition can in an instant reach better conclusions than can long, logical reasoning processes. Then, for the second half of the book, Gladwell looks at the ways in which this same intuitive faculty can go wrong and deceive us.

Though its prime audience would seem to be “decision-makers,” Blink is actually quite an interesting read for creative writers. Not only does it explore some aspects of intution that are clearly part of the creative process, it also reinforces how much readers rely upon little details and subtle cues to draw quite large conclusions about characters and situations. Gladwell ultimately provides one of the best arguments for using immersive concrete detail in your writing that I’ve encountered.         –Patrick Lane


6. Cormac McCarthy, The Road

I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I picked up because I was curious to read something by the author whose novel No Country for Old Men was turned into an Oscar-winning film last year.  Its tone is relentlessly bleak, but with an undercurrent of hope, following a father and son who are trekking across America after something has happened to destroy civilization as we know it.  What this “something” was is never explained, nor does it seem that the novel is interested in how the world destroyed itself, but is instead focused on the father and son and their desperate need to survive and keep their humanity in a world in which hunger has trumped morality.  The book asks whether the father would have been more inclined to lose his humanity if not for his son, who is constantly questioning the decisions that his father makes, particularly when they seem callous.  While the book can sometimes feel “heavy” — despite McCarthy’s spare style — especially with scenes that involve little more than the father scouting out houses, taking inventory of their contents, the father-son relationship keeps the story moving.  All of these little inventories are about love, we come to realize, about trying to sustain what you care for.    The Road is soon to be a movie starring Viggo Mortenson.  While Mortenson seems well-cast, I’m curious as to whether the book will translate to the screen as well as No Country for Old Men, given that it is so bleak, and its beat-to-beat action not as dramatic.          –Darren Pine


7. Alan Moore (author) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator), Watchmen

A very close friend of mine grew out his hair and beard over the summer, and by the middle of August his appearance had devolved into that of a caveman or bridge troll.  He had become more hair than man.

“You look like Alan Moore,” I finally told him.

He tugged at his kinky beard.  “Exactly,” he smiled. 

Alan Moore has become an icon, “an eccentric genius,” whose comics and graphic novels (such as V for Vendetta, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and so forth) have all become award-winning critical darlings and popular successes.

So having read so much Alan Moore over the years, why did I neglect to read Watchmen, his most acclaimed work of fiction, until this very summer?  I saw Watchmen on my friends’ bookshelves and coffee tables and in their opium dens, propping up uneven candelabra.

I had read nothing but rave reviews about Watchmen.  I was aware that it had won countless awards and was selected as one of Time’s “100 Best Novels” in 2005.

And yet I never read it until this summer. Such things have a way of slipping through the cracks, I suppose.  Perhaps I avoided Watchmen much like I continue to avoid Moby Dick, daunted and slightly turned off by its reputation.

Given the hype, given the high expectations, I was afraid that I’d be let down.

As it happened,  I cracked open Watchmen on a Sunday morning, read the first line — “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach” — and I couldn’t put it down until I had finished reading the entire fair-sized graphic novel through to the very end.

I was driven by the page-turning plot.  I was stunned by the complex psychological profiles.  I let my eyes linger over Dave Gibbons’ illustrations.  I was haunted by the perennial and contemporary themes of war and the threat of global annihilation at human hands.

All this from a book about superheroes, or “costumed adventurers,” as they’re more accurately known in the text.

Before I sat down to read Watchmen, my caveman-like friend said to me: “Oh, you’ll love it. Alan Moore is like the James Joyce of the graphic novel.  Watchmen is like his Ulysses.”

My friend is wrong on this point.  Perhaps the sheer literary audacity and, yes, pretension that permeates Watchmen can be likened to Joyce (after all, Watchmen does quote Nietzsche), but Moore’s intricate style of storytelling and voluminous characterization reads much more like Charles Dickens.

[NOTE: If anyone deserves of the moniker, “the James Joyce of the graphic novel,” then it’s Chris Ware.  Indeed, Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth can be considered his Ulysses.]

There is a revealing similarity between Moore and Dickens.  One must recall that all of Dickens’ novels were originally published in serial installments.  In a similar fashion, Watchmen was originally published by DC Comics as a monthly limited series from 1986 to 1987.  Only later was it republished as a trade paperback or “graphic novel.”

I am hesitant to reveal anything about the plot or characters in Watchmen for fear of spoiling it for others.  All I can say is: Drop everything and go read Watchmen.  Don’t wait for the movie to come out next year.  Read it first.  Because despite Hollywood’s increasing success with transferring comic books to the big screen (think Iron Man and The Dark Knight), the film medium has yet to effectively capture Alan Moore (V for Vendetta was simply average and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman was simply terrible).

In final, I do not believe that comic books or graphic novels need to be defended any longer for their abilities to penetrate the “adult intellect.”  Such a debate is old hat.  It should be accepted by now that graphic novels can deliver a poignant story with riveting characters immersed in themes both “literary” and “timeless.”          –Eric A. Thomas 

8. Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

This summer, I succumbed to my mother’s insistence and read a Jodi Picoult novel, My Sister’s Keeper. I’d heard of Picoult’s work before; her practice of taking hot contemporary topics — school shootings, Catholic sex scandals, teenage pregnancy, suicide pacts — has drawn the attention of readers across the nation, and several of her books have topped the bestseller’s list. For this reason I was skeptical when I first picked up her book. Her whole process seemed like a recipe to me, a gimmick that somehow worked over and over again: take a current issue, a pinch of characterization, throw in some different points-of-view, stir in a surprise ending, and let it boil. Just listing the topics of her sixteen novels will make you realize how improbable her whole operation is. How could an author possibly continue spinning big issues into fiction and still wow her readers? Aren’t they tired of this trick yet?

My Sister’s Keeper features a 13-year-old girl genetically engineered to be a donor for her leukemia-stricken sister — certainly another hot political issue. Yet as I read the novel, I couldn’t help but get invested in the characters. In the end, Picoult somehow manages to make their experiences the heart of the story, instead of letting the politics take over. There is a warmth and realism to the protagonist, Anna, and Picoult never lets her become more than she is: a confused teenager struggling to assert her individuality. I enjoyed the book, but I still wish that Picoult would branch out from her method of brainstorming plots — partly because I think she would fare well elsewhere, given her talent for characterization, and partly because I know there are stories with emotional and intellectual weight that she could tell without relying on these hot topics.          –Brittany Barr


9. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration 

The most challenging book I read this summer (and this year, for that matter), is Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, the first part of his effort to bridge, in writing, the gap between numerous recent portrayals of the historical Jesus and the divine son of God who is the foundation of Christianity.  The Pope’s thesis is not complicated: he acknowledges that Jesus the man lived in history and that a historical approach to understanding his ministry is valuable, but, he says, that’s not enough.  What gets lost in the many historical readings of Jesus is that he was in communion with God, a communion that was his essence, “the true center of his personality.”  It is not possible to make sense of Jesus, says Ratzinger, unless one understands that he was God and that his chief work — really, his only work — was to bring God to humanity.  So far, things seem clear.  But what does that mean, to bring God?  In ten chapters that address ten critical aspects of Jesus’ ministry, the Pope does not so much elucidate as provide glimmers of what that means — or just as likely, my limited theological knowledge makes the illumination seem like glimmers.  I found myself fascinated, nevertheless, by almost every insight, from his exegesis of the Lord’s Prayer (which includes a discussion of why in the words “Our Father” there is no corresponding feminine implication of the maternal) to his readings of several major parables.  Literary type that I am, I was very interested in his argument for reading the parables on a level that goes beyond the generally understood allegorical correspondences.  The parables, he says, are revelatory of the mystery of the Cross and must be read that way.  Here, at least, I was on comfortable ground, and I found the light shed by Ratzinger’s interpretation to be consistent, welcoming and truly profound.          –Evelyn Somers


10. Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One

This summer, I read The Loved One at the recommendation of my former creative writing teacher, Marjorie Sandor. Marjorie and I both have a taste for macabre humor, and this short novel by Evelyn Waugh (of Brideshead Revisited fame) filled the bill. Set in the funeral industry in L.A., The Loved One tracks a love triangle between Aimee Thanatogenos, a cosmetologist for corpses at Whispering Glades funeral home; Mr. Joyboy (yes, really), the expert embalmer; and Dennis, a British expat and poet who works at the Happier Hunting Ground, a funeral home for pets that models itself on Whispering Glades.

Whispering Glades has developed a specialized vocabulary so that the grim facts of death and decay never enter the minds of its customers. In the world of Whispering Glades, corpses are Loved Ones, the owner of the funeral home is the Dreamer, funeral directors are Mortuary Hostesses, and bodies can be disposed of by inhumement, entombment, inurnment, immurement, and even insarcophagusment. They are never just buried.

Mr. Joyboy woos Aimee by ensuring that all of the corpses he sends her way have beatific smiles on their faces. He tells her, “Miss Thantogenos, for you the Loved Ones just naturally smile.” Other cosmetologists receive corpses with grave or studious expressions. Dennis seduces Aimee in a slightly less creepy way by sending her famous poetry he passes off as his own. For good reason, Aimee cannot decide between the two men, and turns for help to the Guru Brahmin, a newspaper advice columnist who is in reality a heavy drinker named Mr. Slump. As one might expect, Mr. Slump gives her awful advice, and what has so far been a comedy takes a turn toward tragedy. I won’t spoil the delightfully profane ending for you. Give this book a try. You can read it in a weekend, but it will stick with you for much longer.          –Kate McIntyre

Next Week’s List: “Remembering 9/11”