Guest contributor: Joshua Bodwell
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
It’s in my nature to love an underdog. So I love that Bonnie Jo Campbell’s dark but beguiling American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction after being released by Wayne State University Press, which publishes a modest thirty-five titles per year. In the landscape of Campbell’s Michigan, things are hard, bleak, booze-soaked, meth-laden, even incest burdened. The air is tainted with the stench of pig manure and the smoke of suspect fires. So how then does Campbell manage to make us both see ourselves in her stories and make us laugh? Her stories feel American, yes, but they are also something far more important: Authentic.
A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT
By Alain de Botton
Schooled at the University of Cambridge and King’s College, Alain de Botton has written several highly readable books of philosophy pared down for the masses, such as How Proust Can Change Your Life (2006) and Status Anxiety (2004). For my money, de Botton is at his best when channeling his inner-journalist rather than offering the CliffsNotes of his philosophy studies. Just as with his fine The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009), A Week at the Airport finds de Botton out among the masses as writer-in-residence with one week’s unfettered access to Heathrow’s Terminal 5. This slim, warm book showcases the greatest gifts de Botton’s has to share with readers: curiosity, empathy, and a keen eye for telling details.
By Andre Dubus III
Some might say Andre Dubus III is insane to tackle writing a collection of novellas. Few contemporary authors, after all, have written more revered novellas than Dubus III’s father and namesake, Andre Dubus (perhaps his greatest being “Voice from the Moon”). But you know what? Those people would be wrong. Dubus III’s thematically linked collection of novellas is stunning. While the opening novella, “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed,” made my heart race, the entire collection is quintessential Dubus: a big-hearted storyteller of huge empathetic powers who writes plain yet hypnotic language with long, digressive sentences that act as ropes, incessantly tugging readers deeper toward the stories’ raw nerves.
By Kent Haruf
It is easy to describe but difficult to explain the impact of Kent Haruf’s fine, crystalline trilogy Plainsong (1999), Eventide (2004), and, finally, Benediction (2013). All set amidst the stoic lives of farmers and country-folk in fictional Holt, Colorado, Haruf’s novels are proof of the potential power of unadorned prose. Stripped even of quotation marks to indicate dialogue, Haruf has said he wanted to make Benediction as clean as he could: “There are almost no metaphors or figurative language. I’m trying to get at the thing itself without comparing it with something else.” When Haruf’s critics accuse him of sentimentality, they do so at the risk of being stonehearted.
THE UNITED STATES OF ARUGULA
How We Became a Gourmet Nation
By David Kamp
When I began skimming David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula while waiting for a latte at Elements—my local coffee-book-beer shop (yes!)—I was a bit skeptical. But this book manages a rare feat: it is both incredibly readable and entertaining, and a serious, seriously researched piece of journalism. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair and GQ, Kamp has written a book that reminds us that while it can be easy to take our current culinary good fortune for granted, we must never forget our roots (pun intended).
A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
By Mark Kurlansky
Like The United States of Arugula, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World is a wonderfully readable history-laden book. Mark Kurlansky’s passion and curiosity for his subject is evident on every page; in fact, Kurlansky’s two books to follow Cod—The Basque History of the World and Salt: A World History—appear to have sprung directly from the Cod research. As much as anything about this book, I will never forget where I read it: sipping beer by the campfire or sipping coffee in the lean-to during a long weekend of fly fishing and camping in the northeast corner of Maine’s Baxter State Park.
HEMINGWAY AND HIS CONSPIRATORS
Hollywood, Scribners, and the Making of American Celebrity Culture
By Leonard J. Leff
While Robert W. Trogdon’s exceptional The Lousy Racket: Hemingway, Scribners, and the Business of Literature remains my favorite book about publishing one of the twentieth century’s most important authors, Leonard Leff’s book—which I discovered in the gift shop at Hemingway’s house in Key West—is full of fine research. The prescience of these two gems, plucked from a short piece written by Paul N. Lazarus in the March 22, 1919 edition of Publishers’ Weekly blew my mind: (1) publishers should produce rather than overproduce because the shelves of bookstores are loaded with books “merely born to die”; and (2) bookstores should make themselves less points of exchange where dollars are traded for books, and more institutions where entertainment and culture are found.
THE WORDS I CHOSE
By Wesley McNair
I have been savoring Wesley McNair’s poetry for more than a decade. I have been working closely with Wes in his role as the Maine Poet Laureate for the past three years. I’d heard many of the harrowing stories Wes recounts in this harrowing memoir of his 1950s rural New England childhood in poverty. But I must admit I was not fully prepared for what I found in The Words I Chose, for the hardscrabble details of a father leaving only to be replaced by a bastard stepfather. There were many evenings I closed the book and wished I could, right then, hug the boy who had become the man. “I am sorry,” Wes writes in the book’s introduction, “for the trouble we have caused each other, my family and I, but I am grateful for it as well, since without it I would have been denied the life I have known as a poet.”
THE TELLING ROOM
A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese
By Michael Paterniti
When I describe Michael Paterniti’s first book to people, they often think I’m describing a novel: a guy drives cross-country with Einstein’s brain in the trunk. But it’s not. Driving Mr. Albert is just like Paterniti’s much-anticipate new book The Telling Room: a work of nonfiction that has been incredibly well researched, absorbed through every thoughtful cell in Paterniti’s body, and written with a big-hearted flourish. The Telling Room—replete a hyperbolic subtitle it totally lives up to—not only embraces but celebrates the digressive nature of storytelling. Oh, and Paterniti can write sentences that will take your breath away and leave you unpacking them for several stunned moments.
THE HOUSE AT BELLE FONTAINE
By Lily Tuck
Years ago, perhaps eight years, I stumbled upon Lily Tuck’s first short story collection—Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived—in a weird remainder bookstore. I read the first half of the first story (“La Mayonette”) standing there under the hum of fluorescents and was hooked. Tuck’s second collection brims with the same eeriness and foreignness as her first collection (she won the National Book Award between the two collections). The stories in The House at Bella Fontaine are exceptional in their cool precision, their leaps in time and perspective, and their globe trotting—and that’s just within a single story! Even more so than Limbo, this collection challenges what a short story might be or contain.
THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS
By Simon Van Booy
It’s not worth mincing words here: Simon Van Booy writes like a dream. Van Booy’s second novel feels at times like intimately interwoven short stories as it zigzags chapter-to-chapter across continents and decades and a cast of characters that includes a handyman, a baker, a WW II pilot, a Nazi soldier, and a young blind woman. Van Booy is able to craft characters and situations that feel romantic and sentimental…and honest—something that would likely collapse in the hands of a lesser writer. His language manages to be both delicate in its lyricism and guiding in its authorial firmness. Van Booy not only reminds but enlightens us that in our perceived aloneness we are actually very much all in this together.
THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P.
By Adelle Waldman
Adelle Waldman’s debut novel traces one year in the life and love-life of an up-and-coming literary star living in Brooklyn, New York. A friend whose taste I trust implicitly (she also pointed me this year toward “Helping” by Robert Stone when she called it “the best contemporary American short story”) told me over dinner that she’d read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. twice and could not stop thinking about it. Like my friend, I was impressed with the verisimilitudes of Waldman’s character’s inner lives. While it’s easy to take pot-shots at men under thirty, Waldman consistently chooses complexity over cliché. With that said, no one, male or female, escapes the bright light of this novel’s unflinching and hilarious gaze.
By Jess Walter
Jess Walter’s sixth novel is a heart-filled high-wire act. It is difficult to explain how this decade-sweeping novel featuring a tiny Italian village that wishes it was the sixth town in the Cinque Terre chain, the legendarily dysfunctional filming of Cleopatra, a drunken cameo by Richard Burton, a novel-within-the-novel written by a shell-shocked WW II veteran, a pitch for a movie about the Donner Party, a visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Fest, and many other seemingly disparate things, manages to be so ripe with authentic emotion—with longing and tenderness and redemption. But it does. Beautifully.
2013 BONUS: VARIOUS SHORT STORIES
“Weber’s Head” by J. Robert Lennon from Salamander
“Devotion: A Rat Story” by Maile Meloy from Byliner
“The Proxy Marriage” by Maile Meloy from the New Yorker
“Helping” by Robert Stone from Bear and His Daughter
“The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” by Tom Perrotta from Nine Inches
“Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner from Tin House
“Sandstorm” by Adam O’Fallon Price from The Paris Review, Spring 2013
“Anything Helps“ by Jess Walter from McSweeney’s
“Don’t Eat Cat” by Jess Walter from Byliner
“Gold Mine” by Claire Vaye Watkins from The Paris Review, Winter 2010
“A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’” by Adrian Tomine from Optic Nerve
Joshua Bodwell likes to read books during the downtime when he can’t ride his zippy blue Bianchi around the byways and back roads of Maine. His most recent short stories can be found in SLICE Magazine.