My favorite way to choose books is to have them chosen for me—to receive them as gifts from people who want to share their favorites. Unfortunately, the person who gives me a book may have to wait a long while before I’m prepared to share a conversation about it. I’m finally a quarter of the way into one such gift, which has occupied my bedside table in all its 800-page, hardbound, dust-enrobed majesty for a solid decade: Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Although I’ve made time for it, I’m not reading it, but rather listening to the excellent audiobook version, narrated by Simon Prebble. The title characters are two magicians restoring their ancient art to modern England (that is, the England of the early nineteenth century). The process is not without its dangers, especially insofar as it involves interacting with fairies—an untrustworthy lot, as brutal as they are arrogant. Clarke has created a historical fantasy so deep and well-polished that one could almost believe in it, footnotes and all. So far, I’m highly impressed by the book’s internal consistency, the convincingly archaic elegance of the prose, and a pervasive yet subtle humor— downright Austenian—which makes delightful what might otherwise be dry. Thank goodness there’s more than one way to read a book!
Kate Haas, senior editor and creative nonfiction editor, suggests a book that works its own modern magic: “I’m rereading (that’s how good it is) Among Others by Jo Walton. Fifteen-year-old Morwenna has survived a devastating attack by her mother, a witch who wanted to take over the world. Now, injured and grieving, she must find a way to heal and to protect herself from her mother’s magic. It sounds like a classic fantasy—but it’s not. The time is 1979, the book takes place mostly in a dreary English boarding school, and Morwenna’s inner life revolves around science fiction novels. A love letter to the genre’s classic authors, Among Others celebrates the work of Le Guin, Tiptree, Heinlein, Delaney, and other greats of the period. It’s the kind of book that has you scribbling down titles as you read, eager to discover the stories Morwenna describes with such enthusiasm and insight. And for anyone who ever wished that boring modern life contained fairies and magic, this book offers a glimpse of how such a world might look.”
We go from science fiction to social science with this recommendation from Karna Converse, managing editor and senior editor: “Much is known about Dr. John Watson, the ‘father’ of Behaviorist psychology, but little about his lab assistant-turned-wife, Rosalie Rayner. Andromeda Romano-Lax hopes to change that in her newly released fictional biography of Rosalie, Behave. As scientists, the two collaborated on experiments with babies to prove the principle of nurture over nature, including the controversial ‘Little Albert’ experiment of 1919, where they fear-conditioned a nine-month-old boy. Their love affair, however, overshadowed their research and changed the trajectory of their careers—especially Rosalie’s—forever. Married and with two boys of their own, the Watsons employed behaviorist principles in their home that included shaking hands, withholding kisses, and not letting the boys sit on their laps. They co-authored a parenting book and collaborated on many articles for popular consumer magazines. Rosalie showed signs of questioning their research in an article she published in 1930, but the world would never know her other thoughts; John destroyed all her papers after her death in 1935. Behave is an insightful look at women in science, family life, and the cultural mores of the 1920s. Romano-Lax tells Rosalie’s story with an authority that evokes empathy, sympathy, and respect for a woman caught at the dawn of a new era and at a crucial stage of her life.”
Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani offers another way to make time for neglected literature: “I’ve always wanted to read more poetry, but somehow, I’ve never gotten around to it. And when I do sit down to read a book of poems cover to cover, it’s like eating a whole box of chocolates in one sitting: too much concentrated richness all at once. So, among the new habits I adopted early this year was reading one poem each morning before getting up. It’s the perfect way to absorb poetry, savoring each poem before my brain has been bombarded by news or noise. I just finished my second collection of the year, Mules of Love by Ellen Bass. Bass’s poems are my favorite sort: free-form and conversational, but rich with sound, rhythm, and figurative language. I especially enjoyed part three of the book, ‘Tulip Blossoms,’ which includes poems for and about Bass’s grown-up children. If you, too, would like to incorporate more poetry into your life, I encourage you to try the poem-a-day method; Ellen Bass would be a great poet to start with.”
Fiction Editor Suzanne Kamata adds, “I just finished reading The Stone Necklace by Carla Damron, which explores the lives of five very different people in the wake of a fatal car crash. Among them are the victim’s wife, Lena, a cancer survivor, now left alone to deal with her daughter’s eating disorder and the financial disaster caused by her illness; the victim’s nurse, Sandy, who has recently returned to her job after being suspended for drug use; and Tonya, a young mother who survived the car crash, and who is under pressure from her husband to sue the victim’s widow and save their own family from debt. This could have been a soap opera, but Damron’s characters are nuanced, and the situations are all too relatable. With this book, Damron, an award-winning social worker and the author of several mysteries, has produced a fine literary drama.”
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