As we move into fall, the weather cools, and the evenings darken earlier, so life moves indoors—and that paves the way for more curled-up-in-the-armchair reading time! If you’re headed to that sweet spot, here are a few of this month’s top picks from the Literary Mama staff reading shelf.
Juli Anna Herndon, Poetry Editor, suggests you take another look at this classic: “My summer reading this year has been Dodie Smith’s 1948 proto-young-adult novel, I Capture the Castle. The novel follows the escapades of the eccentric and immensely lovable Mortmain family, as told through the journal of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. The once well-to-do family lives in relative poverty in a hodgepodge of a castle in Suffolk, England, surrounded by a moat and drafty towers. Cassandra’s father, the writer of a single critically acclaimed Modernist novel, hasn’t been able to write a word since his stint in prison. Her stepmother, Topaz, is a professional artists’ muse who is disappointed that she hasn’t been able to inspire her husband to write and spends her time ‘communing with nature’ in the buff during rainstorms. Rose, Cassandra’s older sister, is determined to marry rich to raise her family out of their financial situation and is willing to make a deal with the devil to accomplish her goal. When the family’s absentee landlord dies and his dashing young American sons arrive to take his place, much romantic chaos ensues. Cassandra is a delightfully relatable character, and her family’s antics ring so true. Smith’s writing manages to be lyrical without sentimentality, and her wit is sharp as a knife; I can’t count the times I guffawed out loud reading this story. Smith freely alludes to Jane Austen’s novels, and I found many parallels to Sense and Sensibility in this story. Overall, this is a refreshing coming-of-age story with unique characters and just the right balance of humor and romance.”
Kim Ruff, Creative Nonfiction and Fiction Editorial Assistant, is a big fan of these collections: “Except for love, nothing toys with our emotions quite like death. The death of a loved one has made me laugh, cry, laugh and cry at the same time, sob so hard that my chest heaved heavily up and down, and, once, I even surprised myself when I let out a blood-curdling scream from a deep-seated rage that I thought only happened in the movies. Turns out it happens in real life too. Marion Winik states, ‘Death is the subtext of life,’ and I agree, which is why the latest collection of flash-nonfiction, memoir pieces from her Baltimore Book of the Dead resonates as strongly with me as her first collection in Glen Rock Book of the Dead. In both collections, Winik honors those she knew and/or loved and lost through elaborate yet concise narratives that paint a clear vision of each of the deceased. Similar to Glen Rock, I read all of Baltimore in a single sitting and I look forward to revisiting each piece, or person if you will, at a much slower pace to fully appreciate Winik’s mix of quick wit and nostalgic recounting of a life lost. Winik states, ‘My days and my thoughts are shaped almost as much by people who are no longer here as those who are. ‘How many times have you thought or has someone said to you, “If [fill in the name] were here, you know what he/she would say.” ‘ I feel most readers can relate to this sentiment. It’s what drew me in to Glen Rock and made it a no-brainer to read Baltimore. Winik wrote each of these 250-word (or less) eulogy-like pieces to stand alone, but her clever arrangement of each story provides a natural progression, and, in the end, she tells a full, non-morbid story—a second memoir inspired by the dead.
P.S. For readers who have already indulged in both books (or even if you haven’t), I have exciting news for you! I discovered that Winik launched a book, The Big Book of the Dead, on September 17, 2019 that combines both of her books in chronological order.”
Finally, Senior Editor and Literary Reflections Editor Libby Maxey thinks you might enjoy this one: “I’ve had Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility on my reading list for so long that by the time I finally got hold of the audiobook I could no longer remember why I had added it. As it turns out, the reason is it’s a pitch-perfect historical novel that makes this reader wish she could write something anywhere near as good. Reviews at the book’s 2011 release used the words ‘flawless’ and ‘effortless,’ and indeed, for the first hour, I assumed I was listening to an old woman’s memoir of late-Depression-era New York City. The voice of Towles’s narrator, Katey Kontent, is that convincing. Katey, born in Brighton Beach to Russian immigrants, navigates her way from the secretarial pool into the circles of the wealthy with both incisive wit and a canny ability to keep her mouth shut. Meanwhile, she shows us the city that made Hollywood want to tell its stories—shabby and potentially perilous, yet still a place of possibility and belonging. As she puts it, the Empire State Building through her decades in the city was ‘a view that practically conjugated hope: I have hoped; I am hoping; I will hope.’ Although plenty of hopes are dashed in this book and no advantage comes without cost—to quote Katey again, ‘I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss’—the charming cast of characters finds its way to different kinds of success, and for the reader, the story itself is a prize.”