The Writer's Life
Reading with... Joanna Cantor
Joanna Cantor holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and a BA from Colorado College. She was the 2014 recipient of a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship.
|photo: Sylvie Rosokoff
Alternative Remedies for Loss (Bloomsbury, May 8, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and dog.
On your nightstand now:
I just finished Tayari Jones's An American Marriage, so that's moved over to my husband's side of the bed. It's rare that a book can have me so engaged at a plot-and-character level (I actually peeked ahead a few times because I couldn't wait to find out what happened!) while also causing me to reflect deeply on larger issues. I can't recommend this one highly enough--it's really outstanding.
I'm reading and savoring Sigrid Nunez's The Friend. This novel is barely 200 pages yet it manages to be so many things--a story of loss, an ode to a friendship, a sharp and sometimes hilarious commentary on the literary world and a beautiful, moving portrait of friendship between a woman and a dog.
Joan Didion's South and West lives next to the bed--I've read some but I'm not feeling any rush and I like having her nearby. Ditto with Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds and The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. I definitely keep too many things on the nightstand!
Next up are Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Charlotte's Web--I think I made my mom read it to me more than 10 times! I've been an animal nut from day one. I also loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I was fascinated with how things worked in "olden times," as I called anything not contemporary as a child.
Your top five authors:
Jennifer Egan, James Salter, Edith Wharton, Joan Didion, Jane Austen.
Book you've faked reading:
This is a strange one, because I can't really say why I haven't read it, but at a party not long ago someone referenced Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. They knew I was a writer and I couldn't bring myself to admit the truth, so I just agreed with whatever they were saying.
Also, Harry Potter. This is going to be devastating to a few friends of mine, but I'll come clean: nope, I've never read anything by J.K. Rowling. And--gulp--I haven't even seen the movies. Yes, I just nod and smile at your Harry Potter references.
Book you're an evangelist for:
I'm an evangelist for a lot of books, depending on when and to whom I'm evangelizing--but one would be Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. It's a collection of advice columns she wrote as "Dear Sugar" for The Rumpus. There's a tremendous amount of heart in this book, and the contents are inherently varied, so whatever the source of your secret heartache, you'll find something wise and cathartic in there.
Book you've bought for the cover:
The cover of Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong was just so good--lively, vibrant colors, whimsical, offbeat, memorable. I would have read it anyway, but I'd say maybe I bought it sooner because of the cover.
Book you hid from your parents:
The Baby-Sitters Club series. My mom thought they were junk, but I was addicted. I think it's because they combined the familiarity of a series (comforting to tweens) with a big dose of plot. A lot happened in those books.
Also, I would sneak peaks at any parenting book I found on my mom's shelf. I wanted to get inside the mind of the opposition!
Book that changed your life:
I read Rosie by Anne Lamott when I was 14, on a family vacation. I fell in love with Lamott's warm prose and with the limitless compassion she bestowed on her characters even as they screwed up. It was the first time I remember thinking This is what I want to do--to create a world, and to make readers feel invited into that world, the way Lamott did. Twenty years later, my copy is totally battered; I've flipped through it so many times when I felt in need of courage or inspiration.
Favorite line from a book:
"I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years."
This is from Joan Didion's essay "Goodbye to All That" in Slouching Towards Bethlehem--certainly my favorite essay and possibly my favorite piece of writing, full stop. I can't read that line without getting chills. It cuts to the quick of everything we don't know about ourselves when we're young, how it feels to be new to New York and the passage of time. I love the juxtaposition: the relatively small matter of calling a bridge by the wrong name, and the much larger matters of six months becoming eight years (and of the engagement Didion called off in the process, which we learn about in the surrounding lines).
Five books you'll never part with:
I would have said The Wellspring by Sharon Olds, but I gave it to a friend who was pregnant and moving abroad. It felt important that she have my beloved copy. I keep meaning to buy another one.
Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. This came out the year I moved to New York and was one of my bibles when I began writing fiction. When my husband moved in, we somehow had three copies between the two of us, and he was like, clearly we'll get rid of two of these, but I made us hang onto all three! You can't be too careful.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler--actually set the year I moved to NYC, and another New York story that felt like it was written for me. I found Danler's prose inviting and inspiring; I kept my copy by my side as I was revising my novel and still love to flip through when I'm at loose ends.
My signed, personalized copy of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad--she thanks me for introducing her at a reading. Goon Squad is such a brilliant book--definitely never parting with that one.
So I don't exclude men entirely, I'll end with 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda. Family friends gave this to my husband and me when we got engaged, and we ended up including one of the sonnets in our wedding ceremony. You can't beat poetry that finds a way to say something fresh about love.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan novels--all four of them! The level of addiction I felt while reading those books (oops I forgot to brush my teeth/check my phone/eat, how is it getting dark out?) is something I associate with reading as a kid--it's harder to find as an adult. It's an almost queasy pleasure, like binging on sweets.
Five books that are resources for your own writing:
I've touched on this a bit already--Rosie by Anne Lamott was the earliest one. Stephanie Danler's Sweetbitter and several of Jennifer Egan's novels have been others. But two more that I've found myself rereading when I feel stuck in my own writing are The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman and The Privileges by Jonathan Dee. I think Waldman and Dee both really excel at pacing, at knowing when to dive into a moment and when to skim the surface or jump ahead. They move the stories forward with such great energy. I love to dip into these novels when my work is feeling sluggish, to try to hitch a ride on that momentum.
Convenience Store Woman
, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori
In the opening pages of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura is in her element, at work in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. She knows what the displays need, how properly to promote the day's featured item, when the cold drinks need replenishing. She reads her customers expertly: "Instantly I deduce that he will use electronic money." She is a valued employee and good at her job. The mingled beeps, dings, rustles and clacks of the convenience store form a "sound that ceaselessly caresses [her] eardrums."
Few situations in Keiko's life have been so easy. In primary school, she often responded to the world in ways others thought wrong: offering to cook and eat a dead bird on the playground, applying a shovel to the skull of a classmate in order to break up a fight. She wasn't a violent child; these just seemed like practical strategies. Life presented a series of puzzles she could not decipher, until the day she went to work at the Smile Mart. The convenience store offers Keiko a uniform, a series of set lines to be spoken to customers and a manual for staff behavior.
Convenience Store Woman
, Sayaka Murata's English-language debut, is a compelling novel about conformity in society, and the baffling rules applied in work and life. This brief, brisk novel is an engrossing adventure into an unusual mind. Murata holds the reader rapt, wondering what Keiko will do next. Convenience Store Woman
is for all kinds of readers, for anyone who's ever questioned the status quo. --Julia Kastner
, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: A quirky novel about a convenience-store clerk who seems to be the ideal employee.
$20, hardcover, 176p., 9780802128256
Days of Awe: Stories
There is much to praise about A.M. Homes's varied story collection Days of Awe, her first since 2002's Things You Should Know. Wired into the zeitgeist, she's both a keen observer of some of the more absurd aspects of contemporary American life and someone who's not afraid to explore the boundaries where real life morphs into fantasy.
Homes's archetypal characters resemble the members of the Los Angeles family who appear in "Hello Everybody" and "She Got Away." They eat in restaurants that serve "designer-size macrobiotic bites" and pass entire meals staring at their cell phones, while "occasionally and without warning they will speak randomly and out of context." But for all their trendy affluence, one of them feels "drenched in aloneness, the cologne of empty, the odor of nothing."
The best of Homes's stories take a familiar situation and give it a bizarre twist. That's true of "A Prize for Every Player," where Tom, Jane and their two children embark on what appears to be a routine Saturday morning shopping trip at a Costco-type store. But this outing takes on an eerie aspect when one of the children discovers an abandoned baby atop the towel display; meanwhile, Tom's observations in front of a bank of televisions inspire his fellow shoppers to promote him as a presidential candidate. In barely 20 pages, it's a telling satire of our consumer culture and current political moment.
Unlike many story collections whose appeal lies in some unifying theme, Days of Awe
's pleasure emerges from its embrace of the unexpected. Turn the page and you never know what you may find. --Harvey Freedenberg
, freelance reviewer
Discover: In a diverse collection of stories, A.M. Homes casts a shrewd eye on modern life.
$25, hardcover, 304p., 9780670025497
Katharine Dion's first novel, The Dependents, takes readers back to that high school standby play, Our Town. Instead of Thornton Wilder's Grover's Corners, however, it takes place in the small former mill town of Colton, N.H., where Gene Ashe is grieving the death of his wife of 49 years from a post-knee surgery blood clot. Moody, forlorn, immersed in memories, Gene is looking for some sign that his rather humdrum life and marriage with Maida provided the happiness he had anticipated when he was a young man.
Dion, an Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate and MacDowell Fellow, dexterously captures the warp and woof of small-town life. Through Gene's reflections on his past, readers learn of his smug, savvy college friend Ed's tutoring of him in the ways of dating and seduction--and introducing him to Maida. She hesitantly accepted his proposal, observing: "You're quiet, you're pleasant-looking, and you're kind to me."
Living alone now as a bereft widower in failing health, Gene reluctantly hires a caretaker--at his daughter's insistence. When Adele enters his world, Gene finds welcome assistance as well as companionship.
Though shaded in the melancholy of a lonely aging man, The Dependents
is luminous in the telling. Like Wilder, Dion sensitively and humanely uncovers the ambiguities of life as manifested in the world of a small New Hampshire town. Gene assimilates these ambiguities and, in the end, understands "that the life he'd had--the defective one plagued with uncertainty and misunderstanding--this was the one he wanted after all." --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe
, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Katharine Dion's singular debut is a polished tapestry rich in character and insight.
$26, hardcover, 288p., 9780316473873
Mystery & Thriller
The Favorite Sister
In The Favorite Sister
, Jessica Knoll follows her hit debut, Luckiest Girl Alive
, with a look at not just one but a group of ambitious women.
The novel opens with the producer of a TV reality show about wealthy entrepreneurs called Goal Diggers interviewing one of the cast members, Kelly Courtney, about her sister, Brett, another Digger who mysteriously died. The story then jumps back in time and takes readers through preproduction and production of the fourth season, showing how ruthless the women have become behind the scenes to attain more screen time and avoid being axed. With increasing pressure to maintain ratings, the tension between cast and crew explodes and results in murder.
The synopsis might sound campy, but this is no superficial send-up of insta-celeb culture. Knoll's take is a deadly serious exploration of the dichotomy between women publicly espousing inclusion riders and sisterhood while privately sabotaging one another, knowing there's still not enough room at the top for all of them. It's biting social commentary in darkly humorous language: "She doesn't even really seem to like her dogs.... [S]he adopts them for Instagram likes." A woman wonders: if her husband were an air freshener, "what would we call him?... Radiant Herpes." Another Digger cuts to the bone by observing: "If you don't hate yourself just a little bit, you are intolerable." This book is more than tolerable; it's sharp and clear-eyed and will be a favorite for Knoll's fans. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis
, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: A reality show reflects on how one of its participants ended up dead.
Simon & Schuster,
$26, hardcover, 384p., 9781501153198
Science Fiction & Fantasy
The Book of M
In the near future, a man in India loses his shadow and people marvel at the phenomenon, until it begins happening to others, too. They soon realize that when their shadow disappears, so do their memories. Married couple Ory and Max hide out in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods of Virginia, hoping that their lack of contact with the outside world will prevent them from contracting the disease. Despite their efforts, one day Max loses her shadow. In order to protect Ory, Max leaves, which sets off a desperate search by Ory to find her before she forgets who he is.
In her debut novel, The Book of M
, Peng Shepherd has created a fantastical scenario where people not only lose their past but can also re-create the world any way they want, as their memories do not constrain them to what is considered normal. She cleverly intertwines Indian mythology and the effects of her imaginary disease, with its eerie overtones of Alzheimer's, into a story filled with love, longing and the perception of the self. As Ory and Max interact with others--those engaged in a war between the Shadowed and the Shadowless, as well as a cult of Shadowed who worship the Shadowless--tension and excitement build. The story moves from India to Virginia, Washington, D.C., and finally New Orleans, where a bastion of survivors search for a remedy to the affliction. Shepherd's tale pushes the post-apocalyptic story in a new and exciting direction, making readers ponder questions about reality, self-perception and relationships. --Lee E. Cart
, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: A plague is stealing people's shadows--and their memories.
$26.99, hardcover, 496p., 9780062669605
Biography & Memoir
Room to Dream
, Kristine McKenna
Filmmaker David Lynch notoriously eludes talking about his work, so a nearly 600-page memoir is quite a surprise. In an effort to create a definitive biography, Lynch and coauthor Kristine McKenna have produced Room to Dream, a tantalizing hybrid of biography and autobiography. McKenna, who interviewed more than 100 people, writes the straightforward biography chapters offering perspectives from ex-wives, producers, cast and crew members. A chapter by Lynch follows, elaborating on the preceding material, sometimes disagreeing but always offering colorful extra details. The clever back-and-forth concept creates a more panoramic view than most biographies achieve.
Lynch's first feature-length film, Eraserhead, took five years to complete and became a midnight movie favorite that caught the eye of Mel Brooks. Brooks hired him to helm The Elephant Man and it became a surprise mainstream hit, earning Lynch two Oscar nominations. His next film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, was a critical and box office disaster. "Failure is a beautiful thing," writes Lynch, "because when the dust settles there's nowhere to go but up, and it's a freedom." That freedom allowed him to create Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire and other quirky projects.
Lynch is a maverick filmmaker who has found popularity by staying true to his often warped and disturbing vision of the world. Room to Dream
shares where those ideas came from, but it also celebrates his decades-long friendships and his love of romance. Film buffs will delight in this compelling and illuminating memoir. --Kevin Howell
, independent reviewer and marketing consultant
Discover: Filmmaker David Lynch casts aside his reticence to discuss his life and films in this wildly enjoyable, massive and bracingly candid memoir.
$32, hardcover, 592p., 9780399589195
New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff's biography of Robin Williams, from his lonely childhood in the Midwest to his shocking suicide in 2014, is a rich portrait of a beloved entertainer whom few fully understood. Itzkoff draws on his interviews with Williams, as well as archival research and more than a hundred conversations with the star's family and friends, to create a nuanced view of Robin Williams as a man and a performer. The book is comprehensive--it's 200 pages until Williams's first box office success, in Good Morning, Vietnam--and compelling without being salacious. It shows Williams as a manic comedy genius, a doting but flawed father, a recovering addict, a loving friend to Christopher Reeve and Billy Crystal, and a popular actor who still searched for approval. Itzkoff delves into well-known stories, like Williams's presence at the Chateau Marmont the night John Belushi died, and includes new details, like Jeff Bridges's note congratulating Williams on his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting ("Dear Rob, Man!!! You won!!").
Putting the performer in context, the book is also a look inside the worlds Williams inhabited, including the San Francisco stand-up scene, the excesses of Hollywood, and a complicated family life. The interplay between comedy and darkness is infused throughout the book, and the chapter title "Mr. Happy"--a reference to a lewd joke in Williams' early-'80s standup routine--becomes ironic and prescient. Like the man it depicts, Robin
shines with intense humor and deep sensitivity. --Katy Hershberger
, freelance writer and bookseller
Discover: It may not be possible to understand fully the complexity of Robin Williams, but this layered, definitive biography comes close.
$30, hardcover, 544p., 9781627794244
Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth
The discovery of thousands of exoplanets in the last two decades has confirmed Earth's status as just one orbital body in a crowded cosmos. Prior to this flood of planets spotted around other stars, our solar system, for all astronomy could prove, was thought to be unique. Now we know that is far from the case. Extrapolating these finds to a galactic level means that there are billions upon billions of Earth-like worlds around us, which points the hunt for alien life in exciting new directions.
In 1961, astrophysicist Frank Drake created a probability equation to determine the number of technologically advanced civilizations in the Milky Way. Many of the Drake equation's variables could not be answered at the time, such as the fraction of formed stars that have planets. Others, like the fraction of those planets that actually develop life, still cannot be solved. However, according to astronomer Adam Frank, recent breakthroughs in exoplanet detection have filled in enough variables of Drake's equation to provide startling answers.
Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth
uses what we know for sure about our planet, other bodies in our solar system and exoplanets to reach some solid and sobering conclusions: there have been technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe. The final variable in Drake's problem remains: how long an advanced civilization survives. While Frank can't speculate on sociological trends on alien worlds, observations on Earth, especially our descent into the Anthopocene--a new geological era defined by manmade climate change--have potentially grim implications for life in the universe. Light of the Stars
is a fascinating, multi-disciplined approach to the most pressing questions on Earth and beyond. --Tobias Mutter
, freelance reviewer
Discover: Recent breakthroughs in exoplanet detection allow an astronomer to apply hard facts to alien life and offer sobering implications for human civilization.
$26.95, hardcover, 272p., 9780393609011
Nature & Environment
The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature's Secret Signs
"Forecasts of up to a week in advance are about seventy percent likely to be true," writes Peter Wohlleben (The Hidden Life of Trees) in his fascinating look at the natural world, The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature's Secret Signs. But that 30% of uncertainty can wreak havoc on a garden. Luckily, he continues, we can learn to make weather predictions ourselves that are often at least as--if not more--accurate than what our local meteorologists tell us. That's because meteorologists, he says, are predicting temperature and other averages for swaths of land that cover many miles. But those averages can vary over a couple of blocks and even from one corner of a garden to another.
That's why looking closely at the subtle signs of change that nature gives us every day, from those in the soil to those in the clouds, is so important. And Wohlleben, who's been a German forester for more than 20 years, is just the person to teach us how, when and where to look.
Flowers and birds, he says, are great tellers of "true local time" (as opposed to "clock time"). They sing their songs and open their petals according to the sun's precise location in the sky. He also shows how to link the consistency of soils, the size of snowflakes and the phase of the moon to weather patterns that will affect the garden. Written for nature enthusiasts of all levels and backgrounds, The Weather Detective is as fun as it is informative. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This fun and educational book by the author of The Hidden Life of Trees teaches readers how to be better predictors of weather.
$20, hardcover, 208p., 9781524743741
American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic
David Hosack (1769-1835) was a celebrity in his day. He was the founder of the first botanical garden in the United States, an early adopter of new medical treatments, and a charismatic teacher and public speaker. American Eden is an exhaustively researched, brilliant and lively biography set in the close political, social and intellectual circles of the new Republic by professor of urban planning Victoria Johnson (Backstage at the Revolution).
Hosack is a genuinely interesting figure--talented, adventurous, hardworking and acquainted with many of the great minds of his day. Johnson amplifies his appeal by emphasizing his relationships with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, as family physician and as collaborator in their gardens and botanical interests.
In New York, he became an admired professor, founded one of the first U.S. medical journals, promoted effective new medical treatments and championed the Hudson River School of painting. The botanic garden he founded was funded mostly out of his own pocket in what is now midtown Manhattan, modeled on the medical research gardens he had visited overseas. Hosack and his students also ignited a national craze for botany that still echoes in the public parks and private gardens of the United States. Johnson's storytelling skills and her thorough knowledge of the period and the science makes this a book that will appeal to history lovers, botanists and gardeners alike. --Sara Catterall
Discover: The story of a visionary New York botanist, doctor and influential teacher in the energetic and competitive young United States.
$29.95, hardcover, 480p., 9781631494192
Children's & Young Adult
The 5 O'Clock Band
, Troy Andrews
, illust. by Bryan Collier
This follow-up to Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier's Coretta Scott King Award–winning Trombone Shorty
guides readers through the spirited streets of New Orleans. Having missed his band's practice, Shorty questions whether he has what it takes to lead. Wandering the streets in search of his friends, Shorty encounters different members of his community and asks them what it takes to be a leader.
Andrews's words blanket the audience in the sights, sounds and smells of all these encounters, while Collier's bold illustrations heighten their effects. Andrews describes street musician Tuba Tremé as "a giant of a man" who was "sweet as pecan pie." Tradition, Tuba Tremé tells Shorty, is important to leading--every bandleader "needs to know where music came from in order to move it forward." "Lola, the Creole Queen" next fills Shorty's belly with delicious food--and his heart with sage advice. Shorty asks her how she makes such amazing food and she answers, " 'Love. There's love in my food... As long as you love what you do, you will always be a success.' " Shorty's final encounter is with the "chief of the neighborhood Mardi Gras Indian tribe." Shorty needs dedication, Big Chief tells him. " 'Each year, all the Indians make new suits, hand-sewn from scratch,' " Big Chief says. " 'It takes a lot of time and patience, but... it's worth it.' " Collier's depictions of the brilliant colors of the suits of "the soul of Mardi Gras" pop from the page.
Troy Andrews's tribute to New Orleans and the music it has created is melodious and invigorating; Bryan Collier's visual interpretation carries the audience along on a distinctive and beautiful parade. The combo of text and illustration is well-tuned, and readers of any age are sure to find themselves thoroughly entertained. --Jen Forbus
Discover: A young musician wanders the lively streets of New Orleans in search of the secret to being a great bandleader.
$17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9781419728365
The House That Lou Built
Seventh-grader Lucinda "Lou" Bulosan-Nelson dreams of being an architect and cannot help but compare the people around her with houses. For example, her grandmother "would be a hot pink Painted Lady--one of those fancy San Francisco Victorians tourists love, with intricate stained glass that casts rainbows onto the sidewalks." That is to say, "She's colorful." Lou's own style is more in line with a tiny house, one that has "a composting toilet and, right above the kitchen, a cozy sleeping loft." Someday, she's going to build her dream home on the land her father left her when he died. But just before Lou's 13th birthday, her mother announces she's accepted a job in Washington State. Lou can't fathom leaving her friends and her large, affectionate Filipino family. She decides she has to do something to stop her mother from making this move--she'll build her tiny house now.
Mae Respicio's charming middle-grade debut offers an intimate experience of Filipino culture as well as a message of empowerment to young girls with grand goals. Lou is ambitious and curious; feels butterflies in her belly when a boy she likes pays attention to her; and shuns dresses, delighting in a tool belt her cousins give her (especially because "it's not even girl-ified in pink or with swirly designs"). Lou is a narrator with whom readers can empathize, making The House that Lou Built
a sweet treasure for any budding reader. --Jen Forbus
Discover: A Filipino girl with dreams of being an architect determines to build her own tiny house in order to prevent her mother from moving them to another state.
Wendy Lamb/Random House,
$16.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 8-12, 9781524717940