Ever wonder what people who write books are busy reading? Which titles they’ve found most enjoyable or have hit them the hardest lately? For this year-end issue, we asked some of our culture’s best and brightest what they had on the nightstand—or on the back of the loo, in one exceptional case. So be sure to check out these recommendations—all worthy of your time, as our penthusiasts point out. And Paste also endorses, with equal elan, the works of any of the authors here who kindly shared their reading lists. Good writers know good books and articles, and—psst!—they write great ones, too.
by Mircea Cartarescu
[New Directions] 2005
This is a novel of interlinked stories by Romania’s most wonderful fiction writer. It’s Cartarescu’s first appearance in the U.S., in a splendid translation by the poet Julian Semilian. Nostalgia is a vertiginous memoir of childhood in communist Bucharest, a bleak place that the child’s imagination turns into a land of fabulous adventures and prophetic poetic insights. Cartarescu’s writing puts him in the distinguished company of Magical Realist writers like Borges and Marquez. The author has published a dazzling series of novels since Nostalgia, and it is my hope that Semilian and New Directions will keep up what they’ve started, to make a home in English for this magnificent, world-class writer.
Andrei Codrescu is a poet, novelist, essayist and screenwriter; a columnist on National Public Radio; and editor of Exquisite Corpse, a literary journal online at Corpse.org.
Not On Our Watch: The Mission To End Genocide In Darfur and Beyond
by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle
With its foreword by professor Elie Wiesel and an introduction by senators Barack Obama and Sam Brownback, Not On Our Watch is part memoir, part history and part handbook for helping expose—and end—the first genocide of the 21st century. Its authors educate and persuade in various concrete ways to help millions of Darfurians still threatened with extinction by the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed, an Arab nomad militia. The book notes dozens of successful grassroots campaigns and provides personal insights into how an actor and a senior advisor to the International Crisis Group came together to write a brilliantly concise, vital call to transform passive awareness into public activism.
Melissa Pritchard is author of seven books, and a key supporter for the Daywalka Foundation, a human-rights organization that addresses human trafficking and other issues.
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
The best book I read in 2007 is one I resisted at first. When I finally read the first page, I didn’t put it down until I read the book’s last sentence: “I ran.” The Kite Runner could have been conceived in another century, with its grand themes of moral imperatives, redemption, cultural identity, guilt, loyalty and love. It has none of the alienating qualities of self-consciousness and irony—a ubiquitous irritant in modern fiction— and all of the elegance of a truly great work of literature.
Rosanne Cash is a singer, songwriter and author.
Returning to Earth
by Jim Harrison
For my money, Jim Harrison’s body of work looms as one of the major literary achievements of the past half-century, and Returning to Earth is one of his best books. It is the story of a family coping with the loss of a father to ALS, and the reimbursement they find in a deep, earthy spirituality. If, like me, you’ve been reading Harrison for 35 years, you’ll enjoy visiting with an old friend. If you’re new to his work, this fine book will introduce you to one of the great American voices, rich with a ragged, big-hearted humanity.
Charles Frazier is winner of the National Book Award and author of the bestsellers Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons.
The Septembers of Shiraz
by Dalia Sofer
I don’t know Dalia Sofer, and if I hadn’t seen her author photo or known that The Septembers of Shiraz was her first novel, I might have guessed she was 83 years old; this is the kind of book usually written by a person with a lifetime of experience of living and loving. The novel follows four Iranian family members in the early 1980s, and their attempts to escape a changing political and religious environment. But it’s not just the plot that kept me riveted: Sofer has an eye for detail, and a talent for pointing out truths that others bury.
Vendela Vida is co-editor of The Believer magazine, and the author, most recently, of the novel Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.
Continue to page two for more book picks from Jack Pendarvis, Kenny Leon, Junot Diaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Naomi Klein, Tom Junod, Charles McNair and Dave Eggers.
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark
by Tim Lucas
[Video Watchdog] 2007
Sundays with Walt and Skeezix
by Frank O. King (Ed. by Peter Maresca and Chris Ware)
[Sunday Press] 2007
It was a big year for big books. I’m still savoring All the Colors of the Dark, Tim Lucas’ 12-pound magnum opus on Italian horror director Mario Bava. Meanwhile, Sundays with Walt and Skeezix collects Frank King’s earliest Gasoline Alley Sunday strips in a full-color 22 x 16-inch edition that mimics the spread of a 1920s funny paper. It’s an eye-popping way to be introduced to a humane, generous work of American narrative art.
Jack Pendarvis’ most recent book is Your Body Is Changing, a collection of stories. He is the visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Stage adaptation by Todd Kreidler
I am reading the stage adaptation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by Todd Kreidler. Todd is an amazing playwright who was commissioned to write this adaptation (from the screenplay) to be mounted on Broadway in Fall 2008. I will direct the production. Guess is a universal American story, and Todd’s play expands on the poetry and humor in the screenplay. The stage allows more in-depth, detailed character development and Todd’s genius in translating the film experience into a rich, theatrical one is going to make for a moving night of theatre.
Kenny Leon—Founding Artistic Director of the True Colors Theatre Company, based in Atlanta—is a director whose experience covers classic theater, drama, comedy, musicals, musical revues and film.
Chance In Hell
by Gilbert Hernandze
This is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. It’s about the horrific childhood of a young orphan girl growing up in a hellish otherworldly landfill where rape and murder are quotidian—in other words, this is a story of a young girl growing up in our world, and the consequences that such a childhood has on her mature, civilized, ‘saved’ future self. Everybody claims everything is a classic—but believe you me: This is one of them. A full-on stunner.
Junot Diaz wrote the short story collection Drown and the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Burning the Days
by James Salter
There is something old-worldly and honest and unself-conscious about this memoir. It made me nostalgic and sad; it made me nod often in recognition. I believed him. The sentences are stark, uncluttered, elegant. I saw in Salter a man who loves literature, who has a strange sort of humility and a need to lionize others, who loves Paris and New York, and who, most of all, writes of a world permeated, wonderfully, by loss.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author, most recently, of Half of a Yellow Sun, now available in paperback.
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army
by Jeremy Scahill
[Nation Books] 2007
Jeremy Scahill’s book is the utterly gripping story of how the Bush Administration spent tens of millions of public dollars building a parallel corporate army that functions in Iraq entirely outside the law. The company is so deeply linked to far-right causes that it constitutes nothing less than a Republican Guard. When Blackwater first came out, it was barely reviewed. Fast forward a few months and suddenly the book looks prescient.
Naomi Klein is the New York Times bestselling author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
by John Brockman
[Harper Perennial] 2006
Books lumped together in the informal genre of ‘bathroom reading’ occupy, by definition, an uncomfortable place in our literature. A book’s place next to the throne means, generally, that it is no more than the court jester of reading: not meant to be taken seriously, and not meant to be read through. But what of the bathroom book that inspires fealty, the bathroom book that one actually returns to every damned day? Such a book is What We Believe But Cannot Prove, a paperback original with a title that does absolute justice to its contents: It’s a compendium of opinions from the leading scientists and mathematicians of our day, who were asked to venture outside experimental and geometric certainties into the realms of hunch and speculation. The results are at once rigorous, exquisitely reasoned, untainted by mysticism, somewhat useless, and altogether mindblowing. No other book captures so well the inherent comedy of the life of the mind—which makes it a perfect complement to the ritual that captures the inescapable comedy of the life of the body. I read What We Believe every day, if I’m lucky, and if I’ve had my morning cup of coffee.
Tom Junod writes for Esquire.
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows
by J.K. Rowling
For my page-turning pleasure, nothing else this year matched the final book of the Potter septet. Rowling never blinked with the spotlight of literary history bright in her face; she delivered a book of great heart and intelligence, and turned her 784 page block of a blockbuster’s release date into a hallowed holiday of words for... what now? Tens of millions? Hundreds? I personally declare that July 21 at my house each year shall now be Reading & Rowling Day. No work. No visitors. No baseball on TV. Just a soft chair and humankind’s greatest creation—a good book.
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor, and author of Land O’ Goshen, a novel.
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
by Jean Hatzfeld
[Other Press] 2007
I know this sounds like hopelessly depressing material, and of course it is. But it’s also very readable, and elegantly edited, and it humanizes the witnesses to the genocide in Rwanda in a way that almost no book or film has yet. Hundreds of thousands of people read Ishmael Beah’s wonderful A Long Way Gone, which brought us into the mind and soul of a child soldier in Sierra Leone, and if you made it through that book, you will make it through Life Laid Bare, a collection of oral histories from Rwanda’s survivors. I truly believe there is no better way to understand those unspeakable months in 1994 than by hearing from the Rwandans themselves.
Dave Eggers writes, teaches, edits and publishes in San Francisco. He is co-founder of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit tutoring center and writing school for kids. His most recent novel is What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng.