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Books, books, books!

March 21, 2011

So I have been a moron lately. I started to write about what I did in Honduras, and then got horribly embarrassed when I remembered that I had asked you, my clever readers, to recommend BOOKS for Honduras. These books went mostly unread. In fact, in the perverse way that some of us who lug gigantic hardcover biographies (or Greek grammar textbooks, or stunningly boring but significant twentieth-century tomes we have no intention of cracking the spines of–I’m looking at you, dreadful Robert Musil) to farflung locales, I carried about thirty pounds of printed material with me on vacation, and read about seven ounces of it. (On the plane down. I kid you not. What on earth is the matter with me?)

In my defense, I was in HONDURAS. I rose every day at the mind-numbing hour of five thirty, and proceeded to one or another delightful activity. (Nearly every day my mother and I would look at each other, realize it was only about eight a.m., and burst out laughing with the sheer glee of having already had several adventures before we’d normally be out of bed. It was enough to make me swear to wake up early every day from then on. It was not, however, enough to make me actually DO it.)

On vacation, if there are books around, I tend to adopt an apocalyptic mindset. I will read everything publicly available before resorting to what I myself brought along–which is kind of like storing one’s savings in the mattress, or hoarding food, or keeping every day’s newspaper just in case. So I didn’t touch any of the books I’d brought with me, not even “A Suitable Boy“, which clocks in at six million pages and about seventy five pounds. Instead I read Suite Française, which my mother had brought, which was absolutely fucking amazing. My mother read the Mitford book I’d brought for her (“Wigs on the Green“) and pronounced it “dopey”. And I read an absolute stunner called Chasing Tropical Birds, which my mother had read when she’d been down in Honduras staying at the same lodge the year before, because it had rained and she’d been desperate. It smelled like mildew and I took it to bed with me every night (at the ripe old hour of around eight–generally we’d both read for half an hour or so before conking out) and ordered it immediately when I got home. (It’s out of print, but I ordered it from Amazon and the package came from Germany. Quite a thrill.)

My mother defied my Do Not Bring Things I Have Read order by bringing “At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays” by Anne Fadiman. Which was useful, as I liked to carry it around with me in hopes that someone would ask about it, so that I could casually mention that I have, in fact, met Anne Fadiman. (She is the best friend and college roommate of one of my graduate student advisers. We have exchanged emails, even. Alas, no one asked.)

But I started thinking about Anne Fadiman, and how amazing her first book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” was.  And it occurred to me that she is one of the very few writers whose entire oeuvre is absolutely recommendable, if you know what I mean.  I have loved everything I’ve read that she has written.  Everything.

The only other writer about whom I can say that same thing is Laurie Colwin, whose untimely death (she was in her late 40s, I believe).  If you have not read her books, by all means do so immediately.  Goodbye Without Leaving may be my very favorite, followed closely by Family Happiness and Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object. And oh, Another Marvelous Thing. Then there are her short stories–The Lone Pilgrim is a wonderful place to start.  (I’m not linking to these via my Amazon affiliates thing, which has seeded my book-buying fund with about thirty dollars–nothing to sneeze at, actually!–so far, thanks to those of you who have entered Amazon via one of my links.  But I don’t like the way my own website formats the links, all puffy and blue, and I don’t know how to change it.  However, if you get into Amazon via one of the other links above and THEN buy Laurie Colwin–or anything else, for that matter–I get a tiny cut.)

Laurie Colwin also wrote two books of essays about food, complete with recipies–Home Cooking and More Home Cooking–which were out of print for a while, which forced me to STEAL them from my graduate school university’s library.  (I’m sorry.)  But the good news is they’ve been reissued, and I can honestly say that her recipes, like her prose, never disappoint.

I’m about to go on another trip (all shall be revealed) and am once again faced w/ the daunting prospect of choosing what books to take along.  But instead of asking you for book recommendations, this time I want to ask you whether you have authors like the two I’ve listed above, whose every novel or story or poem you feel is wonderful.  Authors without any soft spots, as it were, in their body of work.  Even my beloved Flannery O’Connor didn’t quite pull off The Violent Bear it Away, I don’t think.  (She was a much better essayist and short-story writer than novelist.)

So:  Who are your Perfect Writers?

46 Comments leave one →
  1. Bethany permalink
    March 21, 2011 1:53 pm

    Kent Haruf is one my perfect writers — Plainsong, Eventide, The Tie that Binds — all just beautiful.

  2. March 21, 2011 2:03 pm

    What a good question. I’ll have to sift through my favorites and give this some serious thought.

    In the mean time, I have to say that while I didn’t know Laurie Colwin was an author, years ago I belonged to a site called Readerville that mixed food and books quite a bit and someone there posted her recipe for Damp Gingerbread and it is phenomenal. If you’ve never had it, make it quickly before the weather gets too warm.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      March 21, 2011 10:17 pm

      I’ve made it! It is indeed splendid. But all her recipes are fantastic. I make a broccoli rabe with orzo recipe all the time, and also a jalepeno creamed spinach. She’s wonderful. Was wonderful, alas.

  3. March 21, 2011 3:05 pm

    Charles de lint is one such author. Love everything he writes.

  4. March 21, 2011 3:49 pm

    Anne Tyler. Especially Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. But after awhile, I tire of Baltimore.
    Anne Lamott. But really her essays, and Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions.
    Lorrie Moore. Mostly her short stories, not the novels. Although Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is amazing.
    Wait, these all have caveats. OK:
    David Sedaris.
    Virginia Woolfe.
    Roald Dahl.

  5. Hawkeye permalink
    March 21, 2011 3:49 pm

    I second Kent Haruf, and further recommend Wally Lamb, Chris Bohjalian and Lionel Shriver. Love everything they’ve ever written.

  6. Amy F. permalink
    March 21, 2011 4:16 pm

    Oh, I love Laurie Colwin! I always compare reading her books to lying in someone’s lap and getting your head petted. So comforting. Carol Shields is a good one for that too, along with Anne Tyler.

  7. March 21, 2011 4:20 pm

    Ha, you too with Robert Musil? DEAR LORD, I am haunted by the Man Without Qualities. I will never, ever, finish it.

  8. March 21, 2011 4:24 pm

    I second Anne Tyler and David Sedaris and raise you William Trevor. Though I haven’t read everything by him because he’s written hundreds and hundreds of novels and short stories and there are only so many hours. Also Leif Enger, who’s only written two books, both nearly perfect. Is that fair, to call a writer perfect when their list is so short? Ah well. Perfect until he disappoints.

  9. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    March 21, 2011 4:38 pm

    Oh, William Trevor–you’re right, though I haven’t read everything either. Roald Dahl, yes. I wonder whether we can add Salinger? I mean, I think we can. Even “Seymour: An Introduction” is pretty damned good.

    Perhaps E. B. White. In fact, yes, definitely E. B. White. Foolish omission in the first place.

  10. March 21, 2011 5:10 pm

    Elizabeth George, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Jacqueline Winspear, Elizabeth Peters, MM Kaye. Yes, alot of mystery writers but that’s my go to genre for a good read.

  11. youngest wren of nine permalink
    March 21, 2011 5:54 pm

    Anne Tyler, yes; Salinger, yes. Also all of Iris Murdoch: all those relationship tangles, the muddles, the endless talk — wonderful. (If I’m allowed a favorite, I’m choosing “The Book and the Brotherhood” but I really do like all of them, and there are so many that I have forgotten most plots which makes for satisfying re-reading.)
    Off-topic but enquiring minds want to know anyway: how did the dinner party go?

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      March 21, 2011 6:59 pm

      It turned into a different kind of dinner party altogether, due to some familial constraints (not mine, but the boyfriend’s…) But in a way the cooking, chatting, eating etc. served the same purpose, even if it wasn’t exactly as I’d planned. And I shopped with my friend who’s the excellent cook for the dinner party she hosted (here’s her description: on Saturday, which was great fun–we wandered from vegetable market to butcher to spice market and so forth–the highlight of my weekend.

  12. mcr permalink
    March 21, 2011 7:19 pm

    Alan Hollinghurst.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      March 21, 2011 9:26 pm

      Yes. The Line of Beauty is my favorite, though.

  13. Celeste permalink
    March 21, 2011 7:31 pm

    Anne Tyler is my first pick for Everything, but while I don’t tire of Baltimore, I sometimes tire of stories about family life. Kent Haruf, divine. All I’ve read of Roald Dahl is “The Twits”, which is hilarious. I like Peter Mayles but I haven’t read all of his work (yet). I’ve liked everything I’ve read so far of Elinor Lippman’s. Only one work of Annie Proulx’s has been a letdown, the one about the accordion owned by many people. I like Milan Kundera so much, but I have only read about half of what I’ve found by him. I’m still working on the works of Alice Munro; even when I don’t always like the story, I always like her writing. I gave up on Margaret Atwood. Anita Shreve is 50-50, but if you read nothing else of hers, get “The Weight of Water”. I soooo wanted to like Paulo Coehlo, but Just. Couldn’t. Do. It. I think “Lone Pilgrim” is my favorite of Laurie Colwin’s…I was so sad when she died. “A Mythical Subject” was the best of the bunch and I’ve re-read it so many times I can see the pages in my mind. I have loved almost all of John Irving, but “A Widow for One Year” is to me the best of his best.

  14. Jenny permalink
    March 21, 2011 8:04 pm

    Oh — you’re the first person I’ve ever met (well, “met”) who loved Laurie Colwin as much as I do. How I love, love, love her books. They are exactly right: funny without being manic, poignant without being sappy, unpredictable without being experimental. And I also love everything I’ve ever gotten my hands on by Anne Fadiman. So we share at least some literary tastes.

    I don’t know whether you read mysteries, but I’ve never found Laurie King to fail. Or historical fiction, but I am devoted to Patrick O’Brian and Dorothy Dunnett.

    • March 24, 2011 11:32 am

      I love love Laurie King…The Language of Bees was amazing!

  15. Geraldine permalink
    March 21, 2011 8:25 pm

    Annie Dillard.

    • Jenny permalink
      March 22, 2011 11:53 am

      Ooh yes, Annie Dillard. I think I’ve read everything she’s written, poetry and all.

  16. meera permalink
    March 21, 2011 8:54 pm

    I second Iris Murdoch. And add Jean Rhys (Good Morning, Midnight is my favorite of hers). Also Colette, Penelope Fitzgerald (the Bookshop and Offshore especially), Tessa Hadley and Alice Munro. And Michael Ondaatje. And Penelope Lively.

    I have an extreme love for Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac. I have tried to read many other books she wrote, but nothing else was even close. So, not a perfect writer – but a mysterious one-hit wonder.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      March 21, 2011 9:11 pm

      Actually, I was going to ask about one-hit-wonders in my next book post. So hold that thought…

  17. March 22, 2011 12:05 am

    Oh yes! Alice Munro – everything. And John Irving: The Widow for One Year, my favorite. I have not read Laurie Colwin so I am anticipating already…thank you for the gift of that…

  18. youngest wren of nine permalink
    March 22, 2011 4:16 am

    @meera: I’m happy to hear somebody else likes Murdoch — I’ve foisted her on my book group twice and gotten a “meh” response each time. Pity.
    Re Colette: my absolutely favorite question from back when Michael Dirda was doing his weekly book chat was a request for “erotic literature one could read during a cross-country flight that would not label a woman as cheap but might spark a conversation with an attractive seat-mate”. After some deliberation, he chose Colette’s The Pure and the Impure. Must be some book — I still haven’t read it.
    Re Anita Brookner: remember that part in Alan Bennett’s “Uncommon Reader” where the Queen is told that, for security reasons, her book was exploded?
    “Exploded?” said the Queen. “But it was Anita Brookner.”
    This made me laugh so hard I cried.

  19. March 22, 2011 9:05 am

    Thanks for this! Laurie Colwin and Anne Fadiman are new to me, but given the other stuff you read, I’m sure I’ll be impressed. Completely support the inclusion of Munro and Murdoch, though I’m not totally sure I’ve read everything by them. How about Robertson Davies and David Foster Wallace? For those two, I hunted down everything I could: poetry, prose, letters, speeches, interviews. Awesome.

  20. farawayreader permalink
    March 22, 2011 9:43 am

    I love Miriam Toews, her books feel like old friends to me. They are dark and wacky and always leave me wanting them not to end as I care about the crazy characters. I am never disappointed. They are not for everyone, I have had friends say “too bleak” but to me writing that evokes that type of emotion is the kind that leaves a mark on a readers heart.

  21. LMM permalink
    March 22, 2011 10:28 am

    My husband bought me a Kindle for Christmas for just this reason. I protested, I didn’t want one, I told him…I like BOOKS, thank you very much. Then he reminded me of the 7 or 8 books I bring on every trip we take (though I do read them, depending on the trip) and how lovely it would be for them all to weigh just a few ounces.
    He was right. Even if I just use it for vacations, it’s so cool and convenient…especially with the checked bag weight restrictions.

  22. March 22, 2011 11:37 am

    I can’t think of any that fit this criteria! My go to favorites, idols, heroines, all have at least one that just didn’t make it.

    Haven Kimmel – everything but Something Rising Light and Swift is BRILLIANT, and that one is just good.

    Annie Dillard – all good, but nothing compares to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or the beautiful sparse-ity of The Maytrees

    Madeleine L’Engle – such a huge body of work, some definitely brighter and better than others.

    Rosmarie Waldrop (obscure poet, which is synonymous, right?) – love all her work, but her new stuff is so much more full than the early stuff.

    I’ll be checking out the ones you’ve recommended. (I can’t really agree with lots of the ones listed in the comments.)

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      March 22, 2011 12:21 pm

      I was taught by Rosemarie Waldrop’s husband Keith in college–love her stuff, he’s a total character, their house is FLOOR TO CEILING books, every single room. I never had her as a teacher but I love her poetry….

      • March 22, 2011 1:58 pm

        I wrote my thesis on her!!!! I WENT TO THE HOUSE to interview her! Your are officially the first person I’ve ever mentioned the name to who knew who she was!

        Did you know Keith won the National Book Award in 2009?

        I am so… inexplicably… EXCITED.

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          March 22, 2011 5:39 pm

          I totally knew he won the Nat’l book award and was freaked out, in a very good way. Email me and let’s compare notes, shall we?

      • March 22, 2011 2:00 pm

        In retrospect, I could have guessed that you WOULD have read her.

  23. Libby permalink
    March 22, 2011 12:36 pm

    Jayne Anne Phillips – I adore her stuff. Margaret Atwood – still love her as well, especially everything post-Handmaid’s Tale – Oryx & Crake blew my mind. And +1 on Haven Kimmel, too.

  24. Pinkie Bling permalink
    March 22, 2011 1:07 pm

    Maya Angelou, and though she’s more pop-y, Maeve Binchy. It occurs to me, reading your suggestions and the comments so far, that there is a whole segment of authors of whom I’ve never heard.

    • Pinkie Bling permalink
      March 22, 2011 1:11 pm

      I mean, clearly – but many of you seem to be in agreement about so many I don’t know.

  25. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    March 22, 2011 5:40 pm

    The best, for me, is learning what YOU guys like to read. I never get much more than tidbits of your personalities…this is my craven way of pumping my readers for information about themselves…

    • Celeste permalink
      March 22, 2011 9:49 pm

      You should make an Irretrievably Broken identity on Facebook and friend us all.

  26. Connie Milburn permalink
    March 22, 2011 6:00 pm

    I love Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, Dreamers of the Day)…..would gladly read ANYTHING by her. Also really enjoy Geraldine Brooks.

  27. hls permalink
    March 22, 2011 6:36 pm

    I will see your Robertson Davies and raise you Timothy Findlay (some of his later stuff is more weird but still compelling).
    A lot of CanLit cited here which delights and surprises me (Canadian readers or should I not be surprised, it’s a national inferiority complex? Inquiring minds want to know.)
    For food writing (very good at both writing and food) MFK Fisher, and I must try Laurie Colwin, thanks for the reminder …
    P.S. my favourite bloggers and their commenters never disappoint either.

  28. lori permalink
    March 22, 2011 6:43 pm

    Joan Didion. I could read and re-read her sentences 50 times and not get bored. She is amazing!

  29. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    March 22, 2011 9:02 pm

    For me, Geraldine Brooks is a one-hit wonder. Year of Wonders was absolutely incredible. The kind of book that gave the pleasure that books gave when one was a child…is that a category we should look into?

  30. March 23, 2011 6:55 pm

    Have you read any Marge Piercy? I loved “Gone to Soldiers” and then read everything of hers that I could find.

  31. Tripta permalink
    March 25, 2011 5:59 am

    And my list of ” Authors I want to read” keeps growing longer and longer 🙂
    It seems rather unfair that I only have one life to read all this!
    As for my favourites – Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Agatha Christie, Austen, Saki, Gerald Durrell, and PG Wodehouse 🙂
    (I just noticed that the authors are all either Indian or British. Odd. Not conscious, this apparently anomaly)

  32. Tripta permalink
    March 25, 2011 6:00 am


  33. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    March 26, 2011 6:54 pm

    Oh, I forgot Mark Helprin. Drat.

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