The famed biographer of Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Hara recommends five books, from the favorite novel of his youth ( The Razor’s Edge) to the favorite novel of today’s teens ( Twilight).
The Razor’s Edgeby Somerset Maugham
“Lately I returned to a favorite novel of my adolescence… and marveled even more at its broad brushstrokes.”
Extreme times call for extreme fictional heroes. I love the minimal strokes of those Raymond Carver heroes who decide to dance with the girl, or finish a drink. But lately I returned to a favorite novel of my adolescence, Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (from 1944), and marveled even more at its broad brushstrokes: Our Christopher-Isherwood-style hero, Larry Darrell, dares to give up the cafés of Left Bank Paris for a spiritual makeover on the Ganges, returning, halo intact, to a blue-collar job in America. Now that’s reinventing yourself, while pursuing a plotline that curves to the far side of probability.
White Heatby Brenda Wineapple
“Like a film editor studying the shower scene in Psycho, I find myself going back to her novelistic opening.”
Bragging upfront that her limning of the friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson is “not a biography,” Wineapple cleverly shows how two biographical subjects, with chemistry, can sometimes be better that one. Like a film editor studying the shower scene in Psycho, I find myself going back to her novelistic opening—Higginson walking home from the post office on a spring day in 1862 with an unsolicited cream-colored letter from the reclusive poet—to see just how she pulls it off.
Twilightby Stephenie Meyer
“I can now attest that Edward the Vampire is the Heathcliff of our time.”
As one of the living dead who resisted reading this romance until the last minute, I can now attest that Edward the Vampire is the Heathcliff of our time, and Stephenie Meyer a reminder that the Bronte Sisters were pretty YA themselves. Are young adults reading up these days? Or are the rest of us reading down? I discover more and more of my favorite novels are shelved for teens. (See also Peter Cameron’s tale of angst in a downtown Manhattan art gallery— Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You.)
The Giftby Lewis Hyde
“This inspirational book for artists, intellectuals, and creative everybodies offers a timely critique of market capitalism.”
For those of us in search of our inner genius, this inspirational book for artists, intellectuals, and creative everybodies—written by a MacArthur fellow and reissued on its 25th anniversary—offers a timely critique of market capitalism, and a big hooray for art as the only gift that keeps on giving. Very 2009 is its riff on imagination and creativity as the only nourishment that can keep “the begging bowl of the Buddha” full.
Cheeverby Blake Bailey
“ Daddy Dearest meets Family Man in this lit bio with eye-popping scenes.”
Daddy Dearest meets Family Man in this lit bio with eye-popping scenes of the closeted novelist picking on his son Ben for any infraction of the code of faux-masculinity, fearing he might wind up a sissy; or getting suited up each weekday morning to ride the elevator of his building with the other businessmen, only to then hide out in the basement all day writing in his underwear. I read this hefty work on book tour, needing to see what the twitter was all about that was taking place just over my left shoulder.