Books, for the cornhusk holiday and other emergencies

I spent half of last weekend shuttling between the bed and the couch, lying around in my pajamas and forgetting to brush my hair.

I wasn’t sick, I was reading. On Saturday, only the light and my beverages — coffee, then iced tea, then beer — changed until I reached the last page of Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr. Y.

It’s a strange and powerful book, a thought experiment involving discredited and current science, Derrida, religion, transgressive sex, a cursed novel by a dead man named Burlem, and many other things that make even less sense jumbled together out of context. I’ll have more to say about The End of Mr. Y after I’ve spent some time mulling it over, but I’m posting now because I might not have read this book if certain people hadn’t raved about it endlessly.

Now I’m caught up in Calvin Baker’s tremendous Dominion, and I can’t believe I’m expected to sit here and do work when all the characters I’ve been living with are on the edge of the Revolutionary War and are desecrating their freedman patriarch’s utopia by violating his most basic rule — i.e., we, a family of freed slaves, do not own people.

Earlier this year, I asked: “what’s the last book that made you skip work, or stay up half the night, or forget yourself at stoplights?” (See Books that make you stand at the bus stop.)

I received a variety of responses, which I kept forgetting to post. My favorite, from email pal Amitava Kumar, starts with this observation:

I’ll come to the books in a second; what I first want to know is this: was it ever the book I was reading that made me forget my subway stop? I have done this five hundred times, and the reading matter has been so diverse, and my need for solitude so consistently the same, that it hardly mattered what I was reading.

Two of the books that filled this need for Kumar are Naipaul’s Finding the Center and Orhan Pamuk’s Snow.

Now that the cornhusk holiday is nearly upon us, I thought I’d post some of the recommendations I received, for the benefit of anyone planning to pass Thanksgiving with crazy-making family members. (I used to do this, but gave it up.)

Maybe one of these books will transport you, or at least facilitate repression of the fact that sweet potatoes with marshmallow, or some equally putrid seasonal concoction, will soon be heaped on a plate and set expectantly before you.

Lance Mannion started “the first volume of Callow’s biography, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu … and ate it up with a spoon. I read late into the night. I was furious with myself when I grew too tired to keep reading. I can’t remember the last book I read that I just didn’t want to put down.” (Take a look at the comments for some suggestions from his readers.)

Author Kelly Cherry writes, “Nietzsche’s Kisses, by Lance Olsen, did it for me. A riveting, witty, and empathetic exploration of a fascinating mind, and beautifully written.”

Dominic Preziosi is “fortunate enough to have it happen with the last book I read and the one I’m currently reading: Housekeeping (the novel Marilynne Robinson wrote way before Gilead and which I’d somehow managed not to get to until recently). [Great book.]

James Tata “[does]n’t know about skipping work or ignoring stop lights, but the last book to really make me skip routine things was Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.” [Also a great book.]

Noria “couldn’t put down Sara Gran’s Come Closer, an eerily believable story of demonic possession (or madness a la “The Yellow Wallpaper“). I don’t scare easy, but this book actually gave me nightmares, a testament to Sara Gran’s superpowers.”

Kirsten Johnson “didn’t discover Nabokov’s Lolita till I was in my late twenties, but it instantly became my favorite novel of all time. I read it through in a couple or three days and then reread it two more times in a row. I love its humor, its style, its intelligence and the love affair its author had with a language that, strangely, was not his native one. A close second would be Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes.” [If you haven’t read Lolita, what are you waiting for?]

After reading my post, the City Mouse “felt a pang on remembering I’d just finished John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a page-turner I found so transporting I wish I could discover it again.” [I admired this book, too.]

Jenny Davidson of Light Reading writes:

My most recent insane must-have-it, can’t-put-it-down reading experience was the first installment of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon. It is the perfect Anne McCaffrey/Patrick O’Brian hybrid, and I absolutely devoured it, and put it down at the end ready to weep that I didn’t have the sequels immediately on hand.

And my friend Darice coincidentally puts in a good word for the same book.

I just recently tossed all else aside to finish reading His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, a fantasy novel about aviation in the Napoleonic Wars — the aviation being accomplished on dragons. Beautifully written and realized, and the relationships between the characters (human and dragon) make it even more compelling.

I know there were more, but I’ve misplaced them.


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