Cristina Garcia on THE BARON IN THE TREES
Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees is an absolute delight of a novel that suspends one's disbelief. Cosimo, a young nobleman, climbs a tree in a huff of disgust with his family, then spends the rest of his life arboreally—with the most comic, rich, and fantastical details. Told from his more conventional brother's curiously omniscient point of view, populated with historical figures and incident, and filled with tales of wild passions, philosophy, and politics, The Baron in the Trees is essentially a book about individuality and belonging. It deserves to be passed down from generation to generation, with an importunate: Now you must read this!
Cristina Garcia is a National Book Award finalist for her novel Dreaming in Cuban. She is also the author of the books The Agüero Sisters, Monkey Hunting, A Handbook to Luck, and King of Cuba.
Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was a noted Italian journalist and fiction writer known for his simple yet strange stories and novels. He often shares international shelf space with Borges and Kafka.
Tom Piazza on DAVID COPPERFIELD
I’d give David Copperfield. I’m reading it for the first time, I’m ashamed to admit, although it turns out that many of my literary-minded friends have not read it, either. It’s so great I almost can’t believe it—great even by Dickens’ standards. The vividness of every character (even if the character appears for only a few lines, sitting by a fire and muttering), the mixture of burlesque, pathos, wit, emotional insight, and social acuity, the sheer energy of it, the invention, the tenderness… Last year, one dark soul at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville told me that the novel is dead because she can’t make a living writing them anymore. Must disagree for any number of reasons. But, on the face of it, the novel is alive as long as David Copperfield is within reach.
Tom Piazza’s novel A Free State was published by HarperCollins in September. His other books include the novel City Of Refuge, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and Devil Sent The Rain.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was quoted saying David Copperfield was his favorite of the books he'd written.
Francine Prose on MICROSCRIPTS
The book I would give as a gift is a book I have been giving as a gift, whenever I have the occasion to give a gift. It’s Robert Walser’s Microscripts, published by New Directions, a collection of the fragments that Walser wrote, in a tiny handwriting, during his long stay in a mental hospital. Translated by Susan Bernofsky, the text is extraordinary and very moving, but what also makes the book so satisfying to give is that it’s an exquisitely beautiful object, a work of art in itself: handsomely designed and printed, with a lovely cover and amazing facsimiles of Walser’s writing. I’ve given dozens of them away, and will, I expect, give away dozens more.
Francine Prose is the author of more than twenty books and a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard College.
Robert Walser (1878-1956) was a Swiss modernist writer who playfully juxtaposed pulp fiction with literature. He was unfortunately often lost in the swell of post-WWII authors, although currently his prowess is being rediscovered outside of Switzerland and Germany.
Patricia Volk on THE MOVIEGOER
This is the book I reread most, every five years or so or when the spirit moves me. I annotate it and see just by looking in the margins where I’ve been. Binx Bolling – the man who has everything – is looking for something and has no idea what it is. I think of Walker Percy when I read it. Born in Alabama, he came up to New York for medical school and contracted TB. He was sent to Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks for the “fresh air cure.” While there he read philosophy, month after month of it, rocking on a porch in the frigid air. By the time he was cured, he’d decided not to be a doctor but to be a philosopher. No one was interested in his theories so he novelized them. The Moviegoer was his first book. It won the National Book Award. Eight years ago, I loaned my beloved copy to a friend’s son who was having Binx Bolling-ish problems. I made him swear on his life he’d return it. He’s still alive but I never got The Moviegoer back. I’m going to buy myself one for Christmas.
Patricia Volk teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Columbia. She is the author of two novels, two short story collections, and a memoir. Her latest book is Shocked.
Walker Percy (1916-1990) won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer. He wrote six novels, and many nonfiction books set in and around the Louisiana area.
Jayne Anne Phillips on UNTHINKABLE: SELECTED POEMS
Irene McKinney's Unthinkable: Selected Poems, represents three decades of direct, forceful, vernacular work addressed to us, her readers and listeners, in honest, intimate tones. McKinney's poems embody the rhythms of speech, not written discourse, and her themes are timeless connection with the land, with seasons and animals, with people, with loss and grief and joy. Like Wislawa Szymborska or Ruth Stone, McKinney is an independent spirit powered by clarity and compassion. Grounded in Appalachian history, geography, and custom, her poems draw on a wide range of poetic and spiritual traditions and tell truths we immediately recognize as universal. McKinney, a major American poet, is represented here in the breadth and depth of her achievement. Unthinkable is a revelation."
Read immediately: "Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia," the poem given in handwritten copies to mourners at her graveside in Talbott Churchyard, last winter in the snow. Exhilarating, freeing, bone deep.
Jayne Anne Phillips' books include, Lark and Termite, a Finalist for the National Book Award and the NBCC Award; and Quiet Dell.
Irene McKinney (1939-2012) was an American poet and editor. She was a recipiecnt of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.
John Wray on THE FESTIVAL OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS
This Christmas, I'm sending all my nearest and dearest--and even some people I don't like, particularly--copies of Matt Dojny's hilarious, bizarre, and just-plain-inspiring debut novel, The Festival of Earthly Delights. Dojny creates an entire imaginary southest Asian country, Puchai, just to startle, humiliate, terrify, and ultimately save the life of Boyd Darrow, his lovable, luckless protagonist. Darrow arrives in Puchai with next to nothing to lose, then proceeds to lose everything, including himself; by the end of the novel, however, you'd give just about anything to trade places with him. I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say too much more. Except that the plot features turtles, rotting fruit used as a weapon, the Sikh religion, and a house of ill-repute named "Meowy Christmas." Emphatically, shrilly recommended. Buy your people this book!
John Wray's three novels, The Right Hand of Sleep, Canaan's Tongue, and Lowboy, have earned him numerous distinctions, including a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2010 Mary Ellen Van der Heyden Prize from the American Academy in Berlin.
Matt Dojny's has writen one novel, The Festival of Earthly Delights, much to the delight of his wife and son and dog, who all live in Brooklyn.
Matt Bell on BIG RAY
Michael Kimball's slim novel about the death of the narrator's enormous father is one of the best books of 2012, and certainly among the most emotional experiences of my reading year: Written in gorgeously taut fragments, the narrator reveals bit by bit a portrait of Big Ray, his father who was never a dad, and despite the father's many cruelties the novel is less an accusation than a reckoning, a coming to terms with Big Ray's death—and with how the heavy gravity of the father's abuse and cruelty and often-unlikely beauty gave shape to the narrator's life. In one of the book's best passages, the narrator writes, "Sometimes I try to figure out how different I might have been if my father had been nicer to me. Would I try as hard as I do? Would I be happier than I am? Would I have a different wife? Would I have children instead of cats? Would I be a schoolteacher instead of a writer? Would I have ever moved away from home? Would I be more sad, but less torn up?" I've pressed more copies of Kimball's previous novel Dear Everybody into other people's hands than of almost any other book of the past few years, and I'm only stopping now to replace that suggestion with Big Ray, his best and most heartbreaking novel yet.
Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His debut novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods was published by Soho Press in June 2013.
Michael Kimball is the author of five books, including Big Ray. His books have been translated into a dozen languages, including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean, and Greek.