What You Read When You Don’t Have To

Up until about two years ago, I would have said I didn’t much like short stories in general, with the exception of Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, and, more recently, Unaccustomed Earth). This year, I’ve read several collections that have changed my mind about short stories. Here are the top four:

Favorite Short Story Collections Read in 2009
Delicate Edible Birds, Lauren Groff – I read and enjoyed Lauren Groff’s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, and was delighted to get a copy of Delicate Edible Birds when it was published. These stories are longer, so for those whose problem with short stories is that by the time they become invested in the character(s), the story is over, dip a toe in the water with this bunch. Nearly all of Groff’s main characters are female – I remember thinking “strong women characters” but not in a militant feminist way. The title story is especially good.

Love Begins in Winter, Simon Van Booy – Simply cannot say enough good things about this book. There are only five stories (again, good for story-shy novel-lovers), and the first one was so heart-stoppingly good that I read it again before going on to the other four. He’s a poetic, lyrical writer, but the stories and characters are there too. The title story also gave me the nudge I needed to get Bach’s Cello Suites, which I’ve been enjoying ever since.

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson – These stories are a bit shorter but I was blown away by the inventiveness and energy of them. If Simon Rich (Ant Farm; Free Range Chickens) and Simon Van Booy met in the middle, the result might be something like this.

Birds of America, Lorrie Moore – All of these were good, but the one that lingered was “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” the story of a Mother, her Husband, and their Baby in a pediatric oncology ward. I’m looking forward to reading Moore’s new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, this year.


I know; I know. There is no way to read them all. Still, I’m chasing down the ones I wasn’t required to read in high school or college. One by one…here are my three favorites that I read in 2009:

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov – I’m far from the first to proclaim the utter brilliance of this book. What makes it even more unbelievable is that English is his third language; most people don’t write that well in their first. Extremely high-quality prose and a much more engaging read than I was expecting.

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins – A few years ago I read The Moonstone (because it was mentioned in The Time Traveler’s Wife) and enjoyed it; The Woman In White was even better. If you don’t think a Victorian novel can be un-put-down-able, think again.

The Annotated Alice, Lewis Carroll – Another one I read because of The Time Traveler’s Wife; I found a 1973 paperback edition for a dollar at Housing Works. It had been ages since I’d read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and all the notes were fascinating. Carroll (Dodgson) had a delightfully absurd sense of humor and is playful with language throughout – the literary pyrotechnics are not to be found only in “The Jabberwock”. (And I finally discovered the answer(s) to the riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”)


I know some people who refuse to re-read a book on principle: there are just too many books out there, so how can you justify reading one twice (or, say, eighteen times) when others are going unread? Maybe I can’t really justify it, but hey – love doesn’t make sense. Here are six old favorites I re-read in 2009:

Call Me By Your Name, Andre Aciman – I’ve read this three or four times, actually. The language is beautiful, there’s a convincing sense of place (most of the story takes place one summer in Italy), and it brought back what it was like to be sixteen in full force.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – If you know me, you know: I’ve read this one far more times than I’m capable of counting. It has sent me off to discover many other works of art – mostly other books, but music too – but I always come back to it. It seems reductive and incomplete to describe it this way, but it is a love story.

All My Friends Are Superheroes, Andrew Kaufman – I’ve talked about this one before, and I recommend it for EVERYONE. It’s short – it’ll take an hour to read, tops, and then another hour after that, because you’ll want to re-read it immediately. Sweet, simple, and creative.

Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky – This WWII story set in France was originally conceived as a five-volume work; Suite Francaise is the first two volumes, because Nemirovsky was hauled off by the Nazis and killed in Auschwitz before she could finish the third, fourth, and fifth volumes of the book (in case you needed another reason to hate the Nazis). The incredible thing about Suite Francaise – aside from the writing itself – is the way it captures the mood, the atmosphere, of the time and place. Whereas most WWII fiction is written after the fact, Nemirovsky was writing history as it was happening.

Possession, A.S. Byatt – Yet another one I read due to The Time Traveler’s Wife. I remember enjoying it more the first time around – like Dickens (and please don’t stone me for saying this), it’s a bit of a slog, but it picks up and pays off in the end. And it’s a lovely story.

Griffin & Sabine/Sabine’s Notebook/The Golden Mean, Nick Bantock – This is actually three books but I am counting them as one. Griffin & Sabine is completely and utterly magical. It takes the epistolary novel to the extreme: the whole book is on postcards or letters you take out of their envelopes. There’s no way you could put this on a Kindle.

I did not realize (but should have) how long this would become. Should be able to wrap up novels in Part Three, as well as the books I am most looking forward to in 2010. Meanwhile, a quote from the irrepressible Oscar Wilde:

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

What I’m reading: Tell No One, Harlan Coben; The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris
What I’m listening to: How to Save a Life, The Fray; And Out Come the Wolves, Rancid; Songs for the Long Lonely Drive, The Poem Adept

1 Comment

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One response to “What You Read When You Don’t Have To

  1. Pingback: Best of 2011: Prequel « Jenny Arch

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