Recommendations 1/31/2021: Paying attention

There's lots of ways to read.

This week’s column is a reflection based on my experience of reading George Saunders’ new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The book is an elucidation of what it is like to “read like a writer,” a subject that a number of others have taken on, including Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them and New Yorker critic James Wood in How Fiction Works.

For my money, Saunders’ approach is the best I’ve read at demystifying how one thinks as they try to understand how a piece of fiction creates its effects. It made me nostalgic for my undergraduate and graduate school years when I was first being inculcated in this particular way of paying attention (which is all it is).

The book particularly resonated with me because it is similar in approach to my own book, The Writer’s Practice, in that it assumes that the audience has both the ability and interest to develop this skill. The reason we can assume this is because the audience is human and therefore can think and feel, have ideas, and possesses a desire to express oneself. One of my motives for writing The Writer’s Practice was to demystify writing for developing writers. I’ve worked with so many students who believe that they don’t know how to write based on the experiences they’ve had with writing in school. The reality, however, is that the writing they’re often asked to do in school is so divorced from their humanity, that they’re being asked to do something unnatural. Changing the frame so the thinking and writing is rooted in what writers actually do can prove liberating.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long already. Recommendations follow the usual instructions.

If you’d like to submit a list of your recent reads for a book recommendation for yourself, the instructions for consideration are here.

Links to the recommended books take you to The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. So far, precisely zero books have been purchased through the Substack, which is fine because everyone has their preferences, but if you haven’t yet, click on that link to Open Books and consider supporting their mission.

If you know anybody who might like to get once or twice weekly book recommendations, you know how to tell them where to find us.

1. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell 
2. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
3. The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemisin
4. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 
5. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins 

Sasha S. - San Diego, CA  

An interesting mix, which often makes it easy to find a book that will connect because we’re looking at a reader willing and eager to range. In this case, I’m going with The City and the City by China Miéville

1. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
2. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyou
3. The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Byne
4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
5. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Laura O. - Lake Forest, IL

Just seeing the title of Bad Blood makes me upset all over to think about how that grift went down. If you haven’t read it, it’s highly recommended. In the vein of true stories, and an interest in the past, I’m going with one of my favorite non-fiction books of last year, The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice by David Hill. I mean Hot Springs, Arkansas used to be the gambling capital of the country, and not that long ago!

1. Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
2. Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump
3. The Searcher by Tana French
4. Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford
5. Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Debbie S. - Lisle, IL

This list makes me believe that Debbie can handle the psychological suspense of J. Robert Lennon’s Castle, which managed to actually scare me.

1. Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen
2. The Soul of America by Jon Meacham
3. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
4. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
5. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Marcy T. - Naperville, IL

If Marcy doesn’t know the work of Allie Brosh, she’s in for a treat. A mixture of humor and pathos that burrows under the skin. Solutions and Other Problems is her newest one.