A recipe for mind-tingling bliss from the author of Bonk: wondrous novels (Oh, the language! The language!), the fine-tuned childhood memories of the one-and-only Bill Bryson, plus a Deep South literary gumbo that will have you on the midnight train to Georgia.
One of the maddening ironies of writing books is that it leaves so little time for reading others'. My bedside is piled with books, but it's duty reading: books for book research, books for review. The ones I pine for are off on a shelf downstairs. I don't read good books anymore, it seems; I just buy them and put them on the shelf and every now and then walk over and pet them. I'm like the optimistic dieter who fills her closet with clothes two sizes too small and dreams of the day she can wear them. I know just what I want to do when I retire.
Mary Roach is the author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
By Bill Bryson
I didn't know I could love a book more than I loved The Lost Continent, Bryson's sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued American travelogue. I was wary when this one came out: a Bryson childhood memoir? Not to worry. He's got a jones for research. And as much as it's a book about Bryson and his family, it's a book about America in the 1950s, the golden age of the nuclear family (and the nuclear bomb), comic books, Disneyland, and Dick and Jane. I actually rationed out the pages, allowing myself just a chapter or two at a time, so the pleasure would last. It wasn't difficult because, at least twice in every paragraph, I'd have to take a moment to marvel at the writing. No phrasing is ever stale or flat. Every sentence earns its keep: It amuses or it informs, and often it does both at once.
By Cormac McCarthy
Anytime someone would tell me they love Cormac McCarthy based on having read All the Pretty Horses, I'd tell them they can't say they've read McCarthy until they've read Suttree. I'd compare Horses to Hemingway and Suttree to Faulkner. What a jerk! Like I'm part of some elite club that only the hardiest reader gets to join. But secretly, that's how I feel. It took me months to finish this book. Honestly, a whole haircut grew out as Suttree rowed his skiff back and forth along the river. My vocabulary tripled. (In flipping through it recently, one sentence sent me to the dictionary three times—sulcate, ossature, cerements.) I can't remember the book in any detail, but it's still with me. It's like this nightmare I had as a child: I looked into a car parked alongside a road at night, and I saw something dark and terrifying. When I awoke I had no memory of what was in the car, but the feeling was still lurching around inside somewhere.
By Katherine Dunn
Not geek as in computer geek. Geek as in person (woman, in this case) who bites the heads off chickens. And later doses herself with arsenic and radioisotopes in order to spawn her own family of sideshow freaks. Grotesque, yes, delightfully so, but also high art. (Geek Love was a National Book Award finalist.) I read this book back before there was an Internet. It made me insanely curious about the author. The detail was so knowing and explicit. Had she herself worked the midway of some dying roadside carnival? I awaited the next novel. It never came. I could Google her right now, but I prefer to preserve the mystery.
By Burkhard Bilger
I happened to pick this book up and reread it about the time of the last presidential election. While politics dug a firebreak between red state and blue, this book was a reminder, for me, of the rural South's enchantments. Bilger was once my editor, but my adoration of his writing would be as strong if I had not ever met him. Like the short stories of Eudora Welty, this is writing that makes a northerner want to drop out of her life and re-emerge south of the Mason-Dixon with a shotgun and a still. (And why not? I'll never, as long as I live, write descriptions as fine as Bilger's: "He's finding his groove now, voice rising and falling like a country preacher, body rolling and bobbing in his chair like a balloon on an updraft.") Bilger is a New Yorker staffer who grew up in the South and, thank God, never really got it out of his system.
By Annie Proulx
If I had 10 to the 30th times the writing talent that I have, I like to think that this is the sort of book I'd write. It speaks to two things dear to me: the far-off, overlooked blank spots on the map (e.g., Newfoundland) and misfits (e.g., Quoyle: "a great damp loaf of a body. ... At 16 he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw."). Proulx's talent is so profound and mystifying as to be almost extraterrestrial. I don't exaggerate when I say that her acknowledgments (in particular, for the story collection Bad Dirt) are more compelling reading than many authors' books.