A weekly roundup of fiction recommendations
by Gwen Cooper
Greetings, agoraphobes, and welcome back for the last of my three-part list of binge-worthy authors. As you may recall, we’re defining “binge-worthy” as meaning that the author in question has at least five novels or story collections independently worth reading, and we’re also avoiding the Austens and Roths who have undoubtedly been on your radar for years and years. Let’s get to it!
Lorrie Moore: If I had never read Elena Ferrante, I would say that nobody creates vivid, “voice-y,” and thoroughly believable narrators like Lorrie Moore. That I put her in the running with Elena Ferrante—who I think does this better than any other living writer—should tell you just how high my opinion of her in this area is. To finish reading a Moore story, or her much-ballyhooed 2009 novel A Gate at the Stairs, is to feel that you’ve just spent a chunk of time having an actual conversation with a real person you know intimately. Her characters live, is what I’m saying—and the feeling that you’re always in company when you’re reading Moore makes her an ideal author and virtual companion for the age of involuntary social distancing.
Start with: Birds of America—Moore’s 1988 collection of short stories is the first thing I ever read by her, and converted me thoroughly from reader to disciple.
My favorite: A Gate at the Stairs—This was a tough call, but I’ll give it to Gate primarily because, while Moore doesn’t fully stick the landing in transitioning from short-form narrative to novel, it’s still well worth getting to read her at length.
Leslie Marmon Silko: Technically, I’m fudging a bit by including Silko who—while having written a prolific body of poetry and non-fiction—only has three novels to her credit. Then again, she was a debut recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant in 1981, so who am I to quibble? Silko would be one of my very favorite writers even if she weren’t a unique voice among Native American novelists, of whom there are far too few. (I’m not overly fond of Louise Erdrich, which is limiting.) It’s almost a cliché to use words like “haunting” and “lyrical” to describe an author’s voice, but Silko is both of those things and far more. She also leans heavily on the po-mo device of non-linear narrative, but does so in a way that feels so intuitively logical that the reader never feels lost. She brings to brilliant life the Native American communities of the American Southwest—which, for this Jewish girl from Miami Beach, always feels very much like an adventure.
Start with: Ceremony—A haunting (there’s that word again!) attempt to reconcile the WWII experience with that of Native Americans who saw, and were shattered by, combat.
My favorite: The Almanac of the Dead—A sprawling, panoramic novel encompassing the history and present (at least, up until 1994) of Navajo and other Southwest tribes, along with the effects on their communities of urbanization and modernization. Tons of characters, tons of plot—a genuine epic.
Angela Thirkell: If you read the earlier column where I wrote about my love of Anthony Trollope, you can perhaps imagine how I felt when I discovered a few years ago—quite by chance—that another British novelist, by the name of Angela Thirkell, had written some thirty-ish novels set in the Trollope “universe,” i.e. in Trollope’s fictional county of Barsetshire, from the years 1933 to 1961. There’s no overlap between Trollope’s characters and Thirkell’s, nor would I say that Thirkell quite measures up to Trollope’s shrewd character insights. Nevertheless, Thirkell has written an addictive series of light and witty comedies of manners that go down as easily as really good petit fours. Read her enough and you’ll feel like you just got back from vacationing in a British country house (delightful gossip and lovers’ quarrels de rigueur), which is undoubtedly a better place to spend your quarantine than a cramped New York City apartment.
Start with: High Rising—The first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, lighter than air, and yummy all the way down.
My favorite: Same as above, which isn’t to say that her subsequent Barsetshire novels aren’t thoroughly enjoyable.
Gloria Naylor: Naylor often cited Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston as two of her biggest influences, and the fingerprints of both those titans are evident on Naylor’s work—Morrison in Naylor’s glowing descriptive powers and dips into folklore and magical realism, and Hurston in Naylor’s mastery of vernacular and the extent to which her work (much like Hurston’s) is in constant conversation with Abolition-era slave narratives. And yet, Naylor is an entirely original voice and storyteller. I don’t know that any other author has ever made me laugh harder or broken my heart more thoroughly, all within the span of the same book. I sometimes think that Naylor doesn’t so much create characters as call forth the ghosts of actual people who will continue to live with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
Start with: The Women of Brewster Place—You may remember Oprah Winfrey’s star turn in the late-80s TV adaptation. I’ve found that this one ages very, very well (the novel that is—I can’t speak for the movie).
My favorite: Bailey’s Café—Read it and you’ll never look at sweet potato pie the same way again. Also, this observation will get big laughs from you.
Gwen Cooper is the New York Times bestselling author of Homer's Odyssey and My Life in a Cat House, among numerous other titles. Her latest book, The Book of Pawsome: Head Bonks, Raspy Tongues, and 101 Reasons Why Cats Make Us So, So Happy, is now available for purchase on Amazon.com. Gwen will donate 50% of the first week's proceeds to Meals on Wheels.