With more than 40 writers scheduled to speak during our Seminar this January, it can be difficult for a reader to know where to start. Sure, there are the classics and prize-winners, like William Kennedy’s Ironweed and David Levering Lewis’s two-volume biography of W.E.B. DuBois; and recent books like Joyce Carol Oates’s Wild Nights! and Gore Vidal’s Selected Essays. But what of the hundreds you won’t have time for? The exquisite pastime of reading can suddenly grow so stressful!
With this in mind, we’ve asked our panelists which books they would recommend from among their own works and those of their peers. In our third installment of the series, we hear book recommendations from Valerie Martin, Chantel Acevedo, and John Wray.
• Valerie Martin has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kafka Prize, and Britain’s Orange Prize:
“I can’t recommend Barry Unsworth’s Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger highly enough. It follows the passage of a doomed slave ship from Liverpool to Guinea to a strange and wonderful Utopia on the Florida coast where women, for better or worse, briefly get to run the show. Unsworth’s new novel, Land of Marvels, takes place in Mesopotamia just before World War I, when it has dawned on the West that the oil is in the Middle East. This novel is both a thriller and a timely cautionary tale; not to be missed.
Of my own books I’d choose Property, a novel narrated by a slave-owning woman in Louisiana circa 1820. I like to describe it as a tour of hell with a guide who works for the management. I’d also choose Salvation, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, constructed of visual scenes from the saint’s life which travel backward in time from his macabre death to his delirious moment of ‘conversion’ as a young bourgeois in 13th century Assisi.”
• Chantel Acevedo teaches English at Auburn University. Oscar Hijuelos called her first novel “enchanting:”
“Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead should be required reading among writers. This spare and graceful book set in the 1950’s about a minister with a secret teaches us that a historic backdrop doesn’t have to pound readers on the head. Rather, it can serve as a quiet and powerful canvas.
My debut novel Love and Ghost Letters focuses on Cuba before Fidel Castro, a time fraught with political upheaval. While the characters are wholly wrapped up in their own complex relationships, the march of history impacts their lives, despite their desire to tune it out.”
• John Wray was selected by Granta as one the twenty best American novelists under thirty-five:
“While both of my novels could be considered historical, I think Canaan’sTongue might be most interesting in the context of this seminar, due to the extreme liberties it takes with its historical subject matter. Its ostensible subject– the outlaw James Murrel and his vast criminal empire– was for me, first and foremost, a way to write about current American politics. How well suited is historical fiction to social and political protest? How much room for experimentation do the confines of the genre permit?”