Every Sunday I look forward to reading the New York Times Book Review’s weekly feature, By the Book, in which they interview a prominent person from the literary world. Like some people play along with NPR’s puzzlemaster Will Shortz during Weekend Edition, I “answer along” with the Book Review’s questions. Since my answers won’t appear in the actual New York Times, I’m having fun by responding to some of their questions here.
What’s the last great book you read?
There are many books I’ve enjoyed recently, but if we are defining “great” as timeless, my answer is Graham Swift’s 2016 novel, Mothering Sunday. It’s a small book that is beautiful and intense. Michiko Kakutani said it has a “haunting, ceremonious pace,” a phrase that has stuck with me. Three other books that I have to mention in this category: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
The books on the nightstand had to be moved to the floor so that the nightstand would not crack under the pressure! There are so many good books in the queue, but I’m currently reading Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by the historian, Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Ona Judge worked for President Washington while the First Family was living in Philadelphia, and I was fascinated to learn that slaves in Pennsylvania were free after living there for six months. This was a problem for the first President and his wife who relied on the slaves who traveled with them from Mount Vernon.
The next book on my list is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I’ve also been reading The New Yorker’s recent profile of Anthony Bourdain, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (the book I’m reading with my middle school students), and enjoying a book about the artist William Merritt Chase, an American painter. I saw an exhibit of Chase’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts and became obsessed with his painting of his wife called Meditation (pictured above).
How do you organize your books?
Alphabetically, of course! I work in a library.
What book would people be surprised to find on your shelves?
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. About a year ago, my husband commented that he could not remember ever seeing me read a science book. He may not have meant it as a challenge, but I bought Montgomery’s book the next day, read every page in front of my husband, and have been talking about the intelligence of the multi-hearted cephalopods ever since!
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Voracious, but undirected. I read constantly, but not in a way that distinguished “classics” or “literary” books from everything else. I read whatever was in front of me: Bobbsey Twins at my grandmother’s house and what felt like every book in the children’s room of the Xenia Public Library. Judy Blume is the author who sticks with me. Years later, I wrote to thank her for writing Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and, although it never occurred to me that she received countless similar letters, she wrote back. I will never forget that.
Paper – 100% of the time. I expected to like reading on a screen, but for me it felt too much like I was reading for work or scrolling through emails. Pages are my portals to other lives.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Barack Obama; Arlene Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right; and J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy. Maybe they could help me understand what is happening in our country. But I would invite the poet Naomi Shihab Nye to join us for dessert. Her poem, Kindness, would give us words to hold on to as we stepped back into the night.