Every month a Chronicle editor is sharing the list of books he or she is currently reading. This month we hear from Kate Woodrow, a senior editor in Art.
I feel like I’m in a good book cycle right now – you know how it ebbs and flows? – so am excited to share some of the most recent things I’ve read that are piled up at my house.
The best book I’ve read this year was Alice Munro’s newest short story collection Dear Life (currently on loan to my editor pal Laura Lee Mattingly—there’s such a good book sharing and discussing culture at Chronicle). My favorite novels are stories about the ordinary, told very plainly but powerfully. And Munro is the master of this in her short stories, with a graceful economy of words. What a talent. The stories in this collection each hang around a turning point in someone’s life, a departure or arrival, maybe something unexpected like an accident or a spontaneous affair. They left such an impression on me (and what a gorgeous cover! hot coral type set over an impressionist oil painting) and now I want to read everything by Munro. So I’ve just started her 2001 stories Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.
Dear Life sent me into a short story spiral, in the best possible way. I quickly read George Saunders’ Tenth of December. Upon publication reviewers were somehow calling this the best book of 2013, which I thought was maybe a little presumptuous for January?? But they’re on to something. Saunders is hysterically sharp. Like Munro, he also tells a story simply, but with such twisted wit. These stories are definitely dark, but they’re not depressing. They’re wry and surreal (literally supernatural) and often laugh-out-loud funny. A friend was reading it at the same time I was and we just kept texting each other, “WHOA…whoa! WHOA!!!”
From there I read one more short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (isn’t that a great name?). Someone at the Booksmith on Haight Street, one of my favorite bookstores in San Francisco, recommended it and I never would have found it without her tip that if I liked Munro, I might like Wells. Indeed, ordinary lives drawn bare. This time an expose of American misfits.
This month I also read The Dinner by Herman Koch. This novel, translated from Dutch, has been billed as “the European Gone Girl.” Well, I devoured Gone Girl on the beach last summer along with the rest of America, so naturally wanted to see what this one was all about. I didn’t find it had the same maniacal twists as GG, but the characters were loathsome and their moral compasses did waver around an unsavory crime. I was impressed the author managed to set the entire novel at a single dinner table without it feeling claustrophobic. It was a good juicy read, but if you haven’t read Gone Girl, I would just start there!
The last two books still hanging around my nightstand couldn’t be more different from one another: Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Baker’s novel, recommended to me by another editor friend at work, is a quiet wintery book, good to read by the fire in a cabin (I read most of this in Tahoe doing just that). The narrator, up before dawn and everyone else, lights a fire in his wood stove each morning and observes everything he sees and in his mind in hyper detail. It’s about nothing (paper towels, a hole in a sock, coffee grounds), and really everything (relationships, domesticity, grief). This is a good palate cleansing book. And then of course Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln and the rivals he chose to make up his cabinet is a different thing entirely. One of my dad’s favorite books, I was determined to read this last fall. I managed to finish just in time to see the movie Lincoln, which made it all come to life. He is indeed a political genius—I found myself trying to adopt some of his strategies at work! And I loved getting to talk to my dad about it.
After all, the best part about books is getting to discuss them with the people who love them as much as you do.
Thanks for reading!