Horse’s Mouth

I DECIDED this would be the summer that I would become an author who writes longhand, a journey that led me to read, extremely slowly, the novel An Orphan World, by the Colombian writer Giuseppe Caputo. Here’s how it happened. Firstly, I learned that the writer Lauren Groff writes several drafts of her novels longhand, throwing away each draft, and rewriting it from memory. Because only good lines stick in the memory, by the end, only good lines remain. Great! I would try that! Except . . . turns out writing by hand sucks. Secondly, I heard Neil Gaiman extoll the tactile pleasures of fountain pens. I bought one and some beautiful turquoise ink. New problem: even if I could write without discomfort, I couldn’t read my own handwriting. So I began to practice my penmanship. Now instead of writing a novel, I was writing the letter K over and over. Thirdly, I did an event with Garth Greenwell. He recommended Giuseppe Caputo—in Spanish. Unfortunately, my Spanish is no better than my penmanship. In some cases, I physically rewrote whole sections of the book as I looked it up word by word and wrote the definitions on note cards. My fountain pen was on hand and suddenly it all came together. By repetition, a newly fluid cursive scrawl emerged! And Caputo! I could understand him! The thrill of gorgeous language in a language that wasn’t my own! A tender story of a young queer man and his father in Barranquilla. I had the most pleasurable and deep reading experience in years, all of which occurred at the edge of my abilities, the conditions psychologists deem ripe for “flow.” I loved Caputo for the highly personal reading circumstances—but isn’t the best reading always a highly personal circumstance? —TORREY PETERS

WEEKS AGO, I found a book in my building’s basement (there’s a shelf for cast-offs near the washing machines) called Crucible of War by Fred Anderson. It’s a huge and vibrant history of the Seven Years’ War that’s been giving me tremendous insight into the intricate high-stakes game played by the British and French empires in their struggle to dominate North America and the central role the Iroquoian-speaking confederacy played throughout. But certain aspects of the book got me thinking about the sea wars fought through the Napoleonic era, which reminded me of one of my favorite novellas, Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), and I was excited to revisit the tragic tale of the Handsome Sailor, John “Fake News” Claggart, and Captain Vere. I had fond memories of reading it in high school for its legal and philosophical questions, and of revisiting it later for its sexual undercurrents, but I got yet another layer this time, inspired by Crucible of War, this one rich with the politics of empire and revolution and rife with questions about the agency of the impressed seaman, or perhaps involuntary nautical violence worker is a better appellation. And shit, when Billy shouts what he shouts with the noose around his neck, the brutal irony (but whose? is still the question) made me cry all over again. —SAM LIPSYTE

RIGHT NOW, I’m reading like a fiend, as I always do in the summer when I get a break from teaching. I am also at the beginning of writing a new book, which is a rich and curious time during which I’m ravenous for meaty ideas and surprising art. Some nonfiction that has captured my interest lately is Anna Badkhen’s Bright Unbearable Reality—a brainy, poetic, global essay collection that feels exactly right for this moment. I’m also loving Nuar Alsadir’s Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation, which Graywolf published this summer. It’s an astute, wide-ranging, and ultimately hopeful book that is doing everything I love about creative nonfiction. At night, when I’m too tired to think well, I’ve been on a Ruth Rendell tear. I just devoured The Crocodile Bird and A Sight for Sore Eyes, and reread a favorite: A Dark-Adapted Eye, which she published under her pseudonym, Barbara Vine. I also reread Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow, which really typifies my ideal mystery: thrilling and propulsive, with gorgeous, lean sentences and mostly female characters. —MELISSA FEBOS

I’VE BEEN REREADING Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth, which I last read in 1998. I’m also reading Ian McEwan’s new novel Lessons, coming out in September. I read a lot of Munro and McEwan when I first came to America, before I even thought of becoming a writer. I thought it would be interesting to revisit some authors to see how their writing has changed for me, whether I would read more from a writer’s perspective. I’m also reading Jean Toomer’s Cane with A Public Space’s virtual book club, “APS Together,” hosted by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, whose work I admire. I did not know the book until Sharifa chose it for the book club—what a joyful surprise to discover something new this way! —YIYUN LI

I HAVE just finished the most amazing book: A Journey to the End of the Millennium by the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua, who we lost, sadly, only a few months ago. The book is set in the year 999 CE and features a North African Jewish merchant and his Muslim colleague sailing into the exotic and unknown Christian territory of France in order to bring his nephew back into their working relationship. The world they find is utterly strange, beautiful, and dangerous. An adventure tale as well as a philosophical entreaty into the nature of Jewishness, of Christianity, of love and marriage and belief. I found the translation by Nicholas de Lange as fresh and exhilarating as Hilary Mantel’s work, which wipes away the cobwebs of received history and portrays ancient people living in the present tense. If, like me, you have found yourself late at night on Wikipedia looking up the Holy Roman Empire and the Abbasid and Córdoba Caliphates, I cannot recommend it enough! And if you just like a merchant sailing with two wives along the coast of Spain, then give it a go. The writing is beautiful, the characters unforgettable. A joy to read. —ANDREW SEAN GREER

SUBMISSION, by the notorious sexist misanthrope Michel Houellebecq, is about French politics. To avert a right-wing Marine Le Pen presidency, well-meaning voters from the splintered center-left unite behind a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood. He wins. Failing to sense the common ground between Catholicism and Islam (masculine domination), pundits predict a civil war. The novel’s protagonist opens an offshore bank account and flees Paris for the countryside. But the purging of women from public life goes off without a hitch, and he returns to the Sorbonne to find even his geekiest colleagues now blissfully sexually active with formerly unattainable babes who have become their economic dependents.

This turned out to be the most empowering reading I’d done in years. I tend to read soul-destroying environmental news and authors like Svetlana Alexievich and Victor Klemperer, and my friends are all lefty altruists. I was simply not getting exposed to characters who role-model normal, self-interested behavior—the towering egotism that sustains capitalism and climate change while enabling privileged individuals to survive them. Thanks to Houellebecq’s fine example, I spent several days just doing things for myself, and now have a new bank account, a guest professorship in Switzerland, and even a clean refrigerator. Great novels can be debilitating—like the seducer in Gregory Corso’s poem “Marriage,” leaning over you, breathing down your neck, saying, “You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!” The H-Man can kill off a parent in a sentence and be over it by the next page. God, it’s so freeing. —NELL ZINK

AUTHORS of historical fiction have the ability to make their characters look like geniuses—or idiots—by allowing them to anticipate the future with more or less accuracy. That’s one of the things I dislike about historical fiction—it feels like a cheat. I thought about this recently when reading The Oppermanns, a relatively little-known novel set in Nazi Germany by a German writer named Lion Feuchtwanger. The Oppermanns isn’t historical fiction: it was published in 1933. It’s also one of the most chilling books I’ve ever read.

The novel follows the adult children of an upper-middle-class German-Jewish family through the year 1933, when Hitler was elected chancellor. The Oppermann siblings are wealthy, educated, successful. One brother died fighting for Germany in the first World War; the surviving sons—a writer, a doctor, a businessman—also fought in the war. They regard Germany not just as home but as perhaps the most civilized country in the world.

As the world around them begins to change, they have to figure out how to respond. They don’t know if Hitler’s rise is a blip, something that will quickly run its course, a farce that can largely be ignored while they focus on writing their next book or running their lab at the hospital. Because he wrote the book almost contemporaneously, Feuchtwanger didn’t know the answers either. The result is remarkable: I can’t think of any other book that offers so much real insight into what it’s like to live through a cataclysm, without the distortions of hindsight. —ADELLE WALDMAN

WILFRED BION’S Transformations (1965) is a book I’d avoided for some time. It marks the psychoanalyst’s turn from a sober if slightly unorthodox Kleinian of the 1950s and early ’60s to the mystic oddball who gives us Attention and Interpretation and A Memoir of the Future in the 1970s. It’s the high point of Bion’s formalizing tendencies, what with the proliferation of grid elements (fine-grained if undefended categories by which Bion tried to classify thoughts and feelings) and other notational innovations that I think only a true disciple could entirely accept. He is thrashing at something.

Only a few years after publishing Transformations, Bion would enjoin analysts to “abandon memory and desire,” as he departed into the psychic deep woods, maintaining throughout an attitude of stodgy empiricism in which all abstraction is hard-won—giving “constant conjunction” where the less fastidious give “cause.” Abstraction remains the prize, but the reality principle has taken on a spiritual dimension. The book culminates in an analysis of knowledge as resistance, and hints at a theory of the real, of “transformations in O.” One hears his toughness, his honest confusion, and in the end, his making the best of a bad job. —JACKIE ESS

I RECENTLY DOVE into Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers unsure if it would be for me. (As Martin Short confesses in that old sketch about men’s synchro, “I’m not that strong a swimmer.”) But this great novel starts off in a first-person-plural narration so wonderfully funny I could have read it forever. The voice captures the camaraderie and bitchiness and rumor mongering among the near-religious frequenters of a pool located “deep underground.” The surface sparkles, even as a literal crack develops below the waterline. We never get to know these characters (which is fine), and the non-story (my favorite kind) propels itself with one sly quip or paranoid pondering after another—not unlike (aha!) the strokes of the swimmers themselves. Then Otsuka executes a series of cruel, necessary, heartbreaking turns, switching POV each time, as the book follows the fate of Alice, one of the older pool-goers, now in the grips of dementia. The freeing, comic pleasures of the book’s first half are born out of a willing loss of identity in the pool; the care facility where Alice spends her last days provides the tragic mirror image, in which identity has eroded to a handful of repeated anecdotes. The Swimmers is both impeccably controlled and emotionally devastating, with an ending that leaps off the page into real life. You’ll see what I mean. —ED PARK

A GOOD NOVEL or story collection reminds you that fiction is a wide-open territory rather than a congested polity of predictable influences. This was my experience reading the young Afghan-American writer Jamil Jan Kochai’s coruscating, wild, and hilarious collection The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. Like Rushdie (may he recover quickly), Kochai delights in mixing clashing registers—Islamic piety and Sactown slang—and firing this new compound with some serious magic realism. I couldn’t believe my eyes (or inner ears) when, in the course of a single story, an overworked History of Revolution Ph.D. student in Sacramento transforms into a monkey; lands up in the Kabul Zoo; and then escapes to commandeer an anti-government simian squadron from Kabul’s sewer system (with some help from the Taliban, of course). And that’s just the half of it. How did Kochai even conceive this crazy tale of diasporic return? And how did he figure out that phantasmagoric complication—rather than Hemingway-esque or Naipaulian distillation—was an ideal way to dramatize the effects of physical and mental occupation on a people? Hajji Hotak almost makes Hysterical Realism great again, because Kochai is so gifted at quick characterization and knife-sharp endings. I want to read more from this enormous talent. —KARAN MAHAJAN

LATELY, I’ve been enjoying rereading books I haven’t read in about twenty years: most recently, Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee and Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, which were just as incredible as I remembered. I recently bought Palmares by Gayl Jones, and I’m excited to begin it. I loved Corregidora, which I taught to some German students two summers ago in a “Sex in American Literature” class. I tend to be listening to several nonfiction audiobooks at once. Right now, they’re Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Kyle Chayka’s The Longing for Less, and Jaron Lanier’s Dawn of the New Everything, which I began after finishing his Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which led me to stop using Gmail and to switch to Proton Mail. I finished Steve Anwyll’s Welfare a few weeks ago and have recommended it to everyone I have talked to. It was one of the last books Giancarlo DiTrapano published with Tyrant Books. I don’t know how he made his story so suspenseful, or his protagonist so endearing. The mood and world of the book remind me so much of the lives my friends and roommates lived—barely scraping by on student welfare in Ontario in the 1990s. I feel a strong urge to read Second Place by Rachel Cusk for a third time. The world of that book is lodged in my mind like a place I really visited. I think about it nearly every day, and I want to be back there again. —SHEILA HETI

FOR TEN YEARS I kept up with developments in contemporary fiction, out of a combination of prurient interest and accumulating professional success. What are people writing? Most of the time I genuinely wanted to know, even though most of the time, it was just not very good. I had a little column, then a blog, then a reputation; I needed to know what was going on so I could explain it to the baffled hundreds who were, like me, trapped in this particular literary moment and wanted it elucidated. Well, no more. I picked up a semi-recent release, wanting to keep a toe in; despite promised sexual content I quickly gave up. “There are no scenes in this novel!” I cried, laughing. Excellent sex scenes from my recent reading list include those in Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer and the one at the beginning of Making Love by Jean-Philippe Toussaint—this author should call them. One recent novel caused me to drop my Kindle in the bathtub, and not in a pleasantly surprised way. I wish it had been my iPhone, but nevertheless: I’m free. Three friends wrote to me asking to discuss the new Ottessa Moshfegh, implying it was shockingly bad; I told them they would have to find an audience elsewhere, because I was busy rereading Lolita, and anyway that wouldn’t be shocking at all. I also reread Leaving the Atocha Station, and I found that it remains very funny. I was going to reread Mating but a boyfriend stole it before I could, and adopted it as one of his favorite novels. Now we’re reading Herzog together, which is not one of my favorite novels ever, but you know, I can’t complain. —LAUREN OYLER