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Rebecca Weakley is still naive enough to believe the written word "can save us all." Rebecca neophytes assume this madness is due to the vulnerable afternoons she spent in undergraduate poetry classes. Or maybe the many – many – years she has spent manhandling one of the world's greatest literature collections while doubling as a used book buyer. It could even be an unhappy consequence of knowing too many writers. But those in the know understand that the problem's roots are actually much less mysterious: a Kentucky hillbilly really just doesn't know any better. "But does she have to flaunt it," you ask? "She's like a possum in the trashcan." It's true. She'll read anything: dark Russians, wry Brits, sassy Southerners... She's even been known, on occasion, to spend an afternoon with John Donne. Lord!

 

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

DisgraceOne afternoon while talking with a friend about books, I wondered how to best describe my experience of reading Disgrace, and this is what I came up with: it's like a finely-crafted, very sharp knife resting gently against your skin. The uneasiness and suspense are there from the beginning, made all the more powerful by Coetzee's control and use of spare language, and you never really take a deep breath until it's all over. Set in modern South Africa, the book explores what it's like to personally confront deep prejudices. Prejudices of gender, sexuality, class, and race. Far from being a politically correct diatribe, this novel is about how we cope, how we survive as humans, and it forces the reader to reflect upon what seems at first a very twisted reality. For each of the characters in this astonishing novel, redemption is attained through what becomes the very reshaping of their souls.

 
The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter

The Feast of Love If you have ever loved, buy this book! How's that for a strong recommendation? Charles Baxter is, in my opinion, one of the most under appreciated contemporary American authors on the scene. He is remarkably talented. This novel set in Ann Arbor, Michigan is comprised of a collection of first person narratives. We hear the voices of Bradley, Chloé, Harry, and Diana, with a few others sprinkled in. You know the saying, "everybody has a story to tell?" Well, Baxter does the amazing: he tells their stories, stories of love and loss and longing, through exquisite observations which capture profound, visceral human emotion and everyday sentiment. He conveys it in prose that is at once both as authentic and poetic as it gets. And it feels effortless. Each of the characters approaches life and love differently, and by the end of the book, we care about them all. Such is the compassion good writing can render. It's hard to say goodbye.

 
The Time of the Doves by Mercé Rodoreda

The Time of the DovesI've worked in the literature section for almost eight years, and the beauty of Powell's is in the opportunity to discover, time and again, an author that you've never heard of before, one that sits on a bottom shelf close to the floor gathering dust, and to have this author's work speak to you in such a profound way that you take it as a sign some kind of god must exist. This is how I feel about Mercé Rodoreda. She was Catalan, born in Barcelona in 1909, and lived through the Spanish Civil War, coming out on the losing side. Books in Catalan were burned, and the language was not allowed to be spoken. Set in wartime Spain, The Time of the Doves is the simple story of a young shop girl who struggles just to live and seeks to establish her identity amidst the cruelties of a country at war. Rodoreda's style of writing is stream of consciousness, words on top of words, and the effect is hypnotic. Her prose is sensual, though not at all in a flowery way; rather, there's a firmness and physicality in her language which beautifully illuminates the ordinary through the graceful, almost childlike, openness of the narrator. I recommend reading this book in one sitting if you have the chance. May it linger in you as it did in me.

 
Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt

Kentucky StraightI'm from Kentucky, so I was eager to see what Chris Offutt had to say for us hillbillies. In truth, I'm not from the hills (though Offutt certainly is) but we are both defined by them – our heritage, our stories, our mythology, the very identity given to us by the outside world. It's what we seek and what we run from at the same time. These stories and the characters Offutt creates are damn good. He's a skilled writer who doesn't sentimentalize his subject, doesn't make poverty or violence seem cliché, doesn't for one second let you forget that he knows what he's talking about. This book harbors humor and heartbreak, deep despair and blinding ignorance, with enough room for faith and love in a place still forgotten and in the face of an existence most of us know nothing about.

 
Like Life by Lorrie Moore

Like LifeJust last night, someone asked me to name my favorite author. Gimme a break. I had to pick one? In the end, of course, I couldn't pick just one. But one of the first names that sprang to mind when the question was popped was Lorrie Moore. She is my favorite contemporary short story writer. I'm recommending Like Life, but Birds of America is just as good. I think Lorrie Moore must go to hundreds of cocktail parties with a tiny hidden tape recorder, and she must slip under people's beds and record their most intimate thoughts. And I know she's got phones tapped, because she's got it down. I mean, she's got us down, we humans in all our fallible glory. And her words reach right out and tap you on the noggin. Her writing is sharp and funny, her humor dry and sardonic. But her stories are not void of tenderness, quite the contrary – it's just that the spots that hit home come unexpectedly in the smallest, most amazing details. When I first started reading Lorrie Moore, I used to write down all the terrific turns-of-phrase, but my hand started to cramp. You get the picture.

 

Without
Otherwise by Jane Kenyon & Without by Donald Hall

As many know, Jane Kenyon was a beloved and acclaimed poet who died of leukemia in 1995. About a year ago, I heard a previously recorded interview with Jane Kenyon and her husband, poet Donald Hall. I had never read any of his work, but I knew they had been partners in life and collaborators in art. Hearing them talking together sort of took my breath away. Their ease and humor, grace and intelligence, their love, respect and admiration for one another, it all came through loud and clear right in my kitchen. I have always liked Kenyon's poetry. Her focus is on the extraordinary beauty to be found in the day-to-day, her eye and appreciation made sharper over the years by her illness. After hearing the interview, I decided to reread Kenyon and discover Donald Hall. Without is a staggering work. It is not easy. The reality of illness is rarely portrayed in language so up front and personal. The grief is raw and difficult to swallow. Still, it is a monumental achievement. Reading the two works together, one after the other, offered me an intense and deeply moving experience that I can't really find the words to express. Let the words of two great poets who forged an incredible, passionate, creative life together speak for themselves.

 
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany'sThis is my author fantasy: me, Truman Capote, a front porch on a summer afternoon that stretches lazily into evening, and of course, mint juleps. I can't think of anyone else whose stories I'd rather hear told. Word for word, measure for measure, he's got the gift. Holly Golightly is one of the most charming, vexing, brilliantly created characters in American fiction. This novel is to be cherished. Maybe you've seen the movie, but if you haven't experienced the lushness and vitality of Capote's prose, his knock-your-socks-off characterization, then you ain't seen nothin' yet. And while the spirit of the film is much the same, there are subleties and complexities which make the book far richer. Also included in this edition are three stories, one of which is a favorite of mine, A Christmas Memory: and what a blessing it is.
 

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