There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I surface from a great book.
– Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck
You and me both, Nora.
There is nothing quite like surfacing from a deeply absorbing novel – you feel like you have left a part of yourself behind in its world. Some books you never entirely recover from, and they remain a part of your psyche and shape your worldview long after you have turned the last page (I’m looking at you, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ).
However, I have a tendency to dive into similar works of fiction again and again, so I decided that this installment of Books Worth Reading would explore previously uncharted waters (or at least those I had not previously dipped my toes into).
And with that, I bring you this new selection.
Most of these authors are contemporary; all of them are incredible. Go forth and read.
Jenny Wren: Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl
We begin our jaunt very much within my 19th century comfort zone.
In fact, I’m pretty sure this book was written just for me.
A collection of essays published anonymously (under the pseudonym Jenny Wren) in the 1890s, the book deals with topics that are still relevant to the modern woman, from falling in love and tolerating babies to afternoon tea and slightly rude parlor games.
If this passage doesn’t pique your interest in Jenny’s delightfully biting essays, I don’t know what will:
“For those who have a taste for speaking spitefully of their neighbours, I can suggest an amusing game which was, I believe, started in Oxford. It is called Photograph Whist and is played by four. Two or three dozen photographs are dealt round and each person plays one, he who plays the ugliest portrait taking the trick. The more hideous the photograph, the greater its value as a trump! I have played the game with a man who always keeps his brother to the end and then brings him out with enormous success, the said brother never failing to overtrump any other card in the pack! So you see it is a most amiable game altogether. You must only be careful not to spread your doings abroad, or no one will present you with their portraits ever again.”
19th-Century Twentysomethings — They’re Just Like Us!
Anne Brönte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
You may not have heard of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and you certainly wouldn’t be alone in that. It is not nearly as well known (or as much adapted) as some of the works by the other Brönte sisters, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
However, its obscurity is not well-deserved.
Because of its unflinching portrayals of alcoholism and escape from spousal abuse, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was so controversial that Charlotte Brönte suppressed its publication after Anne’s death.
But this is a work that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
One passage about the need for equality in the moral education of boys and girls had me practically cheering, so I thought I would reproduce it here:
“Well, Mr. Markham, you maintain that a boy should not be shielded from evil, but sent out to battle against it, alone and unassisted […] – but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?’ […] ‘No; you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant – taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil.
[…] You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. […] I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.”
Speaking of underappreciated Bröntes, read Charlotte’s Villette. There’s a classic Brönte heroine (who may not be what she seems), a ghostly nun, and a whole lot of 19th century snark.
Susannah Cahalan: Brain on Fire
I picked this book up at the airport bookstore with no context other than a spontaneous recommendation from a fellow shopper who saw me scanning the back cover.
Two pages in, I was hooked.
This harrowing autobiography chronicles the author’s apparent descent into madness – and eventual recovery due to the diagnosis of a rare autoimmune disease.
While it moves at the pace of a mystery thriller, the story continued to smolder in my mind long after my plane landed and I turned the last page.
Deborah Blum: The Poisoner’s Handbook
I have a serious weakness for Agatha Christie, secretly enjoy watching forensic procedurals, and am endlessly fascinated with America in the 1920s (Exhibit A).
Since The Poisoner’s Handbook fits perfectly at the intersection between these interests, I was expecting to love it. However, the story of the beginnings of forensic pathology (and particularly poison detection) in New York City in the Jazz Age exceeded even my wildest expectations.
Equal parts political intrigue and corruption, true crime, and chemistry, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a must-read for anyone with an interest in mystery, history, or science.
When you’re done, pick up Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon for even more true stories of scientific achievement. In this case, the subtitle says it all: “True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements.”
Then, pick up Simon Garfield’s Mauve to find out “How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World” and Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman for “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.”
History is crazy, ya’ll!
Karen Abbott: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Speaking of history (and badass women), Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy takes a close look at four female spies during the American Civil War.
- Belle Boyd is a young Southern firebrand whose complete lack of subtlety is more than made up for by her complete lack of fear. Determined to catch the attention of Stonewall Jackson, Belle brazenly flirts with Union officers while smuggles messages to the Confederates right under their noses.
- Emma Edmonds enlists in the Union army as Frank Thompson, where she is tapped as a spy and, during several missions, finds herself as a women dressed as a man dressed as a woman.
- Rose O’Neale Greenhow is a DC socialite turned Confederate spy. Engaging in scandalous affairs with Union officers and high-ranking politicians to gather information, she continued to use her young daughter to gather information and convey coded messages even after she was placed under arrest.
- Elizabeth Van Lew is a wealthy abolitionist living in the Confederate capital. Disgusted by the politics of slavery and secession, she builds up a wide-ranging spy ring and helps Northern prisoners escape – all while being repeatedly investigated by suspicious rebel detectives.
The courage, resourcefulness, and cool thinking under pressure of all of these women is both inspiring and riveting.
Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries, The Rehearsal
The Luminaries may be an intimidating 850 pages, but by the time I turned the last I was wishing there were 850 more.
Eleanor Catton’s New Zealand gold rush mining town – and the cast of characters with which it is inhabited – are impeccably wrought, and while the novel is full of murder, prostitution, opium, and (of course) gold, it never slips into the sensational.
The story centers around Walter Moody, a fledgling prospector who ends up unearthing rather more secrets than gold when he unwittingly stumbles into a secret council his first night in town. Layered over this tale of murder and mystery is a celestial structure, wherein each member of the council is associated with one of the signs of the zodiac. Additional characters, including Walter Moody, are associated with the heavenly bodies. Furthermore, the novel is divided into 12 successively shorter sections, mirroring the waning of the moon.
But just as the plot never veers into the sensational, the symbolism manages to avoid seeming gimmicky. In fact, it is subtle enough that you could easily choose to ignore it entirely as you read. In any case, if you enjoyed the first two installments of Amitav Ghosh’s similarly opium-fueled Ibis trilogy (the third has yet to be published), you will love The Luminaries.
Eleanor Catton’s other novel, The Rehearsal, is something else entirely. An exploration of the aftermath of a high school student’s affair with her music teacher and the local performing arts school’s appropriation of the scandal, the story is alternately seen through the high school student’s younger sister and a first-year drama student. While the plot, the characters, and even the writing style could not be farther from the gold fields of The Luminaries, The Rehearsal is hauntingly absorbing in its own right. If nothing else, it proves Eleanor Catton’s impressive versatility as a writer.
I know I’m looking forward to her next novel, whatever it might be!
Catherine Lacey: Nobody Is Ever Missing
When Elyria buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand – leaving behind her husband and her middle-class New York life – she is really trying to run away from herself.
The novel’s run-on sentences bear you along through the currents of Elyria’s mind as she hitchhikes alone through an unknown country. But what we find out in the title, she has to learn the hard way: Nobody is ever missing…from themselves.
Here’s a beautiful passage that embodies the mood and tone of much of the novel:
What’s your trouble? He asked me. Tell me your trouble, baby.
I looked back at him like I didn’t have any trouble to tell because that’s my trouble, I thought, not knowing how to tell it, and this is why my favorite thing about airport security is how you can cry the whole way through and they’ll only try to figure out whether you’ll blow up. They’ll still search you if they want to search you. They’ll still try to detect metal on you. They’ll still yell about laptops and liquids and gels and shoes, and no one will ask what’s wrong because everything is already wrong, and they won’t look twice at you because they’re only paid to look once. And for this, sometimes, some people are thankful.
Who hasn’t felt this way in an airport sometime? Who hasn’t at some point felt the urge to run away?
In this passage and throughout, Nobody Is Ever Missing is simultaneously opaque and utterly relatable.
I would also love to hear your thoughts and recommendations, so please feel free to leave some in the comments!