Thanksgiving is upon us, and I’m especially grateful for my Chicago Review of Books colleagues, whose collaborative generosity and literary talents are matched by their passion for books of all kinds.
I asked them an impossible question, which, as is my wont, turned in a multi-part query: what’s a book that you’re thankful for, or return to repeatedly, or has a special connection for you? As you might imagine, professionals who are regularly writing about or editing reviews of recently published books don’t generally have the luxury to re-read. But the answers are delightfully diverse, as our group is, and offer insights into what they love and why. As a society, whether it’s in person, or on Zoom, or in long emails, we still look to books and conversations about them as a way to connect with the self, learn about other lives, and build community.
We hope some of these are on your list, or spark further interest, or most important, make you think about the books that have changed your life.
To be sure, this year, as in every year, we are, most of all, thankful for you, our readers and contributors.
I’m not much of a re-reader. I always aspire to revisit novels I’ve loved but there’s so many I still need to read for the first time. Thus, when mulling over this prompt, my answer surprised me, because I don’t naturally gravitate towards poetry. Reading it feels like a practice to be cultivated, like meditating. More often, I’ve found enjoyment in it through the eyes of others.
Such is the case with Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires, which was first introduced to me by my friend A., one of the most magical people I’ve known. Early in our friendship, she invited me to a dinner party where guests were asked to bring something to read aloud. I don’t remember what I brought. She read Jack Gilbert’s “Tear It Down.” She loved so much about him: his Zen-like purposefulness; his description of himself as a “serious romantic”; his generosity. The Great Fires is primarily a work of howling grief: when he began writing it Gilbert had lost his wife Michiko to cancer at the impossibly young age of thirty-six. It is, inevitably, an elegiac collection; Gilbert sifts through the quotidian ruins of his memory to show how all love eventually becomes an excavation. “We must insist while there is still time,” he writes.
I think of that line often, and read at least a handful of poems from the book every January. That’s the month A. passed away, in 2018, from lymphoma at the impossibly young age of thirty-one. It is a dark time of year even in the best of times, but Gilbert’s willingness to lean into the darkness pushes us towards the light. We’re still here, and there’s still time, he counsels. Better start insisting.
The Great Fires
By Jack Gilbert
Knopf Publishing Group
I have a confession to make: I almost never re-read books. With an almost infinite number to choose from, and limited time, I find myself pushing forward to the next book far more often than I delve back into a favorite work. However, there are a few books that have grabbed me at various points in my life that I find myself returning to again and again. I’ve got four different copies of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye on my shelves as it’s my Dad’s favorite book that captivated me as an early high school student. In college, I found myself reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises a few times a year; a short enough book to make for a great afternoon. I ended up giving two separate copies to my girlfriend before we moved in together—how toxic is that? Still together! This is a cancellable offense if Twitter’s ever heard of one.
Later in college and since then, I’ve mostly returned back to Haruki Murakami’s books—my favorite author—in particular, After Dark. It’s Murakami’s tightest novel, taking place over a single night in Tokyo, as characters bounce between a 24-hour restaurant and a love hotel, while something sinister bubbles under the surface. Murakami manages to utilize a lot of cinematic texture, which I usually find deeply off-putting in fiction, in a way that drives the novel forward. I love the limited scope and number of characters, but Murakami’s characteristic emphasis on tone and the narrative beyond what is written makes this a work that’s lodged itself deep into my subconscious long after I first read the final page.
by Haruki Murakami
The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood follows a group of young people slumming it in Weimar Berlin, enjoying the depression-cheap prices and nihilistic sexual freedom. Based on his journals, the book assembles Isherwood’s real-life friends and experiences into expertly crafted short stories. He likely intended it to be a snapshot of a decadent society in which Nazism was just one more seedy character in a tawdry dancehall. However, the violent urges of many of the characters reveal the cancer growing even in society’s most enlightened corners.
It has remained relevant, and never more so than now. Initially published in 1939, before the full horror of the Nazis really unfurled, it is a celebration of unruly life, lent added poignancy to the events that transpired in the coming years. (The collection as a whole was published in 1945.) Isherwood has been criticized by some as a dilettante—unlike Orwell or Hemingway, he hardly bothered to take up arms against fascism—but, dear reader, who knows how our actions, or inactions, today may look from the perspective of tomorrow? Isherwood’s naiveté affords an intimate look at how something that we don’t consider to be a serious threat may, through our negligence and tolerance, take hold.
The Berlin Stories
By Christopher Isherwood
New Directions Publishing Corporation
I could have sworn I was smart, then I read The Magus by John Fowles and had to toss that idea out the window. It’s about this college graduate named Nicholas Urfe who moves to Greece to teach English, and ends up meeting a rich, older man who starts playing weird, psychological games with him. There’s a woman (perhaps two?) involved, and the entire narrative makes you question what’s true and what isn’t, both in the novel and in your own measly life. I only call it measly because while reading this book, I couldn’t have cared less whether I ate or slept, went to work or fell off a cliff. All that mattered was the story, and, boy, oh boy, is it a doozy.
I found out about it while I was working at a hotel bar on State and Washington. A customer came in—an event that usually upset me; I liked standing there alone, looking out the window—and we got to talking about books. He told me this was his favorite, and suggested I read it. He also warned me that it was a little outdated, which it is. All that to say, strangers aren’t just gross and in the way (I can’t be the only one with this bleak outlook); occasionally, they’re worth listening to. Now, what that has to do with the novel itself, I have no idea. But, by trusting this dude, I got to read one of the most exciting books I’ve ever encountered—one that laughs in the face of honesty, and I can’t think of anything funnier or, as the lit-world loves to say, more “human” than that.
By John Fowles
Back Bay Books
Jen St. Jude
When I read The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth, it was the first time I saw myself—or felt myself—on the pages of a novel. I was 29. I didn’t read many queer books when I was growing up, and even when I started to in early adulthood, I didn’t relate to most. It’s hard to imagine hope for your life when you can’t even find it in fiction, in someone’s wild and limitless imagination. But I found immediate kinship with Cameron, with all her athletic swagger, dry humor and recurring sadness. It was the first time I found a character who seemed to experience gender and sexuality in the way that I did, and the book’s small-town Montana backdrop also echoed my New Hampshire upbringing. This book made me feel less alone.
It was my love for this book, too, that compelled me to apply to Lambda Literary’s Retreat for Emerging Writers. Emily was leading the Young Adult cohort during the summer of 2018, and I thought, how lucky would I be to meet her, to tell her what this book meant to me? I was lucky, and I did tell her, while drunk in a now-closed gay bar called Flaming Saddles. I met some of my closest friends at that retreat, and through them, found opportunities that have shaped the last few years of my life. To Emily, to Cameron, and to the many writers and readers I’ve found through cherishing this book, I am forever grateful.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
By Emily Danforth
Balzer & Bray/Harperteen
Todd Van Luling
I’m thankful for Robert Caro’s 2019 memoir Working, a guidebook into the craft of arguably the greatest living biographer.
In the early days of the pandemic it became a cliché to feature The Power Broker, Caro’s 1974 biography of urban planner Robert Moses, on one’s bookshelf in the background of a Zoom meeting. Someone even made a custom Zoom background that gave the appearance of a bookshelf filled with only copies of the biography. Showing off the giant tome is a rare status symbol in the writing world, and while the book may not cost the same as the investment bankers’ Rolex Daytonas, The Power Broker still demands a hefty 100 hours or so of your time to read. Multiple that by minimum wage and…
Working is a blueprint for creating Caro’s masterwork, along with other tales of journalistic feats from his newspaper days and his time writing a still unfinished, multi-volume biography on President Lyndon Johnson. If you want a TLDR, the pull-quote/key takeaway from the book is a line of advice he got from an old journalism boss: “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.” He uses this line to explain why his books take years to write to get to the truth and why he quit newspaper journalism as the tight daily deadlines made it impossible to do the definitive research he relished.
While the line is about journalism, it’s a good reminder for approaching all pursuits of knowledge. If you really want to understand a subject, you must commit to go deep and recognize when you haven’t. We have endless surface-level information at our fingertips to approximate learning. Caro’s memoir reminds us to put in the work.
By Robert Caro
Sometimes a book just finds you at the perfect moment, and for me it was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. When I first read it in the summer of 2016, I was back home living with my parents post-graduation, commuting an hour each way to a job I knew wasn’t right for me, and trying to keep a long-distance relationship from falling apart. I was depressed, and needed a story I could fully fall into—which is exactly what this novel demands of the reader. James writes melodically, requiring your undivided attention until you can intimately recognize the rhythm of every narrator’s voice. From there, the story unfolds in a way that gripped me like few other books could. It’s simultaneously fast-paced and prodding as well as violent, vile, tragic, and immensely sad. Certain scenes still sit in my mind so vividly that they could be mistaken for a film, while the novel as a whole spares no ink on depicting the turbulence of 1970s Jamaica and the external forces behind it (spoiler: it’s the United States). Even during some of my most trying days, I remember fondly those afternoons on the Blue Line—exhausted, sweating, and standing face-to-some-stranger’s-armpit in a crowd of commuters as I held this nearly 700-page hardcover copy and rode the train’s jolts and jostles home. And honestly, it was one of my favorite reading experiences ever.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
By Marlon James
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. Her writing appears in a wide array of publications and anthologies, and she serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is president of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.