Marisha Pessl is a native of Asheville, N.C. Her acclaimed first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
, has just been published by Viking.
by José Saramago (Harvest, $14). I could not be pried away from this book when I first picked it up two years ago. A mysterious outbreak of “white blindness” strikes a man sitting in traffic and quickly spreads throughout a panicked community. The book is a parable, a thriller, a dissection of human nature, but whether he’s detailing human kindness or cruelty, Saramago displays a compassion that is devastating.
The Dead Fish Museum
by Charles D’Ambrosio (Vintage, $14). In these tales, which range from a screenwriter in a psychiatric ward to weary grifters wandering the American West, D’Ambrosio displays a talent and versatility of language that is jaw-dropping. I’m crossing my fingers he’s working on an 800-page novel so I can spend weeks with his work, rather than a cherished afternoon.
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones (Amistad, $14). Biblical in scale but nimble in execution. Not since Toni Morrison’s Beloved have stories about the effects of slavery been so heartbreaking, or powerfully rendered. Jones’ prose is deceitfully plain, pitch-perfect, fascinating. I’m awaiting his upcoming book of stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children.
The Virgin Suicides
by Jeffrey Eugenides (Warner, $13). This book got under my skin when it first appeared in 1993, and it’s stayed there. Eugenides’ first novel, detailing the bizarre suicides of five beautiful sisters and the resulting reverberations throughout the community, is eerie and addictive.
by Jane Austen (Oxford, $6). This underestimated work of Austen demands a second look. The story follows Catherine Morland during her visit to Bath, England, with family friends. Part parody of gothic fiction, part social satire, the book probes how the books we read shape our reality, help us fabricate illusions—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Austen so delicately, and humorously, points out.
by Jonathan Franzen (Picador, $15). This masterpiece—about family, adulthood, suburbia, the American middle class—is everything a great social novel should be: big, human, sincere, moving. I keep it close to my desk and whenever I page through it, I think of that Woody Allen line from Manhattan, when he’s talking about God’s answer to Job: “I do a lot of terrible things, but I can also make one of these.” Happy reading.