The Book List
Best books...chosen by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the author of The Informers and The Sound of Things Falling. Below, he names six works that inspired Reputations, his new novel about a political cartoonist reassessing his role in a congressman’s suicide.
The Aspern Papers by Henry James (Dover, $3.50). I could have chosen Daisy Miller or even The Turn of the Screw to illustrate how great James is at silences and ambiguities. In The Aspern Papers, a man lies his way into a widow’s home to look for the documents left behind by a great poet. This story, in which an intellectual pursuit generates acute psychological tension, is one of James’ best.
The Farewells by Juan Carlos Onetti (out of print). A mysterious man arrives for a quite Faulkner-like stay at a sanatorium, and while he convalesces catches the interest of the locals. This story by a 20th-century Latin American master turns around the power of gossip and our fear of how others see us.
The Fall by Albert Camus (Vintage, $14). A Parisian lawyer corners the reader in an Amsterdam bar and talks at length about his fall from grace. Camus’ 1956 novel is a concentrated study of one man’s moral doom, delivered in a long monologue that we, as listeners, find equally bothersome and irresistible.
The Trial by Franz Kafka (Oxford, $14). Building a whole novel around a question that is never answered, Kafka created a new way of looking at the world and (not) understanding our place in it. Why is Josef K. being arrested? We will never know, and that’s the whole point of this 1925 work.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Mariner, $14). Woolf gives us a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society Londoner, as she prepares to host a party and looks back on choices she made many years earlier. Mrs. Dalloway is among the great novels whose subject is the past, or that interpretation of the past that we call memory, and it stood by me while I was writing Reputations and describing characters trying desperately to remember important things.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez (Vintage, $14). Published in 1981, this is a masterpiece in the shape of a tragedy. Built upon one man’s recollections, fallible though they may be, the novel refashions a reallife 1951 crime into myth.
Also of interest...in women’s lives, stage by stage
The Art of Waiting
by Belle Boggs (Graywolf, $16)
Infertility has, until now, been a subject too little discussed, said Carol Memmott in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In a book anchored by an “honest and heartbreaking” account of her five-year struggle to conceive a child, essayist Belle Boggs explores every aspect of the experience, from the stigma of feeling unblessed to the ethical quandaries posed by in vitro fertilization. Though the book is a primer on making such choices, “it’s also an eye-opener for anyone who takes having children for granted.”
by Sharon Olds (Knopf, $27)
Poet Sharon Olds, now 73, has been on “a fierce late-career run,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Her new collection, arriving three years after Stag’s Leap earned a Pulitzer, contains “some of the best and most ingenious poems of her career.” Olds makes the challenges of aging visceral in poems like “Ode of Withered Cleavage.” But she’s also as carnal as ever. “The book’s warmth comes from the intensities of its language and the intensities that emerge from a life that seems well-lived.”
Where Am I Now?
by Mara Wilson (Penguin, $16)
“The fact that Mara Wilson made it through childhood stardom mostly intact would be inspirational enough on its own,” said Danette Chavez in AVClub.com. The 29-year-old’s memoir arrives at a time when she’s also found a second career as a playwright and host of a storytelling series. Better yet, she’s accepted that she’ll always be measured against Matilda, her iconic screen character, and her candor reestablishes her role-model status. Once again, Mara Wilson is “a beacon for the brainy and anxious.”
by Alexandra Kleeman (Harper, $26)
With her startling new story collection, Alexandra Kleeman has “thrown out the instruction manual,” said Michael Deagler in TheMillions.com. Toggling from surrealism to realism and back, the author of the acclaimed novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine sandwiches a suite of stories about a woman named Karen between more dreamlike tales concerned with birth and death. The stories are less electric than their juxtaposition, but Kleeman is blazing a new trail, and she’s “masterful at the sentence level.”