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Reading On the Road; Fiction for a Father-in-law

March 16, 2012 | by

My father-in-law, a fiercely intelligent Irishman in his late sixties, has just been diagnosed with cancer. As he is facing a long period of being confined to quarters, I'd like to send him some books to help pass the time. However, he has candidly admitted to me that his concentration is not what it once was, and he finds reading anything of extended length quite difficult. Would you have any suggestions—collections of short pieces of fiction, or tales, personal essays, travel memoirs, for example—that might be suitable? When he’s feeling like his usual self, he enjoys reading Brian Moore and John Banville, outsmarting Stephen Fry on reruns of Qi, and finishing the Irish Times cryptic crossword in half the time it takes me to struggle through the Simplex.

With thanks,

Your father-in-law sounds great. You might ask whether he’s read Brian Moore’s novella Catholics. It’s a very short read, recently back in print: he may have missed it the first time. It happens to have been a favorite of David Foster Wallace; from your description, I wonder if your father-in-law might enjoy Wallace’s essays (either A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster) or my colleague John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. (Read his recent essay on Ireland if you’d like a preview.) Or Geoff Dyer’s essays, as for example Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. These are all witty essayists I read when my attention flickers low. Along the same lines, Sadie suggests Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Malachy McCourt’s very breezy but entertaining memoir A Monk Swimming.

Does your father-in-law have any interest in Russia? For sheer storytelling, I recommend Ken Kalfus’s PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies or any collection by Alice Munro (I won’t bother recommending William Trevor). You mention tales; it’s an obvious one, but I’ve found Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales good sickbed reading. For travel writing, maybe Richard Holmes’s Footsteps or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes?

We wish him a speedy recovery!

I’m looking for a couple of good books—novels or short stories—to read aloud with my boyfriend as we drive from Arizona up through the Badlands to a new start in New York. (We are not—not quite—as young and idealistic as that sentence makes us sound.) What would you recommend?

We like your style.

I suggest you keep a few books going at once, so you can switch around according to the driver’s—and the reader’s—mood. Thus, in no particular order, My Antonia, Denis Johnson’s Angels, True Grit, Last Evenings On Earth, American Purgatorio, any of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, and The White Hotel. All have a good strong voice, requiring no acrobatics on the reader’s part, most have something to do with travel, and all of them clip along. Sadie points out that the Victorians tend to be good for reading aloud—maybe the Palliser series?—and suggests the stories in Daphne du Maurier’s Don't Look Now. (She also proposed Another Roadside Attraction—and collapsed in giggles, for reasons best known to herself.)

My eye won’t stop twitching. Please help me.

Turn off the damn computer and go to sleep!

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  1. John Hollister Stein | March 16, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Really? “It happens to have been a favorite of David Foster Wallace’s”?

    Wouldn’t it be enough to say, say, “a favorite of Lorin Hollister Stein”?

    I never before thought of him as overly possive but now I wonder …

  2. Lorin Stein | March 16, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    It would indeed be enough. Duly corrected. (We younger Steins put the “ess” back in possessive.)

    Thank you, Dad!

  3. Irene | March 19, 2012 at 8:14 am

    I once read The Pickwick Papers while bouncing up the California coast. Great travel writing.

  4. Maelduin | March 19, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Foster by Claire Keegan is an extraordinary book; he’ll read it in an hour or two, but never forget it. Foster is the story of an ill-cared-for child sent to be fostered for a few months to her uncle and aunt in Wexford. Superlative storytelling, subtle, brutal, loving, tender, without pareil.

  5. Nicole Rudick | March 20, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Actually, Steins junior and senior, we’re right to say “a favorite of David Foster Wallace’s.” If you substitute a pronoun in for the proper name, it becomes “a favorite of his,” and “his” is a possessive pronoun. The Chicago Manual of Style says that the double possessive produced with proper nouns is “unobjectionable” and correct.

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