Quaker Meeting in London, c.1723.
Why aren’t there more novels about Quaker worship? It’s inherently dramatic, people sitting in silence and waiting for God to speak through them. Dramatic—and really, really funny. For proof look no further than Nicholson Baker’s forthcoming novel, Traveling Sprinkler. The hero, Paul Chowder, spends a lot of time attending Quaker meetings (i.e., church). Most of the rest of the novel he spends trying to teach himself the guitar, write (incredibly dorky) songs, and win back the girlfriend who left him in Baker’s earlier novel The Anthologist. There are lots of reasons to love Traveling Sprinkler: Baker gets sweeter with each new book, and underneath the sweetness lie witty arguments about poetry and song and taste. Among other things, this is the best novel I’ve read about Spotify. It also vividly captures Quaker beliefs and practices at a moment when, as Paul Elie wrote last year in the New York Times, many novelists have trouble writing about religion. —Lorin Stein
“Beautiful and brilliant, possessed of an eye protected against sentiment coupled with a steel-trap mind and a tongue feared by all who had been at the receiving end of its talented sarcasm, a sarcasm that for some would always be wickedly amusing, for others just wicked.” So says essayist (and issue 204 contributor) Vivian Gornick of critic and writer Mary McCarthy on The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog. In a piece drawn from her introduction to a new edition of McCarthy’s 1949 novel, The Oasis, Gornick highlights the book’s biting satire but, more importantly, McCarthy’s fearlessness in barely disguising her characters from their real-life counterparts (mostly her Partisan Review colleagues). As McCarthy stated in her Art of Fiction interview, “What I really do is take real plums and put them in an imaginary cake.” —Justin Alvarez
If you’re like me and tend to spend summers in the city longing for an escape, you might enjoy Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “City Trees,” culled from the now out-of-print Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems Selected for Young People. I always want what I don’t have, geographically at least, but Edna has left me with just a bit more tolerance for “the shrieking city air.” —Kate Rouhandeh
I’m finally getting around to reading The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus’s first novel in ten years. There’s no cover (textured and geometric and sharp) or premise (a virus spread by children’s speech) more enticing than this book’s. And the actual experience does not disappoint: in this universe, the innocent are literally the vehicle for speech so malicious that it kills the uninformed, and Marcus’s obvious irony cloaks much more subtle, and sinister, implications. —Ellen Duffer
Every once in a while, I am struck with an affliction that I have dubbed the Call of the Wild: when it strikes, I feel the urge to deactivate my Facebook account, toss my cell phone in the trash, and march off into the woods like Thoreau. This time around, I found the perfect antidote: Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, the story of Strayed’s 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, a stretch of wilderness that runs from the Mexican border all the way through Washington State. I opened the book expecting a thrilling wilderness adventure but, as it turns out, blisters and bears are the least of the narrator’s woes. Over the course of her trek, Strayed must also contend with her own inner demons: the death of her mother, the collapse of her marriage, and the disintegration of her family. —Samantha Schnell
I went to the Strand the other day in search of a monograph on Wagner, but being me, left instead with Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure, by Joseph Wechsberg. Although the author is known as a respected journalist, he was also a noted gourmet, and this history-cum-memoir is a gossipy celebration of a kind of French haute cuisine that was an endangered species even in 1953. —Sadie Stein
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