Monica Lavín’s latest novel

I read 30 – 40 books most years. For 2017, I’m only listing those I feel compelled to say something about and have selected the four starred books to quote from, because they are wonderful. 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon. Yiddish Policeman’s Union is still the best.

Into the Beautiful North, 2009, Luis Alberto Urrea. Comic quest story. Knowing Spanish makes it funnier. Urrea lived in Colorado long enough to cheat Ann Waldman and I out of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry years ago, but I like his writing anyway.

Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose. Revisited for a class I taught. Her chapter on Chekhov made me reread him again. Worth doing.

The Chekhov Omnibus: Selected Stories, translated by Constance Garnett. Bless her heart. Garnett gave us all the Russians and I don’t care if Nabokov disparaged her work.

The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa. A 1958 novel worth retrieving.

Stoner, John Williams taught at DU umpteen years. Clear straightforward writing conveying great feeling. A man’s life, both rich and barren.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Carolyn Chute. Fascinating at first, unsatisfying ending. Isn’t that true of many novels?

*Lucia Berlin, Short Stories. How did I not know about this writer?!

*What Maisie Knew, Henry James. The power of the classic.

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, Luis Sepúlveda, translated by Peter Bush. Lyrical novella, full of grace and grief—and humor—for what we’ve done to the Amazon.

Revenant, Melanie Tem. Melanie’s gone, too soon. We attended holiday gatherings at her home for years.

Klee Wyck, Emily Carr. Visual artists knew about Carr already, but her work was the discovery of our Vancouver trip last summer.

Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith. It’s hard to pick single lines from poems, but here’s one:

Young bodies
Racing into the unmitigated happiness of danger.

*North of the Cities, Louis Jenkins. A brilliant writer of prose poems. I taught prose poems with his Nice Fish for years. This one equally good.

La Casa de los Tres Perros, Agustín Cadena. One of the fine writers I translate.

Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald. Mentioned by Rabih Alameddine in An Unnecessary Woman.

The Conformist, Alberto Moravia. Another Alameddine recommendation.

Cuando Te Hablen de Amor, Mónica Lavín. A lovely writer I translate.

*The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa, a book to be opened randomly, like the I Ching.

What is the What, Dave Eggers. An old writer trick: put the protagonist in a dire situation first paragraph, then tell his horrendous Lost Boy of Sudan tale, regularly reminding us that he’s tied and gagged on the floor of his apartment while burglars clean out the place. In able hands, it works. Haunting story.

Selected excerpts:

*Lucia Berlin

I like working in Emergency—you meet men there, anyway. Real men, heroes. Firemen and jockeys…I get the jockeys because I speak Spanish…Muñoz lay there, unconscious, a miniature Aztec god. Because his clothes were so complicated it was as if I were performing an elaborate ritual. Unnerving, because it took so long, like in Mishima where it takes three pages to take off the lady’s kimono.

*Henry James

This slender novel told in close 3rd person from the child’s POV, is a heartbreaking tour de force, the insecurity of Maisie’s position steadily becoming more complicated.

The first sentence of the Prologue: The litigation had seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal, the judgment of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child.

First two sentences, Chapter I:

The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably confounding to a young intelligence, intensely aware that something had happened which must matter a good deal and looking anxiously out for the effects of so great a cause. It was to be the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than, at first, she understood, but also, even at first, to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before.

*Louis Jenkins


An entrepreneurial spider has built her web between the bars of the railing at the scenic overlook in order to catch small insects blown in on the lake wind. If you can stick around she’ll tell you all about the difficulties of owning a small business.

The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

*Fernando Pessoa

To wind the world about our fingers, like a thread or a ribbon a woman plays with as she sits dreaming at the window.

It all comes down to trying to experience tedium in a way that does not hurt


However hard his life may be, the ordinary man does at least have the pleasure of not thinking. Living life as it comes, externally, like a cat or a dog—that is what most men do, and that is how you should live if you want to be as contented as a cat or a dog.




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9 Responses to Reading

  1. jhwriter says:

    What a great selection of books! I’ve put off reading Pessoa’s Disquiet because it seems Proustian, and the only time I read Proust (only Swann’s Way, I felt ill for two weeks. Not sick in a bad way, but disturbed and floaty, you know? Out of sorts (such a great phrase…). Those two weeks have kept me away from Proust ever since. Is Disquiet Proustian? Will it unhinge me?

    • dubrava says:

      Joe, I mean it, you have to read Disquiet like the I Ching: open at random and cruise until a jewel strikes you.I see no sense in trying to do it any other way and I of course have not read nearly all of it yet. The only time I read Proust, Swann’s Way of course, was following major surgery, many years ago, when I was restricted to bed for weeks. Even then, I didn’t finish it, although being an invalid while reading Proust felt like a perfect fit.

  2. Barbara Fairchild says:

    Thanks for this list. I’m especially interested in the Chekhov references because I’m reading a really enjoyable book right now that you should consider if you haven’t already – A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

  3. C.M. Mayo says:

    Gracias, amiga, for sharing your wondrous list. Many of these titles pique my interest. I loved James’ THE AMBASSADORS but have not cracked WHAT MAISIE KNEW, so that’s now on my to-read list. Oh, do I ever share your admiration for THE LEOPARD! And: ¡Viva Agustin Cadena y Mónica Lavín! Here’s to reading and writing in 2018!

  4. Kathleen Cain says:

    Thanks, as always, La Pat, for such tantalizing selections. One of my favorite pastimes is reading suggested book lists! What a rich menu here to choose from.

  5. Jana says:

    I find that I rarely laugh these days when one cannot escape the news. I am eternally grateful to A Man Called Ove for finding the laughter inside me and bringing it right out my mouth!!

    • dubrava says:

      Jana, I knew that was a film, but didn’t know it was a novel first. I’m adding it to my list. You’re right, though, the news is dark and getting darker all the time, it seems. Still, I think if I’m recovered enough from the flu by then, I’ll do that Women’s March next week, just to say I’m still here, I still protest, this hateful man is not my president.

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