Miriam Toews Keeps Getting Better

Miriam Toews has managed to do the seemingly impossible: Write a novel about depression and suicide that is funny, loving, witty, heartbreaking, clever, and insightful, all while contributing to the public debate over an individual’s right to die with dignity. Toews has long been a best-selling, award-winning author in her native Canada, but readers south of the border have been slow to discover her. All My Puny Sorrows, her sixth and arguably best novel, should change that.

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Ali Smith—Scottish, 55, fearless—has already made a reputation as one of most ambitious, offbeat, and mesmerizing novelists of our time. Now she’s pushing it a step further with an unusual “seasonal” quartet. The first two volumes, Autumn and Winter, are already out, and you better hurry up and read them because you want to be ready when Spring arrives. And it won’t be long.

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Richard Russo’s Take on Academia

I don’t normally use this space to review twenty-year-old books, but for Richard Russo, I’ll make an exception. Regular readers know I’m a huge Russo fan. He’s been a big influence on my own writing, and I thought I’d read everything he wrote. But last month a friend recommended one of his novels that I’d missed: Straight Man, published in 1997. It’s the funniest serious novel I’ve ever read.

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Let’s face it. For struggling authors, marketing and selling a published novel is at best a necessary evil—about as much fun as reading the Congressional Record (which, thankfully, I no longer have to do for work). We all tackle the marketing chores in whatever way we can because we know we have to, all the while hoping we’re not badgering and offending those on the receiving end of our too-frequent pitches.

But there’s one part of the process that is wonderful: Being a guest at a book club.

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This is a strange time for journalism—confusing both for the people who practice it and those who consume it. The Trump administration has cast a lifeline to mainstream media like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have seen circulation surge as old-time investigative reporting kicks into high gear. At the same time, rumors, lies, and complete fabrications get almost equal treatment in certain less reputable media sources, with a huge impact in unfortunate ways. For journalists of the old school (including me) it’s a time of head scratching.

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So you devoured Elene Ferrante’s tetralogy and now you’re wondering what other international gems are out there—books so good you can’t believe you never heard of them. Well, look no further than Magda Szabó’s The Door. If you like Ferrante, I guarantee you’ll like Szabó.

Magda Szabó, who died in 2007 at age 90, was one of Hungary’s most important 20th century writers, widely read and admired at home but only recently getting the love and attention she deserves worldwide. The Door was published in 1987 but not translated into English until 2005, when it appeared in Britain. Last year, the New York Review Books classics offered it up to American audiences in a new, widely praised translation by Len Rix. We should all be thankful.

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A Writer Reads Elizabeth Strout

Writing fiction will change the way you read it. I often make a point of reading like a writer (to borrow Francine Prose’s book title), examining what the author is trying to do and how she’s doing it, determining what works and what doesn’t (and why), and looking for how this can help improve my own writing. It doesn’t stop me from reading as a reader—enjoying good literature and losing myself in fictional worlds—but I rarely lose sight of what the author is doing to and for me.

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For too long, Joan Silber has labored in the shadows, her work overlooked, underappreciated and read by too few. I’m here to correct that. Or at least give it my best shot.

I just completed her latest novel, Improvement, and it is a stunning work, full of subtlety and insight, conveying an understanding of how ordinary people struggle to make something of their lives. Politicians who want to connect with “real” Americans would have a better chance of doing so if they studied Silber’s work, beginning with Improvement.

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hen I was in graduate school and working on an early version of my first novel, Hawke’s Point, my thesis advisor asked me if I’d read Richard Russo. I hadn’t, but when he said my writing reminded him of Russo’s, I rushed out to get everything I could lay my hands on. The advisor’s comment was reinforced when a reviewer of Hawke’s Point also cited a similarity to Russo.

At first, I didn’t really see it.

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Kids Write the Darndest Things

As a writer I love to read—first, for the joy of devouring a good book and, second, because as a writer I always learn something I can use. And as an aging baby boomer, I love to watch and try to mentor the youngest generation as it finds its footing in the world. That’s why I look forward each week to the 90 minutes I spend leading a teen writing club. It combines the best of both my worlds, and invariably I learn a lot—about life and about writing.

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Mark Willen