Editor’s note: For this month’s What to Read, our cohorts in the Capital City spoke to some of the authors visiting Austin for the New Fiction Confab, which brought a handful of America’s most prominent early and mid-career authors to Texas. Read on for recommendations from these six badass fiction writers.
Chicago-based Makkai is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Music for Wartime, and has written two award-winning novels: The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower. Her writing is witty, intelligent and ambitious. Richard Russo calls her “a writer to watch.”
What she’s reading: The Sixteenth of June, Maya Lang
“On June 16, exactly a year after its extremely appropriate debut date, Maya Lang’s The Sixteenth of June will come out in paperback. June 16 is also Bloomsday, the festival of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which Lang’s characters are celebrating in modern-day Philadelphia.
“I loved Lang’s nods to Joyce’s text, but you don’t need to know his work to enjoy hers. And, unlike Ulysses, this book is light enough to bring along to the beach this spring.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Born in Vietnam and raised in America, Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, is the story of a conflicted Vietnamese communist sympathizer living in America after the Vietnam War. It’s a beautifully crafted, gripping read, and the publication coincides with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
What he’s reading: The Land at the End of The World, António Lobo Antunes
“It was the summer of 2011. I was struggling with the opening of my novel. Then I heard of this book, about an old, broken-down man recalling his youth spent as a medic drafted to serve in a cruel Portuguese colonial war in Angola.
“I immediately bought the book and discovered that it was full of such lines, like this one describing a zoo’s inhabitants: 'ostriches that looked just like spinster gym teachers, waddling penguins like messenger boys with bunions, and cockatoos with their heads on one side like connoisseurs of paintings.'
“The prose is as potent as espresso. I couldn’t read the book in a single sitting. … Every morning for the next two years, I would read two or three pages from this novel, chosen at random, until I felt seized by my own story, and then I would begin writing.
“I suppose that this book, like espresso, isn’t for everyone. But if you like fiction that grapples with history and its horrors in language that is constantly surprising and uncompromising, which bears you back relentlessly into the past, to the end of one man’s world, then read this book.”
Akhil Sharma’s powerful debut novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was named a USA Today Top 10 Book of the Year. The New York Times has called his fiction “cunning, dismaying and beautifully conceived,” all traits on full display in his latest novel, Family Life.
What he’s reading: Life of Johnson, Boswell James
“The book I am most looking forward to reading is Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Because it is over a thousand pages in my edition, there seems something incredibly decadent about reading it, like when I was a child and would read and reread the Lord of the Rings series.
“Even the little bit that I have read so far is so full of life and humor that I find myself humbled as to how good good actually has to be to matter.”
Philly-based author Asali Solomon teaches at Haverford College, and her writing has won her awards like the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and Rona Jaffee Foundation Writers’ Award. Her debut novel, Disgruntled, was described by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson as being about a little bit of everything: “family ties, highs and lows, pop culture, work, race, love, and all the other things that make up life.”
What she’s reading: The Star Side of Bird Hill, Naomi Jackson
“I’m thrilled about reading the debut novel by Naomi Jackson: The Star Side of Bird Hill, which is wrought from some excellent complementary ingredients: Barbados, Brooklyn, sisters, family drama and the year 1989. Until that book comes out, I’m going to spend more time looking at the completely mesmerizing cover photo of the ocean on her website. Ahhh.
“P.S. Need I even mention Good Help the Child by Ms. Toni Morrison?”
Mary Helen Specht
The Austin-based author’s debut novel, Migratory Birds, is set in Austin and follows a group of thirtysomething friends trying to get their lives back together — each of them in various states of unraveling. Specht’s work has appeared all over, including in the New York Times, and she has won prizes like the Richard Yates Short Story Award.
What she’s reading: The Brink, Austin Bunn
“I was lucky to get my hands on an advanced copy of a story collection that will be released on April 28: The Brink by Austin Bunn (who wrote the screenplay for the lovely and affecting Kill Your Darlings, which chronicles the early moments of the Beat Generation). These stories, tight jabs to the sternum, written in myriad styles and voices (something I always admire because that’s not my particular wheelhouse), chronicle how characters of all sorts react to literal and emotional upheavals, or life on 'the brink.'
“And what is springtime if not a season to read about impending change?”
Amanda Eyre Ward
Ward is an Austin-based writer who has five novels under her belt, including the bestselling book, How to Be Lost. Her latest novel, The Same Sky, is inspired by her year spent meeting immigrant children in shelters in Texas and California.
What she’s reading: Man at the Helm, Nina Stibbe and A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
“A Man at the Helm is the most delightful book I’ve read recently. It’s hilarious, good-hearted, smart and winning. I’m often drawn to dark books (see next recommendation), but I read this one on vacation and was so glad I did. It’s the story of a girl looking for a way to belong, a home in the world. I loved it.
“Right now, because my best friend, Clay Smith, told me if I didn’t read it, he’d stop speaking to me, I am in the middle of the wrenching novel, A Little Life. I’m utterly absorbed, but also feel a bit broken. ... There’s a character who is badly abused as a child. Clay promises that the book becomes sweet, and I’m trusting him on this one. It’s an amazing book — but not for the faint of heart.”