Read Any Good Books Lately?

05/16/2008 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This month, Michael Cunningham, Oren Jacoby, Betsy West, and Sloane Crosley, are helping stave off the panic I felt earlier this year when I read "Twilight of the Books" by Caleb Crain in The New Yorker, subtitled "What will life be like if people stop reading?" It's a particularly informative piece about declining numbers of folks who read books, and about how much worry that should cause us.

It's familiar territory to those of us who publish fiction and teach writing workshops only to learn that some of our students want to be writers even though they don't much like to read! Many feel that reading fiction is on its way to becoming something truly rarified, like opera. And no one in the business much likes to think about the small matter of declining book sales.

As more newspapers cut back or cut out book reviews, and as newspapers themselves decline, I hope this column will be one of many effort to combat these trends. Every month I'll ask three or four people in the news and in the know - writers, business people, creative people, maybe even a pol or two - to share their reading lists. Just as important, this is an invitation to Huffington Post readers to tell us what you're reading. In this political year, on this very political website, I know there's a great range of engaged readers with book lists of all sorts. Here's your chance to spread some good news.

Michael Cunningham is the author of four novels, including Specimen Days, A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, and The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown.

"I'm always juggling books. I live in an ongoing state of book-panic, because every day they publish new ones and at the same time - I admit it - I still haven't read Stendhal's The Scarlet and the Black.

"Right now, I've got two going. I'm reading Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. It centers on the fives movies that were nominated for the Oscar for best picture in 1968: two great ones (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate); a liberal feel-good fest (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner); a grotesque, zillion-dollar spectacular (Dr. Doolittle); and a solid little thriller (In the Heat of the Night), which won. It's a great idea for a book. Out of that one seminal year comes much of what anyone needs to know about the American movie business over the last forty years.

"I'm also in the middle of Andrew Sean Greer's new novel, The Story of a Marriage. Greer is one of my favorite young geniuses. I was knocked out by his previous novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, and this one is stunning, too. He's the real thing. I intend to read everything he writes for the rest of his (or my) life.

"I recently finished Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which deserves every single bit of praise it's received, not to mention that Big Prize it just won.

"A friend is urging me to read Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, and I always do what this particular friend tells me to. I've got Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection, Unaccustomed Earth, waiting on my desk..."

Oren Jacoby is an Oscar® nominated filmmaker who most recently directed, produced and co-wrote Constantine's Sword (link:, now playing in theaters in New York and around the country. He is currently working on The Lost Hero, a French-American co-production.

"I just read and was blown away by Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, first published in Vienna in 1937. It's the saga of a beautiful but ill-fated Muslim-Christian romance (and almost subliminally, an appeal for Muslim-Christian-Jewish reconciliation) set in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the eve of the Russian Revolution. The Muslim-sounding author is actually the pseudonym of the Jewish born, Lev Nussimbaum, who may or may not have collaborated on the book with his Viennese lover, Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels. More likely, the pseudonym Kurban Said was registered to Elfriede because Nussimbaum couldn't publish, as a Jew, in Nazi Germany.

"The most remarkable thing about the novel is the protagonist, Ali. The dashing young sheikh is a brilliant and surprising creation because Said has somehow sympathetically evoked a Muslim's fatalist, violent and slightly misogynist world view. Ali is both tempered by and constantly struggling against the cultural values of his sophisticated, oil-rich, highly Westernized city and the tender love he feels for Nino.

"This was a perfect follow-up to Snow, the wonderful Ohran Pamuk novel which evokes the same clash of Islam and the west in the world of present day Turkey. Both novels look inside the Muslim soul, trying to understand, and perhaps explain to outsiders, the violent impulse so widely associated with Islam today. Neither author judges this inclination. Each shows how historical forces have left few choices for young men caught in a society where their identities are threatened by the overpowering wave of the modern industrial world.

"These books were a curious alternate reality for me, because during the months I read them, I was working on a film about a Catholic writer, James Carroll, trying to understand the origins and consequences today of the Christian impulse toward violence."

Betsy West is an Associate Professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism. She was previously an Executive Producer at ABC News and Senior Vice President at CBS News, where she oversaw the 60 Minutes II story on Abu Ghraib. She's a co-producer of Constantine's Sword.

"After working for four years on a documentary about an ex-priest, I was thinking of taking a break from the clergy. But then I found myself enraptured by the memoir, Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universalist minister who lives in coastal Maine. Eleven years ago she was a wife and mother of four young children when her husband, a Maine state trooper, was killed in a car accident. Still grieving, she decided to pursue what had been her husband's dream, to attend theology school. Now she is the official chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. 'If anyone needs proof that God has a sense of humor, here it is: I am a middle-aged mother of four who works primarily with young, very fit men,' she writes. 'And I, a famously loquacious person, have a job that requires me mostly to just show up, shut up and be.'

"It turns out her job gives her enough suspenseful, compelling and sometimes gruesome experiences to create a new rural edition of CSI. Braestrup writes with an extraordinary clinical attention to the details of death that seems somehow appropriate coming from a minister who must find a way to comfort the grieving. But she also writes about her singular line of work with a wit and wisdom that elevates these stories far beyond the standard crime genre. She confronts the most profound questions of theodicy--how to reconcile the existence of evil in a world with the belief in a benevolent God. She provides no easy answers, but preaches a gospel of love that speaks even to this agnostic.

"Yes, this is an uncommon book by a minister, and, in my book, a must-read."

Sloane Crosley's first books of essays, I Was Told There'd be Cake, was recently published to much acclaim. She works in book publishing.

"I read David Shields' The Thing About Life Is One Day You'll Be Dead on an airplane. Just having it in my possession was a source of dark amusement every time I got up from my seat and left the book on my tray table for the people around me to see. Apparently, most of Shields' books have a similar pattern that alternates between reminiscence and straight fact. There are certain things I had long-since forgotten from biology class, such as the fact that every fetus has the XX chromosome unless they get a signal from the mother's body to turn XY. Meaning, that female is kind of the default.

"A sales person at the B&N in Lincoln Square insisted I buy Jenny and The Jaws of Life: Short Stories by Jincy Willett and David Sedaris, which was reissued a few years back, and it was definitely worth the purchase (which is saying something when you work in an office piled high with dozens of copies of the same book. I joked with this staffer that sometimes I'll walk into a bookstore and forget that I can't just take a book even though there are piles of it in my office. She didn't find this particularly funny). In the end, the stories were a bit XX Chromosome for me. But they have heart and intelligence and humor in spades and I'm hardly one to fault a collection of stories or essays for something as incidental as female narration. . . .

"I have also, belatedly, read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I avoided for the simple reason that I loved Drown and sometimes hype can have the inverse effect. The book is amazing, full of electric language, much more fast-paced and humorous than I had anticipated. Finally, I have just started Stuart O'Nan's Last Night At The Lobster, thus far a very detailed and beautifully precise description of the chain mall restaurant and an endearing portrait of the main character."

Dear Huff Po Readers, If you've read any good books lately, please send us news. Be sure to include the author's name.

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including "Almost and Slow Dancing", and "The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers", widely used in creative writing programs. For a free copy of her essay, "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet," please click here.