Writers on Writing

Solitary Turbine, oil on canvas, 2017

The Reader Over Your Shoulder by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge

Style guide20th Century

Concieved on the cusp of WWII, Graves and Hodge’s guide to writing prose in the English language was developed in an effort to preserve some semblance of certainty at a time when life, as they knew it, was about to become a memory. The Reader Over Your Shoulder is not only a guide for creating clear and impactful prose; it is also an exploration of the history of writing in English, peculiarities of the language itself, and the many styles of writing that can be crafted from it. Above all else, Graves and Hodge shepherd us through the essential techniques needed to set down our thoughts with clarity and grace. 

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Memoir20th Century

Perhaps Bird by Bird is so widely beloved because it honestly acknowledges the terror and self-loathing that can be felt by so many of us who endeavor to write. With humor, warmth, and practicality, novelist and essayest, Anne Lamott offers her wisdom on dealing with “shitty” first drafts (“the child’s draft”), perfectionism (“the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”), how to quiet negative voices (“say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we are going to do right now is write a description of the river at sunrise…”) and how to get started on a short assignment (write down as much as you can see “through a one-inch picture frame”). Over and over within this little gem of a book, Lamott gives us the gift of light in the void of self-doubt.

On Writing by Stephen King

Memoir21st Century

“Sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” This is Stephen King’s way of telling us to just keep writing, even if we feel like the entire enterprise is useless. Indeed, of all the advice the prolific novelist doles out in this Memoir of the Craft, the one that resonates most is that in order to learn how to write well, one must practice writing “without fear and affectation” and dispense with the notion that there is actually “good” or “bad” writing. With his razor-sharp honesty and biting humor, King reminds us that the real monster in every writer’s closet is him or herself.

Erotic Memoirs

Librarian

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany

EroticMemoirCultural History20th Century

Samuel R. Delany, best known for his groundbreaking science fiction, chronicles his escapades on Forty-second street in this vivid and honest memoir. If you were even mildly tickled by David Simon’s attempt to recapture the glory days of Times Square smut in The Deuce, you will likely delight in Delany’s nostalgic descent into the recesses of the theaters, peep shows, and toy shops, while he describes a world in which men, both straight and gay, felt the freedom to indulge in their desires and at the same time tap into a tenuous yet potent feeling of camaraderie and community that has long since been replaced by cartoon musicals and personal handheld devices.

The Surrender by Toni Bentley

EroticMemoir21st Century

Dancer Toni Bentley is effusive and at times hyperbolic in her admiration for backdoor bliss, but despite the dramatic flair, her memoir can’t help being both sincere and charming in its way. By exalting both the physical sensation and the incredible sense of power and release she feels while engaging in the act of anal sex, Bentley makes a convincing plug for those who have yet to cross this particular Rubicon. 

A Letter From My Father: The Strange, Intimate Correspondence of W. Ward Smith to His Son Page Smith by Page Smith

EroticMemoir20th Century

Strange and intimate indeed! Upon his father’s death in 1968, Page Smith was bequeathed the epic letter that his father had intended for him to read and learn from.  In between the mundane details of his business and family life, W. Ward Smith frequently litters his missive with intensely graphic retellings of his gluttonous sexual escapades that spanned decades. Thankfully, Page Smith rejected his initial impulse to burn the over ten-thousand pages, and instead decided to publish A Letter From My Father, making it a rare and abundant social/sexual document written by a genuine and prolific libertine. 

Whimsical, Satirical, and Charming

Hidden Figures

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

In the 1880s, leisure boating took hold in Great Britain, and thus Jerome K. Jerome planned a trip to write a Thames boating travelogue. He ended up, after traveling with two friends up the river from Kingston to Oxford, with a witty, whimsical, and thoroughly charming little book. Refreshing and unrushed, an absolute charmer.

Jurgen by James Branch Cabell

He counted among his admirers H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and Sinclair Lewis, and wrote dozens of novels set in an arch and very adult fantasy world. Jurgen won Cabell notoriety for its supposed salaciousness – our hero is a serial seducer which did not go over well in 1919 America, but sex is not the point – satire and deft writing is as Jurgen goes all the way to Hell on his travels.

The Complete Stories of Saki by H. H. Munro

A vengeful ferret deity, a talking cat, a woman reincarnated as an otter, and the foibles of countless upper-class twits – Saki merged the strange, the silly, and the laughable in dozens of compact and memorable stories set among the toffs in Great Britain pre-WWI. Clever young boys and devious young men are his favorite heroes, but there’s a bite of nasty delight in all his work.

Modern Gothics

Storm Damage, August, 2020

The Riders by Tim Winton

Scully, an Australian ex-pat has just purchased a ramshackle cottage that sits on a “bare scalp of hill” along the Slieve Bloom mountains of central Ireland. Intending to renovate the dwelling for his wife and young daughter, Scully tirelessly untangles the place from the creeping vegetation only to discover that his wife has disappeared without a trace. Left alone with his child and the gaping wound in his heart, Scully attempts to unravel the mystery that looms over the novel like the shadow of a moldering castle. Dark, damp, and mournful, The Riders reads like a haunting Irish lament.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Hundreds Hall, the sprawling Georgian house owned by the Ayers family, has been lodging ghostly secrets for centuries. Though it has seen better days, by the end of the second world war, as England’s landed estates begin to be dismantled, Hundreds’ secrets are still potent enough to send maids running scared into the night, requiring the ministrations of the local Dr. Faraday to set the house and its inhabitants to rights. Faraday soon learns that there is one member of the Ayers family who will not follow his recommendations. Waters employs the ghost-story trope brilliantly here as she examines the final demise of England’s landed gentry and the tenuous fate of an independent woman. 

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Daisy Johnson has a penchant for personifying houses in a most disturbing way. The Settle House, the salt-scrubbed and splintered setting of her latest, Sisters, serves as a character in itself, with its sinking floors and throbbing walls. Beneath its sloped roof, reside Sheela and her two daughters, named September and July. The sisters, in their mid-teens, are only ten months apart in age, making them what is known as “Irish twins.” It quickly becomes clear, however, that the sisters are less two than they are one; July seems to dwell not only in the Settle House but also in the very body of her sister as if she is some sort of living and breathing fetus in fetu. Johnson’s sharp and vivid prose makes for an unsettling and delicious portrait of two girls who suffer from warped identities and unreliable memories. 

Canine Fiction

Border Collie at Rest in Iver, Buckinghamshire

Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

Deadly serious and heart-breaking, Stapledon’s work about a dog imbued with human-level intelligence while retaining his canine attributes and his deep bond with his human creator’s daughter is a landmark in science fiction’s reach to explain humanity through the possibilities of the future and its own persistent prejudices and fear.

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

On the other hand, turning a dog into a human is a perfect vehicle for satire, and Bulgakov’s skill at critiquing the burgeoning Soviet state, its fascination with human improvement, total control, and junk science through our hero dog’s evolution is a laugh aloud pleasure.

Nop’s Trial by Donald McCaig

Real dogs with remarkable skills are not unusual, and border collie Nop, a working sheepdog, is among the best. But once stolen and abused, Nop reveals an inner strength and loyalty beyond his previous experience that pulls him through these trials, endurable only through the bond between him and his owner.

Military History

Fresco, Pompeii

Culture and Carnage by Victor David Hanson

Victor Hanson recreates nine battles fought by armies from the West against other cultures, from Salamis and Cannae to Midway and Tet, and ties them to a cultural superiority defined by freedom, citizen armies, group discipline combined with individual initiative, Capitalism, technology and ruthlessness. Lucid, controversial, unflinching in the telling of the true costs of war, a powerful argument that victory often stemmed from greater freedoms.

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

John Keegan’s landmark The Face of Battle brought warfare down from grand and sweeping portraits to the ground where the men, weapons, tactics and strategies determined the outcomes at Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme , challenging assumptions, myths and stereotypes along the way in exacting and lively battlefield analyses.

The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman

Opinionated, sometimes maddening but always as entertaining as a conversation with a brilliant and much-missed friend, Barbara Tuchman tries here to understand why the Trojans, Renaissance Popes, King George III and American presidents from Kennedy to Nixon and their wisemen committed to wars that were, as the title claims, follies.