Which of these is the wrong answer to a reference question?
A. You’re kidding, right?
B. Sorry, no can do.
D. All of the above
I did use “C” recently–following up, thankfully, with useful information.
A customer I’d assisted weeks ago with “readalike” suggestions (he’d finished everything by his favorite author) forgot to bring the list I prepared for him. His kids were waiting downstairs, he was in a hurry, so could I just quickly remember those names and give him another copy?
Of course I came up with another list–but not off the top of my head or exactly like the previous one. And my lack of eidetic memory isn’t the only reason.
Readalikes are, like snowflakes, numerous and ephemeral. “What to read next” authors I’ve used successfully for years get supplanted when I discover newer, more appropriate ones. The best lists derive from multiple sources, and the exact combination is difficult to remember. Also, (as anyone who’s consulted Goodreads, Novelist, or other reading troves knows) it’s possible to unearth so many potential choices that great matches become lost in the pile.
And success isn’t guaranteed. Because readers bring as much to the enjoyment of a book as writers do, the best reading comparisons–like Ebenezer Scrooge’s spirits–occur unbidden and in their own good time.
That’s what happened with two stellar new novels I read over the weekend; they effortlessly conjured similarly wonderful novels ideal for future list-giving:
In Laird Hunt’s Neverhome, “Ash”– a young Indiana wife who enlists to fight for the Union in the Civil War–relates heart-wrenching adventures vividly, in artless rural rhetoric with surprising eloquence. Hunt’s wonderful prose lends major impact to this small volume.
Stephen Crane’s battlefield setting and notable imagery in The Red Badge of Courage naturally came to mind, as did Cold Mountain‘s palpable sense of home-seeking. A favorite Jane Smiley book, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, memorably chronicles another woman in disguise, this time before the Civil War. DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook’s nonfiction They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War would be a great pre- or post-Neverhome choice. And some of Ash’s more desperate moments recalled from Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist the near-feral behavior of other young women cornered by circumstances.
The intriguing story-within-a-story device in Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian Station Eleven brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s excellent The Blind Assassin. As in Walter Miller’s classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mandel’s characters are driven to fashion archives of their lost worlds. Fans of the similarly post-apocalyptic World Made By Hand books by James Howard Kunstler will appreciate Mandel’s depiction of “new world” resourcefulness and self-governance dilemmas. The pace of calamity in Station Eleven contrasts with the incremental demise of Earth in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, yet both authors achieve a movingly elegiac sense of dawning sorrow for the years ahead.
Next time someone asks me to recommend a great read, I’ll think of Neverhome and Station Eleven. And, once you’ve read them, you’ll be thinking how very foolish it would be to ever depart from home without sturdy flat shoes, antibiotics, and a sackful of batteries.