Saturday, July 21, 2018

How to Self-Diagnose and Treat (Author) Obsession

First, a quick check to tell whether or not you are obsessed with an author:

1. Do you own more than half of his or her published books?     
2. Do you know right now when his or her next book is coming out? 
3. Alternately, do you regularly check for updates on his or her Facebook, Instagram, website, or Amazon author page to see whether you can expect a new publication soon?
4. Do you regularly check the shelves of your local bookstore or library for new books (or new editions) you don't already own? (And then buy them?)
5. Do you smirk and then snort in derision when you find that a bookstore you thought was probably janky does not in fact carry any titles by the author you know to be one of the best in the world, thus firmly confirming your earlier opinion of said bookstore?
6. Do you own at least one clothing item that proudly declares your admiration (okay, obsession) for this author?

If you answered yes to fewer than half of the above questions, you are just mildly affiliated. If you answered yes to more than half of them, you may are likely to be marginally obsessed. If, however, you are like me and can answer yes (with conviction) to all six of the above, then you, my dear, are in excellent company. You have an author obsession, and it is no small accomplishment. As I thought about this post, I realized that I am a promiscuous obsessive, actually, and there are several authors I adore. Here they are, in no particular order:

David Mitchell
Why I love his books:
David Mitchell creates worlds within worlds, and each one of his books is both completely distinct and unique but also interwoven with the other books in small ways (for a great explanation, see this article on LitHub). He's not easy to classify or quantify, either, which may be why I love his work. BlackSwanGreen is a coming of age story set in a small English village in the 1980s. Cloud Atlas is a mind-bending puzzle of a book, both in its structure and its style. It weaves together six stories, moving from a naive traveler on a 19th century Pacific island to a jaded musician in 1930s Belgium to a dogged journalist in 1970s California to a cheating editor in modern day England to a cloned human in near-future Korea to a curious survivor in far-future Hawaii. Bone Clocks also jumps timelines and places, ranging from 1980s to the possible near future, but it has the extra element of soul-sucking near-immortals, a good guys club and a bad guys club, who have been at war for centuries. And The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is at its most basic level historical fiction, set in Japan in 1799 (for the most part), focusing on traders working at a Dutch trading outpost offshore from Nagasaki. It details the intricate rules and expectations of the Japanese in their trade deals with the west...until it is revealed that a monastery in the mountains has mysterious secrets, and that's when it gets really crazy. And his other books, Number9Dream and Ghostwritten, are excellent as well. Mind blowing, bewildering, excellent.

Emily St. John Mandel

Why I love her books:
Okay, so, if you haven't read Station Eleven yet, you need to get a copy and read it now. This book floors me every single time I've read it, and I have read it several times now. Yes, it is a post-apocalyptic novel, but it is nothing like any other of that genre I've read. Instead of focusing on the chaos and brutality of mankind in the absence of civilization, it focuses on the beauty of humanity--and reminds us to treasure what we have. In its basic story arc, it follows the path of a group of traveling musicians and performers who circuit the shores of Lake Michigan, taking this line from Star Trek Voyager as their motto: "Because survival is insufficient." But it's not just a story about them. It also, through layered narratives, tells the stories of people who lived and worked and loved in the days before the pandemic. If you don't read any of these other books, read this one. And I just finished reading Last Night in Montreal which is, I believe, her first novel. It's excellent. This one's basic story is this: A girl is abducted from her mother's house by her father in the middle of a winter night, and they spend the next ten years on the run. Now, the girl is a young woman, and she can't stay in one place. She is compelled to keep moving, never to settle. Like in Station Eleven, Mandel doesn't tell a linear story, but she keeps circling back and back and back again on this basic story line, telling it again and again from different angles and characters, eventually revealing the whole, beautiful thing. It's gorgeous. I have also read The Lola Quartet, but only once, and it was a library book, so my only comment is that it was good and I should probably get my own copy.

J.K. Rowling

Why I love her books:
I mean, do I even need to say it? This one is pretty much a no-brainer. I have read each one of the Harry Potter books so many times, I feel like I know the characters inside and out. Each time I read one of the books, I fall more in love with the characters, the story, the world Rowling created. I feel a deep sense of loss that I will never again get to read the series for the first time. Pick my favorite book? Ask me to tell you which of my children is my favorite. Can't be done.

Neil Gaiman

Why I love his books:
I think Gaiman is an author for certain types of readers and sometimes, I surprise myself with how much I love his books because I don't think the content is really my style. I am convinced, though, that he is very, very smart, and maybe that is why I love his work so much. I think my favorite is Neverwhere, and one of the reasons I love this book is that it has an alternate world just beyond the edges of ours--and sometimes the worlds overlap. I love books like this. This book has a love story and a quest and humor and mystery--and also bad guys who sometimes eat their victims. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is considerably less brutal, as is Stardust, although they both have disgusting moments. Both have sweetness, though, and magic and humor. And if you don't mind a good deal of gore and other graphic content, American Gods and Anansi Boys both are excellent. Great stories, vivid characters, and a solid dose of the supernatural. (Note: A couple of my copies of Gaiman's books didn't make this picture because I've lent them out.)

Julia Stuart

Why I love her books:
Sadly, Stuart has only written three books so far, but I own each of them and have read them multiple times. Each book is brimming over with quirky, dear characters living out their quiet lives. The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is probably my favorite, even though the back story is so, so sad. Balthazar Jones and his wife live in the Tower of London, where he is a guard. Their young son has recently died, and Balthazar, in his grief, turns to silence. He collects rain in bottles, convinced different rains have different scents. He takes care of the animals at the zoo (temporarily housed at the Tower). He talks to his friends. But he doesn't talk to his wife, and he doesn't talk about his son. Other characters, a priest who writes amorous fiction, his wife's co-worker who likes to wear outlandish costumes at work, and his wife herself are among the cast of outrageous characters who make this novel so, so fascinating. Her other novels The Matchmaker of Perigord and The Pigeon Pie Mystery are similarly populated with interesting, complex, quirky characters. I just love her books and wish she'd write more of them.

Joanne Harris

Why I love her books:
Joanne Harris, like some of the other authors I love, isn't easily classified or contained. Probably her most well-known book, Chocolat, tells of an unconventional woman who breezes into a sleepy French village on Shrove Tuesday and opens a chocolaterie, much to the dismay of the priest whose parish is just across the square. He believes she is only there to draw his congregation away from their Lenten vows and is operating her shop and simply living in direct opposition to the Church. The book is populated with memorable characters and glossed with delicious descriptions of food and, of course, chocolate. And while Harris has also written two books that are sequels to Chocolat, telling more of Vianne Rocher and her children and their friends (The Girl with No Shadow and Peaches for Father Francis), Harris has also written Holy Fools, a novel set in an abbey in 17th century France; two intense suspense books set at an elite boys' school in modern England, Gentlemen and Players and Different Class; and a couple books set in country villages with long-held dark secrets, Five Quarters of the Orange and Blackberry Wine. Her novels are rich and textured. Great reads.

Patricia McKillip
Why I love her books: I think I've read everything she's written at least once. McKillip writes gorgeous fantasy, lovely books that rely more on character and setting than on magic. I think my favorite is The Bell at Sealey Head, a book in which most of the characters are firmly prosaic people living on the coast of an almost-English village, where every day at sunset they all hear (and have come to ignore) the mysterious tolling of a bell. They are innkeepers and merchants and fishermen, busy with daily life until one day a stranger comes who begins to dig deeper into the story of the bell, unleashing the long-buried magical world just beyond the edges of their world. Her other books are great, too. I have read and re-read Od Magic (a school for wizards trains those who will both protect the kingdom from invaders and keep any wizards from becoming too powerful until one day...) and The Bards of Bone Plain (which also features a school...hmm...for musicians whose music can sometimes--if they have the gift--summon and weave magic). They are just beautifully crafted books, each of them.

George Saunders

Why I love his books:
Okay, I have just discovered Saunders. I first heard about Lincoln in the Bardo, and I was so convinced I was going to love it that I put off reading it for months after I bought it so that I could savor it. (Do you do this?) It was definitely worth the wait. Here's the premise: The bardo is like limbo or purgatory, a place where souls wait--sometimes for a very long time--before passing on. In this book, they wait in the cemetery where they have been interred. And these souls form friendships and alliances with each other and have long conversations about their former lives and their present state and what they most miss. They can see living people but cannot interact with them. Into the bardo comes Abraham Lincoln, mourning the death of his beloved son. Of course, Lincoln is not dead, so he isn't really IN the bardo, but the spirits can all see him, and they talk to his son and try to ease him into understanding that he is dead but his father isn't, and his father needs to let him go. But Lincoln cannot. That's a great story, but what makes it even MORE interesting is Saunders's style. He writes in short, short sections--paragraphs, basically--each narrated by an observer. Most of these sections are narrated by the inhabitants of the bardo, but some of the sections tell the story of the boy's illness, death, and funeral from the perspective of friends, family members, and other witnesses to the events. It is so, so interesting. I've never read a book like it. So then, I had to see what else Saunders has written. Just short stories, which I'm not usually a fan of. But I loved Lincoln in the Bardo, so I picked up Tenth of December a little while ago and it is SO STRANGE. Each story is its own package of bizarre. And right now I'm reading In Persuasion Nation. So far, three stories in, equally strange. The stories are funny, but even as I'm laughing, I'm shaking my head in dismay. Saunders is very, very smart. Very satirical. The worlds he's imagining here are so wrong. I hope he's not prophetic. I'm afraid he might be.

So. What do you think? Are you an author-obsessed reader? Have you read any of the above books? I'd love to hear what you're reading. And of course, I'm happy to talk more about any of these books.