Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now or how you’d like to be feeling instead.
My friends, it has been a little while since we’ve done one of these! I’ve received some concerned messages from readers who worried that the series was over for good, but I promise it is not. It will continue, just not on a weekly basis as it was for awhile.
What have you been reading in the interim? I just finished rereading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot for the Vox Book Club, and I’m delighted to find that my memory had undersold how funny it is. (The scene where Selin keeps talking about how clean the strawberries are? You’ll get it if you read it.) I am also faintly terrified that I have signed myself up for a month of discussing this book, because it is the kind of book that strongly resists discourse. But we will find our way through together!
Of course, I am aware that a person is not always in the mood to read a book about complex language games and adolescent disillusionment. That’s why this column exists: You tell me exactly what you want to read, and I will find the book for you. Let’s get started.
I’m feeling lost figuring out exactly what kind of man I want to be after transitioning. Do you have suggestions for a coming-of-age-style story with a male protagonist who is already an adult?
Love this question! Just on the off chance you haven’t come across these transmasculine memoirs already, definitely pick up Daniel Lavery’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You (published under the name Daniel Mallory Ortberg), and also consider Amateur by Thomas Page McBee.
In terms of novels, I think a solid bet for you is going to be quest novels, because the hero is often an adult and generally the thing that he finds at the end turns out to be what kind of person he is. Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle is a great option here, and I’d also throw in Possession (dual protagonists, a whole lot of thinking about how what we grow up believing we want from life is not in fact what we want as adults).
This is also the kind of thing the classics are actually great for in a way a lot of contemporary novels won’t be. So often contemporary novels in which a man tries to find his identity have assholes as main characters because contemporary literary fiction is too steeped in irony to handle this question with the sincerity it deserves. I’m thinking Daniel Deronda, and honestly War and Peace, which is in large part devoted to Pierre trying to work out what kind of man he is and what kind of man he wants to be.
I’ve read Eve Babitz’s books during quarantine and am looking for something similar. She writes about things I love to read about — the 1960s, LA, love, sex, fame, and parties, but she’s also super smart, witty, and literary. I’ve already read Joan Didion.
Try Bill Cunningham’s memoir Fashion Climbing for glamour and parties, Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries for name-dropping with literary flair, and maybe some Cookie Mueller for all around fabulousness.
I have a long-running search for books that have a strong sense of place and I’m always sort of drawn to the mountain west. My favorite book is The Winter of Our Discontent. I love Steinbeck when he kept the story reasonably tight. So I’d love other thoughts on writers along those lines.
My friend, this is a list crying out for some Annie Proulx! Her most famous story has mountain right there in the title, and all of her stuff is very intimately, richly grounded in the natural landscape. Plus, there is no one on the planet who writes a more devastatingly tight sentence than her.
I need something that’s exactly like The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
To be completely honest here, I have to admit that The Kingkiller Chronicles are not my jam (no man is allowed to complain to me about Mary Sues until Rothfuss atones for Kvothe), but I do love a good sword-and-sorcery fantasy. A great option for you would be Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series, starting with Swordspoint — velvety prose, intricate worldbuilding, and incredibly rich, compelling characters. It always makes me crave rich hot chocolate in an immaculate porcelain cup.
For something like Hitchhiker, my go-to recs are Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde. If you have already read them, consider Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. She’s American so her comedic sensibility is different, but she does similar riffs on genre tropes and her books are all extremely lovable.
I really enjoyed Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and The Moonstone. I loved the fun plots, the distinctive characters, and the shifting narratives. Would love recommendations for anything similar!
Oh trust, I love a Victorian thriller. So Collins actually had a protégé named Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and scholars sometimes call them respectively the king and queen of the sensation novel. Try starting with Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret — there’s bigamy and murder and a scheming social striver who is technically the villain but whom I personally always root for.
I would also maybe consider trying George Gissing, who is an interesting writer because he veers back and forth so sharply between social realism and an extremely heightened world where characters are always throwing acid in each other’s faces and running away cackling. This is maybe because the details of Gissing’s real life read like a pulp novel and he legitimately did not seem to understand the difference between the two genres — his first wife was a prostitute, his second wife was eventually committed to an insane asylum, it just gets wilder from there — but it makes for a very compelling reading experience.
I’m looking for a good erotic novel in the vein of Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang.
Try Silk by Alessandro Baricco. The prose is so delicate and precise it feels tactile.
If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at email@example.com with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!