Archives for posts with tag: book recommendations



“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, most fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read.” STEPHEN KING

Photo: Stephen King gets caught reading WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? by Kate Atkinson at a Boston Red Sox game, photo by James Borchuk (10/14/2008).



Publisher’s Weekly described WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? as,  “unrelated characters and plot lines collide with momentous results.” Find the novel at



I’ve always been interested in learning which books some of my favorite authors admire. Today, to commemorate F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s belated birthday, I looked up the novels Fitzgerald recommended to Sheilah Graham — as chronicled in her memoir, College of One. The list includes Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Cheri by Colette, A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, and Bleak House by Charles Dickens. According to Graham, Fitzgerald called Bleak House “Dickens’ best novel.” 

At 350,000 words — most editions are close to 1,000 pages — Bleak House is a doorstopper. I find the novel’s sheer size daunting. I can count on two hands the really, really long books I’ve read in my life. I’ve always said I’d rather read five 200-page books than one 1,000-page book (I plead eyestrain), but I have tackled Bleak House — though not at Fitzgerald’s recommendation.

I read an essay on Bleak House in Lectures on Literature by the notoriously critical Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) — the Wellesley and Cornell professor best known as author of Lolita. A native of Russia, Nabokov had him some opinions about English literature! But I’ll limit my comments to his thoughts on Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”


In Lectures on Literature, Nabokov praises Bleak House from every direction — but mainly focuses on the novel’s atmosphere, which Nabokov sees as a character in the book. He also lauds the unusual narration techniques — an omniscient third-person narrator alternating with a first person narrator (a young woman named Esther Summerson — the only female narrator in the Dickens canon).

About a decade ago, my New Year’s resolutions included “read Bleak House.” (You know, when you say to yourself: One way or another, I am going to finish this book!) And I enjoyed the novel so much, it didn’t take me a year to reach the final page.

A few years after I’d finished Bleak House, Masterpiece Theatre ran a multi-part adaptation — but I didn’t watch it. I knew the program could never live up to the story I’d pictured in my mind. And I realized that if the program had aired before I’d read the novel, I might never have attempted to make my way through the behemoth. (I’ll admit, I’ve  never been able to get more than halfway through Moby Dick.)

So if you’d like to commemorate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s belated birthday by reading one of his favorite novels, you can find an excellent online version from Pennsylvania State University here. (In an attractive, easy-to-read format.) This version is only 872 pages long. If you read five pages a day, you’ll be finished by spring. Enjoy! 


I read Lying Awake by Mark Salzman shortly after reading a profile of the author by Lawrence Weschler (“The Novelist and the Nun”) in the Oct 2, 2000 issue of The New Yorker. In the article, Salzman reveals his multi-year battle with writer’s block that included several drafts his agent and publisher rejected and his difficulty working at home because his cat wanted to sit in his lap — making it hard to concentrate.

While he struggled to write and often had no idea where to take his story, he did have several brainstorms related to the cat. First, he fashioned a skirt from aluminum foil and wore it while he worked (the cat did not like to sit on the metal garment). One day, Salzman was wearing the tin foil skirt and nothing else (you know how it is when you work at home) and stood up to get something. He looked out the window and saw a man working on the telephone wires outside — the lineman shook his head in pity when he saw Salzman. It was time for another cat deterrent tactic.

Salzman took his laptop to his garage and worked in his car. His cat followed him and sat on the vehicle’s moonroof while Salzman attempted to complete his novel, which, in his words, he wrote with a cat’s a**hole staring down at him.

Somehow the author managed to complete Lying Awake, which went on to bestsellerdom and rave reviews. Here’s one from the Amazon Page that does a good job of summarizing the novel: “Using a very limited palette, Mark Salzman creates an austere masterpiece. The real miracle of Lying Awake is that it works perfectly on every level: on the realistic surface, it captures the petty squabbles and tiny bursts of radiance of life in a Los Angeles monastery; deeper down it probes the nature of spiritual illumination and the meaning and purpose of prayer in everyday life; and, at bottom, there lurks a profound meditation on the mystery of artistic inspiration.”

Note: I recently found a beautiful paperback edition of Lying Awake at one of my used books haunts, and will mail the novel to the first person (U.S. only because of postage rates) who leaves a comment on this post. This our third book giveaway.


We are pleased to announce that Colleen was first to offer a comment about our REVOLUTIONARY ROAD post — and wins her very own copy of this amazing novel by Richard Yates. Visit Colleen — a recent UNC grad with a degree in English and advertising — at her blog Colleen Abroad, Passport to Somewhere: Because it’s never too early to start exploring the world…

Congratulations, Colleen! Thank you for visiting the Silver Birch Press blog!

Visitors, stay tuned for our next book giveaway — coming soon.