Starting Anew: What We’re Reading Now

Staff Picks

New year, new additions to the must-read stack. Here are the books that have captured our booksellers’ attention at the beginning of 2014. (Note that many of them have been around quite some time. But if you’ve never read it, it might as well be new, right?)

Ann Patchett
Swimming Studies, 
by Leanna Shapton, is mostly about swimming—the grind of practice, the thrill of races, the bad food and weird hotels, and how all that discipline can, in some cases, wind up being closely connected to the experience of making art. If you’re a swimmer, or you know a swimmer, or an athlete of any stripe, or any kind of artist, or you just enjoy very clean prose and straightforward nonfiction, I would press this book into your hands.

Donna Nicely
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (NYRB, 2007) was first published in 1922.  The recent edition has an excellent introduction by Cathleen Schine. Von Arnim was a popular Edwardian author. She lived an interesting and varied life, marrying twice: once to a German count who owned an eight-thousand-acre estate in Pomerania; and later, unhappily, to the brother of Bertrand Russell. The setting of The Enchanted April is based on a Portofino castello that Von Arnim and friends rented in 1921.

It is a beautifully written little book. The opening scene between awkward Lotty Wilkins and dutiful Rose Arbuthnot is delightful. They meet by chance “in a woman’s club in London on a February afternoon–an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon–” where each has noticed an advertisement in The Times for “Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.” Von Arnim is a witty writer. There are many scenes in the book that are humorous, for example, the description of Lottie’s relationship with her overbearing husband, and Mr. Arbuthnot’s confusion when he reaches San Salvatore. The popular movie Enchanted April (1992) is based on Von Arnim’s work. 

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 9.34.07 AMLauren Bardwell
Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson explores the evolution of the wild plants of the hunter-gatherer society to the produce of modern agriculture. While the history she uncovers is fascinating, Robinson goes on to offer practical advice about what varieties retain much of their original phytonutrients and how best to prepare them to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. Just read the back cover. This book will make you the most interesting person at any dinner party. And it just might make you healthier too. 

Karen Hayes
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, is an engrossing novel. Based on a true story, it is written from the point of view of two women raised in the early 19th century Charleston. One is the daughter of a prominent slave-holding family and the other a slave. Both refuse to accept their given positions in not just Southern society, but American society for that time period.

Niki Castle
A House in the Sky is Amanda Lindhout’s true, brave, and harrowing narration of her 460 days as a kidnapped journalist in Somalia. It’s gripping, horrifying, and ultimately one of the most hopeful books I’ve read of late.

Mary Laura Philpott
Pros and cons are so last century. With Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, the Heath brothers add to their blockbuster series of practical guides to working and living smarter. This one, like Switch and Made to Stick, is well-researched, cleanly written, and fun to read. When life tosses you a big decision, use this as a guide to choosing wisely.

Margy Roark 
Sometimes poetry is the only vehicle profound and complex enough to address what is most unbearable and without cure. In Ain’t No Grave: Poems, TJ Jarrett “confronts America’s horrific legacy of racism [and one memorable ex in “Drinking with Mephistopheles”] in a voice that addresses the eternal, a fierce voice, yet not without tenderness. . . . A holy inner strength and tireless questioning guide these poems, and a[n] . . . insistent beauty that makes them kin to prayer.” — Amy Gerstler

I’m also reading Little Failure by Gary Shtyngart. I’m already a huge fan of Shtyngart, so I’ve been looking forward to this memoir for a while. The book has his signature blend (sounds like coffee, sorry) of funny and sorrowful. He acknowledges that memoir is much harder to write than fiction — so much to sort through and make some sense of. His juxtaposition of the vastness of his parents’ history in Russia against his own spanking new life in America does justice to what is best and worst in both places.

Miriam Mimms
Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, a 45-year correspondence between Sam Shepard and his close friend (also his father-in-law and erstwhile muse) Johnny Dark, is so mesmerizing, it reads like a Gonzo-esque bio. Prospectors delve through the strata of two men’s lives to reveal the deep intellectual curiosity and private desires at the core of one of America’s most intriguing and successful actor-dramatists. Required reading for anyone interested in writing, culture, dramatic arts, or in understanding what it might be that makes brilliance brilliant.

Andy Brennan
Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson is the best biography of 2013, hands down. 

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 9.40.54 AMSissy Gardner 
Jennifer Boles, a Sewanee grad, has long entertained us on her blog “The Peak of Chic” with classic photos from her collection of vintage interior design mags. In With the Old: Classic Decor from A to Z is a gorgeous new book that celebrates her posts alongside art from her little sister Laura Boles Faw (another Sewanee grad).

I also loved The Bookshop Dog by Cynthia Rylant.

Tristan Hickey
I would say reading The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell, is like watching a train wreck, but it’s more like watching the wreck of a clown car motorcade. The catastrophic story of The Room will launch you into bouts of poorly muffled cackling and leave you with much sympathy and appreciation for the cast and crew of the worst movie ever made.

Check out our Pinterest board for more of what we’ve read and loved lately.  

(See something you like? Just click on it in the reading list below to toss it right into your online shopping cart.)

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Swimming Studies (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780399158179
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Blue Rider Press, 7/2012

ISBN-13: 9781594621505
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Book Jungle, 3/2006
ISBN-13: 9780316227940
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Little, Brown and Company, 6/2013

ISBN-13: 9780670024780
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Viking Adult, 1/2014

ISBN-13: 9781451645606
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Scribner, 6/2013

ISBN-13: 9780307956392
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Crown Business, 3/2013

Ain’t No Grave (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9781936970186
Availability: Special Order – Subject to Availability
Published: New Issues Poetry Press, 9/2013
ISBN-13: 9780679643753
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Random House, 1/2014

ISBN-13: 9780385532921
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Doubleday, 8/2013
ISBN-13: 9780292735828
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: University of Texas Press, 10/2013
ISBN-13: 9780385345163
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Potter Style, 11/2013

The Bookshop Dog (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780590543316
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Blue Sky Press, 9/1996
ISBN-13: 9781451661194
Availability: Special Order – Subject to Availability
Published: Simon & Schuster, 10/2013