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The Story of Before starts off as quite a gentle story, chronicling the move to Hillcourt Rise and the summer they spend on the green with the.
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John Irving is one example; he spends months outlining his novels in advance, and when he puts pen to paper, he knows exactly what will happen. Other authors, meanwhile, feel their way through. When they sit down at the desk, anything can happen: They lose themselves in the dark on purpose, and follow the light of strangeness and surprise. The latter approach can sound odd, even shamanistic. What do novelists mean when they say things like my character showed me the way? But my conversation with Andre Dubus III, whose new book Dirty Love is out this week, addressed the challenges and joys of writing without pre-determination.

We discussed what it means to write into the unknown, how to do it, and why writers should. Dirty Love contains four linked novellas about love and betrayal in a coastal town.

He talked to me by phone from his house north of Boston. There were a lot of heavy hitters in there offering truly wise and helpful advice. Everybody gets one. And I really believe—this is just from years of daily writing—that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams. I think it leads to contrived work, frankly, no matter how beautifully written it might be. You can hear the false note in this kind of writing. This was my main problem when I was just starting out: I was trying to say something.

When I began to write, I was deeply self-conscious. I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic, or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically.

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It was exciting, and even a little terrifying. Habits of writing can be learned. We can to choose concrete language over overly abstract language. We can learn to use active verbs instead of passive verbs. To bring in at least three of the five senses to activate a scene. All these things we can be taught, or learn on our own from reading. These are all part of your toolbox—but that toolbox will always remain locked if the writer is not genuinely curious about what he or she is writing about.

To me, that is the essential ingredient. Late in his life, Faulkner was asked what quality a writer most needs —and he said not talent, but curiosity. I love that line from E. Is there vegetation? What kind? What are the sounds? If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself. My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is to just follow the headlights. You must also be curious not just about perceptions, and the physical word, but about the character. Writing with character. Is that really what she hears, and thinks and feels?

I would say most days. So I constantly am a vicious, merciless rewriter when it comes to truth. Now, dreaming your way through a story is very useful at first—for the first draft, maybe the first two drafts. Bausch would be the first to say that once you dream it through, try to look at the result the way a doctor looks at an X-ray.

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At least six months. Have two seasons go between you. And then when you pick it up and read it, you actually forget some of what happens in the story. You forget how hard it was to write those 12 pages. And you become tougher on it. You see closer to what the reader is going to see. One afternoon while talking with a friend about books, I wondered how to best describe my experience of reading Disgrace , and this is what I came up with: it's like a finely crafted, very sharp knife resting gently against your skin.

The uneasiness and suspense are there from the beginning, made all the more powerful by Coetzee's control and use of spare language, and you never really take a deep breath until it's all over. Set in modern South Africa, the book explores what it's like to personally confront deep prejudices. Prejudices of gender, sexuality, class, and race. Far from being a politically correct diatribe, this novel is about how we cope, how we survive as humans, and it forces the reader to reflect upon what seems at first a very twisted reality.

For each of the characters in this astonishing novel, redemption is attained through what becomes the very reshaping of their souls. This is the book I recommend more than any other — I can barely hold onto a copy of it because I am always giving it away to anyone who I think needs something that will blow the top of their skull off.

On one level, it is the engaging, creepy, and extraordinary story of a family of purposely designed circus freaks, as told by the hunchback albino dwarf sister. On another level, it is a story about identity and belonging: How do you define yourself in terms of your family? Your culture? Your body? Your religion? How do you know what or who you really are? Ames has lived all of his life in Gilead, Iowa, and the novel delves into the history of the area through the characters of Ames's father and grandfather — also ministers, but deeply divided on ideas such as pacifism, duty, and the abolitionist movement.

And eventually, when John Ames Boughton, Ames's namesake and godson, returns to Gilead, he brings up old tensions and sets events in motion that disturb Ames's formerly peaceful last days. Gilead is one of the most beautifully written books of the new century thus far, and Robinson's incredibly insightful grappling with faith, mortality, and what constitutes a meaningful life will resonate with readers across every spectrum.

It would be difficult to talk about James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and not touch on the simple fact that this slim novel, published in , is mainly a love story between two men. It seems impossible to think such a thing could be published pre-Stonewall, but such is the genius of Baldwin and the way he captures the complexities of desire, love, and the tragic cost that comes from not following your heart.

But multitudes have perished…for the lack of it. And really, what else is there in life? Flannery O'Connor's first short story collection, written in , will knock you off your feet. Ruthless, penetrating, and loaded with subtext, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories was brave for its time and feels just as consequential today. Writing in the Southern Gothic tradition in a style wholly her own, O'Connor creates characters that are misguided, stunted curiosities, but she manages to capture what's human in even the most despicable of people — which makes their doomed trajectories feel all the more tragic.

And despite the disturbing events that unfold, the stories are a pleasure to read — they're infused with suspense, dark humor, and some of the most evocative imagery you'll encounter in literature. All this makes for a collection that never ceases to amaze — and begs to be reread.

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Hollywood sex cults before NXIVM: the story of the Children of God

Atwood's classic dystopian novel of a terrifying and terrifyingly plausible future America has rewarded rereading like no other book; I've probably read it 30 times by now. The world of the narrator, Offred from "Of Fred" — women no longer have their own names , is chilling, but she is a magnificent survivor and chronicler, and the details of everything from mundane daily life to ritualized sex and violence to her reminiscences of the time before our contemporary reality, as seen in the '80s are absolutely realistic. The novel is as relevant today as ever; feminist backlashes continue to wax and wane, but women's rights remain in the spotlight.

And despite its scenarios of great despair, The Handmaid's Tale is ultimately a hopeful book — Offred, and others, simply cannot be human without the possibility of hope, and therein lies the strength of the resistance. All of Atwood is worth reading, but this book best exemplifies the cultural and psychological impact that a work of fiction can create. Parodying practically every well-worn sci-fi plot device in existence, Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has become a classic in its own right. A hapless hero with astonishing luck? Ill-tempered aliens hell-bent on destroying Earth?

Pithy advice e. Check, check, and check — and so much more. Even non—sci-fi geeks will be charmed by this hilarious and endlessly entertaining read, with of course sequels following. For those with an amorous affair with books, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler may well be the ultimate love letter to the reader. Calvino's novel is a masterfully created, startlingly unique work of fiction.

Told alternately in second- and third-person narratives, the book is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between the author and the reader — weaving together seemingly unrelated tales, all of which relate directly to you, the reader.

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At its core is an ingenious concept the likes of which could have only come from the unparalleled imagination of Calvino. By the time you reach its dazzling conclusion, you'll be wishing you could somehow read it again for the very first time. Infinite Jest is unique; it was bred in the optimism and new frontiersmanship of the dot-com s but was simultaneously an early omen of where we are today. It looks into our present beyond what were only horizons when it was written: the tensions of a global economy, the opiate of on-demand entertainment, the near-impossible pursuit of greatness in a winner-take-all society.

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Tennis phenoms struggle in an absurdly demanding academy and recovering addicts search for something strong enough to help them through, all while a cadre of legless Quebecois assassins search for a movie so entertaining that they plan to use it as a weapon. At turns madcap and heart-wrenching, this is the tour-de-force novel of the forces that have shaped our new millennium and will likely continue shaping it for decades to come. Not only is The Left Hand of Darkness a masterpiece of ideas, invention, and language, but it takes conventional assumptions about gender and grinds them into a fine, powdery dust.

Published in , the book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and went on to become one of the keystones of science fiction. It tells the story of an ethnologist sent to another planet, but it is Le Guin's powers of imagination that turn The Left Hand of Darkness into something truly transcendent.

Why should everyone read a book about a pedophile's obsessive and frankly gross relationship with a little girl? Because if you are a reader — a lover of words, puns, witticisms, metaphors, and allusions — Lolita is a literary masterpiece that can't be passed over in a fit of queasy morality. Humbert Humbert, the novel's unreliable narrator, knows that he's a despicable pervert and yet the reader can't help enjoying him as he surveys post-war America and little Lolita with the droll, cynical eye of a European expat adrift in a tawdry nation, and stuck irrevocably — and irredeemably — in the memory of an adolescent love affair.

Please, ignore the critics: Lolita isn't a morality tale and it isn't a love story. It's an unabashed look at a deviant mind written in some of the most deft and beautiful English ever published. Man's Search for Meaning is like nothing you've ever read before.


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The first half of the book depicts Dr. Frankl's four years losing everything in concentration camps — a description so hellish, it leaves you desolate. Shattered by his Holocaust experiences, Frankl struggles to survive after he is freed. In the second half of the book, Frankl shows how that period of his life informs and develops his theory of "logotherapy" — he asserts that life is about finding meaning, what is meaningful to each individual.

As excruciating as his experiences are, Frankl's theory is full of love; he is able to find redemption for himself and others. This book is beautifully life-changing. The twofold brilliance of Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking, autobiographical Maus is the graphic novel's lack of sentimentality and Spiegelman's self-portrait as a secondhand Holocaust survivor.

The Holocaust is a widely used trope in Jewish American writing and although Spiegelman treats the subject with the compassion and historical sensitivity it merits, Maus avoids the themes of victimization and historical exceptionalism that render much Holocaust literature precious and insulated from the present. Instead, Spiegelman gives his characters the dignity of fully fleshed, complicated personalities and shows — in sometimes painful and unappealing ways — how his parents' Holocaust seeped into his childhood and haunts his being.

This is the kind of book that captures you so completely you find yourself reading it at work with the book covering your keyboard, hoping no one notices but also not really caring if you get fired. It's a subtle sci-fi story about youth, freedom, and a lot of other good stuff — too much more about the plot might take something away from the magical, transformative experience of reading it.

Instead, I will say that the honest way Never Let Me Go deals with love and disappointment makes it a book that anyone who ever plans to love another person should probably read immediately. While some of the revelations contained within this classic by Howard Zinn have become familiar since the nearly 35 years after it was published thanks in part to this book , it is to this day an astonishing and eye-opening read.

Several revisions later, it remains a seminal work, in stark contrast to the whitewashed pun intended American history most of us learned by rote in school. It's regretful with Zinn's passing in that new revisions have ceased for future generations to discover. The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of Milo, a very bored boy who comes home one day to find a magical tollbooth in his room. When Milo drives his car through the tollbooth gate, he finds himself in the Lands Beyond, a country inhabited by living language in the forms of animals, magicians, royalty, mountains, seas, and cities.

From Tock the Watchdog to the listless region of The Doldrums, Milo shakes off boredom as he pursues the kidnapped Princesses Rhyme and Reason and restores peace to the Lands currently in the clutches of the warring princes, Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis, along with a pack of demons.

What sets The Phantom Tollbooth apart from other wonderful swashbuckling middle-readers is that it's also about the transformative power of language: open a book or drive through a "tollbooth" and even the dreariest day dissolves into the din and glory of adventure.