Dispatches | September 06, 2011

It has occurred to me that I love giving a good book recommendation but I don’t enjoy receiving one. It’s probably my skeptical nature, the same instinct that makes me distrust veterinary professionals. “Oh really,” I say, “you (book recommender or doctor) know what’s best for me (or my cat)?” Frequently, of course, they do, but I must confirm it on the internet (New York Times book reviews and vetinfo.com respectively).

But to give a recommendation is such a sweet imposition. There’s no better feeling than reading a great book, knowing just who should read it next, and insisting that they do so. In a perfect world, the recommendee would approach me in a week or two, grasp my hand and shake it vigorously. I’d be confused until he said, “That book you told me to read—wow. It changed me.” “I know,” I’d reply. “There’s more where that came from. Plenty more.” But of course people to whom I recommend books have other things to do with their time and never get to them, or I have miscalculated their tastes somehow. Even if a friend likes my recommendation and wants to talk about the book, I’ll find my memory of it is much less crisp than theirs so our conversation soon grows awkward. The great pleasure of reading is also the great tragedy—one does it alone, at a certain speed and intensity. As soon as one turns the final page, one starts to forget.

Sometimes, one never begins. I had a boss who discovered I was a writer and she insisted that I read Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants because she was certain I would love it. The cover showed me I wouldn’t. A figure in a shiny red coat steps into the darkness of a circus tent, no doubt on his/her way to abuse the elephants. Based on the title alone, I knew something terrible would happen to, perhaps, one very special elephant who had tugged at my heartstrings for many pages. I quit the job just in time and passed it back to her unread under some file folders. Around the time I tendered my resignation at my old job, I was happily tearing through Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which luckily had nothing to do with actual horses in jeopardy but with suffering young people instead (whose sad fates I found much more palatable).

This is all to say that I’d like to recommend some things to you, dear readers. I’m the new editor of textBOX, the Missouri Review’s absolutely free online anthology of excellent fiction, nonfiction, and (soon) poetry, and I’m hopeful that you might find something there that delights you.

If you enjoyed Absalom, Absalom!, try Mary Bucci Bush’s “Drowned Edward Tug,” which explores the ways the early twentieth century American South remains haunted by racial inequality, poverty, and (quite real) ghosts.

The characters in Seth Fried’s “Loeka Discovered” are an isolated community—a group of researchers whose spirits rise and fall based on their discovery of an ancient man preserved in mountaintop ice. It reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Offshore, in which a cast of eccentric houseboat owners create a singular society on the Thames.

“Mister Henry’s Trousers” by William McCauley offers a reply to postcolonial novels like Heart of Darkness that tell only the colonists’ stories. Here, the power imbalance between colonizer and colonized forces the protagonist Sheku to make a terrible choice.

Please ignore my sweaty palms and missionary zeal—these are primo stories, some of the best from the Missouri Review’s past thirty years. You will love them. I’m certain.