#4: Two Favorites: Jennifer Egan & Simon Winchester

#4: Two Favorites: Jennifer Egan & Simon Winchester

Changing It Up

In my first three posts, I covered some of my favorite Nordic mystery authors; I could have written five more on the same genre, but it’s time to change it up a bit!  This post covers two of my favorite authors: Jennifer Egan and Simon Winchester.

Jennifer Egan: Startling. Intriguing. Captivating.

I first came across Jennifer Egan in 2006 (I can’t believe it was 13 years ago!) when I read “The Keep”. I knew immediately that she was an author I would follow for the rest of her storied career. In the year it was published, Madison Smartt Bell reviewed the book for the New York Times on June 30th of that year and expressed my thoughts much better than I could myself:

Jennifer Egan is a refreshingly unclassifiable novelist; she deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960’s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them. The opening of her new novel, “The Keep,” lays out a whole Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections and trompe l’oeil effects, but what’s more immediately striking about this book is its unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction. Very few writers, of our time or any other, have been able to bring that combination off.

“The Keep” dazzled and captivated me in a way few books had until then. The next year, “Emerald City” was published and this collection of short stories proved to be as masterful as her previous book.

Jennifer’s Pick: In Berkeley, CA? Check out Mrs. Dalloway’s
Visit mrsdalloways.com
Follow them on twitter: @MrsDsBooks

In 2010, when “A Visit From the Goon Squad” came out, I couldn’t buy it fast enough; I was not disappointed. It proved to be as beautifully written and riveting as I expected, although with a very different approach than “The Keep”. It also won Ms. Egan a Pulitzer Price for Fiction.

It’s a book (a novel?) of interlocking short stories that shows off Ms. Egan’s writerly virtuosity. Janet Maslin in The New York Times called it a “spiky, shape-shifting new book”, and a “tough, uncategorizable work of fiction”. This is NOT a criticism; these are the very qualities I love about her work. I have never read a book by her and said “This is JUST like…” because she is unique. None of the characters in the book end up very well, but that does not matter in the literary world she created; this is a book I re-read every few years without losing any of my initial enjoyment.

Jennifer’s Pick: In Brooklyn, NY? Check out Greenlight Bookstore
Visit greenlightbookstore.com
Follow them on twitter: @greenlightbklyn

“Manhattan Beach” came out in 2017. I think I’ve run out of adulatory adjectives for Egan’s writing; suffice it to say that when I finished reading it for the first time, I read the entire book again from the beginning. This book beautifully renders so many wonderful characters, themes and events that it merited an immediate second look. It COULD be called a historical novel that covers Prohibition and its gangsters, World War II, the role of women in the war, love, danger and family, but it’s so much more than that. From Ruth Franklin in The Atlantic:

Anna Kerrigan, the novel’s central figure, trains as a diver, trawling the bottom of New York Harbor to explore a “landscape of lost objects,” make repairs to World War II battleships, and finally search for a corpse. Manhattan Beach, too, plunges into the past to discover what lies beneath the surface of our own world.

IJennifer’s Pick: In Tulsa, OK? Check out Magic City Books
Visit tulsalitco.org
Follow them on twitter: @MagicCityBooks

The research Egan did on the history of deep-sea diving, and how a woman might have played a role in ship repair during the war shows in the writing. The descriptions of Anna’s first time in the absurdly heavy diving equipment, the scorn of the men who don’t believe she can do the job, and her training dives put the reader right in the middle of the action. This is only one of the focuses of the book but it’s the one I enjoyed the most.

I’m eager to read additional books by Egan, particularly “The Invisible Circus” and “Look At Me”. Naturally I will be purchasing them at an Independent Bookstore!

Jennifer’s Pick: In Milwaukee, WI? Check out Boswell Book Company
Visit  https://www.boswellbooks.com/
Follow them on twitter: @boswellbooks

Simon Winchester: History That Reads Like Fiction

Simon Winchester writes the best kind of non-fiction: history that reads like fiction. My first encounter with Winchester was in 2004, with “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded | August 27, 1883”. I was ENTHRALLED. The book covers the eruption of Krakatoa via history, geography, seismology, volcanology, and other subjects and I still felt like I was reading a thriller (one in which the ending is known).

The breadth of his knowledge, and the way he brings it to life for the reader is astonishing. For example, he describes the way in which the sound from the eruption (supposed to have been the loudest in recorded history) circled the world multiple times, registering in places as far away as France, India and Perth, Australia, 2,800 miles (4,500 km) distant. In 1884, the amount of debris thrown into the atmosphere also affected the climate and caused temperatures to drop all over the world.

In Lenox, MA? Check out The Bookstore In Lenox
Visit  http://bookstoreinlenox.com/

Simon Winchester’s Pick: “Shaker Mill Books in West Stockbridge, MA, run by Eric Wilska, a man who loves and KNOWS his books.”

After finishing “Krakatoa” I became a lifelong Winchester fan, and I have never been disappointed in any of his books. They are all of similar high quality: meticulously researched, beautifully written and always edifying. Although I own seven books of his, I would like to call out “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World”. From the publisher:

The revered New York Times bestselling author traces the development of technology from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age to explore the single component crucial to advancement—precision—in a superb history that is both an homage and a warning for our future.

In Albuquerque, NM? Check out Page 1 Books
Visit www.page1books.com

Follow them on twitter: @page1books

Apart from the writing, the structure of the book is nicely reflective of the content. All of the chapters but the last have a heading discussing the approximate level of tolerance discussed in the chapter, and they are arranged so that the tolerance keeps getting smaller; from 0.1 inches down to, well:

“Squeezing Beyond Boundaries”

In between, he talks about the development of machine tools, mirrors, , and cameras—and eventually to further breakthroughs, including gene splicing, microchips, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Hadron Collider.

You absolutely cannot go wrong with a book by Simon Winchester and I plan to read them all!

In London, England? Check out West End Lane Books
Follow them on twitter: @WELBooks

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