Sunday, June 2, 2013


Many of my friends know that I read a lot, so I get asked to make recommendations on a frequent basis. Unfortunately I’ve always found it very difficult to decide what book to recommend. Usually, the person asking isn’t a very frequent reader, and upon finishing The Hunger Games has decided that maybe this reading thing isn’t too bad and wants more. Often this person was soured on reading during their high school English class, when Mrs. Master of Fine Arts made them write a twenty five page paper on the symbolism of the rose bush in The Scarlet LetterYes I'm speaking from personal experience. The mere mention of Nathaniel Hawthorne makes me break out into a cold sweat.. Basically, this person almost drowned when they were a kid and after cautiously dipping their toe back in the water they are now about to jump off the high dive. And you’re the lifeguard. Do you just say hell with it and throw them Dan Brown or Ender’s Game? Or do you throw caution to the wind and recommend a book that you love? I once recommended Cloud Atlas to someone that unbeknownst to me had PTSD from an English 101 paper on Moby Dick. This person has stopped answering their phone and I think unfriended me on Facebook.

All of this is a very long way to say that recommending books is a difficult and dangerous thing. Thankfully there are a few individuals who accept this challenge, even from people they have never even met. Who are these fearless literary warriors?

Up first is John Warner, the Biblioracle. Every so often the Biblioracle comes out of hiding and offers to make recommendations based solely on the five previous books that a person has read. I’ve always found this fascinating because the Biblioracle doesn’t care if you liked the books or not. He does not ask for this information. All he cares about is the last five books you’ve read. I’ve taken him up on this offer on several occasions. Here’s how it turned out:

The first time I used the Biblioracle, I followed the letter of the law and provided the following books which were the exact five books I had read previously: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, The Magician King by Lev Grossman, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, and A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer. Now I don’t know what went through the Biblioracle’s head, but I imagine this one was tough. Two of the books are non-fiction and I’m fairly certain the Biblioracle usually recommends novels. Luckily he could probably infer from my double dose of Murakami that I’m a fan of his other stuffBased on this information the perfect book would be about cats making pasta in an old well while listening to classical music and talking about ears.. With only this information the Biblioracle, before I could even blink, recommended Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon.

A few mouse clicks later and the book was on its way. The premise sounded interesting with three different stories gradually coming together, and I thought the Biblioracle might have nailed it. Ultimately however, I was disappointed. The characters were not well developed and the plot twist was not enough to overcome what I felt was boring prose.

But hey, the first time I tried Thai food I didn’t like it but I gave it another shot and now it’s one of my favorite cuisines. So when I heard the Biblioracle was back in business I went to wait in line with all the other desperate readers looking for something new. This time I decided to game the system a bit. I lied to the Biblioracle. I eliminated the non-ficition and tossed away any book I didn’t likeSuck it Jonathon Franzen.. This time I told him the last five fiction books that I had enjoyed: number9dream by David Mitchell, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard, and The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley.

This time the Biblioracle hit a home run. I may not like postmodern art but I love postmodern literature. Give me multiple perspectives, jumping around in time, and fragments to put together and I am a happy person. So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman had all this and also a cherry on top... it really surprised me. I don't want to give too much away, because slowly figuring out exactly what was going on is one of the pleasures of reading this novel. In fact, for me, this book was muddling along until all of a sudden the pieces came together and I was blown away. The multiple perspectives and style were a bit slow in the beginning, but wow is the payoff worth it. I can see how perfect a recommendation this was. The multiple perspectives of Mitchell, Murray, and Flynn are there, as well the horrific elements present in Dark Places. A missing girl drives the story, much like Pittard's novel, and ethics are at the center just like Mosley's. Well done Biblioracle. Well done.

Next up was a new service from a bookstore called Paperback to the Future. For $20, an employee of the bookstore will interact with you via e-mail and then mail you a book that suits your reading tastes (and promises it will be a book you haven’t read). As finding and enjoying a good book is well worth $20 I went ahead and signed up. First, the employee who contacted me asked me to name three of my favorite books (I went with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Replay by Ken Grimwood, and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray), one book I read recently and loved (The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball), and one book I read recently and hated (Freedom by Jonathan Franzen). After this exchange the employee sent me an email with a simple question: Burroughs, Bolano, or Calvino. Definitely Calvino, as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is awesome and Invisible Cities has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever readIt also didn't hurt that I've never read anything by Burroughs or Bolano..

About two weeks later The Facts of Winter by Paul La Farge arrived. I had never heard of the book (as the store's website suggested) but I immediately loved that it was published by McSweeney'sWho also publish the awesome looking Grantland quarterlies.. The author, Paul La Farge claims this book is a translation of a book written in the early 20th century by a Frenchman named Paul Poissel about dreams people had in Paris in 1881. The first 3/4 of this short book consists of Poissel's french on the left and La Farge's "translation"Obviously La Farge is the true author.on the right describing a dream that may last only a few sentences and at most several paragraphs. Though I couldn't quite understand the thread that tied all these short dreams together, the afterword is what really made the book intriguing. I also enjoyed the second person plural point of view as it is a technique of Calvino's I mentioned enjoying in my response to Paperback to the Future. And the reasoning behind the structure of the dream parts is satisfying. However, I do like my disparate threads to have some underlying connections and the ones underlying these short dreams is much more tenuous than say the threads in Mitchell's Ghostwritten, Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, or Ball's The Way Through Doors. Overall this recommendation ended up somewhere between the two by Biblioracle.

So there you go! Don’t bother me anymore. You want a recommendation? Go ask Biblioracle or Paperback to the Future. They’ve got the life preserver you need. Me? All I’ve got is silent film actor biographies and the latest Henry James novel I’ve fallen in love with.

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