Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

We asked visiting writer Alexander Chee what he has been reading lately. Here’s what he told us:

A book that’s going everywhere with me now is Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Penguin, 2001). I grabbed it and included a copy of First Love, by Ivan Turgenev (Oxford World Classics, 1999), and a collection of Turgenev’s letters, out of print, over at Raven Books on a recent night in Northampton. First Love was a decadent pleasure, to be clear, and Anna Karenina is like that also, and though it is something of a challenge physically (it is heavy and hurts my shoulder when it’s in my bag), it also makes friends. When I have it out on my table, strangers stop and tell me their Anna stories, where and when they read the novel. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian (McSweeney’s, 2006) is a recent and enormous non-Russian novel I read, though Chris’s is a clear heir to these works. His book, at 615 pages, is oddly concise. It imagines the world after a second flood, the only people saved being the inhabitants of a single children’s hospital, and it is one of the bravest, most beautiful reading experiences I’ve had in recent memory with contemporary fiction. I went to school with him at Iowa and brought him to Amherst to read from the novel this spring.

For pure thrills, I read the Path of the Assassin series (Dark Horse, 2007), by manga comics genius Kazuo Koike. It is the story of Hattori Hanzo, one of the most famous assassins in all of Japanese history. Hanzo is a seppu, a highly trained ninja who serves his master from the shadows, always present but always out of sight, and in Vol. 4, The Battle of 108 Days, which just came out, Hanzo and his wife, also a seppu, undertake the assassination of the most dangerous ninja in all of 19th-century Japan. Richly researched and made to fit into your hand, it is an addictive treat.

Also a good source, all these years later, for addictive treats is Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (Penguin Classics, 1999). I’ve made the chestnut crème covered in chocolate ganache, the pumpkin shrimp puree and the bouillabaisse, and the anecdotes collected inside are as fun as the food you can make. I like the menu she reprints for a 19th-century wedding feast, served on a cruise on the Nile, with 12 courses, and the Parisian remembering the fisherman who used to take him out to sea fishing to fill the bouillabaisse pot.

I end with The Goncourt Journals, by Edmund and Jules de Goncourt (NYRB Classics, 2006) for stories of what it was like to go to dinner with Flaubert, or see George Sand at a party with her new lover in tow, her old ones devastated. The writing is by turns gossipy, dark, richly nuanced or flip, per the brothers’ moods, and details their tragic separation, as one of them goes mad and dies from syphilis, as well as the siege of Paris and the arrival of the fin de siècle in Paris. Enjoy them all.