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What book from your childhood had the biggest impact on you as a reader?
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling was the first book I remember reading all on my own, and being proud because it was a big book with big words and small print. What resonated most with me though was a story called “The Undertakers” in The Second Jungle Book, the lesser known but equally wonderful sequel. Having gone back to it several times over the years, I know it rewards frequent returns to the sinister domesticity of the characters, the grinning malice folded in with the humor.
What was your favorite 'adult' book that you read as a teenager?
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was long preceded by its reputation, for obvious reasons, and I’ve oscillated wildly in my feelings about it over the years. Until Lolita, I had only thought of the unreliable narrator as a literary device, known enough to identify it in a paper, but Humbert Humbert was the first fictional character to disorient me so thoroughly as to change how I read forever.
After years spent as a bookseller, what is a hidden gem that you wish more people knew about?
Not enough people, in my experience, have read T. H. White’s transportive fantasy, The Once & Future King, and this is one of the small tragedies of our time. Written for children, but demanding in a way that nothing else I can think of is, the three-part novel’s themes are beautifully constructed engagements with metaphysical, moral, and political questions, all buoyed by White’s wry, melancholy sense of humor.
Who is an author that you have just recently discovered?
I’m the type of annoying bookish person who is suspicious of recommendations (please don’t judge my own recommendations on this, the books are really good, I swear), and Jeanette Winterson is one of the writers I resisted for years even as everyone I knew kept pushing her on me, in the utter certainty that I would love her. When I did finally give in, I gave in with The Passion and couldn’t get enough. Fortunately for me (and maybe for you!) Winterson is extremely prolific and will sustain you for many a housebound evening.
What is a book that you enjoyed unexpectedly -- whether because of subject matter, genre, style, etc?
I barely read kids’ books as a kid, and, to be fair, I don’t remember them being written with the same care and intelligence as today’s kids’ books are. I don’t remember what drew me to Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon, but once I started, I couldn’t tear myself away from it. Though written for middle readers, the story is challenging in its themes and concerns and, not gonna lie, pretty terrifying in places. Barnhill’s world-building is intricate and surprising and her characters hit all the right notes—never saccharine, tediously righteous, or simple, this is a book for thoughtful children and grownups who think kids’ books are just for kids.
What was the best book you've read during quarantine, or during the pandemic in general?
This is a hard one! I was not one of the people that devoured every plague book ever written when the pandemic started—early on, I learned I couldn’t confront any material that was too real, too long, or too sad. Fortunately, once you realize that about yourself, know that there is a wealth of books that will engage you at your least focused, least patient, and most viciously ill-disposed toward the human race. I’m going to cheat here because the books are so tiny! Raven Leilani’s Luster, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, Leigh Stein’s Self Care, and Lucie Britsch’s Sad Janet are four novels about weird women doing weird things and they do not want your thoughts!
Read below for book recommendations from Sarah...