Shumita Basu: It's The Takeaway. I'm Shumita Basu in for Tanzina Vega, whose back next week from maternity leave. We started today's show talking about air travel in the time of COVID and we heard from many of you about foiled summer travel plans. For a lot of us, it's up to books to take us far away the summer, and we have some recommendations for you courtesy of Constance Grady, book critic for Vox. Constance, it's great to have you with us.
Constance Grady: It's great to be here. Thank you so much.
Shumita: I made the mistake of trying to read some non-fiction in the early weeks of lockdown, and boy, my brain was just asking to be taken away somewhere. In your view, what makes a book great escape?
Constance: There are two things that you want in an escape book. You want this really driving for a narrative that will keep you reading and make it feel like it's just purely fun and never homework, but I'm also a little bit of a snob because I have to be since I'm a book critics. I always want, in my escape book, to have beautiful, beautiful sentences, so I never get distracted by thinking, "Oh, well, that's a little bit clunky. I think those two things together are what makes a perfect escape book.
Shumita: Good writing and strong storytelling.
Shumita: Okay, let's start. You brought a list, let's start at the top. Tell us about The Enchanted April.
Constance: This is a really lovely book from 1922 by Elizabeth von Arnim. It's about a bunch of middle-aged British ladies, who gets sick of taking care of their husbands. They all decided together to just up and go off on vacation together to an Italian island for a month. There's lots of descriptions of wisteria growing everywhere, and they're sitting on the terrace, drinking cocktails. It's just delightful.
Shumita: That sounds pretty classic in a lot of ways. The next pick on your list is, it seems, a very different story. Tell us why you loved The Vanishing Half.
Constance: Oh gosh, I love this book. It comes out next week, on Tuesday. It's by Brit Bennet who wrote The Mothers, her debut novel, which came out a couple of years ago. It is so rich and so interesting. It's about two twin sisters growing up in a small town in the South. The town is all Black and everyone in it is devoted to making sure that each successive generation of residents has lighter skin. These two twin sisters run away from the town. One of them begins passing for white and the other one marries a darker-skinned man and has a darker skin child. It's so rich and interesting, and the writing is just beautiful. I keep stopping as I read to just luxuriate in the sentences.
Shumita: Now, I want to read the headline of the review that you wrote for your next book pick. You wrote, "Gideon the Ninth is about lesbian necromancers in space. Obviously, it's perfect."
Constance: The tagline on this book is lesbian necromancers in space, but really it's so much more than that. It's this gothic fantasy. The prose is just velvety. There's this incredibly involved mystery plot that I can never figure out. There's romance. I cried at the end. It's a fantastic book. The sequel Herald the Ninth comes out in August.
Shumita: Does it remind you of anything? If you could guide our listeners, "If you like X, you might like this book."
Constance: It's not really a space opera-type book, the way you might think of Star Wars story. It's more magic that happens to happen in space. I think the closest thing would probably be like a little bit Game of Thrones but fewer terrible, terrible people.
Shumita: Okay. Well, let's go on to the next pick. We are back to the theme of sisters, but this is a very different backdrop than the American South. Tell us about The Seamstress.
Constance: This is a beautiful, beautiful book by Frances de Pontes Peebles. It's about two sisters in 1930s Brazil. Both of them are great seamstresses, but one of them ends up marrying rich and the other one becomes an outlaw. It's got this really, really smart, fast narrative that just pushes you all the way through. It's all powered by this fraught relationship between the two sisters.
Shumita: Now, let's turn to Queen of the Night, which gives us a little bit of history, a little bit art. What makes this book a great escape for you?
Constance: Oh man. This is by Alexander Chee. He's a literary novelist who got a lot of acclaim for his first novel, Edinburgh, which is very spare and grounded in realism. Queen of the Night is not that. It's one of these books where every emotion is really outside and operatic because, mostly, it's about an opera singer who is in Paris at the end of the 19th century and Second Empire France. There's lots of opulent descriptions of all these ornate clothes and furnishings and everything is very over the top and happening at level 10 at all times. It's very easy to get lost in.
Shumita: Next on your list, two novels that have cities very front and center, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert and The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin. Tell us why these made your list.
Constance: Oh, they're wonderful. They're both New York books. They're both very joyous and really compelling. City of Girls is a historical novel, set in the 1940s at a rundown vaudeville theater. It reads like drinking a glass of rosé, you just want to gobble it down. City We Became is science fiction by the Hugo winner, N.K. Jemisin. The premise is that New York City is coming to life and each borough is represented by an avatar and they have to team up together to save the city from reactionary politics and racism. It's just so much fun to read.
Shumita: Constance, before we let you go, what has been the most surprisingly exciting, soothing, or even distracting book for you during this time beyond what's on this list already?
Constance: Oh man. I'm someone who in times of deep, deep stress, I always think the best thing to read as how-to-guide by a control freak [laughs] because it'll really give you a sense of like the world is under control. They are rules and regulations that you can learn and follow. A book that I find very soothing in this time is a housekeeping manual by Cheryl Mendelson called Home Comforts. She will tell you exactly how many inches you need to turn down your sheets when you're making your bed. [crosstalk]
Shumita: Is this a modern manual?
Constance: Yes. It came out in, I think, 2005. It's been updated a few times, I believe. She's up to date on all of the latest technology, and she will tell you exactly what to do with everything.
Shumita: Wow. Okay. Tell us a couple of habits and new things that you've picked up from this housekeeping manual that are giving you comfort at this time.
Constance: Oh, I actually very rarely do any of the things in the book. I just like to read it.
Shumita: [laughs] It's just about reading it?
Constance: Yes, it makes me feel grounded, and you know what, this woman has her environment under complete control. There is order in the universe, somewhere.
Shumita: When you are not reading fiction books, do you have favorite non-fiction books that you like to turn to at a time like this?
Constance: Yes, another one for me is this M. F. K. Fisher book of essays called How to Cook a Wolf. She was a food writer in the mid-century. She's probably one of the best prose stylist in American letters. This was the book she wrote about cooking during World War II. First of all, when there are rations and things are scarce, but also just getting comfort from her food in a time of terror and stress. It's really grounded and really visceral. She's just a lovely, lovely writer whose able to make the food very evocative and really grounded in physical senses.
Shumita: Constance Grady is the book critic for Vox and the host of the Vox Book Club, which you can find at box.com/bookclub. Constance, thank you so much for being here with us.
Constance: Thank you so much for having me.
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