Back J. Courtney Sullivan on whom she re-reads: W. H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, Jane Smiley, Richard Yates

J. Courtney Sullivan, who recently published her second novel, Maine, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry. She writes about the books she returns to for “awe and inspiration.”

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan (Knopf, 2011).

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Boston, I imagined that someday I would live in New York, in an apartment straight out of a Woody Allen movie—small, but well-lit and cozy, with books piled high on every table and chair.

The end result was not far from the fantasy. Like most writers, I am a reader first. I doubt you’ll ever catch me on a Kindle: I like to have my books all around me. Even though I refuse to part with my books, I’m not likely to re-read most of them. But I do go back to a few, especially when I’m writing. Dog-eared and underlined on nearly every page, these are the ones that fill me with a sense of awe and inspiration and, okay, a little bit of jealousy. Reading any one of them can’t help but make you a better writer.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
When people ask about my favorite novel, A Thousand Acres always jumps quickly to mind. I first read it in high school, and was drawn in by the riveting, detailed descriptions of Iowa farm country, and the inner lives of the women raised there. I read it again in college, side-by-side with King Lear. Only then did I truly appreciate what a triumph of form Smiley achieves. Scene for scene, the novel is a modern day retelling of Shakespeare’s play from the daughters’ perspectives. Larger social issues like molestation, environmental concerns, and rigid gender roles get explored through the domestic lives of one family. Every page is pitch perfect.

The Collected Poems of W. H. Auden
Reading great poetry is the best thing a fiction writer can do. When telling a story that spans several hundred pages, I can get caught up in plot, eager to type faster than my fingers allow. A generous helping of Auden, who chose each word and turn of phrase with such incredible care, can pare this instinct. Reading just one of his closely crafted stanzas reminds me to slow down and reexamine my sentences. I have many beloved Auden poems, and my favorites change from year to year. Some of the best, in my opinion, are “Brussels in Winter,” “Musée Des Beaux Arts,” “Music Is International,” “A Healthy Spot.” My two favorites at present: “Many Happy Returns” and “For Friends Only.”

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
This novel blows me away on so many levels. Yates evokes suburbia in the nineteen-fifties with remarkable precision and depth. Other novelists have of course done it, but none so well. Yates’s prose is at once haunting and hilarious. As he gets inside the heads of a discontented married couple and their neighbors, he brings each one’s hopes and disappointments into such sharp focus that they seem to be portraits of real people. The inner workings of the husband, Frank, in particular, are masterstrokes of genius. I admire this book for many reasons, one of which is the author’s ability to build toward a shocking, yet believable, ending. He adds layers of suspense so deftly that you never want to put it down.

The Portable Dorothy Parker
The word portable in the title is fitting. Fourteen years have passed since I received this book (as an unlikely sweet sixteen present) and it has traveled with me everywhere I’ve been since. Nearly every page is underlined and marked up, and looking it over, I can tell you at exactly which stage of my life I made each of the markings. I didn’t read the book straight through; I discovered it part by part, according to what I could handle at that point in my life. (In a way, the book is like those designer Swedish high chairs that everyone in Brooklyn now seems to have—your baby can sit in this booster seat before he’s even able to hold up his head, and then later he can convert it into a futon to use in his college dorm!)

First, as a teenager, I loved the angsty love poems. (And wrote a few bad copies myself.) In college, I’d stay up late reading Parker’s short stories. Her characters had names like Mimi and Midge, and their observations were razor sharp. In “The Lovely Leave,” a woman’s soldier husband comes home just for an afternoon and she is cross with him for leaving so soon. “I like you in black,” he says, trying to keep the peace by complimenting her dress. “At moments like this,” she replies, “I almost wish I were in it for another reason.” Later, I discovered the genius of Parker’s book reviews—her best work of all, in my opinion. There is one purple Post-it sticking out of my copy, marking Parker’s February 1959 Esquire review of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “The reader . . . has always the feeling that to know the young woman would be to find her a truly awful pest.” You must read this review immediately, if not sooner.

Reviewing for The New York Times, Janet Maslin called Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement (2009), about the intertwined lives of four Smith College grads, “one of this year’s most inviting summer novels.” “Take Mary McCarthy’s The Group,” wrote Gloria Steinem, “add a new feminist generation striving to understand everything from themselves and their mothers to the notion of masculinity that fuels sex trafficking, and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel.” Sullivan’s second novel, Maine, published in June, also appealed to summer readers, spending more than a month on The New York Times Best Sellers list. “I have never stayed at this cottage in Maine, or any cottage in Maine,” remarked Meg Wolitzer, “but no matter: I now feel I know what it’s like being in a family that comes to the same place summer after summer, unpacking their familiar longings, slights, shorthand conversation, and ways of being together. Maine is evocative, funny, close-quartered, and highly appealing.”

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