Upcoming Lit Up podcast guest Ayelet Waldman was featured in The Sunday Book Review in the New York Times sharing her favorite books. Next week she’ll be on the show to talk about her most recent book, A Really Good Day about micro dosing with LSD.
Illustration credit: Jillian Tamaki for The New York Times
What books are currently on your night stand?
“Certainty,” by Madeleine Thien; “A Meal in Winter,” by Hubert Mingarelli; and the book that’s currently breaking my heart, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” by Yiyun Li.
What’s the last great book you read?
“Exit West,” by Mohsin Hamid, which I consumed in one frantic gulp a day or two after the election. It was as if Hamid knew what was going to happen to America and the world, and gave us a road map to our future. It’s a novel about refugees and doors — portals — that magically whisk them away from the dangerous and deadly place to somewhere new. Sometimes those new places are themselves dangerous and deadly. Sometimes they’re not. Generally, I am far too practical and cynical to enjoy magic realism, but this book blew the top off my head. It’s at once terrifying and, in the end, oddly hopeful.
What’s the best classic novel you recently read for the first time?
This summer my husband and I were invited to Dublin for Bloomsday, and at the last minute I found out that we were both to be interviewed, onstage, as part of the festivities. I had assumed I’d be safely watching from the wings. In a panic, I tried (again) to read “Ulysses.” The first time I attempted the book was in my senior year of high school, under the tutelage of an enthusiastic English teacher. Once a week, early in the morning before school started, we’d gather in his classroom and struggle through a page or two. I made copious margin notes to the first dozen or so pages of my mother’s college edition. Then I threw in the towel.
I’ve repeated that experience, minus the notes, six or seven times in the decades since. This time, however, I had a stroke of genius. Instead of battling it out on the page, I listened to it on audiobook. I got much farther than I ever had before, listening daily as I tromped through the woods with my sweet (and now sadly departed) dog. However, the audiobook is so damn long. Twenty-seven hours! Not even my dog had the energy for that much hiking. I ended up going onstage having only read about half of the book I was ostensibly there to celebrate. I’d intended to fake it — it was Bloomsday in Dublin; surely I could count on the audience to be sufficiently in their cups not to notice — but I’m a compulsive confessor. Within a minute I’d admitted the truth. I like to think the audience was laughing with me, not at me.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“The Queen’s Gambit,” by Walter Tevis. I have exactly zero interest in chess, and yet I adore this book. It’s suspenseful and heartbreaking and just wonderful.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
For inspiration in these times I look to Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon, who are to my mind the two most sophisticated American writers on the intersection of law and politics. Rebecca Solnit’s essays on environmentalism and feminism are required reading. Peggy Orenstein’s work on gender, especially her latest book, “Girls and Sex,” is fascinating and important.
For diversion (also important in these times), I highly recommend two writers of speculative fiction, Charlie Jane Anders and Naomi Alderman.
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
“Loving Day,” by Mat Johnson, about a man who describes himself as a “racial optical illusion.” Among other fine moments is a particularly delicious one featuring a broken condom.
The last book that made you furious?
I was enraged when I read “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, but with a productive fury. The book is a fierce dissection of the American justice system and of the policies of mass incarceration that have immiserated generations of African-Americans. The country has begun to reckon with the systemic racism polluting the criminal justice system, inspired in no small part by Alexander’s book and by others, like “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’ll read good writing in any genre. Well, maybe not nurse romance. Though, come to think of it, “Atonement,” by Ian McEwan, is one of my favorite contemporary novels, and what is that if not a nurse romance?
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
I read both paper and electronically, though when I’m home I prefer to read on paper. Out of the house, I read electronically, primarily because my greatest fear in life is finishing my book and being stuck with nothing to read.
Though I’m a frantic multitasker, what that usually means is that I do many things poorly, all at once. That’s fine if what I’m screwing up is cooking dinner or doing my taxes. Truly important things like reading, however, demand focus and attention. I read one book at a time, until I’ve either finished it or tossed it aside as not worth the effort.
I read primarily at night. My husband works at night, and my children are all old enough to be uninterested in my company, so every evening at around 8 I crawl into bed, watch TV for an hour or two (or six, depending on what Netflix is streaming), and then read until I fall asleep, at around midnight or 1 a.m. If a book is good, though, I’ll just keep reading until I’m done, whatever time that is. My favorite thing about being an adult is that there is no one who calls “Bedtime” and snaps off my bedside light right in the middle of the best part. I get to read for as long as I want.
How do you organize your books?
Not long ago, my husband decided in a fit of who knows what lunatic O.C.D. to organize the books in our summer house by color, an odd move when you consider that both our sons are colorblind. The result has been that between the months of June and August, I have no idea where anything is, and am forced to just buy a second copy of any book I want to reread. A tip for book jacket designers looking to stand out: There are very few purple book jackets out there. Black, on the other hand, is sadly overused.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I didn’t have a lot of friends, my parents didn’t have cable television and I’m not at all athletic, so really all I ever did as a child was read. I read while I brushed my teeth, I read while I walked to school. I slipped novels behind my textbooks and read in class.
My very favorite book was “Half Magic,” by Edward Eager. I loved “The Railway Children,” anything by Roald Dahl, the Little House books and the Borrowers series. I was an avid reader of science fiction, an obsession that began for me, like for so many, with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and moved on to books like “The Chrysalids” and “The Day of the Triffids,” by John Wyndham, and the Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny. When I was very little, I loved the All-of-a-Kind Family books. Unlike most of the books I loved as a child, which hold up remarkably well, when I bought the All-of-a-Kind Family books to read to my kids, I found them to be nauseatingly cloying. Everyone was so well meaning and kind. I much prefer the twisted world of “Harriet the Spy.” As a preteen I went through a Holocaust literature phase. “The Diary of Anne Frank” was my gateway drug.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Alice Waters, Julia Child and Yotam Ottolenghi. But only if it’s potluck.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful? And do you have a favorite among the books written by your husband, Michael Chabon?
“Daughter’s Keeper” is not my best, but it’s the novel that means the most to me. It was with “Daughter’s Keeper” that I finally realized that I wasn’t a lawyer on maternity leave, but a writer with aspirations beyond just keeping myself from going crazy while trapped in the house with babies. The book is about a young woman who gets caught up in a drug deal and ends up facing a long prison sentence. It’s about the war on drugs and about motherhood. There are things I’m embarrassed of in the book — my thinking on race in particular has evolved, as has, I hope, my prose — but, looking back, I admire my ambition.
The two midwives in “Telegraph Avenue” are my favorite of my husband’s characters. They feel more real to me than do most people I know.