Just Read It is a weekly feature in which the State Journal seeks recommendations from Wisconsin authors, literary enthusiasts and experts, focused on the contributor's particular genre of expertise.
Michelle Wildgen’s third novel, “The Back of the House,” will be published by Doubleday. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, O Magazine, Best Food Writing 2004 and 2009, and elsewhere. She is executive editor of the literary journal Tin House.
1. “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife,” and “The Amber Spyglass” by Philip Pullman (Knopf). This series is supposed to be for kids, but even certain fantasy-hating adults to whom I am married devoured the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. (I’d tell you to ignore the execrable film adaptation of the first book, but, happily, humankind seems to have done that already.) Pullman’s world looks at first a little like our own, but a hundred years ago and with an overlay of magic, yet this isn’t cuddly magic. Twelve-year-old Lyra journeys through a world and among creatures that are both grand and treacherous, rough and elegant. She faces the dangers of a repressive religious authority, armored bears, and her own beautiful and deeply untrustworthy parents. In Pullman’s hands, everything from witches and Gypsies to the human soul feels thrillingly fresh and reinvented, and the books don’t shy away from big ideas like sex, religion, evil, and death.
2. “Selected Stories” by Alice Munro (McClelland and Stewart, 1997). Choosing a great Munro book is almost comically easy, and she has published a number of first-rate collections since this 1997 volume gathered her best short stories from the previous thirty years. But this volume is a great place to experience the skill with which she uncovers the dark, enthralling side of human nature in lives that only seem quiet. A brief list of her subjects includes mothers and daughters, extremist religious sects, marriage, turkey processing, sibling rivalry, and murder, and her settings range from rural Canada to Albania to Toronto. Munro stories come at you from a number of angles and through layers of storytelling, and she does it all with prose so restrained, it can take you a while to realize it’s breathtaking.
3. “Happy All the Time,” by Laurie Colwin (Random House, 1978). When I am feeling deeply depressed about the world, I often turn to Laurie Colwin’s 1978 comedy of manners that follows cousins Vincent and Guido through the vicissitudes of love and marriage. I read somewhere that Colwin, who died in 1992 and was also a much-loved food writer, felt readers missed how deeply anxious these characters are, but if we do it’s because the writing is fleet, tart, and comic, and — frankly — because the characters are anxious over love and not, say, terrorism. This is not gritty realism, nor is it trying to be. It’s witty without being lightweight, and its vision of the beauty of daily life is one that soothes me every time.
Michelle Wildgen lives in Madison. For more information, visit michellewildgen.com.