What to Read? Alexis M. Smith Recommends

Dear Reader,


Alexis M. Smith’s novel, Glaciers, a Spring 2012 Discover Great New Writers selection, started as a series of prose poems about her Alaskan childhood, and over 5 years evolved into the slim, lyrical story of a twenty-something navigating love, loss, and history that was an immediate hit with the Discover selection committee.


We asked Alexis to tell us about three books she frequently recommends, and she started by saying, “It only occurs to me now, looking over what I’ve written about these three books, that I picked books whose narrators fascinate me. I struggled with whether I should write my own first novel in first person, but ended up writing it in third person and keeping it there. So, when I read, I pay a lot of attention to narrators, and how the voice telling the story comes through, how it sets the tone and creates atmosphere. In any case, here are my three adored, highly recommended titles.”


The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits


Lately, I cannot stop talking about The Vanishers. I spent a week of my book tour reading it in corner cafes and hotels. I was so eager to finish it that I pulled over twice at rest stops along I-5 to read. Julia Severn, the motherless psychic in The Vanishers, is one of the more beguiling narrators I’ve encountered in years. She’s the victim of a “psychic attack,” which, in the loss-and-pain-fueled modernity of the novel, means exhibiting endless symptoms of medical conditions. Julia’s only hope of escape/cure is to officially “vanish” with the professional help of TK Ltd., a sort of avant-garde film archive-meets-witness relocation program. TK Ltd., via a film historian and his unhinged assistant, enlists Julia to track down a mysterious film director who knew her own mother before her suicide. If this sounds complicated, it is. Julavits isn’t shy about introducing lots of characters and sinister plot twists. But she’s a talented and nervy writer who pulls it off. The Vanishers is inventive, atmospheric, and, despite the dark premise and morbid details, frequently very funny.


The Seas by Samantha Hunt


I read Samantha Hunt’s The Seas in one long stretch on my couch one day, and when I reached the end, I started it over again from the beginning. At the time, I was just beginning to envision the shape of my own novel, Glaciers, and Hunt’s extraordinary narrator–a young woman from a Melvillian coastal town in Maine–set the bar for woeful and dreamy, yet fierce, heroines. The unnamed narrator’s father disappeared into the sea when she was a child, leaving sorrow and confusion as permanent residents in the old family house. The grieving daughter creates a mythology of her own, borrowing from tales of the undine (sea nymphs, like mermaids), to define herself and her alienation from the world around her. Enter a young man, a veteran of the first Iraq war–a desert of a man, and an unquenchable mystery–and the watery narrator is marooned. The most magical thing about The Seas, however, is Hunt’s magical way with language–and I don’t mean simply they way she puts a sentence together. She very literally weaves language and how we use it into her tale. Characters fixate, in many different ways, on the slipperiness of words, their imprecision in the face of grief and beauty and love, and through them, we enter a world where a single word can hold a whole story in itself.


A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes


A High Wind in Jamaica is the story of some children who end up–quite accidentally–on a pirate ship (much to the pirates’ dismay) and what follows is far from childish hijinks. The professor who assigned this book to my class in grad school told us that the book had been required reading for junior high students, in the manner of Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoein the 1950’s and 60’s. It was even made into a schlocky film by 20th Century Fox in 1965. Perhaps that’s why the book was out of print for a decade or two, until New York Review of Books saw fit to republish it in a decidedly un-childlike edition (Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls grace the current edition’s cover). For my part, I fell in deep, dark love with the book from the first page, and wondered what my teen years would have been like had I been required, as a seventh-grader, to read this dangerous little dream of kids-on-the-high-seas. The narrator of the novel is mysterious–we get an “I” or two in the beginning, and again at the very end–but once the tale gets underway, it slips into third person.  Told primarily from the perspective of the second-oldest of the girls, Emily, who becomes the “captain” of the dozen or so children, while the eldest, Margaret, at only 13, becomes the consort of the ship’s first mate, the novel treads the turbulent waters of sexual awareness and exploitation with admirable agility. What entrances me so, every time I reread this book, is Hughes’ ability to capture a moment in the psyche of a young girl on the verge of adolescence–caught very literally between her innocence and irredeemable wisdom.

(I laughed out loud when I read Alexis’s admission that she’d pulled over to the side of the highway to finish reading a book, only because I’d done the same, more than once over the years, driving between New York and Masschusetts at the weekend.)


Cheers, Miwa


Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.