IT’S A Cinderella story every year. Come a certain four-day stretch in April, the printed page comes to life, bylines and dust jackets replaced by their flesh-and-blood counterparts. But it’s not just the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Richard Ford dining at the Capital Hotel or to very nearly collide with John Waters while queued for tiny sandwiches at the annual Author! Author! reception. Rather, for going on 15 years, as the Arkansas Literary Festival has grown in size and scope, it’s the less-touted aspects—the authors visiting schools, the extending of the topical umbrella to more popular titles, the emphasis on literacy—that lend it life beyond the page. In celebration of the fest’s 15th—and as a way of keeping the party going beyond April 26-29—we asked eight presenting authors to muse on downright good reads that influence and inspire. It’s a book club of sorts—and we’d invite you to page through.
Betsy Singleton Snyder
Author of Stepping on Cheerios | Monthly columnist for Little Rock Family magazine. Pastor at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church.
A BOOK THAT KEEPS YOU CENTERED? Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor | I never tire of reading Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, especially her poetic and challenging book Learning to Walk in the Dark. She suggests that humans do better with some darkness, with uncertain paths. The artificial light with which we surround ourselves, from the brightly lit skies to the cellphones that tie us down, doesn’t allow us to explore the rich upside of “lunar spirituality.” Yes, memorable spiritual encounters take place in the dark: dreams, promises, flights to freedom and babies born under stars.
A BOOK YOU READ TO THE KIDS AT BEDTIME? The Roald Dahl Collection | Once we began chapter books, our boys couldn’t get enough of British author Roald Dahl’s books. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Matilda or The BFG, Dahl’s characters, many of whom are strong girls, stand out. His scenes are belly-laugh inducing, while also allowing children to explore their fears, of being poor, orphaned or possibly eaten by giants. Besides, who can’t love words like “frobscottle” or “whizzpopper”? In Dahl’s magical worlds, it’s possible to “never grow up … always down.”
FIRST BOOK YOU READ AFTER THE KIDS ARE IN BED? First book you read after the kids are in bed? I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell | When the kids are in bed, I read fiction, memoir or biography. I heard O’Farrell interviewed on NPR about her numerous brushes with mortality. Her journalistic background and fiction-writing skills are both on display in this delicious book. She begins the memoir with a lonely, dangerous encounter that might have ended in murder. She ends with a devastating account of her daughter’s struggle with deadly allergies. The prose is masterful; the subject, how we process mortality, universal.
A BOOK THAT MAKES FOR GOOD DINNER-PARTY FODDER? The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood | I first read this novel in 1987. It terrified me, even more so now. Atwood is at her best in this dystopian read as she plumbs social issues that speak to contemporary culture wars, particularly gender, religion, power and environmental toxicity. The award-winning Hulu series of the same title has contributed to the discussion. Some people wouldn’t enjoy a dinner party in which you happily discuss controversial issues. I’d love it.
A BOOK YOU WISH YOU’D READ YEARS EARLIER? The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois | The title of Du Bois’ classic announces that “black folks” have souls, too, a concept debatable in previous centuries, and which continues, to some extent, in conversations about voting rights, Black Lives Matter, education and equal access into the broader landscape of America. DuBois explores the “double consciousness,” or two ways of seeing the world, that blacks must have. He launched the black protest that continues with more recent, familiar writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Betsy will be presenting Mighty Reverence at the Main Library’s Darragh Center at 1:30 p.m. on Sun., April 29.
Carmen Maria Machado
Author of Her Body and Other Parties | Finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award and the Nebula Award. Artist in residence at the University of Pennsylvania.
A CLASSIC THAT HOLDS UP OVER TIME? One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez | Márquez’s monumental achievement One Hundred Years of Solitude, which uses magical realism as an avenue into Colombia’s dark history, has never lost its verve, and the lesson of the book—that sometimes it’s more effective to use fantasy in service of reality instead of just reality itself—has never lost its edge or relevancy. Plus, every scene of this gorgeous novel vibrates with energy, strangeness and that je ne sais quoi that immortal works of art always seem to possess.
A BOOK THAT WILL TEACH YOU SOMETHING? Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link | Stranger Things Happen was so at the forefront of the genre-busting literary scene that’s taken for granted nowadays that she had to start her own press to get her book into the world. Now, Link is a Pulitzer finalist and literary icon, and budding writers can learn valuable lessons about their own process from her fearless, utterly unique and uncategorizable body of work.
A BOOK YOU’VE MORE THAN A TIME—OR 10? The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson | It’s rare to find a perfect novel, but if they exist, The Haunting of Hill House is a notable example. This flawlessly constructed, deeply unsettling and gorgeously written book, with its queer themes, razor-sharp sentences, Gothic setting, difficult-to-pin-down genre and loose relationship with reality is a touchstone for everything I do. Not only does it stand up every time I revisit it, I glean new and valuable lessons from each subsequent reading.
A BOOK OF FAIRY TALES NOW MORE RELEVANT THAN EVER? The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter | The Bloody Chamber will be 40 years old next year, but these gruesome and gorgeous fairy-tale adaptations remain as sharp and subversive as they’ve ever been. We lost Angela Carter many years ago, yet her fiction—which she once described as “a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis”—uncannily responds to our current and terrible moment. One can only imagine what Carter would have to say about Trump, #MeToo and today’s cultural nightmare.
A BOOK OF SHORT STORIES YOU CAN READ IN ONE SITTING? What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah | The general wisdom is that a book of short fiction is hard to read in one sitting—after all, the dream of the story is interrupted every time the next one starts anew. But Arimah’s award-winning collection is an intoxicating, genre-bending brew of stories connected by her brilliant and powerful voice, and each story leaves you wondering what she’s going to do next.
Carmen will be speaking at the Historic Arkansas Museum at 11:30 a.m. on Sat., April 28, as part of a panel with Bennett Sims, author of White Dialogues.
Author of Lou Reed: A Life | Contributing editor for Rolling Stone. Grammy Award winner for Best Album Notes. Distinguished lecturer in the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.
A BOO THAT TRANSPORTS YOU? Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon | A brilliant phantasmagoria that fuses the present and the past. Pynchon’s been somewhat forgotten, but this is a defining book of the late 20th century—and, increasingly, it seems, our century as well.
A BOOK THAT BREAKS THE RULES? A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan | Egan is a fearless writer, but her experiments here (and elsewhere) never feel contrived. They serve her stories and evoke emotional effects that powerfully convey her characters and their (and our) circumstances. Style is her means of rendering the confusions of the modern world, but it never overwhelms her rigorous intelligence or generous heart.
A BOOK THAT NO ONE’S HEARD OF—YET? World Enough by Clea Simon | An affectionate, but clear-eyed portrait of the Boston indie-rock scene in the ’80s—with a murder mystery to heighten the sense of dread. Stylish and unsentimental, this is a journey through the past in search of meaning and release, not nostalgia.
A BOOK THAT WON’T LET GO? Underworld by Don DeLillo | As always with DeLillo, this is a work of searing social criticism, as well as a novel, an all-too-lucid portrait of a world on the precipice of self-destruction. Incredibly, the passages about nuclear waste and (of all things) the rigors of recycling are chilling, hilarious and stunningly insightful.
A BOOK THAT’S MUSIC? In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust | I used to reward myself at certain life milestones by reading another volume of this peerless work, and now, decades later, I need to return to it. This is a book as much about language as anything else—and the elusiveness of our glacial internal sense of time and the world racing by outside us.
Anthony will be presenting Lou Reed: A Life in Room 124 at the Roberts Library (formerly the Arkansas Studies Institute) at 11:30 a.m. on Sat., April 28.
Molly McCully Brown
Author of The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded | Jeff Baskin Writers Fellow at Oxford American. Recently awarded the Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Traveling Abroad.
A BOOK YOU DISCOVERED IN ARKANSAS? Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro | I’ve loved her stories for years and carried them with me across several states, but I read an advance copy this fall here in Little Rock. I found it utterly immersive and was so struck by its intensity and lyricism, and by the way it navigated a fraught and nuanced relationship with the notion of grace. I’ve continued to feel haunted by it, and I think I’ll always associate it with the year I spent here, and with the feeling of being someplace important, but temporary, as you move between one home and another.
A BOOK YOU CAN’T HELP BUT READ IN ONE SITTING? We the Animals by Justin Torres | It’s a collection of vignettes that, together, form a slender little autobiographical novel. They’re musical, and raw, and incredibly crafted, and I never get tired of them. When I’m teaching, it’s a book I use a lot in the classroom because the form means that it’s useful for teaching not only fiction, but also poetry and memoir. I often go to it for reference, meaning only to look at a single section, but I almost always end up reading the whole thing straight through again because I get caught up and can’t stop myself.
A BOOK OF POETRY THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING FOR YOU? The Wild Iris by Louise Glück | I’m not even sure that I can tell you exactly what changed, or why, but I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I read it: on the incredibly hot concrete steps of a University of Virginia dorm at summer camp the year I turned 16, and I can tell you that I haven’t gone longer than about three days without thinking about it in the more than a decade since. I’ve lived in six states in the past 10 years, and no matter how many things have gone missing in all of my moves, I can always tell you exactly where that book is in my house.
A BOOK YOU WISH YOU WOULD HAVE READ SOONER? Teratology by Susannah Nevison | I’m going to cheat a little bit here and tell you about a book I wish had existed sooner. The poet Susannah Nevison is now a dear pal and collaborator, but before I’d ever met her, I read her collection Teratology the month it came out in 2015. The book is a reckoning with trauma, disability and myth-making—the constant envisioning and revisioning of the body—that’d I’d been waiting to read my whole life, without knowing it. I was enormously grateful for it when I finally found it, but I so wish my younger self could have had access to the book because it would have taught her so much and comforted her so profoundly.
A BOOK YOU ADMIRE? Rocket Fantastic by Gabrielle Calvocoressi | I’m continually awed not just by the architecture and inventiveness of the collection as a whole, but by each one of the individual poems and how they hold grief and desire so close together. I can’t get over the ending of “I Had a Mane Once”: “And yes, I was every inch an animal / But most days I was merciful: // I’d pretend I was sleeping. I’d take all my danger / and lay it at the river’s edge.”
Molly will be speaking at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center at 1 p.m. on Sat., April 28, as part of a panel with Jacob Shores-Arguello, author of Paraiso, and Lisa Dordal, author of Mosaic of the Dark.
Cherisse R. Jones
Author of Crossing the Line: Women’s Interracial Activism in South Carolina During and After World War II | James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History at Arkansas State University.
A BOOK ABOUT A LITTLE-KNOWN PART OF ARKANSAS HISTORY? A History of Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education in Arkansas by Thomas C. Kennedy | Alida and Calvin Clark, members of the Indiana Religious Society of Friends, relocated to Helena in 1864 to care for abandoned African-American children. Over the next few decades, they established Southland College, the first institution of higher learning for African-Americans located west of the Mississippi River. Kennedy’s monograph also examines the educational activism of African-Americans in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow South. Southland College existed until 1925.
A BOOK THAT YOU’VE DOG-EARED MORE THAN ANY OTHER? Ar’n’t I A Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White | I have used this seminal work in my African-American history courses for 15 years. It discusses how enslaved black women navigated the dual burdens of racism and sexism in the plantation South. This revised edition helps my students understand the intersectionality of race and gender and demystifies the stereotypes that challenged black women’s existence in both slavery and freedom. The book speaks volumes about how black women laid claim to their own understandings of womanhood and created enduring activist communities to survive oppressive circumstances.
A BOOK YOU KEEP ON YOUR NIGHTSTAND? The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore | I keep this book on my nightstand because it’s a fun but informative read. It examines the history of popular female superhero Wonder Woman, who was created in 1941 by feminist William Moulton Marston. Lepore contextualizes Wonder Woman’s role in the very long history and struggle for women’s rights from the late 19th through the 20th century. This scholarly work is richly informed by substantial archival research and unfettered access to Marston’s private papers.
A BOOK YOU WISH YOU WOULD HAVE WRITTEN? The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber | This fictional work is a rare look at the little-known history of African-American settlers in the West. It focuses on the life of Rachel Dupree, the wife of an African-American rancher in the South Dakota Badlands during World War I as she struggles to feed her family and to survive as one of the few black homesteaders in the American West.
A BOOK THAT YOU’VE BEEN UNABLE TO STOP THINKING ABOUT SINCE YOU FIRST READ IT? The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis | I was fascinated with this book from the moment I read it and have remained so ever since. In this political biography, Theoharis explores Rosa Parks’ activism over the course of six decades. Theoharis productively complicates Parks’ long obscured activism before and after the often referenced 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in ways that other studies have not. Parks was unabashedly militant and deeply critical of the racial politics of her time. Theoharis astutely challenges characterizations of Parks by presenting her in her full humanity as an activist in Jim Crow America.
Cherisse will be presenting Classic in Context: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at the Ron Robinson Theater at 5:30 p.m. on Sun., April 29.
Author of Born With Wings | Founder and executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE). Named “One of the 10 Muslim Women You Have To Know” by The Huffington Post.
A BOOK THAT COULD HAVE BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT YOU? Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong | When I first read the writings of Armstrong, a renowned religion writer, I never imagined that in the distant future, I would discover that her spiritual path mirrored mine. Although her search for God began humbly cloistered in a convent, her true nature of a free spirit set in motion a series of transformative experiences. Her critique of her own religious dogma was followed by a deep analysis of world religions, leading her to become the world’s foremost freelance monotheist.
A BOOK YOU CAN QUOTE AT LENGTH? Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille | Every time I hear of culture clashes, I share the secret in Clotaire’s book. He says that every culture has a code, a clue to how people’s mores are shaped, why people express and behave in unique ways, why they eat wrapped cheese, why they drink to get drunk and why they elect a president as a deliverer.
A BOOK THAT MAKES YOU SING? And the Spirit Moved Them by Helen LaKelly Hunt | Every time I glimpse into the hearts, minds and souls of these forgotten women, the abolitionists and spiritual activists, I am reminded of their sacred blueprint that shaped the course of history for generations of American women. In today’s #MeToo movement, their stories are an inspiration and a reminder that the “power that lies within us” can propel us in ways unimaginable.
A BOOK YOU LIKE TO GIVE AS A GIFT? Rumi’s Secret by Brad Gooch | This breathtaking and lyrical tale of spiritual intimacy between Shems, a wanderer and truth-teller, and Rumi, a 13th-century scholar and poet, is not only perfect for a coffee talk but is a necessary primer for seekers and bridge-builders struggling to understand the peaceful nature of Islam. The icing on the cake is that the book’s cover, turquoise background with overlays of intricate geometric design threaded with gold, needs no wrapping.
A BOOK THAT GREW ON YOU? The Color of Water by James McBride | I originally read this book so that I could appreciate the nexus of culture and identity through the lens of a biracial family. But later, when McBride’s mother stepped into the story, her wit, humor and determination totally captivated me. I not only observed motherhood at its finest, but also how a capable woman who endures losses and overcomes adversity remains steadfast in moving forward for the betterment of her progeny.
Daisy will be speaking at the Ron Robinson Theater at 1 p.m. on Sat., April 28, as part of a panel with Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk about Race.
Joe Barry Carroll
Author of Black American Voices: Shared Culture, Values, and Emotions | Former NBA All-Star. Originally from Pine Bluff. Philanthropist, wealth adviser, photographer and artist.
A BOOK YOU READ WHEN YOU NEED A LAUGH? Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss | I join the millions of “children of all ages” who enjoy this potpourri of illustrations, images, clever phrasing and wisdom. Seuss has the gift of making us smile while providing moral lessons. He takes us over hill and dale to illustrate the value of being open, trying new things and seeing how fantastic the formerly unknown can be. None of us can know, until we try!
A BOOK THAT CHANGED YOUR LIFE? A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt | The book and the film provide a deep and probing examination of what it means to stand for something. The principle character moves from a life of relative ease and privilege to a life steeped in extreme difficulty and sorrow, all because he would not go against the truth of his principle. The book provided comfort and direction through a series of challenges in my own journey.
A BOOK THAT CHALLENGED YOUR IDEAS ABOUT THE WORLD? Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson | I am not the first to applaud Emerson and his incredible gift for reducing intelligent thought to words. My favorite in this very fine collection is “Self-Reliance.” His advice to trust our own intuition, judgment and abilities is a lesson for the ages. We are who we have been looking for to deliver us!
A BOOK THAT MAKES YOU REMEMBER WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO BE A KID? The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison | I return to this book occasionally as a celebration of the culture that I grew up in and remain a part of. Ms. Morrison provides the sights and smells of a community that I cherish. She lovingly takes us by the hand and introduces us to each character and allows them dignity, even in the trough of their difficulty.
A BOOK OF ARTWORK THAT’S INSPIRED YOUR OWN? To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities | As a resident of Atlanta, I am in the midst of several historically black colleges and universities and the wonderful collections of art presented in this book. The diversity of their art collections reflects the talent and expression of incredible black artists. They cover the spectrum with excellence. I am looking forward to the day I can count myself in that number.
Joe will be presenting Black American Voices at 10 a.m. on Sat., April 28, at the Main Library’s Darragh Center.
Author of Sawbill: A Search for Place | Professor at the University of Central Arkansas. Assistant nonfiction editor of Terrain.org.
A BOOK THAT’S GROWN ON YOU? Words Under the Words by Naomi Shihab Nye | I’ve always admired Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry, but this is a book I keep coming back to—much like an old friend. When I sense myself losing faith in humanity and the power and beauty of words, I know I’ll find that deep love for language here, in lines such as “From somewhere / a calm musical note arrives. / You balance it on your tongue, / a single ripe grape, / till your whole body glistens.”
A BOOK THAT’S CHANGED FOR YOU (IN TERMS OF HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT IT) OVER THE YEARS? Staying Put by Scott Russell Sanders | When I first read Scott Russell Sanders’s Staying Put, I missed Minnesota and wanted to do exactly what Sanders advocates: devote myself to a homeplace. Sawbill, in many ways, describes my desire—and failure—to enact that lifestyle and commit to a place. As a result, although I still admire the book deeply, I now look at Staying Put as a kind of artifact from my youth.
A BOOK THAT REMINDS YOU OF YOUR ROOTS? The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich | Even though I grew up in Minnesota, the literature I read in school always took place in other parts of the world. For some reason, I accepted this as natural. That changed in my mid-20s, when I first discovered Louise Erdrich’s novels. Suddenly, the prairies and lakes of my youth emerged in the pages of an award-winning book, and I realized my homeland could be worthy of stories, too.
A BOOK YOU DISCOVERED IN ARKANSAS? Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth | I picked up Paul Kingsnorth’s collection of essays during an impromptu stop at Wordsworth Books in Little Rock this winter. I promptly devoured it. I expected the book to be depressing—it’s about climate change, after all—but it wasn’t. It was intensely thought-provoking and even affirming. It changed the way I think about human-environment interactions, including here in Arkansas.
A BOOK YOU’VE DOG-EARED MORE THAN ANY OTHER? Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard | In the afterward to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard recounts a New Yorker essay about mathematicians who apparently suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence” as they age. The phrase piqued Dillard, as it piqued me in high school, when Dillard’s masterful lyricism inspired my own writerly ambitions. That hasn’t changed. I have underlined just as many lines, and dog-eared just as many pages, on my second and third readings of Pilgrim as my first.
Jennifer will be presenting at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center at 10 a.m. on Sat., April 28, as part of a panel with Mark Spitzer, author of Beautiful Grotesque Fish of the American West.