If you don't know Susan Choi's novels, you should

When you read a book by a new author and you love, love, love it, the immediate response is to start forcing that book on as many people as possible, buying extra copies to spread around, or even hiring a skywriter to broadcast the news across the horizon for all to see. After all, you need this new author’s career to thrive so they can write you more books.

When “discovering” a new-to-you author who has already published numerous books that you’re now going to go back and savor, the emotions are a little different.

I should be clear that when I say “you,” I mean me. When I make one of these discoveries, I have an urge to keep my precious little secret to myself so as not to diminish the allure of my private knowledge. My discovery was hard-won. Why should I share it with everyone else? This writer is already doing fine; look at all those books. Why can’t they be my special secret?

But there is no such thing as job security for any writer this side of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, and E.L. James and the like, so while I’m very pleased that I’ve had a chance to dive into the oeuvre of one particular writer this past month or so, I’m almost out of books. We need to make sure she gets as much encouragement as possible to write more.

Oh right, the author’s name: Susan Choi.

It’s not like Choi is obscure. She’s published five novels. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for “American Woman” and for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2009 for “A Person of Interest.” She also teaches creative writing at an obscure university called Yale.

So no, I obviously did not discover Choi, but I cannot overstate how pleased I am that I discovered her writing for myself. Choi is part of a class of a disappearing breed, the “midlist” author who has solid sales, but falls short of phenomenon status.

As a writer, Choi defies description because no two of her novels are much alike. “American Woman” is a fictionalized retelling of the abduction of Patty Hearst, a sensational story that is rendered as an intimate drama, focused on one of the abducted woman’s minders, who is on the run from authorities.

“My Education” at first looks like a standard story of an affair between a male professor and his young, female graduate student, but soon involves the professor’s wife. The novel makes a narrative move that thrusts the reader into an entirely new frame of reference for earlier events in the book.

“Trust Exercise,” Choi’s most recent book, has its own narrative twist, where the novel we thought we were reading — a somewhat overwrought tale of teenage love at a high school for the arts — is suddenly changed as a character from that book shows up to narrate what comes next.

What I love most about these books is their willingness to challenge and defy the reader. These narratives evoke deep pleasure, but the pleasure is complicated and could be upended at any moment by Choi’s brilliant sorcery.

For this reason, her books many not connect with every last reader, but for those (like me) who do connect, prepare to fall hard and fast.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.

1. “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann

2. “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid

3. “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

4. “Mary Coin” by Marisa Silver

5. “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

— Rhoda B., Oak Park

I’m feeling as though “The Marriage of Opposites,” a fictionalized history by Alice Hoffman, works for both Rhoda’s interest in history and in fiction.

1. “Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult

2. “The Bridal Chair” by Gloria Goldreich

3. “Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

4. “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collison of Two Cultures” by Anne Fadiman

5. “Same Kind of Different As Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together” by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent

— Marianne R., The Villages, Fla.

For a true story, well told with fascinating insights into the human experience, you can beat Susan Orlean and her classic “The Orchid Thief.”

1. “Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family” by Ronne Hartfield

2. “The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919” by Carl Sandburg

3. “Counting Backwards: A Doctor's Notes on Anesthesia” by Henry Jay Przybylo

4. “Personal History” by Katherine Graham

5. “Suffer the Little Children” by Donna Leon

— Frances V., Hyde Park

Frances seems to be drawn towards stories of interesting lives, and no one had a life more fascinating and filled with strange adventures and personal discovery than Oliver Sacks. His autobiography, “On the Move,” is a treat.

Get a reading from the Biblioracle

Send an email with a list of the last five books you’ve read to books@chicagotribune.com.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
70°