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BIBLIOPHILES

Reading books about the natural world

Lydia Millet combines family dysfunction, runaway kids, and a hurricane-fueled apocalypse in her ultra-dark comedy “The Children’s Bible,” a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award.
Lydia Millet combines family dysfunction, runaway kids, and a hurricane-fueled apocalypse in her ultra-dark comedy “The Children’s Bible,” a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award.Nola Millet

Critically acclaimed writer Lydia Millet combines family dysfunction, runaway kids, and a hurricane-fueled apocalypse in her ultra-dark comedy “The Children’s Bible,” a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award. Millet is the author of more than 20 novels and short story collections. Millet was born in Boston, grew up in Toronto, and now lives outside Tucson, where she works for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization fighting climate change and species extinction.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

MILLET: I started reading nonfiction before the pandemic started, mostly about animals and nature. I realized how great nonfiction is. I felt like I had missed this opportunity all my life, as if I’d been walking past that section in the library for 50 years.

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BOOKS: What have been the highlights of your nonfiction reading?

MILLET: I’ve been reading bestiaries because I’m writing my own. I really liked this book by the English naturalist Caspar Henderson, “The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.” I also read “Other Minds,” a good octopus book by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher and a scuba diver. It looks at what consciousness means when we talk about animals. More recently, I read Jacob Shell’s book about Asian elephants in Burma and India, “Giants of the Monsoon Forest.” He ends up advocating for using the elephants in logging as a way to save them from extinction. It’s a complicated and bold proposition.

BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in fiction?

MILLET: Basically, if something is not funny, it better be the best language I ever read. Some writers have this quiet humor, like Lydia Davis, where I almost never laugh out loud, but I’m always consistently amused. I like that intellectual playfulness. Gilbert Sorrentino is like that too. He wrote “Red the Fiend,” which still makes me laugh. Contemporary writers who are called humorists, liked David Sedaris, usually don’t make me laugh.

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BOOKS: Are you a fan of P.G. Wodehouse?

MILLET: I grew up reading every one of his books, which is a lot, like dozens. My father, who was kind of an Anglophile, loved him. We had all these orange paperbacks that were totally falling apart. Wodehouse’s books always made me laugh when I was a kid but now they don’t. Maybe I used them up.

BOOKS: Are there any genres you won’t read?

MILLET: I read all over the place but I don’t read romance or action-y, macho books. I still read speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy. I read my daughter’s YA books. I tend to like the dystopic ones, not the ones about teenagers falling in love or dying of cancer. I really liked Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” books and Phillip Pullman’s “Golden Compass” books. I do read books for grown-ups, too.

BOOKS: What was the last great grown-up novel you read?

MILLET: I just read a great one in translation, “American Delirium,” by the Argentinian writer Betina González. It’s strange and involves predatory deer. I like fiction with more of a philosophical and existential bent, fiction that is less occupied with a domestic bent. European and South America fiction still has that. Even Elena Ferrante has a little of that.

BOOKS: Is there a novel that you thought did a good job of capturing climate change?

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MILLET: I liked Marcel Theroux’s book, “Far North.” It was more believable than a lot of the stuff I read that is post-apocalyptic. I often find post-apocalyptic literature for adults far more depressing than anything in the YA world. Those dystopias are pulled off with more of a sense of play and fantasy.

BOOKS: What are your reading habits?

MILLET: I have the best intentions but if I’m reading in bed, it’s just bad. I love, love reading but that’s the thing I’m the worst at right now. You can never read enough, especially once you start reading about things you are passionate about, like animals and plants. I could read about those for several lifetimes and not have read enough. I’m just discovering this now, and it makes me so sad. When will I have time to read all this?