Ali Benjamin catapults Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” into the 21st century with her new novel, “The Smash-Up,” the story of a man contending with a fraying marriage and political turmoil in a sleepy Western Massachusetts town. This is Benjamin’s first novel for adults. She is the author of the young adult novel, “The Thing About Jellyfish,” which was a National Book Award finalist. She lives with her husband and daughter in Williamstown.
BOOKS: What have you been reading?
BENJAMIN: My daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in December and so I’ve been reading a lot about diabetes. There’s a great book, “The Discovery of Insulin,” by Michael Bliss, a Canadian author. At the start of the pandemic, I read Albert Camus’s “The Plague” like everyone, and then I returned to it recently as the world got increasingly mad. The book’s main idea is about the contagion of dark ideas and how does someone keep themselves resistant to them.
BOOKS: What else did the pandemic inspire you to pick up?
BENJAMIN: At the beginning I picked up Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which I had resisted reading for forever but it seemed time. He was a survivor of the Holocaust and wrote about the psychology of suffering. I read Jean Paul Sartre’s “Nausea.” Then I needed more of an escape and turned to contemporary fiction. I read Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys.” I picked up “American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld not knowing it’s based on Laura Bush. I was not a fan of the Bush administration, to put it mildly, but that book gave her a kind of humanity for me.
BOOKS: What was your last best read?
BENJAMIN: Right before the pandemic I started George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” as part of a reading group that was reading it aloud. Then I finished it on my own. It’s one of my favorite books ever. It is really shrewd about our flaws and foibles.
BOOKS: Have you read any other classics recently?
BENJAMIN: I went through a play-reading phase. I love reading plays because you can consume a whole work of art in an hour or two. Every couple of years I read Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” You think it will be hokey, but it’s gutting. Beth Wohl wrote “Small Mouth Sounds,” a brilliant play, which takes place at a silent meditation retreat. Quiara Alegria Hudes’s “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” is pure poetry. It’s the story of three generations of Puerto Ricans who are soldiers.
BOOKS: What do you read for nonfiction?
BENJAMIN: I love books that make me look at the world differently. Like Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” or Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes.” I thought Roxanne Gay’s memoir, “Hunger,” was incredibly honest. “Trick Mirror,” a book of essays by the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, is brilliant.
BOOKS: How do you manage to read so much?
BENJAMIN: I’ll have one book on the dining room table, one on my bedside, one in my bathroom for when I’m blow-drying my hair, and one in my purse. I also listen to books. Now I’m listening to “The Mercies” by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. It’s based on an event in the 1600s in Norway, when every man in a village was killed in a fishing accident and the women had to make due. I’ve also been listening to the comedian Michael Ian Black read Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” on his podcast. There’s some funny commentary.
BOOKS: Which book have you reread the most?
BENJAMIN: Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams.” I used to read that to our kids because there was something in it for all of us. I reread books I read as a kid, some of which hold up and some don’t. I’ll never stop loving “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basel E. Frankweiler” by E.L. Konigsburg. I loved, loved, loved “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but some parts are incredibly colonialist. Would I read it aloud to a group of kids now? I don’t know.
BOOKS: What’s on your upcoming pile?
BENJAMIN: “Gingerbread” by Helen Oyeyemi. I also have Aimee Bender’s “The Butterfly Lampshade” and Lydia Millet’s “A Children’s Bible.” My husband gave my “Freshwater” by Akwaeke Emezi, and I have more books about insulin.