Author favors tales of characters and relationships

For her new book, “Strangers in Budapest,” Boston-area novelist and journalist Jessica Keener tells the story of an American couple who’ve moved with their baby to that foreign city for adventure and to start life anew. The story isn’t autobiographical, but Keener and her husband spent a year in the Hungarian capital in the early 1990s. The best-selling author of “Night Swim” hasn’t been back since so she relied on her memory for this novel, her second. She’ll discuss it at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Boston Public Library.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

KEENER: I just read the memoir “The Book of Separation” by Tova Mirvis, which I thought was fantastic. I love nature books so I recently read “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. I also read the novel “And After the Fire” by Lauren Belfer. The premise is there’s a discovery that Bach wrote an anti-Semitic work. There’s sort of a mystery wrapped in, and it travels in three time periods. Then yesterday I was reading poetry with my husband in the morning. ”Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. It’s so dark in the morning. It’s been nice to have a mini-ritual of having coffee and reading poetry.


BOOKS: Is historical fiction something you gravitate toward?

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KEENER: Not necessarily. What captures me the most are books that get into characters and relationships. If there is a mystery, that’s great, but it has to be more than that. It doesn’t have to be a traditional format either. I’m looking forward to reading George Saunder’s “Lincoln in the Bardo,” and I have Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life.” I’ve read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” eight times, and I’m ready to read it again. Its ridiculous, but there’s always some little nuance I discover.

BOOKS: What are some of your favorite nature books?

KEENER: It’s really animal books. I adored “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It was meditative and beautifully written. In terms of favorites, I have to mention Marilynne Robinson. I didn’t read “Housekeeping” for the longest time because I didn’t like the title. Then when I finally read it I adored it. She conjures ghosts on the page.

BOOKS: Do you own a book with special significance?


KEENER: My father’s World War II Army division put together a book — blue, hardback, and it was always on our shelf. I still have it. It’s full of black and white photos of their trek through Europe and of liberating Dachau. So as a child I saw these pictures of these corpses stacked up like wood. That had a big influence on my life.

BOOKS: Did you take books with you when you lived in Budapest for a year?

KEENER: We took 17 suitcases, but I didn’t pack up a ton of books to take over. When I had a bone-marrow transplant [as a young woman] I selected 100 books because they had to be sterilized for me to read them. I probably read 20. I read three biographies of Queen Elizabeth. She has such a strong, interesting character and had to survive a lot of dangerous situations. You might have thought I would read fluff, but I read darker things. It related more to what I was going through. I read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and another Vietnam War book, Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.”

BOOKS: What other kind of books do you read?

KEENER: I’ve been reading more about Buddhism and have been reading “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach. It address how life is joy and despair. I’m celebrating my book, but I wake up to news that people have been shot. Everyday is an onslaught between wonderful and horrible.


BOOKS: Would you change your opinion of a person if they didn’t like a particular book you did?

‘I’ve read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” eight times, and I’m ready to read it again.’

KEENER: I will not discount a person because they don’t like a book that I love. But I was in a book club, and I tried to introduce “Housekeeping” to read. One of the people in the club said something like, “I don’t have the patience to read about homeless people,” and I thought, “That’s it. I’m done with this book club.’’ I guess I’d better read more “Radical Acceptance.”

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