MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Author Curtis Sittenfeld burst onto the literary scene a few years ago with "Prep." Her fictional account of a boarding school in New England became a bestseller. Today, Sittenfeld tells us about three books, all by women, that shaped her own sensibilities as an author. That's for our series "Three Books" where writers pick three books on one theme.
Ms. CURTIS SITTENFELD (Author): A few years ago, I got myself in a bit of hot water because I wrote a book review in which I implied that not only was the book in question not good, because it was chick lit, but that no chick lit was ever good. What I learned was that there's no consensus on what chick lit even is. Is chick lit any book by or about a young woman, any book by or about any woman?
These days, I no longer claim to know what chick lit is or isn't. But I do know that when I read a great, smart book about a young woman making her way in the world, it's a reason to rejoice. "The Blindfold" by Siri Hustvedt follows Iris, who's a graduate student at Columbia University, getting her Ph.D. in English literature. The book is divided into four long chapters, and in each one, Iris finds herself entangled in a psychologically complicated situation.
In the first, she's hired by an eccentric man to tape herself describing objects which once belonged to a dead girl. Iris is supposed to speak only in a whisper, and the girl the things belonged to might have been murdered. In another chapter, Iris is hospitalized because she's been having migraines. And she ends up with two older female roommates who have their own bizarre habits. Published in 1992, "The Blindfold" is a dark, strange book. And something I love about it is that its intelligence is never announced. It's simply implied in every precise observation and sharp insight.
In "The Lost Father" by Mona Simpson, Mayan is a 28-year-old medical student, though her life's obsession isn't medicine. Instead, as the title suggests, it's her father. Born and raised in Egypt, her father left her and her American mother in Wisconsin when Mayan was young, and she hasn't seen him since childhood. "He could come back any day, so we had to be ready all the time," Mayan explains. "We lived like that, jangled, for years, looking over our shoulders, feeling nervous and watched, expecting." Simpson's sense of detail is dazzling, and she writes in a brilliantly intuitive style that makes you feel as if you are Mayan, searching for your own missing father.
What makes "The Quality Of Life Report" by Meghan Daum, which came out in 2003, one of my all-time favorite books, is how funny it is. Lifestyle reporter Lucinda Trout moves from New York to Prairie City, which is a stand-in for Lincoln, Nebraska. Daum's depiction of a liberal Midwestern town manages to be both mocking and affectionate. Daum, who also writes non-fiction, is one of those writers I'd read on any subject. She's so smart, so hilarious, and so honest about the way people really are, for good and bad.
Together, Siri Hustvedt, Mona Simpson, and Meghan Daum not only make me grateful as a reader, they also make me proud to be a chick.
BLOCK: Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of "Prep." Her latest book is called "American Wife." Her fiction picks are "The Blindfold" by Siri Hustvedt, "The Lost Father" by Mona Simpson, and "The Quality Of Life Report" by Meghan Daum. For more "Three Books" recommendations, go to our Web site, npr.org.