Sean Kenniff & Esther Martinez on their 5 (+1) Favorite Books

Sean Kenniff is a polymath. Neurologist, journalist, amateur painter, conspiracy theorist and reality star, he is also the author of Stop Effing Yourself and of the novella, Etre the Cow.

Esther Martinez is a bibliophile, francophile, logophile. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsday, and the Columbia Observer, among others. She co-produces the storytelling series, Lip Service: True Stories Out Loud.

Sean and Esther met at a charity event for City of Hope in 2002. During their courtship, they read passages to one another from books they loved. They’ve been sharing their lives, and their books, ever since. The couple married in April of 2012 and are producing their first collaborated work in 2013: the birth of their daughter, Lilou.

*  *  *

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

We love this book because it’s a love story. Yes, about Humbert Humbert and Lo—though that’s a sick love story—but more than that, it’s a story about Nabokov’s love affair with language. We never read a book before Lolita that left such an indelible voice in our heads. Lecherous as he is, Humbert Humbert is also witty, funny even, and worst of all, sympathetic. When he calls Lo’s mom, Charlotte, “a walrus,” we agreed. When he wants desperately to woo Lo, we were complicit; we wanted him to have her. And that is Nabokov’s amazing feat—to demonstrate the power of language to seduce us even into the most unthinkable desires.

Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman

(Esther’s choice, not Sean’s)

Some people (like his in-laws) are convinced Goldman killed his wife, Aura. I agree that some of what he writes in the book smacks of guilty-sociopath-who-wants-to-be-found-out, but then again it is a fictionalized memoir, so it’s hard to tell what really happened in the aftermath of Aura’s tragic death and what is only imagined. All that aside, what I think is so masterful about this book is the structure, at once organic and chaotic. Goldman jumps around in time and space, has flashbacks and flash-forwards and drunken blackouts. And at some point in the book, the reader begins to understand that the narrative disorder—the anti-chronology—feels exactly like the disorientation of grief. I like to imagine that Goldman wrote it in a single sitting while in a trance-like state, so I don’t have to feel bad about never writing something so raw and tender and real. I read parts of Say Her Name to Sean, and he suspects Goldman did kill Aura—so he refuses to read the book. But Sean also believes in aliens, thinks Michael Jackson faked his own death and is preparing for a zombie apocalypse.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kirin Desai

We usually know a book is great when we can remember the names of its characters, seemingly small things they said and did, and stirring passages of prose, long after we turn the final page. We wish we could sum it up neatly, but this is one of those books that deals with humble places and people to explore the loftiest issues we face as humans: from geopolitics, colonialism and extremism, to self-loathing, humiliation, and our innate desire for dignity. The novel bridges Himalayan Indian and New York City to connect the lives of Sai, an orphaned Indian girl being raised (in privilege) by her grandfather, and their cook’s son, Biju, a downtrodden illegal immigrant trying to forge a better life abroad. In between them is the entire history of empire and its lasting legacy on both the colonized and the colonizer. At times it felt like this novel wanted to believe in magical realism, but reality was too strong and too ugly to let it. All the magic happens in Desai’s lush, gorgeous prose, and in the sad determination of its characters to accept a fate they did not create and cannot change. Read it.

L’Etranger by Albert Camus (or, The Stranger, for you anglos)

Sean read The Stranger in English. Esther read L’Etranger in French, and she swears that made it an even heavier read, though that’s hard to imagine. Esther was studying in Paris for the summer, farther from home and more alone than she’d ever been, just two weeks after her grandfather died. She thinks that had something to do with how she read the book, but suffice it to say that it tapped into some deep, dark sadness inside her. And fear. Fear that maybe nothing really matters. But the book plucked similar cords in Sean—even when read, unpretentiously, in English. The Stranger, in any language,is profound yet accessible. Meursault’s absurdity, his thoughts and actions—without reason or purpose—forced us to confront our own realities. This little book about a man disconnected—from feeling, from life, from himself—got to us in a way that no other story ever has. Keep your Stephen Kings and your Dean Koontzs. To this day, we’ve never read a more frightening book.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

We love this novel because for 319 pages we really, truly believed there could be a boy adrift at sea, sharing a small lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger. We love the sheer imagination of this book, the preposterousness of its premise, and the beauty of Martel’s prose that made us believe every word he wrote. We were in that boat, with that boy, and that tiger for 227 days. This is a vibrant story about faith, and how it can sustain the human spirit despite the most unimaginable circumstances. We don’t usually like books with such an overt message, but this one creeps up on you in small increments, so at the end, you don’t just agree with the narrator’s conclusions, you think this kind of faith was your idea.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

(Sean’s choice)

Part sci-fi geek manifesto, part multigenerational epic of immigrant Dominican culture, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao does what very few novels ever have—it sickens and it heals. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel transports readers from Baní, DR to Washington Heights, NY and back. But this story is so much more than a chronicle of immigrant hardships and the exacting toll of assimilation. The overweight hero nerdboy, Oscar, is in exile himself. He’s an outcast among his peers, and not only a pariah to the chicks, but he’s an absolute zero. But the most captivating narrative thread belongs to Oscar’s violently insane mother, Beli—who beats and berates her young children literally into submission. Beli’s family has been haunted for generations by a fukú—a mythical Dominican curse that dooms all descendents to a never-ending chain of tragedy. Through it all, Diaz’ prose is lyrical and crisp, creating a world where fantasy and reality both exist without clear distinctions. Wow, I mean, “Wao!” After finishing this novel, I was so moved that I wrote Junot Diaz a personal email (his cousin is a friend). He responded almost immediately, with “You are so kind, Sean. Thank you.”

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