Saturday, July 30, 2016

Ashley Prentice Norton

Ashley Prentice Norton is the author of If You Left and the critically acclaimed novel The Chocolate Money. She is a graduate of Exeter, Georgetown, and the creative writing program at New York University. She lives in New York with her husband and three children.

Recently I asked Norton about what she was reading. Her reply:
My reading is eclectic. I read both fiction and non-fiction.

Right now I’m reading:

La Valse lente des tortues by Katherine Pancol, part of a trilogy that is hugely popular in France (or was— I’m always about ten years behind everyone else). The book is about an academic who writes a novel for her sister: she gets the fame, the other gets the money. Of course, as expected, everything goes wrong.

Super Mind by Norman E. Rosenthal
This book is about all the ways in which transcendental meditation can positively affect your life. I learned TM about a year ago and it has been life altering for me. I was always scared of meditating because I had these images of staring at a candle or trying to empty my head which I found incredibly stressful, which of course, defeated the point. With TM, they give you a mantra, and you just repeat it in your head twice a day for twenty minutes, see what happens, and that’s it. The only “rule” is you can’t tell anyone your mantra. (I’m not sure what the consequence is). That seems of course kind of cultish, like a secret handshake, but at the same time pretty cool in this age of over sharing and compulsive posting.

David Foster Wallace. Anything.
It’s probably pretty pretentious to put this down since I’m really not smart enough to understand half of what he writes but what I do makes me both think and laugh. I love his take on being a writer, and being from the midwest, and wanting to isolate. He makes me feel less lonely, both when I’m working or simply out having a day in the world. I’ve read several biographies on him, parts of Infinite Jest, and am now starting Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again simultaneously.
Visit Ashley Prentice Norton's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is an award-winning journalist and author, whose fiction has appeared, among other places, in The Saint Ann's Review.

The newly released The Killer in Me is her first novel.

Recently I asked Harrison about what she was reading. Her reply:
As usual, I’m enjoying reading across categories. To start with, there’s Of Fire and Stars, by Audrey Coulthurst, one of many debut young adult novels that I’ve read in ARC form this year. It’s an epic fantasy with magic, elaborate world building, politics, and a twist that distinguishes it from other YA fantasies I’ve read: The central romance is between two young women.

Not only is this a textured, compelling fantasy, but it serves as proof that LGBT characters in YA are no longer limited to being the protagonist’s best friend or taking center stage in “issue” books. Coulthurst has created a world where same-sex attraction itself isn’t controversial; the story’s conflict stems from the fact that one lover has been destined for an arranged marriage with the other’s brother. The characters are well drawn, and their star-crossed coming together is sweet indeed. Oh, and did I mention they’re both princesses? My guess is, anyone who hoped to see a gay Elsa in Frozen follow-ups is going to want this book.

At the same time, but more sporadically, I’m reading Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human by journalist Joel Garreau. This work of futurism was published in 2005; it covers then-cutting-edge research into enhancing the human body, along with concepts like transhumanism and the Singularity.

I bought the book when it was new, but somehow didn’t open it until recently, when I started researching neural implants for a novel in progress. Eleven years from publication, it’s an odd read indeed.

Viewed with hindsight, Garreau’s predictions for the near future seem to have a breathless, hyperbolic quality. The prologue sketches a scenario “a decade and a half from today” (that’s 2020) in which well-heeled college undergrads sport enhancements such as “photographic memories and total recall,” “remarkably ripped” bodies, a form of “silent messaging” that “almost seems like telepathy,” and vaccinations against pain. “They have this odd habit of cocking their head,” writes Garreau, when they’re about to receive a neural download of information—which sure sounds more convenient than checking Wikipedia.

Here we are in 2016, and that scenario still sounds like science fiction. Except perhaps for “silent messaging,” which is definitely a thing, if not entirely silent.

Still, reading the book makes me realize just how much things have changed since Garreau made his predictions at the dawn of the iPhone era. Today’s young people don’t have an “odd habit” of cocking their heads—instead, they hunch over handheld devices. Even my older friends ignore curbs and crosswalks in their pursuit of Pok√©mon. They’re embedded in virtual reality, just as Garreau foresaw, even if he was a little off about the means.

We may not have superpowers yet (as Garreau suggests we should). But we are yoked to clever machines in ways we weren’t just recently, and that’s a fascinating and slightly scary revelation—one that I hope will fuel my own new book.
Visit Margot Harrison's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Killer in Me.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

S. A. Bodeen

S.A. Bodeen grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. She graduated from UW-River Falls with a degree in Secondary Ed., then joined the Peace Corps with her husband and went to Tanzania, East Africa. Her first picture book, Elizabeti's Doll (written as Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen) was published in 1998, followed by six other picture books. Her first YA novel written as S.A. Bodeen, the award-winning The Compound, came out from Feiwel and Friends in 2008. Bodeen's new novel, her eighth, is Trapped.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
A recent book I loved was A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl. I picked it up at the library and the jacket copy was enough to make me check it out:
Valerie Torrey took her son, Alex, and fled Los Angeles six years ago—leaving both her role on a cult sci-fi TV show and her costar husband after a tragedy blew their small family apart. Now Val must reunite nine-year-old Alex with his estranged father, so they set out on a road trip from New York, Val making appearances at comic book conventions along the way.
I mean come on, cult sci-fi show? Comic cons? What’s not to love? As it turned out, there was so much more to love about the book. Valerie’s story intersected with others in the industry, including a writer and a comic book artist, all trying to answer their own questions about their lives and professions, amidst the backdrop of conventions rife with insider politics. The story is told not only through the eyes of Val and Alex, but also the others, and although Val is closed off because of a slowly revealed tragedy in her past with Alex’s father, who happened to be her co-star, her eyes open to the possibility of letting others in to her and Alex’s life. I loved the backstory of the publishing world, as well as how quickly I came to care for the main characters. Definitely a great read.
Visit S.A. Bodeen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 25, 2016

Catherine Banner

Catherine Banner was born in Cambridge, UK, in 1989 and began writing at the age of fourteen. She studied English at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, before moving to County Durham where she worked as a secondary school teacher. She has published a trilogy of young adult novels, The Last Descendants.

Banner's debut adult novel is The House at the Edge of Night.
Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
At the moment I’m reading several books which have just come out, or are about to. I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, and Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. All of them are women writers who are breaking new ground in different ways – telling stories which have not yet been told, and deserve to be.

I just finished two poetry books, too: When They Broke Down the Door by Fatemeh Shams and On Jupiter Place by Nicholas Christopher, both of which reminded me that I need to read more poetry.

As an ongoing project I am also reading War and Peace, in sections, whenever I have a long journey and can spend two or three hours immersed in the story. I love the way writers like Tolstoy, the great 19th-century realists, were able to allow all kinds of characters to inhabit the space of their novel without judgement or prejudice, to create a narrator’s voice which was so expansive and assured that it could weave effortlessly between the tragic and the comic, between light and shade.

And finally, I’m rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude, a direct influence on my own work and a joy as a reader. I love it, but every time I return to it it’s stranger than I remember.
Visit Catherine Banner's website.

The Page 69 Test: The House at the Edge of Night.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where she spent most of her time putting on shows in her parents’ garage, studying TV Guide, devouring Sweet Valley High books, and memorizing every note of every George Michael song. This finally came in handy when she got a job at Entertainment Weekly, where she worked for a decade. She’s now the TV columnist for BBC Culture and also writes for several other publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York‘s Vulture, The Verge, and Dame. She’s the author of the New York Times bestseller Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing that Changed Everything and a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. She now lives in Manhattan.

Recently I asked Armstrong about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m currently reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s long been on my reading list, but I’m sure on some level I’ve been putting it off for years. I didn’t need to be convinced that it’s great. I’ve taught excerpts from it in my creative writing classes, and the writing is beautiful. But my dad is a Vietnam veteran, and part of me always resists anything that documents his experience in a real way. I knew that reading the whole book would put me right in it.

Strangely, I find myself reading this amid the turmoil of releasing a book. A book about a TV show, called Seinfeldia. A “book about nothing,” as many people, including my dad, have joked. They are joking, of course, mostly. They respect what I do, even if what I do is write about TV shows. Still, it feels a lot like nothing up against the real-ish story of a Vietnam veteran’s experience at war. I like that. It’s grounding. It reminds me that I’m not saving lives here. I’m not taking lives here. Maybe I’ll make a life a little more fun for a while. That’s something, but not everything.

Everyone told me how fantastic The Things They Carried is. I believed them, but I wasn’t prepared for the meta-narrative. The book is labeled as a novel, and it’s about the experiences of a soldier in Vietnam … named Tim O’Brien. As the book progresses, he convinces you that it’s definitely about his real experience. Definitely, mostly, sort-of. He writes entire chapters about the unreliability of war narratives. He hits you with a story about a soldier not named Tim O’Brien and his regret over not being able to save a friend’s life; then, in the next chapter, he explains that he combined his friend’s story with his own. He was the one who couldn’t save that friend’s life. He just wasn’t ready to tell it that way yet.

Seinfeld actually played in this territory, too. Almost every episode was based on some little frustration of daily life experienced by one of the writers. An entire season-long arc told the story of Seinfeld’s real-life conception as the characters Jerry and George pitch their own sitcom. The sitcom-within-a-sitcom, however, fails. Seinfeld very much did not.

It turns out that in the end, storytelling is storytelling, and all storytellers are obsessed with storytelling. You could tell real stories about war, or fictionalized stories about a war you experienced. You could tell silly stories about everyday life, making them funnier and crazier and somehow in the process validating Seinfeld viewers’ own experiences with everyday life.

Life is Seinfeld. Life is The Things They Carried. It’s all kind-of nuts when you realize that.
Visit Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's website.

My Book, The Movie: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Seinfeldia.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 22, 2016

Shawna Yang Ryan

Shawna Yang Ryan is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of Water Ghosts and Green Island. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her short fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Asian American Literary Review, Kartika Review, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. She is the 2015 recipient of the Elliot Cades Emerging Writer award.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Ryan's reply:
I just finished Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, an Indonesian novel beautifully translated by Annie Tucker.

The prostitute Dewi Ayu, who has been dead for twenty-one years, rises from her grave and discovers that her horrifically ugly youngest daughter, Beauty, is pregnant by what appears to be a ghost. From there, the reader is pulled along on an adventure that stretches back to Dutch colonialism, through the experience of forced sex workers during World War II, to independence and coups and massacres. Akin to One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book introduces a huge cast of characters and becomes a history of all their lives and of their town, Halimunda. Four hundred and sixty pages later, Kurniawan has finally given us enough context to understand who impregnated Beauty. In the meantime, the story moves back and forth and sideways in time in a way I rarely see in contemporary novels.

I’ve been watching Game of Thrones at the same time. I began with the very first episode and have (confession!) covered nearly the entire series in the last three weeks. I’ve been struck by the violence in both this book and that show. Both are somewhat blithe about all manner of depravity, so I’ve been considering that age-old debate about whether there is a gender difference in writing. I don’t mean some inherent biological difference, but a socially created one. Would a woman so casually have her female characters raped, with little to no consequences for the men? In both, some of the women come to love their rapists and it’s seen as a beautiful thing, as a kind of taming of the woman. Could only a male write that kind of story? Encountering these two works at the same time has been thought-provoking for me. I have many questions, but no answers yet.
Visitt Shawna Yang Ryan's website.

The Page 69 Test: Water Ghosts.

The Page 69 Test: Green Island.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger writes steampunk comedies of manners mixed with urban fantasy. Her books include the Parasol Protectorate and Custard Protocol series for adults, and the Finishing School series for young adults. She is published in 18 different languages and has 13 New York Times bestsellers via 7 different lists (including #1 in Manga). She was once an archaeologist and is overly fond of shoes, octopuses, and tea. The new novel in the Custard Protocol series is Imprudence.

Recently I asked Carriger about what she was reading. Her reply:
Lately I've been rereading some of my favorite Space Opera. I go through phases sometimes where I just want to escape anything to do with what I write (steampunk, comedy of manners, historical). I yearn to read something completely different and space opera always seems to satisfy.

I just completed my third go round of The Paradox Series by Rachel Bach. Devi is a badass mercenary with a core set of moral values who generally bumbles along killing things until she kind-of accidentally-on-purpose saves everyone. Why I love it? I get to watch this amazing author build a universe destroying problem in which everyone is trying to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and every bad guy may actually be a good guy in the end. Bach is the story-crafting mistress of us all!

Then I reread Local Custom by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (for the millionth time). This is a deeply romantic, fraught tale of a galactic trader bound by duty and the academic who loves him yet understands him all too well. Epic culture clashing, soul bonding, and a matriarch who would keep them apart. Spine tingling stuff. This book just always makes me happy.
Visit Gail Carriger's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

John Gregory Brown

Born and raised in New Orleans, John Gregory Brown is the author of the novels Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery; The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur; and Audubon’s Watch. His new novel is A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Brown's reply:
I spent the last nine months teaching at the prep school Deerfield Academy, most famous in literary circles for distinguished alumnus John McPhee’s The Headmaster, a wonderful biography of Frank L. Boyden, the tiny man and towering presence who helmed the school from 1902 to 1968. Although I’d spent more than two decades in academia at the college level, this was my first experience as a high school teacher, a responsibility that seemed weighty indeed: What works would I choose for my juniors in their one year of American Lit? I was tormented by having to leave so many great authors off the syllabus, by all the great works these young men and women might never encounter on their own. We dipped into Whitman and Dickinson, of course; we compared August Wilson’s Fences to Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman; we gave Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby its full due. We tackled stories by Alice Munro and Amy Hempel, by Raymond Carver and Ron Rash. But the five works I truly loved teaching – and that the students thus loved back – were these:

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

For better or worse, young people these days know their way around despair. They know well how it crouches in the shadows of lives that appear to be fulfilling. And they’ve got a clear notion of what it might mean to find oneself constrained by circumstances one apparently chose of one’s own volition. Thus they see Edna Pontellier’s crisis as a familiar one, arising not just out of a society that narrowly defines who women should be but also out of a psyche that finds peace and quiet elusive, always just out of reach.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

Reading The Moviegoer right after The Awakening tips you off that you shouldn’t fall for that friendly, conspiratorial wise-ass voice Binx Bolling adopts in his narration. He’s just as lost as Edna, just as beset by malaise and desire and a sickness in the soul, and my students scrambled for revelation in the novel’s denouement, when Binx announces that his search is done – or perhaps isn’t – and he sets his life on a different course.

Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City

I remain astonished by this debut collection of stories, published more than twenty years ago but so very poignant and compelling, offering a window into ordinary (and extraordinary) African American lives in Washington, D.C., a book that delivers what all great literature delivers – an unswerving path toward empathy no matter how unlike one’s own life might be from those recounted on the page.

Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter

Although the Harry Potter generation has encountered myriad forms of magic, a literary fabulist like Millhauser is still a revelation to them. In story after story he makes the world stranger and stranger and stranger until, well, it all becomes so very familiar and heartbreaking and real, a magic trick whose mechanical workings my students and I had a wonderful time trying to decipher.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Graphic novels and memoirs usually make me feel like an old man, as if the world of literature has headed off to explore regions I never knew even existed on the map, but Bechdel’s work is just so very smart and compelling, filled with delightful literary allusions and subtle narrative tricks and a heart so very large that it made my students and I absolutely giddy. They were not so giddy when I insisted that they look up every one of the memoir’s literary illusions – from Daedalus and Icarus to Proust and Camus – but they wound up persuaded that doing so did indeed enrich their understanding, a song made more beautiful by other voices singing in harmony.
Visit John Gregory Brown's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ruth Downie

Ruth Downie is the author of a series of mysteries featuring Roman Army medic and reluctant sleuth, Gaius Petreius Ruso: Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, Tabula Rasa, and the newly released Vita Brevis.

Recently I asked Downie about what she was reading. Her reply:
The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District – James Rebanks

This is a fabulous book on so many levels: a family history, a fascinating chronicle of a way of life that’s barely changed for centuries, and a howl of frustration at the lack of understanding between the education system and its rural consumers. It’s also a demonstration of the value of books. “We needed books by us and about us,” says Rebanks, and in writing this one he’s ensured that the ‘invisible’ shapers of England’s beautiful Lake District are invisible no longer.

Murder in Absentia – Assaph Mehr

Mehr’s imagined world based on ancient Rome feels at once familiar and dreamlike. In Egretia, magic is real and potentially deadly. While rival incantatores have been banned from calling up competing winds to speed ferries across the bay – they’ve drowned too many innocent sailors – the powers of magic appear to have fallen into malevolent hands. Failed incantator Felix the Fox is investigating a mysterious death in a growing atmosphere of menace. I can’t help thinking the idea of Death by Magic might be closer to the mindset of some of the ancient world than our modern rationality. And speaking of magic…

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear – Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m writing this in the week before Vita Brevis is published, and it’s good to calm the rising nerves with a cool dose of reality. “In conclusion,” Gilbert says, speaking of her book The Signature of All Things, “a whole bunch of people had some opinions about my novel for a short while, and then everyone moved on, because people are busy and they have their own lives to think about.”
Visit Ruth Downie's website.

The Page 69 Test: Caveat Emptor.

The Page 69 Test: Tabula Rasa.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Catherine Egan

Catherine Egan grew up in Vancouver, Canada – a beautiful city nobody in her right mind would ever leave, but leave she did, and you may draw the obvious conclusions about her mind. Since then, she has lived on a wee volcanic island in Japan (which erupted during her time there and sent her hurtling straight into the arms of her now-husband), Tokyo, Kyoto, Beijing, an oil rig in the middle of China’s Bohai Bay, New Jersey, and now Connecticut, where she writes books and defends the Eastern seaboard from invading dragon hordes alongside her intrepid warrior-children.

Egan's new novel is Julia Vanishes.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I bought Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, because I loved her novel Boy, Snow, Bird. Sometimes short story writers stumble writing novels, and not all novelists can write short stories, but Helen Oyeyemi can do both. I think she can probably do everything. There is no weak link in this collection, which makes equally deft use of odd fairytale settings, modern England, elements of sci fi, magic realism and straight up contemporary realism. Each story left me unsatisfied, but in a stunned and wide awake kind of way. She is the sort of writer that shakes you up and makes everything look different for a long time after you’ve finished the book. The book feels like a puzzle: characters recur from one story to another and the stories all feature locks and keys in one way or another. As soon as I finished, I wanted to reread it, feeling sure that one story contained the key to unlocking another. The standout story was about a group of young puppeteers and their puppets, called "Is Your Blood As Red As This?" To me, at least, it seemed to be saying something very profound about the creative life, but none of these stories really lets you put your finger on their deepest undercurrents. The sense of disequilibrium her work gives me, though, doesn’t mean that her writing is “difficult.” The book is a page-turner, her characters are vividly alive and she is funny, too. I read about half the book sprawled on the sofa late at night, forgetting my drink until all the ice had melted, and the other half at the frog pond, while my children got themselves thoroughly wet and muddy and failed to catch a frog.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours was a hard book to follow, but I went with Fran Wilde’s Updraft. I wanted to read it because I loved so many of the YA nebula nominees this year and was of course curious about the book that had beaten out some of my own favorites. Updraft features one of the most inventive fantasy worlds I’ve ever read, about a civilization of people that fly on artfully constructed wings, living in ever-growing bone towers that have grown far above the clouds, all of it controlled by the Spire and the Singers who make the laws and traditions but have terrible secrets of their own. It’s a gripping adventure story and I loved the main character, her ambition, her adaptability, and her loyalty, but it is really the incredibly ambitious, flawless world-building that makes this book stand out above other SFF novels. I am also a big fan of monsters, and the skymouths in this book are my favorite new fictional monsters. I read much of the book poolside, ignoring friends who came to chat (thanks for understanding, friends) and finished it on a very windy day at the beach.
Visit Catherine Egan's website.

The Page 69 Test: Julia Vanishes.

--Marshal Zeringue