Saturday, November 29, 2014

Stephen Policoff

Stephen Policoff has taught writing at Wesleyan and Yale and is currently Master Teacher of Writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU. His books include the novel Beautiful Somewhere Else, the memoir Sixteen Scenes from a Film I Never Wanted to See, two YA books, The Dreamer’s Companion and Real Toads in Imaginary Gardens (co-authored with Jeffrey Skinner), and the children’s book Cesar’s Amazing Journey.

His new novel is Come Away.

Earlier this month I asked Policoff about what he was reading. The author's reply:
Actually, right now, I am mostly re-reading. I have to put together a syllabus for a creative writing class I am teaching in the spring in Global Liberal Studies at NYU, so I am looking over some books I have taught previously to decide if I still plan to teach them or not. I re-read and loved Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, her best book, I think, and a wonderful, unusual, coming-of-age story, full of vivid details of childhood in Antigua, and sharply held-back emotions.

I have also recently re-read The Bride Groom by Ha Jin (strange short stories, quite different from most contemporary short fiction), Angela Carter’s wonderful collection of revisionist fairytales, The Bloody Chamber, and Denis Johnson’s enigmatic novella The Name of the World, with its enticing blend of melancholy and sex. I try to find work that can be construed as “global” (this is part of the mandate of my program), work which my students are unlikely to have read, work which does something a little different with voice and narrative point-of-view.

I have also been reading Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel. I am not a huge fan of graphic novels but this one is funny and weird and rather dream-like, and that is definitely my cup of tea.
Visit Stephen Policoff's faculty webpage and Facebook page, and learn more about Come Away.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 27, 2014

David M. Carr

David M. Carr is professor of Old Testament at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a leading specialist on how the Bible was formed.

His new book is Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Carr's reply:
In my spare time I read mostly fiction, since it provides an angle on truth and writing that I miss in the mass of research reading that I do. I just finished reading (actually listening to) Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (as read by Juliet Stevenson). I listened to it twice, ever more impressed with the poetic language of the novel, Woolf’s exquisite depictions of the interior lives of her intersecting characters, and the fluid way she moved between the inner worlds of the different characters moving through the day. In one sense, the novel covers very little ground, the happenings of a single day. But in another sense the novel seems to say that the most important stories, for several of the main characters, had happened long ago. The novel traces the reverberations of these earlier stories--of love, rejection, and even wartime trauma--on the current lives of each character making their way through the one day in June. It impressed on me the maelstrom of stories and conflicting interior worlds that swirl around me all the time as I make my own way through each day.

Before Mrs. Dalloway I worked my way through Tolstoy’s War and Peace (in the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude). I was impressed with the naturalistic way Tolstoy depicted the mundane aspects of war. Tolstoy’s “war” sections in the novel don't fit the typical mythology that has dominated most writing about war that I have read. He just seemed to be describing everyday events in these war sections of the novel, except that certain human beings were trying to kill each other. And this was heightened by Tolstoy’s juxtaposition of these war scenes with “peace” scenes in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which were also described in incredible, naturalistic detail. What I find so powerful about this period of Tolstoy’s writing (also for Anna Karenina), is the spectacular detail with which he could render different characters, their aspirations and foibles, often without a moralistic tinge.

I also read more contemporary novels, but the consistent thread is that I seek out writing by authors who can evoke the lives and feelings of ordinary people with insight, compassion, and grace. The drama, for me, comes in being taken by a master author inside the world of a person living a very different life from my own.
Learn more about David Carr's Holy Resilience at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Holy Resilience.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is Professor of History and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University.

He has written a wide range of books, including the newly released Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture and the edited collection, "If Only We Had Died in Egypt!" What Ifs of Jewish History From Abraham to Zionism. Rosenfeld is also the author of Building after Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust, The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism, Munich and Memory: Architecture, Monuments and the Legacy of the Third Reich, and the co-edited work, Beyond Berlin: Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past.

Recently I asked Rosenfeld about what he was reading. His reply:
The historical legacy of the Nazi era continues to fascinate me and I have begun work on a new book about the history of the Fourth Reich. As part of this project, I recently finished reading a (by now, surely forgotten) novel from 1944, Erwin Lessner’s Phantom Victory: A Fictional History of the Fourth Reich, 1945-1960. This future history (or to be technical, retroactive alternate history) was written by an Austrian World War I veteran and emigré to the United States and features a nightmare scenario in which the United States neglects to follow up its military victory over the Nazis with a hard peace and thereby enables the Nazis to return to power and establish a Fourth Reich. The plot and characters are reasonably engaging (the founder of the Fourth Reich is a charismatic peasant named Friedolin who leads the Germans back to power via feigned penance for their crimes), but the book is mostly of interest for articulating the fears of many Americans in the mid-1940s that their government would repeat the mistakes of 1918 and set the stage for yet another world war.

On a related note, I recently finished a very different future history, Howard Jacobson’s new novel, J. There are numerous connections between this novel and Lessner’s, the most important being its expression of contemporary fears relating to larger political trends. In Jacobson’s case, it is the upsurge in European antisemitism, particularly in Great Britain. Jacobson explored this topic in his recent novel, The Finkler Question, but J deals with the subject in a much more dystopian way: by imagining a future Britain in which the J--- (the word is never printed in the novel) have somehow been expunged from British life root and branch. The novel is engrossing and asks readers to toggle back and forth between the real history of 20th century antisemitism (mostly in Germany) and an imaginary future world, in which contemporary events (mostly in the Middle East) have led Jew-hatred to boil over. Jacobson’s depiction of how this event shapes British life generations later and how Britons ultimately realize they need the J--- in their lives for dialectical reasons is provocative and deeply unsettling.
Visit Gavriel D. Rosenfeld's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ann Purser

Ann Purser's latest Lois Meade mystery is Suspicion at Seven.

Last week I asked the author about what she was reading. Purser's reply:
I belong to a book club - around twelve of us turn up in the Reading Room (truly a small building erected about a hundred years ago in our tiny village, in an effort to educate the poor and neglected members of the parish}. We meet once a month, and this is about right for me to read one book a month. This month we have Fludd, by Hilary Mantel, a deliciously creepy read. Into churchy matters - dark corners of the mind - comes Fludd, a strange character who comes and goes at will, sometimes without apparently taking steps to appear or disappear. Frustrated women, corrupt clergy, all described with an accurate pen. And a plot that keeps the reader`s interest until the end - and then for longer!

In spite of writing crime novels, I love to read them, and my favourite, Michael Gilbert, is no longer with us, but can still be found on dusty library shelves.
Visit Ann Purser's website.

The Page 69 Test: Found Guilty at Five.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 21, 2014

Jen Nadol

Jen Nadol grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania and graduated from American University with a BA in literature. She's lived in Washington DC, Boston, NYC and now, an old farmhouse north of the city with her husband and three sons. When she's not writing, she's probably tending to the farmhouse or the sons, reading, cooking, skiing, or sleeping.

Her new book is This Is How It Ends.

Recently I asked Nadol about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m reading two middle grade books right now, unusual in that I rarely read MG or more than one book at a time.

The first is Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord which I bought several months ago, thinking my ten year old might like it. He hadn’t picked it up so I started reading it aloud to my two younger sons who are riveted by the story of a group of homeless children living in an abandoned movie theater in Venice. We’re about halfway through and I think the story is about to take a turn for the speculative with the item the children are going to steal. It’s a wonderful book to read aloud because the writing is so graceful and the author has really taken time to paint vividly both the characters and the cold, damp atmosphere of Venice as winter approaches.

The other book is Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Found, the first book in The Missing series. I picked it up at my sons’ school when I found myself waiting there one day without a book to read. The librarian had told me about the series and the premise was intriguing: a plane full of babies mysteriously appears at an airport. Thirteen years later, adopted children start getting anonymous notes that they are “the missing”. I’m almost finished with this one and it really is a fabulous idea, with a fast-paced plot.

Both are successful, engaging stories, but in very different ways. My ten year old has now finished and enjoyed both books, but preferred the action-packed storyline of Found while I really love the depth of description and development of setting and character in The Thief Lord. I lean toward the latter in my own writing and would love to strengthen the former. So, as a writer, it’s been interesting and instructive to read these books side-by-side and make note of each author’s choices and how the different audiences - my son (the intended audience) and I (an adult reader) - respond to them.
Visit Jen Nadol's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Todd Moss

Todd Moss, formerly the top American diplomat in West Africa, draws on his real-world experiences inside the U.S. Government to bring to life the exhilaration—and frustrations—of modern-day foreign policymaking. His new novel, The Golden Hour, was originally inspired by the August 2008 coup d’état in Mauritania when Todd was dispatched by Secretary Condoleezza Rice to negotiate with the junta leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Moss is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and has taught at the London School of Economics (LSE) and at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He holds a PhD from SOAS and a BA from Tufts University. Moss is currently Senior Fellow and Chief Operating Officer at the Center for Global Development, a think-tank in Washington DC.

Recently I asked Moss about what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished The Director by David Ignatius, the longtime columnist for the Washington Post. I love David’s books because they are always complex international thrillers about the US intelligence community which draw on extraordinary insider information. In his latest, a new CIA director learns the Agency’s computers have been hacked. Cybersecurity can be hard to make compelling in print, and this wasn’t my favorite of his (that goes to his 1994 The Bank of Fear), but I always find David’s writing intriguing.
Visit Todd Moss' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gail Carriger

New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger writes comedic steampunk mixed with urbane fantasy. Her debut novel, Soulless, won the ALA's Alex Award. The following books were all bestsellers. She was once an archaeologist and is currently writing her YA Finishing School series. She is overly fond of tea.

Carriger's latest novel is Waistcoats & Weaponry, the third book in the Finishing School series.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Lately I have been reading His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers. I just finished both Grave Mercy & Dark Triumph, because the final volume, Mortal Heart, is out this month.

The series premise got me initially: three girls from different backgrounds are deemed daughters of death and taken in to a mysterious convent where they are trained as assassins, called death's handmaidens. Each is then sent from the convent into the politics of late 1400s Brittany, and given her own book to detail her journey.

The first book, Grave Mercy, is about Ismae, an abused peasant girl, for whom the convent is salvation and her devotion to her god, Death, a redemption and a means to self actualization. Her journey is one of faith ~ learning to define faith for herself, to find faith in others, and to have faith in her own abilities and in love.

LaFevers's writing is rich with historical color, strong female voice, and complex politics. I gravitate towards books that showcase close accepting friendship between women and good romance threads. So far this series has hit all these points.

I'm very much looking forward to taking the third and final volume on tour with me this month.
Visit Gail Carriger's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Waistcoats & Weaponry.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 15, 2014

John Lawton

John Lawton has written seven Inspector Troy thrillers, two standalone novels, and a volume of history, and has edited several English writers (Wells, Conrad, D. H. Lawrence) for Everyman Classics. His thriller Black Out won a WH Smith Fresh Talent Award, A Little White Death was named a New York Times notable book, and his latest Troy novel A Lily of the Field was named one of the best thrillers of the year by the New York Times. His recent novels include Then We Take Berlin, the first book to feature Joe Wilderness, and the newly released Sweet Sunday.

Recently I asked Lawton about what he was reading. The author's reply:
I’ve just finished The Bone Clocks by the English novelist David Mitchell. It can be tough going in places, but all his work is worth the effort. Like Cloud Atlas this one defies categorisation and shows a similar ability to create different, convincing narrators within a single book. I don’t think he’s won a major Lit prize yet, and didn’t make the Booker short list with The Bone Clocks.

The day will come.

I’m just into John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Been a while since I last read a Lahr biography (I think it was his life of Joe Orton) but he is without equal at what he does. Lahr is an American, but I think has been a long time UK resident. He is the son of the Cowardly Lion, Bert Lahr.

TW probably kick-started me on grown-up reading when I was about thirteen. When I was twenty I suggested I might write my MA thesis on TW and got the reply. “Do we pull the wings off butterflies?”

I scoured the BBC’s archive to find the sound of his voice. There he is in 1978, crazy about the Beatles, soppy about 'Danny Boy', that wonderfully louche voice concealing a multitude of sins the interviewer is too uptight to mention. I never met him. Pity. I worked with Gore Vidal, who knew Tennessee well and was most certainly not too uptight to ask the questions, and he told me outrageous stories about him. Knew all the sins of the flesh. 'Nuff said.
Visit John Lawton's website.

The Page 69 Test: Then We Take Berlin.

Writers Read: John Lawton (October 2013).

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sean Williams

Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of several novels for adults as well as the coauthor of the middle grade series Troubletwisters with Garth Nix. As a resident of South Australia—which he reports is a lovely place a long way away from the rest of the world—Williams has often dreamed of stepping into a booth and being somewhere else, instantly. This has led to a fascination with the social, psychological, and moral implications of such technology. When not pondering such weighty matters, he can generally be found eating chocolate (actually, he eats chocolate when pondering these matters, too).

Williams's newest book is Crashland, the sequel to Twinmaker.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I’m strongly influenced by the novels I read, so tailoring my reading for the project I’m working on is really important. Nothing derails my new kids’ book faster than picking up the new Jack Reacher novel, say, or a horror novel. I therefore try to choose books that will make me write in the right mode, and also make me write better. I’m not copying; I’m just seeking to be inspired.

The book I finished writing just this week is a young adult novel, the third in the Twinmaker series and sequel to Crashland. My reading reflects that, although it’s not always obvious how. Exo by Steven Gould is a no-brainer: it’s about teleporting, after all, which is the central trope of Twinmaker. I’m also a big fan of the Jumper series, of which this is the latest entry. I enjoyed it a lot. Books that remind me why it would be awesome to go into space are always welcome in this house.

Two others I finished recently are Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James and Clariel by Garth Nix. Garth and I have been friends for a long time, and Rebecca and I met earlier this year. There’s something special about reading a book by a friend, particularly when you know going in that it’s a book that everyone loves. On those moments when I wasn’t swept up in the stories (brief and rare moment, I should say) I basked pleasantly in the glow of their excellence. There are few things better than watching a friend succeed. And these two encourage me to write better characters.

But of course that new book is done now, so it’s time for a palate cleanser. What could be better than Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle? None other than Peter S Beagle reckons it’s the best comic strip since Calvin and Hobbes, and although I’m not sure I agree I did enjoy it very much.

It’s time to move on to something new. Garth and I are working on a new middle-grade series, one that will require me to brush up on my medieval knowledge. I can see a run of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Tamora Pierce in the very near future...
Visit Sean Williams' website.

The Page 69 Test: Crashland.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Kaya McLaren

Kaya McLaren is the author of Church of the Dog, On the Divinity of Second Chances, How I Came to Sparkle Again, and most recently, The Firelight Girls.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. McLaren's reply:
Mexico has been calling me for a couple years and in mid-October, I answered the call. I packed my things, loaded what I could not live without into my Xterra, and spent six days driving south from Washington State all the way down to Todos Santos, which is near the tip of the Baja Peninsula on the Pacific Side. Last year when Mexico called, I picked up the phone and sort of put her on hold. I came down for a glorious week and a half, most of which was spent sea kayaking the Isla Espiritu Santo in the Sea of Cortez near La Paz and it was there that I began reading Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros. Cisneros has long been one of my all-time favorite writers, so I felt like a game show winner when I found this giant hardcover at a used bookstore in Bandon, Oregon the previous summer. I’d been saving it for this trip, knowing the words would taste even better in Mexico, and they did. So delicious was reading the beginning of this book here, that I stopped where I was when the vacation was over and saved the rest of the book all year until my return. I have only just now picked it back up. Cisneros’ voice is second to none. It’s bold, authentic, honest, innocent at times and very witty at other times.

I’m one of those people who like to read a few different kinds of books at the same time—fiction to suit both my creative mind and non-fiction my analytical mind, and sometimes a memoir to entertain both minds at the same time. At the moment, I’m reading The View From Casa Chepitos, by Judith Gille, who, like me, is also from the Pacific Northwest and finds herself called to Mexico. Her memoir chronicles buying a lovely old house in a questionable neighborhood on an impulse and describes the friendships she and her family develop with their Mexican neighbors. Being a recent transplant, I have a lot of questions about cultural differences and where I fit into it all, and somehow Gille’s memoir provides me with a little more understanding.

Finally, purely for my analytical mind, I’m reading The Guide to Baja Sea Kayaking by Dave Eckhardt. While I don’t recall the exact price of this book, I do recall that I had to sell a kidney to get it, but now that I have it in my hands, I understand why. Each page has satellite photos with different beaches and notes on those beaches detailed to help kayakers pick the heavenly ones and avoid the ones with unsafe swells or unfriendly people. Despite the fact that it might appear to be a dry guidebook, Eckhardt’s writing is personable and fun to read. I loved my taste of kayaking in the Sea of Cortez last winter, and with Eckhardt’s help, I hope to explore the islands near Loreto in the upcoming year. Perhaps I’ll even get up to Magdelena Bay, which is also covered in his book, and meet some friendly gray whales. I did see the first whales of the year pass by offshore the day before yesterday. They’re on the way. Wherever I get to this year, there’s no question this is a book I will use for the rest of my life.
Visit Kaya McLaren's website.

--Marshal Zeringue