Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Robert Leleux

Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy.

After Kathi Appelt praised his book here on the blog earlier this month, I got in touch and asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Right now, I'm racing through the last chapter of Zoe Heller's marvelous new book, The Believers. It's a novel of ideas, centering around a lefty family in Greenwich Village, whose belief systems and presumptions are set into a tailspin during the first, lousy years of this century. Really entertaining, really smart and thoughtful. Of course, I adore Zoe Heller--who seems such an interesting person. Her father was a famous screenwriter, who wrote Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and others. She was, for many years, considered a lightweight writer by the British press, before coming out with... What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal which I just read last week, and LOVED. Oh, my. What a marvelous, satisfying novel. I don't care if you've seen the movie, or not, you MUST read this. The awful fate of the thoughtless Bathsheba is absolutely delicious and haunting. What a morality tale! And not in the least pedantic, or heavy-handed. Just perfect and wicked.

Then, I'm also working on an article about the late, genius playwright Horton Foote, who comes from the same part of Texas I do. I've been rereading a lot of his plays, including the completely terrific Dividing the Estate, which just had a revival on Broadway with the divine Elizabeth Ashley. Dividing the Estate is THE play that talks about what's happening in America right now. Prescient and wise, and very very FUNNY.

ALSO, speaking of funny, I just finished Charlotte Mosley's The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. And oh, how I loved that book. Such a brilliant idea, to collect the correspondence of an entire family, over fifty years, into one book. Charlotte Mosley is a genius, first-rate editor, and this collection is so moving, and surprising. So filled with the twentieth century; in the best and worst possible ways. Completely enlightening and touching.

Oh, oh, I also just finished Simone de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death, a very short, very moving book about the final weeks of her mother's life. Filled with remarkable writing and ideas.

AND, I'm looking forward to reading Rebecca Miller's new novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Do you know Rebecca Miller? She wrote a really top class collection of short stories several years ago called Personal Velocity, and has now come out with her first novel. She's the daughter of Arthur Miller and Inge Morath, and is married to Daniel Day-Lewis. Poor thing! But she's also a terrific talent, and very interesting. So, I'm looking forward to the next few days. It's so pitiful, but I'm always a bit uneasy when I don't have some terrific new book to look forward to--I never want to be out here by myself, if you know what I mean!
Read an excerpt from The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and visit Robert Leleux's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nicholas Syrett

Nicholas L. Syrett is an assistant professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and author of the newly released The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Let me say, first off, that I’m flattered to be asked what I’m reading in such a forum, in part because I think of myself most of the time as a historian and professor and not so much as a writer, so it’s nice to be included in the ranks of the writers. More than any of the three, however – and for a much longer time – I have been a reader, and I love to talk about books.

A good friend of mine, the writer Malena Watrous – whose first novel, If You Follow Me, comes out next winter, and who would love to answer the very question you’ve just asked me, because we ask each other this very question every time we speak – was just filling out a questionnaire about her favorite books for the back pages of her book and posed all the same questions to me. It was daunting. Your question – what I am reading now, as opposed to what my favorite books of all time happen to be – comes with significantly less pressure. And after that long-winded introduction, let me answer it:

David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife combines a fictionalized memoir of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s infamous nineteenth wife (who herself wrote such a memoir called Wife #19) with the story of a gay teenager expelled from his polygamous Mormon off-shoot community who finds out that his mother (herself a nineteenth wife) is accused of murdering his father. I started out being more intrigued by the contemporary plot line and ended up switching my preference. Regardless, I read all 500 pages in 48 hours. It was addictive. Ebershoff is adept at moving back and forth between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries; his research on women, gender, marriage, and Mormons is great; and he writes about faith and Mormonism in ways that are sympathetic, questioning, but never condemning. I’ve already leant it two people, given it to one, and recommended it to many others.

I assigned Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and in Freedom for a class I’m teaching on the history of slavery in America and just finished it. It is the story of Shoe Boots, a Cherokee warrior, who, in the late eighteenth century, bought a slave named Doll. Shoe Boots and Doll had five children and lived together as husband and wife; Ties That Bind recounts the complicated lives that Doll and her children led in slavery and in freedom. More than that, however, it is the story of the many Afro-Cherokees born of such unions as a result of Cherokee slaveholding, their lives before and after removal to Indian Territory, and their ambiguous place in the Cherokee Nation. Starting with limited sources, Miles successfully uses what she is able to find about Shoe Boots, Doll, and their children to present a narrative that is both about them and about many others like them: micro-history at its best.

Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell), The Birthday Present. Ruth Rendell, whether publishing under her own name or as Barbara Vine, can do no wrong. Period. The Vine novels, like this one, tend to be less murder mysteries and more what publishers call “psychological thrillers.” In Vine’s case this means that the reader generally knows who the murderer is at the outset or there is no murder at all, but rather an accident, a suicide, or a long-hidden secret. Vine then takes the reader on a journey to see how her characters’ actions have led to the horror. What I love about Rendell is not just that her stories are meticulously plotted, or that her characters are perfectly detailed (and sometimes ridiculously funny), or that her observations about life and human beings are so spot-on, though all of these things are also true, but that she is brilliant at describing just how mundane, how everyday, how banal real wickedness can be. She makes evil identifiable as human in ways I rarely encounter in novels. And that’s because she is not a “mystery novelist” or a “crime novelist,” she’s just a fantastic (and remarkably prolific) novelist.

I have just begun Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. I have read her earlier work, Relations of Rescue, and her essay on miscegenation court cases and the making of race, published in the Journal of American History in 1996, is standard reading in women’s and gender (and African-American) history reading lists. This book looks at miscegenation law from the Civil War through the twentieth century and explores not just black-white marriages but also prohibitions against intermarriage between whites and Asians and Native Americans. She makes the case that miscegenation law was crucial to the establishment and maintenance of white supremacy. I like that she – with a host of others of late – have been using marriage as a lens to look at other issues, taking marriage seriously as not just the union of two people who (might) love each other, but as a tool of social control and disenfranchisement.
Read more about The Company He Keeps.

Learn more about Nicholas Syrett's teaching and scholarship at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 27, 2009

Rosie Molinary

Rosie Molinary, M.F.A., is a freelance writer, editor, author, and teacher. Her award-winning poetry and nonfiction have been published in various literary magazines and books, including The Circle, Caketrain, Snake Nation Press, Coloring Book, and Waking Up American. She writes for various magazines and web-sites including Teen Vogue, Latina, Lifetimetv.com, Health, Women’s Health, and North Carolina Signature.

Her book, Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina, was inspired by her graduate manuscript of non-fiction essays and linked poetry entitled Giving Up Beauty.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her response:
The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan is the kind of well-told memoir that breaks you open and, because of Corrigan’s gifted writing, puts you back together again. The book made me ache, because it was beautifully written, because of Corrigan’s good humor, honesty, and vulnerability, because of the awful fates that give a young mother of two stage 3 breast cancer and at the even worse fates that give that young mother’s beloved father his own grave cancer diagnosis just months after her own. It’s a book that I couldn’t read fast enough while simultaneously feeling sad that it was ending, and I have searched out Corrigan’s essays and other writings ever since finishing The Middle Place.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld is a novel loosely inspired by Laura Bush. Sittenfeld’s book is provocative and interesting. There were times when I felt like I was a voyeur into the presidency and the marriage behind a presidency.

And I am cracking open A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green by Thomas Cahill this week after hearing Cahill on NPR’s Tell Me More last week. A Saint on Death Row looks at the life and death of Dominique Green but it also looks at poverty and the way poverty—not guilt— can play a role in death sentence convictions.
Read an excerpt from Hijas Americanas, and visit Rosie Molinary's website, blog, and MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cynthia Leitich Smith's books include Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002), and two YA gothic fantasy novels, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Ellen Jensen Abbott's debut novel Watersmeet (Marshall Cavendish) is the story of an outcast on the road with a rather cranky dwarf, looking for her lost past and a better future. This is fast-paced journey to the self is gorgeously written, set in a violent and diverse fantasy world, and filled with prejudice and hope.

What girl hasn't hated how she looks? At first glance, you'd never imagine that of Terra Cooper, what with her long legs and lovely blonde hair. But a "flaw" on her face breaks that image of perfection and, worst of all, damages the way she sees herself. Author Justina Chen Headley's books are infused with heart, substance, and, with subtly, social conscience. In this latest, North of Beautiful (Little, Brown), her many starred reviews come as no surprise.

Elizabeth Scott is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, possessing great range and a willingness to lead readers into even the most heart-wrenching of stories. In Love You, Hate You, Miss You (Harper), Amy blames herself for her best friend Julia's death. To begin healing, she must discover who she is on her own and come to terms with what really happened. This spring, the talented author also offers a lighter love story, Something Maybe (Simon Pulse).
Kathi Appelt on Eternal:
I am so glad that I read this book, told in alternating voices: a teenaged vampiress and her fallen guardian angel. Romance, sorrow, longing ... lots of longing ... all lead up to a story of redemption in the darkest place imaginable, the soul. The writing here is compelling, scary, sexy, making for a read that cannot be put down.
Read an excerpt from Eternal and view the trailer.

Visit Cynthia Leitich Smith's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jan Clausen

Jan Clausen’s writing has spanned numerous genres. In the 1980’s, she focused heavily on fiction, publishing a story collection and two novels with the Crossing Press (U.S.) and The Women’s Press Ltd. (U.K.). Her memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey through Sexual Identity was issued by Houghton Mifflin in 1999. Two new poetry collections, From a Glass House (IKON) and If You Like Difficulty (Harbor Mountain Press) appeared in 2007. The recipient of writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, Clausen has published her creative work in Bloom, Fence, Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, Hanging Loose, The Kenyon Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, and many other periodicals and anthologies. Her essays, book reviews, and literary journalism appear in Boston Review, Ms., The Nation, Poets and Writers, and The Women’s Review of Books. Since 1989, Clausen has taught creative writing at Eugene Lang College, Manhattan, and in the Goddard College MFA Writing Program.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Darktown Strutters, by Wesley Brown (Cane Hill Press 1994), offers a mordant and moving vision of 19th century African-American life, straddling the horrors of slavery and post-Emancipation turmoil. Among the things I love about this book are its gritty humor, its deft embrace of several sorts of American vernacular, and its re-creation of a moment when popular theater had an umbilical connection to grassroots politics, both for good and for ill (minstrel programs featuring white performers in blackface alongside an African-American dancing genius named Jim Crow are dramatized as volatile occasions that might spark a slave rebellion or a lynching, depending on audience and mood). Wesley and I exchanged copies of our books in February, after a coffee date prompted by a short conversation we had at a benefit reading for Gazans in the wake of the latest Israeli attack.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan (Arcade Publishing 2006, translated by Howard Goldblatt). Brilliantly combining elements of traditional mythology with a satire of recent Chinese history, Mo Yan takes as his premise the idea that a “rich peasant” executed for his sins against the revolution is reincarnated as a farm animal in his old village. We then get a slow lope through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the transition to a profit-based economy in the 1990’s, told from a combination of animal and human perspectives. There’s a lot of sadness here, but little clear-cut victimization, as people work the system to make the best of some very bad bargains. The reader is invited to laugh at human folly as seen through the eyes of (successively) a donkey, an ox, a pig, and a dog; but the laughter is cut short when one reflects that the human dramas—for instance, that of a boy torn between his father’s noble refusal to join the farm collective and his own adolescent attraction to the “mainstream” of his rural society, with its tractors and perks for the collectivized—are versions of a reality experienced by millions of Chinese people over the last half century.

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag (Farrar Straus Giroux 2008, edited by David Rieff). I’m reviewing this first of three projected volumes of Sontag’s diaries and notebooks for The Women’s Review of Books. I was completely enthralled by this highly self-conscious, tantalizingly fragmentary record of the adventures of a young Jewish lesbian intellectual in mid-20th century America. Mainstream reviewers seem to have been floored by the revelation of a passionate body attached to Sontag’s celebrated mind. I read the book as a thrilling lesbian novel, strikingly devoid of any interest in “curing” a “deviant” condition such as one frequently finds in accounts of gay and lesbian experience in the period. Sontag did undertake a brief and mostly miserable marriage to Philip Rieff, the father of her only child. Editor David Rieff’s posthumous “collaboration” with his mother allows a fascinating oedipal sub-plot to be superimposed on the text by the reader who’s so inclined.

A Susan Sontag Reader (Farrar Straus Giroux 1982, Introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick). I’m skipping around in this one, collecting my thoughts for the Reborn review. Favorite bits include the essay “Against Interpretation,” a brilliant polemic against the reduction of literary texts to a single determinate “meaning,” and “The Aesthetics of Silence,” on 20th century writers’ preoccupation with the limits of articulation as a theme and structuring principle.

Big Sky/ Little Bullet by Maurice Paterson (apparently self-published 1992). This is a Grenadian journalist’s account of the political cross-currents surrounding the 1983 killing of beloved revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop and comrades by members of an opposing faction within the People’s Revolutionary Government, an event that gave the Reagan Administration the excuse it wanted to invade the country. The book is poorly copy-edited and frustratingly sourced, but its home-grown flavor and reliance on eye-witness accounts provide an eloquent complement to more distanced official histories (which, in any event, largely remain to be written). I discovered Big Sky on a shelf in NYU’s Bobst library while looking for a novel by the Grenadian poet and novelist Merle Collins, whose Angel I read and admired many years ago, particularly for its wonderful use of Grenadian vernacular and its depiction of women’s networks; Collins’s more recent The Colour of Forgetting was missing from the shelf, but I hope to read it soon.

Small Axe, Vol. 11, #1 (February 2007) issue on Grenada. After reading most of this issue on line, I’ve ordered my own copy from the distributor, Indiana University Press. It contains important articles on the situation of Grenada many years post-invasion and only a couple of years post-hurricane disaster, including “The Silence People Keeping” by David Scott (about the ambivalent, fearful response to historical trauma on the part of Grenadians who have not forgotten their grievances but feel powerless to express them safely or effectively) and a personal/political narrative of Grenada from the 1950’s to the present entitled “Tout Moun Ka Pléwé by Merle Collins (the title means “Everybody Crying”).

Paterson by William Carlos Williams (New Directions 1963). I’m in love with the humble hubris of the poet’s effort not so much to describe as to lay down language alongside the incredibly complex physical and social reality of a place. To do this, Williams fearlessly interweaves found texts, lyrical inventions, moments that invite questioning about the autobiographical content of the work, and public documents; he addresses geology and hydrology, working-class movements, popular culture, “the beautiful,” in a work that holds up a particular, loved place “like the Eleusinian hierophant holding up a single ear of grain” (Adrienne Rich).

I’m revisiting three amazing books for this semester’s writing classes. The opportunity to keep re-reading such gorgeous texts, discovering new dimensions each time, is one of the big treats of teaching:

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (Alfred A. Knopf 1998). This “novel in verse” plays gutsily with form but never gets so carried away with its own cleverness that it forgets to be deeply serious about the contemporary coming-of-age story it fashions from fragments of Greek classical poetry about a red winged “monster” named Geryon, whom the heroic Herakles supposedly killed in the course of his celebrated labors. In the updated story, Geryon and Herakles are two boys in love, “two superior eels/at the bottom of the tank [who recognize] each other like italics.” Then Herakles moves on, leaving Geryon with a broken heart and the task of fashioning an artist’s sensibility from his penchant for “confusing subject and object.”

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (originally published 1934; Picador edition 1990). Originally published in 1934 and rediscovered in the early 1960’s, this beautifully wrought novel explores the complexity of coming to full consciousness as a sentient, searching being in a brash, utilitarian world that has no time for metaphysical depth. It is also a classic of New York immigrant experience—for that reason newly relevant now, in a city that has just seen the biggest wave of immigration in a hundred years—and a prodigy of the “dialogic imagination,” with its amazing and unique handling of the Jewish immigrants’ language-worlds, as they navigate between their native Yiddish and heavily accented street vernacular. Using repeated images and dramatic psychological plotting—the plot centering on the oedipal triangle—Roth managed to create a unified work with an astonishing range of narrative approaches, incorporating lyrical prose, realistic dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness.

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata (North Point Press 1998, translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman). These brief stories by the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature were composed intermittently over the course of his long creative life (he died in 1972). The pieces are extremely various, some based on dream imagery, some in epistolary formats and depicting the raffish popular culture of Tokyo between the world wars, some thrillingly “plotted,” and others more dependent on lyrical devices that make them feel like prose poems. One late piece even “condenses” the text of Kawabata’s famous novel Snow Country into an elliptical, image-driven narrative.
Read excerpts from Clausen’s recently completed novel, The Company of Cannibals, and learn more about the author and her work at ablationsite.org.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 23, 2009

Paul Rivlin

Paul Rivlin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Dynamics of Economic Policy Making in Egypt (1985), The Israel Economy (1992), Economic Policy and Performance in the Arab World (2001), and papers on defense economics and Arab economies.

His new book is Arab Economies in the Twenty-First Century.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am reading Peter Hennessy’s Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties. This is the second volume of his history of Britain after the Second World War and takes up the story from Never Again: Britain 1945-1951. These books are encyclopedic covering many aspects of life including sport, diet, religion, dress, politics and economics and have a long historical sweep. In the late 1940s and early 1950s some of Britain’s leaders were Edwardians, with experience in and before the First World War. Understanding them means understanding the world they were formed in and this is included. The remarkable achievement of these books is that the reader is never lost in the detail. The author steers through many subjects and then brings the reader back to the main road and the main point.

For someone born and brought up in the Britain of the 1950s, Hennessy conveys the details of a world that I was too young to see. Britain in the early 1950s was an interesting mixture. It had undergone the massive transformation that the Second World War and the post-war Labour government had generated through social policy and nationalization. It was losing its technological edge because of the burden of military spending and its unwillingness to engage in activist industrial policies that were successfully introduced in France and West Germany. Britain’s difficulties in contemplating closer relations with Europe are one of the most important sections of Having it So Good. In the 1970s, when I studied economics at Cambridge, Europe and industrial policies were hardly mentioned: legacies last although they have changed since then.

In the 1950s some leading members of the British establishment were more liberal on key social issues, than the public. It took until the 1960s for the country to move forward on these issues and for the primacy of social class to begin to fade and so the Britain in the 1950s was a repressive place that provoked the anger so brilliantly characterized in London theatre by John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

The differences between right and left were not so clear cut as was once thought: Bevin was one of the toughest on the Soviets in the early cold war; Churchill favored negotiations. Eden was an old imperialist; Macmillan understood the winds of change. Churchill, Butler and Macmillan all were or became what have been called ‘One Nation’ politicians favoring high or full employment to limit social and economic deprivation.

These volumes help us understand not only what happened in the past but also what is happening today. As I write these lines, Britain is being buffeted by the massive financial crisis affecting the world economy. For twelve years it has had a Labour government that embraced financial deregulation that its Conservative predecessors began, with disastrous results. One of many interesting sequences is a discussion with Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England since 2003. His perspectives on the long term development of the economy are significant partly because of their insight but also because of the office which he has held during a period in which the British banking system has collapsed. He demonstrates a deep understanding of social and political context that affects the economy. It will be interesting to see if, in one of his promised later volumes, Hennessy finds out what King thinks about the financial crisis that Britain experienced while he was governor.

A study of how reluctant Atlee’s government was to interfere in the economy - despite it willingness to nationalize and revolutionize social policy- helps make the course of British economic policy more comprehensible. There is a profound conservatism about British economic policy than is true of both the major political parties. This contrasts to social liberalism that has been prevalent since the swinging Sixties when major social reforms were enacted. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher reversed One Nation economic policies and began to deregulate financial and other markets, but was unable repeal the social reforms of the 1960s.

Hennessy demonstrates the value of studying, reading and writing good history: it throws light on the past and helps us understand the present.
Read an excerpt from Paul Rivlin's Arab Economies in the Twenty-First Century, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt is a member of the faculty at Vermont College's Master of Fine Arts program and occasionally teaches creative writing at Texas A&M University.

She writes childrens books as well as books suited for teenagers.

The Underneath, her debut novel, is a National Book Award finalist, an ALA Newbery Medal winner, and an ALA Newbery Honor Book.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, by Robert Leleux.

The title of this funny, bittersweet, and ultimately heartwarming book tells it all. Leleux looks at beauty from the outside in and inside out, not only physical beauty, but inner beauty as well. In the process, he exposes both beauty and ugliness in all their various forms. He begins his story with the departure of his father, who leaves him with his very southern and gentrified mother. How the two of them manage to survive without the resources to which they've become accustomed is a tale filled with tension, loss, self-discovery and laughter. Robert Leleux is beautiful. No doubt about it. I loved this book.

Eternal, by Cynthia Leitich Smith

I'm not usually one to read gothic horror. But I am so glad that I read this book, told in alternating voices: a teenaged vampiress and her fallen guardian angel. Romance, sorrow, longing ... lots of longing ... all lead up to a story of redemption in the darkest place imaginable, the soul. The writing here is compelling, scary, sexy, making for a read that cannot be put down. Yes. I may become a reader of gothic horror after all, thanks to this book and this author.

The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams

Scarier than gothic horror is the religious cult in which Williams places her hero, a fourteen year old girl who is betrothed to be her elderly uncle's seventh bride. The writing here is so exquisite that it begs to be read out loud, just to savor the sheer beauty of the language. And the story itself is so riveting and heartbreaking that it begs to be shared and shared and shared. This is one of those books that makes you a different person for having read it. Beautiful.

Dessert First, by Hallie Durand

Once in a while a book needs to be read just for the good time that is had by reading it. This is one of those books. I love this story for the middle grades that provides a character who grows and at the same time provides delight in the overall experience of meeting her. I predict that Dessert is going to find her place next to Amber Brown, Fudge, and Julia Gillian. This is one for the taste buds. Read it out loud to your nearest elementary child.

Church of the Dog, by Kaya McLaren

Finding home is the premise behind this book. But finding heart might be truer. Kaya McLaren's first novel is testimony to the power of love, both new and old. There is magic here in the character of Mara and her ability to mend fences and hearts too. McLaren's second book is due out this spring, On the Divinity of Second Chances. I can hardly wait.
Visit Kathi Appelt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Andrew Hudgins

Andrew Hudgins's poetry collections include Ecstatic in the Poison and Saints & Strangers, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; After the Lost War, which received the Poetry Prize; and The Never-Ending, a finalist for the National Book Award.

His latest book is Shut Up, You’re Fine!: Instructive Poetry for Very, Very Bad Children. Illustrated by the distinguished artist and graphic designer Barry Moser, Shut Up, You’re Fine! includes such heart-warming titles as “Playing Houth,” “The Thumping of the Bed,” “Two Starving Kids in Africa,” and “Daddy, Are We Meat?”

A few days ago I asked Hudgins what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just finished Charles Sweetman’s Enterprise, Inc, a very funny book that satirizing white-color jobs. Imagine Dilbert as poetry, with more pathos in the humor. Betty Adcock’s Slantwise moves, slantwise, from Texas and back--through the rest of the South, into New York City after the bombing of the twin towers, and drops in on the Greek isles and the Andes. In one poem, Adcock meditates on being called “Betty” instead of “Elizabeth,” her given name:

After all

what could be odder than a woman poet from Texas?

Give her a trash name too and there’s no telling

what she might do, aiming for Parnassus

and the solar plexus.

James Allen Hall, in Now You’re the Enemy, embraces not just Texas but the concept of Texas in a startling and fascinating poem “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas.” Now You’re the Enemy abounds with an energy of imagination and driven wit. “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas” begins this way:

After my mother won independence in 1836,

she dysfunctioned as her own nation, passed laws,

erected monuments to men who would never again

be slaves to order and pain.

Remember the Alamo? That was my mother.

And it ends, tellingly, in the present moment:

Currently the Republic is facing lean times.

The former treasurer neglected May’s utilities,

refuses to return the funds. Pledge your support today.

My motherland is standing by

the rotary phone, waiting for your call.

Love her or leave her.

Mark Jarman’s Epistles (lively prose poems on theological issues, with St. Paul’s letters in the background) and Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North (hard even to characterize a book this varied and smart) are absolutely terrific books that are both open on my chair right now. And I have to mention Maurice Manning’s Bucolics, which I’ve just reread. Every poem in the book is addressed to Boss with a God-like capital B. The book explores the relationship between perceived creature and perceived creator in terms of the symbiotic relationship between boss and worker. The worker depends on the boss and the work. But like any subordinate, even one who loves the work and wants to love his Boss, he is inclined toward insubordination and a studied and cagey irony when confronted by the boss’s whims, harshness, and infuriating silences.

In, uh, the bathroom, I’m reading Trying Times: Alabama Photographs, 1917-1945. It really brings back a sense of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives, and, more surprisingly, some of the pictures of schoolrooms, very like ones in which I served time, bring back a part of my life that I’d forgotten. And I just purely love the photo, taken in downtown Gadsden, of a man in shirtsleeves and tie, in midair on a pogo stick.

After dragging it out for a long time, luxuriating in having a terrific book to dip into at night before I fall asleep, I just finished R. F. Foster’s W. B. Yeats: A Life, Volume II: The Arch Poet, 1915-1939. I loved the first volume, which does the best job of any book I know of putting Yeats into his own time and making sense out of his psychic beliefs, which I still struggle to grasp. Like some of the reviewers of volume one, I’d wished for more detailed discussions of the poems. Foster clearly took the criticism to heart, and the second volume includes wonderful, perceptive critiques of the poems. Deeply researched and beautifully written, this is a book to cherish. I want to follow it up with Helen Vendler’s Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, which is lying by the bed, smiling enticingly.

True Crime: An American Anthology by Harold Schechter. I’d meant to linger over this as a before-bed book to replace the Yeats biography, but I got so caught up in these brilliantly selected true stories that I raced through it. It’s a tough call as to whether this book is better than W. N. Roughead’s Classic Crimes, which I was enthralled by last year. But as a patriot, I have to say that American murders are better than Scottish murders. And I’m not just talking quantity over quality. When it comes to homicide, America offers a wider range of style and substance. Before reading this book, I did not realize that the Great Depression had brought on a fad of murderers lopping off legs, feet, and heads and leaving torsos around to be discovered.

Speaking of Scotland, I’m about three-quarters of the way through Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, a more than serviceable entry in Rankin’s Rebus series. With DI Rebus facing retirement, Exit Music purports to be the last in the series. It’s hard to imagine that such a popular and compelling character won’t find a way to resist retirement, as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch did. Bosch is on my dresser, waiting for me inside The Brass Verdict. Or I may go with Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast, which is also on the dresser. About a month ago I read Nesbø’s complex and thoughtful Nemesis, one of the best plotted thrillers I’ve read in years. He’s not quite as good at evoking Oslo as Rankin is Edinburgh or Connelly is L.A. but I have great hopes for him.
Read more about Shut Up, You’re Fine!: Instructive Poetry for Very, Very Bad Children at the publisher's website.

Andrew Hudgins's poems available online include "Walking a True Line," "Blur," "Day Job and Night Job," "In," and a zombie haiku.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Roy Peter Clark

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute in Florida for 30 years. His most recent book is Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, and he is at work on a sequel, The Glamour of Grammar.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am reading more than usual lately – which makes me happy. My gigantic new high definition television set is a powerful magnet away from reading, but I’ve discovered that I can get quite a bit read while watching certain television programs, such as American Idol. I watch the performances, but read in between them. If you could see my book shelves you would probably laugh. I have everything from the autobiography of a professional wrestler to The Confessions of St. Augustine, and everything in between. I believe greatly in eclectic reading. When writers ask me to list my favorite authors, I usually won’t do it, or can’t do it. I only have one favorite author, and that’s Shakespeare, but I know to pick the Bard is kind of cheating.

I have also become, at the age of 60, a more impatient reader. You’d probably say that I’ve become more of a book taster than a book reader. If I buy a book and get a good chapter out of it, that’s sometimes enough. Like most people in the culture, I get distracted by all the temptations around to move away from the book. I am trying to rebel against some of these distractions. So I’ve intentionally picked up some books that are hard to read. Such a book is After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism by David Lodge, the British novelist and critic. Lodge is in love with the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, and this series of literary essays offers brilliant alternatives to the nihilistic attitudes towards authorship that have clogged up the literary world in recent decades. Here’s a taste: “That is why the novelist…cannot afford to cut himself off from low, vulgar, debased language; why nothing linguistic is alien to him, from theological treatises to the backs of cornflakes packets, from the language of the barrack room to the language of, say, academic conferences.”

In the same vein, I’ve discovered A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, selected by the late British poet Ted Hughes. The selections are inspirational, of course, but a critical essay by Hughes at the end is one of the most brilliant descriptions of the Bard’s poetry that I’ve ever encountered. It turns out that Shakespeare’s writing vocabulary was something like 25,000 words, which is twice as many words as his nearest rival.

Get that? Shakespeare used twice as many words! Not only that, but many of these words Shakespeare introduced into the language for the first time. Hughes describes a typical poetic line in which Willy would introduce a new Italianate adjective, for example, and link it to an Anglo-Saxon synonym. In other words, he was building a bridge of common language between the aristocrats in the expensive seats and the groundlings in the cheap seats.

When my head begins to swim with these ideas, I always enjoy dipping into a good collection of golf advice, like Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, or John Capouya’s brilliant biography of the great professional wrestling icon Gorgeous George. Who would have guessed that George, known as the Living Orchid, influenced the likes of Cassius Clay, James Brown, and Bob Dylan, and that the Toast of the Coast may have even been America’s first “gay” hero?

Go figure.
Check out Roy Peter Clark's "Writing Tools -- The Blog" and read an excerpt from Writing Tools.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 16, 2009

Julie A. Mertus

Julie A. Mertus is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the MA program in Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs at American University. Her publications include The United Nations and Human Rights and Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy, which was named Human Rights Book of the Year by the American Political Science Association Human Rights Section.

Her new book is Human Rights Matters: Local Politics and National Human Rights Institutions.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m reading three books at the same time. First, I am reading Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, a brilliant intimate history of the origins of the idea of human rights. The part of the book that had a big impact on me was its excruciating detail about various forms of torture – including “breaking them on the wheel” (describing it as turning someone into a pretzel by strapping them to a wheel and contorting them in different directions).

Second, I am reading my own book Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy to prepare for a speech. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to add Obama – or if I should write a new book.

Finally, I have one of my son’s Hardy Boys mysteries in my bag, just in case I get stuck in traffic or a long line. I’m trying to see why he loves the entire 60-plus Hardy Boys that have made their way into my house.
Read an excerpt from Human Rights Matter, and learn more about the book at the Stanford University Press website.

Read more about Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Learn more about Julie A. Mertus' scholarship and teaching at her American University webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue