Sunday, November 29, 2009

Susan Breen

Susan Breen's novel, The Fiction Class, is the story of a woman's relationship with her ailing mother and the offbeat members of the creative writing workshop she leads.

Breen's short stories have been published by a number of literary magazines, among them American Literary Review and anderbo (which lists her story “Triplet” as an anderbo classic).

Almost two weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Every October when the finalists for the National Book Award are announced, I go out and buy the five books. (I consider that to be my annual Christmas present to myself and the book industry.) Usually I haven’t heard of any of the books, which is part of what makes it so much fun because it exposes me to work that is completely unexpected (and occasionally disagreeable.) After all, most of the time when I sit down with a book, I’ve carefully chosen something I think I’m going to like. I believe it’s important, especially for a writer, to expose myself to new voices.

So far, I’ve read only one of the five books—American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell. This is a collection of short stories published by the Wayne State University Press. The book itself , a paperback, has a surprising physical heft to it. The cover is smooth and heavy and the pages thick, the type gorgeous. It made me realize how beautiful a book can be—even leaving outside the words that are in it. The stories in the collection are intense, occasionally funny, occasionally so bleak I felt like someone had put a rock on me. A few of them I loved. The first story, titled “The Trespasser,” is about a family that comes home to find that a trespasser has been living in their house. I loved the way Campbell handled the omniscient point of view, something I’ve always wanted to try in a short story. My favorite story, “Falling,” was about a woman who has to come to terms with a young man who betrayed her trust. The characters were flawed, but good-hearted. The final paragraph was very moving—I love a story that ends with hope of redemption.

Next up on my list of NBA nominees is Let the Great World Spin (Random House) by Colum McCann. Then In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W.W. Norton & Co.) by Daniyal Mueenuddin, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf) by Jayne Anne Phillips and Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Marcel Theroux.
Visit Susan Breen's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 27, 2009

Erin Dionne

Erin Dionne’s debut novel, Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, was inspired by events that occurred in seventh grade, when she wore a scary peach bridesmaid dress in her cousin’s wedding and threw up on her gym teacher’s shoes (not at the same event). Although humiliating at the time, these experiences are working for her now. Erin lives outside of Boston with her husband and daughter, and a very insistent dog named Grafton. She roots for the Red Sox, teaches English at an art college, and sometimes eats chocolate cookies.

Her new novel, The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, is out in early January 2010.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I read in a range of genres, but I'm streaky: I'll immerse myself in middle grade or YA fiction for a while, then switch to nonfiction, short stories, or adult contemporary or literary fiction. The giant To Be Read pile next to my bed never seems to shrink in size. As a matter of fact, my daughter frequently uses it as a step to help her climb up and down off my bed!

I'm nearly done with Stephen King's Just After Sunset, a story collection that came out several months ago. I'm an unabashed King fan, and I always find a gem or two in his story collections. In this one, "The Gingerbread Girl" is a standout. Originally published in Esquire magazine, it's a suspenseful story with a resourceful heroine. King also added notes at the end of Sunset that detail the origins of each story, which I really appreciate. It's fascinating to get a glimpse into other authors' processes.

Before that, I read Ulrich Boser's The Gardner Heist. I live outside of Boston, and the art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has been a source of fascination for me for years. Boser's book sifts through different theories, possibilities and suspects, giving readers not only an insider's view of the Gardner investigation (the art is still missing, BTW!), but art theft and recovery in general.

I'm also constantly reading advance copies of YA and middle grade titles by other members of the 2009 Debutantes group. We send ARCs (advanced reader copies) of our books around to one another to celebrate our debut year. Currently I have Donut Days by Lara Zielin and Ash by Malinda Lo.

Lastly, as the mom of a toddler, I read a LOT of picture books and board books. The ones in heavy rotation right now are Barnyard Dance! by Sandra Boynton, Eric Carle's Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?, and Good Night Hawaii (yes, we're raising her with an appropriate adoration for tropical locales!).
Visit Erin Dionne's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Colleen Thompson

Colleen Thompson has written fifteen novels for Dorchester Publishing (romantic suspense) and Kensington (historical romance, written as Gwyneth Atlee), along with articles on the craft and business of writing for Writer’s Digest and the Romance Writer’s Report.

Her most recent release is Beneath Bone Lake.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m a voracious reader who enjoys a wide variety of books. I could probably go on all day, but here are a few highlights from my year in reading.

The most recent novel that made me sit and say “Wow!” was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. While some might say this is a look at the early civil rights movement in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, at its heart, it’s the story of growing relationship between three women, a privileged but sensitive young white woman (who insists on getting answers to the era’s “unspeakable” – and incredibly risky — questions), a wise and courageous older black maid named Aibleen, and Aibleen’s smart-mouth, often-unemployed friend, Minny. It’s one of those stories that feels more real than real life, and though I grew up in the North and can’t remember the early sixties, I gained a new appreciation for the ironies, incongruities, and dangers of that period. Stockett grabbed me by the throat with the book’s first paragraph and never let go. I literally couldn’t get another thing done (including my own writing) until I finished this fascinating, touching, at at times hilarious story.

Another book that really impressed me was Mary Ann Shaffer’s and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society. Told entirely through letters, this book is a quirky, amusing, and at times tragic tale of how villagers on a tiny British island survived the German Occupation during World War II. I loved the way the book didn’t simply rely on stereotypes, but developed characters so complex and nuanced, I felt I knew them by the story’s end, and I developed a new appreciation for the hardship and courage of the people who lived through an event that took place long before my time.

I’m a huge Michael Connelly fan, and my most recent read of his, The Scarecrow, didn’t disappoint. Though I write suspense myself and have gotten pretty hard to fool in the mystery department, I literally sat up and gasped in surprise at several shockingly creepy twists. I also loved how Connelly detailed the sad decline of the nation’s great newspapers and incorporated some truly terrifying and all too plausible cyberthreats into his plot. What a riveting read! I couldn’t put it down.
Visit Colleen Thompson's website and follow her on Twiiter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 23, 2009

John J. Miller

John J. Miller writes for National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of several books, a contributing editor of Philanthropy magazine, and a consultant to grantmaking foundations.

His latest novel is The First Assassin.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
If you don’t count children’s stories at bedtime, the book I’ve read more than any other is probably The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. I haven’t just read it; I’ve studied it. Nobody has ever written a better thriller. The characters are well drawn and the story moves at a brisk pace. The setting may be more dated than it once was, but now it seems rooted in history rather than surpassed by events. You know how the tale has to finish: It cannot end with de Gaulle’s assassination. Yet you’re never too sure, and you desperately want to learn how the plot unfolds.

One of my main freelance gigs is to write about literature for the Wall Street Journal. For the past four years, I’ve used Halloween as a news peg -- i.e., an excuse to comment on classic horror lit: M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Bram Stoker. This year, my victim was Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House is the world’s greatest haunted-house story. Nothing tops it. Except maybe Hell House, by Richard Matheson. I’ve read a bit of Matheson -- I Am Legend, short stories such as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” etc. -- but not this title. It’s on my shelf as well as my must-read list. Maybe next year?
Visit John J. Miller's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Alex Flinn

Alex Flinn is the author of a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast titled Beastly, which was named a VOYA Editor's Choice for 2007, a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age for 2008, and a 2008 ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. Her other books include Breathing Underwater, an ALA Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults, Breaking Point, Nothing to Lose, Fade to Black, and Diva.

Her latest novel is A Kiss in Time.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm currently reading The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade. This is sort of like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (my very favorite book as a teen, which I read a few dozen times) if Quasimodo, the hunchback of the title, had been a shape-shifting spy. The book takes place in Victorian England. Modo, found near Notre Dame Cathedral and adopted from a freak show by Mr. Socrates, has a freakish appearance but compensates by being able to change his form for up to five hours. Mr. Socrates tells him that his ugliness is an asset because people will always underestimate him. Modo has been educated in regular subjects as well as combat, and has been dropped off in London where he has set up a business finding lost items. There, he has been hired by the mysterious Octavia Milkweed, who asks him to find her brother. However, the man he is searching for is not her brother, and there are strange doings afoot .... Think The Hunchback of Notre Dame meets Frankenstein meets Batman Begins. It's the first of a planned seven-book series.

I just finished The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Though this is an adult autobiography, I think it would be interesting to teens, and it's on the reading list at our local high school. Ms. Walls writes about her unusual childhood with her intelligent, creative, but often shockingly neglectful parents who moved the family from place to place and taught the kids to fend for themselves. Ms. Walls' success is an inspiration.
Visit Alex Flinn's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Marie Mutsuki Mockett graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Past honors for her work include a Pushcart nomination, semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel contest, finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Short Story Competition, and a Rona Jaffe Award nomination. Her essay, "Letter from a Japanese Crematorium," originally published in Agni 65, was cited as notable in the 2008 Best American Essays. Picking Bones from Ash is her debut novel.

A week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Let the Great World Spin, by Collum McCann

I've been a fan of McCann's since reading his beautiful book, Dancer, which traces the life of the great ballet danseur, Rudolf Nureyev. Dancer friends tell me that they too have loved the book and prefer it to some of the more formal biographies of Nureyev which have come out in recent years. And it's not hard to see why; embedded in Dancer are observations about beauty and art. Plus, McCann cares about language; his scenes are musical and moving. Complete art. I'm midway through Let the Great World Spin and will be rooting for its National Book Award win. McCann is also, by all accounts, a good person, who has worked very hard at his art. Add to that the fact that all of McCann's books tackle different subject matter and different locations--he's a true artist, never settling for one world view. And as a writer at the start of her career, this is inspiring to learn and to see.

Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales by Michelle Li

I do my fair share of reading literary novels; it's important to be supportive of your fellow artists. But I also do a lot of nonfiction reading. In particular, I will engage in what I sometimes call my "weird" reading. This year, I've been re-examining Japanese fairy tales in part because I realize just how much they impacted me as a child and subsequently as an adult, but also because I've started to deliver a one hour lecture on the subject. In this talk, I cover everything from animated poop cartoons, to Miyazaki's Spirited Away, to the classic Japanese fairy tale about the "Bamboo Princess." One day, while browsing on Amazon, I came across the title you see above. The product description is as follows: "This book aims to make sense of grotesque representations in setsuwa--animated detached body parts, unusual sexual encounters, demons and shape-shifting or otherwise wondrous animals—and, in a broader sense, to show what this type of critical focus can reveal about the mentality of Japanese people in the ancient, classical, and early medieval periods." I'm always trying to deepen my understanding of Japan--and consequently, find new and creative ways to tell stories. My own novel has demons and ghosts and I find that if I read good scholarly work on the things that are attractive to me-the bizarre and strange-and understand how they fit into the culture, then that will make my own creative work more precise, and more convincing. This book sounded like a fantastic read, and I'm eager to get started.

Eight Million Gods and Demons, by Hiroko Sherwin

Quite possibly the most under-rated, and overlooked novel in the English language that I know. The author, Hiroko Sherwin, was born in Japan, but lives in the UK. Though English is her second language, Sherwin managed to write this stunning novel about pre and post-war Japan. That she wrote in English is an accomplishment in and of itself. But beyond that, her use of language, metaphors and emotion, the unfolding of her characters' lives and their fates, her understanding of those who suffer due to war, are simply breathtaking. That Sherwin's novel has not been shortlisted for any of the major prizes speaks to our tendency to overlook books by women--and minority women in particular--as "quiet," in favor of men. In recent years, it has become common for western writers to try to emulate Japanese writers. I call this kind of book "Beautiful Japan" writing; like a collection of travel pictures, these novels are pretty on the surface, and convince travelers who don't really know or understand the psychology of the culture they are visiting that they might in fact have some insight to what is worthwhile about the place. The most recent example I can think of is Jonathan Bernard Schwartz's The Commoner, which purportedly tells the story of the Crown Princess of Japan, complete with wabi sabi descriptions of beautiful burn victims, and our heroine escaping to freedom in the West. Because, of course, America is the answer to all immigrants everywhere (just as it was for Arthur Golden's grey-eyed geisha). Woe betide the Asian woman who chooses to stay in her homeland! But Sherwin's book is that rare thing; a gorgeous novel about people grappling with intense emotions at a time of war, of social change, of family obligations, of love and of broken hearts. It's absolutely devastating, and if I could convince people to read one novel about Japan, it would be Eight Million Gods and Demons.

The Fairy Tale Tarot, by Lisa Hunt

This might just become my default Christmas gift for 2009. I wrote above that I've been re-examining Japanese fairy tales. I originally picked up a copy of Hunt's card deck/book because it looked like fun. Then I found out that she not only illustrated the deck of cards herself, but that she correlated each card to a fairy tale. The stories she has selected come from Western Europe, from the Balkans, from India, China and beyond. I'm impressed. Not only has she created something incredibly fun, but she seems to have spent considerable time trying to apply some scholarly knowledge to her work. I'm always happy when someone pairs "fun" with "deep." A person could spend a long time playing with this gift.

Tulips, Water, Ash by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet

I mentioned above that Collum McCann's use of language impresses me. The very best writing for me is always musical. Of course, ideas are important too, but I love it when someone has a gift and ear for language. Sometimes when I feel I am working too quickly, or not paying enough attention to my environment, I will calm down and read some good poetry. No one takes care with language the way that a poet does. I have to come clean here and say that Lisa is a friend of mine--I met her online when I wrote to tell her how much I admired a poem she had written. Since then, we have become friends, and I was thrilled when she won the Samuel French Morse prize with this, her first collection. The poems range from funny to curious to profound. All pay very close attention to the use of language. All are accessible. And all make me stop and observe my own world with more thought and more care.
Visit Marie Mutsuki Mockett's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Jeremy Duns

Jeremy Duns is the author of the Paul Dark trilogy: Free Agent was published by Viking in hardback in June 2009; Free Country is due to be published next year, and Free World in 2011.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I used to devour spy novels, but now that I write them most of my reading is non-fiction, for research. My books are set during the Cold War, but in the last few weeks I've mainly been reading memoirs related to World War Two. One of these was For He Is An Englishman, the autobiography of Charles Arnold-Baker or Wolfgang von Blumenthal. 'Or' because the author was born a Prussian nobleman, but ended up becoming more English than the English. Published in 2007, it's an account of his long and fascinating life from his childhood through Oxford University, and a career as a barrister, academic, historian and spy. Unsurprisingly, I was most interested in the spying, but I hadn't realized there would be any when I bought it: I was interested in details of his school life.

In 1943, having already been in charge of a platoon that guarded Winston Churchill, Arnold-Baker joined MI6 as a counter-intelligence officer, where he worked with the notorious double agent Kim Philby, who he describes in detail. Later, our author took part in the liberations of both Belgium and Norway. All of which is extraordinary enough, but he tells the tale in a very intimate style, not at all show-offy. His descriptions of his sexual escapades in Antwerp are surprising and touching in their honesty: this was no cardboard hero, but a living, breathing, flawed man who moved through life with great sensitivity. I learned a lot from it, and not just for my next novel.
Visit the official Jeremy Duns website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kylie Brant

Kylie Brant has written over twenty books for Berkley Sensation and Silhouette, a short story for, and participated in an Iowa authors murder mystery.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m one of those readers who has a book going in every room of the house. One that I’m devouring right now is Cindy Gerard’s Feel the Heat. This one features Black Ops operative Raphael Mendoza and the cool calm B.J. Chase on a covert mission to dismantle a rogue weapons system. Lots of action and adventure coupled with blistering romance…Gerard is a don’t miss author.

I recently finished Colleen Thompson’s Beneath Bone Lake. Ruby Monroe comes home from her tour in Iraq to discover her four-year-old daughter and Ruby’s sister missing. With her home incinerated, and her own life threatened, she has no choice but to turn to her neighbor for help: town bad boy Sam McCoy. But when more and more clues seem to point to Sam as being involved, Ruby begins to fear that she’s put her trust in the wrong man. With a sinister setting and a creepy killer, this one delivers on the chills and thrills.

Occasionally I’m in the mood for a good espionage plot, and Stephen Coonts never fails to deliver. Deep Black was co-written with Jim DeFelice. The National Security Agency dispatches ex-Marine sniper Charlie Dean to Russia to determine why their spy plane was blown out of the sky. Dean hooks up with former Delta Force trooper Lia DeFrancesca and in the course of their mission they uncover an even more alarming plot — one to assassinate the Russian government and overtake the government. More complications arise when they learn that one of the spy plane’s passengers is alive … and sensitive information is about to fall into enemy hands. Coonts’ novels require a good memory for minute plot points and secondary characters, but the result is always a well-knit thriller.

Robert Crais is a fairly recent discovery and I’m glomming all his works. He writes two connected series, one featuring PI Elvis Cole and the other the more enigmatic Joe Pike (who reminds me a lot of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.) The most recent Crais that I finished is The Forgotten Man, an Elvis Cole novel. The LA police come to Cole with startling news: an old man claiming to be his father has been murdered. Elvis has long been haunted by the abandonment of his father, so the toll the case takes on him is emotional, as well as physical.

Next up for me will be J.D. Robb’s Kindred in Death. (Amazon promised it would arrive this week!) The series is set in 2059, and features the indomitable homicide Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her gorgeous mega-billionaire husband, Roarke. With an irresistible cast of characters and unfailingly intriguing suspense plots, Robb’s books are a special treat that I read straight through.
Read more about Kylie Brant's work at her website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lauren Strasnick

Lauren Strasnick grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, now lives in Los Angeles, and is a graduate of Emerson College and the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) MFA Writing Program.

Nothing Like You is her first book.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now I’m halfway through The King’s Rose by Alisa Libby – A YA historical novel about Catherine Howard, King Henry VIII’s doomed fifth wife. Catherine was fifteen when she married the king, who was nearly fifty and in poor health (he had some sort of festering wound on his thigh – H.O.T.). I feel such sympathy for this girl, and find it absolutely unreal that there was a moment in time when an aging man might marry a teen girl.

I recently read The Three Incestuous Sisters by Audrey Niffenegger. It’s an illustrated novel with Edward Gorey-esque illustrations. I was attracted to this book for a few reasons – I’m a Gorey fan and I loved the gothic cover art. Also, the book promised romance! Despair! Envy! Very appealing. Niffenegger delivers – but this book is less about text/plot and more about Niffenegger’s gorgeous, creepy images.

Also read: Amandine by Adele Griffin. A YA novel about two freshman girls whose friendship crumbles when one girl reveals herself to be manipulative, duplicitous and vengeful. I love books about claustrophobic friendship, so this one hit the spot.

Before that? Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron. The book’s narrator, James Sveck, is eighteen, smart, hyper critical, aloof, fearful, & has a completely compelling voice. Loved it.
Visit Lauren Strasnick's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gerry Bartlett

Gerry Bartlett is a former teacher and now writes full time. She also owns an antique business on the historic strand in Galveston, Texas and has spent the past year rebuilding after losing everything in the shop during Hurricane Ike.

Her Glory St. Clair Real Vampires series is out now with book 5, Real Vampires Hate Their Thighs, being released in trade paperback in February, 2010. Book 3, Real Vampires Get Lucky, is in stores now in mass market form.

A week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
My tastes in reading are very eclectic. Of course, since I write paranormal romance, I read a lot of what’s out there in that genre. Most of it is very dark and my stuff is comedy, but I do enjoy reading a well written dark paranormal. I’ve just discovered a series by Adrian Phoenix. The first book is A Rush of Wings. Phoenix creates an interesting world and a very complex, tortured hero. I think that’s what really draws me to a book, fascinating characters. Be prepared for some violence, but that’s a real trend in urban fantasy which is where this book is shelved. The action is fast paced and there is a conspiracy and mystery that kept me turning the pages and running out to buy book two. I really enjoy books in series and following a group of characters. Another series I love is J.R. Ward’s Brotherhood. It’s urban fantasy too, but with more of a romance. Very rough language, but such interesting world building. Like most series, the problem is that the authors don’t write fast enough.

I enjoy reading straight mysteries too and just finished one by a favorite author — John Sandford. His Rough Country is a Virgil Flowers novel and takes that detective to northern Minnesota to solve a crime. I love the way Sandford develops his characters and have read every one of his Lucas Davenport books as well as his Kidd novels. He’s a great storyteller and, if I want to know how to write male point of view, I know where to look for inspiration. Sandford always manages to surprise me and keeps me turning the pages. Too often these days I put books down and don’t finish them. That never happens with a John Sandford book.

My to-be-read pile is huge and I won’t list them all but they include the new Scarpetta novel and mysteries by Iris Johansen and Linda Howard. It’s fun to note that Johansen and Howard got their start writing romance. Love that!
Learn more about Gerry Bartlett and her writing at, her MySpace page, and the Glory St.Clair Fansite.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ray Taras

Ray Taras is a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute. His many books include the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia and Understanding Ethnic Conflict, 4th edition. At the Campaign for the American Reader, he covers the Sundance Film Festival and regularly reviews world literature.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading. His response:
October is a great month for reading for someone able to bend to the rhythm of the academic year. Student essays are being written but are not yet ripe for grading. Grant writing to meet end-of-September deadlines is done with. In my case a book manuscript, on European Islamophobia, is in the hands of reviewers and there is nothing to do but await the reports.

So I have indulged, indeed, satiated, myself with reading. As I teach courses on Russian politics and foreign policy, what better way to absorb the cultural pathways that give them shape than to read contemporary Russian fiction. Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker, Russian literature specialists on the faculty of universities in Montreal and Toronto, have compiled a collection of twenty-two short stories by young Russian authors and titled it Rasskazy (“short stories”). They identify the genre shared by these authors as New Russian Realism.

As with many comparative lit anthologies, the quality of the stories, and their rendering into English, are uneven. Clear standouts are narratives detailing the cruelties of war. One, by Arkady Babchenko, author of A Soldier’s War published last year in the U.S., details the hazing and persecution of young Russian conscripts stationed in the Caucasus. Another, by German Sadulaev, who is of Chechen background and the author of I am a Chechen! being published in English in the U.K., describes the indiscriminate killing of Chechens by the Russian military in the 1990s war. The two authors test the limits of literary censors while courageously suppressing the temptation to engage in self censorship.

Among the most inventive stories is one by Natalya Kluchareva, who describes the ever grimmer daily life of inhabitants and visitors in a Russian village named Paradise. An aged map of Russia hanging in a decrepit building gradually falls to pieces over the year a student spends there. Aleksander Snegirev applies a lighter touch in creating a character called Kostyan, whose life choices are dictated by the god of small things. When he retrieves his lost cell phone, for example, he is so elated that he wants his wife to be pregnant after all—after fretting that having a child would spell financial ruin in today’s Russia.

The reader gets little satisfaction from most of the 8-10 page stories whose “topics” include the fascination with cell phones—hardly unique to Russians—or use of hip Westernized slang in the city. For me the greatest mystery is why American novelist Francine Prose’s prosaic three-page introduction to the volume, which declaims “Ah, the Russians, we’re reading the Russians,” was included.

A weekend trip in October to Montreal, my home town, gave me a chance to buy several books not yet published in the U.S. I haven’t started Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro’s self-styled post-“retirement” collection. But the positive reviews it has received suggest that the celebrated Canlit author bears passing resemblance to Brett Favre and his post-“retirement” success. Annabel Lyon’s debut novel, The Golden Mean, has also received glowing reviews. It was shortlisted for all three of Canada’s major literary prizes--Governor-General’s, Rogers, and Giller—thereby outdoing Munro who was overlooked for the last-mentioned award. The Golden Mean is an imagined account of Aristotle’s tutoring of Alexander the Great, and it is difficult to put the book down. The craftsmanship is impressive: the writing is clipped, the storytelling concise, and the denouement as it should be. Still, the intriguing topic promises readers more than it delivers. Conjecturing about Aristotle and Alexander’s daily lives is inevitably going to be dwarfed by their intellectual and military extraordinary legacies.

Beirut-born Montreal resident Rawi Hage was the envy of the literary world after winning the 2008 IMPAC Dublin award—the highest paid prize for fiction—for De Niro’s Game, a story set around Lebanon’s protracted civil war. I read his follow-up, Cockroach, over a couple of October days (I’m not a fast reader so that’s quick for me). Hage’s novels are fast-paced action thrillers, but introduce a character who can metamorphose into a cockroach when he needs to invade a home or escape from a murder scene and you have a phantasmagorical novel that will annoy most action story addicts.

The author specializes in turning over stones and exploring what lies beneath. “Nothing surprises me about humans,” Hage’s narrator despairs at one point. But it’s not just the underclass and the declassé that Hage puts under scrutiny. In Cockroach, Canada’s beloved moral high ground is taken down a couple of notches while its smug multiculturalism is given a hyperrealistic twist as Hage parodies popular stereotypes of the Arab huckster. For a Montreal-based novelist who writes in English, he also deftly captures French Quebecers’ cultural pathways.

It took me many months to finish reading David Hackett Fischer’s massive biographical study, Champlain’s Dream, but the October interlude provided closure on it. Published to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Québec in 1608, the story of Samuel de Champlain’s explorations and peopling of three French-speaking communities in North America--Québécois, Acadians, and Métis—is edifying; my high school history texts never did justice to the man. Particularly noteworthy is the egalitarian spirit that Champlain was able to nourish in the New World, far removed from the courts of Henri IV, Louis XIII, and the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu. This approach differed significantly, Fischer stresses, from that taken by English colonists in Massachusetts and Virginia, not to mention the Spanish colonial enterprise further south in the Americas.

Champlain’s candid written reports, together with his sophisticated, pioneering maps of North America, became popular reading back in France. Fischer glosses over the ethics of the fur trade, the preoccupation of European merchants on the new continent, except to criticize mischief-making Scottish and English pirates who challenged French companies’ oligopoly over it. In contrast, he is attentive to Champlain’s exceptional personal skills in managing relations with many different Indian nations, even with the bellicose Iroquois who had it in for the French. It was all kickstarted by the holding of a tabagie, what we commonly call the ceremonial sharing of a tobacco-filled peace pipe, when Champlain first encountered Indian nation chiefs near Tadoussac.

Arguably Champlain’s persona is whitewashed beyond reason in this biography. But with his indisputably charitable nature, he convincingly comes across as one of the most sympathetic of all early North American explorers, more so than, for example, the Jesuit missionaries who retraced his steps from Acadia to Huronia.

The autumn leaves briefly enchanted us with their colors and now they are gone. In November my eye is trained on commas, quotation marks, and apostrophes—and their misuses—as I read student essays. The halcyon days of reading for pleasure have dwindled together with the sunlight hours.
Read about his teaching, research, and scholarship at Ray Taras' faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dylan Landis

Dylan Landis is the author of the novel-in-stories Normal People Don't Live Like This, published to strong praise from Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and More magazine and with a blurb from Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Strout. The book was a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.

Landis, a former newspaper reporter and interior-design writer, has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Bomb, Tin House, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She lives in Washington, DC.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm nailed to the wall by Apocalyptic Swing, the second poetry collection by Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Some poems brim with violence, or religion—it's like hearing a transformer crackle at night. Or they hum with sex and something more: loneliness, or a sense of history and place. It's like reading short stories (often about fighters) from which Calvocoressi has stripped away words, until what remains is supple as a whip. From "Boxers in the Key of M":

I also just finished the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses. Trust me, this requires a support group; mine meets monthly at the Politics & Prose bookstore in DC and is also reading Homer's Odyssey and various guidebooks—mine is The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires. It would be a lie to say that I understand everything I read. But I love Stephen Dedalus's intelligence and Bloom's curiosity and compassion. I love moments of unexpected heartbreak—like Dilly Dedalus, who is starving along with the other Dedalus children, but spends a penny on a French textbook. She desperately wants a lifeline from Stephen, which she won't get. God, there's a novel I'd love to write—how Dilly Dedalus saves her own life.

I reread a lot, which means I'm always behind on new books, and I just reread Jim Krusoe's novel Erased. It's got a deadpan-ironic voice, and an odd bafflement with the world that I just love. It also raises something painful, at a gut, almost subliminal level: Is death permanent? And if death is not permanent (here many reasons flashed through my mind: because a mother lives on in a son's memory, or in his children, or simply in a certain resonance that's left behind) then what exactly is the demarcation between life and death? Given the marvelous plot absurdities, I was astonished to find myself in tears at the end.

And I'm rereading all ten Cormac McCarthy novels, pretty much in order. McCarthy is a great teacher when you read him with two eyes, left eye for pleasure and right eye on what he's doing. I'm almost through The Orchard Keeper, his first novel, pretty quiet if you compare it, say, to Child of God, in which Lester Ballard murders women so he can have sex with their decaying corpses. McCarthy's craft is gorgeous, and visible, if you're looking.

There's a scene in which young John Wesley finds a hawk with a broken wing and nurses it in a box for three days; it dies anyway. Pay attention, I thought—the second time, not the first—because this connects to an earlier scene, almost a brushstroke, in which the child John Wesley discovers a dry well with a rabbit at the bottom, and drops greens down the well every day. And then, many pages on, I found the third connected scene, like a matching bead strung farther down the string: John Wesley in town, selling the hawk's carcass for a dollar bounty. You know that dollar's precious because he folds it into a nugget, tucks it into his watch pocket, and pats it often for reassurance. Here's a boy, McCarthy's telling you, who would rather try to save and release an injured hawk than sacrifice it for a dollar.

McCarthy does not try to sew things up neatly—not, I think, until the last page of his last novel, The Road. I'm a clumsy student, but I try to watch him closely while I read.
Visit Dylan Landis's website and read the Los Angeles Times review of Normal People.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bobbie Pyron

Bobbie Pyron, who holds an MLS, is a part-time librarian in the Salt Lake County Library system. She’s been a library director, a school librarian, a bookstore manager, an Outward Bound instructor, a professional singer and a professional dog trainer, as well as a life guard and gladiola harvester. She lives in Park City with her husband, Todd, and her shelties.

Her debut YA novel, The Ring, is available this month.

Earlier this week I asked Pyron what she was reading. Her reply:
Oh, I love to talk about the books I'm reading! I guess that's why I'm a writer and a librarian. I usually have several books going at once, since I have the attention span of a gnat. I usually have two or three I'm reading at home and one I'm listening to in the car.

So in my car, I'm listening to Wally Lamb's new novel, The Hour I First Believed. This is the first novel he's written since his award-winning I Know This Much is True. His latest book follows the lives of Callum and Maureen Quirk in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings. Callum was a teacher at the high school and his wife, Maureen, the school nurse. It's a heart-wrenching, enveloping read. As with his other books, Lamb gives a whole new meaning to multi-layered characters.

At home, I seem to be reading non-fiction that I can dip in and out of. One that I started a couple of weeks ago is Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz. Horowitz, an animal researcher and “dog mother” of Pumpernickel takes us up close and personal, inside of each of a dog's senses and perceptions. It's nothing I haven't read before (if you've read Temple Grandin's books you know this stuff), but Horowitz is a lovely, charming writer. She reminds me very much of Diane Ackerman.

I'm also savoring Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book, edited by Anita Silvey. Famous folks from all walks of life—news, entertainment, sports, politics, business—talk about what children's book shaped their lives. Some were comforted and given hope by a particular book during a painful point in their childhood. Others found a passion that would shape who they became and what they did as adults. The book makes me feel very good about writing for children. Especially after I've been asked for the hundredth time, “Why don't you write for adults”!

Lastly, I just picked up a hilarious book, The Werewolf's Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten, by Ritch Duncan. Although I have no interest what so ever in vapid vampires, I will admit to a long-held fascination with werewolves. Any anyway, who can resist chapters with titles like: Home is Where You Hang Your Restraint Systems, So You've Attacked Someone, and The Trouble with Vampires.
Visit Bobbie Pyron's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue