Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sheila Kohler

Sheila Kohler was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She later lived in Paris for fifteen years, where she married, completed her undergraduate degree in Literature at the Sorbonne, and a graduate degree in Psychology at the Institut Catholique. She moved to the U.S. in 1981 and earned an MFA in Writing at Columbia. She currently teaches at Princeton University. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, O Magazine and included in the Best American Short Stories. She has twice won an O’Henry Prize, as well as an Open Fiction Award, a Willa Cather Prize, and a Smart Family Foundation Prize. Her novel Cracks was nominated for an Impac Award, and has been made into a feature film to be distributed by IFC.

Becoming Jane Eyre, her 10th book, is new in booktores.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently read J.M. Coetzee's Summertime. It is such a remarkably honest and very funny book, a sort of faux-memoir which at the same time contains a great deal of truth. Coetzee writes of himself in the third person (he is supposed to be dead in this book) and a biographer interviews five people, four of them women who tell him about the writer, Coetzee. Their comments are often remarkably unflattering, but contain, we sense, in a wonderfully playful and imaginative way, some truth. Through these comments, too, I think we understand some of Coetzee's great books like Disgrace better. This is the third book in the trilogy of Memoir the first two books being Boyhood and Youth and I enjoyed all three volumes immensely always for their daring honesty, their humour, and their structural brilliance.
Visit Sheila Kohler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

John Koethe

John Koethe received an A.B. from Princeton in 1967 and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard in 1973. Since then, he has taught in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, from which he will retire as Distinguished Professor in January 2010.

His writings include eight books of poetry: Blue Vents, Domes, The Late Wisconsin Spring, Falling Water, The Constructor, North Point North: New and Selected Poems, Sally's Hair, and Ninety-fifth Street; two books on philosophy: The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought and Scepticism, Knowledge and Forms of Reasoning; and a book of literary essays: Poetry at One Remove.

Koethe has received the Frank O'Hara Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim foundation and the national Endowment for the Arts, and was the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee. He was the 2008 Elliston Poet in Residence at the University of Cincinnati and will be the Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry at Princeton in the spring semester of 2010.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His response deliberately excluded poetry books, as he thought readers might like to hear what interests a poet other than poetry:
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman. This book is the record of a compelling obsession, as Judith Freeman chronicles her visits to all the places Chandler and his beloved wife Cissy lived in Los Angeles and other places in Southern California. Phillip Marlow is the nominal hero of Chandler’s novels, but their real protagonist is the atmospheric urban landscape through which he moves, and this biography in the form of a kind of travelog presents a vivid portrait of one of my favorite writers.

Casting a Spell by George Black. Black’s official subject is the history of the American bamboo fly rod, but the book is also a bittersweet, extended meditation on craftsmanship and consumerism, the construction of the dream of the American wilderness, and the tension between the obsessive pursuit of perfection and economic realities. The rod makers Black portrays create remarkable objects for those who can afford them, yet they themselves live in strained economic circumstances. One needn’t actually be interested in fly fishing to find the book fascinating, though as soon as I finished it I called up Sweetgrass Rods and got on their waiting list.

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenika. Sklenika, a Milwaukee friend of mine now transplanted to Northern California, worked on this biography of Raymond Carver for many years. The detail is exhaustive, but not exhausting in the way many biographies tend to be. I actually read very little short fiction, but I’m a sucker for literary biographies, and Carver’s life fascinates me, along with the world of writing programs and workshops he inhabited and which I know very little about.

The Anthologist: A Novel by Nicholson Baker. This book presents a different kind of writer’s life, that of the fictional poet Paul Chowder as he struggles to complete an introduction to an anthology of formal poetry. Baker incorporates a great deal of real life poetry world personalities and gossip, but what I like best about the book is the narrator’s voice, humorous and demented at the same time. Chowder seems intelligent and insightful, but since we learn almost nothing about his own poetry, it is impossible to decide whether he’s a kind of minor genius or a crackpot.
Read poems from Ninety-fifth Street and Sally's Hair.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 25, 2009

Lesley Kagen

Lesley Kagen is the author of Whistling in the Dark and Land of a Hundred Wonders. Her new novel, Tomorrow River, will be released on April 29, 2010.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
A little of this, a little of that.

I just finished Sue Grafton's newest mystery, U is for Undertow. I have favorite authors, like Ms. Grafton and Robert B. Parker, who I've been reading for years. I just about faint when I see they've got a new one coming out.

Next up: Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls. I loved Ms. Walls memoir, The Glass Castle, and her newest promises to be just as wonderful. Love the cover, the simple, straight forward language. And the time period. I'm a sucker for fiction set in the West. I grew up with John Wayne movies. Just about any story that has horses makes me happy.

I adored Per Petterson's, Out Stealing Horses. Such luscious imagery and characterizations. Same goes for Olive Kitteridge.

Poetry is a favorite, too. Emily Dickinson.

I go crazy for anything beautifully written, no matter what genre.
Visit Lesley Kagen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Doranna Durgin

Dun Lady's Jess, Doranna Durgin's first published fantasy novel, received the 1995 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall award for the best first book in the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres; she now has over twenty novels on the shelves and more on the way.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm reading so many things! All at once!

At the bedside, I'm reading Julie Czerneda's Rift in the Sky. It's hard to be objective about Julie's books because she's such a good friend, but the truth is that I found her work before I ever realized that she enjoyed mine, and we have many things in common as writers and people -- so in the end it's only natural that I wait for her releases with anticipation! Her stories are always interwoven with the most fascinating biological foundation, as well as characters that are utterly true to themselves, their origins, and their species needs. She always manages to give me a good kick in the heart, too. Rift is no different!

At the table, I'm reading Sandy Ganz & Susan Boyd, Tracking from the Ground Up. It's one of two tracking books I have, and while the other is highly recommended under just about all circumstances, this is the book that complements it. The first is methodical and exacting; this one gives you more tools and a more organic thinking process, and that's what works best for me and my dogs. This is a totally new training discipline for me and I'm finding this book a useful resource.

Off to the side, I'm indulging in a re-read of Rebecca York's Killing Moon. This one just struck all the right notes for me the first time around. I'm hard to please with shapeshifter type books not only because I write them myself, but because of my environmental ed and parks naturalist background, never mind the time I spent living out amongst it all and the years I've spent understanding the way animals think since then. I want my critters to feel like critters, even as the characters work within their relationships and their magic. This book did that for me.
Visit Doranna Durgin's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 21, 2009

Henri Cole

Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, and was raised in Virginia. The recipient of many awards, he is the author of Middle Earth (2003), a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and, most recently, Blackbird and Wolf (2007). His new collection, Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems, 1982-2007, is out in March 2010 from Farrar Straus Giroux. Cole lives in Boston and teaches at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At present, I'm reading an assortment of things: a new book of poems called Ninety-fifth Street, by University of Wisconsin philosophy professor John Koethe. It's his eighth book of poems and full of beauty and feeling. Most of the poems revisit memories -- of a boyhood in California, of becoming a man at Princeton and Harvard, early friendships with the New York School poets, and much more. I think of Koethe as a descendant of Wordsworth, mixing autobiography and memory, in his darkly ruminative, highly readable poems.

Then there's the poet Marilyn Chin's first work of prose, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, about two rebellious sisters growing up in the back of their grandmother's Chinese restaurant. The stories are real and surreal in their depictions of immigrant life. The two sisters drive a delivery van around their Southern California "hood" having adventures that call to mind female suffering across the centuries, but also the Chinese tradition of the revenge tale. The stories are part autobiography, part satire, and part feminist fantasy.

Then there's A Village Life, by Louise Glück, my favorite American poet. In these long awaited poems, Glück embraces a new style with longer lines and narration that makes me think of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," about a village's citizens facing threshold moments of life, with fields, rivers and mountains as a backdrop. I love this book, in part, because of how Glück, speaking calmly in the present tense, gives the reader knowledge from the center of human experience. She is a marvelous poet.

Then there's Joyce Carol Oates Wild Nights!, stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. The book, in part, is about creativity and age, though it doesn't really fit any genre, with its apprehension of four distinctive selves and its reimagining of events in their lives. I'm partial to the strangest and drollest of these tales, in which a bored suburban couple, the Krims, brings home a computerized mannequin meant to simulate Emily Dickinson, then events spiral downward from there. This is an original and quirky work by one of the finest living American writers.

Finally, I am reading the libretto to an upcoming opera, Amelia, in which a first time mother-to-be, whose psyche has been scarred by the loss of her pilot father in Vietnam, must break free from anxiety and embrace healing and renewal. The story interweaves one woman's emotional journey, the American experience in Vietnam, and elements of myth and history. This is an intensely personal libretto by the American poet Gardner McFall. Amelia will receive its premiere at the Seattle Opera this coming spring.
Visit Henri Cole's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Maggie Anton

Maggie Anton was born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, California. Raised in a secular, socialist household, she reached adulthood with little knowledge of her Jewish religion. All that changed when David Parkhurst, who was to become her husband, entered her life, and they both discovered Judaism as adults. In the early 1990's, Anton began studying Talmud in a class for women taught by Rachel Adler, now a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She became intrigued with the idea that Rashi, one of the greatest Jewish scholars ever, had no sons, only three daughters. Slowly but surely, she began to research the family and the time in which they lived. Legend has it that Rashi's daughters were learned in a time when women were traditionally forbidden to study the sacred texts. These forgotten women seemed ripe for rediscovery, and the idea of a book about them was born.

The Rashi's Daughters trilogy is comprised of Book I: Joheved, Book II: Miriam, and Book III: Rachel. Anton is also the author of the YA novel, Rashi's Daughter, Secret Scholar.

Recently, I asked Anton what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm currently reading Julian by Gore Vidal, who is probably one of this country's best writers of historical fiction. I'm actually reading it as research for my next book, which takes place in Babylonia at about the time. But I can hardly put Julian down and I feel guilty for enjoying this book so much when I'm reading it for work. I envy Gore Vidal's ability to bring his character's personality to life so vividly and to perfectly capture the deadly political intrigues of 4th-century Rome. I know it was written almost 50 years ago, but Julian is still a great read.
Visit Maggie Anton's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Alisa Libby

Alisa Libby is the author of The Blood Confession and The King’s Rose.

A week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m still in the midst of a post-National Novel Writing Month reading blitz, with books piled everywhere. Recently I read Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin: a graceful retelling of Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid” from the point of view of Lavinia, the final wife of Aeneas. The novel was a beautiful melding of history, fiction, and magical realism—the passages where Lavinia speaks to Virgil in a sacred forest were particularly effective for me. Le Guin is such a masterful writer that she manages to thread all of these elements together into a beautiful story.

Days ago I finished The Broken Citadel by Joyce Ballou Gregorian, which I’m happy to report belongs on my short list of favorite children’s/young adult fantasy novels. Sibby is an ordinary girl who leaps into high adventure within the first few pages of this novel, then quickly joins the quests of the people she meets in an alternate universe which immediately seems like home to her. Traveling by foot and horseback across beaches, crowded marketplaces, deserted cities, abandoned battlefields, and frozen lakes, Sibby discovers true belonging with her new friends and an untapped strength within herself. I was swept away by the high adventure, the lush lands Sibby visits, the vibrant energy of the writing, and the fierce loyalty of the characters. I’m relieved that there are two more books in the series — Castledown and The Great Wheel — and I can’t wait to read them.

I’ve also read A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. This is a lovely little book, made all the more wonderful by the beautiful illustrations that complement and enhance the text—I highly recommend this particular version, even to those already familiar with Thomas’s book. My to-read pile is overwhelming: Sunshine by Robin McKinley and Pretty Dead by Francesca Lia Block (I’m excited to read vampire novels by these two great writers) and The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey.
Visit Alisa Libby's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Deborah Cooke

Deborah Cooke is the author of the fantasy romance Dragonfire series. She has also written over forty romance novels under the names Claire Cross and Claire Delacroix.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her response:
The Library and Bookstore Buffet

Everyone who visits my regular blog knows how much I love an analogy, so here’s one for today about reading and writing.

If libraries and bookstores were buffets, then the works of individual authors would be the offerings on the buffet. It would be a long buffet, long enough that dishes could be sorted into groupings – desserts, for example, or salads. And if that were the case, what kind of buffet visitor would you be?

I would be the kind of buffet guest who wants one bite of everything. I can never decide in a book or library what book I want to read, or even what kind of book I want to read. I cruise the entire library and browse the whole bookstore, looking. And because my reading days are shorter than the sum of authors in the world, I usually choose something I’ve never had before. A sample bite from a different dish. I seldom read two books by any one author, because I want to try them all.

I’ve always been an avid reader but becoming a writer has cut into my sampling. Like many writers, I don’t read fiction when I’m writing fiction. It’s not uncommon for me to be in a phase of tight deadlines that doesn’t allow for any extra-curricular reading.

That only emphasizes my tendency to sample! December of this year is my reading month. This month is my time to get to my To Be Read pile. Like many authors, I also tend not to read within the genre in which I’m working – that gives me another way to refine my hunt at the library buffet. Lately, I’ve been cruising the literary fiction aisles, although I do have a tendency to choose magical realism. I can be seduced by an intriguing cover.

I’m currently finishing a lovely book, which I started over a year ago and had to put aside to get back to my own writing. It’s been haunting me, though. The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards is eloquent and touching. I’m really enjoying her dexterity with language. This book was recommended to me by a friend, and I’m glad she pointed me toward it.

After that will be Whistling In the Dark by Lesley Kagen, a book that has been waiting on me for a while. This book, interestingly, was not recommended by another friend. I usually disagree with him (!) so expect I will love it. We can have a rousing argument over the holidays, each trying to change the other’s mind while our significant others fill up the wine. What’s fun about these discussions is that we tend to find a balance point and usually end up agreeing.

Next up will be a book that was a wonderful surprise to find. Writers’ groups tend to form and dissolve in an organic way, as writers change focus or move or take on different challenges. A while ago, I was in a group which included Lynda Simmons. We both drifted from that group, but I remember that she was determined to “write Rosie’s book.” Well, I found Getting Rid of Rosie by Lynda Simmons, published, and am very excited about reading it.

I also have high hopes for Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, which will be one of my reads this month. I’ve heard very good things about this book and the package is exquisite.

Finally, I have The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I love magical realism and am past due to read his work.

After that, if time permits, I’ll dig into the really big TBR pile. Some books have been in there for years, waiting on my attention. My husband enjoyed Sea of Poppies by Amitav Gosh so I’m curious about it. The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin is waiting patiently, added to the stash because I enjoyed her first book, What The Body Remembers, so much. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is in that pile, as is In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. (I liked her first Italian historical novel a lot.) They’ve both been there a while, despite my interest in them both.

No matter how you look at it, my buffet is fully loaded.

I’ll round out the year with my usual ritual. On New Year’s Day each year, I begin to reread a favourite book. The final choice is still pending for this year, but I’ve narrowed it down – it’ll be Possession by A.S. Byatt or Blackberry Wine by Joanna Harris. The choice will depend upon how quickly I need to start writing again!
Visit Deborah Cooke's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mike Angley

Mike Angley is the award-winning author of the Child Finder Trilogy. When his debut novel Child Finder launched in June 2009, Library Journal placed it on its Summer Reads List and called it a “compelling debut novel” and “a real find.” It won the Silver Medal for fiction from the Military Writers Society of America in 2009. The second novel, Child Finder: Resurrection, released in November 2009. The final story in the trilogy, Child Finder: Revelation, will release circa December 2010. Angley promises this one will “blow your mind!” On his website he says, “Some people think the truth is out there, but it’s not. It’s in here. In the final book, and it’s not anything you can imagine.”

Angley is a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and Special Agent with the Office of Special Investigations (OSI – similar to the NCIS). He served on five command tours, and in his last assignment as Commander of OSI Region 8, at Air Force Space Command, he was fond of saying, “If it entered or exited Earth’s atmosphere, I had a dog in the fight!”

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I recently finished reading Joel Rosenberg’s The Last Jihad. As you can imagine I am drawn to thrillers not only because of my background as a USAF Special Agent, but because it’s also what I enjoy writing. The Last Jihad was published in 2003 (yes, I get around to new books when they’re not so new anymore!). It’s a great political thriller, a super page-turner, and it takes place primarily in Colorado, where I live. It poses the very frightening question, “What would happen if terrorists obtained nuclear weapons?” It’s loaded with many great twists and turns, international intrigue, and tons of action. Just what the doctor ordered!

I am currently reading a romance novel. Now, I don’t normally read romance stories, but Merline Lovelace’s The Last Bullet intrigued me for two reasons. The author is a retired USAF Colonel and a former Wing Commander (like me). In her Cleo North trilogy, of which The Last Bullet is the final story, she features an Air Force OSI Special Agent heroine. There are not too many novels featuring the Air Force OSI (other than Merline’s and mine, and I only know of about two others), so I thought I’d give it a read. It’s a romantic/suspense novel, so there’s still plenty of action and adventure to whet my whistle. I’m enjoying it thoroughly. Go Air Force!
Visit Mike Angley's website, and find him at FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace, and PoliceLink.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gregory Funaro

Gregory Funaro has worked professionally as an actor, and is currently an associate professor in the School of Theatre & Dance at East Carolina University, where he teaches, acts and directs.

The Sculptor, his first novel, is out this month.

About a week ago I asked Funaro what he was reading. His reply:
At present, I am trying to catch up on my Peter Straub — picked up lost boy lost girl last week, but have only been able to get about halfway through it in between my own writing and my daughter’s late night feedings/dirty diaper changes (she was born on August 30). I hate having to put this book down. Told from the POV of a writer who is trying to solve a mystery surrounding the suicide of his sister-in-law, it’s part mystery, part serial-killer thriller, part ghost story so far — a real treat, and I look forward to seeing how all the threads will get woven together in the end. Peter Straub is one of the true masters of the genre — always manages to combine the horrific and twisted with the truly inspirational — and I encourage younger readers who may not be familiar with his work (and who appreciate dark fiction with a more intellectual bent) to begin with Ghost Story and just start knocking off the rest of his canon. In the Night Room is next for me, and I look forward to A Dark Matter next year.

Before lost boy lost girl, I finally finished Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (what more can be said about this masterpiece?) after taking a quick (if not obligatory) detour for Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. Say what you want about Brown, but the man knows how to keep you turning the page. I’ve learned a lot from him with regard to pacing and structure.

Another recent foray I recommend (and one I am ashamed to say it took me so long in my life to read) is Anne River Siddons’s 1970s novel The House Next Door — one of the great ghost stories of our time, and a huge (albeit unexpected) influence on my third novel: a 1940s paranormal murder-mystery.
Visit Gregory Funaro's website to learn more about The Sculptor and to view the video trailer for the novel.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Alina Adams

Alina Adams is Creative Content Producer for As The World Turns and Guiding Light.

She is also the author of The Figure Skating Mystery series of books.

Some time ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
For the past few years, I have become a Born-Again-Freakonomist. Yes, it all started with Freakanomics, that was my gateway drug.

Since then, I've gorged on The Undercover Economist, MicroMotives and MacroBehavior, MicroTrends, Irrational Rationality, The Black Swan, Neuro-Marketing, and I can't wait to get my hands on SuperFreakonomics.

Though I write primarily fiction (in addition to my Figure Skating Mystery series, and my tie-in books for As The World Turns and Guiding Light, I also write a weekly, sanctioned continuation to "Another World" at, I read mostly non-fiction.

This is primarily because non-fiction "characters" can get away with human behavior that no editor would ever find believable in a novel, and also because I think the most important skill for a writer is not mechanical or stylistic, but having an understanding of people, what they do, why they do it - and why they think they do it, which is very often not the same thing.

I started with reading history, psychology and sociology, but, down the line found that economics actually provided the best guideline for understanding both group and individual behavior. And if I happen to pick up any marketing insights along the way to help the sales of my books along... that's just a bonus!
Visit Alina Adams' website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sumanth Prabhaker

Sumanth Prabhaker is the founding editor of Madras Press, a non-profit imprint that publishes individually bound short story- and novella-length booklets and distributes the proceeds to a network of charitable organizations selected by its authors.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished Underground, Haruki Murakami’s exploration of the 1995 Tokyo gas attack. It was the only English-language book of his I hadn’t yet read, so I probably came to it with certain expectations; readers familiar with his work know enough to look out for cats and disappearing women and vertical movement and so many other things that seem to occupy his brain. And the event at the heart of the book does hold some things in common with his fiction — a world beneath the surface, the struggle to understand how to behave in the aftermath of a mysterious event. Even the images are comfortable within his library, especially that of the masked cult members releasing their zipper-lock packets of liquid sarin onto the floors of the subway cars, wrapped in newspapers, and poking at them repeatedly with the sharpened tips of umbrellas. But Underground ends up accomplishing something very different than any of Murakami’s other books, in part due to the inclusion of himself as a character in the story. I’m sure he’d hate to hear this, because the focus of the book is very clearly on the victims, survivors, and perpetrators of the attack; my attention, however, was on him, and on parsing his attempt to get to the bottom of why this event took place and what it means and how it has affected the surrounding culture. Possibly even more fascinating than the recollections of the relevant parties are Murakami’s mini-profiles of the interviewees, which he includes before each new section. About one person he says, ‘Just to look at him is to see the very model of a good citizen.’ He describes another person as ‘a useful member of society,’ and goes out of his way to note that one interviewee’s ‘tall, silent husband thoughtfully left the room for the interview.’ Over the course of the book, these little bits of generosity create a sort of moral imperative, and reveal the sincerity and courteousness and profound politeness to his approach to character, and to his placement of basic ethics as the thing that keeps you rooted in the world.

Before that I read the wonderful and totally baffling graphic novel The Squirrel Machine, by Hans Rickheit, which is about two brothers who scavenge scrap metal and the limbs of dead animals and create of them a series of ornate musical machines. Driven away by the scorn of their unappreciative peers, the brothers seclude in an expansive underworld hidden in the depths of their mother’s Victorian home, where they exhibit their creations to an ambiguous audience. It's a lovely and very memorable book, but my attempts at describing the feelings it elicits have all been metaphorical and kind of meaningless, so far — it’s like looking out the window of an airplane, or like being alone in a dark museum, or like something at the bottom of a large body of water.

Before that I re-read William Vollmann’s The Royal Family, the last of his fictional studies of street prostitution. What interested me about it this time was how insistent the narrative is on incrementally lowering the main character’s social class (which wasn’t so high to begin with); it’s a huge novel, one that must have taken a lot of time to write, and I like to think of someone devoting himself to such an unusual project for so long. Lower and lower Henry Tyler goes, until those around him who haven’t died or gone to prison appear as giants in stature, and when there finally seems to be nowhere left for him to descend to, the narrative abruptly stops. I love how committed Vollmann can be to his agenda, regardless of what it does to any sense of traditional momentum or development in the storyline, and maybe even more than that I love his facility with prose and his startling imagery and the importance he assigns these things. One of my favorite moments in the novel comes early on, interrupting a conversation between two characters: There’s a paragraph break, and the parenthetical description, 'Her eyes were the shadows behind fences,' and then the dialogue resumes. It makes me happy to know that there are writers so willing to put everything else on hold when a thought like that comes to them.
Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance transcribes a long telephone conversation between a young woman stranded in India and her older boss and partner across the world. As she relates to him the story of a metaphysical experience she endured, trapped beneath a fallen armoire in a strange hotel, their relationship becomes a creature all its own, beyond their control. And as it moves, they speak only to the traveling voice of each other, driven by the possibility of connecting wires, and the melancholy of inhabiting a body.

Read more about Sumanth Prabhaker’s work at the Madras Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Narrelle Harris

Narrelle M. Harris is the author of The Opposite of Life, a Melbourne-based vampire novel. She has also authored three other novels, and wrote an essay for the recently released true crime book Outside the Law 3.

A week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ve been accumulating books in a frenzy of late, with a certain level of unjustified optimism that I’ll find time to read them all. The teetering pile contains a fair proportion of vampire fiction – having created a vampire character who collects the stuff it’s become an occupational hazard – but I like to vary my diet.

I loved Thomas Keneally’s Searching for Schindler on many levels. The memoir, an account of the research that went into writing Schindler’s List, is a gem both for those fascinated by the Schindler story and writers in general. The chapters on the business of writing – the research, the self-doubt, the endless waiting for progress on projects that may never come to pass – struck a strong chord. The chapters on his time in Poland in the 1980s also reminded me vividly of the time I spent living there in the mid-1990s.

Australian author Justine Larbalestier came to my attention a few months ago with her blog. She was witty, insightful and very smart so I picked up her YA fantasy How to Ditch Your Fairy. It didn’t disappoint! It’s a terrific book full of vivid characters of all genders and ethnicities and a crisply defined fantasy world. The theme – be careful what you wish for – is perennial, but Larbalestier lifts it out of the ordinary with flair.

Micro-presses have been furnishing me with much delight of late. Perth’s Twelfth Planet Press has several books quite near the top of my ‘to be read’ pile, after the smack-in-the-face freshness of Horn, a hard-boiled fantasy detective novel with unicorns and murder. Peter M. Ball’s book is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a promising sign of a publisher not afraid to take risks.

Another small Australian press with big potential is Arcade Publications. They produced the compact Madame Brussels: This Moral Pandemonium. Cool bars are now named after the notorious 19th century brothel keeper, but L.M. Robinson has pulled together a robust account of daily life and events surrounding Caroline Hodgson, though the Madame herself remains an enigma.

I’ve also been expanding my e-reading recently. I’ve had a PDA for over ten years now, and fine it easier to travel with my books loaded on that than to haul around a small stack of paperbacks. My latest foray is a brilliant series of YA vampire books called The Wolf House by Mary Borsellino. The author calls them Twilight for punks. I find the two books (of a proposed series of five) to date fresh, exciting, funny and, importantly, easy and engaging to read on my new iPhone.

Of course, every reader should pepper their diet with the classics. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is my choice for this month. I love the way Kerouac uses language and it’s fascinating to read aloud. I wonder what it would have felt like to read it in the late 50s, when it was first published and everything in it was new and shocking.

After reading about so many strong women recently – Madame Brussels, Larbalestier’s Charlie, P.I. Miriam Aster in Horn – I’m really noticing the lack of women with a narrative voice in this one. Yet Dean Moriarty’s self destructiveness, and Sal’s complicit passivity, are compelling in their own right.

Ah, I miss the days when I read two or more books a week. I’m usually overjoyed to get through a single book in a month, so my recent efforts represent a blaze of activity. Next month I have a host of vampire fiction to read, including Charlaine Harris’ Dead until Dark and The Girl’s Guide to Vampires. I might even actually finish one of them.
Visit Narrelle M. Harris' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 3, 2009

John Lutz

John Lutz is the author of two private eye series, the Nudger series, set in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Carver series, set in Florida, as well as many non-series novels.

His SWF Seeks Same was made into the hit movie Single White Female, starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and his novel The Ex was made into the HBO original movie of the same title, for which he co-authored the screenplay.

Lutz's latest novel is Urge To Kill.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm now reading Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red. It's part of the Rabbi series by Harry Kemelmen, published in the seventies. Each book in the series is a clever and neatly written little mystery featuring Kemelman's main character, Rabbi David Small, a young Rabbi who finds himself embroiled in crimes and acting as an amateur detective. This series is a real treasure that maybe too many readers have forgotten. I have a number (too large a number) of old mystery novels and have been reading or re-reading them to see how they've held up over the years. The Kemelman books are still greatly entertaining.
The book I read before the above was In the Woods, by Tana French. It won the Edgar for best first novel a few years ago, and I picked it up as a giveaway on the way out of the awards banquet. Finally I got around to reading it. Some book! Tana French is a brilliant natural writer. Her talent is almost magical. If she doesn't have an incandescent career it will be only because she chooses to do something else with her life.
Visit John Lutz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Katrina Kenison

Katrina Kenison is the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother's Memoir, and Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry.

From 1990 through 2006 she was the annual editor of The Best American Short Stories series, and she co-edited, with John Updike, The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Her work has appeared in O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Real Simple, Family Circle, and many other publications.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The books are:

Open by Andre Agassi, Knopf, 2009

The Wishing Year by Noelle Oxenhandler, Random House 2008, paperback 2009

Payne Hollow Journal by Harlan Hubbard, University Press of Kentucky 1996

Having recently published a memoir of my own, I’m reading about other people’s lives these days with an even greater sense of urgency than usual. I’ve always been fascinated by the true stories of real people; now, I’m equally fascinated by the process by which a private life is experienced, edited, shaped, and offered up for public consumption. In order to finish writing my own book, I had to pretend that no one would ever actually read it. When it was finally published, the feeling was akin to running around in my pajamas--not totally naked, but weirdly exposed and vulnerable. So, I have even greater respect now for anyone willing to expose themselves to such judgment and scrutiny.

This week, I bought Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, for my 17-year-old son’s birthday, and got completely hooked myself. Ghosted by Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer (author of The Tender Bar), Agassi’s book grabs you on the first page -- “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have” -- and doesn’t let go. My husband and son are both tennis fanatics; I don’t even play the game and I never read sports books. Yet Agassi’s penchant for self-destruction, vying with his absolute perfectionism, makes for a very dramatic, readable book. With unflinching honesty, he describes his inner conflicts, his tyrannical father, his crushing depression, his drug use and love life, and his decision to seize a second chance when it came and turn his life around. Even his accounts of his most memorable tennis matches are compelling. Moehringer is a fantastic writer, and he has clearly wormed his way so deeply into Agassi’s tormented psyche that there is no telling where Agassi’s voice ends and Moehringer’s begins. The book is intense, painfully raw at times, fast-paced, and ultimately a moving cautionary tale. My guess is that my teenaged son will find it as riveting as I did.

A few years ago, Noelle Oxenhandler found herself newly single after a long marriage, without a home of her own, and estranged from the spiritual community she’d been a part of for years. Her memoir The Wishing Year is a beautifully written, candid account of a skeptical, sophisticated woman who doesn’t believe in “putting it out there,” who dismisses The Secret as a lot of New Age baloney, and who feels more comfortable talking about Buddhism than owning up to her own fierce desires for a nice piece of real estate, a man, and spiritual redemption.

I love this book. Some have called it the thinking person’s version of The Secret. Certainly, the message is the same: thoughts are things. And yet, Noelle Oxenhandler is a reluctant paradigm shifter, and she is most certainly not one to jump up on a soapbox and start espousing the Law of Attraction. Instead, she asks herself, “Who knows what might emerge from the huge box marked ‘Don’t Dare!’ if I managed to open it more than a crack? There really is such a thing as fear of success. Who would I be if I stepped out of my doubts and deferrals, my carefully budgeted sense of possibility?”

Haven’t we all wondered the same thing? Here is a glimpse of a life transformed by desire, a case study in what can happen when doubt and fear are replaced by a willingness to simply expand one’s own idea of what is possible. Noelle Oxenhandler is a serious person who has somehow managed to write quite a magical book with a simple, inspiring message: Dare to dream.

Speaking of dreams ... one of mine has always been to live more simply, to strike a healthier daily balance between doing and being. And so I am forever looking to be inspired by those who manage to create rich, full lives that are off the beaten track, and in close harmony with nature. Having read quotes by Harlan Hubbard for years, I recently tracked down his now out-of-print diary, Payne Hollow Journal. Hubbard was Kentucky’s Thoreau, an eccentric artist, writer and homesteader who lived off the land for nearly fifty years, recording his daily activities in simple, vivid prose. He is also a born poet, a naturalist whose brief journal entries celebrate the beauty of a sunrise, the call of a whip-poor-will, a gentle spring rain.

Reading Hubbard's reflective, day-to-day observations of life on a remote riverbank, of the pleasure he derived from tending the garden, chopping wood, listening to his wife play her piano, I am reminded to savor the ordinary pleasures of my own life, so different in time and place from his. This little known book is worth seeking out, a poetic evocation of one man’s very deliberate choice to live with utter simplicity and clear purpose.

It just occurred to me that this is a very odd trio of authors -- a glitzy, multimillionaire tennis star, a divorced middle-aged housewife, and an eccentric Southern hermit who died over twenty years ago. So, I had to ask myself, What on earth do these wildly different books have in common? It took me a minute, but I did figure it out -- each of them is a story about finding the courage to live authentically. In their own very different ways, these three writers choose to take care of their own souls, no matter what the consequences. Guess that’s why they all inspire me, and why it’s a pleasure to recommend them....
Visit Katrina Kenison's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue