Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Edward M. Lerner

For thirty years, Edward M. Lerner toiled in the vineyards of high tech. Then, suitably intoxicated, he began writing science fiction full-time. He writes both near-future, Earth-based techno-thrillers (like Fools’ Experiments and Small Miracles) and -- as with his latest novel, InterstellarNet: Origins -- more traditional spacefaring adventures.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Immersed as I am daily in science fiction, I take a break -- when I can -- with reading that is neither science nor fiction. Recently, that’s meant Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey.

Carey has selected eyewitness accounts from around the world and spanning more than two millennia. He opens with Thucydides describing plague in Athens (430 BC) amid the Peloponnesian War and ends with James Fenton’s account of the (1986) ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. What these accounts – more than 250 of them – share is vivid, first-hand narrative.

Eyewitness to History is a book to be sampled and savored, not read cover to cover. In part that’s because so much of history reflects man’s inhumanity to man. To proceed from one atrocity to the next would be too much. Trust me: you won’t soon forget the report by Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican missionary, on the atrocities of the conquistadors. But even amid horror, some of the incidents are uplifting, testaments to the endurance and spirit of man. In the latter category comes the eight-year ordeal of British sailor Miles Philips, castaway in sixteenth-century Mexico, at the hands of (among others) the Inquisition. Then there’s: Dinner with Attila the Hun. The Peasant Revolt in England. The Sepoy Rebellion. The Liberation of Dachau. And lots, lots more...

Jumping about the book, sampling according to time, or place, or whimsy, I can’t escape that I am a SF author. At a minimum, Eyewitness to History offers color for any number of time-travel and alternate-history stories. But beyond that, the book offers 250-plus lessons in vibrantly conveying time and place. Reading them is valuable experience for any kind of writing.
Learn more about the author and his work at his website Edward M. Lerner, perpetrator of science fiction and techno-thrillers, and blog SF and Nonsense.

The Page 99 Test: Small Miracles.

The Page 69 Test: Fools’ Experiments.

-- Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dinty W. Moore

Dinty W. Moore’s memoir Between Panic & Desire (University of Nebraska) was winner of the 2009 Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize.

His other books include The Accidental Buddhist, Toothpick Men, The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes, and the writing guide, The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.

Moore has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues.

He has won numerous awards for his writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He directs Ohio University's BA, MA, and PhD in Creative Writing program.

A week or so ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am currently reading Philip Graham’s The Moon, Come to Earth, a fascinating blend of travel writing and family memoir set in Lisbon. I love the way the book refuses to limit itself to one mode or the other, and how Graham’s various turns and twists eventually combine to make a whole much greater than the sum of the parts. He is also just a clear, enjoyable, funny writer.

Like everyone else in the nonfiction world, I’m also reading and re-sampling David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Shields argues that the novel is dead, that the modern audience’s thirst for “reality” has lifted nonfiction to a new prominence, and advocates for an expanded definition of nonfiction. “Genre is a minimum-security prison,” he writes. “All great works found a genre or dissolve one. “ I find myself agreeing with about half of what he says, and disagreeing with about half, but the book is sharp, controversial, and provocative.

Just finished Steven Church’s The Day After “The Day After”: My Atomic Angst, a quirky hybrid memoir that chronicles a childhood spent in Lawrence, Kansas, chosen as the central locale for the iconic 1980s apocalyptic TV movie, “The Day After.” Church expands his story outward, and in the end he captures what it felt like for all us who grew up during the Cold War.

Finally, I’ve just started re-reading Lauren Slater’s Lying, a book I was determined to hate but which still fascinates me. Yes, the illness at the center of her “memoir” is metaphor not actual, but she pulls it off, exquisitely, and the careful reader understands precisely what she is doing.
Visit Dinty Moore's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Stephanie Dickison

Stephanie Dickison's latest book – on her career as pop culture, book, music and restaurant critic – is The 30-Second Commute: A Non-Fiction Comedy About Writing & Working From Home.

About a week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
When I’m not writing or cooking, eating or walking, I can be found at my local library, picking up the mass amount of books I’ve put on hold, or on the couch, dipping into the next title on the pile.

Before I wrote full-time, I read 10 books a month. Now I average around 3, though I wish it was still 10. Most of my reading is done before bed. And now that I’m running 2 book clubs, my reading list is comprised mostly of what’s on the list (though the teetering pile beside the couch in the living room keeps me hopeful that eventually I’ll get to all those other titles before their due dates).

I think you can tell as much about a person by what they read as what’s in their wallet.

The titles for March and April so far, are:

I have a food book club where I’ve picked books about food and then I choose a restaurant based on the book and we have our discussion there. I’ve just completed reading The Tenth Muse by Judith Jones and The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn because I’ve had to pick the places we’re meeting in. I’m just about to start Calvin Trillin’s Alice, Let's Eat: Further Adventures Of A Happy Eater. I had read About Alice years ago and was incredibly moved by his writing.

And don’t think that all of this reading about food hasn’t got to me – I’ve been cooking up a storm, baking (which I never do) and it led me to create a new website about food. So now when I’m not reading, I’m cooking or shopping for ingredients.

I co-host another book club where the books aren’t about food, but regions, so I pair a restaurant with that region and we talk about the book over the cuisine of the region. So I am just finishing The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. Our meeting is tomorrow, so I’ve spending the evening on the couch trying desperately to finish! Mones wrote Lost in Translation, which I didn’t know existed. I thought the movie was all Sophia Coppola. Now I want to read it after having seen – and loved – the movie.

I host a radio show once a month about memoirs, so I’ve always got a memoir to read before interviewing the author. I just read two kind of controversial memoirs, Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls for my interview with Catherine Gildiner, and I’m just about to start Confessions of a Trauma Therapist by Mary K. Armstrong, who is my next guest.

For absolute pleasure and my own selfish wants, I like to read non-fiction and very contemporary fiction.

Because I’m reading so much non-fiction for work stuff, I am reading a lot of humour and fiction right now. I’m about to start Galore by Michael Crummey, recommended by a friend. I can’t wait to start I Drink for a Reason by David Cross, because I don’t know his humour outside of his character on Arrested Development. And even though it’s the slimmest book that you really can’t call a “read” (because it’s just a paragraph or two beside each photo) I’m saving Dirty Bow Wow: A Tribute to Dogs and the Objects of Their Affection by Jeffrey & Cheryl Katz for an afternoon or evening where I can just enjoy and savour it along with a hot cuppa tea.


Whether I am reading for work or for pleasure, I am so grateful to have too many titles to choose from. It truly is a wonderful problem to have.
Visit Stephanie Dickison's website and blogs.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing has appeared in High Country News,, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. It has been anthologized in various “Year’s Best” collections of short science fiction and fantasy, nominated for a Nebula and four Hugo awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best sf short story of the year.

His debut novel The Windup Girl was named by TIME Magazine as one of the ten best novels of 2009, and his short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories was a 2008 LOCUS Award winner for Best Collection and also named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm reading a book called On Killing, by Dave Grossman because I'm interested in killing. Wait. Did I say that out loud? Seriously, though, it seems like if your characters are going to kill each other, they should do so realistically, and you should the understand the likely impact of something that traumatic on the killer. Good info on the processes required to overcome a human being's innate aversion to killing, and interesting meditations on larger implications for society.
Visit Paolo Bacigalupi's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kristin Harmel

Kristin Harmel's first five novels, How to Sleep with a Movie Star, The Blonde Theory, The Art of French Kissing, When You Wish, and Italian For Beginners have been translated into numerous languages and are sold all around the world.

Her latest novel is After.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished reading A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents, by Liza Palmer, a fabulous writer who also happens to be a great friend of mine. It was an absolutely tremendous book. It was a beautifully realistic look at family relationships, which I think are very under-explored in women's fiction. We spend so much time focusing on friends, career, romantic relationships, etc., that I think sometimes we forget to delve deeply enough into the first important relationships of our lives-- those with our parents and siblings. Liza does this masterfully in a novel about four siblings whose mother died five years ago and who are now coming to terms with the loss of their father -- who left them two decades earlier -- on his deathbed. Her novel explores not just those family relationships, but how they impact everything -- from work to friendship to love. It really made me think. And honestly, I was crying by the end of chapter 4. Any book that can get you that emotionally involved in a story that quickly is, in my eyes, pretty darned incredible.

I also just read Pure Princess, Bartered Bride, which is actually the very first romance novel I've ever read. It was part of the Harlequin Presents series, and it was written by Caitlin Crews, which is actually the romance-writing pen name of another close friend of mine. So I picked up the book because she'd written it, of course, and I really, really liked it. Definitely a different experience for me, but the plotting was great (as I knew it would be; my friend is a superb writer!), and I really liked how swiftly the action moved.

I have Jane Green's Dune Road on my nightstand currently; I'll probably begin reading it tonight. I also like reading a chapter of a YA book every morning, with my coffee, so I'm reading Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series once again; I absolutely adore it, and I think she has such a wonderful, wonderful writing voice. Her work always makes me smile. I'm also planning to dive back into Emily Giffin's novels soon; she has a new one out in May, called Heart of the Matter, and it is superb (I got to read an advanced copy of it). It made me want to go back and read her previous books, all of which I've loved.

Finally, I teach a novel-writing class for Mediabistro, and I've been immensely enjoying reading my students' novels. They submit a chapter each week, and I'm absolutely absorbed in all of their stories! I feel so lucky to get to work with budding writers each week!
Visit Kristin Harmel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Walter Greatshell

When not writing satirical horror novels, Walter Greatshell dabbles in freelance illustration (with an eye to creating dark children’s books, comics or graphic novels), humorous nonfiction (a throwback to his early days as a freelance journalist and arts critic), and stage acting (including in local productions of Oedipus Rex and Karel Capek’s R.U.R.). He has been a graveyard-shift nuclear-submarine technician and the general manager of a Providence landmark, the Avon Cinema.

His new book is Xombies: Apocalypticon.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Lately I've read two true accounts of 19th Century seafarers: White Jacket by Herman Melville, and Two Years before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. I don't know why I'm suddenly reading these things, which in the past I would have found pretty dry and technical, except that in recent years I've become much more interested in other authors' personal experiences, and how they record them. Maybe it has something to do with my growing awareness of my own mortality--eventually my writing will be all that's left to show who I was.

Melville was an ironic, literary guy, with a strongly-felt political agenda that comes through the material, while Dana was more workmanlike, just describing his adventures. I feel closer in spirit to Melville, the romantic, the doomed idealist, which is probably why I'm completely screwed.

I've also just finished House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, which has flashes of brilliance but is otherwise almost unreadable. Having said that, I did finally read it, hence the "almost." It's basically a very simple (and interesting) haunted house story buried in tons of typographical gimmicks and fake footnotes. The good stuff is almost worth it--again: almost.

Finally, I'm reading Charles Portis's True Grit for the hundredth time, just because I heard the Coen brothers are making a new movie adaptation. True Grit has always been a huge inspiration for me as a writer--one of those perfect little gems like Catcher in the Rye. It reminds me of what I should be trying to do...even when I'm writing about zombies.
Visit Walter Greatshell's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Xombies: Apocalypse Blues.

The Page 69 Test: Xombies: Apocalypticon.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 19, 2010

Chelle Cordero

Chelle Cordero's romance novels include Bartlett’s Rule, Forgotten, Within the Law, Courage of the Heart, Hostage Heart, A Chaunce of Riches, and Common Bond, Tangled Hearts. Her murder-mystery thriller, Final Sin, was published in May 2009.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I admit, I have several “name” authors I enjoy reading (Dean Koontz, Faye Kellerman, Patricia Cornwell) but since I have been on the published author side, I’ve been made aware that there are a lot of enjoyable books from indie authors and publishers. I do tend to favor titles and authors from my publisher’s line-up (Vanilla Heart Publishing) and have read some really good stories from Charmaine Gordon, Smoky Trudeau, Sandy Nicks, Malcolm Campbell and L. E. Harvey. I favor VHP but don’t limit my reading…

I just finished a book by Janet Lane Walters (non VHP author) called Obsessions. This is a very fast paced book involving murder, obsession and fear (on both the heroine’s and the reader’s part). I truly enjoy a good mystery and this drama, which takes place in a hospital setting, didn’t disappoint.
Visit Chelle Cordero's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dexter Palmer

Dexter Palmer lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University, where he completed his dissertation on the work of James Joyce, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon (and where he also staged the first academic conference ever held at an Ivy League university on the subject of video games).

His new novel is The Dream of Perpetual Motion.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Recently I finished The Bascombe Novels by Richard Ford, a collection of three novels that includes The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. I picked it up because I’m trying to read fiction that’s outside my comfort zone—when it comes to late-twentieth-century writing I tend to prefer postmodernist comedies like Thomas Pynchon’s novels, and I wanted a change of pace. I really enjoyed Ford’s trilogy, perhaps even more than I liked John Updike’s similar project with the character of Rabbit Angstrom—taken together, the three novels are a master class in dynamic character development. Over time the character of Frank Bascombe, sportswriter turned real-estate agent, comes to seem almost like a real person, due to all the carefully chosen details that Ford uses to depict Bascombe’s habits and thoughts, as well as the endearingly meandering interior monologues that capture Bascombe’s attempts to make sense of his own life. And Ford is a great stylist, too—features of life that would otherwise seem mundane become much less so when described with such gorgeous sentences.

I’m also intermittently working through a reading of all of Herman Melville’s novels in order of publication—up until recently I’d only read Moby-Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence-Man, none of which I believe I fully understood at the time. It turns out that Moby-Dick (which I just reread in January) makes much more sense, and is much easier to get into, if you’ve read the novels that Melville wrote before it: especially, you can see glimmers of Melville’s grand project gestating in the two previous novels Redburn and White-Jacket, which are more accessible warm-ups that can prepare you for tackling his masterpiece.

And I just received a shipment of books that I’m looking forward to digging into—The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (I purchased it primarily because of its interesting cover); A Dark Matter by Peter Straub (because it’s been a while since I’ve read a horror novel); The Death of American Virtue by Ken Gormley (I never was able to make sense of the Bill Clinton/Ken Starr scandal, and I’m hoping this book will do it for me); and The Room and the Chair by Lorraine Adams (which got a nice write-up in the most recent issue of Bookforum). But I probably buy twice as many books as I have the time to read—there are worse habits to have.
Learn more about The Dream of Perpetual Motion and its author at Dexter Palmer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 15, 2010

Malena Watrous

After graduating from Barnard College, Malena Watrous eventually taught English in Japan. She was placed by the Jet Program in Shika-Machi, the nuclear power plant town in which she set her debut novel, the newly released If You Follow Me.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Lit is the first book by Mary Karr that I’ve read. In addition to rarely reading books about writing, I generally prefer novels to memoir, but I heard Karr talk about the book on the radio and I liked her dark and irreverent sense of humor, so I ordered Lit on my husband’s new Kindle and ran out of battery power that night, about three quarters of the way in. (This is the new way of saying, “page-turner,” since I was pushing a button instead of flipping pages). Not having read any of Karr’s poetry, nor her previous two memoirs, The Liars’ Club or Cherry (which I picked up after finishing Lit) I wasn’t versed in Karr’s “apocalyptic” Texas childhood. I met her as a young poet, married to a man as chilly and controlling as she was warm and veering out of control. She was attempting to take off as a writer while also taking care of her new baby, and drinking an awful lot, from early morning on. Although she wanted to be different in every way from her own alcoholic and mentally ill mother, she was clearly following some familiar patterns. Throughout the book, she writes vividly of her descent into alcoholism, hard earned recovery, and almost accidental quest for some kind of spiritual practice. Karr is such an incredible writer and storyteller that it barely matters what she’s writing about. It’s always apparent that she’s a poet first, not because her language is flowery or needlessly ornate, but because she leads with powerful and precise images, trusting her sensory details to evoke feeling in the reader. No matter how ugly her subject or scene, she can always find redemptive humor in it, but she manages to be funny without sacrificing vulnerability. By the end of the book, the extremely simple title had taken on multiple meanings, as Karr braided together narratives about being “lit” on alcohol, about her literary pursuits and achievements, and about seeking some brighter light than her own.

I picked up After The Workshop, by John McNally, while in Iowa City, where the novel is set. This is a bitingly funny satire of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and while I derived particular pleasure from reading it there (this is another book I devoured in one big gulp) I think it would appeal to anyone with a prurient interest in the contemporary literary “scene” (unglamorous as it is), and anyone who has been in enough writing workshops to become versed in their clichés. McNally nails the details. The main character is a workshop graduate who has stayed for a decade in Iowa City, working as a “literary escort” to the writers who come through town to read at Prairie Lights bookstore (where I bought this novel). He had early success, publishing a story in The New Yorker (though he has good reason to doubt whether it got in on his own merits) and now he is stuck in every sense—a recognizable Iowa City type, most frequently seen at The Foxhead bar. Whereas Lit is a book on a serious subject by an author who can’t help but infuse it with her darkly comic sensibility, After The Workshop is a blatant and unapologetic comedy, by an author who manages nonetheless to bring surprising depth to his main character and his concerns. Who hasn’t felt left behind, insecure, stuck? At the same time, while he may have spent the last decade in stasis, the novel takes place over just a couple of days in which we see him make one brilliantly glaring mistake after another, all of which combine to somehow (mostly believably) get him un-stuck.

Another great novel that I read most recently was one that I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle: The Gin Closet, by Leslie Jamison. This is a novel about a young woman who discovers that she has an aunt she never knew existed, a sort of prodigal daughter who ran away to the desert of Nevada, where she has been living in squalor in a trailer, after working most of her adult life as a prostitute. The setup is extreme, but the characters are heartbreakingly real. Jamison’s novel alternates between the first person voices of the niece and the aunt, very different but equally strong and compelling. Flannery O’Connor famously wrote that the end of a story should be at once surprising and inevitable, and Jamison somehow manages to achieve this neat effect on the sentence level. While I was definitely drawn in by the bigger story, and wanted to find out what was going to happen to these two troubled women, I savored the novel for its sentences and actually read it slowly on purpose, because I didn’t want to miss any luminous moment.

I also want to recommend a beautiful and chilling novel called My Abandonment, by Peter Rock. This novel came out in 2008, but it’s one I can’t get out of my head, and I don’t think it got as much attention as it deserves. Rock writes absolutely persuasively from the point of view of a homeless teenaged girl, living with her dad (at least we think he’s her dad) in a park just outside Portland, Oregon. They have been living on the fringes of society and off its dregs for almost as long as she can remember, and they have their systems down in a way that’s fascinating to read about. I love how deeply Rock inhabited this young female character, how well he captured her voice, how he made her extreme circumstances seem almost normal, almost enviable at times, but also how he left murky things murky. Is her father her biological father? Should we root for the girl to get caught by the system the two of them are so hell-bent on avoiding, or should we accept that this life they lead is freer and suits her? This is a spare and economical novel that dramatizes questions of what it means to be “civilized,” and whether someone can or should be allowed to live completely on their own terms. The book doesn’t end the way I expected it to, and yet it’s a perfect ending for this novel, one of the reasons why it continues to haunt me, like an unresolved chord.
Browse inside If You Follow Me, and learn more about the book and author at the official Malena Watrous website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Christopher Norment

Christopher Norment is a professor of environmental science and biology at SUNY College at Brockport, where he specializes in the breeding biology and ecology of migratory birds.

In addition to numerous scientific articles, he is the author of In the North of Our Lives and Return to Warden's Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows.
I’ve just finished American Rust, by Phillipp Meyer, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last year. It’s a powerful story about moral choices, and human determination to persist in the face of failure and despair. American Rust is set in the coal and manufacturing country of southwestern Pennsylvania, a once-prosperous region facing desperate economic times. Meyer does a wonderful job of describing the decaying towns of the Monongahela Valley, and the contrasting beauty of a natural landscape exploding into spring. What he’s best at, though, is giving voice to the emotions and experiences of a diverse range of characters, from two twenty-year-old men, to a middle-aged mother, and the local chief of police. Meyer uses a stream of consciousness style to depict how the minds of his main characters work, and he captures the haphazard, disjointed, and ambivalent essence of this process. American Rust is great fiction because it compelled me to consider my own life - how I perceive and react to the world, deal with my history, and make the choices that I do. Phillipp Meyer has written a wonderful and very wise book, an achievement all the more remarkable because it is his first published novel.

I am also working though Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. Coyne is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, and an expert on speciation. I need no convincing about the truth of evolution, but the book has received good reviews, and I am always looking for interesting and compelling information about evolution to impart to my students. Coyne’s book is non-technical, well-written, and entertaining. Coyne makes a compelling case for the truth of evolution, and I recommend it to anyone who feels as though they would like to develop a better understanding of the central unifying principle of biology.

Finally, I always have a collection of poems close at hand. I like to begin and end the day with a poem or two, just to settle my mind (in the evening) or get my mind going (in the morning). At the moment I am revisiting one of my favorites, B. H. Fairchild’s Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. Fairchild is a lyrical and deeply thoughtful poet. He is very good with memory and desire, and a master at depicting the vast and empty landscapes of western Kansas, where he grew up, and the lives of working people. Two of my favorite poems in this collection are “Rave On,” and the long narrative poem “Blue Buick.”
Visit Chris Norment's faculty webpage where you will find links to excerpts and reviews of his books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gardner McFall

Gardner McFall is the author of a book of poems, The Pilot's Daughter, and two children's books: Jonathan's Cloud and Naming the Animals.

She is the editor of Made With Words, a prose miscellany by May Swenson and has written the Introduction and Notes for Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. She received her Ph.D. from New York University, her M.A. from Johns Hopkins University, and her B.A. from Wheaton College. Forthcoming work includes an opera libretto for a new opera commissioned by Seattle Opera (music by Daron Hagen, story by Stephen Wadsworth), entitled Amelia, scheduled to premiere in 2010, and a new book of poems, Russian Tortoise. McFall teaches at Hunter College.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've been reading On Kindness (FSG, 2009) by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, a very readable, thought-provoking 114 page essay on the history of kindness and its place in our culture today. Written by a psychoanalyst and an historian, the book shows that while kindness has historically been essential to the Western idea of the Good Life, we are ambivalent about it in our own age of self-interest. The authors remind us of the reasons we need to embrace kindness for our children and ourselves since it is the key to our community and humanity. They draw on fascinating sources, without ever being pedantic or moralizing.

I am also reading (or reading through since it is a large, companionable book) The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present (Norton, 2010), edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley, and Karen Van Dyck, with an Introduction by Robert Hass. This is an indispensable anthology for anyone interested in classical Greek poetry, contemporary Greek poetry, and everything in between. The book is comprehensive and pleasurable to read; it should be a resource in everyone's personal library.

Finally, I have just started Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (Grove, 2010) by Karl Marlantes.It is a big, sprawling, compelling novel written by a decorated Marine combat veteran about Bravo company and its soldiers on the front line of war.
Read a poem from Russian Tortoise and learn more about the opera Amelia.

Visit Gardner McFall's Hunter College faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lynda Simmons

Lynda Simmons is the author of Getting Rid of Rosie.

Late last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Because I teach a novel writing class, I try to practice what I preach and read, read, read, because honestly, I don’t think you can write well if you don’t. So with my latest manuscript finally out the door, it was time at last to dip into the stack of books that I received for Christmas – some by authors I was trying for the first time, and a few by authors I always enjoy.

Where to begin was the problem. When I pick up a book, I’m looking to be engaged from the opening line. I want the writer to reach out, grab me by the throat and hold on until the very end. But beyond a compelling plot, I also hope the characters will be memorable, that they’ll linger in my heart and mind, drawing me back again and again. Characters like Lilah Kemp in Timothy Findlay’s Headhunter, who believes she has freed Kurtz from page 92 of Heart of Darkness and now must find her own Marlow to help get him back. Or the dog in Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, who is torn between survival and being a ‘good dog’ – fabulous bit of characterization there.

So as I started in on my stack of books, I was hoping to find at least one with staying power, one that would stick with me long after I’d closed the cover and set the book back on the shelf. And I was delighted to discover that Claudia Dey’s Stunt definitely sticks.

The main character, Eugenia is nine years old, wise beyond her years and desperate for her father to love her. When he disappears, leaving behind a note of apology addressed only to her mother and sister, Eugenia is convinced he’s coming back for her. That her name was left out, not because he forgot to include her, but because he has no intention of leaving her behind. Now picture a nine year old girl sitting on the front stairs in a corduroy dress. “Teeth brushed. Hair brushed.” With provisions sewn into the hem of that dress. Things a little girl believes they will need. “. . .nuts, a handkerchief, rope, a pen and paper and a knife. I will move with you as seamlessly as you move through the world. I will be your shadow.” Heart breaking stuff for the adult reader who just knows that man is never coming back.

Stunt is not an easy read, not the kind of book you can skim through, toss aside and move on to the next. Dey’s style makes you slow down, take your time, savour every image, every quirky twist and turn in this unique and fascinating novel. Chances are good you’ll read it a second time, and a third, to catch what you surely missed the first time through.

Another book that hooked me from the beginning was The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. In case you haven’t heard about the book, which I doubt, The Help is set in Mississippi in 1962 and tells the story of Skeeter, a young white woman who cannot squeeze herself into the narrow life that awaits every woman of her social class. Like everyone else she knows, Skeeter was raised by the family’s maid, a black woman named Constantine who disappeared without a word to the girl who loved her as much as she loved her own mother. In trying to find out what happened to Constantine, Skeeter grows more and more curious about the lives of the women who work in the homes of her friends and family. Deciding their stories need to be told, Skeeter convinces one of the maids, Abileen, to not only write down her own story, but to help her recruit other maids to tell theirs as well.

While The Help is not a story with a lot of action, the affection the reader feels for the characters and knowing how dangerous this project could be for both Skeeter and the maids who agree to take part, keep the tension tight and the reader turning the pages well after the rest of house has gone to sleep.

Short stories are a blessing for anyone cursed with a love of books and too little time to indulge their cravings. Usually, I save short story collections for those agonizing weeks when I’m in deadline hell with a new book of my own and only have time for a quick reading fix. But having received a copy of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café Unplugged, I decided to indulge myself early. The first thing you need to know is that Stuart Mclean is an oral storyteller with a weekly radio show I try hard not to miss. His ongoing tales of Dave and Morley – a fictional couple whose lives I have been following for years – are funny, insightful and real enough to make me wish they’d invite me to dinner some time. McLean won the Stephen Leacock award for humor for this collection, and there is not a single entry that disappoints.

These are not hard-hitting, gritty, urban tales. These are stories about the every day things in life. Things like trying to keep the dog off the bed, and first snowfalls, and picking the wrong time to leave the bathroom naked. Tender moments, hilarious moments and more importantly the difficult moments every one of us has known. But whatever moment McLean is sharing with us, he does it with humour, compassion and an obvious affection for the human race that is guaranteed to make even the most cynical reader smile.

It’s almost March now and I’m not even half way through my stack of books. Still, I’m optimistic and hoping to get through most of them by the summer. I’ll let you know if any of them stick!
Visit Lynda Simmons' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Joanna Smith Rakoff

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the author of the novel A Fortunate Age, which was a New York Times Editors' Pick, a winner of the Elle Readers' Prize, a selection of Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, an IndieNext pick, and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As a journalist and critic, she's written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Vogue, Time Out New York, O: The Oprah Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals.

About ten days ago, I asked her what she was reading. Her response:
Right now, I’m reading Meghan Daum’s deeply brilliant memoir, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, a sort of history of her life (and her mother’s life) through the prism of real estate, which is also a vivid take on the housing craze of the early Oughts. Daum is, undoubtedly, one of the most interesting thinkers—and cultural critics—of our generation, if not the most interesting, and certainly one of the most elegant, sharp writers of prose around. While reading Life Would Be Perfect—which I cannot put down—I’ve found myself thinking, “Wow, I’d read Meghan Daum’s thoughts on anything.” (A slight tangent: Recently, while getting my hair cut, I was handed a tattered copy of Allure and began reading a profile of Kristen Stewart, only to find myself thinking, “This is incredibly smart and funny. It’s as if Allure hired Meghan Daum to profile Kristen Stewart.” Then I flipped back to the byline and, indeed, Allure had hired Meghan Daum to profile Kristen Stewart.) In Life Would Be Perfect she traces her fixation on housing to her mother’s class strivings, which manifest themselves in her own psyche once she leaves home and becomes obsessed with, in turn, the ideal dorm room, Upper West Side apartment, Nebraska farmhouse, and Echo Park bungalow. (It’s not a spoiler to say that after many misfires, she acquires the latter, only to find that home ownership isn’t the nirvana she’d envisioned.) But the tale’s brilliance lies less in the subject matter—though, of course, it’s both tragic and hilarious to look back on the decorating fever that gripped the country for a few years—than in Daum’s singular, hilarious, piercing take on it, and, of course, her gripping, forceful prose (which is, ultimately, what makes the book impossible to set down).

I’m also re-reading David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan, a collection of that made a big splash when it came out in 2001, a year or so after one of the stories, “The Smoker,” appeared in The New Yorker’s now-defunct debut fiction issue. I read the collection a few years later—after the hype had died down—and loved it, in part because it struck me as very different from most of the contemporary fiction I was reading at the time. Schickler’s stories are stylized—there’s a vaguely Mamet-like quality to them, though Schickler’s sensibility is pure romanticism, the opposite of Mamet’s cynicism—and seriously weird, somehow walking an odd, transfixing line between realism and surrealism (or, perhaps, absurdism). The Manhattan in which they take place is at once comfortingly recognizable—there’s the Broadway-Lafayette stop! And Riverside Drive!—and utterly fantastical. The characters live in a fictional apartment building, the Preemption, on Riverside Drive, which may or may not have vaguely supernatural qualities, just as the city itself may be possessed of its own volition, in Schickler’s odd, charming worldview.

Too quickly: I’ve recently finished two lovely, and very different novels by friends, Jami Attenberg’s The Melting Season, a dark tale about a young Nebraskan who escapes a bad marriage, and Shanthi Sekaran’s The Prayer Room, a family saga that chronicles, with great humor and grace, the marriage of a working class English scholar and a rebellious South Indian woman he meets on his year abroad. I also just finished Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and loved, in particular, the story “Executors of Important Energies,” in which a young man is visited by his wealthy, senile father. Brutal. (Like much of the book.)

Sitting beside my bed is Margaret Drabble’s 2006 novel The Sea Lady, which I’ve been holding out to myself as a reward for finishing a difficult piece on which I’ve been working for way too long (I love Drabble and, thus, am doling out her novels, just as I do with Dawn Powell, allowing myself perhaps one every eight months, so as not to run out). Also in the queue: Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed (Then We Came to the End is one of my favorite novels of recent years), my Oberlin classmate Paul Jaskunas’ Hidden, a disturbing novel about a woman who’s survived a brutal attack by her husband (it’s so distressing that I can’t read it after dark and, thus, am not making much headway), Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash, because I’m mildly obsessed with Japan, and Justin Taylor’s new collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, because it sounds fantastic.
Read an excerpt from A Fortunate Age, and learn more about the book and author at Joanna Smith Rakoff's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Fortunate Age.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 5, 2010

Sujatha Hampton

All Sujatha Hampton ever wanted to be was a novelist. Her first book, As It Was Written, was published in February by Thomas Dunne Books.

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now, honestly, I am rereading my own novel, As It Was Written, for perhaps the millionth time. I’m looking for excerpts to read for various audiences. Some stuff is better left unread in certain venues. I’m doing some readings in schools; there are paragraphs I’d best not touch in front of the PTA.

But before this I was reading Theft by Peter Carey. I loved this book, and it was a fascinating discovery that I loved it despite the absolute fact that I was not particularly sympathetic with either of the main characters. The last novel I think I loved though I really didn’t find any one character likeable was A Confederacy of Dunces. It is a wonder to be so vastly talented that the reader simply doesn’t need to feel the characters to love the book.

Before this I was reading Possession by A. S. Byatt, which is brilliant and awesome, in the true sense of the word. There is a foreboding, brooding danger through the book and yet it is a literary mystery. Why should I feel dread over the lives of dead poets? And yet…I did. Marvelous.

I believe I was reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union before that and this now ranks as one of my favorite novels of all time. Chabon creates an entire world of brilliant, downtrodden, desperate and talented Alaskan refugee Jews that is at once heartbreaking and hilarious. These days, we are rarely allowed novels of this sweeping and audacious quality. It seems publishers worry that readers will not come along on such a daring ride anymore. Books like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, like Winter’s Tale by Helprin, like A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole, like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, they are falling away. Our books become shorter and shorter, less and less complicated, less and less extraordinary. The powers that be are afraid of the dwindling attention spans of Americans; they cut characters right and left. They slash whole story lines to get to the pith of it, when perhaps what was not pithy, but certainly meaty, was what would propel the story into the place that legends live.

I do seek out the great and delicious books, and I read them with my mouth agog and my heart thumping in my chest. It is a rare gift these days, that kind of story. I must say, it was what I was hoping for when I wrote my own novel. Time will tell if I succeeded.
Visit Sujatha Hampton's website and the publisher's webpage for As It Was Written.

--Marshal Zeringue