Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jason Vuic

Jason Vuic is an assistant professor of modern European history at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia, and author of The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I teach East European history, a dense and sometimes confusing subject that can be difficult for my students, so I’m always looking for books that are accessible to the average reader. I’ve come across two works of non-fiction recently that absolutely fit the bill: Julian Rubinstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber and Reggie Nadelson’s Comrade Rockstar.

First, Julian Rubinstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber…. Here Rubinstein describes the life and times of Attila Ambrus, “a gentleman thief, a sort of Cary Grant—if only Cary Grant came from Transylvania, was a terrible professional hockey goalkeeper, and preferred women in leopard-skin hot pants.” To Hungarians, Ambrus was a loveable rogue. In the 1990s, he robbed nearly 30 banks. Ambrus eschewed violence, left flowers for women tellers, and once sent a bottle of wine to the police detectives pursuing him. (He earned the nickname “Whiskey Robber” because he liked to drink Johnny Walker Red while staking out future heists). Through six years of robberies, Ambrus became a latter-day Jessie James. He symbolized the anger and aspirations of ordinary Hungarians who now felt powerless in a post-communist (and not so wonderfully capitalist) world. Ambrus is still in jail, but word is Johnny Depp is going to play him in a film.

In Comrade Rockstar, Reggie Nadelson tells the fascinating story of Dean Reed, a good looking, all-American pop singer from Colorado who was anything but all-American. Dean, we learn, was a rock star in Russia—Soviet Russia—and spent most of the Cold War singing “Rock Around the Clock” and “Wake Up Little Suzy” to communists. According to Nadelson, “Reed’s records went gold from Berlin to Bulgaria. He made cowboy movies, Eastern-Westerns with stand-in Indians cast in Uzbekistan. He played the radical circuit too—South America and the Middle East. He [even] sang “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to Yasser Arafat. Reed led an interesting life—that is until he died mysteriously in 1986 by drowning in an East German lake. But what should we make of Reed and his curious East/West existence? Was he truly a promoter of peace, as he likened himself, or was he callous self-promoter? Why did so many East Europeans like him, and why did communist governments, so known for their anti-Americanism, allow him to perform?

Buy the two books, have a shot of Stoli (or a nip of palinka), and find out. You'll be glad you did.
Visit the official The Yugo website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lia Purpura

Lia Purpura is Writer in Residence at Loyola University in Baltimore, MD and teaches in the MFA program at the Rainier Writing Workshop, in Tacoma, WA.

Her books include King Baby (poems), winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award; On Looking (essays), finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Towson University Award in Literature; Increase (essays), winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award; and Stone Sky Lifting, winner of the OSU Press/The Journal Award.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm reading the truly wonderful Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban -- a writer I've known, until very recently, only as the illustrator of the Bread and Jam for Francis books. This is absolutely not the kind of thing I'd pick up on my own; it was urged on me by a trusted novelist friend -- and it's stunning. Set in post-apocalyptic England and written in a kind of rudimentary/exploded/archaic-techno English, young Riddley intuits and listens his way towards wholeness ... there's a warmth and tenderness in this character that's just amazing, and although the language is "diminished," or spliced from many sources, it's expressive and organic, too. I'm attached to Riddley the way I used to attach to characters as a kid -- and I haven't felt that for a very very long time. I used to love them in the way of wanting to be their friend, but also feeling like they WERE me and not at all separate, and also feeling (hard to untangle all these) protective about them -- almost like I wanted to keep them safe and in my pocket and learn from them at the same time. Riddley is in the position of having to reconstruct a damaged, ruined world and construct a life as an adult -- and to accomplish these tasks, he has to work out nothing less than a fully fleshed epistemology, based on his own smarts, good will, savvy and ever-enlarging understanding of competing human drives. I haven't finished it yet, and might not for a while, because I'm dosing it out so carefully....
Visit Lia Purpura's website and sample her poems and essays, and read reviews and interviews about her work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Joe Bonomo

Joe Bonomo is author of AC/DC's Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series, 2010), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found (2009), Installations (National Poetry Series, 2008), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band (2007), and numerous essays and prose poems. He teaches in the English Department at Northern Illinois University.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Here are a few books I can’t shake:

Larry Brown, A Miracle Of Catfish

Apart from a few early stories and one self-consciously experimental miss (The Rabbit Factory), Brown’s work is uniformly strong. I love Joe, Fay, and Father and Son, but his last novel indicates how far he’d come as a storyteller and what he might have produced had he not died of a heart attack in 2004. A Miracle of Catfish is unfinished, but the world Brown creates is so full, the characters so round and naturalistic, the rolling, tense, verdant Mississippi landscape so sensually rendered, that the lack of a conventional resolution feels more realistic than not: this world is alive, unending. Brown’s final-draft notes included at the end of the book offer a glimpse of fates and possibilities, but they’re superfluous. Loneliness, alienation, aimless driving, splintered families, beers on ice in a cooler in a truck’s floorboards, and sticky heat and human anxieties and drama: it’s all here in a book that I can’t wait to read again.

Joe Mackall, The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage

The editor of River Teeth, a journal devoted to literary nonfiction, Mackall brings to bear on his troubled past a sharp, unforgiving eye for cinematic details. The title names the parameters within which Mackall uneasily but stubbornly moves in this return to his neighborhood to explore what he’s lost and what he might find there now. Mackall thankfully spares coyness and self-pity in confessing to spiritual and familial loss as well as addiction and professional malaise. A brave, clear-eyed book about loss of faith, how one’s sensibility is shaped by environment, and the struggles with that permanent fact, this is also a great book about writing’s redemptive possibilities.

Franz Lidz, Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers and My Uncle Arthur, New York's Greatest Hoarders

A cool blend of biography, reportage, and personal essaying, Lidz’s book chronicles the sad story of Homer and Langley Collyer — they lost themselves literally and figuratively in their Manhattan apartment filled with junk — and weaves in memories of his own hoarding uncle. I love writers who attempt to recognize shapes and patterns in their own lives reflective of those in the larger world. Lidz’s way in to his subject— autobiography > biography — tempers self-absorption and still essays the connections between personal and public. Plus, the story of the Collyer brothers is wildly interesting.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Gilead, an epistolary novel, feels essayistic, part of the reason it appeals to me. In letters written to his young son, John Ames moves from casual to formal, memoiristic to (gently) pedantic, nostalgic to deeply troubled. Robinson’s details of the physical and metaphysical worlds are remarkable and loving, the novel written with such spiritual passion, knowledge, and affection for its characters that it feels warm to the touch. Robinson’s interested in dramatizing the urgency of the finite life and of the wistfulness generated by a failing heart; looking backwards and forward at the same time, Ames sees sorrowful complexity and joyous simplicities, the novel’s masterful, humane blend.

Roger Angell, Late Innings: A Baseball Companion

Every year around the end of February I raid my shelves for baseball books; none ever match the warmth and heft of Angell’s. His New Yorker narrative musings on the game are anachronistic in the age of sabermetrics, and that’s what I love about them: with a patience obviously borne of a deep love for the game, Angell knits together stories and scenes, from spring training to August’s dog days to the World Series, that cohere both as fully-arced portraits and as snapshots of in-game moments. Nobody describes a plate appearance quite like Angell, and few share his breadth of knowledge, storehouse of memories, and ability as a story teller. His baseball writings are a great example of how it’s possible to write personally without writing autobiographically (although we get glimpses into Angell’s past and private life). I shamelessly love everything that this man, who’ll turn 90 this fall, has written about the game, but I’m partial to Late Innings because it covers the Seventies and the Yankees’ Bronx Zoo mania, among my favorite eras and memories of baseball.

Books I’ve read or re-read recently, and will again: Beryl Singleton Bissell’s The Scent of God; Claudia Rankine’s Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric; Christopher R. Weingarten’s Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; Bruce Eaton’s Big Star’s Radio City; Josh Alan Friedman’s Tales Of Times Square; Luc Sante’s Low-Life and Kill All Your Darlings; Mark Irwin’s Tall If.

I’m looking forward to getting into Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana, Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, Rob Trucks’ Fleetwood Mac's Tusk; Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is The Bomb, Steven Church's The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, and so many others….
Visit Joe Bonomo's blog, and read more about his new book, AC/DC's Highway to Hell.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sheila Roberts

Sheila Roberts lives in Bremerton, Washington. When she’s not speaking to women’s groups or at conferences, she can be found writing about family, friendship and other things near and dear to women’s hearts. Her new book is Small Change.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m always reading something. I especially love to read cookbooks and food magazines. (Hmmm. Could there be a connection between that and the growing size of my waist?) I also love to read books that give me a laugh, which puts Donald E. Westlake’s caper books at the top of my fun list. But I’m also drawn to books that will teach and inspire me, and I think my recent read, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, would fall in that category.

What a fascinating peek into the mind of an entertainment icon and Renaissance man! I found so many interesting tidbits. Steve Martin’s first exposure to the general public was when he was a boy, working at Disneyland hawking tickets. He had a passion for magic tricks, and as a teenager had a magic act. He worked at Knott’s Berry Farm in its early days, performing on a small stage for small audiences. When he started working clubs as a comic his audiences there weren’t so big either. Why did it surprise me to read of his humble beginnings and early struggles? Did I think he was born STEVE MARTIN? I guess I did. What a shock and a comfort to realize that he wasn’t just a wild and crazy guy but a man with dreams who spent years carving success from the granite of everyday struggles.

As I followed this man through those early hard years I was impressed by how he was always learning, always growing, always thinking about how he could improve his act. After a performance he would analyze the act, note what “killed” and what needed to be eliminated. What had he done right? Where had he gone wrong? Time, energy, and dedication were the keys to his success.

That so resonated with me as an author. I think I’m still in my “club years,” working to improve as a writer, always thinking about my books and how I can improve them. How can I bring my writing up a notch? How can I do a better job of catching those little errors before they wind up in print, leaving me with egg on my face? What do I need to do differently this time around? What’s the next step?

I read this book out of curiosity and found inspiration as I vicariously observed Steve Martin’s journey to success and saw how hard this man worked to achieve his dreams. If you’ve got dreams, I think his story might just inspire you, too.
Visit Sheila Roberts' website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jehanne Dubrow

Jehanne Dubrow is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Stateside (Northwestern University Press 2010), which describes her experiences as a "milspouse." Her first book, The Hardship Post (2009), won the Three Candles Press Open Book Award, and her second collection From the Fever-World, won the Washington Writers' Publishing House Poetry Competition (2009). Finishing Line Press published her chapbook, The Promised Bride, in 2007.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I admit it. During the school year, much of my reading coincides with whatever class I happen to be teaching or whatever I’m planning to teach next. For instance, at the moment I’m in week fourteen of a course called “War Poetry in the 20th and 21st Centuries.” I fell in love with Bruce Weigl’s work while my students were making their way through the anthology, From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, edited by Philip Mahony. In fact, I was so crazy about Weigl’s poetry that I went out and bought his book What Saves Us. In the title poem, the speaker describes the night before his deployment to Vietnam; he had hoped to finally sleep with his girlfriend as a send-off gift but, instead, learns that we can’t always anticipate what “will save us.” The poem is both erotic and terrifying: “People die sometimes so near you, / you feel them struggling to cross over, / the deep untangling, of one body from another.”

My other confession is that I often read more for research than for fun. Right now, I’m working on two book projects. The first is a collection of poetry about my teenage years in the Eastern Bloc. Quite by accident, I came across Charity Scribner’s Requiem for Communism, a very lucid scholarly account of Eastern Europe post-1989. In many of her essays, Scribner focuses on cultural artifacts like Andrej Wajda’s films about the Solidarity movement. She uses such texts to demonstrate the ways in which artists and intellectuals respond to political oppression.

I’ve also been reading Mark Yakich’s The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine. Yakich is a scary-smart poet. I especially admire poems like “Adorno” and “An Untenable Nostalgia for Chernobyl,” where he critiques sentimentality, trauma, and the (mis)use of history in art. At the end of “Adorno” he writes, “never be content with / The aphorisms of poetry or Auschwitz.” Theodor Adorno famously said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Here, Yakich interrogates not only the philosopher’s injunction against writing poetry but also the ways in which poets have tried to challenge Adorno. We should question any language that rolls off the tongue too easily, that is too pat or perfectly packaged.

My second work-in-progress is a collection of linked essays about my experiences as a military wife. When I finished writing the poems in Stateside, I realized that I wasn’t yet done with the subject of “milspouse” life. There were still other stories I wanted to tell, not as poems but as prose. So, I’ve been reading a lot of creative nonfiction. I’ve just started Alison Buckholtz’s memoir, Standing By: The Making of a Military Family in a Time of War. I’m interested in the book’s perspective because, like me, Buckholtz falls into the category of a “nontraditional” military wife. I’m also rereading Lia Purpura’s exquisite book, On Looking. These lyrical essays, with their precise metaphors and vivid images, demonstrate why so many poets are able to make the leap from verse to nonfiction. Purpura’s essay, “Autopsy Report,” is worth the price of admission alone. After watching a day of autopsies performed in the morgue, Purpura steps outside to discover that “everything looked as it always had—bright and pearly, lush and arterial after the rain.”
Read "Against War Movies" and sample other poems by Jehanne Dubrow, and visit her website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Philip Graham

Philip Graham is the author of six books, including the story collection The Art of the Knock, the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, a memoir of Africa, Parallel Worlds, and, most recently, an expanded collection of his McSweeney's dispatches from Lisbon, The Moon, Come to Earth. A co-founder and the current fiction editor of the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter, he teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the low residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I was about to start this brief essay with the sentence, “Perhaps the best of the books that I’ve read recently is . . .”

But then I glanced at the small pile of books I want to recommend, and realized that they’re all pretty terrific, and that each offers a certain pleasure that the others do not, which reminded me that I usually don’t much care for saying what my favorite books are because the list is so long—hundreds upon hundreds of books have found a niche inside me, have established a welcome internal presence that has enriched my life.

So, here are four such books that I’ve come across lately.

I first began reading The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, (Ariadne Press, 2009) by the Austrian novelist Wolf Haas, because the idea of the book is so striking: an author named Wolf Haas is interviewed, by an unnamed book reviewer, about his novel, The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, an exchange which takes up the entire 242 pages of the book. You never actually get to read the novel, just the interview about it; or, more accurately, the novel is the interview.

And it’s an entirely successful experiment. The back and forth banter between the reviewer and author, their varying interpretations here and there of what happens in the novel, the author’s inside stories about the inspiration behind certain scenes, enabled me to easily fill in the blank spaces about Vittorio Kowalski, a man who is so obsessed with the weather in a certain Alpine village that he memorizes the daily forecasts going back fifteen years. This unusual talent lands him on a TV quiz show, and from there he takes a journey back to the village and the initiating secret of his obsession. It’s as odd a love story as you’ll find, and recounted—through the novel’s unusual structure—as a kind of heady, extended gossip session.

Speaking of structure, Kyle Minor is a young author who clearly thinks a lot on the subject, and his story collection, In the Devil’s Territory (Dzanc Books, 2008), exudes a brilliant narrative architecture, within individual stories and for the collection as a whole, with characters and themes recurring throughout. But really, who cares, unless the stories pass muster too? Each one does, because Minor’s stories—about how individual religious faith is colored by a varied palette of doubt, fate, the long haul towards sexual identity, hard-earned fanaticism, or the sudden strike of emotional maturity—are uncommonly wise and dramatically supple. The nearly novella-length “A Day Meant to Do Less” elaborates its three-part structure to such stunning effect that I don’t think I’ll ever forget its impact.

Another distinctive story collection I’ve recently read is Midge Raymond’s award-wining Forgetting English (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009). Nearly all of the stories in Raymond’s collection take place in the far and wide of foreign settings—East Africa, Taipei, Antarctica, the South Pacific, with Hawai’i clocking in as the closest and most familiar locale. Again, who cares unless the stories do their job? Well, Raymond is as wonderfully deft with her characters as the varied geographies she places them in. Like all travelers, they bring their personal complications along on the road, and those troubles are in turn twisted and altered by the subterranean shocks of any foreign place. And yet, Raymond artfully implies, the farther one is tugged to a strange territory within, the closer one approaches something resembling self-recognition.

The search for the idealized fit of self and place fuels Lori L. Tharps’ travel memoir Kinky Gazpacho (Washington Square Press, 2008). From an early age, Tharps finds herself attracted to the language and culture of Spain, perhaps as a way to locate an alternative identity apart from her isolation as an African-American child and then young woman living in a largely white Mid-Western community. Tharps tracks her secret feelings and inner conflicts with such disarming ease that you immediately trust her as a guide, from her first steps into the cultural otherness of Morocco to her growing comfort with the foreign realities of Spain, her slow fit into her Spanish husband’s family, and her eventual discovery of the suppressed African history of her adopted country.

What’s next? Too long a list! I’m currently in the middle of my iPad’s e-book version of the magisterial Wolf Hall (Henry Holt, 2009) by Hilary Mantel, and a third of the way through the traditional paper incarnation of David Kirby’s short and sweet Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Continuum, 2009). Meanwhile, on the stack of books balanced on a table in my study, I’m getting especially strong goo-goo eyes from Christopher Miller’s The Cardboard Universe, Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, and Lisa Moore’s February. And who knows what I’ll download next from the iBook store?
Read an excerpt from The Moon, Come to Earth, and learn more about the author and his work at Philip Graham's website. Also see his recent essay at The Millions, "Every Day I Open a Book," which is about Graham's developing love of books when young.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Marshall Jon Fisher

Marshall Jon Fisher’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, and other magazines. His essay "Memoria ex Machina" was featured in Best American Essays 2003. He has written several books with his father, David E. Fisher, including Tube: The Invention of Television. His most recent book, now available in paperback, is A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
In preparation for a writing project that takes place just after World War One, I’ve been reading a lot of books either written then or which take place then. One of the best is the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker. I had already read volume one, Regeneration, a couple of years ago, so I just read The Eye in the Door and am now in the middle of The Ghost Road. All three novels feature William Rivers, a real-life psychiatrist who spent the war treating traumatized veterans back in London. His most famous patient-- a main character in the first volume and a secondary one in the others—was the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Barker mixes these historical characters with several major fictional ones, mostly other patients of Rivers’s. Funny, brutal, and sexually explicit, these novels brilliantly paint an intimate and unusual portrait of London during the Great War.
Visit Marshall Jon Fisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 16, 2010

Anna Mitchael

Anna Mitchael is the author of Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am, a memoir that details her twentysomething experience living and working in cities across the country. A reformed nomad, Mitchael has now returned home to Texas. She will tolerate y’all but reserves the right to raise hell when anyone calls her ma’am. You can read the daily chronicles of her life (with a side of extra-spicy jalapenos, please) at her website.

A week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The real answer to your question? Right now I read lots of things I’d rather not spend so much of my time examining…like ingredient lists on the back of oatmeal boxes to make sure there’s no MSG (or other chemicals and additives I shouldn’t eat while pregnant) included, and pregnancy books with long, exaggerated lists of ALL THE THINGS THAT COULD GO WRONG IN PREGNANCY – SO BE PREPARED, and it also seems like every time I am in a public restroom I find myself reading the ‘It’s advised not to drink while you are pregnant’ sign for the eight bajillionth time.

Yeah, I already got that memo but thanks for reminding me of it a-gain. And come to think of it, the reason I feel like taking this sign off the wall and ripping it to shreds could be due to the fact that I haven’t had a glass of wine in eight months. ‘Attention restaurant patrons, if everyone could just ignore the pregnant lady in the bathroom who’s relieving stress in the only way that’s left to her and continue with your meal it would be much appreciated.’ (Let’s face it, once your unhealthy additives, caffeine and alcohol are gone – all you’re really left with is destruction of property).

The other real answer to your question is that in between my sign-shredding, and time spent promoting my new book, Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am, I’ve been stealing minutes here and there to read Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert. Yes, I know that’s what most of America is reading right now so it isn’t the most exciting or earth-shattering answer ever given, but it’s what is on my nightstand (when it isn’t dropped in my purse or riding alongside me in the passenger seat.)

Even though I can’t read it as quickly as I’d like, it is what I’m reaching for in the spare moments. Besides being curious as to how one follows up a book with such phenomenal success as Eat, Pray, Love, I am like Elizabeth Gilbert in that I’m a ‘skeptic’ when it comes to certain aspects of marriage…. Note the fact that my boyfriend and I are completely committed to each other and are having a child together, yet have not been able to come to a point where we want to marry—even though we live in the middle of the Bible Belt and it ‘sure would make everyone a lot happier if we’d go ahead and get hitched’ (those quotes are from an actual conversation I had last week, and were not just invented by me).

I’m not expecting to walk away from Committed with resolution for my own conflicts or feelings about marriage, but I do think that part of the joy in memoir is reading how other human beings deal with and sort through issues that the larger part of the population would be happier sweeping under the table in favor of talk about tea. I like the messiness in the memoir, and Elizabeth Gilbert has proven time and again that she isn’t scared to expose her faults, so for that reason I am reading with an open mind —expecting that even if she doesn’t deliver a book that goes International quadruple bestseller again, at the very least she’ll deliver the truth, and that what she does with her truth will be a helluva lot more enjoyable than the ingredients in my oatmeal.
Visit Anna Mitchael's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Steven Church

Steven Church is the author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record. His essays and stories have been published widely and he has new work forthcoming in Brevity and Fourth Genre. He’s a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
It’s probably easiest for me to talk about what I’m reading in terms of what I’ve just finished reading, what I’m actively reading, and what I’m looking forward to reading.

1. I recently read Eula Biss’s book Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, an ambitious, smart and sublime collection of essays on race and ethnicity that recently won the National Book Critic’s Circle award for criticism. Her style, like Joan Didion’s, is somewhat oblique and emotionally reserved, but rarely in a way that’s alienating or inappropriate. What drives these pieces is language, voice, and a kind of boiling moral tension that is hard to pinpoint. Her essay, “Time and Distance Overcome,” which I first read in Harper’s as “The War on Telephone Poles,” is a wrenchingly beautiful piece of writing that you feel in your body like a wave crashing over and pulling you under.

Ashley Butler’s slim but psychologically dense and haunting collection of essays, meditations and fragments, Dear Sound of Footsteps, was a book I picked up because it came out from Sarabande, a press I’ve admired for some time, mostly because I’m completely enraptured by one of their other books, On Looking, by Lia Purpura, a collection of essays on the ethics and aesthetics of looking that I come back to again and again, re-reading it at least once a year and falling in love with it not just as a text but as a way of seeing the world.

Two recent reads have stirred up some debate and discussion about the ethics and aesthetics of nonfiction as a genre, David Shield’s brilliantly rabblerousing, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and John D’Agata’s book-length essay, About a Mountain, a lyrical meditation on Yucca Mountain, suicide, apocalypse, language, communication, and Las Vegas.

2. I’m actively reading a couple of books right now. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, is a meticulously researched, deep and troubling book that also somehow manages to give hope in the face of things like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. I was reading her accounts of the micro-utopias that arise in the aftermath of a natural disaster just as the accounts of the situation in Haiti began trickling over the airwaves and I felt as if I understood what was happening better thanks to this book.

I’m also reading Nick Flynn’s new book, The Ticking is the Bomb. I consider his first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, to be one of the best memoirs written in the last 20 years, so I’ve been excited to dive into this book. Though I’ve just begun, it hasn’t disappointed. Similar in form and movement to his first book, this one feels somehow more raw and painful. Admittedly, part of what interests me about it is that I’m dealing with some similar issues in my own writing—fatherhood in a world with terrorism and torture—and I want to see how Flynn navigates this territory.

3. Finally there are several books I’m looking forward to reading in the coming weeks and months. First up on the list is a collection of essays from a writer I like quite a lot, Patrick Madden. His book, Quotidiana: Essays, promises to be a delightfully essayistic celebration of the essay form. I’m also waiting on several books that haven’t been released--Joe Bonomo’s analysis of the AC/DC album Highway to Hell, Bonnie Rough’s Carrier: Untangling the Danger in my DNA, Steve Almond’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.
Visit Steven Church's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 12, 2010

Shannan Rouss

Shannan Rouss is a third generation Angeleno who moved to New York, but never really left L.A. She is a former staff writer at Self, and has contributed to Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Nylon. She is currently the editor of Vital Juice New York, a daily email newsletter and website. She lives in Brooklyn.

Her new book is Easy for You.
I'm usually reading two or three books at a time.

There's the book I read to get better, a book I want to study, to help me figure something out in my own writing. Right now that book is We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live--the collected nonfiction of Joan Didion. Her language is both sparse and full. Like this line from "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream": "January 11, 1965, was a bright warm day in Southern California, the kind of day when Catalina floats on the Pacific horizon and the air smells of orange blossom and it is a long way from the bleak and and difficult East, a long way from the cold, a long way from the past."

I love everything about this sentence. I want to be inside of it. I think Didion is a master at that, using words to evoke an atmosphere. And not overdoing it. It's so controlled, and yet still very much alive.

The next book I'm reading is the before-bed book. It's a book that feels like an escape, gives my mind a break from my writing, or as much of a break as possible. Right now it's Jennifer Egan's The Keep. It's a story within a story, at least that's what I think so far. Very mysterious. It's a pleasure to move between these two tales, one set in an Eastern European castle, the other in prison.

The last book I'm reading is the book I'm always reading, Amy Hempel's Collected Stories. It's something that I can just pick up, open to any page, and read for a bit when I'm stuck. The stories are like poems to me. They somehow settle and focus my mind. There's a rhythm to her language that is almost soothing.
Read an excerpt from Easy for You and visit Shannan Rouss' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Deborah Batterman

Deborah Batterman is the author of Shoes Hair Nails.

Her stories have appeared in anthologies as well as various print and online journals, including Many Mountains Moving, Sistersong, Dunes Review, The MacGuffin, The Alsop Review, three candles, Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies, Prose Toad, and The Potomac.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently facilitated a book discussion/writing workshop centered around The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam narrative that straddles the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction. The book was this year’s selection for "The Big Read" in Westchester, NY, the NEA-initiated program that makes reading a community activity for a month or two, and I found it both poignant and haunting. It’s a classic example of how a writer transforms an autobiographical experience into powerful fiction and compelled me to go back to his first post-Vietnam book, If I Die in the Combat Zone. Reading these books back-to-back was a chance to see the evolution of a gifted writer – from twenty-something-year-old fresh out of the war, recounting his experiences in straightforward nonfiction, to forty-something-year-old looking back through the lens of fiction. The best stories beg to be retold again and again, searching for a framework that is, in a way, organic to the underlying themes. In this case, the fragmented, episodic framework of The Things They Carried brilliantly evokes the nature of a war that was unlike any other.

Page turner is not ordinarily the term that comes to mind when a book is rich with implication. Yet that’s exactly how it felt to read Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ riveting account of the Kafka-esque hell endured by a Muslim-American in the wake of Katrina. When the warnings began coming, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a painting contractor in New Orleans, chose to stay behind; his wife, understanding his need to watch over their properties and their tenants’ homes, opted to leave with their children. If Abdulrahman does not necessarily believe it will be as bad as they say, Kathy isn’t taking any chances; when it all blows over they’ll be united. In the hands of Dave Eggers, a masterful writer who used fiction as the means for telling a harrowing story of boy soldiers in the Sudanese civil war (What Is the What?), the unfolding of events as they really happened is all he needs in Zeitoun. The cover of the book depicts a man paddling a canoe, an image that resonates. He’s a man with a sense of purpose, spiritual in its dimension. Maintaining even a vestige of that spirit when racial profiling forces him into a makeshift prison, no contact with the outside world, make Abdulrahman Zeitoun a survivor of something much more profound than a category 3 hurricane and the catastrophic flooding that ensued.

Another book I recently read and really admired for the way it melds the sociopolitical and the personal is Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women. Moving back and forth in time and spanning continents, the novel weaves a tapestry of five generations of women, beginning with Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a suffragette in early twentieth century England who starved herself for the cause. Each of the women’s stories becomes a reflection of the era in which she lives; the interconnectedness of their lives becomes the thematic underpinning of a thought-provoking and very moving novel.

I’m always reading poetry, and sometimes I need to immerse myself in a particular poet’s work rather than reading random poems. This week it’s W.S. Merwin. As a Princeton undergraduate, he apparently got some words of wisdom from John Berryman. Here are the closing stanzas to his poem, “Berryman.”

I had hardly begun to read

I asked how you can ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the next books I plan to read: Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers, a poetic writer if ever there was one. The first book of his that I read was The Time of Our Singing, and I was hooked. Both that novel and The Gold Bug Variations are infused with physics, music, exquisite language, and artful storytelling. Did I mention that I think he’s brilliant?
Visit Deborah Batterman's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Daina Taimina

Daina Taimina is Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics at Cornell University.

Her latest book, Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, won the 2009 Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. Philip Stone, The Bookseller’s charts editor and prize administrator, said:
I think what won it for Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes is that, very simply, the title is completely bonkers. On the one hand you have the typically feminine, gentle and wooly world of needlework and on the other, the exciting but incredibly un-wooly world of hyperbolic geometry and negative curvature. In Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes the two worlds collide—in a captivating and quite breathtaking way.
Recently, I asked Taimina what she was reading. Her reply:
I grew up with books. When I was a little girl we lived in an apartment which was shared with several families. My parents were working and I was left home with a neighbor who kindly agreed to keep an eye on me. He was retired professor and to keep me occupied he taught me how to read at the age of 4. Since then I always have piles of books around me. Right now I have about 15 books on my desk and many more on a bookshelf which I have mentally labeled as "must reads."

The book I recently finished was Gilles Deleuze's The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1992). The reason I found this book (requested through Interlibrary Loan) was that somebody looking at my crocheted fiber forms told that they reminded her of this book. I was surprised to find passages in this book that indeed express some of the ideas I have created in crochet forms. For example: "It is because the Fold is always between two folds, and because between-two-folds seems to move about everywhere." This is exactly what happens in my hyperbolic planes.

The other book I am reading now is Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian books and the people who read them (2010). I choose this book because on a back cover it was suggested as "one of the funniest books ever written about Russian literature." I am not finding it exactly funny but it is quite entertaining reading about the author's experiences with Russian literature which was previously unknown to her. The other plus of this book is that it is really lightweight and it is easy to carry it with me and read on a bus, waiting for appointments etc.

Today I brought home from Cornell campus store Geometric Folding Algorithms: linkages, origami, polyhedra by Erik D. Demaine & Joseph O'Rourke. I choose this book because the authors talk about some topics I have also written about and they discuss problems about the curvature; I do it with crochet, Eric Demaine creates amazing origami constructions. I became familiar with curved origami constructions (developed by Eric's father Martin Demaine) when visiting with Gisela Baurman's architecture students studio in Princeton University last fall - her students had created some wonderful pieces. I already read a chapter about them in this book.

I like reading before falling asleep. There is a pile of books next to my bed, and some of them are quite big. The reason is that I love reading cookbooks, particularly the ones with stories about different people and cultures in them. My recent reading is Aromas of Alepo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews by Poopa Dweck. I like reading about traditions and what is served on each occasion. Sometimes recipes make me so hungry that I almost want to get out of bed and go to the kitchen to try the recipes out - wouldn't you want to try Date-filled Crescents or Candied Apricots with Pistachios? Cookbooks inspire not only my cooking: actually from these lavishly illustrated cookbooks I had an idea about my own book to be so richly illustrated.
Visit Daina Taimina's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Catherine Gildiner

Catherine Gildiner wrote her doctoral thesis on the influence of Darwin on Freud, and has been a clinical psychologist in private practice for several years. She writes a psychological advice column for Chatelaine magazine and has written numerous newspaper articles. Her first book, the memoir Too Close to the Falls, was published in Canada, the US and the UK to wide acclaim. It is followed by After the Falls which covers her life from the ages of 13-21. She is also the author of the novel Seduction.

About a week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually stick to my rule of alternating between a classic and a modern book.

Books I love:

Middlemarch by George Eliot. A rare combination of perfectly drawn characters that all grapple with the question of how we combine intellectual learning with the improvement of society. The drama results in their varying degrees of success.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens . Although it is a novel, in my mind it is a memoir of Dickens's childhood and his development into manhood. It describes the impediments we all face he falls into various pitfalls, but emerges triumphant. Along the way there are wicked and kind characters -- all rendered as full human beings. Dickens can create a character with only few lines.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth. This novel describes the break down on society in the 60's and its aftermath. It is a marvelous combination on character and history. He uses the decline of Newark as a symbol for all of America. If you arrived from Mars and knew nothing about America, and read this book you could figure out the 'lay of the land'.

Book I just finished:

I just finished reading Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. I really liked this book. Davidson has found an interesting way to tie history into the present. If you are sick of the usual boring love story try this one. It is between a severe burn victim and a schizophrenic who imagines they loved one another in the past. A bizarre premise but it works -- magical.
Visit Catherine Gildiner's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue