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