Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Eula Biss

Eula Biss holds a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University, where she teaches nonfiction writing, and she is a founding editor of Essay Press, a new press dedicated to innovative nonfiction. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in The Believer, Gulf Coast, Columbia, Ninth Letter, the North American Review, the Bellingham Review, the Seneca Review, and Harper’s.

Her latest book is Notes from No Man’s Land.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just read Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay for the second time. “This is the usual sort of book about illness. Someone gets sick, someone gets well,” she writes, but that’s not true at all, except for the “someone gets sick” part, which is a grand understatement. Manguso make an art of understatement, and she refuses to allow her account of a long illness to become a narrative of redemption or a narrative of triumph. In fact, she resists allowing her meditations on suffering and “spacetime” to cohere into one continuous narrative of any sort. She offers instead a work of accrual, a series of observations that testify to the mundanity of suffering even as they open extraordinary questions. “Most people consider their own suffering a widely applicable model, and I am no exception,” she writes. And, “those who claim to write about something larger and more significant than the self sometimes fail to comprehend the dimensions of a self.”
Visit Eula Biss' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reece Hirsch

Reece Hirsch’s debut legal thriller The Insider was published in May by Berkley Books.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I think most writers have at least one book that they keep returning to as a sort of Platonic ideal of what a great book should be. For me, it’s Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. I recently reread Dog Soldiers and found it to be just as good as I remembered it.

When I first found the book at age 15, I was too young to fully appreciate it. I was impressed by the ecstatic reviews, the National Book Award and the cool cover of the paperback with a soldier carrying a hypodermic needle instead of a rifle. But even at first reading I was captured by the breathlessly paced story of a journalist who brings a shipment of heroin back to California from Vietnam and quickly gets in way over his head.

The book is more than just the tale of a drug deal gone bad and a chase from Berkeley to L.A. to the California desert near the Mexican border. Robert Stone is a writer who has never lacked for swing-for-the-fences ambition. Dog Soldiers is a knowing portrait of failed Sixties countercultural ideals in the guise of a relentless and harrowing crime story.

The novel works so well for me because it never reduces itself to a “statement.” Dog Soldiers is like a rocket that achieves enough velocity to carry a fairly substantial payload. And that’s what I like best about the book. For me, it demonstrates how much can be conveyed in a fast-moving, exciting story.

Of course, it’s not always easy revisiting your Platonic ideal. I reread some or all of Dog Soldiers every few years, and sometimes even I have to admit that the book has its shortcomings. Sometimes its unstinting bleakness is hard to take, depending upon the frame of mind that I’m in at the time. But, in the end, the book always wins me over because Stone is doing so many things so amazingly well – sharp, funny, elliptical dialogue, consistently strong descriptive writing, believably screwed-up characters and a great story with echoes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

If Dog Soldiers were published today, it might have been considered a crime novel … but then it probably wouldn’t have won a National Book Award.
Visit Reece Hirsch's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nic Pizzolatto

Nic Pizzolatto's fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, The Oxford American, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Best American Mystery Stories and other publications. His work has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and his story collection Between Here and the Yellow Sea was named by Poets & Writer’s Magazine as one of the top five fiction debuts of the year.

His new novel is Galveston.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Most of my reading is done in bed lately, and at the moment, on my night stand is kind of a grab bag which speaks to my usual tastes:

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Fearing- Most people know Fearing for his seminal crime novel The Big Clock, but his poetry is drenched in atmospherics and the particular existential dread dramatized by noir. It's far ahead of its time, anticipating the media and informational saturation of the present age, and the language that contains these revelations is elegant, sly, and darkly evocative.

The Complete Stories Finca Vigia Edition by Ernest Hemingway- always near at hand for their stylistic mastery. Sometimes I go months without reading it, then it'll be all I want to read for a couple weeks. I started to write a long paragraph about how important the writing in these stories is, but I've decided I'm not going to apologize for Ernest Hemingway anymore.

Occultation by Laird Barron- One of my favorite writers, period. Barron's work is classified as 'horror' but anyone who enjoys literature, poetry, or short stories owes it to themselves to discover one of the most unique and accomplished prose talents now working in America. He writes dangerous stories, in something I've described as like a cross between H.P. Lovecraft and James Dickey, and in his new collection his range expands into a wider variety of characters and deeper, more nuanced emotion. Very much like crack to my brain.

The Rare Coin Score by Richard Stark- I'm in love with the University of Chicago's re-issues of the Parker novels, and I'm reading them in order as they come out. I've fallen a bit behind with all the writing I've been doing, but getting to spend an afternoon sipping drinks and reading a Parker novel is pretty close to bliss for me.

The Trouble with Being Born by E.M. Cioran- for my tastes, Cioran is the uncontested master of style, and the greatest aphorist since Nietzsche. His mind unfolds in nuanced, complex ways, expressed in terse, precise language, drawing subtle connections, giving the reader new eyes with which to see. Darkly honest and darkly funny. A perennial favorite.

All of these books appeal to me in ways both aesthetic and emotional, by which I mean I'm impressed by their craftwork while being moved to feeling by that craft's expression. I have a fairly dark imagination, one attracted to the moments where our inner-lives and outer-lives collide against one another, perhaps too fixated on the transformative possibilities of violence, and to characters who live outside the routines established by mainstream society. All of these writers speak to that sensibility, and so feed my own obsessions. My goal as a writer is to produce something which can be inclusive for a wide audience without sacrificing the depth or craft one expects from serious literature, and in one way or another, each of those authors speaks to at least part of those concerns.
Visit Nic Pizzolatto's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Heather Sharfeddin

Heather Sharfeddin grew up in Idaho and Montana, the daughter of a forester-turned-cattle rancher. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and son. Her books include Blackbelly, Mineral Spirits, and the newly released Sweetwater Burning.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. It's a fabulous book about family connections, which is a topic I find particularly interesting. Allison's ability to peel back the covers and show us how even the most dysfunctional families have their own endearing traditions and perspectives makes her work so appealing. She illustrates how children grow into and emulate their own people. The fierce loyalties in this book are at times so clear and understandable, and at times troubling and even heartbreaking.

I've also recently read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, another story of family connections and disconnections. Robinson's prose, though, is what I most love about her work. The story reads like a beautiful poem with extraordinary imagery. She also explores the making of a certain type of people based on a child's family experience--growing her character into the eccentric offspring of eccentric people. I loved it.

On my "to read" shelf, I've recently added The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. I'm also planning to reread The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger.
Visit Heather Sharfeddin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 21, 2010

Jennifer Gilmore

Jennifer Gilmore’s second novel, Something Red, was published by Scribner on March 30, 2010.

Her first novel, Golden Country, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2006, an Amazon.com Top Ten Debut Fiction of 2006, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am done with teaching and done with my book tour for a bit, and I'm finally able to catch up on some books I have been looking forward to cracking open. Currently, I'm reading Martha McPhee's Dear Money. This novel, deals with the conflicts that arise out of making art and also wanting things--good schools for your kids, summer houses, pretty dresses, lovely smelly cheeses--that making art does not often afford. While this subject matter appeals to me--a little too much--the narrator's voice is so assured, and her transformation so universally rendered, this novel really will appeal to anyone who has ever had to think about what commerce means. And also? I don't think women write enough about issues surrounding money, and this is a brave topic.

I am heading to the airport in less than an hour and I am very excited about what I'm carrying in my suitcase. On deck I have Hyatt Bass's The Embers, about a large, chaotic family, that just came out in paperback. Anything about families--tragic, comic, satirical, dramatic--appeals to me, so this is next. Matt Bonderant's The Wettest County in the World, an altogether different family saga that takes place in depression-era Virginia, is also in my travel bag, as well as Caroline Leavitt's Pictures of You, which comes out in September. Caroline is such a wonderful critic, and a champion of so many other writers, including me, and I can't wait to dive into her fictional world. And, as a massive David Mitchell fan, I'm also very excited to read his newest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. After those, I'll be back to reading for class again, and back to my own research, which takes me far away from the land of other writers' novels, but might bring me back into the world of my own.
Watch the trailer for Something Red at Jennifer Gilmore's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is the author of four books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a New York Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was a Los Angeles Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, and the newly released The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010).

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Big Machine by Victor LaValle-- and what a book. It's sprawling, and he's packing a lot in there, and it's magical and dark and noir-ish, and more. About 2/3's of the way through, he makes some very risky choices, and they are the most felt choices in the book, to me. I was happily reading along, and then the stakes get higher, but never in a typical stake-heightening kind of way. These are outlandish scenes and happenings that feel haunting and unsettling and right. His progression does feel Murakami-like to me, (a big compliment from me, because I just love how Murakami tells a story); LaValle's a very different writer, and Ricky Rice's voice is very appealing, another reason I thorougly enjoyed the book-- but I was just so thrilled to experience the risk and reward of that development.

Soon I'll be reading Marilynne Robinson's Home-- I just started it and I'm going to bring it with me on my book tour. I loved Gilead, and Home is about one of the characters in Gilead. And I read Gilead last summer-- it took a certain kind of quiet state of mind to read it-- it's not that it's slow, it's just quiet, and each page takes time and concentration to absorb. The language is gorgeous and I found Gilead so moving-- these letters written by a religious man, a preacher, to his very young son, as he's dying. So I'm actually looking to Home to be a kind of antidote, too, to airports and travel and scurrying.

Also just finished Belly Up, by Stu Gibbs-- a new book for the 9-12 crowd, (and beyond) about a possible hippo murder at a zoo. Very funny and lively-- and a good kind of sophisticated kid mystery.

And I'm still rereading Amy Gerstler's new book of poems, Dear Creature. Just the first one-- a love letter to her niece, kept me rereading several times before I could move along. Then poems from the points of views of animals, including a great one from a dog explaining why it is glorious to smell shit, and how we misunderstand it all, and each poem so full of heart and smarts and imagination.
Visit Aimee Bender's website.

The Page 99 Test: Aimmee Bender's Willful Creatures.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sophie Littlefield

Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, was an Edgar Award Finalist and is shortlisted for an Anthony, Barry, and Macavity Award. It won an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery and has been named to lists of the year's best mystery debuts by the Chicago Sun-Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Her new novel is A Bad Day for Pretty.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Many authors choose not to read in their genre – or even to read fiction – when they are working on a new book. I’m pretty much always working on a new book, so that wouldn’t work for me. And I like to create atmosphere for myself by what I read, the music I listen to, even the way I relate to the world…perhaps I shouldn’t admit to this but I do little character immersion, like a method actor. It’s probably very confusing for the people who live with me, but hey, anything for the art, right?

Anyway, in that spirit I’m reading some favorite writers who write rural: Craig Johnson’s newest is Junkyard Dogs and it’s just a delight on every page; every character’s voice is pitch-perfect, none more than Walt, a Wyoming sheriff in a tiny town. I’ve also got Polar, T.R. Pearson’s 2002 release. I’ve never understood why Pearson hasn’t reached a wider audience. He’s hilarious and gentle and wry and there’s bits of Faulkner and Walker Percy rolled up in there. Open any page and you’ll find a sentence – or more likely a clause, since Pearson’s the king of the wandery run-on – that stays with you all day.

I’m dipping into Sallis’s Cripple Creek at the rate of about a page a day. It’s a treat, kind of like that really expensive chocolate you buy at Whole Foods and tell yourself you’ll just have one little square at a time. (I always end up eating the whole dang thing at once, but I truly can’t binge my way through the Sallis book because I’m just so fucking incredibly astonishingly busy right now. I might have been able to handle the deadlines and the promo, but throw in a couple of undpredictable teenagers finishing up the school year with a burst of glorious drama and I’m screwed.)

Finally, I’m also working my slow, slow way through Dead-Tossed Waves, Carrie Ryan’s followup to Forest of Hands and Teeth, last year’s wildly successfully zombie young adult debut. What I love about Carrie is that she has a natural gift for unspooling the story at precisely the right pace while making the setting details and character arcs look effortless.
Visit Sophie Littlefield's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: A Bad Day for Sorry.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Steve Almond

Steve Almond is the author the story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked).

His new book is Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.

A couple of weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've been on a short story jag recently, the best sort. Anthony Doerr's new collection, The Memory Wall is astonishing. I don't think there's anyone writing better realistic fiction at the moment. He manages to write about a dazzling variety of characters -- Chinese villagers, Kansas orphans, South African fossil pimps -- in a way that makes their struggles riveting. His sentences shimmer and echo. He's the sort of writer who makes me lament my own lazy, slightly heartless decisions at the keyboard. Which is what I want, and what we should all want.

The same is true of Ben Greenman's new collection What He's Poised to Do. In the past, Greenman has sometimes used his immense cleverness and facility with the language to avoid deeper emotional engagement with his characters. But this time out he nails it, for the most part. The best stories are thrilling. Both these guys are versatile and curious writers, and they never bore.

Next up on my plate is Gina Frangello's new collection Slut Lullabies. I've read a number of her pieces in lit mags, and they are fantastic stories, fearless and sexy.

I realize that short stories are the new poetry, a genre that's moved to the margin of the margin. But they're my first and final love, and the good ones deliver the same jolt as novels. They just get to the heart of the matter a lot quicker.
Visit Steve Almond's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Laura Penny

Laura Penny has taught literature, philosophy, and critical theory at Mount Saint Vincent University, the University of King's College, and Saint Mary's University. She completed her Ph.D in Comparative Literature in 2006. Her dissertation research focused on the relation between the ethical and the aesthetic in the work of Kant, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and Deleuze.

Her book Your Call is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit, was published in 2005.

Penny's new book, More Money Than Brains: Why Schools Suck, College is Crap, and Idiots Think They're Right, deals with ignorance, idiocy, and anti-intellectualism.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I always have a couple of heaps on the go, since both my jobs, teaching and writing, involve grossbuckets of reading and rereading. Here be my heaps, the recently completed and eagerly anticipated, the work-related and leisurely.

Freshly finished work-related stack:

I am fortunate to be part of a terrific program called Halifax Humanities 101, a Clemente great books course. The Clemente program provides a classic, old-school liberal arts curriculum for people who are not usually able to enjoy that sort of thing. The students are unilaterally great. We just finished class, and we like to end up in Canada, so we read some stories by one of my favourites, the amazing Alice Munro. This was also a good excuse to reread the super issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review devoted to her, and to flip through my dogeared copy of Lives of Girls and Women.

This spring I taught a really fun seminar on Walter Benjamin and mass culture, so I've been rereading him a lot lo these past few months. My whip-smart students got me thinking about what he has to say about the media and boredom. Harvard has been translating a ton of Benjamin since the 90s, and they've recently released a handy volume of some of his work on film, radio, the press and so forth called The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility and other Writings on Media. I will be revisiting it frequently as I try to secrete an academic paper about him.

Freshly finished fun-time stack:

I have been on a big David Foster Wallace kick. I just finished Infinite Jest. I realize this declaration is over a decade late, but that book is really something! It actually made me quite sad, and meta-sad that he is gone, since he was such an incredible virtuoso and emphatically decent guy. Moreover, phenomena like the Great Concavity/Convexity do not seem implausible, what with BP barfing crude into the Gulf for the indefinite future.

I also read that David Lipsky transcript, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which documents a couple of days in the life of DFW circa the hype-tacular release of Infinite Jest. One of the weird things about being a writer now is that it requires one to go from zero to one hundred miles per hour, socially. I mean, a person spends years all by their lonesome in their slob-wear, speaking to an empty screen, and then, if they're lucky, they have to talk to any and everybody that will have them. I find TV stuff and interviews totally anxiety-making, and I am a way way less sensitive and perceptive creature than DFW was.

Impending work-type stack:

I've decided my next book is going to be about sex ed. There have been some interesting controversies about it lately, and it's a subject dear to my heart, since my mother, who is a godamn saint, teaches sex ed. I will be spending much of the summer in the health sciences and education sections of the university libraries that adorn my fair city. I'm pretty psyched about some of their old microfiches, like a text by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe and a guide for young men by a dude with a delightful aptronym for a defender of purity: Sylvanus Stall.

Impending fun-time stack:

I loved Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, so I got her newish one, So Much For That. I also have a stash of books by famous persons I like such as comedians (David Cross's I Drink for a Reason) and musicians (Dean Wareham's Black Postcards and Mark Oliver Everett's Things the Grandchildren Should Know) I'm pretty torn about celebrity books. On the one hand, to quote South Park, “thhurr takin' urr jerrbs!” On the other, I almost always enjoy them or enjoy hating them. The most excruciatingly awful and purely pleasurable books I have read in the last six or so months were both by stars, from very different American constellations: Sarah Palin's Going Rogue and Patti Smith's Just Kids.
Read more about Your Call is Important to Us and More Money Than Brains.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 11, 2010

Heidi Jon Schmidt

Heidi Jon Schmidt's new novel is The House on Oyster Creek.

Her earlier books include The Rose Thieves, Darling?, and The Bride of Catastrophe, all available in paperback. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic, Grand Street, Agni Review, Yankee, and many other magazines, and anthologized in The O'Henry Awards, Best American Nonrequired Reading, the Grand Street Reader and others.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm reading Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the Ant-- to a fiction writer who is fascinated with everyday human life, this study of everyday insect life is riveting and strangely moving. Maeterlinck describes the goings on in an ant community with such interest and respect he might as well be speaking of human society. The larvae are "not unlike Egyptian mummies in their coffins of sycamore, with gilded masks;" the fertilized female "discards her four wings, which fall at her feet like a wedding-gown at the close of the feast," and the foundation of a new colony is "one of the most pathetic and heroic episodes of insect life."

I am always, always looking for fiction that has the true feel of life--and I think the true feel of life is often the combination of pathos and heroism. It is so surprising and exciting when an author gets something just right-- the moment in Anna Karenina when Levin taps out the cadence of 'Will you marry me' on the table, because he's so afraid Kitty will reject him that he can't dare speak the words. Or, in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, the deep satisfaction of two junkies who've spent the day pulling copper wiring from an abandoned house: "Usually we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us and we didn't know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked." John Cheever could barely spill a drop of ink without giving that full sense of life. Introducing The Stories of John Cheever, he wrote: "These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat." It's that sense of a place and the people in it, the charmed moment that is beautiful in part because it has already passed, that first made me want to take up the heroic and pathetic task of writing fiction.
Visit Heidi Jon Schmidt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Natalie Standiford

Natalie Standiford is the author of the Dating Game series as well as the young adult novels, How to Say Goodbye in Robot, which "has all the makings of a cult hit" (Kirkus Reviews), and Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters, due out in September.

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Daniel Ehrenhaft's YA novel Friend Is Not a Verb, about a Brooklyn boy named Hen whose older sister has suddenly returned from a mysterious disappearance that no one will explain to him. It's charming and funny with an undercurrent of loneliness, a combination of moods I happen to love. Hen's heart is repeatedly broken by everyone around him--the girlfriend who dumps him and kicks him out of her band, his sister who pretends nothing's wrong, his parents who neglect him in favor of his possibly criminal sister, his best friend Emma--until he finally learns how to take charge of his own life. It's hip and witty and full of things I feel personally connected to, like crazy families, New York City, and playing bass in a band (which I happen to do with Dan himself, in a band called Tiger Beat--though I would have loved with book even if I didn't know him!).

I've just started reading Elif Batuman's book of essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. I picked it up because I'm one of those People: I started taking Russian classes in ninth grade, majored in it in college and studied at Leningrad State University my junior year. And it's true, people who study Russian are a peculiar breed. I was never quite sure what drew me to it but Batuman is helping me figure it out: Russian writers understand that the human condition is fraught with absurdity and a deep, melancholy strangeness, which is compelling to the kind of American who gets impatient with the superficiality of our own culture. I grew up in Baltimore, a city that's very comfortable with the absurd, so perhaps that stoked my fascination. The book is really fun to read and hilarious.
Visit Natalie Standiford's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 7, 2010

Vivian Swift

Vivian Swift is a travel writer. Sort of. Her first book was a travel story, sort of; it was all about staying put: When Wanderers Cease to Roam (Bloomsbury, 2008).

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently read Travels with Charley (In Search of America) for the first time, to learn how to write a real travel narrative. I’m at work on my second book, a real, honest-to-goodness travel book about a road trip in France, and I thought I’d better find out how the “Masters” do it, but this book really annoyed me. I don’t know if it was the lack of humor in Steinbeck’s moralistic narrative (grandiose generalities are a traveler’s prerogative, but most travel writers have the good sense to temper them with a little self-deprecation) or if it was that passage about the niftiness of trailer parks (So spontaneous! So unfettered!) or the over-all skimpiness of his material (208 pages for a 10,000-mile journey??) but I read it as a cautionary tale. I recommend the book only as an excellent example of how not to write a travel narrative.

The Innocents Abroad, however, is the supreme achievement in the genre. In 1867 Clemens/Twain took a four-month cruise around the Mediterranean with inland jaunts to Europe and the Holy Lands; his 685-page book was published just two years later. Reading it, you could never tell that he wrote it under economic pressure to inflate the word count while rushing to meet a deadline. The tone of his narrative – in turns cranky, sarcastic, witty, and reverential – is easy-going and pitch perfect for his material, so well-matched to the Clemens/Twain droll take on life in general that even today the book reads much like a contemporary account of the foibles and grandeur of being a tourist in a foreign land. Let’s call this narrative tone the “voice” of the writer, and as such, it is the crucial element to a successful travel book. Because what makes a travel narrative, such as The Innocents Abroad, such a worthy alternative to the novel is that voice, unique to travel writing, that encompasses the tale of that one particular journey while also taking the reader on side trips, digressions into the writer’s life and experiences that go beyond the scope of that one particular journey. In Clemens/Twain’s case, his digressions are delightful, pertinent, and always entertaining. This book is the blueprint for writing a great travel narrative.

Which brings me to Eat, Pray, Love. Digressions being the life-blood of a great travel narrative, and voice being the compelling factor that keeps a reader tuned-in to the story page after page, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book is an irresistible combination of the best possible digressions (love, loss, and getting right with the universe) with a killer voice (humble, harried, smart, searching, and funny). When a writer gets it right, like this, readers will follow her anywhere. I, for instance, have no interest in traveling back to Italy ever again (a bad experience there when I was 20 has put me off the entire country forever), neither do I want to go to schlep to India and puh-leeze: you could not pay me enough dollars, euros, or gold ingot to go to Indonesia. (That’s not a value judgment; I just abhor long plane rides, humid climates, and crowds.) And yet I read, and re-read about Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey through Italy, India, and Indonesia in Eat, Pray, Love; me and ten million (20 million? 30?) other readers around the world. I could take the book apart for you sentence by sentence to show you how beautifully crafted the text is, but I won’t: because part of the joy of reading it is being carried away by how effortlessly it [seems] to come together as a marvelous, universal story for our age, and for all those women who watch Oprah who need to have their “voice” heard in the world. Don’t hate on Eat, Pray, Love just because some of its fans try to travel in the footsteps (literally) of Elizabeth Gilbert; read it because it’s an almost perfect non-fiction narrative that happens to be about travel. Which is, really, what the best travel books are about.
Visit Vivian Swift's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Doug Magee

Doug Magee has been a photojournalist, screenplay writer, children’s book author, death penalty activist, film producer and director, war protestor, college football player, amateur musician, and the basis of the Aidan Quinn character in Meryl Streep’s Music of the Heart.

Never Wave Goodbye
, his first novel, is out this month from Touchstone.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished the first draft of my second novel. I can't read much more than the newspaper (which in my case is the NY Times and quite a bit of reading) when I'm writing so I'm now starting to go through some books I've had stacked up.

I was introduced to Robert B. Parker very recently and am working through his long list of books. His passing is mourned by many, many readers and it's easy to see why. He's such a comfortable narrator, engaging and not the least bit of a show-off. I always have the feeling that he must have been much like Spenser in person. The current book of his I'm reading is Back Story.

I'm also reading The Poacher's Son by Paul Doiron. He and I share an agent and he was kind enough to blurb my novel. I know that sounds all clubby and everything, but, well, I guess it is. Anyway, Paul's book is very good. It's the first in a series with Mike Bowditch and young game warden in Maine. Paul is the editor of a Maine magazine called Downeast and, as you can imagine, the book is quite atmospheric as well as suspenseful.

I'm about to start my yearly rereading of Henry Fielding's classic Tom Jones. When I do reread it I'm able to replay the movie from the book, starring Albert Finney, at the same time. Doubles the pleasure.
Read an excerpt from Never Wave Goodbye, and learn more about the book and author at Doug Magee's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Justine van der Leun

Justine van der Leun has co-written a book on Italian wine and published several personal essays, as well as innumerable articles on health, food, pop culture, and travel.

Her new book is Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually read women writers—my favorites include MFK Fisher, Lorrie Moore, Shirley Hazzard, and Edwidge Danticat. But I looked over at my bedside table, and I saw that at the moment I’m only reading books by men. It must be a phase!

Dalva by Jim Harrison

I feel about Jim Harrison the way preteen girls feel about Justin Bieber. In other words: I’m obsessed. I think if I met him, I’d either be struck mute or begin to sob. I’ve read nearly everything of Harrison’s, but Dalva proved to me that he knows women better than any male writer alive today. The title character, Dalva Northridge, is a brilliant, authentic, rebellious woman searching for the son she gave up for adoption when she was only 15. The novel follows several love stories in the past and the present, and it’s set against the stunning Nebraska frontier. Did I mention dogs are sidekicks in nearly every Harrison book? My copy is almost completely underlined.

Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

A friend gave me this book and I’m now officially a fan of Vlautin, who is, in addition to being a novelist, the lead singer of the alt-country band Richmond Fontaine. I guess my friend knows me well: I’m a sucker for horses, for Big Sky Country, for writers who wear plaid shirts, and for a lovely, deeply human tale—and I get all of that here. The narrator is a 15-year-old named Charley Thompson who finds solace in Lean On Pete, a mistreated racehorse. Charley and Pete set off together for Wyoming, in search of a place they can call home. Vlautin’s prose is spare and powerful, and the story is at once heartbreaking and redemptive.

Life in Year One by Scott Korb

My friend Scott Korb wrote this provocative book and I bought it at a reading he did here in New York several months ago. But I’m a bum so I’m just cracking it open now. Scott talks vividly about, well, life in the first century—about the day-to-day of the folks who lived in Jesus’ time. Who knew that all the grit (sex, hangings, skin diseases, dung) would satisfy my voyeuristic impulses? It’s basically a rigorous, fascinating, accessible travelogue—especially unique in that Scott traveled back, oh, a couple thousand years.
Visit Justine van der Leun's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dennis Tafoya

Dennis Tafoya was born in Philadelphia and attended Oberlin College. He dropped out and worked a series of jobs, including housepainter, hospital orderly and EMT before starting a career in industrial sales. He began writing poetry, publishing stories in journals, and then started work on Dope Thief, his acclaimed debut novel.

Tafoya's new novel, The Wolves of Fairmount Park, releases this month.

A week or so ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently in the middle of Don DeLillo's Point Omega, which is hypnotic and strange, with little bits of beauty and lots of epistemology, the way I think of all the DeLillo I've read. I love his book Libra - it's one of the books I re-read every year. I use it to remember how to write when I'm blocked, and every time I read a few pages, it teaches me how the job of fiction writing is done, the way I want to do it.

Point Omega is about a kind of month-long lost weekend, in which a documentary filmmaker visits the desert home of a reclusive academic and risk analyst named Elster, who has been involved in Iraq war planning, and the young man is there to convince the older man to be in a documentary film project (every time the film project is discussed it's impossible not to think of Errol Morris's amazing Fog of War featuring the elder, fading Robert McNamara finally coming to terms with his own role in history).

Elster talks in strange ellipses and, preoccupied with time and perception, and he seems like a ghost of one of the dark plotters of Libra, so consumed with secrets and the implied evil of what they've been party to that they seem paralyzed, unable to discuss anything with simplicity or clarity, so that their dialogue becomes a disorienting poetry of implied meaning. All of this works beautifully in Libra, but I'm intensely curious whether the payoff in Point Omega can carry the weight.

Already I keep thinking that the Iraq war and its architects were so obtuse and morally reduced that the documentary being pursued here would be as banal and pointless and congenitally compromised as the men themselves. Would you watch an hour and a half of Rumsfeld or Cheney talking about the Iraq war? You know it would be the same opaque, willfully disconnected stream of obscurant self-justification that characterized everything they said about the war when it was their job to convince us all it was a good idea. The most you might hope for is the rare, illuminative flash of anger revealing the core of rage that seemed to drive that entire administration.

So for now, I'm enjoying where I am, sitting on a porch in the baking heat of the California desert with DeLillo, waiting to see where the arc lands. The book is short, play-like, so my expectations aren't too expansive, and DeLillo's doing his customary excellent job of delivering interestingly bent characters whose preoccupations with American culture and history match my own. And when I'm done, I'll re-read Libra.
Learn more about the author and his work at Dennis Tafoya's website.

The Page 69 Test: Dope Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue