Sunday, July 31, 2011

Samuel Park

Samuel Park is an Assistant Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. He is a graduate of Stanford and the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate in English. He is the author of the novella Shakespeare's Sonnets and the writer-director of the short film of the same name, which was an official selection of numerous domestic and international film festivals.

His new novel is This Burns My Heart.

A few weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I recently finished Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, a terrific novel about a Chinese girl who immigrates to America and discovers the underbelly of the American Dream. Kwok offers a surprising but satisfying twist on the expected happy ending. I’m also rereading Janice Y. K. Lee’s wonderful The Piano Teacher, about a young English woman discovering her true self in the aftermath of World War II. I love, in particular, Lee’s descriptions of the heroine, Clare Pendleton. They absolutely fly off the page. As we see the effect of Hong Kong on Clare, Lee catches her changing in front of the reader’s eyes, and that sense of metamorphosis infuses every page with drama and conflict. Lee is brilliant at many things, but especially in connecting character with setting.
Visit Samuel Park's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: This Burns My Heart.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Jacqueline West

Jacqueline West’s The Books of Elsewhere fantasy series for young readers is published by Dial in the USA and will also be published in Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Indonesia, Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, and Catalan.

Her poetry has appeared in a variety of print and online publications and has garnered several awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize and two Pushcart nominations. Cherma, her series of poems about Wisconsin’s Bohemian immigrants, was published in March 2010 by the University of Wisconsin’s Parallel Press chapbook series.

Earlier this month I asked West what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m currently hooked on Gillian Flynn. I read her latest book, Dark Places, twice in a row—once to myself, and once aloud to my husband—and now I’m reading her debut novel, Sharp Objects. These are dark, bitter books, with murder at their centers, but Flynn’s characterization is so sharp, her use of language so rich and fluid, and her creation of settings so pitch-perfect that there’s a lot of beauty balancing the brutality.

I’m also in the middle of Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless. Valente uses dense, poetic language to retell old myths and create new or alternate histories; in Deathless, a romance set in Stalinist Russia is interwoven with creatures and characters from Russian folklore. Her style is so lush, so full of figurative language and artful description, that it’s like a piece of dark chocolate packed with a thousand intense flavors—spice and sea salt and ginger and honey, delicious and overwhelming at the same time.
Visit Jacqueline West's website and the The Books of Elsewhere website.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Jacqueline West and Brom Bones.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kermit Moyer

Kermit Moyer grew up an Army brat in the 1950s. He got his BA, his MA and his PhD in English from Northwestern University and in 1970 joined the faculty of American University in Washington, DC, where he taught literature and creative writing for the next 37 years. His short fiction has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, and The Hudson Review.

His books include Tumbling, a collection of stories, and The Chester Chronicles, winner of the 2011 L.L. Winship PEN New England Fiction Award.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Lynn Bonasia's honey of a second novel, Summer Shift is a perfect summer read. I particularly loved the highly effective emotional close. I felt sure that Dan and Mary were made for each other and was sure, too, that in the end they would overcome and straighten out whatever obstacles and misunderstandings were keeping them apart. But the delaying tactics work here just as they work in Pride and Prejudice (that classic piece of Chick Lit). If this was a movie, I’d cast Scott Bakula, who plays an out-of-work lothario actor in the TV series Men of a Certain Age, as Dan, and I guess Sandra Bullock as Mary. I love the restaurant stuff and the quirky neurological stuff (synesthesia and Parkinson’s) and Cape Cod as a place associated with little-known but nevertheless legendary artists. Also the themes of loss, false guilt, lies, and aging that are present throughout and that give the novel its serious ballast. If you like this novel, you should check out her first novel, too. It's called Some Assembly Required.

I've also just read an advance reader's copy of a novel entitled All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen that is due out this September from the Permanent Press and that transcends the genre or tradition in which it is nevertheless solidly located--that is, the police procedural detective novel as practiced by writers like Georges Simenon and P.D. James and Michael Dibdin. At the novel's center is Interpol agent Henri Poincare, and it's primarily the depth of Poincare's characterization that gives the novel its power. Henri Poincare is an original and fully realized human being, and the themes that emerge in this novel move from the merely procedural to the profoundly metaphysical. Ideas drawn from both science and religion come together to form the essential metaphor that links the solution to the mystery of the plot to the mystery of the cosmos. The author's sheer knowledgeability about the way the world works is also exceptional. The lines of suspense converge in the final pages in a way that draws the tension into an exquisite crescendo and then resolves the tension like the final bars of a symphony. The ending is exhilarating, and the second half of the novel totally fulfills the extraordinary promise of the first half. What is mysterious or hidden is revealed and made clear--as if Judgement Day had indeed arrived.
Visit Kermit Moyer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Esri Allbritten

Esri Allbritten is the author of Chihuahua of the Baskervilles, first in a new mystery series that features the staff of Tripping Magazine, a low-budget travel rag that covers destinations of paranormal interest. The thing is, every time they cover a story, there’s a crime behind the supposedly supernatural event — kind of like Scooby Doo for grown-ups.

Not so long ago I asked Allbritten what she was reading. Her reply:
Here's my confession: I've read almost none of Agatha Christie's work. I remember reading some in high school and dismissing one of the most popular writers of all time with the thought, "There are too many suspects and they're all cardboard cut-outs." Since then, I've enjoyed many Christie stories on Masterpiece Mystery (especially the Poirot ones). Because the video productions are so good, I didn't seek out the books. But I recently went through some boxes of childhood stuff and found her book, There is a Tide....

I decided to give the Queen of Crime another shot. Verdict? I still think there are a lot of suspects, but I don't find them cardboardy anymore, just efficiently depicted. Also, it's funny stuff. The beginning of the book, where Hercule Poirot is conversing with a believer in spiritualism, is something I'd love to have written myself.
(Mrs. Lionel Cloade) "My brother Gordon married some weeks before his death, a young widow -- a Mrs. Underhay. Her first husband (poor child, such a grief to her) was reported dead in Africa. A mysterious country--Africa."

"A mysterious continent," Poirot corrected her. "Possibly. What part--"

She swept on. "Central Africa. The home of voodoo, of the zhombie--"

"The zhombie is in the West Indies."

Mrs. Cloade swept on: "--of black magic -- of strange and secret practices -- a country where a man could disappear and never be heard of again."

"Possibly, possibly," said Poirot. "But the same is true of Piccadilly Circus."
Clearly I have a lot of catching up to do.
Visit Esri Allbritten's website.

Allbritten lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, Angel Joe, and her cat, Musette La Plume. In addition to sushi, bowling and madrigals, she enjoys discovering quirky, real-life towns and wreaking fictional havoc in them. Her novels include two books about Lord of the Ring type elves, living in Boulder, CO.

The Page 69 Test: Chihuahua of the Baskervilles.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thomas Kaufman

Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy-winning director/cameraman who also writes mysteries. His first book, Drink the Tea, won the PWA/St Martin's Press Competition for Best First Novel. His second book, Steal the Show, is now available.

Earlier this month I asked Kaufman what he was reading. His reply:
Have you ever met a certain type of aspiring writer? Should you ask them who they like to read, they say, "Oh, I don't read any fiction."

"But you want to write fiction?"

"Yes, but I don't want to dilute what I do by reading other people's work."

Now, I understand part of this. When I'm deep into a first draft, I'm choosy about what I read. I may go into a non-fiction jag, or reread a fiction book I love. But to try and write fiction with out reading any fiction? Unthinkable.

Let's face it, all writing is based on what's come before. The greatest of us -- and the least of us -- all owe a debt to the men and women who came before. They wrote the books we love – and the books we hate (you can learn as much, maybe more, from books that don't work for you).

Plus, when you write the kind of book you enjoy reading, you have a big advantage. If you like detective fiction, and you've read lots of it, you unintentionally programmed your brain to think in a certain way. Somewhere in your consciousness, you already know how to write the kind of book you like to read.

Which brings me to Donald E Westlake. If you've read his work, I don't have to tell you that Westlake (who also wrote as Richard Stark, to name just one of his many pseudonyms) was one of the greats, a prolific mystery writer with an agile, inventive mind, a fine sense of irony, and a sly sense of humor that infects much of his work.

Recently I picked up Good Behavior, one of the John Dortmunder series. This group of books follows a group of criminals, lead by Dortmunder, as they commit outlandish crimes which they occasionally get away with (they have rotten luck).

Good Behavior begins with Dortmunder breaking into a warehouse, only to hear police sirens approach. He escapes over the rooftops, and by accident slips and falls into the belfry of a convent in Tribeca. End of Chapter one.

Chapter two shows us a nun praying in the convent, and we learn that one of their own, Sister Mary Grace, has been kidnapped by her father and is locked in a glass and steel tower, where the father is trying to deprogram her (from the Catholic church!) The nun prays to God to send them someone who can help them, someone who could find a way into the tower and free Sister Mary Grace.

Then a tiny plink -- and the nun sees a small screwdriver hit one of the hard wooden pews. This tool is joined by another, and another. The sister looks up to see Dortmunder hanging from the rafters, and she thinks, our prayers have been answered!

These two scenes create a fine juxtaposition, and the humor comes from that. Now, Westlake's dialogue is superb, and his plots are ingenious, but these two scenes represent his grasps of situational humor. While most of us might go for the quick laugh, Westlake creates situations that are inherently funny. He's been compared with Neil Simon, and with good reason.

The Dortmunder novels are written in third person. They have to be, because a first person narrative could never encompass all the different points of view (POV). And Westlake excels at POV.

In Good Behavior, we begin with Dortmunder's POV. Of course, since he's the protagonist. We also have POV for his partner in crime, Andy Kelp; his live-in girlfriend May; plus Tiny, Stan, and Wilbur, who make up the rest of his gang. There's the kidnapped nun, the convent of nuns who want her back, and a beautiful hard-edged woman named JC Taylor. We get the POV of all of these characters, plus the mom of one of the crooks. These folks work with Dortmunder.

One of them is Wilbur Howey. Wilbur isn't a regular, but one of a long line of eccentric lockmen that Dortmunder has on his string of criminals. Westlake has Wilbur just out of prison after a forty year stretch. Wilbur is sex-crazed, but so out of date (he takes his hat off when he spots a woman) that he sabotages his own chances of getting the women he wants. Westlake uses that piece of characterization in the scene of Wilbur meeting the voluptuous JC Taylor -- he raises his hat above his head and holds it there, hovering "like some flying saucer observing human mating rituals."

As to the antagonists, there's the kidnapped nun's father, Frank Ritter. Westlake characterizes Ritter as a self-important man who writes his profound thoughts in a book The book is always carried over his heart – it has steel covers to stop a bullet. Also, Ritter likes to fire people, and has a memo pad with "You'll never work in this town again" printed across the top.

Also on the dark side are Ritter's deprogrammer Henderson; the military commander of Ritter's mercenary army, Virgil Pickens; Ritter's building security forces; Ritter's son Garret; police captain Mologna, who has it in for Dortmunder; and a crook who wants to sue Dortmunder over a crime gone bad.

By my count, that's nineteen people. Westlake manages to write about each of these people with total clarity, so you always know who's who. But he also gives us so much, that these people come alive in our minds. That's the mark of a great writer.
Visit Thomas Kaufman's website and blog.

His blog tour continues at Jen's Book Thoughts and The Rap Sheet.

The Page 69 Test: Drink the Tea.

The Page 69 Test: Steal the Show.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beth McMullen

Beth McMullen graduated from Boston University with a degree in English Literature and received an MLS from Long Island University. After landing a gig with Reader’s Digest, she eventually realized she’d rather write books than condense them.

Her new novel is Original Sin.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

I’m a huge fan of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels and I find that I can get really bitter if anything interferes with my reading once I’ve started. Her characters are so well drawn and so distinct, you really get no sense of the author leaking through. She has a marvelous ability to create truly different people rather than just tweaking people we’ve already met in previous works. Her minimalist approach, especially to the way Jackson expresses himself, is spot on. You can almost see the tension rising off of him in a cloud. Atkinson is also subtly funny. I find myself laughing without realizing it’s happening.

The first Kate Atkinson book I read was Behind the Scenes at the Museum which is not a Jackson Brodie novel and is her first work. A fabulous read that I’m sure will get you hooked.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

This is really the story of Hemingway’s starter wife, Hadley, about whom I knew next to nothing when I started reading. That in and of itself made this an interesting experience. This is not an action packed read and sadly we know how it ends but it is wonderfully atmospheric and does an excellent job capturing the 1920s Paris.

The secondary characters, many historical heavyweights in their own right, were fun to meet again in this setting. Imagine what an odd party it must have been and how intimidating for a woman, far from home, who was not herself considered an ‘artist’. Her pain, when she realizes how she has been betrayed, is palpable. It stayed with me for quite some time.

After finishing this novel, I went to see Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s latest film. I felt very smug watching Hemingway on the screen, as if I had the inside track to his inner workings thanks to my primer, The Paris Wife.
Visit Beth McMullen's website and Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: Original Sin.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 25, 2011

Anna North

Anna North is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her first novel, America Pacifica, was published by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown on May 18, 2011. She is also a staff writer at Jezebel.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m usually reading several different books at a time, which I dip into depending on my mood. Here’s what’s in my stack right now:

Season to Taste, by Molly Birnbaum

Birnbaum lost her sense of smell after a head injury and then regained it bit by bit over the course of many months. Her memoir of this time in her life is movingly personal, but also analytical – she talks to neuroscientists, perfumers, and chefs about the nature of smell and what happens when it’s lost. This book makes me notice things like the smell of own hand while I hold it – it also makes me want to cook.

The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier

Brockmeier’s latest novel imagines a world in which pain manifests as visible light. Some writers (Saramago comes to mind) might focus on the social impact of this change, but Brockmeier is more interested in how the Illumination affects individual lives – those of a man who has lost his wife, a novelist plagued by canker sores, a boy who can see the pain not just of humans, but of objects. The result is a story of suffering, of empathy, and of the beauty of both.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano

This is an eerie, unusual novel about two people who are very nearly incapable of living in the world. They come together, but then they don’t, and their glancing attempts at connection make the book surprisingly suspenseful. Like The Illumination, Prime Numbers deals with pain and its effects, but as the title suggests, Giordano is largely concerned with the ways in which we handle our pain alone.

Rebels on the Backlot, by Sharon Waxman

I’m working on a new project about a (fictional) film director, so I’m reading a lot of books about what it’s like to make movies. Waxman’s book chronicles the careers of six iconoclastic directors from their (sometimes) humble beginnings to the making of their game-changing films. So far, I’m most interested in Waxman’s accounts of the directors’ early lives – she writes, for instance, about a young Tarantino and his buddies working at a video rental store. As someone who’s always found the prospect of making a movie pretty daunting and scary, I’m curious about how the impulse to do so starts. Since America Pacifica was set in the future, in a largely made-up world, doing research is something of a new thing for me. I’m still working out what to read, and how to read in a way that will be useful to me when I’m writing. I haven’t got it totally figured out yet, but maybe I’ll have a better handle on it by the third or fourth book.
Visit Anna North's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly is an assistant professor in the philosophy department at Purdue University. His research interests are at the intersection of the philosophy of mind, cognitive science and moral theory. In addition to his work on disgust he has published papers on moral judgment, social norms, racial cognition, and cross-cultural diversity.

His new book, Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust.

Recently I asked Kelly what he was reading. His reply:
The Situated Self by J.T. Ismael

Part of the reason I got into the philosophy of mind and cognitive science is that I’m not infrequently kept up at night by questions about minds and selves and personal identity (who am I? what am I? what makes me me, or you you? what’s the difference between a self-image and the actual self that it’s an image of?). The insomnia hasn’t changed much, but I have found myself frustrated by how these types of issues tend to be framed in a lot of contemporary philosophy. Ismael’s book was revelatory, and completely reoriented a lot of my midnight ruminations. It is exactly the kind of philosophy I like most: challenging, naturalistically grounded, clear and rigorous, but also imaginative and far-reaching. Ismael pulls together ideas and strands of thought from a range of different discussions, putting them to work to shed new light on a number of familiar philosophic puzzles. Her view unlocks new, exciting territory to explore as well.

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind by Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams

I spend a lot of time looking for stuff that makes me laugh. Every now and then I’ll reflect on this, and end up wondering what, exactly, I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. I’m hoping this book has some answers for me. I just started in, and things look promising – Inside Jokes is almost immediately engaging. It helps that Hurley and his coauthors have filled the book with examples of its subject matter, and their theory of why and how we humans evolved to find all those jokes funny is laid out in lucid, accessible prose.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This book has it all: clever formal inventiveness that enhances (rather than gets in the way of) its many crisscrossing storylines; a multi-angle view into the machinery and types of people who inhabit the music industry; insightful extrapolations into a possible not-too-distant future; and an ensemble of characters who are interesting, funny, and endearingly flawed. On top of all that, it’s a ton of fun to read.

Ray by Barry Hannah

Compact, cutting, brilliant.

Underworld by Don Delillo

I have a soft spot for these big, sprawling, zeitgeisty novels, dating back to when I got hooked by the Illuminatus! Trilogy, through books like Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest to 2666. This one has been on my queue for a while now, and I’m excited to finally get immersed in Delillo’s world of Cold War paranoia. The famous opening scene, which starts off following a group of kids crashing the gates at the Polo Grounds and is built around Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” lives up to its billing; it’s masterful.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

When this was released a couple of months ago, I spent an inordinate amount of time reading through the wave of reviews and commentaries on Wallace’s legacy that it generated. I still haven’t cracked open the novel itself yet, though, and I’m not totally sure why. For years now I would basically put everything on hold when new DFW stuff came out. I think the difference this time has to do with trying to prolong the anticipation. More than anticipation, really – I want to draw out and savor everything about this one, because sadly, it’s the last David Foster Wallace novel I’ll ever get to read. Infinite Jest is one of those rare works of art that, when I first read it 10 odd years ago, resonated deeply and changed the way I experience the world and my place in it. All of DFW’s stuff, fiction and non-fiction alike, is dazzling. The world is a duller place without him in it.
Learn more about Daniel Kelly's Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust at the MIT Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Will Lavender

Will Lavender is a graduate of Centre College with an MFA from Bard College. His debut novel, Obedience, was a New York Times and international bestseller. His novels have been sold in 13 countries.

Lavender's new novel is Dominance.

A few weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I recently picked up Michael Crichton’s Sphere, a book that was recommended to me as “a good beach read.” I wasn’t expecting the book to do what it did. First, let me say that I love scouring used bookstores; I love the veiny-spined book, the lonely book that has been on the shelves for months and months, the book that was popular two decades ago. I like to sort of assume a different persona when I read these novels, imagine that I am living in a different era, the era when this particular book was hot off the presses. The book as time machine.

Like all great books, Sphere is a book that works on a multitude of different levels. What it is, though, is a page-turner. What it isn’t? Mindless entertainment. This book is the literary equivalent of a mind bomb, the sort of book that holds a kind of elusive mystery on nearly every page. Crichton has been criticized for being too commercial, for writing novels that were essentially movies on the page. And this is partly true. But he was also deeply inventive and off-the-charts intelligent; his books ooze with the kind of cerebral intensity you don’t find in beach books. Never.

When I came to that outstanding, creepy, ominous ending of Sphere, I put the book down and slowly, stubbornly returned to the Florida condominium I was staying in. But I had been on a long, strange trip—and I think this is all you can ask out of any book, whether it’s for the beach set or not: that it take you someplace else, that it pick you up and make you believe, for an instant, that you have inhabited a different world.
Visit Will Lavender's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Obedience.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sandra Beasley

Sandra Beasley is the author of the poetry collections I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, which won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Her honors include a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in Washington, D.C., where her prose has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine.

Her new book is the memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life.

A few weeks ago I asked Beasley what she was reading. Her reply:
Usually, when an old friend says “Oh, I know another writer; I have to introduce you!” I groan inwardly. All writers do not get along, any more than all lawyers or all veterinarians. But I agreed to show up at the Big Hunt—a DC bar where he was scheduled to read—reasoning that the skeeball and $4 drafts were reason enough. And in this case, my high school friend’s sister’s new husband turned out to be not only a compelling writer, but a very cool guy: Joseph Riippi.

The Orange Suitcase is described in terms of “stories,” but many of the sections have the brevity and lyric intensity of prose poems. In a series of snapshots that move back and forth between modern day and a grandparent’s generation, Riippi creates a portrait of young man’s ascent from firing BB guns to exchanging I Dos, interrogating along the way what it means to live and to love in New York. A collage of memories, dreams, and non sequiturs, there is not a boring page in this collection. Even as I write this, I’m thinking Gosh, I need to read it again. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing from this guy for years to come, and that makes me very happy.

An $8 remaindered hardback of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances was an impulse buy as I roamed the tables of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ve been a fan of Alexie’s ever since I first encountered his nimble sestina “The Business of Fancydancing,” but I had not sat down with much of his prose. What I found was a rangy, funny, delightfully idiosyncratic hodgepodge anchored by two stunning stories: “War Dances” and “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless.” Though much of the attention given to Alexie over the years has focused on his Native American identity, he is a master at the hybrid voice with seamlessly integrates tribal references and mainstream culture. A healing song and a paean to Trader Joe’s are equally at home on these pages.

When my mother gave me the pairing of Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye and Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide as a May birthday gift, she purposefully wrapped the package in paper strewn with flowers and smiley faces. “To counterbalance the mood,” she admitted. And it’s true: Bialosky’s History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life is a devastating read, particularly because I share her 10-year gap with a younger sister. As I turned the last page, I had to fight the impulse for a midnight call to my sister in Beijing, just to tell her I love her.

But to respond to the story’s raw emotional potency would be to shortchange the book’s craft: this is thoughtfully constructed, researched, elegant meditation on the origins of a suicide and the impact it has on a family. Though Bialosky’s identity as a poet and an editor shapes her thoughts—authors ranging from William Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath make cameos—she wears her literary expertise lightly, refusing to over-romanticize or retreat into figurative language. As a reader, I was deeply moved. As a fellow memoirist, I was inspired.
Learn more about Beasley and her work at her website and blog, Chicks Dig Poetry.

Writers Read: Sandra Beasley (Febraury 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 21, 2011

John Gimlette

John Gimlette has won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and the Wanderlust Travel Writing Award, and he contributes regularly to The Times (London), The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, and Condé Nast Traveller.

His books include At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, Theatre of Fish, Panther Soup, and Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge.

Recently I asked Gimlette what he was reading. His reply:
Unfortunately, I can’t always be reading exactly what I want. Although I spend much of my time travelling and researching my journeys, I also have to keep up the ‘day job’, and – for me – that means working as a barrister, or trial advocate.

So what am I reading right now? Well, if I am honest, it’s a gruesome little book about what all the different parts of our body are worth. It has a dull name, The Judicial Studies Board Guidelines, but, quite literally, it puts a price on all our bits and pieces, from ears and eyes to our private parts. Of course, it’s not a catalogue, and it’s not trying to say what a severed arm is worth. It merely indicates what a judge would award you. In this, English law recognises that you can’t buy back the foot that you left on the railway, or the testicles the doctors accidentally lopped off. But there is a tariff, a sort of ‘going rate’ for not only your appendages but also your wits. Even madness has a price.

It’s a fascinating reflection on how we perceive bodies. Start with an arm. Lose one below the elbow and you get up to £72,000. Lose both and you get up to £197,000 (odd really. Losing both arms is surely ten times worse than only one?). A leg on the other hand is worth £92,000 whereas if you’re pruned of both you’re in for double that at £195,000 (again, a bit odd considering a double amputation will put paid to your chances of walking). This compares to loss of an eye (£43,000), a mouthful of teeth (£7,500), or a hand (£72,000). I can’t help feeling that in parts of the Islamic world a lost hand might be worth more; it’s not just inconvenient but it marks you out as a thief.

The book is not elegantly written. There’s no gold lettering, or plaudits from hacks and fellow authors (‘Gobsmacked … a definitive guide to what you’re worth!’). The text starts with your head and works down to your toes. It’s a democratic read, and anyone can cope with it, although it’s replete with truisms from the orthopaedic world (‘A shorter stump may create difficulties in the use of a prosthesis ...’).

As a travel writer, I often wonder how the figures would vary in other parts of the planet. I can think of some countries where the mutilation of female genitalia (£111,000) wouldn’t even be regarded as an injury. The French, on the other hand, would attach a much higher value to their sense of taste (£16,400). And to some tribes, the loss of a thumb (£23,000) would be fatal, being the end of archery. The Iban of Sarawak might also be rather surprised at the amounts they’d get for the nails driven through their penises (perhaps £8,250) when, to them, the nail is simply jewellery.

So, what price your sanity? Being driven right over the edge, like the madwoman in Jane Eyre probably gets you £66,000. However, if you’re just a bit barking (like King Lear), you’ll probably receive only £40,000. Meanwhile, ‘shell shock’, like that suffered by everyone in All Quiet on the Western Front, is worth around £20,000, assuming that the quacks will be able to pull you round.

And the least valuable bit of you? Well, don’t bother the courts if it’s a little hand injury: £600 and be grateful.
Visit John Gimlette's website.

Writers Read: John Gimlette (April 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Jonathan Evison

Jonathan Evison is the author of All About Lulu, which won the Washington State Book Award. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Richard Buckley Fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation.

His latest novel is West of Here.

Not so long ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

Recently, I've been revisiting Allan Gurganus's brilliant Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Usually when I mention this debut, a lot is made of the splash it created in 1989, spending eight months on the New York Times bestseller list, and selling (I believe) over four million copies. People often recall the dreadful CBS mini-series with Cicely Tyson. Or that their mom read it. What seems to get overlooked twenty-some years later is what a major literary achievement OLCWTA is. I'd number it among the best handful of debuts I ever read, along with one of my favorite southern novels. I'd number it among the best voice novels of the twentieth century. And make no mistake, Gurganus has a shit-ton of voice. We're talking voice stylings of Twainian proportions. I'm not big on writing exposition (it's enough of a chore to write my own!), so if you haven't read OLCWTA, and I should pique your interest with this post, by all means do yourself a favor and read up on it—better yet, just trust me, and get your hands on the book. All you need to know is that narrator Lucy Marsden, the oldest living confederate widow, will imprint you indelibly with her wit, and wisdom, and charm. And lordy, can she spin an unforgettable yarn. I'd be hard pressed to think of another title with this much literary merit, that has sold anywhere near what this novel sold in the past twenty years. I hear far more people talking about what a great debut Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh ('88) was, though Gurganus's debut is far more mature, complex, sophisticated, and memorable. Is this because Gurganus enjoyed too much commercial success (the scarlet letter of literary fiction)? Or is it because Gurganus has failed to keep his profile up—not producing enough work, and living in relative obscurity for a man of his talents? Whatever the case, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was built to last, and I, for one, hope it does.
Visit Jonathan Evison's website.

Jonathan Evison's six favorite books.

The Page 99 Test: All About Lulu.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Edie Meidav

Edie Meidav is the author of The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon and Crawl Space.

Winner of a Lannan Fellowship, a Howard Fellowship, the Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman, and the Bard Fiction Prize, she teaches at Bard College.

Her new novel is Lola, California.

Meidav's reply to my recent query about what she was reading:
Another way to phrase this question might be: why do I always come back to J.M. Coetzee? Because he is so spare and unremitting in his artistic vision. For anyone with maximalist tendencies, the guy serves as a welcome corrective. Right now I'm reading Summertime, which is such a thinly masked roman a clef that a new, metafictionally oriented genre should be created, called clef a roman. Reader's caveat or guide: for those new to Coetzee, begin with Disgrace; if you're hooked, read The Life and Times of Michael K.; possibly detour at Age of Iron; continue to the memoir Boyhood; and then on to Summertime. Do not start with Summertime.

I also just read Brad Morrow's The Diviners Tale, which I enjoyed for these reasons: not since Norman Rush's Mating have I read such a convincing male ventriloquism of a female voice. He also effectively turns the genre ghost tale on its head, and yet does so without sacrificing narrative tension: a real tour de force of a novel.

Finally, I am reading James Woods' book on fiction, which, may I say this hubristically, is as witty, pointed, and ultimately creative as one of Harold Bloom's nightmares. And I'm looking forward to reading Carolyn Cooke's Daughters of the Revolution which promises to unravel an entire era of discomfiture in both racial and gender relations.
Visit Edie Meidav's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 18, 2011

Rachel Shteir

Rachel Shteir is the author of three books: Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show (2004), Gypsy: the Art of the Tease (2009), and The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (2011).

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Reading? What writers have time to read? I want their names and telephone numbers. Telephone numbers. I date myself. I want their Twitter handles.

I have been mostly reading for work, i.e. background reading for pieces I'm working on, books I'm reviewing for various publications. Recently, I read Sigrid Nunez' excellent book about Susan Sontag, (and re-read a lot of books by the brilliant writer herself), a book about boredom by a scholar, Peter Toohey and a lot of David Mamet. Those were all for reviews, thankfully different reviews.

I can tell you what I would like to read: Gioia Diliberto's book about Hadley Hemingway, Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife is not a new book per se, it was published, I believe, in 1992. But Harper Collins is re-releasing it as an e-book and a paperback. I heard Gioia talk at the Printer's Row Book Fair and the way she talked about the relationship between Hadley and Hemingway broke my heart. Hadley married Hemingway when they were young and he was an aspiring writer and they were devoted to each other. Then when he was becoming (or had become) famous, he wanted other things and she became too serious and Midwestern for him.

Gioia did original research to tell the story of Hadley, who was a complex figure and maybe the woman Hemingway loved the most. The reason I can't read it is I don't have an e-reader, so I have to wait until it is re-released as a paperback in September.

Oh, now that I think of it, there are several other new and (less new) books that I read recently by Chicago and New York writers. Ted Fishman's Shock of Grey, which is about the arriving crisis that we face as we age. By we I mean people in their 40s, 50s--Boomers. It's a tremendous and thoughtful book about the burden all of us Olds, as they say, are going to put on the rest of the world. Also I want to mention Jonathan Eig's book on Al Capone, Get Capone, which came out last year and made use of some new archival discoveries to tell Capone's story in a fresh way. It's a dramatic cat and mouse story. Maybe it will be made into a movie.

Oh, I also read two books by Katherine Russell Rich: The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer and Back, about her struggle with cancer, which I had never read, had some incredibly funny lines and shrewd observations and is written in a breezy style. It was written I believe in the late 1980s or 1990s. I also read Rich's more recent book about India in which she talks about blowing up her life, a phrase I feel very close to, have an affinity for. She is an evocative describer of India, a place I have never been. Nothing much happens in the book, but it somehow carries you along. There is that mysterious sense that you so often have in traveling of doing things that you have no idea why and being in situations that you have no idea how you got there.

I also read Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan's A Tiger in the Kitchen, a fun and lively investigation into her own culinary past and the mysterious and complex, to use that word again, world of her ancestors. And I read Laura Kipnis' How to Become a Scandal, which is not exactly a guide to its title, but rather a highly erudite romp through how scandals are constructed now. I liked the sex bits a lot.

And I have read a book of short scary stories, LA Noire, which includes gruesome (in a good way) and chilling stories by Megan Abbott and Jonathan Santlofer, as well as Joyce Carol Oates.

So I guess I have been reading, after all.
Visit Rachel Shteir's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: Gypsy.

The Page 99 Test: The Steal.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dawn Tripp

Dawn Tripp graduated from Harvard and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. She is the author of the novels Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water, which won the Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction.

Her new novel is Game of Secrets.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

In my own fiction, I am driven by what I cannot say. I write to find words for what lies past words. Every novel I have written starts with some dark thing I can’t quite bring myself to tell, and so I tell it on the slant, through the story.

Most of the novels I adore have a quality of otherness about them. There is as well a certain cadence to the work. I feel that along with voice, the rhythm of a narrative is a key element of creating fiction that is often overlooked. Rhythm draws a reader through a story. The meanings of words touch the mind—the twists in plot engage the intellect—but that cadence calls forth a deeper more intuitive connection to the lives of the characters. A shift in rhythm allows a reader to feel a shift in thought, a change of heart, that breath-caught-sharp moment of a revelation.

I am shamefully particular about what I read. I know the instant I read the first page of a book if the voice is one that will carry me.

About three weeks ago, my step-mother left two novels at my house. One quite well known—I had heard so much talk—I was sure I wanted to read it. I picked it up, did my first page test. No. I set it down. The next morning I was eating my toast. The other book lay on the counter. A slight novel called Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, 173 pages, published first in 1957. I flipped it open, read the first line, and felt that sense of falling somewhere in me—what I always feel when I read the first line of a novel that I will lose my mind to.

The opening chapter of Snow Country takes place on a train: Shinamura, a rich Tokyo dilettante, is traveling to a hot spring in the snow country of Japan to see a Geisha, Komako, whom he had a brief love affair with the year before. She is ‘the woman his hand remembered.’ In this brief lovely blade of a novel, Kawabata renders a world that is not of this world. There is a certain dreamlike immediacy to the story of this love affair that we sense is doomed from the start. But Kawabata’s prose is inexorable. The strange beauty of the winter country melds with the body and face of the woman—Komako’s beauty is transient, we feel it changing, like shadows reflected on snow, as a result of her love for Shinamura and the stunned, apathetic coldness at the heart of his desire. Komako stirs him, but he can only move toward her so far.

Snow Country is one of those novels you can’t stop reading. At the same time, you won’t let yourself read too fast. You don’t want it to end.

The art of the novel is this: Kawabata renders a human connection, a love between a man and a woman that we sense will not survive. Yet Kawabata’s rendering of that failing love glints with ulterior life—so haunting and lyric we are keenly aware of what could be. It is heartbreaking, damning, yet written with such compassion we are moved.

There is a shelf in my office for novels that I will read again and again over the years. These are novels that kick open windows in my brain and somehow never fail to change me in some slight and vital way, with each re-reading. Imaginary Life by David Malouf; Emily L. and The Lover by Marguerite Duras; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje; The Sound and The Fury by Faulkner. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Wild Decembers by Edna O’Brien. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. These novels have a certain life—a certain nuanced undercurrent of thought and feeling that spark some immutable, unsayable thing in me. Snow Country will go on that shelf when I turn the last page—I am not there yet, and in some way, I do not want to be.
Visit Dawn Tripp's website.

The Page 69 Test: Game of Secrets.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Steven Gould

Steven Gould is the author of Jumper, Wildside, Helm, Blind Waves, Reflex, and Jumper: Griffin’s Story, as well as many short stories. He is the recipient of the Hal Clement Young Adult Award for Science Fiction and has been nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards.

Gould's new novel is 7th Sigma.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At this point, (in the last quarter of writing a novel--currently writing the next Jumper novel Impulse.) I am usually rereading. Often I'm looking for a vibe, or tone, or feeling. Lately, it's been nearly everything written by Martha Wells. In particularly, I'm rereading her latest book The Cloud Roads.

She is a fantasy writer but there is something science fictional about her world building. Cloud Roads has this odd multi-race (and by race, I suppose I mean multi-species world ranging from variety of humanoid forms to bug-like hive creatures and primarily two races that shift from "groundling" to a flying form. All of these species are sentient and the cultural interactions are fascinating. (There are non-sentient species around, too.)

I've also recently reread her trilogy, The Fall of Ile-Rien ( The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air, and The Gate of Gods.) It's a real pity these three books didn't come out before the current steampunk craze, but fans of steampunk should seek out the e-books. This trilogy is set in the same world as her first novel The Element of Fire and her Nebula award nominated novel The Death of the Necromancer, but where Element is a cavalier period novel, and Necromancer is Victorian, I'd call Fall World War I in historical setting (when it isn't something completely else as they travel between dimensions.)
Visit Steven Gould's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bill Crider

Bill Crider is the winner of two Anthony Awards and is an Edgar Award finalist.

His latest novel is The Wild Hog Murders, Volume 18 of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries.

Late last month I asked Crider what he was reading. His reply:
Earlier this week I read Megan Abbott’s new novel, The End of Everything. It’s a coming-of-age story narrated by a 13-year-old girl named Lizzie. Well, not exactly. It’s the grown-up Lizzie who’s really telling the story of her 13-year-old self. Lizzie’s next door neighbor, Evie, seems to Lizzie to have the perfect family. And then Evie is abducted. Lizzie knows things that no one else does, and while the search goes on, she does her own investigation. Secrets are revealed, though not necessarily the ones you might expect.

Right after reading that contemporary book, I plunged into something very different, Day Keene’s Hunt the Killer, a paperback original from 1951 that’s about to be reprinted by Stark House. I always enjoy Keene’s stories. This one’s about a man who’s just been released after four years in prison. He’s out for revenge, and naturally beautiful women are involved. The pace never lets up in a Day Keene novel, and this one’s no exception.

Meanwhile, when I’ve had a spare moment or two, I’ve been reading some of the short stories in the L. A. Noire collection published on Kindle. I liked Joe Lansdale’s “Naked Angel.” Megan Abbott has a story in this one, too. The stories are set in 1947 and connected to the video game with the same name as the book title. I won’t be playing the game. I need the time to read.
Visit Bill Crider's website and blog.

Read the Page 69 Test entries for Crider's A Mammoth Murder, Murder Among the OWLS, Of All Sad Words, Murder in Four Parts, and Murder in the Air, as well as an excellent write-up about Dan Rhodes on the big screen at "My Book, The Movie."

The Page 69 Test: The Wild Hog Murders.

--Marshal Zeringue