Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dan Vyleta

Dan Vyleta is the son of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the late 1960s. After growing up in Germany, he left to attend university in the UK where he completed a Ph.D. in History at King’s College, University of Cambridge. He now calls Canada his home. When not reading or writing books, he watches cop shows, or listens to CDs from his embarrassingly large collection of Jazz albums.

Vyleta's new novel is The Quiet Twin.

Early this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Larry McMurtry’s Comanche Moon. I grew up watching John Ford Westerns, dubbed into German that is, which seems a little strange now, but felt entirely natural then. John Wayne was much revered in my house: to my parents who had fled communist Czechoslovakia his characters’ gruff non-conformism must have symbolized something, a mode of life and Weltanschauung denoted in our house by a puzzling one-word cipher: západ -- the occident, the west.

Larry McMurtry’s west is a different beast from Ford’s. Here, too, are the endless skies of Texas, the same yearning for the open prairie. But where Ford’s cowboys and pistoleros remain, at bottom, inscrutable, McMurtry takes the lids off his characters’ souls (if souls be pots), uncovering their motivations. He does so doggedly, with little literary affectation. The results are startling. Omniscience is an elevated point of view: we gaze with God. In other hands such total access to the petty currents of human desire might breed contempt; in McMurtry’s it breeds identification and compassion. It also wakes a yearning. What connects the many characters who people McMurtry’s prose is a shared freshness of perspective. Few of them can read; there is no radio or television that could impress on them their interpretations of the world. Their sense of reality has been shaped solely by their own encounters with life. As a result their vision is limited and often faulty, sometimes in ways that are laughable. For this reader, though, staring back into their lives, a sense of envy stirs for the freshness of their experience. In their struggle to penetrate to the truth of a thing, they do all their own digging. Google does not lend a hand.
Visit Dan Vyleta's website and learn more about The Quiet Twin.

See Vyleta's top 10 list of books in second languages.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pam Houston

Pam Houston divides her time between her ranch in Colorado and the University of California at Davis, where she is director of the Creative Writing Program. She has been a frequent contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine, and her writing appears regularly in More and other publications. She in the author of the best-selling Cowboys Are My Weakness.

Houston's new novel is Contents May Have Shifted.

A few weeks ago I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
Bear Down, Bear North, by Melinda Moustakis, a collection of short stories all set in Alaska, full of the things you would expect as such: salmon fisherman, rifles, moose in the back yard, kids running wild, too much alcohol and not enough good sense. The quality of the writing here is the real draw, however you feel about Alaska (I happen to love it). Melinda is deeply in love with the place and with language, and her voice will get inside your head and stay there in all the best ways.

The Empty Family, by Colm Toibin, a collection of short stories about loneliness and the world’s bright beauty and how those two things push against each other over the course of our lives. My favorite stories were the two first person, autobiographical ones, and also the novella that ends the book, which might be one of the great love stories ever told. This is the kind of book that has gotten better and better in my mind the longer I am away from it, which is to say that I loved it while I read it, and it has grown on me still in my memory.

Wild, a memoir, by Cheryl Strayed, forthcoming in March. Cheryl was twenty-two when her mom died quickly, from cancer. Her world turned upside down by the loss; she went on a drug and sex bender that was getting darker and more risky every day. In an effort to pull herself back into the light, she decided to hike almost the entire Pacific Crest Trail, the Mohave Desert to Washington State, alone with a backpack so big she named it monster, even though she had never even worn a backpack in her life. I was not so sure I would like this book. The subject matter was a little close to home, and memoirs aren’t my favorite form. But I read it on a long airplane flight, and by the time I was done the people all around me were seriously afraid of me. I was laughing so hard I was shaking the whole row of seats, and when I wasn’t laughing I was crying.

When Women Were Birds, another memoir, out in April by Terry Tempest Williams. A week before Terry’s mom died, she told Terry she wanted her to have the 30 plus journals she had kept her whole life, but she made Terry promise not to open them until after she was gone. Terry complied, and weeks later she went to her father’s house to begin to read the journals. She opened the first one. It was blank. She opened the next one and it too was blank. They were all blank. This book is a stunningly wise meditation on what it means to speak and what it means to stay silent.

Preliminary Report, poems by Jon Davis. This is the best book of poems that came out in 2010, in my opinion, and Jon Davis might be the most underrated poet in America. Razor sharp, super intelligent, but never at the expense of the heart-stopping images, or the serious emotional punch they pack. Look for the poem "Loving Horses" on line and see if you don’t want more.
Visit Pam Houston's website.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Pam Houston and Fenton Johnson.

The Page 69 Test: Contents May Have Shifted.

My Book, The Movie: Contents May Have Shifted.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 27, 2012

Kevin Fox

Kevin Fox is a producer and writer for the Fox TS series Lie to Me, and his professional screenwriter credits include the film The Negotiator. He splits his time between coasts, living in both Los Angeles and New Jersey. His new novel is Until the Next Time.

Earlier this month I asked Fox what he was reading.  His reply:
I usually read several things at once, predominantly reading more fiction than non-fiction and always making sure I have some reading that is purely guilty pleasure. I also sometimes am reading as a screenwriter and television writer, looking for works to adapt or at works that have been suggested for adaptation. Currently I have several books that I am working through at the same time, for different reasons.

The first is my guilty pleasure, Tom Knox’s The Lost Goddess, a thriller that explores archeology and alternative theories of our past. Having read Knox’s The Genesis Secret and The Marks of Cain, and having enjoyed them, I picked up The Lost Goddess so that I could once again look at our world through a different lens and be entertained by the action and thriller elements Knox weaves in so well.

I also have on my desk Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets, which seems to me to be an epic poem in prose form. Dawn’s writing is truly lyrical and the settings she describes are somehow both everyday and mysterious. I loved the mystical reality she constructs, hiding the secrets she hopes to eventually convey right in front of us and leading us through each turn like the words being played in the Scrabble game that is a central metaphor in the novel.

The third book was recommended to me by a director friend who knows me quite well and thought the themes and elements of the novel would intrigue me. I am currently about halfway through and can’t put it down, so I guess he was right. It is Lisa Carey’s In the Country of the Young, and it is full of Irish mythology, played out on an island in modern-day Maine. Part ghost story, part love story, and mythological in its scope, the novel is one that should be read alone, in a cabin by a fire on a cold winter night. It will keep you warm all on its own.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes I picked up based on the title alone, not knowing as much about it as I should have considering that it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The title called out to me as a writer, for often I begin a story with only ‘the sense of an ending’ and work backward from that key moment in time. As I have just begun and am already intrigued by the style and mystery that has been set before me, it seems like a good pick – but I’ll have to let you know.

The last two books that are dog-eared on my shelf (and I apologize to all you purists who don’t dog-ear pages) are non-fiction, Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I love the perspective that Levitt and Dubner have on the world, in the same way that I appreciate Malcolm Gladwell’s sometimes radical perspective on events and situations most of us see and never question. I can’t say too much about this right now, but it is Levitt and Dubner’s unique perspective that I am trying to embrace as I move forward on a television project that will hopefully bring that kind of perspective to the small screen.
Visit Kevin Fox's website.

The Page 69 Test: Until the Next Time.

My Book, The Movie: Until the Next Time.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jonathan Greenberg

Jonathan Greenberg is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Montclair State University. His new book is Modernism, Satire and the Novel.

Not so long ago I asked Greenberg what he was reading.  His reply:
English professors like to teach texts that we are “working on,” and since I am now writing a book about satire aimed at the college student and the common reader, much of what I am working on these days is satiric. Prepping a graduate seminar in American fiction last fall allowed me to discover some great American satires I’d never read before, and to reopen and reevaluate some old favorites. Let me talk about two.

The book that surprised me most in re-reading was Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. I recalled almost nothing of my earlier encounters with Lewis, and I must have dismissed him as an artless social realist who lacked the stylistic daring of his great high-modernist contemporaries. It’s true that the satire in Babbitt can feel polemical and obvious, and for intellectuals today a Midwestern Republican businessman is perhaps too easy a target. But although the plodding Babbitt (like his literary descendant Rabbit) often seems overmatched by the intelligence of his creator, this remarkable novel still manages to summon considerable sympathy in between its blasts of contempt. Polemicism aside, Lewis is a hugely gifted observer who fills his novel with one marvelously telling detail after the next. Babbitt’s daily interactions, whether with a bank president, a gas station attendant, or a seller of bootleg gin, realize with vivid precision the businessman’s character and the world of early ‘20s America. And however obvious some of the social satire may seem, Lewis’s critique of the bourgeois mind anticipates the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals in its diagnosis the standardization of culture. And besides, taking potshots at the capitalist class can still be great fun.

Now for a disappointment: Nabokov’s Pale Fire. My letdown in revisiting Pale Fire was almost embarrassing because of my great enthusiasm for the book in my college days; I felt that my younger self had been duped. I used to revere Nabokov to such a degree that I had allowed his strong opinions somehow to dissuade me from my admiration of Mann and Faulkner. Of course Pale Fire, even to my forty-three-year-old self, is still a remarkable accomplishment—enchantingly clever, often hilarious, beautifully constructed and polished to a brilliant shine. Yet it’s also surprisingly clumsy in places, especially in John Shade’s often lifeless heroic couplets. (Might Nabokov have deliberately styled Shade a mediocrity? Perhaps, but if mediocrity is the target, then Babbitt is a much more vibrant satire.) In my recent reading, the jokes about Kinbote’s homosexuality seemed sophomoric, the longing for the afterlife felt lame and irrational, and the story of Hazel Shade’s suicide came off as schmaltzy. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum once declared Pale Fire the twentieth century’s greatest book; this can only be true if you are the kind of reader for whom literary criticism is merely a game of puzzles and clues, as it apparently is for Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd. Yes, Nabokov’s ingenuity affords the reader great delight, whether he outsmarts you or whether you manage to keep with him. Lolita still retains all its glory, and I have a hunch that works I read years ago in translation (The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading) pack enough punch that they can sustain re-reading from the vantage of midlife. But if you’re looking for a great American novel from the early 1960s with a satiric bent, I’d suggest, off the top of my head, two other books instead, Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Read an excerpt from Modernism, Satire and the Novel, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn (pronounced A-o-win) LeMay Ivey was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters. Her mother named her after a character from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

She works at the independent bookstore Fireside Books where she plays matchmaker between readers and books. The Snow Child is her debut novel. Her short fiction appears in the anthology Cold Flashes, University of Alaska Press 2010, and the North Pacific Rim literary journal Cirque.

Recently I asked Ivey what she was reading. Her reply:
It’s rare for me to reread a book, but that’s what I’m doing right now with Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. I read it a few years ago, but then my book club chose it this month, so I’m enjoying it a second time. I have never come across another novel like this – it’s so laugh-out-loud funny and quirky, and yet doesn’t fall into that trap of being cynical or mean-spirited. It is somehow very genuine and tender. I never imagined I would so love a book that’s basically about the office culture.

Often when I’m reading a novel, I also have a nonfiction book on the side. Right now it’s Robert Morgan’s Lions of the West about men like Thomas Jefferson, David Crockett, Kit Carson, and Johnny Appleseed. I picked it up for two reasons – I’m a huge fan of Morgan’s novel Gap Creek, but also the theme of Lions of the West pertains to my next writing project. I’m fascinated by the drive for exploration that has carried people into the wildest, most remote parts of the world, and I’ve often wondered what motivated these explorers. Was it money or power, or curiosity and wanderlust? I’m discovering some great answers in this book.
Visit Eowyn Ivey's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 24, 2012

Julianna Baggott

Critically acclaimed, bestselling author Julianna Baggott also writes under the pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. She has published seventeen books over the last ten years.

After receiving her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Baggott published her first novel, Girl Talk, which was a national bestseller and was quickly followed by Boston Globe bestseller The Miss America Family, and then Boston Herald Book Club selection, The Madam, an historical novel based on the life of her grandmother. She co-wrote Which Brings Me to You with Steve Almond, a Kirkus Best Book of 2006.

Baggott's new novel is Pure.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
You really want to know what's on my bedside table? Really? Well, I'll tell you. I got burnt out. I've read and read -- for reviews, blurbs, my grad students. The work was good -- sometimes really, really damn good. But everything was assigned. Everything had a due date. And, yes, I'll admit it. There was that keeping up with the Jones reading that I've always balked at. When everyone's reading The Help, I just simply refuse. I want to read what no one else is reading. So, in the past few months, that has included an ancient medical journal, an Old English Dictionary. I just rebel and then you can't make me read what everyone else is reading. Is this hard for me sometimes socially in literary circles (I still haven't gotten to Freedom.)? Well, yes, yes it is. But I'm already weird socially around other writers so forget it. And, I'll admit it, at this moment, a lot of people are reading The Orphan Master's Son -- it's on my bedside table and I'm loving it. And I haven't yet gotten my hands on Stewart O'Nan's latest and I feel a little ached about it. So I do read what others are reading, of course sometimes ... And I lose books. Did I mention this? For example, I just got my second copy of The Snow Child. I carry books around. I let them loose. I hope they find good homes. So, you asked me an honest question and I'm going to give an honest answer. I was burnt out. And I said to myself, Baggott, what did you first love to read? Seriously, way back. Before One Hundred Years of Solitude blew up your brain. What was there for the sheer pleasure of flipping pages? I'll tell you. Agatha Christie. And right now, amid a lot of up and coming novels and weird books, are two Agatha Christie paperbacks. One came apart in my hands while reading it last week. The other is just starting to bend in two. But yeah. I needed to go back to something elemental. And I found her in the dusty back room of a second hand bookstore and I felt like some part of me was starting over.
Visit Julianna Baggott's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Pure.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Patricia Cohen

Patricia Cohen is the author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age. She is a reporter and editor for The New York Times, and has worked at Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, and New York Newsday. Her work has been included in The Longman Writer, a writing textbook, and she contributed to the four-volume series, The New York Times Guide to the Arts of the 20th Century.

Her reply to my recent query about what she was reading:
When I was working on my book, I didn’t have much time to read fiction, so I have really indulged since I finished. I thought Amy Waldman’s book The Submission was wonderful. In her story, a committee holds a contest for a design for the 9/11 Memorial and the winner turns out to be a Muslim. Waldman, who was a reporter for The New York Times, uses her incredible reportorial skills and observational powers to bring this story to life. Having covered New York City politics, I can attest that she gets it right.

Before that I read Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, which was a departure from her usual subjects. In it, she takes you back to the first century C.E. after Jerusalem falls to the Romans. She re-imagines what happened at Masada as the Romans laid siege to the Jews who were holed up there through the eyes of four women.

I have to also include William Trevor’s novel, Felicia’s Journey, which was both creepy and captivating. He is an incredible writer.
Learn more about the book and author at the In Our Prime website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Krys Lee

Krys Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in California and Washington, and studied in the United States and England. She was a finalist for Best New American Voices, received a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart Prize XXXVI, and her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, Granta (New Voices), California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Conde Nast Traveller, UK (forthcoming). Lee lives in Seoul with intervals in San Francisco.

Her new book is Drifting House.

Recently I asked Lee what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’m reading Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. I’ve been close to the North Korean defector community in Seoul for many years, so have a natural interest in books all things Korean. I also appreciate the slightly off-kilter perspective that Adam brings, as well as the intensive research and courage it takes to tackle such a difficult subject.

Another book I’m reading is the The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry. I wrote poetry before I ever began writing fiction, and feel it’s an important influence on my stories. Fiction writers could learn a lot from poetry’s economy and distillation of language.

I’m also dipping into Wallace Stevens’ The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. As with Stevens’ poetry, I don’t necessarily always understand him, but even if I understand him obscurely it’s of great value to me.
Visit Krys Lee's website.

The Page 69 Test: Drifting House.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Andromeda Romano-Lax

Born in 1970 in Chicago, Andromeda Romano-Lax worked as a freelance journalist and travel writer before turning to fiction. Her first novel, The Spanish Bow, was translated into eleven languages and was chosen as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, BookSense pick, and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year.

Her new novel is The Detour.

A few weeks ago I asked Romano-Lax what she was reading. Her reply:
I tend toward older classics from the 1910s through 1960s, but lately I’ve been catching a more contemporary—and metaphysical—vibe. The two novels fighting for prime position on my nightstand are The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer and The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.

Both Wolitzer and Perrotta are great at skewering middle-class suburbia, while still granting us the humane pleasure of getting to know sympathetic, complex characters. I bought these books together as a birthday present to myself, thinking the authors shared some stylistic elements, without realizing that both novels just happen to share a lightly handled supernatural element as well.

In The Uncoupling, the members of an East coast town’s female population all decide, rather magically and inexplicably, to do without sex. In The Leftovers, masses of people suddenly disappear in a Rapture-like event, leaving behind puzzled and depressed family members.

There are some strange parallels here. Despite the bizarre events that propel each book’s plot, each novel is realistically rooted in everyday contemporary life, complete with troubled marriages and difficult teenagers, dinner parties and faculty meetings. This is Roth and Updike territory, but in our new millennium, that old Roth and Updike (and Cheever, and Yates) storytelling doesn’t seem to be enough.

Now we want our lives reflected back to us, but with some unexpected, over-the-top elements added—some myth or magic. Now we want our cultural commentators to be both Roth and J.K. Rowling, both Updike and Stephenie Meyer. That’s a tall order. What does this say about our current post-realistic, post-post-modern, late recessionary era zeitgeist? I’m not sure.

But this is not to suggest Wolitzer and Perrotta are pandering to a trend. I think they’re helping to create it, while following their literary sixth senses toward an unpredictable future where cul-de-sacs, infidelities, and the old 9-to-5 are not quite enough to capture the surreal disquiet we’re feeling inside.

As for me? I just finished writing a new novel, the subject of which is revenge. It is grim and troubling and for the most part, realistic—and it also happens to include a story-within-a-story subplot involving Annie Oakley and time travel. Go figure.
Visit Andromeda Romano-Lax's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Spanish Bow.

The Page 69 Test: The Detour.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 20, 2012

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau is a writer and magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Her new novel is The Crown.

Recently I asked Bilyeau what she was reading. Her reply:
When I traveled to London to do research for my Tudor England thriller series, I extracted a vow from myself not to load up on hardcover books. There would be little room for purchases in my already stuffed suitcase, and mailing them home would be too costly. But that promise was broken in the shop of The Museum of London when I spied Peter Ackroyd's newest book, London Under. Ackroyd's London: The Biography, published in 2000, is one of my favorites, melding the most interesting facts about the city's history with lyrical prose. London Under wouldn't be available in the States for another month or two, and I simply refused to wait; I bought it that day. Slimmer than the earlier book, London Under tells the story in the same way--nonchrononogically and with wit and insight--but focusing exclusively on what lies beneath. The first sentence of the first chapter flawlessly delivers the book's mission: "Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on skin, a skein of stone that covers rivers and labyrinths, tunnels and chambers, streams and caverns, pipes and cables, springs and passages, crypts and sewers, creeping things that will never see the light of day." But this is far from a geological book, nor a tribute to technology. It's a book about people, such as a Duke of Portland who in the 19th century built a "system of underground tunnels beneath his estate of Welbeck Abbey so that he could travel unobserved. He never wanted to be seen; he did not wish to speak to anyone, or even be noticed by his own staff. The underground world represented for him safety and invisibility. The moment of birth must have been deeply troubling for him." And there you find it--thanks to Ackroyd's skill, a spare and eloquent, amusing and yet moving anecdote. The Duke of Portland will never be forgotten by me. He is a gem dug up from beneath the surface, one of many to be mined in London Under.
Visit Nancy Bilyeau's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Andrea Hiott

Andrea Hiott was born in South Carolina and graduated with a degree in philosophy from the University of Georgia in Athens. She then went to Berlin to study German and neuroscience, and ended up staying and working as a freelance journalist. In 2005, alongside a group of international artists and writers, she cofounded a cultural journal called Pulse. She now serves as editor-in-chief.

Her new book is Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle.

Late last month I asked Hiott what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’m in New York City at the moment, exploring its crevices and scaling its heights, and my reading list reflects that mood. I’ve recently finished By Nightfall from author Michael Cunningham, for example, which I found on the shelves of my favorite downtown bookshop (St Marks in the East Village). By Nightfall is an uncomfortable narrative of the city and its webs, telling the story of a man who is very “connected”, but whose connections are so practiced that they must be stretched beyond what they can bear if he wants to reawaken to his life.

At St Marks Bookshop (full disclosure: I used to work there) I also discovered Tony Judt’s political and economic treatise Ill Fares the Land (“A deeply learned, deeply humane heart’s cry” was its adept review from the L.A. Times) and though I’ve only just started the book, it already feels like one of those rare pieces with the power to shift and accelerates one’s understanding of the world.

I’ve also been re-reading Walt Whitman, especially Leaves of Grass. He inspires me so deeply that I sometimes want to throw the book across the room (Goethe once had to do that, didn't he -- throw a book across the room because he loved it so?).

A friend recently recommended Pete Hamill’s Forever to me as well, a magical novel about a man who has been granted immortality so long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. I’m fifty pages in. So far it’s enchanted, pained, and surprised me.

After Forever, I’ll likely be reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.
Learn more about Andrea Hiott's Thinking Small at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 17, 2012

Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey's first book, a collection of stories called Learning By Heart, was published by Penguin Canada in 1986. Since then she has published seven novels, including: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona, and The House on Fortune Street.

Her new novel is The Flight of Gemma Hardy.

A few weeks ago I asked Livesey what she was reading.  Her reply:
I just read Stewart On'Nan's Emily, Alone which I found entirely absorbing. Here is a novel in which almost nothing happens - a phone call from her daughter is a major event for Emily - and yet I could scarcely bear to put it down. O'Nan does an amazing job of depicting Emily's life as an elderly widow living alone with her dog, listening to classical music and enjoying modest outings with her sister-in-law. Reading these pages, I felt I began to understand what it was like to have ardent thoughts and feeling but mostly be unable to act on them. I too found myself upset when the two for one brunch was inferior or a funeral a little below standard. And one of the great pleasures of the novel is that Emily's life actually expands rather than contracts - she buys a new car and begins, rather hesitantly, to drive again. I particularly admired the beautiful and almost optimistic ending.
Visit Margot Livesey's website and Facebook page.

Writers Read: Margot Livesey (September 2009).

The Page 69 Test: The Flight of Gemma Hardy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tom Santopietro

Tom Santopietro is the author of The Importance of Being Barbra, Considering Doris Day (a New York Times Editor’s Choice) and Sinatra in Hollywood. He has worked for the past twenty years in New York theater as a manager of more than two dozen Broadway shows.

His new book is The Godfather Effect: Changing Hollywood, America, and Me.

Santopietro's response to my recent query about what he has been reading:
I’m usually in the midst of three books: one fiction, one non-fiction, and a separate book for commuting on the subway (I live in NYC and am on the C line, recently voted the worst line in the entire system for the third year running--slowest trains, oldest trains, dirtiest, and least intelligible announcements. Ahh- the joys of New York. A good book is definitely necessary…)

Stephen Sondheim: Look, I Made A Hat. Turns out Sondheim is as good a writer as he is composer/lyricist, which is saying a lot. Smart, witty, and filled with painstaking (and fascinating) detail. Reading the book is like taking a master class in songwriting, musical theatre, and American pop culture, with the smartest and toughest professor you ever had.

Amor Towles: The Rules of Civility. Intricately plotted, but most of all noteworthy for the beauty of the language. Echoes of Fitzgerald (and a bit of John O’Hara) but a voice all the author’s own. Towles possesses an extraordinary style which he maintains from start to finish.

Louis Auchincloss: Woodrow Wilson. Part of the Penguin Lives series, this very slim (125 pages) book nonetheless manages to explore and explain the enigma of Woodrow Wilson--the man Auchincloss terms “the greatest idealist who ever occupied the White House.”
Visit Tom Santopietro's website.

Writers Read: Tom Santopietro (November 2008).

The Page 99 Test: The Godfather Effect.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Amy Hatvany

Amy Hatvany's books include Best Kept Secret.

Her new novel is Outside the Lines, about which Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, said: "Like a gorgeous dark jewel, Hatvany’s exquisitely rendered novel explores the tragedy of a mind gone awry, a tangled bond of father and daughter, and the way hope and love sustain us. This novel does what the best fiction does: it makes us see and experience the world differently."

Not so long ago I asked Hatvany about what she was reading.  Her reply:
I recently stumbled across Seré Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, and was immediately drawn into a complex world of blended families - one I’m intimately familiar with, being a step-mother myself. The story explores the relationship between a step-mother - reeling in grief over the recent loss of her husband - and the natural mother, who allegedly deserted her children when they were very young. After the death of the father, a custody dispute ensues between the women, and family secrets unravel. Halverson’s prose is rich, laced with clean, lyrical descriptions of the Northern California landscape and keen observations about how our society defines a “good mother.” Much of my own writing has focused on similar questions around motherhood, and I connected immediately with almost every character in the story. She is a writer to watch.
Visit Amy Hatvany's website.

The Page 69 Test: Outside the Lines.

My Book, The Movie: Outside the Lines.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Laurie Hertzel

Laurie Hertzel is the books editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of the memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.

Recently I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
I just finished Stewart O'Nan's Emily, Alone, and I am trying to figure out how such a quiet book could be such a page-turner. The story centers on Emily Maxwell, an elderly widow who lives with her old dog, Rufus, in Pittsburgh. During the course of about a half-year--from Thanksgiving to early summer--we follow Emily through her days. She listens to classical music on the radio, goes out for breakfast with her sister-in-law, Arlene (always on Tuesday, and always at the same place, because they have a coupon), naps in the winter afternoons, hosts her children and grandchildren at holidays. The details of her life are tenderly and carefully wrought by O'Nan, and while Emily is her own fully-drawn character, she resonates--I could see glimpses of my mother, and of my mother-in-law, and of other dear women of that generation.

O'Nan dips gracefully into Emily's memories, giving her a full life that she remembers and cherishes, and those scenes of the past become some of the most powerful of the book, placing Emily in the Lake Country of England with her husband, or sipping drinks at barbecues with the neighbors while the children played -- just brief flashes that burn brightly and remind us how quickly life passes, and how everything (and everyone) that is now old once was young.

And now I am reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, her amazing nonfiction narrative about children who live in a slum in Mumbai, India. Boo spent years getting to know these people, earning their trust, hanging around in their slums, watching, listening, observing--practicing that kind of meticulous and tedious immersion journalism that can (especially in Boo's hands) yield great, powerful true stories. I have to keep setting this book aside, because these skinny, plucky, destitute children and their families are breaking my heart. I set it aside, and then I pick it up again. I want to know what happens to them--and I believe that we all need to know what happens to them.
Learn more about Laurie Hertzel and News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Laurie Hertzel and Riley.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 13, 2012

Jane Finnis

Jane Finnis's Aurelia Marcella novels tell of life and death in first-century Roman Britain, the turbulent province of Britannia, on the very edge of the Roman Empire. The series includes Get Out or Die, A Bitter Chill, Buried Too Deep, and Danger in the Wind.

Recently I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
I'm reading a lot of Roman-era books at present. I've been hooked on the Roman Empire ever since, as a teenager, I first read Robert Graves' wonderful books, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. That's why I set my own mysteries in Roman Britain. But I don't feel comfortable reading fiction with a Roman background while I'm working on my own stuff. However I'm between books just now, so it's catch-up time, and it's great.

I usually read two books at once. Confusing? No, because they are in different formats: one in print, one in braille. Having had bad eyesight all my life. I've used braille since my schooldays, (including I, Claudius,) and I still enjoy reading it. Quite the best place to relax with a braille novel is in bed, with myself and book tucked underneath the covers, comfortable and warm however cold the night. The only problem is - as with all night-time bookworms - I often become so absorbed that I keep turning the pages well after I should be asleep.

That certainly happened recently with Imperium by Robert Harris. It recounts the life of the Roman statesman and orator Cicero, as told by his secretary Tiro. (Tiro, incidentally invented the world's first workable shorthand system, so he could take down his boss's extremely long speeches verbatim.) I'd always pictured Cicero as a worthy but rather pompous politician, but thanks to this sympathetic and believable portrait, I found myself rooting for him as he struggles to climb the political ladder to the consulship. He's despised by the snobbish aristocracy and hated by ruthless political rivals…but he makes it. Some of his tricks to win elections have a very modern feel to them: memorising hundreds of voters' names, and showing off his small daughter in public.

My current paperback read is Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by Ruth Downie, (the US title is Medicus.) It's set in 2nd-century Roman Britain, with Ruso, an army doctor, as sleuth. He's a likeable, kindly, funny character, and a good doctor - the insights into Roman medicine are fascinating. He's plagued by shortage of cash, as he must support his impoverished family, and above all driven mad by the petty rules and regulations of the hospital administrator. I wonder whether Downie or her family have worked in present-day hospitals, because the mind-numbing bureaucracy of Roman army life rings loud bells today. Aside from getting to know Ruso and his feisty slave Tilla, (and detecting the start of a romantic interest here,) I'm drawn into Downie's picture of a Roman fort, and the contrasting world outside it where the native Britons live and work...and disappear. Oh yes, there's an intriguing mystery here, and I haven't a clue yet what the solution will be.

I'll be starting work on my next book soon, but I'll make time for more catching up before I do.
Visit the official Jane Finnis website.

The Page 69 Test: Buried Too Deep.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Jane Finnis & Copper and Rosie.

The Page 69 Test: Danger in the Wind.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Alexander Yates

Alexander Yates’ first novel, Moondogs, was published in 2011 by Doubleday and was listed among the best books of the year by Kirkus Reviews, Librarything and the USA Network. Other stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Salon, The Kenyon Review, and American Fiction.

A few weeks ago I asked Yates what he was reading. His reply:
The first thing I should say is that I’m not reading nearly enough, and it makes me feel like a mind-slug. My wife and I (and our two cats) are going to be moving to Rwanda in a few weeks, and preparations for that move (which include full-time French lessons) have eaten what I used to consider “free time”. That said, there are a few things I have read lately that have blown my mind.

Pacazo, by Roy Kesey, is set on the desert coast of Peru, and is about an American sunk deep into the murk of rage and grief. We witness the protagonist mourn and reel in the wake of his wife’s horrific rape and murder, cringing as he all but self immolates, taking his young daughter and friends along with him. With this subject material, the book could easily have devolved into despair tourism. But Kesey is such a generous, tender writer—he has such love for every character he breathes life into. And his sentences are sharp, prismatic. Tilt them just so, and they change meaning entirely. Tilt them just so, and the whole book does.

The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman also captivated me for the few short days it took to burn through them. Some people say “readable” is a backhanded compliment. F#@& those people. These books (the first two parts of a trilogy) are way fun, and way smart—part of an ongoing conversation that Grossman is articulating about the moral implications of a magical universe. I’m already looking forward to the third.

The Birds of East Africa, by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe is probably not a book you’re supposed to actually, like, read. It’s a field guide, replete with stunning illustrations of the birds found from the Great Rift all the way to the African east coast. My sister-in-law gave it to me for Christmas, and I’ve been drooling over its pages ever since. It should be clear, at this point, that my wife and I are a bit nerdy on the bird-watching front. But seriously, do a Google Images search on the Eastern Paradise-Whydah, and see if you can avoid muttering an amazed expletive.

The next thing on my to-read list is On the River Styx and Other Stories by Peter Matthiessen. He wrote At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga, two of my favorite novels of all time. I had been looking for a copy of his early short fiction collection for a while, and then last week I found it in the laundry room of my apartment building. Don’t know if I’ll be able to crack the pages until our flight to Kigali, though.
Visit Alexander Yates' website.

--Marshal Zeringue