Friday, October 31, 2014

Lois Leveen

Award-winning author Lois Leveen dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet. A confirmed book geek, Leveen earned degrees in history and literature from Harvard, the University of Southern California, and UCLA, and taught on the faculty of UCLA and of Reed College. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the LA Review of Books, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and on NPR, as well as in numerous literary and scholarly journals and in film and performing arts festivals.

Leveen's new novel is Juliet's Nurse.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Almost every book I read is somehow related to my writing. I'll save you the very long list of nonfiction books that are surrounding my writing area currently (literally: I sit in a comfy chair, laptop and cat in my lap, and about 15 or more books within arms reach to be consulted as needed). Here's the fiction list. It's driven in part by the fact that Juliet's Nurse and my first novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser are both written in first-person, and I am now working on something in third-person. So I'm looking at novels that are helping me think about narrators and narration, although this list contains novels with both 1st- and 3rd- person narrators.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. I just re-read this cover to cover, and am now "reading around in it," meaning flipping open and reading a chapter, or just a few pages, at a time. Why? This is truly a gem of a novel, a weird, witty, poignant piece of literary historical fiction. It's one of the few books I not only love reading but wish I'd written, because Fitzgerald seems to have such control and style in it, with a third-person narrator who is gently teasing the characters but always loving them. I cannot understand why I find this book so compelling, even after many, many readings. It's like it's laced with some addictive but undetectable substance. I've read most of her other novels -- in fact, I just finished The Beginning of Spring -- and I enjoy them, but none of them captivate me quite the way this one does. Which is quite apt, I guess, because it's about someone whose object of love is inexplicably appealing.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote. I've seen the film a million times but never read the novel, or novella is probably more accurate, until recently. It is deeper and more touching than the film, full of gorgeous prose. But it's also laced with some troubling lines about race, and class, and geographical snobbery. If you watch the film, there is the cringe-inducing racism of Mickey Rooney's "yellow-face" portrayal of the Japanese-American character I Y Yunioshi. The book itself contains its own racist elements. And yet Holly Golightly and the narrator shine through, which left me missing my days as an English professor, because it would be a good novella to lead students to discuss--what do we do with something that is dated by these kind of objectionable sensibilities?

Wise Children by Angela Carter. I read this book to round-out a list of 5 Shakespeare-themed novels for a piece I was writing for The Daily Beast. Again, this novel is a very witty work, but in an entirely different way. And by that I mean, it's completely over the top. It's about illegitimate twins who are part of a famed family of British Shakespearean actors, but being the illegitimate ones, they end up as show girls. It moves through huge swathes of time in very clever ways, and all sorts of Shakespeare allusions run throughout. I probably missed a good many of them, but you never feel like Carter is trying to one-up the reader, only to show that we're all deeply soaking in Shakespeare, even today.

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips. I met Marie this summer when we were both visiting Random House Canada: it was "bring the 21st-century women writing novels set in medieval times to work day," I guess. She was completely charming, and the novel is as well. I have awful insomnia, especially when I travel, and this book was one of those ones that is a good companion to cheer you through those sleepless bouts. Unlike Juliet's Nurse, it lives more in the world of King Arthur fantasy than realism, but you'd have to be pretty stodgy not to enjoy it.
Visit Lois Leveen's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Juliet's Nurse.

--Marshal Zeringue