Thursday, April 7, 2016

Karen Odden

Karen Odden received her PhD in English literature from New York University. She has contributed essays and chapters to books and journals, including Studies in the Novel, Journal of Victorian Culture, and Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation; and has written introductions for books by Dickens and Trollope. She has worked as an editorial assistant at McGraw-Hill, as a media buyer for Christie’s Auction House, and as a bartender at the airport in Rochester, where she learned how to mix a mean martini. She currently serves as an assistant editor for the academic journal Victorian Literature and Culture and resides in Arizona with her husband, two children, and a ridiculously cute beagle named Rosy. A Lady in the Smoke is her first novel.

Recently I asked Odden about what she was reading. Her reply:
I just handed in the manuscript for my next novel, Down a Dark River, to my agent a few weeks ago; until I hear a verdict from him, I binge read like a crazy person, all the books that have piled up on my nightstand. So this past month I’ve read thirteen books. These are five of my favorites, each from a different genre.

First, When Breath Becomes Air. Because everyone is reading it. And because, probably, everyone should be reading it. It’s heartbreaking, empathic, beautifully written; it reaches far beyond the hackneyed message of "make the most of what's left.” The author, a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer at 36, asks openly, how do we find our values, in the middle of crisis, when life has been upended? And then how do we find them again, the next day, when something else has changed? One of my favorite parts of this book was his acknowledgement, early on, that "a word meant something only between two people, and life's meaning, its virtue had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form." He draws on his undergrad and M.A. in English--he references dozens of authors who wrote about the passage of time, from Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" on--and it adds a depth and reflexive humor to the entire book. Another of my favorite bits, alluding to the "pair of claws” in "Prufrock": "For the last several months, I had striven with every ounce to restore my life to its precancer trajectory, trying to deny cancer any purchase on my life. As desperately as I now wanted to feel triumphant, instead I felt the claws of the crab holding me back. The curse of cancer created a strange and strained existence, challenging me to be neither blind to, nor bound by, death's approach." I think readers who liked Atul Gawande's Being Mortal would appreciate this.

A Matter of Heart by my friend and fellow Arizonan Amy Fellner Dominy. This is authentic, heartfelt YA, about a competitive swimmer who discovers, partway through her sophomore year in high school, that she has a heart condition. The relationships with her parents are drawn beautifully, partly because Dominy sketches the relationship between the two parents as well as Abby's relationship with each; and the coach is neither the usual benevolent or malevolent "type." Wonderfully written, without relying heavily on the overheated prose that seems to be all over YA now. I would recommend to any smart teen girl and will hand it to mine next.

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon. I liked this mystery, the first in a series set in Venice. (My family is heading there in June for a few days, so I enjoyed peering up and down the streets.) This is not a thrilling nail-biter filled with stakes that ratchet up predictably every twenty pages, but--like its protagonist, Guido Brunetti of the Venice police--understated, intelligent, observant. Some of the writing is just marvelous. One of my favorite lines: "The man looked to be about the same age as Paola, though he had clearly had a harder time getting there."

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons. I found the premise hilarious: Henry James, depressed over his sagging book sales, goes to the banks of the Seine, where he plans to throw himself in. (OK, maybe that doesn't sound funny, but wait.) There, he meets Sherlock Holmes, who is depressed because he is beginning to figure out that he's only a character instead of a real person. Add a murder mystery. Add cameos by just about everyone from the late 1800s (Wilkie Collins, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, George McClellan, Mr. Lincoln, etc.), and the World's Fair in Chicago. Twist what you think you know about Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler and Dr. Watson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Add in the sort of cleverness you find in Shakespeare in Love. (Here's an example: "The turn of the social screw at the dinner party [Henry James] had attended including inviting five couples . . . who were comprised of four of the women having illicit affairs with no fewer than five of the men present.") I wouldn't say this book is a quick and easy read--it's dense and you have to be paying attention--but I totally enjoyed it.

Finally, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. My friend Lucy gave this to me for my birthday, and I'm glad she did because I probably wouldn't have picked this graphic novel up on my own. I'm so word-oriented that it took me a while to get used to switching back and forth between the captions and the illustrations, but it's darn clever. And honest and painful. The "Fun Home" is actually the funeral home (just one example of the Bechdel's playfulness with language) that her father runs. A good deal of the book is about Bechdel’s conflicted and complicated relationship with her father, and I won't spoil by telling why.
Visit Karen Odden's website.

--Marshal Zeringue