Saturday, July 30, 2016

Ashley Prentice Norton

Ashley Prentice Norton is the author of If You Left and the critically acclaimed novel The Chocolate Money. She is a graduate of Exeter, Georgetown, and the creative writing program at New York University. She lives in New York with her husband and three children.

Recently I asked Norton about what she was reading. Her reply:
My reading is eclectic. I read both fiction and non-fiction.

Right now I’m reading:

La Valse lente des tortues by Katherine Pancol, part of a trilogy that is hugely popular in France (or was— I’m always about ten years behind everyone else). The book is about an academic who writes a novel for her sister: she gets the fame, the other gets the money. Of course, as expected, everything goes wrong.

Super Mind by Norman E. Rosenthal
This book is about all the ways in which transcendental meditation can positively affect your life. I learned TM about a year ago and it has been life altering for me. I was always scared of meditating because I had these images of staring at a candle or trying to empty my head which I found incredibly stressful, which of course, defeated the point. With TM, they give you a mantra, and you just repeat it in your head twice a day for twenty minutes, see what happens, and that’s it. The only “rule” is you can’t tell anyone your mantra. (I’m not sure what the consequence is). That seems of course kind of cultish, like a secret handshake, but at the same time pretty cool in this age of over sharing and compulsive posting.

David Foster Wallace. Anything.
It’s probably pretty pretentious to put this down since I’m really not smart enough to understand half of what he writes but what I do makes me both think and laugh. I love his take on being a writer, and being from the midwest, and wanting to isolate. He makes me feel less lonely, both when I’m working or simply out having a day in the world. I’ve read several biographies on him, parts of Infinite Jest, and am now starting Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again simultaneously.
Visit Ashley Prentice Norton's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is an award-winning journalist and author, whose fiction has appeared, among other places, in The Saint Ann's Review.

The newly released The Killer in Me is her first novel.

Recently I asked Harrison about what she was reading. Her reply:
As usual, I’m enjoying reading across categories. To start with, there’s Of Fire and Stars, by Audrey Coulthurst, one of many debut young adult novels that I’ve read in ARC form this year. It’s an epic fantasy with magic, elaborate world building, politics, and a twist that distinguishes it from other YA fantasies I’ve read: The central romance is between two young women.

Not only is this a textured, compelling fantasy, but it serves as proof that LGBT characters in YA are no longer limited to being the protagonist’s best friend or taking center stage in “issue” books. Coulthurst has created a world where same-sex attraction itself isn’t controversial; the story’s conflict stems from the fact that one lover has been destined for an arranged marriage with the other’s brother. The characters are well drawn, and their star-crossed coming together is sweet indeed. Oh, and did I mention they’re both princesses? My guess is, anyone who hoped to see a gay Elsa in Frozen follow-ups is going to want this book.

At the same time, but more sporadically, I’m reading Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human by journalist Joel Garreau. This work of futurism was published in 2005; it covers then-cutting-edge research into enhancing the human body, along with concepts like transhumanism and the Singularity.

I bought the book when it was new, but somehow didn’t open it until recently, when I started researching neural implants for a novel in progress. Eleven years from publication, it’s an odd read indeed.

Viewed with hindsight, Garreau’s predictions for the near future seem to have a breathless, hyperbolic quality. The prologue sketches a scenario “a decade and a half from today” (that’s 2020) in which well-heeled college undergrads sport enhancements such as “photographic memories and total recall,” “remarkably ripped” bodies, a form of “silent messaging” that “almost seems like telepathy,” and vaccinations against pain. “They have this odd habit of cocking their head,” writes Garreau, when they’re about to receive a neural download of information—which sure sounds more convenient than checking Wikipedia.

Here we are in 2016, and that scenario still sounds like science fiction. Except perhaps for “silent messaging,” which is definitely a thing, if not entirely silent.

Still, reading the book makes me realize just how much things have changed since Garreau made his predictions at the dawn of the iPhone era. Today’s young people don’t have an “odd habit” of cocking their heads—instead, they hunch over handheld devices. Even my older friends ignore curbs and crosswalks in their pursuit of Pokémon. They’re embedded in virtual reality, just as Garreau foresaw, even if he was a little off about the means.

We may not have superpowers yet (as Garreau suggests we should). But we are yoked to clever machines in ways we weren’t just recently, and that’s a fascinating and slightly scary revelation—one that I hope will fuel my own new book.
Visit Margot Harrison's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Killer in Me.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

S. A. Bodeen

S.A. Bodeen grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. She graduated from UW-River Falls with a degree in Secondary Ed., then joined the Peace Corps with her husband and went to Tanzania, East Africa. Her first picture book, Elizabeti's Doll (written as Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen) was published in 1998, followed by six other picture books. Her first YA novel written as S.A. Bodeen, the award-winning The Compound, came out from Feiwel and Friends in 2008. Bodeen's new novel, her eighth, is Trapped.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
A recent book I loved was A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl. I picked it up at the library and the jacket copy was enough to make me check it out:
Valerie Torrey took her son, Alex, and fled Los Angeles six years ago—leaving both her role on a cult sci-fi TV show and her costar husband after a tragedy blew their small family apart. Now Val must reunite nine-year-old Alex with his estranged father, so they set out on a road trip from New York, Val making appearances at comic book conventions along the way.
I mean come on, cult sci-fi show? Comic cons? What’s not to love? As it turned out, there was so much more to love about the book. Valerie’s story intersected with others in the industry, including a writer and a comic book artist, all trying to answer their own questions about their lives and professions, amidst the backdrop of conventions rife with insider politics. The story is told not only through the eyes of Val and Alex, but also the others, and although Val is closed off because of a slowly revealed tragedy in her past with Alex’s father, who happened to be her co-star, her eyes open to the possibility of letting others in to her and Alex’s life. I loved the backstory of the publishing world, as well as how quickly I came to care for the main characters. Definitely a great read.
Visit S.A. Bodeen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 25, 2016

Catherine Banner

Catherine Banner was born in Cambridge, UK, in 1989 and began writing at the age of fourteen. She studied English at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, before moving to County Durham where she worked as a secondary school teacher. She has published a trilogy of young adult novels, The Last Descendants.

Banner's debut adult novel is The House at the Edge of Night.
Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
At the moment I’m reading several books which have just come out, or are about to. I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, and Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. All of them are women writers who are breaking new ground in different ways – telling stories which have not yet been told, and deserve to be.

I just finished two poetry books, too: When They Broke Down the Door by Fatemeh Shams and On Jupiter Place by Nicholas Christopher, both of which reminded me that I need to read more poetry.

As an ongoing project I am also reading War and Peace, in sections, whenever I have a long journey and can spend two or three hours immersed in the story. I love the way writers like Tolstoy, the great 19th-century realists, were able to allow all kinds of characters to inhabit the space of their novel without judgement or prejudice, to create a narrator’s voice which was so expansive and assured that it could weave effortlessly between the tragic and the comic, between light and shade.

And finally, I’m rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude, a direct influence on my own work and a joy as a reader. I love it, but every time I return to it it’s stranger than I remember.
Visit Catherine Banner's website.

The Page 69 Test: The House at the Edge of Night.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where she spent most of her time putting on shows in her parents’ garage, studying TV Guide, devouring Sweet Valley High books, and memorizing every note of every George Michael song. This finally came in handy when she got a job at Entertainment Weekly, where she worked for a decade. She’s now the TV columnist for BBC Culture and also writes for several other publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York‘s Vulture, The Verge, and Dame. She’s the author of the New York Times bestseller Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing that Changed Everything and a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. She now lives in Manhattan.

Recently I asked Armstrong about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m currently reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s long been on my reading list, but I’m sure on some level I’ve been putting it off for years. I didn’t need to be convinced that it’s great. I’ve taught excerpts from it in my creative writing classes, and the writing is beautiful. But my dad is a Vietnam veteran, and part of me always resists anything that documents his experience in a real way. I knew that reading the whole book would put me right in it.

Strangely, I find myself reading this amid the turmoil of releasing a book. A book about a TV show, called Seinfeldia. A “book about nothing,” as many people, including my dad, have joked. They are joking, of course, mostly. They respect what I do, even if what I do is write about TV shows. Still, it feels a lot like nothing up against the real-ish story of a Vietnam veteran’s experience at war. I like that. It’s grounding. It reminds me that I’m not saving lives here. I’m not taking lives here. Maybe I’ll make a life a little more fun for a while. That’s something, but not everything.

Everyone told me how fantastic The Things They Carried is. I believed them, but I wasn’t prepared for the meta-narrative. The book is labeled as a novel, and it’s about the experiences of a soldier in Vietnam … named Tim O’Brien. As the book progresses, he convinces you that it’s definitely about his real experience. Definitely, mostly, sort-of. He writes entire chapters about the unreliability of war narratives. He hits you with a story about a soldier not named Tim O’Brien and his regret over not being able to save a friend’s life; then, in the next chapter, he explains that he combined his friend’s story with his own. He was the one who couldn’t save that friend’s life. He just wasn’t ready to tell it that way yet.

Seinfeld actually played in this territory, too. Almost every episode was based on some little frustration of daily life experienced by one of the writers. An entire season-long arc told the story of Seinfeld’s real-life conception as the characters Jerry and George pitch their own sitcom. The sitcom-within-a-sitcom, however, fails. Seinfeld very much did not.

It turns out that in the end, storytelling is storytelling, and all storytellers are obsessed with storytelling. You could tell real stories about war, or fictionalized stories about a war you experienced. You could tell silly stories about everyday life, making them funnier and crazier and somehow in the process validating Seinfeld viewers’ own experiences with everyday life.

Life is Seinfeld. Life is The Things They Carried. It’s all kind-of nuts when you realize that.
Visit Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's website.

My Book, The Movie: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Seinfeldia.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 22, 2016

Shawna Yang Ryan

Shawna Yang Ryan is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of Water Ghosts and Green Island. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her short fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Asian American Literary Review, Kartika Review, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. She is the 2015 recipient of the Elliot Cades Emerging Writer award.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Ryan's reply:
I just finished Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, an Indonesian novel beautifully translated by Annie Tucker.

The prostitute Dewi Ayu, who has been dead for twenty-one years, rises from her grave and discovers that her horrifically ugly youngest daughter, Beauty, is pregnant by what appears to be a ghost. From there, the reader is pulled along on an adventure that stretches back to Dutch colonialism, through the experience of forced sex workers during World War II, to independence and coups and massacres. Akin to One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book introduces a huge cast of characters and becomes a history of all their lives and of their town, Halimunda. Four hundred and sixty pages later, Kurniawan has finally given us enough context to understand who impregnated Beauty. In the meantime, the story moves back and forth and sideways in time in a way I rarely see in contemporary novels.

I’ve been watching Game of Thrones at the same time. I began with the very first episode and have (confession!) covered nearly the entire series in the last three weeks. I’ve been struck by the violence in both this book and that show. Both are somewhat blithe about all manner of depravity, so I’ve been considering that age-old debate about whether there is a gender difference in writing. I don’t mean some inherent biological difference, but a socially created one. Would a woman so casually have her female characters raped, with little to no consequences for the men? In both, some of the women come to love their rapists and it’s seen as a beautiful thing, as a kind of taming of the woman. Could only a male write that kind of story? Encountering these two works at the same time has been thought-provoking for me. I have many questions, but no answers yet.
Visitt Shawna Yang Ryan's website.

The Page 69 Test: Water Ghosts.

The Page 69 Test: Green Island.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger writes steampunk comedies of manners mixed with urban fantasy. Her books include the Parasol Protectorate and Custard Protocol series for adults, and the Finishing School series for young adults. She is published in 18 different languages and has 13 New York Times bestsellers via 7 different lists (including #1 in Manga). She was once an archaeologist and is overly fond of shoes, octopuses, and tea. The new novel in the Custard Protocol series is Imprudence.

Recently I asked Carriger about what she was reading. Her reply:
Lately I've been rereading some of my favorite Space Opera. I go through phases sometimes where I just want to escape anything to do with what I write (steampunk, comedy of manners, historical). I yearn to read something completely different and space opera always seems to satisfy.

I just completed my third go round of The Paradox Series by Rachel Bach. Devi is a badass mercenary with a core set of moral values who generally bumbles along killing things until she kind-of accidentally-on-purpose saves everyone. Why I love it? I get to watch this amazing author build a universe destroying problem in which everyone is trying to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and every bad guy may actually be a good guy in the end. Bach is the story-crafting mistress of us all!

Then I reread Local Custom by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (for the millionth time). This is a deeply romantic, fraught tale of a galactic trader bound by duty and the academic who loves him yet understands him all too well. Epic culture clashing, soul bonding, and a matriarch who would keep them apart. Spine tingling stuff. This book just always makes me happy.
Visit Gail Carriger's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

John Gregory Brown

Born and raised in New Orleans, John Gregory Brown is the author of the novels Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery; The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur; and Audubon’s Watch. His new novel is A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Brown's reply:
I spent the last nine months teaching at the prep school Deerfield Academy, most famous in literary circles for distinguished alumnus John McPhee’s The Headmaster, a wonderful biography of Frank L. Boyden, the tiny man and towering presence who helmed the school from 1902 to 1968. Although I’d spent more than two decades in academia at the college level, this was my first experience as a high school teacher, a responsibility that seemed weighty indeed: What works would I choose for my juniors in their one year of American Lit? I was tormented by having to leave so many great authors off the syllabus, by all the great works these young men and women might never encounter on their own. We dipped into Whitman and Dickinson, of course; we compared August Wilson’s Fences to Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman; we gave Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby its full due. We tackled stories by Alice Munro and Amy Hempel, by Raymond Carver and Ron Rash. But the five works I truly loved teaching – and that the students thus loved back – were these:

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

For better or worse, young people these days know their way around despair. They know well how it crouches in the shadows of lives that appear to be fulfilling. And they’ve got a clear notion of what it might mean to find oneself constrained by circumstances one apparently chose of one’s own volition. Thus they see Edna Pontellier’s crisis as a familiar one, arising not just out of a society that narrowly defines who women should be but also out of a psyche that finds peace and quiet elusive, always just out of reach.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

Reading The Moviegoer right after The Awakening tips you off that you shouldn’t fall for that friendly, conspiratorial wise-ass voice Binx Bolling adopts in his narration. He’s just as lost as Edna, just as beset by malaise and desire and a sickness in the soul, and my students scrambled for revelation in the novel’s denouement, when Binx announces that his search is done – or perhaps isn’t – and he sets his life on a different course.

Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City

I remain astonished by this debut collection of stories, published more than twenty years ago but so very poignant and compelling, offering a window into ordinary (and extraordinary) African American lives in Washington, D.C., a book that delivers what all great literature delivers – an unswerving path toward empathy no matter how unlike one’s own life might be from those recounted on the page.

Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter

Although the Harry Potter generation has encountered myriad forms of magic, a literary fabulist like Millhauser is still a revelation to them. In story after story he makes the world stranger and stranger and stranger until, well, it all becomes so very familiar and heartbreaking and real, a magic trick whose mechanical workings my students and I had a wonderful time trying to decipher.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Graphic novels and memoirs usually make me feel like an old man, as if the world of literature has headed off to explore regions I never knew even existed on the map, but Bechdel’s work is just so very smart and compelling, filled with delightful literary allusions and subtle narrative tricks and a heart so very large that it made my students and I absolutely giddy. They were not so giddy when I insisted that they look up every one of the memoir’s literary illusions – from Daedalus and Icarus to Proust and Camus – but they wound up persuaded that doing so did indeed enrich their understanding, a song made more beautiful by other voices singing in harmony.
Visit John Gregory Brown's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ruth Downie

Ruth Downie is the author of a series of mysteries featuring Roman Army medic and reluctant sleuth, Gaius Petreius Ruso: Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, Tabula Rasa, and the newly released Vita Brevis.

Recently I asked Downie about what she was reading. Her reply:
The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District – James Rebanks

This is a fabulous book on so many levels: a family history, a fascinating chronicle of a way of life that’s barely changed for centuries, and a howl of frustration at the lack of understanding between the education system and its rural consumers. It’s also a demonstration of the value of books. “We needed books by us and about us,” says Rebanks, and in writing this one he’s ensured that the ‘invisible’ shapers of England’s beautiful Lake District are invisible no longer.

Murder in Absentia – Assaph Mehr

Mehr’s imagined world based on ancient Rome feels at once familiar and dreamlike. In Egretia, magic is real and potentially deadly. While rival incantatores have been banned from calling up competing winds to speed ferries across the bay – they’ve drowned too many innocent sailors – the powers of magic appear to have fallen into malevolent hands. Failed incantator Felix the Fox is investigating a mysterious death in a growing atmosphere of menace. I can’t help thinking the idea of Death by Magic might be closer to the mindset of some of the ancient world than our modern rationality. And speaking of magic…

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear – Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m writing this in the week before Vita Brevis is published, and it’s good to calm the rising nerves with a cool dose of reality. “In conclusion,” Gilbert says, speaking of her book The Signature of All Things, “a whole bunch of people had some opinions about my novel for a short while, and then everyone moved on, because people are busy and they have their own lives to think about.”
Visit Ruth Downie's website.

The Page 69 Test: Caveat Emptor.

The Page 69 Test: Tabula Rasa.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Catherine Egan

Catherine Egan grew up in Vancouver, Canada – a beautiful city nobody in her right mind would ever leave, but leave she did, and you may draw the obvious conclusions about her mind. Since then, she has lived on a wee volcanic island in Japan (which erupted during her time there and sent her hurtling straight into the arms of her now-husband), Tokyo, Kyoto, Beijing, an oil rig in the middle of China’s Bohai Bay, New Jersey, and now Connecticut, where she writes books and defends the Eastern seaboard from invading dragon hordes alongside her intrepid warrior-children.

Egan's new novel is Julia Vanishes.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I bought Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, because I loved her novel Boy, Snow, Bird. Sometimes short story writers stumble writing novels, and not all novelists can write short stories, but Helen Oyeyemi can do both. I think she can probably do everything. There is no weak link in this collection, which makes equally deft use of odd fairytale settings, modern England, elements of sci fi, magic realism and straight up contemporary realism. Each story left me unsatisfied, but in a stunned and wide awake kind of way. She is the sort of writer that shakes you up and makes everything look different for a long time after you’ve finished the book. The book feels like a puzzle: characters recur from one story to another and the stories all feature locks and keys in one way or another. As soon as I finished, I wanted to reread it, feeling sure that one story contained the key to unlocking another. The standout story was about a group of young puppeteers and their puppets, called "Is Your Blood As Red As This?" To me, at least, it seemed to be saying something very profound about the creative life, but none of these stories really lets you put your finger on their deepest undercurrents. The sense of disequilibrium her work gives me, though, doesn’t mean that her writing is “difficult.” The book is a page-turner, her characters are vividly alive and she is funny, too. I read about half the book sprawled on the sofa late at night, forgetting my drink until all the ice had melted, and the other half at the frog pond, while my children got themselves thoroughly wet and muddy and failed to catch a frog.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours was a hard book to follow, but I went with Fran Wilde’s Updraft. I wanted to read it because I loved so many of the YA nebula nominees this year and was of course curious about the book that had beaten out some of my own favorites. Updraft features one of the most inventive fantasy worlds I’ve ever read, about a civilization of people that fly on artfully constructed wings, living in ever-growing bone towers that have grown far above the clouds, all of it controlled by the Spire and the Singers who make the laws and traditions but have terrible secrets of their own. It’s a gripping adventure story and I loved the main character, her ambition, her adaptability, and her loyalty, but it is really the incredibly ambitious, flawless world-building that makes this book stand out above other SFF novels. I am also a big fan of monsters, and the skymouths in this book are my favorite new fictional monsters. I read much of the book poolside, ignoring friends who came to chat (thanks for understanding, friends) and finished it on a very windy day at the beach.
Visit Catherine Egan's website.

The Page 69 Test: Julia Vanishes.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 15, 2016

Anthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan is the author of the Raven’s Shadow novels, including Blood Song, Tower Lord and Queen of Fire.

His new book is The Waking Fire, the first novel in the Draconis Memoria series.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I usually alternate between fiction and non-fiction, mostly history, but I’ve been on a bit of fiction kick recently. I just finished Blackdog by K.V. Johansen, the first in her Marakand Road series, which I found to be an excellent mix of lyrical prose, high fantasy and occasionally brutal action.

Yesterday I started reading an advance review copy of Infernal by a new author Mark De Jager, which is shaping up very well. It blends fantasy tropes with the structure of a modern thriller novel to good effect, think Lee Child meets David Gemmell.

I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and recently started on End of Watch by Stephen King, the last in his Bill Hodges crime trilogy. I’ve always been a big Stephen King fan and a lover of crime fiction so it’s kind’ve the perfect book for me, and Will Patton does an excellent job with the narration.

Next up will be City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin and Freedom of the Mask by Robert R. McCammon, after which I really need to get back to reading some history.
Visit Anthony Ryan's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Waking Fire.

My Book, the Movie: The Waking Fire.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Caroline Angell

Caroline Angell grew up in Endwell, N.Y., the daughter of an electrical engineer and a public school music teacher. She has a B. A. in musical theater from American University and currently lives and works in Manhattan. As a playwright and director, she has had her work performed at regional theaters in New York City and in the Washington, D.C., area.

Angell's first novel is All the Time in the World.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently finished Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and it moved me more than any book in recent memory. This novel tells the story, from multiple perspectives, of a group of people with marginally intersecting lives as they encounter the collapse of modern civilization. Spectacularly beautiful writing aside, I was impressed with the way the author constructed an inciting incident that moved the plot both backward and forward in time. There was no character or event in this book that wasn’t compelling and it was a particular pleasure to read a novel that imagined life beyond mere survival in a postapocalyptic world.

I’m about two hundred pages into Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, and I’m not moving so quickly through this one. This novel chronicles a fourteen-year-old girl’s encounter with a Manson-like cult, and the author has captured an acute narrative voice for a story about the struggle for agency over one’s own existence; wanting to declare independence from your upbringing, and at the same time wanting to belong. She writes bluntly and presently, like a teenager with an incredible vocabulary. I find myself putting the book down every few chapters because I need a breather. I want to know what happens. But I also don’t want to know what happens.

On the nonfiction front, I’ve been reading Amy Cuddy’s Presence. This author’s TED Talk is one of the most watched of all time. Her research focuses on learning how to tap into your own presence; to override your brain’s anxiety reactions, using your body, in order to call forth your authentic values, thoughts, and feelings, especially in stressful situations. I got interested in the subject matter because so many people seem to identify with the concept of “Imposter Syndrome,” as the author calls it, and to take comfort in the fact that they are not alone in that experience. Cuddy was inspired to research and write this book based on her own battle with feeling like an imposter, and her empathy for others with similar feelings comes through on every page.
Visit Caroline Angell's website and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: All the Time in the World.

The Page 69 Test: All the Time in the World.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Simone Zelitch

Simone Zelitch's novels include Louisa, which won the Goldberg Prize for Emerging Jewish Fiction. Her work has been featured on NPR and recent honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Zelitch's new novel is Judenstaat.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
A few weeks ago, I picked up a book that had been on my shelf for a while, Rasheeda Phillips’s Recurrence Plot and Other Time Travel Tales. Rasheeda took a fiction class with me years ago, and she’s a housing attorney with with Community Legal Services, as well as the creator of The Afrofuturist Affair. When is the last time a book gave me actual nightmares? This one did.

Recurrence Plot begins the day a woman turns twenty-one. She gave birth at the age of fourteen—like her mother before her—a path that feels inevitable; she takes her own life on her twenty-first birthday—like her mother before her. Her daughter grows up remembering the future, and the power tamped down by medication. A home-made time-machine creates connections between her past and future selves, with ambiguous consequences. She investigates a research institute at the fictional, sinister Parallel University which experiments on young black teens who are “at risk” for criminal behavior, assuming that their lives lead in one direction: they emerge hardened and changed.

The book interpolates expository passages about how the brain and body process time, as well as allusions to quantum physics, and segments that feel like a “choose your own adventure story” or are intended to be read backwards. Does time only flow forward? Is its direction inevitable? These questions are played out in poor African-American communities in my hometown of Philadelphia. Recurrence Plot is a challenging, weird, and wild read. As a teacher at Community College of Philadelphia, I found myself considering the lives of my my primarily African-American students; almost all of them are trying to spring a trap. That’s why they’re in my classroom.

In fact, Rasheeda Phillips responds to issues of violence and displacement as an Afro-futurist, a movement exemplified by artists such as the author Octavia Butler and the musician Sun Ra. She believes in the power of individual consciousness, rooted in tradition and community. Most recently, “redevelopment” of her Sharwood neighborhood led her to create a Community Futures Lab, including a “quantum time capsule, exploring oral histories/futures, preservation, displacement, and alternative temporalities within the North Philadelphia community known as Sharwood/Blumberg.” Alternative temporalities? Why not? As Phillips makes clear, time is a complicated business.

Then, yesterday, I finished another book about traps, and how to spring them, nonfiction by Jerome Gold: In the Spider’s Web. Gold spent fifteen years as a case-worker at a juvenile prison, and with extraordinary honesty, he considers his complex and contradictory role: a counselor and confidant, a guard who wrestles teenagers to the ground, a quasi-parent enforcing rules that are both essential to the teenagers’ well-being, and the very definition of imprisonment. When Jerry locks a kid into her room, it’s not punitive. It’s protective. It’s about giving her a chance to punch the door—just once—to cry without shame, not to have anything to prove. But that door still has a lock.

Gold was with the U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam. He is particularly good with “gang-kids” because he understands violence—feels it in his body as he puts it, “the taste of it in my mouth, its rippling on the skin of my arms, the lightness of it in my hands.” He knows all this. His body—in itself—is a kind of time machine, ranging between his past, present and future. His awareness gives him the power to guide the kids in an alternative direction. The process is messy, particularly because Gold can only do his job effectively if he is really attached to the kids on his caseload. He believes in making promises and keeping them. Of course, that’s at cross-purposes with the arbitrary nature of prison life.

Although Gold’s book is set in Washington State, it’s easy enough to consider the way the young people in Gold’s caseload are like Rasheeda Phillips’s characters, in a narrow world and on a narrow path. Is the best response re-wiring them with methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, commonly known as CBT? Jerome Gold hates that stuff— at one point a kid’s parent calls it “DDT”. He has no tolerance for jargon or slogans. He would say that they crowd out real connections, and they crowd out love.

Both books raise these questions: Can awareness of the past, and open speculation about where the past can take you, lead to alternative temporalities? Can our actual bodies be time machines, integrating our individual and collective memories into a complicated present, and a rich, real future? The books could hardly be considered hopeful, yet they gave me hope. Our consciousness is more than a series of wires and circuits that someone else controls. If we fight against everything that pulls us in that direction, if we spring the trap, our paths are neither narrow nor inevitable.
Visit Simone Zelitch's website.

The Page 69 Test: Judenstaat.

My Book, The Movie: Judenstaat.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 11, 2016

Tiffany Reisz

Tiffany Reisz is the author of the internationally bestselling and award-winning Original Sinners series for Mira Books (Harlequin/Mills & Boon).

Her new novel is The Bourbon Thief.

Recently I asked Reisz about what she was reading. Her reply:
When I’m not writing books, I’m reading books. Here are a few of the fabulous books I’ve read so far this year.

While looking for a good Gothic romance, I stumbled across a review that recommended Dark Dance by Tanith Lee. It’s the first book in her Blood Opera series that features vampire-ish semi-immortal creatures and their bizarre subculture. In Dark Dance we not only get father-daughter incest but a demon baby to boot! I’m currently reading Darkness, I, the third in the series and it’s also delightfully bizarre.

I read two books in a row—Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum—that left me thinking deeply about how women who buck society’s gender expectations are portrayed in fiction. Although both authors are women, they are very hard on their heroines. One succumbs to madness while trying to escape the pressures of marriage and relationship. The other succumbs to a fate even worse. Surely there’s room in this world for a woman to find a positive, healthy way to break away from society’s unreasonable expectations. I’ll keep reading until I find that book.

I adored LaRose by Louise Erdrich, a literary fiction author who writes about the Ojibwa people in the Dakotas. The book is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. While hunting a man named Landreaux accidentally shoots and kills the small son of one of his best friends. After much praying, soul-searching, and singing to their ancestors, Landreaux and his wife offer their own son to the grieving parents as an act of reconciliation and restitution. The two families blend together in their heartache and their healing. It’s a glorious novel.

The most fun I’ve read so far this year has to be How to Capture an Invisible Cat, a middle-grade novel by my friend Paul Tobin. It was laugh out loud funny and a wonderful antidote to all the dark and creepy books I read. I can’t recommend it enough.

And now…back to the books!
Visit Tiffany Reisz's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Bourbon Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Jane Rogers

Jane Rogers has published eight novels, written original television and radio drama, and adapted work for radio and TV. Her last book, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, was the 2012 winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction; it was also longlisted for the Booker Prize. She has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Book, has been a finalist for the Guardian Fiction Prize, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She is Professor of Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, and she lives in Banbury, England.

Rogers's new novel is Conrad & Eleanor.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m usually reading several books at the same time, for various reasons; often my reading has to do with other writers I am meeting, or with research. The research might be towards a novel, though at the moment two of the books I’m reading are for research towards a radio drama and a piece of online journalism. Then there are the books I read because they’re recommended by people I trust, or because of brilliant reviews, or simply because I want to. Finally, I seem to spend a lot of my life on trains, and size is a factor in the book I chose to take with me. I hate the fashion for huge books that don’t fit easily in my backpack or handbag. So, here are four that I have on the go at the moment:

Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas (research), which contains his letters and essays about his travels in the South Seas in the last years of his life. Stevenson is one of the best writers ever, it amazes me that he is not more highly regarded by English-speaking readers. The French revere him! I’m working on radio adaptations of two of his South Sea novellas, so it is interesting to read his factual accounts of his travels and to learn how much of what really happened he put into the novellas.

Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread (research). I’m writing a piece for the Guardian Online about the top 10 books on the subject of ‘Long Marriages’, so I am rereading a couple to check how good they are. Tyler often writes about marriage, and always writes true. The opening ten pages of this novel (almost entirely dialogue) reveal Abby and Red Whitshank brilliantly. They are arguing helplessly over how to handle a phone call from their son Denny announcing he is gay. Abby theorizes that his getting a girl into trouble while he was still at school might have been a symptom of homosexuality. Red asks, “Come again?” “We can never know with absolute certainty what another person’s sex life is like.” “No, thank God,” Red said. Their love for one another is as comfortable and worn as the old slippers and colourless dressing gown each wears.

Paul M.M. Cooper, River of Ink (meeting the writer). I’ll be sharing a talk on writing historical novels with Paul, next week. His novel is set in thirteenth century Sri Lanka, about which I know nothing, and it is vividly written.

Conor O’Callgahan, Nothing on Earth (for pleasure, by a friend, and small enough to go in a handbag!). Begins with real mystery and is written in precise yet poetic language. Hard to put down.
Visit Jane Rogers's website.

The Page 69 Test: Conrad & Eleanor.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Craig Monson

Craig A. Monson is Paul Tietjens Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. His recent books include Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy (2010), Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy (2012), and the co-edited essay collection, Music in Print and Beyond: Hildegard von Bingen to The Beatles (2013).

Monson's latest book is Habitual Offenders: A True Tale of Nuns, Prostitutes, and Murderers in Seventeenth-Century Italy.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Monson's reply:
I’m certainly not alone in having discovered the utility of Google Books’ Library Project. As a writer of history, I spent decades planning research trips around libraries likely to contain specific volumes. (Before online catalogs it could be difficult even to discover where copies might be.) If I was lucky, my target library (usually in a major Italian city) would own a copy. If I was not, it did not—or the volume had been lost, misshelved, reserved for restoration or rebinding. Modern-day, in-house digitization isn’t always a solution to such problems. Last month I arrived at a Roman institution to discover a fragile collection had been digitized: at the click of a mouse, the manuscripts would be accessible on the institution’s computers; the originals had been permanently withdrawn from circulation. Alas, the digital copy had somehow contracted a virus. Until funds for disinfection become available—unlikely, given the state of the Italian economy—these sources remain out of reach.

Small wonder, then, that Google Books’ Library Project seems like some sort of miracle. I am regularly amazed, not only by how wide the enterprise has cast its net, but especially by the small fry caught up in it. (How many other readers go looking for Johann Jacob Wepfer, Cicutæ Aquaticæ Historia et Noxæ [1679] or Gregorio Leti, Il Puttanismo Moderno con il Novissimo Parlatorio delle Monache [1677]?) Since what isn’t there today may (and often does) pop up a few months later, one repeatedly turns to the website with a sense of optimism.

Apart from its rich assortment of such determinedly arcane titles, the Library Project’s wide variety of early modern travel literature strikes me as broadly useful, diverting, and often both. Recognizing the usual caveats about taking such writings at face value, I still think one can profitably mine them for descriptions of contemporary sights, sounds, and attitudes—what educated and imaginative writers thought was worth talking about to their own contemporary readers. Eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney’s The present state of music in France and Italy, or The journal of a tour through those countries, undertaken to collect materials for a general history of music (1771), for example, need not be merely of musicological interest. There is much—very much—about music, of course, but written in comparatively untechnical terms and stressing what 18th-century listeners (and readers) would have found interesting. If Burney goes on too long about it, modern readers can skim to something different: Burney has plenty to say about cityscapes, art, architecture, interesting and/or famous people, manners, quirks of the locals.

It is useful, for example, to have detailed descriptions of the layout of every opera house Burney visited. It is even more enlightening, perhaps, to discover that the fourth tier of boxes in the Milan opera house included a faro table at each end of the gallery, where play did not stop during performances, and that between acts people of the meaner sort came up from the “pit” to wander around the galleries among their betters. “The noise here during the performance was abominable,” Burney reports, “except while two or three airs and a duet were singing, with which every one was in raptures.” And undistracted by cellphone ringtones.

And Burney’s experiences continue to resonate with library hounds like me: “Upon my enquiring for the catalogue of MSS. I was told it was not usual to shew it, but I might see any one in the collection, if I would ask for it by name; but I knew no more the name than the contents. ... This morning a solemn procession of St. Ambrose, to pray for rain, on which account the public library was not open, which was a great disappointment to me, being the last day of my residence in this city.” Plus ça change....
Learn more about Habitual Offenders: A True Tale of Nuns, Prostitutes, and Murderers in Seventeenth-Century Italy.

The Page 99 Test: Nuns Behaving Badly.

The Page 99 Test: Habitual Offenders.

--Marshal Zeringue