Thursday, April 28, 2022

Alma Katsu

Alma Katsu is the award-winning author of seven novels. Her latest is The Fervor, a reimagining of the Japanese internment that Booklist called “a stunning triumph” (starred) and Library Journal called “a must read for all, not just genre fans” (starred). Red Widow, her first espionage novel, is a nominee for the Thriller Writers Award for best novel, was a New York Times Editors Choice, and is in pre-production for a TV series.

Recently I asked Katsu about what she was reading. Her reply:
I had the opportunity to do an early read of a number of horror novels coming out in a few months. For those who are unaware, horror has been having a moment for the past couple years: bookstores are bringing back horror sections and filling it with more than Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Publishers are launching new horror imprints. It’s become a big tent, with more psychological suspense and speculative fiction being shelved alongside traditional horror.

The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay. Paul Tremblay is a case in point. His work tends to ask big existential questions in unexpected ways, and The Pallbearers Club is no exception. While appearing simple on the surface (and eminently readable), it’s so complex that it ends up being hard to explain. On one level, it’s about a strange friendship that develops between two people, an awkward teenager growing up in a small Massachusetts town and a cool stranger who happens to take pictures of corpses. But as the story develops, you begin to ask yourself what’s really going on here? Is it a memoir disguised as a novel or is it something else? Is it a new kind of vampire story? Is it supernatural at all? It’s a damned amazing piece of storytelling and should be on your radar when it comes out July 5th.

Sundial by Catriona Ward. If the author’s name is familiar, it’s probably because she wrote one of the breakout books of 2021, The Last House on Needless Street. Ward has brought her flat-out amazing voice and storytelling ability to Sundial, the story of the most messed up family ever. Is it psychological suspense or horror? It doesn’t matter: it’s a thriller of the highest caliber. Ward is a wizard with unreliable narrators and implausible plots. She makes the impossible seem real, and her narrative sleight of hand is so good that you’ll never even consider that it’s a trick, let alone figure out how she does it. Out now.

The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias. An extraordinary piece of writing. Violent, yes, but that violence is integral to the story. It’s a meditation on the inescapable violence that runs through many peoples’ lives. But the author manages something that’s almost impossible to do these days: he’s come up with a unique horror element. Out August 2.

The Ghost That Ate Us by Daniel Kraus. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m already so impressed by this novel. You may remember Kraus as the talented author of Rotters. The Ghost That Ate Us is a novel that reads like true crime. True crime meets horror meets social commentary. Smart, so well done, and even with the poltergeist smack in the center of the story, Kraus’ sleight of hand tricks you into believing, over and over, that it’s non-fiction. Out July 12.
Visit Alma Katsu's website.

Q&A with Alma Katsu.

The Page 69 Test: The Fervor.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Aaron Angello

Aaron Angello is a poet, playwright, and essayist from the Rocky Mountains who lives and feels remarkably out of place in the charming, but very Eastern, town of Frederick, Maryland. He received his MFA and PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder, and he currently teaches writing and theater at Hood College.

Angello's new book is The Fact of Memory: 114 Ruminations and Fabrications.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Currently, I’m teaching, so I am pretty much rereading what I’m teaching. Fortunately, though, I’m teaching a great class I’m calling Weird-Ass Books: Formal Experimentation in Modern and Contemporary Fiction (cool, right?), and I’ve included some books that I haven’t read in a long time, so it’s a great excuse to reread them and experience them again. Here are the most recent books I’ve read:

Autobiography of Red – Anne Carson

This novel in verse takes as its starting point the surviving fragments of the ancient Greek lyric poet Stesichorus’ Geryoneis – a retelling of the story of Heracles and Geryon, from the perspective of the red, winged monster (in addition to being a great poet, Carson is a classicist and translator of ancient Greek texts, including the best translation of Sappho out there, in my opinion). Carson sets the story of Autobiography of Red in a modern world that is both very recognizable and mythic. In her version, Geryon is a boy who just happens to be red and winged. He is also sensitive, a developing artist, a bit broken, and prone to fall in love with the very handsome and insensitive Heracles. Because she chose to write the novel in lineated verse, Carson allows herself freedom to move away from descriptive formulations more typical of the novel. Instead, she consistently surprises the reader with her shocking synesthetic descriptions of otherwise ordinary things:
“Heracles lies like a piece of torn silk in the blue” (54)

“He would remember when he was past forty the dusty almost medieval smell / of the screen itself as it / pressed its grid onto his face.” (36)

“far from the freeway came the sound / of fishhooks scraping the bottom of the world” (44)

“Children poured around him / and the intolerable red assault of grass and the smell of grass everywhere / was pulling him towards it / like a strong sea.” (23)
And she is amazing in the way she plays with verbs:
“his mother / rhinestoning past on the way to the door. She had all her breasts on this evening.” (30)
She gives Geryon the condition of synesthesia, which opens more opportunities for us, as readers to not just intellectually understand what she’s describing, but to have an actual experience, to respond, bodily, to the strangeness:
“It was the year he began to wonder about the noise that colors make. Roses came / roaring across the garden at him. / He lay on his bed at night listening to the silver light of stars crashing against / the window screen.” (84)
As a writer, I love that this book reminds me of the value of strangeness. I will, no doubt, revisit this book many times over the course of my literary life.

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

This is a really fun novel, presented as a scholarly edition of a 999-line poem written by a very Frost-like old poet named John Shade. The protagonist (?) of this novel, though, is the editor of the poem, Charles Kinbote, whose story is told in the notes to the poem. Kinbote may or may not be the exiled king of the possibly made-up nation of Zembla, and he may or may not have been friends with the esteemed old poet, to whom he may or may not have been telling stories of his (or the king’s) experiences escaping the mysterious Shadows and their hired assassin, Gradus. If you thought Humbert Humbert was the ultimate unreliable narrator, give Kinbote a shot.

If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino

A colleague of mine in grad school once referred to this book as “po-mo bullshit,” and I suppose it is, but it’s also a lot of fun. Told in the second person (yup), You, the reader, sit down to read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, but You soon realize that the book only contains the first chapter of the novel! So, You go to the bookstore to complain, and You meet a second reader, and the two of You are off on a quest to read the rest of the novel. Unfortunately for You (but fortunately for us, the readers – of the reader…), You don’t ever read more than the first chapters of several different novels.

If you’re into nerdy grad school stuff like poststructuralism and Barthes and narrative theories and reader-response theories, you’ll love this book. If you’re not, you might still dig it. But you have to be into po-mo bullshit.
Visit Aaron Angello's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Fact of Memory.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is a Hugo Award-winning SF and fantasy author, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He is the author of over twenty novels, including The Deep Woods and Heirs of Grace, and scores of short stories. His work has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and other nice places. Since 2001 he has worked for Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field, where he currently serves as senior editor. He lives in Berkeley, CA with his wife and son.

Pratt's new novel is Prison of Sleep: Book II of the Journals of Zaxony Delatree.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Pratt's reply:
I enjoyed a couple of the Harlan Coben adaptation shows on Netflix, and had never read any of his books, so I went to my library site and picked up what they had on hand. That turned out to be mostly the Myron Bolitar series, so I read those (and the newish spin-off, Win, about one of the supporting characters), about a dozen books in all. I love long-running private-eye series (in this case a quasi-amateur PI; Myron is a sports agent with a small background in investigation who gets entangled in various sorts of criminal complications). The structure of standalone stories with ongoing character development across the series always delights me.

The Platonic ideal of the long-running private-eye series, of course, is Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, and the Bolitar books are clearly inspired by those. Myron's humor is very similar to Spenser's, they both have the "pet psychopath" trope with Win and Hawk respectively (I love that trope), there's a focus on idealized romantic love crashing up against human foibles, there's a colorful cast of characters including oddball secondary antagonists who later become allies (Zorra in the Bolitar books is admittedly weirder than Vinnie in the Spenser novels but they serve exactly the same function across their series)... there are a lot of similarities, structurally and in tone.

The Spenser books are, however, better; they have greater philosophical and psychological depth, better fight scenes, and the humor is less broad and deals less in stereotypes. Some of the stuff in the Bolitar books didn't age well, though in the later volumes the characters evolve in their thinking, and I will note there were always sympathetic characters who were bisexual and kinky and otherwise out of the mainstream, though those qualities were often played for laughs in a way that made me wince.

The Bolitar books are Spenser-lite, but they're still fun and compulsively readable enough that I got through the series in a month. They scratched a similar itch, and since there isn't any more Spenser coming (posthumous "collaborations" notwithstanding), I was happy to have them.
Visit Tim Pratt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 11, 2022

Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, The Huffington Post, Adweek, and The Economist. She grew up in Quebec near the border of Vermont and now lives with her husband and children in a hundred- year-old house in Coastal Connecticut. Wegert writes mysteries set in Upstate New York while studying martial arts and dance, and is the author of the Shana Merchant series, beginning with Death in the Family.

Her new novel is Dead Wind.

Recently I asked Wegert about what she was reading. Her reply:
The Club by Ellery Lloyd

I consider myself a locked-room mystery superfan, and with its glamorous remote location and closed circle of intriguing suspects, The Club is my favorite kind of locked-room read. This mystery about a murder at an exclusive members-only club offers a captivating glimpse into celebrity culture and uber-wealth, but what I love most is the book’s mounting tension and the restless energy of its characters. The Club is pure entertainment.

Watch Out for Her by Samantha M. Bailey

Fellow Canadian thriller writer Samantha Bailey has penned a mesmerizing domestic thriller that explores motherhood, obsession, and the tenuous nature of trust. Watch Out for Her tells two sides of the same story through the alternating perspectives of a mother and her child’s beguiling babysitter, and I was desperate to know what would happen when the two threads converged.

Silent City by Alex Segura

The first book of Alex Segura’s Pete Fernandez series, Silent City is a masterful contemporary take on classic noir. I was immediately drawn in by down-on-his-luck sports reporter Pete and his unexpected foray into investigative work. As Pete tries to uncover the mystery of what happened to his co-worker's missing daughter, the plot takes some surprising turns. I enjoyed the atmospheric deep dive into Miami culture as well.
Visit Tessa Wegert's website.

Q&A with Tessa Wegert.

The Page 69 Test: Dead Wind.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Beth Morrey

Beth Morrey‘s work has been published in the Cambridge and Oxford May Anthologies and shortlisted for the Grazia Orange First Chapter competition. She lives in London with her family and Polly the dog.

Morrey's debut novel is The Love Story of Missy Carmichael.

Her new novel is Delphine Jones Takes a Chance.

Recently I asked Morrey about what she is reading. Her reply:
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to keep a record of my reading. Too many times, someone has asked me what I’ve read recently and my mind has been a total blank – I can’t think of a single book I’ve read, ever. So I’m writing it down for occasions like this. Referring to my list, I can see I’ve consumed eight books so far this year, and the one I would like to mention is Janice Hallett’s The Appeal. It’s an epistolatory crime novel that tells the story of an amateur dramatics group raising money for a sick child, with a murderer in their midst. It’s told in the form of e-mails, text messages, WhatsApp chats, crime reports, etc, and is completely gripping, highly original and slyly funny.

To prove I have my finger on the literary pulse, one to watch out for later this year is Clare Pooley’s Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting. I’ve just read an advance copy, and it’s just as funny, heart-warming and uplifting as her first novel, The Authenticity Project.

Looking further ahead, I’d love to know what Kiley Reid is writing next. I adored Such a Fun Age and expect her next book to be as coolly witty and insightful.
Visit Beth Morrey's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Beth Morrey & Polly.

Q&A with Beth Morrey.

The Page 69 Test: Delphine Jones Takes a Chance.

My Book, The Movie: Delphine Jones Takes a Chance.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, will be published in the spring. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile:
In l987, Allan Bloom, who had translated Plato’s Republic in a way that made it possible for the reader to know what, previously, was only available to someone who could read it in the original Greek, wrote The Closing of the American Mind. This critique of American higher education demonstrated the utter failure of American universities to take seriously the liberal arts, or even to know what they were. It sold more than a million copies, made Bloom something of a national celebrity, and subjected him to considerable criticism, not to say abuse, much it coming from - where else? - American universities.

What his critics never understood, and would have dismissed as unimportant if they had, was that for much of his life Bloom studied what he translated, and that he understood, as his critics did not, that Plato’s Republic is the greatest book about education ever written. And if The Republic has not had much influence on modern education, it is because another book Bloom translated has dominated educational, and not just educational, thought since it was published in l779, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, a book Immanuel Kant thought an event comparable in importance to the French Revolution.

Emile or On Education, as is the full title, is Rousseau’s attempt to restore, on a more solid foundation, what the ancients tried to do: raise men and women who think everything about their country and little about themselves. He provides two remarkable examples to show, and to heighten, the contrast between the past and the present, one from ancient Sparta, one from the Roman republic. A Spartan woman is told that all five of her sons have been killed in battle. She shakes her head in annoyance. She does not want to hear about that, she wants to know if the battle had been won, and when she is told that it has, she goes to the temple to give thanks to the gods. A Roman general, Regulus, captured by the Carthaginians, is sent back to Rome to give the Roman senate the terms under which Carthage will end the war. He promises that once he has done this he will return. He goes to Rome, tells the senate what the Carthaginians propose, and urges the senate to reject the offer. The senate follows his advice, and Regulus, having given his word, goes back to Carthage and certain death.

Where are the men and women who would do such things today? asks Rousseau. There are no more citizens, only what he was the first to call the bourgeoisie, “double men, always appearing to relate everything to others and never relating anything except to themselves alone.” They think only of acquiring, and keeping, the means for the “comfortable self-preservation,” to use John Locke’s phrase, they care about. It is impossible “to teach living to one who thinks of nothing but how to keep himself from dying.” Medicine has become “the fashion among us,” and the only pleasure is “that of not being dead.”

What can be done? Change the way we teach, change what we call education, change the way children are raised. Rousseau will take a normal child, that is to say, one not unusually gifted, and make him a man, a free man, a man who does not believe anything except what he has understood himself. The child’s name is Emile.

Emile, four hundred eighty pages long, is divided into five books, each of them a record of the sequential stages of the boy’s growth and education. But Emile is not a straightforward account, and it is certainly not a textbook. Rousseau insists that Plato’s Republic is the best book ever written about education; the best book, that is, until now. Like the Republic, Emile is written in a way that tells you something different the closer you examine what it says. In the preface, Rousseau writes, “I do not see as do other men.” And then, as if in passing, remarks, “It is up to me not to go overboard, not to believe that I alone am wiser than everybody.” This is nothing more than to state the obvious, is it not? But then, suddenly, you realize what he is saying, not that he is not wiser than anyone else, but that there might be others, a few others, or perhaps only one other, who is also “wiser than everybody.” Perhaps Plato, whose Republic is the only book he compares to Emile.

Everyone thinks education is about books, but Rousseau hates books. “They only teach one to talk about what one does not know.” They “teach us to use the reason of others.” They “teach us to believe much and never to know anything.” He is equally dismissive of all that passes for the fields of learning: “some are false, others are useless, others serve to feed the pride of the men who possess them.” It gets more radical, and more profound. “Remember, remember constantly that ignorance never did any harm, that error alone is fatal, and that one is misled not by what he does not know but by what he believes he knows.” What is left, what is there to educate Emile about, and how, without books, is he to be taught?

This is how he teaches Emile the rights of property, and, by implication, the equal rights of others. He learns about agriculture by planting seeds to grow beans. He has the great enjoyment, the sense of accomplishment, of seeing the beans he has taken such care of begin to sprout. Then one morning he discovers to his horror that someone has dug them up and scattered them on the ground. The gardener admits he did this, but demands to know why Emile has by planting his seeds destroyed the melons the gardener was trying to grow. He tells Emile he should respect the rights of others. Emile protests that he does not have a garden. Rousseau asks the gardener (with whom this whole episode has been arranged in advance) whether he will give Emile some ground to cultivate if Emile agrees to give him half of what he grows. The gardener agrees, but warns Emile that he will plow up his beans if he touches his melons.

It is important when reading to read not only what is written but what is not written. This story about a garden reminds us, and is meant to remind us, of another story about a garden, the Garden of Eden, where God’s punishment for taking what was not supposed to be taken was the loss of innocence and banishment forever.

Emile will only be taught what he can see, what he can understand. When Rousseau says he hates books, he does not exclude the Bible.

Emile has now learned the necessity of respecting the rights of others, and learned it in a way he will never forget. It no longer comes as a surprise that the one exception to Rousseau’s refusal to let Emile read books as a child is Robinson Crusoe, the story of one man, isolated and alone, who learns to meet all the necessities of existence by his own, unaided, efforts. When does Emile first learn to read? When he wants to, which means when Rousseau thinks it is time for him to do so. A note will be sent to him, a note inviting him to do something he would really like to do, but there is no one there to read it to him and when someone finally arrives who can, it is too late. Emile now wants to read for himself.

Emile reads Robinson Crusoe as a child. When he is a young man he reads history, but not for the reason we might think. The whole object of Emile’s education is that “he not let himself get carried away by either the passions or the opinions of men, that he see with his eyes, that he feels with his heart, that no authority govern him beyond that of his own reason.” The best way to do this? “Nothing is more fit to make a man wise than follies that are seen without being shared.” Emile will read the histories so that he can learn the misfortunes of famous men, men like Augustus who, “having subjugated his fellow citizens and destroyed his rivals, ruled for forty years the greatest empire which has ever existed,” experienced every kind of suffering. Warned against the passions that lead men to wish to dominate others, Emile will not prefer Augustus, or anyone, to himself. He will even learn to pity “kings, slaves to all that obey them.”

If Emile learns to admire the self-sufficiency of Robinson Crusoe living alone on an island, he begins, like everyone, to experience that inner need that by drawing the sexes together makes it possible for men and women to live beyond their lives and the species to continue. Book V, the last book, of Emile, is all about sex; or rather, to the great discomfort of the dominant, and some would say intolerant, thought of the present age, all about marriage. Rousseau turns the sex drive into love, and manages to make, or rather show how, love depends on the workings of the mind.

He makes Emile fall in love before Emile has met the young woman with whom this is going to happen. Emile falls in love with an idea. It is only after he has the idea of what he hopes one day to find, that he will know what he is looking for.

“And what is love itself if it is not a chimera, lie and illusion? We love the image we make for ourselves far more than we love the object to which we apply it. If we saw what we love exactly as it is, there would be no more love on earth.”

The chimera becomes a model for the woman who will be the perfect match for Emile. It will “attach him to everything resembling it and will estrange him from everything not resembling it, just as if his passions had a real object.”

Knowing what she should be, drawn closer to a girl he has yet to meet by what he has been told she will be like, Emile knows he is in love the moment when, seemingly by accident, he finally lays eyes on the girl, Sophie, who will be his wife. But not very soon; not until there is no question in their hearts that they belong together. And not even then, because once they agree to marry, Rousseau reminds Emile of a promise he has made, a promise that he would do whatever he was asked when the time came for marriage. Emile must go away, travel for two years, learning how other people live and how they are governed; learn by comparison what is needed to become a free citizen, because only then will he know how to educate the children he and Sophie will have to raise. This is necessary because, for Rousseau, the two sexes are, as Allan Bloom described Rousseau’s thought, “different and complementary, each imperfect and requiring the other in order to be a whole being, or rather, together forming a single whole being.”

If this seems a reactionary attempt to limit the freedom of women, Rousseau was certain that there is no freedom, but only slavery, when our passions, our desires, are the only things we feel or think important. Rousseau understood, and deplored, the “scandalous morals of our age!” Men and women both, “do not know how to feel anything great and noble; they have neither simplicity nor vigor, abject in all things and basely wicked, they are only vain, rascally and basely wicked; they do not even have enough courage to be illustrious criminals.”

Published in 1762, Emile was immediately condemned by the Parlement of Paris and the Council of Geneva. That did nothing to stop it becoming one of the most influential books ever written, or to prevent Jean-Jacques Rousseau from becoming the most influential author read by those who played the leading parts in the French Revolution, a revolution that changed not just the face of Europe, but the way nearly everyone thinks about the rights of man.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

--Marshal Zeringue