Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Stephen Policoff

Stephen Policoff is the author of Beautiful Somewhere Else, which won the James Jones Award, and was published by Carroll & Graf. His second novel, Come Away,
won the Dzanc Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. He was writer-in-residence at Medicine Show Theater Ensemble, with whom he wrote Shipping Out, The Mummer’s Play, Ubu Rides Again, and Bound to Rise, which received an Obie. He was also a freelance writer for Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, New Age Journal, and many other publications. He helped create Center for Creative Youth, based at Wesleyan University, and has taught writing at CUNY, Wesleyan, and Yale. He is currently Clinical Professor of Writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU, where he has taught since 1987.

Policoff's newest novel is Dangerous Blues.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Policoff's reply:
Like my taste in music, my reading list is extremely eclectic.

I recently read two books by acquaintances of mine. Funeral Train by Laurie Loewenstein is a wonderful, atmospheric mystery set in the Great Depression; I rarely read mysteries but Loewenstein writes such great characters and creates such a vivid picture of life in the Dust Bowl that I was immediately drawn in. Ghosts of the Missing by Kathleen Donohoe is a lovely, elegiac novel about love, loss, and being haunted, subjects of particular interest to me. It’s a beautiful novel and should be better known.

Meanwhile, I have just re-read Train Dreams by Denis Johnson because I am teaching it in my Creative Writing class this semester. I admire and have sometimes sought to emulate Johnson’s ability to write melodically about horrid human behavior, to intertwine melancholy and dark laughter. I also have been reading Ling Ma’s first story collection, Bliss Montage. I am always looking for fiction which my students will not have read already (not that they read that much anyway), stories which show different ways of approaching the idea of writing fiction. Ma’s stories are intriguingly odd—surreal at times, science fictionish at times, beautifully detailed and truthful at times. She is a useful model, I think, for anyone seeking to write stories which do not necessarily fit into any preconceived
Visit Stephen Policoff's website.

The Page 69 Test: Come Away.

My Book, The Movie: Come Away.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Vicki Delany

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than forty books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is currently writing four cozy mystery series: the Tea by the Sea mysteries for Kensington, the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series for Crooked Lane Books, the Catskill Resort mysteries for Penguin Random House, and the Lighthouse Library series (as Eva Gates) for Crooked Lane.

Delany is a past president of the Crime Writers of Canada and co-founder and organizer of the Women Killing It Crime Writing Festival. Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards. Delany is the recipient of the 2019 Derrick Murdoch Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Her newest novel in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series is The Game is a Footnote.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Delany's reply:
I do most of my best reading on airplanes. I love the isolation of being on a plane, just me and my book. I find that it’s about the only time anymore I have the time and space to simply immerse myself in a book, with none of those pesky distractions like Twitter, Facebook, and household chores.

Over the Christmas holidays this year, I went to Nelson, British Columbia to visit my daughter and her family. Not a lot of reading got done during the visit (the kids being 4 and 13 months doesn’t lead to much free time) but I did take several books with me for the long flights.

Prior to a recent trip to Italy, I read The Color Storm by Damian Dibben specifically because it’s set in 16th century Venice. I enjoyed that book enough to see what else he’d written and was delighted to find Tomorrow. The book is told entirely from the POV of a dog. And not just any dog. In the year 1815 a dog is in Venice, waiting for his master to return. He’s been waiting for two hundred years. And so begins a story of loyalty, friendship, love. And the price of immortality. Perfect airplane reading.

I also read This is the Night they Come for You by Robert Goddard. I’ve been a fan of Goddard for many, many years. He’s been called “the master of the triple cross”. His books are usually about some average English guy who finds himself embroiled in events far beyond his control. I’d rank this book as just okay, and definitely not one of his best, although it does provide an interesting look into the modern history and current situation of Algeria. I’d recommend an earlier book of his, that I also recently read, Days without Number, as an example of just how Goddard can work one twist after another.
Visit Vicki Delany's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: The Game is a Footnote.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Darcie Wilde

Darcie Wilde is the award-winning author of stylishly adventurous historical mysteries and romances, including the Rosalind Thorne Mysteries, a Regency-set series inspired by the novels of Jane Austen, as well as the Regency Makeover Trilogy. She has also written, under the name Sarah Zettel, Locus and Philip K. Dick Award-winning novels, including Fool's War, a New York Times Notable Books of the Year selection.

Wilde's new novel is The Secret of the Lost Pearls.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m writing this during the first week of 2023. 2022 was a rollercoaster of a year for me personally, as I know it was for a lot of people. One of the ongoing bright spots was the number of good books that came my way.

Sister Novelists by Devoney Looser. Warning: This is a total fangirl moment. I loved this book! I started reading it for research, which rapidly turned into reading for pleasure and more than a little amazement. This is a biography of Jane and Maria Porter, sisters who were contemporaries of Jane Austen, and between them invented the genre of historical fiction years before Sir Walter Scott came along and took credit for it. It’s a big book, but perfect for reading on a long winter’s night. The writing is approachable and yet full of amazing detail about these women’s lives and the world they moved through. Anybody who reads or watches works set in the English Regency should read this one. It is nothing short of amazing.

The Haunting of Maddy Claire by Simone St. James. This one was off the beaten path for me. I don’t read horror on a regular basis, but I do love a gothic. Daphne DuMaurie’s Rebecca is one of my all time faves. Maddy Claire was a real discovery for me. I heard about it on the She Wore Black podcast and shoutout to the host, because I am now a superfan. Set in the 1920s about a woman who is tired of her dreary, lonely life, and who ends up in a job as an assistant to a paranormal investigator going out to the countryside to investigate a particularly active haunt. It’s well-written, got great characters, loads of suspense, and a great love story all told with gothic flare. There is definitely going to be more Simone St. James in my upcoming year.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill. I recommended this one to a friend. When I asked her what she thought of it, she said, “That book is a real mind-bleep.” She’s right. It’s a piece of meta-fiction where in between chapters we’re getting letters about the process of writing the book. This kind of structure can, frankly, get annoying in a hurry, unless the author’s got a good reason for it, and they handle it with energy and expertise. Gentill does both, and her letters helped increase what was already a suspenseful mystery.
Visit Darcie Wilde's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Secret of the Lost Pearls.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

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, is due out soon. 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 Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann:
To have any worth at all, a course on twentieth century intellectual history would have to start with nineteenth century intellectual history, because any twentieth century intellectual history worth talking about is dependent on Friedrich Nietzsche, who died, conveniently enough, in l900, a date so perfect for the purposes of connecting the intellectual history - and perhaps not just the intellectual history - of the two centuries that it might make some wonder whether, despite what Nietzsche claimed, God is dead after all.

For at least the first third of the twentieth century, anyone who wanted to think seriously, or to write something that serious people would take seriously, read Nietzsche. The most important book of Martin Heidegger, the most profound thinker of the twentieth century, was not the famous and unfinished Being and Time, but his commentaries on Nietzsche himself. What some regard as the most profound novel of the twentieth century, Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, a novel about genius and madness, has as its central character a man unmistakably based on Nietzsche.

It goes further than that. It was Nietzsche, Mann admits, “to whom I looked as a master, for from the start he was not so much for me the prophet of some kind of vague ‘superman,’ as he was for most people when he was in fashion, as rather the incomparably greatest and most experienced psychologist of decadence.” For Mann, decadence means most of what the modern world admires. Decadence meant civilization, democracy, the equal rights of everyone, progress, security, material abundance; it meant the “last man” of Friedrich Nietzsche, the man who aspires to nothing, who sees, and understands, no difference between what is noble and what is base, who thinks - who can think - of nothing except what he wants in the present moment, whose only desire is to be entertained. Civilization is at war with culture, which is “the principle of artistic organization and formation, of the life-preserving, life-glorifying principle.” Culture is great art, and the greatest art is great music, and music, great music, destroys civilization, civilization understood as “modern ideas, Western ideas, the ideas of the eighteenth century.”

The importance of culture, of music, was nowhere better understood than in Germany. For Thomas Mann it seemed obvious that “depth and irrationality suit the German soul, which shallower people find strange, disgusting, even savage.” It is “that daemonic and heroic something that resists accepting the civilian spirit as the highest human ideal.” Three days after German troops invaded neutral Belgium and the First World War began, Thomas Mann wrote to his brother, Heinrich, “Shouldn’t we be grateful for the totally unexpected chance to experience such mighty things?”  Famous, known throughout the world, the author of Buddenbrooks, for which he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mann greeted the war as a liberation. “Deep in our hearts we felt that the world, our world, could no longer go on as it had.” The world of the “last man” had to be destroyed. “Didn’t it seethe and stink of civilization’s decay?”

This was no passing thought, the immediate, but short-lived, enthusiasm of a German patriot. Mann had not only “lived in a certain protest against this material culture….,” but his work, the fiction he wrote, “has meant hardly anything less than intellectual criticism of reality.” All of which culminated in an article, ‘Thoughts In Wartime,’ written at the beginning of the war. The First World War, the Great War, was not a war for territory; it was not a war of imperialism or revenge. It was a war for culture and against civilization, a war in defense of the deeper feeling of great art, a war against domesticated, politically demoralizing capitalism, a nation of bourgeois philistines. It is why, for Thomas Mann, “only a German victory can guarantee the peace of Europe.”

Instead of a German victory, there was a German defeat, but the question whether this meant the defeat of culture and the victory of civilization became a question that made a mockery of reason, and made Thomas Mann turn against the country whose victory he had thought the only chance to save the world. In l930, when the Nazis were about to take control, Mann wrote another article, this one entitled, ‘An Appeal To Reason,’ in which he described in a single sentence Germany’s pact with the devil: “Fanaticism turns into a means of salvation, enthusiasm into epileptic ecstasy, politics becomes an opiate for the masses, a proletarian eschatology; and reason veils her face.” Three years later, in l933, when Hitler came to power. Mann, on a European tour lecturing on Richard Wagner and the effect of his music, was urged by family and friends not to return. After five years in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States where, living in Los Angeles, he wrote Dr. Faustus, the novel Mann considered the novel of the twentieth century.

Mann began writing Dr. Faustus in l943, or, as Mann writes, Mann’s character, Serenus Zeitbloom, Ph.D., began writing the tragic story of his friend, Adrian Leverkuhn on May 27, 1942, three years after Leverkuhn’s death, “three years, that is, after he passed from deep night into the deepest night of all.” Bloom is not writing a novel; he is writing the biography of a musician of genius; writing it, moreover, in the middle of a war, a world war, which unlike the first one, the one in which Thomas Mann hoped for a German victory, Zeitbloom hopes for a German defeat. The “national new birth of ten years ago, that seemingly religious intoxication - which then betrayed itself to any intelligent person for what it was by its crudity, vulgarity, gangsterism, sadism, degradation, filthiness,” has brought Germany to the brink of destruction. The Germans, “who trod the boards of history as the heralds and bringers of a world-rejuvenating barbarism,” had instead sent Germany and half the world on the road to hell. The question is not why Germany entered into a new age of barbarism, but why Germany had chosen the wrong form of barbarism to pursue.

Adrian Leverkuhn had understood, from the beginning, as it were, that there was a choice and what that choice entailed. A brilliant student, he looked down on the subjects of the various branches of learning which, like Nietzsche, on whom Thomas Mann has modeled him, he “so competently and carelessly dismissed.” Serenus Zeitbloom, a traditional scholar who loves the ancient languages and the ancient authors, listens and records Adrian’s complaint that the present age “is civilization,” and that “we should have to become very much more barbaric to be capable of culture again.” The bridge, the connecting link, between barbarism, i.e., the rejection of the comfortable self-preservation of twentieth century Europe, and culture is music, the “most intellectual of the arts,” the only one in which “form and content are interwoven and absolutely one and the same.” Music addresses itself to the ear, but only in so far as hearing, like seeing and the other senses, “is the deputy, the instrument, and the receiver of the mind.”

Adrian, like Nietzsche, suffers from blinding, disabling, migraine. Like Nietzsche, he also contracts syphilis, but unlike Nietzsche he gets it on purpose. Adrian had no interest in women, or anything else that has to do with human passion. He had gone to a brothel with friends and, while he had done nothing, he met a woman, Esmeralda, to whom he feels strangely drawn. Months later, when he goes back to find her, she warns him she has the disease, but that is precisely the reason he has come: “what compulsion to compromise the punishment in the sin, finally what, deep, deeply mysterious longing for daemonic conception, for a directly unchaining of chemical changes in his nature was at work, that having been warned he despised the warning and insisted upon possession of this flesh?”

Like Faust, Adrian wanted something only the devil - the angel of death - could give him. Halfway through Dr. Faustus, in chapter 25, Adrian’s ‘secret record’ is revealed, a dialogue with the devil that his friend, Zeitbloom, “cannot believe in the depths of his soul Adrian himself considered to be actual that which he saw and heard - either while he heard and saw it or afterwards, when it put it on paper….” It is perhaps an entirely fictional account, a dialogue, not with the devil, but with Adrian’s own darker side, the madness that is the source of his remarkable genius, the madness he needed, and deliberately acquired, to accomplish what he had to achieve.

It was “our plan,” the devil tells him, that he should “run into our arms, that is, of my little one Esmeralda, and that you got it, the illumination, the aphrodisiacum of the brain.” The disease, the madness, is designed to progress slowly, giving him enough time, “years, decades,” of “devil-time, genius-time.” The disease is everything. It gives him the power to see, and to speak, with the devil, the angel of death. In a line Nietzsche could have written, and did, the devil tells Adrian that, “The artist is the brother of the criminal and the madman.” The artist, the musician, overthrows the existing order and replaces it with one of his own creation.

The disease, the gift that Adrian has chosen for himself, will give him the capacity for “A genuine inspiration, immoderate, absolute, unquestioned, ravishing, where there is no choice, no tinkering, no possible improvement, where all is as a sacred mandate, a visitation received by the possessed one with altering and stumbling step, with shudders of awe from head to foot, with tears of joy blinding his eyes: no, that is not possible with God, who gives the understanding too much to do. It comes but from the devil, the true master and giver of such rapture.” This power, this gift of madness, will make Adrian the master of the future. “Not only will you break through the paralyzing difficulties of the time - you will break through time itself, by which I mean the cultural epoch and its cult, and dare to be barbarous, twice barbarous….”

Adrian is promised all this, and more; and only after twenty two years, too much time to worry about, will the devil come to take him. Having accepted the bargain, Adrian produces a new music. His last work, The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus, written as the counterpoint to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, is “the most frightful lament ever set up on this earth.” Leverkuhn’s Faust rejects the thought of being saved “because with his whole soul he despises the positivism of the world…the lie of its godliness.” The only solace left is at the end, after the last note is sounded, and there is nothing but silence, and the silence “abides as a light in the night.”

In the music, the new music of Adrian Leverkuhn, everything is based on a “fixed fundamental series. Not one note might recur until the other notes have sounded.” This is not “an arbitrary combination; rather it lies in the nature of things; it rests, I might say on the curvature of the world, which makes the last return into the first.” The new music of Adrian Leverkuhn is, like so much else in the novel, derived from Nietzsche’s teaching, in this instance, the eternal return of the same, the belief that everything is repeated, in exactly the same way it has happened before, over and over again, through all the infinity of time.

If the new music of Adrian Leverkuhn was derived from Friedrich Nietzsche, the technique, the rigid requirements of the twelve tone scheme, was taken from the musical theories of Arnold Schonberg, as Mann acknowledged in a note at the end of the novel. Like Mann, Schonberg left Germany when Hitler came to power. Schonberg was Catholic, but the Nazis assumed that anyone named Schonberg must be a Jew. Mann had been lecturing on Richard Wagner when he was advised not to return to Germany. Schonberg was giving a concert in Paris when he was informed by the German authorities that, because he was a Jew, he had lost his position in Germany and could not return. Schonberg, this good German Catholic, went to the chief rabbi in Paris and in a supreme, perhaps unprecedented, gesture of defiance, converted and became a Jew. Arnold Schonberg and Thomas Mann were friends, fellow exiles living in Los Angeles, but after Dr. Faustus was published, Arnold Schonberg never spoke to Thomas Mann again.

Leo Strauss, who left Germany at nearly the same time as Arnold Schonberg and Thomas Mann, once remarked that those were fortunate who preferred the novels of Jane Austen to those of Thomas Mann. I was not quite sure what he meant when I heard him say that, but now, on this, the third reading of Dr. Faustus, I think I know exactly what he meant.
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.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Joy Castro

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of Flight Risk, a finalist for a 2022 International Thriller Award; the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water, which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home; the story collection How Winter Began; the memoir The Truth Book; and the essay collection Island of Bones, which received the International Latino Book Award. She is also the editor of the anthology Family Trouble and served as the guest judge of CRAFT’s first Creative Nonfiction Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Brevity, and Afro-Hispanic Review; on Salon; and elsewhere. A former writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, she is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.

Castro's new novel is One Brilliant Flame.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m currently reading the novel Forbidden Notebook by Cuban Italian writer Alba de Céspedes, first published in Italy in 1952 and newly translated by Ann Goldstein (revered for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s work).

Forbidden Notebook is the story of a middle-aged petit bourgeois working housewife, Valeria Cossati, who secretly acquires a notebook. When she starts privately jotting down her honest observations, the livable fictions she’s constructed about her work, family, and social world all begin to crumble, and she has to decide what actions to take about what she newly perceives. Though published 70 years ago, Forbidden Notebook's insights about domestic, professional, and political tensions remain disturbingly and keenly relevant.

Author Alba de Céspedes was a feminist journalist, novelist, and screenwriter who was imprisoned for her antifascist work in Rome before and during World War II. She was also the granddaughter of 19th-century Cuban anticolonial independence hero Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. I'm intrigued by the way she merges political with personal concerns to create a breath-catching story.
Visit Joy Castro’s website and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Hell or High Water.

The Page 69 Test: Nearer Home.

Q&A with Joy Castro.

My Book, The Movie: Flight Risk.

The Page 69 Test: Flight Risk.

--Marshal Zeringue