Monday, August 31, 2009

Jeff Parker

Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman and the collection The Back of the Line, and the coeditor of Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States. He served as the program director of Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is currently the acting director of the Master’s Program in the Field of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.

He and Mikhail Iossel co-edited the newly released Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia.

Last week I asked Parker what he was reading. His reply:
The last great book I read in English was Roberto Bolano's Savage Detectives. He is really, I think, the true heir to Borges and Marquez. I turned a friend on to him who preceded to read everything he has in translation. He kicked me the story collection Last Evenings on Earth, which I devoured in just a couple sittings. The thing is, formally speaking, they're not such great stories. And Bolano is not a stylist at all. In fact, if the translation is on, then his style is rather crude. But he has that kind of inexplicable magic that some writers have: he creates alternate realities that manage, despite their formal experimentation--and I know this sounds cheesy as hell--to transport you completely. I have 2666 sitting on my shelf but do not have the time quite yet to make the commitment, but I will. I will. I should say my typical habit, upon discovering a book I like a lot by a writer I've never read before, is to stop there. I am easily disappointed and a disappointment in subsequent work reflects back on the previous and so I like to keep my idea of one thing my idea of that thing. So far Bolano is an exception.

I also recently read Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang to see what the fuss was about. The marketers claim it is the book that started the environmental "terrorism" movement a la Earth First and Animal Liberation Front. It is a really fun book with a questionable, and, I believe, cautionary ending. But it is not great.

Because I spent the past year reading short stories in Russian for a new anthology I just co-edited, I got hooked on several of the authors and have been reading their stuff in Russian. Natalya Klyuchareva's novel Rossiya: Obshchi Vagon (I don't know of a satisfactory translation for this; it refers to the "Common Wagon" class on Russian trains and some people have suggested translating it as Russia On Wheels, which I don't really like) and Zakhar Prilepin's story collection Boots Full With Hot Vodka both of which really, urgently need to be translated into English. They are too good not to be.
Read more about Ovenman and Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jen Calonita

Jen Calonita is author of the teen series Secrets of My Hollywood Life and the new novel Sleepaway Girls.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Since I finished Broadway Lights (aka Secrets 5, which is due in March 2010), I've been catching up on some of my summer reading. Here are a few of my favorite things I've read this summer:

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella --- I love everything and anything by Ms. Kinsella and her latest did not disappoint. It's a friendship story wrapped around a mystery and it's hilarious. It's about two "twenties girl" -- Lara, who is in her twenties, and Sadie, who appears as a twentysomething ghost (she's actually Lara's great Aunt Sadie who just passed) and the two form an unlikely bond as they search for Sadie's missing dragonfly necklace, which Sadie just can't rest without.

The Daughters by Joanna Philbin -- What? You've never heard of this one. I know. That's because it's not out till next year, but I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at this sweet, charming teen series and I just know you're going to love it too. The series is all about what it would be like to be the daughter of a famous celebrity and the first book is about a famous model's daughter, and what it's like to walk in her shadow. It was great!

The Glamorous (Double) Life of Isabel Bookbinder: A Novel by Holly McQueen -- I tend to go for chicklit novels that will make me laugh out loud. I can't help it -- if it's light, funny and sweet, it's my type of book and this one by first-time author McQueen doesn't disappoint. It's about quirky girl named Isabel who dreams of being a successful author. Only problem? She hasn't written a single word yet. First she wants to perfect her author "look." Hilarious!

The Queen of Babble Gets Hitched by Meg Cabot -- I'm such a fan of Meg Cabot's teen books that I figured it was time I picked up some of her more adult fare. Lizzie Nichols, a wedding gown restorer, is a great character and this latest book in the series is about her big dilemma -- does she dump dreamy and rich but sort of cardboard fiance Luke and go for his best pal Chaz, who wants to be a teacher? Meg Cabot is the queen of being smart, witty and writing great dialogue and I thought this was so fun. I can't wait to go backwards and read the first two books.
Visit Jen Calonita's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Richard Mahler

Richard Mahler is the New Mexico-based author or co-author of eleven published books on travel, self-transformation, nature, social trends, and cooking. His newest book, entitled The Jaguar's Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat, is available now from Yale University Press.

Richard Knight of Colorado State University calls The Jaguar's Shadow “A wonderful book. Not only is it a detailed compilation of the economic, cultural, and ecological issues swirling around the jaguar, it is a balanced account of these complex issues.”

Not so long ago I asked Mahler what he was reading. His reply:
I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and am half-way through his Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown & Co., 2008). Gladwell has a pitch-perfect ear for the telling anecdote and is not afraid to reveal himself through interaction with his interview subjects. I identify with him because he asks questions and confesses ignorance in the same way most of us would. More importantly, I find his topics simply fascinating. They are rich, unmined veins of human behavior and psychology: how little things in life add up to big differences, the power of subliminal thinking, and what contributes to a person excelling at what he or she does. I suppose writers have discussed these sorts of things before, in academic journals and specialized books, but Gladwell has a wonderful way of keeping the conversation as lively as a good dinner party while at the same time introducing the little-known facts and up-to-the-deadline research results that are the hallmark of a champion reporter.

Another truly fun book I've just started is Jennifer Ackerman's Sex Sleep Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Like Gladwell, this author takes a seemingly simple, even mundane topic and engages me with one surprise after another. With both clarity and eloquence, Ackerman dissects what happens inside our bodies, for instance, when we try to do two things at once. Or what is going on biochemicaly when we begin to feel hungry. Or why young men have erections for an average of three hours in any given day. As someone who regards his physical aging with some trepidation, I am enjoying how this book takes apart the myriad systems of the human organism and explains their function. Sure, I should have learned this 40 years ago, but it seems much more relevant now to understand—and perhaps begin to accept—why my skin is getting thinner, my memory isn't as sharp, and there's intermittent ringing in my ears.

The most fun book of all on my nightstand is the illustrated autobiography of Frank Lima entitled The Great Morgani: The Creative Madness of a Middle-Aged Stockbroker Turned Street Musician (self-published through Diversified Printers, 2007). This is largely a collection of color photographs showing Lima in all manner of costume, playing his accordion on the sidewalks of Santa Cruz, CA, where I lived for three years. As the title implies, this 50-ish musician was a successful stockbroker for many years in his eclectic hometown, tucked on the northern end of Monterey Bay on California's Pacific Coast. So successful, in fact, that he earned enough money by mid-life to do exactly what he wanted to do from then on. Lima has chosen to dress in outlandish, even bizarre, costumes that he makes himself, while making music for passersby. There is no busker like this one.
Visit Richard Mahler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gene M. Heyman

Gene M. Heyman is a research psychologist at McLean Hospital, a Lecturer in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College. His new book is Addiction: A Disorder of Choice (Harvard University Press).

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Camus, Albert (1996). The First Man. New York: Vintage Books.

My reading tends toward nonfiction, but I often have a novel going too. Over the years, my favorites have been Dickens and Philip Roth. Yesterday I finished Albert Camus' posthumously published, unfinished, last novel, The First Man. My impression is that Camus was less than half way done with the story and was planning to go back, revise, delete, and fill in hastily sketched scenes and characters. Nevertheless, the book is a “must read.” I can't imagine anyone who would not find pleasure and inspiration in the main character, Jacques.

The novel is autobiographical, but told in the third person. Jacques grows up in an impoverished French-Arab neighborhood in Algiers. He shares a small, bare apartment with his nearly deaf-mute mother, a tyrannical grandmother, a madcap, possibly brain-damaged, uncle, and an older brother. The brother is one of several blank spots in the book. We learn virtually nothing about him, although he is nearly the same age as Jacques. Possibly Camus planned to flesh him out after the narration was more underway. At the age of one, Jacques loses his father in World War I. The Camus family never recovers. They have few possessions, little family lore, no cultural traditions, and no books. What they know about France is that in the summer it is not as hot as it is in Algeria. What they know about Algeria goes no further than the boundaries of their neighborhood. Only Jacques can read.

Against--or perhaps in spite of--this bleak background, no boy in fiction has had a more intense childhood. For Jacques anything can become an adventure and glorious game. The trolley driver who avoided a dog on the tracks becomes the “heroic friend of the animals,” and the heavy-set brakeman who takes the corners so fast that the trolley loses its overhead wire wins Jacques’ admiration and the nickname “the bear.” On the way home, Jacques and his friends cross swords with a bald shopkeeper, whose great naked dome they loudly jest doubles as a racetrack for flies. Insulted by their gibes, the shopkeeper hires some thugs to teach the boys a lesson. Jacques and his best friend Pierre escape, but the others do not. At recess, Jacques plays soccer, despite the warnings of his grandmother. If she finds scuffmarks on the soles, she promises she will beat him with a whip. There are often scuffmarks, and she always keeps her promise. In the apartment, he lies on the floor with his uncle's dog so that he can feel the furry warmth of the panting animal. At age forty, he fondly remembers the smells of the wet wool trousers of his schoolmates.

On days off from school, Jacques and Pierre roam the city. One of their favorite haunts is the "Home for Disabled Veterans,” a sprawling building, with thick walls, cool hallways, and a redolent kitchen. It is located just beyond the last trolley stop at the edge of a grand abandoned park. The veterans are missing an arm or leg both. A few scoot around in wagons on the stone floors. A young, once-athletic veteran playfully threatens to kick Jacques and Pierre in the ass with his one leg. The adjoining park is densely wooded. There are tall eucalyptuses, royal palms, and rubber trees with low branches that take root again as they spread from the central trunk. Exotic flowers and thick hedges cover the ground. In a small clearing hidden by the dense foliage, Jacques and Pierre build an herbal laboratory, where they concoct poisonous potions. They gather oleander leaves, known for their soporific powers, cypress cones, which litter a cemetery, and the petals of strange plants. They have no particular victims in mind, but estimate that their concoctions could decimate most of Algiers.

But the boys’ best days at the convalescent home were when the notoriously fierce North African winds reached gale force levels.

On those days the children would dash to the closest palms, where long dried palm branches were always lying around.... Then, dragging the branches behind them, they ran to the terrace; the wind blew furiously, whistling through the big eucalyptuses that were wildly waving their top branches, disheveling the palms, making a sound of paper crumpling as it shook the big shiny leaves of the rubber trees. The idea was to climb up to the terrace, lift the palm branches and turn their backs to the wind ... then abruptly turn around. The branch would immediately be plastered against them, they would breathe its smell of dust and straw. The game was to advance into the wind while lifting the branch higher and higher. The winner was the one who first reached the end of the terrace without letting the wind tear the branch from his hands, then he would stand erect holding the palm branch at arm's length, one leg extended with all his weight on it, struggling victoriously for as long as possible against the raging force of the wind. There, standing erect over the park and plain seething with trees.... Jacques could feel the wind from the farthest ends of the country coursing down the length of the branches and down his arms to fill him with such a power and an exultation that he cried out endlessly, until his arms and shoulders gave way under the strain and he let go of the branch, which the storm carried off along with his cries. Pgs 243-244.

The immediate context is the crippled veterans with their missing limbs. If we widen the circle, we see Jacques impaired family and their barren apartment, where even words were hard to come by.

In day-to-day affairs, Jacques' exuberance joins forces with his remarkable intelligence and strong sense of honor. He excelled in the classroom, and at early age had a nuanced sense of right and wrong. He would shamelessly lie for boyhood pleasures, such as playing soccer, but was stricken if asked to lie about something important, such as money. The ever-brave Jacques is paralyzed with uncertainty when his grandmother forces him to tell a lie to secure a summer job. He also must have been puzzled by his own intelligence when those closest to him could not read and had so little knowledge of the world. As an adult, Camus joined other left-wing intellectuals in the fight against fascism and exploitation of the less fortunate, but he parted with the Left over the Soviet Union and the war in Algeria. Camus correctly saw that the Soviet Union had become a totalitarian state and argued that the French settlers deserved a place in a new independent, multi-cultural Algerian state.

Camus died when Jacques was about to enter his last year of high school. We never learn what happens to his friend Pierre or to the playful, somewhat zany uncle. There are a few hints about the women who are soon to enter Jacques’ life, but there is no hint of the literary career that lies ahead. No one could possibly guess that Jacques would win the Nobel Prize for literature and write hugely influential, highly principled political essays. In the 1960s, every American college student who took French read L’Etranger at least once. I am sure that biographers have tracked Camus’ path from the obscure Algerian lycee to the Nobel Prize. Sadly, we will never hear Camus’ version of the rest of Jacques’ story. I would like to know if Camus maintained his childhood trick of turning everyday events, even the most humble, into an adventure and parable. I like to think that he did.
Read an excerpt from Heyman's Addiction, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 24, 2009

Chip Brantley

Chip Brantley is the author of The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot.

The cofounder of, Brantley is a former food writer for the San Francisco Examiner and features writer for the Albany Times Union. He has contributed to many other publications, including Slate, the Boston Globe, the Oxford American, and Gastronomica.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'd been thinking about reading Roberto Bolaño's 2666 for a while and felt like making it my big summer commitment. But my friend Joel suggested easing into 2666 by starting with some of Bolaño's stories and his shorter (but, at 672 pages, still long) The Savage Detectives. So I read Last Evenings on Earth, which is a sinister and just incredible collection of short stories. I'm not sure how to articulate why I love them. You could break them up and examine them, and I'm not sure you'd be any closer to knowing how and why they work so well.

From there, I moved right into The Savage Detectives, with the goal of finishing it in a week or two. That was six weeks ago. One of the reasons it's taking me so long is because I took a break to read Warren St. John's Outcasts United, and I've also been reading a lot about pistachios (for a new project). But also, Savage Detectives is one of those books I fall immediately into while I'm reading it, but then don't really look forward to returning to once I put it down. For the past couple of weeks, I've been reading in spurts, and I'm now getting close to the end of the long middle section. I've vowed to finish it before the end of August so that I can move on to something else.

I haven't decided whether or not to head right into 2666. I've ordered and am looking forward to Patrick Radden Keefe's The Snakehead, a book about the smuggling of Chinese immigrants into New York, and Langdon Cook's Fat of the Land, a book about foraging. Also, my father-in-law just gave me Daniel Silva's The Kill Artist, the first of his Gabriel Allon books, and that might be the perfect Bolaño intermission.
Visit Chip Brantley's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Michael Gebert

Michael Gebert is the creator of the Chicago-based food video podcast and blog Sky Full of Bacon, and writes about food and media for various publications. He is the author of The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
After 9/11 I found it hard to read fiction. There were two reasons for this. One was a conviction that today's fiction writers simply weren't up to the task-- look at Updike's book about a terrorist in which he imagines him to be pretty much exactly like every other Updike protagonist, or John LeCarre's last ten unreadable anti-US screeds. The world was so much richer as revealed by non-fiction writers, from Bernard Lewis with his polymath understanding of the Arab world to books like Rise of the Vulcans or The Looming Tower, so full of complex real-life characters. Honestly, what novelist in the last 30 years has conjured up characters as compelling as The Looming Tower's main figures-- the philandering FBI goodfella John O'Neill, his should-be ally but bureaucratic archenemy the CIA terror geek Michael Scheuer, the pitiless intellectual Dr. Zawahiri, the aimless rich kid turned terror celebrity Osama Bin Laden? What a wonderful movie it would make, if Hollywood had the balls.

The other was much closer to home-- I had two young sons and I was reading to them all the time. So to a certain extent my fiction itch was scratched by kid lit, and to be honest, a lot of it-- especially if it was written after 1930 and before 1970-- was better than a great deal of adult fiction I'd read. In particular I'd mention Johnny Tremain, a first-rate coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist's progress from feudal apprentice to free man nicely parallels America's struggles in the Revolutionary War; any adult could read it without condescension. But there are many others I enjoyed sharing with them-- Walter Brooks' Freddy the Pig novels, less precious than E.B. White's animal books; droll Roald Dahl, of course; Sid Fleischman's Americana novels; Norman Lindsay's dada The Magic Pudding; and so on.

Eventually the urgent hunger to read current affairs books died down, and my professional life has taken me more toward food writing; there are many pleasures in food writing but they're rarely the same ones you get from a great novel, so I've been turning back to fiction, though I have to say it hasn't always been easy. One thing I have devoured with pleasure is the University of Chicago's series of reprinted Parker novels by the late Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark). The early ones capture in fine spare prose a drab, seedy America of the 60s which Parker, the hyperlogical sociopath, slices through like a knife; they're the epitome of the crime novel taken to abstraction.

For some reason I keep trying Victorian novels, but life today just isn't paced for them; I admire Trollope's satirical eye but it's hard when you've read 80 pages and it's still just breakfast at the first house. They wrote literary gas guzzlers for an age when time was cheap. One I did succeed with a couple of years ago, and have recommended widely since (so I might as well do so here too), is Willkie Collins' No Name. It's about two sisters who are screwed out of an inheritance by a quirk of the law, and how one of them uses every feminine wile there is to go after the fortune. This female cynic and conniver is such an unexpected and delightful character to spend time with that you aren't bothered too much that the book doesn't really reach a satisfactory conclusion. Hmm, thinking about it, she's sort of like Parker, slicing through the cant of her age like a knife. I guess that says something about what I like in fiction, or about me.
Visit Michael Gebert's website to learn more about Sky Full of Bacon and links to his writing about food and media.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Steven Strogatz

Steven Strogatz is the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, and is currently Director of the Center for Applied Mathematics.

His books include Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, about which the Nature reviewer wrote: "Strogatz ... is a first-rate storyteller and an even better teacher ... SYNC is a great read."

Strogatz's new book is The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life while Corresponding about Math.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At the moment I'm reading Panic In Level 4, the latest page turner by Richard Preston. Ever since The Hot Zone -- the scariest book I've ever read -- I've been a big fan of Preston's. He's one of our best science writers. I love his cinematic style, eye for detail, dry humor and understated language, especially when he discusses something really freaky or macabre.

Freeman Dyson's recent collection of essays, The Scientist as Rebel, has also given me lots of food for thought. His broad view of the scientific enterprise is always as illuminating as it is iconoclastic.

On a recent cross-country plane flight, I tried dipping into Rabbit, Run, by John Updike but couldn't find any empathy for Rabbit and gave up after about 40 pages. Embarrassing, but true.

Instead, I turned to something that I thought might be cheesy fun (which it was) but which also turned out to be surprisingly thoughtful: Pete Sampras's tennis memoir, A Champion's Mind. The story of his childhood and his rise to greatness were unfamiliar to me, and made me admire him and appreciate him in a way I never had before. Like everyone else, I always thought he was a bit of a boring player, but now I understand what was going on in his head during all those Grand Slam matches.
Visit Steven Strogatz's website.

Among the early praise for The Calculus of Friendship:
"As these two men find truer, deeper friendship through an exchange of letters on math, you may be surprised to find yourself, as I was, moved by powerful emotions. I never thought I'd get choked up by an equation--but these guys are plotting out the hardest kind of change to track: the movement from Me to Us."
--Alan Alda

"The Calculus of Friendship is an intriguing journey that casts mathematics in a most unusual light. Through thirty years of correspondence between student and teacher, we enter a private world where the rigors of logic are the last defense against the vagaries of life."
--Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai is a writer whose fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie, and has been selected for The Best American Short Stories 2009. Her work has also been featured in magazines such as New England Review, The Threepenny Review, Shenandoah, and The Iowa Review.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
One of these days I’m going to finish reading Proust. But right now, I have a toddler. I’ve been perfectly content with the necessity of reading short things, or things that can at least be swallowed in small bites, largely because everything I’ve read this summer has been so damn good.

I’ve been picking away for several weeks at State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (eds. Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey), which consists of fifty essays by fifty different writers, on states they live in or grew up in or were simply paid to write about. Loosely modeled on the Federal Writers’ Project state guides from the 1930s, this project gave writers a lot more license than the WPA did. Some essays are personal, some are educational, and their scope ranges from the broad (Tony Horwitz recounting almost the entire grisly history of Virginia in nine very readable pages) to the extremely narrow (Jacki Lyden on the Bosnian newspaper kingpin of St. Louis).

Any time you ask fifty different writers to address similar subjects you’ll get some unfortunate overlap, and the less inspired essays do find a bit too much common ground. The ones that fall into the trope of “this used to be a great state, but it’s now overrun with tourism, pollution and corruption, but hey, come to think of it, that’s actually what I love about it” do melt into one giant puddle of bittersweet.

So it’s the writers who clearly love their states – passionately, hopelessly, effusively – who stand out. I loved Dave Eggers’ hyperbolic and ultimately quite touching essay on Illinois; Alexander Payne’s love letter to Nebraska (after which I literally turned to my husband and said “I want to move to Omaha!”); and Ann Patchett’s ode to the flora of Tennessee. The exception that proves the rule is Jonathan Franzen, whose disenchanted mock-interview with the state of New York and her entourage is hilarious.

And Anthony Doerr deserves special mention for writing eight pages on Idaho without ever once mentioning potatoes.

By far my favorite entry of the bunch – and the one I’ve gone back to reread at least ten times – is Alison Bechdel’s graphic essay on Vermont [detail at right]. This was a surprise for me. I’d never felt drawn to graphic novels or comics, mentally filing them under the vague rubric of “manga,” something very not me, some sort of pornography for the Dungeons and Dragons set. I stand corrected.

I loved Bechdel’s entry so much that I ran out and bought Fun Home, her graphic memoir. Bechdel’s closeted father died in what may or may not have been a suicide only a few days after Bechdel herself came out of the closet, and Fun Home is the story of their relationship and its aftermath. It’s funny and extremely intelligent, and – as a graphic novel – it does things that writing alone simply cannot do. In one early set of panels, the pictures show a preadolescent Bechdel running out of the house after one of her father’s rages, while the captions tell the story of Daedalus and Icarus. In fiction, this could only have been a heavy-handed simile or a labored metaphor. In a graphic novel, it’s delicate and effortless.

Inspired by the entire graphic form (and I should point out here that I mean inspired to read, not, God forbid, to attempt drawing) I turned next to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (in English translation). Satrapi’s chiaroscuro panels are highly stylized, sometimes resembling nothing so much as Escher prints. Here, the art seems not just a mode of expression but an absolute necessity, in the sense that we can best take in the horrors of war through a lens of beauty and abstraction (which is perhaps why poetry about war is so often more effective than prose). The panel showing a child’s understanding of what it means to be “chopped to pieces” is heartbreaking and funny and beautiful and disturbing. It’s a story in and of itself.

Tim Horvath’s novella Circulation is visual in a different way. There are no pictures here save for the maps that comprise the cover, but the story of a librarian and his dying father and the fictions they weave together is intrinsically graphic. The father has written a forgotten book on caves, and has spent much of his adult life researching a book called The Atlas of the Voyages of Things, which was to contain maps and essays about the way things circulate – ideas, the Trade Winds, drugs, cars. The second part of the story consists of the librarian, Jay, inventing for his father the circulation history of his library’s copy of the cave book. Horvath seems to be channeling, all at once, Borges and Calvino and Kevin Brockmeier. And it all works, as a lovely little meditation on how one thing leads to another.
Read Makkai's story "The Worst You Ever Feel," from The Best American Short Stories 2008, and "The Briefcase," her story from the forthcoming The Best American Short Stories 2009.

Learn more about the author and her work at Rebecca Makkai's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Barbara O'Neal

Barbara Samuel O’Neal is an award-winning and beloved commercial fiction writer with more than 35 novels to her credit in many genres, including 6 highly acclaimed novels of women’s fiction. She has won two Colorado Center for the Book awards for commercial fiction, five prestigious RITA awards, and many others. She is a highly respected teacher of craft and inspirational subjects, and finds nourishment in the interaction with other writers. Her novel The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O’Neal, has gone to eight printings, and is a major release in Australia and Germany as well as the US. Her new book, The Secret of Everythings, will be published in January 2010.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am a very eclectic reader, and I read a lot. Ray Bradbury says a writer should read a poem, an essay and short story every day—and for me, that’s not even a discipline, it’s a great joy. I’m a story junkie, and while I do use television and movies heavily, books are my drug of choice. Below are a few of the books I’ve read over the past month or so…it pleases me that it’s so varied.

In no particular order:

Veil of Roses, by Laura Fitzgerald. If I tell you the situation of this story: a young Iranian woman comes to the US for a fresh start, a chance to escape Iran—and her cloistered, claustrophobic life there—it might sound a little grim. In fact, it’s a fast paced, upbeat chronicle about Tamila Soroush. Her westernized parents lived in America when Tamila and her sister were small, and were trapped when the Shah was deposed. Especially considering all the news that’s been pouring out of Iran with the recent elections, I loved reading about what women’s lives are really like in a country that was—not very long ago—quite modern and has now returned to the dark ages. You can’t help but root for Tamila and pray that she finds a way to stay with her sister in Arizona, where she can “just sit in public at a coffee shop with a man and meet his eye” without fear of being hanged for it. One of my favorite books of the year, so far.

New Moon, by Stephanie Meyer. I read Twilight some time ago and loved it. There are certain stories that can only be told through a teenager’s eyes. Romeo and Juliet is one of them, and that’s Twilight in a nutshell: an over-the-top, searingly romantic story of forbidden love. Edward is a stunning character, elegant and beautiful, with courtly manners that lend him tremendous self-control in the presence of his beloved Bella. I didn’t read New Moon right away because—and this should be a lesson!!—I listened to other people about it, and some people were deeply disappointed that Edward has less page time in New Moon than he did in Twilight. Recently, I saw the movie for Twilight and had the rest of the series in my study, and sat down that night to see what might happen. I could not stop reading this one, either, and now I’m forcing myself to space the next two out a bit. It’s very romantic stuff.

The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond, which is a haunting, gripping tale of a woman who loses her fiance’s five-year-old daughter on a foggy San Francisco beach. The girl simply disappears. It’s intense and gripping and ultimately about faith and trusting your gut. Honestly, I wasn’t going to read it because this is my special nightmare scenario, one of my children being kidnapped. Thoughts of it would make me lie awake at night when they were small. But someone told me that it was hopeful and I gave it a shot. Very glad I did. Not only is Richmond a beautiful writer, she’s an excellent storyteller, and I know the book will haunt me for a long time.

An Affair Before Christmas, by Eloisa James. James was the luncheon speaker at the national Romance Writers of America conference this year, and after the conference, I found myself exhausted by five weeks of travel and in desperate need of rest, so I gulped down some of the books I brought home from DC. This was by far my favorite—it’s saucy, witty, clever romance—and one of the things I like best about her books is that she’s often writing about a more mature angle of love: what happens to married couples, especially married couples who often marry for position? I was cheered and much rested by the end of this one, and I’m looking forward to her new book, sitting on my desk as we speak.

The Help, Kathryn Stockett. I sometimes approach fiction about this period, 1960’s race relations in the South—with some trepidation. Often the stories are a bit too rosy for my tastes, but Stockett did a great job with the story and the possible ramifications of such a project for everyone involved. And once I started, I didn’t put the book down—just ripped right through it.

On my nightstand right now: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, by Bich Minch Nguyen, a memoir about a family that fled Saigon and came to the US in 1975, and Nguyen’s relationship to American food; Fighting in the Jim Crow Army, by Maggi M Morehouse, and Shelter Me, by Juliette Fay.
Visit Barbara O’Neal's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jim Noles

James L. “Jim” Noles, Jr., is a partner in the Environmental & Natural Resources Section of Balch & Bingham, LLP, in Birmingham, Alabama. An Army brat and former Army officer, he is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the University of Texas School of Law. To date, his books have covered a variety of non-fiction subjects and his articles have appeared in such diverse publications as the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Smithsonian Air & Space, Preservation, Urban Land, Continental, Thicket, Portico, Executive Traveler, Alabama Heritage, Mental Floss, America’s Civil War, and the Birmingham News.

His new book is Mighty by Sacrifice: The Destruction of an American Bomber Squadron, August 29, 1944.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently about seventy-five pages into Chip Brantley's The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Search for the Elusive Pluot. What is a pluout, you ask? That is just one of the many questions answered in Chip's book, which has just been released by Bloomsbury. He had me hooked from his first sentence: "It was midsummer then, and I was twenty-seven, and over the course of one month I fell in love twice." To quote my wife, "Why can't you write like that, Jim?" Hey -- we all play the cards we were dealt. Anyway, I digress. Chip's book is great. After reading it, you'll take your next stroll down the fruit and produce aisle in your grocery with a newfound appreciation of the bounty surrounding you.

I'm also just started reading Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone aloud to my seven-year-old. I guess I am officially the last person on the planet to read a Harry Potter book. My apologies and kudos to you, Ms. Rowling. We have, by the way, battled for two years trying to get James to take to reading. Now, thanks to Harry Potter, he sees the point behind the whole concept of the written word and he jumps into bed every night enthusiastic about the next half chapter or so. So nicely done, Ms. Rowling! If you had seen James as I read about Harry's encounter with the snake (completely entranced, lips parted slightly, eyes wide open, gap in his missing front tooth) you'd know what I was talking about. Good stuff.
Visit Jim Noles' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ru Freeman

Author and activist Ru Freeman was born into a family of writers and many boys in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Educated at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, and Bates College in Maine, she completed her Masters in Labor Relations at the University of Colombo. She has worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights. Her political writing has appeared in English and in translation. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Story Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, WriteCorner Press, Kaduwa and elsewhere and has been nominated for the Best New American Voices anthologies in 2006 and 2008. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl, is just out from Simon & Schuster.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually read several books at the same time as most writers do, but rarely are they as different from each other as the three I am reading now.

The first one is Preeta Samarasan's Evening Is the Whole Day, a novel set in Malaysia which has received a great deal of critical acclaim particularly in the sphere of international awards for fiction. I bought the book because Preeta is a friend, and friends don't let friends' work languish on shelves. I looked forward to reading it because of what I knew about her, but I love this book for what she has done with her material as a writer. One of the things that is most difficult for a writer composing in English to accomplish, is the business of communicating the cultural inflections and specificities of a foreign language without letting that task - which, in the end, is usually secondary to the fiction - overwhelm the story. I have never read a book by a writer from South/SouthEast Asia in which this has been done with the degree of success that Preeta achieves in her novel. Not only am I immersed deeply and variously in the interior and exterior realities of her characters, I am equally seamlessly engaged in looking at the world through their very specific linguistic expression of their lives. There are moments in the book where Preeta's lyricism interferes with this otherwise beautifully rendered novel, where I find myself dwelling on the beauty of a line of prose and remembering its author, but it is forgivable in a writer whose command of language is itself something to admire.

The second book that I am reading is actually a re-read, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Enough has been said about the originality of this particular book that I don't feel there is anything new that I can add. What I can say is that O'Brien's way of introducing and re-introducing both the same story (as in that of Norman Bowker), and the business of creating fictions out of truth and truth out of the fiction of our lives, is, to me, a staggeringly brilliant and instructive exercise. A few times along the way there are the unavoidable political polemics but then again, is it possible to avoid them when speaking of war? I had recently met a Vietnam vet who talked to me about the aftermath of that particular atrocity and his own inability to reconcile himself with the welcome that waited for its American victims. This book provided me with a context for that veteran's story as well as a way of considering the many wars I have been writing about in my life as a political journalist.

The last book I have been immersed in is Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying. I found the first half of this book difficult to get through not because it was dense but because it seemed to contain such a superficial description of the lives of the people in Danticat's life, her uncle and her father in particular. I was reading it also to gain some insight into the predicament of a very dear friend whose Haiti to the United States odyssey was not unlike Danticat's. I kept wondering if this story would be quite so worthy of attention if Danticat wasn't well, Danticat. So it was quite surprising to me that I was so moved by the way the book ended, with the death of her uncle in detention. It is rare that the end of a novel justifies the existence of the preceding two hundred pages, but this book did. No doubt, my own interest and involvement in issues of human rights and social justice and the outrage I feel at the complex but, surely, reconcilable issues surrounding immigration to this country provided that leap of faith, but I still think this is a good read for anybody who wants to understand what it feels like to be unwanted in a country that an immigrant has no heart-desire to want to belong to.
Read an excerpt from A Disobedient Girl, and learn more about the book and author at Ru Freeman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 10, 2009

Scott Ward

Scott Ward, Professor of Creative Writing and Literature, joined the Eckerd College faculty in 1993. He has published poems in Shenandoah, Southern Humanities Review, Washington Square, Blue Mesa Review, Christian Century, and in anthologies such as Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry and American Poetry: The Next Generation. He studied at Auburn University and at the University of South Carolina under the late James Dickey. He has published Crucial Beauty (1991, Scop Publications). He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida with his wife, Jana, and their sons, Caleb and Garland.

His latest book of poems is Wayward Passages (2006, Black Bay Books). It is distributed by the Eckerd College Bookstore,

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Sometimes I think that Contemporary American Poetry is American culture’s best kept secret. There are so many talented poets writing today, producing work for readers of every taste and temperament. And yet, for some reason, poets and readers have a hard time finding each other. Perhaps one day some clever, technologically adept person will contrive some sort of personal ads to put Twitter poets and readers into each other’s company: “Seeking neo-romantic poet with startling vocabulary and sensuous imagery.” In the meantime, I will take this opportunity to pander by sharing four books from my recent reading, each of which should make someone out there a faithful, worthwhile companion.

A Murmuration of Starlings by Jake Adam York is an exquisite book of poems. It takes for its subject the Civil Rights struggle of the mid twentieth century. Two key events recounted are the murder of Emmitt Till and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. “Substantiation,” the poem about the Till murder, is a series of lyric poems, which are shorter pieces, subjective, and elegiac in tone. But arranged together the poems tell the story of the trial of the killers, Bryant and Milam, and its aftermath. This structure allows York to take advantage of narrative elements such as conflict, character, climax, while the short sections create moments of lyric intensity:

They say they took him for a ride to rough him up,

scare him on a river bluff, then let him go.

They say they let him off near Glendora,

never seen again. They say Ain’t it like a negro

to swim the river with a gin fan round his neck.

This book creates a deeply felt moral revulsion as much for the lies that are told as for the violence that is inflicted. Moral engagement of this intensity is a rare thing to encounter in any book, and York has made the experience a poignant one for his reader. At several points, York takes us inside the minds of the killers, and it is a dark and empty place. I think of Milton’s Satan who says, “which way I fly is hell, myself as hell.”

From the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, Americans can be justly proud of the progress we have made, even while we work toward greater equality and racial harmony. A Murmuration of Starlings is a good book to call to mind the heroic struggle that African Americans made with patience, dignity and forbearance. Poetry is a great place to encounter history because along with the facts come the human feelings, the psychological import, the tragedy and glory of human action.

Pinion, by Claudia Emerson, is about a family working a tobacco farm in the American south of the 1920s. Together they endure the dulling, bone crushing labor, their parents’ pathological relationship, floods, lust, dearth, longing, and most trying of all, solitude, both social and mental. The poems create a sadness of extraordinary poignancy, conveyed through the psychological portraits of two siblings, Preacher and Sister. There are moments for me, each time I pick up this volume, when the act of reading becomes an act of eavesdropping owing to the vivid quality of Emerson’s characters. A lasting impression of this book is the marvelous, sometimes terrifying, capacity that people have to endure. One of Emerson’s best uses of imagery is the use of bird images as a refrain to suggest a longing for transcendence which is always possible, yet always just out of reach. The poem “Bathing Mother,” details a moment when Sister is caring for her dying parent; she says,

I bathed the mother of us all, my hands

dark swallows flying close over the surface

of a pond—whose depths churned, unimaginable—

to make it still, until it was so.

I wish that every American who has followed the issues of the war in Iraq could read Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner. As the reader encounters the poems, policies and politics fade out of his mind and the long, glorious history of Iraq comes to the fore. We are reminded of Alhazen of Basra; of Gilgamesh; of the Tigris and Euphrates, where the Garden of Eden once luxuriated; of Baghdad’s zoos and museums. This historical and cultural awareness is a subtle reminder that Iraq is more than a policy objective; it is a historical place, which means it is a human place. The soldier-speaker of the poems never loses sight of this fact.

Indeed, many of the poems are about the speaker’s struggle to remain fully human while witnessing inhuman things. In poems like “R&R” and “Observation Post #798” the reader learns something about the uncertain hand holds a soldier must grapple, one after another, to keep from slipping from the sheer slope of terror and suffering into despair and emotional hardness. In “R&R,” the speaker goes on leave to see his lover; the poem ends this way,

I have a lover with hair that falls

like autumn leaves on my skin.

Water that rolls in smooth and cool

as anesthesia. Birds that carry

all my bullets into the barrel of the sun.

I think my favorite poems in the book are the elegies, among them “Eulogy,” about the suicide of an American soldier, and “AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem),” which chronicles the death of soldier Thalia Fields, a woman from Mississippi, as she is being transported en route to Landstuhl to hospital. “2000 lbs.” which is about a roadside bomb that goes off in Ashur Square, Mosul, is really a series of elegies, and it is a horrible and riveting poem. All these works convey, in a way that news reports and op-ed pieces cannot, the human cost of the war.

And finally, there is Understanding Fiction, by Henry Taylor. I cannot praise this book enough. Taylor possesses not only a consummate poetic skill, but also a philosophic wisdom that I admire in poets like E. A. Robinson or Robert Frost. He can craft what seems like off hand narratives, such as “Frank Amos and the Way Things Work,” a poem which sneaks up on moving profundities about how human intelligence and curiosity work to fit us into the world and into relationships with each other. He is a masterful translator in “The Writing Life.” And he is just as adept in highly structured, traditional forms like the sonnet as in “An Ending” which is a graceful love poem, deft in technique as in sentiment. His voice is gently ironic, staid, by turns wistful and wry, but there is a patience in it as well, a sort of calm faith that if one takes the time to observe the world with care, even trivial things—a pull top beer bottle, a baking dish, a popped balloon—will yield unforeseen and mysterious significance. I have so many favorites in this book, but only space enough here to mention one. The poem “Master on None,” is a poem about how we employ time and work to create our character. At the end of the poem, the speaker, pondering the most necessary kinds of knowledge, yearns for the skill to discern

…when a hand, lightly placed on a child

might wean him without force from the TV set

where, as long as the light of the world’s last days

washes over us, we can believe

we will always be here.

I’ve always admired that stanza for its ambiguity. The first sense is, “you can bet we’ll watch TV to the bitter end.” The second, more profound, sense is “when we watch TV we are dulled into a dangerous state of forgetting our mortality.” When we forget that, our time on earth loses its meaning.

I hope many readers will enjoy at least one of these poets. Emerson and Taylor have published many books and each has won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, so they have more to offer if you like one of the volumes above. York and Turner are a bit younger. Murmuration is York’s second book, Here, Bullet is Turner’s first. But if these two volumes are any indication, there will be much good work coming from these poets in the future. And so, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world’s end after my name.
Selected poems by Scott Ward available online include "The Bats," "My Brothers Make a Lantern," "My Grandmother's Legend," "Showering My Son," and "Cruel."

Learn more about Scott Ward at his faculty website.

--Marshal Zeringue