Archive for the 'Nonfiction Recommendations' Category

01 September
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What we read last summer…

“Reading” by Berthe Morisot

“Reading” by Berthe Morisot

Here’s a quote from the last chapter of Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage: “When Virginia stopped the car, the dog jumped out and sat on the cobblestones, waiting for a signal. Then, as we headed south, he loped easily alongside. The car was so low that his head was on a level with mine. He grinned as he ran and I noticed that he had high cheekbones, too.” Wonderful, right? The whole book is delightful and surprising in that way. Also honest. Also funny. Also sad. A portrait of the artist as a young man in New York in the late 1940s, and full of startling reflection about art, music, friendship, love, sex, and books, too, of course. Speaking of which, what else did I read this summer? Two more off the top of my head: Light Years by James Salter—beautiful and sad. And A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Hopeful, but sad. Say, why do we love sad stories? How is it they actually comfort us? Or do they? Feel free to weigh in about that, and about your own summer reading—in the meantime, I’ve polled MPW troops (troupers, that is)—herewith, more recommendations from Summer, 2013:

From Sandra Tsing Loh: “I’ve been rereading Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn. Love it!!!”

Tim Kirkman read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. A page turner and a heartkicker, he says, and he adds, “I also enjoyed
Dan Savage’s brilliant Savage American and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I laughed. I cried. After the last page, I wanted more.”

Johanna Blakley read Teju Cole’s Open City, which she describes as “an oddly compelling meditation on New York City by a brilliant immigrant who is even more lost and lonely than he thinks he is.”

Howard Ho says, “After a strong recommendation from Sandra Tsing Loh, I picked up Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and fell for her resonant prose and how she was able to place her crazy life in perspective. After getting through it, I loved it so much that rather than merely recommending it to a friend, I gave it away to pay forward the pleasure I had had.”

Kenny Turan “read one of the pleasantly oddest books I’ve come across in awhile, with a self-explanatory title: Blue Mauritius. The Search for the World’s Rarest Stamp.”

Dana Gioia recommends Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. “A couple of my best friends had recommended this book to me for years,” he writes, “but having pushed my way through Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, I hesitated to plunge into 700 more pages of Mann. Finally, I gave it a try, and the novel is irresistible—the chronicle of a rich merchant family in decline over three generations, full of romances, marriages, deaths, swindles, and bankruptcies. I hated putting it down each night to get some sleep. I now understand that Mann’s Nobel Prize was given specifically for this one novel.”

From Janet Fitch: I’m voting for Luminarium by Alex Shakar. I love a big book that just unfolds and unfolds until lose myself in it. Luminarium is one of those books. A mind-altering sparkle-shelled football helmet descends on an ex-dotcom golden boy whose twin brother (the true genius) lies in a NYC hospital in a coma… the plot is a rocket, but it’s not so much a straight ascent as it is a shimmering blast addressing familial relations, 9/11, post-employment America, consciousness, altered realities. I’d done a panel with Alex Shakar at the LA Times book fest a couple of years ago, bought his book but had not cracked it until now. Holy @#$ this guy can write. On the shelf, I’d put it between Gary Shteingardt’s Super True Sad Love Story and something by Vonnegut. Especially liked the parents, an elderly ex-dancer with a new calling as a Reiki practitioner, and an ex or sometimes actor now doing birthday party magic acts with his unemployed ex-millionaire son. Poignant in so many places, funny, insightful, appreciative of this weird and vulnerable condition of being human.

Michael Price responds: “This summer my favorite read was The Skies Belong To Us by Brendan I. Koerner. Incredible true story of the Hijack-happy 70s.”

Caley O’Dwyer writes, “Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives pretty well consumed my summer, and it was a dazzling, blissful, and haunting experience I can only hope to find again.

Syd says, “I stuck with what I know and love —Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen— bizarre, delightful, and totally outrageous. Spent a long time on Gone Girl and peering into the structure of story telling, quite informative and then, back to one of my favorites, R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton. Just a delightful reading experience.

Prince reread Saved by Edward Bond. He explains: “The play shocked authorities and audiences back in 1965—and Bond’s displays of violence and cruelty in working-class London are no less potent today.”

From Brighde: “I just read Someone by Alice McDermott—this is her latest novel. I loved it partially because I share the cultural landscape—I come from a huge Irish Catholic family—and there are descriptions that remind me of the well-said phrases that come out of the Irish American Nostalgia for Eire. For example: “…the eternal dampness of that bleak country’s bitter air. There’s a burned taste to the air at home….. A taste of wet ashes and doused fire. It can make you believe, she said, that you live in the permanent aftermath of some nearby sorrow. Somewhere in the vicinity, you’re always thinking, Someone’s house has recently burned to the ground.” As always, as ever with McDermott there is the sensuous fabric of the sentences as they accumulate, and there is also the revelation of character and the ongoing subtext of LOSS. And then as a chaser I read some shorts by Robert Walser, himself a jeweler of the phrase: “What they call former beauty is extraordinarily attractive to some people. Ruins are rather touching.”

And MG Lord’s response: “What a great summer this was for nonfiction! I can’t narrow just to one book. I loved Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (with marvelous details, such as the child slaves imprisoned on a cruise ship serving Tom Cruise at his birthday party).

“I also loved a small, exquisite memoir about growing up with a dad in the CIA.
The book is The Wolf and the Watchman by Scott C. Johnson.

“And this fall–because I have had the pleasure of reading galleys–there are two more great books on the way: In October, Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower. It has new, jaw-droppingly grim material about Nazi women who actively participated in the Holocaust on the Eastern Front.

“And in November, something cheerier: Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by our own extraordinary Dana Goodyear.”

From extraordinary Dana: “I finally read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and was astonished by the display of journalistic patience and story sense. Rebecca Skloot followed the spark of an idea she had as a teenager through more than a decade of research to deliver an astonishing tale of a medical breakthrough that changed history, and made victims of the family that enabled it. The book restores Henrietta Lacks—a descendant of slaves whose cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge and used to develop the first “immortal” cell line—-to her rightful place, and explores the scandalous history of race and medicine in America.”

Gina Nahai read The Leaving of Things, by Jay Antani.

Trinie Dalton says: “My two recommendations are: Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks and Sunstone by Octavio Paz. They’re in-progress reads and I’m not sure what to say about either yet except that I adore both.

Bernard Cooper’s choice is Phillip Lopate’s Portrait Inside My Head.

From Richard Rayner: “The book I’ve been reading over the summer: a new Penguin edition, introduced by Daniel Klein, of The Art of Happiness by Epicurus—I’m hoping to learn something, like… how-to!”

And Mark Richard recommends Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers:The Making of an American Legend. “The story behind the myth behind the legend of John Ford’s classic (and maybe best) film, not only does Frankel give us the ‘how it was made’ of the movie, but more importantly traces its narrative origins. In 1836 a nine-year-old white girl, Cynthia Ann Parker, was kidnapped by the Comanche from her homestead in Texas and made part of their tribe, bearing three sons to her warrior husband, one of whom would become the last great chief of the Comanche. About twenty-five years after her capture, she was ‘rescued’ by Texas rangers and returned to her white family from which she repeatedly tried to escape. A tragic story, retold and reshaped by white narrators to accommodate sexual anxieties, justify racial violence, and make palatable westward expansion at all costs. Ford tapped into the human core of the matter, at times shocking and reassuring, and Glenn Frankel tells us why. Couldn’t put it down.”

And that’s all for now, from us to you. Your turn…

03 February
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Visiting Writer: Nick Flynn 1/25/2013

On January 25, poet and memoirist Nick Flynn visited the Master of Professional Writing Program to give a workshop open to students in all genres.  That evening, he also appeared at the  ALOUD series of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles at Los Angeles Central Library, where he read from his new memoir, The Reenactments.

The Reenactments , Nick’s third memoir, adds a new layer of experience to his first, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.   Nick watches–in the opening lines of the book, he is staring into a camera monitor–as director Paul Weitz and his cast and crew film a movie, Being Flynn, based on his first memoir of reconnecting with his father, Jonathan, when he appears as a client of the homeless shelter where Nick works.   

Nick shared with MPW students some of his ideas about writing poetry and prose, working in multiple genres, and having more than one project underway at a time–”I always have something to feel guilty about,” he joked.

A podcast of Nick’s reading and conversation with Elvis Mitchell will soon be available on the ALOUD site.

30 August
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The Books of Summer

Young Woman Reading—Gustav Courbert

Elvis Costello sings:

The sun struggles up another beautiful day
And I felt glad in my own suspicious way
Despite the contradiction and confusion
Felt tragic without reason
There’s malice and there’s magic in every season

Speaking of which, tell me it isn’t strange to be back to school, where oh where did the summer go? Still there are perks—and among them, it’s time for our bi-annual readers’ round-up, a list of recommendations from MPW faculty and staff—the best of what we read this summer—in the order in which they came in:

First up, The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, “published about ten years ago,” says Gina Nahai, “it’s a great study of Voice. Four characters, all women, tell the story. They range in age from five to 40-something and each one is distinct and authentic and fascinating.”

Michael Price writes: “It’s been an all Robert Caro all the time summer for me; I listened to The Power Broker on audio and have plunged in to The Path To Power, the first volume of Caro’s biography of LBJ.”

From Brighde Mullins: “I’ve been reading Mary Gaitskill. I recommend reading her novel Veronica in conjunction with Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others—they are both explorations of the potential of others’ suffering to serve (merely) as schadenfreude. These are different approaches to the same ethical dilemma. Gaitskill writes like an angel-who-has-seen-it-all, Sontag’s clarity and wit are sublime.”

Howard Ho says, “I seem to have had a Chinese-American themed summer. I read David Henry Hwang’s hilarious new play Chinglish, which is notable for its very theatrical use of supertitle translations of spoken Mandarin Chinese that gets lost in translation. And MPW faculty member M.G. Lord let me borrow her copy of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (by Yunte Huang). Nominated for a Pen USA Literary Award, the book traces the Charlie Chan legacy from its roots in the real-life Chang Apana, a Hawaiian cowboy turned police detective, to his later fictional incarnation by novelist Earl Derr Biggers to the string of movies that were popular from the 1920s to 1940s. It’s a very quick read and engagingly touches upon many of the interesting historical landmarks which make Charlie Chan an enduring figure in American culture.”

And from Syd Field: “I hadn’t read James Lee Burke for a while so when Creole Bell was released I decided to read it. Amazing! The soul of a poet with razor sharp characters amid the smell and taste of of New Orleans.”

Amy Gerstler writes to say that she read “a lovely, sad and lyrically political epistolary novel by John Berger called From A to X.”

Kenny Turan recommends “the new novel by Norway’s Karin Fossum, The Caller. For my money, she is the best stylist of all current Scandinavian mystery writers, and the most chilling.”

And Tim Kirkman offers up James Joyce’s Dubliners. Although he, too, casts a vote for Robert Caro: “I’m working on a screenplay about a few weeks during the Johnson administration, so The Passage of Power has been an invaluable resource. It’s also a highly entertaining, informative and mammoth book. I’m still reading it!”

From Johanna Blakley: “I’m just finishing up Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It’s an oddly menacing story (not unlike Bolaño’s brilliant 2066) about a rag-tag bunch of Mexican and South American poets who are searching for God knows what: meaning? friendship? political truth? hot sex? I can safely say I still don’t get it. But I can’t stop reading it.”

Gabrielle Pina writes that “Red River by Lalita Tademy is a haunting and heartbreaking family saga about love, honor, and a devastating event that took place in Louisiana during the pre-reconstruction period of our painful history.”

And Cort Brinkerhoff says “the thing I read this summer that still haunts me is Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a deceptively simple play about ghost stories and the specters that linger in all our lives.”

From Sandra Tsing Loh: “This will NOT be a news flash, but nor do I turn away from work that is great and literarily definitive of its moment. What I loved about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is that it is a big male adventure book that’s wonderfully Melvillian, with more than a nod to James Michener (his Hawaii being a secret pleasure of many of us). As at times the zeitgeist of female fiction tends toward an anorectic, plotless East Coast preciousness (and God bless The New Yorker), the book’s massive success is wonderful news for Girl Writers of the West (never mind that some of us are 50!).

M.G. Lord writes, “Last summer I became atypically excited about new fiction. Two remarkable galleys arrived in my mailbox: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer and May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. Kramer (who is better known for writing “Thirtysomething” and adapting Maupin’s Tales of the City as a miniseries) has written an extraordinarily beautiful novel about a very 21st Century Manhattan family. Each character tells his or her own story, culminating in a tender, climactic exchange between a teenage boy and his father’s male lover. The book made me think of Salinger (except that Kramer’s vision is less dark) and, although it could not be more different in form, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. To ensure that my momentary optimism was tempered with despair, I next read A.M. Homes’ novel, expecting to pick it up for a few hours one Friday morning but being so riveted that I could not put it down until Saturday night. The book may be her bleakest…and her best. Both novels will be published in November.”

Dana Goodyear says, “I read Brenda Shaughnessy’s first book of poems, Interior with Sudden Joy, as a young editorial assistant, living in New York and wanting to write. It was a performance—arresting, stylish, witchy, and stone-cold frank—I couldn’t look away from. Twelve years later, she still has my attention. This summer I wrote to her publisher and asked for an advance copy of Our Andromeda, her third collection, which comes out in the fall. The poems are longer, more narrative, and tack closer to life, but the voice is the same: glinting, dark, tender, unafraid.”

And from Prince Gomolvilas: “Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a devastating portrait of a family forced to confront secrets and lies that most everyone—except for the memoir-writing daughter—wants to sweep under the rug. And David Henry Hwang’s refreshingly funny Chinglish addresses the very contemporary issues of business and transnationalism while wrapping them in classic themes like East vs. West, the perils of language, and the myriad ways in which we all (mis)communicate. What’s more, both plays will be having their Southern California premieres during the 2012-2013 theatre season—Other Desert Cities at the Mark Taper Forum and Chinglish at South Coast Repertory.”

(Hwang and Caro taking the lead…)

Judith Freeman writes: “I read, for the first time this summer, Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West—simply one of the best adventure stories ever told. And who knew that Lewis & Clark even had a dog with them, the remarkable Seaman, a Newfoundland, who made the entire trip, and was to Lewis such an important companion.”

And Bernard Cooper says, “I was under the false impression that Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was as charming as the movie starring Maggie Smith. I didn’t realize it was bleak and devastating, too; Spark foretells the deaths of each of Miss Brodie’s students just as the novel begins, so that the shadow of mortality hangs over every classroom scene and innocent blunder, deepening the story in stunning and unpredictable ways.”

Janet Fitch notes that she reviews everything she likes on Good Reads. “The book that really made it for me over the summer was Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences. Gorky was an keen observer with prodigious recall,” she writes, and then quotes from her review: “Gorky remembers so much that it seems he has looked at the world with eight or more eyes, evenly spaced around his head,” said the critic Viktor Shklovsky. He was largely self-taught, a proletarian writer who read enormously and remembered everything he read. His great, subtle and complex understanding of human beings, is reflected in his essays in this book, especially the ones on Tolstoy and on Chekhov–the best ever written on those two men, as men–and illustrates how their writing was in perfect keeping with their natures. His description of Tolstoy is a thing of beauty, his understanding of the heroic conflicts within the man, the techtonic plates of his inner contradictions that resulted in such great literature… and his portrait of Chekhov makes us love him as Gorky loved him. A treasure.”

She also recommends Brendan Constantine’s new book of poetry. Again, from Good Reads: “Poetry is the art of grabbing a fleeting moment of human truth and pinning it to the page in a perfect phrase, alive, iridescence intact. To compress broad experience into a crystalline memento, to pull the curtain aside on reality taking a shower–just a moment’s glimpse of its beauty and sorrow and perfection. Poem after poem, Brendan Constantine does just that in Calamity Joe.”

From Mark Richard: “Across Atlantic Ice (Authors, Stanford and Bradley)—a fascinating book using archeological studies, DNA testing, and paleoclimatic research suggesting some hardy ancient Solutrean peoples (from what is now Spain-France) came to the Americas 20,000 years ago in large ocean-going canoes under leather sails, possibly the forefathers of Clovis man. And after reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s (yes! yes! a former student!) excellent essay in the New York Times Book Review in June, I re-read Absalom! Absalom! (Faulkner) a book that simultaneously affirms and explodes everything I tell my students in our fiction workshop.”

As for me: I read Penelope Lively’s Passing On, in which she reveals the extraordinary inner lives of apparently ordinary people—examines the choices we make, the ones we don’t, and the courage it takes to live with them either way. And I could not put down Alice Mattison’s When We Argued All Night, an account of a friendship that lasts some 70 years, vivid, and true, and deep, and joyful, and sad. Like life, huh.

And what about you? What did you read last summer, tell us, please do…

30 March
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The Mindful Writer…

I confess: every day I wake up, start the coffee, feed the dog, and log onto Facebook—
where, most mornings, I find Dinty Moore, who posts daily, not about what he ate for dinner, not by way of self-promotion (more often than not he’s promoting somebody else)—and not because he doesn’t have anything else to do (among other things, Dinty directs a writing program at Ohio University, edits Brevity Magazine, and, until very recently, sat on the board of AWP). Even so, there he is with a quote for the day, meant to inspire, delight, amuse, best of all to connect us to each other and back to the work—
and he never repeats himself. Never.

But most of you know something of Dinty, who’s not only one of the most generous writers and teachers around, but among the most versatile, too. The author of The Accidental Buddhist and Between Panic and Desire, he’s written across genre to give us a couple of indispensable books about craft, a novel, and an anthology to boot—

and now, here’s his newest, The Mindful Writer, 59 ‘chapters’ arranged in four parts—

The Writer’s Mind
The Writer’s Desk
The Writer’s Vision
The Writer’s Life—

in which he explores the relationship between mindfulness and writing as each practice informs the other in ways we might not have considered.

A tall order, right? The stuff of volumes, in fact. And yet The Mindful Writer is small enough to fit in your pocket, your bag, your glove compartment, your sock drawer—you never have to be without it: as reference, as balm, as talisman; to refresh, encourage, comfort, and instruct. It’s a trove of treasures from the likes of Thomas Mann, Raymond Carver, Chuck Close, Martha Graham, Hayden Carruth, C. S. Lewis, Charles Baxter, Junot Diaz, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Joan Baez, Ben Yagoda, William Faulkner, and Ursula La Guin, to name only a few.

But why don’t I whet your appetite, hmmm?

Here’s Stephen Dunn: “Your poem effectively begins at the first moment you’ve surprised or startled yourself.” (The Writer’s Mind)

And Allen Ginzburg: “Catch yourself thinking.” (The Writer’s Desk)

A quote from E. M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (The Writer’s Vision)

And from Ezra Bayda: “Your difficulties are not obstacles on the path, they are the path.”

And see, if all we got were the quotes—Dinty having done our homework for us—dayenu, as they say in my tradition: it would have been enough. However: We get Professor Moore as well; accessible, insightful, funny, and true, cheering us on like the teacher and friend he is.

So about Dunn, he writes: “…And don’t despair the false starts: just scratch them out and move forward.”

And he riffs off Ginsburg to say, “That thought is a line of a poem, the beginning of a story, an essay.”

Forster prompts him to remind us: “Only through writing—moving sentences, adding imagery, adjusting syntax—do we arrive at what we really think…and thus, what we really want to say.”

And Bayda’s wisdom provokes him to confide: “Here’s what I tell myself on the days that I am blocked, on the days that I can write nothing, on the days that each new sentence I put down seems even more mundane than the last. I tell myself, “Don’t worry, man, it is just a bad stretch you need to get through, and then you’ll be okay for a while.””

All this, all these gems as delivered and considered by Dinty, some or all of it bound to resonate with some and all of us—writers, artists, citizens of the world—on any given day. And what’s more, to make us feel grateful (I’m quoting the author) for the “challenge” and the “gift.”

As they say in your tradition, Dinty: Namaste.

And thanks goes to you.

07 September
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Wendy Wasserstein, Julie Salamon, and an Uncracked Spine

Because I have a pretty well-trafficked blog, people with something to promote often try to grab my attention–I get invited to movie screenings and plays; I get press releases about anime conventions and human-rights fundraisers; I get sent pairs of underwear to review. (Seriously. No. Seriously.) But because I’m almost always immersed in writing scripts or reading scripts (or compulsively watching past seasons of Hell’s Kitchen), I often turn things down.

So when a publicist offered to send me an advanced copy of Wendy and the Lost Boys, an epic (anything over 100 pages is epic to me) biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, I naturally had to say no. But something in the press release caught my eye: the book was written by journalist Julie Salamon. So I gave the publicist my mailing address and agreed to review the biography.

You see, Julie Salamon wrote one of my favorite books of all time: The Devil’s Candy, a juicy behind-the-scenes expose about the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities, a famously disastrous movie based on the famously successful Tom Wolfe novel. The Devil’s Candy is chock full of insider insight into Hollywood machinations, and serves as an excellent primer for anyone who wants to be a part of the Hollywood establishment. I learned things about how mainstream movies are made that were never even touched upon in my four years in film school. (Perhaps it was one of the reasons I shifted academic paths and pursued an MFA in Playwriting instead?)

The Devil’s Candy is not so much a takedown as it is a cautionary tale and a look at how artists–actors, directors, costume designers, editors, etc.–navigate through vicious terrain simply because they love what they do.

Which brings us to today. The day I’m supposed to post a review of Wendy and the Lost Boys. It’s been a month since I’ve had the book, maybe two…and I haven’t even opened it. It’s not that I don’t want to. I mean, if The Devil’s Candy provides a wealth of knowledge about the film industry, this biography certainly provides invaluable information about theatre, a world that I know and love and would welcome knowing and loving more.

But, obviously, I can’t write a review. All I can do is tell you that I saw a small production of Wasserstein’s An American Daughter many years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’ve used excerpts from that play in my playwriting classes. I can also tell you that Wasserstein wrote the screenplay for the underrated Paul Rudd/Jennifer Aniston comedy/drama The Object of My Affection, based on the gay man/straight woman novel by Stephen McCauley. The film is an astute exploration of modern-day friendships and an excellent showcase for Rudd and Aniston’s more subtle comic acting.

As for Wendy and the Lost Boys, I hope to post a full review soon. And by soon, I mean check back next year. You see, it’s easier to put on a pair of underwear than to read a book.

[Crossposted at Bamboo Nation.]