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…

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…

24 September
2Comments

Best of the summer…

Violet Mullins

If you’re like me, you’ve got them everywhere, scribbled at the bottom of your grocery list, on the backs of deposit slips and drycleaner receipts, strewn across your desk, in your glove-box, on your bedside table, stuffed into drawers, tacked to the wall, tucked under the pencil jar, and even where they belong!–in that notebook you keep in your backpack for just this reason, just in case somebody mentions a movie, a show, a song, a symphony, a book–a must-see, must-hear, must-read, might-even-change-your-life title you’re planning to get to one of these days…

Herewith, I offer you one of those lists, but conveniently all in one place: Our very own MPW faculty Best of the Summer recommended seeing, hearing, viewing, reading–a survey for you to enjoy at your leisure, and in the order in which they came in, starting with Janet Fitch, who writes:

Best of my summer was reading a truly gorgeous novel, Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand by Gioconda Belli, a retelling of Genesis from Adam and Eve’s point of view. Also a book from the Forties, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead, philosopher and colleague of Bertrand Russell at Cambridge in the late 1890s, was famous for his informal gatherings at Harvard in the thirties. It’s a look at the kind of intellectual life we can only dream about now, where even the neighbors and the doctor’s wife and the daughter in law had educated interesting things to say over dinner, back when people really embraced the life of the mind. We should be more dissatisfied with our contemporary mediocracy. We forget how engaged people were in the lntellectual life, once upon a time. So inspiring. I also discovered the poetry of Jeffrey McDaniel, Ilya Kaminsky, and Patricia Smith, quite a thrill. Looking forward to the exhibitions of Los Angeles art at the Getty this fall. And enjoying the new Los Angeles Review of Books–one new essay every weekday. Great way to start the day. www.lareviewofbooks.org

Madelyn Cain says:
Some books from this summer come quickly to mind: Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, a remarkable, honest look at aging by a very gifted 90 year old writer and Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron about growing up with her talented but troubled father, Bill Styron of Sophie’s Choice fame. These books are especially comforting/enlightening for writers.

On television, the Dick Cavett interview with Mel Brooks was laugh out loud funny. Hopefully you can find it somewhere.

And a reminder that your local library is one of the greatest gifts available that is FREE to all of us. (It’s also a great place to recycle books you’ve read and don’t wish to keep in your personal library.) The Young Reader Classics section is a great place to peruse when nothing strikes your fancy. It a reminder of all the great books out there – many of which I have not still availed myself!

And Amy Gerstler admits: Obsessed, embarrassingly, with the TV Show Justified. The female characters are often disappointing, but the hero is an incredibly charismatic and compelling character. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God slayed me. I listened to Ruby Dee reading it, and found it an incredible book not just about race but about relations between men and women, love, individuality, resilience, the beauties of colloquial speech, stubbornness and vitality, womanhood, etc. New poetry books by Tracy K. Smith, Henri Cole, Noelle Kocot, Anna Moschovakis, Peter Gizzi, Dean Young, Michael Dickman, and Aracelis Girmay are inspiring. Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty is super smart and well written and researched and yet accessible, in the cultural and aesthetic criticism zone.

From Kenny Turan: I took advantage of two weeks spent in Montana to read Stephen Ambrose’s magisterial and compelling Undaunted Courage, the story of Lewis & Clark’s astonishing trip across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase to the shores of the Pacific. It was great fun to read about the trip while actually in territory the expedition crossed. A little more daunting was reading about ferocious bear attacks while hearing from friends about more recent bear encounters of their own.

Bernard Cooper reports: The Clock by video British artist Christian Marclay was recently purchased by The Los Angeles County Museum of art. Twenty-four hours long, the piece is a montage of all kinds of films–Hollywood blockbusters, foreign classics, public service films–that feature a clock or sundial or or wrist watch, thereby keeping track, minute-by-minute, of the actual time during which the video is played. The museum will occasionally screen the video over a twenty-four hour period, leaving the gallery open to the public. What’s hard to convey is how poetic and surprising the editing is, switching from color to black and white, changing characters and moods and narratives. A man is hung at high noon in a technicolor Western, and the next minute an English schoolboy is playing hopscotch while a clock tower in the distance shows 12:01. Lovely collisions of meaning while time tics away.

And Prince Gomolvilas announces: My favorite film of the summer (still in limited release) was Attack the Block, a spirited sci-fi/horror/comedy flick about an alien invasion smack dab in the middle of a London housing project.

From Judith Freeman: It’s been a summer of jazz & noir for me—listening to Charlie Parker (the early Dial Recordings) and Billie Holliday, Horace Silver, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, all part of research for a new book I’m writing on jazz and noir. I discovered Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 thriller, In A Lonely Place, and watched the film adaptation with Humphrey Bogart. I reread Nathanael West’s novel, Day of the Locust (1939)—still one of L.A.’s great novels—and read Jay Martin’s biography, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life. One of my favorite reads of the summer was David Kastin’s biography of the woman known as “The Jazz Baroness,” Nica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, called Nica’s Dream, just out from W. W. Norton, the story of the English heiress who was wild about jazz and befriended jazz musicians in the 40s and 50s, moved to New York, and became their patron. What strikes me about this music, and these books, is the deep passionate engagement, both among those who made the music, and those who loved it: as Charlie Parker said, If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.

And Julie Hebert writes: A non-fiction book I read this summer moved me tremendously– The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a biography of cancer from its very first mention in ancient manuscripts until now. Rather shocking information, profound insights… and in the end unexpected hopefulness about this most human condition. If you can bear not to turn away from the subject, the rewards of this book are great.

Also, at a garage sale, I picked up a collection of short stories that has floored me. Something that has never happened to me before… after reading the opening story by Michael Chabon, I closed the book… and all I wanted to do was read it again. Instantly. I wanted the experience of reading it again for the first time. Not possible, of course, but– a perfectly written story. I admired Chabon before, but at that moment I fell to my knees in front of him. Metaphorically. What actually happened was I tried to get my husband to read it, he wasn’t interested… until he suggested he read it aloud to me while I was in the bath. Well, alright, that worked out. “Along the Frontage Road.”  From Best American Short Stories, 2002, collected by Sue Miller, edited by Katrina Kenison.

From Howard Ho: I’ve returned time and time again to the documentaries of Adam Curtis. Produced for the BBC, his pieces usually take a relatively modern subject (e.g. the war on terror, public relations, corporate raiders) and finds the intellectual and political underpinnings which produced them. The New York Times describes his work as the “task of unearthing a secret history of the 20th century.” Airing earlier this year, his most recent piece is called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a three-part look into the 21st century’s big idea, namely the computer network and how it unintentionally informs our lives. He populates this sprawling and often irreverent narrative with Ayn Rand, Dian Fossey, Monica Lewinsky, Buckminster Fuller, and Sigmund Freud among others. Bringing rather stark ideas to life, Curtis consistently entertains and engages with playful editing, inspired musical scoring, and his own voice as narrator. His films are not so much polemics as they are the collected insights of a curious mind.

Dana Goodyear’s contribution: I read Room, by Emma Donoghue, in one long, tense sitting. It’s a book predicated on a terrible crime—a Jaycee Dugard-like abduction and imprisonment—that becomes a meditation on parenthood, the imagination, and how fiction remakes the world.

And a highlight from Rita Williams: Watching an interview with Tony Hopkins. When his agent gave him the silence of the lambs, he’d given up on Hollywood and gone back to London.

He has a ritual to keep himself sharp. He learns a poem a week. And when he’s working on a part, he reads it aloud 250 times. Because “its all there in the text. You just have to find it. You don’t need anything else.”

An assortment of things from Tim Kirkman, who says: Vera Farmiga’s directing debut, Higher Ground, was the most satisfying and inspiring film I’ve seen in years. The story of an evangelical Christian living in upstate New York in the early 1970s, Higher Ground tackles the tricky subject of religious faith with a fresh eye. There’s not a false or judgmental note behind or in front of the camera.

Richard Nelson’s play Sweet and Sad is a nearly two-hour narrative played out in real time on stage at the Public Theater in New York (it closes in two weeks, so run don’t walk to see it). Set on September 11, 2011, Sweet and Sad reunites siblings with their uncle and a sister’s lover in Rhinebeck, New York, on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. It’s a voyeuristic, painful, moving and, at times, hilarious story about many things: the ever-shifting roles we take on (or are assigned) by our families; how we each choose to grieve; how we remember and what we choose to remember; and the greater family of humanity and the necessity of connection. This was part two in a four-part series of plays by Nelson that will include the same characters in each. Maryann Plunkett’s performance is forever burned into my memory.

Betrayal by Harold Pinter, is more dazzling to me now than ever. The nonlinear structure that once seemed so simple now feels startlingly complex. Pinter’s ability to say so much with so little inspires me to sit down in front of my laptop and work.

Calvin Trillin’s piece in The New Yorker about the freedom riders of the Civil Rights Movement has stayed with me all summer. I want my nieces and nephews to read it, then go see The Help, then come home and watch Spike Lee’s documentary called Four Little Girls and send them all home with Nina Simone CDs.

I finally watched (and greatly admire) the gritty realism of The Wire, and though I remain perhaps the all-time biggest fan of The West Wing, until further notice my heart belongs to Friday Night Lights, which finally ended its five-season run. As a southerner, it’s refreshing to watch a series that can boast character authenticity that matches the (perfect) accents. Much has been written about FNL, but I’ve rarely been moved by television the way that this series moves me (four words: Tyra, you surprise me!) “Clear eyes, full hearts.” Indeed.

And riches from Mark Richard: Here goes, for books – When All the World is Old - new poems by John Rybicki. I read a galley this summer when asked for a blurb. Rybicki’s wife, also a poet, succumbed to cancer after 15 years of fighting, and this book is a celebration of her life, their life. What the heck, here’s the blurb – “If you have ever loved, read this holy book. If you have ever grieved, read this holy book. As an angel traveling between the here-now and the hereafter, John Rybicki is blessed with the sacred knowledge of how immediate we must be against the avalanche of time. As a man, he is blessed with having loved so much and known so much love, and with having found the language to marvel at his terrible good fortune.” Then there’s Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, suggested to me by the excellent members of our MPW summer writing workshop. The book reminded me at times of a 2011 Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings, was on one of my sons’ summer reading lists, I thought I knew it, I didn’t, or don’t remember. Got choked up several times; father and son watching the miraculous dance of the whooping cranes from the sawgrass and its intoxicating aftermath; the unexpected happenings with the Forrester neighbors after the father is struck by a giant rattlesnake, and of course, the story of Jody and of Flag. An amazing book misclassified as a children’s book, won the Pulitzer in 1938. For films, took the boys to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the doc about the 35,000 year-old cave paintings in Chauvet, France. Torchlight sets the images of the prehistoric beasts in motion, the first cinema. Old movies revisited – The Wild Bunch, the director’s (Sam Peckinpah) cut. Starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, (and a great Ernest Borgnine!), an 80-day shoot in Mexico after which Peckinpah had a nervous breakdown. A real Western bromance preceding Butch and Brokeback bookended with amazing gunbattles including 300 extras from the real Mexican army, watch the documentary at the end. Then there’s Peir Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a “cine-verite” documentary of the life of Christ set in Calabria, Italy, with Jesus as an Italian peasant. Remarkable. For music, there’s the latest Bootsy Collins- Funk Capital of the World, fresh and off the chain, that Bootsy, the original Funkateer (started out as bass player for James Brown). Still listening to Just Roll Tape, the wonderful, raw, and 40+ years late release of then 23-year-old Stephen Stills’ demo tape cut after a session with Judy Collins with whom he was in love (“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”), great to listen to just an artist and his guitar working out his works-in-progress, songs that would span decades of later albums, and we see it was Stills the genius of CS&N early on. Other stuff I’ve forgotten or haven’t finished, including T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star, the 800-page definitive history of Texas, (the memorable weeping Caddo Indians who crossed the Gulf of Mexico in canoes from present day Venezuela, a fierce mound-building culture briefly flourishing in the Mississippi River Valley, even the Comaches were terrified of these cannibals who carried captured children strung on their backs as road food)…

Cort Brinkerhoff reflects:

Some plays I read over the summer that are still on my mind:

The Aliens by Annie Baker
A surprisingly insightful and touching look at the lives of three young men who frequent a coffee house in Vermont. I think Annie is my new favorite writer. Her work is intimate and penetrating. I will instantly remember this play every time someone says the word ladder — also check out Circle Mirror Transformation.

The Metal Children by Adam Rapp
A mediocre novelist travels to Iowa to defend a book he wrote a dozen years ago about teenage pregnancy and abortion. The novel was banned by the school board and some of the local girls are stepping up to defend the novel with questionable tactics. Rapp is an astute writer with something to say.

Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph
A young boy and a young girl keep having chance meetings in hospitals and sick rooms and develop an odd relationship that runs the course of three decades. This is a unique play that doesn’t completely pay off in the end, but Joseph is an inventive writer — also see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

Church by Young Jean Lee
A Christian sermon, the likes of which you’ve never heard before. This is meta-theatre and performance art smashed together in to one entertaining ride. While this was engaging on the page, I really yearned to see it live.

Natalie Inouye says: I’m a couple years behind but the 2009 movie, Un Prophète, blew me away. It was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes andis streaming on Netflix. I saw it many months ago and am still thinkingabout it. I won’t be able to do it justice, so here’s a trailer…http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2107900953

And did you know that there are scientists who study happiness? If I asked you on a scale of 1 – 10 how happy you are, I bet you’d be able to give me an answer pretty quick. And no one would be able to argue with your answer. It turns out that America is not among the happiest of places, but it’s also not at the bottom of the list. What makes one nation’s people happier than another? Or what makes one person happier than another person? In his book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner, a veteran correspondent for NPR, traveled the world in search of the happiest places. Weiner visits a few of them, including Thailand, Iceland, Bhutan, and Switzerland, and interviews many people in each place, always asking them how happy they are on a scale of 1 – 10. I loved getting a glimpse into different perspectives on, and paths to,
happiness, as well as learning about what people have in common when it comes to making us happy. A clue: One of the main requirements for happiness is not having a lot of money, but instead trusting the people in our lives, including our neighbors.

Nan Cohen offers: This was my ninth summer as Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, in preparation for which I read or reread collections by conference faculty: USC professor David St. John’s The Face: A Novella in Verse (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060593674-1), Major Jackson’s Holding Company (http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780393070804-1), recent MPW visitor D.A. Powell’s Chronic (http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9781555975166-5). And shortly I’ll be reading Jane Hirshfield’s just-released new collection, Come, Thief (http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780307595423-1), which includes, of course, poems we heard at her Napa reading.

Summer brings more time for reading novels, and among others I revisited an old favorite, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060931414-40), which seems different and better to me every time I read it. I’m currently reading Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060854089-1). Another nonfiction work I enjoyed was Making Babies (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/aug/01/booksonhealth.features), by Irish writer Anne Enright, who visits the ALOUD series at Central Library next month.

I also wrote a post on my own blog (http://nancohen.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/learning-from-masterchef/) about my family’s attachment to the summer TV show MasterChef. I loved following its “home cooks” as they moved from being accomplished amateurs to committed practitioners. I’ve seen that process as a writer and as a teacher of writers, but I’ve never seen it unfold in the kitchen!

And from MG Lord: Last summer I discovered the poignant side of Futurama.  Yes, Futurama, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s brilliantly comic imagining of the thirtieth century, which also has a heart.

To tell this story I must include a spoiler. The episode titled “Jurrasic Bark” left me in tears.  It deals with the dog that Philip J. Fry, the series’ central character, adopted in the 20th century, before he was transported into the future.  Fry loves his dog, and tries to use futuristic technology to resuscitate him.  But when Fry learns that his beloved canine had lived for years after his disappearance, Fry decides not to.  Then we–the audience–see how the dog, in fact, survived: not loyal to another owner, but year in, year out–watching seasons change, growing old–waiting for Fry’s return.   I went through a box of Kleenex.

And to avoid spoilers, I will simply say that the “The Luck of the Fryrish,” “Leela’s Homeworld,” and “Teenage Mutant Leela Hurdles”are equally moving, as is “Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch,” a genius meditation on growing up and accepting responsibility.

I realized that no matter how 2-D animated characters may initially seem, great writing can transform them into 3-D, without allthe muss and idiocy of those special glasses.

Brighde Mullins’ “favorites” include: Matthew Zapruder’s book of poems Come On All You Ghosts in which he writes about global warming and his favorite word (pocket) and reminds me that poetry is where it’s at in terms of the inner/outer life and the necessity of articulation.

Anne Enright’s novels and short stories: What Are You Like, Taking Pictures, The Gathering, and her latest, The Forgotten Waltz. Reading her is like reading a fairy tale that has the bone structure of psychological realism. Her characters include ghosts, prostitutes, adulterers, strange children. Her odd lyricism blows my mind.

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others in which she re-assesses her former stance on how images of horror can inure us. She is brave, brave, brave, and one holy hell of a writer.

Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a young adult post apocalyptic epic that I read in two days, and it’s 800 pp. long.

Plays: War Horse at Lincoln Center– the sheer amount of spectacle was disturbing in an impressive way. Reminded me of a saying “down to the puritan marrow of my bones there is something in all this richness that I hate.” My favorite theatre piece was John Fleck’s low-budget high-energy solo about his obsession with Judy Garland, Mad Woman, that played in a tiny theatre in Los Feliz.

What he said, what she said, what she said, what he said–on top of which, I recommend Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia on stage and on the page; and Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, in which she, too (like Stoppard, I mean), is consumed with time, and memory, and imagination; also Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which holds up beautifully as a meditation about marriage and friendship. And, at the movies, I loved Beginners–a gem of a film, and a perfect slice of memoir (fictional or not)–which features Christopher Plummer at his very best.

Last thought–if you haven’t yet found your way to the Hollywood Bowl, haven’t seen Gustavo Dudamel in action, treat yourself soon, please do… And that’s all for now. Whew.

14 February
8Comments

The word about workshop…

As promised, USC Master of Professional Writing Program faculty weigh in on workshop: What’s the point? What makes for a good one? How to get the most bang for your buck as a reader and a writer?

Madelyn Cain says: Workshopping allows you to find out what’s working, what needs retooling and to ask direct questions about your work i.e. “Did you understand what I meant by _______? Should I say more about _________?”

It is each writer’s responsibility to offer insights into what they read, to neither remain silent nor to offer bland approval. We are here to excite the writer’s imagination with new ideas as well as support the writer on his or her creative journey. Offering our reactions to work can be a stimulating and creative experience for both the critic and the writer.

From Tim Kirkman: I love the workshop format. One of the most helpful exercises I use is on Day One. It has no direct connection to the project the student brings in to “workshop.” This written exercise begins in class with a directive for students to describe their bedroom at age thirteen — colors, furniture, objects, doors, windows, what’s outside the window, ceiling, temperature, odors, quality of light. The next step is to put their thirteen-year-old selves in the room and I ask the question: what do you look like? They write. I prompt: hair color, height, weight, clothing.

Then I ask them to describe what they’re DOING in the room. Action words. Describe what they see. Then I say, “Someone comes to the door. Who is it?” Write. Describe his or her physical characteristics. Finally, I ask, “What does this person want?”
Assignment for next week. Write a two-page scene between these two people.
The results are often wonderful, sometimes breathtaking. The places feel lived in, authentic, whole. The people are dimensional, quirky, surprising.

This exercise accomplishes two things very quickly. (1) It helps the participants get to know each other – indirectly – but in a way that demands a level of vulnerability that is shared; and (2) it illustrates how their own memories and experiences can be useful when they need to invent scenes or situations or even characters that bend toward cliché or stereotype.

Syd Field writes: So, the first thing I do is make an agreement with everyone in the workshop that this is a “safe” place. They can give their observations and critique on the material as long as it’s not personal.

Two: Only say something when you have something to say.

And third, we make an agreement to “protect everybody’s material.” Meaning, anything said by the participant is “sacred.” We don’t talk about ideas, personalities, other’s experience, etc, outside the classroom.

Whatever I say is fair game – they can repeat it, comment upon it, criticize it, whatever, anywhere and to anyone. But the ideas are safe, not to be repeated outside the classroom. And everybody has to make that agreement.
It keeps a complex thing, simple.

Bernard Cooper sent in the following:
From “Workshop” by Billy Collins:
” . . . I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none”

And Prince Gomolvilas says: Since philosophies around teaching creative writing vary and since teaching styles are highly individual, all workshop leaders have different approaches to framing discussions and handling feedback around students’ creative work. Therefore, workshop participants should not try to impose their own feedback methods upon the class–but, rather, they should always follow the workshop leader’s cues and adjust their feedback accordingly.

Advice from Rita Williams: One thing you should do in workshop: Respect the confidentiality of the space. In other words don’t tell the folks back in Iowa about the great script you read in workshop about . . .

Another suggestion: read closely for specificity. It’s not a bird in a tree, but a mother blue jay protecting the oak nest where she was hatched, by pecking the blade of the approaching bulldozer.

And thoughts from M.G. Lord: Twenty years ago, nonfiction writers didn’t need workshops; they had editors–professional fussbudgets who excised grammatical errors, superfluous words, and incoherent passages from stories before publication. In today’s blogosphere, however, editors are pointedly absent. Writers must themselves remove blather from their writing. Workshops help writers gain the skills to do this. Traditionally, editors berated and embarrassed writers who fell short of their goals. In a workshop, fellow writers can identify weaknesses in a story, often without reducing its writer to suicidal mush. Yet such civility is not always beneficial. In my experience, being reduced to mush provided a strong incentive not to repeat mistakes. In workshop classes, I like to coordinate writing exercises with reading assignments. For example, in my travel-writing class, we recently read Alain de Botton’s essay “On Anticipation,” then wrote an exercise that tackled Botton’s subject—the disparity between what we expect a destination to be and what it actually is. We discovered a pattern that I find true in most areas of life: if you expect something to be utterly terrible, you will likely meet with a pleasant surprise when it is merely disagreeable.

Janet Fitch writes: The secret of getting the most out of workshops:
In any workshop of ten people, there will be:
>>two who hate your work whatever you do.
When they critique your work, don’t argue or defend, just close the mental curtains. No matter how you twist and turn the work to please them, they’ll still hate it. They don’t get you, so save yourself the effort.
>>five who are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
Listen carefully and if something seems true, take that on, but don’t take in everything. They’re wrong as often as they are right. Trust your intuition on a case-by-case basis.
>> three who get what you do.
These three understand not only what you’re doing now, but where you’re trying to go. They like your work, and they see how you can make it more what it should be. Hang onto these people. They will save your life.

Best exercise:
The Word: Take a word—short simple, preferably a word that can be a noun or a verb (chair, light, root)—and write two pages, double-spaced, a story inspired by that word. Use the word at least once. (Examples in my blog.)

David Ulin’s counsel: The only thing I would say is that the primary lesson of the workshop (or one of them) is knowing how or what criticism to disregard as well as what to listen to. i take it on faith that everyone is commenting in a workshop with the best intentions, but still, one of the key things a writer needs to learn is when to go his or her own way. In that sense, critiques that are well-meant but not quite apropos can be very useful in terms of toughening up a writer and teaching him or her when it’s okay to follow personal vision, even if it goes against the grain.

And from program director, Brighde Mullins: I have a metaphor from my other life as a swimmer. The writing workshop is where the writer-as-swimmer surfaces, comes up for air, gets the necessary oxygen to go back underwater where the writing happens—in solitude. After a long underwater swim, when you put your head up above the surface you don’t want a hand on your head dunking you back under. If the workshop cannot constructively help the writer at least it should do no harm (see the tenets of Buddhism). The workshop is a setting, a mise en scene– for a group mind to apprehend a text in progress—and this is a useful experience– to have your work read, discussed. I don’t think of a workshop as a place for “criticism” per se—criticism is what happens when a text is finished, when it is published or produced—not when it’s in progress. The workshop is composed of other writers, who are an ideal audience of passionate, sympathetic readers. The act of reading the text and responding to it should increase the possibilities of the text—not reduce them. Yeats writes that “Everything that is merely personal soon rots—unless it is packed in ice or salt.” The ice and the salt are elements of craft, of technique—the images, the cadences, the shape. These are all up for contemplation and discussion in a workshop.

Workshop Exercise: When I teach playwriting I ask my students to write about their first theatre experience—whether as an actor or as a member of the audience. These are usually childhood memories, often they are Christmas pageants or community theatre fiascos– and I ask them to go back and describe every aspect that they can conjure—through writing through their senses they go back to the place that was the origin of their desire to write for the stage. They often describe a sensation/obsession that they still write toward. I’ll isolate aspects of their memories to use as scene ideas.

Nan Cohen adds: One of the functions of workshops is to help you find the people who will be your best readers–best in the sense of most demanding and most challenging, as well as most supportive. One of your best readers may be someone who pats your back, but others may be people who are very skeptical and very hard to impress. Both kinds are valuable.

As for me, what he said, what she said, what he said, what she said… And a note to writers: We’re inclined to defend our work—to say, I meant to do this and I meant to do that. But at the expense of losing the reader? Probably not. We readers, meanwhile, should try to remember: We’re not supposed to fix the work, but rather to say what’s there; where we’re engaged, and where we bump or snag, if we do. Worth reminding ourselves before we weigh in: This is not about me (how I’d write this story)—and so to consider: Has this writer done what she set out to do?

Another thought: With nonfiction it’s important to remember we’re talking about the prose —not the conduct or judgment or values of the writer. Along those lines, keep in mind this advice from Vladimir Nabokov: “To be quite objective in these matters is of course impossible. Everything that is worthwhile is to some extent subjective… But… the reader must know when and where to curb his imagination and this he does by trying to get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal. We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people.” Check out his primer of an essay, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” available online.

14 December
4Comments

Making a List, Posting It Once…

Here’s a beaut of a quote from Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel acceptance speech, delivered in Sweden just last week:

Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute — the foundation of the human condition — and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.

With that in mind, and because you asked, we put out the call to the Master of Professional Writing faculty and staff so as to compile a list of recommended titles to get you through the holidays…. Here they are, in the order that came in:

From Gina Nahai: “My two suggestions are The White Tiger, a novel by Aravind Adiga, winner of the Booker Prize, because it combines great story-telling, mystery writing, and sociology and This Lovely Life, a memoir by Vicki Forman, because it tackles a heartbreaking story with unusual subtlety and a total lack of self-pity.”

Kenny Turan, on Gina’s heels with the following: “I have just started Charles Portis’ True Grit (because the film is coming out) and am finding it completely delightful. Just finished a polished and very moving work of popular history, The Great Silence by Juliet Nicholson, a look at Britain during the first two years after the end of World War I.”

Bernard Cooper recommends: “Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer–a hilarious, energetic, eccentric rant on not being able to write a book about D. H. Lawrence. And Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. A novel composed of the most graceful sentences committed to paper, and a story about the inexhaustible beauty and terror of the natural world and its effect on one unforgettable woman.”

Madelyn Cain wrote, “Let’s start with Dickens, especially at this time of the year – which is when I read him – so rich and worthwhile.” She adds, “I am a huge fan of Pearl Buck and Jumpha Lahiri who take us places we wouldn’t know about but for them. These women were born in different eras and on different continents and we grow from their shared talents. Not to mention Khalad Assad’s The Kite Runner…”

Sid Stebel calls Deliverance by James Dickey – “an incredibly suspenseful thriller by one of America’s great poets,” in which “every line in the book follows Aristotle’s dictum that ‘every line must do one of three things – define character, create atmosphere, or advance the story.’ Dickey’s lines frequently do all three – see the very opening page description of a map, as an example of how otherwise inanimate objects set the tone of foreboding and predict the future.”

From Barbara Pawley: “I have just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I found it profound, repulsive, funny, and an uncomfortable visit to my youth. I was finally able to put my own chaotic life story into a historical context — and give myself a break. All this time I thought it was just me. More importantly, I can see how those times set us all up for the present. I recommend it for students still trying to figure out their parents.”

David Ulin’s picks: “Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. The gold standard when it comes to contemporary nonfiction, a stirring example of a writer explicating a world view. And, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Fiction meets myth meets memoir, and the distinctions between genres are fundamentally eclipsed.”

Sandra Tsing Loh says, “I’m revisiting…New York Stories (a couple of decades of the writing of New York magazine)… and The New Journalism (ed. Tom Wolfe, rather too macho for my tastes so far); just re-read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn which was amazingly readable and fun and good.”

Tim Kirkman, typing with his thumb, says he is reading Composed (memoir) by Rosanne Cash, Miss American Pie by Margaret Sartor, and On Agate Hill by Lee Smith.

Rita Williams, meanwhile, is in the middle of The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky by Ellen Meloy and Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx.

Aram Saroyon writes, “I’m enjoying The Company She Kept, a literary biography of Mary McCarthy by Doris Grumbach, a wonderful writer herself. The theme is how McCarthy’s life and writing overlap and was published in 1967 when McCarthy was alive.”

From Dana Goodyear: “I recently read Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’s account of one family’s experience during Hurricane Katrina. It’s wonderfully matter-of-fact and shows how moving and dramatic straightforward nonfiction can be. Eggers is also an interesting model, a journalist-activist-entrepreneur: the notes to the book explain that he came across the story of the Zeitoun family among the oral histories of storm- survivors gathered by Voices of Witness, a team of roving reporters he employs to respond to human-rights crises.”

And from MG Lord: “I revisited Virginia Woolf’s wonderfully scathing Three Guineas this year. Woolf deflates the most puffed-up of patriarchal institutions through ridicule; the book is both cathartic and deeply pleasurable. I’m also enjoying From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Caltech physicist Sean Carroll.”

Judith Freeman’s top two: “Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett–stories and a novella that incorporate scientific and historical themes in beautifully rendered tales, exquisite examples of how one can draw inspiration from actual people and events to create truly stunning fiction.” Also, “So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, an almost perfect little novel in which Maxwell draws from his own life, using a powerful remembered event from his childhood, transformed by imagination, as the basis for creating a deeply moving story. I admire both these works for the richness and yet rather direct simplicity of the prose.”

Danzy Senna’s additions: “A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh – published in 1934, a darkly funny and disturbing study of the British upper crust, or as Waugh put it, the ‘…savages at home…’ A Tragic Honesty: the Life and Work of Richard Yates by Blake Bailey–a smart and engrossing literary biography of one of the best fiction writers of the last century. Read about Yates’ huge successes and his terrible, crippling sense of failure. It’s of course weirdly comforting, as well, to read about a writer as phenomenal as Yates being rejected over and over again by the New Yorker.”

From Nan Cohen: “Two poetry anthologies that serve the poet and the new reader of poetry equally well, both edited by J.D. McClatchy, are the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry and the Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry. Compact but rich headnotes about the poets complement a thoughtful selection of poems. These are books to get you started on some serious reading of contemporary poetry. And for a taste of what’s happening right now, check out the new Best American Poetry 2010, edited by our own Amy Gerstler.”

Nan also sent a link to a list of Southern California independent presses and bookstores. And she added: “At our last MPW reading at Skylight Books, I bought books for Chanukah presents, including Jill and Daniel Pinkwater’s multilingual (English, Spanish, and Yiddish) Beautiful Yetta: The Yiddish Chicken. Another Pinkwater classic was a favorite of my daughter’s when she was little: Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears. It’s about two blueberry-muffin-loving polar bears who keep sneaking into the little northern town of Yellowtooth during its annual Blueberry Muffin Festival.

Amy Gerstler recommends: “Poems New and Collected by Wislawa Szymborska. “What a mind and heart this Nobel winning Polish poet has. Her poems are accessible, intellectually inventive, witty, luminous.” And, “The Pesthouse or Being Dead by Jim Crase (these are 2 different books, not one with a subtitle). This British novelist’s dark dark work is a wonder and he deserves to be wildly famous. His prose is intense, poetic, apocalyptic, detailed, and ultimately humane. Every sentence rings.”

From Brighde Mullins!: “Reading Lolitia in Tehran, which I was given a few weeks ago by my sister after she met the author, Azar Nafisi. I had just finshed David Ulin’s meditation, The Lost Art of Reading, and so I was in prime mode for Nafisi’s book. The subtitle of Nafisi’s work is ‘A Memoir in Books’ — it takes the reader through a journey that is at once pedagogical and somatic, and includes close readings of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen. The conditions under which these authors are experienced are extraordinary– the oppressive regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran– and the readers are a group of young women who live behind the veil.

“The book is worth reading and experiencing slowly, and the companion books are worth re-visiting, because the reader is seeing these works through new eyes. Nafisi writes: ‘Those of us living in the Islamic Republic of Iran grasped both the tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty to which we were subjected. We had to poke fun at our own misery in order to survive….This was one reason that art and literature became so essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity.’ (p. 23)

“The reading group that Nafisi forms is shaped within a context, as all readers and classes are shaped. This is also a great resource for teachers of writing and literature. Of an early class in her teaching trajectory, Nafisi writes: ‘The class went all right, and the ones after it became easier. I was enthusiastic, naive and idealistic, and I was in love with my books.’ Any beginning teacher will recognize this sensation.

“Nafaisi also zeroes in on the essences of the books, the narrative strategies, the craft of the writing. She has lived with the characters, she has lived with the dialogue. She quotes the long passage about failure that occurs in James’s he The Ambassadors: ‘Thank goodness you’re a failure–it’s why I so distinguish you!’ All teachers of writing, all artists understand the necessity of the risk of failure….

“I’ll quote one more passage from the book: ‘A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexity of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil…’ (p. 133) A great meditation on writing does the same, and this book is surely one.

“I have also just finished Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro– sublime, labyrinthine, complex. This is a book of short stories by a writer whose economy of expression is matched by her maximalist capacities.

“The third book that I’ll recommend is a book that could only be a BOOK– it is Nox by Anne Carson, which is published by Grove and comes in a box. It is not a book that can be kindled. It possesses the inherent object-ness of a book qua book– it’s an elegy for Carson’s brother and the experience of reading the book is connected to holding it as a totem.

Prince Gomolvilas suggests Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire: “What better way to deal with the year’s most depressing season,” he writes, “than by reading this sharply written, delicately handled, and unexpectedly funny play about a most-depressing subject–the death of a child. Read this 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner–which manages to be smartly unsentimental yet emotionally wrenching–before the Nicole Kidman/Aaron Eckhart/John Cameron Mitchell movie comes out–’cuz who knows how well it will translate.”

Mark Richard says, “I’m in Samoa with Captain Joshua Slocum (Sailing Alone Around the World), the first person to sail alone around the world in 1895. We’ve just spent 79 days at sea crossing the Pacific after being blown back twice through the Straights of Magellan. Behind this book is Geoffrey Wolff’s superb biography of Capt. Slocum, The Hard Way Around. Also on the bedside table are books by two late-greats, Long, Lost, Happy by recently-departed hero and lost national treasure Barry Hannah, and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano including the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness,” though those unfamiliar with this genius’s work may do well to begin with the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth.”

And from Janet Fitch, two recommendations: The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer–the double suicide of an artist and a critic’s wife, told from the critic’s point of view as he struggles to understand what led up to this mysterious fatal act, runs parallel to an historical story about the artist’s grandfather, a ketubah (marriage contract) artist, and the life of assimilated and unassimilated Jews in interwar Vienna, leading into the Holocaust, and how the two stories interrelate and eventually, become one.  Winer’s prose is a great example of how fine fiction is both sensual and unafraid to move to the big ideas; and By Nightfall, the new Michael Cunningham–two days in the life of a New York gallery owner–successful, married, middle-aged–who is struck by lightning in the form of an unexpected love. Cunningham’s writing is as always, exact and subtle and exquisite, and I love the interiority of this work. He presents an especially good illustration of how good dialogue contrasts what is thought and what is said.

Finally, Natalie Inouye “loved Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee and Carrie Fisher’s The Best Awful and Wishful Drinking. I’ve also been really liking the Dragon Tattoo series.

And Howard Ho is reading Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, which he says is “…pretty essential for anyone interested in the purpose of drama.”

As for me, I recommend you dive into Evan S. Connell’s astounding Mrs. Bridge first chance you get — or Pirandello’s disturbing play within a play, Six Characters in Search of An Author, or Mrs. Dalloway, which recently buckled my knees again. And waiting for me on my night table? James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, But Beautiful (A Book About Jazz) by self-proclaimed gate-crasher Geoff Dyer, and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, which won this year’s Man Booker prize.

So. Go ahead. Read a little. Live a lot. And happy days to all…