01 September

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

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…

14 December

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…