Scott Gummer: Parents Behaving Badly

July 31, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1451609172 – Simon & Schuster Touchstone – hardcover – $23.00 (ebook versions available)

Scott Gummer’s Parents Behaving Badly appealed to me right away – a novel about Little League, what more fun could you want?  Baseball is one of my greatest passions and having been a Little League parent and coach, I was looking forward to reading a novel set in this rich environment that so full of potential for conflict and frustration, as well as great joy.

In any kid sports environment, you have parents’ overwrought desires and expectations, the fraught interactions of coaches and parents, and the difference in outlook between any given 10 year old and any parent is especially fertile ground.  And don’t forget the potential for unexpected romance among the suburban parental set.

Reading Parents Behaving Badly, which is, by the way, laugh out loud funny, did not disappoint in any way.   Gummer is funny and extremely perceptive, and what really makes the novel work is that he tells a good story, writes believable characters, explores their inner lives, and keeps us guessing about what will happen next.

And there’s more here than Little League, fun and sometimes as painful as that particular piece of Americana can be.  His main character is back in the hometown he grew up in, along with his wife, and they’ve been married long enough for them to know each other all too well.  Gummer is very sharp in his depiction of the mid-life married life of modern American suburban couples, especially the challenges they face as their lives become focused on their children at the risk of losing sight of themselves and their relationships.  He uses Little League, small town life, pop culture and thwarted desires as fodder for a wonderful story that ultimately ends better than one might have imagined.

Tom Perrotta gave a great blurb to author Gummer for this book: “Parents Behaving Badly isn’t just a sharp satire about Little League madness; it’s also a shrewd and sympathetic portrait of a mid-life marriage. Scott Gummer writes with equal insight about wayward spouses and conniving coaches.”  Perrotta is among my favorites of contemporary novelists, and I’m happy to say that if you like his work, you will love Parents Behaving Badly, which while in no way derivative, is certainly in the same vein as Perrotta’s novels.

Scott gives a great interview, doubtless because of his years of experience as a working journalist.  He knows how to talk about his work and to present his story vividly without giving too much away.  I recommend his website as well.  He’s also written a couple of very interesting nonfiction books about golf (this is his first published novel).

Nick Mamatas: Sensation

July 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1604863543 – PM Press – paperback – $14.95 (e-book editions available)

“When Julia Hernandez leaves her husband, shoots a real estate developer, and then vanishes without a trace, she slips out of the world she knew and into the Simulacrum—a place where human history is both guided and thwarted by the conflict between a species of anarchist wasps and a collective of hyperintelligent spiders. When Julia’s ex-husband Raymond spots her in a grocery store he doesn’t usually patronize, he’s soon drawn into an underworld of radical political gestures where Julia is the new media sensation of both this world and the Simulacrum.”

Nick Mamatas is an incredibly inventive writer.  Sensation combines comedy, inter-species communication, fantastic imagination, social and political critique into a fast moving, tightly plotted and very unusual storyline.  By combining a science fiction bent with a hyper-real portrayal of modern digitally connected culture, Mamatas is able to play with all the elements of modern everyday life, so we see things differently, perhaps even more clearly.

In some ways like The Matrix, there is an invisible world around and behind our own.  Fittingly, in Sensation, that world is essentially woven by a species of spiders that has created an very special relationship with the human world, one that is far from predictable and complicated in its own right.  These spiders care about humans, protect them, and use them for their own purposes in an ongoing war with a parasitic species of wasps.  On this unlikely and unusual premise, Mamatas has built a fantastic story.

I enjoyed reading this book on a number of levels, not the least of which for the author’s simultaneously dark, comedic and critical approach to our modern digital, paranoid, corporatized and controlled society.  I do like it when a novelist can successfully include political critique in a work of fiction.  Mamatas is an accomplished writer with a dystopian outlook I enjoy.  And similarly I enjoyed our conversation about this book and the author’s approach to writing.  I think you will appreciate his approach to talking about his work.

“Nick Mamatas continues his reign as the sharpest, funniest, most insightful and political purveyor of post-pulp pleasures going. He is the People’s Commissar of Awesome.” — China Mieville, award-winning author of Kraken and The City and the City

Nick’s website is well worth a visit as well as his online journal (Nihilistic Kid).


Caroline Leavitt: Pictures of You

June 22, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1565126312 – Algonquin Books – $13.95 – paperback original (ebook versions also available)

I’ve become a big fan of Caroline Leavitt’s work – I read Girls in Trouble last year and interviewed this very entertaining and engaging author about that book for WritersCast in 2010 (listen to that interview here).

Pictures of You starts with a car crash, and some of the unanswered questions about how and why it happened, inexorably and permanently linking the lives of two families.  These complicated relationships are at the core of the novel.  There are many threads to unravel in this story, and it was for me a completely compelling book to read.  The two women involved in the crash, Isabelle and April, were both fleeing their lives at the time; the crash stops time for both of them, one literally, the other figuratively and psychologically.

Isabelle is the woman who survives the crash; her connection to the other woman, April, who does not, and April’s family (who lived only six blocks away from her when the crash occured), is what drives the novel forward.  There’s a great deal of pain and suffering in this novel, but it is never overwhelming, we are drawn to these characters and recognize the choices they make, and sympathize with their difficulties throughout, the imperfections of human beings we fully recognize in our own lives.

This is a complex story about the nature of family, how we depend on others and how they let us down in small and large ways, and how people are able to recreate their lives, sometimes painfully, when those lives have been broken.  Carolyn See wrote a wonderful review of the novel for the Washington Post that ends with this wonderful description: “This is a novel that invites us to look at our own imperfections, not the dramatic crimes, but the niggling little sins of omission that so often render our lives tragically undernourished and small.”

If you have not discovered the work of Caroline Leavitt (she’s a busy writer, the author of ten novels, writes criticism for the Boston Globe and People, teaches novel writing for UCLA online, and judges fiction awards too), Pictures of You would be a great book to start with.  It’s complex and rewarding, and deeply humane.

Caroline blogs at CarolineLeavittville.com and has a fun website as well (Welcome to Leavitt Town…)

Peter Mountford: A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism

May 10, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0-547-47335-2 – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – paperback – $15.95 (ebook versions available)

I read about this book a few months ago and knew from the title alone that I wanted to read this novel.  How many political novels are there (readable ones anyway)?  Well, it turns out that Peter Mountford is a terrific writer, and A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is a very special debut novel, completely captivating and very subtle, even as it takes on some of the characteristics of a French farce (with the requisite literal and figurative doors opening and closing throughout).

The book is about Gabriel, a young former reporter, not that long out of Brown, now operating as a covert hedge fund analyst in Bolivia, which is on the verge of electing a new populist president.  Gabriel’s new job pays him incredibly well and puts him in the position of lying to absolutely everyone in his life, from his mother, a famous Chilean exile writer/professor (and a political radical), to all the journalists he cultivates, the older woman reporter he sleeps with, the young and beautiful press attache of the president to be (with whom he falls in love), to Evo (the presidential candidate himself) and everyone else in between.

One of the strengths of this novel is that there are so many well crafted characters in this novel who actually matter to the story – though I admit there were times while I was reading that I had trouble keeping them all straight.  Another strength of the novel is Mountford’s portrait of Bolivia itself.  He weaves it beautifully into Gabriel’s story, and gives the country a wonderful character and strength.

This story is of course all about power and money in modern high level capitalism, and what they do to the hearts and souls of the individuals caught in its web.  But Mountford resists making it easy for his characters or for us.  Choices are not simple, causes and effects are complex, and yes, morality is often the primary casualty.  But we do end up feeling deeply for Gabriel and understanding his choices, even if we find them difficult to accept.  In that way, Peter Mountford has created a truly sympathetic character in a real life story, it’s one we recognize, understand, and must wonder how much of ourselves we see in it.

I really enjoyed having the opportunity to discover and read this book and talk to Peter Mountford while he was in the midst of his book launch tour.  He’s an energetic talker about his work, which made our conversation great fun.  I think you will enjoy our talk, and hopefully the book as well.  I’m looking forward to his next book too – this is a writer we will want to hear more from. He’s a real find for anyone who likes to read new voices in modern fiction.

Brando Skyhorse: The Madonnas of Echo Park

April 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1439170847 – Free Press – Paperback – $14.00 (ebook versions also available)

Brando Skyhorse’s spectacular debut is a novel created from a series of interlocking stories, all of which take place in the mostly Mexican Echo Park neighborhood of East Los Angeles.  Like the rest of Southern California, Echo Park is in a constant state of flux, being invented and reinvented constantly as new populations arrive and are absorbed into the diverse culture of the city.

The opening line of the book sets the stage: “We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours.”

Each of the stories here focuses on the story of one character, and as the stories unfold, we realize that all of the characters we are meeting are entwined with each others lives, and particularly with the central tragedy that gives the book its name, the shooting of a three year old girl during a weekly afternoon Madonna dance party hosted by a group of local moms and their young daughters.

It took me some effort to keep track of all the characters and how they are related (it probably would have helped to have had a family tree), but all of them are so brilliantly written, I ended up caring about them enough not to worry too much about the details of their relationships.  Every one of the characters in this novel experiences pain and loss and redemption.  Each is in one way or another transcendent.  Brando’s love for all of them, and for the community they live in and which lives in them, is palpable.

It’s no accident that this book has so much to say about identity, and how individuals make their own, both because of and in opposition to their surroundings.  The author, Brando Skyhorse, grew up with five different stepfathers.  He grew up most of his life believing he was Native American and only learned he was Mexican as an adult.  Born and raised in Echo Park, Brando graduated from Stanford University and from the MFA Writers’ Workshop program at the University of California, Irvine. For ten years, and until recently, he worked as an editor in New York publishing.

In our conversation, we covered a wide number of issues, the background and basis for this novel, how it evolved over the years he wrote it, and much about the characters and locale of the book.  We talked about identity, and what it means for fiction, for this author.

I really liked this book and recommend it highly to anyone who who likes modern fiction.  And I am not alone – in March, 2011, Brando received the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award for a distinguished first book of fiction.  I’m looking forward to reading many more of his books.

Visit the author’s website for more information, appearance schedule, etc.

Summer Brenner: My Life in Clothes

April 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1597091633 – Paperback – Red Hen Press – $18.95  (ebook versions also available)

Summer Brenner is an economical and elegant writer whose fiction I have become very attached to (I read her noir novel, I-5, which I think is a terrific book, and interviewed her for Writerscast in December, 2009.  Her latest book, published by the very fine Southern California based independent literary press, Red Hen, is a collection of stories called My Life in Clothes.  It may as well be considered a novel, as the stories are interlocked and related enough to make one, marked by Ms. Brenner’s characteristically beautiful writing throughout.

That she was a poet first is evident in the carefulness and precision of her language; she writes a gorgeous and transparent prose that is warm and fluid and easy to inhabit.  The Economist gave My Life in Clothes a terrific review, and called this book “a fierce and funny slip of a thing,” and while I love the allusion to clothes in that comment, I think this book is much more than a “slip.”   Brenner loves her characters and tells their stories effortlessly.  It’s the retelling and and reimagining of her own life after all.  Clothes are the reference point throughout.

The story begins with Moshe Auerbach, a Lithuanian refugee who comes to America, then follows his family line to Atlanta and then the protagonist and her friends and lovers in California from the sixties onward. Along the way we meet Marguerite, the protagonist’s mother, whose fixation on clothing and appearances is a key element of the book and her cousin Peggy, whose own interest in clothes and what they mean for self image is profoundly meaningful for her in every respect.

Brenner’s writing shines.  She’s funny, poignant and sharp.  Here’s just one of the many great turns of phrase she manages in this book: “Peter and I used to sit for hours with rod and bait, our legs dangling over the pier, sipping beer, waiting for something to happen,” she begins one story. “Most of the time, nothing did. But that didn’t matter. We were looking for an excuse to do nothing and preferred if it had a name. Fishing is the best apology ever invented.”  There are many more – I highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates wonderful writing, and stories well told.

Brenner is a prolific and diverse writer.  She has published a dozen books of poetry, fiction, and novels for children.  Another recent title is Richmond Tales, Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle, a novel for youth, which received a 2010 Richmond Historic Preservation award. Gallimard’s “la serie noire” published another of Brenner’s crime novels, Presque nulle part which PM Press will release by its English title, Nearly Nowhere, in 2012.

Her voice is wonderful to listen to as well, and I think you will enjoy our conversation about My Life in Clothes, and its wonderful stories and characters.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Matt Bell

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in the publishing industry, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

Dzanc Books is an amazing collaboration of a number of relatively young writers, editors and literary activists.  Founded only a few years ago (2006), it has now brought under its very broad umbrella, a large number of really interesting literary groups and activities, taking advantage of its nonprofit status to raise money for its work.  Here’s a brief description of all the projects they are involved with now (taken from the Dzanc website):

•    Publishes innovative and award-winning literary fiction, including short story collections and novels.
•    Supports several editorially-independent imprints and literary journals, including Black Lawrence Press, OV Books, Keyhole Press, Starcherone, Monkeybicycle, and Absinthe: New European Writing
•    Publishes The Collagist, a monthly online literary journal launched in August 2009
•    Recognizes the best stories, poems, and non-fiction published online each year through the Best of the Web anthology series, now in its third year
•    Provides low-cost writing instruction to beginning and emerging writers by connecting them with accomplished writers through the innovative Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions
•    Funds the Dzanc Writers-in-Residence Program, which places published authors in public schools to teach creative writing to elementary and secondary students
•    Conducts the yearly Dzanc Prize, which recognizes a single writer for both literary excellence and community service, as well as an annual short story collection competition
•    Offers the Disquiet International Literary Program, a writing conference held in Lisbon, Portugal
•    Creates internship opportunities for students looking to gain valuable experience in independent publishing

Dzanc has been on my radar for a while, and I subscribed to their really interesting e-book club, which is not only a cool idea for an independent press to undertake, but is also a great way for readers to easily find some new writers to read and enjoy.  This particular project represents some great new thinking about ways that digital technology can create new opportunities for publishers to interact with readers.  But Dzanc’s nonprofit model, and ability to foster new projects across a broad range of literary activities, and to almost amoeba-like, absorb new energy and ideas into its structure is a powerful organizational model that may offer hopeful lessons for literary writing across the country.  Another corollary may be McSweeney’s, which has a similar umbrella approach to innovative and energetic literary projects.

I talked to Matt Bell, who is not only Editor for Dzanc Books, The Collagist and of Dzanc’s Best of the Web anthology series, but is himself a very interesting writer, author of How They Were Found, and three chapbooks and a number of magazines and anthologies. His book reviews and critical essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Book Review, and The Quarterly Conversation.  We discussed the plethora of Dzanc activities, their overall business model, and in particular their digital publishing program, all of which I think is valuable for anyone thinking about how publishing and writing are evolving into a new and vibrant future.

Bradford Morrow: The Diviner’s Tale

April 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0547382630 – Hardcover – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – $26.00 (ebook version also available)

I have read a number of truly fine books over the past couple of years, most of which I have talked about on Writerscast.  It’s important to me that I’ve only been writing and talking about books I really liked.  A few of these wonderful books have just bowled me over, and Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale is one of those.  It’s a tightly woven story and powerfully interior, paradoxically, as it is set in a variety of geographic locales (all familiar to the author and therefore quite beautifully described).

Reading this book, I found myself propelled by the force of the story, and enthralled with the main character Cassandra Brooks, a single mother of two boys, daughter of a professional dowser, who is blessed and cursed by visions (Cassandra in Greek mythology had the gift of prophecy) and conflicted about her own ability to find water underground (the last name Brooks is no accident either).

The book opens with a chilling and frightening event – Cassandra is walking the woods for a client and comes across a hanged girl, who is to her, not an apparition.  But when she brings the local sheriff to the scene (he is a former love interest – it’s a typical small town in upstate New York where everyone knows everyone), there is no sign of the hanged girl.  But they find another girl, and that launches the story’s trajectory which ultimately forces Cassandra to confront long buried secrets in her past and some very real and dangerous possibilities for her in the present.

While the story is set in upstate New York, near the Delaware River, a significant part of the book takes place in the beautifully drawn islands of Maine near Mt. Desert – more water, more mystery, more danger for Cassandra and the reader.

Morrow is a terrific writer, and has written a number of very fine novels, but this one may well be his best book thus far.  The Diviner’s Tale is a bit of a mash up, taking elements of mysteries, thrillers, and even supernatural novels, merging them into a dark melange that stands alone as an original work of modernist fiction.  I liked what Joyce Carol Oates said about it – “luminous and magical…a feat of prose divination.”  Well put indeed.

This book is a great pleasure to discover.

And talking to Brad was a pleasure as well.  He knows himself, his work, and what it means.  He talks fluently about this book, and the story of how the novel was born is definitely worth hearing.  I hope you will enjoy our conversation as thoroughly as I did.

The author’s website is worth a visit too – you get a chance to read some of his stories and find out more about his many projects (I knew Brad first as the editor of the extraordinary and long lasting literary magazine Conjunctions, now up to issue #55, and which has managed to retain its sense of discovery over many years and many different literary styles and genres).

Lou Aronica: Blue

March 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1936558001  – paperback – The Fiction Studio -  $16.95 (e-book versions available $7.99)

Lou Aronica’s Blue is an unusual novel, combining elements of science fiction, fantasy, romance and serious fiction, to create a moving story that focuses on the relationship between a daughter and her father in a terrifically moving and affecting way.  Lou is an experienced and skillful writer who deftly manages to tell a story that is full of sadness and emotion and manages to avoid the deeply sentimental that might otherwise overtake the reader.  Which is not to say it is not a story that will affect the reader – and some may find it difficult going, to say the least.

Reviewers and interviewers must always be careful in describing any novel’s storyline, to avoid ruining the book for prospective readers.  For those who don’t want to know too much, let’s just say that Blue takes on family relationships in the face of grave illness in a beautifully imagined way.  There is plenty of sadness in this novel, but Aronica succeeds in the true storyteller’s art, the transformation within a story to something greater than the experience itself.

The book is set in a contemporary suburban Connecticut much like the one the author actually lives in, so the characters and settings are all familiar and well told.  At the heart of the story is the relationship between Chris Astor and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Becky, and her mother, from whom Chris is now divorced.   Facing the greatest challenge of their lives, they must all learn to trust each other, and ultimately to believe in imagination and its transformational power, in order to come to terms with what is happening to them.

Blue is a remarkable and uplifting novel.  I think Lou Aronica has succeeded in his goal for this book (from his website): “I wanted to write a novel that conveyed my feelings about the incomparable value of imagination and hope. Blue puts its characters through the wringer, but it is at its heart an extremely optimistic novel.”

Full disclosure: I am happy to say that Lou is someone whose friendship I value.  I do want to say, also, that even if I just like a book and don’t love it, I’m unlikely to want to write about it and certainly won’t want to talk about it with the author.  I feel my responsibility as an interviewer requires that I really get into a book in order to be able to ask meaningful questions about it and talk about it intelligently.  I don’t love every book I read, but I truly do deeply enjoy and admire every book I write about here and talk about with their authors.  For me, there is no question that Blue is a terrific book and my conversation with Lou reflects that assessment. This is a book I am happy to recommend to readers, and I think it will be especially moving to anyone who is the parent of children of any age.

Brom: The Child Thief

February 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0061671340 – paperback – Harper Voyager – $19.99 (ebook editions available at $9.99)

The Child Thief by well known illustrator and writer Brom is an absolutely stunning book.   It is the Peter Pan story retold in a brilliantly imagined fashion that is completely captivating.  So, yes, I did love reading this book.  It is immersive, scary, and dark, but it is also wildly creative, and mashes up some of our most powerful mythological story lines to create its own narrative drive and a world inside, aside, and connected to our own that is fantastic (literally) and wonderfully psychological, and even political.

I really do not want to tell too much about the world that Brom has created, its characters or the story line as it is so much fun to discover it on one’s own.  The genesis for the story was Brom’s discovery of a line in James Barrie’s original Peter Pan he found frightening but crucial, where Barrie mentions that Peter Pan would “thin out” the Lost Boys when the island population got too big.  This single statement sheds a very dark light on the entire construct of the mythology of Neverland.  And as he says about the character of Peter Pan himself, who kidnaps children and kills pirates (among others) – he is not really such a nice character as we imagine him now: “And more chilling is Peter’s ability to do all these things—the kidnapping, the murder—all without a trace of conscience: “I forget them after I kill them,” he (Peter) replied carelessly.”

In The Child Thief, Peter is indeed a boy who will never grow up, but his existence is oh so much more complicated than the movie and stage versions we know.  Peter travels to modern day New York City to find new members for his tribe, who fight real battles in a Neverland that is now a part of Avalon and includes a great deal of real danger – even just to get there requires a frightening and challenging journey (a true rite of passage for the lost adolescents Peter has convinced to join him).

Brom’s Avalon is going through a very difficult time and there are many painful moments in this book.  Death and suffering are everywhere here – this is not a book for the faint of heart or those looking for escapist fiction.  By conjoining the world of Avalon to our own, and especially to the painful and bloody history of the conquering of the North American continent by European soldiers and settlers, the author has brought us face to face with the darkest elements of the modern industrial society to which we have evolved.  Even at the end he avoids the easy and satisfying resolution of his story that many readers may be seeking.  It’s not entirely a dark ending, but neither is it thoroughly uplifting.  Personally, I loved the ambiguity throughout the book.

Brom is indeed a terrific artist – there is a section of his beautiful, evocative and sometimes chilling illustrations of all the characters in the middle of the book that is truly compelling.  You can see more of his work at his website.

It was a pleasure to have a chance to speak with Brom about his work and specifically about this book.  It’s so richly imagined and has so many layers, it’s easy to talk about.  Brom is a wonderful story teller with a great deal to say.  This is a compelling book for anyone who loves to get lost in a fully imagined alternate universe – and this one happens to be very familiar and therefore powerful, as it shatters all of our expectations so beautifully.

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