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Mikhail Bulgakov - Robert Olen Butler
I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita on a balcony of the Metropole Hotel in Saigon on three summer evenings in 1971. The tropical air was heavy and full of the smells of cordite and motorcycle exhaust and rotting fish and wood-fire stoves, and the horizon flared ambiguously, perhaps from heat lightning, perhaps from bombs...more
Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson - Yael Goldstein
“Look at this photograph, would you?” asks the speaker in “Last Day at Camp Timlo, August 16, 1960.” “What . . . makes it unfamiliar? / Nothing really,” he continues. Truly, nothing is unfamiliar about the material in William B. Patrick’s We Didn’t Come Here for This, but the tight lens through which the poet views his family, the skill and empathy with which he creates their voices, rivet me to this familiar story as if I’ve never known anything like it...more
More Real Than Reality: The Frozen Art of Alistair MacLeod - Jon Clinch
In “Winter Dog,” the centerpiece of Alistair MacLeod’s mighty and mightily humane short story collection, Island, a boy and his fractious dog lose themselves on an ice sheet and find upon it a frozen seal, lodged in the ice, staring straight ahead toward land. “Even now in memory it seems more real than reality,” says the narrator, the boy himself now grown to manhood, “as if it were transformed by frozen art into something more arresting than life itself.”...
Kerouac’s On the Road at Fifty - Morris Dickstein
I was seventeen when On the Road came out, the perfect age at which to read it, but I was too busy discovering Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, classical music, Joseph Papp’s free Shakespeare productions, and Partisan Review; Jack Kerouac was a closed book to me. Even after I fell in love with Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and began reading the Evergreen Review, a vehicle for the Beats, Kerouac’s seemingly formless kinetic prose paled in comparison with Ginsberg’s mad passion, Dostoyevskian intensity, and zany humor. While writing about Ginsberg in the late 1960s, I finally gave On the Road a chance. Soon I assigned it in courses, and with each successive reading I liked it more; what had once seemed shapeless began to look like an eruptive well of energy and flow...
The Laws of Evening, by Mary Yukari Waters - Tod Goldberg
My wife, Wendy, and I remember the summer of 1996 affectionately as the Summer of Nothing. We had no money of our own, neither of us had jobs, and we subsisted on a steady diet of Pop-Tarts, Rice-A-Roni, and Boboli. Our only source of income came from our respective families: My grandfather, seeing how despondent I was about not pursuing my life’s dream—to become a midlist novelist—encouraged me to quit my high-paying job pimping temps to companies by offering to give me enough money each month to cover my expenses, provided I actually got off my ass and started writing. Wendy’s mother also gave generously, probably because she saw great hope in my ability to become a midlist novelist too, which is surprising, since at the time I wasn’t even married to her daughter yet...
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter - Noy Holland
First I thought: Better not. Because I’m smitten. Or I was smitten twenty years ago, in Paris, in my twenties, and it has lasted, the way a crush will last between people who exchange not a word, the way a cliff above a river seemed a thousand feet high—seemed, and seems so still—until you go back to the river and see it, see the drop is mild and measly, no hazard in it and no drama, and now the shoreline is crammed with wrappers and balled-up socks, and Johnny Stevens won’t burst from the bushes to tickle you, tickle you blue...
The Dog of the Marriage by Amy Hempel - Perrin Ireland
For years I buried an awkward secret deep in a pile of shame—the first time I read Amy Hempel’s work, I didn’t get it.
Her name was legend, but as I raced through a book of her stories (for racing, alas, was my too-frequent approach to reading), it seemed to me that there was no there there. I was accustomed to large, noisy, grab-you-by-the-throat, high-voltage drama, the kind of thing that can get your attention if you’re not paying much.
A few months later I reread her most famous story—“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” —more slowly this time. When I finished, I was paralyzed, breathless, destined to remember always where I was at that moment..
William Faulkner’s “The Bear” - Allen Morris Jones
I was introduced to William Faulkner by my own personal Iago, a high school English teacher who, despite pushing fifty, favored stiletto heels and miniskirts. She had a penchant for playing favorites and liked to flirt with the cockiest football players. She threw erasers at the kids who pissed her off. We had our many differences of opinion, and I spent half my sophomore year with dusty yellow rectangles across my shirt. All these years later, though, I can somehow go maudlin over the old crone, and only because she was the one to hand me a copy of Go Down, Moses, because she assigned “The Bear.”...
A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark - David Leavitt
A novel I impose upon all my graduate students, as well as most of my friends, is Muriel Spark's A Far Cry from Kensington. Published in 1988 and set in London just after the Second World War, A Far Cry from Kensington tells the story of Mrs. Hawkins, a fat young war widow who lives in a boardinghouse and works in book publishing. Possessed of a single-minded integrity that often gets her into trouble, she ends up tangling—over the course of many years—with the sinister Hector Bartlett, a dreadful and pompous writer whom she cannot keep herself from calling, usually to his face, the "pisseur de copie." The plot is intricate and perfectly deployed—other elements include the occult abuse of something called "The Box," poisoning, and pregnancy—and there is a twist in the last line that makes me shudder. Yet this novel merits reading not just because it is so artfully constructed; but also because included in it—"with the price of the book," as Mrs. Hawkins says—is some of the best advice to young fiction writers ever penned...
Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, by Joe LeSueur - Allison Lynn
First, there’s the title. When it comes down to it, a title should let the reader know what lies ahead. So calling this book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara is genius. Because this book contains digressions. On poems. That are by Frank O’Hara. It’s not only genius, it’s remarkably appropriate, since O’Hara himself was nothing if not direct when it came to naming his poems—and when laying his life on the page as it happened. So let me just say that I love this title. Which may unfairly bias me to what comes after it...
The Promise of Failure, or Why You Should Drop Everything You’re Doing and Read Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road Right Now! - John McNally
In 1988, Richard Yates was scheduled to teach a summer workshop at the University of Iowa, but he was too sick and had to bow out at the last minute. I had signed up for that workshop, but I hadn’t read anything by him. Truth be told, I’m glad I hadn’t read his work. What I didn’t know then was that Yates’s first novel, Revolutionary Road, would become my favorite novel, and I’m not sure I would have recovered from the blow of being offered to take a course by the man who’d written my favorite book, only to have the offer cruelly snatched away from me...more
Happy All the Time: Loving Laurie Colwin - Margo Rabb
There are times in life when you need a book that doesn’t rend your soul or make you want to crawl under the covers and weep. Yet you don’t want fluff, you’re loath to have your brain invaded by young ladies dithering over where to find their next man/martini/Manolo, and you’re not in the mood to see how long it takes Miss Marple to find the murderer. You want to find a book that’s meaningful, smart, funny, and—dare one even hope?—maybe even joyful...more
October Snow, by Samuel Reifler - Nelly Reifler
When I was a little girl, my father and I would play games with the typewriter. It was an electric typewriter, and its keys had a keen pounce; it was fun to poke them and make words appear. The typewriter would be out in the main room of Dad’s house in the woods, perched on a steel stand. Sometimes we’d just visit it alternately throughout the day, each of us typing a word when we happened by. Other times we wrote plays together, going back and forth with lines of dialogue and stage directions. For me, the elements of surprise and chance—the understanding that you must really relinquish control of what you make—came to me with those writing games. My father and I both found the absurdist results hilarious. I was an easily amused little kid, and most of the time Dad was stoned on weed he grew in a clearing off one of his dirt roads...
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