What books are on your night stand?
On my night stand, always, is a tattered volume of “The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke” and story collections by Raymond Carver and John Cheever because I like poems and short stories when falling asleep, especially when written by fellow depressives and alcoholics. I find Roethke’s poems particularly soothing, all the darkness, light and beauty in the natural world. Today, there is also a book called “Framing the Moron,” by Gerald O’Brien — a book about the eugenics era that I’m reading for an essay I’m writing, as well as Maud Newton’s wonderful new book, “Ancestor Trouble.”
Describe your ideal reading experience.
I usually read in a semi-supine position on my bed, with pillows bunched beneath my shoulders and three dogs pinning my legs painfully akimbo. I always have food and coffee within reach. My ideal reading experience would be one in which I owned different dogs who would not spill, steal or suddenly explode into vicious fights over the food items on my bed, and I would have an entire day to read.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
I read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in high school and was profoundly disappointed because I knew it had been banned when it was originally published, so I was excited to read all the dirty parts. The problem was that when I was in high school, I’d read some incredibly filthy books; books that made “50 Shades of Gray” read like a fairy tale. These grimy paperbacks were passed around our school bus and would open automatically to (trigger warning) horribly fantastical orgies and sexual atrocities that were so shocking and depraved that in retrospect, I believe my generation (or maybe just the kids on my bus) developed a very high threshold for anything that was supposed to be sexually scandalous in print. So, I thought Lady Chatterley was an old bore. Embarrassingly, I read Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” because I thought it was about sex and was similarly disappointed. It’s not that I didn’t love great books, I did, even then. I’m one of those freaks who loved “Moby-Dick” in high school, but I expected a different kind of experience from a banned book about lovers and I felt I’d been conned by D. H. Lawrence. When I read “Chatterley” again as an adult, I realized it was one of the sexiest and most romantic novels I’ve ever read.
‘Now that I’m getting older, I wish more people would write intriguing novels about fascinating old people. Like old psychopaths. I’ve just given myself an idea.’
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
My most recent novel is set in the 1920s so I read, or reread, books written during that era while researching it. “The Complete Stories of Dorothy Parker” was the most fun to reread and the most informative because of those great short stories written almost entirely in dialogue. I was trying to absorb the language — not just the outdated slang, but the slightly different cadence used in spoken conversation at that time. I moved a lot growing up and I think that gave me an ear for the subtle variations of language and I quickly adopted regional dialects. It was just a bullying survival tactic — I tried to talk like everybody else to fit in better.
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
I recently came across an old copy of “Life Among the Savages,” by Shirley Jackson, on one of our bookshelves. I opened it to see if I could remember reading it and I proceeded to read the entire thing. It’s a memoir of her time as a mother of young children when she and her husband lived in Bennington, Vt. I went to Bennington College and Shirley Jackson’s legacy was very much a presence there, as was one of her grown sons who was dating a friend of mine. When this son was little, he and his siblings were fodder for one of the funniest memoirs of domestic life I’ve ever read. There are some wonderfully spooky moments too, because kids can be spooky, and I don’t think people were writing enough about that in those Erma Bombeck days.
The last book you read that made you cry?
I recently reread “Summer,” by Edith Wharton and it made me cry. Again. There are novels I read and reread because they guarantee a good cry for me. These include Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy” and “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,” by Brian Moore. Oh, Muriel Sparks’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” breaks my heart. They’re not really love stories. I suppose what they have in common is that they’re all about mother-longing and a particular kind of feminine loneliness that touches me very much.
The last book you read that made you furious?
I read a lot of the books written about the previous president during his term in office. It’s hard to single out one; each made me just as furious as the next. I will say that I recently read Fiona Hill’s book, “There Is Nothing for You Here,” and I was all primed to be enraged on her behalf. Instead, I found it surprisingly optimism, and I highly recommend it.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
The fact that anxiety generated by a specific traumatic event can be transmitted to descendants generations later, and even more interestingly, this is true whether the original trauma happened to a male or a female. I learned this from Maud Newton’s book on my night stand so it’s fresh in my mind, though I’ll probably mangle the facts anyway. It seems that in the study a male mouse was repeatedly shocked whenever he was exposed to a certain fragrance. His sperm carried something that had been altered in his DNA by the trauma and his children and even his grandchildren reacted anxiously to the fragrance though they’d never smelled it before.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I guess now that I’m getting older, I wish more people would write intriguing novels about fascinating old people. Like old psychopaths. I’ve just given myself an idea.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
A perfect ending. Since Raymond Carver is on the table next to me, I’ll say the last lines of his stories “Cathedral” and “A Small, Good Thing” are examples of endings that elevate a good story into something nearing perfection. The last line of John Cheever’s story “The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well” is such a great ending. I always feel like I’ve just been dropped into a well, myself, when I read it.
Which genres do you especially enjoy?
I enjoy spooky stories. I love 19th-century Gothic novels like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Woman in White,” by Wilkie Collins, Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” and more modern chilling novels and stories by Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson . I think the reason I like 19th-century novels so much is that’s when all the fascination with murder and detective work became so popular in fiction. I also love any current true-crime book, preferably about a serial killer or a cult leader. I’m not choosy, as long as there’s a psychopath.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have lots of books on gardening, but, while I’m pretty good with houseplants, I have no idea how to take care of our sad outdoor garden areas. I don’t know the difference between a pansy and a … what are those little flowery annuals? Petunias? I have a few rose bushes and I know they’re supposed to be pruned but I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong. So, a person might be surprised to find that I have plenty of gardening books after glancing at our failing “gardens.”
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
It’s a book that, for almost 30 years, I’ve thought was called “The Big Book.” I just checked and its official title is “Alcoholics Anonymous.” It’s so archaic, clichéd and banal that crowds of people laugh helplessly in meetings where the book is sometimes read aloud. These aren’t passages that are meant to be funny, but how do you not laugh when reading: “John Barleycorn will never make a bum out of me again.” It’s corny as hell; it has this mortifying Norman Rockwellian vibe throughout, and yet it’s perfect somehow. It changed my life and the lives of millions like me despite our scoffing and eye-rolling.