Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Recommends: Winter 2015 – Books to Keep You Warm

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Hello everyone!  Happy Valentine’s Day!  We hope you’re all enjoying 2015 and staying warm through all that snowy weather!  To celebrate February and the snowy tidings of 2015, our CWW staff has written about their favorite reads to keep you warm through this winter season!  Some of these works that have inspired our own writing and changed how we think and see the world, and other works have just stayed with us, entertained, or made us stop, stare, or smile for a little while.  Special thanks to Stephen Aubrey, Rita Banerjee, Alex Carrigan, Gregory Crosby, Katy MillerDavid Shields, Emily Smith, Christine Stoddard, Diana Norma Szokolyai, and Megan Tilley for sending in their favorite winter lit picks & recommendations! – Alex Carrigan (Curator)

CWW Winter 2015 Lit Picks:

pillowman theThe Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
(Recommended by Stephen Aubrey)

In an unnamed totalitarian nation, a Kafka-esque fiction writer called Katurian is detained and questioned by two policemen after a string of gruesome infanticides resembling dark fairytales Katurian has written. As Katurian seems unconcerned about the ramifications of his art, the police officers—playing a twisted game of “good cop/bad cop”—inform Katurian that his intellectually-disabled brother Michael, who is currently being tortured in an adjoining room, has been coerced into confessing to the crimes. What follows is a harrowing meditation on our responsibility to our art and our family, one without easy answers or reassurances. Small and contained (it’s a four-person cast in two small rooms) yet with very high stakes, it’s one of the most tightly-written and surprising of contemporary plays. It’s also funnier than any play centered around murdered children has any right to be, that’s Irish theatre for you.

91gug5d5wlL._SL1500_A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
(Recommended by Stephen Aubrey)

Rebecca Solnit is one of the most interesting nonfiction writers around today. As both a writer and an activist, she’s made a career exploring issues related to the environment and its impact on politics, our sense of place, art, and society. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, perhaps her finest work and certainly the best introduction to her formidable intellect, Solnit explores her own past in a series of linked essays as she explores questions of identity and the importance of the unknown. In a wonderful instance where form imitates function, the essays don’t necessarily build to a cohesive argument so much as they meander from Solnit’s Russian Jewish ancestors to her own youthful dabbling in punk rock and experimental film to a love affair she once had with a desert recluse. Each is tinged with a painterly lyricism that makes the settings Solnit writes about as vivid as the people who occupy them. Come with no expectations; simply agree to follow Solnit wherever she leads you and you will find this a perfect book to get lost in.

whereeuropebegins_300_411Where Europe Begins by Yoko Tawada
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

Yoko Tawada is a force of nature.  She has mastered the art of defamiliarizing the familiar whether it be language, gender, the facets of the body, or the interplay between imagination and reality.  She is a master of writing fiction, memoir, and gorgeous lyrical essays in both Japanese and German (for which she’s won the Akutagawa Prize and Goethe Medal, respectively), and she’s given some impressive speeches in English quoting Japanese, German, and even Italian idioms and literary texts at free will.  (I had a chance to see her recently at Munich’s 2014 Shamrock festival and was floored by her performance and also later when she spoke to me in Japanese!)  Where Europe Begins explores the strangeness and uncertainty one encounters when looking at things just a little too closely.  In these short stories and musings, one’s body, one’s relationships and feelings towards others, one’s language, and even one’s existence become irrevocably uncanny and peculiar.

Akashic’s Noir Series
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

SFNoir2BostonNoir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few years ago, I picked up my first Akashic Noir Series book in the famed City Lights Books in San Francisco while I was working on my dissertation at Berkeley.  I selected San Francisco Noir 2: The Classics because for every flower in someone’s hair, San Francisco was also pretty cold and gritty, and the ghosts of Dashiell Hammet, Jack London, and Mark Twain seemed to hang around downtown, just lurking in the air.  And this volume did not disappoint.  Frank Norris’s chilling, uncomfortable view of Chinatown still haunted in “The Third Circle,” and you could see why Hitchcock was so mesmerized by the city by the bay.  Flitting back to Cambridge for work, Boston Noir also provided a delightful read.  Don Lee’s “The Oriental Hair Poets” seemed especially à propos in the atmosphere of Cambridge.  The story centers around two female Asian poets who compete with one another for men and literary accolades, attempting to sabotage each other’s poetic careers and prestige, until something goes horribly wrong…

TreadwindsTreadwinds by Walter K. Lew
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

During my MFA days, Walter K. Lew’s Treadwinds was a poetry collection that I returned to again and again.  Like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s novel Dictée, Lew’s Treadwinds was unique and powerful for its unusual collage-like form and ability to breakdown and rethink linguistic barriers.  Lew presents poems written in English alongside phrases and texts written in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese in order to demonstrate the narratives of colonial occupation, immigration, and cultural assimilation felt by Koreans and Korean-Americans in the 20th century.  He juxtaposes images from film, photography, news stories, and idioms from folk songs, jazz, and old family anecdotes and tales of trauma to convey the complexity and multifaceted voice of the Korean in the modern era.  In the namesake poem, “Treadwinds” language and grammar itself breakdown as Lew explores what it means to return, hungry and dwindled, to home and “the sounds of spring.”

moon-mountain-banerjeeMoon Mountain
by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay

(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

Moon Mountain or Cāndēr Pāhaṛ  (চাঁদের পাহড়), is a famous Bengali novella by the much-loved Bengali novelist, Bibhutibhushan Bandopahdyay (author of the renowned novel Pather Pāncālī, which was later made famous on the silver screen by Satyajit Ray).  Set between 1909-1910, Moon Mountain focuses on the story of Shankar Roy Chowdhury, a young Bengali man, who goes to Africa and winds up working for the Uganda Railway.  Hungry for adventure, Shankar meets a strange cast of imperialists and prospectors from Britain, Portugal, Holland, and elsewhere as they try to exploit the riches of Africa and its people.  One prospector, the Portuguese Diego Alvarez, a Kurtz-like figure, tells Shankar about his trials and misfortunes hunting for diamonds in the caves of the Moon Mountain, a legendary place deep in the jungles of Richtersveldt, which is haunted and guarded by a spirit called bunyip.  Shankar then has to decide whether or not he will follow Alvarez and his thirst for adventure with open eyes or with eyes wide shut.

tolstoy-family_happinessFamily Happiness by Leo Tolstoy
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

There’s really nothing like setting the mood for Valentine’s Day in the middle of a snowy winter than reading some dark, deeply existential Russian Literature.  Leo Tolstoy is a master of examining the minutae of social relationships and the unpredictably psychology of human behavior.  In “Family Happiness,” he takes a hard look at romance and bourgeois obsession of finding the perfect romantic partner and creating the façade of the perfect family.  The story follows Masha, a young seventeen-year-old girl, and Sergey, her much older would-be paramour as they engage in a courtship which leads to “romance” and a very unexpected ending.

PoeticScientifica Poetic Scientifica by Leah Noble Davidson
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

Leah Noble Davidson’s poetry collection, Poetic Scientifica, is a beautiful experiment.  The collection follows the breakdown of a romantic relationship as it simultaneously explores memories of past sexual violence, individual agency, and female empowerment.  In doing so, Poetic Scientifica explores the roles of double-identities, mirror images, Norma Jeane & Marilyn Monroe, beauty, and its lovelorn echo.  Perhaps, the charm and play of Davidson’s work can be best described by the hidden poem in her collection which introduces all others: “Oh careful readiness, oh cinders in the jaw / you: fountains of birdsong and / velvet ropes, aspiring Marilyns / maybe I covet you / the way you would have me, do so / Climbing into our story / we build your image together / a person to love, an echo / of the anecdotes strangers tell each other / I can not hate you for being the bathtub / I drain my culture into / for shining myself into / so many lights.”

JulesVerne-VoyageExtraodinaire Voyages Extradonaires by Jules Verne
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

When I was studying at the Sorbonne, I would always carry a Poche paperback of a Jules Verne classic with me and would devour it as I made my way through the undergrounds of Paris each morning.  Some of my favorite reads were Voyage au centre de la Terre, Vingt milles lieues sous le mer, De la Terre à la Lune, and Paris au XXe siècle.  While the stories were familiar from childhood, there was just something about cracking a secret code or cipher with Axel and Lindenbrock in French.  The scope and worldview of Verne’s novels, which are set in Baltimore, Hamburg, Paris, China, and India, was also impressive as was his mastery of the scientific romance genre.  Characters in his novels always seemed to be at the brink of discovery, whether in realizing the potential or limitations of science and technology or in understanding the potential and limitations of their own humanity.  The future could materialize crystal clear in a Verne novel, full of possibilities and full of failures.  And now as I am writing my own futuristic novel, it’s wonderful to go back to the pillars of modern day science fiction with writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and try to find answers to those big and scary questions like, “what is science?” “what is fiction?” and “what might tomorrow bring?”

schomburg-themansuitThe Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

The Man Suit is a memorable, must-read collection of poems by Zachary Schomburg.  The poems in The Man Suit dance a fine line between melancholy, dark humor, and unnerving absurdity.  Images of forests, monsters, stars, death, white and black telephones, music bands, and theatre pepper the collection.  And stories of late barons, experiments gone awry, John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln, and a singular tale of a lost love and a girl named Marlene appear, disappear, and remix like constellations across the page.  Read in another way, Schomburg’s collection takes a hard look at the values of Americana and the changing shape of the American social and political landscape in the waning years of the Bush presidency.  In “Last President of a Dark Country,” the speaker of the poem, states “Trying being the last president of a dark country.  It is lonely as hell here.  You should come. / …if you are careful, you can find the railing.  It will lead you to a dimly-lit hole that you can climb down into.  You’ll find me there, most likely.  I’ll be working on my last presidential address.  It will be a list of everything that haunts me.  No matter how much you ask me to read it, I probably won’t.”

Haunted511a1mqxnhl-_ss500_ by Chuck Palahniuk
(Recommended by Alex Carrigan)

This short fiction anthology by Chuck Palahniuk was every bit as morbid, disgusting, and shocking as I hoped it would be, with tons of awesome stories involved. The novel’s frame story is a bunch of writers going on a writing retreat where they spend three months locked in an old theater with all the amenities provided by the benefactor and his assistant. They all individually get the idea to write a tale about how they were held captive and tortured, each going about destroying their new home and forcing themselves into acts of mutilation, cannibalism, and murder. The stories in the book are all written by a character in the story and cover a variety of subjects from angry feminists to reflexology to masturbation accidents. This book really gripped me because all the stories are so unique and weird. It’s also very postmodern in design, something I’m always a fan of and want to attempt in the future.

{D89C61A6-9DA2-409A-9A9E-ADFD027A9D27}Img100Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe
(Recommended by Alex Carrigan)

This was a book I had to grow up to read. It’s a book my father loved a lot and told me about when I was younger. The story, detailing the incompetence of the racist police force in an Apartheid South Africa town, is a screwball satire showing how a crime of passion was turned into a full-blown political scandal due to how just darn stupid everyone is. It’s satirical, funny, and full of political commentary. It’s also a book with a really creative writing style and humorous voice that Sharpe uses when describing events. It will have you looking at elephant guns differently, so you should check it out.

wernerherzog_guidefortheperplexedWerner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed
by Paul Cronin

(Recommended by Gregory Crosby)

It’s a huge series of conversations with Herzog about his film and career, but it’s also the only self-help book any artist will ever need, whether they make films, write, paint or engage in any creative endeavor that requires courage, persistence, and endurance. Herzog is also dryly funny in only the way a German can be.

 

the_dream_songspicThe Dream Songs by John Berryman
(Recommended by Gregory Crosby)

If you’re suffering from heartache and pain and want to know how to sing the blues, you should avail yourself of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. It sounds like hyperbole, but this was a book that more or less saved my life when I was at my lowest point.

 

 

81XbzO1loHLEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
(Recommended by Katy Miller)

Opening with the ominous sentence “Lydia is dead,” Everything I Never Told You unspools the deep, psychological layers of the Lee family as they deal with loss and tragedy. For the first half of the novel, Ng tells the reader only sparse details about Lydia herself—the oldest child of Chinese-American James Lee and his white wife Marilyn—and focuses instead of the dreams and disappointments of her parents. Set mainly in the 1970s midwest only just after the Supreme Court overturned the interracial marriage ban in 1967, Everything I Never Told You beautifully captures the quiet desperation of crushing familial expectations coupled with heartbreaking loneliness. Ng deftly writes the inner life of the five family members and how difference affects each one, expertly weaving their voices into the suspenseful narrative.

41FP9H01AjLThe Thing Around Your Neck
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

(Recommended by Katy Miller)

The characters in this 13-story collection are just as vivid as those in Adichie’s marvelous novels. The majority of these narratives are written from a female perspective, and Adichie fully explores their struggles to settle into American lives, their complex relationships, and their diverse motivations in beautiful detail. A thoughtful writer, she delights in revealing uncomfortable observations, such as in the inner monologue of a Nigerian waitress in Connecticut in the titular short story: “He told you he had been to Ghana and Uganda and Tanzania, loved the poetry of Okot p’Bitek and the novels of Amos Tutuola and had read a lot about sub-Saharan African countries, their histories, their complexities. You wanted to feel disdain, to show it as you brought his order, because white people who liked Africa too much and those who liked Africa too little were the same—condescending.”

51A1wj3p3eL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano
(Recommended by David Shields)

Galeano marries himself to the larger warp-and-woof by allowing different voices and different degrees of magnitude of information to play against one another. A mix of memoir, anecdote, polemic, parable, fantasy, and Galeano’s surreal drawings, the book might at first glance be dismissed as mere miscellany. But upon more careful inspection, it reveals itself to be virtually a geometric proof on the themes of love, terror, and imagination. This is perhaps best exemplified by this mini-chapter: “Tracey Hill was a child in a Connecticut town who amused herself as befitted a child of her age, like any other tender little angel of God in the state of Connecticut or anywhere else on this planet. One day, together with her little school companions, Tracey started throwing lighted matches into an anthill. They all enjoyed this healthy childish diversion. Tracey, however, saw something which the others didn’t see or pretended not to, but which paralyzed her and remained forever engraved in her memory: faced with the dangerous fire, the ants split up into pairs and two by two, side by side, pressed close together, they waited for death.”

A1ShzwjgyDL._SL1500_Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
(Recommended by David Shields)

This is the book that I think of as mattering the most to me ever, but I read it more than thirty years ago and find that I have trouble re-reading it now. Seems sad—do I still love it, did I ever love it? I know I did. Has my aesthetic changed that much? If so, why? Does one resist that alteration? I think not. The book still completely changed me, still defines me in some strange way. Proust for me is the C.K. Scott-Moncrieff translation in paperback, its covers stained with suntan oil since I read all seven volumes in a single summer (supposedly traveling around the South of France but really pretty much just reading Proust). I came to realize that he will do anything and go anywhere to extend his research, to elaborate his argument about art and life. But his commitment is never to the narrative per se, it’s to the narrative as a vector on the grid of his argument. That thrilled me and continues to thrill me—his understanding of his book as a series of interlaced architectural/thematic spaces.

41Mm2ZM0NvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_For Love & Money by Jonathan Raban
(Recommended by David Shields)

For twenty-plus years I’ve been showing drafts of my books to Jonathan, who within days of receiving the manuscript will call and not only insist that it can be so much better but show me how. For Love & Money, which he calls “only half a good book,” is one of my favorite books ever written—a brutal, ruthless coming-of-age-of-the-author disguised as a miscellany of essays and reviews. Jonathan comes out of what is to me a distinctly British tradition of showing respect for the conversation by questioning your assertion rather than blandly agreeing with it. He’s exhaustive and disputatious, never settling for received wisdom or quasi-insight. More than anyone in my life, he encouraged me to think off-axis about “nonfiction.”

rent-girl-michelle-teaRent Girl by Michelle Tea
(Recommended by Emily Smith)

Rent Girl is a gritty and blunt graphic novel/memoir that focuses on Michelle Tea’s history as a prostitute in the early 90s.Throughout the novel, Tea is unapologetically honest about her many shocking exploits: appeasing her clients — one a self-proclaimed warlock — to a terrible case of crabs, Tea never shies away from reality.

margaret_atwood_the_handmaids_taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
(Recommended by Emily Smith)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood follows the story of Offred, a handmaid living under a totalitarian Christian regime responsible for usurping the United States. The novel explores how women gain agency, especially under a government that enforces trope-like roles: wives, handmaids (surrogate mothers) and Jezebels (prostitutes).

 

51SvR6tvD2LGather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou
(Recommended by Christine Stoddard)

This year we lost one of the greats. Her stunning life inspired not only poetry but prose. Gather Together in My Name is an autobiographical account of Angelou’s early years as a single mother shortly after World War II in a deeply segregated America. A story of hope and redemption, it’s the perfect read to inspire you to seriously reflect on your own flaws and make meaningful and sincere New Year’s Resolutions.

 

948009Intimacy by Jean-Paul Sartre
(Recommended by Christine Stoddard)

This collection of four short stories and a novella is complex and unnerving. All of the stories deal with intimacy or, more aptly, the lack thereof. They deal with sex, perversion, sensuality, and ugly truths. My personal favorite is the first story “Intimacy,” for which the collection is named, because of its stream of consciousness, changing narrators, and obsession with hypocrisy in love. Intimacy is a great winter read because it will chill you to the bone, not for its otherworldliness but for its raw portrayal of reality.

Unknown-4The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh)
(Recommended by Diana Norma Szokolyai)

Would I be wearing my heart on my sleeve if I admitted to crying upon just seeing the trailer to this film?  After watching the film in its entirety, I saw that this was not just a historical tearjerker, but a deeply moving and realistic account of the life and love between Stephen and Jane Hawking.  Of the movie, Stephen Hawking has said that it was “broadly true” (Variety.com) and that, at times, he felt as though Eddie Redmayne was himself.  Indeed, the actor has done such a marvelous job that he is nominated for a 2015 Oscar for best actor in a leading role—we shall see at the end of February if he gets this well deserved award.  After watching this film, you will feel closer to the emotional world of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our time.  The hope, heartbreaking honesty, and intensity of Stephen and Jane’s story will rekindle your faith in the true potential of the human spirit.

safe_amy_king_0I Want to Make You Safe by Amy King
(Recommended by Diana Norma Szokolyai)

Amy King’s poems examine the delicate boldly.  The visual imagery is unforgettable and leaves the reader with impressions to ponder long afterwards.  Consider these lines and you’ll understand: “I can’t imagine the heart anymore/now that it presses my ribs apart,/a balloon of such gravity I ache for stars in a jar,/wasps whose love reminds be of fireflies tonight.”  King is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Women’s National Book Association Award.  John Ashbery described her poems in I  Want to Make You Safe as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging rather than out of the busyness of living.”  The book was also one of the Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011.  Read it!

Unknown-5Someone Else’s Vows by Bianca Stone
(Recommended by Diana Norma Szokolyai)

I first heard Bianca Stone read at the Couplet reading series in Manhattan, organized by Leah Umansky.  Her poems seemed so ripe, containing an urgency.  In reading Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, you’ll enter a world of vulnerability and fireworks, where the past and present converge in a magnificent display of words. Here is an excerpt from her poem “The Future is Here”: “Man burns at a certain degree/ but I always burned a little slower./ When I went into school/ I left a trail of blackened footprints/ to my classroom of spelling words,/ never starred. At the end of the earth/ we’ll be locked in our own spelling mistakes,”.  Read this book.  It will make you question the world around you in beautiful ways.

Unknown-6Prelude to a Bruise by Saeed Jones
(Recommended by Diana Norma Szokolyai)

I recently heard Saeed Jones read at The Difficult to Name Reading Series run by Ryan Sartor.   I was immediately hooked.  His voice was electrifying, his delivery so precise and rich.  I bought the book from him immediately after the reading and devoured it.  Jones started his reading saying that his poems were the cross section of where race, sexuality and America meet.  Reading his work, you can certainly see him examining that triad so effectively.  Take his title poem:  “In Birmingham, said the burly man—/Boy, be/a bootblack./Your back, blue-back./Your body,      burning./I like my black boys broke, or broken./I like to break my black boys in.”   He is a 2013 Puscart Prize Winner and is now up for a National Book Critics Circle Award.  Reading this book will change you—it is that important.

11529868The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
(Recommended by Megan Tilley)

This 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner by Adam Johnson follows a citizen of North Korea through his rise and fall in North Korean society. The author read first hand accounts of defectors from the Hermit Kingdom and also travelled to North Korea to better acquaint himself with the unique political and social situation in the country. This is not a light read, but is a great choice for those interested in North Korea and in first hand accounts from the country. Meticulously researched and beautifully crafted, this is a novel that will change the way you look at North Korea.

51EvRAIqG0LThe Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Bloom
(Recommended by Megan Tilley)

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Bloom, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a fascinating look into the beginnings of forensic medicine. Organized into sections by poison, the book details not only crime cases involving that poison, but also the politics surrounding forensic medicine and the advances in medical science made by the tireless advocates of this new branch of crime investigation. A great book for anyone interested in true-crime, medicinal history, or Prohibition, it’s an easy and fascinating read.

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