Amitava Kumar

October 25, 2009

Amitava Kumar is a writer, journalist, novelist, and poet. Born in India, Kumar is Professor of English at Vassar College in New York, where he teaches prose, essay, film, and news writing courses. He is the author of several works of non-fiction, including Passport Photos, Bombay-London-New York, and Husband of a Fanatic. His novel Home Products was short-listed for India’s most prestigious literary award. Currently, he is writing a report on the global war on terror. For more about Amitava Kumar, please visit his blog

amitava_kumarWho are you?

I am a writer who knows that the pain in my back is from a dagger called academics. You can see the blood pooling at my feet, you say. But I can’t take the dagger out. A part of me believes that the blade stuck in me is keeping all the blood inside. It’ll all be over if I were to do anything rash right now. I wasn’t a good student when I was studying in India, in high school and later in college. I wanted to write, but didn’t know how. When I came to this country, I began to read and then the old ambition to write faded. Instead, I wanted to read more difficult, theoretical books. That ambition lasted a long time. I have now returned to writing but I am a changed man. I can’t unlearn everything I have learned, good and bad.

200908_26b_love-is-4-letter-wordWhat was the last book you read? How did you like it?

Right now I’m in the middle of a fat anthology called True Crime. It is required reading for a writing class that I’m teaching. I have only so far read a few pieces in it. Just today I read Elizabeth Hardwick’s report on a criminal called Caryl Chessman. Such sharp writing! Short, descriptive sentences about the man’s actions, followed by equally short, incisive remarks which are quick to interpret and present judgment. I’m liking the book very much; I hope my students are too. The last book that I read, which was so many weeks ago, was Love Is A Four-Letter Word, a collection of break-up stories. It is edited by Michael Taeckens and several of the contributors are my friends; I recommend the book highly, especially if you have ever fallen out of love. While reading it I experienced joy, laughter, anger, despair, and about five different kinds of regret.

vsnaipaultelegraphWho is your idol writer? Why?

V.S. Naipaul has been called the finest writer of the English sentence. But that is not why he has occupied the highest place on my private pedestal. I have been drawn to him by his power of observation, the ability to convey to his readers a sense of his past, and also his often weird but striking judgment. What has been most powerful for me has been his repeated dramatization of the scene of writing, and thereby also a writer’s life. I noticed that about him when I began to write and it has been very important to my own formation.

parasolWhat is your favorite unknown or under-appreciated book?

My friends in cities like Delhi, writing in Hindi or other Indian languages, often place little riffs in their books where characters will talk bitterly about not being visible because they don’t speak or write in English. Which means that when people ask me the question you have, I think about those writers who feel they’ve been robbed of a place in the sun. Last winter I read a novella by the Hindi writer Uday Prakash that had been translated into English, The Girl With the Golden Parasol. I was touched by its grace, and by its anger.

At the moment, what popular books are being bathed in over praise?

I will not come off well in this answer. I confess that I wasn’t able to complete Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Earlier, I had read his By Night in Chile, and that short novel drew an unforgettable picture of people and art in a fascist culture. But I found The Savage Detectives shapeless, and its garrulity didn’t sit well with me. Many people that I admire swear by him, but give me J.M. Coetzee any day.

What book do you put on the coffee table when you want to impress your guests?

What coffee table? What guests? I have a six-year-old and another baby on the way. Kids’ toys and other paraphernalia take up much of the space where a coffee table could be. If and when guests come, they are greeted by a flurry of apologies and then we quickly spread a sheet where we can put a few bowls and a bottle of wine. Usually, I hide books anyway. I don’t want peanut butter smeared on them with little paws. Ten-fifteen years ago, I’d still keep my books in my study but wanted to display in the living-room, perhaps because I wanted to be thought of as artisitic, journals like ArtForum and ARTnews. Well, I don’t blame myself. They were the ones with bright, inviting covers.

patnaWho is the Joyce of Delhi?

It is my friend Siddhartha Chowdhury who has published a novel called Patna Roughcut. He and I both grew up in Patna. He now lives and works in Delhi. His second novel should be out soon. It’s called Day Scholar. An excerpt from that book appears in Delhi Noir, a new collection brought out by Akashic Books. I thought of him when you posed this question because his language is new and yet it is marked by Patna and Delhi. When I think of his language I tell myself that this is what it means to be rooted and yet to be inventive.

Do you have any quirky reading habits a Martian would observe while studying you?

I only read when I’m lying down in bed.

Why do you read?

I wish I read to discover new language. It would be great if there was a pure side of me that always demanded that. Instead I read to bring some sort of order to my life. Which is to say, I read so that I can take the chaos of the outer and the inner world and reduce it to the neatly-ordered lines on the page.

Angel of War and Violence

October 18, 2009
Every angel is terrifying. —Rilke

You know you’re in for a special treat when Dr. John Wegner, Professor of English at Angelo State University, wryly remarks, “The last thing I want to ever imagine is Dick Cheney dancing naked claiming he will never die.” To fully appreciate the terror and humor of Wegner’s remark, you need to know a thing or two about Holden. No, not Holden Caulfield, the puling adolescent in Catcher in the Rye, but Judge Holden, the pale, burly, hairless metaphysician and mass murderer in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Like all characters who exist beyond good and evil, the Judge knows how to shock and awe the world. Hence, the naked dancing. Next time you’re ready to wrestle with the angel of war and violence, gaze deep into the Judge’s face. I dare you.

Dr. John Wegner

Dr. John Wegner

Who are you?

I ask myself that each morning. Fortunately, the answer differs day to day, and, sometimes, minute to minute. I’m a 40-year old father of a 14-year old and an 11-year old, a husband of 19 years still trying to get it right, a professor at Angelo State University, an editor of a scholarly magazine, a little league coach, a writer of scholarship and short fiction, and a lover of almost all things chocolate, among other things. Each day I remind myself that the past might define us, but we are not obligated to become slaves to it. For me, the cosmic joy in life is the ability to continually wake up each morning and decide to push that boulder up the mountain.

 What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

In the Woods

In the Woods

This question ranks right up there with picking 10-12 novels to teach in an American novels class. Starting the list creates a flood of possibilities. I read an eclectic blend of five to six novels a mysticmonth, most recently re-reading James Lee Burke’s early Dave Robicheaux crime novels. I think I’ll cheat on this question and offer a list (that I will probably regret once I hit the send button): Tana French’s In the Woods, Denis Lehane’s Mystic River, Tom Perotta’s Little Children, Philip Kerr’s A Quiet Flame, and the Odyssey. Each of these works seems to capture a character struggling to hold on to some moral compass in the face of competing ideologies that both seem, at least on the surface, legitimate. French, Lehane, and Perotta, in particular, push our sympathies to their limits, essentially asking us to consider what happens when past histories collide. Each character is haunted by unsolved or unresolved past crimes. What is littlechildrenjustice in such a situation? What is the nature of mercy and forgiveness? The Odyessy always works as a touchstone for those essential questions. In addition, all these works are well-written, intelligently quiet flamecrafted, and unflinching in their portrayal of the world in which they exist.

Because of your areas of interest, I’d be remiss if I didn’t squeeze you for information about Cormac McCarthy and his work. What’s your assessment of his literary status?

In an attempt to avoid hyperbole, I’ll simply say he’s one of the most creative artistic living writers in America today. Despite my comments regarding Cities of the Plain, I think we see a writer able to work within multiple genres and a writer so focused on his craft we won’t entirely appreciate him for another few years. Within his lifetime, his Blood Meridian is already considered one of the best novels written. I think we will be able to discuss at least three to four other novels as masterpieces of contemporary fiction some day. The difficulty we have with McCarthy is his larger vision and his ability to capture multiple complexities within his works.

What do you think of his stint on Oprah? Does it teach us anything about the relationship between the man and his work?

cormacoprahI’m happy he felt compelled to strike while the iron was hot. I think those of us in the academy tend to look down our noses at authors who tap into popular culture as somehow inferior or less serious artistically. Nina Siegal has a fascinating new essay “The Truth About Bestsellers” recently posted on her site. She notes: “There is a very real crisis of American letters that began in the 1980s and seems to have only gotten worse in the last 25 years – and that is, the books that most Americans are buying and reading correspond very little to what we hope we’ll hand down to future generations as works of great literary merit.“ If Oprah can help bridge this gap, more power to her. Having written that, I trust the tale, not the teller. McCarthy is a fascinating, intelligent man, but I’m not sure the relationship between an author and his work is really relevant.

Why is McCarthy’s work stained with sewage, degradation, and violence?

I love this question but I don’t know how to answer it other than the overly simplistic claim that life is filled with “sewage, degradation, and violence.” I think initial readings of his works overlook the linguistic beauty with which he constructs worlds that often feel like an assault on our intelligence and our intellect. It’s easy to accept those things that are attractive and make us comfortable; McCarthy, like the Greek tragedians, asks us (commands us?) to recognize the world’s infinite capability of both comedy and tragedy.

He is the Homer of the sewer!
—Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III: The Guermantes Way

Ahab, Humbert Humbert, Iago, Judge Holden, or Roger Chillingworth — from whom can we learn the most, and why?

Another great question. Holden is, in many respects, the compilation of these other characters. I find myself, periodically, quoting Holden as if he possesses words to live by. Then I realize what I’ve done and shake my head in wonder at myself. Holden is dangerous precisely because he seems so reasonable. Reading Holden requires a critical thinking that we should be willing to apply to any and all texts. The other characters become examples of who we don’t want to be—Holden is an example of who we might too easily become. I might add, by the way, Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) to this list. McCarthy’s characters live by a code and I think we often have in mind that evil is somehow radically different and easily recognizable. There’s no thing that flips the switch on true evil.

If you could give a novel to former Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney (“Dick,” more accurately) for his moral and spiritual improvement, what would it be? Why?

blood-meridian3If I had faith in his ability to understand, I would give him Blood Meridian. Unfortunately, I think he would see himself as Judge Holden and the last thing I want to ever imagine is Dick Cheney dancing naked claiming he will never die. Perhaps I would give him Moby Dick. His wife would approve (it’s a classic!) and maybe she could explain how obsession of whiteness leads to destruction.

If ever a novel had two strange, ambiguous endings, Blood Meridian is it. What do you make of the Epilogue?

Wasn’t it Patton who said that the idea wasn’t to give your life for your country, the goal was to make the other guy give his? The essential complexity of Blood Meridian is that Holden tells the American story. We might find his methods problematic, but without him America is a different country. The kid has to be abused/killed/discredited because his story might differ from the Judge’s notebook. The kid’s story might make us guilty or feel complicit in the ugly “progress” of western expansion. We willingly adopt the Judge because to deny him is to accept that the past we celebrate (Thanksgiving, Independence Day—how many times a year do we celebrate the past?) as integral to the very core of our being as a nation is flawed and must be re-examined. To do so would be to question the very notion of who we are. I think the nation’s unwillingness to fully engage with the debate regarding torture is evidence enough that we willingly avoid the seedy underbelly of life. Torture (and the Judge) is problematic because we are forced to recognize that our interest in safety might allow us to put our soul at hazard. The Judge will never die because we are all willing to enjoy our indoor plumbing and the lack of savagery beating at our doors because he helped “tame” the world. Those post hole diggers might strike rock deep in the soil, but their ability to create domestic space (fences) is because the judge has cleared the way.

On your view, what’s the most important role of the novelist?

In a lot ways, the novelist has to be a damn good liar. The novelist creates a world that resembles ours while also moving beyond it. The novelist’s goal is to capture the historical, intellectual, and culture moment all the while trying to transcend that moment. I once listened to an interview with singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier who said something like all my songs begin with me, but I hope they never end with me. When I write I try to remember this admonition. It’s not about the novelist—it’s about the larger moment. The writer should dedicate himself or herself to getting out of the way without becoming simply a reporter.

There and Back Again

October 11, 2009
Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.) —Whitman

Born in Prague in 1947 to parents of Russian descent, Eva Chapman’s story reads like an odyssey. From Prague to Adelaide, through Paris and London, and back to the shores of Adelaide again. Against the backdrop of these ever-changing cities, Eva mastered the art of reinvention and embraced her many and other selves. Yes, Eva contains multitudes; she’s a regular Russian nesting doll. Go ahead twist and take a peek…

Who are you?

Eva Chapman

Eva Chapman

I’ve spent many years and hours of meditation pondering this profound question and eventually came to the realization “I just am.” But on a more mundane level, who I am has expressed itself in a variety of roles. After being a secondary teacher, psychotherapist, researcher and academic (gaining a Ph.D. in 1987), I was then a successful business woman in my husband’s energy efficiency company, before finally becoming an author. Add to that a wife (3 marriages), a mother (of 4), a grandmother (of 4), and a daughter (of 2) crazy (literally) Ukrainian parents. It was in trying to unravel that heritage, that led me to write Sasha & Olga, my first book. That task took me to Ukraine and Australia several times. The upshot was I healed a 33-year bitter rift with my father Sasha, who unburdened his horrendous story and died a happier man.

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

comradeWell it was two books (I often have several books on the go). The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge, totally extraordinary, beautifully written and translated, about the ghastly web that people found themselves trapped in, during the Stalinist purges and how both ordinary and influential people island huxleyresponded to accusations, mock trials, and death sentences. And The Island by Aldous Huxley, an amazing crystallization of Huxley’s thought.

As a former psychotherapist, who is the most astute psychologist among novelists, living or dead?

All good writers I believe are psychologically astute. They have a handle on what makes people tick. Susan Howatch in her excellent series of Church of England novels, cleverly and thrillingly, uncovers unconscious motivation in how people act in the world. Salley Vickers lets her career as a psychoanalyst inform the unfolding of the development of her characters, and in her later novels, tackles the thorny problem of how to treat mental illness. Charles Dickens observes people’s psychological foibles accurately and often hilariously, e.g., the cloying obsequiousness of “umble Uriah Heep” and the kindness of Joe Gargery who doles out more gravy on Pip’s plate every time Pip is insulted by Joe’s shrewish wife. I think it may be an interesting exercise to see what stands out for people in novels. For instance, I can see strands of Uriah Heep in myself, and I would have loved a supportive Joe Gargery at my own childhood dinner table.

Let’s do a round of free association. I encourage you to riff however you like. Ready?


kunderaI was gripped by the world Kafka created in The Trial. I discovered it was not so far fetched, when I had a similar experience in Australia; I was taken to court, twice in 2007-8, and put on trial by social workers about my mentally ill sister. This Kafkaesque nightmare lasted for over a year and much of the time I didn’t know what I was being accused of. It was horrendous. If I can bear it, I will write a book about it. I loved Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Milan Kundera described a similar entrapment, and I was grateful to my mother for escaping from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1949, with me in tow.


Brothers Karamazov like The Trial appeals to my crazy Russian paranoid persona.

—”All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I am in raptures over Tolstoy, Anna Karenina being my favourite book of all time. I’m not sure I agree with Tolstoy’s first line. I think there are very few happy families, and the ones I have heard of are unique “and happy in their own way” and I love hearing or reading about them. I think it takes a lot of hard work and effort to create a happy family, and perhaps there should be more examples of that in literature.

What five books should everyone read? Why?

I’d like to reframe the question as I don’t think everyone should read a book. For me books have always fallen my way – often quite serendipitously – and it has turned out to be exactly the right book at the right time. At University, when I read English, there were a lot of shoulds and that often spoilt the reading experience for me.

So five extremely important books for me have been:

Structures of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn. This opened my eyes to the relativistic nature of Scientific truths.

hiding_place35The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. This extraordinary book about Corrie’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps taught me what real forgiveness is.

Silas Marner, a tale of love, hope and redemption, introduced me to the fabulous novels of George Eliot and the extraordinary way she invokes the era in which she lives.

wind-upThe Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, just breathtaking in its originality and provides an insight into the viewpoint of Japanese people going through profound cultural change.

The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore, well written study about power and Stalin, showing how whacky and poisonous he was.

What are the most important works in American fiction in the last 25 years?

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-and-clayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, such an exciting book in that it experiments with the novel form in breathtaking ways. Chabon’s stunning descriptive passages, I think, take a lot of beating. However, I have not read a lot of recent American fiction. Suggestions welcome.

When it comes to books, what’s your greatest pet peeve?

Books which are so obviously products of writing courses. Many of these books have their own artificial strait jacket, e.g. , all show and no tell – ridiculously obtruse ways of weaving in a backstory – no adjectives – strictly no cliches. This drives me potty. I’m so distracted by the political correctness of the style that I can’t follow the story!

Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?

I like the musty smell of books in basements of libraries and the crisp newness of books in shops. But would like to get a Kindle as I could make the typing big and not have to wear glasses. I can also see the potential of Kindle and its ilk, for multi media applications, e.g., switch the screen to audio if I need to get on with a task and listen to the next bit of the story – or switch to photo albums or videos attached to the story. There is also the potential for cyber-bridging between reading and watching films or videos of the characters and part of the action in one novel. This would require collaboration between artists. However, that would detract from immersing myself in the written word and entering the world of my own imagination.

Have you had a freakishly bizarre epiphany while under the influence of a novel?

Yes, I was in the mediaeval town of Taroudant, South Morocco, reading Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan and came across a passage which contained the phrase “Let death be your advisor.” At that moment, I dropped the book over the side of the iron bed, we were sleeping on, when I noticed a live electricity wire just millimetres away from the iron bed leg. We were so close to being eletrocuted that I now take Castenada’s piece of teaching seriously.

Is there a book you want to consign to the flames? Explain.

Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Couldn’t stand his boring style. And yes I am jealous he’s made millions!

Why do you read?

To glean what another person who writes well, makes of this thing called life. To lull me to sleep last thing at night.

“This Lovely Life!”

October 4, 2009
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks. / The colors of their tails / Were like the leaves themselves / Turning in the wind, / In the twilight wind. —Wallace Stevens

Painful and embarrassing as it is, we booklovers have a common confession to make: We’re unrepentant voyeurs. When we enter a home, we spy on the bookshelves. We ogle Bantams and Nortons and Vintages; we caress (come on, you know it’s true!) Penguins, and pant over the names of authors and the titles of books, and work ourselves into a kind of amorous frenzy. Surely, a library offers a glimpse into a person’s life more intimate than a cracked bedroom door. So what are we to make of Rebecca Steinitz’s color-coded masterpiece? Well, I leave that entirely up to you, you sneaky voyeur, you.

Rebecca Steinitz

Rebecca Steinitz

Who are you?

I am a cynical idealist who would rather be reading. (I’m also a writer, editor, reviewer, teacher, mother, runner, ex-academic, feminist, Red Sox fan, and baker of chocolate cakes, but those seem more like answers to the question of what I am.)

Your book shelves are amazing, like a peacock’s tail. Can you explain what I’m seeing?

I’ve finally achieved a long-held aesthetic goal and organized our books by color. A long time ago, we lived in a small apartment where all the bookshelves were in the living room. I would sit on the couch and look at the shelves, which had lots of orange Penguins (they were orange back then) and green Viragos (they were Viragos back then), and imagine organizing them by color. When we moved into our most recent — and hopefully final —

Domination of colors

Domination of colors

house, we at first only had room to unpack the fiction, which I alphabetized, per usual, and the cookbooks (my husband is a chef), which are organized by size (the shelves in the pantry are different heights) and use (the ones we use most frequently are most accessible). Four years and one renovation later, I was finally unpacking the rest of the books, which we’d been pawing through boxes to find, and I decided that it was now or never for my color dreams. It’s led to some lovely juxtapositions, like Kaja Silverman’s The Subject of Semiotics, Fast Food Nation, and Goodman’s Languages of Art (red), and Middletown, The Letters of Virginia Woolf (Volume Two), Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, and Diana: Her True Story (white).  So far, we’ve managed to find books when we want them — I’ve got a pretty good visual memory, plus I tried to pay attention while I was putting them away. Fiction is still alphabetical, and I kept a few things out of the system, like travel books, books about writing, and Freud and Shakespeare (because I’m talismanic that way). Everyone who sees it loves it: they really are so pretty.

the bolter 2What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

The last book I read was Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, a biography of the author’s great-grandmother, Idina Sackville, an upper-class Edwardian who divorced five times and spent most of the 20s, 30s, and 40s in Kenya. I read it on vacation and quite loved it — I have an historical interest in colonialism and a sick fascination with the foibles of the British upper class, and I love drama: every morning, at breakfast, I would update my family on the latest developments in Idina’s exceedingly eventful life. But the book also made me think. One of Osborne’s reasons for writing it was to understand Idina and, especially, how she could have left her three- and four-year old sons because of her own desires, and I’m not sure the book succeeds on that front. Ironically I felt like I got a much clearer picture of the psychological makeup of Idina’s abandoned first husband and oldest son (Osborne’s grandfather), both of whom left diaries of which Osborne makes extensive use. Idina comes across as a kind of Lacanian nymphomaniac — a woman of endlessly unsatisfiable desires — but I never quite understood why. Maybe there just wasn’t a reason, though being abandoned by her own father (for a chorus girl) seems to have had something to do with it. Or maybe the issue has to do with the available materials and the limits of biography. Anyway, like I said, it got me thinking and entertained me, which pretty much sums up the benefits of reading.

Who’s the best literary critic at work today?

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be assessing academic or popular literary critics — i.e. Harold Bloom or James Wood, neither of whom I would choose, and both of whom actually occlude the distinction I’m using them to illustrate, so maybe I shouldn’t even try to answer this question… But I willwomen say that I am a huge fan of Jenny Davidson who writes the excellent blog Light Reading (disclaimer: she is a good friend), and that Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England is the best book of literary criticism I’ve read this decade.

You have a stormy love affair with 19th-century diaries. Do tell. Is there a particular work you might recommend to us?

Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick’s diaries (Munby: Man of Two Worlds; The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant) reveal the Victorians’ true weirdness, as well as the details of their everyday lives. He was a middle-class barrister who was obsessed with working-class women. She was a maid of all work. They met in the street one day, fell in love, and eventually married, secretly. She used to black her face and call him Massa and send him her diaries, which has made all sorts of cultural critics go nuts, lady's lifewith good reason, but their diaries are amazing texts of daily life, as well as perversity–only they are best read in manuscript form at Trinity College in Cambridge, where you can appreciate his meticulous print, her rapid scrawl, and the full complexity of how their diaries and lives intertwined. For aesthetic pleasure, Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, is a wonderful account of…well, just what it sounds like, with fabulous descriptions of Estes Park, and riding horses across plains in the middles of blizzards, and the like. It’s technically a series of letters to her sister, but really it’s a diary.

Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?

Paper pages. I am not an auditory person: I space out when I’m listening, whether it’s music or words. I recently really looked at a Kindle for the first time, when I started chatting with someone in a café who had one (and loved it). It seems appealing for newspapers and magazines, but I am very attached to the way books and pages let the eye rove — above, below, to the next page, a few pages back, even to the last page, if you’re that kind of person. I’ve also got a strongly visual memory — if I’m looking for a passage, I always know where in the book and on the page it is (i.e. upper right, middle left, etc.), which I imagine wouldn’t work so well with the Kindle. Then again, I think the Kindle is here to stay, and not really worth fighting — though I do think we need to fight to take away Amazon’s power to erase (i.e. text downloading should be like music downloading — once it’s in your system, it’s yours).

When, where, how do you read?


I quote: "Always, everywhere," and "bathroom."

Always, everywhere, and every which way. I can’t enter the bathroom or the subway without something to read. I read tabloids in checkout lines, ads on the bus, pamphlets and brochures in the doctor’s office, cereal boxes at the breakfast table, free newspapers on the subway, endless numbers of online articles and posts whenever I sit down at the computer. And of course books (mostly fiction, memoir, and biography, though I also review a lot of non-fiction), usually several at a time — one in my bag to read while traveling or waiting, two or three on my bedside table to read at night, the ones I’m reviewing or writing about. Sometimes I read intermittently — a few pages here, a few there — and sometimes I will read the same book for five hours without stopping (that usually happens late at night, and I try not to regret it the next day). The only place I don’t read is the car, because I get carsick.

When it comes to marginalia, pen, pencil, or finger in the sand?

I think I must have been taught in high school to use pencil, as a mark of respect for the book (and, perhaps, so that the marginalia juvenilia can be erased when one thinks better of it, though I never do, preferring the palimpsest effect), so it’s generally been pencil. There have been enormous amounts of marginalia, from detailed underlinings and notes on books I’ve studied, researched, and taught, to compulsive circling of typos, even, I must confess, in library books. More recently, though, as I’ve started to read galleys and ARCs, I find myself using pen, to make my notes more visible when I look back for them, but also, I think, to register the difference from a real book.

What was your most memorable reading experience?

When I was a kid, perhaps eight or twelve, I went on vacation with my mother, grandparents, and little sister to an inn in Rockport, Massachusetts. I have no idea why we went to Rockport: we’d never vacationed there before and never did again. We were staying in a cottage, and one night my mom and grandparents went up to the main building for some reason, and I read a book I found in the cottage. It was vaguely based on Rebecca, I realized later, but with a weird incest thing replacing the weird housekeeper thing: a sweet second wife was tormented by her husband’s sister. I remember there was a pond with a big rock on the edge, and the husband and his sister had some kind of spooky matching necklaces, and the sister was driving the wife crazy and threatening her life. It was the scariest thing I had ever read, and I don’t think I’ve read anything since that scared me as much. I got myself into a total state, and it seemed like my mother would never come back, and I really thought I could die of fear.

Decades later, around when the internet went mainstream, someone found a website which had people who would identify books whose titles you had forgotten. Like, you could say “The book takes place on Long Island and there’s a girl named Daisy,” and they would say The Great Gatsby. This was before Google, so it was pretty impressive. I wrote to them about my book, and it turned out it was a Phyllis Whitney novel called The Winter People, and I was kind of mortified. I didn’t read it again. I don’t want to know if it really is that scary, or if it isn’t.

Is there a defect in a novel that you‘d give your right arm to correct? How would you improve it?

I’d like to make Daniel Deronda work. It has the potential to be Eliot’sdaniel deronda greatest book, but the Daniel and Gwendolen plots can’t cohere, and Mordecai is too perfect. I’m not sure how I would fix it, but I think the repair would have to start with Mordecai. Oh, and I’d stop Anna Karenina from throwing herself in front of the train. Every time I read the book, I hope that this time she won’t do it, and then she always does!

What book did you avoid reading for a long time only to find out you actually enjoyed it?

A cliché, I know, but Ulysses. I only finally dared to read it while studying for my orals. I expected it to be edifying, but was delighted—and somewhat stunned—to discover how thoroughly enjoyable it is.

Have you ever read a book you initially disliked only to learn later that you really do like it?

I hated Jane Eyre for years, but I eventually realized, on perhaps the seventh or eighth reading (why, you may ask, did I read a book I hated so many times? it was an academic thing, but also, I think, I knew it was important, even though I hated it) that it was Jane I hated, not the book, and I came to quite like the book, though it’s more a respect kind of like than a passionate kind of like.

Is there a book that’s been raved about by many, even by people you respect, but just didn’t get what all the fuss was about, even to the point of questioning your own literary standards?

I thought The Time Traveler’s Wife was stupid — impressively plotted, but totally banal. It didn’t make me question my own literary standards, but I couldn’t believe how many smart, thoughtful people whose taste I usually respect loved that book.

What are your top five favorite books?

Margaret Laurence, The Diviners
Salman Rushdie, Shame
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Keri Hulme, The Bone People
Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

thislovelylifeWhat’s the best book you’ve read this year?

Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries and Vicki Forman’s This Lovely Life are the best books I’ve read recently. The Adderall Diaries is about a murder and the life and thoughts as he covers the murder (that description barely does it justice, but the alternative is about six paragraphs long). This Lovely Life is about how Forman coped with the extremely premature birth of her twins (again, a thoroughly inadequate description). Both are spellbinding reads that address life’s complexities with deep compassion. They are beautiful books.