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A Cabinet of Curiosities

Sam Litzinger's
Good Books



"When I get a little money, I buy books. And if any is left, I buy food and clothes."
Desiderius Erasmus
(1459-1536)

OK, so Erasmus was a little obsessive, but his fellow book-lovers admire his determination.
One of the things I enjoy most about my radio job is talking to writers whose work I love. I now have a growing list of favorites to match the growing piles of books in my house (unlike Erasmus, I regularly spend money on food; less often on clothes. Thank goodness for jeans and baggy shirts that, unlike their wearer, only look better with age). Good writers show us the world in ways we haven't seen before. It's a pleasurable thing to be surprised by something interesting and well-crafted. Here are some suggestions:
 



Alice McDermott

AUDIO: Alice McDermott talks about being read to as a child

Alice McDermott's A Bigamist's Daughter in 1982 was a sign of many good things to come. She's become a much admired writer and teacher. McDermott is also a pleasure to speak with and her work is a joy to read. Charming Billy and After This are well worth your time.
  



Michael Chabon

AUDIO: Michael Chabon talks about his appearance on "The Simpsons"

Michael Chabon turned his master's thesis, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, into a novel -- and he was off and writing professionally at age 24. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which reflects his fascination with comic books in particular and popular culture in general. Chabon is as happy talking about Homer the epic poet as he is about Homer Simpson the epic dolt.



Homer the epic poet



Homer the epic dolt
(and, of course, one of my role models)





Calliope the Muse

Poets are always a pleasure to talk with. I've found they're as thoughtful in interviews as they are in in crafting their poems. We have many excellent poets working today -- Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, Robert Haas, Jorie Graham and Charles Simic, to name just a few.

Claudia Emerson
was a fine poet as well as a good conversationalist -- but you had to pry the fact that she was also a Pulitzer Prize winner out of her. I think her poem "Pitching Horseshoes" is pitch perfect. She is missed.



Claudia Emerson

AUDIO: Claudia Emerson on working at a used bookstore and as a mail carrier


Now a few words about:


Nathan Englander (hirsute)


Nathan Englander (shorn)

AUDIO: Nathan Englander on how Jews and non-Jews can enjoy his work

Nathan Englander made his considerable talent known to readers with his remarkable collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Then he kept a relatively low profile for several years. It turns out he was working on a novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, which is worth the wait. In it, he gives life to some of those caught in the so-called "Dirty War" in Argentina and reminds us that human beings are both loving creatures and nasty pieces of work, depending on circumstances. The subject matter of the book may be off-putting to some potential readers, but Englander is no heavy-handed moralist. He can be charmingly funny both on the printed page and in person.
There was some concern among fans that cutting his Roger Daltrey-like hair would render him, like Samson, powerless, but fear not: Englander's strength is undiminished. Besides, he's probably sick to death of people talking about his hair anyway. So let's talk about another good writer with excellent hair:




Margaret Atwood

 Margaret Atwood could be a stand-up comic. I had no idea the author of The Handmaid's Tale (not exactly a laugh riot) and Negotiating with the Dead (excellent, but also not exactly a laugh riot) was as funny as she is. She told me about being perhaps one of the worst waitresses in the world in her younger days (she lost weight because cleaning up the remains of other people's meals was so disgusting!).

AUDIO: Margaret Atwood on working as a cashier at a coffee shop



I can recommend her collection of short stories titled Moral Disorder, among many other Atwood works.




John Irving

AUDIO: John Irving on his ideal reader

John Irving, author of The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire and Until I Find You, among many others, is an interesting writer who could also wrestle you to the ground and pin you, if he felt that was necessary. Happily, he did not do this to me when I chatted with him. He was, in fact, very thoughtful and considerate. But I wouldn't want him mad at me.




Michael Ondaatje

AUDIO: Michael Ondaatje on not mapping out his work

Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient (made into a movie which the author actually liked, which, I've found, is unusual for novelists), Anil's Ghost and Divisidero, among others, is lover of early jazz as well as a teller of stories. In fact, he seems to enjoy improvisation in his writing as much as Louis Armstrong did in his playing with the "Hot Five". That probably explains why Ondaatje doesn't spend a lot of time plastering his walls with charts and sticky notes when he's working.




Sherwin Nuland

AUDIO: Sherwin Nuland on the importance of companionship

I met Dr. Sherwin Nuland several years ago when he was on a tour for his book How We Live. Since then, I've read everything else of his I could find (e.g., The Wisdom of The Body, How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, Leonardo Da Vinci, Lost in America: A Journey with My Father). He denies it, but Nuland is a Renaissance man and one of my heroes.


Speaking of heroes:



John Hope Franklin

AUDIO: John Hope Franklin on remembering

Dr. John Hope Franklin was even more fascinating to talk with than his work is to read -- and that's saying a lot. His From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans is a classic and his Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand the history of race relations in America. Franklin the historian tells the story of Franklin the man.




Samuel Beckett
(1906-1989)

I never interviewed Samuel Beckett (who also had outstanding hair, by the way -- maybe there's a trend here), which is good because I wouldn't have any idea what to ask him. He seems to me one of the few writers whose work really does present a complete world view -- no elaboration needed. It's all there in Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Waiting for Godot, and Krapp's Last Tape.  I'm a Beckett fan because, among other things, he wrote plays for the radio, which is a perfect medium for him. Someday when I'm rich, I'll buy a whole weekend's worth of time on a station and we'll do all the radio plays straight through. That should push those ratings through the roof!

I cling to the belief that I actually saw Beckett many years ago when I was living in Paris. One Sunday as I was leaving the Louvre, I swear Sam Beckett was walking in. He was wearing a dark coat and a woolen cap. The face and glasses couldn't have been anyone's but his. He was headed toward the Egyptian section, as I recall. I resisted the urge to ask, "Say, aren't you Samuel Beckett?!" -- one of my rare moments of good sense -- but I like to think it was him, heading off to commune with ancient Pharaohs. He'd join them permanently soon.

"...where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on,
I can't go on, I'll go on."
Samuel Beckett
- The Unnamable

Lest Beckett depress you, I end this page with a classic I hope to read soon:




(Mr. S. looks like a guy I used to work for!)