Jacket Copy

Books, authors and all things bookish

Category: summer reading

Fug Girls get 'Messy' with young-adult follow-up [Updated]

FuggirlsJust in time for summer beach reading season, professional celebrity skewerers the Fug Girls are back with another young-adult sendup of Hollywood celebu-spawn. We caught up with Go Fug Yourself bloggers Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan to talk about their "Messy" new book.

Jacket Copy: In your young-adult debut, "Spoiled," a vacuous blond ladder climber goes Manolo a Manolo with her surprise half sister. In "Messy," she continues to spar but with a different female character. What is it about rivalry that appeals?

Heather Cocks: It isn't so much about rivalry as outsiderness. In "Spoiled," Molly was a geographic outsider. In "Messy," we get someone who’s emotionally an outsider. Those are the kinds of feelings that anyone can relate to. A lot of teen rivalry is feeling you’re different from someone else and being judged for being different. I don’t know any teenage girls who look back on that time and say, 'What a wonderful, magnificent time of personal growth.' Usually you're thinking of the girl who made you feel like an idiot.

MessyJC: Like "Spoiled," your new book is a takedown of celebrity culture. But, like your blog, it's a takedown that unfolds in the blogosphere. Why did you want the rivalry to center on a Hollywood insider blog?

Heather Cocks: There's definitely the idea that the Fug Girls are writing a book, so there’s a fun wink to how we met and got started. The reason these books even exist is because we have this blog. People often assume that we ourselves are anonymous because we don’t put our pictures on the website and we have facetious bios we put up. My picture is from Joan Collins when she was on "Dynasty" and Jessica’s is Shannon Doherty from "90210," so people see that and assume we’re trying to stay anonymous and sometimes disbelieve we’re women or that our names are really Heather and Jessica because they’re cheerleader names you would cherry-pick to write a blog like ours. That brings up the whole idea of whether you can believe what you see on the web. It was a fun way for us to deal with identity issues. [Updated June 6, 2012, 8:51 a.m.: The original version of this post said the Fug Girls don't put their fiction on their blog. They don't put their pictures.]

Spoiled_pbJacket Copy: How is writing young-adult fiction different from your blog, especially writing as a team?

Jessica: Heather and I are very comfortable writing together because we’ve been doing it for eight years. Our posts on Go Fug Yourself we write ourselves, but our work for New York magazine and other freelance we do together, so it feels like a natural extension. Logistically, we had a very detailed outline and then we traded.

JC: Why did you even want to write fiction for teens?

Heather: It’s such a different muscle from what we do on the blog because it’s creating something new as opposed to riffing on material. To have a picture that’s your base is different from creating the world yourself. We both watch a lot of CW and ABC Family. We're very soapy people. We read a lot of young-adult because there’s so much really well-written fiction for young adults. God knows the number of times we mention "Sweet Valley High" on our website. It felt like a really natural arena to step into.

JC: What's so great about your books is that the humor from your blog completely translates. What makes fashion and celebrity culture so fun to make fun of?

Jessica: We sort of see Go Fug Yourself as the online version of sitting around with your friends watching the Oscars. It's a virtual coffee klatsch to sit around and say, "What is she wearing? What is he thinking?" We intend it to be good-hearted, but I also think if I had all these resources -- all the money and the stylist and the trainer and the time -- I would look fantastic all the time. There’s something confounding when someone who has all the resources to look amazing all the time sometimes looks totally insane.

JC: Brick was such a narcissistic, movie-star dad in the first book. Without spoiling "Messy," does he step up in book two?

Heather: One of my favorite scenes is when Brooke achieves a measure of professional success early in the book and she tells Brick and they have a little moment together. Anyone who read "Spoiled" knows she’s very much driven by wanting his attention. Brick in this book becomes a little more involved in her life, so I think people will be happy to see him spending some time. But he just finished work on "Avalanche," his epic snow movie shot in Key West.


"Spoiled" review

Novelist James Patterson preaches the power of kids' books

"Fated" review

-- Susan Carpenter

Photos: Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan; book covers for "Messy" and "Spoiled." Credit: Kim Fox; Little, Brown and Company.


Summer reading: Carolyn Kellogg on Norman Mailer


Although the phrase "beach reads" evokes fluffy page turners, we had conversations around the office this spring that led us to think that people might have used the summer break-from-routine to sink into books that were meaningful, or lasting. What better way to find out than to ask?

In the responses we got from authors and booksellers, we discovered that people's favorite summer reads were as broad as at any other time of year, not proscribed by anything but their enthusiasms. To close out our summer reads, here's mine -- I'm Carolyn Kellogg, and I write about books and publishing here at the L.A. Times -- it's a doorstopper.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book during the summer?

Carolyn Kellogg: Yes, most notably, "The Executioner's Song" by Norman Mailer.

JC: How old were you, and where were you?

CK: I was 16 or 17, at my parents' house in Wakefield, R.I., where I didn't spend as much time as you might expect. I'd gone away for high school and worked part of the summers as a nanny, so my intervals at home were short. Not that they felt that way -- it was a small town, and because I'd picked up and left of my own accord, my adolescent friendships had shriveled. I didn't have a car. Being at my parents' house was like being sent into isolation.

The house was at the town's furthest reaches, on the wrong side of a hard-to-traverse highway. Our property was one of several large-ish lots along a dirt road, all of which were slowly being settled. We had about 5 acres, full of scrubby underbrush and thick briars only the rabbits could get through. The house was designed by an architect friend of my dad's and had a small suburban yard out front -- planting beds, a patio, green turf grass. It was there, on a beach blanket, slathered with baby oil in a fruitless and unhealthy effort to get a tan, that I read "The Executioner's Song."

JC: Why was the book significant to you then?

CK: First, because it was so big -- more than 1,000 pages. I knew that it would last me for a good stretch of my time at home. This was way before the Internet, and I'd read everything in the house -- including my parents' college books, significant portions of a horticultural encyclopedia and my dad's Chronicles of Higher Education and Scientific Americans when they arrived.

Second, because it was great. It was great in scope, it was great in its difficult moral reckonings, it was great in its ambitions to portray Gary Gilmore's life up close, closer than any straightforward journalist could have. It was a great read. It was powerful and moving yet almost entirely free of sentimentality.

If you haven't read it, "The Executioner's Song" is Norman Mailer's detailed telling of the story of Gary Gilmore, a high school dropout with a high IQ who became a small-time hood, was in and out of prison and eventually committed murder, twice, messily. When he was caught and tried, he was sentenced to death; Gilmore refused to appeal, meaning he'd be the first American executed by the justice system after a five-year suspension of capital punishment. The book looks as closely at Gilmore's troubled early life as it does at those fighting for and against the death penalty, who saw Gilmore as a symbol; Mailer's take was that he was a man trying to face the consequences of his actions. Gary Gilmore was killed by firing squad in Utah in 1977; for "The Executioner's Song," Norman Mailer won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize.

Mailer won his Pulitzer for fiction -- "The Executioner's Song" was considered a novel, then, although today its heavy reliance on firsthand interviews and courthouse reporting would likely categorize it as nonfiction. There was some uncertainty where to put the true but vividly embroidered New Journalism -- which I'd already encountered, surprisingly, at my staid, two-centuries-old boarding school. On the sly, between Shakespeares, my English class had read Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," thrilling in its subjectivity and self-indulgence and madcap storytelling. "The Executioner's Song" had some of that -- including the strong voice and presence of the narrator, Mailer -- but it aspired to something more. Now I can see that Norman Mailer was doing his own version of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," finding his own killer and trying to get inside his mind, and he was wrestling with his big testosterone-y questions. What does it take to be a man? What unmakes him? Is society at war with manhood?

Although smarter women than I have balked at these particularly manly, Mailerly obsessions, "The Executioner's Song" and his presence within the narrative are still, to me, magnificent and full of possibility.

JC: Have you re-read the book?

CK: No, but I've read a lot of other Norman Mailer, including the 1,300-page "Harlot's Ghost." I'd trade that for a re-reading of "The Executioner's Song."

JC: Have you returned to that place?

CK: The fall after I turned 18, my parents dug up most of that green yard and the one grand tree on our property, a dogwood, to put in a pool. The place where I read was gone once, then erased a second time by the family my parents sold the house to a few years ago; they razed everything and built their own new home there, with their own suburban yard.

JC: Do you have plans to read any specific book before the summer is over?

CK: I'm reading James Ellroy's "The Hilliker Curse," because I'm interviewing him on stage at Largo on Tuesday. And I also will go back to John Waters' "Role Models," because I'm interviewing him on stage in Brooklyn on Friday. And I have a long, long row of books to read for the National Book Critics Circle that will carry me well into fall.

If you need something to read this weekend, we've still got a list of fresh reads from summer 2010: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Norman Mailer at home in 2006. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

Summer reading: Kevin Sampsell on Padgett Powell


Kevinsampsell_wcat Kevin Sampsell is the author, most recently, of "A Common Pornography," part memoir, part loosely structured snapshots of growing up in the 1970s and '80s. The book's layers also explore dark, long-kept family secrets that emerged after his estranged father's death. In addition to writing, Sampsell is the publisher of Future Tense Books, an independent house focused on experimental fiction and poetry, based in Portland, Ore., and editor of the mystery anthology "Portland Noir."

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading specific books during the summer?

Kevin Sampsell: For some reason, I remember finding great comfort in Padgett Powell's books after breaking up with a longtime girlfriend. It started with "Edisto" and then his story collection, "Typical," and then the underrated follow-up, "Edisto Revisited," which was pretty new at that time.

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

KS: 1997 -- a year that will live in infamy. Ha! I was 30 years old and having some kind of weird midlife crisis. I guess I thought that 30 was midlife. Maybe it is.

JC: Where were you?

KS: This was in Portland, where I still am and forever will be. I was co-running an espresso cart business with the aforementioned ex. We'd been slinging coffee for almost five years and it was a great business but our breakup was bad -- my fault -- and our relationship was really strained. The afternoon shift was slower though and it gave me time to read, which took my mind off of my problems.

JC: Why were the books significant to you then?

KS: The Edisto books were like friends to me. In the first one, which was Powell's debut and earned him an American Book Award nomination, the main character (Simons Manigault) is an intelligent young teenager who is lost in the whims of his separated parents. The book is told from the boy's point of view and there are so many funny moments that come couched in heartbreaking scenarios, that you can't help but to root for him. He's unable to really control his situation but the thing that makes the book so good is that Powell gives the kid such a marvelous and fresh voice. Simons turns out to be our witness in a world full of adult debacles. The follow-up, which came out a dozen years after the first, presents Simons just out of college and therefore faced with more grown-up situations. Typical was a short story collection and if you're a short fiction fan, this should be pretty high on your list of should-reads. It's kind of like Barry Hannah, but a little warmer. You'll smile and shake your head while reading it. There was something wild but also very sweet about those books. Sometimes when you read something like "Edisto," you feel a sense of forgiveness. 

JC: Have you re-read the books?

KS: I rarely re-read books. But I have looked at "Typical" a few times and like to show it to people. I like that title story. It's such an awesome beginning and he name-checks Candace Bergen, Mickey Gilley and Earl Campbell.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

KS: I stopped working at the espresso cart a few months after that summer ended and I started working at Powell's Books, where I've been since. I don't get to read on the job so much but I got a much larger pile to choose from if I do. Sometimes, when I drive out to that area of town, I do remember reading those books though, sitting outside on a stool, probably sipping on an iced mocha.

JC: Do you have plans to read any specific book before the summer is over?

KS: I'm always reading. I'm going in various directions this summer. I loved Alex Lemon's memoir, "Happy." I was on a Southern road trip with my fiance in July and I read Erskine Caldwell's dark fable, "Tobacco Road." Some poetry books by Beth Ann Fennelly, Mike Young, Evelyn Hampton and Michael Earl Craig. A sad novel by Michael Kimball called "How Much of Us There Was." Tony O'Neill's drug romp, "Sick City" And I'd like to finish Mary Gaitskill's story collection, "Don't Cry," and get started on "Mentor" by Tom Grimes before summer fades away. But, I should point out: Reading is definitely an all-year activity in Portland.

The summer of 2010 is almost over, but Labor Day weekend presents an opportunity for some last-gasp summer reading. Not sure where to begin? Check out the Los Angeles Times' list of this season's summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Kevin Sampsell. Credit: B. Frayn Masters

Summer reading: Rosecrans Baldwin on Graham Greene

RosecransbaldwinRosecrans Baldwin, a founder of the smart and witty website The Morning News, published his debut novel this week. And while it's smart, "You Lost Me There" has none of the charming sarcasm of the website; instead, it takes a mature look at relationships and memory. The Daily Beast writes that it is a "masterful study of love, loss, and self-discovery." Baldwin told Jacket Copy about one of his favorite summer reads, "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene, via e-mail.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book during summertime?

Rosecrans Baldwin:
First one that comes to mind is "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene. I love that book. In my imaginary Graham Greene library, it warrants its own platinum shelf, under a bomb-proof shield, along with "The Comedians," "The Ministry of Fear" and "The Human Factor." I've read "End of the Affair" at least eight or nine times. It's an extremely good novel. This reading, though, was a very new experience. I had to put it down.

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

This was in 2008. I was 31.

JC: Where were you?

My wife and I rented a beach house in Topsail, N.C., with some friends and my wife's family. I'd go out surfing in the middle of the afternoon heat, come back inside, fall on one of the deck chairs, grab "End of the Affair" and be immediately, wonderfully depressed.

JC: Why was the book significant to you then?

I was halfway through and I couldn't finish it. This never happened before with that book. Sometimes, I'll throw a book across the room because it bugs me, but the only other book that ever made me feel so rotten was "Revolutionary Road," which I made myself finish. I'm not sure why "End of the Affair" struck me this time. Maybe I'm old enough to better plumb its depths.

JC: Have you gone back to read it again?

I haven't read it since that week, but I will. The copy that's currently on the shelf must be the 10th I've bought. I keep buying them, giving them away, buying them again. I think I've owned a version of nearly every reprint.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

We went back late last summer. No Greene this time. I think I was reading "Lush Life," by Richard Price, and a bunch of John Le Carré novels. I'm a completist with Le Carré. I fear the day when I've read everything he's written.

JC: Do you have plans to read any specific book or books before the summer is over? 

Right now I'm reading "The Fire Engine That Disappeared," by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. After that, I've got Caryl Férey's "Zulu" on the shelf, then I should be ready to hunker down and barnstorm the new Franzen. I can't wait.

The summer of 2010 is nearing its end, but Labor Day weekend presents an opportunity for some last-gasp summer reading. Not sure where to begin? Check out the Los Angeles Times' list of this season's summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Rosecrans Baldwin. Credit: Susie Post Rust

Summer reading: John Reed on 'The Dark Knight Returns'

Reed_talesofwoe John Reed has written novels -- "A Still Small Voice" and "Snowball's Chance" -- as well as stranger assemblages. What do you call a play made up entirely of mixed-up lines from six of Shakespeare's best-known plays? Reed called it "All the World's a Grave," and Penguin published it in 2008. This month, Reed returns to shelves with "Tales of Woe," a bleak, black book full of true tales of undeserved suffering, illustrated with grim original art by Kiki Jones and others. "This is not Hollywood catharsis," the book proclaims on its back cover. "This is Greek catharsis: You watch people suffer horribly, then feel better about your own life." John Reed took a sideways response to our questions: This is, sort of, his essay about summer reading, and growing up.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?

John Reed: A few things, I can tell.  I can usually tell a martial arts guy: he'll have a look like "I could move a lot faster, but it hurts too much."  And, probably related because a lot of martial arts guys were abused as children -- or are living something down -- I can tell when someone had an alcoholic parent.  Sometimes takes a bit, but that will usually reveal itself -- a person too good, too facilitating, probably as he or she had to be through childhood.  I didn't learn that at Al-Anon, no doubt the better course, I learned that in the arts.  I grew up in the artworld, stayed somewhat, and have added in a writer crowd.  Nothing more obvious -- "I was a neglected child" -- than that smiling schmuck author shot.  There's one of me on the back flap of my first book. 

Which brings me to the two types of schmucks.  1) The kind that cares what other people think.  2) The kind that doesn't.

It was while reading "The Dark Knight Returns," Frank Miller's update of the Batman legacy, that I realized my life, or the quest of my life, would be to transform myself from the first kind of schmuck to the second.  I haven't always succeeded, and I still rip my shirt off my back three times a week, but I think my development as an author -- from Civil War love story ("A Still Small Voice") to "Tales of Woe," twenty-five true stories that just get worse -- shows progress.

"The Dark Knight" was a momentous event to the comics community.  It was an avalanchian erosion of hard boundaries: between mainstream comics and underground comix, between adult and juvenile comics, between the comic book and the book.  The four-part series had better art, better writing, and a more complicated narrative.  Batman, the aging hero who was as if the personification of the Comics Code (which legislated that law enforcement be depicted as just and upstanding) is transformed into a decaying 80s hero.  A Clint Eastwood cowboy who's lost his sense of right; an investigative detective who's gotten too close to the pathology of the serial killer; a hero struggling, struggling, not to become a villain.  That was the best part about it.  Not the struggle to stay heroic, but the inevitable fall.  "The Dark Knight" didn't rekindle my interest in superheroes, but here was this jag on the timeline: this comic book that was really a book, and art and text and a direction that would dispatch the Comics Code, which was a creative death sentence; and this plausibility of schmuck enlightenment.  Batman was an enlightened schmuck.  Or, at his best he was.

Not long before, I'd read Machiavelli's The Prince, which is only going to work if you're a prince, and Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible, which is, fittingly, a largely plagiarized rip-off.  The best I had done to satisfy my own sense of theology was The Gospel of Thomas, which iterated the popular notion that God is inside you, or something akin.  Not for two years would the villain postulation be succinctly framed and illustrated in the Batman universe -- not until "The Killing Joke," by Allan Moore and Brian Bolland, did a piece of poop like the rest of us come alive with the punchline (becoming the joker) -- but still, in the Dark Knight, I caught an inkling of a popular contemporary treatment.  The appeal of the villain, of schmuck type #2.  Only the villain seeks freedom.   

Continue reading »

Summer reading: Lisa Brackmann on Ursula K. LeGuin


Lisa Brackmann's first visit to China was decades ago, and the Southern California writer taps her deep knowledge of the country in her debut literary thriller "Rock Paper Tiger." The story focuses on an Iraq war vet who's trying to forget -- the war, her departed husband -- and immerses herself in China's urban underground culture, online gaming, Percocets and beer.  In the Atlantic, James Fallows writes: "the off-hand observations about Beijing -- and Taiyuan and Xi'an -- ring true to me, and are very different from what you'll hear from the standard media or business bigshot making a drop-by visit." The thriller part -- with a mystery and various conspiracies -- kicks in when a fugitive disappears. Brackmann tells us about what she read the summer before she first went to China.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book during summertime?

Lisa Brackmann: Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Dispossessed."

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

LB: 1979. I was 20.

JC: Where were you?

LB: Basel, Switzerland.

JC: Why was the book significant to you then?

LB: I was on a work-study program in Switzerland, and I read the book shortly before leaving for China, where I ended up living for six months.

Ursula Le Guin is a lovely writer, and I really loved the prose. The book is a sort of political/cultural science fiction, looking at things like: anarchism in a world of scarcity versus capitalism in a world of abundance. Pretty on-target for a Southern California girl about to journey to the People’s Republic of China!

JC: Do you have plans to read any specific book or books before the summer is over?

LB: I’m trying to read more within my genre, whatever that is -- maybe “quirky-on-the-edge-of-literary” suspense. I also just want to read good fiction. And I have my usual pile of non-fiction about contemporary China.

Some of the things I’ve read/am reading this summer: Sophie Hannah ("The Wrong Mother") and Tana French ("The Likeness") for category 1.

For #2, I finally read "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay" by Michael Chabon (given how much I enjoyed "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," I'm not sure what took me so long).

#3, I have such a big stack it scares me, so maybe I’ll go with "Zhou Enlai: The last Perfect Revolutionary" and "The Last Days of Old Beijing."

JC: Is there anything you read this summer that has stuck with you?

LB: The one I’ve thought about the most is Chevy Stevens’ "Still Missing." It’s marketed as a suspense/thriller, which it really isn’t. I found it genuinely disturbing.

There is still time -- just a few weeks -- to get in your summer reading for 2010. Not sure where to begin? Check out the Los Angeles Times' list of this season's summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Summer reading: Kate Racculia on 'The Perilous Gard'

Kateracculia_webKate Racculia grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and attended graduate school in Boston. Yet her debut novel, "This Must Be the Place" has a lure of Hollywood -- special-effects Hollywood, that is, "Jason and the Argonauts"-style. In the book, a Northeasterner is enchanted by the classic Ray Harryhausen films; she comes to California to work in special effects. Years later, after a freak accident, her bereft husband goes to her hometown, moving into a boarding house run by his wife's oldest friend and her daughter. More than 200 people turned out to Racculia's recent book launch in Syracuse.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book during the summer?

Kate Racculia: Summertime has always been about happily glutting myself on books, especially while on family vacations, so I have scads of fond summer reading memories -- Stephen King's "The Stand" (I was coming down with a cold and convinced myself it was Captain Trips); Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" (OK, I was technically rereading it for something like the fourth time); "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell (devoured greedily in a day and change, and wished for more) -- but my single clearest reading experience was of a historical young-adult novel called "The Perilous Gard," by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

KR: It was 1992; the Summer Olympics were blasting in from Barcelona on the tiny, rabbit-eared television set, and I was 12.

JC: Where were you?

KR: On vacation with my family at camp (“camp” being a regionalism for a lake cottage) on Oneida Lake in upstate New York.

JC: What about the book was significant to you then?

KR: It was a book that had been kicking around my shelf for about a year, ordered through a school book club (probably because the name -- perilous! -- sounded intriguing) but that I had never read. Once I had it in my hands, the cover image of a young woman in billowy garments clutching her throat dismayed me. I expected a lot of hand-wringing and fainting, and, worst of all, a main character who was completely useless in the face of danger. BOY, was I wrong.

I started reading around 11 in the morning and did not leave the hideously uncomfortable chair I’d planted myself in until I was done, some 10 hours later. Not only was it a totally ripping British-historical adventure yarn (England, months before the death of Mary and Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne!), there were child kidnappings! Mysterious pagan sects living underground! And a klutzy but clever heroine named Kate who gained inner poise, the grudging respect of the tough pagans, and the affections of a gorgeously tortured young man being fatted for human sacrifice. God, I love this book -- like I love all books that surprise and captivate me, that I don’t see coming but stay with me forever. "The Perilous Gard" was the first to ever pull that glorious trick on me, and for that, it has always had a place of honor on my bookshelf.

JC: Have you reread it?

KR: More times than I can count. The spine is cracked in a hundred different places.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

KR: My family hasn’t rented that same camp for quite some time, but I’ve been coming to Oneida Lake every summer since I was 3 years old.

JC: What are you reading this summer? Will you be taking a vacation (and bringing any books)?

KR: Of course -- to Oneida Lake! This year I’m packing William March’s "The Bad Seed," Allegra Goodman’s "The Cookbook Collector," David Mitchell’s "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," Kate Atkinson’s "Human Croquet" and "Anne of Green Gables" because (gasp!) I have never read it.

For more summer reading, tap into the Los Angeles Times' list of new summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Kate Racculia. Credit: Kristin Osiecki

Summer reading: Ron Currie Jr. on David Foster Wallace


With his first two books, Ron Currie Jr. has garnered comparisons to Vonnegut and stacks of awards. His novel "Everything Matters!," our reviewer wrote, "romps through the bleakest of landscapes. Cancer. Addiction. Stardom. Torture. Abuse. Secret and all-knowing government agencies. Flesh-eating disease. Suicide and terrorism. Like his earlier work, this is a comedy.... The novel is violent and disgusting, then sweet and romantic. It is carefully sentimental, never becoming maudlin." Ron Currie Jr.'s "Everything Matters!" is now out in paperback.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?

Ron Currie Jr.: Several stand out in my mind, but the one that's most prominent at the moment is "Infinite Jest."  Nice light summer reading, that.

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

RCJr: Let's see, that would have been the summer of either 2000 or 2001, I think.  Maybe 2002, at the latest.  Those years are sort of a blur to me, for various, obvious, and fairly unimaginative reasons.

JC: Where were you?

RCJr: I was where I am right now, where I can usually be found, which is Waterville, Maine. At the time I worked summers for my father, who owned a small lawn care and landscaping business. His primary occupation was firefighter/paramedic, but he was one of those old-school guys who worked, and then worked, and then had lunch while driving between jobs, and then worked some more, and then slept for four or five hours and did it all over again. He would come home from a 24-hour shift at the fire station, change his clothes, grab a cup of coffee, and then we'd head out and cut grass and trim hedges and spread mulch for 10 or 12 hours.  My primary occupation was restaurant cook, and mowing lawns was a way for me to get out of the kitchen for a bit, catch a tan, draw down the omnipresent urge to end myself that blossomed steadily with each consecutive month I spent cooking other people's dinners for them.

So anyway, I'd been wanting to read "Infinite Jest" -- I read "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" and was just beginning to understand that my own work needed some magic and playfulness, needed to move away from the realism of writers like Carver and Malamud and Chekhov -- but "Infinite Jest" was just such a massive lap-breaker that I hadn't given it a shot yet. And the novel is not just long as hell, it also contains some of the most dense writing I've ever encountered -- page upon page without so much as a period, never mind a paragraph break. That summer, though, it occurred to me that a good way to tackle the book might be to carry it around in the truck and read in snatches as we drove from job to job. Five pages here, fifteen there. And it went surprisingly fast, which isn't that surprising in retrospect, given my father's proclivity for marathon work days. By the time I'd finished, my copy was a mess of grass clippings, sweat drips, and smears of axle grease and 50:1 gas/oil mix.

JC: Why was the book significant to you then?

RCJr: It pretty much reconfigured my sense of what's possible in a novel, which is to say it made clear there's very little you can't do if you're writing with conviction and confidence. And it taught me that it's possible to be funny and playful and earnest and intensely cerebral all at the same time. I hadn't seen too many examples of that sort of range before, and have seen very few since. Plus I realized how jealous I was that I hadn't conceived of a guru-type character who trades sage advice for the privilege of licking sweat off the bodies of those who consult with him. That's my kind of writing, gotta say.

JC: Have you reread it?

RCJr: I have. It's not easy, but the bigger the challenge in reading, the bigger the payoff, is my experience. Unless the writer miffs it, of course.

JC: How has Waterville changed for you?

RCJr: My father died just a few years later, far too soon, and my life bears very little resemblance to what it looked like then. No more cutting grass and cooking steaks, praise Yahweh. But on the other hand, life around here doesn't ever really change too much. Which is how most of us prefer it, I think. Those who want variability tend to get out of Dodge pretty much the moment it becomes possible for them.     

JC: What are you reading this summer?

RCJr: Just finished Aimee Bender's "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," which I enjoyed and recommend. Bender's work shares a lot in common with Wallace's, in spirit if not delivery.

For more reading this summer, check out the L.A. Times list of 2010 summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Ron Currie Jr. Credit: Sarah Eustis

Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.

Summer reading: Joshua Mohr on E.L. Doctorow

San Francisco-based writer Joshua Mohr has just published his second novel, "Termite Parade," with the independent upstart press Two Dollar Radio. The book is told in short bursts from the perspectives of three different, unreliable characters, one of whom asks an "obscene question: What's the difference between lying to yourself and being redeemed?"

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?

Joshua Mohr: The easy answer is E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel.” Easy because it’s my favorite novel and I’ve read it at least 10 times, in every season. In fact, I’d hide in Doctorow’s bushes and ask him enthusiastic questions about the tome every time he walked by if I knew where he lived. Is that creepy? 

I have an addictive personality anyway, but even by my standards, my relationship with “The Book of Daniel” is unhealthy. I’m very protective of it, too. I recently heard someone say, “I don’t get that book,” and I launched into a probably-not-socially-acceptable defense of it. It was a “No one puts Baby in the corner” kind of thing.

JC: When did you start?

JM: I came to reading and writing fairly late in life. I hear stories of writers who “penned” their first opus at age 8, plopped on granny’s lap and scribbling relentlessly, already cutting their literary teeth. But I was “anti-precocious”: didn’t read my first novel until I was 17. That book was Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” Before then, I’d only skimmed Jane Austen and Mark Twain and the like, and those authors are certainly good at what they do, but it wasn’t for me. Vonnegut showed me that writers could be crazy on the page, reckless, their imaginations zigzagging anywhere. After that, I was hooked. I crossed paths with “The Book of Daniel” my first summer in grad school. I was 25. I’d never read anything like it. Still haven’t.

JC: Where were you?

JM: In my apartment, in San Francisco. The city has been my home for almost 20 years. I live in the Mission District. All my books are set there. I remember being so excited by Doctorow’s book that I brewed a pot of coffee at midnight, so I could stay up and inhale the narrative in one sitting. It’s a pretty big book. But my insomnia + all that caffeine = a jittery, palpitating success! It was also the first book that I finished, then immediately flipped back to page one and started again. I wanted to understand how he’d mesmerized me in such a strident way.

JC: What is it about this book in particular that grabbed you?

JM: It’s brutal and honest and naked and subversive and transgressive and lovely and delicate and angry and indicting and demanding of the reader. That last one is very important to me. I don’t like books where the writers do all the work on their readers’ behalves, dotting every i, making sure “we get what they’re doing.” I like writers that give me enough credit to compile my own interpretation of the facts, let me play detective as the story unfurls.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

JM: I don’t live in that apartment anymore, where I first experienced it. Though for awhile I did move across the street from that place. I tried not to take it as a metaphor for not making much progress in my life. But I wasn’t making much progress in my life. So there’s that…

JC: What are you reading this summer?

JM: I’m really looking forward to Gina Frangello’s new story collection “Slut Lullabies.” If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading one of Gina’s books, she’s published some brilliant stuff. Like me, she doesn’t work with one of the conglomerate publishers: no, we’re out on the fringe, where the fun, nutty, wanton stuff happens. Gina is incredibly gifted at what she does. It’s well worth the 15 bucks.

For more summer reading, check out the L.A. Times list of new summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Joshua Mohr. Credit: Kevin Irby

Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.

Summer reading: Meg Cabot on Anne McCaffrey's 'Dragonriders'

Megcabot Girls love Meg Cabot for her bestselling series "The Princess Diaries," and the two movies made from it starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. But Cabot is not one to rest on her laurels; she's a massively prolific writer who has published several series, writing for teens, kids and adults. Her latest two books (as of this writing, at least) are April's "Runaway," the last of her Airhead novels, and June's "Insatiable," the beginning of a new adult series that's part modern romance, part comedy and part vampires. 

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?

Meg Cabot: I spent a significant portion of the summer of 1980 reading the Anne McCaffrey "Dragonriders of Pern" series (starting with the Harper Hall series).

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

MC: It was the summer I graduated from eighth grade -- 1981 -- so I was 14. I had just gone to my first boy-girl party, at which a bunch of my classmates paired off and started slow-dancing, then making out. My best friend and I didn’t get asked to slow dance. We decided it would be hilarious to spy on everyone kissing through the basement windows, so we snuck out to do so. I didn’t know there was poison oak growing all around the house.

JC: Where were you?

MC: Carmel, Calif. My father was teaching at the Naval Academy in Monterey for a year on sabbatical. Normally I lived in Bloomington, Ind. That’s how I didn’t really have any friends, nor did I understand what poison oak was. I woke up the day after the party with a face the size of the Great Pumpkin.

I missed out on my eight grade graduation and all the rest of the summer activities. Poison oak actually went up my nose, into my ears, onto my eyes, and all down my neck. My mom had to put towels over all the mirrors because every time I saw my reflection, I would scream. I looked like Quasimodo.

JC: Why were the books significant to you then?

MC: I had a hideous facial deformity I thought was never going to go away, plus I was really nervous about starting high school back in my old town. One of my mom’s friends heard about what had happened, so she stopped by with all the Pern books (her daughter had read and loved them). I’ll forever be grateful to her for that. I lay in bed with a fan on my face (for the oozing) and read them, one after another, trying not to scratch.

Those books were amazing to me because the two main characters, Lessa and Menolly, were both social outcasts, just like I was at the time. And yet both women persevered in spite of tremendous hardships. Menolly was rejected by her family and had a physical handicap that could have prevented her from pursuing her dreams, but instead she found a new family, and a new dream. And Lessa, who everyone thought was just this dumb, ugly girl, couldn’t just talk to dragons -- she basically ended up saving the planet.

Those books really inspired me to stop feeling so sorry for myself. And when I did move back home and started high school, I used to pretend I was Menolly, and had fire dragons protecting me. God help me. Sometimes I still do it.

JC: Have you reread the books?

MC: I made my mom go out and buy me my own set that very summer. I still have them. I’ve traveled with them everywhere ever since.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

MC: I’d love to go back to Carmel. The Thunderbird Bookstore, where my mom bought all the books, was one of my favorites. I was heartbroken when I heard it closed.

But if I do go back to Carmel, I’ll know better than to stick my face into any bushes.

JC: What are you reading this summer? Will you be taking a vacation (and bringing any books)?

MC: Good or bad, this is the summer of Stieg Larsson. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t avoid "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," because my husband bought all the books on tape, and insists on playing them in the car.

But I’ve always had luck with girls and dragons, so I don’t want to avoid them.

For more summer reading, tap into the L.A. Times list of new summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Meg Cabot. Credit: Ali Smith

Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.

Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...


Explore Bestsellers Lists





Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.