Showing posts with label Steve Weddle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Weddle. Show all posts

04 March 2016

(Book) Club Hopping


By Art Taylor

Even though we're still more than two weeks from the official start of spring, this coming week is our Spring Break at George Mason University, where I teach. Even though I'm often lugging a pile of grading into our week "off" and using other big chunks of break to get a head start on reading for the classes just beyond, my wife and I usually plan some long weekend getaway in between things. This year, however, the week's schedule is marked by several events I'm pleased to be a part of.

On Saturday afternoon, March 5, I'll be the featured speaker at a Book Club Conference hosted by the Loudoun County Public Library—offering tips and tactics about how to run a successful book club and talking about Gabrielle Zevin's delightful novel The Stories Life of A.J. Fikry (a book I'll very likely talk about in another direction here at a later date—stay tuned!).

Mid-week, I'm grateful to have been invited to join in a chat with a local book club that's recently been reading my own novel, On the Road with Del & Louise—and keeping my fingers crossed that they all liked the book!

Then on Thursday, I'm joining Laura Ellen Scott and Steve Weddle—two writers who've been categorized on opposite sides of the literary/genre divide but whose writing in each case is "crime-inclined" (to use Laura's own phrase)—for a writing and publishing panel at the Burke Centre Library that will look at questions of genre and form and the slipperiness in defining and categorizing anything clearly these days.

I mention all this not simply as a shout-out about some upcoming events but also to explain why book clubs and book talks have been on my mind lately.

I don't want to preview here all those tips and tactics—my Powerpoint is proprietary! I don't to spoil the surprise! attendance is mandatory!—but I do want to share some anecdotes about my own experiences with some of the book clubs I've been involved in, each of them distinctive in their own way. And as you'll see, I use that phrase "book club" a little loosely.

The first and then the most recent book clubs I've been a part of have been more traditional in many ways—regularly scheduled meetings, formed by a loose mix of co-workers, acquaintances and friends, and equal parts book discussion and drinking/eating. That most recent book club was focused exclusively on contemporary fiction—very contemporary, in fact, since they tried to stay on top of the titles that were getting buzz, getting rave reviews, winning awards. The first one, however, organized back in the late ’90s by fellow staff members at the North Carolina Museum of Art, was more of a mishmash of titles and deliberately so. Each member was responsible for selecting one book in the rotation—a chance for each of us to have input and an opportunity for all of us to read books we might not have picked up ourselves, a system which has many benefits. I remember that the first book we read was Oral History by Lee Smith, an author local to us, and that we had our first meeting at a sushi restaurant that Lee and her husband Hal Crowther had opened over in Carrboro. I don't remember all of the books that we covered, but my own selection for the club was Sébastian Japrisot's The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, mainly because I hadn't read anything by him and I liked the title (fun book, not a very good discussion). I also remember Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True, mainly because of the heft of the book and because of the conversations with other club members about having to slog through it and because of the friend who dutifully stayed up all night to finish it before our meeting—and then because the woman who selected it in the first place didn't come to the meeting because she hadn't had time to read it herself.

That was the end of that book club.

My other two book clubs weren't traditional ones at all. The first was actually a writer's group whose members briefly turned away from talking about our own writing—not because we weren't writing but because each of us was working on longer projects and didn't yet feel comfortable sharing small parts of early drafts (dangerous to get feedback too early sometimes). But we did want to keep meeting, so we started talking about other people's books, studying them specifically with an eye toward craft—and in one case with a focus on first chapters, each of us bringing in the first chapter of a book we really admired so we could all try to analyze what made it work.

Later, my wife and I set up our own two-person "book club"—reading and chatting about some novels that each of us felt like we should have read but had never gotten around to, like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. (How did we miss that one in high school, right?) Eventually, this book club morphed into something different; we still read books together for discussion, but now I read them aloud, as I've talked about elsewhere.

While these experiences have been varied and variously rewarding, this coming week will be the first time that I've taken part in a book club as the focus of the discussion. I'll have to report back how that goes—if I survive!

How about everyone else? Any stories from your own book clubs—successes or stumbles? I'd love to hear—and can add to my PowerPoint presentation as needed, of course!


13 November 2015

"Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery"


By Art Taylor

As you might be able to tell from this post and my previous ones here, my teaching at George Mason University is dominating my mind these days—and lately it's not only the semester I'm enmeshed in but next semester as well that's occupying a lot of my mental energy.

In the spring 2016 semester, I'll be teaching a graduate-level course for the first time: "Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery." That's not my title, I should stress, and I have some issues with the idea of what's meant by the "the literary mystery"—a phrase that could go in a number of directions: mysteries that have books or bookish folks at the core of them maybe? But as intended primarily for aspiring writers in the MFA program here at Mason, I think the goals of the course are potentially a good one: an exploration of genre fiction, a look at the places where these persistent classifications of genre fiction and literary fiction blur, and a study of what so-called "literary writers" can learn from genre writers. To put all this in context, back when I was in the MFA program at Mason myself, I had a fellow writer tell me he'd finally read a Stephen King book and was surprised that it was actually good!

Stephen King
More context: I remember at panel on genre fiction at an AWP conference several years ago, where a writer/professor in another MFA program talked about the difference between his students interested in writing genre fiction and his students interested in writing literary fiction: If a he told students writing fantasy that they might want to read Gilgamesh or The Aeneid or any of a number of "high literary" works, they'd have it read by the next week, whereas if he suggested to literary-minded students that they should read a thriller or a sci-fi novel, they'd drag their heels.

There's lots of room to learn, clearly, from lots of different writers and lots of different kinds of writing—and I've often been fascinated, often written myself about, these delineations between kinds of books, the prejudices and biases at the core of such attitudes, and the continuing evolution of writers attitudes toward genre, how those writers might be informed by formal traditions on the one hand and how they might challenge them on another.

Much more to say on all this, but I mostly wanted to share some of the books I'm considering teaching—and invite others to chime in with books I might add to the reading list, whether one for the syllabus itself or a supplemental list for students to explore on their own.

The course will start out with a selection of short stories surveying both the foundational history of the genre (Poe and Conan Doyle there, among others) and also various subgenres within the larger world of crime fiction: the traditional mystery, the hard-boiled tale, the noir story, domestic suspense, the police procedural, true crime writing, etc. etc. But once that foundation is laid in the first few weeks, here's the list of full novels—and one feature film!—that have risen to the top so far (in no particular order yet but all, purposefully, pointedly, from 2000 onward):

  • A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
  • Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley
  • In the Woods, Tana French
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  • The End of Everything, Megan Abbott
  • Country Hardball, Steve Weddle
  • Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan 
  • The City & the City, China Miéville
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
Thoughts? Additions?

I have a second list of strong contenders too that will be on a growing supplemental list, so.... Thanks in advance for suggestions and additions!