2010 was a really great year for books and an even better one for KQED's book-lovin' podcast, The Writers' Block. Although, as the Associate Producer, every episode is a home run in my book, here's a rundown of a few encounters with authors that truly blew me away.
Patti Smith isn't called the Godmother of Punk for nothing. She was a little discombobulated when I first met her, but once she was in front of the mic, she took a deep breath, pulled herself together and asked, "What do you need from me, kid?" (Yep, Patti Smith called me "kid" and I loved it.) Once she started reading from Just Kids, everyone in the control room (and there were a few more groupies than usual) was transported to 1960s New York, where a younger version of Patti and her lover and friend Robert Mapplethorpe were struggling artists, content in their obscurity and love for each other. All of the emotion of that time and all the years since found its way into Patti's signature voice, the one so many have been listening to for ages. The reading turned out to be one of the most powerful I've heard and the sense in the control room was that something important had just happened, something I'll always remember. Since then, she's won the National Book Award for Just Kids. Watch her acceptance speech and you'll get the same chills I did when she visited KQED.
John Waters has built a career on pushing buttons and offending sensibilities and that's why we love him. I was pretty nervous to meet him, as I grew up in Baltimore and knew of his wayward ways. He was taller than I expected, but everything else was just as it was supposed to be: the immaculate pencil-thin mustache, the acerbic wit. I told him that I grew up in Greektown and his eyes lit up as he listed all of the dirty dive bars in that area. He went on to tell me that much of his aesthetic inspiration for Hairspray came from people-watching in that neighborhood. We eventually emerged from our bubble of Baltimore pride and made it to the studio, where he was open and generous and I was greedy, asking him to record two episodes because I couldn't pick a favorite. Three quarters of the way through the recording, his adamant professionalism emerged as he got on the phone with an assistant to double and triple check the pronunciation of an artist's name. Waters didn't reach icon status by doing things halfway; he's deadly serious about his art and that really shows in everything he does, including these two readings from Role Models.
Despite Nicole Krauss's last novel, the immensely popular The History of Love, being the talk of my writing program, I never read it or any of her work, for that matter. That all changed when I got a copy of Great House in the mail. From the first page, I was enraptured by her achingly beautiful prose; every word in its rightful place, each sentence pulling my guts out. I inhaled the book in a matter of days and then moved onto Krauss's earlier books. When we met, I told her that I hadn't felt so emotionally rocked by a book since reading Anne Carson and she said something along the lines of "I was talking to Anne the other day..." Of course she would be on a first name basis with my favorite poet! With a certain gentleness, she spoke to me as if we were good friends (if only!). For her reading, I had chosen a selection she hadn't read in public before. Despite the curveball, she quickly re-edited the piece right there in the studio and delivered a delicate, stunning reading.
Don't be fooled by the title of Gary Shteyngart's excellent novel, Super Sad True Love Story. Despite it being about the decline and eventual demise of America in the near future, reading this book isn't a downer, but downright blissful. Shteyngart's writing is sharp, surprising, and quick-witted, a bit like the man himself. I like to think I can be a fairly funny person, but Shteyngart is leaps and bounds ahead of me, making a veiled crack here, slipping a clever pun there. For a taste of his sense of humor, just watch his book trailer, which stars his student, James Franco, and the inimitable Mary Gaitskill. You should already be reading this book, but listening to this fantastic reading is a start.
I knew close to nothing about Trinie Dalton, but, once I read her most recent work, Sweet Tomb, I knew all I needed to know. Presented in a pocket-sized package with gorgeous illustrations on the covers, the book builds a world that's sugary, but sinister at the same time. The fantastical story of a witch girl who lives in a candy house and befriends an injured Pinnochio (who may or may not be a hallucination) sprang to life with Trinie's sweet and vulnerable delivery. Like her book, Dalton is cute and candy-coated on the outside, with an offbeat edginess underneath. She made an instant fanboy out of me.
For all of my other favorite readings, click here.