Dick Cummins is a 1970 graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’ll read anything once.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot — Non-fiction history about the billion dollar living tissue culture industry. Henrietta was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1950; her cells wouldn’t die in a Petri dish after a biopsy! – and neither she nor her family have ever gotten a dime for them, even though her cells cultured for research end to end would circle the earth. Lots of interesting, in-depth tissue science too!
A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates by Blake Bailey. Every night a series of mini-depressions reading of yet another one of Dick’s breakdowns – I had him for Forms of Fiction in ’67 and a few classes of Fiction before he was committed second semester.
And So It Goes, bio of Kurt Vonnegut by Charles Shields. I have about half of a review written for this but bogged down when I got to some of the negative stuff in his life – felt like I would be hurting his feelings to write it up or something – even though he’s dead now, so not possible. But still…
Time Between Trains by Anthony Bukoski. Excellent stories. I should do a rave review for Amazon! “The 100-year-old confessional from St. Adalbert’s that needs stripping to get the patina of a century of old sins out!” Gay Polish waiter with a PhD in Philosophy talks an illiterate, straight construction worker into moving in with him to share expenses; tells lies to his girlfriends to run them off. Nice irony and writing lilts on every page!
Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller (Joseph’s daughter). A tell-all that humanizes the author of one of the most influential works of WWII. Just reread and not as good as it seemed in 1966 – but some chapters will always be classics of the war satire genre.
The Neon Wilderness, Nelson Algren’s book of short stories circa 1950. Gritty stuff and as Hemingway said of him, “To read Algren you need to be able to take a punch.”
Ernie’s War: The Best of Erie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches by David Nichols. This was my mother’s book that I found in storage. She read Here is Your War and Brave Men to me when I was about five years old. If you want to read something that will water your chin, try this. I think it was Hemingway who said that it is not only how you write, but what you write about that moves the reader.
Dixiana Moon, Lunatic Wind, Satchel Paige’s America, and Wild Blue Yonder, all by William Price Fox. Went on a Fox binge after talking to him on the phone in a Maryland rest home. At 86 he’s not in good health and after our uncomfortable chat I ordered all the books of his I hadn’t read. He was the only instructor that ever edited a piece of mine line by line, as he thought it might get picked up by a magazine editor friend he knew. And he got me an agent too, after I sent him a screenplay in the mid-’70s. Figured I owed him, and enjoyed all four books. Just like Kurt Vonnegut’s style, you can’t neatly classify Fox’s stuff either – not as just “Southern” writing or just “magazine” writing or just “humor for the everyman.” One reviewer called him the “…new Mark Twain of the South,” and I always remember the simple advice he often gave us about writing, “The only crime you can commit as a writer is to be boring.” In the preface to Lunatic Wind Fox says he recorded “about 43 thousand feet of tape” interviewing people who had lived through Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Then he wrote up their experiences using “fictional techniques.” Believe me, it was like you were right there, up to your neck in the lashing wind and rising water too!
Show Me the Funny!: At the Writers’ Table with Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers by Peter Desberg and Jeffery Davis. With chapters like “My Mother the Sociopath” and “Write Yiddish, Cast British!” how can you go wrong? Also seems like all TV comedy writing is done by committee at the morning “writers’ table,” where frequent fistfights break out. The authors give well known TV comedy writers a set piece plot and tell them to make it funny. Not very (bottom line).
The Hunters and Light Year by James Salter. Heard about this author from a friend. The first book was published in 1956 and is about the Korean War. The author was an F-86 fighter pilot and of course I love all the flying stuff. But it is the writing that wins the day. Some kudos: “There is scarcely a writer alive who could not learn from his passion and precision of language.”— Peter Matthiessen . “…curl up for a flight with The Hunters through ‘skies so clear you can see tomorrow,”’ (raves) The New York Times Book Review (1957). Haven’t started Light Years, but looking forward to it!
Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. A book about the creative process, areas of the brain that handle writing, art, working improv without a net, stand-up, also ad writing and at the end, a discussion of Shakespeare’s London (times of “genius clusters”) and how the Puritans not only closed down the theaters of London, but also the minds of the denizens there too. And then they came over here! From a review: “It is with persuasive chutzpah that Lehrer describes right-hemisphere operations in Bob Dylan’s brain releasing him from the constrictions of early fame to recombine multiple musical influences into a revolutionary new song. Lehrer talks to a brain researcher who explains that the right hemisphere helps you see the forest, while the left is better for identifying the trees. The left handles denotation and clarifies while the right deals with connotation.” (Nice.) Chapters: “The Unconcealing,” “The Letting Go,” “The Outsider,” and “The Shakespeare Paradox.” I highly recommend it. BTW, just saw it is number one on the NYT bestseller list of nonfiction. Guess a lot of people want to understand creativity!
What books are by YOUR bed?