Matt Debenham is the author of The Book of Right and Wrong, winner of the 2009 Ohio State University Press Prize for Fiction. He is also author of two independent stories, “The Advocate” and “Challenger,” both available on Amazon or on his website. His fiction has appeared in The Pinch, Roanoke Review, Battered Suitcase, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other publications. He was Peter Taylor Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the recipient of a Fiction Fellowship from the state of Connecticut. He blogs about writing, and has a weekly books-discussion podcast. He is available for parties.
My book situation is a mess, but only because my bedside situation isn’t. My wife and I lack a certain amount of discipline, and compensate by doing the minimum: We take our vitamins daily, and we keep our bedside tables relatively free of clutter. So what would be stacked by my bedside is on shelves elsewhere throughout the house, from our office to the living room to the basement. (Which is where the bulk of our book collection lives. As a monster should.) And then there’s what’s piled up quietly in my iPad. Pulling from these various locations, here’s what I’ve read most recently, and what’s on the docket.
Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy (iPad):
A short, dreamlike novel about a London poet and womanizer who was once a Jewish refugee from World War II. On holiday in France with his family, he’s visited by a woman who claims to be his greatest fan, yet who may actually be an angel of mercy. I’ve developed a theory that some of the shortest, sharpest novels are written by people who didn’t start out as novelists — Levy is a celebrated playwright; Away’s Amy Bloom is primarily a short story writer; City of Thieves is by David Benioff, who also writes for movies and television – and I think it’s because these other types of fiction-writing demand compression by definition. At any rate, Levy telegraphs the hell out of her ending, but the book is so tight and interesting and so full of narrative authority that her Chekhov’s Swimming Pool is hardly a negative. (Someone shoots a swimming pool, is what I’m saying.)
Fatale, Book 1, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (office):
Something I’ve grown into quite a bit over the last ten years is comics. Aside from Brubaker’s Captain America run, I’m not much of a superhero guy, but there’s an amazing amount of great non-superhero stuff out there. Some favorites: Y: The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra), about an epidemic that wipes out every male on Earth – except one; Scalped (Jason Aaron and R.M. Guéra), which is kind of like The Departed on a Native American reservation; Wasteland (Antony Johnston), an incredibly well-realized post-apocalyptic epic; and anything by the writer-artist team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. They’ve investigated every nook of the pulp genre, from straight hardboiled fiction (the Criminal anthology series) to secret agents (Sleeper) to superheroes & supervillains (Incognito) – always with surprising plotting, sharp dialogue, and a great sense of character. (And Phillips’ art feels midcentury, no matter what the setting, yet never feels static.) Fatale, their newest venture, is a supernatural pulp story that also has hints of being a Big Story, in terms of sweep and subject matter. Book 1 is clearly just the tip of things here, and I can imagine this story widening and deepening in the way of Alan Moore’s From Hell, or Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles.
The Writer’s Journey, 3rd Edition, by Christopher Vogler (office):
I teach writing in a few different settings, and I usually end up explaining concepts or ideas the way I need to understand them. (Versus, say, Freytag’s Pyramid, which never quite did it for me, for some reason.) The Writer’s Journey sounds like one of those books about the importance of, I don’t know, leaving your family and writing thrice daily with a purple pen, but it’s subtitled Mythic Structure for Writers. In a nutshell? It’s Robert McKee’s Story without the grandiosity, plus Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces with lots of modern examples. It’s a screenwriter’s book, but I recommend a lot of those to prose writers. I’ve read a lot of craft books by fiction writers, and most of them are either too prescriptive or weirdly vague. (I love the novelist who says, “I don’t think about plot.” Very insightful!) What screen- and television writers get and express so well is that plot and character are intertwined. Vogler’s book breaks this down beautifully, and if you have a hard time with plot, you may love his approach. It’s a book that doesn’t pretend to have invented anything new, but which frames crucial concepts in a way that’s accessible and useful.
From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock, by Clinton Heylin (iPad):
As a lifelong music fan and musician, I have a weakness for rock books. They’re a tough bunch: it’s hard to find a great one, and even the best of them will often leave you feeling a little junk-fed, either because the stories are so gross or grim (this is rock & roll) or because the personalities are so, by necessity, grandiose. But I always have a rock book going, as a respite from my own work, from books I’m reading for pleasure/edification, or from books I’m reading for teaching. From the Velvets to the Voidoids manages the neat trick of almost never overstating its case. The number-one problem with a lot of rock books is that they feel like they’re constantly justifying their own existence, as though the author has to constantly remind you why Led Zeppelin or Elvis Costello was THE most important act of all time. Heylin sidesteps this because he knows he can: Punk’s impact is kind of unquestionable. Instead, Heylin uses a combination of journalistic prose and first-person accounts to just tell what happened, between New York, Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles. The scope keeps it interesting and nicely democratic. (Versus Please Kill Me, which features the phrase “Everybody was…” 1000 times in its pages. Well, no, everybody wasn’t.) It’s a great story, and Heylin has given it the best telling to date.
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie (living room):
A friend and co-worker gave this to me years ago. Like 17 years ago. He’d just read it and thought I’d love it. He gave it specifically to me, and I did not read it. There it sits on my living room shelves, not mocking me, but judging me. Shaming me. This year’s gonna be the year.
Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel, by Shalom Auslander (iPad):
Here’s what I’m reading next: A novel about a troubled, unmoored Jewish man who finds an old woman claiming to be Anne Frank living in his attic. In modern-day upstate New York. Come on, who could resist this premise?
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville (basement; iPad):
If you listen to my books-discussion podcast, WHAT ARE YOU READING?, you will know that I have recently begun reading this book, having avoided it all my life, and yet I am still barely churning through it. I love it every time I pick it up, and yet the act of picking it up always feels like I’m returning to the piano I know I was supposed to have been practicing for the day’s lesson. (Which reminds me: I forgot to start taking piano lessons 30 years ago.) The copy I read now is on my iPad, but I started on a physical copy borrowed from my parents’ house. That one is a hardback from the 1940s, and I stopped reading it because I didn’t want to damage it. OR SO I WILL KEEP TELLING MYSELF.
What’s your literary guilt inducer?