Clifford Garstang is the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, a new anthology from Press 53. He won the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction for his novel in stories What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53, 2012). He is also the author of a story collection, In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009), and the editor of Prime Number Magazine. After receiving a BA in Philosophy from Northwestern University, Garstang served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea. He earned an MA in English and a JD, both from Indiana University, and practiced international law in Singapore, Chicago, and Los Angeles with one of the world’s largest law firms. Subsequently, he earned a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and worked as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From 1996 to 2001, he was Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. He holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
At any one time, I have a lot of books going and many more waiting in the wings. So what’s on that list right now?
I’m currently reading The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt, 2014). This is a frightening presentation of the disastrous effects humans have had on the planet. By now we all know about the asteroid that crashed into the earth and caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species. Basically, humans are having the same kind of impact as that asteroid. That’s not a very cheery thought, but it’s a fascinating book.
I’m also reading The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil (Grove, 2014). I’ve known Josh for a while, and we did a joint reading several years ago when our first books came out. This book is terrific—set in a near-future Russia, about two brothers and the consequences of orbiting mirrors that bring constant sunlight to a vast greenhouse. The language is pure poetry, and so far at least the story is extremely engaging.
While I’m on the subject of fiction, I’m also in the middle of an audio version of The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren, which won the National Book Award in 1950. It’s a gritty drug-scene story set in post-war Chicago. It’s great for the dialogue alone.
I often have one book of poetry going, also, and that right now is Memory Chose a Woman’s Body by Angela Carter (Unbound Content, 2014). Angela is in a writers’ group that I facilitate and her poetry is confessional, unflinching, and usually a bit dark. She says that “poetry saved [her] life,” and you really get that feeling from reading the poems.
I also usually have a book of philosophy or spirituality going as well, and now I’m reading A.J. Ayer’s The Problem of Knowledge. I read some of this in college, too, and it’s every bit as dense as I remember it being, but I’m a big fan of logic and understanding the difference between facts and beliefs, so this is right up my alley. Plus—although it sounds a little odd—it’s research for a novel I’m working on.
Let me also mention a few good books I’ve recently finished that haven’t yet found their way to a spot on the bookshelves (assuming I can find some room):
Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch (Norton, 2012) is a memoir that spans his childhood (Busch is the son of beloved novelist and short story writer Frederick Busch) and his military service in Iraq. I enjoyed the book for its candor and also for its structure, which is built around basic elements—water, metal, soil, bone, and so on.
Another recent non-fiction read that I admired was Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele (Norton, 2010). Steele is a social psychologist who has long studied the way in which “stereotype threat” (basically the fear of confirming negatives about one’s group, especially gender and racial stereotypes) creates a performance gap that can be mitigated with appropriate cues and a supportive environment. Apparently, it’s that easy.
I also recently finished a historical novel by Maud Casey, The Man Who Walked Away (Bloomsbury, 2014), set in the early days of European psychoanalysis and dealing with the peculiar relationship between a doctor and his patient, a man who frequently wakes up to discover that he’s wound up in some unfamiliar city.
And the last poetry book I read was Until You Make the Shore by Cameron Conaway, which I picked up and had signed by the author at the AWP Conference earlier this year. The collection stands out because it is in the voices of four young women in a juvenile correctional facility where Conaway once taught. It should be performed as theater (as I’ve told the author).
Which leaves the books I’m looking forward to next:
I just got a copy of a collection of stories by Elizabeth Kadetsky (mysteriously identified only as “Kadetsky” on the cover) called The Poison that Purifies You (C&R Press, 2014) that looks really intriguing. With many of the stories being set abroad, it’s just the kind of thing I enjoy.
I’ve been meaning also to read The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House 2012), which won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s set in North Korea and because I lived in South Korea for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the ‘70s, I’m sure to find this one really interesting. (Also, I have a novel set partly in Korea that my agent is trying to sell.) So that’s the next novel I’ll tackle.
My book club is reading Dr. Carl Hart’s High Price (Harper 2013), which is a neuroscientist’s book about drug addiction—from someone who has been there, apparently. I’m looking forward to that one.
How do you arrange your stacks?