Alice McDermott Is Reading ‘Frankenstein’ For The First Time


In a more contemporary way: Kirstin Valdez Quade’s “The Five Wounds” has a scene that reminds me of why the term “heartbreaker” has been so popular with critics. The novel’s hapless protagonist has pinned his hopes for a new life on a windshield repair kit, which he believes will profitably put him in the ranks of the self-employed. No customer shows up until her caring mother gets her employer to fix a dent in the windshield of her BMW. He fucked her – hilariously, painfully. The scene is so well drawn that as it unfolds you find yourself sending out calls to the author – please let this be good for the poor guy – even if you know it won’t, of course it won’t. Brutality, I think, is as much a component of truth (and any creator’s privileges) as luck or grace.

Has a book ever brought you closer to or come between you?

When I was in my mid-20s, my father gave me a brand new hardcover edition of WB Yeats’s Collected Poems. I think it must have been the most expensive book he ever bought (both he and my mother were advocates of the public library), and it signaled to me that he was yielding to my irritating urge to write. It’s a troubling situation for my parents, who are afraid of eventually “starving in an attic.” Yes, they said so.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?

From my friend Roger Rosenblatt’s “Cold Moon”: “Jazzers like Bill Evans and Miles Davis (as if he could be someone like them) are masters of ostinato, repetitive expression or theme. They are so experienced in this art that five ostinatos levels can be reached and detected simultaneously. Its effect is a mystery. You remember hearing something you heard for the first time.”

Novelists have a lot to learn from jazz musicians.

What moves you the most in a literary work?

The indelible image that transforms the familiar world. Language that works its magic.

What is the best book you have ever received as a gift?

First edition of Joseph Conrad’s “Golden Arrow” signed by the author. It was presented to me by the late Washington DC attorney J. Barrett Prettyman at a small dinner held in 1998 to celebrate “Charming Billy”’s National Book Award. The next day, Conrad signed the back of his book, including columnist Mary McGrory, TV journalist Roger Mudd, NPR’s Diane Rehm.

When I am old and gray and sleepy, shaking my head by the fire, I will download this book and remember the kindness of the readers.

What kind of reader were you as a child? What childhood books and authors are you most attached to?

I read all the Hardy Boys mysteries because my brothers did. Also, and for the same reason, war books like “New York’s Fighting Sixty-Ninth” or “Guadalcanal Diary” and adventure stories like “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe.” Children’s books. When they started high school (all boys, Catholic), I read the books they were given: “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, “Kon Tiki”, “Mohawk Across Drums”, “Up From Slavery”. “Heart of Darkness”, “Red Badge of Courage.” When I had my own high school summer reading list ready, I was grateful for the “girls books”: “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca”, “Silas Marner”, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. ” Of course, we were also given classics like ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘Great Expectations,’ but by then I knew that not everyone reads the books as faintly as I do. I was beginning to realize that there were deeper categories of readers than male readers and female readers. For example, there were those who read books out of necessity; There were those who read books because they were everything.


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