Alice McDermott reads 'Frankenstein' for the first time

In a more contemporary vein: “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade has a scene that reminded me why the term “heartbreaking” is such ...


In a more contemporary vein: “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade has a scene that reminded me why the term “heartbreaking” is such a favorite with critics. The unfortunate protagonist of the novel has placed his hopes for a new life in a windshield repair kit that he says will launch him into the intoxicating ranks of the paid freelance workers. No customer appears until his loving mother arranges for him to repair a gash in the windshield of his employer’s BMW. He botches it – comically, painfully. The scene is drawn so well that as it unfolds you find yourself sending calls to the author – please let it be okay for the poor guy – even if you know it won’t, of course it won’t. The ruthless being, I suppose, as much a component of truth (and of the prerogatives of any creator) as luck or grace.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or has it come between you?

My dad gave me a brand new hardcover edition of “Collected Poems” by WB Yeats when I was in my mid-twenties. I think it must have been the most expensive book he had ever bought (he and my mother were both supporters of the public library), and it signaled to me that he had resigned himself to my unsettling ambition to ‘to write. Troubling for my two parents, who feared that I would end up “starving in an attic”. Yeah, they said that.

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

From “Cold Moon” by my friend Roger Rosenblatt: “Jazzmen like Bill Evans and Miles Davis (as if there could be someone like them) are masters of ostinato, repeated phrase or theme. They are so practiced in this art that five levels of ostinatos can be reached and detected at once. The effect is a mystery. You remember hearing something that you hear for the first time.

Novelists have a lot to learn from jazz musicians.

What touches you most about a literary work?

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

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

A first edition of Joseph Conrad’s “Flèche d’or”, signed by the author. It was brought to me by the late E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., a lawyer from Washington, DC, presented at a small dinner he hosted to celebrate the National Book Award for “Charming Billy” in 1998. All Attendees Washington luminaries of their time also signed the spine of Conrad’s book, among them columnist Mary McGrory, television reporter Roger Mudd, Diane Rehm of NPR.

When I am old and gray and full of sleep, nodding my head by the fire, I will retire this book and remember the kindness of the readers.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors mean the most to you?

I read all the Hardy Boys mysteries because my older brothers read them. 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”. Boy books. When they started high school (all boys, Catholic) I read the books attributed to them: “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, “Kon Tiki”, “Drums Along the Mohawk “,” Up From Slavery “,” Heart of Darkness “,” Red Badge of Courage “. By the time I was ready for my own high school summer reading list, I was grateful for the “books for girls”: “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca”, “Silas Marner”, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “Of course, we were also credited with classics like ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘Great Expectations’, but I knew then that not everyone read books the same way I do. I had begun to recognize that there were categories of readers deeper than boys and girls. There were, for example, those who read books because they were needed; there were those who read books because they are everything.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Alice McDermott reads 'Frankenstein' for the first time
Alice McDermott reads 'Frankenstein' for the first time
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