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The Inside Reader: Stephen McCauley

Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends - Silas Weir Mitchell

Stephen McCauley is another of those authors who surprised me for how much kind and willing to share his preferences with the readers he is. Anytime I share one of his books with my friends, and in particular Alternatives to Sex, the book listed in my Top 100 Gay Novels, the common opinion is that Stephen McCauley is a sophisticated author, and his books are "beautifully written". And as in the best tradition, Stephen McCauley gifts us a novel every 3/4 years, so that you have to savor, and wait, for any new treat, and 2010 is the year when we are gifted with one of those treats. It's always a pleasure to find out mainstream authors who are still available to their readers. So it's with great pleasure that I welcome Stephen McCauley and his list on this LiveJournal.
 
10 Books I admire by Stephen McCauley

I tend to freeze up around the word “favorite,” so let’s just call this a list of ten books I like a lot, some of them a little off the beaten path. The ten books I’d take with me into outer space? Not sure, but these are all books I found inspiring at some point in my life, and are ones I still pull off the bookshelf from time to time when I’m in need of a quick shot of humor, pathos, and literary brilliance.


1) Turn, Magic Wheel by Dawn Powell. Dawn Powell is one of America’s best comic novelists, and this is one of her best novels. A satire of New York’s literary scene in the 1930’s, it is scathing, hilarious, and, like all Powell’s books, so full of sparkling prose and sharply etched characters, you can easily read it multiple times and still find new gems of insight and stylistic invention. The portrait of New York is so vivid, the city becomes a main character. When Powell died in 1965, all of her books were out of print. A laudatory essay by Gore Vidal revived interest, and now her entire body of work is relatively easy to find. Her novel The Happy Island features the a large number of gay characters, but I find this one more engaging.

Paperback: 228 pages
Publisher: Zoland Books; 1st pbk edition (January 1, 1999)
Publisher Link: http://www.steerforth.com/books/display.pperl?isbn=9781883642723
ISBN-10: 1883642728
ISBN-13: 978-1883642723
Amazon: Turn, Magic Wheel

Dennis Orphen, in writing a novel, has stolen the life story of his friend, Effie Callingham, the former wife of a famous, Hemingway-like novelist, Andrew Callingham. Orphen’s betrayal is not the only one, nor the worst one, in this hilarious satire of the New York literary scene. (Powell personally considered this to be her best New York novel.) Powell takes revenge here on all publishers, and her baffoonish MacTweed is a comic invention worthy of Dickens. And as always in Powell’s New York novels, the city itself becomes a central character: “On the glittering black pavement legs hurried by with umbrella tops, taxis skidded along the curb, their wheels swishing through the puddles, raindrops bounced like dice in the gutter.” Powell’s famous wit was never sharper than here, but Turn, Magic Wheel is also one of the most poignant and heart-wrenching of her novels.

2) After Claude by Iris Owens. This novel has been out of print for a while, but you can still get copies through used book dealers. Happily, a new edition will be released later this year. After Claude starts out as one of the most jaw-droppingly funny getting-dumped novels ever written, but somewhere in the final third, it turns into a horror story as the narrator loses all her anchors and descends into madness. Owens wrote erotica in Paris in the 50’s and 60’s using the nom de plume “Harriet Daimler.” This was the first of only two novels she published under her own name. The book has a substantial cult following, especially among writers and gay men. The narrator’s voice is so cutting and venomous, it leaves you gasping, but for at least half the book, you’ll laugh aloud on every page. Warning: People either love it or despise it, find it misogynistic or a brave feminist statement, subversive or disgustingly offensive. No middle ground.

Paperback: 216 pages
Publisher: NYRB Classics (October 5, 2010)
Publisher Link: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/after-claude/
ISBN-10: 1590173635
ISBN-13: 978-1590173633
Amazon: After Claude

Harriet has left her boyfriend Claude, “the French rat.” At least that is how she prefers to frame the matter. In fact, after yet one more argument, Claude has just instructed Harriet to move out of his Greenwich Village apartment—not that she has any intention of doing so. To the contrary, she will stay and exact her vengeance—or such is her intention until Claude has her unceremoniously evicted. Still, though moved out, Harriet is not about to move on. Not in any way. Girlfriends circle around to give advice, but Harriet only takes offense, and you can understand why. Because mad and maddening as she may be, Harriet sees past the polite platitudes that everyone else is content to spout and live by. She is an unblinkered, unbuttoned, unrelenting, and above all bitingly funny prophetess of all that is wrong with women’s lives and hearts—until, in a surprise twist, she finds a savior in a dark room at the Chelsea Hotel.

3) The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. As an adult, I rarely get so transported by a book that I forget where I am, what time it is, and whether or not I’ve checked my e-mail. But that happens to me every time I open this novel. Like all of Bowles’s writing, it is strange and disturbing. The story of an American couple’s doomed trip into the dessert, it is certainly one of the most gripping novels I can think of. And the ending is so shattering, you simply cannot forget it. Bowles was married but openly gay.

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics (September 20, 2005)
Publisher Link: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/The-Sheltering-Sky-Paul-Bowles?isbn=9780060834821&HCHP=TB_The+Sheltering+Sky
ISBN-10: 006083482X
ISBN-13: 978-0060834821
Amazon: The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky is a landmark of twentieth-century literature. In this intensely fascinating story, Paul Bowles examines the ways in which Americans' incomprehension of alien cultures leads to the ultimate destruction of those cultures. A story about three American travelers adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa after World War II, The Sheltering Sky explores the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert. This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

4) Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann. I like writers with distinctive voices, and Lemann has one of the most original voices in contemporary fiction. It’s so quirky, in fact, that readers either admire it or find it annoying. I happen to love it. This novel, her first, envelops the reader in a haunting, hilarious, and totally unforgettable fever dream version of genteel New Orleans. Louise Brown, the narrator, is a young woman pining for the dissolute and dashing Claude Collier. By turns the book is tender, touching, and laugh-out-loud funny. The first time I visited New Orleans, whole passages of the book came back to me. Wildly praised by critics when published in 1986, it is now hard to find. But definitely worth the effort.

Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press (April 1, 1997)
Publisher Link: http://www.lsu.edu/lsupress/bookPages/9780807121627.html
ISBN-10: 0807121622
ISBN-13: 978-0807121627
Amazon: Lives of the Saints

After four years of college in New England, Louise Brown is back in New Orleans, steeped in society’s “wastrel-youth contingent” yet somewhat detached, observing it all. From one lush, sweltering event to another, Violent Love, Breakdowns, Moods, laconic speech, and drunkenness reign, inscribing the South’s hallmarks of defeat and refuge in a group of people as intense and adrift as one could encounter. At the center (in Louise’s eyes) is Claude Collier, rumpled, accident prone, supremely sweet—and desperate. For Claude, Louise is his steadying focus; for Louise, Claude is the only man who can break her heart “into a million pieces on the floor.” By turns elegiac and eccentric, Lives of the Saints is the debut novel that marked Nancy Lemann as a rising literary star.

5) The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst. Hollinghurst is one of my favorite living writers. He seems to be incapable of composing a dull sentence, and his insights into the smallest details of his characters’ gestures and behavior are so precise and revealing, they’re truly exhilarating. Although this novel didn’t receive as much praise as his others--and is not “major” in the way of The Line of Beauty—it’s a charming, sexy, comedy of manners with something to admire on every page. Hollinghurst is a challenge for critics—an unquestionably brilliant novelist who writes about gay sex (among men) with unflinching, titillating honesty. Google John Updike’s review of this book for The New Yorker for an example of admiration mixed with extreme discomfort.

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (May 1, 2000)
Publisher Link: http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780140286373,00.html?strSrchSql=0140286373/The_Spell_Alan_Hollinghurst
ISBN-10: 0140286373
ISBN-13: 978-0140286373
Amazon: Lives of the Saints

Here are the interlocking affairs of four men: Robin Woodfield, an architect in his late forties trying to build an idyllic life in Dorset with his young lover, Justin, a would-be actor increasingly disenchanted with the countryside; Robin's attractive and dangerously volatile twenty-two-year-old son Danny; and Justin's former boyfriend Alex, whose life is unexpectedly transformed by a night of house music and a tab of ecstasy. As each falls under the spell of romance or drugs, country living or rough trade, a richly ironic picture emerges of the illusions of love, and of the clashing imperatives of modern gay life: the hunger for contact and the fear of commitment, the need for permanence and the continual disruptions of sex. Ultimately, The Spell details the restlessness of every human heart.

6) Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. The character Sally Bowles is so ingrained in public awareness—thanks to the screen and many stage versions of Cabaret—most people think they know this book already. But Sally Bowles appears in only one relatively short chapter. The whole book is undoubtedly one of the best recreations of pre-WWII Berlin ever written. Sally is one of scores of equally memorable and touching characters. Isherwood writes in such clear, unaffected prose, his accomplishments as a stylist are sometimes overlooked. And he somehow managed to make of himself the most interesting character in his entire body of work, all while appearing to remain discreetly in the background.

Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Hunter Publishing (1977)
ISBN-10: 0586047956
ISBN-13: 978-0586047958
Amazon: Goodbye to Berlin

Published to coincide with the revival of Cabaret, opening on Broadway, Goodbye To Berlin is the original story of the chanteuse heroine Sally Bowles. Isherwood ironically captures life in Weimar Berlin, a city infamous for its flourishing demimonde and violent politics.

7) The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White. White was the first Australian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1973). He was openly gay and infamously misanthropic. When named “Australian of the Year” he wrote to a friend: “Something terrible happened to me last week.” To describe the plot of this novel might turn off potential readers, but here goes: it’s a long, challenging book about the slow death of a strident, indomitable elderly woman. Her children, a down-at-the-heels “princess” and an actor, return to Australia from abroad to be with her as she’s dying. Nurses come and go. Eventually…but I won’t spoil the ending. Fans of Henry James will appreciate White’s complicated, rewarding prose and his astonishing psychological accuracy.

Paperback: 608 pages
Publisher: Vintage (November 16, 1995)
ISBN-10: 0099324210
ISBN-13: 978-0099324218
Amazon: The Eye of the Storm

Elizabeth Hunter, an ex-socialite in her eighties, has a mystical experience during a summer storm in Sydney which transforms all her relationships: her existence becomes charged with a meaning which communicates itself to those around her. From this simple scenario Patrick White unfurls a monumental exploration of the tides of love and hate, comedy and tragedy, impotence and longing that fester within family relationships.

8) The Millstone by Margaret Drabble. Set in London in the 1960’s, this short novel is about a young woman who decides to lose her tiresome virginity to a gay male acquaintance and then gets pregnant. Written in the first person, the voice is so smart, sharp, and witty, you can’t help but be seduced. I often reread this book for its splendidly ironic tone. This was Drabble’s third novel. The second, The Garrick Year, is equally good.

Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books; 3rd THUS edition (October 15, 1998)
Publisher Link: http://www.hmhbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=1182885
ISBN-10: 0156006197
ISBN-13: 978-0156006194
Amazon: The Millstone

Margaret Drabble’s affecting novel, set in London during the 1960s, about a casual love affair, an unplanned pregnancy, and one young woman’s decision to become a mother.

9) Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry. Although this book was the inspiration for the Shirley Maclaine/Debra Winger movie, it bears little resemblance to it. It features one of McMurtry’s most unforgettable heroine’s, the audacious and impossible Aurora Greenway. The story rambles in the best way possible, driven by a mother/daughter battle of wills and by Aurora’s many romantic pursuits rather than by anything like a traditional plot. McMurtry has the ability to make readers fall in love with his characters, often from their first line of dialogue. And speaking of dialogue, readers who know McMurtry only from Lonesome Dove and his other western novels, will be surprised by the sophisticated, urbane wit of his characters in his contemporary novels, like this.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 4, 1999)
Publisher Link: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Terms-Of-Endearment/Larry-McMurtry/9780684853901
ISBN-10: 0684853906
ISBN-13: 978-0684853901
Amazon: Terms of Endearment

In this acclaimed novel that inspired the Academy Award-winning motion picture, Larry McMurtry created two unforgettable characters who won the hearts of readers and moviegoers everywhere: Aurora Greenway and her daughter Emma. Aurora is the kind of woman who makes the whole world orbit around her, including a string of devoted suitors. Widowed and overprotective of her daughter, Aurora adapts at her own pace until life sends two enormous challenges her way: Emma's hasty marriage and subsequent battle with cancer. Terms of Endearment is the Oscar-winning story of a memorable mother and her feisty daughter and their struggle to find the courage and humor to live through life's hazards -- and to love each other as never before.

10) Clockers by Richard Price. I love when a writer pulls me into a world I’m unfamiliar with and didn’t think was of interest to me. Drug dealers and cops in New Jersey? Frankly, I have no interest. But once I started this novel, I couldn’t put it down. Price has been nominated for an Academy Award, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he writes brilliant dialogue. But I still wasn’t prepared for how brilliant. And every character leaps off the page with such energy and specificity, you feel as if you’re in the room with them—like it or not. Price is popular and often nominated for prizes, but still somewhat underrated. My theory is that he’s so gritty and realistic, so compelling and readable, he isn’t taken quite as seriously as some of his more plodding contemporaries. I often use pages from this book to illustrate good dialogue.

Paperback: 611 pages
Publisher: Picador; First Picador Edition edition (March 4, 2008)
Publisher Link: http://us.macmillan.com/clockers
ISBN-10: 0312426186
ISBN-13: 978-0312426187
Amazon: Clockers

Novelist and Academy Award–nominated screenwriter Richard Price's bestselling second novel offers "an unforgettable picture of inner-city decay and despair" (USA Today). At once an intense mystery and a revealing study of two men, a veteran homicide detective and an innercity crack dealer, on opposite sides of an endless war. Clockers is "powerful . . . harrowing . . . remarkable" (The New York Times Book Review).

About Stephen McCauley: I grew up outside of Boston and was more or less educated in public schools. I went to the University of Vermont as an undergraduate and studied for a year in France at the University of Nice.

Upon graduation, I worked at hotels, kindergartens (see The Object of My Affection), ice cream stands, and health food stores. I taught yoga in a church basement and set up a house cleaning service. For many years, I worked as a travel agent (see The Easy Way Out) and was able to travel somewhat extensively and inexpensively.

In the 1980's, I moved to Brooklyn. After taking a few writing courses at adult learning centers, I enrolled in the MFA writing program at Columbia University. I’d had a desire to write for a long time, but rarely talked about it, mostly because it seemed like an audacious ambition. Being in graduate school gave me the structure and excuse I needed to begin writing more seriously.

At the suggestion of a teacher, the writer Stephen Koch (who recently published a comprehensive, intelligent, and helpful book on writing: The Modern Library Writers' Workshop) I began working on my first novel. (“Just drop your bucket over the side,” he advised, “and see what comes up.” As for plot, he said: “Not so complicated. Look at Farewell to Arms. Boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant, girl dies, boy walks home in the rain. The end.”)

The first draft of The Object of My Affection was submitted as my thesis for graduation from Columbia. Stephen Koch offered to send it to an agent, and shortly thereafter, it was accepted by Simon and Schuster. The (mostly) positive response to the book was a surprise to me, and it is a great pleasure to have the book still in print and selling pretty well almost twenty-five years later.

I was working at a travel agency when it was published. About six months later, 20th Century Fox bought an option for the film rights, and I left that line of work. I got a job writing book reviews for The Boston Phoenix and was offered my first teaching job at University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Since 1987, I have taught at UMass, Wellesley College, Harvard University, and, most frequently, at Brandeis University.

I’m a pretty slow and self-conscious sort of writer, and despite my best efforts, there’s been a gap of four or five years between each book. The Easy Way Out (1992), The Man of the House (1996), True Enough (2001), Alternatives to Sex (2006), and Insignificant Others (2010). The isolation and self-discipline writing demands doesn’t come easily to me, and so teaching has been a welcome (though time-consuming) part of my work life.

I’ve written book reviews, travel pieces, columns, and articles for a variety of magazines and papers including The New York Times, Travel and Leisure, Vogue, Details, The Washington Post, and many others. I haven’t done much with short fiction, but had a short story published in Harper’s Magazine a while back. It was later anthologized, got an honorable mention in Best American Short Stories, and was read aloud by the actress Vivien Pickles at the Getty Art Museum in Los Angeles. The librettist Mark Campbell is currently writing a libretto based on it for an operatic piece with music by William Bolcom, and I am working with a producer to write a stage adaptation.

My books have done surprisingly well in France, and that part of my career has been an enormous pleasure. Several novels have been bestsellers, I was named a Chevalier in the Order or Arts and Letters, and True Enough was made into a terrific feature film (La Verite Ou Presque) from Films A4 in 2007. It was written and directed by the actor and director Sam Karmann, and has a great cast. Like the film adaptation of The Object of My Affection, it veers off from the novel quite a bit. But the French film kept a lot of my dialogue, which was not the case with Object.

The adaptation of The Object of My Affection shows up on television fairly often, largely, I suspect, due to Jennifer Aniston’s enduring popularity. Over time, I’ve grown more fond of the movie, and find the screenplay (written by the late Wendy Wasserstein) to be moving and far more sturdy than many in the romantic comedy genre.

I’ve begun work on a seventh novel, tentatively titled My Pornographer. It’s very different than my other books, not especially comic, and to be honest, I have no idea if I’ll even be able to finish it. But it’s a pleasure to work on. Additionally, I’m working on a series of novels to be published under a penname. The first will be out in February. Details forthcoming.

When not writing (most of the time, I confess) I’m doing yoga, playing the ukulele, reading student papers or Victorian novels, skiing, ice skating (weather permitting—I hate rinks), biking, or downloading electronic music, new tango, and French pop.

Insignificant Others: A Novel by Stephen McCauley
Hardcover: 243 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 8, 2010)
Publisher Link: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Insignificant-Others/Stephen-McCauley/9780743224758
ISBN-10: 0743224752
ISBN-13: 978-0743224758
Amazon: Insignificant Others

What do you do when you discover your spouse has an insignificant other?

How about when you realize your own insignificant other is becoming more significant than your spouse?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but Stephen McCauley—"the master of the modern comedy of manners" (USA Today)—makes exploring them a literary delight.

Richard Rossi works in HR at a touchy-feely software company and prides himself on his understanding of the foibles and fictions we all use to get through the day. Too bad he's not as good at spotting such behavior in himself.

What else could explain his passionate affair with Benjamin, a very unavailable married man? Richard suggests birthday presents for Benjamin's wife and vacation plans for his kids, meets him for "lunch" at a sublet apartment, and would never think about calling him after business hours.

"In the three years I'd known Benjamin, I'd come to think of him as my husband. He was, after all, a husband, and I saw it as my responsibility to protect his marriage from a barrage of outside threats and bad influences. It was the only way I could justify sleeping with him."

Since Richard is not entirely available himself—there's Conrad, his adorable if maddening partner to contend with—it all seems perfect. But when cosmopolitan Conrad starts spending a suspicious amount of time in Ohio, and economic uncertainty challenges Richard's chances for promotion, he realizes his priorities might be a little skewed.

With a cast of sharply drawn friends, frenemies, colleagues, and personal trainers, Insignificant Others is classic McCauley—a hilarious and ultimately haunting social satire about life in the United States at the bitter end of the boom years, when clinging to significant people and pursuits has never been more important—if only one could figure out what they are.

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