Allison Block

Second-generation Chinese-American Carnegie Wong just can't catch a break. His manipulative mother criticizes every aspect of his life, including Janie, the voluptuous, flaxen-haired WASP he married (mean-spirited Mama Wong dubs her Blondie ). Following her death after a prolonged bout with Alzheimer's during which time she remained lucid enough to spew daily doses of venom Mama Wong continues to run her son's life, stipulating in her will that a cousin be brought over from mainland China to properly care for the Wong's two adopted Asian daughters, Wendy and Lizzy, and Bailey, their biological son. Soon after the shy, mysterious nanny Lan arrives, Carnegie suspects that his devious mother had more than the well-being of her grandchildren on her mind.

A critically acclaimed novelist and short story writer whose works include Typical American and Mona in the Promised Land, Chinese-American Gish Jen is known for quirky characters and candid commentary on cultural assimilation. In this latest offering, Jen's use of shifting first-person narrative threatens to overshadow her wry, seamless prose. Readers must divide their attention between the story (which itself moves between past and present) and the ever-changing perspectives from which it is being told. As the novel progresses, Lan becomes ever more attached both to Carnegie and his impressionable teenaged girls, much to the chagrin of Carnegie's levelheaded wife. The Love Wife'sclever plot maintains momentum until the end, when the long-awaited truth about Lan's identity is revealed. The novel's disjointed narrative structure won't dampen the enthusiasm of Gish Jen's fans, who will embrace her mordant musings on destiny, ethnicity and the richly textured fabric of the modern American family.

Second-generation Chinese-American Carnegie Wong just can't catch a break. His manipulative mother criticizes every aspect of his life, including Janie, the voluptuous, flaxen-haired WASP he married (mean-spirited Mama Wong dubs her Blondie ). Following her death after a prolonged bout with Alzheimer's during which time she remained lucid enough to spew daily doses of venom […]

Terry Gross' collection is a conversation piece de resistance After more than 30 years in radio, Terry Gross has come to terms with the surprised look of listeners who meet her face to face. While her voice may loom large, the whisper-thin, 5'1" Brooklyn native is in her own words literally smaller than life. The host of NPR's Fresh Air, a weekday newsmagazine of contemporary arts and issues beamed to more than 4 million listeners on 400-plus stations nationwide, Gross allows new acquaintances a moment to process the fact that she is, indeed, the woman behind the microphone. They just have this look of total confusion, like, This can't be possible. Some terrible mistake has been made!' But there's no mistaking Gross' credentials. In 1994, Fresh Air received the prestigious Peabody Award for its probing questions, revelatory interviews and unusual insights. Gross began her radio career in 1973, after an unsuccessful stint teaching eighth grade. She first hosted a feminist radio program at Buffalo's WBFO-FM ( before anyone even knew what public radio was ), then two years later joined Fresh Air, a local show at Philadelphia's WHYY-FM that became nationally syndicated in 1987. Although Fresh Air frequently focuses on current affairs, in her first collection of interviews, All I Did Was Ask, Gross shines the light on artists writers, actors, musicians, comics and visual artists. Timely interviews can become dated very quickly, she writes in the book's introduction. The pleasure we gain from the finest books and movies stays with us. So does our interest in the people who create them. Culling the thousands of interviews (including those before 1997, which hadn't been transcribed), she realized that what makes for good radio doesn't always make a good read. I wanted to be respectful of the writing medium, says Gross, who whittled away at her list until some three dozen selections remained. Among those who made the cut: Nicolas Cage (who describes eating a cockroach, in excruciating detail), legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen (who scolded Gross for daring to discuss the craft ), bass player Charlie Haden (who resumed his singing career at Gross' encouragement), and KISS rock star Gene Simmons, whose reprehensible on-air conduct earned him Entertainment Weekly's Crackpot of the Year award. Absent, of course, is escape artist Bill O'Reilly, who stormed out on Gross in October 2003 when asked if he used his Fox News program to settle scores with detractors. (O'Reilly provided an answer on his own show later that night, featuring Gross' interview on his regular segment, The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day. ) In the course of her career, Gross has logged more than 10,000 interviews with authors, artists, journalists and politicians. Since the show is produced in Philadelphia, nearly 95 percent of her guests are hundreds or thousands of miles away, at a local NPR affiliate station. That's fine with her. All you are on radio is a mind and a disembodied voice, says Gross. I've always felt physically unassuming, so radio works really well for me. I like being invisible. Gross works at a frenetic pace, prepping for and conducting seven interviews per week. It's an exciting life, says the self-deprecating host, whose crammed schedule leaves little time for extracurriculars or even chats with close friends. Phone calls from confidantes must be cut short Monday through Thursday night, when she pores over the reams of materials gathered by her hard-working research staff. Sometimes I feel like the worst friend in the world, says Gross, who is married to The Atlantic music critic Francis Davis.

In every interview, Gross displays the ability to elicit from guests the weaknesses or shortcomings that so often shape their lives. But she also takes pains to respect their privacy. When I interview a painter or a writer, I don't feel like they owe me anything, she says. Clearly, I want an interesting interview, I want my listeners to walk away feeling that they've learned something about this person's writing, their life, their inspiration, she says. But if something's too personal, that's their prerogative. I might be frustrated, I might be disappointed, but that's really my problem. When Gross interviews politicians, however, any question is fair game. Let's say a politician is anti-abortion, but I've learned that they had a girlfriend, and they funded her abortion, she says. While that may be very personal to them, Gross feels it's worthy of being made public. They're trying to force us to behave in one way, yet they're behaving differently, she says. Gross encourages artists and performers to take advantage of the fact that her interviews are recorded and edited for broadcast. It's very reassuring to know the shows are taped, and we can go back and edit. I take advantage of that, and I encourage my guests to take advantage of it. Politicians, alas, aren't allowed a Take 2. Politicians are so in control when they do interviews, she says. I don't want to give them any more tools to be more in control. Hosting a show about contemporary culture can be all-consuming, says Gross, whose journalistic radar remains attuned even on her days off. Whether she's listening to a legendary jazz musician or watching an actor's onscreen debut, the same burning question runs laps around her brain: Do I want to talk to this person? Should the artist make Gross' revered roster, legions of Fresh Air listeners will be hanging on every word. Allison Block tunes into Fresh Air on KPBS-FM in San Diego.

 

Terry Gross' collection is a conversation piece de resistance After more than 30 years in radio, Terry Gross has come to terms with the surprised look of listeners who meet her face to face. While her voice may loom large, the whisper-thin, 5'1" Brooklyn native is in her own words literally smaller than life. The […]

An unscrupulous marine biologist with "Ken-doll good looks" and "priapic affability," Chaz Perrone was sure he'd seen the last of his wife when he pushed her over the railing of the Sun Duchess cruise ship off the coast of Florida. But Joey Perrone, a former championship swimmer, survived the fall and clung to a bale of Jamaican hashish long enough to be rescued by retired cop Mick Stranahan. Joey wants to know why her husband wanted her dead (he feared she was on to his scheme of doctoring Florida Everglades water samples at the behest of ruthless tycoon Red Hammernut). Then, with Stranahan's help, she wants to drive him crazy.

From politicians to paparazzi, no reprobate escapes the satirical eye of Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen, who writes like the love child of Hunter S. Thompson and Evelyn Waugh. In Skinny Dip, Hiaasen serves up his trademark cast of skewed characters, including old favorites Skink, a shower cap-sporting curmudgeon and former Florida governor with curious carnivorous tastes, and part-time private investigator Stranahan, whose six failed marriages have left him less than optimistic about love. Among the new arrivals: agribusinessman Red Hammernut, who sports a flap-happy hairpiece more dubious than his M.O., and Tool, a hirsute, painkiller-addicted thug with a bullet lodged in a decidedly cheeky place.

As always, Hiaasen sets the action in steamy South Florida, where the moist air seems to foster morally despicable displays. Like Hiaasen's nine previous novels, Skinny Dip offers a message amid the mayhem: we need to respect our natural resources before it's too late. As the novel draws to a close, Chaz must face the karmic consequences of his crude, polluting ways: "[He] crossed the breeze-swept marsh with a puckering fear that he was being stalked by Red and his shotgun-toting goon; by voracious disease-bearing insects; by needle-fanged cottonmouth moccasins, blood-slurping leeches and deer ticks; by hydrophobic bobcats and in-bred panthers; by the gators whose husky mating calls fractured the brittle silence."

 

An unscrupulous marine biologist with "Ken-doll good looks" and "priapic affability," Chaz Perrone was sure he'd seen the last of his wife when he pushed her over the railing of the Sun Duchess cruise ship off the coast of Florida. But Joey Perrone, a former championship swimmer, survived the fall and clung to a bale […]

Denny Roman, the protagonist in Rachel Cline's honest, heartwarming debut novel, may seem like any other preteen in suburban Ohio, preoccupied with boys, bras and a part in the school play. But trouble lurks beneath the girl's bubbly exterior, as she struggles to communicate with her divorced mother Lily, a brilliant neuroscientist utterly devoid of maternal inclinations.

Presented in three distinct parts, What to Keep is a smart, wry commentary on "how easy it is to screw things up with the people you love." While Lily may be her biological mother, Denny's world revolves around a quirky agoraphobic named Maureen, the eye in the hurricane of her daily teenage life in the wake of her parents' separation. Fourteen years go by, and Denny, now an aspiring actress in Hollywood, returns to her childhood home to decide "what to keep" before her mother and new stepfather relocate to New York. Unearthing old memories fills Denny with both nostalgia and dread. "She pictures the denuded living room floor. . . . Though she learned to crawl, walk, skip, dance, and God knows what else in that very room, it will soon look like she was never there."

A decade later, Denny has moved to Manhattan, where she's taken to writing plays rather than auditioning for them. Days from the opening of her first production on Broadway, she receives news that Maureen has died. When Maureen's 12-year-old son, Luke, appears at her door, Denny ponders the possibility of adopting the young man to honor the memory of the most pivotal person in her life.

Writers are often instructed to write what they know; Rachel Cline has followed that lesson to the letter. Born to a brainy, distracted mother, she herself did time in the trenches of Hollywood before returning to New York on what she calls "the dark side of thirty-five." Her brisk, refreshingly candid novel will ring true to anyone whose family doesn't quite fit the mold.

 

Denny Roman, the protagonist in Rachel Cline's honest, heartwarming debut novel, may seem like any other preteen in suburban Ohio, preoccupied with boys, bras and a part in the school play. But trouble lurks beneath the girl's bubbly exterior, as she struggles to communicate with her divorced mother Lily, a brilliant neuroscientist utterly devoid of maternal inclinations.

Two survivors of love catalogue the claws of attraction “Love is merely a madness,” says Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It. In her latest offering, humorist Merrill Markoe carries that sentiment to the extreme. Co-written with veteran singer/songwriter Andy Prieboy, The Psycho Ex Game is a mordant study in two-part disharmony, in which a pair of jaded Angelenos engages in a battle of online one-upsmanship to establish who has suffered more in the name of romance. Plumbing the depths of dark humor is nothing new for Markoe, author of six books, including the raucous It's My F ing Birthday, and one of the creative forces behind “Late Night With David Letterman.” Both acerbic and sweet, the Los Angeles-based writer is wired to barb. “I think people figure out early in their lives what currency they can work in,” she says. “Some people know that they are so adorable looking, all they have to do is smile and dress up and they get plenty from that. Then there are some of us who, early on, see that that doesn't work. So we joke about it.” In The Psycho Ex Game, successful screenwriter Lisa Roberty and indie rock musician Grant Repka meet after one of Grant's shows, a comic operetta about the doomed romance between Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. While romantic sparks don't fly, the two are interested enough in each other to exchange e-mail addresses. Inspired by Grant's hit song, “My Psycho Ex,” they begin sharing excruciating details of romantic bliss gone bad.

Written in alternating “he said/she said” chapters by Prieboy and Markoe, The Psycho Ex Game delivers a deluge of narcissistic, sadistic, venom-drenched displays. The dysfunctional showdown pits tales of Grant Repka's former lover, the multiple-personalitied “Junkie Queen of Darkness” against the bad behaviors of Lisa Roberty's ex, a lobster-hurling actor and director widely known as “Mr. Summer Box Office Record-Holder.” Throughout the game, Repka and Roberty attribute numerical values to their suffering; the greater the trauma, the higher the number of points. The book was inspired by a real-life literary correspondence between Markoe and Prieboy, before the two became romantically involved. “It was so florid, not sexual in any way, but just detailed,” Markoe says. “At some point, Andy and I started playing a game: who had the more horrible previous love life?” She says The Psycho Ex Game is based both on actual experiences and observations: as a 25-year resident of Los Angeles, she's gathered a wealth of material on the megalomaniacal. A veteran television writer, Markoe was earning laughs long before her prickly humor saw print. In the early '80s, she teamed up with then-boyfriend David Letterman to create a morning show that would go on to become “Late Night with David Letterman.” The morning show won a couple of Emmys, says Markoe, but it was considered too deranged for the early A.M., when sweet housewives were watching TV. “It was live, and great, weird things happened,” she says. Markoe ended her relationship with “Late Night” and Letterman in 1987, but made amends seven years later when she appeared on the show to promote her second book, How To Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me. “It was a dark joke that appealed to my sense of humor,” says Markoe. “You would not speak to somebody for a very long time, then get all dressed up and put on tons of makeup and go see them on their show. It was a lot of fun.” Among Markoe's “Late Night” legacies is “Stupid Pet Tricks,” an idea she and Letterman generated for the original morning show. (Though Markoe stays mum on the topic of Letterman himself, her kinship with canines is showcased in What the Dogs Have Taught Me, in which she describes her overly excitable pawed pal, Lewis, who suffers from a “greeting disorder.”) Enamored as she is of mutts, Markoe hasn't written off humans. Not yet. In The Psycho Ex Game, amid remembrances of psychos past, Lisa and Grant discover truths about each other and themselves. Might the pair become romantically linked in their log-on, log-off-again lives? After documenting the demented, it seems only fitting that they should fall madly in love.

Two survivors of love catalogue the claws of attraction “Love is merely a madness,” says Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It. In her latest offering, humorist Merrill Markoe carries that sentiment to the extreme. Co-written with veteran singer/songwriter Andy Prieboy, The Psycho Ex Game is a mordant study in two-part disharmony, in which a […]

Veronica and Lillian Moore are as different as two sisters can be. A writer for the popular soap opera, “No Ordinary Matter,” Veronica is a pretty, effervescent brunette who dreams of penning a hit musical; her pregnant neurosurgeon sister is a statuesque blond with the emotional warmth of a Frigidaire. When the two set out to learn the truth behind the death of their father Charles 25 years earlier, their lives become entangled in utterly unexpected ways.

Quirky characters and snappy dialogue are the trademarks of writer Jenny McPhee, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and daughter of renowned essayist John McPhee. In this follow-up to her 2002 critically acclaimed debut novel, The Center of Things, the author's reverence for the irreverent continues, as she explores the slippery terrain of a sibling relationship.

With her penchant for Hungarian-style pastries and coffee with extra whipped cream, 32-year-old Veronica puts the joie in joie de vivre. Three years her senior, low-key Lillian lacks her sister's nerve and verve; she collects scores of acquaintances, but few close friends. Still, the two can't imagine life without their weekly chats at a trendy Manhattan coffeehouse.

Lately, these t∧#234;te-ˆ-t∧#234;tes have become trying for candid Veronica, who is keeping a big secret from her big sister. She has fallen for dashing Alex Drake, the new cast member of “No Ordinary Matter,” and, as luck would have it, the father of Lillian's unborn child. Though Lillian sees the sensitive Alex as nothing more than a sperm donor she seduced him only once with the express purpose of getting pregnant Veronica is reluctant to reveal this precarious tryst of fate. No Ordinary Matter is awash in whimsical supporting characters, including a tuba-playing private detective and a soap opera executive with the last name of Lust. Start to finish, this smart, lively novel keeps its eyes on the surprise. From a long-lost half-brother to the heady truth about a mysterious death, McPhee unleashes an ever-twisting plot that pops and crackles on the page.

Veronica and Lillian Moore are as different as two sisters can be. A writer for the popular soap opera, “No Ordinary Matter,” Veronica is a pretty, effervescent brunette who dreams of penning a hit musical; her pregnant neurosurgeon sister is a statuesque blond with the emotional warmth of a Frigidaire. When the two set out […]

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