What’s on Your Nightstand, Tom Zigal?

To kick off the new year, ShelfLife asked Tom Zigal, mystery author and chief speechwriter for UT President William Powers, to share a few reading recommendations.

Zigal is the author of the critically acclaimed Kurt Muller detective series set in Aspen, Colorado. His latest book “The White League” (Toby Press, 2005), explores a coffee magnate’s descent into the political underworld of New Orleans.

Zigal earned a bachelor’s degree in English from The University of Texas at Austin, and a master’s degree in creative writing from Stanford University.

Keep reading to find out what books have recently spent some time on his nightstand.

“The Film Club” (Twelve Books, 2008) by David Gilmour

This is a delightful memoir by a father who allows his sweet but unhappy son to drop out of high school if he agrees to watch three movies a week (of his father’s choosing) and discuss them.

My son is in college now, but there were times when I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to do something alternative to make his high school education more meaningful and rich. We watched movies, too, read books, and went on a trip to Cuba, just like Gilmour and his son.

As his son struggles with adolescence, the middle-aged Gilmour loses his job and also struggles with his own career in broadcasting and film criticism. Movies keep them talking to each other in hard times. This book is one of the nicest surprises of 2008. I liked it so much I’m going to write a fan letter to the author.

“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” (Riverhead, 2003) by ZZ Packer

When ZZ Packer was teaching at the university last fall, I met her at Julio’s, her favorite café, right before the presidential election and found her to be incredibly charming, funny, and fluent in all things political. So I bought her debut collection of short stories, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” and was delighted by her vivid language and the illuminating sensibility she brings to the African American experience in post-civil rights America.

Packer is in her mid 30s and grew up in a vastly different world than her literary predecessors, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. She is concerned with racism and sexism, of course, but as they are manifested in a more evolved society in which black women attend Yale (the title story), teach in inner city schools, and struggle to live penniless in another country; and young men are sometimes not as “politically committed” as the older civil rights generation expects them to be. Everyone who voted for Barack Obama—and everyone who didn’t—should read these engaging stories.

“Out Stealing Horses” (Picador, 2007) by Per Petterson

This novel, translated from Norwegian and the winner of numerous accolades, came highly recommended by two of my writer friends who rarely steer me astray. I was not as dazzled as they were.

“Out Stealing Horses” is the story of a man in his late 60s who returns to live in an isolated cabin in the deep woods near the Swedish border in order to spend his final years pondering his boyhood there. He ponders a lot. And walks his dog in the snow. Makes breakfast, chops wood. Ponders more, usually with a dose of self-pity and longing to understand his father.

To be fair, Petterson’s technique of weaving three different time periods (1945, 1948, and the present) is quite effective. I just wished I cared more about this solitary man and his gloomy ruminations. By the end of the book I wished I knew exactly what had happened to his father and the married World War II resistance woman who loved him. In all the Nordic darkness and wintry claustrophobia, a ray of clear narrative light would have helped.

“City of Refuge” (HarperCollins, 2008) by Tom Piazza

There have been numerous excellent nonfiction books and survival memoirs about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, but few novels (James Lee Burke’s “The Tin Roof Blowdown” comes to mind), perhaps because the unbelievable incidents that actually took place do not require fanciful acts of the imagination to explain them.

In “City of Refuge,” Piazza does an excellent job of capturing the sights and sounds of the hurricane winds and massive flooding, especially as it destroyed the Lower 9th Ward. He follows two families through their travails and subsequent relocations to Houston and Chicago.

I found the Williams family (a black family who moved to Houston), far more compelling and sympathetic than the Donadlsons (a white couple who moved to Chicago), as they bicker about whether to return and raise their children in New Orleans. The Donaldsons’ struggle comes from a place of comfort and privilege, with fallback options, whereas the dispersed Williams family members struggle to find each other and stay together, make a living, and keep the faith in a difficult new environment. Kudos to Piazza for his thoughtful depiction of one of the greatest tragedies of our time.