Books

Fable Scraps

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Legend has it that Franz Schubert composed his most famous melodies in Vienna cafés, where for lack of music paper, he would jot stanzas on the backs of menus, across placemats, and even, it is said, on tablecloths. Those scraps eventually became the lieder celebrated for their piano accompaniments.

Like Schubert, 26-year-old Daniel Mason began his oeuvre on an array of scrap paper. During more than a year spent studying malaria in Thailand and northern Myanmar, he would scrawl his impressions—sometimes in Thai or Burmese—on napkins and bus tickets. These random notes grew into his debut novel, The Piano Tuner (September, Knopf).

“I didn’t realize that the papers and stuff would become a novel until about two months into writing it,” Mason says. “I had written some short stories before. But then I began to get sort of an eerie feeling that I would finish this, and it would turn into something larger.”

After graduating from Harvard in 1998, Mason received a one-year Luce Foundation grant to further his senior thesis research in malaria. Although he never caught the disease, he did catch an idea—the vision of a displaced piano alone in the jungle, which he says later drove him to write the book.

Mason, now a third-year medical student at the University of California-San Francisco, managed to squeeze writing The Piano Tuner between reading anatomy and physiology books. Writing helped him deal with the pressures of school, as well as the readjustment from his colorful, adventure-filled sojourns in the Far East to duller school days in America.

“It was a way of distracting myself,” he jokes.

Mason’s novel is ambitious and complex. Piano tuner Edgar Drake is sent from London to Burma to rehabilitate an 1840 Erard owned by British surgeon-major Anthony Carroll, posted in the remote Shan States. During his voyage up-country and subsequent encounter with Carroll, the story becomes an epic, and he learns the truth of the adage that the journey is the destination.

Mason isn’t done traveling, either. He plans to spend six months in Brazil, the setting of his planned second novel. No doubt he will be on the lookout for some sturdy matchbook covers and bar napkins.


JEFFREY MCDANIEL

September 19

Exoterica at the Riverdale Society for Ethical Culture, 4450 Fieldston Road, Bronx, 718-549-5192

Inventive, ingenious and spontaneous, McDaniel has condensed the magic of a poetry slam into a book, The Splinter Factory, the third of this L.A.-based poet’s collections.

BARBARA TRAN

September 19

Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 16 West 32nd Street, 494-0061

Already prominent among Vietnamese American writers, Tran just published a collection of her poetry, In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words, which broaches such ugly topics as the Vietnam War and exile in America with delicacy and beauty.

JULIE OTSUKA

September 19

Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Avenue, 831-3554

Otsuka’s promising debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, tells the story of one Japanese American family torn apart by the internment camps of World War II, as told from the perspective of different members of the family.

‘POETRY AFTER 9/11: AN ANTHOLOGY OF NEW YORK POETS’

September 21

St. Agnes Branch, New York Public Library, 444 Amsterdam Avenue, 877-4380

Six New Yorkers—Paul Violi, Frank Lima, Patricia Spears Jones, Eliot Katz, Carter Ratcliff, and Andrea Carter Brown—offer their poetic interpretations of the post-traumatic and healing periods following 9-11, one year later.

GABRIEL BROWNSTEIN

September 25

Community Bookstore, 143 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-783-3075

A nondescript five-story building on West 89th Street serves as a microcosm of arguably the most eccentric city on Earth in Brownstein’s short story collection, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W.

JONATHAN FRANZEN +JEFFREY EUGENIDES

September 30

92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, 415-5500

The author of The Virgin Suicides reads from his long-awaited second novel, Middlesex, a hermaphrodite’s bildungsroman, while Franzen, whose The Corrections topped bestseller lists last year, reads from a new collection of essays, How to Be Alone.

WOLE SOYINKA

October 12

Dia Center for the Arts, 548 West 22nd Street, 989-5566

Nobel Prize-winning Soyinka has written fiction, plays, and poetry. A staunch critic both of colonialism and the postcolonial Nigerian kleptocracy, he stands with countrymen Chinua Achebe and Ken Saro-Wiwa as giants of anglophone African literature.

DANIEL MASON

October 14

Barnes & Noble, 675 Sixth Avenue, 727-1227

ALEKSANDER HEMON

October 16

Community Bookstore, 143 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-783-3075

Hemon left his native Sarajevo in the early ’90s, shortly before the brutal siege of the city. His wistful stories, including the latest collection, Nowhere Man: The Pronek Fantasies, about his native land’s struggle with politics and war, evoke Milan Kundera.

CLARIBEL ALEGRIA+ERNESTO CARDENAL

October 17

Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue, 249-8950

One of Nicaragua’s most important poets, Alegría has produced a sizable body of fiction and poetry and was an important voice in Central America’s liberation struggle. Priest, poet, and revolutionary Cardenal, also from Nicaragua, served as minister of culture under the Sandinista government.

‘NEW WRITING FROM THE U.K.’

October 17

Poets House, 72 Spring Street, 431-7920

Poets Paul Muldoon, Simon Armitage, and Glyn Maxwell join others in a group discussion of emerging writing in the British Isles, moderated by F.D. Reeve, author of The Urban Stampede and Other Poems.

REBECCA GODFREY

October 29

Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Avenue, 831-3554

Godfrey exposed Canadian readers to the seedy side of Victoria, British Columbia, last year. Now The Torn Skirt, her debut novel about burnouts, drugs, and teenage sex, is out on this side of the border.

NELLY ROSARIO

November 14

Halcyon, 227 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718-260-WAXY

The Voice named Dominican-born Rosario a Writer on the Verge. Her recent novel Song of the Water Saints, the poignant saga of Dominican mothers and daughters, cemented her place among the next generation of young novelists.

HA JIN

November 21

Barnes & Noble, 2289 Broadway, 362-8835

A former soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, Ha Jin immigrated to America in 1985. His award-winning novels have focused on routine life under the totalitarian Chinese government; his latest, The Crazed, hits shelves in October.

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