Kathleen Volk Miller, an associate teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, writes essays and fiction, and has been published in Salon, The New York Times, and Family Circle. She is also a weekly blogger (Thursdays) for Philadelphia Magazine’s Philly Post and is currently working on My Gratitude, a collection of essays.
She’s currently reading three—yes three—books for both work and pleasure: God Bless America, a collection of short stories by Steve Almond; Four For a Quarter, another short-story collection by Michael Martone; and finally, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
Why did you choose these books?
During the term, I tend to read short stories and books of essays because I don’t have time to just sit down and read for pleasure. I save novels for breaks, so I can read them and luxuriate in them.
Steve Almond does really amazing work and I am really into him right now. God Bless America is one of the few experiences where I read something and I wanted to open back to page one. Almond writes from the space in between the brutality and romance of life. And I don’t mean man-loves-woman romance. Some of his stories are so sad but so beautiful.
In Michael Martone’s Four For a Quarter, I just love his use of language. He doesn’t use a lot of words to say a boatload. His stories are very quiet but they resonate.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad came out in 2010. Many of my peers read and it and it was highly recommended. I really wanted to read it but never got around to it.
The book is about a gang of friends who go their separate ways and then reconnect again. The book covers a 30- to 40-year span, from the late 1960s to the present. I call it a novel, but some people call it a collection of linked short stories, with an unusual narrative thread.
Have the books lived up to your expectations?
I have read other books by Michael Martone and I think Four For a Quarter is the best thing he’s ever done. And Steve Almond can get away with overblown poetic language because it’s so raw and so beautiful.
What I love about both of these books is that I can revisit them again and again and, as a teacher, I have to be able to want to spend a lot of time with these books. Both are solid books for that type of experience.
With the Goon Squad, the book is told in multiple points of view, and the chapters overlap chronologically. You really have to pay attention in order to catch things. I really liked that I was engaged the whole time.
Is there a passage or a quote you find particularly interesting?
Michael Martone’s brain is just amazing. He’s a brilliant person. He is also obsessed with the photo booth. Twenty years ago he came up with an exercise for his students—they had to go to a photo booth and take pictures of themselves and then write about the experience in any way they wanted.
The opening of Four For a Quarter has four different photo booth experiences. I was sucked in right at the start.
“The photobooth is just inside off the boardwalk, away from the crowds. The backs of the white benches swing over the seats. You can sit facing the ocean or sit facing the storefronts. Out on the white cluttered beach, two Amish couples wade in the sheeting waves. Their shoes and socks chest high. Skirts tucked between bare legs. Their blue brilliant against the white sand and sky. Four of them. Two men and two women. They have come a long way. Everyone else pretends, I pretend, we are not looking. They toss bread to the cloud of gulls.”