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Meet the WritersImage of Elizabeth Cohen
Elizabeth Cohen
Good to Know
In her interview with Barnes & Noble.com, Cohen shared some fun facts about herself:

"My first job was at a gas station in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was fired for reading. I once worked at an elite bookstore in SoHo. Was fired for reading. My best job ever was as editorial assistant to Anna Quindlen. She would call me every couple days and ask me to find out the lifespan of the average gorilla, the gross national product of Thailand, or the phone number for the Dalai Lama. Stuff like that. I am serious. That was actually my job. I lucked out."

"I used to have hobbies like skiing and hiking. These days I play with my daughter, Ava. We go to the park. We read. We go swimming together on Saturdays. She is the great joy in my life now. I bought a kayak two years ago. I'd like to use it someday."

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Interview
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Elizabeth Cohen had to say:

Time permitting, I have these on my summer reading shelf:

  • Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble by Stephan Fatsis -- I love Scrabble. This sounds like a fun book to read during summer about people who take a hobby into the realm of obsession.

  • Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith -- What would summer be without a great mystery read? And I love this series, about an African woman named Precious Ramotswe who opens her own succesful detective agency.

  • She is Me by Cathleen Schine -- This is a novel about a sandwich generation family, three generations of women, dealing with caregiving responsibilities (of the two older generations, mom and grandmother) and the wild dreams in the youngest. As a member of the sandwich generation, who has spent years taking care of my own parents and child simultaneously, this sounds like my cup of tea.

  • The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier -- I am a Chevalier addict. I got lured in by Girl with a Pearl Earring and now I am hooked. What I enjoy about Chevalier's books are the excellent development of female characters and the historical research that goes into them. Chevalier is a literary writer but very accessible, which makes her perfect for the beach.

  • Small is Beautiful: Economics As if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher -- I read this book in college and it still haunts me. Whenever I read about things economic, his words and ideas come back to me -- in this book he presents a Buddhist approach to global economics, if such a thing is possible. I want to re-read it as I am becoming more interested in global economics, and as I learn more about my father's life -- he was an economist -- it helps me to better understand him.

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs -- I picked this up when I was browsing in a book store and by the second page I was hooked. I want to spend a few days this summer in Jacobs's world, which will be a fascinating experience, because she is so detailed about her life and so un-self pitying. I am becoming more and more interested in the history of women's personal narrative, and Jacob's account of her life seems like something I would greatly enjoy.

  • The Waves by Virginia Woolf -- I have read a couple books by Woolf and both struggled with them and found myself underlining whole paragraphs. The Waves is supposed to be a more difficult but also, exceptionally poetic work. I may not get very far, but I hope to dig into it over my vacation in June.

  • Longitudes and Attitudes by Thomas Friedman -- Events in the Middle East are so overwhelming to us all; I find Friedman's writing (From Beirut to Jerusalem) particularly enlightening. It helps so much to get a grip on the history of these countries, like Iraq, to truly comprehend what is happening there today. I wish some of our leaders would put this book on their summer reading lists, too.

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    In the spring of 2003, Elizabeth Cohen took some time out to answer some of our questions.

    What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I have read it many times. It is, I think, the combination of a great story -- it's really a weave of several stories -- with memorable characters and powerfully descriptive writing.

    What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck -- Although it takes place in another time and place and culture, this book, which I read again and again, makes you feel as though you live there, know Wang Lung the farmer, and are a part of that time.

  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe -- Again, takes place in another part of the world, a different time but suddenly you are there, in the clashing cultures, a theme I gravitate to by nature, and also the subject of my first book. It is also a brilliant exploration of postcolonial politics and the effects on African tribal people.

  • Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips -- This book was my bible in my 20s. My copy is so dog-eared and scrappy I keep it hidden away where only I can find it. The taut, snapshot writing was a touchstone for me in developing a voice on the page. With a few words, she can accomplish more in establishing character and mood than most writers in a hundred pages.

  • The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski -- This book had a huge effect on me and made me want to be a writer. Told through a child's-eye point of view, this tale of survival during war is at once lovely and horrific and entirely memorable. Some people say The Red Badge of Courage is the best war portrait ever written; I would argue for The Painted Bird.

  • Anagrams by Lorrie Moore -- She is a master of the story form and she is funny. It is important to be funny. I think I learned how to be funny from reading her books obsessively.

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger -- This may be my favorite book. Don't be mislead by how far down it is on my list. Holden Caulfield always feels like me, somehow, no matter how old I get. His angst is universal.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- I have read this in both English and in Spanish. In both languages this novel is composed of the most exquisite poetry. And it is a page-turner. I think Márquez illustrates the ways that poetry can be turned into prose. That is his real magic realism.

  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday -- Again, cultures colliding, a story you can't forget. Writing that makes you want to write.

  • The Beet Queen and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich -- Erdrich is an important writer for me. Hers are novels of desperate people lost between cultures, surviving on love against all odds.

    What are some of your favorite films?
    I still remember seeing The Red Balloon in elementary school and realizing that film was an art; my favorites are always changing. This week, they are Delicatessen; The City of Lost Children; anything by the Coen brothers, particularly O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Three Kings; Paris, Texas, and other movies by Wim Wenders; I love trashy sci-fi thrillers like Blade Runner and mushy love stories, particularly set in Victorian times, like Merchant-Ivory films.

    Favorite music?

  • Frederic Chopin
  • Tom Waits
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Kate Bush
  • Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • Tori Amos
  • Suzanne Vega
  • Claude Debussy
  • The Clash
  • Johnny Cash
  • They Might Be Giants
  • Sun Ra
  • Edward McDowell

    I could go on. I do not listen to music when I am writing.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    If I had a book club they would be reading The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino. It is the most lovely and charming parable about falling in love and feeling marginalized. I think great discussions could come out of reading it with a group.

    What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I give away cookbooks, mysteries, and Pride and Prejudice to anyone who hasn't read it. I give kids Harriet the Spy and littler kids Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg.

    I like to get the last good novel someone has read passed on to me. That happened with Girl with a Pearl Earring last year. I fell inside it for three days.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I have no writing rituals. I write between newspaper assignments. I snatch time. I sneak and squeeze it in between other obligations. My desk is cluttered with research materials and old coffee cups and pictures of my father and daughter.

    What are you working on now?
    Today I am working on a piece on preserving historic homes and facing off anxiety. A longer project is a book of essays on parenting. I have a novel stirring inside me.

    I have thought of myself as a writer since I was 16. I am 43. Enough said.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
    I would choose a book by Karen Bender or Joyce Hackett or Dawn Clifton. They are all newish "undiscovereds" with talent.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Read. Keep writing. Take notes. Meet other writers.



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  • About the Writer
    *Elizabeth Cohen Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    Chronology
    *Impossible Furniture (coauthor), 1994
    *The Scalpel and the Silver Bear (coauthor), 1999
    *The House on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Learning and Forgetting, 2003
    *The Family on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Love and Courage, 2004
    Photo by Maureen Ryan