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Fond of writers from a generation back

Barry Mazur

In Grace Dane Mazur’s newest novel, “The Garden Party,” two very different families gather at a wedding rehearsal dinner in Brookline to see how or even whether they can meld. Mazur earned her PhD in biology from Harvard, where she then worked in a lab studying silkworms until she began writing fiction. She and her husband, the mathematician Barry Mazur, live in Cambridge and Westport. Mazur will read from her new novel at 6:30 p.m. on Monday July 16 at Harvard University’s Barker Center. 

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

MAZUR: I’m in the middle of three books. One is relatively unknown, “Summer in the Street of the Prophets,” by David Shahar. He’s been called the Israeli Proust. It’s stories of Jerusalem [in the 1930s] when Jews, Muslims, and Christians were living in relatively perfect harmony. The writing is breathtaking. Another is Joan Silber’s novel “Improvement.” It’s so smart in how she weaves together far-ranging threads of connections between people. Then I’m reading James Wood’s new novel “Upstate.” You want to be in his writing forever.

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BOOKS: How do you pick books? 

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MAZUR: I’m such a cranky reader. I go to a bookstore intending to buy something I’ve heard wonderful things about, read the first page, and put it down. I look for whether the author takes delight in language. I don’t look for plot. I want to be surprised by the writer’s insights into ordinary life.

BOOKS: Who are the writers who reliably do that for you?

MAZUR: Jamaica Kincaid, particularly her newer ones. Also Claire Messud. Susanna Kaysen wrote one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, “Far Afield,” which is about a young male anthropologist in the Faroe Islands. When people ask me for a funny book I used to give them Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim,” but now I give them “Far Afield.” Her novel “Cambridge” is also stunning. 

BOOKS: Do you cry or laugh at books?

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MAZUR: Laugh, rarely, cry yes at all of my longer favorites: Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace.” Also Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet.” Scott has one of the best villains in all of literature in Ronald Merrick. He’s so complicated, and you can tell Scott loves him as a character. I’m getting goose pimples just talking about him. 

BOOKS: Do you read much contemporary fiction?

MAZUR: I tend to like to be back a generation or two or more. “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes is one of my great joys. It’s often paired with William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” but it shouldn’t be though it’s also about children and their moral qualities. They are taken over by pirates when they are being shipped from Jamaica to England to get an education. I must have read it six times. The last was in a book group we have where we read everything out loud and discuss it as we go. 

BOOKS: How does that work?

MAZUR: Our forward progress might be seven pages a week. We meet weekly for an hour. We tend to take on things that are a little too hard to read on one’s own or would benefit from discussion. We’ve done a number of Platonic dialogues, which I find marvelous and deeply puzzling. We’ve done the Book of Ecclesiastes, Dante’s “Inferno,” and Shakespeare’s sonnets.

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BOOKS: Do you like reading longer books?

‘I look for whether the author takes delight in language.’

MAZUR: I just love that feeling. I have friends who choose books depending on how soon they will finish it. I want to be in there as long as possible. So when I read Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy,” I felt this kind of grief at page 1,200 because I only had 200 more pages to go.

BOOKS: Did you change as a reader when you went from being a scientist to a novelist?

MAZUR: I would come home from the lab when I was a grad student and immediately plunge into “War and Peace” while all my colleagues were reading biological journal articles. I knew I should, but I couldn’t bring myself to read those. Still I felt [my novel reading] was very naughty. Now I have none of those guilts.

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