Friday, April 29, 2016

Lisa Black

New York Times bestselling author Lisa Black is the author of seven novels in the Theresa MacLean mystery series and two novels written as Elizabeth Becka. As a forensic scientist at the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office, she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she is a latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida, working mostly with fingerprints and crime scenes.

Black's new novel is That Darkness.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

Could you just help me out? I don’t need any money, I swear, I just have to tell you about this deal/ inheritance/ tragedy/ hot stock tip/ cache of long-lost artworks that I need help to distribute. I’m not asking for money—that’s not what this is about, trust me.

No, trust me—that’s exactly what it’s about.

This isn’t just a book about great swindles throughout history, though there are plenty of anecdotes and tales to illustrate the points made. It is a dive into the psychology of belief, why we trust, why intelligent, successful people fall for what seems, in hindsight, the most fantastical bald-faced lies ever to fall on all-too-willing ears.

Basically it comes down to the fact that the default setting for human beings is to trust. This is not unreasonable—studies show that trusting people do better and are more successful in the long run, and we could hardly function if we had to re-examine every single decision three or four or five times. And people who get conned are not naïve dunces, but simply as prone as the next person to skillful manipulation. There is no one type of victim—cons are tailored to meet individual goals—but they (we) are alike in that goals make one vulnerable.

The author goes through each step, beginning with the “put-up”. Con men and women study their target (much easier these days with social media). Familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds acceptance. We’re all more comfortable (and therefore trusting) with people who are like us, and we all want to join the club of our dreams, whether that is the aristocracy, dot com millionaires, lottery winners, or the quilter’s circle.

Then the ‘play’—they make contact, establish their credentials, tell us all about their history, all of it fascinating and all of it fake.

Then the ‘rope’--they’ll get to the story, the narrative, a tale of fabulous wealth that could be ours, or of a horrible abuse they suffered which prompted them to seek our help—‘the touch.’ Why us? Because deep down we all think of ourselves as exceptional, exceptionally nice, exceptionally generous, and exceptionally intelligent.

We don’t ask for a lot of verification, because we’re too smart to get conned, and even if we do look more closely, we might look exactly where the con man directed us. Some sort of support will be offered for the story, in the form of fake documents, testimony from other beneficiaries (cohorts in disguise), or initial payoffs from the investment. We might need an extra ‘nudge’—the production is limited, all your friends are doing it, and if you don’t trust me then say the word and I’ll be out of here…though you might miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. And everyone knows that the pain of regret tops many other agonies.

Then ‘the blow-off’—they, and our money, disappear. If they’ve done a good job, we never realize we were conned at all. We think it was simply bad luck; after all, not every investment pays off. But it’s more likely we know all too well where we went wrong…only we’ll never, ever admit it.

Because, of course, we’re too smart to fall for that.
Visit Lisa Black's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Caragh O’Brien

Since earning a master’s in writing at Johns Hopkins University, Caragh O'Brien has been a high school teacher, a published author of romance novels, and now a novelist for teens. Her first young adult novel, Birthmarked, was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, and on the ALA Amelia Bloomer list.

O’Brien latest novel is The Rule of Mirrors.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
You should probably know up front that I’m a slow reader. I’m also an impatient reader. For a book to work for me, it has to grip me both with a certain line-by-line delight and ideas that startle and intrigue me. The following five books all do.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

People have been telling me for ages to read this novel, but the toys on the cover always made me doubt that it was my sort of book. It is completely my sort of book. It’s thoughtful, funny, challenging, sad, and philosophical. When Junior is the only Indian kid in his otherwise white high school, he faces discrimination, self-doubt, and the rage of his old friends. The familiar story of acceptance, of winning approval from the mainstream crowd, is blessedly secondary to the deep questioning of what it is to grow up and be human. This novel reminds me how important it is to write from the heart from personal experience, and it challenges me to see how I might do that more. I’ll be pondering this book for a long time.

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

I discovered this from lists on Goodreads when I was browsing for a good romance, and it did not disappoint. The two main characters, Alex and Brittany, are from opposite social and economic worlds when they’re teamed up as lab partners in chemistry. Though the premise is not original, Brittany’s relationship with her disabled sister and Alex’s involvement with his gang are bases for deep, conflicted characters. I’ve been rereading sections to see how Elkeles handles pacing so well, and I’m in no hurry to return my copy to the library.

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

I read this knowing I would be on a panel with Rae at the Tucson Festival of Books, and I keep thinking about her novel. The main character is a girl traveling across country in 1849 in time for the California Gold Rush, and it’s full of pioneer details. It also has a little bit of magic because Lee can sense gold, and this secret gives her potential power and sets her up for danger. What I liked most was how strong and good Lee was, even when she faced intolerance and greedy, evil people. This is the beginning of a series, and I’ll definitely be reading more.

Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod

I’m proud to say this was a total impulse buy from Green Apple Books in San Francisco. It’s a funny, quick read with the author’s alternately quirky and insightful tips on being an artist and figuring out the artist’s relationship with marketing. When he talks about how sovereignty over your own work is the most satisfying, empowering, valuable aspect of that work, it resonates with me. Some of his advice and stories are downright wacky, but I like that, too. I also enjoy the little, abstract drawings from the backs of business cards that are interspersed through the pages.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak

My son read a couple of these stories aloud to me on a road trip, and I subsequently picked up a copy from the library. I did the obvious thing—read all the shortest stories first—just as B.J. Novak predicted some of his readers would do. But then I had to go back and read them all, from the beginning, because some wryly refer back to earlier stories. I kept renewing my library copy, then finally went out and bought my own, and then I kept giving mine away and getting more copies. The stories are that good. They’re funny, soul-searching, and brilliant. They expose the absurdity of our time and our relationships. They make me want to be a braver, more original writer, and best of all, they make me laugh.
Learn more about the book and author at Caragh O'Brien's website.

My Book, The Movie: Birthmarked.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

William Carlsen

William Carlsen was a reporter for two decades at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. He has also worked for the New York Times and taught journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Carlsen's new book is Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
At the moment I'm reading a just-published book called the At the Existential Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell, because from my high school days, I have been utterly fascinated by Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus, and have read many of their works but have never quite grasped their philosophical ideas fully. This book seems to address that.

Beyond that, I have just taken a dive into a recent novel called High Dive, the first chapter of which I found mesmerizing.

I just finished All the Light We Cannot See, which I thought was extremely well-crafted, perhaps too well crafted.

For my history fix, I'm in the middle of Over the Edge of the World, written by Laurence Bergreen some time ago, which is about Magellan's voyage around the world and is extremely well-told by Bergreen, whose book Columbus: the Four Voyages, sits nearby to be read next.

Recently, I've also begun to go back and read books that I somehow missed earlier in my life: In Cold Blood, Lolita, and On the Road, all worth the time although I found Lolita much less interesting and well-written than I expected.
Visit William Carlsen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Con Lehane

Con Lehane is a mystery writer who lives outside Washington, DC. He's published three crime novels featuring New York City bartender Brian McNulty. Over the years, he has worked as a college professor, a union organizer, a labor journalist, and has tended bar at two dozen or so drinking establishments.

Lehane's latest book is Murder at the 42nd Street Library, the first novel in a new series featuring Raymond Ambler, curator of the 42nd Street Library’s (fictional) crime fiction collection.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
At the moment, I’m reading Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan. Suzanne Marrs is a biographer of Eudora Welty and Tom Nolan a biographer of Ross MacDonald, whose actual name was Kenneth Millar (pronounced Miller). I come to this book by way of Tom Nolan’s biography. Ross Macdonald was a major influence on me as a writer. He was a man with a great deal of tragedy in his life, from which he developed a tremendous sympathy for his fellow suffering humans. I was mostly interested in the letters as a love story that I first learned about in the biography. I’d also spent some time with Ken Millar’s notebooks and papers, which are in the special collections at the University of California Irvine. I’d met Tom Nolan at the Virginia Festival of the Book some years before. He told me about the collection and gave me an introduction so that I was given access. For personal reasons, I became interested in the correspondence before I knew about the book. I intended to go back to Irvine to look for some of the letters and made vague plans to find Ms. Welty’s letters to Millar, which I discovered were at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson where she had lived. Instead, I discovered Tom Nolan and Suzanne Marrs were putting together a book of that correspondence. The idea of a kind of love affair based on their appreciation of each other's writing and the works of a number of other writers appeals to me. I’m enjoying the exchange quite a bit, though as Louis Bayard pointed out in his review of the book, perhaps a little too much about birds and not enough about politics. Sadly, as one gets to the later letters toward the end of the 1970s, the onset of Ken Millar’s Alzheimers disease becomes apparent.

Prior to this, or really simultaneously because I stopped reading it to read the letters book, I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s Autobiography. I’ve been reading it for a while. It’s the kind of book you can start and stop, even jump around in, It’s written episodically, not chronologically, so he can be in France as an old man one moment, on a stage giving a speech in mid-career the next, and in Hannibal, Missouri as a boy on the next page. The book is heartwarming and terribly sad and laugh out loud funny. I’m a good way through the first volume and will read all three volumes—taking a break here and there to read other things—and when I’m finished, I’ll most likely start over again.

The other book I took a break from The Autobiography to read was Donna Leon’s first book, Death at La Fenice: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery. I don’t know why it took me so long to read her. I’ve known about her books for a long time. They take place in Venice. Though she’s American, the book has, to me, a European sensibility, in the sense that Brunetti thinks and feels more like Simenon’s Maigret or Nicholas Freeling’s, Inspector Van Der Valk than American police detectives I’ve run across. Brunetti’s a family man, not a hard guy, sympathetic more than revengeful, not adverse to bending the law to serve a higher purpose. I really liked the book, so I’ve found a series I’ll read a bunch more of. I’m also about to read, or not so much read as sort of look around in, Learning a Trade, Reynolds Price’s notebooks, in preparation for a class I’m teaching this summer. And my copy of Clues: A Journal of Detection just came in the mail. This issue is chock full of scholarly articles about Agatha Christie.
Visit Con Lehane's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Con Lehane & Lola.

The Page 69 Test: Murder at the 42nd Street Library.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 25, 2016

Brendan Jones

Raised in Philadelphia, Brendan Jones took the Greyhound west at the age of 19, ending up in Sitka, Alaska. He graduated from Oxford University, where he boxed for the Blues team, then returned to Alaska to commercial fish. He was a general contractor for seven years in Philadelphia, before heading back to Sitka, where he now lives, commercial fishing and renovating a WWII tugboat.

Jones's new novel is The Alaskan Laundry.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I have a habit of bouncing around books, especially while working during the day. Stuck here in this boatyard in Wrangell, Alaska, steaming planks of sapele during the day, spinning oakum over a knee in the evenings after a shower at the Hungry Beaver bar down the way, book propped open by a beer. I’ve been enjoying the weird, formal, medieval voice of Walter Thirsk in Jim Crace in Harvest. I was first introduced to Crace’s weirdness by Ottessa Mosfegh at Stanford, when she brought in Being Dead to workshop. I love the clash between eras, these shifts; and while I don’t find the plot engaging as such, I do find myself, while in this ghostly boatyard awash in sodium lights, without water on the boat, drawn to Thirsk, and even comforted by him, as he tells his story of being stuck between an agrarian and sheep-based society before enclosure.

I’m also reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel after having it recommended by a few folks I admire. God I try, and some of the writing is poetic, wonderful, especially in the beginning. But I find it hides the ball, and can be overwrought. Perhaps I need to try harder. For an energy ball of a short story I’ve been reading Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, it inhabits the same softly apocalyptic territory as St. Mandel. There’s humor in it, which I appreciate, and Johnson’s narrative brilliance and effortless imagination.

Finally, I picked up A Farewell to Arms—or, as a friend calls it, Bye-Bye Guns—for perhaps the fourth time while in a hotel in Astoria Oregon a month back. Those 122 words in that first paragraph, the movement from stomping of troops to quietness, and the dialogue. I know some of it is stilted, and the relationships blocky, but god I love that book. I first read it while on the top bunk of three on a train in China in 1997. As Frederic Henry walks home in the rain I wept in great heaves. And then felt a hand on my back, a gentle pat. A Chinese woman in gray pajamas invited me to her bottom bunk and fed me hot noodles. We didn’t speak. I won’t ever forget that.
Visit Brendan Jones's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Laura Williams McCaffrey

Laura Williams McCaffrey is author of Marked, Water Shaper, and Alia Waking. She is on faculty at Solstice, an MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College, and lives in Vermont with her family.

Recently I asked McCaffrey about what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently finished Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, and I suppose I was a little late to the party on this one, as it won the Printz Award and was a National Book Award Finalist. At the story’s start, a reader might not be entirely certain the story is a fantasy. The world seems a fairly mundane, if quirky, small town. Something strange has occurred — a girl has disappeared, completely vanished, but most of the characters guess that she’s run off. The main character, Finn, saw her go with a man, and yet he has such vague memories of the man, it is difficult to tell whether or not he was mistaken. Soon, though, readers hear from Rosa, the girl who disappeared, and it’s clear she’s in danger, but not entirely in the conventional way. Her story has the feel of a fairy tale; an evil man comes to her each day and asks if she loves him yet. He seems certain she will.

As I try to analyze what I love so much about the novel, I can think of many reasons. The voices of the narrators, as well as the other characters, are vulnerable. And yet, they have hurt each other, and they continue to, often as a way of protecting themselves. The walls they build around themselves leave them lonely.

I also love Ruby’s use of mythology. Her story seems to spring from this mythology in the way that fairy tales have sometimes sprung from mythology, becoming tales not of goddesses and princes, but clever girls and farm boys who must face down dangerous magical forces. Bone Gap is a tale of people who believe themselves to be smaller than they are, and their hearts force them to prove themselves worthy of those they love.

The other book I’ve read recently and loved is Don Brown’s Drowned City. This graphic novel tells the story of New Orleans, and the terrible havoc Katrina wreaked upon the city. Brown begins with the storm approaching and depicts the many ways it swept through New Orleans. He traces the various responses of officials, and how these responses changed over time. He shows the loss of life, the devastation, the desperation, and the solutions that came much, much too late.

I love a lot about this graphic novel. The language is spare, clear and evocative. The faces of the people are more expressive than realistic, conveying pain, fear, and hope. Brown provides the struggles of everyday people trying to survive, and yet also provides a larger picture of destruction. He even offers the failures of politicians along with pertinent statistics. Still, the human stories of the city are central. He renders horrifying incompetence and criminality, and he also renders great heroism and courage.
Visit Laura Williams McCaffrey's website.

The Page 69 Test: Marked.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Stefan Bachmann

Stefan Bachmann is the author of the internationally bestselling novel The Peculiar and its acclaimed sequel, The Whatnot. He was born in Colorado, spent most of his childhood in Switzerland, and is now studying modern music at the Zürich University of the Arts. When he’s not writing, he can be found traveling to someplace chilly, or holed up beneath his college in the dimly lit labyrinth of practice rooms, which may have inspired the subterranean scenes in his new novel, A Drop of Night.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Bachmann's reply:
I recently read Jonathan Stroud's The Screaming Staircase and absolutely loved it in an ecstatic, screaming-about-it-at-my-own-book-events sort of way. I read his Bartimaeus Trilogy as a kid and was a huge fan, but then I kind of forgot about his work for a while. I heard about this new series when it came out back in 2013. Didn't buy the first book until recently. Now I wish I had gotten to it sooner.

It looks like middle grade, possibly YA, but it's enjoyable for any age. The book is set in a subtly alternate England where ghosts and spirits have started causing mayhem, and professional agencies have sprung up to combat them with iron and flares and secret knowledge. Lockwood and Co. is a new agency made up of three teenagers, each of whom have distinct personalities that play off each other in humorous ways.

My favorite part was the ghosts, though. There are different categories, different rules for dispatching each sort. It's almost scientific and these ghosts are definitely of the serious, "dark shapes standing at the bottom of the garden" variety, not so much Ghostbuster variety. I loved that. There are also haunted manors, and hints of deadly cases in the past, which some of the characters may-or-may-not have been wrapped up in. It's all very tantalizing, and you can tell Stroud is setting us up for much wider reaching world-building in coming volumes. Which I will be reading. Soon.
Learn more about the book and author at Stefan Bachmann's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: The Peculiar.

The Page 69 Test: The Peculiar.

The Page 69 Test: The Whatnot.

The Page 69 Test: A Drop of Night.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 22, 2016

Leila Meacham

Leila Meacham is a writer and former teacher who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She is the author of the bestselling novels Roses and Tumbleweeds.

Her new novel is Titans.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Meacham's reply:
Oh, that there was more time to read other authors’ works! Alas, most of my reading material pertains to research for my writing projects, always in progress, and of absolutely no interest to the readers of your excellent blog but perhaps for its incorporation into the stories of my novels. However, I’ve managed to work a few memorable works of fiction into my reading schedule, the latest tome being All the Light We Cannot See, written by Anthony Doerr, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer award. It is a story of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German boy, Werner, whose lives intertwine during the Nazi Occupation of France. Werner eventually ends up in the intelligence arm of the German army as a tracker of illegal radio transmissions, Marie-Laure as one of the clandestine transmitters of these broadcasts. I was more taken with the literary excellence of the novel—the author’s total command of the elements of fiction—than I was of the story itself. I thought it enormously dark and depressing as most tales of war and Nazi depravity usually are, and even ponderously technical at times, but beautifully rendered, haunting and powerful. Several lines eternal to human contemplation down through the ages are spoken by the characters. “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever,” one advises and another questions, “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” The responses to these utterances seem to be the threads that bind the narrative together. The result is that Mr. Doerr weaves, in my humble opinion but obviously shared with others of greater esteem, a brilliant tapestry of human nature at its best and worst and leaves the world a work of literary genius.

In addition, I’m looking forward to delving once again into two of Elswyth Thane’s superb novels of the 1940’s: By Dawn’s Early Light and Yankee Stranger. They are of her Williamsburg Series cast against the backgrounds of the American Revolution and the Civil War. These historical classics are to be re-released by Chicago Review Press, and I am honored to have been asked to contribute the forewords.
Visit Leila Meacham's website.

The Page 69 Test: Roses.

The Page 69 Test: Titans.

My Book, The Movie: Titans.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hilary N. Green

Hilary Green is Assistant Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at The University of Alabama. Born in Boston, she earned her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. She is a specialist in nineteenth-century American history, with emphasis on the African American experience, Civil War Era and Atlantic World.

Green's new book is Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction by Elaine Parsons.

Well-researched, compelling, and non-glorifying of a violent organization, this monograph critically looks at the organization’s origins, effects on local communities, and its legacy for the nation. It is a well-needed critical reassessment on the Ku Klux Klan and the violence of Reconstruction. Moreover, it helps to explain how the idea of the Ku-Klux served to facilitate sectional reconciliation and black exclusion.
Learn more about Educational Reconstruction at the Fordham University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Stephanie Kate Strohm

Stephanie Kate Strohm is the author of Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink and the Confederates Don't Wear Couture. Her new novel is The Taming of the Drew.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Strohm's reply:
Food Whore by Jessica Tom

My fiancé picked this up for me while we were browsing the shelves at the Book Cellar, our favorite neighborhood bookstore in Chicago. I think he might have picked it up as a joke because of the title, but I loved it. An intern becomes a ghostwriter for the most famous food critic in New York, and the descriptions of the meals are lushly epic – you can tell this was written by someone who loves food, just like me. Sort of like The Devil Wears Prada with Michelin stars. It’s foodie chick lit, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Abroad by Katie Crouch

Abroad is about a college girl studying abroad in Italy and the dark situation she finds herself in. I picked up this book because I have a bit of a morbid fascination with the Amanda Knox case, but Abroad has an eerie, magical feel to it that I wasn’t expecting. It’s very different than what I normally read, but I can’t stop reading it at night – even though I probably should, because I am extremely susceptible to nightmares, and this is a story that stays with me even after I’ve closed the book.

Cravings by Chrissy Teigen

Remember when I said I loved food? I wasn’t kidding. Maybe you interact with a cookbook more than you actually read it, but this is the book I’ve spent the most time with over the past couple weeks! The recipes are delicious and easy to follow, and Teigen shares jokes and funny stories in the introduction to each dish that make you feel like you’re cooking with a friend. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve made her honey balsamic Brussels sprouts with bacon, walnuts, and cranberries.
Visit Stephanie Kate Strohm's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Taming of the Drew.

My Book, The Movie: The Taming of the Drew.

--Marshal Zeringue