Monday, July 30, 2007

George Packer

George Packer writes about foreign affairs, politics, and books for The New Yorker's Interesting Times blog.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Tree of Smoke, a novel by Denis Johnson coming out in the fall. I haven't finished, but thus far it's the best work of his that I've read, and it's very much a novel for our time, even though it's about Vietnam. It reminds me of Robert Stone's best work, especially A Flag for Sunrise: a big historical canvas, a handful of characters of different nationalities, a sense of fated convergence and doom.

I'm also reading, or rereading, Orwell's essays and journalism for a new edition that Harcourt asked me to edit. The output alone is staggering: several hundred pages worth of writing every year in the 1940s, in addition to his novels. He reviewed a couple of plays and a couple of books every week throughout the blitz. It's sheer pleasure to open his non-fiction anywhere and read a few pages.
Packer recently posted a short item on Orwell's diary at Interesting Times.

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of five books: two novels, The Half Man and Central Square, and three books of non-fiction, The Village of Waiting, Blood of the Liberals, and The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq. He is also the editor of The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World. He has reported extensively from Africa and the Middle East.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Trinie Dalton

Trinie Dalton is the author of the short story collection Wide Eyed (Akashic) and co-editor of Dear New Girl Or Whatever Your Name Is (McSweeney’s), a book based on her archive of confiscated high school notes.

Her new book, A Unicorn is Born, is due out in November 2007.

I recently asked her what she was reading. She replied just after traveling to Oaxaca and Greece:
1/ The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (NYRB)

I love to read anything from this series, but this book especially was great to read stranded on Mykonos, as it's about a man trapped on an island facing imminent death. Composed as a series of letters that will serve as his memoir, the narrator recounts his hallucinations and paranoid fantasies about a female apparition he falls in love with as he stalks her spirit through the island's verdant jungle. Morel, the woman's ghostly counterpart, devises a machine that theoretically has ensnared all the captives, thus explaining why these ghosts can never leave the island. Faustine, the female sex goddess, was inspired by Louise Brooks, and has all the sass of a flapper. This book, a favorite of Jorge Luis Borges's, is magical realism combined with Modernist Sci-Fi, and makes for a juicy read.

2/ A Relative Stranger by Charles Baxter (Norton)

Charles Baxter is my current hero. His prose, ripe with details elucidating human psychology, is great in this classic story collection. Many of the stories involve people encountering one another but not quite gelling, or people who connect then fall apart. There is a mixture of comedy and tragedy that is unique to Baxter here that I wish I could pull off in my own fiction. He reminds me of a contemporary Flannery O'Connor.

3/ Gothic & Lolita (Phaidon)

As a sequel to their fashion book called Fruits, Phaidon has released a collection of photos depicting the latest Japanese kids from Tokyo sporting fetish gear related to the Gothic & Lolita movement. This style varies from super Goth, including branches like Cyber Goth, to Lolita, which is all about looking like a Victorian Doll or a little girl ready to be sexed up. The young kids are now apparently sporting fake cuts with bandages that show blood leaking through, and tiny hats tied onto the sides of their heads that look like puppy party hats. And my other favorite fashion are the furry leg warmers that go over tights or under frilly laced dresses to add that shaggy appeal for those who like hair. So hot!

4/ Witchcraft Through the Ages by Jack Stevenson (Fab Press, Cinema Classics Collection)

This is a cinema critical book relating to the 1922 silent film Haxan by Benjamin Christensen, which was rereleased in the 60s as Witchcraft Through the Ages narrated by William Burroughs. Both versions are favorite films of mine, in their depicting of stereotypes of the witches captured and killed during the Medieval witch craze in Northern Europe. The sets and cast are stunningly convincing. There are dioramas and animated sequences showing coven meetings led by Satan and in other scenes the Devil is portrayed as a hairy monster with pointy tail and all. Certain scenes are indeed tragic, especially those about the Spanish Inquisition, but the film was mostly meant to fascinate, not terrify. This book has some great still photos and tells the story of how difficult this project was for the director, as the film was banned all around Europe and his career was forever blemished from making such a controversial work of art. Bravo to him, as this film has stood the test of time and is one of the finest, still, on historical witchcraft. Glad it has been recently re-released on DVD and glad this book exists.
The Page 69 Test: Wide Eyed.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Kenneth Gross

Kenneth Gross, Professor of English at the University of Rochester, is the author, most recently, of Shylock Is Shakespeare.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
The books I’ve been reading pile up in precarious stacks on desk and night table and coffee table. Some get more attention than others. They do not complain of neglect, though I wonder what they say to each other when I’m not around. Pieces of the different books keep stalking each other in my head.

Reading and re-reading combine in curious chains of occasion. I picked up Conrad’s Nostromo this summer because I’d re-read The Secret Agent earlier in the year, and found it so uncannily absorbing -- so timely in its picture of terrorism -- and wanted another long fiction by this author. I re-read A Sentimental Education partly to figure out a remark I’d found in Kafka’s diaries, where he compares the end of Flaubert’s novel to the end of the Pentateuch. I read G√ľnther Grass’s The Tin Drum because I’m going to Germany next year, and then after all his name was much in the news because of the memoir I haven’t read. The three books share little save for a relentless intelligence, and a sympathetic but pitiless fascination with flawed, imperfect consciousnesses during times of historical change and violence.

There are two new books on Shakespeare, both remarkable for ways they draw Shakespeare whole, as a maker, a shaping intelligence. One is Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, shrewdly edited by Scott Newstok, which gathers published and unpublished writings on Shakespeare’s plays by Burke. It shows him probing the idea of Shakespeare as a relentless rhetorical schemer and man of the theater. “What he believed in above all was the glory of his trade itself, which is to say, the great humaneness of the word, and the corresponding search through the range of all its aptitudes.” Shakespeare the Thinker, by the late A. D. Nuttall, surveys the entire work of the playwright from beginning end. Caught up by their inner energies, the book is about how plays work, well, as forms of thinking, explorations of the mind (a mind) at work, also pictures of the mind’s ways of thinking about the categories of thought, forms of faith, law, love, and knowledge, giving us a poet often at odds with, even ashamed by, his own powers, his own sense of mastery.

Thin books of poetry can feel more demanding than fat novels. John Ashbery’s recent collection, A Worldly Country, is full of curious promises and reveries, honors and half prayers, disenchanted as they are. He lets us know about other things to read:

In late summer we would call each other

over and over until the bitter foam subsided.

Was it coincidence that letters began arriving

faster than fallen leaves, answers to ones

never sent, or so we thought?

And then there is A. R. Ammons’s great, rambling book-length poem from 1976, Sphere: A Form of Motion, which I just re-read. It is about connecting everything with everything, about the sweet and fearful movements of mind in making and unmaking the orders of a changing world, about “learning how to move with / balance among forces greater than your own, gravity, water’s / buoyance, psychic tides,” places where “constellations / of possibility break out,” and disintegration and dissonance are gifts.
Stephen Greenblatt wrote of Gross's latest book: “Shylock Is Shakespeare is a book whose risk-taking, even obsessive plunge into the living character of Shylock has succeeded in reinventing a mode of criticism long thought derelict and abandoned. Shakespeare’s power as a magician — a conjurer able to call forth and release spirits into the world — has rarely seemed as palpable or disturbing as it does in Kenneth Gross’s bold and original response.”

Gross has put Shylock Is Shakespeare to the Page 69 Test and imagined it as the basis for a film.

Kenneth Gross's other books include Spenserian Poetics: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Magic (1985), The Dream of the Moving Statue (1992), and Shakespeare’s Noise (2001).

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman is the author, most recently, of At Large and At Small, a collection of essays on ice cream, butterflies, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among other topics. She is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
During the school year I spend most of my reading time immersed in the words of undergraduate writers. Some of those words are very good. However, I can't deny that I enjoyed the luxury, while en route from place to place on a recent book tour, of reading actual books — copyedited, proofread, published, bound, and in no need of grading.

Scanning the mostly bleak shelves in the Hartford-Springfield airport gift shop for something halfway decent, I was overjoyed to glimpse a copy of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. A diamond in the dustheap! I snarfed it up in a single transcontinental gulp. I then stayed awake till four a.m. in the Heathman Hotel in Portland attempting to reunite the two central characters, whose wedding night had ended in catastrophe. What if Edward told Florence, “I'm sorry I called you a bitch”? What if Florence told Edward, “I'm sorry I called you a sexual failure”? What if they then embraced on the strand, packed their bags together, went home to Oxford, and found a sympathetic marriage counselor?

Unfortunately, Edward and Florence refused to patch things up. McEwan wouldn't let them. Hovering over the bed in Room 512 as dawn approached, his spectral form informed me, politely but firmly, “You Americans always want things to end happily. But don't you get it? This is a tragedy.”

*

I read Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, by Ted Kerasote, on both legs of a train trip between Springfield and New York City. It's a flat-out wonderful memoir about a stray dog, part Lab and part hound, who attached himself to a kayaker at a campground on the San Juan River in Utah; went home with him to Kelly, Wyoming; and eventually, by virtue of the social and political skills he displayed on his daily rounds of a town in which dogs are permitted to run free, became known as the Mayor of Kelly.

The mayor was a superlative dog — beautiful, sweet-tempered, and smart. Ted makes no bones about the fact that his bond with Merle was the most important and successful relationship of his life. One reason it worked so well was that Merle could come and go as he liked through a door in Ted's cabin rather than being tethered, leashed, crated, or fenced.

There's a lot about Ted and Merle in this book, but there's also a lot about dog behavior and cognition and genetics that helped me understand why Merle was the way he was. Ted Kerasote is a friend of my brother's, and I've met Merle — a celebrity encounter from which I plan to extract maximum mileage as readers discover this excellent book and the mayor's star rises.

Merle's Door doesn't end any more happily than On Chesil Beach. I read about Merle's protracted death between New Haven and Springfield, sitting next to a young man who gave me alarmed glances whenever I wiped my eyes or blew my nose. This time I didn't try to change the plot. I knew Merle had to die. But the book wasn't a tragedy. It didn't make me despair; it made me long to get home to my dog.
Read more about Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website. For more about her earlier work, see this brief biographical essay.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Robert Frank

Robert H. Frank is the H. J. Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics, Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University.

Two new books -- Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class (University of California Press, 2007) and The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas (Basic Books, 2007) -- top the list of his many publications.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
With vacations coming up, you'll want to pack a copy of Nature Girl, Carl Hiaasen's latest farce of swindlers on the make in Florida. It's not his best, but it's still terrific.

Sentence for sentence, there's no fiction writer I enjoy more than Elmore Leonard. His The Hot Kid (2005) ranks among his best, and I'm looking forward to its sequel, this year's Up in Honey's Room.

As a social scientist, it's always struck me as odd there are basically only two modes of published discourse: journal articles (usually no more than 20 pages) and books (rarely less than 300 pages). What happened to the middle? Having just written a very short book myself, I've asked friends in publishing why they don't publish such books more often. I've not yet heard a plausible explanation. But there are a few notable exceptions. Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris, weighs in at less than 100 pages despite its large font size. Even if you disagree with his thesis, it's as good an example as you'll find of sheer rhetorical virtuosity.

Tamara Draut's Strapped is well worth a read if you're curious about why it's become so much more difficult for young people to launch themselves in today's economy. Another title I recently enjoyed in the same vein is The Trap by Daniel Brook.

My favorite entry from the increasingly crowded post-Freakonomics bookshelf is Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist, out now in paperback.

But the nonfiction book I've enjoyed the most in recent years is Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis.
Robert Frank is a monthly contributor to the "Economic Scene" column in the New York Times. Until 2001, he was the Goldwin Smith Professor of Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences. He has also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Nepal, chief economist for the Civil Aeronautics Board, fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and was Professor of American Civilization at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Frank's books include Choosing the Right Pond, Passions within Reason, Microeconomics and Behavior, Luxury Fever, and What Price the Moral High Ground? His The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us, co-authored with Philip Cook, was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times, and was included in Business Week's list of the ten best books for 1995.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 20, 2007

Mark Oppenheimer

Mark Oppenheimer is the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative and the author of two books: Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture and Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am about half-way through Foiglman, by the Israeli author Aharon Megged. He's not known as widely as compatriots like Amos Oz and David Grossman, but I'm completely captivated by this work, and somehow the awkward punctuation and poor copy-editing in this translation (from Toby Press, blessed be they), and the fact that my copy is a volume cast off by the public library of North Merrick, New York, work to enhance its effect. It's the story of an Israeli historian who allows into his life an eccentric Yiddish-speaking Frenchman who writes poems based on his experiences in concentration camps. Zvi, our narrator, has never had much use for poetry, but he is awakened to the genre by Foiglman's poems, which arrived out of the blue one day as a gift from the author himself, who had admired one of the narrator's historical tomes and wants to begin a correspondence. Eventually, Zvi agrees to find a translator to bring Foiglman's poems from Yiddish into Hebrew.

Nobody understands what Zvi sees in this old-world leftover, this poet of middling talents who speaks and writes in a dying language. The two men are in many ways antitheses: Hebrew vs. Yiddish, Israel vs. diaspora, professional scholar vs. luftmensch. And the poor fit between the men, who connect on the level of what can only be described as the Jewish soul, leads eventually to the tragic rending of a family. Many in Zvi's life would have him remainder Foiglman (much as the North Merrick library remaindered Foiglman).

I have always been drawn more to Yiddish than to Hebrew, and this novel, written by a man who came to Palestine when he was six and has lived in the Jewish state as long as there's been one, is unusually sensitive to pathos involved in the near-death of one language so that the other might be re-born. Other writers have shown a sensitivity to Yiddish as the conquered and now-barely-tolerated loser (most recently, Michael Chabon, in the splendid The Yiddish Policemen's Union), but Megged also writes with wondrous concision and insight about more mundane conflicts: between a steady husband and a volatile wife, for example, and between the Zionist father and the Jewishly indifferent, even hostile, son. This is a small, domestic novel that I'm sure will stay with me for a very long time. It makes me wish I could read Hebrew, so that I could know the author's mind a bit more truly.

I also just finished the Loeb Classics edition of the first two books of Cicero's On Oratory, which I read as research for a book I am writing about oratory in America. A friend had told me that his friend, a classicist, had deemed Cicero the most tiresome of the ancients, but I don't see it. The two dialogues are brisk and they're certainly wise; if only politicians today were given this book as required reading.
Mark Oppenheimer graduated from Yale College in 1996 and received a Ph.D. from Yale in American religion in 2003. In 2003, he was the Koret Young Writer on Jewish Themes at Stanford University; he has also taught at Wesleyan University and Hartford Seminary, and he has spoken at universities, synagogues, and churches throughout the country (he loves to talk). Oppenheimer's freelance writing has appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The American Scholar, Slate, and elsewhere.

His article about a prominent acting coach who happens to be a Scientologist recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine, with related comments at The Huffington Post.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud is the author of the Bartimaeus Trilogy and other books.

After I read Susan O'Doherty's enthusiastic praise for Stroud's work, I got in touch and asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At any one time I tend to have several books on the go, ones which I am dipping into for research purposes, or just on a whim, and ones that I am seriously trying to read properly. It's a fairly chaotic scene, and usually I feel pretty guilty about not reading more than I do. At the moment one of the titles on my desk is an old favourite, Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino. I'm writing a novel which is going to have some folktaleish pieces embedded in it, and in order to remind myself of the flavour such things ought to have, I'm checking out this fine collection. It's a vast and brilliant mix of oral history, literary scholarship and modern storytelling. Calvino aimed to create for his own nation a collection equal to the Grimms' famous work; as such he spent years gathering tales from all over Italy, checking variants, choosing the best and most representative, and then rewriting them to give them a unified tone. He provides notes on each one, explaining what he did and why, and this is part of the joy, together with the pungent earthiness, the humour, violence, beauty and magic of the stories themselves. Highly recommended for anyone who likes such things. Hopefully it'll inspire me when I come to attempt my own fragments...

On a similar quest I've also been reading some of the Icelandic Sagas, which though written in the thirteenth century (or thereabouts) are often amazingly modern in the realism they bring to relationships, character and scene. Mind you, they're often not above throwing the odd troll or evil ghost into the equation also, which appeals. I've recently read Njal's Saga for the first time, and reread my personal favourite, Grettir's Saga, with its doomed, swashbuckling hero. I love the vitality, the sinewyness in this northern tradition.

On a completely different note, at bedtime I'm currently wading through the biography of Evelyn Waugh by Selina Hastings, which is hugely readable and for some reason is perfect for that hazy period just before sleep. Waugh is a very odd fish, and his books, though stylistically brilliant, often somehow lacking at the last analysis: reading the life one senses a certain absence that he was aware of in himself, a dissatisfaction that made him prone to depression and general unhappiness, but he wrote beautifully nonetheless, and in Men at Arms (first part of the Sword of Honour trilogy) turned out one of the funniest extended sequences I've ever read (involving something called a 'thunder-box'; I say no more).

I'm also in the middle of a lovely out-of-print autobiography by E Nesbit, one of the first stars of children's literature. It's called Once When I Was Very Young. I found it in a local second-hand bookshop, and it's really charming, giving details of her mid-19th century girlhood, together with enchanting illustrations by Edward Ardizonne. It's the kind of unexpected pleasure one goes into second-hand bookshops for. Ardizonne also turns up in some of the books I'm reading to my three-year-old daughter before bed, chief among them his great Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain.
Visit Jonathan Stroud's website to learn more about his work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 16, 2007

Alan Michael Parker

Alan Michael Parker's five collections of poems include the forthcoming Elephants & Butterflies. He teaches at Davidson College and in the Queens University low-residency M.F.A. program.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Bruce Smith’s poems have been by my bedside for some time, his resplendent diction always gratifying. I’ve read a couple of his collections, and of late, I’ve been re-reading Songs for Two Voices; there, I greatly admire the conceptual problems he sets for himself. Smart, smart.

Giuliana Bruno’s Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts considers museum architecture and film-viewing in terms of spectatorship. I like quite a few of the essays in the volume, particularly “Fashions of Living.” The ideas there relate glancingly to a book I’m writing about art and space.

I’ve just finished Michael Chabon’s latest, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The novel’s as energetic as the characters are dissipated, which seems to me technically risky. Plus the novel’s an astonishing work of speculative fiction, so when it succeeds, my assumptions about history are called into question.

Finally, I’ve just started Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime. So far, the book’s a very entertaining portrait of a thief, amid broad considerations of maps, map-making, map connoisseurship, and the collector’s fetishism.
Visit Alan Michael Parker's website to learn more about his writing.

Read, or listen to him read, his poem "I Have Been Given a Baseball..." in Slate.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen is a Washington-based journalist who has written for the New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate and Salon.

His latest book is Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've been reading a lot of articles from Science, Journal of Infectious Diseases, and New Scientist that had been piling up on my desk for the several months. I just read one of the most remarkable pieces of reporting I've seen this year, by the courageous Jon Lee Anderson, in this week's New Yorker. Anderson describes the U.S. efforts to eradicate opium in Afghanistan, where the poppy is fueling the Taliban's return. It's a kaleidoscopic picture of U.S. mercenaries, wimpy Dutch NATO forces, alliances of convenience and crafty and corrupt Afghans. Told in a completely understated fashion.

My next project is a book about the tomato in history, sort of, so I've been reading foodie books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. It being summer, I've also engaged in the relaxing art of book roulette. This means wandering into a summer rental or a friend's house, picking up things that look interesting, and reading them. For example Gore Vidal's memoir, Palimpsest, and, implausibly, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which I had never read. I found it as compelling as a non-believer can, I guess. Also I just read Michael Chabon's clever new detective novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union.
Among the praise for Arthur Allen's Vaccine:
"Arthur Allen's fantastic new book Vaccine ... is more entertaining than any book about shots has a right to be."
--David Plotz, author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank

"As more children go unvaccinated in the United States, there has been a rise in vaccine-preventable diseases. Meanwhile, fewer pharmaceutical companies are now producing vaccines, citing the high cost of testing, diminishing markets and a fear of litigation. For Allen, a reversal of these trends will require something long overdue: a frank national discussion about the risks and benefits of vaccination. His splendid book is a smart place to begin."
--David Oshinsky, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Polio: An American Story, New York Times Book Review
The Page 69 Test: Vaccine.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 13, 2007

Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is an Associate Professor at UCLA's School of Public Affairs, where she teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and public management, and the author of the forthcoming Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now, I am carting around Tim Weiner's tome, Legacy of Ashes, which just came out. It is a scholarly masterpiece and in my view will be the definitive history of the CIA. Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the New York Times, makes use of thousands of pages of recently declassified documents and on the record interviews with scores of intelligence officials. This is no small feat; relatively few insiders criticize the CIA out loud, and fewer still are willing to be named. Though I have some bones to pick with him (he tends to see individuals and their personalities as pivotal; I find them largely irrelevant), the book is richly researched and wickedly written. My favorite line so far is Weiner's description of Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the 3rd director of the burgeoning CIA: "He exuded insignificance."

The next two books on my to-read list are far afield from the CIA: Jerome Groopman's How Doctors Think -- which examines the psychology of medical judgment errors -- and Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein. I desperately avoided science as a child, but am fascinated by how scientists invent, think, and recover from failures.

Sad to say I steer clear of the fiction section of the book store entirely, and always have.
Amy Zegart has been featured by The National Journal as one of the ten most influential experts in intelligence reform.

She worked on the Clinton Administration's National Security Council staff in 1993, served as a foreign policy advisor to the Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign, and has testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Her research focuses on the design problems of U.S. national security agencies. She received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University, where she studied under Condoleezza Rice. Her first book, Flawed By Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS and NSC (Stanford University Press, 1999), won the highest national dissertation award in Political Science and has become standard reading for several U.S. military and intelligence training programs.

Read more about her forthcoming book Spying Blind at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His books include Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai and China's Brave New World — And Other Tales for Global Times.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
If you were to ask me a month from now what I’d been reading lately, I hope that I’d be able to tell you that I’d just enjoyed the latest offerings of two of my favorite mystery writers and one of my favorite essayists. This is because the books on my to-read list for an upcoming vacation are Reginald Hill’s Death Comes to the Fat Man (a Dalziel and Pascoe mystery), Ian Rankin’s The Naming of the Dead (featuring John Rebus), and Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. I’m eager to make return visits to the always fascinating milieus of Hill’s Yorkshire and Rankin’s Edinburgh — and Fadiman’s book will also involve a “revisit” of sorts, as I first read some of the pieces it contains when they appeared in The American Scholar, during her inspiring tenure as that magazine’s editor.

Since you asked me now, though, I’ve got a less surprising answer to give: I’ve been reading a lot of works about China. At the moment, in fact, I’m midway through two very different sorts of China-themed biographies, alternating which I pick up depending on my mood. One, published last fall, is John Pomfret’s poignant Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. It is structured around the life stories of some of the people that the author (who went on to do some great reporting for the Washington Post as its Beijing bureau chief) encountered when he studied at Nanjing University in the early 1980s. The opening chapters have made for compelling but also sometimes disturbing reading, devoted as they are to recounting the varied difficulties that Pomfret’s future classmates underwent during the Cultural Revolution.

The other book I’m midway through is an advance copy of Jonathan Spence’s Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, due out from Penguin in September. It, too, deals largely with a period of upheaval (the decade of the 1640s that witnessed the fall of the Ming Dynasty that the book’s protagonist, Zhang Dai, both served and wrote about), but its tone is generally light. Spence is a wonderful biographer and this latest book, which takes us into the mental world of a talented writer, is a match for anything he’s done when it comes to the elegance of its prose — and for me that is saying a lot as his earlier writings helped inspire me to make Chinese history my specialty. Some of Return to Dragon Mountain’s most striking parts so far find Spence evocatively recounting the love that Zhang Dai had for spectacles, ranging from theatrical performances involving mock battles (the only kind of warfare he knew until the battles between Ming loyalists and the newly formed Qing Dynasty neared his home) to lavish displays of lanterns that temporarily transformed nearby hillsides into brightly lit fairylands.

Before starting these two books, I’d spent several weeks immersed in reading what might be called the “competition”: three just-published works that, like my China’s Brave New World — And Other Tales for Global Times, try to help non-specialists make sense of the confusing changes currently taking place in the People’s Republic. Two are by journalists who, like Pomfret, have Chinese language skills and have spent extended amounts of time covering China: Duncan Hewitt (formerly of the BBC) and Rob Gifford (of NPR). The third is by a political scientist, Susan Shirk, whose biography includes a short trip to China in the early 1970s (as part of one of the first American student delegations to visit the PRC) and a stint in the State Department.

I was relieved to discover that, despite some overlaps (all of us try, for example, to unravel the thorny issue of the nature of contemporary Chinese nationalism), there were plenty of things relating to style and substance that set China’s Brave New World off from each “competing” book. But I was equally relieved to find that I could learn much from each of the three books and find things to admire about each author. In Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, Hewitt proves adept at using material gleaned from interviews with a range of individuals to give a human face to a complex problem. In China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, Gifford makes for an engaging traveling companion as he takes his readers through a diverse set of Chinese locales. And in China: Fragile Superpower, Shirk makes the most of her combination of social science acumen and firsthand experience of U.S. actions during recent diplomatic crises. If this is indeed the “competition,” then I feel I am in very good company.
In addition to the books he has written and edited, Jeffrey Wasserstrom is regular contributor to academic journals. He has also written for a variety of general interest periodicals, including Newsweek, The Nation, the TLS, New Left Review, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

Read more about Wasserstrom's China's Brave New World — And Other Tales for Global Times.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 9, 2007

Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan is Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies as well as many journal articles and book chapters. He and Arnold Kling edit the weblog EconLog.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
In social science, I've just finished Kathleen Jamieson's Everything You Think You Know About Politics... And Why You're Wrong, John Lott's Freedomnomics, Robert Frank's The Economic Naturalist, and an advance copy of Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist.

I'm reading several books in educational psychology on "Transfer of Learning," but to be honest their titles are almost inter-changeable.

And since I dream of branching out from economics to graphic novels (see my Amore Infernale on my webpage), I freely admit that I just finished Writers on Comics Scriptwriting by Mark Salisbury - and just RE-read Brian Vaughan's Y: The Last Man (volume 9) and Bill Willingham's Fables (volume 2). With some luck, I'll get their autographs at Comic-Con - anyone else going?
From the Princeton University Press website:
The Myth of the Rational Voter takes an unflinching look at how people who vote under the influence of false beliefs ultimately end up with government that delivers lousy results. With the upcoming presidential election season drawing nearer, this thought-provoking book is sure to spark a long-overdue reappraisal of our elective system.

"Caplan offers readers a delightful mixture of economics, political science, psychology, philosophy, and history to resolve a puzzle that, at one time or another, has intrigued every student of public policy."
--N. Gregory Mankiw, Harvard University, former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers
--Marshal Zeringue