Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nicholas Rombes

Nicholas Rombes's new book is Cinema in the Digital Age (Wallflower Press / Columbia University Press). His forthcoming book, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, will be published by Continuum in June 2009. He is professor and Chair of English at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I used to make distinctions between academic and non-academic reading, but not any more. Over the past few years, I've found that most all good writing, on some level, is a form of theory, whether it be Nathaniel Hawthorne's Pierre, or Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. Both of those books, in particular, are novels, but also theories about the forging together of arbitrary signs in order to create the illusion of reality. But right now, I'm still working my way—in fits and starts—through William T. Vollmann's mammoth, seven-volume study of violence Rising Up and Rising Down, published in 2003 by McSweeney's books. Right now I'm on "The Moral Calculus" Vollmann's recklessly, brutally, not-so-funny attempt to logically, empirically, almost mathematically answer the question, "When is Violence Justified?" Sections include "When is Violent Defense of Honor Justified?" and "When is Violent Defense of Race and Culture Justified?" Vollmann is one of those writers tagged as "postmodern" in the sense that his excessiveness seems to be a strategy for coping with and encompassing the sheer size of reality.

This may seem like a silly thing to say, I know, for isn't reality always the same size? Maybe it's just that there are so many representations of reality today, on so many mediums, so many screens, that writers like the late David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño, and William Vollmann and Dave Eggers write big books to try to make order out of the noise and chaos of our times. I know that this runs counter to the critique of "postmodern" writers who are often criticized for hiding the fact that they have little to say by their digressions, footnotes, and sprawling, unfocused narratives. But this misses the mark entirely. Writers like Vollmann craft narratives whose sprawling structures are really maps that attempt to cover the ever-expanding information territory of our time.

I've also just finished a book of strange and savage and tender poems by Brigit Pegeen Kelly called The Orchard, published by BOA Editions in 2004. For a reason that's hard to explain, her poems helped me during stretches of writing A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, maybe because at the heart of the poems is a sort of terrifying blankness and withholding of judgment or perspective. "The Wolf" opens with these lines:

The diseased dog lowered her head as I came close, as if to make

Of her head a shadow, something the next few hours

Would erase, swiftly, something of no account.

Kelly's poems are long of line, and read like highly compressed short stories. Their menace is not only in their content, but in their radical shifts between concrete and abstract. In an age when "nature" is ever-increasingly cordoned off as recreation areas, parks, places to go to relax and get away from it all, Kelly's poems remind us of the blank cruelty in places like the meadow, the field, the forest, the orchard.

Finally, I just finished a new novel by Aaron Gwyn, The World Beneath. I'd not heard of him before, and I'm not sure how I came to order this, but I'm glad I did. It's difficult to talk about the book without giving away the plot, but its elements involve a half-Mexican, half-Chickasaw boy who disappears in rural Oklahoma, a small-town detective who grows obsessed with the case, and a hole that appears on someone's property that appears to have no bottom. The tone of the novel is unique, reminiscent at times of Edgar Allan Poe, Cormac McCarthy, and even Haruki Murakami. It's the sort of book you read in small doses, because you don't want it to end.
Visit Nicholas Rombes's websites for Cinema in the Digital Age and A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Christopher Conlon

Christopher Conlon is the author of three books of poems, two collections of stories, and a novel, Midnight on Mourn Street, which has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award in the category of Superior Achievement in a First Novel. He has also edited several books, including Poe's Lighthouse and He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson. Visit him online at

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
There are four books currently on my coffee table. (Though since I don't drink coffee, it's really a tea table.)

The volume on top, New Selected Essays: Where I Live by Tennessee Williams, is an old favorite of mine, recently expanded in a new edition which I'm enjoying greatly. I first encountered the original version of this collection when I was about twenty-two: the perfect age, really, as Williams wrote so much and so eloquently in this book about his struggles as an artist, and I felt my own early struggles reflected in much of what he had to say. I still think many of the essays are absolute gems.

The next two in the stack, Endpoint and Collected Poems, are both by John Updike, a writer whose work has never, until recently, done much for me. I used to read his short stories when they appeared in The New Yorker, but rarely found myself affected by them; a couple of stabs at his novels left me cold. But in the past couple of years Updike published in various magazines some poems which, I was surprised to discover, moved me; so when I saw his latest (and last) verse collection in a bookstore, Endpoint, I picked it up--and promptly fell in love with the urbane tone, the gentle melancholy, the witty language. It inspired me to also get his Collected Poems, and reading through it has confirmed to me that Updike was, and is, woefully undervalued as a poet.

The last title is Dear Husband, by Joyce Carol Oates--her latest collection of short stories. I've loved Oates's work in shorter forms (short stories and novellas) for many years. (Generally speaking I'm less enamored of her novels, though I must admit that I loved both You Must Remember This and We Were the Mulvaneys). Dear Husband, continues in the traditions of Oates's later work, often with extreme, even bizarre situations and characters. Though I'm finding these stories a bit less distinctive than what I consider to be her very best work (try The Collector of Hearts or Wild Nights!), that's an extremely mild criticism. There isn't a short-story writer in the United States better than Joyce Carol Oates.
Visit Christopher Conlon's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jill Kargman

Jill Kargman's publications include Momzillas and the newly released The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
You know Kathy Bates' character in Misery, the #1 fan? I am that for Woody Allen, but without the kidnapping and hobbling part. I adore his work. No one makes me laugh harder on earth. It sounds super cheese but even though he's a comic genius, his poignant observations have also truly gotten me through rough patches just as much as the guffaw-inducing funny scenes. I have read every words he has ever written and am now immersed in Eric Lax's Conversations With Woody Allen. It is a fascinating look behind the scenes of his films and follows him through 30 years of interviews and adds a whole new dimension of layered insights into his work. It is absolutely incredible. I actually just read Woody Allen's latest New Yorker piece for the humor column Shout & Murmurs, a spoof on two Bernie Madoff investors who die of cardiac arrest and rooftop plummet respectively, who are reincarnated as lobsters in a restaurant tank where the Ponzi prince is dining and wreak Inigo Montoya-style revenge on him. It's classic Woody Allen. It's fascinating to juggle reading his written word with his recorded spoken ones-- he is just as brilliant off the cuff as he is at the type pad. Which makes me worship him all the more.
Visit Jill Kargman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ari Y. Kelman

Ari Y. Kelman is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

His new book is Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States.

A couple of days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
What am I reading?

Thanks for asking. I guess, for someone like me, who reads a lot, as part of my job (whether I’m preparing for class or doing new research), it’s a funny question. Often, I approach reading like eating: I have to do it, and it’s more enjoyable when the quality is high. But I’d do it anyway. That said, I’ve had a chance to read some pretty extraordinary stuff lately, and, in addition, there are a bunch of books I’m always reading, and I’ll throw some of them in here too.

The most extraordinary book I’ve picked up lately is a graphic novel by an Italian artist named Gipi. The book (his second) is called Garage Band, and it follows a teenage band as they settle in to and then lose their practice space. The book is quiet but the story is beautifully told in spare sentences and fluid ink-and-water color drawings that capture a bit of the band’s rambunctiousness.

I’m doing an independent study with a student about re-urbanization in the 1970s, and I’ve recently read Miriam Greenberg’s meticulous and really engagingly written account of New York City’s response to the crises of the 1970s (crime, the fiscal crisis, etc.) The book, Branding New York, chronicles the city’s responses to a spate of urban problems and lays out the hows and whys of the “I *heart* NY” campaign, among others. It’s a great story and Greenberg tells it brilliantly.

The liner notes to the Twenty Years of Dischord box set have also provided all kinds of great information and other fun stuff. With Pictures! oh, and music, too.

I’ve developed a mild obsession with Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series -- it’s a really clever line of books, and each one focuses on a single album and tells a story about that album. Some are more historical, some fictional, some provide a close reading of the record, and some spin a more abstract idea about the “meaning” of the record. The best one I’ve read to date (and I’ve read a number of them) is the Ramones book by Nicholas Rombes. It’s quite a great account of the album, and made me go back and listen again to that record with new ears.

The books I’m always reading include Leonard Cohen’s Book of Mercy. It’s a little book of 50 hymns, written with the candor and passion that has made Cohen who he is. They’re intimate and scary, profound, honest and uplifting. And at some point nearly every day, I pick that book up and read a page or two, just to keep my head on straight. I had the great fortune to see Leonard perform in Oakland last week, and it was magnificent. His deep, rough voice was in full form, and it’s a pleasure to return to his Book of Mercy again, with his voice fresh in my ears.

I’m also always reading Nathaniel Mackey’s Bedouin Hornbook. It’s an elusive book about an avant garde Jazz band, told through the fictional letters of the book’s narrator to the Angel of Dust. It’s moving, frustrating, book that captures not only the sounds of Jazz, but that somehow manages to capture the phenomena of listening, as well. I don’t know half the references to records that Mackey makes in the book, but it doesn’t make it any less entertaining, engaging, and moving.

And then, there are the blogs. A few faves: Mashable, Moistworks, How we know us, Waxy, Tomorrow Museum, and The Jewish Daily Forward, just to keep me up to date on my roots.
Learn more about Station Identification at the University of California Press website, and visit Ari Y. Kelman's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dani Kollin

Dani Kollin, co-author of The Unincorporated Man, is an advertising copywriter currently living in Los Angeles, California. He has also worked as a creative director and copywriter in the print, broadcast and new media fields.

Yesterday I asked him what he was reading. His response:
I generally read and or listen to numerous books simultaneously. Presently I am working my way through three.

1. On I'm reading Cory Doctorow's Overclocked. It's a dystopian story in which (at least initially) the world is held together by a bunch of tech heads lucky enough to have been ensconced in their dimly lit cubicles when all hell broke loose - outside. What I love about this read is that Cory strings it along through texting and traditional writing which makes the writing convention alone (not to mention Cory's insouciant writing style) quite enjoyable. I'm only about a third of the way through but so far so good.

2. On audio CD: Ayn Rand: Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal. This book is a searing commentary on the machinations of the left and the right with regards to both parties abject disregard or abjuration of the idea of freedom. What's more is that to listen to this book now, some 43 years after its first printing is to listen to the the prescience of the author herself. Agree or disagree, it's hard to deny the fact that she not only predicts our current financial crisis to a T but nails the all too familiar culprits squarely to the wall in doing so.

3. Ursula K. Le Guin - The Dispossessed. I'd been meaning to get to a Le Guin book for some time. When you hang in my circles certain names keep cropping up and hers was one of them. This Hugo-award winning book, written in the 70's attempts to paint a portrait of Capitalism vs Communism via two worlds separated by mere hundreds of thousands of miles (Think, Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Heinlein but switch the 'isms'). First the negative: I'm finding the book a bit of a slog. I care not one iota about the protagonist (Shevek) and to be perfectly honest find the world he walks through to be rather droll. To be fair this may be backwards myopia, as I'm reading it through the lens of a new millennia as opposed to the very pressing concerns of that time (the Soviet Union vs the U.S.). Still, there were plenty of other books that took Communism to task and yet still managed to maintain a plot structure that was both compelling and addictive. This book, IMHO, is not one of them. So why am I reading it to the end? Because Ms. LeGuin is a writer's writer and without a doubt one of the most beautiful and poetic authors I've ever had the pleasure of reading (in fact, comparable to Bradbury in her prose). I find myself re-reading passages because they've been set up and crafted so eloquently. In fact I've spent an inordinate amount of time copying my favorite passages and sentences to a word doc so that when I write to a particular emotion or description I have something to look at and aspire towards. Here's one brief example in which she describes an aspect of the protagonist: "He welcomed isolation with all his heart. It never occurred to him that the reserve he met in Bedap and Tirin might be a response; that his gentle but already formidable hermetic character might form its own ambience, which only great strength or great devotion could withstand." What an incredible description. What an incredible writer.

Next up on my list:

1. Vernor Vinge's - A Fire Upon The Deep. Yes, it's space Opera but the first of the series, the Hugo-award winning, A Deepness In The Sky, was really, really good space opera. I'm really looking forward to diving in to his prequel.

2. On audio CD: Doris Kearn Goodwin's: Team of Rivals about Abraham Lincoln's famously contentious cabinet.
Visit Dani Kollin's blog and The Unincorporated Man website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 20, 2009

Steven Zipperstein

Steven J. Zipperstein’s most recent book is Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing (Yale University Press). He is the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and History at Stanford, and has just spent two years at Harvard. He has written widely on Russian and East European Jewish history, and among his books are histories of the Jews of Odessa, and a biography of the leading intellectual of Zionism who was also its prime internal critic in the movement’s formative years, the essayist Ahad Ha’am. Zipperstein is now at work on a cultural history of Russian Jewry for Houghton Mifflin and Company.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Nighttime reading, mostly at half-hour clips at day’s end, I spend with plump, solidly written biographies (Brent Bailey’s Cheever just filled that bill), but never with those that might disturb sleep. Anything written by, or for that matter, about Kafka I keep far from my side of the bed; Henry James, too, feels like someone likely to cause insomnia, but no one threatens the night like Kafka. I tend to return to the same books time and again: nearly anything written by Cynthia Ozick remains alive, just as fresh and smart as when you first picked it up. I feel much the same way about Joan Acocella whose splendid collection, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, drawn mostly from essays written for the New Yorker, are astute portraits of what it feels like, on the inside, to create. Penelope Fizergerald’s droll masterpiece from the 1970s, still in-print I think – The Bookshop – is a bracing reminder, all the more crucial now, of the disruptive, essential power of books. I reread it often. Several new fiction writers spawned by the former Soviet Union much intrigue me, but none more than the minimalist David Bezmozgis whose collection Natasha feels as close to a resurrection of the incomparable Isaac Babel as anything I’ve ever seen. “Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving: 6030 Bathurst: insomniac scheming Odessa,” is how its opening story begins.
Read an excerpt from Rosenfeld’s Lives, and discover more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

Learn more about Steven Zipperstein's scholarship at his Stanford webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Joshua Fogel

Joshua Fogel is Canada Research Chair in Chinese history at York University in Toronto. He has taught previously at Harvard University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include Ai Ssu-chi's Contribution to the Development of Chinese Marxism, Nakae Ushikichi in China: The Mourning of Spirit, and the newly published Articulating the Sinosphere: Sino-Japanese Relations in Space and Time.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I have always been a very early riser. For the past six years and a few months, I have used the wee hours to read a page of Talmud. The process of reading one page per day (daf yomi) and thus making one’s way through the entire corpus of the Babylonian Talmud in about 7 ½ years was only introduced in the early 1920s, but it ensures that those of us who do this don’t skip certain tractates and concentrate only on others. If I were reading it in the original unpointed and unpunctuated mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, it would take me a month to read a page, but there is a beautiful, recently published, pointed, punctuated, and bilingual edition now available in 73 thick volumes. I spend between one and two and one-half hours each morning on this.

I have been on sabbatical leave this past academic year and, while reading lots of books and articles related to my research, I’ve also been trying to emulate what I think of as a true intellectual (at this point, emulation is about as close as I expect to get). So, I’ve been reading lots of books that I have always wanted to but never seemed to find the time for. I occasionally buy and read a book—now, catch this—simply because it sounds interesting, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with my area of research.

My research is on the history of Sino-Japanese interactions, and I have been working on a comprehensive history of this cultural and political relationship over the past two millennia. Very little on this topic is in English, but much more in Chinese and exponentially more in Japanese. I have especially enjoyed the work on ancient Japan by Inoue Hideo, Ikeda On, Okazaki Takashi, Saeki Arikiyo, Inoue Mitsusada, Ōba Osamu (whom I knew well), Suzuki Yasutami, Wang Xiangrong, and Shiraishi Taiichirō. Several of these esteemed scholars pioneered scholarship into the distinctive roles played by states on what is now the Korean peninsula in the interactions between “China” and “Japan.” Scare quotes because these are terms of much later vintage.

When not reading in my field, I have recently read a spate of novels by Aharon Appelfeld in English translation. I picked up a few of his novellas some years back but found them almost too spare. I think I got the point—they’re almost all about the Holocaust in one way or another—and I attributed the underwriting to the fact that he only began to learn Hebrew after the war in his teenage years. Then, I read his memoir, The Story of a Life, about his life before and during the war in Bukovina and Ukraine and his first decades of adjustment in Israel after the war. It is a masterpiece, and clearly language is not a problem, though it is something he is consumed with.

Having read so little American history in recent years, I decided to tunnel my way through Sean Wilentz’s mammoth political history of the Washington-through-Lincoln presidencies. It was great fun and I was happy to see that, in the decades since I last read U.S. history, apparently the issue of slavery had returned to center stage as the primary cause of the Civil War. I was soon disabused of this by a colleague who holds fast to an economic interpretation of the war. So, that particular debate will undoubtedly outlive us all.

I have also been rereading and serially translating Liu Jianhui’s Mato Shanhai: Nihon chishikijin no “kindai” taiken (Demon Capital Shanghai: The “Modern” Experience of Japanese Intellectuals). Liu is Chinese, of course, but after earning his Ph.D. from Kōbe University he accepted a research position at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. His book is a marvelous study of the centrality of Shanghai in East Asian modernity, demonstrating how most Japanese intellectuals encountered the modern world and often its Western representatives for the first time in Shanghai. He shows how Shanghai became a place of escape for them and how it also became the site in which authors began to place their fiction. My translation is appearing in an online journal I edit, Sino-Japanese Studies.
Read Joshua Fogel's mini-biography at Sino-Japanese Studies.

The Page 99 Test: Articulating the Sinosphere.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Janni Lee Simner

Janni Lee Simner has written three books for kids and more than 30 short stories for kids, teens, and adults. Her first novel for teens, Bones of Faerie, was published in January and "is a sort of post-apocalyptic fairy tale, set after the war with Faerie has destroyed much of the world."

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently picked up Fumiyo Kouno's manga Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms and found it the most powerful thing I've read in a while. It's a quiet, beautifully told story about how the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima affects several generations of the same family. The way the effects echo on and on, not only among the survivors but also among those born decades later; the way it's not always clear who is a survivor or what that even means; the gentle storytelling that does nothing to hide what a harsh story this is--all of these got down under my skin and stayed there.

After I finished reading I wanted ... to go off and just be quiet and thoughtful for a while.
Visit Janni Lee Simner's website and blog/journal.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Joshua Gans

Joshua Gans is an economics professor at the Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, and the author of several economics textbooks and the 2007 recipient of Australia's Young Economist award.

His new book is Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His response:
1. Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky is a professor at NYU and writes about the impact of the internet on society and the economy. I picked up this book because of a current interest that I have in what is to become of the newspapers. Clay Shirky's simple answer is that we are in one of those times where there is transformational change and that it may take a decade or more for the shackles of the past to be dropped and some new stability to emerge. In the meantime, that change will be tough on many people. As an example, Shirky points to the the profession of scribe as the printing press diffused. Even when it was inevitable that the whole profession would die, for years there were movements to protect scribes as the supposed learned part of society. The great thing about this book is that it uses many current examples and anecdotes to help us come to terms with what the Internet is doing; something that is mostly for the good.

2. Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

I actually read this book under its Australian title, The Two Pearls of Wisdom. Alison Goodman (like me) hails from Melbourne. The book is an interesting tale about a mythical Chinese empire set when there was a Chinese empire. I was drawn to it by this Orson Scott Card review (and you need only read that to be sold on the whole thing):

Australian writer Alison Goodman has written an absolutely stunning fantasy novel that deserves a wide readership, among both adults and children.

Ironically, he criticises the title, which in the US is, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. Suffice it to say that made it difficult for me to locate here even though after reading the book the US title seemed more apt than the Australian one and certainly conveys the idea that there are more books to come in the trilogy. Regardless of the title, if you like speculative fiction, it is worth a look.

3. Economic Gangsters by Ray Fisman and Ted Miguel

The book covers their research on the micro-impediments to economic development. In many respects it is more of a tease than a treatise. Rather than explain comprehensively, the causes of mass poverty it provides chapters — each framed around their own research — that shed light on the problem. So there is a chapter on whether corruption is rampant throughout Indonesia and another one the parking infractions of UN diplomats. There is a chapter about the impact of bombing in Vietnam and another on smuggling into China.

For each you get the distinct impression of their importance. And it is hard to disagree with the general theme that getting the variables right for economic development is hard and it would be good if we could give peace a chance. But the value of the book is similar to Freakonomics: how do you scientifically work out what is the best approach? Which are the tighter constraints? What policies might stand a chance of success? This is a challenge that Fisman and Miguel have taken up in their own lives and the book is a journal of how far they have come. It is an excellent read; especially for those interested in policy evaluation, even if it does not leave you fully satisfied — but that is the fault of the world and not of the authors.

4. The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket

I've been reading A Series of Unfortunate Events to the children. We are at book 10 so I can't put them down as books I have just read quite yet although, all of them would fill my list here. They are simply wonderful.

But just last week I picked up Lemony Snicket's latest children's book. It is hard to find words when you have just read a (literally) classic children's book. But The Composer is Dead is just that. The problem is that I don't want to describe any part of this book to you. It is a rare instance that, I, as parent and reader-out-loud did not know how the book was going to end as I read it. I did not know that it would strike so many chords. I did not know it would be so amusing. And I did not know it would be so dramatic. The next time you find yourself in a bookstore with a child, seek this book out and force your child to listen to you read it. I can't vouch for whether they will like it. You will and it still counts for any book-related parenting points you might wish to earn.

To end, I want to point out what I am about to read.

The first is Ken Robinson's The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson has been railing at current educational practices for years and argues how it destroys creativity. (Here is his TED talk.). I'm looking forward to this recent release.

The second is My Little Red Book by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Rachell is the daughter of economist Barry Nalebuff and her book is full of stories by women of their first period. I'm told that it is a great read regardless of gender and I blogged about it here.
See the Table of Contents and sample chapters from Parentonomics, and visit the Parentonomics website.

Learn more about Joshua Gans' work and research at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 13, 2009

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen is assistant professor and chair of the Master of Architectural Design Program at the School of Architecture at Yale University.

She is the author of Achtung Architektur! Image and Phantasm in Contemporary Austrian Architecture and coeditor of Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.

Her latest book is Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics (Yale University Press).

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished reading two books, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in twentieth century avant-garde art: The Century by Alain Badoin, and The Future of the Image by Jacques Ranciere. Although both books focus on European art and culture, they help us also remind us that art is, and should always be, part of political debate.
Read more about Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics at the publisher's website.

Learn more about Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen at her Yale faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sudhir Kakar

Sudhir Kakar is a psychoanalyst and writer who lives in Goa, India.

His many books include the non-fiction titles The Inner World (now in its 16th printing since its first publication in 1978), Shamans, Mystics and Doctors, The Analyst and the Mystic, Culture and Psyche, The Colors of Violence, and Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World, as well as the novels The Ascetic of Desire, Ecstasy, and Mira and the Mahatma.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His response:
1. The World Is What It Is by Patrick French.
This biography is a masterpiece. In a sense, it is that elusive, perfect autobiography that Naipaul could have never written himself—as, indeed, no autobiographer can.

2. Atomised by Michel Houellebecq.
Winner of the IMPAC Dublin Award, the most prestigious prize in international literary fiction, this is a fascinating novel of ideas that showcases the author’s abhorrence of the lifestyles and the underlying values of the modern world. It is spiced with some of the filthiest sex scenes in contemporary literature that, however, evoke disgust more than prurience.

3. The Life of Masud Khan by Linda Hopkins.
The fascinating biography of a Pakistani analyst living in London who was one of the brightest stars on the firmament of international psychoanalysis in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is the story of a highly creative but deeply flawed human being who could neither exorcise his own ghosts nor resolve the demands of two contradictory cultures in which he lived his life. One can only admire the author who can give patient understanding and tragic dimension to a man who was ‘a snob, a liar, a drunk, a philanderer, a violent bully, a poseur and a menace to the vulnerable.’
Read about Sudhir Kakar's five favorite books about India.

Visit Sudhir Kakar's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Michael Jubien

Michael Jubien majored in mathematics and minored in philosophy at Dartmouth College. He received the Ph.D. in philosophy and logic from the Rockefeller University in 1972 under the direction of Saul Kripke. He has taught at the University of Illinois, Chicago, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of California, Davis, and is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida. He is the author of Ontology, Modality, and the Fallacy of Reference (newly re-issued in paperback by Cambridge University Press) and Contemporary Metaphysics.

His new book, from Oxford University Press, is Possibility.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am about 1000 or so pages into the recent, Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I read the Garnett translation when I was in high school as part of an effort to go through all of the Modern Library’s Russian classics, but in retrospect I think I was in too much of a hurry and was too young to appreciate the deep and rich beauty of this titan of a book. The early reviews of the P-V translation were so favorable that I decided it was time to read it again, but to read it slowly and carefully this time. This approach has resulted in perhaps the most rewarding reading I’ve ever done.

This is clearly not the place for a book review or a summary of any kind. So I’ll just point to a few aspects of the book that have struck me the most, endearing me to the book. (1) Tolstoy’s detailed portrayal of the elite of Russian society is deeply sympathetic while often rather critical and even cynical. He really seems to be a ‘naturalist’ about people, their charms and their flaws, and their rituals and institutions. (2) His descriptions both of scenes in nature and episodes of human interaction, especially among children and young adults, are often remarkably beautiful and moving. I wish there were space to tell you where to look for some of them. Actually there is: look in War and Peace! (3) Tolstoy seems driven to his ‘historical determinism’ by the reflection that there would otherwise be no reasonable way to explain such absurdities as war: “Fatalism in history is inevitable for the explanation of senseless phenomena…The more we try to explain sensibly these phenomena, the more senseless and incomprehensible they become for us.” (605) (4) But then we have his charming failure to consider ‘hard determinism’ as a defensible philosophical position. He is at pains to urge that the grand plans and decisions of Napoleon, Alexander, Bagration, etc., are not the real causes of events like the pivotal battle of Borodino, despite what historians write. The real causes are massive sums of comparatively tiny decisions of ordinary people (“…if all the sergeants had been unwilling to enlist for a second tour of duty, there also could have been no war…Therefore, all these causes – billions of causes – coincided so as to bring about what happened…Kings are the slaves of history.” (604-5).) But Tolstoy never asks what caused the small decisions! (5) Tolstoy seems to me to be particularly attuned to the emotional lives of his female characters. Anyone who reads this book must come away thinking that Natasha is one of the most wonderful and finely drawn characters in literature.

Concerning the translation itself: (1) I like the fact that the considerable French dialogue remains in French rather than being translated into English along with the Russian (as it is in Garnett). There are footnoted translations of the dialogue. (2) There are excellent historical and cultural endnotes that help make sense of some of what we read, historically and culturally. (3) There is a cast of characters at the front. So you will need three bookmarks to do a good job of reading this book – one for the cast of characters, another for where you are in the endnotes, and of course one for where you are in the novel itself.

A final note: My reading has been much enhanced by the fact that my wife Judy is reading it along with me, though she chose to read the Garnett translation. We’ve had many conversations about what’s going on, and about the differences between the translations. Reading War and Peace is hard if you do it right, like working out. It helps to have a workout buddy!

When I am done with War and Peace I plan an assault on the ‘Ripley’ novels of Patricia Highsmith.
Learn more about Michael Jubien's scholarship at his faculty webpage.

Read more about Ontology, Modality, and the Fallacy of Reference at the Cambridge University Press website, and more about Possibility at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Paul Bacon

Former NYPD patrolman Paul Bacon is the author of Bad Cop: New York’s Least Likely Police Officer Tells All (Bloomsbury USA). Booklist called his memoir, “wonderful…a vivid and insightful tale,” and the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association Magazine said it’s “riotously funny and deadly accurate.”

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m currently reading Circle of Six: The True Story of New York's Most Notorious Cop Killer and The Cop Who Risked Everything to Catch Him by NYPD Detective Randy Jurgensen and Robert Cea. It’s a gut-wrenching account of how city and police officials in 1972 stymied an investigation into the murder of patrolman Phillip Cardillo, who was shot in the line of duty inside a Harlem mosque. Many of the events took place in the same beleaguered command where I worked, the Two-eight. More than thirty years after Officer Cardillo’s death, I saw unauthorized “Remember Cardillo” stickers plastered around our station house, a show of eternal solidarity and defiance that I am only now beginning to understand thanks to Jurgensen’s brilliant reporting.
Learn more about Bad Cop and its author at Paul Bacon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy's poetry books include A Witch's Dictionary, Consider the Lilies, and the newly released Home Remedies. An associate professor of English at Mary Baldwin College, she lives in Rockbridge County, Virginia, with her husband.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
My reading pile in the last few weeks has been a heap of poetry, plays, and fiction. It’s late in the semester, and time for Lear in my Introduction to Shakespeare course, so I punctuate my other reading with the Bevington edition of the conflated tragedy. The play strikes me more acutely these days, as it interrogates power and the destruction it wreaks when it’s misused. As an antidote, I picked up a copy of Robert Nye’s The Late Mr. Shakespeare, a novel from the 1990s. It’s erudite, shameless, sometimes obscene—purportedly an autobiography of a player in Shakespeare’s company who in his declining years is writing his memoirs. Nye gleefully rips through most of the popular Shakespeare lore; this is a hilarious novel and I recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction.

But of course I don’t ever get very far from poetry. Right now I have some books by young writers on my table—Katie Cappello’s Perpetual Care, which I have just begun; K. A. Hays’s Dear Apocalypse, and Farrah Field’s Rising. I am putting off Field’s book until last, because I was so taken by the title of the first poem, “Self-Portrait in Toad Suck, Arkansas,” that I’m afraid if I begin the book I will miss class to finish it. (The cover of this book is very appealing too.) I find myself these days drawn to books that have historical and political heft, though that weight can sink a book that lacks complicated tropes and tones. Still, I want poems to do more and more work these days; I want more meaning, more layers to investigate. This is one reason that Hays’s book has been lingering on my desk and in my mind. Her use of biblical allusion, religious registers of language, and the natural world resonate in ways that keep me coming back to individual poems (particularly “The Way of all the Earth,” at least today). Tomorrow, however, is Saturday, and I believe I’m going to let myself dive into Rising.
Learn more about Home Remedies, and read some sample poems from Kennedy's Consider the Lilies, Flow Blue, and A Witch's Dictionary.

--Marshal Zeringue