Saturday, June 25, 2022

Katie Tallo

Katie Tallo has been an award-winning screenwriter and director for more than two decades. In 2012, she was inspired to begin writing novels.

Dark August is her debut novel.

Tallo's new novel is Poison Lilies.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. The character is an emotionally fragile actress whose marriage and career have fallen apart. It’s moody and shocking and raw. It captures the 60s vibe really well yet feels so relevant and timeless. Emptiness and apathy exist in any era I suppose. I think I can learn a lot from Didion’s writing. She's fearless and witty and does it all with little flourish. Her prose is bare-bones yet cuts to the bone. I can’t believe this is the first book I’ve read of hers. It won’t be the last.
Visit Katie Tallo's website.

The Page 69 Test: Dark August.

Q&A with Katie Tallo.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Eva Gates

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than forty-five books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is currently writing four cozy mystery series: the Catskill Summer Resort mysteries for Penguin Random House, the Tea by the Sea mysteries for Kensington, the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series for Crooked Lane Books, and the Lighthouse Library series (as Eva Gates) for Crooked Lane.

Delany is a past president of the Crime Writers of Canada and co-founder and organizer of the Women Killing It Crime Writing Festival. Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards. Delany is the recipient of the 2019 Derrick Murdoch Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Delany's newest book (as Eva Gates) is the Lighthouse Library mystery, Death By Beach Read.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Delany's reply:
I’ve recently been on a couple of ultra long flights. I love long flights: I find that these days its about the only time I can seriously get into a book without constant interruptions.

Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve been reading on all these flights.

Going to Beautiful by Anthony Bidulka. I picked this up because Tony’s a good friend of mine. He used to write a hilarious series of globetrotting PI novels that I loved, but he’s been quiet lately, in his writing life anyway. So I was excited to find something new and picked up Going to Beautiful. I enjoyed it very much. It’s a beautifully written, gentle, often hilarious, always poignant book about a grieving man finding community and acceptance in small town Saskatchewan, where he is most definitely a fish out of water. There is a mystery component, which is what brings the protagonist to the small town, but it is a minor part of the book. Highly recommended.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig. English writer Matt Haig is what I might call a ‘quirky’ writer. His plots are substantially out of the ordinary. This book is about a man who has a far longer life span than normal - he was born in the 16th century and is now only in middle-age. The book jumps around in time, but he is not a time-traveller. His life is as linear as the rest of us. The book’s light and funny and makes us think seriously about what we’d do with that sort of time, and if it would be worth it to live so much longer than everyone you’ve ever loved. The book is now in production as a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch and I can’t wait!

The Radleys by Matt Haig. Talk about quirky: The Radleys are vampires living in middle-class England and trying to appear as average as everyone else. I can’t say I liked it as much as How to Stop Time but the premise is interesting and it’s well done. The parents have concealed from their two children that they are vampires, but when the daughter declares that she’s going to be a vegan, they realize they have a problem. How would you like to be a bullied teenage boy, discovering that you’re a real vampire?

Woman on the Edge by Samantha Bailey. Domestic suspense is all the rage these days and, as is typical with books that are ‘in’, quality varies widely. At first glance this book seems to be one of a endless variations on a theme of an ordinary woman suddenly thrust into danger, with no idea what’s going on, but Bailey pulls it off with an intricate plot that is expertly done and plenty of suspense.
Follow Eva Gates on Twitter and visit Vicki Delany's website.

The Page 69 Test: Death By Beach Read.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 13, 2022

Peter Colt

Peter Colt was born in Boston, MA in 1973 and moved to Nantucket Island shortly thereafter. He is a 1996 graduate of the University of Rhode Island and a 24-year veteran of the Army Reserve with deployments to Kosovo and Iraq. He is a police officer in a New England city and the married father of two boys.

Colt's new Andy Roark mystery is Death at Fort Devens.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Colt's reply:
Right now, I am reading a lot of different things at once. Right now, piled up on the bedside table there are a bunch of books about History/Military history. I tend to do a lot of research for my books and so there is a lot of stuff about Vietnam along the lines of John Stryker Meyer’s excellent Across the Fence, Lynne M. Black’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Nick Brokhausen’s Whispers in the Tall Grass and We Few. All three authors were Army Special Forces soldiers in Vietnam, in the Studies and Observation Group (SOG). Their firsthand accounts of their very secret, very deadly war are riveting. There is nothing in fiction that compares to their real stories from Vietnam.

My protagonist, Andy Roark, as part of his backstory was in SOG. There are many SOG veterans who are still alive. It is challenging writing a character who comes from such an elite group. Their books, and others, are a huge help in trying to keep the character and his adventures realistic. I would hate for one of the surviving SOG soldiers to read my book and think: “Wow, he just got it all wrong.”

When I am not reading history or military history, I read a lot of cookbooks. Currently I am reading The Nero Wolfe Cookbook by Rex Stout. This is a fascinating collection of recipes from the Nero Wolfe books which proves to be a nice way of marrying my love of cooking and mysteries. Many of the recipes are obscure but well worth looking at. As an added bonus the cookbook itself is chock full of quotes from the series and it is an excellent companion to the novels. It is best not to read it while hungry.
Visit Peter Colt's website.

Q&A with Peter Colt.

The Page 69 Test: Death at Fort Devens.

My Book, The Movie: Death at Fort Devens.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 12, 2022

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, will be published later this summer. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther:
The Sorrows of Young Werther is a very short novel that tells the story of a very short life. Werther, a young man in his twenties, falls in love with Charlotte, a young woman who has, since her mother’s death, been a mother to her younger siblings. Unfortunately for Werther, and perhaps unfortunately for herself, Charlotte is engaged to Albert, a young man whom even Werther finds likable. In the vain hope that he can forget Charlotte and recover something of his sanity, Werther takes a position with an ambassador, but he is too much in love to stay away. He comes back and finds that Charlotte and Albert have married. Because the three of them are friends, Charlotte and Werther still see each other. Convinced that Charlotte really loves him, but also convinced that Charlotte will remain the wife of Albert, Werther shoots himself and dies.

That is it, the short story of Werther’s short life. There is nothing particularly interesting, much less fascinating, about a story like this, the predictable suicide of a lover whose love has been lost, which might make us wonder, or even suspect, that there is more to the story than the story itself. If we know nothing else about the author, we know that Goethe also wrote Faust. What we might not have known, even had we read Faust, is that it was written at the same time as he had written The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Faust, sprang up at the same time as Werther,” he told his friend Eckermann. “I brought it with me in 1775 to Weimar; I had written it on letter paper; and had not made an erasure, for I took care not to write down a line that was not worthy to remain.”

Faust emerged at the same time as Werther, but it is Werther that “is a creation in which I, like a pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart. It contains so much from the innermost recesses of my heart that it might easily be spread into a novel of ten such volumes.” Goethe wrote Werther in l774. Fifty years later, when he made this remark, he admitted that he had read it since only once. “I dread lest I should once more experience the peculiar mental state from which it was produced.”

The feeling, that “peculiar mental state,” Goethe considered the cause of what he had written, had its parallel in the effect Werther had on those who read it, and nearly everyone did. Thomas Carlyle, who, in 1777, translated Werther into English, wrote that it “rose like a literary meteor, not only over Germany, but into the remotest corners of Europe,” that it “appeared to seize the hearts of men in all the quarters of the world and to utter for them the words which they had long been waiting to hear.” It called forth a “boundless delirium of extravagance.”

Was this because Goethe had the good fortune to create something that appealed to a feeling characteristic of the age? In one sense, he did; an appeal, if you will, to something that had been lost, something gone missing for two hundred years.

“And then how tame and weak has life itself become during the last two shabby centuries. Where do we now meet an original nature? where is the man with the strength to be true, and to show himself as he is?”

This, it should be noted, from a man who, as he put it himself, had “the great advantage of being born at a time when the greatest events that agitated the world occurred, and such have continued to occur during my long life.” Events that included the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and Napoleon and his fall. And what was the advantage in this? - “I have attained results and insights impossible to those who are born now and must learn all these things from books they will not understand.”

That insight into things allowed Goethe to distinguish between what is ephemeral and what is essential, between what is characteristic of an age and what is found in every age. What some called the ‘Werther period,’ is no period at all. It belongs “to the career of every individual who, with an innate free instinct, must accommodate himself to the narrow limits of an antiquated world. Obstructed fortune, restrained activity, unfulfilled wishes, are calamities not of any particular time but of every individual man; and it would be bad indeed if everybody had not, once in his life, known a time when Werther seemed as if it had been written for him alone.”

Napoleon, among others, seemed to think Werther had been written for him. He carried it in his “field library” everywhere he went, and studied it the way “a criminal judge does his documents;” studied it so closely that when he met Goethe he could point out a passage he thought could not stand strict scrutiny, an observation with which Goethe agreed.

What is there about Werther, this short novel that tells the story of a very short life, that struck such a chord and kept someone like Napoleon reading it over and over again, this story that its author could not bear to read more than once because of the memories it brought back. Begin at the beginning all over again.

The story is told through a series of letters written by Werther to a very close friend. Each letter is given a date, the day and the month, but never the year. On May 17, Werther writes that the woman he loved, the “friend of my youth,” with whom he had been able “to display, to its full extent, that mysterious feeling with which my heart embraces nature,” has died. Nine days later, he has gone to the village of Walheim, where he drinks his coffee and reads his Homer. He insists that rules, including especially the laws of society, destroy the “genuine feeling of nature, as well as its true expression.” He views with disdain the advice followed by so many of the so-called men of the world, to divide your time between business, your mistress, and your accounts, accounts out of which you might make an occasional, but only an occasional, present to your wife. If he were to do this, it would be “all up with his love, and with his genius if he be an artist.” On June 16, he meets Charlotte.

Told by an aunt that Charlotte is engaged to another, and that if he is not careful his heart will be broken, Werther falls in love with her the moment he sees her. When they dance, “I feel myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object.” Charlotte tells him that “Albert is a worthy man, to whom I am engaged,” but three days later, Werther can still write: “My days are as happy as those reserved by God for his elect.” A month later, he is convinced that Charlotte loves him. “How the idea exalts me in my own eyes!” She sometimes lays her hand on his, and this “little familiarity” inflicts an agony upon him. And then, when she “speaks of her betrothed with so much warmth and affection, I feel like a soldier who has been stripped of his honors and titles, and deprived of his sword.”

Werther cannot help liking Albert, though the thought of Albert and Charlotte together breaks his heart. At a certain point, Werther and Albert disagree about the nature of crime. When Albert argues that a man under the influence of a violent passion loses all power of reflection, Werther explodes.

“Oh, you people of sound understandings are ever ready to exclaim ‘Extravagance, and madness, and intoxication! You moral men are so calm and subdued!….I have been more than once intoxicated, my passions have always bordered on extravagance: I am not ashamed to confess it; for I have learned, by my own experience, that all extraordinary men, who have accomplished great and astonishing action have ever been decried by the world as drunken or insane.”

Reading this, is there any doubt what someone like Napoleon would have thought, or why he would have wanted the book a constant companion?

Werther’s passion, this “wild, aimless, endless passion,” makes him Charlotte’s willing slave. His mind, when he is with her, becomes “gradually excited to the highest excess, my sight goes dim, my hearing confused, my breathing oppressed, as by the hand of a murderer.” He feels, he knows, even after she has married Albert, that they are “made for each other.” Sometimes, “lost in reverie,” he “cannot help saying to himself, ‘If Albert were to die?’” Finally, on December 4, he writes to his friend: “It is all over with me. I can support this state no longer.” On Monday, December 21, he writes to Charlotte: “It is all over, Charlotte: I am resolved to die.” He tells her that he “has often conceived the horrid idea of murdering your husband - you - myself!”

He goes to her one last time. Charlotte, who had invited friends to come so they would not be alone, begins to hope that they “might arrive shortly, entertaining at the same time a desire that they might stay away.” She feels “deeply but indistinctly that her own real but unexpressed wish was to retain him for herself.” There is a passionate scene when she finally understands what Werther is going to do. They lose sight of everything, except what they feel. “He clasped her in his arms…and covered her trembling lips with kisses,” the first time this has ever happened. Gently, and then more forcefully, she pushes him away. “Charlotte rose, and, with disordered grief, in mingled tones of love and resentment,” tells him that he will never see her again.

The next day, Werther writes to her for the last time, telling her that for the “first time in my existence, I feel rapture glow within my inmost soul,” and that while Albert may be her husband in this world, she will belong to him in the next. Werther kills himself, but Charlotte does not attend his funeral. She is now so ill that her “life was despaired of.”

How did Goethe write Werther, or, more broadly, how does any great author or artist do anything great? Goethe gave part of the answer in a comment he made about a musician he saw play when he was fourteen and the musician was only seven.

“How can one say Mozart composed Don Juan!….It is a spiritual creation, in which the details, as well as the whole, are pervaded by one spirit, and by the breath of one life.” Mozart, “was altogether in the power of the daemonic spirit of his genius, and acted according to his orders.”

But genius can be destroyed by the “kind of half-culture” that “finds its way into the masses.” He “who does not keep aloof from all this, and isolate himself by main force, is lost.” Isolate, because it is the only way to study and practice excellence, which means, if you are a writer, “Study Moliere, study Shakespeare, but, above all things, the old Greeks, and always the Greeks.” And if that is not the advice anyone is likely to follow today, it only proves what Goethe already feared, that “Barbarism is already here, we are in the midst of it; for wherein does barbarism consist, unless in not appreciating what is excellent!”

It was Goethe’s appreciation of the excellent that made The Sorrows of Young Werther as great, as unique, as it is.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Eric Jay Dolin

Eric Jay Dolin is the author of Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Dolan's reply:
Since my books are on topics I know little about before writing them, most of my reading consists of old books, articles, letters, and newspaper accounts on the topic at hand. As a result, I read a relatively small number of new books. However, I am often asked to contribute blurbs, and that allows me to read some great soon-to-be-published books. Two are of particular note, especially because they are closely related to my book, Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates. Indeed it is because I wrote that book that I was asked to blurb these two.

The first is The Pirate's Wife: The Remarkable True Story of Sarah Kidd, by Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos, which will publish on November 8, 2022. Here is the blurb I provided: "A fascinating and intriguing story about the woman behind one of the most iconic pirates of all. Geanacopoulos's compelling portrait of Sarah Kidd's turbulent and often tragic life, and her indomitable spirit, is full of dramatic twists and turns that will leave you wondering if there is any truth to the legend of Captain Kidd's hidden treasure." Almost all books on pirates focus on male pirates--and virtually all of them from the Golden Age were men -- and not on the women that were in their orbit. That is what makes The Pirate's Wife so refreshing.

The second pirate book I recently blurbed is Born to Be Hanged: The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune, by Keith Thomson, which published on May 10, 2022. Here is what I what I wrote: “Born to Be Hanged is a thrilling tale of piracy in the South Seas, replete with pitched and bloody battles, treasure hoards, a daring rescue, violent storms, shifting allegiances, mutiny, and a dubious trial. It is full of so many fascinating details and surprising twists and turns that you will not want to put it down until the very end. A wonderful contribution to the history of piracy, and a welcome addition to every pirate lover's library.” It reads like dramatic fiction, although it has the added benefit of being true.

Having these two blurbs back to back made me suddenly realize that I really like the phrase "twists and turns!" Well, it's true!!!
Visit Eric Jay Dolin's website.

The Page 99 Test: Fur, Fortune, and Empire.

The Page 99 Test: When America First Met China.

The Page 69 Test: Brilliant Beacons.

The Page 99 Test: Brilliant Beacons.

The Page 99 Test: Black Flags, Blue Waters.

The Page 99 Test: A Furious Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 20, 2022

Linda Richards

Linda L. Richards is a journalist, photographer and the author of numerous books, including three series of novels featuring strong female protagonists. She is the former publisher of Self-Counsel Press and the founder and publisher of January Magazine.

Richards's new novel is Exit Strategy.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Richards's reply:
Considering the type of fiction I write, this may sound odd. But. I’m very careful with my diet of media. I currently find myself in a place where I feel the need to be mindful of what I think about. Mindful about the things I dwell on and the dark corners I visit in my thoughts. I think it was Buddha who said: “We are what we think, all that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.”

If that is true — and my heart believes it is — then we need to be clear with ourselves about what we immerse ourselves in. Especially since, when crafting works as densely dark as my current series, you are required to spend some time going down pretty dark roads.

With that in mind, I supply myself with a strongly positive diet of material. The music I listen to is upbeat and positive (currently loving "Alright" by KYTES, "4 Mains" by Wim Mertens, "Soulfight" by The Revivalists and a whole lot of music you would describe as Ambient). The shows I watch are bright and fuel my soul (recently binged Emily in Paris and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). When it comes to literature, with the exception of books I’m reviewing or reading for “work,” the choices I make are meant to feed me brightly, as well.

Right now I am gorging on BrenĂ© Brown’s very lovely Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Whatever you are expecting, this book is more. First it is beautiful. You want to clear your coffee table so it fits there properly. It is rich and glossy. Part scrapbook, filled with illustrations, plus visual pieces from Brown’s own life along with all the wit and wisdom we have come to expect from this researcher.

Atlas is about connection and emotion. “If we want to find the way back to ourselves and one another,” Brown writes, “we need language and the grounded confidence to both tell our stories and be stewards of the stories that we hear. This is the framework for meaningful connection.”

Will you learn things? You might learn things. But also, you will swim in beauty from all sides. And that will feed your soul.
Visit Linda L. Richards's website.

My Book, The Movie: Endings.

The Page 69 Test: Endings.

Q&A with Linda L. Richards.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, will be published in the spring. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Tolstoy's War and Peace:
Years ago, when writers were serious, and editors knew what they were doing, Maxwell Perkins, who worked with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, would give a copy of War and Peace to every new author he agreed to take on. It was, he would tell them, the greatest novel ever written, the measure of the perfection they should try to achieve. Tolstoy might have been amused. War and Peace, he insisted, “is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”

This is not as strange as it may seem.

“The history of Russian literature since Pushkin’s time not only provides many examples of such departure from European forms, but does not offer even one example to the contrary. From Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House, there is not a single work of artistic prose in the modern period of Russian literature, rising slightly above mediocrity, that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story.”

Far from a question of literary classification, this points to the very essence of what Tolstoy was trying to do. While Europe, while the West, believed in modern science, progress, and the equal right of everyone to acquire as much wealth as they could, Tolstoy had a different, and a deeper, understanding of what life was meant to be. There are two stories in War and Peace, stories that intertwine with each other: the story of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, and the story of how the ungainly, and often confused, Pierre and the lovely young girl Natasha, draw closer until, after engagements and marriages, broken hearts and tragic deaths, they understand that everything has been a prologue to their own marriage, and then, for the first time, understand what marriage means. Everything that happens to them seems a chance occurrence, yet somehow pre-ordained; everything a step necessary in a chain of circumstances leading to a conclusion that no one could have foreseen, and nearly everyone at the time thought the wrong thing to have done.

It begins at the beginning, almost on the very first page, the first page of the more than twelve hundred pages of War and Peace. After wandering around Europe, Pierre has returned to Russia where he offends nearly everyone by his slovenly appearance and drunken bad manners. The bastard son of one of the richest men in the country, he inherits everything and, suddenly the object of everyone’s affection, marries Helene, a woman he does not love, and does so for reasons he cannot explain. His wife is beautiful and stupid, but, to Pierre’s astonishment, all the wealthy and powerful people who attend her lavish parties think her one of the most intelligent women in Petersburg. She is like a glass mirror, reflecting back everything that goes on around her.

Helene’s ignorance is the ignorance of the age. Everyone thinks they know everything; no one knows anything. It is a kind of mass delusion, “the popularization of knowledge,” caused by “that most powerful tool of ignorance - the spread of printing.” Russian society has become enlightened, which means for Tolstoy, corrupt. Russia has followed Europe and, like Europe, has lost its soul; it has become addicted to wealth and power. Instead of real knowledge, the understanding of the place of human beings in an ordered universe, it seeks only the knowledge of how things work, the immediate material causes of whatever one might happen to desire.

The attempt to replace human understanding with the principles of modern science is nowhere more clear than in the history of the war. Nothing happens the way that, according to those principles, it should have happened. Napoleon invades Russia. There is a tremendous battle at Borodino, not far from Moscow. The French appear to win, but Kutuzov, the Russian general in charge, is certain that Napoleon has lost. Everyone wants Kutuzov to attack; Kutuzov retreats. Everyone knows that Moscow has to be defended; Kutuzov abandons it. Moscow is destroyed by fire, and Napoleon, who could have stayed, leaves. He could have attacked, and almost certainly taken, Petersburg, but he decides against it. There is no good reason for what Napoleon does; there is no good reason for what anyone does. Kutuzov did not reason about things; his Russian soul decided. Things happened the way they did because they had to happen that way.

The lesson, a lesson Tolstoy repeats over and over again, is that nothing was done according to any plan; soldiers fought and soldiers died, and even when they thought they were following orders, the orders they received were almost never the orders that were given. Everything that happened in the smoke and haze, the shock and violence, of battle was a reaction to what was going on directly in front of those who were fighting, or what they could see, or thought they saw, in front of them. What happens in war is accidental, irrational, and unknown.

How does Tolstoy know this? What makes him so certain that Pierre, wandering around a battlefield, has as good a sense of what is going on as the commanding general, or an officer on the spot? He knows it from his own observations, and from reading through the official Russian documents, the military reports written at the time. But he learned it first from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had insisted, long before Tolstoy, that the spread of printing was a danger to civilization. In Emile, Rousseau had written that “the facts described by history are far from being the exact portrayal of the same facts as they happened. They change form in the historian’s head; they are molded according to his instincts; they take on the complexion of his prejudices. Who knows how to put the reader exactly on the spot of the action to see an event as it took place? Ignorance or partiality disguises everything.”

Rousseau goes on in a way that reminds you immediately of what Tolstoy writes in War and Peace: “How many times did a tree more or less, a stone to the right or the left, a cloud of dust raised by the wind determine the result of a combat without anyone having noticed it? Does this prevent the historian from telling you the cause of the defeat or the victory with as much assurance as if he had been everywhere?”

Tolstoy thought it impossible to know the causes of events. Those who say that the causes of what happened in Russia “are the conquering spirit of Napoleon and the patriotic firmness of the emperor Alexander Pavlovich, is as meaningless as to say that the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are that such-and-such barbarian led his people to the west, and such-and-such Roman emperor ruled his people badly, or that an immense mountain that was being leveled came down because the last workman drove his spade into it.”

What then are the causes? History itself, history as Rousseau understands it; history which, after Rousseau, will take the place of God; history as the movement of the human race toward its own improvement, history as progress.

“History in general is defective in that it records only palpable and distinct facts which can be fixed by names, places, and dates while the slow and progressive causes of these facts, which cannot be similarly assigned, always remain unknown. One often finds in a battle won or lost the reason for a revolution which even before the battle had already become inevitable. War hardly does anything other than make manifest outcomes already determined by moral causes which historians rarely know how to see.”

For Tolstoy, all the battles, all the decisions, everything that happened, had, as it were, been pre-determined, part of history’s plan. The proof is simple, straightforward, easy to grasp: all the battles, all the decisions, everything that happened, happened only after all the battles, and all the decisions, of the past. When we look back, what do we see? That everything that has happened has led to this, the present moment. Everything that happens is necessary. This same necessity drives men and women, drives them without their conscious knowledge. It drives Pierre and Natasha to their marriage.

In Emile, Rousseau arranges everything in a way that after Emile and Sophie have fallen in love, they are forced to live apart for two years. This necessity deepened their love by delaying what they both desired. For Rousseau, and for Tolstoy as well, the sexes are each imperfect; only their union makes them into what they are, by nature, meant to be: together one being, together one whole. There is only one reason for marriage, but that reason is fundamental: to give birth and raise the next generation. Pierre and Natasha live their lives, their histories, if you will, guided toward each other, united in what they both instinctively understand. History, their history, has an end. After her marriage to Pierre, Natasha changes; she becomes what, quite unknowing, she has always wanted to be - a mother.

The two stories, the war with Napoleon, the happy solitude of marriage, the two stories, War and Peace, both driven forward by a common necessity that gives direction, and which explains, all the strange and seemingly inexplicable events of the lives of Pierre and Natasha - and not just their lives, but all the others - the desire, the need, to live, both as individuals and together as a country, beyond their own, too temporary existence. For Natasha that meant motherhood; for Natasha and Pierre and their children, that meant Mother Russia.

Maxwell Perkins was right. War and Peace is the greatest novel ever written.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Evie Hawtrey

Evie Hawtrey is a Yank by birth but a sister-in-spirit to her fierce and feminist London detective, DI Nigella Barker. Hawtrey splits her time between Washington DC, where she lives with her husband, and York, UK, where she enjoys living in history, lingering over teas, and knocking around in pubs.

Her new novel is And By Fire.

Recently I asked Hawtrey about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ll tell you what I am not reading—a mystery. Why? Because when I am writing (especially first-drafting) I avoid novels in the same genre to keep my characters’ voices as pure and authentically mine as possible.

So currently I am reading Volume I of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encylopeaedia. It’s non-fiction and illustrated. The description on the back earnestly explains: “the photographs, drawing and texts published in this book are part of a collection of more than three thousand tattoos accumulated over a lifetime by prison attendant Danzig Baldaev.” I would like to meet Mr. Baldaev, but he has been dead since 2005.

The introduction to Volume I, written by Alexei Plutser-Sarno, features one of the best opening lines ever—a line that could just as easily start a novel: “Strang as it may seem, the tattoo-covered body of a vor v zakone (legitimate thief), is primarily a linguistic object.” God, I wish I’d written that. And speaking of God, tattoos on vory that appear religious really aren’t, trust me on this one.

My dive into understanding the body-language of the Russian criminal class is part of the research for my next book—a follow-on mystery to And by Fire. My modern detectives, Nigella Parker and Colm O’Leary, are caught in the middle of another twisty multiple murder situation in modern London. This one involves Russian oligarchs and their associates. Not surprisingly, at least one of their victims has numerous tattoos. For the record, this author has none. There’s a drawing of a cat wearing a fancy hat, lace collar and bow tie while smoking a pipe on page 116 that caught my eye and tempted me. But alas he would indicate that I am “a recidivist convict” with no conscience. Very not me.
Visit Evie Hawtrey's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Marion Deeds

Marion Deeds was born in Santa Barbara, California and moved to northern California when she was five. She loves the redwoods, the ocean, dogs and crows.

She’s fascinated by the unexplained, and curious about power: who has it, who gets it, what is the best way to wield it. These questions inform her stories.

Deeds's new novel is Comeuppance Served Cold.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Deeds's reply:
I recently finished Max Gladstone’s Last Exit. Like all of Gladstone’s work, Last Exit features dense, multi-layered prose. Please note, I’m using “dense” in the “rich, fudgy flourless chocolate cake” sense of the term, and I’m a chocolate lover. This may be Gladstone’s masterpiece. While the closest I’ve ever come to an Ivy League college is attending an event somewhere on the Stanford campus, I felt like I experienced the parts of Yale our outsider main characters experienced in their college years. I saw the increasingly horrifying alternate worlds they used their magic, which they call “spin,” to visit, and I shared their fear of the entity following them, the one that calls itself the Cowboy.

Gladstone has mentioned Stephen King’s It as an influence or at least a kind of marker for Last Exit: I felt lots of resonance with an earlier work of King’s; The Gunslinger, the first book (actually a collection of novellas) of The Dark Tower series. In that first book, Roland is less a character and more of a force. Last Exit exists in direct dialogue with that force, as well as the forces of fear, hopelessness and powerlessness. This makes it sound like the book isn’t action packed—trust me, it is. And, he pulls off a convincing optimistic ending.

Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen comes out in May, but I finished an ARC of it. Vo deeply mines folklore from various traditions, the history of the studio system in Hollywood in the early years of film, and her own rich imagination to create the world our main character, who calls herself Luli Wei, inhabits. The magic in Vo’s world is deeply, organically rooted in history, and it is often hungry. It is also beautiful and wonderful. From the family of enigmatic women who seem to always work the ticket booth at the movie palaces, to the strange and dangerous campfires on the studio back lots on Friday nights, to those who become stars, magic is everywhere, and Luli is touched by it. Luli wants to be in movies on her own terms. “No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers,” she tells her boss, listing the stereotypical roles for Asian women at the time. Will she succeed? What will she sacrifice to prevail? It was a breath-taking read.

I’ve been a fan of all of Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series, and I’ve started The Untold Story, which may wrap up the over-arching storylines of these books. Librarian Irene is closing in on a couple of mysteries, one of which is deeply personal. I’m only about halfway in and I have to say this got dark pretty fast. I’m not sure what to expect next.
Follow Marion Deeds on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Sandra Dallas

New York Times best-selling author Sandra Dallas, the author of 16 adult novels, four young reader novels, and 10 nonfiction books, was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. Dallas’s novels with their themes of loyalty, friendship, and human dignity have been translated into a dozen foreign languages and have been optioned for films.

Her new novel is Little Souls.

Recently I asked Dallas about what she was reading. Her reply:
I review books for the Denver Post, and a few weeks back, I received an advance copy of Everybody Thought We Were Crazy by Mark Rozzo. It’s the story of Dennis Hopper and Brooke Howard’s marriage and 1960s Los Angeles. I loved it. Publication date is May. The love story is set against a background of pop art, rock and roll, drugs, and the new Hollywood. The couple knew everybody from the Fondas to the Black Panthers. I became a Dennis Hopper fan when I saw him in an early television performance in the 1950s. I think it was on The Medic. After Hopper’s marriage to Brooke broke up, I interviewed him when he was living in the Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos with his soon-to-be wife Michelle Phillips. The house was filled with pop art, which wasn’t all that popular in Taos at the time. A story I heard was that a man came to install a telephone and asked where to put it. Dennis was absorbed with something and pointed to a wall. The man installed the phone in the middle of an Andy Warhol painting.
Visit Sandra Dallas's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue