Friday, August 31, 2007

David Pilling

David Pilling's journalism caught my eye with his account of lunch with the novelist David Mitchell.

So a few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Because of my job, Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, I read a lot of non-fiction about Japan both in English and Japanese. I tend to have several books on the go at once, which is probably not a good thing. At the moment, these include (in no particular order) Alan Macfarlane's Japan Through the Looking Glass, a book that grapples intelligently with the question of just how different is Japan; Totetsumonai nihon (Incredible Japan), a book by Taro Aso laying out his bid to be the next prime minister; A History of Japan to 1334 by George Sansom, the first part of a three-part classic.

I have just finished the diaries of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin-doctor in chief. This was a fascinating if somewhat self-serving account of the Blair Years, but it includes a lot of Clinton, Bush, Iraq and Ireland as well. A really interesting read.

I also try to keep up with fiction, but not very successfully. For work (though it turned out for pleasure) I recently read three David Mitchell novels, the best of which was Cloud Atlas followed by Black Swan Green, the latter a much more personal childhood autobiography than his usual romps through time and space.

I would like to go back and read Turgenev's books, especially Fathers and Sons. I also love Chinua Achebe, especially the marvellous Things Fall Apart.
"Lunch with the FT" isn't always free, but you can always have a taste of Pilling's account of lunch with David Mitchell.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Christopher Goffard

Christopher Goffard is a general assignment reporter at the Los Angeles Times. His first book, the literary crime novel Snitch Jacket, will be released in the U.S. in October.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished American Prometheus, the excellent Robert Oppenheimer biography, which is about how cold war hysteria devoured one of our greatest scientists, and which reminded me that during the first test of the atom bomb, the Los Alamos gang did not even know if the explosion would ignite the atmosphere.

At an airport I picked up Malcolm Gladwell's engrossing The Tipping Point -- his exploration of the subterranean life of social trends from smoking to suicide to kids' TV shows -- and read it on a cross-country flight in nearly one gulp.

I'm now deep into Don DeLillo's Libra, which is a reimagining of the Kennedy assassination as a conspiracy hatched by disaffected CIA agents, with a fascinating psychological portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald as this angry cipher desperate to merge his life with history.
Publishers Weekly gave Snitch Jacket a starred review:
In Goffard's impressive debut, a darkly comic romp through the Southern California underworld, Benny Bunt, a 41-year-old dishwasher, finds his main escape in the Greasy Tuesday, a blue-collar bar in Costa Mesa. Among the recidivist misfits, his is a harmless familiar face. What they don't know is that Benny is a snitch who earns pocket money by ratting out his buddies to the cops. Enter one Gus “Mad Dog” Miller, a massive, bearded Vietnam vet, covered with prison tattoos; Gus holds court at the bar with outrageous tales of his exploits, military and criminal. Gus soon becomes Benny's best friend, and seeks his assistance in a contract killing. Only problem is, the police “botch” their surveillance and Benny ends up taking the fall for a double homicide committed at the Howling Head festival in the Mojave desert. Goffard's prose shimmers with intelligence and humor, and he has a keen ear for telling detail. Fans of such cultish neo-noir scribes such as Charlie Huston and Duane Swierczynski will be richly rewarded.
The Page 99 Test: Snitch Jacket.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 27, 2007

Richard Zimler

Richard Zimler is the author of seven novels over the last decade: The Seventh Gate; The Search for Sana; Guardian of the Dawn; Hunting Midnight; The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon; The Angelic Darkness; and Unholy Ghosts.

His novels have appeared on bestseller lists in 12 different countries, including the USA, Great Britain, Portugal, Italy, and Australia, and he has won numerous prizes for his work, including a 1994 National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Fiction and the 1998 Herodotus Award for the best historical novel.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am in Helsinki at the moment and I am reading two books. The first is a novel by an Irish writer named Brian O'Doherty called The Deposition of Father McGreevy, published in Britain by Arcadia Books. It's about a remote Irish mountain village where all the women die of a mysterious disease, leaving the priest, Father McGreevy, to try to keep the men and their way of life going despite all the logistical and emotional problems . I'm not entirely sure where the narrative is going at the moment, since I'm only on page 57, but the writing is good and I'm intrigued. What exactly happened up there on top of the mountain that left the women dead?

The second book I just picked up yesterday at a fantastic bookshop in downtown Helsinki. It's entitled Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day. It's a great idea: what would a traveler to Rome in 200 AD find and how would he or she spend his days? The book has chapters on Dining Out and What to Buy, as in a modern guidebook. I've read the first chapter, called "Getting There." It's full of surprising information and is written in an engaging style: who knew, for instance, that a person living in a Roman province needed an exit visa from his area of residence in order to go to Rome? If I ever decide to write about ancient times, I'm sure the book will be very helpful. It's published by Thames & Hudson.
Visit Richard Zimler's website to learn more about his books, short stories, and reviews and interviews.

The Page 99 Test: Guardian of the Dawn.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry is the author of the Jane Whitefield series as well as the bestselling novels Nightlife, Death Benefits, and Pursuit, the first recipient of the Gumshoe Award for Best Novel. He won an Edgar Award for The Butcher’s Boy, and Metzger’s Dog was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

His latest novel is Silence.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I was going to say that this isn't a moment when what I'm reading is typical, but then I realized there is no such moment. So here, without apology, is what I've been reading. I just finished the second of two hard-boiled British novels that Harcourt is publishing in U.S. The first was Allan Guthrie's Hard Man. This one is Ray Banks's Saturday's Child. I found it a special treat. The central characater is an ex-convict working as an unlicensed private detective His current client is a murderous old small-time crime boss. The story is told through the consciousnesses of the "detective" and the boss's psychotic son, both of whom are always more or less drunk, drugged, and groggy from their latest head injuries. I liked it for the same reasons I like foreign and independent films. The people who write them haven't fallen automatically into the assumptions and structural cliches of American popular storytelling (although they may have conventions of their own), and so the vision is fresh and new to us, and makes us think occasionally.

When I finished that I happened to have Nadine Gordimer's The Pick-Up, which I received in the mail a couple of days ago. Cornell, where I went to school, has its freshmen and alumni read one book at the start of each school year, and I picked it up last night. I'm not finished yet, but even without the academic recommendation and the Nobel Prize, she's very good.

As a rule, I read mostly non-fiction. Next on the pile is Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis, and then Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. I've been traveling much of the summer trying to promote my latest book, Silence. I never write or read while I'm traveling, because trips are my best opportunity to look and listen and start conversations with strangers, but that always puts me behind in both writing and reading, so the unread book pile continues to grow.
The Page 69 Test: Silence.

The Page 99 Test: Nightlife.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Peter Spiegelman

Peter Spiegelman is the author of three John March novels. His debut novel, Black Maps, was published by Knopf in August, 2003 and won the 2004 Shamus Award for Best First Novel. It was followed in 2005 by Death's Little Helpers, which Ken Bruen called "...a multi-layered novel of compassion and power." Earlier this year Knopf brought out the third John March novel, Red Cat.

Spiegelman is also editor of and contributor to Wall Street Noir.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've been reading a fair amount of non-fiction lately, both for research purposes and because it's always been a significant component of my reading diet. I recently finished re-reading A.L. Kennedy's beautiful On Bullfighting which, yes, is actually about bullfighting. It's also part memoir and part rumination on death and art and work. Really, a one of a kind book -- and gorgeous writing.

Currently I'm in the midst of Tim Weiner's lucid history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. And a damning history it is, of an organization that's apparently been dysfunctional from the start. Weiner lays bare a spectacle of arrogance, incompetence, willful blindness, and terrible waste (of lives, money, opportunity) -- all horribly relevant to the current mess we're in. Maddening, scary, entirely fascinating.
Visit Peter Spiegelman's official website, and read my rave review of Red Cat.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Evan Thomas

Evan Thomas is assistant managing editor of Newsweek. He has won a National Magazine Award and taught writing at Harvard and Princeton.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am reading the last Harry Potter. I just finished Walter Isaacson's Einstein and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

My favorite fiction this summer was Claire Massoud's The Emperor's Children.
Evan Thomas has written seven books, including Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945, The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA, and John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 20, 2007

Robert Louden

Robert Louden is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. He is the author of Kant's Impure Ethics: From Rational Beings to Human Beings (OUP, 2000) and Morality and Moral Theory: A Reappraisal and Reaffirmation (OUP, 1992), co-editor and translator of Kant, Anthropology, History, and Education (CUP, 2007) and Kant, Lectures on Anthropology (CUP, 2008), translator of Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (CUP, 2006), editor of Schleiermacher's Lectures on Philosophical Ethics (CUP, 2002), and co-editor of The Greeks and Us (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

His new book is The World We Want: How and Why the Ideals of the Enlightenment Still Elude Us (Oxford University Press).

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
1) Leopold Mozart, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. This book, originally published in German in 1756 & written by Wolfgang Amadeus's father, is still in print with Oxford University Press. It was the major work of its period on the violin. I'm an amateur violinist, & first turned to the book because I am a big fan of W. A. Mozart's violin sonatas. However, I'm happy to report that Leopold studied philosophy & logic at Salzburg University before embarking on a music career. There is more than a little philosophy in this classic violin text.

2) Frans de Waal, Primates & Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton U. Press, 2006). This book is a quasi-debate between those who hold that morality has its roots in our evolutionary past, & those who believe that morality is part of what sets human beings apart from other animals. Based on de Wahl's 2004 Tanner Lectures, it includes responses by Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. Both sides of the debate are well represented, and in listening to all parties present their arguments & data the old question "what exactly do we mean by 'morality'?" takes on a new significance.

3) J. A. May, Kant's Concept of Geography and its Relation to Recent Geographical Thought (University of Toronto Press, 1970). This book is out of print, but I located a 2nd hand copy last week through I looked briefly at it 10 years ago when I was doing research for my book Kant's Impure Ethics (Oxford U. Press, 2000), & am taking a closer look at it now for a new piece I'm writing about Kant's physical geography lectures. The author died in 1989, & this work (a revised version of his Ph.D. dissertation) is, I believe, the only book he published. For those interested in what I call the 'impure' Kant (i.e, the empirical Kant), it is a gold mine of information.

4) Stephen Darwall, The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability (Harvard U. Press, 2006). I'm reading this book with other members of an ethics reading group that meets monthly at Bowdoin College. Am not sure that I would have taken a look at it if it hadn't been on the reading group's list. But this is part of the purpose of reading groups: to cajole us into reading things that we otherwise wouldn't pay attention to....
Visit Robert Louden's university homepage to learn more about him and his work, and to read the answer to "Why Philosophize?"

Learn more about The World We Want at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 17, 2007

Terese Svoboda

Terese Svoboda is the author of several books of prose and poetry, including Trailer Girl and Other Stories, Cannibal, Treason, and Tin God.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I have four days to finish the final rewrite of a memoir/mystery story called Black Glasses Like Clark Kent (Graywolf Press). It's about my uncle, an MP in postwar Japan who guarded a stockade full of our GIs and the gallows that was built inside it. Toward that end, I've just reread Japan's Comfort Women by Yuki Tanaka, particularly the expose on the joint US/Japanese scheme for satisfying the GIs in postwar Japan.

I'm also frolicking through the last four books of poetry that Paul Muldoon has published (I made it through the first nineteen or so) for an extended essay called "Summer in Muldoonland."

I'm also thrilled to be reading All Things are Labor: Stories by Katherine Arnoldi. About being a Mennonite woman, single motherhood and life on the fringe in the Lower East Side, it's her first collection but she's been writing wild sentences for a long while.

For fun, I just finished Gerald Durrell's Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons, a naturalist's hilarious take on endangered species in Mauritius. I've read all his others, the best being My Family and Other Animals.
In 2007 Terese Svoboda won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, a memoir about her uncle as an MP who reported executions of GIs in the stockade he was guarding in postwar Japan — and then committed suicide.

Robert Polito wrote: "Few books over the past decade have surprised and moved me as much as Black Glasses Like Clark Kent. A family romance in the guise of a biography and memoir, this is also a mystery in the spirit of writers as various as Dashiell Hammett and Sigmund Freud, Patricia Highsmith and D. W. Winnicott. Black Glasses is, as Svoboda intimates, a 'triptych,' a three-story house that spans World War II Japan and contemporary America, creating imaginative space for the intricate lives of her uncle and cousin as well as her own. Resourceful, elegantly phrased, angry, stubborn, fierce, beautiful and ultimately devastating."

Graywolf will publish Black Glasses Like Clark Kent in February 2008.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Jonathan Santlofer

Jonathan Santlofer is a highly respected artist whose work has been written about and reviewed in the New York Times, Art in America, Artforum, and Arts, and appears in many public, private, and corporate collections such as Chase Manhattan Bank and the Art Institute of Chicago. He serves on the board of Yaddo, one of the oldest artist communities in the country.

His books are Color Blind, The Death Artist, The Killing Art, and Anatomy of Fear.

Yesterday I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm in the midst of finishing my sequel to Anatomy of Fear, which means I am crazed and reading a bit less than usual, but let's see...

In the new book Nate is investigating a case that involves human experimentation so I have been reading all sorts of related material, like Andrew Goliszek's In the Name of Science, and three books by Jonathan Moreno, Director of the Center for Bio-medical Ethics at the University of Virginia, most recently Is There an Ethicist in the House? -- all really fascinating and terrifying stuff.

Also, more of Paul Ekman's face reading books, Emotions Revealed.

In between, I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which is tons of fun, and for diversion I just finished Megan Abbott's Queenpin, an over the top and hilarious noir homage.

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is sitting on my night table staring at me and that's up next. Once I finish the book I'll tackle that and more!
Visit Santlofer's official website, and read his take on Anatomy of Fear and the Page 99 and Page 69 Tests.

Watch the Anatomy of Fear video.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 13, 2007

Walt Mossberg

Walt Mossberg is the Personal Technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
While I write about technology, one of my major interests is the American Revolution. I find it inspiring, both in a political and military sense, and believe it has had a profound impact, not only in the U.S., but around the world. It is simply extraordinary that so many amazing people, from different backgrounds, were able to come together to challenge and defeat the mightiest power on earth, in a principled struggle that was almost lost many times.

Over the years, I have read many histories and analyses of the Revolution, but am currently thoroughly enjoying a two-volume historical novel by Jeff Shaara that tells the story through the eyes of major figures like Washington, Adams, Franklin, and the British generals. The first of the books, Rise to Rebellion, covers the leadup to the formal break with England, from events like the Boston Massacre and the burning of the British ship Gaspee in Rhode Island through the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The second volume, The Glorious Cause, takes the reader from the Declaration through victory. They are wonderful books.
In addition to the columns he writes and edits for the Wall Street Journal, Mossberg also publishes periodic interviews for the Journal and occasional blog posts at his website. With Kara Swisher, he co-produces and co-hosts D: All Things Digital, a major high-tech and media conference.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Richard Lange

Richard Lange is the author of Dead Boys, his debut collection of short stories published this month by Little, Brown.

T.C. Boyle, George Pelecanos, Alice Sebold, Scott Wolven, Scott Smith, Michael Connelly, Chris Offutt, Anthony Doerr, and Daniel Woodrell number among those with early, enthusiastic endorsements for Dead Boys.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m currently reading three books. First is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. I think you’re supposed to have read this at 12, but I didn’t. In fact, this is my first Dickens novel. And you know what? I’m glad I waited, because now I can really appreciate what a feat this is. While the plot chugs along like an old steam engine – a bit creaky, but charming in its music-box complexity – the characters are utterly human, drawn with much love and great insight into human nature, which, if this book is any indication, hasn’t changed much in the years since. It’s like visiting some insanely-detailed Victorian-themed amusement park – pure entertainment.

Next is a collection of stories, Heaven Lies About Us, by Eugene McCabe. The stories are set in the border counties of Ireland, the characters mainly rural folk, but these are not pastoral tales of bucolic country life. McCabe shines a bright light on the various webs that ensnare these people; the many enmities – ancient and modern, private and political – that set them at one another’s throats. It’s English against Irish, loyalist against rebel, Protestant against Catholic, and, finally, brother against brother and mother against son. The prose is simple and direct, the sociology mind-boggling, especially to an outsider. I keep thinking of Iraq as I read this, with its occupying army, warring religious sects and tribal grudges. Man, we certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest.

Finally, there’s Fat City, by Leonard Gardner. His first and only book. Originally published in 1969, it chronicles with staggering empathy the foibles of a group of bottom-tier boxers and trainers in ‘50s Stockton, CA. This is 24 chapters packed full to bursting with the sad poetry of ordinary life and dialogue that kills. You don’t have to be a boxing fan to enjoy the book, just human. We are inside these men’s heads as they work, train, fight, drink and fall in and out of what passes for love in this world. Their small victories thrill us, their great failures bring us to our knees. Gardner doesn’t waste a word in his terse yet gorgeous descriptions of skid row flophouses, musty gyms and sun-baked tomato fields, but he gives us absolutely everything we need. I haven’t been this moved by a book in years, and these characters will haunt my dreams forever.
Read more about Dead Boys at the Little, Brown website, and check out Lange's brief essay "Taking The Long Way 'Round" about how twenty years of hard work at writing finally paid off with the publication of Dead Boys.

Read "Fuzzyland," one of the stories from the collection.

Visit Lange's website and the MySpace page for Dead Boys.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Thomas C. Schelling

Looking through The Harvard Guide to Influential Books recently, I discovered Thomas C. Schelling's entry. He wrote: "These books give readers a taste of the best in natural science, social science, classical and modern history and literary style," and went on to cite Darwin's The Origin of Species, Thucydides' History, Erving Goffman's Interaction Ritual, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and John Keegan's The Face of Battle.

When I asked him in February 2007 if his selections would differ if he named such a list today, he had an interesting reply.

That's the backstory to his reply to my query about what he has been reading lately:
I'm willing to add two authors, partly because readers may have missed them.

One is Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and novelist who died recently. His The Emperor, Vintage Books, 1984, is probably the most underlined book in my collection. When I read it I went out to the nearest book store and bought all the copies they had and gave them to friends. It takes quite a few pages to catch on to what it is.

The other is José Saramago, whose books are nearly impossible to read until one learns the style. (He doesn't punctuate, for one thing.) He makes the most fantastic events seem natural. It's important to start with an easier book; I suggest Blindness, or The Stone Raft. By then you'll find his style easy going and you can go on to the rest, especially The History of the Siege of Lisbon.
Thomas C. Schelling is an American economist and an authority on foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy, and arms control. He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis."

His many influential publications include the books The Strategy of Conflict, Arms and Influence, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, and Choice and Consequence.

Influential books: Thomas C. Schelling.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman's writing has appeared in Harper's, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Orion, Audubon, Mother Jones, Discover, Condé Nast Traveler, Resurgence, and in several anthologies (including The Best American Science Writing 2006).

His new book is The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books).

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
For the past two years, I was solely, obsessively occupied by reading research material for The World Without Us, and now I'm finally gorging on books that piled up in the interim: dessert tempting me after a long, laborious meal. Although I'm a journalist, I read fiction constantly to feed my narrative skills, and the first thing I turned to when I was finally free of edits was John Gregory Dunne's final novel, Nothing Lost. Alternately dark and hilarious, it is masterful: unfortunately, what in fact is now lost is an incomparable voice following his unexpected death, profoundly memorialized in his wife Joan Didion's staggering The Year of Magical Thinking.

I followed that with a lovely and surprising novel, The World to Come, by Dara Horn.

Currently I'm finishing Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, which should be required reading for the entire western (and eastern) world, not just for economists. McKibben writes with such clarity and humanity that you come away truly understanding how civilization, and the money that lubricates it, can and should work.

I've also finally gotten to read Michael Pollan's delightful Botany of Desire.

Next on my list is Paul Hawken's new book Blessed Unrest, suggested by Barry Lopez as one of the most important and most overlooked books of 2007. Then I'll need another novel, so suggest away.
Publishers Weekly on The World Without Us: "If a virulent virus — or even the Rapture — depopulated Earth overnight, how long before all trace of humankind vanished? That's the provocative, and occasionally puckish, question posed by Weisman ... in this imaginative hybrid of solid science reporting and morbid speculation.... Weisman's enthralling tour of the world of tomorrow explores what little will remain of ancient times while anticipating, often poetically, what a planet without us would be like."

Read more about The World Without Us and learn more about Alan Weisman and his work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman, author and journalist, writes for the New York Times.

She is working on a book about the tug-of-war over antiquities pitting Western countries and their great museums against the developing countries seeking restitution of ancient artifacts. Who ought to own the trophies of history, Western museums or the source countries? The book, tentatively titled, Stealing From the Pharaohs, will be published by Times Books, a division of Henry Holt.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've been on a month-long research trip for a new book I'm writing about looted antiquities, and have been reading largely on that topic.

I've been vastly enjoying Traveling Through Egypt, a compendium of writings from travelers to ancient Egypt starting from the Greeks (Pliny the Elder) but with lots of entertaining material from Victorian travellers (ie advice for the ladies: leave the maid at home). It's edited by Deborah Manley and Sahar Abdel-Hakim.

And since I've been making my way through Greece, I've been reading Lawrence Durrell's travelogue of the islands, The Greek Islands. I have been advised to get ahold of Homer and reread the Iliad and Odyssey, which I intend to do next.
Read more about Waxman's book project.

Waxman has been a New York Times correspondent for Hollywood based in Los Angeles, a post she has held since the end of 2003. She is the author of Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors And How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System (2005), about the emergence of a new generation of writers and directors in the 1990s, making landmark films in a corporate-run Hollywood.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 3, 2007

Joseph S. Nye

Joseph S. Nye Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor, is also the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I recently enjoyed Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome?: The Fall of An Empire and the Fate of America. Descriptions of America as the new Rome are rife today. I even used a few myself in The Paradox of American Power. Few are as well researched and enjoyably written, however, as Murphy's. He argues: "Rome and America are the most powerful actors in their worlds, by many orders of magnitude. Their power includes both military might and the 'soft power' of language, culture, commerce, technology and ideas." Both created global structures, were societies made up of many peoples, and open to newcomers. Both see themselves as peoples specially blessed by Providence, a "Roman exceptionalism" parallel to the American variety. Murphy is well aware of the important differences between Rome and the United States. Our science-based technology supports a dynamic economy based on innovation rather than extracting tribute from conquered peoples. Our middle-class society(absent in Rome) has (so far) supported a republic, a form of government that failed in Rome. He points out that Rome lasted for centuries after its apogee, was not defeated in battle, and did not suffer a sudden "fall" in the dramatic words of Edward Gibbons's famous title. Murphy argues that Rome successfully assimilated "barbarians" for centuries, just as America managed to accommodate waves of immigration. The decline occurred with the loss of assimilationist capacity in the 5th century. He draws four lessons for America today: instill greater appreciation of the wider world, stop treating government as a necessary evil, fortify the institutions that promote assimilation, and take some weight off the military. He provides a nice read and some useful lessons for those who are wondering where we are going after Iraq.

I also keep a novel by my bedside for evening enjoyment. I recently finished Peter Pouncey, Rules for Old Men Waiting. I found it in paperback while browsing in the Harvard COOP bookstore. I missed it when it was first published in 2005. Pouncey is a former president of Amherst and this is his first novel. As a former dean and author of a first novel (The Power Game: A Washington Novel), I was intrigued. It turns out to be a wonderful tale about a historian who has recently lost his wife and is nearing the end of his days in a farm house on Cape Cod. He sets out to write a novel about World War I in hopes of helping him understand his own role in World War II and the loss of his son in Vietnam. It is beautifully written and fully engaging. I hope he writes another!
Joseph S. Nye received his bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Princeton University, did postgraduate work at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, and earned a PhD in political science from Harvard. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology.

His books include Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics; Understanding International Conflicts (6th edition); and The Power Game: A Washington Novel.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Anthony Shadid

Anthony Shadid is a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East for the Washington Post. He won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, the Overseas Press Club Award, and was the first winner of the Michael Kelly Award.

His 2005 book Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War tells the story of ordinary Iraqis at the time of America's invasion of Iraq.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm actually tailoring my reading list toward the next book I'm working on, a more personal narrative of rebuilding my family's house in southern Lebanon and their story of emigration to America. In that vein, I've started Joan Didion's Where I Was From. I'm hoping to follow that with Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family.

Along with both those, and more for the prose than anything else, since it's a little off-subject, I'm reading Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, which I have to say has one of the most remarkable openings I've ever read in a book. The writing is so graceful.
Read more about Night Draws Near and check out Shadid's latest reporting from the Middle East.

--Marshal Zeringue