Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Simon Levack

Simon Levack is the author of the acclaimed Aztec Mystery series featuring Yaotl, Montezuma's chief minister's slave who becomes a sleuth.

There are now four volumes in the series that crime fiction expert J. Kingston Pierce calls "historically compelling" and which has earned numerous accolades, including winning a CWA Debut Dagger Award.

Last week I asked Levack what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently reading the second volume of Shelby Foote's The Civil War - A Narrative -- a book that won't need any introduction for American readers. Foote's idea of writing out the history of the conflict as though it were a novel told from multiple points of view has to be admired for sheer ambition. I love its epic sweep although more of the common footsoldier's and the civilian's experience would have been welcome.

As a historical novelist, much of my reading is to support my writing, of course. For my Aztec stories I have been dipping once again into Sahagun's General History of the Things of New Spain - The Florentine Codex -- but I now know this work so well I'm unlikely to read it from cover to cover again.

I'm planning a series of books about Robert Clive, First Baron Plassey -- Clive of India -- and refreshing my memory by re-reading Mark Bence-Jones's biography of him -- still the best after a quarter of a century or more. Clive was a truly remarkable man -- self-important, overbearing and sometimes vindictive, but also loyal, generous to a fault, humane and courageous.

I recently read David Lindsay's extraordinary philosophical fantasy (or proto-science fiction) novel A Voyage to Arcturus -- an imaginative tour de force in which a man searches for the meaning of life in one fantastical landscape after another. Makes CS Lewis and even Tolkien look like amateurs. The fact that it only sold a few hundred copies when first published just underlines what a brave and original book it is.
Learn more about Simon Levack and his writing at his website and his blog.

Check out Jeri Westerton’s recent interview with Levack.

Read a sample chapter from Tribute of Death, the fourth volume in the Yaotl series.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Viviana Zelizer

Viviana A. Zelizer is Lloyd Cotsen '50 Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. Her publications include The Social Meaning of Money, Pricing the Priceless Child, Morals and Markets, and The Purchase of Intimacy.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Here are two books I recently finished reading:

Charles Tilly’s Credit and Blame, forthcoming by Princeton University Press. The book pushes beyond Tilly’s marvelous, widely-read previous book Why? to show how people assign moral values, negative and positive to other people’s actions. What are we doing when we blame someone for anything from a personal slight to a physical disaster such as Katrina?

Oblivious to credit or blame, expert analyst of sex and love Pepper Schwartz has recently published Prime, a tell-all book about her own adventures in the worlds of sex and love.
Of Zelizer's The Purchase of Intimacy, Cass Sunstein wrote: "Do you think that the realm of money and the realm of intimacy are separate spheres? Viviana Zelizer will make you think again. A fascinating demonstration that romantic relationships are pervaded by transactions of multiple sorts -- and that we ignore those transactions at our peril."

Deirdre McCloskey added: "Are sociologists today the best economic scientists? On the evidence of Viviana Zelizer's striking book on the mix of the sacred and profane in our lives, it seems so."

Learn more about The Purchase of Intimacy at the Princeton University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Purchase of Intimacy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ted McClelland

Edward Robert McClelland is the author of Horseplayers: Life at the Track, a memoir of a year spent at the races.

In February 2008 Chicago Review Press will publish his The Third Coast: Sailors, Strippers, Fishermen, Folksingers, Long-Haired Ojibway Painters and God-Save-the-Queen Monarchists of the Great Lakes.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished reading Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. I picked it up after reading Alexie’s thin new novel Flight, because I figured, “He’s got to be better than that.” Boy, is he. Reservation Blues, the story of three young Indians who start a band after Robert Johnson shows up on their reservation with a guitar, is satirical, whimsical, magical and touching all at once. And, for de-ethnicized Americans, it provides a lot of insight into the importance of tribal and blood ties. The first book I ever wrote was about a rock band. It was never published. Reservation Blues is the novel I was trying to write. Sherman Alexie did it much better.

I also just re-read Duel In The Sun, an account of the 1982 Boston Marathon, which came down to a two-man race between Alberto Salazar, then the world’s best marathoner, and Dick Beardsley, a little-known farm boy from Minnesota. It was the greatest race ever between two American distance runners, but the strain of the effort ruined the careers of both men, as author John Brant details. I joined my high-school cross-country team in 1982, and remember reading about the race in the running magazines, drawing inspiration from the runners’ bravery. It was the zenith not just of those two runners’ careers, but of American distance running. No American man has won a major marathon since 1983. The book is also an inspiration because I’m training for a marathon next spring. (I won’t be breaking the aforementioned dry spell.)

Also, I have a lot of military history on my desk. For enjoyment, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour. I’ve always wondered what happened the moment World War I ended. Joseph E. Persico did, too, and wrote a book about it. Amazingly, many of the combatants kept fighting until the last minute, even though the armistice had been signed hours before. The final American casualty, Pvt. Henry Gunther, charged a German machine gun at 10:59 a.m., even as his sergeant urged him to keep his head down. For work, I’m reading memoirs and diaries of War of 1812 soldiers, research for a book I’m planning to write on that conflict, which is approaching its bicentennial, and which was fought mostly around the Great Lakes.
Learn more about TedMcCelland and his writing.

The Page 99 Test: Horseplayers: Life at the Track.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 22, 2007

Jason Fagone

Jason Fagone is an author and freelance journalist.

His first book, Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, was released last year in the U.S. and the U.K, and was also translated into Japanese.

Not so long ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Here are a few books I've been reading this fall:

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder: flawless. A long profile of an American doctor, Paul Farmer, who built a hospital and a health system in a remote part of Haiti and changed the way we think about treating the poor. Really, I had never read anything by Kidder, and I don't know why. So concise, engrossing, exact, powerful ... beyond the pull of the Farmer tale, this amazing story of a modern saint, I was just blown away by the craft, probably because I had just finished a long reporting project about infectious disease, running into all these problems trying to explain the science -- figuring out what I needed to explain in detail, what I could get away with describing vaguely, issues I imagined were inherent to the job of writing about science -- and then I read this book and it seemed like Kidder was writing around all of those same problems. Or through them. Just gliding on by with grace and elegance.

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder: okay, same deal. Wow.

Lord of the Barnyard, Tristan Egolf: Egolf wrote this when he was 23 years old. It's a huge, weird book that rides on the hypnotic storytelling voice of a sensitive white kid who grew up in Amish country, in the part of Pennsylvania that's often called Pennsyltucky. I love this book. I feel like it could have changed my whole life if I'd read it when I was a little younger. In Europe, where it was first published -- Egolf had been bumming around Paris, playing Dylan songs on the street for tips -- reviewers called it a masterpiece. Then it was published in the U.S., where reviewers mostly condescended to Egolf and ripped him for being too messy and exuberant and uncontrolled. The writing is actually remarkably precise, remarkably controlled. There's a storytelling mastery here -- basically, it's the yarn of an outcast garbageman from the midwest, John Kaltenbrunner, who starts an apocalyptic garbage strike after he and his fellow garbagemen get fed up with their crappy health-insurance plan. Beyond that it's hard to describe ... it's profane and angry and sweet and modern and archaic all at the same time, with riffs about exploding toilets set alongside these gorgeous lyric passages about the countryside where Egolf grew up.

What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer: This one I read back in the spring, actually. But it's stuck with me so I figured I'd include it. This is a book about the 1988 presidential election. It's 1,000+ pages. Were you perhaps under the impression that the 1988 presidential election was one of the boring ones? Bush/Dukakis? Yeah, I was too. But no. No no no no. Because Cramer was on the trail and I swear to god, he has stories about the Dukakis campaign that are so tragicomic, so excruciatingly well-observed, so full of pride and good intentions gone awry and all the rest, they will make you want to cry ... for Mike frickin' Dukakis. And for Joe Biden too. And Bob Dole. And maybe even Dick Gephardt. The book is fueled by curiosity and rage. The curiosity is a massive, bloated, almost childlike curiosity about the motivations of the people who run for president, leavened with an adult canniness and intelligence -- Cramer's no dupe -- and the rage is vented at the journalists who cover campaigns as if they're more about mechanics and consultants and fundraisers than people and ideas. It's arrogant and bullheaded in that Cramer's ambition here is not just to write the definitive book about that 1988 campaign but the definitive book about ALL AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS. And, you know, I feel the same way about this book as I did when I read this recent New Yorker article about David Simon and The Wire. Simon says all these outlandish things about his show, comparing it to Greek tragedy, to great novels, etc. And there wasn't anything Simon said where I thought, "Yeah, that guy's overstating it. He didn't really do that." I don't think you can overpraise this book.
Visit Jason Fagone's website and MySpace page, and learn more about competitive eating from his book and his article in Slate, "Dog Bites Man: The past and future of competitive eating injuries, from death by cheese to the dreaded ruptured stomach."

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Judith Kelman

Judith Kelman's many books include The First Stone, Backward in High Heels, The Session, Every Step You Take, and Summer of Storms, 2001 winner of the 2002 Mary Higgins Clark Award for Best Suspense.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm an omnivorous reader (and eater). When asked what I like to read, my honest answer is: good writing. I welcome recommendations from like-minded bibliophiles, who often point me to gems I wouldn't otherwise unearth. With upwards of 195 thousand books published in this country every year, it takes a book-loving village.

My latest finds: Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky, What is the What by Dave Eggers, Zen Putting by Dr. Joseph Parent (to feed my newly acquired golf addiction), and Lee Child's Die Trying (to keep an eye on the competition).

I recently finished To My Dearest Friends by Patty Volk, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Oxford History of the Greeks (to prepare for a trip to the Greek Islands.)

I prefer to read five or six books at a time, switching from one to the other as the mood move me. As my mother was wont to say: If you have a good book to read, you'll never be lonely or bored.
Kelman's The First Stone (2007) is featured on three CftAR sites:

Clive Cussler raved, "The First Stone is a remarkable story by a remarkable writer. Filled with intrigue, beautifully blended with friendships and love of family. Judith Kelman's characters are warm and wonderful."

Visit Judith Kelman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Michael Largo

Michael Largo is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die, The Portable Obituary: How the Famous, Rich, and Powerful Really Died, and three novels.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
This is a fun idea. I think I read a fortune cookie once that said, "You are what you read." I don't know how true that is, since my lucky numbers on the flip-side proved losers to date. But the spirit of it is good, and I always have more books to get to than time.

The next book I am currently writing has to do with creative people who committed suicide, so I've been starting the morning reading poetry, some Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Paul Celan and a few others.

I am currently working through a number of medical books and find Epilepsy and Sudden Death (Neurological Disease and Therapy) a fascinating clinical study of why epileptics die for no apparent reason. At lunch break I read some of Edwin S. Shneidman's Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind. When I go down to the bus stop to pick up the kids I've been reading Stefan Timmermans's Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths.

I'm also enjoying the The Best of Robert E. Howard for his stylistic descriptions, and for pure escape.

I just picked up a copy, with Stephen King as editor, of The Best American Short Stories 2007, so I know what's happening with new fiction.

And as a nightcap of late I've been reading Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson.

I like to keep multiple books going on at once, and find it more interesting to flip through different intellectual channels. This notion of only having one lifetime to do all these things is getting very disturbing.
Visit Michael Largo's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini is the editor and co-founder of The Philosophers' Magazine. He writes regularly for the Guardian, Independent and Independent on Sunday, Prospect and the TES, and has appeared on Nightwaves and In Our Time. He is the author of several books on philosophy, including Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines and Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. His most recent book is Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
To be honest, it's more a case of what I'm not reading, in that I have several books on the go for different purposes, and the extent to which I am "reading" any of them is debatable.

The one I'm definitely reading is Steve Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, which I didn't quite finish in advance of his visit to Bristol's Festival of Ideas, which I am involved with. There's some really interesting stuff for thought in the book, particularly about competing theories of language. If you're tempted by the view that language tightly determines thought -- that we can only think about what we have words for -- Pinker has got some choice words for you.

However, like so many books that come out of the US, it's overly long in my view. Is there a rule that serious non-fiction from the States must be around 500 pages? (Pinker's index ends on page 499.) The many examples are interesting in a "well I never" kind of way, but the really fundamental arguments sometimes get lost in all the detail. It's a model negative example of the value of good editing.

Because I had to read Pinker to a deadline, I set aside Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes. I'm writing a book on complaint and this seems to be the biggest book on the subject of recent years. The great irony is that Hughes's book is itself an unrelenting complaint about how we complain about everything. I might complain about that in my book.

Researching the same book, I have been dipping into an anthology of Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield. I find it interesting how from one perspective Buddhism seems deeply ethical, yet it also teaches a kind of withdrawal from the world that other traditions would see as profoundly immoral. But my thoughts on this are still very unformed.

Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine also has a bookmark towards the end of it. I've enjoyed it but suspect I've already got out of it what I need, but hate to leave a book unfinished when I'm so close to the end.

Finally, Lewis Wolpert's Malignant Sadness tells you everything about depression you would ever want to know. I like the information I'm getting but he's a very dry writer and I wish I could say I was enjoying it more. Maybe that's why it too is unfinished.
Visit Julian Baggini's website.

The Page 99 test: Welcome to Everytown.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
A major publication has asked me to review The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by Mearsheimer and Walt. So I am reading that book with great care -- writing a review that is balanced as well as seen to be balanced will be a challenge.
Read more about The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy at the publisher's website. (Or watch John Mearsheimer's interview with Stephen Colbert.)

A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, Andrew Bacevich received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University in 1998, he taught at West Point and at Johns Hopkins University. He is the editor, most recently, of The Long War: A New History of US National Security Policy since World War II (2007), and the author of New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005).

Bacevich's previous books include American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U. S. Diplomacy (2002) and The Imperial Tense: Problems and Prospects of American Empire (2003). His essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly and general interest publications including The Wilson Quarterly, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Nation, The American Conservative, and The New Republic . His op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, among other newspapers.

The Page 99 Test: The New American Militarism.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 12, 2007

Robin Wagner-Pacifici

Robin E. Wagner-Pacifici is Gil and Frank Mustin Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College and author of, most recently, The Art of Surrender: Decomposing Sovereignty at Conflict's End.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm always a little embarrassed when people ask me what I'm reading, because inevitably I'm reading books that are rather dark and, potentially, depressing. But partly out of occupational necessity and partly out of a best-left-unanalyzed personal predilection, I do tend to gravitate toward books about violent conflict. So these days, as I'm trying to understand changes in ideas about national defense, I'm reading several books that attempt to understand war and its consequences. The first is anthropologist Joseph Masco's book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Masco's several years of ethnography in and around Los Alamos explores the way in which the Manhattan Project to design and build nuclear weapons altered the lives of weapons scientists, Pueblo Indian nations, Nuevomexicano communities, and anti-nuclear activists in the post-Cold War era. The book also aims to understand how the atomic bomb changed everyday understandings of time, space and citizenship. A real strength of the book is the strategy of getting at what Masco calls "the nuclear security state" from the ground-up, from an ethnography of its impact on those most proximal to its origins.

I'm also reading The Logic of Violence in Civil War by political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas. Kalyvas, like Masco, also has a commitment to understanding war through doing systematic research at the micro-level. He is particularly focused on violence in civil wars committed against noncombatants, and turns to the case of the Greek Civil War in the 1940s to build his theory. Kalyvas claims that this violence needs to be understood as complicated but systematic, and certainly cannot be analytically swept up by calling it "indiscriminate." Civil wars are greatly under-analyzed forms of violent conflict in general. Their frequency in the post WWII world demands that we come to terms with them -- at least in order to recognize when they break out and what forms they take.

Finally, I'm reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. This is a book I've wanted to read for many years but needed the prod of my son's having been assigned it in school to finally do it. Invisible Man is an amazing, prescient, powerfully poetic, ultimately very sad book. The un-named protagonist is a young African-American man who is flung into the complex world of New York City in the 1940s after a series of bewildering and dismaying experiences with both Southern white society and the administrators of his African-American private college. Ellison's language moves seamlessly across prose and poetry, erudition and dialect. But most of all, he keeps the reader in a constant state of shock as the invisible man's experiences and encounters keep bordering on the surreal. It's that border, where the violence of racism, the dogma of political organizations, the heat and the cold of urban life all collide that is the space of Ellison's brilliant exposition. I read this book in a state of exhausting energy.
Visit the University of Chicago Press website to learn more about The Art of Surrender.

Robin Wagner-Pacifici's other books include Theorizing the Standoff: Contingency in Action (Cambridge University Press, 2000); Discourse and Destruction: The City of Philadelphia Versus MOVE (University of Chicago Press, 1994); and The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama (University of Chicago Press, l986).

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cait Murphy

Cait Murphy is an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine and author of Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
At the moment, I have Team of Rivals on my bedside table; this book is about Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet -- most of whom he had defeated for the Republican nomination, and all of whom, at first, considered him the lesser man. I am a huge fan of Lincoln and this excellent book adds to my understanding of him.

I am also reading Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky. She was born a Russian Jew who moved to France as a child after the revolution and became a highly regarded novelist. This book is 2 short novels/long short stories; the final product was supposed to be a five-part cycle of stories about life in occupied France. She was never able to complete it, being deported and killed in Auschwitz. The manuscript, saved by her daughters, was only published in 2004. Wonderful writing that gives real, poignant insight about the daily humiliations and tragedies of a defeated nation.

I also like mysteries and thrillers of all kinds, and have just started Angels and Demons by the ubiquitous Dan Brown.

I'm not reading any sports books at the moment, but I expect to get to The Blind Side by Michael Lewis soon.
Cait Murphy is an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine in New York. She previously worked at The Economist in London and the Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. A former Little League infielder, Murphy played softball at Amherst College, where she received her degree in American Studies. She does not throw like a girl.

Visit Cait Murphy's website and read an excerpt from Crazy '08.

The Page 99 Test: Crazy '08.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 8, 2007

Megan Marshall

Megan Marshall is the author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Since I finished writing an intensively researched biography of three women who lived, collectively, more than two hundred years, I've been drawn to reading slim efficient tales.

Calvin Trillin's About Alice told me how I would like to be loved -- and mourned, when the time comes; Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach was a sad reminder of the opposite, but also a lesson in good story-telling.

I've always been a fan of rowing -- not the kind you do in fancy shells with seats that slide out from under you, just plain old pulling away at the oars on a dinghy or almost any sort of tub that's not too tippy. So I've been enjoying Rosemary Mahoney's Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff.

Most satisfying of all, Anne Fadiman's At Large and at Small, a second collection of essays written during her years as editor of The American Scholar -- celebrating everything from coffee to ice cream to nineteenth-century innovations in the British postal service. Fadiman can make a delectable literary confection of any subject she chooses. I have eaten them all, and you should too.
Marshall's The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism won the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians, the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.

She is an assistant professor at Emerson College where she teaches narrative nonfiction writing and the art of archival research in the MFA program. She is at work on a biography of Ebe Hawthorne, Nathaniel's brilliant and reclusive older sister.

She wrote in Slate about reading the Peabody sisters' letters.

The Page 99 Test: The Peabody Sisters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Paul A. Toth

Paul A. Toth's short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Mystery Stories. He is also the author of the novels Fishnet and Fizz.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Right now, I'm researching my next novel, and all of my reading is related to that project. First on the list is Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution. While ostensibly about evolution, as the title so obviously suggests, the book is more interesting for Bergson's insights into how we can't help but misinterpret the world through generalizations and black and white thinking. Gertrude Stein must have been influenced by Bergson, in that he sees nothing as being repeatable; each apparent repetition undergoes some change. For example, I might say, "This is a bottle. This is a bottle. This is a bottle." If nothing else, the first sentence is the first, the second is the second, and the third is the third: beginning; middle; ending. It's probably impossible to absolutely correct perception no matter how thoroughly one digests these ideas. However, if nothing else, it certainly makes one aware life is infinitely more interesting and complex than we imagine, and Bergson goes a little way towards improving the ability to more fully appreciate our time here.

I'm also reading The Cubist Poets in Paris, edited by L.C. Breunig. This is a very broad overview of its subject but provides a nice sampling of the various Cubist poets, depending on one's ability to believe a poet can be a true Cubist. Pondering that question makes me long for the days when ambition was not immediately relegated to "pretension."
About Fishnet, from the publisher:

If a man believes he’s sinking, can he muster the strength to resurface?

Maurice Melnick, failed painter, is lost in the underwater world of his imagination. Struggling with the notion that he is devolving, Maurice wants nothing more than to paint a portrait of his wife Sheila. But Sheila’s found the self she abandoned in marriage, an apparition who wants to come home for good. All the while, their post-industrial town of Mercy, California seems to succumb to a decades-old curse wrought by Mercy’s own ancestor. Can a marriage be rekindled alongside a crumbling and barren coast?

The Page 99 Test: Fishnet.

Read more about Paul A. Toth and his work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Elise Blackwell

Elise Blackwell is the author of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish and Hunger, chosen by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best books of 2003.

Her new novel is Grub.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Thank you for asking. I usually have a few books going simultaneously. Right now I’m in the middle of Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases on the advice of the extraordinary readers who host “The Book Report” radio show and a Robertson Davies novel a friend promised would be fun.

Books I have recently enjoyed are Maggie Dietz’s poetry collection Perennial Fall and Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist — perhaps the first metafictional novel and a huge influence on Calvino.

Having recently started a book about art, I enjoyed reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and am often re-reading parts of The Story of Art, E. M. Gombrich’s charming crash course in art history.

I also just finished reading the revised manuscript of my husband’s forthcoming novel The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri, a literary mystery that should particularly delight those who love books.
Elise Blackwell is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina where she teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction. Her stories have appeared in Witness, Seed, Global City Review, Topic, and elsewhere.

Of her new novel Grub, Joe Queenan said: “In this deliciously mordant send-up of the publishing world, Elise Blackwell conjures up a universe filled with talentless novelists, reptilian publishers, unprincipled agents and brain-dead critics. Thank God this is only a fantasy. Thank God any similarity to real life is entirely fortuitous.”

Read more about Grub, including an excerpt, at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

D.T. Max

D.T. Max is a journalist and essayist. His book, The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, has recently been released in paperback.

After reading his article on presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, I asked Max what he was reading. His reply:
I read odd stuff, some for kids too.
  • Jenny Linsky's Birthday Party--kids book
  • Keiko Kasza, Mr. Pig's Lucky Day
  • James Wood's The Broken Estate
  • Gordon Bowker, Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry
  • Love in A Fallen City, Eileen Chang. It's a New York Review of Books book. I'd ready anything in their series.
--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 1, 2007

Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is the author of two mysteries, On Edge (2002) and In the Wind (coming out next spring).

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've been doing a lot of armchair traveling lately. Yesterday I finished reading Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, a fascinating account of the work of Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health and an energetic, engaging combination of anthropologist, physician, and activist. His work in Haiti, Peru, Russia, the wilds of Boston, and now Africa, is a model of "do the right thing first, consider whether it's practical later (if at all)." This book has been frequently chosen as a "reading in common" book for college campuses, and Kidder was on our campus yesterday to talk about Farmer and his work. He's a wonderful writer, and the book is an absorbing read -- largely because Kidder's skeptical authorial presence works so well against Farmer's eccentric energy.

My customary choice in reading is crime fiction. A novel that impressed me deeply is David Corbett's Blood of Paradise. Though I read it this past summer, it stays with me for some of the same reasons that Kidder's book will. Set in El Salvador, this book follows a young and naive American as he provides "executive security" for a corporate hydrologist who is just realizing his science will be misused in the name of profits. The bodyguard, who has fallen in love with the battle-scarred country, has been haunted by shame after his father, a corrupt police officer, committed suicide. In a confused move of atonement he falls in with one of his father's crooked colleagues in what becomes an ethical train wreck. Through this richly realized character and his moral dilemma, we glimpse the web of lies and duplicity that tie the US and El Salvador together. Though Corbett's story is subtle and well-tempered, the informative afterword is scorching with anger -- and no wonder.

Martin Cruz Smith has been interpreting from the Russian since his 1983 novel, Gorky Park. In Stalin's Ghost, his hero Arkady Renko is caught between old and new as Stalin begins to appear in the Moscow subway, waving genially to passengers who are nostalgic for a simpler (if mythical) time. An American marketing firm is on hand to film well-rehearsed "spontaneous" demonstrations honoring Stalin's memory, and authorities are embarrassed. Renko learns the marketing firm is working for a hero of the Chechen war who is launching a nationalistic party in a nearby city, one that has been bypassed by flash and dazzle of the New Russia, a sort of ghost town haunted by the past that citizens are literally unearthing. Rich with irony and bemused fondness for all that is broken and threadbare, this crime novel is a genuine tour de force.

Another recent read that I found exhilarating is Flight by Sherman Alexie. Its fifteen-year-old narrator has a wonderful voice: funny, wounded, angry. He runs away one in a series of foster homes, is befriended by a nihilistic kid who calls himself Justice, and is persuaded to take out his anger by randomly shooting people in a bank, ensuring his own violent death. But something strange happens: the boy begins to tumble through identities, seeing pieces of the past through the eyes of others. Each of these fragments of story reveals something about the complexity of justice and the ends of violence. It's short and fast-paced, vividly imagined and compulsively readable. The absurdly optimistic ending is an excellent reward for the alienated kids who might read this book and find a friend.
About Barbara Fister, from her website:
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, I've lived in Kentucky, Texas, the Middle East, North Africa, and on the coast of Maine. Now I live in rural Minnesota, where I work as an academic librarian. I've recently published an article about my favorite online mystery discussion group, analyzed crime fiction and the marketplace of fear in Clues: A Journal of Detection, and spoken at a librarians' conference in Canada about how much libraries have in common with Chaos Theory. This may suggest that I have wide-ranging curiosity -- or that I have trouble staying focused. Either way, I'm having fun.
--Marshal Zeringue