Friday, February 29, 2008

Benjamin Wallace

Benjamin Wallace has written for GQ, Details, Food & Wine, Salon, and the Washington Post. In 2002, the Columbia Journalism Review named him one of “ten young writers on the rise.” The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, his first book, is due out in May 2008.

Not so long ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently bouncing between two books. Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club constantly amazes me by introducing me to nineteenth-century figures, such as Louis Agassiz, who loomed huge in their day -- and are unknown now, because they were colossally wrong (anti-evolution, pro-phrenology, etc.). Marc Norman's What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting tells the story of Hollywood from what I would call a worm's-eye view, except that such a lowly description would confirm the very prejudice toward screenwriters -- those schmucks with MacBooks -- that this book nobly aims to explode.

In the last year, I have been haunted by an ad hoc trilogy: three non-fiction books, by three different authors, each about a remarkable deception, and each partly a memoir. They are The Adversary, by Emmanuel Carrère; True Story, by Michael Finkel, and The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier. The first two concern murders, the last a conceptual art stunt, and all (but especially, of course, the two by the French guys) are imbued with existential curiosity.

Oh, and I loved, and wish I had written, Early Bird, Rodney Rothman's sweet, funny, deep account of moving to a Florida retirement village when he was 28.
Visit Benjamin Wallace's website.

About The Billionaire’s Vinegar:
It was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.

In 1985, at a heated auction by Christie’s of London, a 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux — unearthed in a Paris cellar and supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson — went for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. The discoverer of the bottle was Hardy Rodenstock, a pop-band manager turned wine collector with a knack for finding extremely old and exquisite wines. But rumors about the bottle soon arose. Why wouldn’t Rodenstock reveal the exact location where it had been found? Was it part of a smuggled Nazi hoard? Or did his reticence conceal an even darker secret? Pursuing the story from London to Zurich to Munich and beyond, Benjamin Wallace offers a mesmerizing history of wine and of Jefferson’s wine-soaked days in France. Suspenseful, witty, and thrillingly strange, this is the vintage tale of what could be the most elaborate con since the Hitler diaries.
--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sandra Beasley

Sandra Beasley works on the editorial staff of The American Scholar.

Her poems can be found in recent issues of journals such as 32 Poems, Slate, RHINO, Blackbird, New Orleans Review, Poet Lore, and Meridian. Her work has been featured on Verse Daily and appears in the 2005 Best New Poets anthology and the Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel (Second Story); work is forthcoming in the Outside Voices 2008 Anthology and Online Writing: The Best of the Frist Ten Years (Snow*Vigate Press). Her full-length manuscript, Theories of Falling, received the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize, selected by Marie Howe, and will be published in March 2008.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Jennifer 8. Lee (Twelve Books) - I'm always working my way through an "oatmeal book," usually non-fiction, that I read while stirring my steel-cut oatmeal each morning for the 20 minutes it takes to cook. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles follows Lee as she tracks down the origins of many flagship Chinese food dishes -- fortune cookies, chop suey, General Tso's chicken -- zeroing in on the ways in which Chinese immigrant culture has commercialized (and often corrupted) itself to engage American tastes. The tone is witty, the writing well-paced, and Lee is confident in her evocations of old New York and mainland China, where many of the stories -- often spanning generations of family, multiple ethnic cultures, and various lawsuits -- take place. This book is a perfect follow-up for those who enjoyed Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket, which came out last year. Did you know that some of the most valuable black market exports from the U.S to Japan are chicken feet, pig ears, and cow stomachs? One culture's trash is another's treasure.

Most of what I read is paperback poetry books. American Music, by Chris Martin (Copper Canyon Press), is something I picked up after hearing (and enjoying) Martin read in New York City. It's a challenging book, an aural montage and a true love letter to American "music"; Martin credits the influences of everyone from Ingmar Bergman to Robert Creeley to William Faulkner to Modest Mouse to Bob Seger. There's a thin line between surreal humor and non sequitur, and sometimes Martin's investment in the first person seems to foster permission to leave the "I" -- and the reader -- hanging in an overly hip malaise. But when the poems are good, they are very very good, as seen in the opening of "There Will Be a Very Meaningful Picture Here": "In the recurring caveman / Dream I wear my meat vest / And I love you, the whites // Of our eyes gleaming / Like cleanly picked bones as we sit / Beside our fire, the one that // Allows us to think / Outside predation and weather / And I wonder // If I would have the time / To love you otherwise, a thought that / Unsteadies me horribly...."

Another poetry book I'm reading is Oliver de la Paz's Furious Lullaby (Southern Illinois University Press -- worth noting that most of the important poetry books come out with smaller independent or university presses). I like the lush language and the sincere heart in de la Paz's work. There is a series of "aubades" with intriguing titles, including: "Aubade with Scorpions and Monsoon," "Aubade with Doves, a Television, and Fire," and "Aubade with Bread for the Sparrows" (which includes some of my favorite lines: "the sparrows with their hard eyes / glisten in the difficult light. They preen / their feathers and chirp. It's as though thy were one / voice talking to God...Don't hurt for the sparrows, they love you like a road"). An aubade is a morning song, a song of goodbye; Juliet offered Romeo one, after their only night together.

As a former litmag editor, I can attest that producing a literary journal is a thankless business. No bookstore distribution, the Quark layout is always crashing, and the only letters you get are from people who want to be published. But these journals are where young voices are nourished, and more established voices freed to experiment. Three journals that have been on my bedside stand this month: Barrelhouse (out of Washington, DC), Barn Owl Review (out of Ohio), and Zone 3 (out of Austin Peay State University in Tennessee). Physically beautiful objects all, and in each I found some jewel of fresh content -- something I'd have never read otherwise. In Barrelhouse, I was hooked by a short story called "Hair University," from Patrick Somerville, which opens with the sentence "I'm embarrassed to admit that I live in the same area as Nick's brothers." Issue 5 features a rich portfolio of essays dedicated to Dive Bars. Every issue has a theme ... Previous theme: Patrick Swayze. Next theme: roller derby.

Barn Owl Review is just getting started -- this is their very first issue (and in full disclosure, I'm a contributor). It's intriguing to watch a journal organically develop its aesthetic tone. Since I'm biased by knowing many of the writers included, there's just one poem I want to mention: "The Boxes," by Richard Garcia. I don't know Garcia at all but the poem is playful, transformative, and deeply strange. Damn near took the top of my head off. Zone 3 has the most regal air of the bunch, and offers the chance to really delve into a writer's work by including, in each issue, a long interview and work sample. The subject of Vol. XXII is poet David Keplinger. I really enjoyed his answers on topics as various as traveling around the Czech Republic as a musician, seeing a diapered man fold himself into a box in Boulder, CO, and the elusive arcaeopteryx. Curious? Make an editor happy, and go track it down.
Learn more about Sandra Beasley and her work at her website and her blog, Chicks Dig Poetry.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 25, 2008

Rachel Zucker

Rachel Zucker is the author of Eating in the Underworld, The Last Clear Narrative, and The Bad Wife Handbook. She was recently the poet-in-residence at Fordham University.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I have a feast and famine relationship to reading. If I were in the middle of a writing project right now I would have probably responded, "nothing." Or, more likely, I wouldn't have responded at all. But, I'm in between writing projects and am binging on books.

A few days ago I read my friend, Arielle Greenberg's, new poetry manuscript which was so brilliant and amazing it gave me the worst nightmare I've ever had. Yesterday I read a short chapbook, Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum? by Nin Andrews published by Subito Press which I loved: it's funny and smart (a kind of less raunchy version of Letters to Wendy's by Joe Wenderoth). I'm in the middle of three other books of poetry: Isa the Truck Named Isadore by Amanda Nadelberg, published by Slope, a deceptively simple book that delights and surprises me on every page; Julianna Baggott's new and wonderfully funny and moving book of poems, Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees, in which poetry is itself a character in the book; and lastly, In the Pines, by Alice Notley, published by Penguin. Notley's book is a more difficult and serious read than Baggott or Nadelberg. On the first page of the book Notley writes, "it is time to change writing completely" and she is doing this — the book is not quite poetry and not quite prose and narrative is fractured by progressed through accretion — and it is thrilling and disturbing and inspiring.

Every morning while I pump a bag of breast milk, I read 6 ounces worth of poems from Not for Mother's Only, an outstanding anthology of poems by women poets about "child getting and child rearing" co-edited by Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff, published by Fence. Every night my husband and I take turns reading to our sons (8 and 7 years old) from The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. The Subtle Knife is the second in Pullman's "Dark Materials" trilogy and is an extraordinary book. I love the female protagonist and the witches and the whole premise of the deamons is genius.

When my husband isn't home I read to my sons from On the Banks of Plum Creek, which is part of the Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I'm so grateful that my sons allow me to read them "girl books" like Little House, Anne of Green Gables, or The Secret Garden because these books really are different from the "boy books" in that they move forward through description and character development rather than plot and tend to be episodic rather than journey or quest driven. I've been thinking a lot about description and plot and these books are teaching me so much.

I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I'm also reading several "because" books. I'm reading The Divided Mind: An Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders by John E. Sarno, published by Harper because typing causes me pain in my elbow, wrists and fingers. This is not a good read, but, if it helps me overcome my typing problem it will have more impact on my writing than all the other books combined. I'm also reading, Your Happy Healthy Pet: Betta by John H. Tullock, published by Howell because my son's betta fish, Raspberry, died two days ago. I think I may inadvertently have killed Raspberry, and, given my son's despair over Raspberry's demise, I'd better pay attention to this book.

Last but not least, it is 10:30 in the morning as I write this and I've already read my 9 month old son From Head to Toe, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and Polar Bear, Polar Bear, all by Eric Carle as well as my son's favorite book, Little Gorilla by Ruth Bornstein, three times.
Zucker is the winner of the Salt Hill Poetry Award (1999, judged by C.D. Wright) and the Barrow Street Poetry Prize (2000). In 2002 she won the Center for Book Arts Award (judged by Lynn Emanuel) for her long poem, "Annunciation" which was published as a limited edition chapbook. Her poems have appeared in many journals including: 3rd Bed, American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Colorado Review, Epoch, Fence, Iowa Review, Pleiades, and Prairie Schooner as well as in the Best American Poetry 2001 anthology.

She is
co-editor of a book of essays, Efforts and Affections: Women Poets on Mentorship, which will be published by University of Iowa Press this Spring.

Visit Rachel Zucker's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bruce Barcott

Bruce Barcott's new book is The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:

My reading tends to sort itself into two categories these days: the underliners and the dippers. The underliners are the books I'm reading for review or work. I read them straight through, intro to index, and usually leave them scrawled and marked and otherwise punished. The dippers form a sloppy pile by my bed. The general rule with dippers is they don't require a bookmark -- just open it up somewhere or other and start reading. The writing will pay off immediately.

So: Underliners first. The best of the recent lot is Michael Novacek's Terra: Our 100-million-year-old ecosystem -- and the threats that now put it at risk. Novacek is a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and he writes about the history of the Earth like Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks about space. Well, okay, maybe not quite as breezy as Tyson -- Novacek bulks up Terra with 65 pages of endnotes -- but this is fantastic scientific history, written with an overriding purpose. To wit: Novacek lays out what we know about the planet's previous five great extinctions, and draws lessons for the sixth, which is the stewpot we currently find ourselves in.

My second underliner is an old favorite that I'm working my way through again: Human Impact on Ancient Environments, by Charles L. Redman. I read it years ago when doing the research for Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, and I'm loving it even more the second time. Redman, an anthropologist at Arizona State U., looks at the ways in which humans have changed the environment around them, from the cave dwellers to us. He argues that basically there is no such thing as an absolutely pure natural environment -- humans have always affected the world around us. It's like reading the beta version of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse), and satisfies that Diamond jones for those of us pining for his next book.

The Dippers: I'm really into the outlaw journalism of Richard Stratton, whose work was collected in a Nation Books volume a few years ago called Altered States of America. "Outlaw journalist" isn't a wannabe title for Stratton. The guy did hard time (8 years) in federal prison for pot smuggling, and upon his release he kept working the underside for terrific journalistic material. The pieces collected here, done for High Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Prison Life, range from features on Oliver Stone to the CIA's 50s-era LSD experiments to a profile of a prison guard named Bonecrusher. Reading Stratton is like taking a scary-ass tour of the underworld with a professional guide.

I'm also loving Mimi Sheraton's memoir, Eating My Words. Sheraton, a former restaurant critic for the New York Times, chronicles her own rise to the top of NYC's restaurant world, including overcoming bullshit "women can't be critics" attitudes at the gray lady. Half the pleasure of Sheraton's memoir is her sneaky portraits of the Times powers-that-were, including Abe Rosenthal, who wielded his Exec Editor title like a cudgel to get the best tables in the hottest joints.

Guiltiest pleasure for last: The Devil's Guide to Hollywood, by Joe f'in Eszterhas. Oh. My. God. Let's take a minute to review Eszterhas' screen credits. Basic Instinct. Showgirls. Jagged Edge. Flashdance. Betrayed. Music Box. F.I.S.T. Got it? No? No problem, because if you forget any of those titles, Eszterhas will remind you. On every third goddamn page. Devil's Guide is an astonishing book, maybe the longest, most entertaining Fuck Off memo ever written. Eszterhas doesn't so much guide us through the world of Hollywood and screenwriting as take paragraph-long potshots at everyone who's ever done him wrong. Which, as far as I can tell, includes just about anyone ever connected to the motion picture industry, right down to the caterers. What Devil's Guide never is, is boring. The guy's full of vitriol, but it's funny vitriol. And frankly, I gotta love a writer who's willing to stick up for his work and demand top dollar. You're great, Joe. Thanks for raising the market for all the rest of us. Please don't put me on your enemies list.

Read an excerpt from The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Barcott is also the author of The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier and is a contributing editor at Outside magazine. His feature articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Sports Illustrated, Harper’s, Utne Reader, and other publications. He contributes reviews to the New York Times Book Review and the public radio show Living on Earth, and is a former Ted Scripps Fellow at the University of Colorado.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Andrew Nagorski

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nagorski is a senior editor at Newsweek International. Previously the Newsweek bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw and Berlin, he is the author of several books and has written for many publications.

His latest book is the widely acclaimed The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II.

Last week, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I have to confess that I’m still reading a lot about Russia. At a time when Putin’s Russia is once again claiming a special status and scorning the West and its concept of democracy, Nina Khrushcheva has written an extended meditation on one of that country’s great writers: Vladimir Nabokov. In Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev argues that today’s Russians could learn from Nabokov, whose writings show how to live “in a world with open borders, among different people, different countries, and different countries.” In other words, Nabokov was a truly modern man, someone who offers a much-needed antidote to the increasingly narrow outlook of Russia’s current rulers.

The other book I recently read was Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales From the Secret Soviet Archives by Paul Gregory, based on the Hoover Institution’s extensive collection of documents from Soviet state and party archives. My Newsweek review is available online. What I particularly liked about Gregory’s compact book is that it provides a rich array of chilling stories about the inner workings of a monstrous system.

As much as I’m always attracted to the latest books about Russia, I’m also constantly looking in other directions. I’ve just started Winter in Madrid, a post-Spanish Civil War novel by British writer C.J. Sansom. Set in 1940 as Britain is trying to hold out against Hitler’s Germany, a young British veteran of Dunkirk is sent to Spain on a secret mission. With spies, love, and a great historical backdrop, it certainly looks promising so far. And it offers a welcome trip over different terrain.
Read an excerpt from The Greatest Battle, and learn more about the writer and his work at Andrew Nagorski's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough is a writer of supernatural mystery, horror, thriller and crime fiction.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now I've just finished reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a great children's book that to me is sophistication disguised in simplicity. The final two chapters have lingered with me for days and the book is a really example of how sometimes less is more. The main protagonist is a nine year old German boy called Bruno, but as the blurb on the back says, 'this isn't a book for nine-year-olds', and if you read it, (which you should), you'll understand what it means.

I'm dipping in and out of Best New Horror (Ed. Stephen Jones). This is a book that has been in my Christmas stocking every year for the past ten or more, and this year it was strange to find that I'd actually met or knew well a lot of the contributors, now that I've been writing professionally myself for a few years. It was a weird feeling but a good one. 'Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter' made both Best New Horror and Best New Fantasy and Horror.

I'm currently waiting for The Duma Key (Stephen King) and The Price (Alexandra Sokoloff) to arrive from Amazon. I'm desperate to get reading The Price. I loved The Harrowing and having read the premise of The Price I think I'm going to like this one even more.
Sarah Pinborough's novels are The Taken (2007), Breeding Ground (2006), The Reckoning (2005), and The Hidden (2004). Tower Hill is scheduled for release in July 2008.

The ALA (American Library Association) nominated The Taken as one of the top 8 horror books of 2007 on their reading list. Read an excerpt from The Taken.

Read her short story, "Crystal Carla."

Learn more about the author and her work at Sarah Pinborough's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 15, 2008

Janet Hope

Janet Hope has published in the fields of constitutional, criminal, administrative, environmental, human rights, intellectual property law, and biotechnology regulation. She is a member of the Australian National University’s Center for Governance of Knowledge and Development.

Her new book is Biobazaar: The Open Source Revolution and Biotechnology.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
For work-related recreational reading:

Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, Yale University Press, 2006.
Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams, Wikinomics, Atlantic Books, 2007.
Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest, Viking 2007.

To take on holidays and provide some escapism in the evenings when I'm writing:

Anything Discworld by Terry Pratchett, especially the books featuring Granny Weatherwax (witches books), Sam Vimes (guards books), Moist von Lipwig (Going Postal and Making Money) or Tiffany Aching and the Wee Free Men.
Learn more about Biobazaar: The Open Source Revolution and Biotechnology at the Harvard University Press website.

Visit Janet Hope's researcher profile at her Australia National University webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Justin D’Ath

Justin D’Ath is the author of over 20 books for children and young adults.

Of his latest novel Pool, Sue Bursztynski wrote in Janaury Magazine: "Longtime fans of Justin D’Ath, who have grown up with his books, should enjoy this one, and new readers will be happy to discover him."

A few days ago I asked D’Ath what he was reading. His reply:
Paradise, by Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy. “Hannah Luckraft knows the taste of paradise. It’s hidden in the peace of open country, it’s sweet on her lover’s skin, it flavours every drink she’s ever taken, but it never seems to stay…” So runs the blurb of this extraordinary novel which takes you inside the mind, heart and skin of an alcoholic. I’m finding it an uncomfortable read because, despite her many flaws, Hannah is a sympathetic character, but she’s on a downward self-destructive spiral that can only end badly. The scene where Hannah visits her elderly mother and neither woman can express what she’s feeling because a third party is present is perhaps one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered.

I confess I’m on a bit of an A.L. Kennedy binge at the moment, having recently read her Whitbread Award winning novel Day, then her strangely hypnotic Bliss. But after Paradise I’m going to give her a rest for a while. It would be a shame to read her entire canon in one go, and it’s always nice to have a favourite author to go back to.

Two other outstanding novels I’ve read this year (2008) are Falling Man by Don DeLillo (perhaps the most powerful post 9/11 novel so far) and The Darling by Russell Banks (takes you into war-torn Liberia through the eyes of a female protagonist). And the best book I read last year: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

Visit Justin D’Ath's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Laird Barron

Laird Barron's work has appeared in places such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, SCIFICTION, Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, and The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has also been reprinted in numerous year's best anthologies. His debut collection, The Imago Sequence & Other Stories, was recently published by Night Shade and was named an outstanding horror title of the year by the American Library Association. Mr. Barron is an expatriate Alaskan currently at large in Washington State.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I recently finished writing the introduction to Michael Shea's The Autopsy & Other Tales. It's a massive book collecting most of Shea's significant work dating back to the late 1970s. Shea's debut collection, 1987's landmark Polyphemus, all of which will reappear in the upcoming omnibus, remains a classic in the dark fantasy/science fiction/horror genres. Shea has paid homage to the likes of Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and H.P. Lovecraft, but he's made these influences his own, translated them into a powerful, fearsome vision fans of the dark fantastic should not miss. The Autopsy & Other Tales will be published by Centipede Press, release date unknown as of this moment. Keep an eye out.

Another great collection tinged by the horrific and the weird is Paul Tremblay's Compositions for the Young and Old. Published by Prime, the trade paperback is introduced by Stewart O'Nan. Haunting and surreal, these stories follow a chronological progression from childhood through the twilight of agedness, and into the darkness beyond. Tremblay's a gorgeous stylist who skillfully employs science fiction and dark fantasy tropes to illuminate the human condition. As with fine wine, these are stories to be savored over extended readings.

One of the best thrillers I've encountered in recent years is Sarah Langan's second novel, The Missing. This is a horror novel in the macabre tradition of early Stephen King, except, I daresay, more disturbing than King's early work. To borrow from comments I made for a library recommendations project: "In The Missing, a boy sneaks away from a class field trip and stumbles across a bizarre clearing in the woods -- a clearing where the earth has gone black with blood and animal bones are piled in sacrificial biers. The boy's intrusion stirs a great evil that soon begins to consume the Maine town of Corpus Christi, transforming its unwitting citizenry into something atavistic, and, ultimately, quite inhuman. Langan wrenches the hoary tropes of sleepy towns and festering curses into the Twenty-first Century. Her depiction of small town life and the dark side of human nature would be no less compelling were it utterly stripped of its supernatural elements." A superior thriller, The Missing made the American Library Association's Reading List as an outstanding title in the horror genre.

Finally, I must also mention T.E.D. Klein's Dark Gods. I've read this collection of four superlative dark fantasy novellas many times over the years. It's one of those books that ends up on my rolltop desk alongside my thesauruses, dictionaries, and grammar guides --a kind of style handbook of the macabre. Klein, one time editor of Twilight Zone Magazine, is a master of quiet, creeping, cerebral horror. A consummate stylist, he effectively and relentlessly builds an atmosphere of dread before springing the shocks on his hapless, albeit impeccably drawn, characters. Read Dark Gods at night by the mellow glow of a cozy old lamp with some blankets and a snifter of brandy. I don't think any modern author surpasses Klein when it comes to the art of the spooky tale.
Visit Laird Barron's website and LiveJournal.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Jonathan B. Tucker

Jonathan B. Tucker, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
The File: A Personal History by Timothy Garton Ash (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).

Browsing the other day in Kramerbooks, my favorite neighborhood bookstore in Washington, D.C., I came across a paperback edition of The File, a book published in 1997 by the British contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash. The back cover explained that the book was a true story based on the author’s discovery after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the East German secret police, or Ministry for State Security — better known by its German nickname Stasi — had compiled a security file on him while he was researching his Ph.D. dissertation in West and East Berlin in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, Garton Ash traveled frequently to Poland on journalistic assignment, and he was romantically involved for a time with an East German woman. Having recently spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright fellowship, I have a strong interest in the former East Germany and therefore bought the book as an impulse purchase.

Nowhere near as ruthless and violent as the Nazi Secret State Police (Geheimstaatspolizei or Gestapo in German), the Stasi was characterized instead by its all-pervasive, bureaucratic control over East German life. The agency’s surveillance apparatus was vast: by 1989, the Stasi had an estimated 91,000 employees and a network of about 300,000 informants (known as “unofficial collaborators”), or about one in every 50 East Germans. Many Americans have become aware of the Stasi through the movie “The Lives of Others,” which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. Ironically, Ulrich Mühe, the East German actor who played the Stasi officer in the movie, had experienced the agency’s surveillance activities first-hand. On reading his Stasi file after German reunification, Mühe discovered that four of his fellow actors in the East Berlin theater scene, as well as his own wife, had been informants who had filed reports on his political activities. Mühe and his wife divorced in 1990; she subsequently won an injunction against the publication of a book he had written on the case by swearing under oath that she had not informed on him. This real-life situation is remarkably similar to the plot of “The Lives of Others,” in which the writer’s girlfriend comes under pressure from the Stasi to betray him. When Mühe was asked about how he prepared for his role in the film, he replied, “I remembered.” Tragically, he died of cancer last year at the age of 54.

Much like Ulrich Mühe’s acting in “The Lives of Others,” Timothy Garton Ash’s book The File weaves together the personal and the historical to shed new light on the recent past. The Stasi, believing that Garton Ash was a British spy masquerading as a historian, put him under intensive surveillance by professional counterintelligence officers and several of his East German friends and acquaintances, who were recruited as informants. After Garton Ash published articles in the West German newsmagazine Der Spiegel about the anti-communist Solidarity trade union in Poland, the Stasi designated him a subversive element and banned him from visiting East Germany until the end of 1989. By then, of course, anti-communist movements had spread throughout Eastern Europe, leading to the unexpected opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9. Less than a year later, the East Germany state ceased to exist and was absorbed into a united Germany.

The coda of the film “The Lives of Others” hints at what happened when the Stasi archives were opened after the unification of East and West Germany in October 1990. As part of the effort to confront the abuses of the former East German regime, anyone who had been a target of Stasi surveillance was allowed to request access to his or her file, and special reading rooms were set up for this purpose. Many people discovered to their horror that their close friends — and sometimes even their spouse — had spied on them for the Stasi. These revelations, while cathartic, tore deep holes in the social fabric that will take many years to mend.

In deciding to write a book based on his Stasi file, Garton Ash sought to relive his own experience in East Berlin 15 years earlier, seen through the eyes of the Stasi officials and informants who had kept him under surveillance. He discovered that the agency had given him the cover name “Romeo,” either because he drove an Alfa Romeo sportscar or because of his affair with an East German woman. In an effort to decipher the identities of the people who had informed on him, all of whom had cover names, Garton Ash compared the information in his file with his personal diaries of the time. He then tracked down the “unofficial collaborators” and Stasi officers that he was able to identify and confronted them with their statements about him, seeking to understand their motivations.

After exploring several possible explanations for the pervasive collaboration that characterized the East German police state, Garton Ash concludes that the reason was less deliberate malice than human weakness — either fear of the authorities that led to a desire to appease them, or the promise of rewards such as permission to travel abroad — combined with a vast capacity for self-deception. For example, one informant claimed that he had given the Stasi only harmless bits of information. “If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person,” Garton Ash writes. “But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil.”

In part, The File is an effort by a writer to understand his younger self in the context of larger social and historical processes. At the same time, the book is a meditation on the nature of totalitarianism and the factors that lead a few people to rebel courageously against the system and many more to collaborate willingly, either out of ambition or fear. Garton Ash confesses that as a young man, he seriously considered entering the British secret service; after reading his Stasi file, he suspects that British spies employ the same techniques of duplicity and betrayal, albeit in defense of a superior system. In the course of an interview with a British government official, he learns that the domestic security service MI5 has compiled a file on him that, while supposedly “nonadversarial,” he is not authorized to read. Today, the expansion of U.S. domestic surveillance and the loss of personal privacy associated with the Bush administration’s “war on terror” have brought many of these concerns uncomfortably close to home.

Overall, The File is readable, intriguing, and occasionally eloquent, although the narrative tends to bog down in excessive bureaucratic detail whenever Garton Ash tries to reconstruct the Stasi’s complex web of deceit. Further, the interviews with former Stasi officers and collaborators are often disappointingly banal and evasive. Despite these lapses, however, The File provides important insights into the internal functioning of a totalitarian state, which ultimately consists of ordinary people making difficult moral choices under circumstances that most Americans can hardly imagine.
Jonathan Tucker is the editor of Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (MIT Press, 2000) and the author of Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox (Grove/Atlantic, 2001) and War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (Pantheon, 2006).

The Page 99 Test: War of Nerves.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 4, 2008

Steven Brust

Steven Brust is the bestselling author of Issola, Dragon, The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, and many other books.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've just finished The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker, an interesting and sometimes delightfully wrong-headed look at how language affects thinking.

I'm in the middle of Grant Wins the War, a study of the Vicksburg campaign by James R. Arnold; good detail work.

I'll also be reading Kushiel's Justice, the latest book by Jacqueline Carey, just as soon as I can get my grubby paws on it.
Adapted from a Brust bio at Tor Books:
Steven Brust worked as a musician and a computer programmer before coming to prominence as a writer in 1983 with Jhereg, the first of his novels about Vlad Taltos, a human professional assassin in a world dominated by long-lived, magically-empowered human-like "Dragaerans."

Several more "Taltos" novels followed, interspersed with other work, including To Reign in Hell, a fantasy re-working of Milton's war in Heaven; The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, a contemporary fantasy based on Hungarian folktales; and a science fiction novel, Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille. The most recent "Taltos" novels are Dragon, Issola, and Dzur. In 1991, with The Phoenix Guards, Brust began another series, set a thousand years earlier than the Taltos books; its sequels are Five Hundred Years After and the three volumes of "The Viscount of Adrilankha": The Paths of the Dead, The Lord of Castle Black, and Sethra Lavode.

While writing, Brust has continued to work as a musician, playing drums for the legendary band Cats Laughing and recording an album of his own work, A Rose for Iconoclastes.
Learn more about Steven Brust at Words Words Words, The Dream Café weblog.

--Marshal Zeringue