Friday, May 30, 2008

Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen is an author of children's books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl Moon, Devil's Arithmetic, and How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? She is also a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children's literature. She has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century.

Her new book is Naming Liberty.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The two books I just finished reading are Ellen Wittlinger's YA book Sandpiper, which has a bit too much sex for me to share with my 7th grade granddaughter, but is otherwise a well-written and smart book about a girl and boy who both have lived with unbearable secrets and who are both afraid that they now have no lives to live at all.

The second book is A. J. Jacobs non-fiction The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs spent a year trying to follow exactly/literally the rules set down in the Bible (some really tough parts about stoning adulterers and not wearing mixed fabrics and not touching your wife during her period, etc.) It is witty, moving, and fascinating stuff.
Visit Jane Yolen's website and her journal.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod is the author of many acclaimed SF novels, including The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, Newton’s Wake, and Learning the World, which won the Prometheus Award (his third) and was a finalist for the Hugo Award. His latest novel, The Execution Channel, has been shortlisted for the 2008 Prometheus Award.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've just started reading Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan University Press, 2008). This book develops an original and intriguing taxonomy of fantasy literature, classifying texts according to the way in which the fantastic enters the text. Less formally: according to how protagonist, and the reader, are brought into the fantastic world. Are we brought into it from outside? Are we (artfully) presumed to be already familiar with that world? Does the fantastic, instead, enter our world? Or do we glimpse it out of the corner of our eye? Or - none of the above?

Each of these choices - portal (which is, surprisingly and convincingly, linked to quest), immersion, intrusion, liminality or subversion - imposes its own constraint on the narrative technique, and on the expectations of the reader. What's most exciting about this book is that it makes unexpected predictions and tests them. Mendlesohn's magic sword cleaves many a rock at hitherto unseen fissures.

Another book that makes and justifies surprising claims is The Unknown Stalin, by Zhores A. Medvedev and Roy A. Medvedev (I. B. Tauris, 2003, 2006). The dissident twins have delved into the archives and drawn on their own deep knowledge of the Soviet system to debunk some influential legends - such as that Stalin broke down at the beginning of the war - and to provide fresh insights on a wide range of subjects: the blitzkreig, the bomb, how Stalin died, whom he saw as his true successor, what he read (an astonishing amount, is the answer), and much else.

Finally, on a brighter note, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, 2008) is pure undiluted reading pleasure and mental joy from beginning to end. (Not that I've got to the end, but I've taken a statistically significant sample of the book, and I'm betting the rest of it'll hold up.) This book's only drawback is that it may well incite you - I know it's inciting me - to rush out and read every book from which the extracts are taken. Which wouldn't leave much time for reading anything else, let alone writing. It's a risk I can live with, and so should you. Read this book!
Visit Ken MacLeod's blog.

The Page 99 Test: The Execution Channel.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tom Zoellner

Tom Zoellner has worked as a contributing editor for Men's Health magazine and as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the co-author of An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, whose actions during the 1994 Rwandan genocide were portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda, and author of Homemade Biography: How to Collect, Record, and Tell the Life Story of Someone You Love.

His book The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire, is the "first book to offer a panoramic and unflinching look at the modern diamond industry."

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
This seems to be the month of Southern regional portraits. I'm in the middle of Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Caudill, an extraordinary history of the coalfields of eastern Kentucky published in 1962. The reporting is encyclopedic, but the writing is graceful and the insights about the people of America's forgotten mountains remain relevant today.

I'm also reading the book of a friend, Dale Maharidge, whose And Their Children After Them is both an update and a tribute to the famous lyrical portrayal of three Alabama cotton-farming families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. Dale's book won the Pulitzer, and deserved it.

Also on the stack is Knockemstiff, a collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock who grew up in the very same Appalachian town mentioned in the title and spent 30 years driving a truck in a paper mill before earning an MFA from Ohio State and producing this raw and depressing collection of stories. I wish my praise for this book could be as high as the first two I mentioned. Pollock has a real gift for language and some of the twists in his stories are genuinely inventive, but the subject matter is unrelentingly dark and he often relies on gross-out images to hook the reader (sex with dead livestock?), who starts to wonder about halfway through if these stories really are a mirror to life's complexities and not just a gratuitous ride through the worst fantasies of rural poverty and backwardness. Pollock has this sentence in his acknowledgments: "I grew up in the holler and my family and my neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help somebody in a time of need." Very little of that spirit is present in these stories.

Finally, I want to mention another book by a friend -- V.V. Ganeshananthan -- whose Love Marriage is rooted in a place about as far away from Appalachia and the South as geography allows. This book about the Sri Lankan civil war and its effect on one family is not to be missed for its compassionate look at the weight of duty.
Visit Tom Zoellner's website and read an excerpt from The Heartless Stone.

The Page 99 Test: The Heartless Stone.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Greg Mosse

Greg Mosse is the author of Secrets of the Labyrinth, a non-fiction book written as a companion piece to his wife Kate Mosse's international best seller Labyrinth.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently reading a book on French folklore that I initially couldn't find in any shops that I knew in France. I looked round Paris, Toulouse and our patch in the southwest with no joy. So I fished around the resellers on the net and tracked it down. It's called Mysterious Locations and Legends of Our French Regions - Sites mystérieux et légendes de nos provinces françaises - and it's a cracker. Take a bow, Jean-Paul Ronecker.

The book is organized – as you would expect – regionally, so you can seek out places that you know. Many of the tales are similar – there are probably too many White Ladies and elusive dancing flames, but that is hardly the author's fault. That's what the people say they saw. And some of the mysterious tales are surprisingly contemporary.

But the reason I like the book - and others like it, including the wonderful Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable - is because I believe that the urge to write stories is deeply etched in our mental make-up. I believe it comes from the brilliant pattern-seeking, problem solving capabilities of the human brain. When we are not busy working out - as we did for millions of years - when might be the safest time to visit the water hole and which parts of which plants we can consume, our imaginations explore the physical world, looking for reasons why things are as they are. In Australia, of course, the aboriginal people call them dreamtime stories, from the days when they were imagining how it was that their physical environment came to be.

Of course, in subtle and sophisticated ways, this is what contemporary authors outside of the oral tradition are doing. But I like the back-to-basics, belt-and-braces access afforded by these ancient tales. Perhaps someone should set up a new blog, compiled from brand new dreamtime stories - contemporary folk tales, if you will ...
Greg Mosse graduated in Drama and English from Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has published works of science fiction, children’s stories and commercial and literary translation and is an experienced editor and creative writing teacher. Learn more about his Secrets of the Labyrinth at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 19, 2008

Joseph Lowndes

Joseph Lowndes is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon. His new book is From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism (Yale University Press).

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, partly because it overlaps the subject of my book, and partly because Perlstein is a pleasure to read.

I recently finished Kevin Bruyneel's The Third Space of Sovereignty, a terrific postcolonial account of US/indigenous relations.

In fiction, I'm about to tuck into Peter Mathiessen's Shadow Country - a reworking of his Watson trilogy. Mathiessen is one of my favorite writers of both fiction and nonfiction. The Watson books are an extraordinary meditation on race, the frontier, violence, and ecological destruction in American political culture, and reviews of Shadow Country suggest that this rendering is better yet.

On the subject of fiction, not long ago I finished Russell Banks' The Darling, which was not as good as his best work, but great nonetheless.
Learn more about From the New Deal to the New Right at the publisher's website.

Ira Katznelson, author of When Affirmative Action Was White, on Lowndes' book:
Evocative and analytical, this historical portrait shows how racial change in the South opened the door to conservative mobilization. Its powerful account of how a cross-regional alliance of white supremacists and business-oriented anti-New Dealers fundamentally reoriented American politics advances our understanding not just of pathways to the present, but of prospects for the future.
Visit Joseph Lowndes' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jim Noles

Jim Noles is the author of A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America-- One State Quarter at a Time, and three previous books. He is a practicing attorney and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and several magazines.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm an attorney (environmental law) by vocation and so I just finished polishing off the court's opinion in Sierra Club v. Robert B. Flowers, a decision that just came out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. But I suspect that is not what you (or your readers) had in mind when you asked the question. Nor would you (or they) be interested to know that, at my three-year-old's insistence, I'm still reading How the Grinch Stole Christmas almost every night. And yes -- it is mid-May. My boy John is giving the phrase "timeless classic" a new meaning, I'm afraid.

So what am I really "reading" these days? Currently, I'm whipping through Alex Kershaw's new book Escape From The Deep. He wrote The Bedford Boys, among other notable World War II histories, and his new book is another page-turner. It tells the story of the sinking of the submarine USS Tang in the Formosa Straits during World War II and the remarkable escape of a handful of its men from 180 feet below the surface. But when they found themselves prisoners of the Japanese, they realized that they had escaped from the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.

I've also started Ellen Feldman's Scottsboro, which is a historical novel about the infamous Scottsboro case here in Alabama in the 1930s. I had the good fortune to run into Ellen at the Alabama Book Festival last month and we struck up one of those random conversations that I tend to have at such things. In the end, I picked up a copy of her book and she grabbed a copy of mine. I need to stop doing that at these events or I'm never going to break even with this book-writing thing ... but I'm enjoying Ellen's creative take on the trial and that sorry episode in our national and state history.

Meanwhile, I'm still plowing through The Moviegoer, primarily out of a sense of literary/civic duty. (Walker Percy, the author, was born here in Birmingham and spent his early childhood down the street from my house). I know that, by speaking in such terms, I risk being burned in effigy by legions of Walker Percy fans. It has its moments but, let's face it ... it's no How the Grinch Stole Christmas -- as John would readily attest.
Learn more about Jim Noles' work and A Pocketful of History.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor is the editor of The Apocalypse Reader and Come Back, Donald Barthelme.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Not to boast, but I'm a fairly voracious reader, and I like to have a few things going at once. At least one novel and one poetry collection at any given time, plus usually a story collection and some nonfiction. I just got back this week from a three-weeks trip to Hong Kong, and when I was preparing to take that trip I had to make some hard decisions about what to bring. I decided to bring three short books, one medium book, and one long book, and to only dive into the long one after I'd knocked out two of the three shorts. The short books were Vertigo by W.G. Sebald, Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard, and Master of Reality by John Darnielle. Sebald is one of my favorite writers. Vertigo wasn't great, at least not compared to his other books, at least two of which are bar-none masterpieces (those would be The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants), but because he left behind such a small body of work, it felt good to me just to be able to immerse myself in his voice. It was also interesting to see his style in its early, awkward phase; most of his work is totally seamless but in Vertigo you can tell that he's sort of figuring it out as he goes along. John Darnielle's novel, Master of Reality, is about the Black Sabbath album of the same name. I'm interviewing Darnielle--who you might know better as the band The Mountain Goats--for my books column in FLAUNT, so I'll save my raves about it for said column in the June/July issue of the magazine. The Kierkegaard was a much less difficult read than other stuff of his I've attempted (namely, Training in Christianity, at which I failed utterly). Fear and Trembling made me want to try again. I think I'm falling in love with K a little.

The medium book was Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories by Tobias Wolff. I've been dipping in and out of it. The prose isn't quite as strong as I thought it would be, and his endings are a little beat-you-on-the-head, but the stories take surprising, sometimes fascinating turns so I think I'll eventually make it through the whole thing. The long book was Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. As of this writing, I'm only about a quarter through it, but with Dickens it's pretty hard to go wrong, and I love knowing that the book will be in my life for a while. It came highly recommended to me from David Gates, who is the guy who turned me onto Dickens in the first place, so I went all over town to find a Modern Library edition with his introduction.

Given that I started out by claiming that I'm "always" reading at least one poetry book, it might have seemed odd to you that there was no poetry in that very long list I just made. Well, what happened was I had just finished Ashbery's newest (A Worldly Country) before I left, and didn't have anything else on hand, so I figured I'd just find an English-language bookstore when I got to Hong Kong and buy a book of poems there. As it turns out, you basically can't buy a book of poems in Hong Kong. There are English-language bookstores, and English-language shelves in most of the Chinese bookstores, but 95% of what they stock is strictly commercial (ie Dean Koontz, Robert Ludlum, etc) and the literature shelf is a weird hodgepodge of Penguin Classics, cheesy anthologies, and Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. In one store there was one single sad shelf devoted to the franken-category of "essays, short fiction, and poetry"-- which turned out to contain two David Sedaris collections, The Selected Poems of R.A. Tagore, and Samuel Beckett's novel--novel!--How It Is. I was seriously tempted by the Tagore, but in the end decided to pass. Now that I'm home, and more or less over the jetlag hump, I want to go out to St. Mark's Bookshop tomorrow and spend some time discovering things. My friend Mike Young, who edits NOÖ Journal, recently recommended the poet Christian Barter, and the other night I saw Graham Foust hold his own at a reading where he had to follow the incomparable Anne Carson, so he's somebody I'd like to know more about. About a month ago, on a whim, I bought a $2 used copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins' Selected Poetry and Prose. I keep thinking I'll want to start it, but so far I haven't. Part of me thinks I'm ready to take Hopkins on, but the other part of me thinks I'd rather re-read Tao Lin's new collection, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, and maybe something else by John Ashbery. I've always been curious about Hotel Lautreamont, though if I do that won't I be pretty much obliged to read Lautreamont himself? And is that really such a problem?
Visit Justin Taylor's website and MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tom Vanderbilt

Tom Vanderbilt writes about design, technology, science, and culture for Wired, Slate, the New York Times, and many other publications.

His books include Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America and Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), due out in August.

Last week, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I generally have two categories of books, with various books appearing in each at all times. There’s the “desk” category, which are books that are more work related, and the “nightstand” table, which holds books intended for pleasure, personal edification, outright entertainment, etc. (there’s probably a third category: “Books I’ve Not Yet Read,” which is somehow the most powerful category of all).

So the “desk” category is currently rounded out with a number of titles that basically represent nursing a hangover of completing my own recent book on traffic — the tonic being continuing to read about...traffic! So I’ve got galleys of Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, a compelling history tracing how the automobile changed the American city, and how traffic engineering as a discipline emerged, and gradually changed to accommodate cars, moving away from a position that initially viewed cars as a threat to city life (that’s why you no longer hear much about ‘speed governors’ on cars, for example, but it was once quite an issue). I’m also dipping around in Diandra Leslie-Pelecky’s The Physics of NASCAR. I don’t follow the sport whatsoever, but I am interested in things like motion transfer in collisions, and the like, which the author covers in an accessible manner. Having recently finished Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s Logic of Life, I’m now onto the somewhat related book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which I find interesting for its treatment of a problem I kept coming across regarding traffic safety and laws: How can you get people to do what’s in their own self-interest, but yet which they for some reason don’t decide to do?

In the “nightstand” category, I’ve currently got a copy of Richard Price’s Lush Life, which I bought on impulse the other day, in part because it was signed — and isn’t this one of these strange artifacts, Price’s scrawl in marker on the title page, the trace of his hand touching mine, that make things like ‘Kindle’ seem so clinical? With The Wire ended, I was definitely feeling a hole in my gritty social realist sprawling urban crime drama soul, and Price fills it powerfully. There often comes a moment in reading a police procedural, or existential detective thriller, where I feel something just isn’t quite authentic; like the writer wasn’t trying hard enough. Some reference is too pat, some passage too flaccid, some moment forced. Even in Patricia Highsmith, who I absolutely love, there are times when I feel like she might as well be writing from Mars (ok, maybe via Switzerland) for how wrong or distant something feels (e.g., some word used for some everyday thing was archaic even then). But Lush Life is just seeming spot-on to me, with no suspension of disbelief required. I also just finished Dan Fesperman’s The Amateur Spy, another “genre” work that I quite enjoyed. I’m admittedly pre-disposed to the genre; they say every foreign correspondent aspires to write genre thrillers, so maybe everyone who once aspired to be a foreign correspondent (but somehow failed) consoles himself by reading genre thrillers. I’m also reluctant to close the recent Library of America collection of Kerouac, which I was nudged to buy after seeing the Kerouac show at the New York Public Library. Like everyone, I once read On the Road the way some people read LSAT prep books, as some kind of essential prep course to my vagabond future. I’m now of the age where I don’t hit the road without making hotel reservations first, and I wondered what it would feel like to read it again. Fevered, overwrought, perhaps one too many “sad American nights,” yes, but then I’ll come across some weird line like “Old brown Chicago with the strange semi-Eastern, semi-Western types gong to work and spitting” that just brings a small joy. The journals too contain all kinds of flinty specks of gold, like the moment he’s stuck in a North Dakota blizzard and experiences a remarkable camaraderie: “Men work against each other only when it is safe to abandon men—only when and where”; or his line about Portland: “Portland, like filling stations and hipsters and Portland-sized cities, is the same as any other same-sized city in U.S.A. Or like any other gas stations & hipters all over.”

Lastly, I keep flipping through Trevor Paglen’s I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Destroyed By Me, a collection of curious commemorative patches from various “black” defense programs in the U.S. They are rich in myth and almost Gnostic symbolism, and there’s just something strange and delightful in the fact that supposedly covert programs went to the trouble to build this aesthetic esprit de corps. Paglen’s tone is curatorial and subtly bemused: Of Northrop’s “Night Stalker II” patch, he notes, “the numeral II suggests a ‘Night Stalker I,’ which remains equally obscure.”
Learn more about Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) at the Knopf website, and learn more about Tom Vanderbilt's work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 10, 2008

David Dobbs

David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral and two other books, writes for publications including the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Science Times section, Wired, and Scientific American Mind, where he is a contributing editor.

He also keeps his own blog, Smooth Pebbles, where he comments on developments in science, medicine, nature, and culture. He lectures frequently on neuroscience, science writing, and the sociology, history, and philosophy of science.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've had a nice run lately: Robert Burton's On Being Certain, on how certainty feels certain even when we're dead wrong, and is therefore no guide at ALL; The Fish's Eye, Ian Frazier's book on fishing; Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno. Great stuff, all of it.

The highlight, though, has been the last two. Last month, in a state of horror and wonder, I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which chronicles the journey of a father and his son, apparently about 8 or 10 or so, through a post-apocalyptic American landscape. This book shouldn't have worked. Very little happens, and of what does happen, very little can be said to be truly unexpected. Yet I did not expect the deep clarity with which McCarthy showed a paternal devotion that was at once singular, because of the situation, and universal: for we all strive to protect our children from the world's horrors and hope to preserve for them some attachment to innocence. I don't know when I last wept so hard reading. Everything you've ever wanted to give your children, and everything you fear you've ever failed to deliver to them, is in this book.

Now I'm reading another sort of tour de force, György Buzsáki's Rhythms of the Brain -- nonfiction, and a serious change of gears -- which is about how the brain's rhythms, the synchronization of the brain waves emitted by its various parts, lie at the heart of our capacity to think and take action. A beautiful, difficult book, dense with beautiful facts and ideas.

A fairly typical shuffle, this, representative of the changes on my reading stand. Increasingly I read in a sort of barely controlled panic, knowing, though I'm still in my forties and ridiculously healthy, that I'll leave this earth with a lot of great books unread. It's good to hit some as juicy as McCarthy's and Buzsáki's: reading these, I know I'm knocking down some of the best.
Visit David Dobb's website and his blog, Smooth Pebbles.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Nicholas Dawidoff

Nicholas Dawidoff's books include The Fly Swatter, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and In the Country of Country, which was named one of the greatest all-time works of travel literature by Conde Nast Traveller. His first book, The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life Of Moe Berg, was a national bestseller and appeared on many best book lists. His new book is The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball. He is also the editor of the Library of America’s Baseball: A Literary Anthology.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
The more I read, the more I realize how much I will never read—a forlorn truth that so oppressed my grandfather he went ahead and calculated how many books he would complete in his lifetime. Discovering that the number was a mere five thousand, he plunged even deeper into despond. What revived him is what buoys me, the promise of all that was waiting out there for him. On that glistening shelf of my future I include books of my past. I seem to spend a lot of time returning to books I’ve already read; every time I begin again the experience deepens. Recent books in that respect are Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It which is among the most beautiful and haunting stories about family I have ever read; Mary Chesnut’s conflicted diary of her life during the war-time Confederacy (edited by C. Vann Woodward), perhaps the most affecting book written during the Civil War; Freeman’s Dyson’s memoir Disturbing The Universe which is such a vividly intelligent evocation of the relationship between science and humanity written in a warm, graceful style that will appeal to people who are afraid of physics; James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, a true American classic about middle-aged men searching for self and the American sublime that is far better than the well-known film; and the story “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” from Joseph Mitchell’s collection Up In The Old Hotel. For many non-fiction writers, Mitchell remains The Master, and this ghostly and heartbreaking thirty-three page account of a lost community on Staten Island, for which in preparation he made 300 single-spaced pages of notes, may be his masterpiece.

What impels a person read a new book? With me, because there are always so many more new books than time to read them, sometimes a book just has to be recommended enough times that it finally becomes irresistible. Such a book for me was James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime which I recently read with enormous admiration for author’s ability to describe a sexual passion between two people of otherwise limited compatibility. Moment-to-moment you know exactly who they are and what they feel, making this a book of rare insight. Now I want to read more Salter. Another book that I have been urged to read again and again and finally just did was Night Studio, Musa Mayer’s memoir of her father the painter Philip Guston. It’s a good book about a great artist and what his need to make art cost his family, but ultimately the best thing about it for me was that it confirmed my belief that Approaching The Magic Hour, Agnes Grinstead Anderson’s memoir of her life with her husband, the Mississippi painter and ceramicist Walter Anderson, is something very special. Here is that rare commodity: a true story that feels unreservedly intimate. Agnes Anderson tells you exactly what it’s like to spend time with a fully committed artistic personality. Approaching The Magic Hour is a short book burning with art and sex and madness, and yet it’s somehow so balanced in its portrait of a most unbalanced protagonist that it slowly comes to you what an accomplished artist the writer is. At times, that book is almost unbearable. To calm down, if you are like me you’ll try a Henry James short story you haven’t read before--I just read “The Author Of Beltraffio”—or a comforting old baseball favorite like Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times which is the story of the early days of baseball told by the men who played it. I just read the Sam Crawford chapter again. It makes me want to eat apples stolen from a farmer’s orchard and live in Nebraska.
A Guggenheim, Civitella Ranieri, and Berlin Prize Fellow, Nicholas Dawidoff is currently the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 5, 2008

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer is the author of Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life and several previous books, including Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Parasite Rex--"as fine a book as one will find on the subject" according to Scientific American--and Soul Made Flesh, a history of the brain, which was named one of the top 100 books of 2004 by the New York Times Book Review.

He also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom.

I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've reached the age when I realize that there are a finite number of books I will be able to read in my lifetime. So I'm now making my way through books I've been meaning to read as long as I can remember. I'm trying to read novels, because my regular line of work--writing about science--normally leaves me reading journal papers and reviews late into the night. Right now I'm finishing up The Red and the Black. It's wonderful but quite strange in some ways. Stendhal will spend pages and pages on the hero's mulling how to steal a ladder, but spend a brief paragraph on the climax of a major political plot.

In the non-human world, I'm reading Speciation in Birds by Trevor Price. I'm very interested these days in that age-old question of how new species evolve. Birds helped Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution, and today scientists are probing their DNA and behavior even deeper to understand the process. Trevor Price's book synthesizes a huge amount of research with wonderful clarity.
Zimmer writes about science for the New York Times; his work also appears in National Geographic, Scientific American, and Discover, where he is a contributing editor. In 2007 he won the National Academies Communication Award, the highest honor for science writing.

Read an excerpt from Miocrocosm, and learn more about it and the author's work at Carl Zimmer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson lectures and writes on travel; her articles have been published in all major British newspapers. She has been a judge for the Whitbread Biography prize, the Shiva Naipaul essay prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

Her latest books include the second edition of Inside Notting Hill, co-authored with Miranda Davies, and Halfway to Venus: A One-Armed Journey, her memoir and story of living with one arm.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I always try to have at least two books on the go – one fiction and one non-fiction. I have just finished the biography of John Clare by Jonathan Bate. I knew little about this peasant-poet, who having for a time been the toast of literary London, returned to his roots and eventually incarceration in a mental asylum. The book is gripping and I am now longing to read his poetry – some of which wasn’t published until well into the 20th century. I’d also had no idea how important and, on the whole, how loyal patrons were. A quibble about the edition I read (Picador) – the print was so small I had to strain to read it – bad for middle-aged eyes.

The novel I finished most recently is Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, a book I had been meaning to read for years. I found it intensely moving and couldn’t believe that it had first been published in 1948. I found myself sobbing on buses (where I do a lot of my reading) – a very powerful book. In the non-fiction department I have just started Colour by Victoria Finlay. It is the story of her search for the colours used in paints – each chapter is devoted to one colour – at the moment I am on ‘Ochre’ and in Australia. The book is full of facts, anecdotes and gives you new ways to look at paintings - I know I am going to love it. I haven’t settled on a new novel yet.
In addition to her travel, lecturing, and writing, Anderson also founded the Travel Bookshop, which formed the setting for the movie Notting Hill.

Check out Anderson's top ten books about wilderness.

Read more about Halfway to Venus.

--Marshal Zeringue