Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan's debut novel Addition was selected for the Richard & Judy book club's summer reading list.

Last week I asked what she was reading. Her reply:
The Acolyte by Thea Astley

I read this book every year or so, mostly when I’m lacking confidence in my own work. It’s a first person story told by Paul Vesper, the assistant/gopher/friend of a blind musician, Jack Holberg. It’s about the group of family and friends whose lives revolve around Jack’s genius, vulnerability and cruelty. It was written in 1972 but seems older to me; the style is very dated. It’s difficult to read. Each sentence is like a steak dinner. In lesser hands, this might be pretentious overwriting, but Astley makes it complex, intelligent and sharply satirical. The characters are vivid, but nowhere does she make it easy. We have to figure it all out. For example, this sentence explaining (?) that Paul is an orphan: ‘My parents two years ago debated the right of way unsuccessfully with a lavender cement-mixer and I can’t bear to see the house any more, not with its new Apex Club owner and his clutch of nose-picking children.’ The voice is incredibly tight and consistent and the meaning is layered. It’s as if every sharpened sentence could be expanded in to a novel of its own. I find it inspiring.
Before she became a bestselling novelist, Toni Jordan worked as a sales assistant, molecular biologist, quality control chemist and marketing manager. She now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she works as a freelance copywriter.

Read about Jordan's top ten flawed romantic heroines.

Toni Jordan's Addition was released at the start of the year in the U.K. and Australia. It will be released in the U.S. by Morrow in February 2009.

Among the praise for Addition:
"Toni Jordan has created such a real character in Grace that you are cheering her on, willing her to get to the top of the staircase, intact and unharmed. Jordan's voice is distinctive, refreshing and…her debut novel is juicy and funny…this is a gem."
Sydney Morning Herald
Read more about Addition at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 28, 2008

Alexander Waugh

Alexander Waugh's books include Classical Music, A New Way of Listening (1995), Time (1999), God (2002), Fathers and Sons (2004), and the forthcoming The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
This morning I finished a new novel called Pollard by Laura Beatty. It is about a thick-set fifteen-year-old English girl who goes out into the woods and spends a night there. In fact she spends the rest of her life there, building a shelter and learning to eat and clean and do her ablutions in the woods. It is a rich poetic work, highly original, utterly engrossing. What Americans perhaps call an "experience read." It had me hooked.

I am also half way through Boswell's Life of Johnson which I never read as a youth. There's a wonderful letter in it that Johnson wrote to a women seeking his assistance in getting her son a place to study at Winchester. She wants him to write to an archbishop whom he does not know, on behalf of her son whom he has yet to meet. Johnson writes to let her down: "Hope is itself a species of happiness and perhaps the chief happiness which this world affords; but like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expatiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged, must end in disappointment." I am not sure how much I like Johnson though I see he is admirably quick and intelligent. The most interesting aspect of this book is the fluctuating relationship between the subject and his obsessive, sometimes drooling, sometimes catty biographer.

Tomorrow I start a book called Ararat by a Dutchman, Frank Westerman, which I am reviewing for the Spectator. No opinions on it yet. The back cover says it is "a dazzling, highly personal book about science, religion and all that lies between, by one of Europe's most celebrated young writers of non-fiction." First page looks a little pretentious but I have high hopes for the rest of it.
Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times on Waugh's Fathers and Sons:
“[Alexander Waugh] has created a vivid, Dickensian portrait of his eccentric relatives and he’s done so with enormous irreverence and élan.”
Alexander Waugh is the grandson of Evelyn Waugh and the son of columnist Auberon Waugh and novelist Teresa Waugh. He has been the opera critic at the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard.

Related: Alexander Waugh: books on father-son relationships.

Visit Alexander Waugh's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Steven Wingate

Steven Wingate is the author of Wifeshopping (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) which won the 2007 Bakeless Prize in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Creation Myths by Mathias Svalina (New Michigan Press, 2007). I should file this mighty-mite of a book one under “what I’m re-reading,” because I find myself coming back to it again and again. In twenty-four poems—both line and prose—Svalina creates an equal number of competing cosmologies that add up to something like the human world: contentious, incomprehensible, indomitable and yet barely holding itself together. Many start with proclamations: “In the beginning everything I said exploded”; “In the beginning everyone wanted to fight to the death”; “In the beginning there were only borders, because no one had created the space within the borders.” From these beginnings, Svalina weaves tales of the world’s creation that we recognize simultaneously as absurd and undeniably human. Whether it’s members of the Church of Money climbing over a wall to try stealing hovercraft parts, a slacker God taking four years to create the world, or a man making humankind out of caulk and nails so it can eat the excess of lasagna he has cooked, Creation Myths always always gives me a surprise and a smile. Every time I flip through it for a gem of a phrase or image, I find one.

Intercourse by Robert Olen Butler (Chronicle Books, 2008). Butler is my most important fiction teacher; so I read everything he writes, and it’s been interesting to watch the phases of his work. After the earnestness of his early novels (The Deuce is my favorite) and his Pulitzer-winning story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, he started dabbling in pop culture, camp, and miniaturism with formal, voice-driven collections like Tabloid Dreams, Had a Good Time, and Severance. In Intercourse, which consists of brief he said/she said reports of famous (and sometimes legendary) couplings, it becomes clearer that Butler’s ouvre is of a piece. He has always been interested in characters who yearn to embrace that is beyond them, even if it only provides them a fleeting glimpse of self-understanding. Now he’s doing it not through big novels but through short, highly constrained forms. Whether it’s through Mata Hari and Jack Johnson, Richard and Pat Nixon, or Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, Butler in Intercourse gets us to the root of what we don’t (and can’t) know about ourselves. Time and again you start out a piece thinking Ha ha, that’s pretty clever; but seventy words later you find yourself saying Oh my God, that’s me!

Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (Random House, 2006). For those who found the hullaballoo surrounding Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone excessive, Allah Is Not Obliged is a brilliant fictional answer. In this novel we follow Birahima, a ten-year-old boy soldier, as he travels with an inept sorcerer named Yacouba through a variety of African civil wars. Traded from one side to another, threatened regularly with death, and routinely pumped full of drugs, Birahima somehow manages to retain some sense of his own humanity despite the madness that swirls about him. A phantasmogoric picaresque, this novel reads like a modern day version of Denis Diderot’s 18th century classic Jacques the Fatalist and His Master (which in itself is a perverted take on Don Quixote) or a very, very sordid Candide. Kourouma died before his work was translated from its original French into English, but mark my words: two decades from now, when we look back at the millennial literature of Africa, Allah Is Not Obliged and its author will stand tall. P.S.: This is a great airport novel, and only people who are serious about literature will strike up a conversation with you if they see it in your hands.

Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi (Simon & Schuster, 1990). This book gets called a novel, but today it would probably be called a “novel-in-stories”—and it’s a fine, early example of that genre. Hegi dissects with savage tenderness the mythical German city of Burgdorf as it tries (not always successfully) to emerge from the long, tenacious shadow of WWII. In it we follow the adventures of an adolescent female protagonist, but through her we meet an entire town choked with secrets and unspoken compromises. We learn about Hannah’s community as she learns about it herself—a conceit that allows Hegi to sink us completely into her experience and see Bergdorf as the wild mix of false calm and desperation that it is. Masochists, lost lovers, suicides, and town gossips all get the breath of complete, for-better-or-worse life from Hegi, and most refreshingly of all she never judges. Each chapter/story holds its own in lush but incisive prose, and “Dogs of Fear”—in which a man is attacked by the dogs he buys to protect himself—is one for the ages.

Unlucky Lucky Days by Daniel Grandbois (BOA Editions, 2008). The venerable poetry publisher BOA Editions has recently begun publishing a particular kind of fiction that basks in the eddies between prose poetry and flash fiction. Their second book of this stripe, Unlucky Lucky Days, traverses this territory with a blend of clarity and haze. Its seventy-three short, predominantly one-page absurdist tales tend to focus on moments of epiphany—not the Joycean “Aha!” epiphany of self-realization but the subtler kind, in which human life is revealed as having an order beyond what we can comprehend. They are divided by days of the week, an organizational structure that not only gives the book a skeleton—lack of which is the bane of prose poem/flash fiction collections—but adds a sense of narrative arc to help the reader through. Although this book will not be for everyone, it does reveal Grandbois as an unfettered and more than adept practitioner at exploring the no-man’s land between what we know and what we don’t—which, after all, is the fundamental subject and territory of literature (and sort of a theme of his batch of mini-reviews, too).
Amy Hempel on Wingate's Wifeshopping:
"What makes these studies in discovery and disillusionment so startling and affecting is the energy of Steven Wingate's language, and the agency of his characters.... The stories in Wifeshopping expand with subsequent readings; they do not end on the page, but continue in a reader's mind."
Read more about Steven Wingate and his work at his website, his blog, his Facebook page, and his MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Robert Gellately

Robert Gellately is the Earl Ray Beck Professor of History at Florida State University and was the Bertelsmann Visiting Professor of Twentieth-Century Jewish Politics and History at Oxford University in 2004–05. His latest book is Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe.

He is also the author of The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 19331945 and Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just published Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (Knopf, 2007). I am now researching the much neglected Late Stalinist period in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. What happened to ordinary people in the early postwar has been lost in the shadow of the Cold War. There were cases of ethnic cleansing, civil wars (plural!), pogroms (even in the light of the Holocaust), and lynch justice. Some nations were no sooner liberated from the Nazis, than they found themselves nearly as bad off under the Soviets. Inside the USSR victory brought little solace. There was deep disappointment that the sacrifices made and the energies expended during the Great Patriotic War were not rewarded with greater freedoms or at least a better quality of life. Destruction was unimaginable and ordinary people, many living in holes they dug in the ground, suffered horrible deprivations. Famine struck in 1946 and into 1947 took the lives of between 1 and 1.5 million. Political considerations made it unthinkable for Stalin to negotiate a loan or accept Marshall Plan Aid offered by the U.S. even when the Soviets (and their new “allies”) were desperate and starving.

In the midst of all this new reading, I have found a tiny gem that stands out, namely, Paul R. Gregory’s, Lenin’s Brain and other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives (Stanford, CA., 2008). He is an American professor in charge of copying newly released Soviet documents and making them available for study at the Hoover Institution. His short book consists of 14 chapters, each a vignette illustrating what these documents can divulge. In “Relatives and Falsifying Death Certificates” he tells a unique story. In 1937 and 1938 during the Great Terror, countless thousands had been arrested and shot. Their loved ones were told nothing, but some found out the unfortunates had been given 10 years in prison “without right of correspondence.” Historians left the story there. What Gregory discovered in the secret archives was what happened in 1947, 1948, and later. Where were the prisoners once their sentences had been served in full? Letters and petitions began raining down on the authorities from the late ‘50s onward, and over the years they invented newer and bigger lies. Relatives of the persecuted were torn between hope and despair that dragged on until June 6, 1992 – a whole lifetime of heartache. Only then were the heirs officially allowed to dig for the truth, and even then it was an uphill battle.

Paul Gregory shows us that these relatives have a story. We learn much more in this book, including what really happened to Lenin’s brain. (It was sent for study to Germany of all places!) But the story of the relatives of the terror’s victims is striking because it reminds us how dictators inflict enduring pain on those outside the camps. The book reprints a brilliant Anna Akhmatova poem that would make the stones weep. Written for her lost son, the grief she expresses is something she shares with millions who were or are related to those made to “disappear” without a trace by dictators around the world.
Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, on Gellately's Lenin, Stalin and Hitler:
IN THEIR different ways they were as bad as each other, the three monsters of 20th-century Europe. That is an oddly controversial statement. Hitler is almost universally vilified; Lenin remains entombed on Red Square as Russia's most distinguished corpse; and modern Russia is looking more kindly on Stalin's memory.

Robert Gellately elegantly scrutinises their differences and highlights their similarities. He places all three men in the context of a Europe shattered by the first world war. “Before 1914 they were marginal figures,” he writes, without “the slightest hope of entering political life.” The whirlwind of destruction that started in 1914 turned their fantasies of racial purity and class dictatorship into reality, killing people on a scale unknown in human history. [read more]
Learn more about Robert Gellately's Lenin, Stalin and Hitler at the Knopf website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Robin Romm

Robin Romm is the author of the short story collection, The Mother Garden.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading; her reply:
I have been reading a lot of great books lately. My boyfriend and I just traveled around Romania and Hungary, so I took along a bundle of Eastern European literature. My favorite of the books that made my backpack so very heavy was probably Embers, by Sandor Marai. It's the story of an old man in a crumbling castle, contemplating a betrayal by a friend (over a girl, of course), long ago. I read this book in one sitting on the plane to Europe. And when I shut it, I let shivers run down my arms for a good minute. Not only does it call up images of castles and lush landscapes, it also asks questions about love and trust, mortality and friendship that resonated with me. A timeless book.

I was also changed by Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness. Kertesz was imprisoned in the labor and concentration camps under Hitler, and his account is strange, disorienting, and full of interesting gaps. He write that he remembers the first moments of his captivity much better than the year that follows, and the result is a fascinating account of moments that give a sense of the daily life led in the death camps. Kertesz is skeptical of pity. He survived by getting sick and being fed by a friendly soldier in a hospital. His book is a meditation on luck and fate, or perhaps, the lack of fate. The last lines of this novel will haunt me always.

On my bedside table right now is The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, which somehow, I never had to read in school. It's a tattered old paperback with roses on the cover--some dime store copy. And it seems right to be reading the narrator's downfall in this particular edition. She just went to her psychiatrist for the first time, so I'm only halfway through it. But Plath, like Marai, manages to evoke a specific time (is it the clothes or the crab salad in an avocado pear that instantly conjures the 50's-60's?) while capturing the oddness of vision and sadness of an artist trying to make sense of the world.
Robin Romm is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the College of Santa Fe. Stories of hers have appeared in many national literary magazines, including Tin House, The Threepenny Review, One Story, and Quarterly West.

Among the praise for The Mother Garden:
"These stories are fantastic -- in both senses of the word. They are also eerie and moving, and they mark the debut of a very gifted young writer."
--Ann Packer

"The Mother Garden presents a wonderful new voice. I found the stories full of lively quirkiness, many individual sentences pulsing with surprising word choices and imagery, and graceful endings that made me smile -- sometimes quite nervously, but always appreciatively."
--Ann Beattie

"Imagination soars over sorrow in these heartfelt, darkly comic -- and most important -- fearless stories. Robin Romm is a writer of tremendous grace, and this is a striking first collection."
--Peter Orner
Visit Romm's website and MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Steve Hely

Steve Hely writes for the Fox animated comedy American Dad! He was twice president of The Harvard Lampoon, and has been a writer and performer on Last Call with Carson Daly and a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, the latter earning him an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Variety or Comedy Show.

With Vali Chandrasekaran, he is co-author of The Ridiculous Race.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
As I was writing The Ridiculous Race I read Abroad by Paul Fussell, an interesting short study of a period in the 1920s and 1930s when everyone in England started writing travel books.

Nixon and Mao by Margaret MacMillan - Super-readable account of the time two lunatics who controlled most of the world had a meeting.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy - Before switching to chronicles of seared wastelands, Cormac McCarthy wrote this novel about lowlifes and watermelon rapists living in houseboats in Knoxville, TN. While reading this book I had to look up about 120 words in the dictionary, many of which were obscure terms from the worlds of mining and speleology.

In Praise of Wine by Alec Waugh - Reading this book is like being invited to the summer house of an eccentric English drunk who tells rambling stories as he makes you cocktail after cocktail.

The Reivers by William Faulkner – Have people heard of this guy?!
Visit The Ridiculous Race Facebook page and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ted Gup

Ted Gup is a legendary investigative reporter who worked under Bob Woodward at the Washington Post, and later at Time. His latest book is Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I tend to revisit my favorite authors and though I am associated with investigative reporting, my favorite reading is far from sleuthing. I return again and again to E. B. White, the poets Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, John Donne ( which makes me a formalist) and numerous essayists -- Ruskin, J.S. Mill, Walter Lippmann, Thoreau, Emerson, Joyce Carol Oates, Bertrand Russell -- as well as naturalists like Barry Lopez, David Quammen, etc. I rarely if ever read contemporary fiction -- not because I wouldn't enjoy it, but because I can never seem to get sufficient traction with what has already been written and withstood the "test of time," if you'll pardon the cliche. I also read collections of columnists and I enjoy dipping into history books and reading random chapters. I know this is eclectic (to be charitable) but that's the sort of thing I most enjoy reading.
Ted Gup is the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism at Case Western Reserve University. He has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and has received the George Polk Award, the Worth Bingham Prize, the Gerald Loeb Award, the Book-of-the-Year Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, and many other awards. He has been a Fulbright Scholar, a MacArthur Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow.

Nation of Secrets won the 2008 Goldsmith Book Prize.

Visit Ted Gup's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vali Chandrasekaran

Vali Chandrasekaran writes for television’s My Name Is Earl. In 2006, his script Jump for Joy was nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award. He has been an editor of The Harvard Lampoon and a management consultant for Boston Consulting Group, and he runs the Web site Vali’s Views. In a memorable turn on-screen, he played the role of “Vali” on the NBC hit comedy The Office.

He and Steve Hely wrote The Ridiculous Race.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply.
I'm a monogamous reader, not one of those people who reads many books simultaneously. However, this monogamy doesn't cover books that I've already read. I reference those frequently whenever I write.

Currently, I'm reading Sin In the Second City, Karen Abbott's vivid history of an early 1900s high-class whorehouse. The book starts with the murder of rich department store heir and, within the first 70 pages, features characters named Bathhouse John, Hinky Dink Kenna, Big Jim, and Mushmouth Johnson. By page 100, readers relive the night Prince Henry of Prussia visited the brothel and watched harlots dance in fawnskin and devour a platter of raw sirloin. It's an interesting insight into what used to give rich-dudes erections.

The book that I'm currently referencing is John Swartzwelder's How I Conquered Your Planet. Swartzwelder has written 59 episodes of the Simpsons and invented Homer Simpson. (Matt Groening may have created Homer, but Swartzwelder made him the funniest character on television.) One veteran Simpsons writer told the New York Times "John Swartzwelder is the greatest writer in the English language in any form." I know a few incredibly funny TV writers who consider this an understatement.

Whenever I write, I have a copy of How I Conquered Your Planet on my desk. The book, about an incredibly stupid detective named Frank Burley, is my favorite of Swartzelder's five self-published novels. Whenever I feel stuck, I open the book to a random page and start reading until I hit a great joke. Here's what I just stumbled upon, after reading for 10 seconds:

Setup: Frank Burly is on trial for trying to overthrow the aliens that had taken over earth. "Now I'd seen enough TV shows about trials to know that you've got to surprise 'em. The lawyer who wins is the lawyer with the biggest surprises. So I showed up wearing different clothes everyday. And one day I stood in a completely different spot... But the prosecution lawyer surprised everybody even more by how much evidence he had against me."

I've heard authors described as "writer's writers." Swartzwelder is something more rarefied than that: He's a comedy writer's comedy writer. To be honest, I don't think there are any others.
Visit The Ridiculous Race Facebook page and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 14, 2008

Jonathan Evison

Jonathan Evison is the author of All About Lulu, and the founder and moderator of The Fiction Files, an on-line literary discussion forum. He likes rabbits.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Frederick Exley – A Fan’s Notes

I’ve been meaning to read this book for over a decade. More often than not, due to alphabetical proximity, All About Lulu sits right beside A Fan’s Notes in bookstores everywhere, along with Middlesex, forming a Lulu sandwich (gotta’ love the bread on that sandwich). When I finally got around to inhaling A Fan’s Notes in three sittings last week, I felt as though I’d discovered a long lost father, as though it were possible to have been influenced by a voice I’d never heard before. It has been suggested to me by some (most recently my brilliant friend Greg Downs, author of Spit Baths, that every writer is fundamentally Shakespearean or Dickensian in their approach to character. Exley-- from Mr. Blue to Paddy to the Counselor—is decidedly Dickensian, from his characterizations, right down to his mastery of the sprawling, spiraling, digressive, hilariously convoluted sentence. Exley’s characters are small people operating in a big world, or more precisely, being operated upon by the big world (in the case of his protagonist, quite literally).

While Exley’s voice is at times as ribald as say, Bukowski (I’m reminded of the singular, almost sacrosanct respect reserved by Mr. Blue for the mysterious and daunting possibility of cunnilingus), Exley’s insights into the squalid business of alcoholism, sexual perversion, and abject failure, are far more nuanced, distilled, and textured than anything from the imagination Bukowski.

I loved A Fan’s Notes for its honesty, heart, and irresistible voice.

William Faulkner – Absalom, Absalom

Here, now, is a guy who lands firmly on the Shakespeare side of the continuum; big characters exercising their influence on the world. We’re doing a group reading of Absalom, Absalom right now on The Fiction Files, and I’m really trying to approach it with an open mind. I’ve had a contentious relationship with Faulkner always, and my opinion of him is often unpopular. I love his ambition. I love his themes. I love his settings. And sometimes I’m enamored of his sentences. But oftentimes (to my ear) his language chokes on its own exuberance. Sometimes he writes like a drunk guy trying to sound sober (coincidence?). When he starts stringing so many modifiers together that I feel like he’s trying to distract me, I think of old Hemingroid’s comment about Faulkner mistaking big words for big emotions, and I stop trusting his language. At times I can’t escape the feeling that Faulkner does not want to offer his reader full access to his material, that he’d rather keep his reader at a distance, preferably in a state of confused admiration. I’ve felt this also with the later works of Joyce. This could well speak to my own shortcomings as a reader, though. At any rate, I’ve just started Absalom, Absalom, and I’m sinking into Faulkner more than ever (though he still sounds drunk half the time).
Among the early praise for All About Lulu:
"The star-crossed lovers at the center of All About Lulu forge a middle ground between Archie and Veronica and Kurt and Courtney. Evison has delivered a witty, understated, heartfelt, and, at times, almost unnervingly honest debut."
—Adam Langer, author of Crossing California

"At once exuberant and clear-eyed, scabrous and wise, Jonathan Evison's All About Lulu has something for every reader--love, betrayal, growth and, ultimately, redemption--all wrapped in the addictive voice of William Miller, Evison's fiercely likeable narrator."
—Keith Dixon, author of The Art of Losing
Visit Jonathan Evison's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Patrick Lennon

Patrick Lennon is author of the Corn Dolls (2006) and Steel Witches (2008).

After reading his posts as guest blogger at The Rap Sheet last month, I contacted him and asked what he was reading. His reply:
There's hot rain in England, and I've just packed the manuscript of my next book off to my agent, so I have a few days now with the lightning outside and a handful of books I've been eyeing up for a while.

First, there's Up In Honey's Room by Elmore Leonard. The great feeling - as always with him - is of characters shooting around the book like pinballs, one of them a Detroit butcher who thinks he's Heinrich Himmler's twin. A real pleasure. I've always been conscious that three of my favourite writers - Elmore Leonard, Franz Kafka and Thomas Hardy - were all alive at the same moment in the mid 1920's. I don't know what that means, but I find it interesting.

Then there's Cripple Creek by James Sallis - the first of his books that I've read. I like this kind of heightened, small-town thing. And at the foot of the first page, someone's singing 'I heard the voice of a pork chop say, Come unto me and rest.' That's a very good sign.

I'm also going back to Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell, which I laid aside a few years ago. It's one of a series of secret agent yarns that O'Donnell published in the 1960's - not as corny as I'd thought on first reading, and punctuated by flashes of hallucinogenic violence. A good antidote to the 'James Bond as literature' mood circulating at present.

And because it's summer and thunder’s rolling around, I’ve brought out my copy of The Cantos of Ezra Pound - to be read in the garden under a canvas awning.
Learn more about Patrick Lennon at his website and The Fletcher File, the blog marking the publication of Steel Witches.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Craig Robinson

Craig Robinson is "an English future ex-smoker, currently living in Berlin."

When I saw that Rebecca Armstrong of the Independent placed Robinson's Atlas Schmatlas atop her list of the ten best atlases, I got in touch and asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm rather embarrassed to say that over the past six months that I've spent travelling around the Americas, I've not finished a single book. I've started reading several, but I've got sidetracked, not picked the books up again, and ended up dumping them along the way. I started a PG Wodehouse book, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Oil!, a Paul Auster book that I forget the name of, and The Shroud of the Thwacker by Chris Elliott. I still hold out hopes for the Auster and Elliott books to end up being read completely, but the others I'll have to re-acquire and give another go at some point. It seems strange, though, because everyone tells you to take a couple of good books when you're travelling, but reading has kinda been the last thing on my mind while I've been doing it. I sit on buses and trains and planes, and I'm just happy to look out of the window for the most part.
Craig Robinson is an artist, illustrator, designer and animator living and working in Berlin. His popular website is Flip Flop Flyin'.

Atlas Scmatlas is his third book. Learn more about the book and check out some excerpts.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tony Perrottet

Tony Perrottet is the author of four books - a collection of travel stories, Off the Deep End: Travels in Forgotten Frontiers (1997); Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (2002); The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Greek Games (2004); and Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (July 1, 2008). He has also contributed to international publications including Smithsonian Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, Esquire, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times, and the London Sunday Times, and is a regular television guest on the History Channel.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently going through a very pleasant reading phase: After two years of poring over dry academic works with titles like “The Cultural History of Masturbation” or “Chastity Belts in Private British Collections” for Napoleon's Privates, I've been meandering through some books I've been meaning to read for ages. There's no real pattern: I've just finished The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby (famously composed while he was paralyzed except for his left eye) which was a pretty humbling experience (it makes you want to drop everything and run wild in Central Park), and at the opposite end of the gravity scale, Woody Allen's hilarious collection Mere Anarchy.

I've just started John Berendt's City of Falling Angels - I finally managed to get to Venice last year to visit Casanova's prison cell in the Doge's Palace, having traveled almost everywhere else in the world, and was delighted to find Venice was nowhere near as Disneyfied as I'd feared, so I'm keen to read what Berendt comes up with. (He's a master of mixing history and travel into a ripping yarn).

I've also started Capote's In Cold Blood, which I'm embarrassed to say I've never read - it's certainly off to a powerful start, and the descriptions haven't dated at all.

Meanwhile, I'm heading out West this summer on my annual Smithsonian Magazine story gig - this time to Monument Valley in Utah -- so I've just bought Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder about Kit Carson to get me in the mood, and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove to take with me on the road. I actually read Lonesome Dove last time I was in the Southwest many years ago, and it made a big impression on me. It's the ultimate road trip page-turner: McMurtry's use of narrative makes it utterly addictive, and I think anyone writing non-fiction can learn something from it…
Read an excerpt from Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped, and learn more about the book and author at Tony Perrottet's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Marie Winn

Marie Winn is the author of Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife; Red-Tails in Love: Pale Male's Story; The Plug-In Drug: Televisions, Computers, and Family Life; and many other books. She was born in Prague, but has spent most of her life in New York City, where she lives not far from Central Park.

Late last month I asked her what she reading. Her reply:
I'm the literary equivalent of an over-eater, an over-reader. If reading were fattening I'd be obese. I've just had a fairly long fast, being unable to read for pleasure while in the throes of writing. Now that I've finished my book, I'm making up for it with gluttonous reading. Here are a few of the books I'm reading at the moment, with a word of explanation as to why I'm reading each. I'll also note the likelihood of my finishing them.

The Snake Charmer by Jamie James [Hyperion]. I love snakes. I also have an indirect connection with Joe Slowinski, the California herpetologist whose life and tragic death this book recounts. There's no way I'm not going to finish this book. It's full of fascinating snake lore and tells a gripping story.

In Search of Memory by Eric R Kandel [Norton 2006]. This book has been on my night table for almost two years and now at last I can read it. I'm fascinated by the relatively new science of neurobiology and Kandel is in the forefront of it. Also his history as a refugee from Hitler, detailed in this memoir, somewhat parallels my own. I take in the difficult parts of Kandel's book--the explanations of how the brain works and what happens in what part of it-- the way I do poetry, not always understanding everything but finding myself fathoming it in an almost non-verbal way. I'll probably have it on my night table for many more years as I make my way through it.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel [Yale]. I'm dabbling in this beautiful book an editor sent me because she knew I was writing about nocturnal matters. The book has nothing to do with my subject, in fact, but it's about bibliophilia, or perhaps bibliomania, and I'm certainly familiar with both. It reminds me a bit of another book about a book addict--

The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford, [Picador, 2003] a marvelous literary memoir I savored for many months a few years ago. I simply didn't want to finish it.
Read Michiko Kakutani's review of Central Park in the Dark, and learn more about Marie Winn and her work at her website.

Among the praise for Central Park in the Dark:
"How great is New York? Right in the middle of all that finance and culture and diplomacy, there’s a great reservoir of wildness—and people crazy-wonderful enough to explore it day and night. Marie Winn’s account will make you want to grab your headlamp and head for the park, wherever you live."
—Bill McKibben, author of The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces from an Active Life
--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 5, 2008

David Orr

Earlier this week at Writers Read, Maddalena Bearzi praised "David Orr’s book Earth in Mind [as] a 'must read' for those of us who feel our planet is becoming totally unsustainable or for those who don’t know enough about the environmental issues facing us in the near future."

Which led me to ask Orr what he was reading. His reply:
just finished Simon Schama's Citizen, reading Paul Robert's The End of Food; and Richard Heinberg's Peak Everything.
David Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College and a James Marsh Professor at the University of Vermont.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Lewis Shiner

Lewis Shiner is a novelist and short story writer.

Of his new novel, Black & White, Jonathan Lethem wrote:
Black & White, Lewis Shiner's long-awaited return to the novel, is social realism so urgent and committed as to be an act of witnessing. Like books by Richard Price and George Pelecanos, Shiner's is both a page-turner and an urban documentary with a big, fierce heart.
Earlier this week I asked Shiner what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently wrapping up Che Guevara:A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson, which I'm reading as research for a new story. Che is on T-shirts all over the world, and I wanted to make sense of some of his contradictions: a compassionate humanist who carried a rifle; a doctor who killed; a freedom fighter who embraced the totalitarian regimes in the USSR and China. Anderson is an advocate of Che's ideals, but not a hagiographer. The book, at 754 pages (not counting notes) is thorough, but never boring, and gives a nuanced picture of a complex human being.

My favorite fiction I've read this summer is The Octopus, by Frank Norris, from 1901. This novel of robber barons in California is as relevant right now as it was the day it was published: "We are told we can defeat them by the ballot-box. They own the ballot-box. We are told we must look to the courts for redress; they own the courts ... despoiling a government treasury of a million dollars, yet picking the pockets of a farm hand of the price of a loaf of bread." Halliburton, anyone? Some of the writing is heavy handed, especially the oral formulas, but the plot builds to a devastating climax.
Read an excerpt from Black & White, and learn more about Lewis Shiner and his work at his website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Maddalena Bearzi

Maddalena Bearzi is the President and Co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society and is a visiting scholar in the Departments of Anthropology and Biological Sciences, at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has studied dolphins and whales in California and different parts of the world. Her new book, with Craig B. Stanford, is Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
David Orr’s book Earth in Mind is a “must read” for those of us who feel our planet is becoming totally unsustainable or for those who doesn’t know enough about the environmental issues facing us in the near future.

Population growth, fisheries collapse, forest shrinkage, species extinction, temperature rise and many other issues are pushing the natural carrying capacity of Planet Earth to the limit. The emerging question is “how can we live sustainably?”

"A sane civilization" writes Orr, "would have more parks and fewer shopping malls; more small farms and fewer agribusinesses; more prosperous small towns and smaller cities; more solar collectors and fewer strip mines; more bicycle trials and fewer freeways; more trains and fewer cars; more celebration and less hurry; more property owners and fewer millionaires and billionaires; more readers and fewer television watchers; more shopkeepers and fewer multinational corporations; more teachers and fewer lawyers; more wilderness and fewer landfills; more wild animals and fewer pets. A sane civilization would not advocate unending economic growth at the expense of all planetary life.”

Is this just "utopian thinking” on Orr’s part? Many might think so but in Orr’s opinion "No! In our present circumstances it is the only realistic course imaginable. We have tried utopia and can no longer afford it." Orr words explore the relationship between educational, economic and ecological systems, offering intelligent solutions and, at the end, taking a critical look at how we see ourselves in nature and how we need to change that view if we are to survive.
About Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins, from Publishers Weekly:
Endowed through evolution with large brains, the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans) and the cetaceans (dolphins and whales) are second only to humans in intelligence. In this delightful and intriguing book, dolphin specialist Bearzi and primatologist Stanford discuss the similarities between these groups. Both use tools, have sophisticated means of communication and cooperation, solve problems innovatively, transmit cultural traditions to the next generation and are able to imitate others. Like humans, apes and dolphins form complex social networks, and they are capable of deception and manipulation.
Visit Maddalena Bearzi's website.

--Marshal Zeringue