Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor in the Departments of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia University, director of the Applied Statistics Center, and also the founding director of the Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences program.

His latest book is Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've been reading Personal Days, by Ed Park, which based on the reviews (and the first couple of chapters, which is what I've read so far) is a remake of Joshua Ferris's Then We Come to the End, last year's hilarious and claustrophobic satire on office-cubicle life. Ferris's and Park's books read like a cross between Geoffrey O'Brien and Don DeLillo, only funnier. Or like a fast-forward Richard Ford without the smugness. I'm impressed how novel-writing technique has improved in recent decades. John Updike was pretty slick, but Ferris and Park (and, for that matter, Ford) really seem in total control of their material, even in comparison to the masters of the previous generations. Sure, there was Nabokov (and, in his own way, James Jones), but that's about it from back then. Now there seem to be a lot of novelists who really know what they're doing in this way. (I think Jonathan Coe could have total control of his material too, if he really felt like it. He seems like Mailer or (Martin) Amis in his desire to shatter his own smooth surfaces.)

I'm also reading Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941, by British historian Ian Kershaw. He goes into the historical evidence on how the leaders of Germany, Japan, the United States and the other WW2 participants made some of their seemingly inexplicable decisions. In addition to giving background on the historical personalities involved, Kershaw's book is fascinating in how it focuses on the decision-making process within each country. In the writing style as well as in content, this book reminds me of A. J. P. Taylor's classic Origins of the Second World War.
Visit the official website for Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State.

Learn more about Andrew Gelman and his work at his website and his blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Manuel Muñoz

Manuel Muñoz is the author of two collections of short stories: Zigzagger (Northwestern University Press, 2003) and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007), which was shortlisted for the 2007 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize.

He is a member of the faculty of the University of Arizona's creative writing program.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
My undergrads have begun with the 2008 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories, and I'm getting a real kick at introducing them to writers many of them have never encountered. Steven Millhauser was an enormous hit with them and it's heartening to know that a few students will seek out more of his work because of this exposure. I look forward to seeing how they'll respond to Edward P. Jones and Mary Gaitskill, to name just two of my own favorites in this year's anthology.

For pleasure, I've begun Joan Silber's just-released novel, The Size of the World. I'm an enormous fan of her collection Ideas of Heaven, and I'm captivated once again by her easy style and her effortless command. I'm savoring this one.

A book I started too late to assign to my undergrads, but will appear on a syllabus in the spring, is Asali Solomon's fantastic short story collection, Get Down: I sense my students will respond well to her extraordinary warmth and humor, even in difficult situations. And I can't wait to start Walk the Blue Fields, by the Irish writer Claire Keegan. I recently met both of these writers at a conference in Cork and came away quite impressed. Sadly, it was only Keegan whom I got to see on a panel: she was terrific on one about Irish literature, and I was quite taken with her composure, her sure-footed commitment to her writing, and her extremely intelligent reasoning for its place in the world.
Visit Manuel Muñoz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 26, 2008

Margot Kahn

Margot Kahn is the author of Horses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith.

Her work and book reviews have appeared in various print and online publications including Work Magazine, Pindeldyboz, Ohioana Quarterly, and Publishers Weekly. In 2005 she received the Ohioana Library Association’s Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant for a promising young writer.

Kahn is currently the youth programs manager at Richard Hugo House, a literary arts center in Seattle, and a writer-in-residence with the Seattle Arts & Lectures program Writers in the Schools.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
This summer’s been a strange one. First, it didn’t start acting like summer until the middle of July, right when I had to start teaching creative writing workshops at Richard Hugo House, Seattle’s great literary center. While I wanted to be in a meadow somewhere on the edge of a snowfield, watching the wildflowers open, drifting in and out of the stack of books I’d picked up in May at Elliott Bay, I was instead inside, surrounded by high school hormones, revisiting my old favorite lines. It was bittersweet.

I relished rereading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Collected Stories, and I was ecstatic to see the spastic kid who hadn’t written much in a week sit buried in that book for the rest of the afternoon. I went back to Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club for a lesson on memoir and to John D’Agata’s lovely The Next American Essay collection to show that not all essays are five-paragraph bores. We looked at Junot Diaz’s stories in Drown for, among other things, dialogue. And I went back to The Collected Works of Billy the Kid for its inventive construction, gorgeous lyricism and that Western thing that I love.

Several fantastic Seattle writers came to visit our workshop and I was delighted to discover their work in the process. Among them, Catharine Wing’s collection of poems Enter Invisible and Ryan Boudinot’s hysterical and creepy collection of short stories The Littlest Hitler made me laugh, cry and hide in my house for days.

In my own time, what little of it there was, I read two stories of marriage: Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees and Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage. Both of these books cover decades of time and seas of emotion in tight style. And it’s rare for me to get so caught up in such gorgeous sentences, in a story so perfectly paced, that I look up at a certain discovery and say out loud, “How did he do that?” But this happened to me twice in Greer’s book, making me want to turn back to the first page the very moment I finished the last.

Next on my list: The Boat by Nam Le and The Curtain by Milan Kundera. I’m also looking forward to Cody Walker’s first collection of poems, Shuffle and Breakdown, coming out in November.
Read more about Margot Kahn's Horses That Buck at the publisher's website.

Visit Margot Kahn's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

James L. Nelson

James L. Nelson is an award-winning maritime author who Patrick O'Brian called "A master of his period and of the English language."

I recently asked Nelson what he was reading. His reply:
Thomas Fleming recently mentioned he was reading one of my novels. It might sound like literary quid pro quo to say I am reading one of his, but he and I just did a book swap so I am in fact reading his novel Dreams of Glory. I have long admired Tom's nonfiction but have not read any of his novels. Good stuff, his knowledge of the period shines through.

Prior to that I read William Hammond's novel of the Revolutionary War navy, A Matter of Honor. Again, the research is unassailable and the characters well drawn.

Still on the shelf: David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, which I started though I knew that other things were going to get in the way. Albion's Seed has been a "must read" for a few years.

Also on deck, Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, since every once in a while I have to read something that is not about the American Revolution!

That will be a brief diversion, however. I'm just launching into writing a new book on the Battle of Yorktown and the naval battle that preceded it, so I suspect much of my reading will be directed in that effort. One book I'll be revisiting for that is Piers Mackesy's terrific The War for America. Not what you would call a page-turner, but a brilliant and insightful work.
James L. Nelson is the author of the recently published George Washington's Secret Navy and Benedict Arnold’s Navy, and several novels that take place during the age of the sailing navies. His first book of nonfiction was Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads.

Learn more about James L. Nelson and his work at his website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 22, 2008

J.B. Shank

J. B. Shank is an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota.

His new book is The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment, about which the University of London's Colin Jones writes: "Shank offers a fresh and genuinely innovative account of a key period and takes the reader into the scientific and philosophical worlds that grappled with the legacy of Newton, one of the master scientists of the early modern world."

Last week I asked Shank what he was reading. His reply:
I always have several books in different genres going at once, and as I am starting a sabbatical this year I have more than the usual number in process. Since I have sadly finished all of W.G. Sebald's novels, I continue to long for similar stories imbedded in history, memory, and fragile subjectivity. One I read recently that I liked a lot was Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon. Mercier is a German-Swiss philosophy professor, and his novel is a story of mid-life crisis as moment of self-awakening all set within the recent political history of Portugal.

Related to my on-going work in science studies is Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek which I read for the first time this past summer. I was drawn to the book by what I knew of Dillard's particular philosophical and theological orientation, but what I also found was a compelling and elegantly written book with a richly humane perspective on natural science and its capacity to excite wonder about nature.

My new historical research focuses on the work of Galileo Galilei, and a technical monograph that is teaching me many things is Domenico Bertoloni Meli's Thinking with Objects: The Transformation of Mechanics in the Seventeenth Century, a study that stresses the hands-on historical contingencies that were essential to the making of modern mathematical mechanics. To better understand the context that produced Galileo's science, I am also returning to a book that is routinely referenced but rarely actually read anymore: Jacob Burckhardt's pioneering The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy first published in 1860. The book literally defined the modern field of Renaissance history, and I am interested in returning to this founding text first hand so as to compare the Renaissance as Burckhardt understands it with the historical literature that his since been generated by his work.

I am also intrigued by Joseph Mali's discussion of Burckhardt in his book Mythhistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography. Mali sees Burckhardt as a classic mythhistorian in his recognition that history is an indissoluble fusion of empirical fact and imagination, and thus science and myth, and since Galileo is another figure fruitfully understood through the frameworks of mythhistory as Mali defines them, I am also interested in reading Burckhardt's account of the Renaissance for the models it may offer for thinking and writing about Galileo.

I also frequently have some philosophical titles on my reading list, and at the top of the pile right now is Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston's Objectivity, an account of the emergence of detached objectivity, and the subjectivity that anchored it, as epistemological and ethical ideals in nineteenth century Europe.

On deck are Paul Ricoeur's recently translated magnum opus, Memory, History, Forgetting and Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, each of which speak, albeit in very different ways, to the particular union of history and philosophy at the center of my own historical research and writing.

In the spirit of the "campaign season," I also read Thomas Frank's new book The Wrecking Crew. This is the third installment in what is an evolving critique of the "New Right" that has overtaken American politics since the late 1970s. Frank's first two books were One Market Under God and What's the Matter with Kansas?, and while I continue to hope that Frank will someday turn his attention toward explaining why the movements that he so brilliantly describes had the power that they did (he treats the development as a kind of mass delusion), his neo-muckraking style (H.L. Mencken is his idol, but he is also a child of the post-Hunter S. Thompson generation) provides the perfect antidote to the on-going absurdities of Fox News and "Red America" political discourse. Indeed, put Frank's three books together and you have the perfect hermeneutic for interpreting every dimension of the Sarah Palin phenomenon.
Read more about The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment at the University of Chicago Press website.

Learn more about J.B. Shank's work at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ronald Wallace

The writer-poet Ronald Wallace is Felix Pollak Professor of Poetry and Halls-Bascom Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm just back from a week hiking in the Tetons where I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping again, and am in the middle of Gilead with Home on tap.

I'm now beginning to read the 800 poetry book manuscripts submitted to the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes in poetry at the University of Wisconsin Press (I read something in each submission) which leaves me time to read little else during September, October, and November.

After that I plan to return to reading poetry in translation, a project I began this summer (Neruda, Vallejo, Tranströmer, Issa, others).
Ronald Wallace's latest book of poetry is For a Limited Time Only. He is the author of seven previous books of poetry, including: Long for This World: New and Selected Poems; The Uses of Adversity; Time's Fancy; People and Dog in the Sun; and The Makings of Happiness.

His works of literary criticism include: God Be with the Clown: Humor in American Poetry; The Last Laugh: Form and Affirmation in the Contemporary American Comic Novel; and Henry James and the Comic Form.

Read a selection of Wallace's poems and learn more about his work at his website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Margaret Luongo

Margaret Luongo teaches creative writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her stories have appeared in Tin House, FENCE, Cincinnati Review, and other journals. Her new book of stories is If the Heart Is Lean.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The semester has started up, so I’m dipping into story collections more and more. I just finished Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” which a friend had recommended. I’d told her I was thinking about writing a doppelganger story set in Ohio, and she set me on this Poe story. I have a collection of his work—the poetry and the stories—which I’ve had since childhood. I read Poe heavily as a teenager, and I loved his feverish prose—still do. The story is classic Poe: a dark tone, and a character going too far into darkness.

Last spring, Alexandra Chasin came to read at Miami University. She read from her story collection Kissed By for a solid hour, and I was transfixed—not normal for me. Generally, I’m good for about 35 minutes. Last night, I read “Two Alphabets” aloud to my husband in the car as we drove to Cincinnati, and I kept going back to re-read passages that were just gorgeous—beautiful, moving rhythm and language. The collection was published by FC2 and the stories are experimental, but that should not put people off. The stories I’ve heard and read are full of emotion and humanity. Chasin’s intelligence informs her choices and enhances what is moving in every day life. Everything is heightened yet believable, somehow polished and raw at the same time.

When I was preparing to teach an intro to Creative Writing class last year, I went to the library to check out Amy Bloom’s Come to Me, which I love. I ended up also getting Dagoberto Gilb’s Woodcuts of Women, a collection of 10 stories and woodcuts. I’m just getting around to reading it now. His characters love women and they love love. If menace can be delicate, it is here; linked to desire and vanity, it’s all the more unsettling. I’m only two stories in, but already I know I’ll want to re-read these stories.
Read more about Margaret Luongo's If the Heart Is Lean at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

James K. Galbraith

James K. Galbraith holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., Chair in Government / Business Relations at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

His latest book is The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. The Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz said The Predator State "[s]hows how to break the spell that conservatives have cast over the minds of liberals (and everyone else) for many years."

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Cabezo da Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. Translated and Edited by Cyclone Covey, 1983, University of New Mexico Press. I picked it up by happenstance; a gripping tale.

Earlier this summer I read the Inferno, in the Ciardi translation, amazingly for the first time. It was good to learn what will happen, in due course, to the present architects of the McCain campaign.

Next on the list: the galleys of Edward Fullbrook's Pluralist Economics, forthcoming from Zed books.

And at the top of the to-do pile: Andrew Gelman's brand-new Red State Blue State: Why Americans Vote as They Do. Gelman is an elegant practical statistician, a rare skill.
Read an excerpt from The Predator State, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Learn more about James K. Galbraith's work at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 15, 2008

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming's latest book is The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
One writer I've recently gotten interested in is James L. Nelson. He's written a series of novels about the American Revolution at sea, good stories told with great authenticity. He really knows18th Century ships and seamen. He's also written several novels about the Civil War navy. As an ex-Navy guy, I'm partial to salt water sagas. Nelson made me nostalgic for the years in the 1980s when I was writing my tribute to my fellow WWII swabbies, Time and Tide.

I'm also reading about James Madison, who plays a role in a book I'm writing about women in the lives of the founding fathers. Two books I liked were A Perfect Union by Catherine Allgor, a biography of Dolley, and The Last of the Fathers by Drew R. McCoy, about Madison's old age.

I also enjoy picking up novels I meant to read but missed. One I enjoyed immensely is State of Fear by Michael Crichton, which convinced me all over again that Al Gore and Global Warming are both diseases of the public mind.

I also like to reread something I read as a mere youth. So I went back to F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise. As a novel it isn't the greatest but the prose is wonderful and it reminded me of how deeply F. Scott was involved with his Irish-Catholic heritage. I found that rather moving, having gone back to my own I-C boyhood in my recent memoir, Mysteries of My Father, and served as chief consultant to the forthcoming An Irish-American Chronicle, about the whole I-A experience in the free world (aka the US) which is coming out next St. Patrick's Day.
Thomas Fleming is the author of more than forty novels and nonfiction books, including bestsellers such as The Officers' Wives, Time and Tide, and Liberty! The American Revolution. He is a frequent guest and contributor to NPR, PBS, A&E, and the History Channel. He was the principal commentator on the award-winning PBS documentary The Irish in America: Long Journey Home. A Fellow of the Society of American Historians, Fleming has served as chairman of the American Revolution Round Table and president of the American Center of P.E.N., the international writer's organization.

Visit Thomas Fleming's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Amanda Petrusich

Amanda Petrusich is the author of Pink Moon, a short book about Nick Drake's 1972 album for Continuum's 33 1/3 series, and It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I have a bad habit of reading my favorite books over and over again; at a certain point it becomes less about the content and more about wanting to tap into – and, if we're being honest, emulate – whatever weird magic drew me to them in the first place. I've probably read Ellen Willis' Beginning to See the Light three times in the last few months; her essay on Elvis – in which she speculates that Elvis' longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is "just an ectoplasmic projection of Presley's Hollywood side" – is only two or three pages, but it's also one of the most astute, thoughtful, and hilarious criticisms of Elvis Presley that I've ever read. Ellen Willis has impeccable rhythm as a writer; each word snaps into place.

This summer I was also lucky enough to read two books that were written by good friends: Horses that Buck by Margot Kahn and Welcome to Shirley by Kelly McMasters. Each offers its readers a different portrait of a different America; both are lovingly rendered and tremendously written, as complicated (and compelling) as the country they portray. Horses That Buck is the story of Bill Smith, the three-time world champion saddle bronc rider; Welcome to Shirley is the author's memoir of her childhood in Shirley, Long Island, the site of the contentious and potentially lethal Brookhaven National Laboratory.

I'm also a glutton for good food writing – I brought Calvin Trillin's The Tummy Trilogy and Julia Child's My Life in France on vacation, and finished them both almost immediately. Trillin and Child are both incredibly charming narrators, and ace stylists.
Among the praise for Petrusich's It Still Moves:
“Like a smart, genial Persephone, Amanda Petrusich wanders the underworld of American roots music and reports back her insights with an open mind and an open heart. She has a respect for history and an even greater respect for the passion that keeps history alive and meaningful.”
—Anthony DeCurtis, Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone
Learn more about the book and author from Petrusich's interview with Salon.com.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peter Trachtenberg

Peter Trachtenberg's essays and short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, TriQuarterly, Bomb, the Jewish Forward, and Chicago, and have been broadcast on NPR's "All Things Considered." He received the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction and the Jerome Lowell DeJur Award for Fiction from the City College of New York.

His new book is The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I should preface this by noting that my reading is divided into three categories: the books I’m reading for my next project, the ones I’m assigning to my students at UNC Wilmington, and the ones I read for pleasure. Of course the categories overlap. Probably everything I read gives me some degree of pleasure—I’m one of those people who read the back of cereal boxes—and much of it ends up going into my own writing, either through the ivory gate of research or the horn gate of influence, conscious or unconscious. By now I’ve been writing long enough to have developed a voice that’s not all that amenable to change: Even if I wanted to, I doubt I could imitate A. J. Liebling or Simone Weil. But sometimes I find myself answering them.

Over the last three or four months I’ve read Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, a book that drops one into the death-haunted psyche of Civil War America, where soldiers were sent into battle with explicit instructions to die and obeyed in such vast numbers as to give birth to the modern funeral industry. This led me to the Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which I initially read with the intention of using as a teaching text and then fell in love with. Its quick, clipped, forceful sentences strike me as the fundamental units—the atoms—of American prose, the direct precursors of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein; Stein was a big fan of Grant’s. And no one has more successfully conveyed the movements of vast numbers of men on the battlefield, so clearly that the accompanying maps are almost beside the point. You can fault Grant for viewing the war as a series of technical problems. But he also knew that it was a mechanism for killing men. After the second day at Shiloh, he remarks that the dead lay upon the field so thickly that one could not walk across it without treading on them. Wanting to better understand this combination of callousness and sensitivity, I’m now reading William S. McFeely’s terrific Grant: A Biography.

I assign parts of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz to both my graduate and undergraduate writing students. It’s a book of such power and compression that it can be used to teach several practices and techniques. Foremost for me is the exactitude of Levi’s descriptions. He remembers the flavor of the water the newcomers to the lager were forbidden to drink, and that they drank anyway: it was “tepid and sweetish, with the smell of a swamp.” He remembers what the tattooing felt like, and he explains the significance of the numbers with which people were tattooed. In this way, staying as close to the facts as possible, he particularizes the great, stupefying abstraction of the Shoah, an enormity that might have been designed to thwart any attempt to visualize it.

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is the first novel I read after finishing a long work of nonfiction. Of course it blew me away. Even thinking about it, I feel dizzy. It’s not a perfect book-- the story reels and shambles like a drunk looking for his house keys and depends on coincidences more improbable than Dickens’s. But maybe Johnson’s clumsy, overly-assertive plotting is meant to mirror that of the Vietnam war itself. Few writers can create characters of such poignancy and menace, or shift moods so effortlessly, or write sentences that are small poems and also sound exactly like something a drunk once said to you in a bar. In Tree of Smoke, Johnson has created a work of art fully equal to America’s great foreign catastrophe of the last century.
Read an excerpt from The Book of Calamities, and learn more about the author and his work at Peter Trachtenberg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Joshua Davis

Joshua Davis' writing has appeared in GQ, Wired, Outside, Mens Health and Food & Wine, and has been anthologized in the 2006 and 2007 editions of The Best Technology Writing as well as the 2007 edition of Best American Science Writing.

In April of 2003, he snuck into Iraq to cover the war for Wired and later that year became a contributing editor for the magazine.

In 2005, Random House published his first book, The Underdog - a recounting of Davis' armwrestling, bullfighting, sumo, sauna and backward running adventures.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At the beginning of the summer, I started reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It's slow but fascinating, largely because it reveals what a fundamentally creative pursuit science is. These guys would come up with an idea about what a molecule looks like and build a machine from scratch to test that idea. I just find that really exciting - it makes me want to come up with some ideas about how the universe works and build a giant machine in my backyard. I don't think I'd be able to get any uranium at this point but that's just the type of practical hurdles these guys jumped every day. Looking out my window now, I see piles of dog shit, a rake and a couple of rat traps. I'm sure that's the beginning of something.

Unfortunately, as I started packing for our Caribbean vacation, my wife off-handedly said that a 1000-page book on atomic science would make me look like a complete dork on the beach. She mentioned something about French romeos wandering the shores in speedos and did I really want to spend all my time huddled under the beach umbrella on my own personal geek-a-pollza trip?

It was a dirty, sly ploy because her ultimate goal wasn't to make me jealous - she just didn't want to find herself stuck with the carry-on containing a book that big.

She also knew that I have a habit of bringing a whole stack of books with me whenever I travel. The problem is that I never know exactly what I'll be in the mood to read when I get where I'm going. So much depends of the weather, the size of the hotel room and other intangibles. If the room is small and the weather oppressively muggy, I need something light and distracting like Steve Martin's memoir Born Standing Up. If the room is big, the view wonderful and the air-conditioning effective, I can handle something more adventurous like Ryszard Kapuscinski's description of the Iranian revolution in Shah of Shahs.

I loaded those books into the bag but hesitated with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. My wife walked by the door dangling one of my old speedos and I decided to leave the big book behind. Still, I announced that, in retribution for her total underhandedness, I was going to the bookstore to buy MORE BOOKS which I reserved the right to bring on vacation to make up for the loss.

At the bookstore, Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander caught my eye in the window; ­ it was wedged in amongst pirate books. I guess O’Brian’s tale of 18th century British naval warfare was close enough. I had recently written about a group of guys who save sinking ships for a living and a good naval yarn seemed like just the thing for me. It was light enough to mollify my wife, manly enough to read in the midst of the tanned, speedo-clad lotharios, and, last but not least, it was something I was actually interested in reading.

I burned through it and am now a total addict. I’ve read the first 4 out of the 21 book series and when I finish a book, I go to great lengths to buy the next one immediately. If I was smart and listened to my wife, I would order them all and have them standing by. But I guess I’m not that smart. I like feeling the burning need to go out and buy then next book. Yesterday, I even scheduled a business meeting at a Borders just so I could be sure and have the fifth book by nightfall.

Despite the logistics and scheduling problems I’m creating by insisting on urgent trips to bookstores, my wife is happy. I know exactly what I’ll be reading for the next year - the 16 remaining books in the series. It means I don’t have to bring more than one or two books with me when we travel. Plus, they’re lightweight paperbacks. The marriage is in a good place.
Visit Joshua Davis' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ron Slate

Ron Slate's book of poems The Incentive of the Maggot was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. A second book of poems, The Great Wave, will be published by Houghton in spring 2009.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
For review assignments, I've just finished Jake Adam York's second book of poems A Murmuration of Starlings (So. Ill. Univ Press), Francine Prose's forthcoming novel Goldengrove (Harper), Elaine Sexton's poems in Causeway (New Issues), and Mel Bochner's Solar System & Rest Rooms: Writings and Interviews 1965-2007 (MIT Press).

For my pleasure (though the titles above offer this as well), I'm reading Frank Bidart's poems Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar Straus), Michael Kruger's novel The Executor (Harcourt) and Anthony Cave Brown's book on the Saudis and Aramco, Oil, God and Gold (Houghton 1999).

Next in line: For a Limited Time Only, poems by Ronald Wallace (just out from Pittsburgh); Lands of Memory, stories by Felisberto Hernandez (born in Montevideo, lived and worked in Argentina), published in July by New Directions; and Radical Vernacular, essays on the poet Lorine Niedecker (d. 1970) from Iowa, edited by Elizabeth Williams.
Ron Slate, the winner of the 2004 Bakeless Prize for Poetry, is a graduate of the Stanford University Writing Program. He was the editor of the Chowder Review from 1973 to 1988. Poems from The Incentive of the Maggot appeared in The New Yorker, TriQuarterly, The Threepenny Review, and Slate.com.

Visit Ron Slate's website for a selection of his published poems and reviews and commentary.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 5, 2008

Joshua Henkin

Joshua Henkin latest novel, now available in paperback, is the widely-acclaimed Matrimony.

He is also the author of the novel Swimming Across the Hudson, which was named a Los Angeles Times notable book of the year. His short stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, Triquarterly, DoubleTake, The North American Review, The New England Review, Boulevard, and elsewhere.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I spent the beginning of this summer moving my family back to Brooklyn, where we generally live, from Philadelphia, where we were living last year, so in June and July I was doing lots of little bursts of reading between unpacking boxes. Short stories ended up serving me well, particularly because this fall I’ll be teaching several collections I haven’t taught before. Charles D’Ambrosio is one of my favorite writers, and I was rereading The Dead Fish Museum, and also reading Colm Tóibín’s wonderful collection of stories Mothers and Sons, which my colleague Joan Silber, a terrific short story writer herself, recommended to me.

When I got the chance to read something longer, I turned to Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a book so praised by everyone I came to it with a jaded eye, but it really is as good as people are saying. A marriage is foundering, with September 11 as the backdrop, and the novel explores and explodes that marriage, while also depicting an unusual friendship between two men nurtured on a mutual love of cricket. In the process, Netherland is a love song to the city of New York, as seen through the eyes of a non-native. James Wood was right to call it one of the best post-colonial novels ever written.

Reading O’Neill’s book made me go back to reread another 9/11 marriage novel, A Day at the Beach by Helen Schulman, which I really liked when I first read it and still do. Schulman is a graceful, lovely writer, and the book is an excellent example of how to write a novel that takes place in compressed time. And speaking of Wood, I’ve just begun his new book of criticism, How Fiction Works.

Another novel I read this summer was The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley. I’ve long admired Hadley’s short stories, many of which have appeared in The New Yorker, and my wife read and liked an earlier Hadley novel, but I had never read a novel of hers before. The Master Bedroom has all the things I’ve come to expect in Hadley’s work: acute, understated prose, deep psychological insight, and a sense of lurking terror beneath the smooth surface of things. It’s a novel about many things, but perhaps principally it’s a kind of unwitting love triangle between a middle-aged woman and a father and his teenage son. The love affair with the teenager is terrifically evoked, as is the despair and ambivalence the protagonist feels taking care of her elderly mother.

Next on my list: A Person of Interest by Susan Choi.
Read an excerpt from Matrimony, and learn more about the novel and its author at Joshua Henkin's website and his blog.

The Page 69 Test: Matrimony.

--Marshal Zeringue