Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Eric Roston

Eric Roston is the author of The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Writers Read asked for book picks during the 30-hour span in which I absorbed John M. Barry's 500-page The Great Influenza, an epic synthesis of seven years of research. The writing is spare: He steps out of the way and lets the material tell the grisly tale of how 50 million to 100 million people succumbed to the inaptly named Spanish Flu in 1918-1919. I reported on the threat of a pandemic flu a couple of years ago, and the world's lack of preparedness on this front causes grave concern.

I read so much for work, it's difficult to say what or if I read for pleasure, though I've tried lately. John Hodgman's The Areas of My Experitse induced glee in a way few books have in recent memory (NB: Most books I read are closer in subject matter to Barry's account of the Black Death). I breezed through Watchmen, and enjoyed it, but also wish I'd read it when the world was shiny and new. Upon Sarah Palin's entrance to the national stage I reread Ionesco's Rhinoceros.

Most books relate somehow to science in general or specific writing projects. Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn is a magnificent tour of history, evolution, and the human genome. 2009 is 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Wade's book is a great modern choice to keep beside Origin during events this year. Genomics news moves so quickly that Darwin's work and Wade's should be supplemented with a steady diet of journal articles, if you're into that kind of thing. (Worth noting that The Carbon Age is a book about evolution; carbon itself is something of a red herring.)

I'm in the middle of Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought. I enjoy his books, but have slowed down because I covered some of the material in grad school. Mark Lynas' Six Degrees is a brilliant synthesis of research and re-organization of climate predictions as the thermometer rises this century.

My nightstand bears the weight of Infinite Jest, at the urging of my brother. I bought it in hardcover when it came out in 1995 or so, and swore I'd burn it if I didn't finish reading it in a year. I didn't, but hope to blast through it in 2009. Otherwise, I'll burn it.

Other than that, I recently reactivated my Economist subscription. That's a commitment!
Visit Eric Roston's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 29, 2008

Carrie Jones

Carrie Jones graduated from Vermont College’s MFA program for writing. She has edited newspapers and poetry journals and has won awards from the Maine Press Association and also been awarded the Martin Dibner Fellowship as well as a Maine Literary Award.

Her books include Girl, Hero, Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape), Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend, and the newly released Need.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am reading Daphne and Chloe. It’s the version by Prestel with pictures by Chagall.

The good part about reading Daphne and Chloe is that it makes love seems so innocent and quirky in this touching way. It’s hard to be jaded when you read about the two of them falling in love, and the obstacles they face are so wild. It puts modern romance to shame. Plus, the sentences are so fantastic.

Check out these two:

There must be something in it that will be more effective than kissing.

After such thoughts as these they naturally had dreams about love, about their kisses and their embraces and what they had failed to do during the day, they did in their dreams – they lay with each other naked.

The bad part about reading it is that it makes me want to fall wildly and awkwardly in love again somehow. It almost makes the reader expect all love to be untamed and touching and lyrical. Longus makes it all seem possible and magical and then I wonder how I can ever do that as a writer.
Visit Carrie Jones' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mac Montandon

Mac Montandon is the editor of Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader. He has written for the New York Times, New York, Details, and Salon, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

His new book is Jetpack Dreams: One Man's Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was.

This week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've been reading Apples and Oranges, a memoir about her often difficult relationship with her brother by the journalist Marie Brenner. I saw the book on a couple of end-of-year Best Of lists and it looked interesting so I picked it up. It is quite good and well done -- the writing is sharp and the dynamics of the relationships are nuanced and familiar to anyone who has had strained familial experiences, which is everyone, really. I am additionally interested in Brenner's book as I'm thinking about my next project and I am leaning toward trying something closer to this genre than to whatever quirky genre my first book belongs. It's partly for this reason that I am next going to read Hurry Down Sunshine, a memoir by Michael Greenberg. While reading Apples and Oranges, I took a break halfway through to read a short but snappy treatise on the theme of snark by New Yorker critic David Denby. The book is called, naturally, Snark. It's a fun and lively exploration of that voice that has come to dominate not only much of the online discourse but plenty of media of all kinds.
Watch the Jetpack Dreams trailer and read an excerpt from the book at the official website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ken Kuhlken

Ken Kuhlken's stories have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

His novels include Midheaven, chosen as finalist for the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel, The Loud Adios (Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First PI Novel, 1989), The Venus Deal and The Angel Gang, all Tom Hickey mysteries, The Do-Re-Mi, a Tom and Clifford Hickey mystery honored as January Magazine best book of 2006 and as a finalist for the 2006 Shamus Award, and The Vagabond Virgins featuring Alvaro Hickey.

A couple of days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
The past couple months, my reading has been limited to research of one kind and another. The novel I’m working on takes the detective I write about back to his first investigation. In the mid-1920s, Tom Hickey’s a young man, when he learns that an old friend (and surrogate father) has been killed. The murder looks racially inspired and may be connected somehow to the Angelus Temple, whose founder, Aimee Semple McPherson, is currently on trial. She’s accused of fraudulently claiming she was kidnapped.

Sister Aimee’s autobiography, This Is That, is fascinating but tough to read unless one happens to be a follower of hers who wants to absorb her every word. It’s long and appears unedited. But it exposes the thoughts and obsessions of a remarkable character whose charisma, brilliance, creativity and personal power single-handedly launched a world-wide revival.

The book about her I can recommend for any reader is Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee, which records the preacher’s life in compelling drama from beginning to end. As a Canadian country girl, she wanders into a church, falls for the preacher and marries him. They go to China as missionaries, and no sooner does Aimee bear a daughter, than her husband Robert Semple dies, leaving her penniless on the other side of the world. She makes her way home, marries a solid fellow named McPherson, and tries for a few years to act domesticated. But sickness and other troubles convince her God wants her out saving souls. She sets out on the road, accompanied by her mother and the two youngsters, and preaches in tents and halls to black, white and in between. After some years, she decides her children need a home. They settle in Los Angeles. By now, in the years following WW I, she’s drawing crowds of many thousands, all over the country and overseas, and regularly presiding over apparent miracles. In every city, dozens or hundreds of people report healings during or following her prayers and laying on of hands. She uses the offerings to build her majestic Angelus Temple, across the street from Echo Park in L.A. There she preaches to a full house three times a day, seven days a week. And she becomes the first woman to license and operate a radio station, over which she preaches most every night. Then, in 1926, she disappears. That’s all I’ll give away.

Mr. Epstein is a fine writer who gives the preacher’s story in a balanced and mostly objective fashion that ought to fascinate anyone, whether a believer or a skeptic. I’ve always been a reader of biographies, but I can't think of one that more thoroughly captivated me.
Visit Ken Kuhlken's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: The Do-Re-Mi.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Malena Lott

Malena Lott is the author of The Stork Reality and Dating da Vinci.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Mighty Queen of Freeville: a Mother, A Daughter, and the People Who Raised Them, a memoir by Amy Dickinson, author of the syndicated advice column "Ask Amy" (who replaced the coveted Ann Landers spot) and NPR contributor.

I haven't read many memoirs, because I'm usually so busy reading non-fiction books on psychology, business or sociology and, of course, tons of great fiction. But I was pleased to be sent Dickinson's book for review, and within the first chapter it's apparent why she was selected to be the "next Ann Landers." Her story isn't flashy - in fact, that's kind of the point. She grew up in a small town, yes, you guessed it, Freeville, by a bunch of women. Lots and lots of women. Her mother has a pack of sisters who had a bunch of daughters, and so on. Dickinson's father left when she was young, and she's very blunt about the shortcomings in her own failed marriage, and her contributions to its demise. Great memoirs require the author to "bleed on the page," and Dickinson gives us a steady dose of it. One might think that this could be a book about a small town girl who makes it big (in my world NPR and a nationally-syndicated columnist is very big), but she doesn't dole out advice in the book. It's not a how to, but a how the hell did I get here. It's refreshing and honest and makes you want to seek out her advice column and put her NPR contributions on download on iTunes.
Read an excerpt from Dating da Vinci, and learn more about the author and her work at Malena Lott's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Dating da Vinci.

My Book, The Movie: Dating da Vinci.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lisa Schroeder

Lisa Schroeder's books include Far from You and I Heart You, You Haunt Me.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am currently reading Let it Snow: Three Holiday Stories, written by three incredible young adult authors – Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle. It's a fun book that has made me laugh out loud several times, and is perfect for this time of year, since all stories take place over Christmas, during this huge snow storm. I've only just begun the second story, written by John Green, so I can't say exactly how the three stories intertwine, but my understanding is they do, and I'm excited to see how the authors pull it off.

We get so busy this time of year, and this is the perfect book to have on the coffee table, to pick up when you come back from the mall and need a thirty minute break before you start in on the next task on your list. Grab a cup of coffee and a couple of sugar cookies, and you're set. Just don't get upset with me if your holiday cards don't get written because you are having too much fun reading this book!
Visit Lisa Schroeder's website, blog, and MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 19, 2008

Annie Barrows

Annie Barrows, whose career also included libraries, bookstores, and publishing, is the author of the Ivy and Bean series for children, as well as The Magic Half.

She is coauthor, with her aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've just started a reread of Our Mutual Friend. I read it years and years ago, and all I remember is great mountains of slime and trash and filth, but I know, given Dickens, that there's got to be more to it than that. I expect a virtuous but beleaguered girl to show up at any moment. In the meantime, I am riveted by the disgusting descriptions of the Thames. I have a deep personal interest in Victorian sanitation.

Another book I'm reading--with my daughter--is Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, by Lisa Yee. My daughter says, "Eleven-year-old boys are the weirdest people on the planet," and this book delves into the inner workings of one of them. It's pretty funny.
Visit Annie Barrows' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Steven Wingate

Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His replied with an insightful review of:
The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction
by Robert Boswell (Graywolf, 2008)

The litmus test for books in the writing-about-writing subspecies is usefulness. Can it push writers, whether self-taught or enrolled in organized programs, deeper into their work? Can teachers teach with it? In The Half-Known World, novelist Robert Boswell makes a strong (and useful) first foray into the genre by blending rumination, examples, and quite a bit of personal history. This last element pulls the book together into something much more than a handbook by describing Boswell’s wrestling matches with his chosen craft at various stages of his authorial life. Through these we see the challenges of writing—and the distinct challenges of being a writer—elucidated in their unglamorous, dirty-to-the elbows detail.

The Half-Known World is a collection of essays, not a step-by-step approach to the craft. It begins simply with the title piece, which lays out the fundamentals of Boswell’s approach: that the art of literary fiction requires us to face what we do not understand, and that “the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension.” (5) He suggests that “You can measure how successfully you’ve revealed a character by the extent to which his acts, words, history, and thoughts fail to explain him, creating instead a character that is, at once, identifiable and unknowable.” (11)

Taken at face value only, this essay might produce a generation of creative writing students who would purposefully obfuscate their characters in order to “add” an element of the incomprehensible. Fortunately Boswell doesn’t leave this as a possibility, at least for those who read beyond his opening pages. As The Half-Known World moves forward, it digs in deeper and offers plentiful examples of the phenomena he discusses. He also takes the gloves off a bit; his early counterexamples of how not to write are drawn from Hollywood and television, but after a while he calls out a few authors for taking expedient short-cuts in the creation of their characters and narrative arcs. And as he moves on, he gets more likely to raise—particularly in a few key essays such as “Process and Paradigm” and “Narrative Spandrels”—the big questions of craft and intent that fiction writers at all levels of experience can and should debate.

Perhaps the strongest essay is “On Omniscience,” which I predict will have a long life as a photocopied (or digitized) handout in graduate programs throughout the creative writing field. In it Boswell ranges wide—John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8 to Billy Budd to Anna Kareninia—but manages to keep all his balls in the air with a compelling, meaty essay that brings us face to face with a set of hard questions that writers must ask anew with every project (and often several times at different phases of the same project). Although the book does not focus on authorial strategies, Boswell doesn’t hold back from sharing some when the moment presents itself. In “The Alternate Universe” he suggests that “My advice is to go over your drafts and look for the shimmer… [L]isten to what you’ve already written and let it advise you.” (115) He follows that up with a discussion of Alice Murno and her ability to make the reader believe multiple and (on the surface at least) conflicting things about her characters—just the kind of texture that listening to your own work in multiple revisions can earn for you. This kind of interplay between craft advice and example makes The Half-Known World the kind of book one learns from (and teaches with) in a variety of ways.

Although Boswell does a fine job in talking about what one might do, he is at his best when talking about what he has lived through as a writer and human being. In “On Omniscience,” for instance, he describes a harrowing parental moment in which his fifteen-yea-old daughter goes missing in downtown Houston. In response to a cop’s suggestion that she fits the profile of a runaway, Boswell the father thinks:

I knew he was right, and yet I knew he was wrong. I wanted to tell him all he could not know. I wanted to tell him that she fit the profile only if he eliminated almost everything I knew about her, about myself, about our family, about the world. (83)

Boswell’s willingness to delve into the half-known aspects of his own life in this fashion allows him to put his money where his mouth is when he talks about fiction. He doesn’t sit back and pontificate, but sets himself on a level ground with his readers by stressing his humanity rather than his status as a celebrated author. Nowhere is this clearer than in the final essay, “You Must Change Your Life,” which covers a dissolute period in Boswell’s young adulthood when he made his first awkward commitments to the writing life. (He earned a C in his first workshop, by the way.) This capstone piece to The Half-Known World proves that you never know, no matter how inauspicious your beginnings, where your writing is going to take you if you follow it with sincerity and assiduous humility. It’s a must-read for aspiring writers who are thinking about giving up, or of not embarking on the journey at all.
Read more about Steven Wingate and his work at his website, his blog, his Facebook page, and his MySpace page.

Writers Read: Steven Wingate (July 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ian Christe

Ian Christe's books include Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal (HarperCollins, 2003) and Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga (John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

Christe is also the founder of Bazillion Points Publishing.

About a week ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Now that I'm an publisher as well as an author, I can't get enough books. At any one time these days I've got about 20 books open -- a few in my bag, a stack in the living room, a couple in the kitchen, one or two in the bathroom, and an entire drawer filled in the bedroom. Plus I'm working on a stack of manuscripts that will be Bazillion Points books by this time next year, like the autobiography of Andy McCoy from Hanoi Rocks, and the first books by Jeff Wagner and Jon "Metalion" Kristiansen. I'm like a junkie who just became a licensed pharmacist.

So you'd think I could finish a spare, slim volume like Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay, but I'm having a hard time, it's too harsh and violent. Today she's a successful poet, a real woman of arts and letters, but when she was in college her immune system began attacking her nervous system. She was fully aware that she needed to be out with other kids getting drunk and laid, but instead she was involved in hospital scenes involving lots of cold needles in her body and the occasional unstoppable showers of blood. For fun she ate french fries to turn her plasma cloudy during regular transfusions. At times it's like a book written by a dead person. I know Sarah, and I'm in awe of her.

This isn't as current, snort snort, but I'm laughing all the way through the collected magazine articles that are now called The Autobiography of Mark Twain. His imagination is incredible, and his nerve is boundless. I didn't realize that he had various adventures as a publisher, too. He says some really interesting things about writers of "submerged reputation" who write for the people, and whose works lives forever while critical darlings fall in and out of fashion every season. Hey, that's the realm where I operate, writing and now publishing books that are ravenously devoured by people who are supposedly knuckle-dragging heavy metal idiots. He's my new hero, replacing WC Fields and Henry Miller. Mark Twain would definitely have loved old school death metal like Autopsy.

What else? Bill Landis' Sleazoid Express is a perennial favorite, so is Otto Bettman's The Good Old Days--They Were Terrible! Sleazoid is a guide to exploitation films that brilliantly places them in the milieu of early-80s Times Square. Bettman founded probably the world's largest historical photo archive, but this book is a cold jolt of water to nostalgia dreamers; it's exactly what the title says it is, and it's hilarious! I haven't read current #1 bestseller Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World yet, but it was co-written by the editor of Sound of the Beast, so anything's possible.
Iain Ellis called Christe's The Sound of the Beast "an incredibly comprehensive historical survey (and analysis) of heavy metal from Black Sabbath to the present."

Learn more about Ian Christe and his work at his MySpace page, blog, the official The Sound of the Beast website, and the Bazillion Points website.

Listen to his "Bloody Roots" radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Colleen Shogan

Colleen Shogan's first book, The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents, was published in September 2006 by Texas A&M University Press.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Since I started working on Capitol Hill over three years ago, I've made it common practice to read for pleasure in the evenings. The vast majority of my day, I think about policy, politics, presidents, and Congress, so I look forward to the escape of an entertaining novel.

Recently, I finished David Baldacci's The Collectors. It is a suspenseful mystery set at the Library of Congress, where I currently work for the Congressional Research Service. Baldacci spent months researching the book at the Library of Congress, and the fruits of his labor are evident. His descriptions are fascinating and accurate, and the plot moves quickly, just like life in Washington, DC.

Even though I mostly read fiction, I did spend several evenings perusing Stephen Hess's new book, What Do We Do Now? Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, is a veteran of several White House transitions, and his book is a workbook for the new President-elect. In very concrete and practical terms, it describes what a new president must do before January 20 to make the White House function efficiently.

I plan to read two books in the near future - Russ Roberts' The Price of Everything and Curtis Sittenfield's American Wife. Roberts is a former colleague of mine at George Mason University. He writes novels with economic themes and lessons. His previous book, The Invisible Heart was a romance about economics. You know you're dealing with a talented writer when someone can pull that off! I look forward to Roberts' latest attempt to teach basic economic principles through fiction.

Several years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep. Her latest book is loosely based upon First Lady Laura Bush. I bought the book because I think Sittenfeld has the talent to explore the obviously complicated story of Laura Bush without adopting a condescending attitude in the story.

Finally, I couldn't resist the Twilight craze after seeing the movie. As a fan of Harry Potter and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, I have ordered Stephanie Meyer's first book in the series, and can't wait to spend a cold wintery day soon reading it cover to cover.
Elvin Lim included Shogan's The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents on his list of the five best books on presidential rhetoric.

Prior to joining the Congressional Research Service, Shogan served as a Legislative Assistant for Senator Joe Lieberman, in which she handled matters on appropriations, transportation, small business, and science & technology. Before joining the Senate, she was Assistant Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University.

Visit Colleen Shogan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jeffrey Frank

Jeffrey Frank's novels include The Columnist, Bad Publicity, and Trudy Hopedale.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just finished a galley of Nina Killham’s Believe Me (it’s out next month from Plume). I’ll confess that I tend to pick up lots of galleys and then to abandon them quickly; the publishing industry is a scary business because it produces so many galleys for so few impatient readers. But I was engaged from the start by this one, and by the voice of Killham’s narrator-a precocious thirteen-year-old named Nic (after Nicolas Copernicus).

Nic’s mother, an astronomer and a committed atheist, cannot quite deal with the fact that Nic is coming under the influence of evangelicals and, what she finds even more alarming, that he’s about to declare himself a born again Christian. This summary, though, doesn’t do justice to a funny and serious plot that involves a discordant marriage, discussions of science and religion, the general torments of adolescence, and a family tragedy. (After all, Philip Roth’s latest book, Indignation, like Believe Me, could be described simply as a novel about the problems—parental, academic, and sexual—of adolescence.)

Believe Me held me with its sly wit, intelligence, and tenderness, as well as Killham’s persistent wisdom about the all-too-human frailties of her characters. Believe me.
In addition to his novels, Frank was a senior editor at The New Yorker for over a decade and collaborated with his Danish-born wife, Diana Crone Frank, on The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation From the Danish.

Visit Jeffrey Frank's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Johann N. Neem

Johann N. Neem is Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University and author of the recently released Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently reading two books. The first is Albert Camus' The Plague. I read it because I am, like so many, on a quest to find how humans create meaning in the world. The existentialists, while challenging, confront the possibility of meaninglessness. I believe that this confrontation need not lead to nihilism but might instead help us understand how we, as humans together in community, can forge a better society for ourselves.

I am also reading the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's classic essay, The Self and the Dramas of History. I am drawn to Niebuhr because he was aware that humanity's tendency to sin, in religious language, to self-interest in secular language, was always a dominant force. While individual human beings are capable of noble, moral things, we are always being pulled back by baser motives. Given American foreign policy during the past eight years, and the joy with which some Americans talked about torturing other human beings, the Rev. Niebuhr's writings remind us that we must confront human weakness and depravity for what it is before we can speak of what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
Read an excerpt from Neem's Creating a Nation of Joiners and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 8, 2008

Thomas Sugrue

Thomas J. Sugrue is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology. Sugrue’s first book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American History, the President’s Book Award of the Social Science History Association, the Philip Taft Prize in Labor History, and the Urban History Association Prize for Best Book in North American Urban History.

His new book is Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
A little over a month ago, the greatest American journalist of my lifetime, Studs Terkel, passed on. It was an untimely death, not because of his advanced age (he was 96), but because his life's work was unfinished. The week after he died, I pulled out my beaten up copies of his books and began re-reading. No one was a truer democrat. Terkel found wisdom, irony, and tragedy in ordinary folks talking about their lives. Terkel was a romantic in his hope that if we only listened to the people, we could learn from them. But he did not condescend to his subjects or whitewash their imperfections. His book, Race, punctured the conventional pieties of "we have overcome" America. Terkel's interviews in Working captured the indignities of working life and the fundamental humanity--the hopefulness but also bitterness--of working people. And his greatest book of all, Division Street, uses one Chicago street and its residents to capture the divided heart of America in the mid-1960s.

Reading Terkel and thinking about the Rustbelt led me back to one of my favorite poets, Philip Levine. Raised a blue-collar Detroiter, Levine captures the grit and vitality of his city in What Work Is. Unvarnished and unsentimental, Levine finds beauty in urban decay, humanity on the assembly line, and despair in the disappearance of the industrial world. His are poems of waiting and rain, anger and hope, soot and sun. His portrayals of ordinary people in verse are every bit as vivid and real as Terkel's.
Read an excerpt from Sweet Land of Liberty, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Learn more about Thomas Sugrue at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chris Ewan

Chris Ewan’s debut novel, The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, won the Long Barn Books First Novel Competition and was shortlisted for the CrimeFest Last Laugh Award for the best humorous crime novel published in the British Isles in 2007. His latest novel is the recently released The Good Thief's Guide to Paris.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I have four books on the go at the moment. I’m not an especially quick reader, but I’m enjoying spending time with each of the below titles.

I’m about half-way through The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. It’s an exhaustive and fascinating biography of Harry Houdini, written in a series of engaging snapshots, much like a modern thriller. I’ve read a number of books on Houdini, but this is unquestionably my favourite so far – not least because it puts forward the intriguing idea that Houdini led a secret life as an international spy. One piece of advice, though – if you have a friend who happens to be an escapologist, you may not want to learn where they hide their keys.

The other non-fiction title I’ve just started is The Money and the Power – The Making of Las Vegas and its Hold on America by Sally Denton and Roger Morris. As I’m currently writing The Good Thief’s Guide to Las Vegas, I’m reading this for more background on Sin City’s tawdry past. The opening biographies of some of Las Vegas’s most infamous powerbrokers make for an explosive start, and I’m looking forward to more revelations and sleaze.

On the fiction side of things, I’m just finishing Dave White’s terrific debut novel When One Man Dies. It’s a modern private-eye novel, set in New Jersey, and told in a stark, muscular voice. Full of pace and attitude, it reminds me of George Pelecanos’s Nick’s Trip, and I’m eager to read White’s second Jackson Donne novel, The Evil That Men Do.

Finally, I’m a couple of chapters into Three to Get Deadly by Janet Evanovich. This is my first Stephanie Plum novel, but I can already tell it won’t be my last. Fun, spiky and fast. Great stuff.
Learn more about Chris Ewan and his work at his website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Good Thief's Guide to Paris.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Iain Ellis

Iain Ellis teaches in the English Department at the University of Kansas and writes regular columns on “Alternative Rock Cultures” and “Subversive Rock Humor” for PopMatters.

His new book is Rebels Wit Attitude.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Recent reading for me has revolved around research for the book that I hope will be the British equivalent/sequel to Rebels Wit Attitude, tentatively titled Britwits. Andy Medhurst's book A National Joke has been a terrific discovery for me, as it offers a cultural studies perspective to the rich tradition of English comedy, which is not dissimilar to what I want to do with the history of British subversive rock humorists. It also centralizes social class identity in its various analyses, which is also key to my own arguments. Lastly, Medhurst does some fantastic analysis of some of my fave brit humor, particularly Mike Leigh's films and the extraordinary 90s sit-com The Royal Family.

Having recently worked on essays on heavy metal humor and Swedish rock humor led me to immerse myself in the literature surrounding these 2 fields, which doesn't amount to much in the way of books, though I'd like to give a shout-out to Ian Christe's The Sound of the Beast, which is an incredibly comprehensive historical survey (and analysis) of heavy metal from Black Sabbath to the present. For the generally uninitiated (i.e. me) this book has been very helpful and entertaining.
Read more about Iain Ellis' Rebels Wit Attitude--and its discussion of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Beastie Boys, Missy Elliott, Madonna and others--at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tony Richards

Tony Richards is the author of five novels—the first was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award—plus many short stories and articles. His work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Cemetery Dance, Asimov's, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Weird Tales.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve been plugging some huge gaps in my reading lately. E.L. Doctorow is one of America’s finest contemporary novelists, and I’m certainly in awe of him. But Billy Bathgate has been sitting untouched on my shelf since my wife bought it for me several years back. I put that right on a recent vacation.

In case you don’t know the story, the eponymous hero is a fifteen year old boy from the Bronx who gets recruited into the Dutch Schultz gang, first as a kind of gopher and mascot, and finally as a close confidante to some of their biggest secrets. But things start to go wrong when he falls in love with Schultz’s latest squeeze -- a bored socialite called Drew -- putting them both in danger.

As always, when writing about times past, Doctorow goes further than evoking atmosphere and detail, though he certainly does both of those superbly. He captures the attitudes of the age, the pace, the peculiarities, making you realize that people lived very different lives to ours a handful of decades back.

His real brilliance, however, lies in his portrayal of Schultz. A lesser novelist would describe him merely as a snarling monster. Doctorow goes much further, making him into a conundrum. He certainly has his vicious side, all the more frightening because it is wholly unpredictable. But Doctorow shows a different, more thoughtful aspect of the famous mobster too, leaving you with the impression of a man who behaves a certain way because he feels he has to. Because he feels he has no other way of leaving his mark on this world. It’s not a sympathetic portrait, but it’s certainly a complex one. Doctorow is writing about the passing of an age -- one dotted about with legendary figures -- and does it masterfully.

Another writer that I’ve always been in awe of is Patricia Highsmith. Anyone smart enough to think up the plot of Strangers on a Train at age nineteen has earned that. But, for some bizarre reason, I’ve never got around to her most famous work, The Talented Mr. Ripley. I corrected that on the same vacation.

Yes, it’s excellent. Clever, psychologically astute, and so evocative of the bohemian life of young Americans in Europe in the Fifties that you ache to be there. But I’m afraid I finished up with a couple of minor gripes. I simply did not believe the very final part, the stuff about the ‘recently discovered will.’ Herbert Greenleaf runs a business, and surely would not be that gullible. Sorry, Patty, just don’t buy it. And in later Ripley novels, she resorts to plain prose -- barely an adjective in sight -- to stunning effect, and I missed that here. Ripley might be talented, but Highsmith became even more so during her illustrious career.
Learn more about Tony Richards and his work at his website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Tony Richards' Dark Rain.

--Marshal Zeringue