Friday, January 30, 2009

Meryl Gordon

Meryl Gordon is a full-time magazine journalist who has profiled such influential figures as Kofi Annan, Mike Bloomberg, and John Kerry, and such stars as Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gordon has written major features for New York, the New York Times Magazine, Gourmet, Elle, Marie Claire, and other publications.

She is the author of Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach.

Earlier this month I asked what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm reading two very different books at once right now, partially because I've been traveling on book tour and haven't wanted to drag a hardcover on the road. I'm almost done with Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, and it's been fascinating to read her fictional portrayal of Laura and George Bush, at the precise moment when they have left the White House. I resisted reading this novel until my husband, political journalist Walter Shapiro, raved about it -- It's wonderfully-written, you bring a lot to the characters but Sittenfeld has also made them her own, memorable and understandable.

I'm also reading, in galley form, the new novel Exiles in the Garden by my friend Ward Just, which will be out this summer. The book is set in Washington D.C., the major protagonist is a photojournalist, and it's a evocative blending of past and present.

When I was working on my own book, Mrs. Astor Regrets, and wanted to wind down at night, I discovered and became addicted to the mystery series by Carol O'Connell about detective Kathy Mallory. Great escapist fiction with a compelling heroine and her unusual friends.
Learn more about Mrs. Astor Regrets and Meryl Gordon at her publisher's website.

Read about Gordon's list of the five best "chronicles of high society."

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jan Westerhoff

Jan Westerhoff was trained as a philosopher and orientalist. He is currently lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Durham, UK.

Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka, his study of one of the greatest philosophers of ancient Asia, has just appeared from Oxford University Press. He has just finished a popular book on Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science entitled 12 Examples of Illusion which is due to come out later this year.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Beyond the Limits of Thought by Graham Priest.

One of the world's finest philosopher's writes about what happens when we push our thoughts to their limits and beyond: we reach contradictions, and interestingly enough these contradictions turn out to be true! Examples of this can be found throughout the history of philosophy, in Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Derrida. Priest writes in a clear, precise, and extremely readable style and is guaranteed to enlarge the bounds of your thought too.

The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt.

I did not just pick up this book because it is set in my old college. This fictionalized account of the meeting between G.H. Hardy, Fellow of Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge (and author of A Mathematician's Apology) and Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-educated accounts clerk from an Indian backwater and mathematical genius succeeds in giving a superb description of the adventures of mind in a mysterious atmosphere of melancholy and tragedy.

The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India by Sheldon Pollock.

For the Greeks mathematics was the perfect science, for the ancient Indians it was grammar. This massive account of the history of Sanskrit charts the fate of this language supposed to be of divine origin and will even tell you why the study of Sanskrit grammar was politically relevant. Not for the faint-hearted but definitively worth the effort.

Le Sanctuaire du Gondwana by Yves Sente and André Juillard.

As soon as it comes out I shall be reading this volume: drawn by the fabulous duo Yves Sente and André Juillard, this continuation of E.P. Jacob's adventures of Blake and Mortimer promises to have everything it needs: mysterious tribes, spies, a cup of tea and a lost civilization...
Visit Jan Westerhoff's website, and learn more about Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 26, 2009

Greg Sanders

Greg Sanders' short stories have appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Mississippi Review, Opium Magazine, Pindeldyboz, Essays & Fictions, The Los Angeles Review, and The Warwick Review. He earned his MFA from the New School in 2004, lives in New York City, and earns his living as a technical writer.

His collection of 21 short stories, Motel Girl, was published by Red Hen Press in September of 2008.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
About a month ago a writer friend, David Pollock, loaned me his copy of Thomas Bernhard's novel, The Loser. The story, in first person, follows the unnamed narrator's fictional relationship with the piano playing genius Glenn Gould and a second friend, Wertheimer, whom Gould labels with "The Loser" moniker when the three men are in music school together in the 1950s. Structurally, the third paragraph, which begins on the first page of the novel, goes on to the end of the book, and the entire narrative is an internal monologue. The novel's very bleak in its way (one suicide and lots of talk of death and diminution), but the narrator's disdain for his fellow Austrians—he calls them "cretinous"—and his meditations on the ridiculous delicacy of artists' egos (in this case, he and Wertheimer become convinced of their worthlessness the very fist time they hear Gould play the piano), along with his analysis of the interrelationship between wealth and existential unhappiness (the latter is a luxury only the former can afford) kept me, paradoxically, happy as all get up. The pure bleakness of the novel is refreshing. I'm thinking—and this is probably not a well-formulated thesis—that the irony of late 20th century European fiction is more indicative of the human condition than the light irony of today's fiction, which seems to be more about fashion than anything else. So maybe, for me, Bernhard's novel is as an antidote to one type of narrative—overtly clever and often forgettable—I keep running into these days.

Probably feeling that one loser narrative should beget another, I then bought a copy of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler from the Strand bookstore here in NYC. I'd always wanted to read the book because it's well known that Dostoyevsky had a serious gambling problem, and I figured the novel would provide insight into the gambler's psychology, insight constructed well before the era of addiction victim writing. I was not let down. But the thin book (116 pages) holds a lot more. The plot follows the misadventures of Alexey Ivanovitch and fellow Russians who have lodged in a German gambling resort town aptly named Roulettenburg. One of the many things I love about Dostoyevsky's writing is the relish he seems to take in describing the minute physical attributes of his characters. In this case the self-deprecating narrator, who, unquenchably in love with one Polina Alexandrovna, describes how he himself behaved in a recent love-tortured beseeching of her: "I remember she looked at me with peculiar fixed attention. My face must have expressed my incoherent and absurd sensations.... My eyes were bloodshot. There were flecks of foam on my lips." Ivanovitch's addiction to gambling and his explosive love for Polina Alexandrovna complement, or possibly amplify, each other in a darkly comical way. Both are headlong pursuits down chasms of hopelessness and loss, and the reader knows it. The narrator is harshest on himself, but he has plenty to say about the Roulettenburg gambling saloon: "In the first place, it all struck me as so dirty, somehow, morally horrid and dirty. I am not speaking at all of the greedy, uneasy faces which by dozens, even by hundreds, crowd round the gambling tables.... I felt as I went into the hall all this covetousness, and all this covetous filth if you like, in a sense congenial and convenient. It is most charming when people do not stand on ceremony with one another, but act openly and aboveboard." As a metaphor for the current credit crisis, this feels like a metaphor that is too obvious, like a mallet to the head.
Learn more about Greg Sanders and his writing at his website, MySpace page, and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jana K. Lipman

Jana K. Lipman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Tulane University. Her new book is Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
What am I reading?Thanks so much for asking – and the question makes me sit down and actually process the recent books I have read. And it makes me realize I wish I was reading more fiction.

Right now, I am starting a new research project, and my reading has focused on 19th century US empire. Most of these books have dealt with mapping and the geographies of America in the 19th century. They have made me re-think the “map” of the “United States” again – why is Hawaii a state? California? but not Panama or Puerto Rico? As borders continue to be disputed throughout the contemporary world, I’ve found it constructive to look back in time to re-remember how the areas we often take for granted as “American” have a much more violent and complex history.

Today I’m in the middle of Island World: A History of Hawaii and the United States by Gary Y. Okihiro. Although I still haven’t gotten to Barack Obama’s memoirs, I’m glad to be reading a book about Hawaii this week when the nation is celebrating the inauguration of the first president who grew up in Hawaii. So far, I’ve been intrigued by Okihiro’s descriptions of surfing and indigenous culture and the way in which it was appropriated by white men in California to demonstrate their strength and masculinity. Personally, I can’t surf, but Okihiro’s analysis will never allow me to look at surfing culture in quite the same way…. And it makes me want to read and learn more about Hawaii and its history vis a vis the United States and the Pacific.

I just finished Brian DeLay’s, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the US-Mexican War. DeLay rewrites the history of the Mexican American War with what he calls independent Indians at the center. He analyzes how American Indians who saw themselves outside the authority of Mexico and the United States shaped the dynamics of the US-Mexican war in the mid-19th century. He doesn’t shy away from the violence of this time period and demonstrates the contingency that led to the US political expansion into the west. Plus, he is a beautiful writer and I kept being drawn back into the political and military drama.

I also read Aims McGuinness’s Path to Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush. It was just fascinating to learn that the majority of travelers to California during the Gold Rush passed through Panama, because it was faster to take a ship to Panama, cross the isthmus, and sail to San Francisco, than to travel across the prairie states. And although McGuinness doesn’t make this argument explicitly, it’s also a subtle critique of modernization and technology being a panacea for the developing world. In fact, the first transcontinental railroad across Panama, hurt rather than stimulated Panama’s economy. Panamanians actually profited more from this international travel before the construction of a railroad, because the speculators/adventurers had to spend more time in Panama and engage with the local economy. Once the railroad was completed, the local tourist/travel economy dried up, and all of the potential dollars went straight to the railroad company and then left via ships on the Pacific Coast.

Finally, during Thanksgiving, I re-read Magnus Fiskesjo’s The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of the Teddy’s Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo. This is simply one of the best works I’ve read on the dangers of arbitrary power since September 11th. It’s a great Thanksgiving read, and it links together, turkeys, pardons, and the very real risk of authorities above the law.
Learn more about Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Catherine Allgor

Catherine Allgor is the Visiting Croul Chair in American History at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (Henry Holt, 2006).

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The most intriguing thing I learned from P. M. Forni's Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct is on the front cover. A professor of Italian literature, Forni is also the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project! Who knew there was such a thing?

This amazing fact does not mean you need to stop at the cover; Forni's small volume contains much wisdom and many insights. Choosing Civility, as Forni acknowledges, is just the most up-to-date version of a long-established genre--the courtesy book. As a historian of early America, I have had my own experiences with these manners manuals. Though they originated in European courts, courtesy books have an important place in American history. George Washington famously copied the dicta from one into his own little book; the nineteenth-century versions played an enormous role in the refinement movement in the United States.

When you read the old books--and even skim the rules that a young Washington chose to record--you understand how many of these "don't's" were about not intruding on another's space. Such intrusion could be grossly physical--hence, the injunctions not to sprawl while seated--or merely impositions on the other person's delicacy--whether by whistling loudly, talking with a full mouth, or spitting on the floor.

Forni brings those concerns to the modern era, where, one might argue, we need to consider personal space even more seriously. Not only are there many more of us, but technologies, such as cell phones, up the level of potential obnoxiousness. Readers will find Forni's rules of behavior as useful as George Washington found his--I especially hope that his rule about alerting the person behind you right before you lower your airline seat catches on.

But this book is also about a different kind of space and a different kind of relationship to it. Forni sees his work as part of another traditional genre--the guide to the good life, as espoused by work of Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. Or to put in another way, a kind of Buddhist-style take on modern life, with the idea of minimizing suffering--and not just one's own. "[R]espect, restraint, and responsibility," which is how he defines "civility" means that when we lessen the burden of living for others, we do so for the world. (4-5).

Ironically, by giving others the consideration of space (in the old way), we lessen the real space that divides human beings. The goal for Forni is not for us to be well-regulated isolated atoms, moving in polite orbits around each other, but beings of true empathy, acknowledging our connectedness. Best quotes? "Civility does the work of empathy." (13) "Manners are the first steps of the soul toward love." (20)

One of Forni's chapter heads is "Respect in Action," which makes me dream of a new action hero--"Civil Being," who is able to leap over the coarseness and self-involvement of our world and plunge down into the depths of what we all share as human beings. I guess the point of Forni's work is that we all have the opportunity, a hundred times a day, to be that action hero. I think anyone who reads this book will be inspired to do so, plunging into the fray (or the Starbucks) with a cry of "Civility above all!"
Catherine Allgor's book Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, won the prize for the best first book by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Pulitzer Prize Winner Joseph J. Ellis calls it, "An extraordinary piece of work, easily one of the most intellectually original and stylishly elegant first books I have ever read."

The Page 99 Test: A Perfect Union.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rick Mayes

Rick Mayes is associate professor of public policy at the University of Richmond. He is co-author of Medicare Prospective Payment and the Shaping of U.S. Health Care with Dr. Robert Berenson of the Urban Institute, and co-author of the recently published Medicating Children: ADHD and Pediatric Mental Health with Catherine Bagwell and Jennifer Erkulwater.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Like millions of Americans, I was raised “born again” in an evangelical environment—at school, church and home—where my peers and I were often encouraged to foster a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Also like millions of Americans, I suppose, my enthusiasm for pursuing this kind of religious or spiritual experience waxed and waned over the years. The faith that I did develop out of these influences genuinely helped me through a variety of difficult personal times in my teens and 20s. But occasionally I found my uniquely American, Protestant, 20th century, consumerist version of Christianity to be intellectually hard to explain, much less defend. Millions of people around the world were suffering from a variety of severe deprivations and injustices and yet I was supposed to believe (or wanted to believe) that God was also equally concerned about my suburban, existential ups and downs? Wouldn’t that be a bit irrational and perverse, I sometimes thought to myself? Well, over the last several years a number of new Christian writers, who came to similar conclusions, have been publishing entertaining books about their personal journeys of faith and the evolution in their spiritual thinking: Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What) and Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians) are some examples. Another writer who has joined this cadre is Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.

Claiborne was raised in eastern Kentucky and similarly encouraged to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. He did so, often organizing gatherings where he and his friends would “rally around the flag” in front of their high school to pray, for example, that Christian prayer be allowed in their public schools. With self-deprecation, he recalls his days when he “used to be cool, chilling with the in-crowd of respectable United Methodists, sporting my bow tie and khaki shorts (oh yes, I did) and toting my Confederate flag (Okay, that was cool only in East Tennessee in the 1980s).” Eventually, however, he too found that the evangelical, “born again” version or style of Christianity eventually grew stale. During his early years at a Christian college, as his enthusiasm for Christianity was rapidly diminishing, he began visiting a group of homeless people in inner city Philadelphia. Working with and helping the dispossessed and most marginalized members of society transformed his views of Jesus, Christianity and the Bible. After volunteering with Mother Theresa in Calcutta and visiting Iraq as a “Christian Peacemaker” bent on helping innocent Iraqi civilians, he moved into the inner city of Philadelphia and started a community for anyone interested in living out Jesus’ claim that “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine (the poor), you have done for me” (Matthew 25:40). He concludes his book with a response to those who would say that he and his friends are crazy: “’If we are crazy, then it is because we refuse to be crazy in the same way that the world has gone crazy.’ What’s crazy is a matter of perspective. After all, what is crazier: one person owning the same amount of money as the combined economies of twenty-three countries or suggesting that if we shared, there would be enough for everyone? What is crazier: spending billions of dollars on a defense shield, or suggesting that we share our billions of dollars so we don’t need a defense shield? What is crazier: maintaining arms contracts with 154 countries while asking the world to disarm its weapons of mass destruction, or suggesting that we lead the world in disarmament by refusing to deal weapons with over half of the world and by emptying the world’s largest stockpile here at home? What’s crazy is that the U.S., less than 6 percent of the world’s population, consumes nearly half of the world’s resources, and that the average American consumes as much as 520 Ethiopians do, while obesity is declared a ‘national health crisis.’ Someday war and poverty will be crazy, and we will wonder how the world allowed such things to exist.” Of course, it remains to be seen if such optimism and hopefulness can be sustained by Claiborne and his colleagues for long (more than a few years), but who could argue that such a vision is less appealing than much of what we have witnessed over the last eight years?

I’m just finished a similar book on social justice and expanding human rights protections around the world, but from a very different perspective. James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century” is a personal narrative by the past president of the medical and humanitarian NGO, Doctors Without Borders. In his book, Orbinski chronicles his journey from a peaceful childhood in Canada to trying to provide medical care and protection to civilians caught in some of the most horrific events of the last fifteen years in areas such as Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Zaire. It must be difficult to write about extraordinarily heinous forms and manifestations of human behavior, but Orbinski manages to do so in a readable and engaging way. At times, the prose gets a little hard to follow with a myriad of acronyms for military and peacekeeping organizations. But I still recommend the book as an effective reminder both of how crazy and depraved we—as the human species—can be and, yet, how we also manage to create an extraordinary variety of noble, optimistic, aggressive and effective organizations and programs that work against injustice, human suffering, and the human tendency—when civilization falters—toward depravity.
Learn more about Rick Mayes' teaching, research, and publications at his University of Richmond faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 19, 2009

Wendy Mnookin

Wendy Mnookin's most recent book of poems, The Moon Makes Its Own Plea, was published in October 2008 by BOA Editions.

She teaches poetry at Emerson College and at Grub Street, a non-profit writing program in Boston.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm usually reading a book about poetry, a book of poetry, a mystery, and something else that caught my attention. Here are my current reads:

I recently went back to David Wojahn's Strange Good Fortune: Essays on Contemporary Poetry. I find I read more carefully the second time through, or maybe it's that different aspects of the discussion interest me, but in any case it feels like a new read. This time around I was especially fascinated with the essay on W.D. Snodgrass--I hadn't remembered that at the beginning of his career Snodgrass wrote under as the pseudonym "Gardons" as well as under his own name. Which sent me to Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems, where I could compare the two bodies of work. I recommend reading the selection from Heart's Needle, written as Snodgrass, and the selection from Remains, where Gardons speaks--and speaks more freely.

Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? was a real page-turner. I read it in the car on a trip between Boston and Portland when I begged out of my share of the driving--I couldn't put the book down. I still like Case Histories best--the first in the Jackson Brodie trilogy, more psychologically astute--but this one had her appealing combination of character and action.

And then I read a review of Alison Bechdel's The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For and immediately bought it. The book isn't a graphic novel--it's a collection of cartoon strips--but it reads like one. I turn to it eagerly each night to see what's happening to this group of friends. I'm slowing down now that I'm near the end because I look forward to my nightly fix.

I've just started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. I'm only in the first 50 pages, but so far I'm loving it.
Mnookin's poetry collections include What He Took and To Get Here, from BOA, and Guenever Speaks, a collection of persona poems. She has recent poems in the Harvard Review, Prairie Schooner and Salamander, and has won a Book Award from the New England Poetry Club and a Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Visit Wendy Mnookin's website and check out Garrison Keillor reading one of her poems.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Paul Collier

Paul Collier is a professor of economics at Oxford University. He is the author of The Bottom Billion, which won the Lionel Gelber Prize and the Arthur Ross Book Award of the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book is Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
It’s Our Turn to Eat: the Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower
by Michela Wrong,
Published by Fourth Estate, February 3rd, 2009.

One of the advantages of being an author is that other authors sometimes send you advance copies of their books. Over Christmas Michela Wrong sent me her new book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: the Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower which is not out until February 3rd. This turned out to be one of those rare books that once you have started leaves you no choice but to drop everything else until you have finished it. For me this proved mighty inconvenient – I face deadlines – but that is what I did.

The book is written like a thriller, except that this is reality. A tape recorder concealed on the hero’s body really did go wrong and start to play back out loud at a crucial moment. If his colleagues had been more alert he would have been dead meat. The stakes were not the usual thriller material of a cache of diamonds: the stakes were also for real, a $1 billion scam and the survival of a corrupt government.

But the key difference with a thriller is the sheer moral force of the writing, and beyond that of the story it reveals, and ultimately of the hero at it centre. The hero is John Githongo, and along the way you will discover why my own next book is dedicated to him. This is a book that cannot be denied attention. You will read it, you will tell your friends to read it, and they will thank you.

Europe between the Oceans: 9000BC-AD1000
by Barry Cunliffe,
Yale University Press.

My nephew gave me this for Christmas. He knew my interests. This is big history written by a professional: one of the world’s top archaeologists. The interplay between geography, climatic change, economic development and culture is the sort of material I try to work with in today’s struggling societies. Here it plays out in Europe’s own origins as people struggled to snatch a livelihood in conditions that periodically threatened survival. We now know much more about the distant past than I had imagined: new scientific techniques are parting the curtains on periods that I had thought were beyond reach. This is not just tree rings and DNA. Now bones can reveal diet in infancy, and from that it is possible to work out whether people were immigrants. The floor of a cave can reveal how in deep history food sources changed completely over the course of a millennium. And archaeology is starting to link up with linguistics and anthropology to move beyond retrieved artefacts to piece together the societies that produced them. Cunliffe’s evidence explodes what I had thought was incontrovertible: that civilization arrived in Europe from the Middle East. He builds a convincing picture of European cultures integrated by sea travel and developing largely internally.
Visit Paul Collier's website.

Learn more about Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.

Read J. Tyler Dickovick's interview with Collier about his last book, The Bottom Billion.

The Page 99 Test: The Bottom Billion.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dawn Shamp

Award-winning author Dawn Shamp received an MFA in writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, and has received a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center and attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference on a grant from the Durham Arts Council.

On Account of Conspicuous Women (2008) is her first novel.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Thank you for asking. I ought to be ashamed to admit this, but I tend to read works I should’ve read way back in high school, and perhaps too little of what’s current, but for Michael Chabon and Eric Felten’s column in the Wall Street Journal (hey, if it weren’t for his column I never would’ve known how to make a Sweet Patootie or discovered mascara cherries).

At the moment I’m doing research for a novel set in the 1940s, so I’m having a heyday with a stack of books. Among them are three standouts:

Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque. This book is an absolute treasure. Here’s a writer who not only has a remarkable understanding of the human condition, but who also portrays it beautifully with his stunning balance of wit and poignancy — without melodrama. One scene that will forever stick with me is when a drunken, somewhat despondent Herr Lohkamp bumps into a man larger than himself on the street:

“Keep your eyes open, can’t you, you bucking broomstick!” barked the fat man.

I stared at him.

“Never seen a human being before, I suppose, eh?” he snapped again.

He was just my mark.

“Human beings, yes,” said I, “but not beer barrels that walk.”

“Streak of misery!” said he.

“Fat old fool,” I responded.

Solemnly he raised his hat. “Pass friend,” said he, and we parted.

Virginia Cowles’ 1941 book Looking for Trouble is also keeping me great company. It’s a true account of her experiences as one of the few female war correspondents in Europe during WWII. What a brave dame if ever there was one! She cavorts with an interesting mix of characters fit for a P.G. Wodehouse novel. For example, she’s “invited” to spend 3 days in lavish captivity by a Spanish general hoping to convert her to Communism, and even gets invited to a party honoring Hitler, whom she describes as “drab and unimpressive.” “You had to pinch yourself to realize that this was the man on whom the eyes of the world were riveted, that he alone held the lightning in his hands.”

I’m also re-reading Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. Each time I revisit it I’m more awed than the last. The manner in which he develops the character of Willie Keith is nothing short of brilliant. Wouk’s style is spare yet complex. Every word counts.

So basically, I’m having my second childhood reading classics. Which confirms for me what I’ve thought all along — I was born too late.
Read Linda L. Richards' January Magazine review of On Account of Conspicuous Women as well as other accolades and reviews.

Visit Dawn Shamp's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Judith Cutler

Judith Cutler is a prolific U.K.-based crime novelist. Among her books are five main series of crime novels featuring Chief Superintendant Fran Harman, Josie Welford, Tobias Campion, Detective Sergeant Kate Power and Sophie Rivers respectively.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ve been finishing a book of my own recently, so reading other people’s books, no matter how enticing, has had to be put on hold. However, before I start my next novel, I’ve escaped from the computer to read:

Prison: Five Hundred Years Behind Bars
Edward Marston
National Archive, 2009

Reading this was actually a labour of love, since it was written by my husband, and I sneaked a look at the proof stage. Those of you who know his historical crime fiction will know the depth and breadth of his meticulous research. Here, drawing on files at the National Archives, he addresses himself to a scholarly but intensely readable history of prisons and their effects on the people they confine. It begins in medieval times when gaols were often located in castles or gatehouses and when their function was simply to detain prisoners until their trial. It was only centuries later that imprisonment was itself the punishment – and in general a far worse punishment than the crime merited. Thank goodness for reformers like Elizabeth Fry. Read and ponder what we can do to our fellow human beings in the name of justice.

Coming Back to Me
Marcus Trescothick
Harper Sport, 2008

I doubt if many US readers have heard of Marcus Trescothick, since he plays cricket, which once used to be the US national sport before it was eclipsed by baseball, back in the early twentieth century. Much of what Trescothick writes might mean even less to you than a baseball star’s autobiography would mean to me. However, what all too many of us are acquainted with is depression, the illness that afflicted Trescothick so badly he had to retire prematurely from international cricket. Although the current economic climate may well find many more people suffering from it, and even talking publicly about it, it is currently not often thought a problem that “real men” experience. And they certainly don’t wash their dirty linen in public! This is why Trescothick’s is such a brave book. Alongside the reports of the wonderful games in which he brilliantly participated sits the account of his nemesis, the black and fathomless depths of despair to which depression can reduce anyone – regardless of bank balance, education, class, colour and creed. His openness about the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and ultimate acceptance of the illness is as heroic as any innings he played for his country.

I followed up that with:

Dead Men’s Footsteps
Peter James
Macmillan, 2008

One of a series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, based in Brighton, Sussex, this is predictably deeply researched, elegantly written, fiendishly plotted and impossible to put down. The real action begins on 9/11, with the results of one man’s actions on seeing the fall of the Twin Towers affecting many others. This is a blend of superior thriller and exceptionally detailed police procedural. I guarantee that if you haven’t read the others in the series you soon will.

And now back to the computer…
Visit Judith Cutler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 12, 2009

J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison is the author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series: All the Pretty Girls, 14, and Judas Kiss.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The holidays have just ended, which means I’ve done my annual revamp of my writing system and set my goals for the year. Every Christmas, I take a week off from writing and focus on the art of the craft. First up is Stephen King’s glorious On Writing, one of the best writing books out there. By the end of the year, I’ve become so bogged down with deadlines and To Do lists that I stop reading for pleasure. King’s book helps me refocus, gives me permission to read what I want, to enjoy the art of reading for its own sake instead of simply for research. It’s invaluable advice, because I find that when I’m reading, I write cleaner and more voraciously.

I added a new book to the fray this year, another that’s going on my annual recharge list, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. This is a must read for any creative person, be you writer, painter, dancer, musician…. I was so struck by her concepts, the approach she takes to harness her creativity – because honestly, as artists, we sometimes lose the forest for the trees when it comes to creating. Tharp’s insouciant attitude, honesty and work ethic barrel through the pages, making every chapter a foray into the parts of your psyche that you don’t often credit for honing your craft. She’s helped me reconnect with the joy of the creative process, not just the rush I feel from writing.

Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management from the Inside Out was a big hit with me this week, because I’m looking for efficiencies in my schedule that will allow me more creative time. I used the book to create a Time Map, one that schedules all my waking hours, and flips my writing day so I write in the morning, then deal with business in the afternoon. I’m excited to try this new method.

And finally, I rounded out the week with Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Just excellent, funny and accessible to everyone.
Visit J.T. Ellison's website and MySpace page.

The Page 69 Test: All the Pretty Girls.

The Page 99 Test: 14.

The Page 69 Test: 14.

The Page 99 Test: Judas Kiss.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Steven Cramer

Steven Cramer is the author of four poetry collections: The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987), The World Book (1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997), and Goodbye to the Orchard (2004), which won the 2005 Sheila Motton Prize from the New England Poetry Club, and was named a 2005 Honor Book in Poetry by the Massachusetts Center for the Book.

Recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he currently directs the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Thank you for asking what I'm reading. I love the panic that question always provokes. “Have you been reading?” asks a punky inner voice. “And, if so, anywhere nearly deeply enough?” asks a punkier one. Let’s always hope the answer is yes to the former; let’s always admit the honest answer is no to the latter.

I’ve been reading and rereading Jonathan Weinert's first book of poetry, In the Mode of Disappearance (Nightboat Books, 2008), one of the thornier and more rewarding first collections I've encountered in long awhile. It's hard to write about poetry—which is an event of language or it is nothing—without quoting. From "Sauve": "If I could climb into death now/as into a foreign car, where/in all of France would you drive me?" Who wouldn't want to read on?

Weinert is a difficult poet influenced by difficult poets—Blake, Stevens—and he takes an angular, often oblique approach to his subjects. His imagery, diction, and syntax, though, are always acute. Pentameter ghosts haunt even his most colloquially enjambed lines, Wordsworth channeled via O’Hara—

You looked well but you wouldn’t speak to me
I guessed your silence was the darling hat
you’d purchased at Les Halles, with the three
red berries on a fine red mesh

—with a nod to Pound’s “wét bláck bóugh” for good measure.

When a post-modernist winks at a modernist, we expect and often get a blind eye turned to content. Unlike so many first-book poets, though, Weinert never gives the bird to total effect. Still, you have to work to keep up:


I fled from heaven's ordinance.

There was a field of gentians there
patched with lilies—
lily-faces white with expectation.

On earth, the sun was setting for the final time.

Earth to heaven, heaven to earth, earth to sun. Fifteen more lines delta out into a wider visionary map—at times apocalyptic, at times primordial. Who charts this strange itinerary? Whoever has had to flee from heaven. You don’t need to read far to imagine who that might be.

But you do have to have read. I’ve shown Weinert’s work to poets who enjoy the zeitgeist platitudes of Mary Oliver, or the stand-up shtick of Billy Collins; they’ve scratched their heads at In the Mode of Disappearance and turned away. I’ve shown Weinert’s poetry to literate readers mostly unschooled in contemporary poetry but loyal to Blake, Wordsworth, Dickinson; they’ve scratched their heads too, and then reread In the Mode of Disappearance. Good news or bad? It’s always bad news when poets don’t like poetry; always good news when readers do.

Speaking of Ms. Dickinson, this fall I again experienced that pleasure like no other: rereading the work of America’s greatest poet, this time book-to-book with an exceptionally gifted MFA student. The well never dries up, whether it’s a poem you thought you knew so well you couldn’t imagine it speaking to you anew, or a poem that seemed to be closed until a reader-companion helped open its “door ajar” (a key Dickinsonian image). How many know this one?—

The World—feels Dusty
When We stop to Die
We want the Dew—then—
Honors—taste dry—

Flags—vex a Dying face—
But the least Fan
Stirred by a friend’s Hand—
Cools—like the Rain—

Mine be the Ministry
When thy Thirst comes—
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch—
And Hybla Balms—

It helps to know that Hybla is (was?) a town in Sicily famous for its honey. But does it hurt not to know? Imagine these words spoken to you. Could one feel any less entirely loved in his final hour? Incidentally, this poem is one of twelve set to music by Aaron Copland—public artist, covert man—who knew well how flags could vex.
Visit Steven Cramer's website and read many of his poems.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Kathleen M. Blee

Kathleen M. Blee is Distinguished Professor & Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Her books include Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement and Women of The Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s.

Late in '08 I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Kwame Anthony Appiah’s terrific book, Experiments in Ethics (2008, Harvard University Press) which explores when people behave in accord with their sense of morality and when they do not. What I found particularly valuable is his distinction between an honest person and a person that behaves honestly across a range of circumstances. Too often, we focus on the former, with static dichotomies of those who are virtuous and those who are not. If we think instead about the circumstances in which someone behaves virtuously, however, we can see that honesty is attached to specific actions in particular contexts. Depending on the context, honesty can be either stimulated or repressed as shown, for example, in a study that found people more likely to aid another person if they have just discovered a coin in a pay phone coin return. If moral behavior can be generated from such small changes in context, it is possible that even slight steps toward a more just and equitable society would increase acts of kindness and morality among its citizens.
Learn more about Kathleen Blee's teaching and research at her faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Katy Lederer

Katy Lederer is the author of the poetry collection, Winter Sex (Verse Press, 2002) and the memoir Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003), which Publishers Weekly included on its list of the Best Nonfiction Books of the Year and Esquire Magazine named one of its eight Best Books of the Year.

Her second poetry book, The Heaven-Sent Leaf, was published by BOA Editions in the fall of 2008.

Near the end of 2008 I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I have been avidly reading Paul Krugman in the New York Times. His rancor over what has happened bothers me (why not this rancor and deep analysis of the mechanics of Wall Street while the boom was still happening--when it might have done some good?), but his opinions on what Obama should do about the economy once he gets into office are fascinating to read about.

Recently finished the issue of Portfolio Magazine that featured Michael Lewis's piece on the end of the boom. Again: why didn't he write this highly informative article two or three years ago when it might have done some good? Why are all these glamorous big-name journalists piling on now that it is too late? (I mean, it's interesting, but really, it's too late...)

Also read Henry Blodget's recent Atlantic article "Why Wall Street Always Blows It." This is a great article--sums everything up nicely (as does Jeremy Grantham's wonderful quote re the bubble: "We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term, and absolutely nothing in the long term.")

Speaking of, today, I applied for (and was granted) an Amazon Visa card. I immediately logged onto Amazon and bought:

- All of Tao Lin's books
- All of the Mary Jo Bang books I didn't have (I have only Louise in Love)
- Modern Life, by Matthea Harvey
- Pre-ordered Frederick Seidel's Collected Poems (coming out on FSG in March)
- All of the Elizabeth Hardwick books I do not have (I have American Fictions, Seduction and Betrayal, and Sleepless Nights, all of which I love dearly)
- The early journals of Susan Sontag
- The Franz Wright books I do not have
- The Essays of E. B. White
- Shakespeare's Twenty-first Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money, by Frederick Turner
- Time and Materials, by Robert Hass
- As A Friend, by Forrest Gander
- The Golden Notebooks, by Doris Lessing
- My Vocabulary Did This To Me, by Jack Spicer
Visit Katy Lederer's website and read some of her poems online.

--Marshal Zeringue