Saturday, May 30, 2009

Brian Foss

Brian Foss will soon be leaving his job as Professor of Art History and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, and will be taking on a new job as Professor of Art History and Director of the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University, in Ottawa.

His 2007 book from Yale University Press is War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve always got two or three books on the go, and the last couple of months have been no exception. Not long ago I finished T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing. Like so many other art historians, I’ve been an admirer of Clark’s scholarship for many years. More recently, though, he’s allowed his visual acuity to drive and shine out of his writing as never before. This culminates in The Sight of Death, which records, in diary form, his intense visual examinations of two paintings by seventeenth-century French artist Nicholas Poussin. Looking closely at the two paintings almost every day for many months, Clark began by jotting down general impressions, and then over the ensuing months wrote regular diary entries about his evolving reactions. As time passed he become more and more interested in – even obsessed by– both the details of the paintings and then by the larger themes that grew out of this visual scrutiny. The details were often tiny, easily overlooked bits of imagery, paint application or composition that, for less attentive viewers (which is to say, for almost everyone else), could easily seem minor to the point of inconsequentiality, if indeed they were noticed at all. Reading Clark’s cumulative, day-by-day recordings of his observations constitutes a master class in how to look at art with one’s full attention, on how to build substantial philosophical analyses on the basis of ongoing observations rather than of preconceptions, prejudices and assumptions, and on how ultimately to relate what one sees to one’s socio-political convictions. This book was a treat from beginning to end: a compelling read that gave me no end of lessons in how to look at works of art.

Another recent joy has been Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines, translated from the original French by Luc Sante. It would be more accurate to translate the title of the original collection (Nouvelles en trois lignes) as The News in Three Lines, given that the more than 1000 two- and three-sentence snippets in the book were all written as filler items for issues of the Paris newspaper Le Matin in 1906. There’s a heavy emphasis on accidents, crime and death, but despite the humble – even marginal – origins and topicality of the “novels”, an astonishing number of them are perfect examples of Feneon’s gem-like selection and arrangement of mere handfuls of words. “’To die like Joan of Arc!’ cried Terbaud from the top of a pyre made of his furniture. The firemen of Saint-Ouen stifled his ambition.” Or, in one of the book’s many surprisingly detailed but laconic summings-up of crimes of passion: “Eugene Perichot, of Pailles, near Saint-Maixent, entertained at his home Mme Lemartrier. Eugene Dupuis came to fetch her. They killed him. Love.”

Finally, I’m a big fan of Mark Helprin’s magical way with prose. His long novels – especially, for me, Winter’s Tale - give him ample space to spin out spectacular sentences into long, hallucinatory scenes. But when I’m looking for something shorter, I’m happy to reread his collections of stories – most recently, those assembled in his 2004 book ’The Pacific’ and Other Stories. The brevity of the stories doesn’t entail a betrayal of the qualities complexity, breadth and depth that I associate with the novels. Helprin is one of those too-rare authors who can pour a world into twenty-page stories, so that reading one is like devouring a five-course meal in half an hour. And the emotional punch of the stories can be knock-out in its crystalline intensity. A great example is the title story from ’The Pacific’ and Other Stories, which in its final paragraphs delivers a blow that left me marveling at how Helprin managed to make it seem both so inevitable and yet so devastating at the same moment.
Learn more about Brian Foss' work at his Concordia webpage, and read more about War Paint at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: War Paint.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 28, 2009

David Linden

David J. Linden is Professor of Neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology.

His acclaimed book is The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Even though I only write about brain science, I mostly read modern fiction. I just finished a wonderful collection of short stories by Shalom Auslander entitled Beware of God. If Franz Kafka and David Sedaris could have a baby it might write like Auslander-- knee-slapping funny, surreal and profound all at once. My favorite story involved two pet hamsters, stuck in a cage in the apartment of Joe, their human owner. The hamsters are dying as Joe neglects them in his zeal to get laid. Of course, one hamster becomes hyper-religious, praying to the divine Joe for deliverance while the other becomes a bitter nonbeliever. Theological arguments and hijinx ensue. Life lessons abound.
Visit The Accidental Mind website and read some free chapters from the book.

The Page 99 Test: The Accidental Mind.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer's work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Paris Review, Epoch, VQR, Tin House, and Oxford American.

His short story collection, Future Missionaries of America, is now available. A recent review of this book in the New York Times ended with this sentence: "Expertly structured and utterly convincing, these stories represent the arrival of a strong new voice."

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've been reading a lot of Joy Williams recently: Ill Nature, a collection of essays on the environment, and Escapes, a short story collection that's apparently out of print. I love the force of Williams' sentences, her mordant humor, the shockingly odd but perfectly selected details, the characters who seem as earnest as they are unhinged, the unpredictable arcs of her plotlines.

Chris Adrian's A Better Angel amazed me. The ones narrated by or seen through the eyes of sick or traumatized children are the best. In one, a girl with short gut syndrome is writing a little fictional handbook about animals with various ailments. In another, a kid at a party is thought by his friends to be the antichrist, after a Ouija board makes that assessment. In every story, the situations are desperate, the characters supremely smart and aware.

Dexter Filkins' The Forever War recounts his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. So far, it includes depictions of combat, Saddam's palaces, torture videos, hospitals crumbling without electricity, jogging in 130 degree weather, character studies of soldiers, and an anecdote about how, in order for soldiers to search the houses in one village, a sergeant distracted the men there by offering to sell a blond woman (of course, none of the bids turned out to be high enough, but lots of guns were recovered). Harrowing and often revelatory.

Rhode Island Notebook is a big fat poem by Gabriel Gudding, written between 2002 and 2004, during trips from Illinois to Rhode Island to visit his young daughter. It's as much a hymn to America as it is a lamentation of how screwed up everything is. There's about a ten page section devoted to dung--yes, feces--that's truly hilarious.

I never thought I'd like Jane Smiley's Moo. I mean, the title is the sound a cow makes. Also, and I know this is mean, but her name is "Smiley." It just seemed, I dunno... silly. Turns out the book's pretty solid. I can't imagine writing a book with this many characters--it really does run the gamut of the university microcosm, from cafeteria server to professor of hog science to sorority girl to provost--and she almost seems to pull the whole thing off without these characters becoming caricatures.

Larry Brown's Dirty Work is amazing: best book I've read this year. Basically, it's two Vietnam vets, side by side in a hospital, talking. One of them is a quadruple amputee, the other's just arrived after an accident. The two of them take turns with the narration, recounting their lives and what they've lost. I was stunned by the way Brown harnessed the energy of these voices, the way he was able to evoke the history of two absolutely wrecked lives and sneak in a storyline whose ending had me shaking my head for days.
Visit Matthew Vollmer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sara Malton

Sara Malton is Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary’s University, where she specializes in nineteenth-century literature, culture, law, and finance. Her work has appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture, Studies in the Novel, and The European Romantic Review. She is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Fellowships. Her new book is Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture: Fictions of Finance from Dickens to Wilde.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her response:
I envision the summer as a time for at last reading what I’ve been forced to put off all year long. Yet when I thought about them collectively, I realized that the books that I have on the go are in fact not, as I would have hoped, something altogether different from my daily reality as a professor of English Literature during the period from September to April. Most of them have something to do with academic life, with teaching, or with some of my most beloved canonical authors. Perhaps, then, these books serve as apt transitions from the academic term to the summer months. I suppose I need to ease into it slowly.

I am reading Zadie Smith’s novel, On Beauty, a satire on academic and family life that is said to be based loosely on Howard’s End. While Smith’s wit and insights about anxiety-ridden academe are right on the mark, I do ask myself why I chose a novel just so very long after having spent yet another year mired (happily mired, mind you), in the world of the Victorian triple decker. Smith could have perhaps chosen as an alternative title, Bleak House.

Speaking of Dickens: I’ve also just begun the Commonwealth Prize winner, Mister Pip. This marvelous book depicts what would be for me the ultimate classroom fantasy: a man reads Great Expectations aloud to his class, one chapter per day, for 59 days. Heaven! In all seriousness, though, Lloyd Jones’ tale has me captivated. There’s something strange and compelling, something fantastical about the tale and its telling. I cannot wait to get home to it.

Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies is also sitting on my nightstand, given to me recently by a friend who’s interested in modernism. I’ve so far managed to laugh my way through the initial rough Channel crossing on board with Mrs. Melrose Ape and Father Rothschild. And, perhaps because I hope to spend the months ahead just reading and writing as much as possible, I’ve also returned to something I’ve not read in a long time: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It’s in a nice slim volume put out by Penguin (part of their “Great Ideas” series), which is easy to carry around and dip into throughout the day.

Reading so many books at once is a habit of which I’ve tried to rid myself on more than one occasion. With that in mind, perhaps, I’ve chosen for my latest -- and hopefully truly my last -- book on self-help/time management (or, better, “lifestyle design”): Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less.
Visit Sara Malton's faculty webapge, and learn more about Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 22, 2009

Lyndsay Faye

Lyndsay Faye's newly-released first novel Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson is a tribute to the aloof genius and his good-hearted friend whose exploits she has loved since childhood.

Earlier this week I asked Faye what she was reading. Her reply:
My favorite mysteries are almost always historical, and a great comment made by fellow author Marco Conelli at Southhampton's MAYHEM festival last weekend clarified one of the reasons for me: technology (from pinning your location through your cell phone to finding matching fibers in a suspect's car) is a huge buzzkill. For the real police, technology is wonderful, but for the author it can be deadly. It's simply too easy. Where is the joy in telling a suspect his alibi was busted by his own car's GPS system? As a result, I'm always delighted to find a good period mystery, and greatly enjoyed Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor, which I finished a couple of days ago.

There are several things going for this novel, not least of which is Andrew Taylor's spare, cutting prose, but one that interests me for its sheer cleverness is his use of diary entries. They're a classic device, of course, but presented here with a cunning twist--the omniscient narrator addresses you directly, presenting a passage for you to read near the beginning of each chapter. And while the murder mystery is certainly compelling, it's not more compelling than figuring out who you is. Or are, rather. It sounds rather existential without an example, and one of the best is at the beginning: "Sometimes you frighten yourself. So what is it exactly? A punishment? A distraction? A relief? You're not sure. You tell yourself that it happened more than four years ago, that it doesn't matter anymore and nothing you can do can change a thing. But you don't listen, do you? All you do is go back to that nasty little green book." The diary entry follows, but the commentary has already set an ominous tone.

Bleeding Heart Square essentially follows Lydia Langstone and Rory Wentwood, fellow lodgers at a seedy tenement, as they attempt to unravel the story of what happened to the building's owner Philippa Penhow, who vanished four years earlier--and what, if anything, their sinister landlord Joseph Serridge had to do with her disappearance, as they'd been conducting an illicit affair. The question of why Serridge is receiving rotten animal hearts through the post is also highly atmospheric. Threads of pre-WWII Facism vs. Communism run throughout to great effect, and the stark contrast of economic strata among the characters is also used wisely and well.

The other period mystery I've been reading in the past month and simply could not for the life of me put down was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It's an international sensation at this point, and yet I can't help mentioning it. There are so many, many lengthy period novels that promise complexity of plot and of character and yet fail to deliver on one or the other front, despite being four or five hundred pages long. This book revels in its own convoluted plot while delivering twist after twist with meticulous clarity, driven by protagonists who are all too human, revealing elements of Spanish politics that were all too gruesome. On top of that, it's four or five love stories, and a supernatural gothic potboiler, and a book about what we love so dearly--books. I could not have enjoyed it more.

For my own personal research on a future book project, I'm also reading Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Weighing in at approximately 1,500 pages--and mind you, we only get so far as 1898--this comprehensive tribute to America's leading city is as intriguing as it is thorough. The reader might be intimidated by the sheer volume of material at first, but incredibly, every page is so fascinating that I found myself reading for pleasure and not work. The style of writing is pointed and clear, and while I confess I nodded a bit at some of the detailed political accounts regarding the early days of the city, the writers are always very careful to illustrate how politics affected the common man. And not only do they take the time to explain how New Yorkers were influenced by such huge trends as politics, immigration, law, and economics, they incorporate the sort of vivid, specific detail you'd expect to find only in a work of fiction.

I'm also an avid foodie, and it wouldn't be right to hide the fact that I'm drooling my way through The Salpicon! Cookbook: Contemporary Mexican Cuisine by Priscila and Vincent Satkoff. Even if the stellar photographs weren't what my friends and I like to call great food porn, the recipes are elegant, vibrant, regional, and contemporary--four words that I don't generally put in a row when describing restaurant-driven cookbooks. This is a fantastic cookbook, the sort that I can waste a couple of hours over just thinking about shopping, cooking, and finally eating.
Read an excerpt from Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, and learn more about the author and her acclaimed debut novel at Lyndsay Faye's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Howard Shrier

Howard Shrier was born and raised in Montreal and has worked in a wide variety of media, including magazine and radio journalism, theatre and television, sketch comedy and improv.

He is the author of Buffalo Jump and the forthcoming High Chicago, both featuring Toronto investigator Jonah Geller.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Right now I'm reading Infinite Jest, by the late David Foster Wallace. I'm about 200 pages in, which has taken weeks. It's incredibly dense reading that requires care and focus to appreciate. It's set in a tennis academy near Boston, as well as a rehab centre, though it's not yet clear who the voices in the centre are. He overwrites sometimes, explaining things in such detail and depth of language (keep a dictionary handy), showing off in ways that I think will deter many readers. But the writing is extraordinary.

At the other end of the scale, I just bought Elmore Leonard's newest, Road Dogs, which reunites characters from three earlier books. He's my all time hero and the antithesis of Wallace. Never wastes a word. As he puts it, "I leave out the parts that people don't read."

I'll probably take a break from Infinite Jest, plow through Leonard in a day or two, and get on with the next 900 pages.
Visit Howard Shrier's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 18, 2009

Robert Roper

Robert Roper has won awards for his fiction and nonfiction alike. His book Fatal Mountaineer won the 2002 Boardman-Tasker Prize given by London’s Royal Geographical Society. His journalism appears in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, and other publications.

His latest book is Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War.

Roper teaches at Johns Hopkins.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished a two-year stint as a judge in a fiction prize competition, so most if not all of my discretionary reading time was taken up with reading all or part of roughly 80 nominated novels per year...oy vey. If you like novels do not ever accept such an assignment. Since this year's awards were announced about a month ago I've read nothing fictional, nothing at all. Maybe my novel appetite will return some day.

That said, a couple of novels from the last two years gave me a lot of pleasure. One is Finding Nouf, by Zoë Ferraris. It's a cleanly written, humanly rich nominal murder mystery set in contemporary Saudi Arabia. The author was married to a Saudi man some years ago and lived there and kept her eyes open. Imagine a modern-day Emily Bronte parachuted into the land of Wahabi restrictions on women's education and free movement. No kind of tract, the novel biopsies Saudi society with exquisite thoroughness and quietly presents an impossible love story...which becomes excitingly less impossible by book's end.

A second novel I enjoyed a great deal is Be Near Me, by the Irish writer Andrew O'Hagan. It's set in Glasgow. It tells the not quite tragic story of an aesthetic Catholic priest exiled to Glasgow's rougher purlieus; an intellectual as well as an aesthete, the priest in question exercises poor judgment in many directions but at the end seems to have achieved a kind of liberation.

Some friends urged me to read Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides. I had a hard time getting into it as I prefer more carefully sourced and academic historical writing, but after a while I was swept away by the sheer pleasure of having Kit Carson's extraordinary life dramatically presented in the context of a farseeing representation of the whole history of the American Southwest.

A dry but exceedingly solid history of George Washington as military leader, General George Washington, by Edward Lengel, has helped me assuage my need for nonfiction (after all those nominee novels). Before I read it I was pretty much ignorant of Revolutionary War history and very ignorant about Washington's career as soldier; now I am, for as long as I am able to remember the difference between the battles of Trenton and Princeton, marginally less ignorant.

Here's another compelling and well-researched American history I just read: Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris. This book appeared on a number of best-books lists for 2008 but as far as I know won no awards; the problem probably is that it's a work of readable cultural history, and books of this nature are considered less weighty, perhaps. Harris writes well, and for this book he visited many film industry archives and somehow got to and interviewed all the principal players in his story who remain alive. His story is about the cultural change signaled by the movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967: "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and..."Dr. Dolittle."

Recently I've also read Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara's superb first novel from 1934; among other things it does searingly well is to show the social reality of a moment in economic history very like our own, after a severe market crash (the one in '29) but before the sequelae had quite become clear. And I had great fun reading Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, the collected letters of Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, who were intensely close and also mutually irritating friends from 1940 into the 1960s.

I've just started Six Frigates, Ian W. Toll's magisterial history of the founding of the US Navy, which in passing is said to be a first rate history of the War of 1812, about which I (again) know very little, but am eager to learn something.
Read more about Roper's Now the Drum of War at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Eugenie Samuel Reich

Eugenie Samuel Reich is a former editor at New Scientist. She has written for Nature, New Scientist, and The Boston Globe, and is known for her hard hitting reports on irregular science. Several of her reports have resulted in institutional investigations.

Her new book is Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a detective story set in a fourteenth century monastery. Crammed with challenging linguistic references, history of medieval Europe, and unfamiliar religious details, the book is hard work to follow, but it’s worth it. The story follows two monks, William of Baskerville and his apprentice, Adso of Melk, who are invited to visit an Italian monastery to solve a suspected case of suicide. As more deaths occur the two are swept into an intrigue that revolves around the monks’ rich but inaccessible library.

I really appreciated the pacing of the narrative: with clues coming slightly slower than events, there is no way to avoid the apocalyptic ending.
Learn more about Plastic Fantastic and the author's other work at Eugenie Samuel Reich's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Philip Ball

Philip Ball is a London-based writer, and the author of several books on aspects of science and its interactions with other aspects of culture. His latest books are Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind and The Sun and Moon Corrupted (a novel).

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m not sure if this makes it a good or bad time to be asking what I’m reading: I am currently one of the judges for the Royal Society Science Book Prize (formerly the Aventis Prize), which means that the honest answer to the question is ‘too damned much’. Six boxes too much. But of course there are some pleasurable things among them, though I’m scarcely at liberty yet to say what those are.

Aside from all that, I have recently finished Simon Winchester’s biography of Joseph Needham, The Man Who Loved China (HarperCollins). It is extremely good. I’m embarrassed to say that, although Winchester has seemingly always been well reviewed, I’d not read anything of his before. But on the strength of this I can see why he is so highly regarded. Needham, the biochemist-turned-Sinologist who introduced the West to the history of Chinese science, had the kind of life that cried out for a biography, but Winchester doesn’t put a foot wrong, making effective use of his strong knowledge of China and providing a reliably balanced view of Needham’s successes and failures.

This encouraged me to indulge my Sinophile side by reading The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction (Vintage; edited by Carolyn Choa and David Su Li-Qun), an anthology of Chinese writers born during the twentieth century that provides a good overview of the nation’s preoccupations in the past several decades. The tone ranges from strongly satirical to somewhat state-approved – but the latter seems fair enough, as there would be little point in simply giving the West a selection of dissidents. There is no author here as biting as Ma Jian (Red Dust), nor anyone quite as delicate and accomplished as Yiyun Liu, whose short stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Harper Perennial) cover a similar range of issues and eras. But there is plenty of good, engaging writing, and what comes across most clearly is the tremendous pressure that Chinese people have long felt, since even before the Cultural Revolution, to balance the personal with the communal.

I have been reviewing books a fair bit recently. I have just finished Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford University Press) for Nature, which was rewarding in light of my interest in magic as an aspect of the scientific tradition, albeit in the end somewhat light on that particular topic. I am reviewing Eugenie Samuel Reich’s Plastic Fantastic for the Sunday Times, an account of the fraud perpetrated between 1997 and 2002 by physicist Jan Hendrik Schön in the field of advanced microelectronics. Since I know several of the (innocent) players in this story, and was somewhat caught up in it at the time, I was gripped by the details, about which I’d known only a little. No one comes out of this story particularly well, including Nature and Science, which published many of Schön’s papers. I have a few small quibbles, and this isn’t the most poetic science writing you’ll ever read (not obvious that it could be, given the subject matter), but Reich has done an important job in assembling the tale, and the results make sobering reading.

It’s without doubt a very niche taste, but I enjoyed reviewing The Shadow of Enlightenment: Optical and Political Transparency in France, 1789-1848 by Theresa Levitt (Oxford University Press) for Nature Physics rather more than I’d expected. The book, which feels rather like the write-up of a doctoral thesis, looks at the emergence of optics, and in particular studies of light polarization by François Arago and Jean-Baptiste Biot, in the nineteenth century. Doesn’t exactly sound enthralling, does it? But it opens up an absolute treasure trove of ideas and connections, several of which the author didn’t explore herself. I ended up wishing I had twice the space for my review, which appeared in the May issue of the journal.

I have been reading a lot of books on music for my own latest book project, most of which I have been gutting ruthlessly to get at the meat. One that detained me longer than most was Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford University Press). In what I suspect is a characteristic of Scruton, the book is variously stimulating and infuriating. It is not a light read, being full of rather austere musicological theory. But the appealing thing is that, while there is a great deal to disagree with, you always have to think hard about how to do it. I value that in a book.

Finally, I am partway through Charles Dickens’ rewrite of The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (Pushkin Press). Dickens was writing Oliver Twist, aged just 25, when he was asked to edit Grimaldi’s memoirs, and he ended up more or less writing them from scratch in his own inimitable style. The result is all the more compelling because it is presumably at least partly true, although I suppose with Dickens it is hard to tell. Grimaldi was the most famous clown and pantomime performer on the London stage at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The portrait of London here is strange and wonderful and scary – these were the days when a walk up the City Road from Old Street to the Angel Islington took you through open fields. There is a famous tale told of Grimaldi (I’ve not yet discovered if Dickens includes it). A man went to see his doctor, complaining that he was terribly depressed. ‘Ah’, said the doctor, ‘you need to go to see the great Grimaldi to cheer you up.’ ‘I am Joseph Grimaldi’, was the reply.
Learn more about Philip Ball and his work at his website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Lee Konstantinou

Lee Konstantinou is a writer and a doctoral candidate in the English department at Stanford interested in contemporary literature, pop culture, and political economy. His dissertation-in-progress is titled “Wipe That Smirk off Your Face: Postironic Fiction and the Public Sphere,” which “studies authors who have sought to transcend what they see as the pernicious power of postmodern irony.”

His first novel, Pop Apocalypse, is just out from Ecco/HarperCollins.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Most of what I read is related to something I’m writing or something I’m teaching.

I’ve been working on a dissertation chapter on David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, so right now I’m rereading novels, essays, and stories by Wallace, and related criticism. As I’ve trekked from café to café around San Francisco, I’ve been carrying Wallace’s thousand-page backbreaking novel, Infinite Jest, which is I should say a pretty stunningly impressive piece of writing, especially when you learn how quickly Wallace wrote the book, and study how profoundly he singlehandedly managed to change the landscape of ambitious postmodern-type fiction. I’ve also just started reading Dave Eggers’ What is the What. So far, so good.

When not reading for my dissertation, I’ve been searching for novels for a Stanford Continuing Studies novel-writing course I’m going to be teaching this summer. I just read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Disgrace is a deeply disturbing and engrossing read, not for people who prefer their literary protagonists to be sympathetic or their stories to be all sweetness and light. I loved it. Coetzee manages to do something very powerful with his direct, unadorned prose. It’s a good corrective to the tendency I find in a lot of contemporary novelists to overwrite, to so bog down every sentence with metaphors, needlessly complex syntax, and “literary” vocabularies that you lose your characters and story. I’ve also just read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which all these years later manages to remain hilariously vulgar. I'll find a way to incorporate these books into my class, I think.

When I can spare the time, I’m also reading books and articles as research toward my second novel. Lots of these I can’t recommend, but one book I’d highlight is Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda, a really eye-opening look at how the terrorist organization was born and how it really operates. The key argument here is that al-Qaeda is less of an “organization,” as we understand the word, and more of a clearinghouse or venture capitalist firm for Islamic terrorism, a network of networks.

For a reading group I’m in—one of my few islands of purely fun reading—I’ve been making my way through Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I’m done with the first three books, which are pretty compelling, and I’m about to start the long fourth book on the murders in Sonora. Wish me luck with that.
Learn more about Lee Konstantinou and his work at his website and on Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, or his blogs (Kitteneater, his travel blog, and his Red Room blog).

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 11, 2009

Kate Merkel-Hess

Kate Merkel-Hess is a Ph.D. Candidate in Chinese history at University of California, Irvine, editor of the blog The China Beat, and has contributed to the Times Literary Supplement, Current History, History Compass, The Nation (online edition), Far Eastern Economic Review (online edition), The Huffington Post, and History News Network.

Her new book is China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (edited with Kenneth L. Pomeranz and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom).

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I tend to read multiple books at once, and I try to mix purposeful reading that I’m doing for research or teaching with reading that I run across browsing the new books at the library or based on recommendations from friends.

At the moment, I’m re-reading Jonathan Spence’s The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds, which is an easy book to dip in and out of as each chapter addresses a different set “Western observers” of China. I’ve assigned the book for a course this summer, and so have been reading with an eye to what questions the book will raise for my students. Another China-related book that I’ve just begun is Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China by Kang Zhengguo. Kang laoshi was my second-year Chinese teacher and, as students often do, my classmates and I mused about his personal story (which seemed drama-filled). In this case, he’s written a 400-page memoir, and so now I can actually know some of the details.

I recently finished reading Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. With the H1N1 virus in the news, a friend urged me to pick up this story about a small group of San Francisco-based survivors of a massive pandemic. I am always fascinated by post-apocalypse stories for the questions their authors must engage about what social customs and practices will survive, what will be cast out as useless (religion is one thing that Stewart’s band of survivors decides doesn’t serve them well), and how survivors piece together stories of what has happened based on their limited, local knowledge (a few other good examples of this are Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and the recent television series Jericho). I also enjoy the domestic details of such stories—how authors decide their protagonists manage to survive, what remnants of civilization serve useful and which skills they need to develop further—that goes back to my childhood love of pioneer stories like The Little House in the Big Woods.

I once read a declaration by a writer (perhaps it was Stephen King, but I’m not certain) that we should make a point of regularly reading books that we pluck off the library shelves without recommendation. However, the one of this sort that I’m reading at the moment was not a completely blind choice. I read a New York Times review of Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky a few years ago and so when I saw it at the library decided to nab it. Némirovsky wrote the first sections of this unfinished novel while living in France in the early 1940s; in 1942, Némirovsky died at Auschwitz. Her family rediscovered the manuscript in the late 1990s and it was published in France in 2004. As the Times points out, reading the novel raises a tension because the events are in part autobiographical, and were written almost at the precise time they were occurring—the novel opens with scenes of panicked Parisians fleeing the city ahead of the invading Germans. I’m looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.
Learn more about Kate Merkel-Hess at The China Beat.

--Marshal Zeringue