Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nicholas Griffin

Nicholas Griffin's books include the historical novels The Requiem Shark and House of Sight and Shadow and the nonfiction work, Caucasus. His latest novel is Dizzy City.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm heading toward the end of nine months of research for my next book. That means I've read around 120 books, all non-fiction, as well as several hundred articles. The problem with research is not only that so much of it is dry, most of it is happens to be irrelevant to your own end-result, but even the author doesn't know exactly where he or she is heading at this stage. Among the dross, I read many first rate books, two of which, Nelson Mandela's Long Road to Freedom and Walter Russell Mead's God and Gold stand out.

Writers need patience, but patience itself is put in perspective through Mandela's accomplishments, always pushing outwards, reaching outwards, observing, even when all he had was a quarry on Robben Island and years of confinement ahead of him. God and Gold by Walter Russell Mead is one of those 'big' books, filled with history and bright ideas but refreshingly unapologetic to the place the US and UK carved out into the world. It stops short of the current financial crisis, but the thesis is still key ... whoever understands the working and movement of money and trade gets to control the world. With the pound taking a nose-dive last year and the dollar presumably not far behind, it makes you long for the days where innovation was tempered by experience and fear.

In my back-pack for my holiday is the new book by Steig Larsson and David Grann's The Lost City of Z. Can't wait.
Read an excerpt from Dizzy City and learn more about the book and author at Nicholas Griffin's website.

The Page 99 Test: Dizzy City.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Esther M. Sternberg

Esther M. Sternberg's latest book is Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being (Harvard University Press, 2009).

This weekend I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I generally prefer non-fiction to fiction, and tend to read historical biographies, particularly biographies of accomplished women. Most recently I have read the biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox; the biography Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd; and the biography Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin. All three of these books not only provide detailed descriptions of the era when these women lived, but also give fascinating insights into the hurdles that they had to overcome in order to accomplish their goals in periods in history when their fields were very much male-dominated. The books are thoughtful in that they reveal character traits in each of these women that helped them make their great contributions despite these challenges and against all odds. The books nonetheless also explore traits that may have hindered them in fully achieving recognition in their own time. The books about scientists (Merian and Franklin) also reveal the history of their particular fields of science, which I find fascinating, in the context of what we know about these fields today.

The most recent book I am reading in this genre is not about one individual, but is rather an ensemble biography: A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey. Rather than focusing on the challenges faced by the women in this cast, it addresses the challenges of the era surrounding the civil war in the United States, and the role that these intellectuals who all knew each other, played in the abolitionist movement. The symbolism of hummingbirds as a symbol of freedom figures prominently throughout the book, whether depicted in the written or spoken word, or in paintings, by each of these highly creative people. Their foibles and weaknesses of character, and how these did or did not impact their creative products and geniuses are also explored.

When I do read fiction, it is often historical fiction. Most recently I have read Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, and am part way through Saving the World: A Novel by Julia Alvarez. Both books explore the personal impact on the books’ characters of the great infectious scourges of these eras – in the case of Year of Wonders, the impact of the plague in 17th century England, and in Saving the World, the impact of smallpox globally, from the point of view of a woman of early 19th century Spain, alternating with the story of the fear of AIDS in a woman of our own time.

Finally, one of my favorite fiction writers is Jhumpa Lahiri, whose short stories in Unaccustomed Earth and The Namesake I love to read, both for their lyricism and poetic style, as well as for their subject matter of adjusting to life in a new country and culture. These stories resonate with me in part because I am a first generation Canadian/American, whose parents came from Romania before and after World War II. The experience of having a foot in two cultures has also deeply informed my own writing.

I find all these books interesting not only from a historical, scientific and psychological perspective, but also in terms of their dramatic structure and literary style. Their ability to make the reader keep reading, and to raise suspense through the arc of their stories, helps me in my structuring my own non-fiction books on different aspects of the science of the mind body interaction (The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions Holt, 2001; and Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being Harvard University Press, 2009). In my books, I try to make the reader feel like they are right there with the scientists whose characters and discoveries I describe. I am convinced that science can be presented to readers who do not have a scientific background in a compelling, interesting, accessible, non-condescending and even poetic and lyrical way, all held together by the glue of narrative. Reading these books provides me important insights on how to continue to do so for my own readers.
Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., author of the newly released Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being and The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, has done extensive research on brain-immune interactions and the effects of the brain's stress response on health. She was on the faculty at Washington University, St. Louis, prior to joining the National Institutes of Health in 1986.

Read an excerpt from Healing Spaces, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Dr. Sternberg is internationally recognized for her discoveries in brain-immune interactions and the effects of the brain's stress response on health: the science of the mind-body interaction. A dynamic speaker, recognized by her peers as a spokesperson for the field, she translates complex scientific subjects in a highly accessible manner, with a combination of academic credibility, passion for science and compassion as a physician. Learn more about her research, publications, and professional activities at Esther M. Sternberg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 26, 2009

Kevin Kenny

Kevin Kenny is Professor of History at Boston College, where he teaches the history of Atlantic migration and popular protest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is author of Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment (Oxford University Press, 2009), The American Irish: A History (Longman, 2000), and Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (Oxford University Press, 1998); and contributing editor of New Directions in Irish-American History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) and Ireland and the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2004). He teaches courses on the history of American immigration, race, and ethnicity.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am currently reading Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery, 1619-1877. A classic in its field, American Slavery was first published in 1993. The current Tenth Anniversary edition comes with a new Preface and Afterword by Kolchin. Accessible to specialists and general readers alike, this elegantly written book covers the period from the beginnings of American slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction. Kolchin offers a remarkably balanced account of a highly contentious topic, viewing the “peculiar institution” from the perspectives of the slaves, the slave owners, non-slaveowning Southerners, and Northern observers across the political spectrum. He shows how American slavery, far from being a static or monolithic evil, changed over time and spread across space, assuming very different forms in different periods and places. And he interweaves the relevant scholarly controversies into his narrative with a nice, light touch. As the author of Unfree Labor (1990), a study of American slavery and Russian serfdom, Kolchin also excels at placing his subject in comparative contexts, especially Brazil and the Caribbean. He describes American Slavery, 1619-1877 as a “short, interpretive survey” and it is without question the best of its kind.

I have just started reading Timothy J. Shannon’s Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier (New York: Penguin, 2008), a volume in the new “Penguin Library of American Indian History.” From their base in upper New York, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were the dominant Native American power in the northern American colonies during the eighteenth century. Through a combination of expert diplomacy and the threat of military force they claimed sovereignty over most American Indians in the present-day Northeast and Midwest. They also served as intermediaries between Britain and France in their long struggle for imperial mastery over North America. Shannon’s book takes us from the zenith of Iroquois power in the early eighteenth century to its nadir in the Revolutionary era, concentrating on the intricate art of diplomacy in treaty negotiations over war, peace, and trade between the various colonial governments and the Indians. In this account the Iroquois are major players rather than pawns in history, even if their story ends, inexorably, in tragedy. In keeping with the tone of the series, Shannon writes about even the most complex issues in an impressively deft style.

For pleasure, I am reading Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat (La vampa d’agosto, trans. Stephen Sartarelli). The hero, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, fights crime in the small but hopelessly corrupt town of Vigàta, in Sicily. He maintains a passionate but distant love affair with Livia, who spends most of her time in Genoa but occasionally comes to visit. His assistants, Gallo and Catarella, out-do each other in clownishness, but beyond the comedy lie layer after ominous layer of corruption and intrigue. Camilleri misses no opportunity to skewer the local mafiosi, the Berlusconi administration, and northern Italian fascists. Montalbano loves nothing more than to be alone, to swim, and to eat good food. Camilleri’s mouth-watering descriptions of his hero at table, always with simple, fresh ingredients in just the right combination – shrimp or baby octopus tossed in olive oil with chopped parsley – exquisitely reveal Montalbano’s inmost self. Food is his refuge from an otherwise sinister world. When Livia comes to Sicily with two friends and their young son in the midst of the August heat, the holiday soon turns into a disaster. Beneath the apartment he has rented for the family they discover a second underground apartment, and in that that concealed apartment they find the body of …
Read more about Peaceable Kingdom Lost at the Oxford University Press website, and see the related essay in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The ‘holy experiment’ was too good to last,” and his recent entry on OUPblog, Immigrants and Native Americans.”

Learn more about Kevin Kenny's scholarship at his Boston College faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Alissa Hamilton

Alissa Hamilton holds a Ph.D. from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a J.D. from the University of Toronto Law School. She has been a Graham Research Fellow in International Human Rights at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She is currently a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Her new book is Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
It's summertime, the season for a great romance, thriller, or mystery, whether read between covers or viewed on the big screen. And yet all I seem to be reading these days is non-fiction, the film equivalent of the documentary, which you might think is more fall/winter appropriate. Think again. Docs can be entertaining: remember March of the Penguins, when the two pudgy penguins too impatient to wait their turn get momentarily stuck, Abbot and Costello style, in the hole in the ice on their way fishing?

Similarly, Non-fiction can be gripping. I'm going to take a chance and pick Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life as proof. I confess I have not read this year-in-the-life, but it's on my shelf, next in line. Kingsolver, who appropriately made her name writing delicious fiction (The Bean Trees was her first novel), begins Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with an elaborate drawing of an every-vegetable-plant followed by the evocation:

Picture a single imaginary plant,

bearing throughout one season all the

different vegetables we harvest...

we'll call it a vegetannual

With a start like this, I'm confident it won't disappoint. Especially since squash, which may be my single most favourite vegetable, crowns the drawing.

If you're more in the mood for a thriller, I recommend A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle With a Deadly Industry, by David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Kessler was largely responsible for exposing and cracking down on the tobacco industry. Although the book was published in 2001, it is timely given a recent article co-authored by Kelly Brownell, Yale psychologist and author of Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About it, and Kenneth Warner, tobacco researcher and Dean of the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, about the similarities in the marketing tactics used by the food and tobacco industries.

Hot docs for what I hear is going to be a hot summer.
Visit Squeezed's home page at the Yale University Press website, to view reviews, an excerpt, and more.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 22, 2009

Caitlin O'Connell

Caitlin O’Connell is the author of The Elephant’s Secret Sense (Simon & Schuster, 2007; paperback by University of Chicago Press, 2008) and the upcoming The Boys Club (Harvard University Press, 2010) about male society from the elephant perspective. She is also co-author of a children’s nonfiction science book called The Elephant Scientist (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). Her essay in the August issue (2009) of The Writer magazine strives to assist the nature writer in “casting words in nature’s best light.”

Last week I asked O’Connell what she was reading. Her reply:
Because I teach a creative writing class for Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, I’m always on the lookout for books to recommend to my students on the craft of writing. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott was recently recommended and it didn’t take long to see why. Part of my phobia of self-help books is the assumption that they deliver dry facts on how I should behave within the discipline of writing and inevitably make me feel like I’ve somehow failed at my craft if I’m not able to do my daily writing exercises, keep a diary and be religious about outlining prior to writing. Anne Lamott blows those fears out of the water with her wonderful and frank personal narrative about a writer’s struggles, failures and successes, while weaving in motives for trying some concrete, very accessible tools to assist writers in moving forward with their goals. I highly recommend this book to writers, would-be writers, as well as readers looking for a fun personal narrative.

In my never ending pursuit of strong character-based fiction, members of my book club recently recommended Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, which I found to be an unexpected mind-bending delight on many levels. This very slim novella is a fascinating journey that twists and turns through time, emotions and raw consciousness. An enriching experience.

A last recommended recent read is Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, a memoir about growing up in Zimbabwe in a troubled time with a troubled yet colorful family. What struck me most about this story was the unique and often breathtaking depiction of a land that is very familiar to me given my work in the neighboring Namibia on elephants, and yet made all the more rich and resonant with her lyrical prose.
Read an excerpt from The Elephant’s Secret Sense and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Elephant’s Secret Sense.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Josh Weil

Josh Weil received his MFA as a Jersey Fellow at Columbia University. His fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Granta, Story Quarterly, and New England Review.

His new book is The New Valley, three linked novellas which, according to Tim O'Brien, "shine with a strange and intense luminosity that is at times heartbreaking, at other times triumphant. There is a magic and gentle beauty in this book that makes me remember why I had always wanted to be a writer."

A few days ago I asked Weil what he was reading. His reply:
I've noticed this can happen with short story collections, even the best ones: you pick it up, read a few stories, love them, and then something else gets in a way and you never finish the collection. Unless it's really, really good -- and then you pick it back up, maybe a year later, and dive back into it and think: how did I ever set this down? That's where I'm at right now with Don Waters' collection, Desert Gothic. It's set in America's dry, hot, sun-backed places: mostly around Reno, Nevada. And it pulls off darkness and light, heat and chill, as naturally and as cleanly and as inseparably as the desert landscape does. These are stories about grief and loss and the places in us that are hollowed out by both, but Waters manages to dig around those places with a gentleness that makes me want to exist there a little longer with each story, even if it's difficult, even if it's sad. He has lots of talents, but the main three that are striking me as I dive back into this are these: 1. He sees details most of us would miss, and when he points them out they're the kind of thing that feel so vital we'd have missed the whole point without them. 2. In much the same way, the rhythm of his language feels both fresh and natural to the stories. 3. Finally, and most importantly, he hits on that surprising yet absolutely right feeling near the end of each story: he finds ways to bring the stories together with events that are utterly pleasing. What I mean by that is that they are the perfect events to end the story without ever feeling like the easy way out. It's good stuff.

In the year between reading the beginning of Desert Gothic and going back to it, I read three books that blew me away: Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing and Paul Yoon's Once the Shore.

Returning to Earth is about the process of coping with loss -- before it happens (when it is looming) and afterwards -- and it's probably the most moving book I've read in a couple years. The story circles around a man who is dying from Lou Gherig's disease, and is told through multiple perspectives: his and that of of those who love him. But the story isn't really why it's so powerful. It's, in some ways, the fact that it doesn't quite feel like a story. There are elements that feel very narrative, almost like fables, but they only serve to point out the miracle that Harrison pulls off: these characters feel almost more real than real people ever could, and the way they struggle to come to grips with their relationships, the way they unearth understandings about each other and themselves, feels almost unconstructed. There isn't a false or contrived note. Somehow, Harrison makes the book feel as if it just naturally happens, and when that kind of deep veracity is accompanied by the kind of love for characters and empathy for their pains that fills Returning to Earth it's deeply, achingly affecting.

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing affected me for very different reasons. I'm not going to go into paroxysms of praise about McCarthy's prose, his voice, his worldview, his all around amazingness: we all know that. But I will say that The Crossing made me remember all that in a way nothing of his has in a while. I love his older work - Outer Dark, Child of God, Blood Meridian - and I was mildly blown away (McCarthy is one of the few writers who blows me away even with his work that isn't my favorite) by The Road and No Country for Old Men, but, of all his books that I've read, I liked All The Pretty Horses least. So what a tremendous thrill to read the second book in his border trilogy and find myself absolutely bowled over by the man's work again. There are so many reasons to read The Crossing, but, for me - and my writing - it was important mostly because of the narrative drive, the way that it slams relentlessly forward without ever feeling contrived, without rushing, without following any well-worn trails: it just lights out into the wilderness of story and crashes through the brush and doesn't look back. There's not explaining, here. There are no deep moments of introspection. There's no blind adherence to momentum, either. It has it's moments where it breathes, long, its stride lengthening, its footfall slowing. It has its moments where it veers off in wild directions. But it never sits still. And it feels, for all its blood and bruises and filth and dirt, so clean: it feels like perfectly clean storytelling. Each event is surprising in ways that make me crazy with envy and with pleasure and never want the book to end. It's that good.

Finally, there's Paul Yoon's collection, Once the Shore. I read that one straight though, sipping it each night like a big glass of cool water, till I'd drained the thing and could lie there in the dark feeling utterly sated. Yes, Yoon's voice is beautiful; yes, his stories are moving; but the most important, and striking, thing is that he's doing something different with these stories than the usual stories you come across in journals and collections: he takes you and sits you down and shows you a fully realized world, and keeps you sitting there until a moment has come and gone in that world, and then he lifts you under the arms and takes you to another part of his world and sits you down again and shows you that. And you begin to know the world with every bit of richness and reality and wonder and magic that the real world contains. These aren't stories about characters taking action to move through life -- though that's there, too. At heart, I think these are stories about the way life moves through characters, and they are all the more powerful for that.
Visit Josh Weil's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 19, 2009

Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy was born in London and grew up in rural Wales and Oxford. In 2002 he was awarded an MFA and won the H.R. Hays Poetry Prize. His journalism has appeared in magazines and newspapers including the New York Times and the New York Post. His new book is Love Begins in Winter.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Lately I have been reading about everything from fashion to Proust, metaphysical investigation to new children's tales. For me, one of the pleasures of reading is pulling from a variety of sources to amalgamate an image of the world and our consciousness of it. Books are ingredients in a recipe that ultimately helps to make up our minds over the course of years of reading. For instance, I have been reading Walt Whitman, whose expansive elegies constitute vast feasts of American life to me. And Guy de Maupaussant, whose delectable stories taste of bitter irony, and are served with such simplicity that I savor them like nice Port. Also, the contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose grasp of the utter futility of life is somehow comforting, and his wit is like a balm to the soul, not to mention the repugnance of some of his ideas. My agent recently gave me a galley of a book due out this fall, called Persian Porn and Iranian Rappers, which I am really enjoying. It's the memoir of a young Englishman who travels around Iran and learns how incredible the country and its people truly are. Beyond that, I plan on reading some serious essays on composting.
Visit Simon Van Booy's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Donna Jo Napoli

Donna Jo Napoli is an author of children's and young adult books, and a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

Her recent and soon forthcoming books include Alligator Bayou and The Earth Shook: A Persian Tale.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished reading Maximum City. It's about life in Mumbai, with a main character who's interviewing drug lords and prostitutes. What I love about it is that so much of the history of the place and of the many religions of the place is integrated into the descriptions and even into the conversations, so that I felt I was getting a view not just of the seedy side, but of a tradition that is new to me in ways I couldn't have expected. I'm writing a book set in India in the 1500s -- and modern books, you might think, would not help me in the least. But I think this book does help because of exactly that -- the steeping in a culture that holds onto ancient ways beside the modern. Also, quite incidentally, the book is riddled with misery -- and I love misery.
Visit Donna Jo Napoli's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pat Shipman

Pat Shipman's books include To the Heart of the Nile, The Man Who Found the Missing Link, and Taking Wing, which won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize for science and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and named a New York Times Notable Book for 1998.

Her latest book is Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am re-reading Pat Barker's trilogy about World War I: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road. Not only is the writing beautiful and effective, but Barker's insights into the meaning of war for the soldier, the officer, and the ones left at home is brilliant. Besides, I can think of no two more fascinating people in history than W.H. Rivers, the psychologist and anthropologist, and his patient Siegfried Sassoon, the WWI poet, officer, and war protester. Their interaction in the first book as Rivers treats Sassoon (and others) for "mental illness," which in Sassoon's case is justifiable anguish over the horrors of an ill-defined war, is superb.

For those who do not know their WWI history, Sassoon was an serving officer in France and a decorated war hero when he came to believe the war was wrong, its aims badly defined, and he felt it would simply go on and on eating up young lives mercilessly. He wrote a bold letter to the London Times protesting the war and, to prevent his being court-martialed, was diagnosed as "shellshocked" and was sent to Craiglockhart in Scotland where shellshocked soldiers were treated. But of course, many of those involved in the war was shellshocked to some degree, even Rivers (because of his empathy for his patients) who served in Scotland as a psychologist.
Browse inside Femme Fatale, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Femme Fatale.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Joel A. Sutherland

Joel A. Sutherland is a mild-mannered reference librarian by day and a speculative fiction writer and editor by night. He is currently keeping himself busy by completing his Masters of Library and Information Science from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and by raising his Goldendoodle puppy, Murphy, with wife Colleen.

His novel Frozen Blood was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just finished reading three of the five First Novel nominees for the 2009 Bram Stoker Award. I was thrilled beyond words when I discovered my own novel, Frozen Blood, had been nominated, and I immediately ordered the other four books. It’s an exciting time in the horror fiction field, with plenty of new and innovative voices breaking into the scene, and the other nominated novels are as riveting as they are different.

First, I read Michael McCarty and Mark McLaughlin’s Monster Behind the Wheel, a freewheeling road trip to Hell and back. It’s about a young man, Jeremy Carmichael, and his seemingly possessed car that is slowly taking over his life. Jeremy has been plagued by accidents and ill fortune his entire life, and things quickly get a whole lot worse. I’m always a little skeptical about collaborative novels, as they can often be clunky and uneven if the authors’ styles don’t mix well, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. The tone never wavers from its darkly comic pitch, and aside from a few too many dreamlike sequences that slowed the story down, I found it to be a quick, entertaining read.

Next, I read Lisa Mannetti’s The Gentling Box, a much quieter, slower-moving novel than the first, which was a welcome change of pace. It takes place in 19th Century Central Europe, and follows a gypsy trader trying to protect his friends and family from a sorcereress’ vengeful curses. It’s incredibly researched, descriptive and vivid. My only complaint was that I sometimes found the characters’ decisions to be slightly unbelievable, but otherwise was enthralled by Mannetti’s writing.

Finally, I read Christopher Conlon’s Midnight on Mourn Street, which was perhaps even slower-moving than The Gentling Box, and yet I couldn’t read fast enough to find out how it all ended. There are no possessed cars in this book, no evil curses, no post-apocalyptic landscapes (as in David Oppegaard’s The Suicide Collectors -- more on that in a moment) and no deadly hailstorms (as in Frozen Blood). The horror in this novel comes from within the guilt-ridden characters: a man with a terrible secret and a young woman with a desire for revenge. It’s a compelling novel, and one that will be hard to forget.

Unfortunately, The Suicide Collectors didn’t arrive in time before I head to the awards banquet in California this weekend, but I plan on picking up a copy from David himself at the event and reading it once life settles back to normal.

I’m honoured to have my own name included on a list alongside these four other first time novelists, and I’ll be looking forward to their next novels.
Read an excerpt from Frozen Blood, and learn more about the author and his work at Joel A. Sutherland's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 12, 2009

Shanthi Sekaran

Shanthi Sekaran was born and raised in California, and now splits her time between Berkeley and London. A graduate of UC Berkeley and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, she was first published in Best New American Voices 2004 (Harcourt). Her first novel, The Prayer Room (MacAdam Cage), was released in February 2009.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Since I began writing my own fiction, I’ve become a terrible reader. I am impatient, intolerant and slow. I often read phrases four times over, with varying degrees of attention, and I constantly question the author’s choices. Probably to my own detriment, I have no qualms about throwing a book behind the sofa and forgetting about it if it doesn’t enthrall me in the first chapter. My favorite books are the ones that grab me by the throat and make me breathless with the need to write, that make my heart race like I’ve had too much coffee. When a book does get me, I devote myself to it. I fall in love with it. I learn what I can from it. And then I file it, alphabetically, in my very narrow bookcase.

Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July

Nobody belongs here more than you: it was just what I needed to hear that day when I picked this book up in a Berkeley bookstore. It’s hard to explain the appeal of these short-shorts. They are, in some vague way, welcoming. They make me think of a beautiful woman sitting on a red-white picnic blanket, pouring me a glass of lemonade; and yet the stories themselves are about the lost, the abandoned, the befuddled. I never used to understand people who thought Morrissey was uplifting; now I do.

White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

I always try to read the Booker Prize winner, just to see what’s considered “good”. This book is beyond good, venturing into the realm of greatness. It’s deceptively funny and easy to read; it isn’t weighed down with the density and near-impossibility of many modern classics.

I’d have to rank White Tiger’s ending with my other favorite, from Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’ It manages to encapsulate the novel’s nuttiness and drives home a final cheeky punch. It’s a little daunting to think how much a final sentence can actually accomplish. Adiga’s final lines lift the book from good to great, and make me laugh out loud.

God’s Own Country, Ross Raisin (US title: Out Backward)

I’m educating myself with this book. It’s the story of a young Yorkshire loner who falls for the new girl in the village, the well-bred daughter of a family of “towns”.

In my own writing, there’s nothing that intimidates me more than having to write a boy-meets-girl scenario. It could so easily turn into something boring, cliché, straight out of a Dawson’s Creek episode. And yet, real-life love is never boring or cliché, at least not to the people experiencing it. And so, I’m faced with the challenge of transferring that excitement to the page, where my only tools are words.

Ross Raisin tells the story of a friendship/romance from a very limited 1st person perspective. He’s been brave enough to use a Yorkshire dialect (not as incomprehensible as Emily Bronte’s Joseph, but definitely not the Queen’s English). I’m just in the middle of this book, so I can’t say much more than that.

The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith

After a six year dry spell, I’ve recently begun writing short stories again. For years, I was unable to bring a story to any sort of reasonable conclusion; the scope of short fiction, and how a writer was supposed to gauge it, were a mystery to me. I think that if you’re going to write short fiction, you need to read a lot of it. You need to get a sense of the ebb and rise of a story, how to gracefully build a plot, size it, and bring it to a natural, satisfying close.

The Book of Other People is a collection compiled to benefit the charity 826 NYC, and includes the work of Zadie Smith, Vendela Vida and Jonathan Safran Foer, three of my favorites. The writers in this collection were assigned the task of primarily writing character, whether these characters inhabited a full story, a monologue, or a graphic piece. This freedom of form has made this a more interesting read than your standard fiction collection. I never quite know what lies in store, and I generally finish reading each piece wanting more.

Three Junes, Julia Glass

This novel tells the story of two generations of a Scottish family. It’s a steady, strong read, and it reeled me in gently, so I didn’t even realize how committed I was to reading it until it was nearly over. Julia Glass strikes me as a patient writer, one who has done her research, her thinking, and has taken the time to build a novel, layer by layer, into something beautiful, quiet and whole.

At the top of the pile:

Love Begins in Winter, Simon Van Booy: I enjoyed Van Booy’s first book, The Secret Lives of People in Love, an unapologetically lush, emotionally riveting collection of stories.

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin: I’ll be living in Brooklyn for the month of September, so this will be one of my geeky preparations.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead: It just sounds like it’ll be good, doesn’t it?
Read an excerpt from The Prayer Room, and learn more about the author and her work at Shanthi Sekaran's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Midge Raymond

Midge Raymond's short-story collection, Forgetting English (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009), received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, Ontario Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Passages North, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. She is on the editorial board of the literary journal Green Hills Literary Lantern.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually find myself reading several books at once…among the recents:


The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter

This book has been on my to-read shelf for a long time, and I began reading it with a new fascination after hearing Charles Baxter speak at this year’s Get Lit! literary festival in Spokane, Washington. Baxter talked about what inspired this novel: a friend of his who had, inexplicably, begun to impersonate him, telling everyone he was Charles Baxter and even going around doing readings. Baxter said that the friend eventually confessed to him, then asked, “Do you think I should go into therapy?” Even knowing the novel’s inspiration, the book is full of surprises and, of course, Baxter’s always poetic, engaging prose.

Short Stories

Last Night by James Salter

An absolutely beautiful collection of stories, which I admire for many reasons but probably most of all for Salter’s gift for detail, his ability to portray the essence of a character in a few well-chosen words. For example, from “Comet”: “He was mannerly and elegant, his head held back a bit as he talked, as though you were a menu.” The title story is one of the most unforgettable stories I’ve read.


The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

This is an incredibly well researched, thoughtful, and intelligent look at the food industry. The authors look at three American families and their diets (one consuming a “standard American diet,” one all organic, and one vegan) and trace all these foods back to their sources, raising interesting (and not so clear-cut) philosophical, ethical, and environmental questions along the way. Not a cheery read, by any means, but an important one.


Habeas Corpus by Jill McDonough

I met Jill McDonough years ago, when I was writing an article about Boston University’s prison education program, through which McDonough teaches poetry to incarcerated college students. Her book comprises fifty sonnets about legal executions in American history — from the country’s first documented execution in 1608 to the more recent and familiar executions of Timothy McVeigh and Aileen Wuornos. It’s dark and tragic and very powerful.
Read an excerpt from Forgetting English, and learn more about the author and her work at Midge Raymond's website.

--Marshal Zeringue