Sunday, January 31, 2010

Matt Beynon Rees

Matt Beynon Rees has lived in Jerusalem since 1996. He covered the Middle East for over a decade for the Scotsman, then Newsweek, and from 2000 until 2006 as Time magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief. He published his first novel featuring Palestinian detective Omar Yussef, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, in 2007, which won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award. A Grave in Gaza and The Samaritan's Secret followed in 2008 and 2009. The new novel in the series, The Fourth Assassin, follows Omar to visit his son in New York's "Little Palestine" in Brooklyn.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Rees what he was reading. His reply:
Wolf Hall—Hillary Mantel
Simply the best historical novel for many, many years. Mantel’s portrayal of Tudor England, through the self-made courtier Cromwell, is magnificent. It won the Booker Prize, which isn’t always such a recommendation. In many of the novels chosen for the prize, linguistic flash is chosen over characterization, leaving an emotional void for the reader. But in this case the prize committee got it right. Mantel’s characters breathe, even when they’re not central. One of the amazing things she pulls off in this book is to have a very broad range of characters who, without being central, manage to be rounded, returning here and there throughout the lengthy narrative with immediate life – they don’t need to be reintroduced; we already know who they are and how they think.

Nineteen Seventy-Four—David Peace
Peace’s “Red-Riding Quartet” (which includes other books also named after the years in which they're set) is talked about as attempting to do for the UK in the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties what James Ellroy has done for the US in the ‘Sixties. Namely to take the history we think we know and reveal the corrupt underside of it all. He’s successful in portraying the utter decay of Britain, revealing why voters were ready for the remaking of the entire country for which they voted in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. He doesn’t quite – at least in this first volume – manage to link the lower regions of society with those who rule. There's no equivalent of Ellroy's chats between his fictional agents and J. Edgar Hoover, for example. That connection is spelled out, rather than shown. Also his period scene-setting is a little heavier than Ellroy’s – hardly a page goes by without some archetypal song of the era playing in the background on the radio or a tv show all Brits would remember going with the sound down. The biggest success of the book is creating a “hero” who’s almost – but not quite – repulsive enough for us to half-believe that he’s the serial killer.

In the Shadow of Vesuvius—Jordan Lancaster
For lovers of Italy, and certainly for those who enjoy the madhouse that is modern Naples, this cultural history of the southern Italian city is an enjoyable way to learn that it was always that way. A Paradise inhabited by devils, or a Hell that’s home to angels, as Lancaster puts it. She deals with the complexity of Neapolitan politics – through rule by Rome, various Spanish, French and Norman dynasties, and the desperate straits into which the city was cast by Italian unification – with a light touch.

Gomorrah – Roberto Saviano
Can you tell I’ve been in Naples recently? This young Italian journalist named names in his account of the Camorra, Naples’s mafia. In return he got death threats and a life in hiding under police protection. It’s a marvelous tour of the underside of a town where only last year no one could agree on where to take the trash, so it all piled up in the streets, in mounds higher and longer than buses. When you visit Naples, as friends of mine there put it, you either hate the chaos or you love it. Either way, this book reveals just why it is that the city works – or fails to do so – as it does.
Watch Matt Beynon Rees read the first chapter of The Fourth Assassin.

Read--Matt Rees's top 10 novels set in the Arab world.

Visit Matt Beynon Rees' website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 29, 2010

Kris Neri

Kris Neri writes mysteries, urban fantasy, thrillers, and short stories.

Her latest publication is High Crimes on the Magical Plane, a funny urban fantasy.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've always loved Wendy Hornsby's writing. She didn't published for a while, and I'm glad to see her back with her latest Maggie MacGowen mystery, In the Guise of Mercy. There's an elegance to Wendy's writing that's present even when she tackles the hardest, most gritty subjects, and her reader is left with a sense that as long as those elements are roughly in balance, there's harmony in what is still a tough world. Wendy made gutsy choices in this novel. One of the most compelling aspects of the earlier books in the series was the relationship between documentary film maker, Maggie MacGowen, and the cop, Mike Flint, who was first her lover, then her husband. But Mike dies early in this mystery, and Maggie is forced to go on alone, carrying out her beloved's last wish. It's keeping me riveted, so I think the unexpected choice works, though I do miss Mike.

I don't read many historical novels. I don't know why — I did enjoy history classes in school. I suppose I convince myself I'm simply too contemporary a person, but it takes an exceptional historical novel to hold me. Jeri Westerson's historical mysteries, Veil of Lies and Serpent in the Thorns, engaged me well enough that, after reading the first book in the series, I had to read the second. Both books feature Crispin Guest, a nobleman who found himself on the wrong side of the King Richard debacle, and who was stripped of his rank and wealth and tossed out onto unforgiving medieval mean streets. He makes his living now as a Middle Ages private investigator, solving sticky problems for those who can pay him the meager sums he earns. Often hungry, always dressed in rags, Crispin still operates according to an unflinching moral code, even if it seems a luxury he can no longer afford. The best historicals depict characters who typify their time and place, yet still reflect a universality that resonates with people of any period. These novels succeed in both ways.

One of my all-time favorite nonfiction books is Kent Nerburn's Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder. Acclaimed author Kent Nerburn was asked by a Native American elder, identified only as Dan, to share his perspective and strip away the stereotypes and myths associated with the Indian culture. Set against the backdrop of contemporary reservation life and the majesty of the western Dakotas, with haunting, poetic prose, Nerburn tells Dan's tale, a true American story, if one that few of us have ever heard. Now Nerburn is back with the result of his final encounter with Dan, shortly before the old man's death, The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder's Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. An even tougher read, The Wolf at Twilight looks at the sordid history of Indian boarding schools. In his still mesmerizing prose, Nerburn shares Dan's attempt to rid himself of the ghosts that haunted his life since childhood, telling his tale in the manner of the Indian storytelling tradition, as few non-natives ever have. It's a haunting story of darkness and loss and of the resilient spirit of our first peoples.
Visit Kris Neri's website and read her blog posts at Femmes Fatales.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kathryn Allamong Jacob

Kathryn Allamong Jacob is curator of manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. She is the author of Testament to Union: Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C., Capital Elites: High Society in Washington, D.C., after the Civil War, and the recently published King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man—About—Washington in the Gilded Age.

About a week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Several years ago, when I began working on the biography of Sam Ward, whose main years of influence placed him squarely in the Gilded Age, I read Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873) and Henry Adams’ Democracy: An American Novel (1880), which he published anonymously, leading to wild speculation as to the author’s identity. Recently, when the book was finished, I read them again. The Gilded Age is still laugh-out-loud hilarious in places; Democracy still so cynical. Both novels seem so fresh, probably because corrupt politicians, enormous egos, conniving social climbers, and venal lobbyists didn’t disappear when the Gilded Age ended. They all had their real-life, non-fiction counterparts in the late 1800s and they have them still in Washington.

I’ve also been reading some historical fiction. I’m fascinated by the genre and I admire any author who can create dialog good enough to suck me into her/his story and make me wonder whether she/he found the language in a letter or other old document or made it up. Among the novels I’ve enjoyed the most are Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky’s ribald and randy Blindspot, Geraldine Brooks’ dark March, much of which is set near my home in Lexington, MA, and Cheng and Eng, by Darin Strauss, which stayed with me and unsettled me for days and days and sent me to the web to learn more about these twins.
Read more about King of the Lobby at the official website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 25, 2010

Daniel Nester

Daniel Nester is a journalist, essayist, poet, editor, and teacher.

His first two books, God Save My Queen (Soft Skull Press, 2003) and God Save My Queen II (2004), are collections on his obsession with the rock band Queen. His third, The History of My World Tonight (BlazeVOX, 2006), is a collection of poems.

His latest book, How to Be Inappropriate, a collection of humorous nonfiction, was recently published by Soft Skull Press.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I usually have a stack of books next to my bed, and I switch back and forth among them depending on mood and how sleepy I am. I just finished reading Michael Martone's Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins, and it's super. To me, it strikes an artful balance between what Aldous Huxley calls the "three-poled frame of reference" of great essays: the objective/factual/concrete-particular, the abstract-universal, and the personal/autobiographical.

Then there's Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson. It's part of the 33 1/3 series of books dedicated to a single album. In this case it's the siren of shmaltz herself, Celine Dion. Told from a particularly Canadian point of view, Wilson sets out pretty ambitiously, which is to capture what taste is: many have failed before him, so I am curious to see where this one pans out.

What else? Let's see. There's Nick Flynn's new memoir The Ticking Is The Bomb, my friend Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's Everything is Everything, Kathleen Rooney's For You For You I am Trilling These Songs, and, at the bottom, a book called The Artistic Transaction and Essays on Theory of Literature by Eliseo Vivas. It's a collection of critical essays that hearken back to the time--the book is from 1963--when scholars wrote essays for a general audience. Vivas first hit my radar when I was making a handout on the objective correlative, and the Northwestern professor was cited as having written a piece that pokes holes in the idea, popularized by T.S. Eliot. It's really good, but it's by my bed primarily to help me get to sleep.
Visit Daniel Nester's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Marilyn Chin

Marilyn Chin is the author of the recently published novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen.

Her other books include Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (Paterson Book Prize, 2003), The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty (P.E.N. Josephine Miles Award, 1994) and Dwarf Bamboo (nominated for the Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award in 1987). Her books have become Asian American classics and are taught in numerous classrooms nationally. She also co-edited Dissident Song, a Contemporary Asian American Anthology (1991) and co-translated The Selected Poems of Ai Qing, Indiana University Press, 1985. Her poetry has been anthologized in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, the Norton Introduction to Literature, and The Best American Poetry 1996, edited by Adrienne Rich, among others. She is a recipient of a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship from Harvard, a Stegner fellowship from Stanford, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship to Taiwan, a Lannan residency, four Pushcart Prizes and the Mary Roberts Rinehart award in creative writing. She has received residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Djerassi Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Centrum, Blue Mountain Center for the Arts and Villa Montalvo.

Chin is a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am a poet who is cross-dressing into writing fiction. Therefore, my reading shelf is, to say the least, eclectic:

At this moment, I am re-reading favorite books. Here are three important books on my shelf that I revisit often:

First of all, I am rereading Cane by Jean Toomer, Liveright edition, with Darwin Turner's introduction. The book is a compilation of poetic prose vignettes, mixed with poetry and spirituals. A good example of a hybrid esthetics. This Harlem Renaissance gem was rediscovered in the 60s. I want to give a shout out to this book and encourage all poets and fiction writers to read it.

I am also reading The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, edited by Phillis Levin. It is a solid historical survey of the sonnet with a very thorough introduction. Why am I reading this exhaustive anthology? Of course, I intend to write some sonnets soon and need to research and bone up on the profound history of the form. The introduction is hefty, with a thorough discussion of the form. It's a very useful anthology.

Of course, I, a Chinese American poet, am always reading something Chinese. Pu Songling, the Edgar Allan Poe of Chinese Literature, wrote numerous weird ghost tales in the 17th century. The selection that I love is the Penguin Classics edition, Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio, translated by John Minford. Most of the tales will not make sense to you, but keep reading, you will enjoy their absurd Taoist logic. Or not.
Read Chin's poems "How I Got That Name," "The Floral Apron," and "Gruel."

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Garrett Peck

Garrett Peck is a freelance journalist who has written mostly within the alcohol industry trade circles. Based in Washington, D.C., he also regularly conducts tours of historic sites that hold a significant place in the temperance movement in and around the district.

His new book is the recently released The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Helen Thomas and Craig Crawford, Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do. I picked this book up at a book fair and got both authors to sign it. Helen Thomas is the dean of the White House press corps, having served as a reporter there since the Kennedy administration. It's an easy read and well-written, serving as a civics lesson and history guide to presidential behavior (both good and bad). They take an especially harsh view of George W. Bush, calling him the worst president of the post-World War II era, a judgment that I personally agree with. At times, the book strays into direct advice for the president himself, such as to work on his listening skills. Those parts of the book seem to be geared toward a single person, rather than a general audience.

Mary Oliver, Our World. My mom gave me this photo album two years ago, and I finally got around to reading it. I wish I picked it up much earlier. It has so much more than just photographs, but short essays on how Mary Oliver, one of America's foremost poets, met her partner Molly Malone Cook and how they shared forty years together, largely in Provincetown. Cook died in 2005. The photos are all Cook's, which Oliver lovingly collected and arranged, each telling a story of their lives together. There are some wonderful stories about Cook; Oliver's simple prose really shines, and she even included several of her poems. This is a treasure chest of a book.

Ken Auletta, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It. I bought this book after giving a talk at the Google corporate campus (the "Googleplex") in Mountain View. Google was probably the company of the decade, and Google has even entered our vocabulary as a verb: to google. Auletta interviewed hundreds of people for his book and got unbelievable access to the company's leaders, as well as to its competitors. It is a business-oriented book, written from the standpoint of a technology journalist. He shows how Google has overturned many an apple cart by building a better mouse trap: a search engine powered by artificial intelligence. This has led to the mass cataloging of the Internet, and created an assumption among consumers that all online content should be free. Auletta's research and writing is first-rate, and he poses many significant questions about Google's impact. But he seems leery of stating his own opinion, which he is well entitled to after spending so much time in his research.

George Taber, In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism. I had the privilege of meeting Taber at the National Press Club Book Fair, where he and I were signing our respective books. If you remember, Taber was the Time magazine journalist who attended the historic 1976 blind tasting of Napa wines vs. Bordeaux and Burgundy, and event that put Napa on the map. He chronicled this in Judgment of Paris. With In Search of Bacchus, his third book, Taber takes the reader through twelve remarkable and beautiful winemaking regions around the world, from Australia to Mendoza, and from Germany to the Republic of Georgia. It's a first-person account, and though not as detailed as a Fodor's or a Rick Steves', I found myself salivating at many of his descriptions. High on my travel list is Rioja in Spain, which sounds so utterly remarkable for its geography and art, its fabulous architecture, and of course its food and wine.

Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist. It is a rare day that I read fiction, but I gladly picked up this snarky novel. Written in the first-person, it tells the story of an underachieving novelist whose goal is to write a bestseller so he can get rich and upstage his former girlfriend at her wedding. The anti-hero, Pete Tarslaw, is so groveling and disingenuous that you can't help but like him, even as you grow appalled at his methods and his obvious groping for fame. He writes the dripping Tornado Ashes Club, a formulaic book intended to hit every favorable demographic and maximize sales. My favorite scene has the author watching a touching episode of Oprah, then erupting in tears of rage as he cynically tears apart anything real and genuine. Trust me, he gets his in the end, and as you learn, the book is written from the standpoint of redemption. Writing - even fiction - can be genuine and meaningful.
Visit Garrett Peck's website.

Garrett Peck's best books about Prohibition.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Diane Whiteside

Diane Whiteside's many books include Kisses Like A Devil, a new chapter in the Donovan family saga (also known as her “Devil” books), which comes out in February, and The Devil She Knows, due out in June 2010.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I read a ton of ebooks because my iPhone is with me all the time. (As an author, I know all the arguments for and against digital publishing but I do find myself grinding my teeth when a book I want to read isn’t available in that format.) At any rate, more and more of my “light” reading is done this way simply because it’s hugely convenient. I normally have about forty ebooks on my iPhone at any one time, with another five hundred or so stored on my computer.

I’m always reading at least one novel, usually a pure romance or romantic suspense this way. I just finished Remember Summer by Elizabeth Lowell, which was previously published as Summer Games in 1984. Elizabeth Lowell is a favorite author of mine; I own all her books and I’ve dissected more than one. Nobody writes better romantic suspense and her Tell Me No Lies made Romance Writers of America’s Top 100 Best Romance List. Remember Summer is set during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Today’s world is more cynical about terrorism and I know exactly how those equestrian events ended. (Boy, was I hooked on every second of their coverage!) Yet I still found myself desperate to find out what happened and worried lest anything happen to the characters I’d come to know and love.

As a historical author, I read a lot of non-fiction. But I like to hunt down the “I am not making this stuff up, you know!” stories which startle outsiders, while somehow encapsulating an entire culture in vivid anecdotes.

For The Devil She Knows, my upcoming historical novel, I stumbled upon Spies, Scandals, and Sultans, translated by Roger Allen. It’s the first English translation of Ibrahim al-Muwaylihi’s Ma Hunalik, an insider’s devastating attack on the foibles and follies of the late Ottoman Empire. Incredibly detailed and vivid, it’s eye-opening and shocking to a westerner. The original created such a scandal that every copy was ordered to be destroyed. It’s one of those books where the truth is far stranger than fiction – but portions came in very handy for my tale.

For my next historical novel, I’m reading The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld by Herbert Asbury, the author of The Gangs of New York. I could not make up the stories which are in this book. As a mere fiction writer, I am limited by the requirement to be believable, something real life laughs at. They’re vivid, they’re human, and they make vice in nineteenth century New Orleans come so brilliantly alive, together with the ever-evolving morals of the day.

I try to read one book on the writing craft whenever I finish a novel. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell is the latest of these. It’s a truly fabulous little book, based on her editing course at New York’s New School’s graduate writing program. Frequently, books on writing tend to focus on their author’s approach and skip over other alternatives. This book has the delightful virtue of treating all writers, fiction or non-fiction, speedy first-draft or deliberate pacer, as equals. Instead, it breaks down the editing process into three phases and offers alternatives from other authors’ work and work processes. The discussion of how The Great Gatsby was edited is worth its weight in gold.

I found it so incredibly helpful that it’s one of the few craft books I’ve used on more than one book. I’ve also recommended it to other authors, including some who have very different processes than myself.

Those are just a few of the books that I’ve read recently and all ones I’ve definitely enjoyed.
Learn more about the writer and her work at Diane Whiteside's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney is the author of more than 75 suspense, mystery, and romance novels for teenagers which have sold over 15,000,000 copies and are published in several languages. The Face on the Milk Carton has sold over 3,000,000 copies and was made into a television movie. Among her recent titles, Cooney is proudest of Diamonds in the Shadow, which won a Christopher Award, A Friend at Midnight, which won the Church and Synagogue Library Association Award, Hit the Road, which was nominated as a Best Book for Young Adults, and Code Orange, which received a National Science Teachers award.

Cooney's They Never Came Back was published earlier this month by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Many people recommended The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, in which several narrators use dialect. I don’t even like to look at a page of written-out dialect, because for me, the necessary incorrect spelling and grammar is like music played out of tune. I didn’t want to read it. But since I have to drive a lot, I listen to a lot of recorded books. I just finished listening to The Help. Not only is it riveting, and brilliantly written - it is probably the best recording job I’ve had the privilege of hearing. The rich warm voices of the narrators turn their stories into music. Listen to this one, instead of reading it.
Read an excerpt from They Never Came Back, and learn more about the author and her work at Caroline B. Cooney's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tony Williams

Tony Williams is a poet and academic based in Sheffield, UK.

His first full collection of poems, The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, was published by Salt in 2009.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
More and more I appreciate clarity, or a kind of clarity, in what I read. For years I'd put off reading Kafka, because of his reputation for being 'difficult' and 'enigmatic' (it sounded like one of the the more boring strains of modernism). Then recently I picked up my battered copy of The Castle. It's so easy (and funny). Of course it's impossible to work out what's 'really' going on – because nothing is. It's all the clean, hard surface of events, all story.

Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil has the same virtue. If I describe it it'll sound awful – 'this year Isak bought a new cow, and here's how it happened', and so on. Hamsun has the most iron-willed restraint, never commenting, never interpreting. He just says what happens. Who would have thought that the story of a smallholder's life could be so affecting and – yes – gripping? It's a masterpiece.

Meanwhile I've been zipping intermittently through a selection from Francis Kilvert's diaries. Kilvert was a nineteenth-century clergyman who lived in rural Wiltshire (in the UK), and died young. It's an odd, sympathetic, estranging piece of work. For instance, Kilvert's description of a dream he had (in which he thinks a local vicar and his wife are trying to murder him, so kills the vicar himself and hacks the body up) reminds us that the Victorians were as complex as we are, probably more so.

And, speaking of hacking the body up, I'm halfway through John Berryman's The Dream Songs, having been drawn into it by an unforgettable recording of Berryman reading Dream Song 29, drunk, on BBC television. Like most poets, Berryman's work reads better in quantity than taking individual poems in isolation. I'm so envious of the form (three stanzas of six lines, loosely rhymed) and the conceit (they're dream songs, so they can say anything). He does so much with the same few resources. It's not big on clarity, though...
Read poems from The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, and visit Tony Williams's website and poetry blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Diane A.S. Stuckart

Diane A.S. Stuckart is the author of various romances, short fiction, and mysteries, including her current Leonardo da Vinci mystery series published by Berkley Prime Crime.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The one unfortunate part of becoming a published author is discovering that reading is no longer the beloved pastime it once was. Especially when you're reading in your own genre, you can't help but analyze technique, critique plot, poke at characterization...all the while trying to enjoy the actual story. That means that, whenever you find a novel that you don't deconstruct--at least, not until afterward--the book must be pretty darned good.

I've recently read a couple of books that fall into this category. The first is Papa's Problem by Patrick Kendrick. A period piece mystery set in Key West, it features a loud, bullying, obnoxious Ernest Hemingway who finds himself suspected of a prostitute's murder. I've never been much of a Hemingway fan, but that didn't matter since the book's main protagonist is an upstanding retired Scotland Yard inspector named Emmet MacWain. MacWain is a different sort of sleuth...old school in values, yet determined to use the latest investigatory techniques to get the job done. Kendrick gives us a fast-moving plot, intriguing characters, and well-researched look at Depression-era Key West, adding up to a novel that held me to the very end.

Another period piece mystery I read recently and thoroughly enjoyed was Robert Fate's Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues, his follow-up to Baby Shark. Being from Dallas, I immediately felt at home in the world of Kristin Van Dijk--a.k.a. Baby Shark--and her various colorful colleagues and adversaries who've staked out the plains of North Texas as their stomping grounds. This time around, Kristin (who is now officially a private investigator) and her mentor/colleague Otis are trying to track down a missing oil heiress. Just as there's nothing subtle about their methods--bullets fly, knives slash, bodies fall--Fate's story-telling is equally no holds barred. It's nice to see a butt-kicking female protagonist who can always get the job done, but who realistically collects her share of physical and psychological scars each time out.

Of course, I don't limit myself to fiction. And, like everyone else, I like to pull an old favorite off the shelf every so often. Recently, I reread Jess Stearn's 1960s classic, Yoga, Youth, and Reincarnation. Published back when yoga was still considered an esoteric practice, instead of being offered in every YMCA and fitness center, this book is part memoir and part how-to. I first read it when I was a kid, borrowing my mom's copy (which I suspect she bought only because one of my aunts went through a yoga phase about that same time). The book sparked a lifelong interest in yoga for me, to the point that a few years ago I finally took yoga teacher training to earn a 200 hour certification. Reading it now, what strikes me most is its emphasis on age. A forty-year-old person was termed middle-aged, while someone over fifty was considered darn near decrepit. In addition, there's a certain poignancy to Stearn's account, knowing now as we do the dismal fate that would eventually befall his lovely guru, Marcia Moore (her death detailed in one of Edna Buchanan's true crime anthologies).

Finally, I'm almost finished reading The Turin Shroud by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. Originally published in 1994, this copy is an updated revision taking full advantage of the Da Vinci code hype, since the authors' contention is that Leonardo da Vinci himself faked the sacred relic that is the Shroud of Turin. I picked up this book because I saw the situation as a possible jumping off point for a future installment of my Leonardo da Vinci mystery series. The authors have put together some interesting evidence and compelling timelines, but to my mind the conspiracy theory thread which underlies much of their narrative seems to weaken their case. And based on my own research into Leonardo's life, I can't buy their contention that he was part of a secret heretical society, or that much of the symbolism in his paintings was nothing more than juvenile puns and nose-thumbing. Still, I enjoy the way they put together their case, and based on some of the evidence presented I am reconsidering my opinion regarding the Shroud's authenticity.
Visit Diane A.S. Stuckart's website, and learn more about her latest novel, A Bolt from the Blue, the 3rd Leonardo da Vinci mystery.

View the video trailers for A Bolt from the Blue and Portrait of a Lady.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Diane Stuckart & Ranger, Delta, Oliver and Paprika.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 11, 2010

R. Dwayne Betts

R. Dwayne Betts' poetry has been widely published and he is the winner of the 2009 Beatrice Hawley Award. His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, was published by Penguin last year.

Last week I heard from him about what he was reading. His reply:
A while back I listened to Victor LaValle read from his latest novel Big Machine. LaValle's reading left me wondering what happened to his unlikely narrator, Ricky Rice. After the reading, I waited almost a year for the book. There was no disappointment, as Big Machine brought to the page, with rare nuance, the lives of people on the outskirts of society. There was a group of them coming from every place you wouldn't expect the hero of a tale to come from: drug addicts, ladies of the night - men and women who had lived rough lives. They all found themselves amongst the Unlikely Scholars - and that is only where the story begins. Part mediation on what it means to live a life parallel to mainstream society (while never being a part of it), part journey into what makes anyone believe, in anything, Big Machine does the work of all good literature. LaValle's Ricky Rice has the intelligence and grit of someone you'd want to have a long conversation with. I was lost in the telling, and find myself going back to insights. Imagine this: one afternoon you get a note calling you to Burlington, Vt. It says: "You made a promise in Cedar Rapids 2002. Time to honor it." That is the beginning - any fan of good literature, of stories that unfold in surprising ways and reveal something about our every day lives, should pick this up. After I finished it, I went out and bought another LaValle book and that's the highest praise I can offer any writer.
Visit R. Dwayne Betts's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Jack Lynch

Jack Lynch is an Associate Professor in the English department of the Newark campus of Rutgers University, specializing in the English literature of the eighteenth century.

His many books include 2009's The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to “South Park”.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm always in the middle of too many books, some for work, some just for fun. My next big writing project is a history of reference books, from Babylon to Wikipedia, and for that I'm reading Herman Kogan, The Great EB: The Story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which traces that institution from the middle of the eighteenth century to the late 1950s.

I recently finished Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, which charmed me; though I didn't have the reference book project in mind when I picked it up, I discovered all sorts of things I'm sure to work into that project. Those who don't know Manguel should track him down, since he's the ultimate bookish type, someone who really lives among, even inside, his books.

A different kind of bookish man is the subject of the book I finished just before Christmas, Jeremy Lewis's Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane. Lane was the founder of Penguin Books, and he helped to revolutionize publishing in the twentieth century. The biography was detailed without getting bogged down in minutiae.

Four books are now in my just-for-fun rotation, and I pick them based on where I am at the time. When I'm in the living room, I'm reading Umberto Eco's new Infinity of Lists. When I'm on the train (I have a long commute), it's Nicholson Baker's most recent novel, The Anthologist (I adore Nicholson Baker, especially The Mezzanine, U and I, and The Size of Thoughts). And my bedtime reading is either George Gissing's New Grub Street -- one of those titles I've always felt guilty about not reading, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly -- or George Saintsbury's Notes on a Cellar Book, since I've become a devoted reader of wine writing in the last few years.

I'm sure I've got bookmarks in the middle of a few dozen other titles, though these are the ones most on my mind this week. When the semester begins in a few weeks and I'm back to the daily grind of teaching and marking papers, I'll value the hours I can devote to books all the more.
Visit Jack Lynch's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, winner of the Nebula Award for her novel The Healer's War, is the author of numerous fantasy novels. Her latest novel with co-author Anne McCaffrey is Catalyst.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Since my new book is about cats, can I tell you about some of my favorite cat books, fictional and non? I've revisited several of them while working on Catalyst. Some I've read fairly recently (like Dewey) and some are favorites from my childhood. My first favorite cat books were by Paul Gallico (Thomasina, made into a pretty good Disney movie, and The Abandoned (in the US.; in England it was called Jennie). While distracting the kittens from a tragedy in Catalyst, Chessie teaches them to the all-important cat skill of washing, drawing on lessons learned from "one of the classics of feline literature" (referring to Jennie, whose motto was "when in doubt, wash.") Having been imprinted by these books at any early age, I am of the opinion that abandoning a cat, or any other pet, is a hanging offense. I also loved the H. Allen Smith Rhubarb series about the gnarly old tomcat who owned a baseball team. Then there was the book upon which the Disney movie, changing the name from the original for the sake of the easily-shocked parents, called That Darn Cat. I think it was originally called just DC or Damn Cat. A favorite cat short story inspired some of the sequel to Catalyst. "The Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith is the most memorable short story I've ever read about cats in space. It's copyright free to download online here.

My recent favorites include a whole clowder of mystery cats, each in his or her own series. Midnight Louie, Carole Nelson Douglas's "chat noir" detective, is a favorite at my house and I read bits to my black cats, who don't look nearly as impressed as I expect. I like the Cat Who books by Lilian Jackson Braun too, although the cats aren't in them enough to suit me, unlike Louie, who has whole first-person scenes to himself. Shirley Rousseau Murphy's Joe Grey mysteries are a continuation of a fantasy series she started, before morphing it into a mystery series. I do believe her talking cats were among the first "paranormal" mysteries. Rita Mae Brown's and Sneaky Pie Brown's Mrs. Murphy series is the only one or the lot co-authored by a cat. I buy every one of these in hardback and read them the same day. My other more or less recent favorites are by Terry Pratchett: The Unadulterated Cat and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. The former is a very funny non-fiction book and the latter gives Maurice prominence as the most notable feline denizen of Pratchett's Disc World. My favorite cat quotes also come from Pratchett (well, except for Ogden Nash's observation that "the trouble with a kitten's that, eventually it becomes a cat"). While attending a suicide, Pratchett's Death character, who always speaks in capital letters, responds to a spoiled young man's complaint that there is nothing worth living for, "CATS. CATS ARE NICE." And with unsentimental admiration, another character observes that, "If cats looked like toads we'd all realize what nasty little buggers they really are." Cat lovers and cat writers do feel that it's fair game to gripe about their feline overlords. We're certain the cats are doing the same about us.

I read a lot of stuff not about cats but this seems the most relevant right now. I just picked up Eliot Pattison's newest Colonial America mystery, Eye of the Raven, sequel to Bone Rattler. I think his books set in contemporary Tibet are my favorite series. I'm also a big fan of Phil Rickman, who I've been reading since he wrote straight horror. He now writes a series about a woman vicar who is also an exorcist on the Welsh border. Good stuff. Now that Tony Hillerman is gone, my favorite two writers of American Indian mysteries are Margaret Coel and James Doss. I really enjoyed Peter Bowen's Metis cattle brand inspector, Gabriel Dupres, even though his drunk driving made me nervous. Of course, I read tons of non fiction articles and books as research for my own books too but these are my recreational reading.
Visit Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's website.

--Marshal Zeringue