Saturday, October 30, 2010

Elliott Sawyer

Elliott Sawyer was an officer in the 101st Airborne Division. He saw action as a combat patrol leader in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and during a second deployment in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and an Army Commendation Medal. Now, back in the United States, he commands a training company of up to 240 soldiers. He and his wife live in Elgin, Oklahoma. The Severance is his first novel.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
What do I read? Whatever I can get my hands on. One of the best parts about being in the Military is that people from all over the country send boxes upon boxes of their used books to bases around the world. This is especially true when you’re deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Publishers also send cases of excess brand new books. In fact, when I was last deployed, I once made a “fort” out of the piles of unread Stuart Woods paperbacks (In case you’re wondering, they were mostly copies of Two Dollar Bill and The Prince of Beverly Hills. As of the time of this writing I have actually only read one of these. I will leave it to you to guess which one.) But, for me it was mostly the used books I read. I mean the really worn out looking ones. The way I figure it if a book looks like it’s been read a bunch of times then it must have been pretty good. Here are some of the ones I really enjoyed that influenced me while I was writing my first book, The Severance.

The Running Man by Richard Bachman, uh, I mean Steven King. Whatever, the book is great. The story combines two of things I like in my fiction: A dystopian future full of crime and violence and an anti-hero up against the world trying to beat the odds. I liked The Running Man so much that in early versions of my book, The Severance, I tried to include scenes where my main character would be interrupted while reading it (These scenes died in editing, I mourn the loss.) The book’s main character, Ben Richards, was a major inspiration for me when I was crafting my story’s protagonist. Jake Roberts. Richards has a certain amorality and pragmatism that I really liked. You can’t exactly call him a “hero” by any stretch. He kills cops, blows up buildings, takes hostages and, for the most part, just doesn’t care. And yet you root for him the whole way. I love this. But like any good rebel without a cause he had to die in the end. If you’re only seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger film adaptation you’re really missing out.

The Hunter by Richard Stark (or Donald E. Westlake if you want to be technical.) Some might call the Stark novels “pulp” or “low brow” fiction, but I’d call those people “lame.” The quality of this book speaks for itself. It was adapted into three major motion pictures, spawned 23 subsequent books, and adapted into a graphic novel. The book features another classic anti-hero, Parker, who is hell bent on revenge for being betrayed. Parker has almost no likeable qualities whatsoever except that he is totally dedicated to his task (which is wrecking house on his enemies’ faces.) He doesn’t have a tough guy attitude because he is a tough guy. For Parker it's not an act it’s a fact. I really appreciated this books snappy dialogue, which I have tried to emulate.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. Humans in powered battle suits merc’n the crap out of big spider aliens. Stop. Nothing else needs to be said. This is the greatest book of all time. Space ships and flame throwers, what’s not to like? For some folks, a lot. This is one of the more controversial books I’ve ever read, and that’s probably why I like it so much. You could write for days about all the different themes presented in this book. Politics, Gender Roles, Militarism, they’re all in there. The aspect that I like most about this book is that Heinlein seems to blend these themes together so smoothly. Heinlein devotes a large portion of his book describing the Terran Federation’s fascist style government and political process but he transitions to it so smoothly that you don’t even know you’re knee deep in his manifesto (which I don’t agree with) until it hits your belt buckle. And, in case I forgot to mention, it features people killing spiders with ray guns (spiders creep me out.)

While I’ve always had an affinity for fiction I’ve been told that you can’t write good fiction without reading some non-fiction. For The Severance I read Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War and The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics In Afghanistan for research to widen my base of knowledge beyond my own perspective. Tiger Force follows a platoon of 101st Airborne Division soldiers on their tour of duty in Vietnam through their greatest triumphs and alleged atrocities. It was a great help in building a platoon dynamic in my story. The Bear Went Over the Mountain is a classic book in military circles around the world. It reads about as interesting as stereo instructions (it was commissioned by the Soviet Army) but no other book describes battles in the same kind of detail. Terrain, Enemy Forces, Friendly Task Organization... I won’t bore you with the military jargon but it's all in there. Battles are more than what’s in front of a soldier’s muzzle and if you want to write a good battle you need to know all the moving pieces.
Visit Elliott Sawyer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Miles Corwin

Miles Corwin, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of three nonfiction books: The Killing Season, a national bestseller; And Still We Rise, the winner of the PEN West award for nonfiction and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; and Homicide Special, a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

Kind of Blue, his first novel, debuts in November.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished T. Jefferson Parker’s Iron River.

I enjoyed it for a number of reasons. A lot of mysteries are clipped and laconic, more like movie treatments than novels. Iron River was different. The descriptions of the desert landscapes were very evocative, and the characters were well drawn and fully formed. The subplot was compelling and convincing. And while many mystery writers are content to adhere to the basic outlines of a murder investigation, Parker grappled with an important societal issue – you can read the book to find out what it is – without being didactic or slowing down the plot.

I like to alternate crime fiction with nonfiction. After reading Iron River, I read Agent Zigzag by Ben MacIntyre, a book about a fascinating World War II spy. After reading a book like this I always feel intimidated. The things real people say and do are often so interesting and unexpected and improbable and compelling, I wonder how can I ever make up characters that can compete.
Visit Miles Corwin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Elizabeth Anderson

Elizabeth Anderson is the John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her books include Value in Ethics and Economics and the newly released The Imperative of Integration.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've been reading around lately in the history of egalitarianism. I'm interested not only in the history of egalitarian ideas, but in the history of the practice of equality. In that area Geoff Eley's Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 is an amazing eye-opener. Eley narrates a history dripping with irony, inconsistency, and missed opportunities. Socialist movements in Europe started out with a strong agenda of feminism and sexual liberation. However, he documents how time and again, the Left put women's interests on the back burner in the name of advancing (male) workers' liberation first. When socialist or communist parties came close to or actually acquired power, they swiftly moved to shore up male dominance and adopted sexually conservative ideologies.

Women's issues were not the only ones drawing out incipient conservative tendencies in Left political parties. The German Social Democratic Party officially adhered to a Marxist ideology long past its expiration date. Yet, when the opportunity for a real workers' revolution arose in the wake of Germany's collapse in World War I, with workers taking to the streets and ready to seize power, the SDP, which had been suddenly handed control of the state, sent the army out to crush the revolt. Why? Orthodox Marxist theory said the time for revolution would not be ripe until capitalism was completely developed, but there were still economically backward areas in Germany. So Germany would have to wait--even though Lenin had already shown how revolution can succeed in a far more backward country. Ironically, the SDP's Marxist orthodoxy helped make them counter-revolutionaries! In this case, unlike the case with its treatment of feminism, we can be grateful for the SDP's conservatism: as we know from subsequent history, and as Eley shows, communist revolutions have not turned out so well for the people whose liberation the communists promised. Of course, there were other causes of the SDP's caution: it had long since discarded anarchist revolutionary practice and committed itself institutionally to parliamentary democratic procedures. Eley does a wonderful job explaining the sources of divergence among rival leftist movements, as well as the profound role of the Left in shaping democracy in Europe.
Read an excerpt from Elizabeth Anderson's The Imperative of Integration, and learn more about the book from the Princeton University Press.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Steven Saylor

Steven Saylor is the author of the acclaimed Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries featuring Gordianus the Finder as well as the international bestseller Roma.

His new book is Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Most of my reading these days is devoted to primary sources for Roman history—everything from the chronicles of Livy to the plays of Seneca to the satires of Lucian. But I also love to read purely for escape, and in that regard I am strangely addicted to the novels of the Italian archaeologist, historical novelist, and thriller writer Valerio Massimo Manfredi.

Strangely, I say, because VMM has got to be one of the most uneven writers around. His historical novels about the Ancient World range from quite fine (The Last Legion, Tyrant, The Talisman of Troy, The Lost Army) to so-so (The Ides of March) to embarrassingly bad (Empire of Dragons).

(I have so far avoided reading the books for which VMM is best known, a trilogy of novels about Alexander the Great which were big bestsellers across Europe; VMM is so oblivious of the male-male sexuality of the ancient Greeks that I am not eager to compare his Alexander to the Alexander of Mary Renault.)

Along with historical novels, VMM also writes “thrillers”—at least they are marketed as thrillers, but the author is so blithely unfettered by genre rules and reader expectations that these books are actually unclassifiable. Like popcorn, I find them addictive and enjoyable, but ultimately unsatisfying; since VMM is willing to pull any old rabbit out of the hat (including ridiculous supernatural explanations), it hardly matters what happens in these potboilers. The Oracle is harebrained but quite atmospheric, and the breathless plotting of Pharaoh kept me turning the pages, but The Tower is a leading contender for Worst Novel Ever Written. If you don't believe me, read it yourself.

Part of the problem may lie in the translations of Christine Feddersen Manfredi. (VMM's wife? Sister-in-law? Daughter-in-law? Oddly, his book jacket bios never explain their relationship.) I'm pretty sure English is not her first language; some of the books contain repeated and obvious malapropisms of the sort no native speaker would commit. (There is editorial oversight at fault here; VMM's UK and US publishers should have caught these problems and fixed them.) Her work, too, is uneven, veering from poetic to clunky (sometimes in the same paragraph), but I think, in general, the English prose in VMM's books has gotten better over the years.

So where does the VMM thriller I’m reading now, The Ancient Curse, fit into all of this? The book was first published in Italian (as Chimaira) back in 2001 (immediately after the Alexander trilogy), but has only now been translated into English. Set in present-day Italy, the plot revolves around a strange archaeological find from Etruscan times; more than VMM's other thrillers, this one really draws on his experience as an archaeologist, which is a definite plus. The nature of the story is supernatural from the outset, so there are no bizarre left-turns along the way. And the language is sometimes quite fine, spare but evocative, with some eerie scenes that remind me of certain uncanny moments in David Lynch movies. I have to say I am enjoying every page.

So, I would rate this as the best of VMM's thrillers. (I think there is one more yet to be translated into English, his first novel from 1985, Palladion). Don't expect air-tight plotting, but do expect vivid characters, a brooding atmosphere, authentic archaeological details, and a pretty good yarn.
Visit Steven Saylor's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 22, 2010

Eve Marie Mont

Eve Marie Mont is the author of Free to a Good Home, her debut novel about a woman coming to terms with past disappointments and forging a bright new future--man and dog included.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now, I’m juggling two books, going back and forth between them depending on my mood. One is Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden. I’ve never read any of Morton’s other books, even though they gets raves, but I’m thoroughly immersing myself in this multi-layered novel about family secrets and identity. The story, which spans a century, focuses on a little girl placed aboard a ship sailing from England to Australia. When she arrives in Australia, however, she has no idea who she is or where she came from. Adopted by the harbormaster and his wife who name her Nell, the girl grows up happy and well cared for until her father tells her the truth. This sets in motion a search to find her true identity, a mystery that will echo across the years, culminating in her granddaughter Cassandra’s inheritance of a mysterious cottage with a forgotten garden. The book is thick—over 500 pages—so it has an epic feel, but it also has that transportive quality I look for in a good read. Rich in atmosphere and characterization, the book reminds me of other Gothic tales like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I look forward to finding out how Nell’s story will resolve itself.

The other book I’m reading now is Mary Alice Monroe’s Time is a River, which focuses on Mia Landon, a woman reeling from her recent bout with breast cancer as well as the dissolution of her marriage. She retreats to a cottage in the mountains, owned by fly-fishing instructor Belle Carson, and slowly learns of the grace and validation to be gained through the meditative sport. She also uncovers the journal of Belle’s grandmother, Kate Watson, a legendary fly fisherwoman once mired in scandal when she was accused of killing her husband. Through the resolute voice of Kate, Mia is able to find the strength and inspiration to reinvent her life. I am only a third of the way through this one, but the lyrical language and quirky small town characters are making this an enjoyable, escapist read.
Read an excerpt from Free to a Good Home, and visit Eve Mont's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Paul Grossman

Paul Grossman has been a freelance journalist for many years with published articles in major magazines such as Vanity Fair and Details. He had a highly successful Actor’s Equity reading of his first stage play, The Pariah, at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan—a drama about Hannah Arendt and the Adolf Eichmann war-crimes trial, which is currently in the hands of the Perry Street Theater Company for production development. Grossman is also a long time teacher of writing and literature at Hunter College.

His new novel is The Sleepwalkers.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m just finishing a very powerful Dutch novel from the Second World War called Comedy in a Minor Key. Although written by a German Jew who spent those years in hiding, it’s told from the point of view of the Dutch couple who keep such a man in their care. The result is most intimate, psychologically raw exploration I’ve ever encountered of what it must have felt like to have a Jewish refugee hidden in your home at the height of the Nazi Holocaust.
Visit Paul Grossman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mary Anna Evans

Mary Anna Evans is the author of the award-winning Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries: Artifacts, Relics, Effigies, Findings, and Floodgates. Her new novel, the sixth in the series, is Strangers.

Earlier this month I asked her what sh was reading. Her reply:
I'm sure I'm not the first writer to bemoan the fact that, though I write books because I love to read them, I find that writing my novels cuts deeply into time I might spend reading. And when I do read, it's frequently nonfiction that's related to the topic of my work-in-progress.

Since I write mysteries about an archaeologist and I am neither an archaeologist nor a historian, I set aside about a month at the beginning of each new project to bone up on the history and material culture of the area where the book is to be set. I call this activity "reading for a living."

I scour my own library, which includes tomes like The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the WPA guides to Florida, Mississippi, and New Orleans. I poke through the public library for material, getting some of the more esoteric stuff by interlibrary loan. (I believe it took four libraries to satisfy my insatiable need for information on tin-glazed medieval Islamic ceramic lustreware. Who would have thought that information would be so hard to get? It wasn't even on the internet. What's up with that?)

Despite its dearth of information on tin-glazed medieval Islamic ceramic lustreware, I crawl all over the internet, following my nose as I look for background material on my topic. At this point in the process, I don't care of the information is scholarly or pop culture schlock or even unsubstantiated rumor. I can sort out the truth later, but schlock and rumor are part of the human condition, so they have their place in fiction. Or so it seems to me.

For my new release, Strangers, I found an online English translation of a journal kept by the priest accompanying the Spaniards who founded St. Augustine in 1565, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales. His descriptions of hurricanes and lost ships and massacres and first contact with Native Americans were simply indelible. Because I don't like to muck around in the lives of real people, my depiction of Father Francisco's actions is very close to his own, but I also created a fictional priest to tell the story I wanted to write.

My Father Domingo sees the same massacres and epidemics that the real Father Francisco did, but they affect him differently. Father Domingo wakes up the morning after the massacre at the Matanzas River and he just walks away. He goes native, ministering to the Timucuan Indians as they pass into extinction. And, in the end, he strikes back in the only way a man trained in peace can manage.

Inevitably, I buy more books for my groaning shelves. For my current work-in-progress, Plunder, I bought a book that I think has one of the best titles ever: X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. After reading it, I'll never again watch Johnny Depp pilot the Black Pearl in The Pirates of the Caribbean in quite the same way.

But I write fiction because it's what I like to read, so I squeeze reading it into the scraps of time left me by my work and my family responsibilities. This is why it has taken me an astonishingly long time to read a book that I'm really enjoying: Light in August by William Faulkner.

As a seventh-generation Mississippian and an Ole Miss graduate, it's fairly inexcusable that I'd never read Faulkner beyond a few short stories in high school. I chose Light in August for two excellent reasons: It was already in my overstuffed library and I thought the blurb on the back looked interesting. Imagine how surprised I was to find myself immersed in a beautifully written and artfully nuanced work of...crime fiction.

No, it's not a mystery, as the publishing industry currently defines it. I don't really even like to mention a genre category in the same paragraph as William Faulkner, for fear that someone reading this might think that I can't tell the difference between pop culture schlock and timeless art. My point is that, as I've read it, I've spent a good bit of time trying to pinpoint the differences between the two, because it can only help my own work. And also because the question is interesting.

Faulkner's use of the English language is, of course, far more sophisticated than that in modern crime fiction. (And in everything else...) His ability to give a clean and clear look at a character's heart in a sentence or a page (or a page-long sentence) can make me stop reading so I can think a bit. Having grown up in Mississippi, I know that his descriptions of the countryside and the social interactions and the psychological intricacies of a small-town church service are pitch-perfect.

I'm nearly finished with the book and, unless Faulkner is going to pull a fast one on me, he hasn't been shy about letting us know whodunit...because finding out who did the murder is not the point. The spreading ripples of that murder's impact and the sordid history that brought the killer to the act of murder is the point. And the writer's obvious joy in manipulating time and space as he unfolds his story is pretty damn fine to read, as well.

Maybe some foolish mystery editor would reject Light in August if it were submitted today, because the killer isn't hidden from view, but that editor would be wrong. I actually don't think my editor would reject it. I think she'd just see it as a different way to explore the concept of justice, which is what I think mystery fiction is all about.

A friend told me that Faulkner's Sanctuary is even more like a mystery than Light in August. I think it'll be next on my reading list. Right after I plow through this stack of books about shipwrecks and how to salvage treasure from the bottom of the ocean...
Learn more about the author and her work at Mary Anna Evans' website.

The Page 69 Test: Floodgates.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Darin Strauss

Darin Strauss is the international bestselling author of the New York Times Notable books Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy, and the national bestseller More Than It Hurts You. Also a screenwriter, he is adapting Chang and Eng with Gary Oldman, for Disney. The recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, he is a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU's creative writing program.

His new book is Half a Life.

Recently I asked him what he as reading. His reply:
I re-read two stories that go well together. Babel's "My First Fee" and VS Pritchett's "The Diver." In Babel's story, the narrator -- a virginal would-be writer -- convinces an old hooker to give him a freebie for an interesting reason: he improvises, telling her his first story. "My First Fee" was written in the 1920's. And a few years later, Pritchett wrote "The Diver" -- virginal would-be writer convinces an older woman to sleep with him; he does so by telling his first story. I've never seen the Babel and the Pritchett compared. But VSP had to know "My First Fee." Pritchett read and reviewed Babel. The reason I now read them both is -- they're both great, and for all the surface similarities, they are quite different stories. It shows how one can be healthily influenced , but still remain oneself -- not an imitator.

I'm in a duel-op mode, I guess. Also reading Updike's Marry Me with Tom Perotta's Little Children. Two stories of suburban infidelity. Updike is a world-class noticer; the prose is lovely, but the plot sags. Perotta's book is a perfectly-constructed, reader-loving machine. If you could combine the two novels, you'd have the greatest infidelity novel of all time. And that's what a writer should be: a cuisinart, pureeing your favorite ingredients to make your own stew.
Visit Darin Strauss's website.

The Page 99 Test: Half a Life.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 15, 2010

Reed Farrel Coleman

Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR's Maureen Corrigan, Reed Farrel Coleman is the former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. He has published twelve novels—two under his pen name Tony Spinosa—in three series, and one stand-alone with award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen. His books have been translated into seven languages.

Coleman is a three-time winner of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year. He has also received the Barry and Anthony Awards, and has been twice nominated for the Edgar® Award. His new novel is Innocent Monster, the 6th Moe Prager novel.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Gone ‘Til November by Wallace Stroby

A very much under-appreciated writer, Stroby delivers a powerful novel in the form of a dual narrative. Although I haven’t gotten far enough into the book to know for sure, it seems the two main characters—an African-American hit man from New Jersey and a white, female sheriff’s deputy from south Florida—are on a collision course. I doubt the end is going to be pretty or turn out very well for one of them. But no matter how it turns out, I’m enjoying Stroby’s sparse yet vivid prose and the evocation of two very different settings and situations. It’s a story told at street level and rightfully so, because behind the façade, that’s really where we all live.
Visit Reed Farrel Coleman's website.

Reed Farrel Coleman's Moe Prager Mystery Series, the movie.

The Page 69 Test: Innocent Monster.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Todd Ritter

Todd Ritter is the author of Death Notice, his debut mystery featuring small-town police chief Kat Campbell. Although he now lives in suburban New Jersey, he was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, where he encountered way too many snakes.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am terrified of snakes. I don’t discriminate between shape, size, color and killing capability. I’m scared of all of them. A few years ago, a baby garter snake sitting by the door held me hostage in the men’s room at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Jersey. That’s how much they freak me out.

Knowing this, it would stand to reason that I shouldn’t be reading Awakening by S.J. Bolton, which is about an English village infested with snakes. Very early in the book, Bolton describes a venomous snake lying peacefully on top of a sleeping baby. That alone should have made me drop the book and run screaming.

But Awakening is about far more than snakes. In fact, snakes aren’t really the villain here. And Bolton sets a furious pace that never lags. So I keep reading, even when she drags the heroine, animal expert Clara Benning, into a house that contains dozens of serpents slithering among the drapes, chairs and bedspreads. Sure, it makes me squeal, squirm and check under the bed for rogue taipans and adders, but it’s too late to stop reading. Awakening has its hooks (or, to use a hoary pun, fangs) in me.
Learn more about Death Notice and its author at Todd Ritters' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 11, 2010

Joseph Skibell

Joseph Skibell is the author of the novels A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and the newly published A Curable Romantic. He has received a Halls Fiction Fellowship, a Michener Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, among other awards. He teaches at Emory University and is the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

Recently, I asked Skibell what he was reading. His response:
Usually it’s a choice between reading or playing the guitar for me, and lately the guitar has been winning. So mostly I’ve been reading Bach’s Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (Dover Publications). I’m working my way through the first fugue. In terms of difficulty, the piece is at the outer rim of my musical abilities. I don’t even have a classical guitar. I’ve been playing it on an Italian Plum-Colored Electric Parker Mojo Fly.

Though written for violin, the collection has long been a staple of the guitarist’s repertoire, a fact I learned reading – or rather rereading (I didn’t notice the detail the first time through) – Glenn Kurtz’s gorgeously written memoir Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music.

Kurtz was, from childhood on, an accomplished guitarist, dedicated, passionate, disciplined. Written with an astute eye and ear for detail, the memoir describes his first lessons at guitar camp, his time at the New England Conservatory of Music, his attempts to begin a solo career in Vienna, and even his breakthrough, with a duets partner, into a new kind of classical fusion, all before he gives up on music entirely.

Along the way, the reader is given a crisply written history of the evolution of the guitar.

Practicing is a guitar-lover’s dream book – I read it with intense enjoyment the first time, but with an even greater pleasure the second time. Mostly though, despite the hopeful-sounding subtitle, the book is an honest and heartfelt testament to an artist’s disillusionment -- not a story we’re used to hearing in success-obsessed America. Kurtz’s unblinking record of the pain as well as the joy of his musical life makes the book a remarkable document.

The most recent novel I’ve read is Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi. In all honestly, me reading a Steve Stern novel is a bit like Leon Russell recording Willis Alan Ramsey, or Robert Redford casting a blond Brad Pitt in And a River Runs Through It: we’re not the same, but it’s close. If you squint, you might confuse the two.

There’s a real pleasure, however, in seeing someone who does something akin to what you do doing it extraordinarily well. Stern is a master. The Frozen Rabbi follows a bifurcated narrative, describing, on one prong, the wanderings of a Hasidic Rebbe who has become frozen in a block of ice in a freak storm in the Galicia of the 1890s, and, on the other, the alienated adolescence of an American Jewish kid growing up in Memphis in the 1990s.

It’s absurdist, yes, but the dramatist The Frozen Rabbi brings to mind is not Ionesco, but Shakespeare – the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s no plot device so hoary Stern can’t reinvigorate it: kidnappings, mistaken identities, cross-dressed love stories, repeated encounters between characters over lifetimes and even generations. As a storyteller, Stern pulls out all the stops, goes for broke, bets the farm, but it’s the reader who wins. The book, a cold-eyed social commentary, hidden inside a frothy farce, is a delightful critique about spirituality in America.

The other book that’s keeping me busy lately is W.B. Yeats’ Collected Poems, a thick paperback I picked up at the bookshop at Yeats’ home in Sligo many years ago. I decided recently to commit 100 poems to memory. I wanted to poems to be able to drop from my brain onto my tongue like gumballs dropping out of a gumball machine. And so far, I’ve memorized Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” and Vladmir’s final monologue from Waiting for Godot, along with Leonard Cohen’s mournful “Recitation” and W.H. Auden’s “Stop all the Clocks.”

These last two are mere nursery rhymes compared to Yeats’ late work. I’ve recited Sailing to Byzantium,” “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and “The Second Coming” at dinner tables and over coffee, and the poems never fail to move and stir my listeners. I source the more obscure references through David A. Ross’s comprehensive Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work.

I’ve tried to branch into other languages – Iztik Manger’s beautiful Yiddish poem Afn veg stayt a boim” and some poems in Esperanto – but for some reason, Yeats continually draws me back to him. There are eleven stanzas to his “A Prayer for My Daughter.” If I attempt it, it will be the longest piece I’ve done so far, but I think I’m up to it. I hope so anyway.
Read more about A Curable Romantic and visit Joseph Skibell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hooman Majd

Born in Tehran but educated in the West, Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (an Economist and Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2008) and The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge.

A week or so ago I asked him hat he was reading. His reply:
I’m reading Harold Schechter’s Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend, a couple of weeks before it’s released. It’s the story of the Colt brothers, one the famous firearm manufacturer, the other a cold-blooded murderer (something I didn’t know). I love true crime books, and Schechter is a master of the genre—his books read like novels but every detail is meticulously researched and true. As a New Yorker, I’m always fascinated with Gilded Age New York—for it’s a city that is still recognizable in so many places—and apart from providing me with a history lesson about my city, this book also satisfies my enduring curiosity about the evil that seems to be a part of the human condition.

I’m also reading the anthology Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, edited by renowned scholar and author Reza Aslan, also in advance of its release. It’s a compendium of stories and excerpts of novels by Middle Eastern writers, but not ones most Americans would instantly recognize. It covers Arab, Persian, Turkish and even Urdu literature, and it is stunning in its breadth and in the talent that is on display. I’m always dismayed that the literature of the Islamic world is either unavailable in translation to Western readers or garners little attention here, but at a time when we read of Koran burnings, Islamophobia, and crisis after crisis in the Middle East in our newspapers, how appropriate it is to hear the voices of the people we actually know so little about.
Read more about The Ayatollahs' Democracy, and visit Hooman Majd's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Laurel Corona

Laurel Corona has combined her love of writing and teaching for more than three decades. She has taught at San Diego State University, UCSD, and now at San Diego City College, where she is a humanities professor. She began her career as an author in 1999 with a book on Kenya for Lucent Books. From there, she wrote 17 young adult titles for the same company, and went on to award-winning debuts in fiction and non-fiction books for adults in 2008. The Four Seasons: A Novel Of Vivaldi’s Venice won the 2009 Theodor Geisel Award for Book of the Year from the San Diego Book Awards and has been translated into eleven foreign languages. Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story Of Love And Partisan Resistance won a San Diego Book Award as well as a Christopher Medal.

Corona’s second novel, Penelope’s Daughter, is out this month.

Late last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
There’s an expression, “busman’s holiday” that I heard when I lived in the UK years back, referring to a bus driver traveling by bus on his vacation. I think that’s why, when I’m drafting a novel--which I seem to be doing much of the time the last few years--I don’t read much. I think reading uses the brain in a way similar to writing, and it is not restorative, or even physically possible much of the time, to read for pleasure because my eyes, brain, and psyche are just too tired. With The Shape of the World, the novel I’m working on now, I discovered that audiobooks are the perfect solution. When I need a break, I put on my running shoes or go to the gym and have a great multitasking experience.

Right now, I’m listening to Margaret George’s Helen of Troy. I got the book in hard copy a few years back, when I was first thinking about writing a novel based on the Odyssey. I wanted to see how she had handled the fact that not much is known about the era of the Homeric legends. Then, I only read the first fifty pages--just enough to say, “yes, I can do this too.” (Proof of that is Penelope's Daughter, my newly released second novel.) As an audiobook it is delightful. The narrator’s voice is so appealing that it’s easy to love Helen even when she’s making foolish decisions. The book is so rich in imagination, amplifying what is known about the era to create a wonderfully vivid picture of Sparta and Troy, and characters who are true to the sketchy portraits Homer gives us.

Another audiobook I enjoyed (I’ve been doing a lot of running!) is Michelle Moran’s The Heretic Queen, about Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II. Like Margaret George, she is excellent at filling in the details of a society so remote in time we really don’t know that much about it. I also listened to Catherine Delors’ For the King, which is a fascinating novel based on a real-life assassination plot against Napoleon. A fourth is Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures. I have always been fascinated by the history of science, and especially by women’s role in that history, and I was interested to learn that Mary Anning, the working class heroine of the book, is a real person who did indeed, without any formal scientific training, contribute to the discovery and identification of a number of large fossil species. And, like everyone else I know, I loved Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. That one, by the way, is fabulous in audio format. Each narrator in the book is read by a different actor, and they all are distinct and engaging.

Okay, so I do read a few books the old fashioned way. I was blown away by a nonfiction book, Living Between Danger and Love, written by a friend of mine, Kathleen Jones. One of her students was murdered when Kathleen was a professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University. The book is a narrative of living through the aftermath, but she weaves in all the things that she learned about herself from going through such a horrific and tumultuous time. She writes in a way that is so brutally frank it challenges readers not to settle for knowing themselves only superficially, but to be more honest and to reach a higher level of genuine integrity about who they are, what they believe, and how they make decisions. Really a good read.

And finally, the book I am holding in my hands these days is The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner, by Dina Porat, written in Hebrew and just recently released in English in the US. My first book from a major publisher was nonfiction, Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance. One of the most important characters in the book is Abba Kovner, the poet-hero of the Jewish resistance movement in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania. I am really thrilled to be able to learn more about him and others whom I invested a great deal of time and creative energy writing about. On every page I am learning things I wish I’d known, but it’s also very pleasing to see that nothing I’ve read so far is inconsistent with the story I wrote.

Okay, there’s just enough time left today to go for a run. Helen awaits.
Visit Laurel Corona's website and diary.

The Page 69 Test: The Four Seasons.

My Book, The Movie: The Four Seasons.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cherish D'Angelo

Cherish D'Angelo launched her debut contemporary romantic suspense Lancelot's Lady on September 27, 2010. Her novel has already won an Editor's Choice Award from and placed in the semi-finals of Dorchester Publishing's "Next Best Celler" contest. Though this is Cherish's first romance novel, she's no stranger to booklovers; she's best known as bestselling Canadian suspense author Cheryl Kaye Tardif.

Last month I asked her what she reading. Her reply:
I have a couple of novels on the go and one marketing book, all by various authors. One thriller I'm reading that totally sucked me in is The Dark Tide by Andrew Gross. You may know Andrew from his partnership with James Patterson on the Women's Murder Club series that started with 1st to Die. It was made into a television series.

I've been a fan of Andrew's work for many years, so I knew that The Dark Tide would be an awesome treat. And it hasn't let me down yet. The Dark Tide hooked me from the first chapter, with its subtle foreshadowing on the first few pages. By the end of that chapter, you know something bad is going to happen. By chapter two, it does. Talk about being thrown into explosive action!

One thing I really enjoy about Andrew Gross's writing is that he's obviously picked up some techniques from Patterson. Like short chapters and chapter hook endings. This is a technique that makes the action so much quicker and sharper. It increases the pacing and the suspense.

I highly recommend The Dark Tide. I haven't finished the entire novel yet, but I have no doubt I will feel completely satisfied by the time I'm done. (Thank you, Andrew, for another heart-stopping, thrilling read!)
Learn more about Lancelot's Lady and Cherish D'Angelo (aka Cheryl Kaye Tardif) at the official website and author's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gyan Prakash

Gyan Prakash is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University. He is the author of Bonded Histories and Another Reason (Princeton University Press) and the editor of Noir Urbanisms. His new book is Mumbai Fables.

About ten days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am currently reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s fabulous novel, The Shadow of the Wind, having just finished reading his immensely imaginative and enjoyable The Angel’s Game. I did not know about him, and picked up The Angel’s Game quite by chance at the airport as something to read on a long intercontinental flight. And what a nice accidental pick it was! The time passed by quickly as I fell completely under the spell cast by Zafón’s story of a writer who lives by writing sensationalist crime stories under a pseudonym. As the writer digs beneath surface appearances to find deeper truths about the world around him, things became more mysterious and magical, and yet believable. The novel uses the conceit of the mystery genre, but the resolution does not result in clarification but more mist and murk, and strangely moving reflections on writing.

So enchanted was I by the novel’s ingeniously conjured up fables behind fables that I moved immediately to The Shadow of the Wind, which I learnt was published earlier and to which The Angel’s Game stands as a prequel. I am through the first 100 pages, and I am already captivated. It opens with Daniel Sempere, a young boy, taken by his bookseller father to the “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” which makes a cameo appearance in The Angel’s Game. Daniel is asked to pick a book to adopt. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind. This choice – an obscure book, written by an author with a mysterious history – sets up the basis for yet another tale of dark discoveries. But I have just begun, and am looking forward to once again losing myself in Zafón’s world of shadows and mists.

Zafón’s writing is unpretentious, and the humour is self-deprecatory, ironic, and completely unforced. Most of all, I like the way he delves into surface realities to make them more enigmatic and yet plausible. There is a hint of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which is all to the good.
Read an excerpt from Mumbai Fables, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is the author of the Twilight of Avalon Trilogy from Simon & Schuster's Touchstone imprint. The trilogy comprises Twilight of Avalon, Dark Moon of Avalon, and the upcoming Sunrise of Avalon.

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
What I read tends to depend on where I am in my own writing process. When I'm in the midst of drafting my own Celtic fantasy books or short stories, I tend to read books that are as different as possible from what I'm writing. Reading a book too similar in tone or period or style to my own work can influence my own voice a bit, or limit my own imagination. So since I've been writing a few free short stories set in the world of Arthurian Britain, I've been reading mostly contemporary fiction these last few months. One of my absolute favorites that I recently finished was Backseat Saints, by Joshilyn Jackson. It's the story of Rose Mae Lolley, a fierce and fiery woman who after years trapped in an abusive marriage finally determines to break free. Joshilyn Jackson's writing is just gorgeous--lush and rich and lyrical and poignant. And with flashes of humor that had me laughing out loud, even in the midst of such a sobering subject.

Now I've just picked up Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, an urban fantasy set in Victorian era London. I'm only about 20 pages in, but it's a fantastic read so far--rich with period detail as well as the details of her fantasy world, and nail-bitingly suspenseful. I also read and recently loved a contemporary fantasy, Free Fall, by Laura Anne Gilman. I've enjoyed the whole of Gilman's series about a magical Retriever named Wren and her friend and lover Sergei.

Once I'm finished writing and am in the down-time of doing research and outlining between books, I'm hugely looking forward to some upcoming releases in the historical fantasy genre. Juliet Marillier's The Seer of Sevenwaters and Jules Watson's The Raven Queen are high on my to-be-read pile for this coming winter!
Read the prologue to Dark Moon of Avalon, and watch the video trailer.

Learn more about the book and author at Anna Elliott's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Dark Moon of Avalon.

--Marshal Zeringue