Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Donna VanLiere

Donna VanLiere is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Christmas Hope books and Angels of Morgan Hill. Her most recent book, The Christmas Journey (St. Martin's Press) is a modern retelling of the Nativity with brilliant watercolor paintings inside.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
As usual, I am reading several books at one time (what is that about my personality?). Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran is not only the author's own story of life in Iran but also a book of social history. For two years Nafisi gathered seven of her female students (she taught at a university in Tehran) to secretly read forbidden Western classics like The Great Gatsby and Lolita. I was drawn to this work because, while Iran's leaders were calling America The Great Satan, Nafisi's life and the lives of her students were becoming intertwined with the ones they were reading about in the pages of each "forbidden" novel.

I'm also reading The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest. I found this book at a library book sale and was interested when I read the back flap. The book is a diary of a seven-month long stay Nouwen spent at a Trappist monastery in Genesee County in upstate New York. Nouwen was at a point in his life where he needed to do some soul searching and the monks gladly welcomed him. I've read other Nouwen works and always find him to be an honest, insightful writer and full of humor.

Two weeks ago I was doing some work for the Nashville Rescue Mission when an employee handed me a book, "My gift to you," he said, "For helping the mission." The book was Same Kind of Different as Me, a true story by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. Denver grew up working on cotton plantations and by the age of thirteen he'd dealt with more loss than most of us will have in a lifetime. Ron grew up poor but learned to work hard to keep the wolf from the door. His hard work led him into the world of upscale art dealing. Ron is traveling the world looking for art and Denver is a homeless drifter when their lives intersect. These men, and the gutsy Deborah are all real people and the narrative reflects their voices with gritty pain and emotional warmth.

Finally, I'm reading The Secret Garden out loud to my children each day. It has been so many years since I'd read it that I had forgotten much of the beginning. At one point, my 9-year-old daughter said, "This book sure has a lot of people dying, Mom. Will they ever stop dying so the book can keep going?" Life is hard for little Mary at the beginning: she was born to a mother who never really wanted her and raised by servants till her sixth year when cholera broke out in India and her favorite nurse was the first to be struck, followed by other servants and her parents. Talk about getting the reader's attention! We're halfway through and my kids have been able to put the death and pain of the beginning behind them and are loving this beloved classic.
Visit Donna VanLiere's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Christmas Secret.

The Page 69 Test: Finding Grace.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 29, 2010

Lisa Rogak

Lisa Rogak is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 40 books. Her works have been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, Parade Magazine, USA Today, Family Circle, and hundreds of other publications, and she has appeared on Oprah. Her latest book is Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, a full-length biography published in January, 2009.

Rogak’s book, Michelle Obama In Her Own Words, the companion volume to Barack Obama In His Own Words, was published in March 2009, and was a main selection at the Black Expressions Book Club.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
These days I write biographies -- my next is on Stephen Colbert, due out in October 2011 -- but my attention span is pretty short because I also write a lot of blog posts and brief FOB articles for magazines on food, wine and travel. Plus, I live on the road full-time, so I have to be careful about what I pack because I limit my life to what can fit into a carry-on. I have no permanent address and I'm in a foreign country more often than not, so I can't rely on a decent library nearby and I have to plan ahead where I know I'll be in a place where Amazon can ship books. When I'm in the States, I usually head for the nearest bookstore to buy a few books from my wish list. I haven't yet tried to wrap my brain around a Kindle, mostly because it's one more permanent thing to carry.

I read primarily non-fiction because I learn so much from seeing how other writers tell a story. All this means that the books I choose have to serve a very important purpose, and are somehow work-related.

I'm currently working as co-author on a book along the lines of Marley & Me and Dewey the Library Cat, so obviously I want to read other similar tear-jerky animal & human memoirs. It helps that I'm just a sucker for these kinds of books.

I just finished Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned about Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper, just out in paperback, which I loved. And awhile back I devoured Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by David Dosa.

Since at this moment I'm in southern Florida for a couple more days before traveling overseas, I have to hit the bookstore for my next two picks:

Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin and Huck: The Remarkable True Story of How One Lost Puppy Taught a Family--and a Whole Town--About Hope and Happy Endings by Janet Elder.
Visit Lisa Rogak's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gary Corby

Gary Corby is a first time novelist, former systems programmer at Microsoft, and lives in Australia with his wife and two daughters.

His new book is The Pericles Commission.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I usually have several books going at once.

The Naked Olympics by Tony Perrottet. It's a short and fascinating account of the ancient Olympics, as it really happened. Really it's a series of anecdotes. This counts as book research, because the third book in my series is set at the Olympics of 460BC. It's so nice when work can be such fun.

Get Out Or Die by my friend Jane Finnis, is an historical mystery set in Roman Britain. It's written in a straightforward, relaxing style. Jane knows her British Roman history, and she uses it expertly in her stories. Her description of how ancient publicans ran a mansio -- a roadside inn -- is vivid. I don't know how Jane would feel about this, but you could almost classify Get Out Or Die as an ancient historical cozy, which to my mind is a good thing.

New Scientist I read every issue. This way I can pretend I still have some scientific background (I began life as a mathematician). If I ever write SF, I'm all set to go.

A Drink Before The War by Dennis Lehane. I sheepishly admitted while on book tour that I'd never read any Lehane. What was this Mystic River that everyone keeps raving about? I immediately had thrust into my hands the first of the series. Noir is not typically my thing, but this one has me absorbed.
Visit Gary Corby's blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Pericles Commission.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 26, 2010

Jay Kirk

Jay Kirk's nonfiction has been published in Harper's, GQ, the New York Times Magazine, and The Nation. His work has been anthologized in Best American Crime Writing 2003 and Best American Crime Writing 2004, and Best American Travel Writing 2009 (edited by Simon Winchester). He is a recipient of a 2005 Pew Fellowship in the Arts and is a MacDowell Fellow. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

His new book is Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Ideally I would have some kind of machine that decides what I read each night. Like a vending machine where I put in a coin, and a book comes out, and I can’t put in another slug for another book. Such a machine might make me a more committed reader. Instead, what often happens is, I’ll read ten pages of something, dislike it, and then read three more things, dislike that too, or just not get into the groove, and then I have to go search my bookshelves, which I’ve been doing for fifteen years or so now. It’s a really bad habit. It’s not like this always happens to me though. I’ll go for months happily reading, loving everything I pick up, gaining momentum. But then I find myself back in this purgatory of indecision, caught between a history, a novel, or a how-to. Sometimes, on especially bad nights, I’ll just read the dictionary. It drives my wife, a librarian, crazy. However, lately, I did re-subscribe to the New York Times, to the paper version that actually arrives at my door, and in a way this has temporarily solved the problem. I also recently began reading War and Peace on a Kindle (having messed up my rotator cuff, so that reading anything that big is just too painful; going Kindle was not my first choice, but it’s turned out to not be such a bad thing). I read most of Franzen’s Freedom on my Kindle, too. I probably shouldn’t mention it here, though, since the Kindle is actually on loan from Amazon.com, and I was supposed to return it like six months ago. They’ll probably read this now and then remove the “buy” button for my book.
Read an excerpt from Kingdom Under Glass, and learn more about the book and author at Jay Kirk's website.

The Page 99 Test: Kingdom Under Glass.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Julie Metz

Julie Metz is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship; her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Glamour, Hemispheres, and the New York City storysite Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

Metz is the author of Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
My reading habits are as wide-ranging as I can manage in the time I have, typically the hour before I drift off to sleep. Sadly I am not a fast reader, so my To Be Read Pile is always overflowing, a testament to great ambition. In my fantasy, my future life allows me morning hours of reading over cups of green tea. Here are some of my recent reads, in no particular order:

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

A sequence of related stories narrated from different points of view. We follow characters as they scramble through their teens and early twenties, make mistakes, start careers in the music industry, enter into and bust up marriages and along the way we see how time changes them for better and worse. The stories coalesce into a beautiful whole—biting, funny, innovative, and true.

Laura Furman, The Mother Who Stayed

An editor sent me this collection of stories in galley form. This book has really stayed with me. The stories probe the relationship between mother and child, in the loosest sense of the word. With wonderfully rendered scenes of American landscape, the stories form a kind of national portrait so much greater than the domestic dramas of the plots.

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

I did not read this novel when it first came out…it was one of many novels on my To Be Read pile. When I finally read it during my summer holiday, I knew from the first page that I was in for a fantastic read. Desai’s gorgeous writing offsets a frequently harrowing tale of loss as a cantankerous retired judge, his aging cook, his teenaged granddaughter and a few neighbors live out their days in a remote village in India beset by political strife. Far away, the cook’s son struggles to make a life in New York City. The story sounds grim, but it is real and full of the kind of soaring emotion that quickens the heart.

Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty

Another from the To Be Read pile—I hadn’t known much about the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. In these pages I learned about her desperate early childhood in Maine, followed by early literary success at college and New York City in the 1920s and 30s. Edna smoked in public, and further scandalized society with her many love affairs, drank like a fish, and ended up a morphine addict. Along the way she wrote poems that were in their day as well known the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” were for my generation or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” are for my daughter’s. She lived like a rock star. An eye-opening read, and a surprising page-turner.

John Banville, a.k.a. Benjamin Black, Christine Falls

Every once in a while I love a good mystery. This one, written by John Banville under his pseudonym Benjamin Black fits the bill nicely. 1950s Dublin, a hard-boiled pathologist who suffers for his endless curiosity hunts down clues in the death of a woman named Christine Falls. No spoilers here, except to say that it’s not really about the plot. Though there is plenty of plot.

Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists

I loved this book, another series of interconnected stories—funny and heartbreaking—about the lives of journalists who muddle through their lives while working at a failing newspaper in Rome.

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

I am re-reading this brilliant novel in preparation for my book group’s next selection—Franzen’s newly published Freedom. We are still going to travel to my boyfriend’s Midwestern family this Christmas. In fact, compared to the dysfunctional Lambert clan, this novel makes our own families seem like comforting wellsprings of sanity.
Read an excerpt from Perfection, and learn more about the book and author at Julie Metz's website.

The Page 99 Test: Perfection.

The Page 69 Test: Perfection.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jeri Westerson

Jeri Westerson is a journalist, author of Veil of Lies, Serpent in the Thorns, The Demon's Parchment, and noted blogger on things mysterious and medieval.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
Very often I find myself escaping from fiction by reading nonfiction. Of course, I read a lot of nonfiction anyway to research for my own fiction, but to escape even that, I’ll look for an interesting alternative. Usually, I don’t care for memoirs (I think of them as waaah texts: “Oh look at my poor tragic life.”). But in this case, I was drawn to Julia Child’s book My Life in France, as part of it was used for the delightful movie Julie and Julia. In the movie, I craved more of Julia and less of Julie and here it was in spades.

The fun part about reading the book is that you can hear her strident voice throughout and it’s a very charming read. I like to do my own fair share of gourmet cooking, though with a writer’s time constraints I don’t get to do as much as I used to. And let me tell you, the book makes you want to cook. She describes in almost lurid detail her adventures in dining in France, the amazing people she met and learned from, and how a bored housewife overseas discovered what was to become her life’s work. And oh the food! The butter! Sacre Deu! She even includes her beurre blanc recipe and all the details on how she labored over getting the recipes just so for American cooks with American ingredients so that each recipe would be utterly fool proof. Amazing to think that in the fifties, housewives preferred easy boxed food to the fresh stuff we enjoy now and that Renaissance was partly due to people like Julia Child. Do not read this book on an empty stomach. Bon appĂ©tit!
Learn more about the author and her work at Jeri Westerson's website, her "Getting Medieval" blog, and the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir blog.

Westerson wrote about Crispin Guest's place among fictional detectives for The Rap Sheet.

The Page 69 Test: Veil of Lies.

The Page 69 Test: Serpent in the Thorns.

The Page 69 Test: The Demon's Parchment.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sarahlee Lawrence

Sarahlee Lawrence was born and raised on her family ranch in Terrebonne, Oregon. After a decade spent studying, traveling, river rafting, and earning an MS in Environmental Science and Writing from the University of Montana, she returned to the ranch, where she owns and operates an organic vegetable farm.

Her new memoir is River House.

Recently I asked Lawrence what she was reading. Her reply:
I read only non-fiction, mostly first-person memoir or the like. I am a slow reader and enjoy poetic prose from the late Ellen Meloy in Anthropology of Turquoise, Terry Tempest Williams’ in Red, or Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.

The book on my bed stand is Harriet Fasenfest’s Householder’s Guide to the Universe. She’s full of vim and vigor and gets life on the page with all its complexities. Tough questions and tough answers.

Frankly, I don’t read enough. Between farming, family, rivers, and the drafts of my own book, I have very little time for sitting still or reading for pleasure. I admire anyone who does.
Read an excerpt from River House and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Learn more about Sarahlee Lawrence's organic vegetable farm.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 19, 2010

Signe Pike

Signe Pike worked for Random House, Ballantine Books, and then Penguin/Plume before leaving New York City to write her newly released book, Faery Tale: One Woman's Search for Enchantment in a Modern World.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Perhaps it's my background as a book editor, but it seems I'm seldom able to just read one book at a time! Because editors are so busy reading and working on their author's manuscripts, we joke about never having time to read. Then I went straight from the editing world to researching my own book project, which required a lot of translated old texts, etc. so now that my own book is done, I am only just now getting the opportunity to read just for the fun of it... and I have a lot of catching up to do.

The first book I tackled was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Safon. I was browsing the tables at a local bookstore when a customer saw it in my hands and and enthused, "You have to read that book." It's a stunning and gorgeously written gothic saga that takes place in 1950's Barcelona, and while it took me a good 50 pages to get truly sucked in, after that, I couldn't put it down. Safon does things with perspective and voice that most novelists would be hard pressed to pull off, and he does it with such an honest flourish - it's a story that stays with you long after you've turned the last page.

Now I'm caught between Little, Big by John Crowley and Diana Gabaldon's Voyager, the third book in The Outlander series. Such a dichotomy!

Little, Big tells the tale of Smoky Barnable as he travels by foot to a mysterious and otherworldly place called Edgewood -- it's literary, a wee bit experimental, daring, and voicey, and you have to work for it. Bookseller friends have told me (which made me feel better) that they picked it up and put it down several times before it caught its legs, and then they were absolutely riveted, so I continue to dip in when I feel so moved.

Diana Gabaldon, on the other hand, had me at hello. Fresh out of college, I was such a snob about any sort of romance - until I got assigned to assist two women at Ballantine books who specialized in romance and thrillers. I learned that romance novels are as soothing as bubble baths and chocolate, and also had the opportunity to read and help edit a good many of them. Romance writers are societal angels, put on this earth to fatten our imaginations, ease our heartbreak, and carry women away, often just when we need it most. They're my guilty pleasure. I had been hoping to read the Outlander series when it first came out but never had the time. Now that I've been to Scotland twice and spent a good deal of time there, I couldn't wait to get my hands on this sweeping and beautifully researched saga of a woman named Clare who somehow manages to fall through an ancient stone circle, finding herself in an 18th century Scotland. Now I can't get enough.

As a reader I'm always trying to keep myself open, to keep from pigeon-holing myself by saying, I only like literary fiction, or I only read memoir. Reading is so very personal, and it's such an escape -- I want to continue to surprise myself in what I read, learn, or am exposed to.
Read an excerpt from Faery Tale, and learn more about the book and author at Visit Signe Pike's website, blog, and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ken Harmon

Ken Harmon is the author of The Fat Man, "a satire of traditional Christmas stories and noir" in which "a hardboiled elf is framed for murder in a North Pole world that plays reindeer games for keeps, and where favorite holiday characters live complex lives beyond December."

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am not one of those readers that can read multiple books at once. Confusion is not the concern, but it always feels like an illicit affair, like the other book knows it is being ignored and that the characters in the story are plotting their revenge. But this article is not about my insanity. Presently, I am reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the first book in Edmund Morris’ trilogy. Last summer, I read, Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt about Roosevelt’s nearly fatal trip to the Amazon. I became curious about the man that would make such a trip.

Before I started the Morris trilogy, I read Mystery Man by Colin Bateman and laughed out loud at a character more insecure than me (see above comment regarding literary adultery) and before that I enjoyed Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of Pie. Quite simply, I want to adopt his 11-year old heroine Flavia de Luce. I want to adopt her and take her to my office. If you knew Flavia, if you’ve ever worked in a sea of cubes, you’d know why.
Visit Ken Harmon's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Fat Man.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 15, 2010

Susie Linfield

Susie Linfield directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the graduate journalism department at NYU and is the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, which has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
During the school year, when I'm teaching, it's often hard for me to read anything not connected to my work. But this summer I indulged in whatever I wanted. My partner and I were renting an old farmhouse in Great Barrington, and much to my surprise and delight, the owners were Philip Roth fanatics. I got to read--and re-read--tons of Philip Roth. Most memorable was The Anatomy Lesson, where the character of Milton Appel, the hectoring Jewish critic--based on Irving Howe--is reconfigured, in a moment of hilarious, malicious slyness, as a pornographer. Lying on a couch in a country house and re-reading these books--frequently bursting into fits of laughter--was pure bliss.

Less blissful, for obvious reasons, was Eliza Griswold's The Tenth Parallel, an account of her travels along the fault lines of Muslim-Christian antagonisms in parts of Africa and Asia. While the reporting in this book is highly impressive, I was somewhat less impressed with her analysis--or, rather, lack of analysis. Griswold left me wanting more--left me wanting to know what meaning she made of the deadly fanaticisms she was encountering.

As a journalist, I am addicted to newspapers; I read periodicals as much as I read books. And for various reasons, I am obsessed with (i.e. always worried about) the situation in the Mideast. Every day I read, on the web, Haaretz, the Daily Star of Lebanon, Al-Hayat, and Al-Ahram.

And last night, as a treat, I started The Finkler Question.
Read an excerpt from The Cruel Radiance, and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature and culture at Queens College, the City University of New York.

Among his nonfiction works are The Devil's Gentleman and the historical true-crime classics Fatal, Fiend, Deviant, Deranged, and Depraved.

He also authors a critically acclaimed mystery series featuring Edgar Allan Poe, which includes The Tell-Tale Corpse, The Hum Bug, Nevermore and The Mask of Red Death.

Schechter's new book is Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend.

About a week ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
My most recent read was Hampton Sides’ gripping tale of the Martin Luther King assassination, Hellhound on His Trail. I was drawn to the book for several reasons. As a writer of historical true-crime narratives, I'm always interested in seeing how other practitioners work. Sides, whom I've never read before, impressed me as an extremely deft stylist with a gift for thumbnail descriptions that bring his settings to vivid life and a flair for turning nouns into expressive verbs (smoke doesn't rise, it “tendrils”)--a technique I admire but have never been able to pull off. He certainly knows how to keep the story moving. The book has a headlong narrative drive and even, despite the devastating inevitability of the central crime, a palpable sense of suspense, an effect he achieves (like James Swanson in his bestselling Manhunt) by alternating the chapters between hunter and prey. The book also provided me with a much richer sense of the shadowy killer, James Earl Ray. I've read a great deal about the Kennedy assassination, a watershed event in my life (as in that of every boomer), and have a pretty good idea of Oswald's character. But I knew very little about Ray who, as Sides conjures him, is indeed essentially unknowable, a weird mix of two-bit lowlife criminal and slippery, shape-shifting assassin out of a cheap spy novel.
Read an excerpt from Killer Colt, and learn more about the book and author at Harold Schechter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger began writing to cope with being raised in obscurity by an expatriate Brit and an incurable curmudgeon, according to her official biography. She escaped small town life and inadvertently acquired several degrees in Higher Learning. Carriger then traveled the historic cities of Europe, subsisting entirely on biscuits secreted in her handbag. She now resides in the Colonies, surrounded by a harem of Armenian lovers, where she insists on tea imported directly from London and cats that pee into toilets. She is fond of teeny tiny hats and tropical fruit.

Her books include Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless.

Recently I asked Carriger what she was reading. Her reply:
There's this lovely thing that happens once you're in the realm of professional writer. Firstly, you meet fellow authors and feel compelled to read their books. Secondly, you are given books to blurb. For both these reasons, I recently read M. K. Hobson's The Native Star which I very much enjoyed. It's an Old West with magic, zombies, and steampunk overtones. The hero's name was Dreadnaught Stanton, which was reason enough to pick it up, if you ask me.

After I finished reading I wanted ... to work on steampunk costuming.

I've just finished J. Daniel Sawyer's ebook And Then She Was Gone, a noir detective novel set in the Bay Area. I enjoy his off the cuff writing style and clever turn of phrase, even though crime fiction is not my preferred genre. I always try to read something as different from my own voice as possible when I'm on a deadline, so as not to be unduly influenced. This one fit the bill perfectly.

Next up is The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, of which I have a galley. I'm taking it with me on an upcoming road trip and really excited as it purports to be humorous steampunk, something I am always looking for. Also it's co-authored. I have a peculiar affection for male/female coauthored fiction.
Visit Gail Carriger's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Soulless by Gail Carriger.

The Page 69 Test: Changeless.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A. J. Langguth

A. J. Langguth is professor emeritus of journalism in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. His books include Union: 1812, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, and Our Vietnam: The War, 1954-1975.

His new book is Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At the urging of friends in England, I made a point of seeing La Bete last month when it reached New York. I was overwhelmed by Mark Rylance's long opening monologue, one of the most impressive bits of acting I'd seen in some sixty years of going to plays. It was the more astounding because in London the previous March I had marveled over Rylance's performance in a entirely different sort of part in Jerusalem.

I was not surprised then that the critics agreed he had brought genius to the role of Valere. What I couldn't understand, was a widely held disdain for the play in which he was so magnificent.

I sent off for a copy of La Bete, by David Hirson, and now my puzzlement is even greater. Of course, the critics knew that Rylance was not ad libbing, and yet they seemed unwilling to grant Hirson his role in the evening's triumph.

The play is written in heroic couplets from the age of Moliere and, unlike other recent poetic attempts on stage, they enhance the pleasure, not sour it. The audience doesn't know--or care--about the effortless rhymes unless the actors lean upon them once in a while to heighten the comedy.

I picked up the text just now, intending to quote a few lines. But I began read and found it hard to stop, especially with Rylance declaiming them once more in my ear.

The critics' observation that after the first thirty minutes the play cannot sustain the same giddy pace is probably true enough. Who cares?
Visit A.J. Langguth's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Roberta Gately

A nurse, humanitarian aid worker, and writer, Roberta Gately has served in third-world war zones ranging from Africa to Afghanistan. She has written extensively on the subject of refugees for the Journal of Emergency Nursing, as well as a series of articles for the BBC Worlds News Online. She speaks regularly on the plight of the world's refugees and displaced.

Booklist called her new novel Lipstick in Afghanistan an “[a]bsorbing debut… In this utterly engrossing read, Gately vividly evokes the beauty and tragedy of Afghanistan.”

A couple of days ago I asked Gately what she was reading. Her reply:
I am currently reading Tea Time For The Traditionally Built, the latest in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. This series is a guaranteed pleasure read. The main character, Precious Ramotswe is a large – she prefers the phrase “traditionally built” – woman in Botswana who runs the only detective agency in the city of Gaborone and I’ve happily followed her adventures since she was introduced by McCall in the book titled, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

The series takes the reader on a joyful plunge into life in Botswana. Though I’ve been to Africa several times, I’ve never been to Botswana and yet McCall has the gift of making me feel as though I know the area intimately. I can see Zebra Drive and feel the groan of Precious Ramotswe’s old white van as it rounds the curve to home. I can feel her reluctance a she investigates the inner workings of the failing footballers in this latest installment of the series.

It’s clichĂ© to call the series charming, but that’s precisely what it is. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series allows me to escape everything and climb into Precious’ rickety old van for a ride along Botswana’s dusty roads. Though I also love more serious novels – I’ve just finished The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, and adored them both for their thought provoking dramatic twists and powerful storylines, I turn to McCall’s series for pure and gentle reading pleasure.
Visit Roberta Gately's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 5, 2010

Katia Lief

Born in France to American parents, Katia Lief moved to the United States as a baby and was raised in Massachusetts and New York. She teaches fiction writing as a part-time faculty member at the New School in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn.

Lief's latest novels are You Are Next and Next Time You See Me.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Stieg Larsson trilogy: Unfinished, imperfect, and hard not to read

This past summer my friend and neighbor was drawn into the global excitement over Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and made sure I also read it by loaning me her copies as soon as she was done. Her enthusiasm was infectious so I started in right away. As a teacher of fiction writing, I can’t help but read analytically; and as a crime novelist whose work covers terrain similar to Larsson’s, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. I quickly found myself careening between admiration and incredulity.

First of all, to Larsson’s immense credit, he did it: he wrote his books as an unknown novelist, unchallenged by deadlines or critics, and succeeded wildly. I applaud him further for having made his undeniable conquest of the literary universe with uneven, imperfect novels, a feat akin to Forrest Gump triumphing at everything he does despite obvious deficiencies; Gump succeeds because what he lacks in intellect he makes up for in heart. As I nitpick through Larsson’s novels, keep in mind that I mourn the passing of a fellow novelist whose life ended in the process of blossoming into a thriller author who was just starting to master his craft. Had he lived, with his bank account filled to overloading, his goals would have become all about bringing his craft up to par with his art—Larsson’s real art being the ability to create unforgettable, flawed characters and make you love them.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a rickety novel turbo-charged with rich characters you can’t get enough of. The novel succeeds because of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, despite serious structural problems in the story-telling. Larsson takes an exceedingly long time to establish the story, dragging us through long-winded backstory before getting to the point, and it takes so long for Salander to become an important part of the story that the real mystery at first is ‘Why is this book called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and not The Reporter Sidetracked to the Remote Countryside to Solve a Crime for Big Pay Even Though He’d Rather be Back in Stockholm?’ But who cares? Blomkvist is just so likeable, and it’s such a treat to read about village life in the Swedish countryside that it’s easy to overlook the growing realization that this purported thriller is not actually a thriller at all. Then, three quarters of the way into what amounts to a charming, tepid mystery, the plot cartwheels awkwardly into the secret life of a serial-killer-but-who-knew and voila thrills and chills revealed, only it is done with such a heavy hand that it feels more silly than scary. As a reader, I would have preferred not to be subjected to the cartoony serial killer twist. As a thriller author, I cringed.

The Girl Who Played with Fire upped the ante and showed that Larsson had really pulled his game together. Apparently he was a fast learner, and after only one practice novel (yes, that one, the major international bestseller turned into two movies), the sequel proved to be not only another massive commercial success but also a truly good thriller and a well put-together novel. Character and plot weave tightly and quickly and before you know it, the story is aloft and soaring. That was a good read. As a writer, I was impressed. As a teacher, I admired the leaps and bounds of his growth. I was convinced that, had he lived, he would have pulled the rabbit out of the bag after all and not just made a ton of money but also become a genuinely good novelist.

It was a beautiful thought that didn’t last long, though. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest sunk my new enthusiasm by following the characters from coffee klatch to coffee klatch as they discussed what had happened in book two, revisiting a perfectly resolved plot and pulling apart its pieces in an earnest but clumsy attempt to build a new story from used material. For me, Larsson’s third novel barely got off the ground. I had trouble finishing it and would have stopped reading if I hadn’t become so deeply involved in the fictional lives of Blomkvist and Salander.

Perhaps, taking the long view, the trilogy’s greatest achievement is in restoring the importance of character to the thriller genre. On balance, Stieg Larsson’s novels are good, but his characters are great. He created two imperfect, unforgettable, lovable characters who danced to their own songs and powered his stories forward regardless of his uneven abilities as a novelist. He also imbued his work with humanism and feminism, which you don’t see enough of in commercial literature—and I loved that, too.
Read an excerpt from Next Time You See Me and view the trailer, and read an excerpt from You Are Next and view the trailer.

Visit Katia Lief's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sheldon Russell

A former Oklahoma public school English teacher, Sheldon Russell retired as a professor emeritus from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2000. Russell published his first novel, Empire, in 1993 with Evans Publications, Inc. He followed that suspense novel with two historic frontier titles—The Savage Trail (Pinnacle Books, 1993) and Requiem at Dawn (Pinnacle Books, 2000). Requiem at Dawn was a finalist for Best Original Paperback in the 2001 Western Writers of America, Inc., Spur Awards competition.

In 2006, the University of Oklahoma Press released Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush, which won the Oklahoma Book Award in Fiction and was selected as an Official Oklahoma Centennial Project. With The Yard Dog (Minotaur Books, 2009), Russell introduced the Hook Runyon series. The first book finds Hook investigating a murder at an Oklahoma railroad yard near a German POW camp during WWII.

Russell's second Hook Runyon novel, The Insane Train, is out this month.

A couple of days ago I asked Russell what he was reading. His reply:
I came to the mystery genre rather late in life and have been playing catch up by reading some of the established authors’ early books, Robert B. Parker’s Shrink Rap for example and James Patterson’s Pop Goes the Weasel. Although these books are dated, I suppose, they’re ripe with lessons to be learned. I like reading my way through a writing career from beginning to end. It gives me a sense of an author’s history and writing evolution. So far, I’m taken with Parker’s dialogue and Patterson’s cliff-hanging suspense.

I also enjoy nonfiction, particularly biography, and have only recently read Haunted Heart by Lisa Rogak, an engaging story about the life of Stephen King.

For the most part, I resist the draw of the best seller list and enjoy a rather random, even whimsical, reading agenda. Having said that, I’ll probably be the first in line for the new autobiography of Mark Twain. We have a personal relationship that goes back to my adolescence.
Visit Sheldon Russell's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Yard Dog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 1, 2010

Misha Angrist

Misha Angrist is Assistant Professor of the Practice at the Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy and a Visiting Lecturer at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy inside Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy. He holds a PhD degree in Genetics from Case Western Reserve University and was formerly a board-eligible genetic counselor. Angrist received his MFA in Writing and Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars. He is a past winner of the Brenda L. Smart Fiction Prize and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In April 2007 he became the fourth subject in Harvard geneticist George Church's Personal Genome Project. In 2009 he was among the first few identifiable persons to have his entire genome sequenced.

Angrist's new book is Here is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Lately I find myself reading multiple books at once, which I didn't used to do but now I find it suits my ADHD tendencies, my time constraints and my moods. I just re-read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot because I assign it for my class on DNA and Property Rights. But also because it is just an amazing book: the story, the prose, the structure, the reportage, the memorable characters. What else can I say? I laughed, I cried--really!

I bought Keith Richards' book the day it came out and am greedily digging into it. I am a musician and a huge sucker for rock memoirs and this one looks to be one of the great ones. I read Ronnie Wood's book not that long ago and was disappointed: you could see he was bullshitting both the reader and himself. But so far Keith is honest, reflective and unflinching. This one has moved to the top of the pile.

I am in the middle of The Dead Republic, the third installment in Roddy Doyle's Henry Smart trilogy. I am enjoying it for the most part. The hard-boiled Irish lilt jumps off the page. Doyle's dialogue is spot on--he's like a Gaelic Elmore Leonard. That said, compared to the first book, A Star Called Henry, much of which takes place during the Easter Rising of 1916, this one--set mainly in 1940s and 50s Hollywood--has been slow to get going. I need more action, and less John Ford being a Machiavellian, drunken ass.

Jonathan Weiner's book, Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality, is awe-inspiring. It is an utterly compelling, beautifully rendered inquiry into transhumanism and the science behind aging and mortality. This is one of those books, like Skloot's, that if you are trying to write narrative nonfiction, as you read you are alternately taking copious notes, getting lost in the storytelling, and thinking seriously about finding a new line of work because you'll never write this well.

Finally, I am slowly making my way through Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever. Bailey is a wonderful writer and I am a big-time Cheever fan (at least of his short stories), but I find his life to be almost unbearably sad and I wonder and worry about whether all of this angst was necessary in order for him to make his art at such a consistently high level. I'm afraid I know the answer and I don't like it.
Learn more about Here is a Human Being and Misha Angrist.

--Marshal Zeringue