Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nancy Martin

Nancy Martin, winner of the Lifetime Achievement award for mystery writing from RT Book Reviews, is the author of Foxy Roxy (originally published as Our Lady of Immaculate Deception) and the bestselling Blackbird Sisters mysteries. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Martin's new novel is Sticky Fingers.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Like many writers, I often read two books at once. This winter, I read Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You while also plugging through Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Both books held me fast, and I soon realized they were both telling the same kind of story—although in very different ways.

I have spent the winter mulling over the best and worst qualities of what we might call an “epic” story—a grand, sprawling tale that attempts to define and illuminate a time and place. The Great American Novel is one, surely, that attempts to showcase America through the eyes of finely drawn characters who exemplify some noteworthy qualities in our national persona. (Definition is mine, so feel free to argue with me!)

The voice of Freedom is sure and clear—not exactly witty, but intelligent, and a distinctly—in my view—male perspective. The female characters all seemed to exist to serve the male characters, but perhaps that perception is a weakness of mine. (We are told over and over that Patty is smart as well as beautiful, but she makes one self-serving blunder after another.) I felt the author’s self indulgence in the rock star character who had it all—too much intelligence, sex appeal, and insight to be believable. Politics—including the sexual kind—as well as avarice, ambition and happiness are explored along with a flailing look at mountaintop mining. It’s all impressive, of course. But—perhaps because I live now in Pittsburgh, but spent a year on a West Virginia mountaintop—I felt a sting of the author’s disdain for anyone who lives west of the Delaware.

Fannie Flagg’s novel—told primarily from the point of view of a former Miss Alabama—is lighter and funnier, but no less ambitious in examining daunting issues. She explores the race riots in Birmingham, the rise and fall of the steel industry, and the push of commercial real estate that despoils communities. It’s all done with a much lighter tone, but perhaps that’s a wise move? She allows the reader to draw conclusions. Her male characters are all on the page to serve the female ones, however. And perhaps her characters are too glib, too funny, too saccharin? Miss Alabama listens to Rosemary Clooney and laments the loss of civility among business associates—a bow to the reading demographic the author is clearly courting--but the character spends the book contemplating suicide in no uncertain terms. The story is a balance of light and weighty.

I find myself wanting to talk to other readers about both books.—Surely that’s one sign they both deserve “epic” status?
Visit Nancy Martin's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Our Lady of Immaculate Deception.

The Page 69 Test: Sticky Fingers.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lela Nargi

Lela Nargi is a freelance reporter and author of books – some about food; some about material culture and knitting; and most recently, about bees, in the form of her first children’s book, The Honeybee Man (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, March 2011). She’s written numerous essays for such journals as Gastronomica, Petits Propos Culinaires, Descant, and Natural Bridge.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m in that weird holding pattern between books – wanting to read but not able to find just the right thing. Sometimes, this has to do with the fact that I’m in the process of writing a book or an essay and I’m purposefully not reading – I’ve found, to my horror, that I accidentally steal ideas, phrases, voices and not reading ensures that I stay honest. But at the moment, I’m just plain uninspired by the books I’ve got lying around.

Someone recently gave me a novel they thought I’d like, but I lost interest after a few pages. Novels are tricky. Those I enjoy are few and far between and usually not contemporary: Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters (which I’m actually thinking of picking up again – maybe this afternoon, it’s raining here in Brooklyn, perfect Salinger weather); The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s first (and somewhat imperfect) first novel; T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I absolutely cannot wait to read to my daughter, once she’s old enough to be patient for the endless riveting descriptions of falconry and knightly arms and other arcana; Lolita of course. I don’t like to read just for reading’s sake; I don’t enjoy quick, simple reads to pass the time. I want to lose myself in language, the more unexpected the better. I’ve only ever made it through the first 75 pages of Ulysses (three times), but I’ve enjoyed every minute that I was reading and re-reading it.

I’m more frequently drawn to nonfiction, and I just put a library hold on To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron. I hope it will be as engrossing as some of my favorite “travel” books: The Black Tents of Arabia by Carl Raswan, Aldo Buzzi’s Journey to the Land of the Flies; My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel; Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which I admit, made me angry in fits and starts as I read it. This may not have been the case 10 years ago but now, as a parent, the idea of abandoning my young child (and one whose other parent has just died) in order to undertake my own spiritual journey, strikes me as self-indulgent in the extreme. Still, this didn’t impede my enjoyment – I don’t mind having conversations and arguments with the books I’m reading.

This brings me around neatly enough to the other category of book that is consistently appreciated in my house: the children’s book. There are two reasons for this. First, I’m someone’s parent and this someone, at the age of 7-1/2, still enjoys being read to at bedtime – and I am in absolutely no hurry to see this tradition come to an end. We’re in the process of finishing up J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, but we’re both finding ourselves in a bit over our heads. Some of the language eludes even me, which does not make for relaxing pre-bed story time. Past favorites have been Edward Eager’s books about magic; The House of Arden and The Magic City by Eager’s chief literary influence, the truly remarkable storyteller E. Nesbit; and the Little House on the Prairie series. I literally wept aloud as I read Wilder’s descriptions of her family’s first Christmas on the prairie, when Santa (in the unlikely guise of neighbor Mr. Edwards) has brought her and Mary each a tin cup, a candy cane, a heart-shaped cake and, making the whole experience almost too marvelous for them to bear, a shiny new penny. That, and her intense descriptions of Indians preparing for battle in their camps by the creek then finally, after days of terrifying war cries piercing the night, filing past the Ingalls' home on their horses, hundreds of them with their “proud straight” backs and eagle feathers waving on their heads and their “straight black hair” blowing in the wind. It’s not often I’ve felt the weight and fascination of American history. Man, do these books ever drive it home.

Second, I’ve just published my first children’s book, The Honeybee Man, about an urban apiarist and his tender relationship with his bees. Ever since I signed the contract with Random House three years ago, I’ve been inundated with requests from friends and acquaintances for my editor’s name, a contact email for my agent. It seems everyone has an idea for a children’s picture book; and how hard could one be to write, really? The truth is, amazingly hard. Trying to follow-up with a second one now, and finding the experience to be the greatest challenge of my writing career, I’m astounded that I ever managed to hammer out the first one. And that the bookshelves are teaming with excellent examples written by myriad excellent authors. I didn’t appreciate the genius of Sendak, Jean de Brunhoff, Ruth Kraus, Margaret Wise Brown, and Arnold Lobel before I wrote a kid’s book of my own. Well, yes I did, but I certainly did not fathom the challenges and complexities that lie behind a slim little picture-laden volume of 1,000 words. In a picture book more even than in a short story – which so many people believe to be the ultimate literary difficulty – the words you DO NOT write are ever so more relevant than those that you do. How do you flesh out a complete and engaging story, replete with emotional impact and global immediacy, in this minuscule space? I swear, it’s magic. Now I re-read my own childhood favorites – about wild things and talking elephants, giant carrots and runaway bunnies, best frog-and-toad friends – and am duly astonished.
Visit Lela Nargi's website and blog.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Lela Nargi and Jaffa.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Brad Parks

Brad Parks’s debut, Faces of the Gone, became the first book ever to win the Nero Award and Shamus Award, two of crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His second book, Eyes of the Innocent, is now out from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books. Library Journal gave it a starred review, calling it “as good if not better (than) his acclaimed debut.”

Some time ago I asked Parks what he was reading. His reply:
On the face of it, I can think of few things – this side of Ulysses – that I would be less likely to read than a mystery series involving an Episcopal priestess.

I mean, I’m a guy! I like Jack Reacher! Harry Bosch! I’m not just going to read some precious little cozy with a…

Oh, wait, the Episcopal priestess is a former Army helicopter pilot? And she’s having a not-so-secret love affair with the town police chief? And the chief’s wife has just been brutally murdered, making the chief the lead suspect? And… well, hang on, this is getting interesting.

That’s the set-up for Julia Spencer-Fleming’s All Mortal Flesh. It’s the fifth book in her series involving Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne, but for whatever reason it was the first one I picked up.

I was quickly hooked. Her characters are fleshy and very human, with their nobilities and their imperfections existing quite plausibly side-by-side. The world she created for them is real and well-populated by interesting folks. And her pacing is sublime – brisk enough to keep things interesting, but not so fast that you lack time to digest the next surprising development.

And, really, her stuff defies easy categorization. It’s a bit of a traditional mystery, yet there are also harder-edged elements. It’s got romance, of course, but it’s a long way from having a shaved-chested dude on the cover. It’s also thriller-ish at times. And, man, can she throw in a wicked twist or two at the end.

Really, it’s just good writing. I’m now going back to the beginning of the series and starting with In the Bleak Midwinter – which won just about every Best First award in sight the year it came out – and getting some of the back-story between Clare and Russ. I hope to be caught up by the time the seventh book in the series comes out this spring.

Join me. You’ll have a great time.
Visit the official Brad Parks website and Facebook presence.

Read "The Story Behind the Story: Eyes of the Innocent, by Brad Parks" at The Rap Sheet.

The Page 69 Test: Faces of the Gone.

The Page 69 Test: Eyes of the Innocent.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cara Hoffman

Cara Hoffman has won a New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for her work on violence and adolescents and has worked as an investigative reporter covering New York State's rural and Rust Belt communities, where she reported on environmental politics and crime.

So Much Pretty, her debut novel, is now out from Simon & Schuster.

A few weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m reading In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz. The first entries date from when he was seventeen years old and the last from about a year before he died of AIDS.

Wojnarowicz is far and away one of my favorite writers. Probably because he was not simply a writer but an activist and an artist. And because his way of thinking, his modes of expression had no use for the tropes of power and authority. And because he was concerned with beauty—the kind of beauty people in what he would describe as “the one tribe nation” don’t see.

For the last year or so I’ve been immersed in Wojnarowicz’s work more than the work of any other writer; re-reading Close to the Knives and The Waterfront Journals. I think there are so few people who capture American culture the way he did, who X-rayed it the way he did.

He got it about power and struggle and autonomy and the essence of expression, the attempts by the state to criminalize our very beings.

And this may sound strange but I love the way he uses the word “drift.” It appears over and over in his work in different contexts and it’s almost like an incantation that elevates his language, that turns it into a dream landscape.

I quote David Wojnarowicz in So Much Pretty, and I feel tied to his work. I love his work. If you haven’t read him, really you should.
Visit Cara Hoffman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mike Sacks

Mike Sacks has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, Time, McSweeney’s, Radar, MAD, New York Observer, Premiere, Believer, Vice, Maxim, Women’s Health, and Salon. He has worked at The Washington Post, and is currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.

His books include And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Humor Writers About Their Craft and (co-writer) Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk.

His new book is Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason, which contains pieces from The New Yorker, Esquire, Time, Vanity Fair, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Earlier this month I asked Sacks what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently reading The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith.

Patricia Smith has always been a favorite of mine. From what I've read, she wasn't the nicest of people, which usually doesn't matter, especially when it concerns solitary writers, but I wonder if this is why she was able to so accurately capture the emotional nuances of her disturbed, damaged characters. It seems to me that each character is, if not a jerk, than a bit of a sociopath--capable of murder or emotional devastation with a flick of a knife or a (well) sharpened remark. It's incredible how well she digs into these characters' minds. If a reader doesn't necessarily like these characters, at the very least they'll come to know and understand them, much as they would a troubled relative or friend.

I know very few writers able to capture the madness of males as well as Smith does; the jealousies, the feelings of inadequacy, the desperate hopelessness of a life that didn't pan out as expected. She really manages to do this better than practically any other writer I know, perhaps with the exception of Richard Yates or John Updike.

What I also find impressive is how each of her stories truly feels like a nightmare; they're claustrophobic and come circling back to various emotional or plot points at strange times and bizarre angles--and yet they always hold true to our realistic world. This is very difficult to pull off in books; it's much easier to accomplish in film, but there have been times when I've finished a Patricia Smith novel and wondered if I had even read it. Perhaps I dreamt it all?

Buy her books. She will not disappoint.
Visit Mike Sacks's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ben Tanzer

Ben Tanzer is the author of the books Lucky Man, Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, Repetition Patterns and 99 Problems. He also oversees day-to-day operations of This Zine Will Change Your Life.

His new novel is You Can Make Him Like You.

Recently I asked Tanzer what he was reading. His reply:
I've actually been in a really interesting stretch over the last month where I've been reading three debut novels, okay, two novels, and one memoir for those of you counting at home, all three by authors I have become friendly with, and all quite different in tone and texture, but still all debuts, and self-published or from new, small presses, so quite cool, fun to dig into and deserving of a wider audience.

The first is Sophomoric Philosophy by local Chicago writer and daddy cool Victor David Giron, which is published by his press Curbside Splendor and covers all of the things classic and true debut male novels are supposed to, sex and girls and music and drugs, but also rises above so many of these novels by introducing the theme of immigrant kids and their families and ultimately where the world as we think we know it is heading. The second is Chasing the Runner's High by Ray Charbonneau, a self-published memoir that movingly and obsessively captures the author's efforts to own his compulsive need to run, and keep running, reign in his substance abuse and somehow find balance somewhere in all that, a great read for runners, and everyone else. And the third is Fight For Your Long Day by Alex Kudera from rocking new upstart Atticus Books and it is the tale of an underpaid and disenfranchised adjunct professor making his way through his longest work day of the week, and along with the humor displayed and spot on observations about life in this post-911 world, the craftsmanship in this book is really extraordinary, seemingly belying the fact that this could possibly be someone's first novel.

All three books explore the themes I am endlessly drawn to, compulsive males trying to somehow make sense of their endless compulsions around work, women, drugs and their place in a world that doesn't quite make sense to them; and I hope more people find these books and give them a home.

In addition, and I know this is cheating, because this is sort of a list and all, but as I work through these books, I am also staring at short story collections by three other writers I know and plan to read next, all of which are sure to quite rock - Daddy's by Lindsay Hunter; Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits and Sinners by Ken Wohlrob and Don't Smell The Floss by Matty Byloos.
Read an excerpt from You Can Make Him Like You, and learn more about the book and author at the official website.

The Page 69 Test: You Can Make Him Like You.

My Book, The Movie: You Can Make Him Like You.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 25, 2011

Neeti Nair

Neeti Nair is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

Her new book is Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India.

Her reply to my recent query about what she has been reading:
Having spent the last week listening to a variety of visitors expound on the matter of religious and ethnic differences, it was a pleasure to end the week with Siddhartha Deb’s The Point of Return. Set in north-east India in the 1970s and 80s, this lyrical novel introduces the reader to the early beginnings of what became a full-blown insurgency with only the tiniest of signs – the unwritten rules governing the use of a cricket pitch, for instance. As the novel proceeds, the full import of hate crimes directed against those deemed to be ‘foreigners’ becomes apparent. Deb’s narrator moves back and forth in time reminding us of the uneasy and often unbidden presence of the past, but by the end of the novel, it is clear there is no going back. Deb pays attention to little details, and we learn something about the difficulty of choice for ordinary folk – questions that are so often ignored in grand narratives about forced migration and partition.

I returned to Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz recently following readings for a seminar on post-1947 South Asia. Agamben writes of the limits of law, and is critical of a distinction increasingly drawn between moral and legal responsibility. Let me quote: ‘In every age, the gesture of assuming a juridical responsibility when one is innocent has been considered noble; the assumption of political or moral responsibility without the assumption of the corresponding legal consequences, on the other hand, has always characterized the arrogance of the mighty … But today in Italy these models have been reversed and the contrite assumption of moral responsibilities is invoked at every occasion as an exemption from the responsibilities demanded by law.’

There are too many reasons to ponder Agamben but I turned to him after reading a remarkable anthology of writings on Delhi edited by Bharati Chaturvedi, Finding Delhi: Loss and Renewal in the Megacity. Finding Delhi includes essays from journalists, environmental activists, domestic servants, washermen (a category unheard of in the United States) and fruit vendors. She traces the contribution of the informal economy to the life of the city, especially as Delhi has acquired the aspirations to be a ‘world-class’ city in recent years. The disjunction between different ministries in the government of India in deeming an act of construction (il)legal and thereby contributing to the displacement of thousands and, always, the disavowal of legal responsibility, led me back to the pointed observation above.

On a somewhat lighter note, I read and loved reading Parvati Sharma’s debut collection The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love. I had heard her at a book launch in Delhi where she had the audience eating out of her hands. On love – sibling, lesbian, straight – and on writing, reading, the play of history and politics with life, hers is a voice to reckon with. She is smart, hilarious, sensitive, and haunting. I have gifted my copy to my dearest friend in Virginia and cannot wait to buy another one on my next visit to India.
Visit Neeti Nair's faculty webpage, and learn more about Changing Homelands at the Harvard University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Changing Homelands.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Christopher Lane

Christopher Lane is the Pearce Miller Research Professor of Literature at Northwestern University and a recent Guggenheim fellow. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Slate, and many other newspapers and periodicals. He is the author of numerous essays and several books on literature, belief, and psychology, including Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

His new book is The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Lane what he was reading. His reply:
My study right now has small piles of books dotted around the floor, each tied to a particular project, course, or article. I read a lot for my classes and writing, so there are various contenders for mention here, but I recently went back to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, which I devoured when it first came out in 2009, and which I’m finding just as impressive on a reread. Ehrenreich, one of our most astute social commentators, begins with a somewhat bemused account of the teddy bears and crayons she was encouraged to enjoy after the shock of a cancer diagnosis (now mercifully in remission). For me, the full payoff of her argument comes in the book’s second half, when Ehrenreich goes to town on the limits of positive thinking for business gurus and management consultants, whose upbeat cheer was constitutionally incapable of predicting, much less addressing, the Stock Market tumble and financial crisis in 2008. Her embrace of our current difficulties is such a tonic after the endless platitudes she quotes that I found it surprisingly uplifting. “The [economic] threats we face are real,” she concludes unsparingly, “and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the ‘first responders’! We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, but—if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness—we can have a good time trying.”

Another standout in a nearby pile of books is the intriguingly titled study The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life, by Duke Psychology professor Mark R. Leary. I missed the book when it first appeared in 2004, but, rather like Ehrenreich’s critique of positive thinking, it aims to explain—to students, readers, and colleagues—why the self “is not an unmitigated blessing.” Focusing on the narrow, often-nebulous line between self-awareness and egotism, Leary sums up a number of predictable collisions between dream and reality. He argues that self-awareness is both necessary and a curse—enabling in countless ways (the ability to plan and self-evaluate, for instance), but also, just as often, a hindrance and cause of reproach, including precisely because our capacity to self-evaluate is almost limitless. “What most people need is a way to reduce the amount of time that the self is engaged,” he writes, in an argument designed “not to eliminate the self” so much as help readers “use it only when necessary”—a state, it’s reassuring to hear (especially to fellow drivers), he still thinks should be frequent.

Top of another nearby pile of great fiction is Christopher Shinn’s recent Dying City, a powerful, haunting play that takes place in the shadow of the war in Iraq. One of the three characters, Kelly, is struggling to get over the death of her boyfriend, Craig, who was killed in combat there. When his brother shows up unannounced several months later, partly in an effort to work through his own grief, inevitably and rather brutally he reminds her of issues she’s tried to forget, including about the suspect reasons for the war in the first place. Shinn has Craig return in several flashback scenes; he also asks the same actor to play the two brothers, Craig and Peter. On the back of my copy is a review by Ben Brantley, New York Times theater critic, who justly calls it “a crafty and unsettling play ... a quiet, transfixing tale of grief.” Shinn “hooks you with tantalizing exposition,” he continues, “and the lure of a wham-bang solution—and then leaves you alone with your racing mind in a forest of ambiguities.”
Learn more about The Age of Doubt at the Yale University Press website and Christopher Lane's website.

Author Interviews: Christopher Lane.

The Page 99 Test: The Age of Doubt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Michael Northrop

Michael Northrop is the author of two YA novels: Gentlemen (2009), one of the American Library Association’s “Best Books for Young Adults,” and Trapped (2011), an Indie Next List selection and a Barnes & Noble “Must-Read for Teens.”

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I recently started the novel Little Bee by Chris Cleave. It’s too early to say anything more definitive than that it’s very British and the prose is beautiful, but I got it at one of my favorite indie bookstores: WORD in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They sold me several of my favorite books of last year (including my absolute favorite, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes), and I trust their recommendations completely.

Before that, I read The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt. I belong to an excellent YA book club, and that was our last pick. It’s about the younger brother of a soldier who returns home with PTSD. I was watching it like a hawk, convinced the author was going to start lecturing us. (It seemed like a reasonable assumption: It’s a hot-button topic, and her bio says she’s from San Francisco.) She mostly avoided that, though, and I liked the book quite a bit. The rest of the book club did too, for the most part. Once the red wine started flowing, people started calling out plot holes, but there aren’t many books that can stand up to that many buzzed book clubbers.

I also read a lot of military nonfiction. It’s an excellent choice when I’m writing and don’t want to have another novel in my head. The last really good one I read was The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas. It’s about Charles “Swede” Momsen and the first major submarine rescue in history. Before Momsen, the crew was basically just given up for dead if a sub sank, but he pioneered the use of rescue bells and other devices, and this is about the make-or-break moment when they were first used in the field. Really remarkable stuff: a legitimate visionary, a few dozen acts of individual heroism, and millions of tons of cold, crushing seawater. I think it may be out of print—a great injustice!—but I got a copy for a buck at a library sale.
Visit Michael Northrop's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Patricia S. Churchland

Patricia S. Churchland is professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Her books include Brain-Wise and Neurophilosophy. In 1991, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

Her new book is Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality.Italic
I recently asked Churchland what she was reading. Her reply:
Frank Dikotter’s book, Mao’s Great Famine, lately finished, taught me a great deal about how cruel, arrogant and pig-headed was Mao (apologies to pigs), and how death by starvation of tens of millions of Chinese could have been averted had a few fawning underlings been willing to stand up to the brute.

Scott Atran’s new book, Talking to the Enemy, also at my side, is brilliant. As an anthropologist studying on the ground the phenomenon of jihadi, Atran has discovered important data at variance with the conventional wisdom about why and how individuals become terrorists. Consequently the book is of enormous practical importance. It is been well reviewed in the UK, but almost studiously avoided in the USA media.

A book recently delivered by my friendly UPS man (he once coaxed our dogs back in the fenced yard after they escaped) is Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21t Century, by Carl Schoonover. It is as much art as science, with many compelling depictions of neurons, brain pathways, tissues such as the retina -- each made possible by highly innovative techniques.
Read an excerpt from Braintrust, and learn more about the book and author from the Princeton University Press website and Patricia S. Churchland's website.

The Page 99 Test: Braintrust.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ben Dolnick

Ben Dolnick grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife. He is the author of a novel, Zoology, and his work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times and Five Chapters.

His new novel is You Know Who You Are.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
My past year of reading has been dominated by a couple of writers.

(1) I’ve been rereading all of Alice Munro. The non-fiction project that prompted this bout may or may not ever amount to anything, but I’ve been enjoying it hugely and learning a giant amount about what depths are possible within what looks like a fairly ordinary, well-made story. I’ve been reading her chronologically, so I’ve been able to watch her develop in a way I couldn’t really the first time through. She was dauntingly good at 21, but by the time she was fifty or sixty she was just…untouchable.

(2) I’ve been reading Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson (I’m now in Master of the Senate, Volume 3). I more or less dozed through every history class I took in school, so I’m learning lots of stuff for the first time: how the Senate works, how rural America got electricity, how west Texas came to look the way it does. And of course I’m learning more about LBJ than I know about all but a very small handful of humans on the planet. As Caro draws him, he’s in many ways a bad guy — dishonest, cowardly, bullying, etc. — but I find myself loving him. I’ll be lined up at the bookstore for Volume 4.
Read an excerpt from You Know Who You Are, and learn more about the book and author at Ben Dolnick's website.

The Page 69 Test: Ben Dolnick's Zoology.

The Page 69 Test: You Know Who You Are.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Patrick Mason

Patrick Q. Mason is Research Associate Professor at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Associate Director for Research of an interdisciplinary research initiative entitled Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.

His new book is The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Mason what he was reading. His reply:
The only good thing about flying these days is that, if you are lucky, you can read a good book. Fortunately, before my travel ordeal last week I had picked up The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, a book sufficiently slim to read on most flights. By the end of it, I had an argument with the title—the protagonist, in my view, is more a reluctant nationalist or resistance fighter than a fundamentalist per se—but that was about my only quibble with it.

In the literature on the American Civil War, there has blossomed a cottage industry of titles on the question of why soldiers fought. The same is increasingly true of our post-9/11 setting, as people try to get into the various minds of terrorists, religious extremists, and—dare I include them in the same sentence—American neocons and military personnel.

Hamid’s book meets the mark of excellent fiction. It features engaging and realistic characters in a complex but accessible world presented by captivating (and often captivatingly simple) prose. It builds steadily, and subtly, to a genuinely suspenseful ending. The narrative is touchingly humane, far less about politics than about an authentic, human, and tragic love story. But it also wrestles, as intelligently and incisively as almost anything I’ve read, with the question of—to use President Bush’s formulation—“why they hate us.”

The root of the conflict between East and West, Hamid suggests, is not poverty but privilege—indeed, the excessive privilege (and perhaps the even more inflated sense of privilege and entitlement) associated especially with modern America, and the arrogance with which it is projected upon the rest of the world. Hamid’s reluctant fundamentalist (again, it’s the wrong word) is not really disenchanted not with the wealth he is accumulating in an elite New York financial firm after graduating at the top of his class at Princeton. Rather, upon witnessing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on TV and the subsequent American response in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he realizes he is not his own man, and that the privilege he has both earned and been granted is ultimately irrelevant and powerless in relation to the ties that bind.

We can argue about the “typicality” of Hamid’s protagonist compared to the actual conflict. But The Reluctant Fundamentalist succeeds because it is a profoundly human novel. And if we have learned nothing else over the past ten years, it is that we are in desperate need of more humanity in this world.
Learn more about The Mormon Menace at the Oxford University Press website and visit Patrick Q. Mason's faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: The Mormon Menace.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bathsheba Monk

Bathsheba Monk is the author of Now You See It ... Stories from Cokesville, PA. and the recently released novel Nude Walker.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am reading and loving Susan Straight’s Take One Candle Light a Room. Besides the beautiful language and dialects (Creole, street), I get the feeling that Ms. Straight knows these cultures intimately—cultures that are hidden to me—and so I am reading to find out about that, as well as to find out what happens to the characters, i.e. is she going to save her godson? The real question: Is it possible to save someone else? And she absolutely nails the guilt/ambition/nostalgia of those who chose to leave their familiar life behind and wing it alone in the world, forfeiting their right to belong anywhere.

In the kitchen, I am re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. It’s actually in an edition that contains Animal Farm as well (with a nice introduction by Christopher Hitchens) so it’s like a double feature horror film. I’m trying to convince myself it can’t happen here, but not doing a very good job, so it’s acting as a diet aid.

Up next is Andre Dubus III, Townie. He is a brilliant writer and being the son of a famous father—famous in the son’s field, by the way—is a subject that interests me. I went to school in Boston, too, so there is a bit of voyeurism on my part concerning the world of the townies. More hidden worlds. I see a pattern here.
Read an excerpt from Nude Walker, and learn more about the book and author at Bathsheba Monk's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Nude Walker.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 18, 2011

J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series, including All the Pretty Girls, 14, Judas Kiss, The Cold Room, and The Immortals.

So Close the Hand of Death, the sixth book in the series, is now available.

Recently I asked Ellison what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m in tricky territory discussing what I’m currently reading, because I’m judging a contest and can’t talk actual titles or authors (a shame, because many of the books are simply divine). So I thought I’d take a look back at 2010 and share the books that meant the most to me. Four books spring to mind that shaped my thinking.

On the fiction side, I was utterly blown away by Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy. I read all three in two days, devoured them. It was more than the stellar writing and unique characterizations, for me it was Collins’s ability to world-build that drew me in. Just like JK Rowling before her, she’s created a world that could be, if you want to believe. I love that appearance of insouciance with words. Like the author is putting down a red carpet paved with rose petals and saying, “Come on in, I invite you.” You can take the story as it is, or you can stop for a brief moment and imagine what it would be like, and get utterly and completely lost in the fictional world. That’s a rare talent.

On the non-fiction side, I can’t recommend Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers enough. Smart and accessible philosophy is always a favorite of mine, and Powers delivers in spades. It’s a completely captivating look at ourselves, our habits, and the many technological “moments” our ancestors faced, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Gutenberg. It’s completely changed the way I look at the computer, my interactions online, and the time spent, or lost, in the Internet world. It’s a super book, and I can’t wait for Powers to bring out another. And I must give credit to Laura Lippman for turning me onto the book, ironically, on Facebook. Her post about it intrigued me and I was deep in its pages half an hour later. A must read.
Visit J.T. Ellison's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: So Close the Hand of Death.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Janice Eidus

Novelist, short story writer, and essayist Janice Eidus has twice won the O. Henry Prize for her short stories, as well as a Pushcart Prize, a Redbook Prize, and numerous other awards.

Her latest novel is The Last Jewish Virgin.

Last month I asked Eidus what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished the novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett. He’s very prolific, and I’m eager to read a lot more of his work. (I’ve also read Glyph, his novel about an infant with an IQ of 475.)

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is the tale of a young African American man with the intriguing name, “Not Sidney Poitier,” who looks exactly like the handsome actor, Sidney Poitier, and who may or may not be the actor’s love child.

Not Sidney Poitier’s mother dies when he’s eleven, and due to an extremely unusual and intriguing set of circumstances, he becomes very wealthy and is quasi-raised by media mogul Ted Turner, who’s presented as a lovable, surely bipolar, multi-millionaire “uncle.”

As a boy, Not Sidney Poitier consistently confronts ugly racism aimed at him despite his wealth, which in fact he tries to hide. He grows up and heads off to college, where his English professor is named Percival Everett, like the author. Professor Everett, another oddball uncle of sorts, offers Not Sidney Poitier ambiguous – yet ultimately helpful -- advice about surviving, and perhaps even transcending, a racist and classist world.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a wild, sexy, funny, and compelling ride, drawing upon myth, dreams, film, pop culture, and literature. Everett taps deeply into what the late, great, British writer, Angela Carter, called the “imagery of the unconscious.” At the same time – like Carter herself – he explores social issues of race, class, and gender through an idiosyncratic and socially just lens.

The next book I plan to read is House Arrest, a first novel about cults, loss, survival, and the moral complexities of medical and political ethics, by my friend, Ellen Meeropol, who’s married to Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were American Communists executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. Theirs was the first execution of civilians for espionage in U.S. history, and it remains one of the most polarizing events in contemporary U.S. consciousness.

Robert Meeropol’s book, An Execution In The Family: One Son’s Journey is also on my reading list, in my Kindle. I bought Ellen’s book as a “real” book, however, not an e-book, because I wanted to be able to hold it in my hands, and to see up-close and over time its extremely vivid and arresting cover. I’m particularly eager after just finishing I Am Not Sidney Poitier, to see how she explores social and political issues. I’m fairly certain she’ll do so in a very different fashion than Everett, more realistically, closer to the bone, perhaps.

My own writing I think, often lands in stylistic territory between Everett and Meeropol. My 2007 autobiographical novel, The War of the Rosens, about growing up in a left-wing, Jewish, Bronx family torn apart by politics and illness, lands closer to Meeropol, and my current novel, The Last Jewish Virgin (my literary, Jewish, feminist, fashionista vampire novel), closer to Everett. Ultimately, I find that I love navigating the territories of both; it’s an excellent way for me to keep challenging myself – as writer and reader both.
Read an excerpt of The Last Jewish Virgin, and learn more about the book and author at Janice Eidus's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Last Jewish Virgin.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jen Calonita

As a Senior Editor at the former Teen People and a journalist for Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, and Marie Claire, Jen Calonita has interviewed everyone from Vanessa Hudgens to Justin Timberlake.

Her books include There's No Place Like Home and five previous novels in the teen series Secrets of My Hollywood Life.

A few weeks ago I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett and I think it might be the best book I've read in the last ten years. I'm serious! The story definitely sounded intriguing, but sometimes I feel like the books with the most hype wind up being the most disappointing (maybe because I put so many expectations on them). I held off reading The Help for that reason. My only regret turned out to be not reading the book sooner! I could not put it down and that's saying something when I had my own book revision due and have two small boys to take care of. I loved the unexpected friendship between Abileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter especially since it grew over the course of the book. There were times while I was reading that I was so anxious about these characters that I had grown to love so much that I didn't want to stop reading for fear I would miss something. All three main characters were such strong risk takers and incredible people and I just wished the book would go on forever. I wanted to know what became of them. Kathryn is an incredible writer and I can't wait to see what the movie version is like when it comes out this summer. I think Emma Stone as Miss Skeeter is brilliant!
Visit Jen Calonita's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Diane Coyle

Diane Coyle runs Enlightenment Economics, a consulting firm specializing in technology and globalization, and is the author of a number of books on economics, including The Soulful Science, Sex, Drugs and Economics, and The Weightless World. A BBC trustee and a visiting professor at the University of Manchester, she holds a PhD in economics from Harvard.

Coyle's new book is The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I read a lot of economics and current affairs books linked to my work as an economist – and blog about them on The Enlightened Economist – but anyway find non-fiction the ideal relaxing read. I love reading history, popular science, and books about ballet too. I’ve been doing ballet classes for 30 years and often go to watch performances as London, where I live, is blessed with a vibrant ballet and contemporary dance scene and some of the very best performers in the world.

Recently I’ve read two big history books with completely different perspectives on the grand sweep of human experience. One is Ian Morris’s Why The West Rules For Now, running from pre-history to the prospects ahead for China and the west – he thinks China is in for a few centuries of dominance. The other is Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World. He argues more or less the opposite, saying that Anglo-American culture and values are uniquely able to deliver social and economic progress.

Prior to those two, I read Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which is a riveting account of the people who foresaw the financial crisis and how American finance went so badly wrong; and the Dragon’s Gift by Deborah Brautigam, a careful study of the realities rather than the myths of China’s investments in Africa.

Right now I’m at that delicious moment of choosing the next thing to read. It’s between Different Drummer, Jann Parry’s acclaimed biography of the choreographer Kenneth Macmillan, and Beyond Mechanical Markets: Asset Price Swings, Risk and the Role of the State by Roman Frydman and Michael Goldberg. I’m going to hear Roman Frydman lecture about the book soon. Besides, the financial crisis has certainly led to a rethink about the system and its regulation, and I don’t think we’re nearly at the end of the necessary reforms.
Read more about The Economics of Enough, and visit The Enlightened Economist blog.

--Marshal Zeringue