Monday, October 31, 2011

David O. Stewart

David O. Stewart's books include the highly acclaimed The Summer of 1787, the bestselling account of the writing of the Constitution, and Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy. He has practiced law in Washington, D.C., for more than a quarter of a century, defending accused criminals and challenging government actions as unconstitutional. Stewart has argued appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was law clerk to Justice Lewis Powell of that Court.

His new book is American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America.

Earlier this month I asked Stewart what he was reading. His reply:
Reading great narrative histories helps get me through the fretful days surrounding the launch of my new book, American Emperor, and I have enjoyed several excellent books in this stretch. Adam Goodheart’s 1861 offers a terrific view of how a nation goes to war, assembling fascinating scraps of social history into a powerful mosaic. I’ve read a lot of Civil War history, but 1861 taught me a great deal I did not know.

Three other recent books have focused on America at the turn of the last century. James McGrath Morris’s Pulitzer gives a fascinating, three-dimensional look at that brilliant, hopelessly neurotic, blind newspaper czar. The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole tracks Henry Adams (a favorite of mine) and his circle. Her portrayal of the bookish and waspish Adams makes him a most sympathetic character. The Spanish-American War is the subject of Evan Thomas’ excellent The War Lovers, a wonderful portrait of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge.

I loved the first 600 pages of John Sayles’ new historical novel set in the same era -- Moments in the Sun -- but I couldn’t make it through the last 350 pages. Books that long do ask a good deal of the reader; more than I had to give, in this instance.
Visit David O. Stewart's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: Impeached.

My Book, The Movie: American Emperor.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 30, 2011

David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham received the 2009 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of Science Fiction for Acacia and The Other Lands (the first two volumes of the Acacia trilogy).

The Sacred Band, the concluding volume of the trilogy, was released earlier this month.

Durham's reply to my recent query about what he has been reading:
The novel on my night table at the moment is Arms of Nemesis, by Steven Saylor. There’s a particular reason for this.

My next contracted book is about the Spartacus slave rebellion in ancient Rome. It’s to be a straight historical novel. As part of my research I try to read as much as I can about the period I’m writing in. The bulk of that is non-fiction, but I also enjoy reading novels set in Ancient Rome. A while back I read and enjoyed Saylor’s Roma. That one was a novel made up of linked stories that covered the early history of Rome, from its founding all the way up to the late Republic. It was a departure for him. He usually writes mysteries featuring a Roman Private Investigator named Gordianus the Finder. When I learned that one of those Gordianus novels is set during the Spartacus rebellion I knew I had to take a look.

I’m about halfway through and enjoying it quite a bit. Saylor’s writing is straightforward, not fancy but effective. It manages to feel like light reading, even though the novel’s subtext is an examination of slavery. He does a fine job of using small details of Roman life to give the setting real texture. I think Saylor is a novelist I’ll return to every now and then for some time to come.
Visit David Anthony Durham's website, blog, and Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: Acacia.

The Page 69 Test: The Other Lands.

The Page 69 Test: The Sacred Band.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 28, 2011

C. K. Kelly Martin

C. K. Kelly Martin's books include I Know It's Over, One Lonely Degree, The Lighter Side of Life and Death, and My Beating Teenage Heart.

A few weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m very happy to have the chance to talk about what I’ve been reading lately because for the last several months I’ve been weaving in and out of Australian author John Marsden’s outstanding young adult series that began with Tomorrow When the War Began. Since the seven books that compose the series were all released between 1993 and 1999 I’m not sure if they’re too recent to be regarded as classics but they certainly feel that way. They have a timeless quality that, I think, will make them still feel relevant in another forty years. I also believe adult readers would enjoy the series just as much as teen ones because Marsden doesn’t pull his punches. There’s some really tough stuff in these books. They’re not graphic but they’re extremely realistic and suspenseful yet emotionally nuanced too. That’s a pretty rare combination.

Anyway, I’ve been reading other books (some other YA ones and literary fiction) in between the Tomorrow novels but when I do I’m always looking forward to jumping back to Marsden’s series. Essentially the books centre on a group of teenagers who are camping away from home in the bush when Australia is invaded by a foreign army. Central character Ellie and her friends (Homer, Lee, Kevin, Corrie, Robyn and Fiona) are left to survive and battle the invaders on their own. The story’s not told in a way that glorifies war, nor does it portray the young characters as action heroes. They’re courageous and intelligent but they don’t succeed at everything they try to achieve and emotionally they burn out, at different rates and in different ways, only to realize they need to keep fighting anyway. The ones that survive, that is.

At the moment I’m about two-thirds of the way through the sixth novel, The Night is for Hunting. Each of the books is told from Ellie’s point of view. She’s made of tough materials but she’s by no means invincible. At times she seems emotionally distant to the other members of the group, even as they look to her as a leader. But she’s fiercely protective of her friends, even when she’s angry with them. The emotional veracity of each of the books makes it clear that even if there’s a victory at the end of book seven and the invaders are forced to abandon Australia, this band of young people will never be the same. Part of the war they’re fighting is to retain integral parts of their personalities.

YA writer Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson was the one who originally recommended the Tomorrow books to me and I’m so glad that she did. I’ll be sorry to come to the end of the series.
Visit C. K. Kelly Martin's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: The Lighter Side of Life and Death.

My Book, The Movie: My Beating Teenage Heart.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon—the best university magazine in America, according to Newsweek, and “the best spiritual magazine in the country,” according to Annie Dillard.

He is the author of five collections of essays, two nonfiction books (The Grail, about a year in an Oregon vineyard, and The Wet Engine, about the “muddles & musics of the heart”), two collections of short prose, and the sprawling novel Mink River, which Publishers Weekly called a “original, postmodern, shimmering tapestry of smalltown life.”

Doyle's new book is Bin Laden's Bald Spot & Other Stories.

His reply to my recent query about what he has been reading:
Lately a wild burst of American Catholic writers – initially to prepare for a burbling public mumble & shamble about same, but increasingly in amazement at (a) how many unbelievably great and will-be-in-print-forever-in-these-united-states writers were and are Catholic (Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Tony Hillerman, Andre Dubus, Edwin O’Connor, Alice McDermott, Mary Gordon, Flannery O’Connor, Frank McCourt, for example), and (b) how many interestingly sort of sidelong Catholic writers there are and were of remarkable cultural influence (William F. Buckley, for example; how interesting to speculate how much his Catholicism, which in the end is about witnessing and celebrating the holiness of creation, had to do with his roaring urge to conserve and preserve, his enduring suspicion of the State, his trumpeting of the individual), and then finally (c) the fascinating idea that an awful lot of what we think of as American character and virtues and flavor and narrative – the hero on the road, the brave single soul speaking up against the empire, the comeback story, the constant absorption with resurrected hopes and dreams against all evidence and sense – is really Catholic in theme and flavor. I can hear the roars of angry rebuttal from here, but it’s really interesting to note the cousinship there. I note with a grin that Catholicism entered what is today the USA in 1513, so the ancient troubled odd essentially revolutionary faith (despite its centuries of blood and rape and power grabs and yes, religious terrorism, let us not forget the Crusades) is about to celebrate its 500th birthday on this soil. Happy birthday, you old brilliant weird idea.
Learn more about Brian Doyle's Bin Laden’s Bald Spot and visit its Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: Bin Laden’s Bald Spot.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Caroline B. Cooney

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

Cooney's The Lost Songs was published earlier this month by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Making Haste From Babylon by Nick Bunker is a fascinating examination of the English world from which the Pilgrims sprang. Don’t be put off by the title. This is a vivid and rich account, covering the geography, economics, politics and of course theology that led a tiny group of ardent Christians to make the terrifying decision to cross the sea in a splinter of a ship and create a New World.

Making Haste from Babylon set me on an expedition to learn more. That often happens with nonfiction, when I am so intrigued I need another layer.

I then read Mourt’s Relation, first published in 1622, and Good News From New England, 1624. They are short narratives, a little difficult because of antique phrasing, but riveting. They focus on the adventures of men exploring the Plymouth area and their first encounters with the Indians and tell almost nothing of what the women and children were doing. I am always interested in the domestic life so I kept searching.

A Little Commonwealth, by John Demos, is a series of essays, rather formal, establishing that we just don’t know much about the Pilgrims’ daily lives – such as how a dozen people actually lived together year round in one small room! This would not be a book to read first; turn to it only when you’re captivated by Making Haste or by Nathaniel Philbrick’s wonderful Mayflower. Mayflower has a more traditional format than the Bunker book and is an easier read. The two books are so different it hardly feels like the same topic. The Philbrick book is very American and Bunker’s is very British.

Next on my list are The Times of their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony by James Deetz and another original source by William Bradford.

In fiction, I read almost exclusively suspense or mystery – I like stuff happening in every paragraph - but in nonfiction, I love history and I don’t mind if it’s slow and detailed and full of excursions. I usually have several books going, which seems unfair, somehow. You should give your full attention to the book. I tend to give my full attention to the topic. I would love book suggestions from other readers interested in the Pilgrims.
Visit Caroline B. Cooney's website.

Writers Read: Caroline B. Cooney (January 2010).

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Geoff Hyatt

Geoff Hyatt's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Temenos, Night Terrors: An Anthology of Horror, Rock & Roll is Dead: Dark Tales Inspired by Music, and elsewhere. He has been a staff writer, editorial assistant, bookseller, activist, liquor store clerk, heavy metal guitarist, factory worker, and always a gentleman.

Hyatt's most recent novel is Birch Hills at World’s End.

His reply to my recent query about what he was reading:
Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

“You know what it’s like, finding eight middle-aged guys having tantric sex with ostriches? ...My girlfriend came to bed one night in a feather boa and I started crying.”

I read the above couple of lines in the bookstore and then walked to the counter and bought the book. Guess I’m a cheap date. Even though this detective novel sends up what is perhaps already the most satirized popular genre, Ellis is a witty and gleefully vulgar writer whose narrator recalls a hybrid of Phillip Marlowe and Hunter S. Thompson (a style and attitude that should be familiar to those who have read Ellis’s Transmetropolitan).

Jack o’ the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney

Cooney writes engaging manic prose while preserving folkloric/mythic structures that give her work such resonance. Not content to simply dust off old gems, she re-cuts and re-shapes them until they shine in a whole new way, reminding us of why the dark gleam of fairy tales and legends first seduced us. Jack o’ the Hills is a small book containing two of her stories, “Stone Shoes” and “Oubliette’s Egg.”

Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III

I loved House of Sand and Fog, a brilliantly executed contemporary Hegelian tragedy. I’m currently in the midst of Townie on a friend’s recommendation and finding it to be excellent so far.

Iron Council by China Miéville

China Miéville is a wildly original and hard-working English fantasy writer who is taller, better educated, and more muscular than I am. I’m currently reading Iron Council, a novel set in the same world as his genre-redefining Perdido Street Station, with a book club.
Visit Geoff Hyatt's website, and read an excerpt from Birch Hills at World’s End.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 24, 2011

Todd Ritter

Todd Ritter is the author of Bad Moon, his second mystery featuring small-town police chief Kat Campbell. Born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, he now lives in suburban New Jersey.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
When it comes to books, I’m not usually a double-dipper. I wait until I finish one to start another. Yet there are two books out right now that I so desperately wanted to begin that I couldn’t choose which one to start first. So I’m reading both of them — and loving it.

The first is Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean. I love dogs. I love Hollywood. So the story of this dog (and his many, many offspring) who became a movie star is right up my alley. Then there’s the little fact that Susan Orlean is one of the most accessible, sensible and funny nonfiction voices out there.

The second book, far different than the story of a celebrity dog, is The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams. I was drawn to this one because of its heroine, Keye Street. She’s an ex-FBI profiler with a troubled past who hunts down a serial killer with her best friend, a male cop. The heroine of my book, Bad Moon, is Kat Campbell, a female cop who hunts down a serial killer with her best friend, a male former state police detective with a troubled past. We’re like two sides to the same coin, which is fascinating to read. It doesn’t hurt that Williams can write with the best of them.
Visit Todd Ritter's website.

Writers Read: Todd Ritter (October 2010).

The Page 69 Test: Todd Ritter's Death Notice.

My Book, The Movie: Death Notice.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mike Mullin

Mike Mullin’s first job was scraping the gum off the undersides of desks at his high school. From there, things went steadily downhill. He almost got fired by the owner of a bookstore due to his poor taste in earrings. He worked at a place that showed slides of poopy diapers during lunch (it did cut down on the cafeteria budget). The hazing process at the next company included eating live termites raised by the resident entomologist, so that didn’t last long either. For a while Mullin juggled bottles at a wine shop, sometimes to disastrous effect. Oh, and then there was the job where swarms of wasps occasionally tried to chase him off ladders. So he’s really hoping this writing thing works out.

Mullin holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife and her three cats. Ashfall is his first novel.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Fellow young adult author Saundra Mitchell was gracious enough to visit my launch party for Ashfall at Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore on Saturday (10/8). She came bearing a gift: the advance reading copy (ARC) of her newest novel, The Springsweet (Harcourt, April 2012). It wasn’t a gift for me, mind, but for the owner of the bookstore. However, by some devious means the ARC wound up in my bag. (I’ll give it back to Kids Ink tomorrow, Saundra, no need to hunt me down.)

The Springsweet is the companion novel to The Vespertine, released last year. It has a very different feel though—The Vespertine bustles through late 1800s Baltimore high society, while in The Springsweet, Zora lights out for a rough life in the Oklahoma Territory.

Both novels are a delightful blend of magic, mystery, and romance, but where The Vespertine has an ornate, Victorian feel, The Springsweet is more austere, bringing to mind the middle-grade classic, Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Saundra is a genius with language. You can open either of these books anywhere and know, just from the sentence structure and word choice, that you’re in a Victorian setting. But neither book reads as ponderously as actual Victorian-era novels—Saundra adds just enough authentic language to make the books feel right without bogging them down too much for modern readers’ sensibilities. Here, let’s try it: “’There’s a child present,’ Birdie said. She smoothed her hands over Louella’s ears, as if a scrap of verse could slip in and poison her tender thoughts.” (p. 136) See what I mean? If you enjoy historical fiction, paranormal tales, romance, or just lovely language, pick up a copy of The Vespertine now and keep an eye out for The Springsweet in April.
Visit Mike Mullin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dean Crawford

Dean Crawford worked as a graphic designer before he left the industry to pursue his lifelong dream of writing full-time. An aviation and motorcycle enthusiast, he lives with his family in Surrey, England.

Covenant is his first novel.

Recently I asked Crawford what he was reading. His reply:
Right now I’m reading The Blue Zone by Andrew Gross. It’s a great story concerning a young professional woman whose life implodes when it is learned by the FBI that her father’s gold business has connections to Colombian drug cartels. Forced into witness protection when her father agrees to testify against the cartels in return for a lenient sentence, a year goes by before the heroine and her family are located and hunted down by the cartels.

I love novels that twist and turn, keeping the reader guessing, and The Blue Zone is a fantastic example of this. It shows how you don’t need a labyrinthine plot or hundreds of characters to keep readers fully entertained: what really counts is whether those readers really care about the characters – achieve that, and as an author you’ve done your job.

I also recently finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In a world that seems in recent years to have become dogged by religious fanaticism, it’s both refreshing and saddening to realise that so much evil is done in the name of so many gods that simply do not exist, by those who claim to be the light or humanity’s salvation! Dawkins does what few governments dare to do: challenge the assumed righteousness of faiths and their leaders, and proves that their extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence that none of them can provide.
Visit Dean Crawford's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lisa Black

Lisa Black’s fourth book Defensive Wounds was released by Harper Collins last month. Forensic scientist Theresa MacLean battles a serial killer operating at an attorney’s convention. Black is a full time latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida.

Some time ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now I’m reading Next by Michael Crichton, published in 2006. I have my doubts about its parentage, having read Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain and noticing a great difference in styles, but even Crichton’s own website admits it’s a very atypical novel for him, written in a fury after attending a conference on genetics and law. It’s about genetic testing, therapy and experimentation and beyond that becomes very difficult to describe. It’s a frenetic book; there are about twenty five different characters, none of whom are developed in any particular way and almost none of whom are particularly likeable. I don’t say that as a criticism as, three-quarters of the way through the book, I’ve decided that it may be intentional. I think he had so much scientific information to depart that he simply didn’t bother going into great detail about the human characters—all we need to know is that they’re varied, average, inconsistent and consequently problems occur just as they would among real human beings. Meanwhile the scientific information is overwhelming—what genes can do, what has been done, what has been claimed to have been done and then later turned out to be bunk. And on and on and on. For a layman it is almost impossible to distinguish what is false and claimed to be true versus what is actually true and claimed to be false in order to cover up a researcher’s mistake or a company’s lucrative new development. Although after years and years of being pitched to by the pharmaceutical companies, it will not come as a surprise that scientific research is nowhere near as objective a field as it should be.

The book raises many scientific and philosophical points, especially with the one character who seems most realistic—a genetic scientist/lobbyist with great skill at couching the more controversial possibilities of genetic engineering in terms of ‘well, God wouldn’t have given us brains if he didn’t intend for us to use them.’ A good point, but in providing a laundry list of genetic mishaps I think Crichton is making the case that human error, inattention, carelessness, ambition, avarice and ignorance can and will create one genetic disaster after another. But for the most part he delves much more into the potential legal questions than the moral ones—and if you think humans are sue-happy now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. What I bring away from the book is this: When it comes to genetics, nothing is as simple as it sounds. Nothing.
Visit Lisa Black's website.

My Book, The Movie: Defensive Wounds.

The Page 69 Test: Defensive Wounds.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison is the international award-winning author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson novels, multiple short stories and has been published in over twenty countries.

Where All the Dead Lie, the latest Taylor Jackson book, is now available.

Ellison reply to my recent query about what she has been reading:
I’ve just started The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Fellow author and friend Jeff Abbott suggested it, knowing that I’m struggling with the knowledge that I’m reading less and spending more time online. Twitter and Facebook and blogging and the omnipresent “author marketing” has me flummoxed. I used to read at night, now I Tweet. I want to take back my time.

Hamlet's Blackberry, a brilliant book by William Powers, made me cognizant of just how much time I was spending online. The Shallows is giving me a deeper understanding of why I’m doing so. And, I hope, will give me the tools, the willpower, or at the very least, permission to step away from the Internet, and reclaim my mind from the influx of constantly streamed information on my tiny little screens.
Visit J.T. Ellison's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Doug Magee

Doug Magee has been a photojournalist, screenplay writer, children's book author, death penalty activist, film producer and director, war protestor, college football player, amateur musician, and the basis of the Aidan Quinn character in Meryl Streep's Music of the Heart.

His new novel is Darkness All Around.

Earlier this month I asked Magee what he was reading. His reply:
I'm gearing up to write the first book of a series and so I've been reading some of the masters to get inspired. Lately I've caught up with some of the Spenser novels I had missed. A Catskill Eagle, was good but not Robert B. Parker at his best. It did make me eager to read Looking For Rachel Wallace, which I'm having trouble finding because it's out of print. I just finished Chandler's Lady of the Lake and immediately decided to quit being a writer! He's the best.

In an entirely different vein I spent a month reading The Iliad with my sixteen year-old son. He had to do it for school and I went along for the ride. We read the Robert Fagles translation and both of us were both floored by the poetry and amazed by the way in which this ancient epic is so contemporary.
Visit Doug Magee's website and the Darkness All Around website.

Writers Read: Doug Magee (June 2010).

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 17, 2011

Stephen Wetta

Stephen Wetta is a native of Richmond, Virginia. He received his Bachelor's Degree from VCU and his Ph. D. at New York University. He is currently an English professor at Hunter College. If Jack’s in Love is his first novel.

Recently I asked Wetta what he was reading. His reply:
The Judges of the Secret Court is a novel by David Stackton, first published in 1961 and reissued this year by New York Review Books. It concerns the murder of Abraham Lincoln and the near-assassination of William Seward. Much of it is told from the perspective of John Wilkes Booth, here a weirdly needy misanthrope; yet the point of view shifts rapidly, and we are led through the narrative by an assortment of characters on both sides of the plot: by the conspirator Lewis Payne, by Mrs. Surratt (who owned the boarding house where the conspirators sometimes met), and by Edwin Stanton, the dictatorial Secretary of War who pursues the assassins with the paranoia and blood-thirstiness of a Grand Inquisitor. As a novel it is gripping, although the fluidity of so many points of view sometimes leaves a reader bewildered and out of balance—which may well be an effect Stackton desired. Disequilibrium characterizes this world embittered by war. Booth and Stanton are grandiose political schemers driven mad by loss, one by the loss of his inane sectional fantasies, the other by the loss of his last chance to gain power. Booth suffers the appropriate fate of the stupid, dying in a burning barn, while Stanton is allowed to vent his frustrations through his secret military tribunal. As John Crowley points out in his introduction to the NYRB edition, the machinations of that court have a greater relevance in the age of Guantanamo than they did in 1961; and Mrs. Surratt, whom Stackton considered a hapless bystander to the plot, is, in a final act of cruelty, hanged on the gallows with her dress tied at the hemline so it will not billow as she drops.

There are no heroes in the novel. Men of government such as Stanton and Andrew Johnson are repugnant; secondary characters like Mrs. Lincoln, Edwin Booth and Laura Keene, the actress, are crazy or superannuated. The one character who possesses any greatness, Abraham Lincoln, exists here only to be shot and then to die; and even his greatness is troublesomely qualified: “He was a great man, and greatness is an enigma. It is also amoral, and we cannot have that. Nobody likes to have his little game seen through. And yet it could not be denied. A fire was going out. So few of them had ever realized until now that it had warmed them.” Stackton is epigrammatic and mystifying, and not particularly warm himself. Nevertheless, his Lincoln, glimpsed so briefly while dying, is worth any five hundred pages of Gore Vidal.

In All the Little Live Things, published in 1967, Wallace Stegner revives his character from The Spectator Bird, Joe Allston. Allston is a retired literary agent, a liberal snob of the educated classes, and not particularly likeable. In this novel he is engaged in generation-gap warfare with a vagrant motorcyclist named Jim Peck, a punk who has decided to do some eco-crashing on property that Allston owns in rural California. I was intrigued by the idea of Stegner doing a hippie. Kesey was his student at Stanford, so you would think that Stegner knew the type. Jim Peck is a good character and ropes us in early. He’s a hippie guru whose mystical patter gets him laid, a lot. To reach his Allston-subsidized island you have to swing like Tarzan on a vine over a stream to his tree house, or cross on a bridge that tends to flip upside down. The hippie kids, particularly the girls, go there nightly, much to the narrator’s disgust. Peck, of course, is every bit as phony as Allston is bigoted. The tension between the two men is enough to fuel the novel, but Stegner, alas, doesn’t seem as interested in Peck as I was. Instead his focus shifts to Marian Caitlin, a neighbor woman whose sweetness and optimism probably reflect hippie ideals more truly than do the nightly antics of the orgiasts down the hill. Stegner is never boring, and certain scenes display wonderful literary virtuosity, particularly one that describes a drunken cocktail party in the heat of a California afternoon. Yet a note of moral earnestness akin to sentimentality creeps in as Marian dies slowly of cancer, and the novel is drained of its toughness and humor. One wishes Stegner had made more of Peck and Allston; and yet he does make Allston a begrudgingly admirable figure in the end.

Stegner often gets mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway and Jim Harrison—manly writers, you know—probably because he could fish, hunt and (I assume) ride a horse. He belongs to the American West, and yet there’s a sense in which his writing does not stand in the great tradition of American prose. That, Robert Alter says in his recently published Pen of Iron, is characterized overwhelmingly by the stylistic influence of the King James Bible. We find it, for instance, in Moby Dick, where Melville’s “heterodox engagement with the Bible” leads him into biblical cadences and homiletic parodies. Ahab becomes Job, the whale is Leviathan, and Melville’s agnosticism is rendered through a “biblical forcefield” of archaism, synecdoche and allusion, all of which enjoy the Rabelaisian power to stand belief on its head. Likewise, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, while possessing precious little “biblicizing tendency” in its own profuse prose, transports the story of David and his sons to the American south and powerfully employs biblical tropes (“dust,” “clay,” “flesh,” “blood,” “land,” “curse”) to create a secular, Ecclesiastical sense of human vanity.

Alter believes the King James influence on American writing is most usually found in the parataxis of Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy, among others. Everyone is familiar with Hemingway’s style: that string of parallel independent clauses conjunctively linked. The paratactic style has long been used by prose writers for descriptive purposes, but American writers rely on it not merely to describe scenes or scenery but to report sequences of significant acts, even to relate introspective moments: thoughts, feelings, moods. Hemingway uses “unadorned sequences of parallel utterances” to “intimate strong feelings and fraught relationships,” and brings to his prose the stark, mystifying candor of ancient Hebrew poetry.

Hemingway is a writer whose time has gone, or so I believed. When I was seventeen I was bowled over by him and even decided I might be able to write like him. Sadly, I was discovering him at the very moment he was becoming passé. The feminist and gay rights movements were making his brand of machismo seem irrelevant if not downright comic, and when I later discovered Nabokov’s judgment, that Hemingway wrote “books for boys,” it seemed accurate. But lately there’s been a renewal of interest in him. Woody Allen has used him as a character in a recent film. His first marriage is the subject of a popular novel, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. My students no longer roll their eyes when his name is mentioned; in fact, he seems to be about the only classic writer young people are reading.

Out of curiosity, I picked up A Moveable Feast to see what the Hemingway experience is like these days. I found it hard to take, for prose so easy to read. It’s not that the writing is mannered. Mannered writing I can deal with. But somehow it doesn’t ring true. It’s artificial, dated—not just mannered. Still, I did get caught up in the thing, especially during the scenes involving Scott Fitzgerald, or the passage describing Hem’s conversation with Gertrude Stein about homosexuality. What is it about Hemingway that can fascinate a critic as intelligent as Robert Alter? Could it be that sniffing the Bible in a writer’s prose is sufficient for the great translator of the Pentateuch? And how about my students? Hemingway’s cult of manliness must be welcome in an emasculated world. It must be that. Then again, there’s the lost mystique of the writer’s life: bread and wine in a garret, a loving woman who supports her husband while he “works,” a universe where a promenading Aleister Crowley is mistaken for Hilaire Belloc by Ford Madox Ford. To a generation of writers checking out the ratings on GoodReads and Amazon, how romantic, how remote.
Visit Stephen Wetta's journal.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lauren McLaughlin

Lauren McLaughlin grew up in the small town of Wenham, Massachusetts. After college and a brief stint in graduate school, she spent ten “unglamorous” years writing and producing movies before abandoning her screen ambitions to write fiction full-time. Though she fondly remembers much of her time in Massachusetts—the marina, the beach, various teenage escapades—she cannot, for the life of her, remember her SAT scores, her GPA, or any of the numbers that once summed her up.

Her new novel, coming this month from Random House Books for Young Readers, is Scored.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now I'm taking a break from Swamplandia by Karen Russell to read Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. Swamplandia is about a family of alligator wrestlers in Southwest Florida and how they cope with a new theme park vastly fancier than their own. It's a rich and evocative story full of historical detail regarding the dredging of the wetlands. My parents live in that area and I've always been fascinated with the way the land was basically constructed out of swamp, as a kind of technological eruption. When the story began to veer into darker territory, however, I found myself dreading each turn of the page, not because it was badly written (it's wonderful!) but because I feared so much for the characters' fates. Now that I'm halfway through Netherland, I find I'm still wondering whatever became of those characters from Swamplandia, so I'll return to them soon. Ms. Russell had better be kind. That's all I have to say.

Netherland is largely about the sport of cricket, about which I know next to nothing. It's also about an English couple's experience of New York and, being married to an Englishman myself and having lived with him in New York for ten years, I'm finding a lot of the protagonist's experiences eerily familiar. It's a wonderful novel and I know I'll be recommending it to anyone who asks.

Once I've finished both of those it's on to Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star, which I'm pretty sure is about some kind of reincarnation of Jack the Ripper. I've already read the free teaser sample and, yup, I'm hooked.
Visit Lauren McLaughlin's website and the Scored Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Alma Katsu

Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker, a gothic tale of desire, obsession and the need within us all for redemption.

The Taker
has been described as "an epic supernatural love story" and compared to The Historian," Interview with the Vampire, and Twilight even though it doesn't have one vampire in it.

A few weeks ago I asked Katsu what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m in the middle of revisions for the second book in The Taker Trilogy, and that means I’m doing little reading for pleasure. But man cannot live by his own writing alone, so I’m sneaking in a couple books in my rare free time:

Property by Valerie Martin. This book, which won the Orange Prize in 2003, is the story of a woman unhappily married to a brutish plantation owner, who has had two children by one of the family’s slaves.

I heard about this book from another writer. I have a ‘thing’ about books with unsympathetic narrators, probably because I am drawn to create these characters myself. I know how hard it is to create characters that are so well developed and real and compelling that you can’t stop following them, and I am intensely curious as to how other writers pull it off. Property’s subject matter is off-putting, but the book is so well written that I couldn’t stop reading, because I was studying how she did it. Indeed, it was like taking an exquisitely woven piece of lace and pulling it apart stitch by stitch to discover how its beauty had been made.

Reamde by Neal Stephenson. I haven’t read much of his work, but enjoyed Quicksilver so much that I thought I would attempt Stephenson’s latest novel, another huge doorstopper of a book. I’ve just started it and so I haven’t much to say. I chose Stephenson in order to analyze his writing as well as to enjoy it. He is wildly imaginative in addition to being highly logical and, reportedly, a prolific writer whose work comes out so ready made that it needs little editing. What writer wouldn’t like to have half his ability?
Visit Alma Katsu's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jacques Strauss

Jacques Strauss is a South African freelance digital producer and consultant and the author of the debut novel, The Dubious Salvation of Jack V..

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just finished re-reading Boyhood, Youth and Disgrace by JM Coetzee. I’m a big fan of Coetzee. I was recently asked by someone if there was any point in writing books about South Africa and Apartheid and all that jazz when you have the likes of Coetzee and Gordimer around (which was an awfully mean question) and all I could say was, ‘Well … um possibly not.’In the developed West, where we are very rarely confronted with decisions of great moral import, we all seem to have a sweet but untested optimism in our own good character, in our virtuousness, our own propensity for heroism in the face of injustice or evil. Having grown up in South Africa I am deeply suspicious of anyone who thinks they would have done anything of significance – and I don’t mean voting for the Democratic Party or the PFP or joining the Black Sash – I mean Joe Slovo significant. To really stand up to the system would have taken the kind of bravery and selfless that most of us simply do not possess. This is one of the things that I like so very much about Coetzee and that so fascinates me about the reception of his books. Coetzee teases out the vast chasm between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we actually behave. Much criticism focuses on his ‘unlikeable’ or indeed ‘disgraceful’ characters and my immediate response is – you mean people like me? I think most of his characters are so typical of who we are, and how we behave. Sure, what David Lurie did in Disgrace was wrong and grubby – but could I foresee a situation in which I would do the same? You bet I could and probably worse also. Youth the second volume of the autobiographical trilogy in which he details the time he spent in London, left me feeling well and truly eviscerated.All of which goes some way to explaining, why, when confronted with his body of work and the question of what else could be said, I really didn’t have an answer.
Visit Jacques Strauss's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

David Handler

David Handler has written eight novels featuring the mismatched crime-fighting duo of Mitch Berger and Des Mitry. His first, The Cold Blue Blood, was a Dilys Award finalist and BookSense Top Ten pick. He is also the author of eight novels about the witty and dapper celebrity ghostwriter Stewart Hoag and his faithful, neurotic basset hound, Lulu, including the Edgar- and American Mystery Award--winning The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald. Handler lives in a two-hundred-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

His new Berger-Mitry novel is The Blood Red Indian Summer.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently up to my hips in the climax of my next Berger-Mitry mystery, The Snow White Christmas Cookie. I've found that when I'm focused real deeply on the complexities of one of my own plots I can't keep track of someone else's. If I try to do that my head feels as if it's going to explode. Too much information. So I don't usually read novels during this stage of the creative process. Yet I still need to read myself to sleep at night. Can't fall asleep unless I have a book in my hands. The solution that I came up with is short stories.

I am a huge fan of John O'Hara, Irwin Shaw and James Thurber. All three of them were masters whose collected works I'm continually re-reading. Another of my favorites is Jack Finney, who wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, Time and Again, as well as The Body Snatchers, which was made into the 1956 sci-fi classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Finney was also a tremendously gifted short story writer. A volume of his stories called About Time happens to be the book that's sitting on my night stand right now. The stories are incredibly imaginative, enchanting, sprightly and funny. I especially love "The Third Level," which is about a thoroughly modern man who becomes convinced that he has found a secret third level below Grand Central Station where it's still the year 1894. I first read this story at least 30 years ago and yet to this day I always think of it every time I walk through Grand Central. I promise that you will, too.
Visit David Handler's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 10, 2011

Robert H. Frank

Robert H. Frank is an economics professor at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and a regular "Economic View" columnist for the New York Times, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. His books, which have been translated into 22 languages, include The Winner-Take-All Society (with Philip Cook), The Economic Naturalist, Luxury Fever, What Price the Moral High Ground?, and Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke).

Frank's new book is The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good.

A couple of weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Djibouti, by Elmore Leonard. Leonard, who was born in 1925, has been writing great novels for more than 60 years. At some point he’s bound to lose his edge. Two or three books back, I thought he might have begun to. But his 2010 entry, Djibouti, was for me one of his best ever. Dara Barr, 36, is an award-winning documentary film-maker who travels with Xavier LeBo, her black, 6’6”, 72-year-old assistant, to shoot a documentary about Somali pirates. Theirs is one of two intriguing relationships that evolve through this intriguing tale. The other tracks the oil billionaire Billy Wynn and his model/actress girlfriend Helene, who are in the purest form of transactional relationship I’ve seen portrayed in fiction. Helene wants a rich husband. Billy wants a perfect woman and has invited Helene to sail around the world with him to audition for the role. He’s sure that, like others before her, she’ll fail. There’s no way they’ll end up happy, you think. But by the time Helene has passed every test Billy could put to her, you’ve begun to believe they’re going to make it.

The Devil’s Star, by Jo Nesbø. Since the runaway success of Stieg Larsson’s three posthumously published novels, booksellers have been scrambling to discover an author to replace him. Norway’s Jo Nesbø is the most promising candidate I’ve come across so far. After early success as a rock musician and an economist in the financial services industry, Nesbø began writing a series of police procedurals set in Oslo. Harry Hole, his brilliant protagonist, is a homicide detective who struggles with alcoholism and an inability to take orders. Nesbø’s writing, spare and elegant, is much stronger than Larsson’s. His plots are highly original and cleverly executed. Repeatedly, you think you see where things are headed when the narrative pivots unexpectedly. I’ve read several in the series now, and haven’t begun to tire of them.

Everything is Obvious, by Duncan Watts. Watts, a former physicist, was a professor of sociology at Columbia before leaving to head a research group at Yahoo. He is a pioneer in the study of how social forces influence behavior. One of his main findings is that when events are mediated by the choices of people linked in social networks, they become chaotic and extremely difficult to predict. Small initial changes often have enormous impact on how things turn out. Once a song or movie becomes a hit, people have ready explanations for why their success was inevitable. But Watts will persuade you to be wary of such explanations. The book’s subtitle is “Once you know the answer.” And before you know the answer, almost nothing is obvious at all.
Visit Robert H. Frank's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jean-Vincent Blanchard

Jean-Vincent Blanchard is Associate Professor of French Studies at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. Born in Canada and raised in Europe, he earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1997. He is a specialist on pre-revolutionary France, with particular emphasis on the seventeenth century, and has published on a broad range of subjects in politics, history, religion, philosophy, and the arts.

Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France is his first book in English.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I visited Naples and the Amalfi coast this summer, and I was struck by the extraordinary beauty and culture of the region. I also realized that many writers, from Goethe to Michael Holroyd (A Book of Secrets), have found inspiration there. Upon my return, I quickly compiled a list of all the books that would make me travel again to this land blessed by the gods. Goethe and Holroyd had to wait a bit: I chose to read first the travel journal of Anna Potocka, a quirky Polish countess who wrote in the 1800s. All the while, I kept near me the poems of Gérard de Nerval titled Les Chimères. It seems to me that Nerval communicates perfectly how this coast of southern Italy echoes with the myths of the Greeks and the Romans. My favorite poem is “Delfica.” The poet calls upon a woman, Dafné, to remember the wiser times of the ancient civilization:

Reconnais-tu le temple, au péristyle immense,

Et les citrons amers où s’imprimaient tes dents?

(Do you recognize the temple with its vast peristyle?

The bitter lemons on which your teeth left their mark?)

Now, I’ve just picked up an eighteenth-century novel called Fragoletta, by Henri de Latouche. The action is set in Naples and it features an intriguing androgynous character.
Learn more about Jean-Vincent Blanchard's Éminence at the publisher's website and the book's Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue