Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Craig McDonald

Edgar®-nominee Craig McDonald is an award-winning journalist, editor and fiction writer. His short fiction has appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and several online crime fiction sites. His novels include four entries in the Hector Lassiter series.

His new standalone novel is El Gavilan.

Not so long ago I asked McDonald what he was reading. His reply:
Each year seems to exact more demands that cut into my leisure reading time.

Consequently, the past couple of years I’ve been looking for reading materials that don’t require long form dedication from me: I’m drawn to books I can dip into here and there for twenty or thirty minutes without risking losing the thread of the narrative if a couple days pass between reading sessions.

To that end, I’ve been concentrating more on shorter, or more fragmented reading fare.

I just finished savoring Denis Johnson’s spare, wonderfully written novella Train Dreams about the very American life of early-twentieth century man Robert Grainier, a man whose life was expanded, bounded and defined by rail tracks and the country’s westward expansion. I owe that read to singer-songwriter-painter Tom Russell, who urged Johnson’s latest on me during a conversation after a concert a few weeks back. Russell, who is on something of a Johnson reading tear presently, said it was one of the most vital pieces of fiction he’s read recently. TR was right, and now I urge you to give it a read.

At this writing, I’m slowly moving through Daniel Woodrell’s powerful collection of short fiction, The Outlaw Album. I’ve long been an admirer of Woodrell’s distinctive, memorable prose style, but recently had the privilege of sharing a stage with Mr. Woodrell during a book event in Quebec. Hearing the author read his own short story “Returning the River” a couple of weeks back, has put a different narrative voice and rhythm in my head when reading Woodrell’s work, bringing a whole new dimension of appreciation to this terrific prose stylist’s fiction.

My remaining long-term reading project that lends itself to incremental reading stems from my long and ongoing preoccupation with Ernest Hemingway. I’m steadily working my way through the first volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway (1907-1922). Many previously unpublished and newly discovered letters are contained in this first entry and reveal a very different side of the then tyro-prose stylist who was groping his way toward fiction writing…call it a portrait of the artist before fame became of him.

When I say this is a long-term reading project I mean it in every sense: Volume 1 (weighing in at a dense 432 pages) was only recently released and is the first of a projected 18-volume masterwork.
Visit Craig McDonald's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: El Gavilan.

The Page 69 Test: El Gavilan.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 28, 2011

Wendy Pearlman

Wendy Pearlman is Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University.

A few weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
My new book, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement examines 90 years in the history of the Palestinian struggle and asks these questions: Why do some self-determination movements use violent protest and others nonviolent protest? Why does a movement use different protest strategies at different points over time? I argue that paths to violence are multiple, but there is one prevailing path to nonviolent protest: a path that demands that a movement have or create internal cohesion. Nonviolent protest requires coordination and restraint, which only a cohesive movement can provide. When, by contrast, a movement is fragmented, factional competition generates new incentives for violence and authority structures are too weak to constrain escalation. This increases the likelihood that protest will become violent.

What I’m reading lately both compliments and diverges from my book. I’m continuing to read about both Middle East politics and processes of protest movement mobilization, but now with a focus on the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world. As these are still unfolding, few academic analyses have been published. So I’ve been reading journalistic coverage and insightful commentaries, such as those from al-Jazeera and Jadaliyya.com. I’ve also learned a lot from the great reports by the International Crisis Group.

In Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement, I focused on the organizational aspects of mobilization. In my reading on the current uprisings, however, I’ve been drawn to explore the role of emotions. I’m usually skeptical about emotions as a factor explaining political action. But the intensity of feelings expressed in these uprisings has inspired me to rethink that bias.

As such, I’ve been reading about the psychology and sociology of emotions. I’ve been reading works that consider the place of emotions in societal relationships, such as Jack Barbalet’s Emotion, Social Theory, and Social Structure. I’ve also been reading works on how emotions affect individuals’ decision-making about politics, such as Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment by George Marcus, W. Russell Neuman and Michael MacKuen. In addition, I’ve been reading scholarly articles by George Loewenstein, an economist who has researched how people’s emotions affect their thinking and behavior in ways missed by conventional models in the social sciences.

I hope to link these general theories of emotions to the specific case of the revolts in the Arab world. My goal is to explore what insight these theories can offer about how it came to be that millions of people rose up against authoritarian regimes. No less, I want to discover how these events can test, challenge, and improve existing ideas about the role of emotions in popular mobilization.
Learn more about Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Kenneth Gross

Kenneth Gross is professor of English at the University of Rochester. His books include Shakespeare’s Noise and Shylock Is Shakespeare.

His new book is Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life.

Earlier this month I asked Gross what he was reading. His reply:
A lot of the reading has been rereading. Some of it for pleasure, some to think about a class I’m teaching on Shakespeare, and also a class on poetry and memory I’ll be teaching in the spring. I’ve been moving slowly through the long section in the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, where Proust describes how Marcel settles and unsettles himself within the life of the grand resort hotel at Balbec, in the company of his beloved grandmother. To get myself thinking about certain questions in Shakespeare, I recently went back to look at Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, first published in 1851, which I read years ago. It’s a collection of sentimental and melodramatic, even lurid, yet also acutely thoughtful stories which imagine the early lives of Portia, Ophelia, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, and others. The stories recollect a past that the plays do not know, or forget to mention. I reread Tennyson’s long sequence of elegiac poems, In Memoriam A. H. H., finding the poems much plainer, also much more alive to the curious subterfuges of the mourning mind, than I’d remembered.

I spent a lot of time rereading Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry during a trip I took in mid-October to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a place whose landscapes, houses, and towns Bishop evokes so well, and so mysteriously. (The white churches we saw really did feel “dropped into the matted hills like lost quartz arrowheads.” You stumble across them suddenly while driving.) Later at home, I pulled from the shelf Eleanor Cook’s fine volume of essays, Against Coercion: Games Poets Play, partly for the essays on Bishop, though I also stumbled on a great chapter on “ghost rhymes” I’d not read before. Right now I’m back with Bishop’s collection of letters, One Art.

Two days ago I read for the first time, and have reread already many times, this 1991 poem by the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley:

"The Ice-Cream Man"

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butter-scotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road

And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.

I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren

I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,

Meadowsweet, tway, blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,

Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,

Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,

Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

One new thing, at least, that I’ve been reading through is a book about a magisterial reader, the classical scholar Isaac Causabon (1559-1614): "I have always loved the Holy Tongue": Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship, by Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg.
Learn more about Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life at the University of Chicago Press website.

The Page 69 Test: Shylock Is Shakespeare.

My Book, The Movie: Shylock Is Shakespeare.

Writers Read: Kenneth Gross (July 2007).

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 25, 2011

Susanna Paasonen

Susanna Paasonen is Professor of Media Studies at University of Turku, Finland. Her scholarship includes Figures of Fantasy: Internet, Women, and Cyberdiscourse and the newly released Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Currently, I'm reading Steven Shaviro's new book, Post-Cinematic Affect that has so far been an interesting exploration in contemporary moving image culture from the perspective of affect. Compared to a few years ago, there starts to be quite a range of literature on affect and media, and I'm starting to feel quite spoiled. I recently finished Kathleen Stewart's Ordinary Affects that I had earlier skimmed through and decided to really read. It's beautifully written, bit like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's A Dialogue on Love in its blending of the mundane with the conceptual. The style of writing does feel a bit convoluted at places but then again, so does probably mine.

For teaching, I've been reading essays by Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno on mass culture. Student reactions to these vary but there's something quite remarkable about these, especially when considered in historical context.

To unwind, I'm reading my way through the Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. I've always loved Daniil Kharms and it took my years to figure out more of the tradition of the absurd in Russian literature. Strongly recommended.

Learn more about Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography at the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Riley Adams

As Riley Adams, Elizabeth Spann Craig writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley. Under her own name she writes the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I actually made a departure from the books I usually choose and recently read Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson. I haven't read psychological thrillers for a while, but I heard about this novel on a book blog and was intrigued. A woman who wakes up each morning not knowing her past, her name, or her identity? I was hooked. Since I've been super-short on time lately, I was looking for a novel that would quickly hook me and pull me through the book without letting go.

The book was fascinating on a couple of different levels for me. For one--I struggle with my memory every single day. I wasn't blessed with a great memory to start out with, added to the fact that I'm tremendously busy. The concept of losing even what pitiful memory I have was a sobering one. On another level is the thriller aspect of the book. Who can you trust when you can't even rely on yourself?

I ignored my deadline, Twitter, and an inbox full of emails and read that book from beginning to end.It scared me to death toward the end and, at two o'clock in the afternoon, I was convinced there was an intruder upstairs in my house. This, despite the fact that my corgi and two cats were snoring in sunbeams nearby. It was a great read.

Visit the official Elizabeth Spann Craig (Riley Adams) website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Charles Lemert

Charles Lemert is Senior Fellow at Yale's Center for Comparative Research. His recent books include The Structural Lie: Small Clues to Globalization (Paradigm, 2011) as well as Why Niebuhr Matters (Yale University Press, 2011).

His reply to my recent query about what he was reading:
Stephen Greenblatt's recent book, The Swerve, led me back to Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things". Greenblatt argues that this long lost classic from the last years of the Roman Republic was rediscovered for the modern era. Lucretius, argues Greenblatt, transformed modern thinking about the world as a sphere of things without an otherworldly force - as beautiful and scientific intricate in itself apart for the displaced hope of a better life in another world. Lucretius was a stunningly fine poet as well as very compelling philosopher of natural history. His "On the Nature of Things" has served me as a kind of counterweight to Reinhold Niebuhr's insistence on human history as caught between modern man's arrogance and the divine mysteries that illuminate them without explaining their final meaning. Niebuhr was influenced by St Augustine, who wrote Christian and secular philosophy in the 5th century as the Roman empire was ending. Together, Lucretius and Augustine (as well as Niebuhr) concentrate the mind on the life of the Dead, the subject of my next book.
Visit Charles Lemert's website.

The Page 99 Test: Why Niebuhr Matters.

My Book, The Movie: Why Niebuhr Matters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 21, 2011

David Rothenberg

David Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

He has written and performed on the relationship between humanity and nature for many years. His books include Why Birds Sing, on making music with birds, and Thousand Mile Song, about making music with whales. Other books include Sudden Music, Blue Cliff Record, Hand’s End, and Always the Mountains.

Rothenberg's new book, on the evolution of beauty, and how art and science can be better intertwined, is Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m always reading too many books at the same time, which keeps me well distracted from writing my own, but I also get ideas in surprising places… Just finished Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which I suppose was written for readers like me, and its author, who went to Ivy League colleges in the early eighties and for some reason we all thought French theory, from deconstruction to Derrida, would help us understand our romantic relationships and everything else—there was nothing outside the text. This book brings it all back; the intense analysis of everything, the yearning for real touch and experience, the sinking feeling that none of our loves would ever amount to anything, the bane of semiotics. His plot is, in the end, the uncertainties of real life, the fact that the true story is not the tidy or epic one.

After reading Tim Parks’ article about it in the New York Review of Books, I was inspired to get Willem Fredrik Hermans’ novel Beyond Sleep, translated from the Dutch, which concerns a geologist's Kafka-like journey to the steppes of Arctic Norway, Finnmark to be precise, to test out his theory that meteorites crashed into the Earth. The tale ends up being about something else entirely, the loneliness of the scientific journey, the struggle to make the thoughts of small countries matter to the large, the desperate hunt for something significant to say and to add to the fabric of human knowledge.

I like both these novels because once you’ve finished them you get a precise but hard to articulate feeling that an exact angle on reality has been achieved, a sense of rightness that couldn’t be conveyed any other way. You must read the books to get there, and such books make reading always worthwhile. I would hope that my books will one day engender such a clarity of result in the readers who finish them.

I often seek out philosophical tales from travelers who come from the very edges of the known world, and then journey to our centers to makes sense of them for us. Yuri Ryktheu’s The Chukchi Bible, Russia’s most celebrated indigenous writer tells the semi-autobiographical tale of a shaman from Siberia who travels all the way to San Francisco and Chicago and then must return back to his Chukchi village, all in the first years when Lenin’s face was spreading to his homeland with the grave conformity for which it stood.

Since I’m writing a book on insect sound and music I must sometimes read nonfiction, especially things in the midst of my odd subjects, and there is a wonderful recent book on singing insects, Cricket Radio by John Himmelman, which presents a real love and attentiveness to the songs of crickets, katydids, and shieldbearers in the browning autumn woods of Connecticut shores. People tend to love these sounds for the melancholy march of the seasons that they convey, but we rarely play close attention to what we’re hearing. My next book will try to connect these resounding overlapping rhythms to the idea of music, and Himmelman sets the stage and gives me the evidence upon which to begin.

Finally, anyone who has spent time in the crisp Northern lands of European literature should be celebrating the award of a Nobel Prize to the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, whose work is full of exact images that have been successfully translated into many languages, proving that poetry can really cross cultural lines. In English, though, I would avoid Robin Fulton’s wooden, academic translation in favor of the the version edited by Robert Hass, with the work of many translators including Robert Bly, Samuel Charters, and May Swenson. I am looking forward to Robin Robertson’s upcoming translation of The Deleted World, but meanwhile I’ll offer my own translation of the final stanza of one of Tranströmer’s greatest works, “After a Long Drought”:

It’s all right to dial up the island mirage.

It’s all right to hear the gray voice.

Iron is honey to thunder.

It’s all right to live by your code.
Visit David Rothenberg's Survival of the Beautiful website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 19, 2011

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., is the bestselling author of the fantasy series The Saga of Recluce, Corean Chronicles, and the Imager Portfolio. His science fiction includes Adiamante, the Ecolitan novels, the Forever Hero Trilogy, and Archform: Beauty. Besides a writer, Modesitt has been a U.S. Navy pilot, a director of research for a political campaign, legislative assistant and staff director for a U.S. Congressman, Director of Legislation and Congressional Relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a consultant on environmental, regulatory, and communications issues, and a college lecturer.

Scholar, Modesitt's 59th novel, is now out from Tor Books.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
While I’d seen a number of recommendations for Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, the ones I’d seen didn’t prepare me for the book itself, and frankly, if they had, I might not have read it at all. That’s because the book is essentially a gentle and fascinating fusion of a regency romantic mystery and fantasy, and I’ve been more than a little repulsed by the myriad of regency knock-offs dealing with zombies, werewolves, vampires, and steampunk. Shades of Milk and Honey, thankfully, deals with none of these, but with art and a very different kind of “glamour,” all gently and exquisitely presented. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a book this much… and maybe it is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but it’s one I welcomed.
Visit L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s website.

The Page 69 Test: Scholar.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 18, 2011

Nancy Jensen

Nancy Jensen, who received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College, has published stories and essays in numerous literary journals, including The Louisville Review, Other Voices, and Northwest Review. She was awarded an Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and teaches English at Eastern Kentucky University.

Her new novel is The Sisters.

Jensen's response to my recent query about what she has been reading:
A few years ago I read Rosemary Ashton’s George Eliot: A Life. As literary biographies go, this is a good one, exhaustively researched, smart, and well-written, but I recall only a single detail from the book with clarity. In a letter to her friend Charles Bray, Eliot describes a typical day in the home she shared with George Lewes: “[We] are happier every day—writing hard, walking hard, reading Homer and science and rearing tadpoles. I read aloud for about three hours every evening.... We breakfast at ½ past 8, read to ourselves till 10, write till ½ past 1, walk till nearly 4, and dine at 5, regretting each day as it goes.”

The letter has stayed with me out of the pure power of envy. How could any serious writer not long for such a life? It’s a life, of course, that requires a stable, independent income to fill in the gaps that Eliot’s and Lewes’ modest writing income couldn’t fill—a life with ill-paid servants busy in the background making the beds, washing the clothes, preparing the meals, sweeping the hall, running the errands. I try not to think about the servants, because the sensibilities born from my American working class background recoil from the idea, but still I linger over the vision of a day that turns on reading, writing, and the long walk conducive to conversation and contemplation.

Alas, my life is nothing like that. Maybe one of these days I’ll earn enough from my writing, consistently enough, to quit my day job, but for now I have to cling to my position as a university professor—and it’s this job that governs most of my choices about what to read. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the books I teach—I do. This semester alone, I’m teaching a course in the family novel, beginning with Sons and Lovers and ending with the just-released Justin Torres novel-in-stories, We the Animals. I’m teaching another course I like calling “Gods and Monsters” because it focuses on literature, from Genesis to 1984, that grapples with the monstrous consequences of man’s passion to challenge the power of the gods. In addition to the demands of those courses, there’s my usual scramble to keep up with the short works I assign to my creative writing students as good models for various techniques they can try in their own work.

I’m luckier than many, I realize. Though I work 60-70 hours a week when I’m teaching, I have my summers off—summers for writing, with days that sometimes include a good bit of reading and maybe a long walk. My reading in the summer, though, is usually some form of research for something I’m writing or thinking about writing. Indeed, I read the Ashton biography of George Eliot because I stumbled upon it while I was following up the possibility of writing a novel about—well, I won’t say what about because I still haven’t made up my mind.

On my bookshelves right now, waiting for the next moment I can spare for research, are histories of American women in the 1940s, photographic studies of Midwestern cities from 1850 to 1950, oral histories of soldiers from four wars and of female social activists from the 1920s. There are books on the Spiritualist movement in late 19th century America and Europe and biographies of writers and other notable people who were a part of that movement. There are books on the politics of Southeast Asia, books on Islam from its origins to its modern expressions. A tour through my library, which overflows my available shelf space to settle in great piles on the floor, will reveal dozens of strange, obscure titles covering multiple angles of any subject that has struck me, however briefly, as a possible subject for a someday novel. These books snug up against works of English, American, European and non-Western literature from the ancient Greeks to the 21st century—books I’ve taught, books I’ll teach again, books I may teach someday, and these books lean against the many books I’ve bought that I want to read for myself—just because I want to. Books like my just-purchased copies of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights—books that make me pray for the academic’s favorite gift: a snow day.
Visit Nancy Jensen's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Sisters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gary Corby

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

He is the author of The Pericles Commission and the newly released The Ionia Sanction.

Recently I asked Corby what he was reading. His reply:
I re-read books that I love, quite often. Also I tend to have several books going at once. Here's what's currently on the boil:

The Hunt for Red October. Tom Clancy's premier work is one of the best military techno-thrillers ever. (His other top effort is Red Storm Rising.) I really enjoy this genre. It's extremely hard to do well, and all too easy to do badly.

Athenian Homicide Law by Douglas M. MacDowell. This is the book on how ancient Athenians managed trials for murder. All right, it's probably not destined to be a NY Times bestseller, but I like it. I count it under book research, but seriously, anyone who loved ancient history could read this for fun.

The Gentlemen's Hour by Don Winslow. He's the author of The Winter of Frankie Machine, which I liked so much I determined to read everything he's done. If crime among the surfies of San Diego is your thing, then Winslow's your man.

A Game of Lies by Rebecca Cantrell. Third in the series of adventures of Hannah Vogel, as she fights the Nazi machine. The first two are A Trace of Smoke and A Night of Long Knives. Rebecca's an expert on the Nazi era, and it shows in her meticulous research and her writing that is, amazingly, reminiscent of the style of the times.
Visit Gary Corby's blog.

My Book, The Movie: The Ionia Sanction.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

John Keahey

John Keahey is a veteran journalist who worked for wire services and newspapers for 35 years and 15 years in the corporate public-relations world. He has history and marketing degrees from the University of Utah and spends as much time as possible in Italy and Sicily. He lives in Salt Lake City with book designer Connie Disney.

His new book is Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean.

Earlier this month I asked Keahey what he was reading. His reply:
Now that my research is over for Seeking Sicily, I am pulling books out of a row on my shelf devoted to Italian and Sicilian writers whom I have be forced to ignore for more than 2-1/2 years. I just finished Dacia Maraini's Train to Budapest, a heartbreaking story about a young woman's search, in 1956 and more than ten years after World War II, for a male childhood playmate from Florence who disappeared into the Holocaust. It is a magnificent book, emotionally hard to read at times, but one that explores the impact of the war and the Holocaust on the survivors. In the midst of this story, she gets caught up in the Hungarian revolt against the Soviets in Budapest. The research of Maraini, who is half Sicilian and half Florentine and one of Italy's greatest living writers, is impeccable. The book is a history lesson wrapped in an emotional fabric that messes with the emotions but is difficult to put down.

For lighter fare, after reading heavy books such as those by Leonardo Sciascia and Maraini, I quickly read a selection from Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano mystery series, which I find absolutely delightful. Reading these has given me a window into the Sicilian mindset and allows me a glimpse into how Sicilians really are different from Italians.
Visit John Keahey's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ellen Hart

Ellen Hart, “a top novelist in the cultishly popular gay mystery genre” (Entertainment Weekly), is also a Lambda and Minnesota Book Award winner.

Her latest novel is The Lost Women of Lost Lake, the 19th mystery featuring Jane Lawless.

Not so long ago I asked Hart what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m hoping my editor doesn’t see this. I’m working on a deadline and should be writing, but reading compels me like nothing else. Besides, I’m a great believer that writers need to read. The “life of the mind,” and all that. In fact, if I had to make a choice between giving up writing or giving up reading, it would be a struggle, but reading would win.

I’m currently teaching a creative writing class--An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery. I’ve assigned Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War, because it is was his first book, (I want my students to see where the bar it set for first novels) and thus I find myself rereading it. What engaged me most in this novel is the fine use of language and the artful way the writer layers in the complicated lives of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennero, the two main characters. This is a story set on the mean streets of Boston, a rough, dark, powerful book.

I’ve often asked my writing friends if they’ve ever read a book on writing that actually helped them with their craft. Over and over I received the same answer: Stephen King’s On Writing. I assign this book to my students because, of the hundreds of books out there on the subject, I think it is, handsdown, the best. I started looking at it again the other night, and an hour later, realized that I couldn’t put it down. The first half is more biography than anything didactic, and yet it goes a long way toward giving a young writer an idea of what the real writing life is like. (As you might expect, it’s not sitting by the pool talking to your agent.) In many ways, this section is every bit as instructive as the second half, which discusses practical issues involved in structuring a story. You won’t waste your time reading this volume.

I’m currently into my second book by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang. Both volumes have been utterly fascinating--Bad Samaritans, and 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism. Chang is gaining traction, becoming a major voice in new economic theory, mostly revolving around the notion that there is no such thing as a “free market.” He posits that neo-liberals, Milton Friedman and The Chicago Boys, have sent the world down the wrong path, a reason why economic growth has stalled for the lower and middle classes since the late 70’s. Chang is funny, whip smart, writes so that average people, like me, can understand him, and he loves mysteries--especially Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. What’s not to love?

Having just finished Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a massive work that supplements standard American history textbooks, I can report that Zinn looks at history from the bottom up (ordinary people) and not from the top down (political leaders, leaders of industry). While readers may argue with some of his conclusions, I wish I’d had this book when I was in high school. History might not have seemed so deadly dull.

And finally, I’m about halfway into a biography of Woody Allen: The Unruly Life of Woody Allen by Marion Meade. Biographies can provide a writer with direct insight into the complex issue of human motivation. So far, I’d say this portrait, gained by talking to both friends and enemies (but not Allen himself) presents the picture of a tormented, sometimes ugly, often obsessive, occasionally brilliant man. Allen has always fascinated me and this biography is opening him up...at least, a little.

Now, I need to get back to my writing!
Visit Ellen Hart's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Lost Women of Lost Lake.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stephen Beachy

Stephen Beachy is the author of the novels The Whistling Song and Distortion, as well as the twinned novellas Some Phantom/No Time Flat. His writing has appeared in BOMB, The New York Times Magazine, Chicago Review, Best Gay American Fiction, New York magazine and elsewhere. Raised by an ex-Amish father in Iowa, he now lives in California and teaches at the University of San Francisco.

Beachy's latest novel is boneyard.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've just finished Bhanu Kapil's Humanimal, which I'm teaching in a class on Narrating Nonfiction at USF's MFA Program. I chose it because it straddles the line between Nonfiction and poetry, a weird and interesting line to straddle, and because it serves partially as a speculative investigation of two girls, Amala and Kamala, who were discovered in India in the 20th century being raised by wolves. I can never read enough or think enough about children raised by wolves, both literally and figuratively. Which is kind of like the other wonderful, slim little book I've just read, Jenny Boully's Not Merely Because of the Unknown That Was Stalking Toward Them, a refiguring of everything you know or think you remember about the Peter Pan story. It's a creepy little gem, and I love creepy little gems. “Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them.” It's a strange book, but not as strange as Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, which sounds like a philosophical treatise or speculative meteorology paper, and it's kind of both things wrapped up in a horror fiction, a strange, chunky book about Islam and oil and the sort of vast, dark nameless horrors dreamed up by HP Lovecraft. I discovered it because it was on the same list as one of my novels on Amazon's listmania. It's delightful. Next on my “to read” list is R Zamora Linmark's Leche, which I just picked up. It's a kind of sequel to his first novel, Rolling the R's, which is a smart, funny, delirious tale of 5th graders growing up in Hawaii in the 70s. In Leche he takes his x-ray vision of culture and his incredible ear for language to the Philippines.
Visit Stephen Beachy's website; view the boneyard trailer.

My Book, The Movie: boneyard.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Robert L. Trivers

Robert L. Trivers is a Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. He won the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences in 2007 for his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict, and cooperation.

His new book is The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.

Late last month I asked Trivers what he was reading. His reply.
I have not been reading much lately because I have undergone a total hip replacement surgery. I naively imagined that I would get a lot of reading done during the rehab period of some seven weeks. Quite the contrary was true; I would often read only a paragraph and a half of a newspaper article and promptly sleep for two hours. The rehab was incredibly draining at the mental level.

I did however manage to read James Pennebaker's The Secret Life of Pronouns (2011), a marvelous book by a great, and sometimes under-appreciated, social psychologist. He invented computer programs to analyze texts, everything from private journals to the complete works of Shakespeare (in about 20 minutes time) according to more than 80 categories of words. He showed that the smallest were the most important, especially pronouns. After he is done with a text, he can tell you whether on linguistic grounds the text is deceitful or honest, will lead to recovery from trauma or not, and much, much more. If you are like me you will also grow to enjoy the organism behind the book, including his sense of humor and utter lack of pretense.

The second book I made some headway on, however modest, was Paul Schmid-Hempel's Evolutionary Parasitology (2011), a monumental attempt to synthesize the complex effects in nature of disease on mortality and reproduction (total effect at least 30% per generation) with the very complex immune system arrayed against disease, all with special attention to the underlying genetics. This is not bed-time reading for anyone but I became convinced of the importance of the field for my interests when I learned of the multiple interactions between immunology and self-deception. Hence better to gain a deeper view of the entire subject—exactly what Schmid-Hempel provides.

Lately I have only been reading commentary on or reviews of my Self-deception book, so I am learning less but I often can't resist.
Learn more about The Folly of Fools at the Basic Books website, and visit Robert L. Trivers's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tyler McMahon

Tyler McMahon received his MFA in fiction from Boise State University. His stories have appeared in Threepenny Review, Sycamore Review, and Surfer’s Journal, among others, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is a professor of fiction at Hawaii Pacific University.

How the Mistakes Were Made is McMahon's debut novel.

His reply to my recent query about what he was reading:
Lately, I’ve been immersing myself in expat novels—partly because of the project I’m working on at the moment, and partly because I’ve come to realize that they were my first literary love. In my youth, reading the far-flung accounts of Greene, Bowles, Lowry, and Hemingway embodied two of literature’s greatest powers: to teach about the world, and to allow some escape from it.

One of my favorite novels of 2011 is A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford. In this story, Gabriel de Boya lands in Bolivia on the eve of the historic 2004 election, just as Evo Morales looks to be the nation’s first indigenous president. The son of a leftist academic, now working for an unscrupulous hedge fund, Gabriel is first and foremost a confused twenty-something American abroad. Mountford covers the whims of high finance without a trace of easy morality. Gabriel’s flawed behavior might make you cringe at times, but it will always ring true. He is the rare character who understands that—like it or not—jobs and bank accounts often outlast human relationships. I love the way that Mountford’s book is as fast-paced and readable as any thriller, but also boldly profound and utterly relevant.

I recently re-read Radiant Days by Michael FitzGerald. In this great expat novel, protagonist Anthony Sinclair rides the tide of San Francisco’s dotcom boom. Unsatisfied by his accidental success, he follows the beautiful Gisela to Budapest. There, they encounter a road-weary British journalist named Marsh. Together, the unlikely threesome undertakes an ill-fated journey into the war-torn Balkans. Radiant Days is at times a send-up of mid-century expat tropes: Gisela as the duplicitous femme fatale, Marsh as the wise and accented sage, Anthony the bumbling American desperate for authentic experience. But the juxtaposition of rising San Francisco and crumbling Yugoslavia is the central organ that pumps blood throughout this novel. Anthony and his dotcom peers live in an age overwhelmed by images of distant wars—a hyperinflation of tragedy. Radiant Days asks whether anything is so escapist and indulgent as hiding among the comforts of home.

One of my favorite novelists of all time is Russell Banks. He’s got a few books that might qualify as expat novels. The Darling definitely does. A former member of the Weather Underground forced to leave the States, protagonist Hannah Musgrave heads to Africa and meets Woodrow Sundiata—a cabinet officer in the corrupt Liberian government. They are married, have three sons, and nearly settle into a life of servants and privilege in Monrovia. But Hannah doesn’t take well to her new role as a kept wife and mother. Instead, she finds purpose and solace in a chimpanzee laboratory. Liberia’s brutal civil war intervenes. Hannah witnesses the death of her husband and must abandon the sons she no longer recognizes. She manages to fly away on September 11, 2001—and lands in an equally foreign America.

Fearless in his exploration of sixties radicalism, African strongmen, and Islamic terrorism, Banks wrestles not just with the questions of our age, but with even older, harder questions about political violence.

I’ve tried to keep it well rounded, but if anyone wants to check out more expat novels on Latin America, I’d also recommend Pacazo by Roy Kesey and the amazing Santiago and the Drinking Party by Clay Morgan.
View the trailer for How the Mistakes Were Made, and learn more about the book and author at Tyler McMahon's website.

My Book, The Movie: How the Mistakes Were Made.

--Marshal Zeringue