Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lucy Burdette

Lucy Burdette is the author of nine mysteries, some of them written as Roberta Isleib.

Her latest book is An Appetite For Murder, the first in the Key West food critic mystery series.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Ever since I signed a contract with NAL/Penguin for three books in the Key West food critic mystery series, I've had a marvelous excuse to immerse myself in foodie books--both fiction and nonfiction. I've always loved reading culinary mysteries, like Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Schultz series about a caterer in Colorado or Julie Hyzy's White House chef mysteries or Krista Davis's domestic diva series. In these books, I can enjoy the pleasure of reading about food, cooking, and eating, but in addition, the character's quirks and personality are revealed in the way she deals with food. Heaven! Barbara O'Neal's How to Bake a Perfect Life is another recent favorite about a woman who owns a bakery while struggling with a difficult family and her own yearning for love that will be as dependable as her yeast. And don't let me forget Meredith Mileti's Aftertaste, starring a chef/restaurant owner in New York City whose life is turned upside down by an unexpected pregnancy.

In the nonfiction department, I'm reading about chefs and cooking and food in order to inform the books I'm writing about Hayley Snow, aspiring food critic. I adored former NYT food critic Frank Bruno's Born Round and Diana Abu-Jaber's memoir The Language of Baklava. Right now I'm starting Michael Ruhlman's The Reach of a Chef, as I'm anticipating the third book in my series will take place at a top chef competition.
Visit Lucy Burdette's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: An Appetite For Murder.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 30, 2012

Philip Gooden

Philip Gooden writes both fiction and non-fiction. His historical novels include the Nick Revill series, set in Elizabethan London, and a Victorian sequence, the most recent title for which is The Ely Testament. He also writes books on language, including Who’s Whose? and Faux Pas?, which won the English Speaking Union award for the best English Language book of 2006. He was chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association in 2007-8.

A few weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just read Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson. It came out about 30 years ago as a kind of sequel to Goshawk Squadron, Robinson’s novel about aerial combat in World War One. Seen largely through the eyes of the young pilots of the fictional Hornet Squadron, Piece of Cake takes us from the build-up to the outbreak of WW2 in September 1939 and into the heart of the Battle of Britain a year later. It’s a long, panoramic book which avoids cynicism, sentimentality and hero-worship. Yes, Robinson pays tribute to the bravery of the pilots and the skill of the ground-staff, the fortitude and optimism required of both the men and the (few) women directly involved in the war. He shows them buckling and sometimes breaking under pressure, but also he describes people who can be petty and unscrupulous immediately before or after they’ve risked their lives for their country. The cast is mostly British but, as the fighting really gets underway, there are fliers from occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as an American who constantly tries to get his superiors to break with tradition and adopt a more rational approach - that is, one which improves your chances of not being killed. Robinson handles the inevitable deaths superbly. Some characters just drop out of sight, literally so in the case of pilots who bale out. Others survive (or die) when you don’t expect them to, or perish as a result of a foolish bet or a piece of bravado or a trivial accident. There’s plenty of friendly fire and, above all, a sense of war being an ‘untidy and inefficient business’, in the author’s own words in a closing note.

And the book I read before Piece of Cake was The Big Short by Michael Lewis. I’d heard that it was the best account of the financial crash of 2008. So it may be, though the only other non-fiction one I’ve read on the subject is John Lanchester’s Whoops!, which takes more of an ABC attitude to things. Michael Lewis shares some of the bounce and confidence that goes with being a successful trader, which is what he was back in the 1980s, and The Big Short sometimes has the assured swagger of Tom Wolfe-style reportage. Quite often I thought I understood what was going on but then the mists closed in again.
Read more about The Ely Testament and visit Philip Gooden's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Elizabeth Popp Berman

Elizabeth Popp Berman is a sociologist at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Her first book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine, recently won the Social Science History Association’s President’s Book Award.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I have more time to read fiction in the summer, when I’m not teaching. And I’m the kind of person who likes to create arbitrary projects for herself. So last summer I started reading the Man Booker Prize winners in reverse order. I started with 2009, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I loved. It’s a long historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, a nobody who, sphinxlike, rises to become Henry VIII’s right-hand man. It was completely gripping, and I can’t wait to read the sequel, which is coming out this year. Unfortunately, we know how Cromwell’s going to end up—the same way all those wives did.

From there I worked my way backward. I skipped a couple that weren’t in the library, but I made it as far as 1994, to James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late. And there I got stuck. It’s been sitting on my dresser for months, and I can’t get past page 50. I think it’s because the book is written in Scottish dialect, and it’s just too much work for my American ear. So, with due apologies to Kelman, it may be time to give up this project. Or at least move on to 1993.

For work, I tend to dip into things rather than actually read them front to back, although I wish that weren’t the case. This morning it was a handful of books on science and technology studies: two books on science and public policy by Sheila Jasanoff, the fat Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, and Social Knowledge in the Making, a new edited volume. I’m trying to think about how the discipline of economics affects policymaking, and wondering about how it is similar to, and different from, the ways the natural sciences shape policy.
Learn more about Creating the Market University at the Princeton University Press website and Elizabeth Popp Berman’s website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 27, 2012

Rosamund Bartlett

Rosamund Bartlett's books include Wagner and Russia and the acclaimed Chekhov: Scenes from a Life. An authority on Russian cultural history, she has also achieved renown as a translator of Chekhov.

Her latest book is Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

A few weeks ago I asked Bartlett what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m particularly pleased to be asked this question now, as I’m currently abroad and having a bit of time off, so have been reading all kinds of things simultaneously. When I am at home in Oxford, I usually have my head in a book, but mostly with a view to writing about an aspect of Russian culture, so these last few weeks I have been enjoying getting away from my usual commitments and reading purely for pleasure, which for me is the best kind of holiday.

In November I was invited to lecture at the University of North Carolina, and was amazed and delighted to discover a second-hand book shop in the departure terminal at Raleigh-Durham Airport. I wonder if it’s unique? The literature usually on offer at airports makes one despair. Naturally I had to buy a book on principle, and to support the cause of reading, and was happy to find a book about the American Civil War dealing with the part of United States I had just been travelling in: Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic (Vintage/Random House, 1998). It’s an amusing read, and illuminating.

Another book I have been reading is by the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, whose detective novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano have all been runaway best-sellers in Italy. I’ve been learning Italian for a while now, and a few years ago, after reading dual-language texts, made a decision to start reading without any props. It was a bit hard at first, but I started with a cult teen novel by Federico Moccia (Tre metri sopra il cielo) which is about a romance between a rebellious young biker and a girl from an upper-class family in Rome. I got so caught up in the story that I soon started absorbing new words almost without noticing, and have never looked back. When you have to read something slowly because you are not fluent, you can really savour the words themselves, and there are some wonderfully endearing expressions in Italian, which is as beautiful a language as Russian. I first read one of Camilleri’s Montalbano books in translation, and that helped me when I came to read them in Italian for the first time. They are set in a small Sicilian seaside town, and there is quite a bit of watered down local dialect, but it’s not too difficult to figure out. Camilleri is now in his eighties, and has produced about a dozen of his very witty novels featuring Inspector Montalbano, who has refined literary tastes, likes eating, preferably alone, and contrives to spend not too much time with his long-suffering girlfriend who lives up north. I’ve been reading one of the most recent, which is a rather ghoulish murder mystery: La caccia al tesoro (Sellerio editore Palermo, 2010).

Although I am a Russian literature specialist, and am currently translating Anna Karenina for Oxford World’s Classics, I don’t often get to sit down to read the masterpieces of Russian literature in Russian for pleasure, so I’m enjoying the chance to get to know better one of Dostoevsky’s most challenging works: The Devils (sometimes known as The Possessed or Demons). It was written just before Tolstoy embarked on Anna Karenina, and it’s been interesting comparing Tolstoy’s Russian to Dostoevsky’s, which is predictably very different. The Devils is a dark and uncannily prophetic novel which explores the world of the Russian radical underground at the beginning of the revolutionary movement.

Someone I admire a great deal is the American composer Elliott Carter, who celebrated his 100th birthday in 2008, and who is still writing exciting music. The Paul Sacher Foundation in Switzerland recently produced a beautiful book about his extraordinary life which I have been poring over: Elliott Carter, A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, ed. Felix Meyer and Anna C. Shreffler (publication of the Paul Sacher Foundation, Boydell Press, 2008)

A trip to Australia inevitably involves jet lag, but I have discovered a great way to pass the time on sleepless nights – reading books downloaded on to my iPod. I have been particularly impressed with the BeamItDown iFlow Reader which provided me with a free copy of Jane Eyre. It works like a teleprompter with automatic scrolling whose speed is adjusted intuitively, and the fact that there are only a few words on the screen at one time means you can engage with the language of the text really closely. I read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre last when I was a teenager and have been totally engrossed in it this time. What a brilliant novel! And what intoxicatingly beautiful use of English. Unfortunately BeamItDown has shut down, having issued the following statement: “Apple is now requiring us, as well as all other ebook sellers, to give them 30% of the selling price of any ebook that we sell from our iOS app. Unfortunately, because of the "agency model" that has been adopted by the largest publishers, our gross margin on ebooks after paying the wholesaler is less than 30%, which means that we would have to take a loss on all ebooks sold. This is not a sustainable business model.” Seems a shame.
Visit Rosamund Bartlett's website and learn more about Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 26, 2012

John Burdett

John Burdett practiced law for 14 years in London and Hong Kong until he was able to retire to write full time. He has lived in France, Spain, Hong Kong and the U.K. and now commutes between Bangkok and Southwest France.

His new book is Vulture Peak, the fifth and latest novel in his series featuring Bangkok police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

Earlier this month I asked Burdett what he was reading.  His reply:
I'm reading Thomas E. Ricks's Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Operators by Michael Hastings (inside story of the Afghan war and how Hastings' reporting brought down General McChrystal). They are research for my next novel which features a Vietnam Vet who cannot resist war. I did not set out to educate myself on how many lives and dollars America has spent on unnecessary wars over the past forty years - but once you start to look into it, the conclusion is pretty depressing.

Perhaps for that reason I have also turned to the classics. About a minute after I bought my iPad 2 I realised I could download just about everything worth reading that had been written by our forefathers from the Guten Project, for nothing. So when I'm not researching I'm free to gorge myself on Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Gibbon, Aesop, Dumas - well, the list is endless. I realised, dangerously, that it is quite possible, now, for me to retreat to that desert island with a single book-size volume, called iPad 2, stuffed with more reading material than it is possible for one man to get through in a lifetime - and, so long as there's a battery charger under the palm tree, never be bored or need to send for more books.
Learn more about the book and author at John Burdett's website.

The Page 69 Test: Vulture Peak.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Matt Bondurant

Matt Bondurant’s second novel The Wettest County in the World was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, and one of the San Francisco Chronicle's Best 50 Books of the Year. His first novel The Third Translation (Hyperion 2005) was an international bestseller, translated into 14 languages worldwide. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, The New England Review, and Glimmer Train, among others. He currently teaches literature and writing in the Arts & Humanities graduate program at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Bondurant's new novel is The Night Swimmer.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m currently reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, which is one of those great books that has long been on my list and I’ve finally gotten around to it. What is surprising to me is the gorgeous prose; I had assumed I would get plenty of rich scenes of Africa but Dinesen’s gifts go far beyond simple landscapes or even dramatic encounters with wildlife. It is a real meditation on solitude, destiny, culture, and so many other things, written in an often understated but always fresh, lyrical and compelling style. I could read her sentences all day.

I also recently just finished Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, which was a thrilling read, though again not what I expected. As a tale of seagoing adventure and naval warfare it was quite tame (though plenty to satisfy), but what was astonishing throughout was the level of mastery that O’Brian exhibits about sailing vessels, maneuvers, battles, naval life and culture, and all the way down to sails, ropes, and various other minutiae. Mesmerizing.

The last really great novel I just read a couple weeks ago is by Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son, which came out January 10, same day as my new book. It’s set in North Korea and Johnson spent 8 years on it. It is a tour de force, an epic, the kind of book that fills me with awe and wonder. He’s a brilliant writer. He was the big guy on campus literally and figuratively at Florida State when I was there in graduate school and when he graduated, his shadow loomed over the rest of us. And with this book, that shadow just got a lot larger. But even if I didn’t know him, I’d feel confident in saying that The Orphan Master’s Son will be the biggest novel of 2012.
Learn more about the author and his work at Matt Bondurant's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Wettest County in the World.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Jesse Browner

Jesse Browner is the author of the novels Conglomeros (Random House, 1992), Turnaway (Random House, 1996), The Uncertain Hour (Bloomsbury, 2007), and Everything Happens Today (Europa Editions, 2011).

His The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down: An Informal History of Hospitality in Western Civilization was published by Bloomsbury in 2003.

Earlier this month I asked Browner what he was reading. His reply:
It is difficult to credit, or to explain, just why so many masterpieces were written in Hungary in the early part of the twentieth century. Perhaps it has something to do with the rich loam created by a decaying empire. In any case, whenever I tell anyone about my thing for mid-century Middle-European literature, they always have another obscure favorite for me to add to my list: Sándor Márai’s Embers, Miklós Bánffy’s They Were Counted, and most especially Dezsö Kosztolányi’s Skylark.

Most recent of these (for me) is Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight. I’m not sure where I heard this, but apparently all Hungarians grow up reading Journey by Moonlight, which would make it their equivalent of The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn. When you stop to consider that it’s about a man who abandons his wife on their honeymoon to descend into a maelstrom of depression, paralysis, fraud and crippling nostalgia, it makes you rather grateful that the Hungarians were unable to hold on to their empire. But it is very truthfully, as one back-cover blurb puts it, a “burning book.”

Mihály’s dilemma, as he travels through Italy trying to avoid those who would either restore him to the straight and narrow or, conversely, destroy him for his perfidy, is that he is incapable of vanquishing the ghosts of his youth. These include in particular the memory of his best friend Tamás, who committed suicide for highly suspect ontological reasons, and of Tamás’s sister Éva, who disappeared after her brother’s death and before Mihály could declare his love for her. And even as he darts and flits and circles warily the shadow of his own siren suicide, Mihály draws these ghosts in towards him, like moths to a flame, for their own final danse macabre.

Believe it or not, the book is also very funny and in no way lugubrious, despite all that. I was able to read it with breathless concentration on a beach in the South Pacific, which has defeated countless other stabs at high-mindedness in the sun. I’m not sure what they’re up to now, but the Hungarians were really onto something a hundred years ago, and if you’re new to their product, you could do a lot worse than to start with Journey by Moonlight.
Visit Jesse Browner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rick Mofina

Rick Mofina is a former crime reporter and the award-winning author of several acclaimed thrillers. He's interviewed murderers face-to-face on death row and patrolled with the LAPD and the RCMP, and his true-crime articles have appeared in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Reader's Digest and Penthouse.

His latest novel is The Burning Edge.

Not so long ago I asked Mofina what he was reading. His reply:
Right now I am reading True Grit by Charles Portis. I confess that my introduction to the story came through the John Wayne movie when I was probably about the same age as the heroine, 14-year-old Mattie Ross. Mattie's quest is justice for the murder of her father by Tom Chaney, a former hired hand. She hires crusty U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her pursue the killer. I loved the story and began looking into the book. Having learned that the tale, as written by Portis, is actually told through Mattie's recollection as an old woman, intrigued me. I had always intended to seek it out and read it. The story exceeds the movie, Mattie's voice is a masterstroke. The book is as mesmerizing as it is entertaining. I think it deserves to be ranked with anything created by Twain or Faulkner. And I have never lost sight of the fact that it could also be called one of the best crime stories ever written.
Visit Rick Mofina's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 20, 2012

Randy Rawls

Randy Rawls is a retired US Army Officer and Department of Defense civilian. He is the author of Thorn on Roses, the Ace Edwards, Dallas PI series as well as a number of short stories. A North Carolina native who called Texas his home for a number of years, Randy Rawls lives in South Florida.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I have to open with the fact that I am an avid reader. I always have a book near me, ready to open—home (of course), doctor's office, bank, post office, etc. Of course, that's easy because I read on a Kindle. I've had one since early in the K-life and am now using a K-3. I suspect there is a Kindle Fire in my future.

I have my favorite authors from the NY publishers, but don't read as many of those as I used to. Publisher-greed has caused me to look to them much less than once upon a time. Some of those are John Hart, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, PJ Parrish, C.J. Box, Michael Connelly, and many others. However, paying more than $9.99 for an ebook goes against my sense of fairness. In my opinion, the big publishers are simply gauging the public.

So, what I love to do is find a new author, one who has not gotten the NY treatment. I used to search a lot of books by people I'd never heard of, looking for a good read. Recently, after being burned many times by badly written stories that are not ready to be published, I've quit looking at self-epub'd unless I happen to know the author, or someone I trust recommends it. Too much dreck out there to sort through. And before I start getting the blistering emails, I know there are some worthwhile, even good, books being self-epub'd. But honestly, I don't have the patience to dig through the pile to find them.

So with those standards in mind, I look at small publishers and their authors. One of those I found is Tom Lewis. He is published by a small press in North Carolina. My last read of his is Fifty Years to Midnight. Tom has taken the typical "can't go home again" story and transitioned it into one with more twists and turns than a mountain road. The protag, a NC highway patrolman, retires after seeing one too many young people die in an automobile accident. He returns to his hometown, a village in eastern NC. Many of his high school classmates are still there with varying degrees of success, and he is welcomed home. However, his fascination with a strange young woman who wanders homeless through the town, supporting herself on hand outs and dumpster-diving soon causes his friends to distance themselves from him. That's the simple part. The rest is so complicated, I won't even try to unravel it for you. I strongly recommend Fifty Years to Midnight. Mr. Lewis has several other books out that I have read. Only one of those fails to meet the high standard I have set for him. (Interestingly enough, I just discovered he has a new one out I haven't read. I'm downloading it now.)

Another pleasant find is Kyle Mills' The Immortalists. Apparently, Mr. Mills already has some popularity, but this was my first exposure to him. He takes an ultimate medical cure for progeria and drug for immortality into the world of thrillers and writes a fast-paced international plot versus naïve young biologist and wife. Some of the escapes are too convenient to believe, but the writing is crisp and the plot moves fast. I may look at some of Mr. Mills' other works.

Darcie Chan's The Mill River Recluse violates my rules against self-epub'd. However, after reading Ms. Chan's comments in a Wall Street Journal article, I decided to gamble on her. She said, or that's how I read it, that she thought her book needed professional editing. Reading that from an author is always a shock. The Mill River Recluse was an interesting read. While I agree some hard-nosed editing would improve it, I thought her storyline was strong enough to overcome it. It is written in two timelines—a young girl who grows into a recluse living on the hill and looking out over the town—and the death of that recluse and its aftermath on that same small town. Each story was interesting enough to stand alone. My biggest complaint was that Ms. Chan did not know when to stop. The last half-dozen chapters, or so, could have been condensed into no more than a couple and the book would have ended on a higher note. However, I can recommend this book. I hope Ms. Chan will have more stories published—after a hard-nosed editor works them over.

My last comments concern some people I know, talented writers in their own right. Yes, they have self-epub'd, but I know and trust their writing and think they're worth anyone's effort. Gregg Brickman writes mysteries featuring nurses (not the same nurse in each book). Gregg has a knack for walking along the edge of the medical profession without inundating the reader with unpronounceable medical terms and procedures that only a medical academic can understand. Take a look at her (yes, Gregg is female) Illegally Dead featuring Tony Conte, an ex-Army Special Forces medic and martial arts expert turned nurse. Murder abounds and Tony is caught in the middle, even as his wife develops a life threatening illness.

A second friend in the self-epub'd world is Vicki Landis. Vicki is multi-talented person who paints as well as write in multiple genres. Her self-epub'd mystery is Blinke It Away. The story is set in Hawaii and the trip through the non-tourist areas of Oahu are worth the trip. The mystery of who killed Blinke's best friend, leaving her four small children motherless, is icing on the cake. I suggest you put a lei around your neck and take this one on a vacation.
Visit the official Randy Rawls website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Beth Fantaskey

Beth Fantaskey is the author of Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, Jekel Loves Hyde, and the newly released Jessica Rules the Dark Side. Her reply to my recent query about what she's been reading:
Right now, I am under the gun to finish my doctoral dissertation, which is dictating everything that I read. (If I don’t finish by May, I’ve wasted seven years of schooling!) Anyway, my subject is female crime reporters of the 1920s, so the last book I read is The Girls of Murder City: Crime, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired “Chicago”. It’s about two 1920s killings – and subsequent trials – that inspired reporter Maurine Watkins to write the musical “Chicago.” It’s written in a rat-tat-tat style that’s reminiscent of old gangster movies, so it read almost like a work of fiction. However, I was most interested in the strong female characters – good and bad – who dominate the narrative, since the goal of my dissertation is to prove that as early as the Prohibition Era, a group of overlooked women were reporting hard news on equal terms with men. Interestingly, I also like to write about strong girls in my novels. I guess it’s a bit of a cause with me!
Learn more about the author and her work at Beth Fantaskey's website.

My Book, The Movie: Jessica Rules the Dark Side.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paul M. Barrett

Paul M. Barrett is an assistant managing editor of Bloomberg Businessweek. His books include American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America, and the newly released Glock: The Rise of America's Gun.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've been on a David Foster Wallace kick lately, catching up with my wife, the documentary film maker Julie Cohen, who is a DFW scholar and admirer. Consider the Lobster is probably the best collection of nonfiction essay-like journalism I have ever read. Wallace simply had no peer in noticing the telling detail or recording the way people really talk. His combination of dismay at, disgust over, and ultimately compassion for his subjects--e.g. the porn performers and promoters of "Big Red Son"--strikes me as one of the most sane takes on contemporary American culture. The poor man was too sane for his own good, of course.

The stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men are often amusing and typically so repulsive they actually made me wince. I'm most of the way through Girl With Curious Hair, which stands up remarkably well, despite being published in 1989 and collecting stories that are even older. "My Appearance" has more to say about the irony bath of post-modern television (and life) than practically anything else I can recall reading.

One self-serving note about Wallace: He has a brilliant throw-away passage in Infinte Jest which I cited in my new book, Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, as an illustration of the cultural influence of the Glock pistol. The Wallace character, a junior tennis player (a favorite type for an author who was himself an outstanding junior tennis player), takes a Glock with him onto the court and threatens to blow his brains out if he loses. Naturally, his opponents are distracted, and he always wins.

On other fronts, I have lately read a very good history of gun control in America: Gun Fight, by a law professor named Adam Winkler. My book is a biography of one iconic gun, with passing references to how attempts to restrict the Glock consistently backfired and helped sell more of the Austrian pistols. Winkler's look at the history of the Second Amendment is not specific to any one firearm but has its own surprising lessons.

Finally, just as I was finishing the manuscript for my Glock book, I decided to go back and re-read E.L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate, because there is so much in the novel about the dark glamor of American violence, and especially gun violence. I enjoyed the story as a whole, again, and especially the brilliant passage about the allure of the handgun (which I quoted in my book).
Visit the official Glock: The Rise of America's Gun website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dominique Tobbell

Dominique A. Tobbell is Assistant Professor in the Program in the History of Medicine and the Graduate Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is also the oral historian for the University of Minnesota’s Academic Health Center History Project.

Tobbell's new book is Pills, Power, and Policy: The Struggle for Drug Reform in Cold War America and Its Consequences.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
For fun reading over the Christmas break, I read Susan Orlean’s incredible Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. I have always loved German shepherds; I grew up with one in England and am now the proud “parent” of a two-and-a-half old German shepherd with floppy ears. For this reason I couldn’t wait to pick up Susan Orlean’s book, despite the fact that having grown up in England I had never heard of Rin Tin Tin before. As luck would have it, a month before I was given the book as a gift, I had met the current Rin Tin Tin—Rin Tin Tin XII—at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport. Rin Tin Tin XII (or “Smith” as he is called by his family and friends) was about to board a flight to New York City to appear as Rin Tin Tin on a morning television show. I was literally star struck by his appearance at the airport and sheepishly asked if his owner would mind if I took a photo of him (she obliged and handed me one of Rinty’s business card). Needless to say, by the time I finally opened Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend my excitement and my expectations for the book were pretty high. Within a few pages, my expectations had been exceeded and my excitement soon led me to finish the first 100 pages within a couple of short hours. As I avidly read page after page of Orlean’s beautifully written text, it was impossible not to evoke imagines of the war-orphaned puppy rescued by Lee Duncan, a young American soldier, during World War I; of Duncan and Rin Tin Tin traipsing along Hollywood Boulevard, knocking on studio doors looking for a gig for Rinty; and of the heroic movie dog jumping over 12 foot tall walls. Orlean’s heartwarming and gripping descriptions of Rin Tin Tin’s silent movies had me wishing I could see the movies for myself and then, upon reading further in the book that most if not all of the original Rin Tin Tin movies have been destroyed, had me grateful that I had at least Orlean’s descriptions to go by.

Rin Tin Tin is about far more than the life and legend of Rin Tin Tin. It is also a powerful portrayal of the intimate bond that some people develop with their dogs (I include myself in this category). So too it is a fascinating history of the changing place, role, and identity of dogs in American society, and an excursion into the history of American film and television. Orlean conducted extensive archival research for this book, did numerous interviews with people who knew and were touched by Rin Tin Tin, and pursued the history of Rin Tin Tin to a depth any historian would admire. Based on this research, Orlean has crafted a riveting, emotional, evocative, and powerful book that at its heart captures what it is to truly love a dog.

I just finished re-reading an excellent book written by my colleague at the University of Minnesota, Susan Jones: Death in a Small Package: A Short History of Anthrax (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). Since the book came out last year, I’ve read it at least three times and each time I learn something more from it. Susan Jones is a historian and veterinarian and in this book, both forms of expertise are marshaled as she explains how a ubiquitous agricultural disease became, first, an industrial disease, and later, a biological weapon. To address this question, Jones combines extensive archival material (e.g. the field notebooks and laboratory notebooks of anthrax researchers) with some of the latest scientific knowledge, particularly genetic and epidemiological data about Bacillus anthracis. The primary units of Jones’ analysis then are the microorganism itself, Bacillus anthracis, the disease it causes, anthrax, and the efforts of humans to control both. In particular, Jones’ focuses focus the complex interactions of the disease-causing agent with the human and animal victims of that disease and their environment.

Ultimately, Jones argues that anthrax’s transformation from an agricultural disease to a biological weapon over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries was shaped by social, political, and economic factors (such as the establishment of global trade networks and the imperatives of wartime) and by the biology of Bacillus anthracis (particularly its unique life cycle, where it must kill its host to complete its life cycle, and where, in spore form, it can remain viable for decades—potentially centuries—undisturbed in the soil, resistant to sun, wind, and rain, until it is consumed by a new host and its virulence is reactivated). Moreover, Jones argues that Bacillus anthracis has undergone major changes in its ecology and its evolutionary pattern of development due to its interaction with humans. In particular, Jones contends that as the bacillus was brought into close relationships with human populations—through agricultural practices, through the global trade and manufacture of animal hair products, and through the investigations conducted in the laboratories of the 19th and 20th century—the bacillus became “domesticated.”

Death in a Small Package sits at the intersection of history of science, technology, and medicine, and environmental history. By reading this book, you learn what it was like to do science—specifically bacteriological, epidemiological, and biological weapons research—from the mid-19th century through the late 20th century. You also see clearly the influence that political economy has on the incidence and experience of disease. For example, when during the mid-19th century faster ships, cheaper transport costs, and reduced tariffs on imported goods contributed to increasing the global trade in animal hair products, this corresponded to increased outbreaks of anthrax among British and American mill workers who handled those hair products. In turn, this book highlights the vital role these mill workers played—in collaboration with physicians—in uncovering the cause of the disease from which they were suffering. Arguably the most fascinating aspect of this book is what it teaches us about the influence of military patronage on the development of 20th century science and technology. By the mid-20th century, military-sponsored scientists in Europe, Asia, and the United States realized that Bacillus anthracis could function as a “dual-use agent.” That is, just as research on the microorganism could be used to cure or prevent anthrax, so too could research be used to transform Bacillus anthracis into a powerful and increasingly effective biological weapon. After World War II, biological weapons researchers worked —politically and otherwise—to retain the state or military agency as major patron of their research. During the Cold War era and in the heyday of nuclear weaponization, when the need for biological weapons was less clear, biological weapons researchers sold the work being done in their weapons laboratories as more than just weapons development. They argued these laboratories were also the sites of cutting edge research, particularly in efforts to produce increasingly effective vaccines against anthrax.

Death in a Small Package is masterfully written and is a truly riveting work of history. The final chapter in particular, which examines the use (intentional and otherwise) of weaponized anthrax – in the former USSR in 1979 and in the U.S. letter attacks post-9/11—read like a fast-paced detective novel as scientists, the police, and the FBI worked together to uncover the source of the anthrax and the perpetrator of the crime.
Visit Dominique Tobbell's webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 14, 2012

John Lescroart

John Lescroart's many novels include Damage, Treasure Hunt, The Betrayal, The Suspect, The Hunt Club, The Motive, The Second Chair, The First Law, The Oath, The Hearing, Nothing But the Truth, and the newly released The Hunter.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
I'm reading two books at the moment, going on three, which is more or less typical. My daughter gave me a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and I picked it up, somewhat reluctantly, and found myself totally gripped by it. The guy was prickly, to say the least, and I don’t think I’d like to have hung with him, but one can’t deny his impact on our world – for good or ill – and his genius. This is a truly unputdownable book, and I haven’t had much luck putting it down.

Luckily, when I work out in the mornings, I usually read my second book. In this case, it’s an advanced readers copy (“ARC”) that was sent to me by Minotaur Press for a book that will be published in a few months entitled A Killing In The Hills by Julia Keller. I'm seventy pages in and it’s excellent.

Finally, prompted by my wife, I’m about to embark on my first Kindle read – Jeff Eugenides’s latest, The Marriage Plot, which both my wife and daughter have loved.
Visit John Lescroart's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Katie Ward

Katie Ward lives in Suffolk, England. She has worked in the public and voluntary sectors, including at a women’s refuge center, in the office of a Member of Parliament, and in various community-based projects.

Scribner will release Girl Reading, Ward's debut novel, in the US on February 7, 2012.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
It’s January 2012: This is a selection of recent winter reads, Christmas list arrivals, miscellaneous recommendations that have come my way, and New Year’s resolutions.

Tena Stivicic is a Croatian playwright and her play, Invisible, premiered in the UK last year. I didn’t get to see the show, but was lucky enough to read the script. The work appears to be about immigrants who live in that thin layer of statelessness and flux. But it is also a story of dispossessed individuals, whoever they are, however successful or settled they seem to outsiders. Gritty and beautiful in its way.

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller has been on my To Read list for ages, and it must be fabulous for three reasons: (1) Because it was a Richard and Judy Book Club choice in summer 2011; (2) Elizabeth Speller is a Virago author; and (3) Elizabeth Speller is lovely. (She even signed my copy for me!)

It’s a classic, so why haven’t I read The Turn of the Screw yet? Probably because I’m a bit scared. As a rule, I can’t tolerate malevolent child ghosts, but I will slay my daemons this year.

Jon McGregor is a writer I deeply admire, and Even the Dogs was my train journey reading whilst visiting relatives over the Christmas season. It’s about the discovery of a body in a council estate flat, and the damaged or drug-addled people who might have prevented the tragedy from occurring. Equally culpable are the myriad authorities who seem to have little compassion for the living, but lavish reverence and expense on the dead. Not the most festive title I could have chosen, it’s a brutal and poignant read.

I’ve heard so many good things about The Observations by Jane Harris, that I was thrilled to find this under the tree. The narrator is the funny and indiscreet Bessy, a Victorian servant girl delving into the secrets of the past. Can’t wait.

I’m reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids at the moment. Strange to say that I heard of the book before I ever really listened to the music. It’s about Patti’s relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. And the book is ... exquisite ... one of the finest I’ve read in a long time, and certainly one of the greatest memoirs I’ve ever come across. I’ve got two of her albums now – Horses and Easter – and I’m completely hooked.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh has been a glaring omission from my bookshelves for some time. Thank you, Santa, for putting that right.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan will be published in March 2012 (UK) and I feel privileged to have received a preview copy. The cover design shows us a tiny little boat in the middle of a vast ocean, conveying isolation and fear. It’s about shipwreck, love, death, and the lengths people will go to to survive. (Should that be ‘depths’ rather than ‘lengths’?) Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue and J.M. Coetzee are already raving about it.
Visit Katie Ward's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Benjamin Buchholz

Benjamin Buchholz served as a Civil Affairs Officer in Safwan, Iraq, from 2005 to 2006. His nonfiction book Private Soldiers was published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in 2007.

His new novel is One Hundred and One Nights.

A couple of weeks ago I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
Right now I'm ingesting huge doses of original source material in Arabic -- the tales of the raids conducted by Muhammad and his followers, the Muhajaroon and the Ansar, in the first years after the Hijra to Medina, along with hadiths, hadith commentaries, tafsir, etc. To augment this academic load, I occasionally still dabble as a form of therapy with fiction or with lighter popular history. My goal in all this study is to write an historical fiction novel about the first hundred years or so of Islam, something similar to what Colleen McCullough did for Rome in her great series "The Masters of Rome" or akin to Patrick O'Brien's "Master and Commander" books on British naval warfare in the Napoleonic era, focusing like O'Brien did on the swashbuckling aspects of the story, the romantic sweep of the Islamic conquests across Syria and Iraq. I've read both those series multiple times and I pick them up again now, from time to time, just to refocus my thoughts about the acquisition of data, points of data, little sayings and traditions and modes of thinking, from the study of all this Islamic history.

The last novel I read straight-through was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Really a great, sweeping work -- though perhaps a little too great and too sweeping since it clocks in at almost 1000 pages. I'd like to think that my own writing about the town of Safwan in One Hundred and One Nights is as light on its feet, as grounded in accurate observations and experiences, and as compelling as the narrative delivered in Shantaram.
Visit Benjamin Buchholz's website.

The Page 69 Test: One Hundred and One Nights.

My Book, the Movie: One Hundred and One Nights.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 9, 2012

Katherine Govier

Katherine Govier is the author of nine novels and three short story collections. Her most recent novel The Printmaker's Daughter is about the daughter of the famous Japanese printmaker, Hokusai, creator of The Great Wave. Her novel Creation, about John James Audubon in Labrador, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2003.

Govier's fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States, and throughout the Commonwealth, and in translation in Holland, Italy, Turkey, and Slovenia. She is the winner of Canada's Marian Engel Award for a woman writer (1997) and the Toronto Book Award (1992).

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. I was in the Galapagos so this recent non-fiction Pulitzer Prize-winning book about evolution was perfect to read in the evenings after a day of seeing the many species of Galapagos finch, the giant tortoises, the sea lions and the little penguins. It was amazing to learn about how fast evolution happens and is constantly happening--whether it is in the bird world or the insect world or even in our world.

On the flight home I bought Sue Miller's Lake Shore Limited and really enjoyed that too, the kind of novel you can sink in to and let the hours go by while tuning out your too-close neighbour. It is told from the point of view of about five different characters, who meet and change, or have the chance to change, each other's lives. It broke one of my cardinal rules, which is that I don't read books about writers. Generally their problems seem self indulgent and they bore me. But in this case there was a playwright, and the way she used the "material" that came to her- i.e. everyone else's lives- was ingenious and gave me a few shudders of recognition.

And this afternoon I went out and bought Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time. He's a Norwegian. I read his Out Stealing Horses when I was in Oslo. It was terrific. So I'm excited about this latest.
Visit Katherine Govier's website.

--Marshal Zeringue