Friday, June 29, 2012

Bill McGuire

Bill McGuire is an academic, science writer and broadcaster. He is currently Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. Bill was a member of the UK Government Natural Hazard Working Group established in January 2005, in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and in 2010 a member of the UK government’s Science Advisory Group in Emergencies (SAGE) addressing the Icelandic volcanic ash problem. In 2011, he was one of the authors of the IPCC report on climate change and extreme events. His books include A Guide to the End of the World: Everything you Never Wanted to Know, Surviving Armageddon: Solutions for a Threatened Planet and Seven Years to Save the Planet. His latest book is Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes. McGuire presented the BBC Radio 4 series, Disasters in Waiting and Scientists Under Pressure and the End of the World Reports on Channel 5 and Sky News. He has also contributed to countless other television and radio programmes and was consultant for the lauded BBC Horizon films; Supervolcanoes and Megatsunami -Wave of Destruction, as well as for the BBC drama, Supervolcano. He lives in the English Peak District with his wife Anna, sons Jake (3) and Fraser (8), and cats Dave and Toby.

A few weeks ago I asked McGuire what he was reading. His reply:
I have just finished reading a couple of books that may, superficially, seem very different, but which hold in common salutary warnings for the future of our race as we rush headlong towards a maelstrom of climate chaos and resource depletion and the tearing apart of our cosy, comfortable, world. In the first part of his ‘The Century’ trilogy, Fall of Giants, Ken Follett immerses us brilliantly in the horrors of the First World War and highlights the sabre-rattling, intransigence and sheer lunacy of the political machinations that led to its onset. Looking forward rather than back – and needing no introduction, Suzanne Collins – in The Hunger Games - excels at building a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world of totalitarian government, repression, and televised child-on-child violence that is often visceral and which must – at times – shock the young adults at whom it is primarily aimed. As a geologist and climate scientist with an informed dread about what the future will hold for my – and everyone’s – children and grandchildren, both books struck particularly loud and dissonant chords.

Follett’s work reminds us – if we need reminding – that the human race is depressingly short-sighted, with a seemingly in-built inertia that precludes rapid action in the face of looming catastrophe, however obvious. In 1914, world leaders could see the Great War coming, but none had the will or the savvy to do anything to stop it. Nothing ever changes, so that today heads of government display exactly the same attitude in relation to anthropogenic climate change. Notwithstanding the fact that this is the greatest threat our race has ever faced, we continue to sprint headlong towards a metaphorical precipice with little or no regard for the devastating consequences once we reach the rim.

It is hard to imagine, from the perspective of the early 21st century, what form a future Hothouse Earth, in which the global economy has collapsed and the social fabric has been torn apart, will take, and possible scenarios are really only limited by our imagination. In this regard, Suzanne Collins’ fictionalised Panem, presents us with a microcosm containing many of the features that are likely to characterise such a broken world; the emergence of despotic regimes; the manifestation of cosseted and exploitive elites and the wholesale repression of the masses under conditions of grinding poverty. There may well be no televised fights to the death, but in all other things the world of Panem may well provide a credible template for late 21st century Earth.
Visit Bill McGuire's website.

Waking the Giant is one of Fred Pearce's top ten eco-books.

The Page 99 Test: Waking the Giant.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Julia Gregson

Julia Gregson has worked as a nanny, a shearer’s cook in Australia, a horse wrangler, and waitress, before becoming a writer in her mid twenties.

She lives in Wales with her husband, and has a daughter and four step-children.

Gregson's last novel, East of the Sun, was an international best seller, translated into over twenty languages.

Her new novel, Jasmine Nights.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
Recently, I re-read one of my favourite books, Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, with enormous pleasure and renewed admiration for her skills as a novelist.

When I first discovered Molly Keane a few years ago, it was almost like discovering a hilarious, deliciously spiteful and observant new friend. Her humor is so sly, her characterizations merciless- she is sort of like an adult Roald Dahl at times, , but she is also a poet at heart. Few writers I know can evoke the agonies of snobbery or a broken heart, or the atmosphere, the smell, the character of a room as she can, or the beauty of the Irish countryside at dawn.

Good Behaviour tells the story of Aroon, a character every bit as monstrous as Roald Dahl’s Mrs Trunchbull. She is a snob, a control freak; she has lots of rules about things like sherry (there’s posh sherry, and other peoples) and napkins and the laying out of the dead.

Aroon is a sad character too: she is a 57 year old spinster living with a cold mother who has bullied her all her life.

But now the tables have turned: Mummy is upstairs with a dicky heart, and for the first time in her life, Aroon is in control, well sort of... for she has a servant called Rose in the house with her who adores Mummy and resents Aroon.

In chapter one of the book, a tour de force, we meet Aroon in the kitchen. She’s been cooking lunch for her mother, a kind of culinary revenge, for she’s been whizzing cooked rabbit ( a dish her mother loathes) in a Moulinex in order to disguise it as chicken, and the results are quite dramatic, though I won’t spoil it for you.

Molly Keane was born in Ireland but grew up in a house in Claverton in Bath, a house that is now the American Museum. Hers was a career in two halves: in the 1930’s she was a successful playright on the London stage, quite an achievement in itself as she had no formal education. Sir John Gielgud directed one of her plays and she also wrote novels under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell. The pseudonym was wise for she was now back living in Ireland and a member of the hunting, shooting and fishing set, and to be a writer amongst them was social death, particularly when you were casting a cold, clear eye on their foibles.

The death of a husband she adored, and some vicious reviews made her stop writing when she was 37. But in 1980, a friend came to stay, the writer Elizabeth Bowen. Molly tentatively showed her Good Behaviour, Bowen said, ‘this is marvellous Molly.’ The book, published in 1981 caused a sensation and missed winning the Booker Prize by a whisker.

She was in her 80’s at the time- another reason I am inspired by her.
Visit Julia Gregson's website.

The Page 69 Test: East of the Sun.

The Page 69 Test: Jasmine Nights.

My Book, The Movie: Jasmine Nights.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier is the author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, a novel inspired by a family friend's healing following the September 11th attacks.

A few weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed and every night my heart is like a crime scene. The memoir recounts a journey in Strayed’s mid 20s when, after her mother died and her marriage disintegrated, she went hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for three months. The goal was to reawaken her soul, which for a long time had been numbed with all the unhealthy substitutes we find for love.

Though the expedition was made out of desperation, it wasn’t carried through that way. Yes, she was physically unprepared and poorly packed — the things she carried in Monster (her massive backpack) would have brought a team of oxen to their knees. Poorly fitting boots made her toenails turn black and fall off. But there’s calm wisdom in her raw unsentimental drive to conquer the trail. It’s as if a remote corner of her unanaesthetized brain was sending out morse code and she had no choice but to listen: You must do something. You must do something to save yourself.

This is living like you have nothing to lose, only to gain. It also speaks to the interpretive power of journals over time; she relied upon hers to create this memoir, decades after the trip. This speaks to me too because found journals are a centerpiece of my novel. Appreciating the level of Strayed’s detail here, brought up from notes and memory so many years later, requires a reader to believe in the strength of a person’s need to document and examine their lives as they’re living it. It might be a difficult leap for someone who has trouble imagining doing this. But not for me.
Visit Nichole Bernier's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Jeanne Matthews

Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Journalism and has worked as a copywriter, a high school English and Drama teacher, and a paralegal. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor.

Her latest novel in the Dinah Pelerin Series is Bonereapers.

A few weeks ago I asked Matthews what she was reading.  Her reply:
A writer is forever learning his or her craft and one of the books I return to again and again for inspiration is Margaret Atwood's Negotiating With The Dead. She explores the reasons why any sane person would devote a lifetime to inventing situations that never happened and characters who never existed. It's a wonderful book, a philosophy of creative writing and what it means to be a writer, and her compilation of provocative quotations from other writers is a treasure.

I just finished reading Larry Karp's A Perilous Conception. Before becoming a writer, Larry was the Founder and Medical Director of the Reproductive Genetics Facility at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, and he delivered the first baby in the Pacific Northwest conceived through in vitro fertilization. His cleverly plotted medical mystery focuses on the race to perform a successful in vitro fertilization and the tragic consequences when one egotistical doctor allows his ambition to trump his ethical responsibility. The medical lore is fascinating and Detective Bernie Baumgartner's determination to outsmart the medical geniuses and solve the mystery make the story satisfying and engaging on several different levels.

My favorite books are the ones that take me places I haven't been. For that reason, I chose Code of Thieves by Joyce Yarrow. Joyce takes the reader on a tense journey from the Bronx to Russia. Her protagonist, Jo Epstein, combines the unlikely occupations of poet and detective, but the character comes across as completely authentic and believable. Named (somewhat infelicitously, perhaps) after Joseph Stalin, Jo is unique and her insights, both social and psychological, are astute. The story begins when Jo's stepfather, a Russian immigrant, receives ominous threats from someone back in the old country. Jo feels obliged to travel to Russia and track down his nemesis. The descriptions are rich and detailed and put me right there on the ground in Russia with Jo.

Busy as I am with my own writing, it's hard for me to keep up with the latest crime novels and I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that another book I'm reading now came out in 2007. Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn has been widely praised and it's easy to see why. Set in London during the 1890s, this elegantly told tale of murder and detection is also an education in Victorian upper-class mores and sensibilities. Since 2007, there have been four sequels featuring Ms. Raybourn's offbeat Lady Julia Grey as the aristocratic sleuth.Silent in the Grave  develops slowly for a mystery, but it's delightful to follow along as the widowed Lady Julia begins to arrive at a sense of her true self, having been freed from the influence of her (deviously murdered) husband. After this introduction to Lady Julia's wit and the cast of her eccentric relatives, I'm looking forward to the sequels.
Visit Jeanne Matthews's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kim Barnes

Kim Barnes's books include two memoirs, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—Hungry for the World, and the novels Finding Caruso and A Country Called Home.

Her new novel is In the Kingdom of Men.

Recently I asked Barnes what she was reading.  Her reply:
As part of my research for In the Kingdom of Men, for the past five years, I’ve been reading nothing but novels, memoirs, scholarly texts, and articles about Saudi Arabia and the Arabian American Oil Company. Now, I’ve settled into three very different books, all nonfiction.

The first is Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. It’s not your usual food memoir but a memoir that happens to involve food. I’m reading it for the rich detail, vivid imagery, and emotional honesty that I’m delighted to find in any good memoir. It has a real literary sensibility.

The second is Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I write across the genres, but it’s the personal essay that I find most engaging as a writer and as a reader. I love it when an author of personal nonfiction pushes me out of my comfort zone…and I don’t mean in the sense of what is true/not true—an academic discussion that doesn’t interest me. I’m fascinated by all the forms that essays can take, how they can surprise me with their “maziness.” I love to read authors who make what they have to work with work and don’t get lazy on me by cribbing from the fiction sheet for content—to do so is simply a failure of the imagination. I’m just beginning Pulphead, but I’m eager to see where Sullivan might take me on his wicked journey.

Finally, I’m rereading A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo because it’s the Vietnam memoir and because I—we—need to be reminded of how easily we can fall into indifference when it comes to sending our young men and women to war.
Read more about In the Kingdom of Men at Kim Barnes's website.

Kim Barnes's books include two memoirs, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—Hungry for the World, and the novels Finding Caruso and A Country Called Home.

The Page 69 Test: A Country Called Home.

The Page 69 Test: In the Kingdom of Men.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Paula Fredriksen

Paula Fredriksen is an historian of ancient Christianity who works as well on the social relations between pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Roman Empire. Among her books are From Jesus to Christ; Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews; Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism; and, most recently, Sin: The Early History of an Idea.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually read several books at once. Two that I recently finished are by Carlo Levi and by Sebastian Junger.

A dear friend, for my birthday, surprised me with a new copy of Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi. I had first read it as a college undergraduate, years ago. Now, after decades of historical work in ancient Mediterranean culture, I was able to savor this memoir of political exile so much more. Levi’s clear and beautiful writing, lyrically translated by Frances Frenaye, captures everything. The sight and smells of this isolated southern Italian landscape. The social pretensions and varying degrees of desperation that structure lives lived too close together in a tiny, impoverished town near the Gulf of Taranto. The way that skinny goats and half-starved dogs move in the airless heat. The silver-green of ancient olive trees, the smell of dust and lemons. Stone houses; stone walls; stone earth. And, most heartbreakingly of all, stone people: the ancient, patient, bitterly poor peasants upon whose stooped backs the town’s tiny bourgeoisie rests. Like shadows, their silent presence haunts the town (and the book) as they labor continually, dragged down and defeated, dressed always in black as if mourning their own lives.

The name of this town is not Eboli, a fact that gives the title that much more poignancy. Levi spent his year of exile in Gagliano. Eboli, with its good train service, lay some eighty miles to the Northwest. Not even Christ, murmurs Levi’s title, could journey as far south as Gagliano. And so the peasants practice ancient magic as they live in the flattened landscape of their own poverty, a landscape thickly animated by spirits, demons, the souls of the restless dead. Levi captures the sheer timelessness of their condition: this was how it was under Mussolini; this was how it was under Augustus, too. A beautiful book.

A beautiful book in a different way: Sebastian Junger’s War. Junger sets his narrative in the hostile moonscape of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley between June 2007 and June 2008, when he lived with the men of Battle Company. Fear, Killing, and Love, the three strophes of his story, both structure his presentation and shape the experience of the men whose battles he chronicles. No clutter in Junger’s prose, nor sentimentality. His descriptions of the experience of fear under fire left me with sweaty hands, hardly able to breath, wondering how the hell does anybody tolerate this without going insane? Junger delivers his answer in his next two sections. First, battle means killing. And killing at this sort of close quarters, getting to someone while they’re hell-bent on getting to you, is a high: an adrenaline-rush testosterone-ripped ecstatic affirmation of (your own precious) life over death. Second, battle means love, the strong bonds forged when fighting, when everyone depends on everyone else in the platoon, and when, sometimes, in the split-second that you have to make the decision, your friend’s life, your men’s lives, mean more to you than your own. Simply out of respect for what our soldiers have been going through in this rotten, wasted war, you should read this book.
Learn more about Sin: The Early History of an Idea at the Princeton University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Sin: The Early History of an Idea.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Varley O'Connor

Varley O’Connor’s first novel, Like China, described by the New York Times as “a first novel that soars,” was published by William Morrow in 1991. Her second novel, A Company of Three, about the world of theater and acting, came out from Algonquin Books in 2003. Her third novel, The Cure, was published by the Bellevue Literary Press in 2007. Scribner released her latest novel, The Master's Muse, in May 2012.

O'Connor's reply to my recent query about what she was reading:
While traveling to promote my new novel, The Master’s Muse, I read two terrific novels.

Believe me, I was so busy and nervous about the fate of my own book, if these two hadn’t grabbed me and delivered straight through to the end, I would certainly have put them down. Instead, they reminded me of why I read and write; they kept me grounded, entertained, and inspired.

First I read Mudwoman: A Novel, the latest from Joyce Carol Oates. It’s her best since her masterpiece, Blonde, and I highly recommend it. The novel’s riveting portrait of a woman confronting the price she has paid in rising to become the first female president of an American Ivy-league university is as complex and compelling as Dostoevsky and Poe.

We have far too few contemporary novels by and about women that bore deeply into the female psyche and unearth the connections between the dark side of our culture and individual lives.

The protagonist embodies the underbelly of the American dream in her beginnings as the victim of a desperate mother who literally tosses her three-year-old girl into a mudflat and leaves her to die. The child is rescued and adopted by a Quaker family, growing up loved and overachieving and haunted by the trauma her adoptive parents choose to downplay and nearly contend never happened.

But as sublimations will, the past burrows up and threatens our heroine when, at the pinnacle of her successful climb to the top, stress and the lies she is called upon to endorse at the beginning of the Iraq war drive her to the edge.

Subtly and truthfully, in the part dealing with the war, Oates connects the plight of American women with those in other cultures. I especially admired those moments, since all too often novels dismiss or avoid the very real difficulties girls and women still face in America today.

Structurally, the novel alternates between the unraveling of the university president and the story of her past. Some reviewers have criticized points in the narrative where reality and fantasy/fear/uncertain memory overlap, without a clear delineation. But the mimetic representation of the nightmare aspect of this woman’s journey is worth the temporary displacement.

It is all landed and clarified by the end, as is fitting for a main character of such high intelligence and courage. Miraculously, the mud woman/girl not only survives, but she emerges with her empathy for others intact, even for her murderous mother—and the entire reading experience is one of incredible reach and satisfaction.

Hollywood Boulevard, by Janyce Stefan-Cole, is a very different kind of novel. The one similarity is that, again, it is a story of American life through the eyes of a woman, and the story includes the breadth and specificity of her interior self: Stefan-Cole’s fluid interplay between the inner life and outer experience of her narrator is what makes the deceptively simple story highly readable and profound.

Ardennes Thrush is a film actor on the verge of stardom when she drops out. We first encounter her aimlessly lurking about the grounds of a resident Hollywood hotel where she is living while her director husband shoots his latest film. The dropout actor has begun spying on other lives.

The portrait of modern-day Hollywood dappled by the ghosts of Hollywood past is spot on. But it is the voice and mind of Ardennes that keeps you reading. She isn’t a Hollywood starlet type, but a contemplative with a wry incisive sense of humor and a healthy appetite for and appreciation of men. This is one of the reasons I’d imagine men would like the book as well as women would.

Ardennes is drifting, but this is no Play It As It Lays. Action kicks in when Ardennes suspects she’s being stalked: and she is. Later she’s kidnapped, and in real danger.

Her experience forces the secretive—even to her own self—Ardennes to reveal to herself and the reader who she is and why. The difficulty of how to move on from a stuck place in life is one most of us can relate to in a world in which almost everything seems sold out and already over.

People have dubbed the book noir, and I suppose it is in a way. There’s intrigue and a smart lusty cop, a few outrageous fun supporting characters straight out of Chandler and, as I’ve indicated, a no-nonsense narrator with edge.

But there is heart and multi-faceted characterization as well. Mostly, I admired the book’s freshness. And the author’s highly visual writing really does make you feel you are there.

You don’t so much feel you are watching a film; you feel you are in one.
Visit Varley O'Connor's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 15, 2012

Sam Walker

Samuel Walker is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he taught from 1974 to 2005. He is a widely quoted expert on issues of civil liberties, policing and criminal justice policy.

He is also a record collector, with about 9,000 albums at present; he had an exhibit of jazz album covers in early 2011 featuring the art work of David Stone Martin.

Walker's new book is Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians.

Last month I asked the author what he was reading.  His reply:
How many books send you running to your collection of old LPs? Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll has done that to me lately. First published in 1975 and now in its 5th edition (2008), the book is a rich and imaginative exploration of American history and culture through our popular music: rock, blues, folk, gospel, jazz, and just about everything else. It is as fascinating and provocative today as it was 37 years ago when I devoured the 1st edition.

You might have heard about Robert Johnson, and you may have some CDs by The Band, Randy Newman, and of course Elvis. But you probably haven’t heard about Harmonica Frank, and the section on him that opens the book covers Melville’s Ahab, Huck Finn, Lyndon Johnson, Chuck Berry, Norman Mailer, and, oh yes, America. It’s that kind of a book.

As a record collector, with about 9,000 LPs at the moment, Marcus’s “Notes and Discographies” section is especially illuminating. He has not rested on his laurels. In the 2nd edition (my copy of the 1st is buried in some a stack of books), the main text is 212 pages, and the Notes section 90 pages. The 177 pages of text in 5th edition are exceeded by the 191 pages of Notes. The 36 pages of text and 8 pages of Notes (2nd edition) on “The Myth of Staggerlee” is a typical Marcus-style exploration of the song, its many variations, the disputed real life events that inspired variations of the song, and black music, culture and politics over several decades. And as he did 37 years ago, Marcus helps me to hear themes in some The Band songs I had not really appreciated before (and to reaffirm my disagreement with him on some others.

The Notes are also driving me to Kanesville, my favorite used record store across the river in Council Bluffs, to pick up albums I don’t yet but simply must have. Yes, the book does that to you.
Visit Samuel Walker's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rachelle Bergstein

Rachelle Bergstein graduated in 2003 from Vassar College, where she won awards for her academic writing. She works as an editorial consultant for a literary agency in New York City, and her writing has appeared in Fresh Yarn, The Awl, Slice magazine, and The Dirty Durty Diary. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, her cat, and her shoes.

Her new book is Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us.

Recently I asked the author what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’ve been in the mood for fiction lately, a book I can get lost in. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, was a perfect choice. Russell’s language is lush – I found myself inspired by so many of her descriptions – but her depiction of female adolescence is equally powerful. Swamplandia! is a ghost story; after their mother dies, three teenage kids have to come to terms with her death. Kiwi, the oldest boy, has an aggressive reaction. He rebels, rejects his father and moves away from the family. The girls, however, turn inward. Ossie, the middle child, gets obsessed with the afterlife and starts going on “dates” with ghosts. Ava, at thirteen the youngest of the three, clings to anything she can: the past, strangers, her hope that it will all work out.

The novel has an otherworldly quality as well as a substantial conflict – the family is in danger of losing their livelihood, a theme park in the swamps where the mother, an alligator wrestler, was the star attraction – but to me it was very much about the difficulties of the teenage years. Ossie’s openness to the occult, Ava’s mix of bravado, vulnerability and naiveté…the time between childhood and adulthood is fraught and strange, even without a family tragedy to make sense of. So, because I found Russell’s book to be an interesting take on the inner lives of girls and wanted to continue in that vein, I then moved on to Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway. I confess it’s taken me too long to read her work, and I’m slowly making my way through the stories, but I was blown away by the first one, “Runaway”. Like Russell, Munro also writes about the female experience and – I hate to give away the ending – when I finished the story, I lay in bed for a while just thinking about it. Suffice to say, it’s about the things we have to bury in order to be happy in our lives.

When I’m finished I’m moving on to The Art of Fielding. It’s been on my “to read” list for a while and I borrowed a copy from my coworker, so it’s ready and waiting!
Visit Rachelle Bergstein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 11, 2012

Daniel Friedman

Daniel Friedman's writing has been published at McSweeney's, Yankee Pot Roast, Science Creative Quarterly and The Big Jewel.

His new book is Don't Ever Get Old, the first novel in the Buck Schatz Series.

Friedman's reply to my recent query as to what he was reading:
I have a Kindle, and I like to take it to the gym with me to read while I am on the elliptical machine. There's a little rack on the front panel of the Pre-Cor that I use, which was probably designed to prop up a newspaper or a magazine. The thing can't really hold a book open to the right page, but the e-reader fits in it perfectly.

I started taking my Kindle to the gym last fall, when I was reading Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. The book has long segments detailing how college baseball team captain Mike Schwartz and his protege, the young phenom Henry Skrimshander get themselves into prime condition by lifting weights and running sprints up and down the stairs of the stadium until their abs glisten and they vomit uncontrollably. I was reading this while sprawled on my sofa with a bag of Tostitos resting on my belly, and the juxtaposition made me question some of my life-choices up to that point.

Ultimately, in the book, Skrimshander's rise exists primarily to precipitate a fall, and the work the characters do honing their bodies is met with harsh reversals. Schwartz, who is a catcher, has destroyed his knees, and can only bear the pain of squatting behind the plate by taking prescription painkillers. Skrimshander, meanwhile, becomes psychologically unable to throw the ball to first base after he commits an error that results in the injury of a teammate. I think the book's ultimate lesson was something about how man's various enterprises are futile, and are inevitably ruined by the entropy of the universe and the ravages of time and the cruelty and capriciousness of fickle fate. But I'm not a great learner of lessons, and my takeaway was that I needed to get my fat ass to the gym. So I read the second two thirds of the book at a hundred and sixty strides per minute, and I've been taking my Kindle over to the New York Sports Club five or six days a week ever since.

More recently, I've been reading John Le Carré's trilogy of books about spymaster George Smiley hunting his Russian nemesis, Karla. It starts with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, continues with The Honourable Schoolboy and concludes with Smiley's People. These are a bit quieter than most spy novels; they're structured more like mysteries than thrillers. And they're phenomenally intricate. The plots are organized around a series of confrontations or interviews with various people who each have one piece of the puzzle. But the interrogator, being a spy, plays his cards close to the vest and never directly asks the question he's seeking the answer to, and the subject may not know which piece of information he's holding is important, or why the questioner wants it.

There's an amazing chapter in The Honourable Schoolboy in which the English agency's man in Hong Kong, an old hand by the name of Craw under deep cover as a newspaperman, takes a high-strung contact out to dinner, and delicately coaxes a single name out of her. She never realizes that the name is important, or even that she's being interrogated, but this discovery blows the whole plot wide open. This is intercut with a sort of flash-forward to Craw telling young recruits about this coup as he lectures them at the agency's training facility. Craw is an amazing character, he's spot-on perfect as the boozy sort of degenerate that you might expect to find manning a foreign bureau of a tabloid newspaper in the 1970's, but underneath it he's a secret agent. He's not jetting around the globe like James Bond; he's been living his cover for years and years. His newspaper job is real and he really does it, so in many ways, he is simultaneously both of these people. And even though the individual moving parts of this piece of story seem low-key, the way Le Carré puts this all together is electrifying.

You can't know how hard it is to write like this until you try. Reading Le Carré is like watching a dude with six fingers on each hand play the piano.
Visit Daniel Friedman's blog.

The Page 69 Test: Don't Ever Get Old.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Melanie Thorne

Melanie Thorne earned her MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, where she was awarded the Alva Englund Fellowship and the Maurice Prize in fiction. She was a resident at the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat in 2011, and her work has appeared in various journals, including The Greenbelt Review and Global City Review.

Her new novel is Hand Me Down.

Recently I asked Thorne what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’m not writing right now, which means I’m reading a lot again and it’s glorious. Glorious! Is there anything better than enjoying the sun and a good book? There are so many books that have come out recently or are coming out soon that I’m excited about, it’s been hard to prioritize.

I just read Claire Bidwell Smith’s The Rules of Inheritance and loved it. I don’t often read memoirs and I was skeptical, especially since it sounded like a depressing story. But I love Claire’s writing and we share an editor, so I picked it up after hearing all the praise and couldn’t put it down. Literally. I tried; I had things to do. It was so good I read about eighty pages straight and was totally hooked. It’s the only memoir I’ve ever finished (though Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is on my TBR list so that will likely change soon).

The book is about only-child Claire, whose parents, both of them, are diagnosed with cancer when she is fourteen. Her mom dies when she’s eighteen, her dad when she’s twenty-five. The book is told in the framework of the five stages of grief, each stage getting three non-chronological chapters. The prose is beautiful, sparse, gripping. Claire weaves through time, both in the telling, which seamlessly shifts from past to present to future tense, and in the sequence of scenes that take place over almost twenty years of her life. The scenes slowly move more and more toward the future and acceptance, the final stage, and the happiness Claire ultimately finds. The ending is gorgeous and exactly what you want for the woman Claire grows into. It is sad in parts—I admit, I cried quite a bit—but it’s also about overcoming that sadness. I could gush for days about this book, I can’t stop thinking about it, but let me stop by saying I think the lessons about grief and love and self-love are applicable to anyone who has suffered any kind of loss or trauma. It’s really, really well done. Did I mention I loved it?

The other book I most recently finished is the newest Sookie Stackhouse novel, Deadlocked, by Charlaine Harris. I started reading this series six years ago and each May when the new one comes out, I get to spend a day happily engrossed in the fantasy world of vampires, fairies, were-creatures, and Sookie, the world’s friendliest telepathic waitress. Somewhere I saw reading Sookie’s voice compared to slipping into a warm bath, and after all these years it’s so true. These books are like a vacation for my brain, and I devour them, often in one sitting. I love supernatural stories and these have the added appeal of tongue-in-cheek campy fun. I’ll be sorry to see the series end next year.
Visit Melanie Thorne's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Hand Me Down.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Elizabeth Percer

Elizabeth Percer is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and has twice been honored by the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation. She received a BA in English from Wellesley and a PhD in arts education from Stanford University, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship for the National Writing Project at UC Berkeley. She lives in California with her husband and three children.

Her new novel is An Uncommon Education.

Last month I asked Percer what she was reading.  Her reply:
I have a great deal of trouble devoting my attention to only one book at a time, so my bedside table is littered with several I am concurrently exploring. I have a pocket-sized volume of Gerard Manley Hopkins' collected poems, which I dip into for a saturated literary experience when I am feeling my tank is a little low; I have Jews, God, and History which both my parents insist I must read, thereby rendering my attitude toward it cautious; and I'm more actively reading Nabokov's Lolita and Lauren Belfer's A Fierce Radiance.

Lolita's on my list for the umpteenth time because it's one of those rare books that gives so much to me as a writer and a reader no matter how often I reread it, thus inspiring me to consider again and again the power of literature as well as drawing me into a great story. And Belfer's A Fierce Radiance is a careful, rewarding portrayal of the journey of penicillin from mold to super-drug. I love to read fiction about medicine or the medical world, and I love intelligent historical fiction, so Belfer's got me under her thumb for the time being.

Finally, I've just begun reading Vegan for Life after learning more about the American dairy and egg industries. I've struggled for a long time about my somewhat two-faced relationship to animals -- deep care and honoring on the one hand, eating on the other -- but I'm not sure I was ready to really iron out the glaring inconsistencies in this relationship before now. It's a confronting, challenging book, and I'm not sure I agree with or trust its authors' viewpoints, but it has that wonderful quality of making me slightly uncomfortable about the unexamined aspects of my life, and for that I am devoted to it.

So that's it, for now! Ask me next week for an entirely different list!
Visit Elizabeth Percer's website.

The Page 69 Test: An Uncommon Education.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Stephanie Reents

Stephanie Reents's fiction has been included in the O. Henry Prize Stories, noted in Best American Short Stories, and has appeared in numerous journals. She has been a Bread Loaf Conference Scholar, a Stegner Fellow, and a Rhodes Scholar. Reents is an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Her new book is The Kissing List.

Recently I asked Reents what she was reading. Her reply:
Because it’s the end of the semester, I’ve been reading a lot of promising work by my students at College of the Holy Cross. Some of the highlights include an essay about playing basketball at Ruckers Park in Harlem written by a freshman after a class fieldtrip to New York City. Another piece, a story called “Passing the Ball,” is long meditation on a young man’s memories of his childhood in Brazil and the role soccer played in his life. Luiza Mouzinho, the senior who wrote this story, had never taken a creative writing class before this one, and she completely blew me away. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
Rocinha is a favela, which I guess in English means ghetto, but that word holds no meaning for me. I hear people say that a ghetto is an ugly place, but a favela is a beautiful place. It’s a place you can love and hate without contradicting yourself. When you are at the top of Rocinha you can see the back of the Christ figure, his arms outstretched toward the rich city below Him. Some nights I would stand outside my house, knocking the ball gently between my ankles, and ask Christ to turn around and look at me. I thought that if he could see what was happening in my favela, see the violence and poverty, that maybe he would do something. But they cut off the power in the favelas at night, which plunges everyone into darkness and makes people afraid. So before he had the chance to turn around, I was called inside.
One of the other luxuries of teaching is that I get to revisit some of my favorite stories every year. This spring, I rediscovered my love of Edward Jones’s collection, Lost in the City. Every story is a masterpiece, but I especially admire the final one, “Marie,” about an elderly woman so hardened by the crime in her neighborhood and the bureaucracy she has to confront to keep her Social Security benefits that she can’t bear to remember the sense of hope she felt as a young woman when she first came to Washington D.C., a city where all things felt possible. Another story that always amazes me is Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” in her wonderful collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. The premise – a man undergoing reverse evolution – is such an ingenious metaphor for describing the loss we all feel at the end of a relationship. Finally, it was such a pleasure to discover to Danielle Evans’s debut collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. The female narrators of both “Virgins” and “Snakes,” two of my favorite stories in this book, reveal their flaws in the final scenes, which rather than damning them make them strong, likeable, memorable characters. Evan’s book was refreshing because her female protagonists make their own mistakes – they lie, they make bad choices, they abandon their friends. They don’t, however, fall victim to the dangers that women are constantly being reminded to watch for. I can’t wait for her novel.
Visit Stephanie Reents's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Kissing List.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Paul Thagard

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy, with cross appointment to Psychology, Director of the Cognitive Science Program, and University Research Chair at the University of Waterloo. He is a graduate of the Universities of Saskatchewan, Cambridge, Toronto (Ph. D. in philosophy) and Michigan (M.S. in computer science). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Cognitive Science Society, and the Association for Psychological Science, and received a Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize. Thagard's books include The Brain and the Meaning of Life, Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science, and Hot Thought: Mechanisms and Applications of Emotional Cognitions.

His latest book is The Cognitive Science of Science: Explanation, Discovery, and Conceptual Change.

Last month I asked Thagard about what he was reading.  His reply:
Much of my academic reading these days is connected to a long-term project to build a cognitive social science that explains social phenomena using mechanisms that operate at many levels. I recently read Randall Collin’s impressive Interaction Ritual Chains, which provides a rich account of how group interactions in many domains, e.g. religion, politics, and everyday life, can produce changes in group solidarity and standards by increasing emotional energy. These social mechanisms complement well the psychological, neural, and molecular mechanisms for emotion that I have been investigating.

To consider the meshing of social and neuropsychological mechanisms, I have been doing a case study of the Occupy Movement, reading four books that have already been published about it. The most informative was Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, by a collective called Writers for the 99%.

I have also been enjoying Patrick Wilcken’s new biography, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory.
Learn more about Paul Thagard's The Cognitive Science of Science at The MIT Press website.

Visit Paul Thagard's University of Waterloo faculty webpage and blog for Psychology Today.

The Page 99 Test: The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

The Page 99 Test: The Cognitive Science of Science.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 1, 2012

Keith Brooke

Keith Brooke writes science fiction, fantasy and other strange things.

He also runs infinity plus ebooks, publishing the work of Eric Brown, Anna Tambour, John Grant, Kaitlin Queen, Paul di Filippo, Iain Rowan, Neil Williamson and others.

Brooke's new novel is Harmony.

Recently I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
My reading tends to be quite diverse, with several things on the go at once.

One book I've had on the go for ages is J. Randy Taraborrelli's The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. It looked interesting, and is - crammed with fascinating stuff - but somehow it just hasn't come alive for me, so I've been battling through this one for months now, a few pages at a time. I love to read a fairly random selection of non-fiction. Not only is it interesting in its own right, it gives me all kinds of snippets that inspire and feed my work. Yes, my latest novel is about aliens, but Marilyn Monroe's story if full of mystery, tragedy, political machinations, human rivalries, human failings and triumphs - all the ingredients of any half-decent story.

Last night I dipped into a Writer's Digest book, Crafting Novels & Short Stories. It looks like there will be some really interesting stuff, but the first chapter on story-planning left me cold. My interest in books like this is largely professional: I lecture on creative writing at my local university. The main thrust of the my novel-writing course is that every writer needs to find their own way to work: I don't want them to learn, and struggle with, my way. Prescriptive methods, like that in the chapter I read last night, would kill any idea I had. Yes, I like to make notes and plan ahead, but not in the kind clinical, formulaic detail the chapter's author was advocating. Which isn't to say it wouldn't work for many other writers - just not me!

As for other reading, I'm pretty much between books, having just finished several novels. I read Stephen Palmer's strange fantasy The Rat and the Serpent for professional reasons, again: it's the latest title from the ebook imprint I run, infinity plus books. One of the joys of running my own imprint is that I only publish books I love, so it's always a pleasure to be working on a book like this.

Other professional reading includes my monthly review for The Guardian. The latest of these was Steve Rasnic Tem's wonderfully dark and twisted Deadfall Hotel [read the review]. Sometimes it's a chore reading for review, but in cases like this it's wonderful not only to be reading such a good book but to be paid to do so!

Finally, a novel I've just finished purely for my own pleasure is Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. I'm a huge fan of his work - for me, his early short stories are about as close to perfection as it's possible to get in that form. The danger with reading authors like McEwan (and Graham Greene, Ian McDonald and a few others) is that they're so good they put you off your own writing: sometimes brilliance inspires, sometimes it just makes you wonder why you bother. Sadly, Amsterdam was a mixed bag. Full of wonderful prose, fascinating characters and a world painted in such convincing detail, and yet... the closing passages made me think I'd been reading a different book up to that point: a moving, vivid story descending into comic farce.
Visit Keith Brooke's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Harmony.

--Marshal Zeringue