Monday, September 30, 2013

Matt Rossano

Matt Rossano is head of the Psychology Department at Southeastern Louisiana University and the author of Evolutionary Psychology: The Science of Human Behavior and Evolution and Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.

His new book is Mortal Rituals: What the Story of the Andes Survivors Tells Us About Human Evolution.

Earlier this month I asked Rossano about what he was reading. His reply:
Two recently read books that have stuck with me are Thomas Wynn and Fred Coolidge’s How to Think like a Neandertal and Michael Tomasello’s Why We Cooperate. Both of them deal with the issue that I have been pondering in one way or another my entire professional life, which is – what makes us human? Wynn and Coolidge’s book addresses the question by way of comparison with our closest hominin cousins (Neandertals). While Tomasello’s book does it by comparison with our closest primate relatives (chimpanzees).

I see a broad convergence between the two in that the big, glaring intellectual differences that had once seemed so certain, such things as only humans have symbols or only humans have language, are nowhere near as certain as once believed. This is not to say that there are no differences. There are, and certainly more so between humans and chimps compared to humans and Neanderthals. But in both cases the differences are more subtle than we had expected and they seem to cluster in the social domain far more than in the purely rational. What makes us human is our ability to form deep personal relationships and then expand those outward into complex cooperative communities. To be human is to think in terms of “we” rather than “I” or “it” or “F=ma” – shared intentionality is what Tomasello calls it. Which raises the interesting question of whether anyone can truly be human – alone.
Learn more about Mortal Rituals at the Columbia University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.

The Page 99 Test: Mortal Rituals.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Drew Karpyshyn

Drew Karpyshyn is the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: The Old Republic novels: Revan and Annihilation, as well as the Star Wars: Darth Bane trilogy: Path of Destruction, Rule of Two and Dynasty of Evil. He also wrote the acclaimed Mass Effect series of novels and worked as a writer/designer on numerous award-winning videogames. His new book is the epic fantasy novel, Children of Fire.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. Karpyshyn's reply:
Most of the fiction I read is speculative in some way: horror, sci-fi or fantasy. I read mostly for escapism, enjoyment and entertainment, and I usually find that in stories that I know couldn't happen in real life. I also think that sf/f/h books can be far more imaginative and amazing than movies in the same genre, because the author isn't limited by special effects or budget constraints. Give me a book with supernatural monsters, magic or highly advanced technologies, throw in some good characters and an interesting plot, and I'm hooked.

I tend to travel a lot, and I love to read while I'm on a plane or in a hotel room on the road. Having said that, it's hard for me to find stuff I like. I'm very particular about what I read, and I often become frustrated with the books I pick up. Fortunately, I've had a recent run of titles that I'd strongly recommend.

Let's begin with Elantris and Mistborn: The Final Empire. I'm a bit late to the Brandon Sanderson party, but I can see why he's become one of fantasy's most popular authors. Elantris focuses on a prince who is stricken by a very rare, very strange illness that causes him to be banished to a ruined wasteland; while Mistborn: The Final Empire tells the tale of a slave class struggling to throw off the shackles of society and an immortal, all-powerful ruler. Sanderson is an excellent author, and his characters and settings quickly grabbed me. But I think he's best known for the intricate and detailed magic systems he creates for his worlds. He approaches it almost like a science, with well defined laws that allow readers to understand exactly how magic works. I don't think that's a necessity for all fantasy: magic can sometimes be mysterious as long as the author plays fair with the readers when using it. But in Sanderson's case, the specific details of magic are tightly connected with the stories he's telling, and it really ties everything together.

I'm also in the middle of reading The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Cyberpunk isn't usually my first choice, but I loved Snowcrash so I decided to give this book a shot. The basic plot is a coming of age story of a young girl, but the book is more about society and the effects of nanotechnology on the human condition. I'm only partway through, but I've been drawn in to the story. The nanotechnology of this (not too) distant future is interesting, but what fascinates me the most about this book so far is the lack of any real antagonist. As I mentioned, I'm still somewhere in the middle of the novel, so things could change. But so far there aren't any villains actively working against the protagonists in any significant way. It's a very interesting way to craft a story, and I don't think I'd have the courage to try it myself. Fortunately, Stephenson is far more talented than I am, and he makes it work.

Sanderson and Stephenson are giants in their respective fields, but I also recently read a book from an author who is (at the moment) less well known: The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes. Patrick is a friend and former colleague at BioWare, and The Palace Job is his first novel. It's basically a heist novel that is set in a traditional fantasy setting: a rogues' gallery of uniquely twisted sword-and-sorcery archetypes band together to break into a magically protected fortress in order to steal the most valuable item in the kingdom. The novel is crazy, frenetic and very, very funny. My writing tends to be dark and serious - even a bit grim - so I admire someone like Patrick who knows how to tell a great action story that is also filled with lots of laughs and humor. I think readers would do themselves a huge favor by checking out The Palace Job.
Visit Drew Karpyshyn's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 27, 2013

Lorrie Thomson

Lorrie Thomson lives in New Hampshire with her husband and their children. When she’s not reading, writing, or hunting for collectibles, her family lets her tag along for camping adventures, daylong paddles, and hikes up 4,000 footers.

Though her new book Equilibrium is fiction, Thomson had the very real experience of coping with mental illness in her own family when her oldest son was diagnosed with schizophrenia while she was writing the book. For support and education regarding mental illness, she recommends that readers visit NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Earlier this month I asked Thomson about what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently finished reading an ARC for T. Greenwood’s new novel, Bodies of Water. Absolutely mesmerizing, the love story left me aching for the characters long after I’d closed the book. T. Greenwood’s lyrical prose pull you into the lives of the lovers until their obsession is yours, until you taste their fear and worry. Until you appreciate all the sweet, simple beauty in life. Not since long-ago reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple have I had such a physical reaction to a novel.
Visit Lorrie Thomson at her website, and connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nina Schuyler

Nina Schuyler's first novel, The Painting, was a finalist for the Northern California Book Awards. It was also selected by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the Best Books of 2004, and dubbed a “fearless debut” by MSNBC and a “great debut” by the Rocky Mountain News. It’s been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, and Serbian.

Her short story, “The Bob Society,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poems, short stories and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Santa Clara Review, Fugue, The Meadowland Review, The Battered Suitcase, and other literary journals. She reviews fiction for The Rumpus and The Children’s Book Review. She’s fiction editor at Able Muse.

Schuyler's new novel is The Translator.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’ve just started reading Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe. Not long after World War II, my husband’s parents left Germany and came to America. His father was thirteen when he arrived in New York. His mother was twenty. A courageous act, to be sure, but I’ve always been curious: what did they leave behind? Lowe goes far beyond the known celebratory mood that accompanied the war’s end. He reveals ravaged landscapes, razed cities, a Europe where law and order were non-existent, where German civilians all over Europe were beaten, arrested and used as slave labor or murdered. Women who slept with German soldiers were stripped, shaved and paraded through the streets covered in tar. As Lowe writes, “Indeed, in some parts of Europe, ethnic tensions actually became worse.” It’s a fascinating historical account—the subject matter and the fact that it’s a history that is rarely told.

I’m re-reading Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, about a Dutch man, Hans, who works as a banker in New York and is separated from his wife and young boy, who are living in London. Alone, lonely, Hans plays cricket and forms an unlikely friendship with a cast of characters, including Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian, who shows the Dutch man the “other” America, populated by immigrants. Why re-read? First and foremost, O’Neill’s prose. O’Neill writes elegant sentences, laced with metaphor and rhythm and sounds. One of Han’s friends can no longer bear “the masculine details of his life,” and Han’s young son wears “train-infested underpants.” And there’s New York with its “sobbing escort of police motorcycles” and “all this garbage of light.” Then there is the game of cricket, which becomes the perfect action/symbol for this book, as O’Neill carefully layers it with meaning, so much so, that by the end, we see it as standing for ethics and, as the embodiment of a melting pot—that is, the American dream.
Visit Nina Schuyler's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Translator.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mary-Rose MacColl

Mary-Rose MacColl's first novel, No Safe Place, was a runner-up for the Australian Vogel literary award. Her first non-fiction book, The Birth Wars, was a finalist for the Walkley Awards. She lives in Brisbane, Australia, and Banff, Canada, with her husband and young son.

In Falling Snow is her North American debut.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading. MacColl's reply:
This week, I’m re-reading Angels of Mercy, Eileen Crofton’s great history of the women who took a hospital to an old abbey in France in World War I which inspired my novel In Falling Snow. It’s a book I first discovered accidentally in a library when I transposed two digits in a call number some years back – the title was The Women of Royaumont then. I’m re-reading the book because it’s been republished this year by Birlinn in the UK and because I so love these marvellous women who took their hospital to France. Crofton’s history is packed with interesting facts about Dr Frances Ivens and the women doctors who established one of the finest hospitals in France during the war. I find their story endlessly fascinating, that in a time when women had many more constraints than they do now they could achieve so much. “Marvellous, my dear,” as Miss Ivens might have said.

I’m also reading My Name is Mary Sutter on my Kindle because author Robin Oliveira wrote a beautiful review of In Falling Snow. What I mean by this is that her review captured what I was trying to do with the novel almost perfectly, and the review itself was beautiful writing. I’m really enjoying the historical detail in this New York Times bestseller. And since I have an interest in midwifery, it’s totally absorbing.

And I’ve just finished RJ Palacio’s Wonder which tells the story of Augie, a ten-year-old boy about to start school. Augie is horribly disfigured by a rare congenital anomaly and his parents have homeschooled him until now. This is a fabulous book for young and old about what it’s like to feel different, something we all experience to a degree, and about those around Augie, with the point of view shifting through the novel. My ten-year-old son read Wonder before me and at first I worried that he’d be upset by Augie’s condition. But of course, as I should have known, he identified with Augie, as we all do. This is a great first novel for Palacio who is a book cover designer and art director.
Visit Mary-Rose MacColl's website, and follow MacColl on Facebook and Twitter.

My Book, The Movie: In Falling Snow.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jeff Somers

Jeff Somers was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and regrets nothing. He is the author of the Avery Cates series of novels published by Orbit Books and The Ustari Cycle books Trickster and Fabricator (Pocket Books). He sold his first novel at age 16 to a tiny publisher in California which quickly went out of business and has spent the last two decades assuring potential publishers that this was a coincidence. Somers publishes a zine called The Inner Swine and has also published a few dozen short stories; his story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006, edited by Scott Turow and his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight, published by Berkley Hardcover and edited by Charlaine Harris.

Somers's new novel is Chum.

Earlier this month I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Oh boy, my reading.

I should be staying up to date with the new trends, what’s publishing, etc. I’m a guy trying to make money by selling books, I should be reading what all the kids and middle-aged former punk rockers are reading right? I am not.

I just got done reading Kings of Albion by Julian Rathbone, which I picked up in a used book store. It’s a historical adventure story that lacks adventure. The characters all come together in India and travel to England during the War of the Roses and get caught up in local events ... and get separated and spend quite a lot of the book sitting around having English history explained to them. MY GOD WHERE ARE THE SWORD FIGHTS? Very disappointing.

I always read a few things at once because I am lazy and forgetful and never remember to bring books with me into place like, say, the bathroom, so I am also reading The Brothers Karamazov (translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew). I started this book sixteen years ago, it seems. I once described it as the Fireworks Factory from The Simpsons, in the sense that I am now sixteen years and 230 pages into this thing and I have no idea when we’re getting to the Fireworks Factory or if there is actually even a Fireworks Factory at all.

I also have Where’d You Go, Bernadette on my phone as an e-Book for emergencies, but so far there haven’t been any so I haven’t started it yet.
Visit Jeff Somers's website.

My Book, The Movie: Chum.

The Page 69 Test: Chum.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 23, 2013

Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she first got hooked on ancient Rome while watching I, Claudius at the age of seven. She wrote her first book during her freshman year in college, retreating from a Boston winter into ancient Rome, and it was later published as Mistress of Rome. A prequel followed, titled Daughters of Rome, and then a sequel, Empress of the Seven Hills--written while her husband was deployed to the Middle East.

Quinn made the jump from ancient Rome to Renaissance Italy for her fourth and fifth novels, The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose, detailing the early years of the Borgia clan. She also has succumbed to the blogging bug, and keeps a blog filled with trivia, pet peeves, and interesting facts about historical fiction. She and her husband now live in Maryland with a small black dog named Caesar, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.

A few weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading.  Quinn's reply:
Historical fiction tops my reading list, since that's the genre I write in. But I do like to get out of my genre from time to time, just for a change of pace. Lately on my reading list?

Longbourn, by Jo Baker. I devoured Longbourn in two days, filled with equal parts admiration and envy. Admiration because the writing is so fine, and envy because I couldn't help thinking, “Now why didn't I have the idea of mixing the Downton Abbey craze with the Jane Austen craze, and telling the story of the servants in Elizabeth Bennet's house? Genius!” This is a fine, sensitive drama for Regency lovers, focusing on Sarah the housemaid who waits on the famous Pride & Prejudice sisters and has restless dreams of improving her own drudgery-filled life. The details of the neverending housework make for fascinating reading, and will have you thanking heaven for your washing machine.

The Tudor Conspiracy, by C.W. Gortner. The author is a friend of mine, but that's not why I love his Tudor Spymaster series. The world is already crammed with books on the Tudors, but these stand out: fun, fast-paced romps starring a young spy who keeps finding himself up to his neck in trouble as he serves the young Princess Elizabeth. This second book in the series features a scary-but-sympathetic Bloody Mary, a Milady de Winter-style femme fatale, and a thrilling chase across the frozen Thames. Highly recommended.

BZRK, by Michael Grant. I'm a hopeless Luddite who can destroy a hard drive just by walking past it, so if you'd told me I'd be so enthralled by a YA thriller about nanobot technology, I'd have laughed in your face. But BZRK is great fun, following a team of teenage hackers who fight against a sinister foe bent on the mental enslavement of the human race. All the battles here are fought inside the human brain, and the technical details don't stop the tension from racheting up. This ain't soft YA; Grant goes for the jugular in his storytelling. I can't wait for the sequel, out in a few months.

The Secret of the Glass, by Donna Russo Morin. Another author friend of mine, and this one is my favorite of her books. You can always count on Morin's heroines to have more on their mind than romance, and poor Sophia in her world of Renaissance Venice has a burden and a half: a spiteful fiance, a father slowly doddering into dementia, and the imminent threat of losing her family's cherished glass-blowing business as soon as he dies. Rarely does the injustice of the past against women sting so sharp as in this book, where a widow and her daughters can be casually shunted aside into convents and their family business seized, all because the daughter won't as a woman be allowed to run the business herself as she is perfectly capable of doing. Sophia's rebellion and escape makes for thrilling reading.
Visit Kate Quinn's website and blog.

Writers Read: Kate Quinn (April 2012).

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Kate Quinn and Caesar.

My Book, The Movie: Empress of the Seven Hills.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Douglas E. Richards

Douglas E. Richards is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Wired and its sequel, Amped. Richards has a master's degree in molecular biology (a.k.a.“genetic engineering”), and was a biotechnology executive for many years.

His new novel is The Cure.

Earlier this month I asked Richards about what he was reading.  His reply:
Alas, lately I’ve been so busy I don’t have much time to read fiction—but I do make time to read non-fiction. I write present-day thrillers with science fictional elements, in the tradition of Michael Crichton, so that along with being fast-paced, action-packed, and having the twists and turns associated with the thriller genre, my novels include accurate science at their cores. In addition, I like to include plenty of food for thought: philosophy, ethical and moral dilemmas, the essence of human nature and human behavior, and the like. So to prepare for future novels, I try to cram as much interesting stuff into my brain as I possibly can, never knowing which bit will prove to be a fascinating addition to what I’m writing.

Right now I’m reading The Curse of The Self by Mark Leary, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. Why? Well, I just completed his course (from The Great Courses), Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. The course is on video and audio, but I preferred to just read the lectures in book form. Wow! One of the most fascinating books I have ever read (or courses I have ever taken, if you like). This guy’s writing is easy to read, easy to understand, presented beautifully, and the revelations about human nature he imparts are nothing short of brilliant. So I sought out additional books by this author.

In The Curse of The Self, Leary explains how having self-awareness (which no other animal truly does) has propelled us to the top of the food chain—by allowing us to ponder the future, foresee threats, and make plans. But this self-awareness comes at a cost, fostering the emergence of such negative emotions and behaviors as depression, anxiety, addiction, anger, jealousy, and others.

The most recent paragraph I read was about something called the “next-in-line effect.” Suppose you’re in a group and everyone is asked to introduce themselves and say a few words about themselves. Most of us become so worried about what we’re going to say when it’s our turn, and preoccupied by this, that we miss what everyone else is saying. Or to quote from the book, “This phenomenon is called the next-in-line effect, since people are least likely to remember what the person who immediately preceded them said because that was when they were the most self-absorbed.”

Very interesting, and very true. All in all, Leary’s comprehensive writings on behavior show that the human animal is even more fascinating than I had thought.
Visit Douglas E. Richards’s website.

My Book, The Movie: The Cure.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of the novels A Wedding in Great Neck, Breaking the Bank, In Dahlia's Wake, and The Four Temperaments, as well as numerous books for children.

Her new novel is Two of a Kind.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading. McDonough's reply:
I seldom read a single book at a time; I tend to buzz back and forth between several, like a happy bee in a flower-filled garden. Right now I am reading Dear Life by Alice Munro because when it comes to perfectly crafted, poised yet deeply affecting short stories, nobody does it better than Munro. I’ve also got John Irving’s The Fourth Hand on my nightstand. I think Irving is a modern-day Dickens and I am always so satisfied by the richness of his fictional world, which is teeming with odd ball characters, unlikely turns of plot, and crazy coincidences. Somehow he always makes it all work.

Also in the mix is The Bees, by British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. I had never heard of Duffy and found her book on the shelf at a local thrift shop. I was instantly hooked by these poems, many of them about bees but some about other things too, like war and the perfidious nature of some governments. Finally, there is a glossy picture book of jewelry created by the designer Tony Duquette. This was a birthday gift from my husband and though I will never own any of Duquette’s actual creations, I love poring over the pictures of his divinely inspired masterpieces.
Visit Yona Zeldis McDonough's website.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Yona Zeldis McDonough & Queenie, Willa and Holden.

My Book, The Movie: Two of a Kind.

The Page 69 Test: Two of a Kind.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 20, 2013

Karen M. Dunak

Karen M. Dunak is Assistant Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She earned her BA in History at American University and her PhD in Modern US History at Indiana University.

Dunak's new book is As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Dunak's reply:
When anyone would gossip or speculate about the romantic lives of other couples, my grandfather used to say “Other people’s marriages are a foreign country.” And he would complete his thought by adding “And I don’t speak the language.” Earlier in the summer, I was reading a back issue of a magazine in my doctor’s office and stumbled upon an article that quoted L. P. Hartley’s famous opening sentence of The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Reminding me of my grandfather’s words, the passage inspired me to order and read Hartley’s book.

Both considerations of “foreign countries” suggest that there are things that are unknowable in the world, and more specifically, there are things unknowable about the lives and motivations of others. As a historian, I study and aim to understand the past while attempting to withhold judgment and appreciate the differences I find there. But my investigations are of a past from which I am at least somewhat separate. Hartley’s book, wrapped up as it is in memory, gives consideration to a man’s relationship to his personal past. Views of events and experiences, he suggests, evolve as they are revisited with the perspective age can bring.

In The Go-Between, an elderly Leo Colston revisits the summer of 1900 – memories of which he had long repressed – when he finds and reads a diary he kept that year. That summer, when he turned thirteen, Colston served as a messenger, or go-between, for a class-crossed couple conducting a clandestine love affair that ultimately ended in disaster. He struggles to come to grips with his adolescent impressions and actions and considers how this one summer influenced subsequent relationships conducted and decisions made throughout his life. As an old man, when he reconsiders his actions from an aged perspective and revisits the town in which he summered that year, he sees how other participants during that fateful summer viewed the same events through very different lenses – both then and as time had gone by. Their tellings of this same story, undoubtedly, would have been very different.

While The Go-Between is wrapped up also in issues of class and tradition and is shaped by the reader’s knowledge of the change that transpired across the first half of the highly anticipated twentieth century, I loved this book most for its consideration of time and perspective. I also loved thinking about how views of our younger selves can give us pause or can make us uncomfortable with who we were and what we thought – and how sometimes we’re inclined to be more forgiving of others than we are of our former selves.
Learn more about Karen Dunak's As Long as We Both Shall Love at the New York University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: As Long as We Both Shall Love.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Arnie Bernstein

Arnie Bernstein learned firsthand about American Nazis as a high school student, when a group of neo-fascists threatened to march in his neighborhood, known for its large Jewish population. He has been interviewed by the New York Times, BBC Radio, NPR, PBS, and numerous documentaries. He’s lectured at DePaul University, the Chicago History Museum, and other venues, and appeared on C-SPAN's Book-TV. Bernstein's nonfiction tale Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing was honored as a Notable Book of the Year by the State Library of Michigan. He lives in Chicago.

Bernstein's new book is Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund.

Earlier this month I asked the author about what he was reading. Bernstein's reply:
I have eclectic tastes in reading, and always seem to be juggling multiple books, depending on mood, latest passion, and time. Since I’m a nonfiction writer, I mostly stick to biography and history, which is fine by me since those have always been my favorite kinds of books since childhood. On the other hand, this summer I resolved to start reading some fiction again. Fiction writing techniques are vital to good nonfiction. I want my words to come alive on the page, and novels often do that far better than dry historical accounts. Delving back into fiction has given me great insight into how other writers get their voice on the page, which helped enlighten my own work. So what am I reading at the moment or in recent past?

Insurgent Mexico by John Reed.

Most modern audiences know Reed from Warren Beatty’s epic biopic Reds. He picked a great character. John Reed was a vibrant and hard working writer of the early 20th century who pioneered the kind of participatory journalism we take for granted today. Insurgent Mexico is a series of dispatches Reed wrote from the field for The Masses magazine during the Mexican Revolution, compiled into book form. He was on the front lines, riding with Pancho Villa and foot soldiers alike, spending nights with local peasants; bonding with them over bullets dodged, tequila consumed, tortillas eaten, and card games won and lost. The writing is vivid and exciting. You can feel the desert heat, see the bright colors of the blooming cactuses, and smell the rich miasma of sweat, gunpowder smoke, tobacco, and food. Reed’s description of Villa accepting an impromptu medal from his acolytes is a wonderful comic portrait. And his participation in an illegal casino crammed into a ramshackle hotel in 1913 Mexico could easily describe a similar gambling den of 2013. This is a century old book that is far ahead of its time. Reed’s account of the Russian revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World is his best-known work, but this earlier book is his finest.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

I haven’t read this one since high school, but it’s something I’ve been to wanting to reread for years. Finally I picked it up and I’m glad I did. Forsyth’s writes the story as an alternating criminal and police procedural, giving readers a streamlined dual narrative of a hired assassin’s careful planning to take out French President Charles de Gaulle as a French police force conducts a swift but methodical search to find “the Jackal” before he can complete his well-paid assignment. It’s a straightforward storyline with intriguing characters and a myriad of unexpected plot twists. Forsyth plays it subtle and understated from start to finish, which ratchets up the tension considerably.

Hollywood Nocturnes by James Ellroy.

Ellroy can be tough going. His plots are dense thickets that are not easily navigated, seething with complicated characters of varying ethical behaviors. But I do enjoy his work, which reads like equal parts low budget film noir and Jim Thompson pulp novel. Ellroy’s American Tabloid is about as compelling a fantasia on the JFK assassination as you’ll ever see. Hollywood Nocturnes is a collection of shorter works, which is more accessible to an Ellroy neophyte. His opening novella “Dick Contino’s Blues” is the best of the lot. Dick Contino, an obscure professional accordion player who appeared in the grade Z 1958 film Daddy-O, fascinated Ellroy. With Contino’s blessing, Ellroy ripped out a fictitious criminal counter life for the man. The reimagined Contino is our escort through the Dante’s Inferno of post WWII Los Angeles, a lowlife world jam-packed with movie star wannabes, two-bit filmmakers, crooked cops, serial murderers, scams sabotaged by reversal scams, and a TV amateur hour talent contest starring pizza delivering hookers of varying sexual preferences. The oddball crime tale pulls together a few loose facts into hardcore fiction using a terse prose style that doesn’t flinch in action or word choices. Ellroy’s gift for fresh takes on familiar stories is at its best here as he nimbly careens through the seamy milieu. Not for all tastes, but a dark diversion filled with scattershot violence and degenerate eroticism that makes for an enthralling read.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw.

Joseph P. Kennedy is a rich subject for any biographer. In this definitive work, historian David Nasaw gets it right. His subject is a maddening (and sometimes self-damning) contradiction of a man: a loyal husband and father with a string of beautiful mistresses, including screen star Gloria Swanson; an intelligent and savvy diplomat who thinks that England and the United States can negotiate with Adolf Hitler; a philanthropist whose love for public service is countered by his career as a ruthless businessman with strong distaste for anything that infringes on his corporate practices. Nasaw had access to Kennedy’s private papers and correspondence, which makes for keen insights. I was especially was moved by Nasaw’s portrayals of Kennedy’s emotional reactions to the violent deaths of four of his nine children, and the personal horror he felt in the wake of the well-meaning but botched lobotomy he approved of for his developmentally disabled daughter Rosemary. The Kennedy clan and their decades-long impact on national, if not world history everywhere continues to fascinate. This biography gets it right in showing the genesis of a profoundly influential dynasty.

Rubber Balls and Liquor by Gilbert Gottfried.

Rude. Crude. Laugh out loud funny. Smutty jokes. Crackpot stories of voicing Disney characters and TV commercials. More smutty jokes. Tales of life on the road as the comedian people love to hate. Still more smutty jokes. Hey, it’s not great art but I didn’t pick it up for the literary insights. Just good clean dirty fun, and nice diversion from some of my heavier reading.
Visit Arnie Bernstein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock grew up on a small farm in Connecticut and now lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband, two brilliant unicycling children, several cats, and a one-acre yard that she is slowly transforming into a wee, but flourishing ecosystem. She is the author of several books, including the popular Dairy Queen series starring lovable heroine D. J. Schwenk, Princess Ben, and Wisdom's Kiss.

Murdock's new novel is Heaven Is Paved with Oreos.

A few weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading.  Her reply:
Right now I'm reading Paul Among the People, a discussion of the writings of St. Paul as they relate to life in the Roman world in the first century. As anyone reading Heaven is Paved with Oreos knows, the Roman cathedral of St. Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo fuori le Mura) plays a major role in the book, so I decided (rather belatedly, one might argue) to learn more about Paul, the man. Now I'm hooked! It helps that Sarah Ruden, who's a classicist by training, does a fantastic job with the translations and with explaining Roman culture. It's also fun for me to contrast the detail of his life with the actual church building, which has been cherished by generations of worshippers who probably didn't know anything about, say, the details of ancient Roman divorce law. The book's not YA -- no dragons -- but I gobbled up adult non-fiction back when I was a young adult; crossing over isn't a bad thing.
Visit Catherine Gilbert Murdock's website.

My Book, The Movie: Heaven Is Paved with Oreos.

The Page 69 Test: Heaven Is Paved with Oreos.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Valerie Miner

Valerie Miner is the award-winning author of fourteen books. Her new novel is Traveling with Spirits. Other novels include After Eden, Range of Light, A Walking Fire, Winter’s Edge, Blood Sisters, All Good Women, Movement: A Novel in Stories, and Murder in the English Department. Her short fiction books include Abundant Light, The Night Singers and Trespassing. Her collection of essays is Rumors from the Cauldron: Selected Essays, Reviews and Reportage.

About a month ago I asked the author about what she was reading.  Miner's reply:
I’m always reading at least one book. When I don’t have a good book, I feel oddly lonely—although I have a wonderful partner and lots of great friends. I need the literary companionship. Right now, I’m raving about Trans-Atlantic, by Colum McCann. I also liked Let the Great World Spin. We share an interest in writing literary fiction with a strong sense of geographical place and historical moment. I love his use of language.

I do a lot of reviewing and am enjoying the two books I’m currently reviewing, but can’t tell you what they are until the reviews come out.

One of the pleasures of the last three years is participating in an Islamic World Reading group. We’re a group of friends—a composer, filmmaker, historian, philosopher, sociologist, etc. who all felt too ignorant about the histories and literatures of the Muslim world. Over the years, in addition to history, we’ve read novels, books about theology, the Koran, memoir, poetry, drama and we all feel a little less ignorant than when we began. We start our fourth year this September.

I had the good luck to be at several artists residencies in the spring—including Fundaci├│n Valparaiso in Moj├ícar, Spain and the Liguria Study Center in Bogliasco, Italy. This left me time to read some longer books. I really enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke. I tried (hard) to like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but decided one book was enough for me and did not read the sequel.

Among books I’ve recently reviewed, these are some highlights: Louise Doughty, Whatever You Love, in Boston Globe, 5 April, 2012; Tahmima Anam, The Good Muslim, in Los Angeles Times, 14 August, 2011; Jeremy Page, Sea Change in Boston Globe, 19 December, 2010; Joyce Carol Oates, Sourland, in Boston Globe, 19 September, 2010; Howard Norman, What Is Left The Daughter, Los Angeles Times, 18 July, 2010 and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That Last Held Mine, Boston Globe, 25 April, 2010.
Visit Valerie Miner's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hilary Levey Friedman

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture encompassing childhood and parenting, competitive afterschool activities, beauty pageants, reality TV, education and more.

Her new book is Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Late last month I asked Levey Friedman about what she was reading.  Her reply:
I am a voracious reader and always have been (in middle school when this became quantified through a program called Accelerated Reader I won “Reader of the Year” every year and made it onto the programs “International Honor Roll,” even writing reading comprehension tests for new books). So far in 2013 I have read 63 books, which means I’m averaging about two books per week.

This makes sense given that at any time I am reading a fiction book and a non-fiction book. The non-fiction books are almost always related to my work on parenting and childhood and afterschool activities. Right now I’m excited to read David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, as it relates to my interest in sports, the body, youth, and medicine. The book has been widely reviewed and I feel sure I won’t be disappointed.

In terms of fiction I love reading mystery/thriller series and as soon as a new addition to one of my favorite series—in this case Tamarack Countyis released I usually finish it in about a day (in fact, as soon as I finish writing this I am off to finish!). William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor books set in Minnesota resonate with me not because I am into the outdoors/law enforcement/Native American issues, but because they are well-paced, well-set, and well-drawn portraits of a community and characters vastly different from my own suburban Boston life. I always learn something even when I am just reading “for fun.”
Visit Hilary Levey Friedman's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: Playing to Win.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Kelly Braffet

Kelly Braffet is the author of the novel Save Yourself. Her previous works include the novels Josie and Jack and Last Seen Leaving, and her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, and several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University and currently lives in upstate New York with her husband, the author Owen King. Her likes include caramel, soft furry things, and things with stripes. Her dislikes include snow days, passion fruit, and having her blood pressure taken. (Seriously, when they put the cuff on your arm, and it gets all tight, and you just know that deep inside your muscles there are veins and arteries going, “Hey, where’s our blood, we need that for living?” That is super, super creepy.)

Late last month I asked the author about what she was reading. Braffet's reply:
We Have Always Lived In The Castle – Shirley Jackson

I read this, as I do so many books these days, on the recommendation of somebody on Twitter. (Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed that I’m as old as I am and haven’t read it before.) It’s amazing: a perfect, tight, grim little gem of a novel, otherworldly and brutal and did I mention perfect? In the University of Kelly, there would be an entire semester devoted to reading and re-reading and analyzing and studying this book. Everything from the first line to the title is perfectly calculated to throw the reader into a world where nothing is certain except the obsessive need to keep reading. And Jackson is utterly unabashed about it: you get what you get, and you make of it what you will.

Easily one of my Top 10 favorite novels, ever. Thanks, Twitter.
Visit Kelly Braffet's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ben Dolnick

Ben Dolnick is the author of three novels: Zoology, You Know Who You Are, and the newly released At the Bottom of Everything.

His writing has appeared in the New York Times and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. Dolnick's reply:
I just finished John Williams' Stoner, whose beginning I loved, but which then kind of fizzled out for me. At first I was hoping it was going to be a quietly devastating book a la Mrs. Bridge, by Evan Connell -- one of the best books I've read in years -- but it turned out, for me anyway, to just be quietly quiet. Now I've just picked up Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty. I'd read a few of his books years ago, and been impressed without quite falling in love. Now, prompted by all the obits, I found myself wanting to give him another try, and so far so great. Next on my nightstand stack is Joy Williams' Taking Care, which I've been meaning to get to for years. (Also, looming in the background of all my reading endeavors for the past couple of years has been War and Peace. I'm moving through it in something like real time, it feels like. I've now been beached on page 700 or so for more months than I'd like to think about.)
Visit Ben Dolnick's website.

The Page 69 Test: Zoology.

The Page 69 Test: You Know Who You Are.

Writers Read: Ben Dolnick (March 2011).

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mary Miley

Mary Miley is the winner of the 2012 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Competition. She grew up in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and France, and worked her way through the College of William and Mary in Virginia as a costumed tour guide at Colonial Williamsburg. After completing her masters in history, she worked at the museum and taught American history at Virginia Commonwealth University. As Mary Miley Theobald, she has published numerous nonfiction books and articles on history, travel, and business topics. The Impersonator is her first novel.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Miley's reply:
Because I’m working on book #3 of my Roaring Twenties mystery series, I’m usually reading books written in the Twenties or about the Twenties. This helps keep me in the mood, gives me insight into the decade, and provides details that bring life to the scene. I can learn how people interacted with others (blacks and whites, men and women, bosses and employees), how they spoke (the use of slang, contractions, swearing, insults), how they dressed at various types of events (for work, a cocktail party, a dinner party, a tennis match), descriptions of offices, homes, drug stores, boarding houses, theaters, and so forth.

Right now, I’m working through all the Agatha Christie mysteries that she wrote in the Twenties: Murder on the Links, The Man in the Brown Suit (my favorite!), The Mystery of the Blue Train, and Secret Adversary. Even though the author was British and I can’t use the language as a model, there are other things I can take away, such as what it was like to travel on a steamship. On the nonfiction end, I’ve just finished re-reading Last Call by Daniel Okrent, a fascinating history of Prohibition in which he mentions an incredibly bold whiskey theft that gave me the idea for my side plot. I recently read The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, a novel set in the Twenties that I liked so much I recommended it for my book club. Right now, The Great Gatsby is sitting on my night table. The last time I read that, I was in high school, so it will be like reading it for the first time.
Visit Mary Miley's website, blog, and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue