Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Ruth Galm

Ruth Galm’s writing has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Indiana Review, and on Joyland: a hub for short fiction. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and has been a resident of the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming. She was born and raised in San Jose, California, spent time in New York City and Boston, and now lives in San Francisco. Into the Valley is her first novel.

Recently I asked Galm about what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Colin Winnette’s Haints Stay, which staggered me. It’s often a brutally violent book, but that was fine with me because I loved how this rash physicality and the shifting identities and protagonists unsettled me. This jarred and unsafe feeling also twines with a way the novel, for all its use of genre, lifts us out of any known world into a kind of dreamscape, or “voidscape” maybe; I deeply admired this effect. (I read an interview with Winnette after I finished and learned the term “acid Western” for the first time; now I realize I’m a sub-genre fan.) And also Winnette’s stark, recursive sentences sometimes floored me: “Things changed in town. They changed often. There was no use fighting it. What they did was, they found a way and worked it until they worked a new one.” I will seek out Winnette’s other books.

I’m now reading Rudolph Wurlizter’s The Drop Edge of Yonder and can already see I’ll want to read more of him as well. (Clearly I’m on a revisionist Western—and a Two Dollar Radio—kick.) The sentence style and tone are very different from Haints Stay, more playful and ornate in their way, but there is already the promise of the trippy and outré at play in the genre, the click of a good pace, and I’m hooked.

I’m also dipping in and out of “The Changing Light at Sandover,” a 560-page epic poem by James Merrill that I don’t even know how to describe. I had no idea who Merrill was until I read Dan Chiasson’s review of a new biography on him in The New Yorker (being woefully ignorant of and yet hungry to learn about poetry, I relish all Chiasson’s news of this world) and learned that the poet wrote this opus from decades of Ouija board sessions with his partner. That just seemed wild and lawless and endlessly artistically fascinating, and I would highly recommend the book without even being sure what exactly to say about it or whether I’m “getting” it all. I can only say that I keep tagging lines and when I finished the first volume “The Book of Ephraim,” I felt great love for Ephraim, this character-spirit who warms us and makes us wiser, and then the second volume started into heady discussions with the beyond on science and the building of souls, and it all does feel epic, provocative and frightening and emotional in altering ways.
Visit Ruth Galm's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Barry Wolverton

Barry Wolverton has been writing for children for 20 years, helping create books, documentary television, and online content for Discovery Networks, National Geographic, the Library of Congress, Scholastic, and Time-Life Books, among others.

His debut novel, Neversink, was named the Children’s Book of Choice by Literacy Mid-South for their Read Across America program in 2014.

Wolverton's new novel is The Vanishing Island, book one of The Chronicles of the Black Tulip.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

I just started re-reading this as part of an NEA grant program I am participating in. Even though I’m not far into it, I am immediately reminded how precise and compelling her prose is, and how scrupulously she built the world of Earthsea. The names of people and places and the languages used feel wholly invented, and I love how strict her rules of magic are and the care she takes to explain how magic is learned and used. It’s not just opening a book of spells and learning Latinate phrases.

The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

So far there are two books in this proposed trilogy, and though a friend recommended the first — The Name of the Wind — I bought it because there was a blurb on the back from Ursula Le Guin (I guess it’s obvious I’m a fan). Both books are enormous yet deliberately incomplete. It’s not the trilogy for you if you want each installment to have a conclusion, a la Star Wars. And on one level, almost nothing happens. The entire narrative is being told by the main character to a scribe in a tavern over three days. But it’s incredibly absorbing because of the narrator’s voice and the author’s world-building. It’s like staring at the most amazing, intricate diorama you’ve ever seen.

Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I always try to bounce between different types of books or books for kids and adults, and Ms. Oyeyemi was by far my favorite discovery of the year. She is such an incredibly agile writer with a sharp, devilish wit I really love. Mr. Fox in particular reminded me a lot of another of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, for the way its stories are sort of elliptical and nested. I can’t wait to read the rest of her books.
Visit Barry Wolverton's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Vanishing Island.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Polly Dugan

Polly Dugan is the author of So Much a Part of You and The Sweetheart Deal. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Dugan's reply:
I’m ¾ of the way through Making Nice, Matt Sumell’s debut, which deserves all of the attention and praise it’s received, as does Sumell for sharing Alby’s unflinching honesty as he staggers along his journey through grief after the death of his mother. Alby’s being cyclically infuriated and brokenhearted in the wake of great loss make him a complex and compelling character. He’s not entitled or proud of behaving badly when he does, but he is painfully self-aware of his flaws—he has no delusions about himself or his motives—and it made me root for him. He’s not trying to get away with anything, he’s trying to get through something, even if the only means to do so is by hanging on for just a little longer and doing the best he can, his best often being a mounting list of regrets.

Any reader who is a fan of smart, literary fiction with a volatile and vulnerable character and intense emotional stakes at its center either already loves this book or will when they get their hands on it, but having lost my mother 12 years ago this September 23rd (next week as I write this), my connection was more personal. Unless you’ve experienced it, (and I’m sorry if you have), people don’t know what grief will look and feel like or what course it will take. Grief can make people misbehave, take risks they shouldn’t, jeopardize relationships, abandon self-care, self-medicate, can make them both needy and antagonistic, to name a few that Alby and Matt Sumell are obviously familiar with. And more: you cling to what you still have that you dearly love—your dog—or to what you believe you could possibly save—a dying bird or your brother from marriage.

I’m familiar too, and since the death of my mother is either thematically at the center of my work, or the event that directly informed it, I applaud Sumell for using what hurts to write this unforgettable book. And, what I also know is true about grief, as clearly Alby does, is that it’s proof of our continued capacity and irrepressible willingness to risk loving deeply, despite the cost.
Visit Polly Dugan's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: The Sweetheart Deal.

Coffee with a Canine: Polly Dugan & Tripp.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott has published more than twenty books over the last twelve years.

Her new novel is Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders.

Recently I asked Baggott about what she was reading. Her reply:
Clarice Lispector's Complete Stories. I'm not reading these beauties in order. Lispector is hailed as the greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century and I hadn't ever heard her name before reading a review of the book by Jeff VanderMeer. I'm enjoying dipping in and out of the book, letting them haunt, circling back for more.

I studied with Fred Chappell in the 90s and just came around again to The Fred Chappell Reader. Lee Smith calls him the "resident genius" of Southern writing and I wanted to come back to his work with my eye a bit more mature. I've been awed and disturbed. So wonderful.

Along with so many others, this summer will always be marked by Ta-Nehisi Coates' book -- written to his son -- Between the World and Me. He has altered the way I think about race, about the United States, and about how I'm raising my own children. I'm so thankful for his work and his voice.

In picture books -- our youngest is still young enough -- we have the new release by Laurel Snyder, Swan. My eight year old says that it's beautiful and sad, sadiful.
Visit Julianna Baggott's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders.

The Page 69 Test: Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman’s latest novel is The Poe Estate. She is also the author of The Grimm Legacy (a Bank Street Best Book and Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Finalist), its companion The Wells Bequest, and Enthusiasm (a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice). She has worked as a magazine editor, a newspaper columnist, a library page, and a licensed private investigator. She has written for many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Discover, Newsday, Salon, Slate, Scientific American, Archaeology, and The Village Voice. She majored in math at Yale and grew up in New York City, where she lives with her husband in a tall old building guarded by gargoyles.

I recently Shulman about what she was reading. Her reply:
My favorite recent novel is Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. I’d been longing for more of her Temeraire fantasy/alternate history series, which follow the fortunes of an English captain during the Napoleonic Wars. He’s not in the navy, but the Aerial Corps—his “ship” is a dragon named Temeraire, a brave, affectionate, rational soldier of a person who also happens to be a gigantic, scaly flying beast and something of a philosopher. Novik’s writing is even better than the premise: funny, touching, fast paced, and subtle. I was disappointed when I learned her new novel had nothing to do with Temeraire, but somewhat to my surprise, I loved Uprooted even more. Uprooted has a fairy-tale premise: Every ten years, the Dragon chooses a girl from the heroine’s village to work for him in his tower castle, and this time it’s the heroine’s turn. Unlike Temeraire, this dragon is a man—a wizard who’s trying to protect the region from the encroaching enchanted Wood. I wanted to read Uprooted slowly to savor the gorgeous writing, vivid characters and relationships, and magical atmosphere, but the story was so exciting I gobbled it down.

I recently read a batch of 20th century literary novels reissued by New York Review Books Classics—they have great taste. My favorites were Great Granny Webster, by Caroline Blackwood; Summer Will Show, by Sylvia Townsend Warner; and Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. (The novelist, not the actor.) Great-Granny Webster, first published in 1977, is a dark, semi-autobiographical comedy about upper-class eccentrics. Summer Will Show, first published in 1936, takes place in Paris during the revolution of 1849; the heroine falls in love with her husband’s mistress and joins the rebels. (Somebody needs to reissue Warner’s 1977 Kingdoms of Elfin, which ranks with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as one of the best books ever written about fairies for adults.) Angel, first published in 1957, tells the cringingly ironic story of an Edwardian popular novelist’s rise and fall; not everyone will love it, but I did.

I’m considering writing a historical novel set in the Gilded Age one of these days—or at least, the pile of books on my coffee table and in my tablet suggests that I might be. I just finished Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier, published in 1912 but set some 40 years earlier, the story of a stockbroker who gets caught up in politics and corruption. Dreiser piles on the details—about everything from the protagonist’s financial transactions to his office furniture to his mistress’s ball gowns—and refrains from drawing any clear morals from the story, which fascinated me. His writing is strangely paced and full of verbal lumps, which I also found fascinating; it’s very different from the infelicities you find in less-than-great writing nowadays. I’ve downloaded the sequel, The Titan, but I haven’t started reading it yet.

When I was writing The Poe Estate I reread Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, looking for haunted houses and ghostly objects to borrow for my book. That set me off on a long Wharton kick; I dipped in and out of her collected works, reread The House of Mirth, her New York Stories, and various other stories and novellas. She’s a spectacular observer, her sentences are witty and perfectly balanced, and she knows how to make her readers want to know what happens next. But she likes to punish her characters, which can make the stories painful to read. This time through I paid a lot of attention to the descriptions and period details.

I’ve also been reading Hotel: An American History, by A.K. Sandoval-Strausz (very informative), and I’ve been accumulating a small collection of travel books from the 1870s or so, the best of which are Over the Ocean; or, Sights and Scenes in Foreign Lands and Abroad Again; or, Fresh Forays in Foreign Lands, both by Curtis Guild; my editions are from 1877. So maybe whatever historical novel I may or may not write might include some travel—possibly a Grand Tour of Europe.

I tend to read more genre fiction and classics (or just old books) than contemporary literary fiction, but right now I’m reading Make Your Home Among Strangers, an absorbing new novel by Jennine Capó Crucet, about a young Cuban-American woman who’s the first in her family to go to college. It’s beautifully written, and I’m loving it.
Visit Polly Shulman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Peter Jones

Peter Jones is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is deeply involved in running Track Two dialogues in Asia and the Middle East, and also writes and teaches on the subject. His latest book is entitled Track Two Diplomacy in Theory and Practice.

Recently I asked Jones about what he was reading. His reply:
I travel a great deal for my work, and am a voracious reader on planes. Most of my reading has to do with my chosen field; conflict resolution and particularly the question of how one opens and sustains dialogues between peoples in conflict. This is a harder issue than commonly supposed. Intractable, longstanding conflicts create significant pressures to keep going; once the dynamic and logic of war are deeply entrenched it is politically and emotionally easier to continue fighting than it is to step back and consider alternatives.

I am presently reading a fascinating account of behind-the-scenes dialogues between a senior Indian intelligence official and Kashmiri militants during the period when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister of India. It is entitled Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. The author, A.S. Dulat, was a lifelong member of India’s intelligence community, who rose to the very top of that community and spent many years working on the Kashmir problem. The book outlines how Dulat came to the view that only through dialogue with the militants could the conflict be managed and resolved and tells the story of how he launched and conducted such a dialogue, which came very close to a breakthrough.

His honest and at times painful account of the process does not pull any punches – these were not easy talks and the people at the table on both sides were no angels. Both sides in the dispute had committed harsh, even unspeakable acts against the other and against innocent civilians. Often, in my own experience, it is a very special sub-set of such people – some of those who have done the fighting and killing – who are the ones who come to the conclusion, after many years of fruitless and bitter fighting, that there is no other way forward than compromise and dialogue. This precisely mirrors my own experiences of running so-called “Track Two” Dialogues between people in conflict, including some on this issue which have included Dulat himself.

The book is thus a fascinating account of behind-the-scenes talks as seen by one who was an instrumental player. But it is also a meditation on how someone who has spent his life fighting can come to the view that dialogue offers the only way forward; an amazing personal journey. Dulat shows that, on many occasions, what been firm and longstanding Indian beliefs about the motivations and character of leaders on the ‘other side’ were found to be wrong once he got to know them, and how the other side came to revise its opinions of Indian leaders and a positions. These revelations would not have happened had the two sides not been talking.

Through all the fighting and bloodshed, Dulat came to the view that the Kashmir problem could never be resolved unless India accepted the need to talk directly to the militants, and also to the country which supported many of them; Pakistan. Even though the talks he writes about ultimately failed to resolve the issue when other events intruded, Dulat believes they created a set of ideas that will ultimately be the foundation of such a resolution.

A book I have recently finished reading is Frederik Logevall’s very interesting Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. This is a very readable and yet also scholarly account of the final years of the French experience in IndoChina, and of how the US came to be sucked into that conflict.

After World War 2, France was keen to re-assert its Great Power status and overcome the legacy of surrender and occupation. Many senior French officials saw a vigorous assertion of Imperial greatness as one means to do this. This view ran smack up against the emerging desire for liberation, which would spawn the de-colonisation movement of the 50s and 60s throughout the developing world. While many of these movements were simply the indigenous expression of a desire to throw off colonialism, it was the misfortune of these movements to be active at just the time the Cold War was settling its grip over international affairs. Though many of them were hardly committed Communists, the language and concepts of the era meant that their struggles would be interpreted through the Cold War prism.

This is very much what happened in French IndoChina. Reading Logevall’s account, one is struck by the many instances when senior figures in the French government and the Viet Minh tried to talk to each other to find a way forward. It is clear that Ho Chi Minh, though a socialist, had little interest in being entirely cooped up within the Communist world; he tried in the early years of the struggle on several occasions to have quiet talks with the French and the Americans to see if a way could not be found to peacefully disengage France from Vietnam, but also leave in its wake a neutral country that would not be a ‘threat’ to broader US interests in the Cold War. Minh eventually accepted large-scale Chinese and Russian aide, but only after he felt that all hope of dialogue with France and the US was dashed.

We will never know, of course, if such an outcome was really Minh’s objective, or if it would have been possible. On every occasion when talks might have taken place, events conspired to create countervailing pressures. Sometimes these were just circumstances. More often than not, it was high-ranking people who simply did not want to compromise. At key moments, for example, leaders of the French colonial administration in Vietnam took a hardline, believing they could ‘win’ in military terms, and also that France’s larger interests in re-establishing itself as a Great Power required that it show the world that a leading European nation could not be defeated by an ‘inferior’ people.

What is particularly interesting is the clear picture that emerges of many senior US officials coming rapidly to the view that France’s position in Vietnam was increasingly militarily and politically untenable and advising Washington of this quite bluntly. And yet, time and again, what were perceived to be larger US interests in the geopolitics of the Cold War meant that Washington supported hardliners in Paris, even when they knew it was an increasingly hopeless cause. The US was keen to shore up France as a European ally against perceived Soviet expansionism, both in Asia, but also in Europe itself. It was repeatedly argued that this ‘bigger picture’ required that France not be seen to ‘lose’ to a Communist insurgency. And yet, that is exactly what ultimately happened, but not before the US had become so enmeshed in that conflict as to lay the foundation for its own disaster in Vietnam.

Embers of War does not provide any firm answers as to whether the tragedy of the US involvement in Vietnam could have been avoided. The world is too complex a place for that. But it does raise the intriguing question of whether an alternate path, a path of dialogue and compromise, might have worked. At the least, this book shows quite convincingly that there was a window when it could have been attempted; feelers were put out and were understood as being such by at least some people. There were discussions of whether dialogue and compromise might be possible, but these were always drowned out by the voices of those who argued that ‘bigger’ interests required a tough stance.

Embers of War, and Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, both show us that dialogue between enemies is possible. It is never easy and requires remarkable and courageous people. But there are moments in most conflicts – though perhaps not all (what compromises could have been made with the Nazis?) – when alternate paths can at least be explored. It is the job of statesmen, diplomats and people of vision to be on the lookout for such moments, and to recognise when larger interests require a leap of courage.
Learn more about Track Two Diplomacy at the Stanford University Press website.

Jones is also the author of Open Skies: Transparency, Confidence-Building, and the End of the Cold War.

The Page 99 Test: Open Skies.

The Page 99 Test: Track Two Diplomacy in Theory and Practice.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 21, 2015

Chris Holm

Chris Holm is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. His Collector trilogy, which blends fantasy with old-fashioned crime pulp, wound up on over forty Year’s Best lists. David Baldacci called Holm's latest, the hitman thriller The Killing Kind, "a story of rare, compelling brilliance." He lives in Portland, Maine.

Recently I asked Holm about what he was reading. His reply:
At present, I’m reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Through the Evil Days. It’s the latest in her Clare Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne series. Thus far, it’s been a joy. Spencer-Fleming is at once a powerful and graceful writer, capable of thrilling action and gorgeous character moments. From sentence one, you know you’re in good hands.

Before that, I read Michael Koryta’s Last Words. It’s the first in a new series centered on damaged PI Mark Novak—and I think it’s my favorite Koryta novel yet. Though it’s solidly a crime novel, with nothing overtly otherworldly to be seen, Koryta’s writing style evokes the creeping dread of his supernatural thrillers, and the sequences that take place underground—in the pitch black Trapdoor Cavern—are so chillingly evocative, I wouldn’t dare read them in the dark.

It’s rare a book affects me so much I’m forced to set it aside, but so it was with Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog. It is, without a doubt, one of the most harrowing books I’ve ever read—and the picture it paints of the War on Drugs will change the way you look at the past forty years of American history. I’ve yet to finish it, because five hundred sixty pages of relentless brutality is almost too much to take—but I’m sure I’ll circle back soon, because it’s simply too good not to.
Visit Chris Holm's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Killing Kind.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Shelley Pearsall

Shelley Pearsall is an author with Random House Children's Books. She writes for tween and teen readers (ages 10 - 14). Her inspiring and thought-provoking novels are used in schools and libraries nationwide. Her newest book, The Seventh Most Important Thing, is an Autumn 2015 Kids' Indie Next List Pick by the American Bookseller Association.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Pearsall's reply:
The teetering pile of books on my bedside table tells the true story—I have no coherent reading style. Anyone perusing the titles would be hard-pressed to guess a single detail about me. The books range from youth to adult fiction, non-fiction to poetry, pulp romances to literary award winners. I’m an utterly random reader (who is also married to one.)

I have no excuse for my lack of focus in choosing books, except to say that I’ve always been this way. And perhaps it is the journey--the words and the variety of ideas that I love—more than the destination.

For writers, it seems that what you read is often what you write (kind of the “you are what you eat” philosophy of writing.), so it probably isn’t surprising that my own writing is just as varied. I’ve written six novels covering a wide-range of topics from the Underground Railroad in Trouble Don’t Last (Knopf, 2002)—to a reclusive artist in my newest novel for ages 10-14, The Seventh Most Important Thing (Knopf, 2015).

However, there is one common thread to at least some of my reading choices. I’m drawn to strong and memorable characters. A distinctive voice will pull me into any topic. So, with that in mind, here are a few recent reads—totally random, of course—that grabbed me with their unforgettable characters:

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith who is one is the very best at the art of creating characters. I was captivated by the voice of Evalina—a young girl who grows up in Asheville’s Highland Mental Hospital in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when Zelda Fitzgerald was a frequent patient there.

Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Hernndorf. A novel that took me on a wonderfully unpredictable, funny, and poignant ride as two German teenagers steal a car and go on a driving adventure. The teen voice in this book was spot-on and the immediacy of the writing really swept me into the story.

Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over TRex Ever Found by Steve Fiffer. Despite being non-fiction, the author made me care deeply about the paleontologists caught up in the convoluted legal battle with the U.S. government over the famous skeleton. And he even made me care about Sue, the mistreated collection of bones, herself!

There you have it…dinosaurs, mental institutions, and teenage car thieves…the booklist of a random reader.
Visit Shelley Pearsall's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 18, 2015

George A. Gonzalez

George A. Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami. His new book is The Politics of Star Trek: Justice, War, and the Future.

A few days ago I asked the author about what he was reading. Gonzalez's reply:
James Kreines, Reason in the World: Hegel’s Metaphysics and its Philosophical Appeal (Oxford University Press, 2015) – The Star Trek franchise has taught me that justice exists as a metaphysical entity. As a result, I’ve taken to reading continental philosophy – especially that related to Georg Hegel (1770 – 1831). Hegel argued that justice emanates from the Absolute. My view is that Star Trek reflects, conveys the justice of the Absolute – a classless society, free of gender, ethnic biases.

David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933-1945 (Oxford University Press, 2001) – Star Trek puts forward a universalist concept of justice – a classless society, free of gender, ethnic biases. As such, I’ve become interested in different notions of justice. The Nazis sought to formulate through their cinema a narrow conception of justice – one exclusively tied to German national identity. In The Politics of Star Trek I specifically argue that such narrow (indeed, myopic) conceptions of justice are very dangerous in the modern world system– where through such devices as nuclear weapons and global warming the planet can be destroyed (à la the Xindi).
Learn more about The Politics of Star Trek at the Palgrave Macmillan website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Catherine Reef

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including many highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Reef's new book is Noah Webster: Man of Many Words.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Recently I spent a season—more than a season, really—with David Foster Wallace’s astonishing masterpiece, Infinite Jest. In the final paragraphs, the character Don Gately, hospitalized for a gunshot wound and with a fever that has spiked dangerously, emerges from a hallucinatory nightmare to perceive that he is lying on a cold beach at low tide in the rain. The medical staff has plunged Gately’s massive body into an icy bath; this much is clear. But Wallace left me to decide whether Gately lives or dies. I’m still unsure, although I’m leaning toward life, in part because another great book had been tugging at my memory while I read Infinite Jest. I had to be optimistic after recalling its rapturous closing: “Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!”

I’m not the first person to notice that Infinite Jest and The Brothers Karamazov have a great deal in common. Three brothers whose alcoholic father dies in an ugly way; a father and son vying for the same woman; a safe place that represents a retreat from the surrounding culture, Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House in Wallace and the monastery in Dostoyevsky; a scene toward the end of Infinite Jest that pays homage to the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in the earlier novel—a thoughtful reader of both books will spot these parallels, and more.

Upon finishing Infinite Jest I felt like turning back to the beginning and reading the whole thing again. But a stronger urge was pulling me toward The Brothers Karamazov. I’d been away from this old friend for at least fifteen years—far too long! So I am rereading Dostoyevsky, not to look for curious similarities between the two books, although I am finding some. Each has a character who presses his forehead against a freezing pane of glass, for example, and each has a character who murders cats. No, I am reading The Brothers Karamazov for what it is: a classic novel dealing with belief and doubt, and with the challenge of living a moral life whether we are governed by faith, like Alexey; by intellect, like Ivan; or by our passions, like Dmitri.

I have also been thinking about the meandering paths my reading takes, how one book leads me to another, or how an intriguing volume discovered on the one-dollar stand at a used-book store will introduce me to an author I’ve never encountered and take me in a new direction. Sometimes a recommendation or review will open a new trail.

In 2008, a review by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post led me to The World Is What It Is, Patrick French’s distinguished biography of V. S. Naipaul. The review was the kind biographers hate, with many paragraphs devoted to the subject of the biography and maybe a sentence or two about the book. Yet it made me curious enough about Naipaul to buy the book, which remains one of my favorite biographies. I found French’s portrait of the Nobel laureate to be the opposite of flattering, yet it is so insightful and carefully researched that I never doubted its fairness. Remarkably, this is an authorized biography, written with the subject’s full cooperation. I came away with appreciation for both writers, admiring French for his skill as a biographer and Naipaul for his commitment to honesty in literature.

Now I am reading French’s first book, published in 1994, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer. I knew nothing about the subject, Francis Younghusband (1863-1942), but I quickly learned that he was a British army officer who made exploratory trips across Asia and in 1903 led a military invasion of Tibet. He also wrote several books on his travels and on mystical subjects.

I’m only sixty pages in, and I am enjoying French’s approach. At least so far, the book is as much a travelogue as a biography, because French journeyed in Younghusband’s footsteps and contrasts his own and his subject’s adventures. In 1887, for example, Younghusband rode into the Gobi Desert with a couple of men and some pack animals, not knowing what he would encounter in this unmapped region or whether he would even come back. Under the stars, miles and miles from any human settlement, he felt his spiritual nature awaken; he had a sense of “the wholeness of the universe and of being intimately connected with the whole,” as he phrased it.

There was nothing transcendental about French’s journey into the same desert a century later. A train took him to the industrial city of Baotou, a place of concrete-block housing and pollution, which had yet to be constructed in Younghusband’s day. Treated as a curiosity, followed and gawked at, French found no connection whatsoever. “I felt like an African in Elizabethan England,” he wrote. Both journeys make for fascinating reading, and French’s observations underscore how different Younghusband’s world was from the one we inhabit.

What’s on my reading horizon? While researching two recent books, The Brontë Sisters and my forthcoming young adult biography of Florence Nightingale, I encountered George Eliot. Both times I felt a pang of regret that I have never read her masterwork. So the next big book I will tackle, after The Brothers Karamazov, is Middlemarch. I will also read Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra and poet Rabindranath Tagore’s My Reminiscences. I can’t tell you how that last book ended up on my shelf. It seems to have presented itself, like an idea.
Visit Catherine Reef's website.

The Page 69 Test: Frida & Diego.

Coffee with a Canine: Catherine Reef & Nandi.

My Book, The Movie: Noah Webster.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

M. Tara Crowl

M. Tara Crowl grew up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She studied Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, then received an MA in Creative Writing at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

Crowl's new novel is Eden's Wish.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Crowl's reply:
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I decided to dive into this after watching the movie The End of the Tour. The movie is based on the true story of a Rolling Stone writer (played by Jesse Eisenberg) joining David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel) on the last few stop of his book tour for an interview. Until recently, I’d only been vaguely aware of Infinite Jest as one of those very important pieces of American literature that you’ve got to read at some point. Other than that, I didn’t know much about it. But the way the book’s genius is hyped up in the movie made me really curious.

So far I’m only 10% deep on my Kindle—but so far, so good. (Although, does it need my thumbs up for validation? Probably not.)

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

Although I write middle-grade fiction, I actually don’t read a lot of it. However, when I see or hear the kind of fantastic reviews I did for this book, I have to check it out. It’s dark enough and eerie enough to give kids a thrill, and there’s a timeless feel to it. So far, I love it.

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson

I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially the Ripley series. I’ve read them all multiple times. It probably sounds strange, but I would say they’ve been a significant influence on the Eden books. Yes, Eden is a light-hearted 12-year-old genie while Ripley is a cold-blooded sociopathic criminal—but creating suspense is critical for any action-driven story, and Highsmith is masterful at it. She also creates such immersive worlds, and her writing is perfectly spare and precise.

A friend of mine who’s a screenwriter turned me on to Highsmith a few years ago, and I think he’s the one who recommended this biography to me. I knew she was dark, but now I’m starting to understand how dark. She believed that mental abnormalities were beneficial and perhaps even essential for a writer. Reading about her life and being exposed to her thoughts through excerpts from her journals is giving me a whole new perspective on her writing.
Visit M. Tara Crowl's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson writes the Agatha and Macavity winning Dandy Gilver detective series, set in her native Scotland in the 1920s. The latest, A Deadly Measure of Brimstone, won a third consecutive Left Coast Crime award this year. In 2013 she started a strand of darker (that’s not difficult) standalones. The first, As She Left It, won an Anthony award and The Day She Died was shortlisted for an Edgar. Her new novel is The Child Garden.

McPherson immigrated to America in 2010, and lives in northern California with a black cat and a scientist. She is proud to be the 2015 president of Sisters in Crime.

Recently I asked McPherson about what she was reading. Her reply:
I had to leave twenty unread pages of Sophie Hannah’s magnificent The Monogram Murders when I got up this morning. (Yes, I read novels in bed on Tuesday mornings. And I call it working too.) I picked it up at Bloody Scotland last September after hearing Sophie speak about the honour/pressure of writing the first book featuring one of Dame Agatha’s characters to have been sanctioned by the Christie estate. There’s much more to the book than just this but I do have to say – she nailed it. The plot is quintessentially Christie: clever, convincing despite being truly bonkers, and hugely satisfying. The tone is pure Christie too. Not the Christie of the vicarage and the library – nor even the Orient Express – but one of the slyly nasty ones like The ABC Murders or The Moving Finger.

The reason it took me so long to get to it was partly because I’d been disappointed in one or two other continuations. Silly, but isn’t everyone’s reading life like that, meandering along – one choice hooked onto the next, monkey’s paw to monkey’s tail. In any case, I think this continuation is a triumph – right up there with Jill Paton Walsh’s extensions to the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane collection. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’ll now jump on The Girl In The Spider’s Web. Monkey’s tail hooking over monkey’s paw.

Before The Monogram Murders I read a book that came to me by a route markedly different from most of my choices these days. I read a lot of books to blurb, to interview, to moderate, to research and to join discussions. I also read a lot of books because they’re written, agented, edited or published by my friends. But Bailey White’s Quite A Year For Plums came to me thus: I broke my arm and, unable to feed or dress myself, couldn’t stay home alone when my husband went off to a week-long meeting of entomologists, epidemiologists and pathologists who were gathering on the Monterey peninsula to talk about tomato spotted wilt virus.

I sat in a room at the conference grounds writing long-hand in a spiral notebook – I broke my right wrist and I’m left-handed, thank God – and when the dinner bell rang I sauntered over to join the scientists (and ukulele retreat attendees, incidentally – it took about a day for the uke players to start writing songs about bugs). Among them was one Albert Culbreath from the University of Georgia who was the inspiration for a plant pathologist named Roger in the book Bailey White wanted to call Vectored By Thrips. All the scientists thought Vectored By Thrips was a better title than Quite A Year For Plums. Me. I think Quite a Year … is one of the best titles I’ve ever heard. (My lifetime favourite is Witches on the Road Tonight.)

It’s a little gem of a book, the tale of a town delivered in sideways glimpses of the characters who live there. People pass in and out, others talk about them, and by the end you – okay, I – love every last one. The cherry on top (of the plum?) was that Roger falls in love with his Della via the notes she leaves on her discarded possessions at a roadside dumpster. In my next life, I’d like to fall in love that way.
Visit Catriona McPherson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Jay Atkinson

Jay Atkinson, called “the bard of New England toughness” by Men’s Health magazine, is the author of eight books. Caveman Politics was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program selection and a finalist for the Discover Great New Writers Award; Ice Time was a Publishers Weekly Notable Book of the Year and a New England Bookseller’s Association bestseller; and Legends of Winter Hill spent seven weeks on the Boston Globe hardcover bestseller list. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Newsday, Portland Oregonian, Men’s Health, Boston Sunday Herald, and Boston Globe magazine, among other publications. Atkinson teaches writing at Boston University and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times. He grew up hearing Hannah Duston's story in his hometown of Methuen, Massachusetts, which was part of Haverhill until 1726. He lives in Methuen, Massachusetts.

Atkinson's new book is Massacre on the Merrimack: Hannah Duston's Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
This time of year is re-reading season for me. Right now I am reading Maggie Cassidy by Jack Kerouac, since I will be teaching Jack Kerouac and the Beats this fall at Boston University. In this vastly underrated novel, Kerouac is able to capture the bittersweet feelings of first love, as well as the quicksilver of a young, shy, Franco-American football hero’s senior year in high school. He does this by matching the romanticism of Wolfe and Saroyan with his own investigation into what he called “spontaneous prose,” resulting in a book that makes me feel nostalgic for that time of life when I read it. That’s about a big a compliment as I can think of.

I am also reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory for the quality of his prose and, again, the writer’s ability to capture a moment in the past with an image, a smell, or even something as fleeting as a certain kind of tree in bloom. Among other things, I am working on a book on classic film, and recently read and enjoyed Five Came Back by Mark Harris, a fine nonfiction narrative book about the WWII experiences of Hollywood directors John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston. It’s impossible to imagine one of today’s famous directors volunteering to shoot combat footage over a period of months, or even years, in a place like Iraq or Syria. This fine book captures a different time, and a different sort of professional.

In late summer, I usually read Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon; Good-bye to All That by Sassoon’s friend, the poet Robert Graves; Facey Romford’s Hounds by R. S. Surtees; and Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. It’s like visiting with four amazing storytellers (and stand-up guys), all in the same month.

Soon I will be reading the galleys of a new biography of my late friend and mentor, the novelist Harry Crews, written by Ted Geltner. The University of Georgia Press will publish it this spring. I say a Hail Mary for Harry every night, thinking of him as a sort of honorary Catholic, he so admired Catholic writers like Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor. I was proud to know Harry, and I miss him.
Visit Jay Atkinson's website.

My Book, The Movie: Massacre on the Merrimack.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Jackie Lea Sommers

Jackie Lea Sommers is a young adult author who lives in Minnesota, where the people are nice and the Os are long. She is the 2013 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. Her first novel Truest is now out from HarperCollins.

Recently I asked Sommers about what she was reading. Her reply:
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

I picked up this debut novel, a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, because the premise seemed impossible: that a feisty young girl could fall in love with a nineteen-year-old king who is murdering a new bride every morning, one of whom she is supposed to be. There’s so much inherent tension just in the idea of it that I knew I had to see how Ahdieh could manage it. She did more than manage it—she nailed it. This book is so lovely, so rich, so layered—and the characters so complicated and enchanting—that at my very first read, it became a new favorite. I’m beyond thrilled that there’s a sequel coming.

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

Marchetta is a writing goddess. My bookcase is a Marchetta shrine, and my greatest hope is that someday I can write a novel that reminds readers of hers. Although I love all her books, right now I’m re-reading Saving Francesca rather methodically to try to figure out the key to characters and details; she is the queen of both, and this book is magic.

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

This book is my metaphorical safety blanket. I’ve been tremendously nervous for the release of my debut novel, and over the last two months, I’ve probably read this book a dozen times, sometimes multiple times in a row. It’s a comfort to me: the characters I know well, the setting so rich, the twist so perfect. Narnia will always be my happy place.
Visit the official Jackie Lea Sommers website.

--Marshal Zeringue