Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Eric Jay Dolin

Eric Jay Dolin is the author of Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Dolan's reply:
Since my books are on topics I know little about before writing them, most of my reading consists of old books, articles, letters, and newspaper accounts on the topic at hand. As a result, I read a relatively small number of new books. However, I am often asked to contribute blurbs, and that allows me to read some great soon-to-be-published books. Two are of particular note, especially because they are closely related to my book, Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates. Indeed it is because I wrote that book that I was asked to blurb these two.

The first is The Pirate's Wife: The Remarkable True Story of Sarah Kidd, by Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos, which will publish on November 8, 2022. Here is the blurb I provided: "A fascinating and intriguing story about the woman behind one of the most iconic pirates of all. Geanacopoulos's compelling portrait of Sarah Kidd's turbulent and often tragic life, and her indomitable spirit, is full of dramatic twists and turns that will leave you wondering if there is any truth to the legend of Captain Kidd's hidden treasure." Almost all books on pirates focus on male pirates--and virtually all of them from the Golden Age were men -- and not on the women that were in their orbit. That is what makes The Pirate's Wife so refreshing.

The second pirate book I recently blurbed is Born to Be Hanged: The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune, by Keith Thomson, which published on May 10, 2022. Here is what I what I wrote: “Born to Be Hanged is a thrilling tale of piracy in the South Seas, replete with pitched and bloody battles, treasure hoards, a daring rescue, violent storms, shifting allegiances, mutiny, and a dubious trial. It is full of so many fascinating details and surprising twists and turns that you will not want to put it down until the very end. A wonderful contribution to the history of piracy, and a welcome addition to every pirate lover's library.” It reads like dramatic fiction, although it has the added benefit of being true.

Having these two blurbs back to back made me suddenly realize that I really like the phrase "twists and turns!" Well, it's true!!!
Visit Eric Jay Dolin's website.

The Page 99 Test: Fur, Fortune, and Empire.

The Page 99 Test: When America First Met China.

The Page 69 Test: Brilliant Beacons.

The Page 99 Test: Brilliant Beacons.

The Page 99 Test: Black Flags, Blue Waters.

The Page 99 Test: A Furious Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 20, 2022

Linda Richards

Linda L. Richards is a journalist, photographer and the author of numerous books, including three series of novels featuring strong female protagonists. She is the former publisher of Self-Counsel Press and the founder and publisher of January Magazine.

Richards's new novel is Exit Strategy.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Richards's reply:
Considering the type of fiction I write, this may sound odd. But. I’m very careful with my diet of media. I currently find myself in a place where I feel the need to be mindful of what I think about. Mindful about the things I dwell on and the dark corners I visit in my thoughts. I think it was Buddha who said: “We are what we think, all that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.”

If that is true — and my heart believes it is — then we need to be clear with ourselves about what we immerse ourselves in. Especially since, when crafting works as densely dark as my current series, you are required to spend some time going down pretty dark roads.

With that in mind, I supply myself with a strongly positive diet of material. The music I listen to is upbeat and positive (currently loving "Alright" by KYTES, "4 Mains" by Wim Mertens, "Soulfight" by The Revivalists and a whole lot of music you would describe as Ambient). The shows I watch are bright and fuel my soul (recently binged Emily in Paris and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). When it comes to literature, with the exception of books I’m reviewing or reading for “work,” the choices I make are meant to feed me brightly, as well.

Right now I am gorging on BrenĂ© Brown’s very lovely Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Whatever you are expecting, this book is more. First it is beautiful. You want to clear your coffee table so it fits there properly. It is rich and glossy. Part scrapbook, filled with illustrations, plus visual pieces from Brown’s own life along with all the wit and wisdom we have come to expect from this researcher.

Atlas is about connection and emotion. “If we want to find the way back to ourselves and one another,” Brown writes, “we need language and the grounded confidence to both tell our stories and be stewards of the stories that we hear. This is the framework for meaningful connection.”

Will you learn things? You might learn things. But also, you will swim in beauty from all sides. And that will feed your soul.
Visit Linda L. Richards's website.

My Book, The Movie: Endings.

The Page 69 Test: Endings.

Q&A with Linda L. Richards.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, will be published in the spring. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Tolstoy's War and Peace:
Years ago, when writers were serious, and editors knew what they were doing, Maxwell Perkins, who worked with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, would give a copy of War and Peace to every new author he agreed to take on. It was, he would tell them, the greatest novel ever written, the measure of the perfection they should try to achieve. Tolstoy might have been amused. War and Peace, he insisted, “is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”

This is not as strange as it may seem.

“The history of Russian literature since Pushkin’s time not only provides many examples of such departure from European forms, but does not offer even one example to the contrary. From Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House, there is not a single work of artistic prose in the modern period of Russian literature, rising slightly above mediocrity, that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story.”

Far from a question of literary classification, this points to the very essence of what Tolstoy was trying to do. While Europe, while the West, believed in modern science, progress, and the equal right of everyone to acquire as much wealth as they could, Tolstoy had a different, and a deeper, understanding of what life was meant to be. There are two stories in War and Peace, stories that intertwine with each other: the story of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, and the story of how the ungainly, and often confused, Pierre and the lovely young girl Natasha, draw closer until, after engagements and marriages, broken hearts and tragic deaths, they understand that everything has been a prologue to their own marriage, and then, for the first time, understand what marriage means. Everything that happens to them seems a chance occurrence, yet somehow pre-ordained; everything a step necessary in a chain of circumstances leading to a conclusion that no one could have foreseen, and nearly everyone at the time thought the wrong thing to have done.

It begins at the beginning, almost on the very first page, the first page of the more than twelve hundred pages of War and Peace. After wandering around Europe, Pierre has returned to Russia where he offends nearly everyone by his slovenly appearance and drunken bad manners. The bastard son of one of the richest men in the country, he inherits everything and, suddenly the object of everyone’s affection, marries Helene, a woman he does not love, and does so for reasons he cannot explain. His wife is beautiful and stupid, but, to Pierre’s astonishment, all the wealthy and powerful people who attend her lavish parties think her one of the most intelligent women in Petersburg. She is like a glass mirror, reflecting back everything that goes on around her.

Helene’s ignorance is the ignorance of the age. Everyone thinks they know everything; no one knows anything. It is a kind of mass delusion, “the popularization of knowledge,” caused by “that most powerful tool of ignorance - the spread of printing.” Russian society has become enlightened, which means for Tolstoy, corrupt. Russia has followed Europe and, like Europe, has lost its soul; it has become addicted to wealth and power. Instead of real knowledge, the understanding of the place of human beings in an ordered universe, it seeks only the knowledge of how things work, the immediate material causes of whatever one might happen to desire.

The attempt to replace human understanding with the principles of modern science is nowhere more clear than in the history of the war. Nothing happens the way that, according to those principles, it should have happened. Napoleon invades Russia. There is a tremendous battle at Borodino, not far from Moscow. The French appear to win, but Kutuzov, the Russian general in charge, is certain that Napoleon has lost. Everyone wants Kutuzov to attack; Kutuzov retreats. Everyone knows that Moscow has to be defended; Kutuzov abandons it. Moscow is destroyed by fire, and Napoleon, who could have stayed, leaves. He could have attacked, and almost certainly taken, Petersburg, but he decides against it. There is no good reason for what Napoleon does; there is no good reason for what anyone does. Kutuzov did not reason about things; his Russian soul decided. Things happened the way they did because they had to happen that way.

The lesson, a lesson Tolstoy repeats over and over again, is that nothing was done according to any plan; soldiers fought and soldiers died, and even when they thought they were following orders, the orders they received were almost never the orders that were given. Everything that happened in the smoke and haze, the shock and violence, of battle was a reaction to what was going on directly in front of those who were fighting, or what they could see, or thought they saw, in front of them. What happens in war is accidental, irrational, and unknown.

How does Tolstoy know this? What makes him so certain that Pierre, wandering around a battlefield, has as good a sense of what is going on as the commanding general, or an officer on the spot? He knows it from his own observations, and from reading through the official Russian documents, the military reports written at the time. But he learned it first from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had insisted, long before Tolstoy, that the spread of printing was a danger to civilization. In Emile, Rousseau had written that “the facts described by history are far from being the exact portrayal of the same facts as they happened. They change form in the historian’s head; they are molded according to his instincts; they take on the complexion of his prejudices. Who knows how to put the reader exactly on the spot of the action to see an event as it took place? Ignorance or partiality disguises everything.”

Rousseau goes on in a way that reminds you immediately of what Tolstoy writes in War and Peace: “How many times did a tree more or less, a stone to the right or the left, a cloud of dust raised by the wind determine the result of a combat without anyone having noticed it? Does this prevent the historian from telling you the cause of the defeat or the victory with as much assurance as if he had been everywhere?”

Tolstoy thought it impossible to know the causes of events. Those who say that the causes of what happened in Russia “are the conquering spirit of Napoleon and the patriotic firmness of the emperor Alexander Pavlovich, is as meaningless as to say that the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are that such-and-such barbarian led his people to the west, and such-and-such Roman emperor ruled his people badly, or that an immense mountain that was being leveled came down because the last workman drove his spade into it.”

What then are the causes? History itself, history as Rousseau understands it; history which, after Rousseau, will take the place of God; history as the movement of the human race toward its own improvement, history as progress.

“History in general is defective in that it records only palpable and distinct facts which can be fixed by names, places, and dates while the slow and progressive causes of these facts, which cannot be similarly assigned, always remain unknown. One often finds in a battle won or lost the reason for a revolution which even before the battle had already become inevitable. War hardly does anything other than make manifest outcomes already determined by moral causes which historians rarely know how to see.”

For Tolstoy, all the battles, all the decisions, everything that happened, had, as it were, been pre-determined, part of history’s plan. The proof is simple, straightforward, easy to grasp: all the battles, all the decisions, everything that happened, happened only after all the battles, and all the decisions, of the past. When we look back, what do we see? That everything that has happened has led to this, the present moment. Everything that happens is necessary. This same necessity drives men and women, drives them without their conscious knowledge. It drives Pierre and Natasha to their marriage.

In Emile, Rousseau arranges everything in a way that after Emile and Sophie have fallen in love, they are forced to live apart for two years. This necessity deepened their love by delaying what they both desired. For Rousseau, and for Tolstoy as well, the sexes are each imperfect; only their union makes them into what they are, by nature, meant to be: together one being, together one whole. There is only one reason for marriage, but that reason is fundamental: to give birth and raise the next generation. Pierre and Natasha live their lives, their histories, if you will, guided toward each other, united in what they both instinctively understand. History, their history, has an end. After her marriage to Pierre, Natasha changes; she becomes what, quite unknowing, she has always wanted to be - a mother.

The two stories, the war with Napoleon, the happy solitude of marriage, the two stories, War and Peace, both driven forward by a common necessity that gives direction, and which explains, all the strange and seemingly inexplicable events of the lives of Pierre and Natasha - and not just their lives, but all the others - the desire, the need, to live, both as individuals and together as a country, beyond their own, too temporary existence. For Natasha that meant motherhood; for Natasha and Pierre and their children, that meant Mother Russia.

Maxwell Perkins was right. War and Peace is the greatest novel ever written.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Evie Hawtrey

Evie Hawtrey is a Yank by birth but a sister-in-spirit to her fierce and feminist London detective, DI Nigella Barker. Hawtrey splits her time between Washington DC, where she lives with her husband, and York, UK, where she enjoys living in history, lingering over teas, and knocking around in pubs.

Her new novel is And By Fire.

Recently I asked Hawtrey about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ll tell you what I am not reading—a mystery. Why? Because when I am writing (especially first-drafting) I avoid novels in the same genre to keep my characters’ voices as pure and authentically mine as possible.

So currently I am reading Volume I of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encylopeaedia. It’s non-fiction and illustrated. The description on the back earnestly explains: “the photographs, drawing and texts published in this book are part of a collection of more than three thousand tattoos accumulated over a lifetime by prison attendant Danzig Baldaev.” I would like to meet Mr. Baldaev, but he has been dead since 2005.

The introduction to Volume I, written by Alexei Plutser-Sarno, features one of the best opening lines ever—a line that could just as easily start a novel: “Strang as it may seem, the tattoo-covered body of a vor v zakone (legitimate thief), is primarily a linguistic object.” God, I wish I’d written that. And speaking of God, tattoos on vory that appear religious really aren’t, trust me on this one.

My dive into understanding the body-language of the Russian criminal class is part of the research for my next book—a follow-on mystery to And by Fire. My modern detectives, Nigella Parker and Colm O’Leary, are caught in the middle of another twisty multiple murder situation in modern London. This one involves Russian oligarchs and their associates. Not surprisingly, at least one of their victims has numerous tattoos. For the record, this author has none. There’s a drawing of a cat wearing a fancy hat, lace collar and bow tie while smoking a pipe on page 116 that caught my eye and tempted me. But alas he would indicate that I am “a recidivist convict” with no conscience. Very not me.
Visit Evie Hawtrey's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Marion Deeds

Marion Deeds was born in Santa Barbara, California and moved to northern California when she was five. She loves the redwoods, the ocean, dogs and crows.

She’s fascinated by the unexplained, and curious about power: who has it, who gets it, what is the best way to wield it. These questions inform her stories.

Deeds's new novel is Comeuppance Served Cold.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Deeds's reply:
I recently finished Max Gladstone’s Last Exit. Like all of Gladstone’s work, Last Exit features dense, multi-layered prose. Please note, I’m using “dense” in the “rich, fudgy flourless chocolate cake” sense of the term, and I’m a chocolate lover. This may be Gladstone’s masterpiece. While the closest I’ve ever come to an Ivy League college is attending an event somewhere on the Stanford campus, I felt like I experienced the parts of Yale our outsider main characters experienced in their college years. I saw the increasingly horrifying alternate worlds they used their magic, which they call “spin,” to visit, and I shared their fear of the entity following them, the one that calls itself the Cowboy.

Gladstone has mentioned Stephen King’s It as an influence or at least a kind of marker for Last Exit: I felt lots of resonance with an earlier work of King’s; The Gunslinger, the first book (actually a collection of novellas) of The Dark Tower series. In that first book, Roland is less a character and more of a force. Last Exit exists in direct dialogue with that force, as well as the forces of fear, hopelessness and powerlessness. This makes it sound like the book isn’t action packed—trust me, it is. And, he pulls off a convincing optimistic ending.

Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen comes out in May, but I finished an ARC of it. Vo deeply mines folklore from various traditions, the history of the studio system in Hollywood in the early years of film, and her own rich imagination to create the world our main character, who calls herself Luli Wei, inhabits. The magic in Vo’s world is deeply, organically rooted in history, and it is often hungry. It is also beautiful and wonderful. From the family of enigmatic women who seem to always work the ticket booth at the movie palaces, to the strange and dangerous campfires on the studio back lots on Friday nights, to those who become stars, magic is everywhere, and Luli is touched by it. Luli wants to be in movies on her own terms. “No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers,” she tells her boss, listing the stereotypical roles for Asian women at the time. Will she succeed? What will she sacrifice to prevail? It was a breath-taking read.

I’ve been a fan of all of Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series, and I’ve started The Untold Story, which may wrap up the over-arching storylines of these books. Librarian Irene is closing in on a couple of mysteries, one of which is deeply personal. I’m only about halfway in and I have to say this got dark pretty fast. I’m not sure what to expect next.
Follow Marion Deeds on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Sandra Dallas

New York Times best-selling author Sandra Dallas, the author of 16 adult novels, four young reader novels, and 10 nonfiction books, was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. Dallas’s novels with their themes of loyalty, friendship, and human dignity have been translated into a dozen foreign languages and have been optioned for films.

Her new novel is Little Souls.

Recently I asked Dallas about what she was reading. Her reply:
I review books for the Denver Post, and a few weeks back, I received an advance copy of Everybody Thought We Were Crazy by Mark Rozzo. It’s the story of Dennis Hopper and Brooke Howard’s marriage and 1960s Los Angeles. I loved it. Publication date is May. The love story is set against a background of pop art, rock and roll, drugs, and the new Hollywood. The couple knew everybody from the Fondas to the Black Panthers. I became a Dennis Hopper fan when I saw him in an early television performance in the 1950s. I think it was on The Medic. After Hopper’s marriage to Brooke broke up, I interviewed him when he was living in the Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos with his soon-to-be wife Michelle Phillips. The house was filled with pop art, which wasn’t all that popular in Taos at the time. A story I heard was that a man came to install a telephone and asked where to put it. Dennis was absorbed with something and pointed to a wall. The man installed the phone in the middle of an Andy Warhol painting.
Visit Sandra Dallas's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue