Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Peng Shepherd

Peng Shepherd was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, and has lived in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, London, New York, and Mexico City.

Her second novel, The Cartographers, became a national bestseller, was named a Best Book of 2022 by The Washington Post, and received a 2020 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her debut, The Book of M, won the 2019 Neukom Institute for Literary Arts Award for Debut Speculative Fiction, and was chosen as a best book of the year by Amazon, Elle, Refinery29, and The Verge, as well as a best book of the summer by the Today show and NPR’s On Point.

Shepherd's new novel is All This and More.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Shepherd's reply:
With novels, I’m always either early for or late to the party—half of my TBR pile is advanced copies of upcoming books that editors have sent me and the other half is treasures I’ve found while wandering bookstores or been recommended by friends over the years.

Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić (1988)

This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. I love stories with unusual structures, and narratives that come together fragment by fragment like puzzles. Dictionary of the Khazars is an imaginary history of the Khazars, a semi-nomadic people from the seventh and ninth centuries, written in the form of three mini-encyclopedias which cross-reference and sometimes contradict each other. The effect is mysterious, fascinating, and eerily verisimilar.

Hum by Helen Phillips (forthcoming, Aug 2024)

Helen Phillips is a master of suspense, and Hum is no different. One moment, you think you’rereading a sharp satire of an exhausted mother trying to navigate the dystopian, tech and social media-addicted world we’re all living in right now, and the next, your heart is in your throat. After May loses her job to artificial intelligence and is desperate for money, she becomes a guinea pig in an experiment that alters her face so it can’t be recognized by surveillance. But when a tiny, innocent mistake suddenly spirals out of control, May’s best chance of proving that she’s a good mother and that her children belong with her lies in the very tech which can now no longer recognize her. It’s a harrowing glimpse into our possible future.
Visit Peng Shepherd's website.

Q&A with Peng Shepherd.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Richard Lange

Richard Lange’s stories have appeared in The Sun, The Iowa Review, and Best American Mystery Stories, and as part of the Atlantic Monthly’s Fiction for Kindle series. "Apocrypha" was awarded the 2015 Short Story Dagger by Great Britain's Crime Writers' Association. He is the author of the collections Dead Boys and Sweet Nothing and the novels This Wicked World, Angel Baby, which won the Hammett Prize from the International Association of Crime Writers, The Smack, and Rovers. He received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow.

Lange's latest novel is Joe Hustle.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Lange's reply:
I read a number of books at once, consigning each to a certain time of day. One in current rotation is The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann. Vollmann is my favorite living author and has been for years. I’m awestruck by his formal experimentation, his historical research, and the emotional wallop his books pack. That he has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize is a straight up crime. The Dying Grass is the fifth book in his Seven Dreams series (only six have been published so far), which examines the history of confrontation between Native Americans and various colonizers. Don’t think James Michener though. Vollmann turns historical fiction on its head. These books are spells, hallucinations, and visions that take you places you’ve never been and teach you things you should have been taught in school. History has never been more real and surreal (and thus more accurate) than in these novels. The Dying Grass is set during the Nez Perce War of 1877, when the tribe finally had enough of being cheated and brutalized by the U.S. government and greedy settlers and struck back. It, like all of the books in the series, is a marvel, and you will come away changed by the experience of reading it.

Vollmann doesn’t only write history, though. My introduction to him came through Whores for Gloria, a weird, gritty, heartbreaking wallow among the drunks, hookers, and other lost souls inhabiting San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. It blew me away, made me a lifelong fan, and is a good entry point into the man’s oeuvre if you’re reluctant to commit right off the bat to 500 pages on the Norse exploration of the New World (The Ice Shirt).
Visit Richard Lange's website.

The Page 69 Test: This Wicked World.

The Page 69 Test: Angel Baby.

The Page 69 Test: The Smack.

The Page 69 Test: Rovers.

Q&A with Richard Lange.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 4, 2024

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's newest novel to be released (July 2024) is Evangeline, a courtroom drama about the murder trial of captain who is one of the few to survive the sinking of his ship.

Buffa is also the author of ten legal thrillers involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. 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 America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and The Fourth of July:
On July 5, l852, Frederick Douglass, who had been a slave until he escaped bondage when he was eighteen, gave a speech entitled, ‘What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July.’ He was brutally honest. “This fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand, illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthem, were inhuman mockery, and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

This, as it would seem, is completely consistent, added proof, if more proof were needed, that from the very beginning the American experiment was a hoax and a fraud. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, whatever else they may have done, had been slave owners and, when it came to that issue, as guilty as everyone else who believed that only white people were entitled to the blessings of liberty. Jefferson’s great work, the Declaration of Independence, was a white man’s call to a white man’s revolution; the Constitution, drawn under Washington’s watchful eye, was a white man’s declaration that a black man was only a fraction of a white man’s worth. America was not just racist, but the most racist nation on earth. More than any other day of the year, Douglass insisted, the Fourth of July reveals to the black slave, “the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” There is no “nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

This is what Frederick Douglass said in his speech about the Fourth of July as reported in the Library of America’s edition of the works of Frederick Douglass, or what we would believe he said if we did not know that the last third of what Douglass said had been cut. And we would know that only if we read the speech in some other, more honest, edition. The Library of America did not just cut a third of the speech, the editor did not so much as bother to mention that the speech had been abridged. By leaving out, i.e. by concealing, what Douglass went on to say, the reader is not allowed to know that this speech, one of the most remarkable speeches ever given by an American, recognized not just America’s failures, but America’s greatness. The reader would never know that Douglass insisted that the men who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence were great men, “great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable, and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen and patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”

What too many of us have forgotten, but what Douglass understood, is that the difference, what was then the glaring difference, between the principles of American freedom and the practices of American slavery had a greater, and a deeper, meaning than the hypocrisy of those who talked about the one and did nothing about the other. What Douglass understood was that it was precisely that difference that promised the end of slavery. Either the principle or the practice would eventually prevail. The Declaration, as both he and Lincoln understood, required that slavery had to end, and the Declaration, as he and Lincoln understood, was the basis for how the Constitution had to be interpreted. Moreover, Douglass insisted, the Constitution itself, which some abolitionists, and not just abolitionists, dismissed as marking the slave as only three-fifths of a human being, was a charter, not of slavery, but of freedom. The South had demanded that the Constitution be interpreted to give “the right to hold, and to hunt slaves,” but, “in the instrument, I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing.” And then Douglass adds, “if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopted, a slaveholding instrument, why neither slavery nor slaveholding, nor slave can be anywhere found in it.”

It is curious, and worth noting, that Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two of the greatest masters of the English language America has produced had, neither of them, any of what today would be considered real education. Neither of them attended a university. Douglass never spent even a day in a classroom; he taught himself to read. Both of them read the Bible; both read Shakespeare, and both sought the deeper meaning in what they read. Lincoln read Proverbs 25:11, ‘For a word fitly spoken is like applets of gold in filigree of silver,’ and used it to explain the proper relation between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. They had an immense respect for one another. At a White House reception after Lincoln’s second inaugural, Douglass was the only one he asked what he thought about his speech. In l876, at the unveiling of a statue of Lincoln, the Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, D.C., Douglass gave an account of what Lincoln had done, an account that could take the place of almost everything written about slavery and the Civil War, a speech that manages to combine the two elements that instead of demonstrating ineradicable white racism, as too many of us believe, prove instead Lincoln’s greatness.

Douglass began by telling his mainly white audience, an audience that included the President of the United States, “You are the children of Abraham Lincoln; we are at best only his step-children, children by adoption, children by force of circumstance and necessity.” Lincoln was not, “in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.” But the debt owed Lincoln is beyond measure, “for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”

Viewed from the perspective of an abolitionist, seen from the vantage point of a former slave, Lincoln seemed at times a doubtfully ally. In a single remarkable sentence Douglass details the reasons for this confusion: “When he tarried long on the mountain; when he strangely told us we were the cause of the war, when he more strangely told us to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defense of the Union; when, after accepting our services as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery; when he revoked the Proclamation of Emancipation of General Fremont; when he refused to remove the popular commander of the Army of the Potomac, in the days of inaction and defeat, who was more zealous in his efforts to protect slavery than to suppress rebellion; when we saw all this, and more, we were at times grieved, stunned and generally bewildered.”

And still, despite all that, Douglass insists, “Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed.” Why? Why did the faith of four million slaves, and former slaves like Frederick Douglass, never fail? The answer is that, living through what they did, taking their knowledge and their understanding, not from books someone else had written, but why they saw with their own eyes, and felt with their own hearts, they knew far better than we can ever know who Lincoln was and what he had to deal with. Douglass, for all his concerns with the way things were done during the war, understood at the end of it why Lincoln had proceeded the way he had.

“His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful co-operation of his loyal fellow countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would inevitably driven from him a powerful class of American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

In his autobiography, a book that makes you both ashamed and proud to be an American, Frederick Douglass described Lincoln as a great man, a very great man, too great to ever be the prisoner, the slave, of small thoughts. At the conclusion of his speech at the Freedmen’s Monument, Douglass shows just how great Lincoln was, and how little greatness is at the time of its unfolding understood.

“Few great men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciations that Abraham Lincoln during his administration….He was assailed by Abolitionists; he was assailed by slaveholders; he was assailed by men who were for peace at any price; he was assailed by men who were for a more vigorous prosecution of the war; he was assailed for not making the war an abolition war; and he was bitterly assailed for making the war an abolition war.

“But now behold the change; the judgment of the present hour is, that taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite creation has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”

There were two Americas when Frederick Douglass lived and wrote and spoke and struggled: not a white America and a black America, but a civilized America that believed in what the Declaration of Independence promised, and a backward, barbaric America that believed that one race, the white race had, in Jefferson’s vivid description, been born “booted and spurred” to ride roughshod over the other. There are still two Americas, one that believes in the principles of the Declaration and takes them as the standard by which to determine the changes that still have to be made, and one that insists that because the standard has not yet been met the standard - the Declaration - is itself a hoax and a fraud. Frederick Douglass, when he was a slave and when he was free, never doubted which America was the one worth fighting for. He understood, as Lincoln understood, that the last best hope for freedom was that the principles of the Declaration of Independence become the “civic religion” of the United States, a common belief that holds everything together.
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.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

Third Reading: All The King’s Men.

Third Reading: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus.

Third Reading: Naguib Mahfouz’s novels of ancient Egypt.

Third Reading: Main Street.

Third Reading: Theodore H. White's The Making of the President series, part I.

Third Reading: Theodore H. White's The Making of the President series, part II.

Third Reading: Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Third Reading: Fiction's Failure.

Third Reading: Hermann Hesse's Demian.

--Marshal Zeringue