Thursday, July 30, 2009

Peter M. Shane

Peter M. Shane is the Jacob E. Davis and Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law and Director of the Project on Law and Democratic Development at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, and Executive Director of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

His new book is Madison's Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Despite my best efforts at pursuing an organized reading program, my routine is pretty haphazard. Unfortunately (for me), the two areas in which I do most of my research, teaching and writing, are areas in which the volume of potentially interesting literature seems to explode on a daily basis. These are (a) the state of the U.S. presidency (and law as it applies to the President), and (b) the intersection of law, communication, and democratic development.

In the former category, I am currently looking at Scott Matheson's Presidential Constitutionalism in Perilous Times, Hal Bruff's Bad Advice, and Dana Nelson's Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People. I came across each of these after I published my own book, Madison's Nightmare. I am hoping the Matheson book will help me take a longer historical view of developments in presidential power I identified as becoming especially troubling between 1981 and 2009. The Bruff book is a really thorough analysis of what went wrong in the Justice Department's handling of national security-related legal questions after September 11. The Nelson volume is prodding me to consider whether my own critique of presidentialism goes deep enough. Even if Presidents remain squarely within the purview of their well-founded legal authorities, Americans might still be too preoccupied with the presidency as an instrument of democratic change; at least, that's the argument Dana is urging.

On the communication front, I find myself dipping into a lot of books in the hope of better understanding the convulsive media environment in which we now live. In terms of getting a sound overview of the political impacts of digital media, I learned a lot from Andy Chadwick's Internet Politics; it's a textbook, but still a very accessible read. Bruce Bimber's Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power offers an excellent historical framework. I've just started Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium by Albert Borgmann, which I hope will help me sort out a more philosophical direction on where we are headed.

In terms of books I am likeliest to sit down with for long periods and read cover to cover, my primary loyalties remain with Victorian novelists and their modern-day imitators. I'm on a bit of a Wilkie Collins run, having just finish Armadale -- a marvel of plotting. I am nearly finished with Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. I love fiction that envelops me in a world somewhat removed from my own, especially if it combines an artful narrative with social critique and cultural exploration.
Read an excerpt from Madison's Nightmare, and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

Visit Peter M. Shane's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Renée Rosen

Renée Rosen's debut novel is Every Crooked Pot, a coming of age story about a lovable misfit born with a disfiguring birthmark covering her eye. It was named one of 2007's Summer’s Hot Reads by the Chicago Tribune and received a starred review from Booklist.

Recently I asked Rosen what she was reading. Her reply:
My reading tastes have been all over the board the past few months, with a mixture of old and new. I’ve also been very intrigued by the use of voice, especially multiple voices, which is what I found so captivating about Andre DuBus III’s House of Sand and Fog. I became completely engrossed with these different voices. Each character took on a life of his or her own and the suspense kept me turning pages, despite the story’s darkness.

Now I’m reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, an impressive debut novel that deftly uses alternating voices to weave a charming tale about three very different women struggling to survive in 1962 Mississippi. The skill with which Stockett delivers these different voices is admirable to say the least.

Life Class by Pat Barker is another novel that blew me away. It was even better upon the second reading. Set against the backdrop of WWI in Europe, Barker explores the lives of a group of art students entangled in their art and their relationships. Her language is sparse and her imagery is breathtaking. Despite one story line that never fully pans out, I adored this novel and could not put it down. Twice!

Going back in time, I recently picked up Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. Judging by today’s standards, it’s hard to believe that such a novel could have been so controversial. But in the early 1900s, Dreiser was way ahead of his time. Still, having said that, it’s sad but doubtful that a magnificent read like Sister Carrie would get published in today’s climate. The complexities of Carrie Meeber and the demise of one man who is obsessed with her is devastating and haunting. It’s one of those books that will stay with me forever.

And speaking of controversies, I was recently reading The Sorrows Of Young Werther by Goethe. What amazed me most about this little ancient gem was what I discovered in the forward. In a nutshell, it tells the story of unrequited love that ends in suicide and when it was first published, this terse novel was responsible for a slew of suicides. And yet this book was highly celebrated. There were plays and musicals devoted to Young Werther and what struck me was that this book, which was the DaVinci Code of its day in terms of popularity, is now scarcely known at all.
Read an excerpt from Every Crooked Pot and learn more about the novel at Renée Rosen's website.

The Page 99 Test: Every Crooked Pot.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict is the author most recently of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2009) and The Edge of Eden (Soho Press), a novel to be published in November, 2009.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I have just finished two novels about living under authoritarianism, one set in Yugoslavia during the Communist takeover just after World War Two, the other set in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Shadow Partisan by Nadja Tesich is a lyrical, compelling memoir-disguised-as-novel about growing up in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War Two. Anna, the child protagonist, lives with her hardened, brutish mother and indulged baby brother in a rural town, surrounded by peasants and their ancient superstitions. An intelligent, observant girl, Anna is totally different from everyone in her family and school, an outsider, so even as she doesn't understand everything she sees -- the end of the Nazis, the rise and fall of Communism -- she observes it all with uncanny insight. The voice of this young girl is beautiful, and it is fascinating to read of this area of the world before the Balkan Wars pulled it apart. The book doesn't read like a novel -- it simply follows the years of Anna growing up chronological order -- which is why I suspect it's really a memoir. But the writing is so lovely it doesn't matter. It was published by New Rivers Press in 1989, so is probably hard to find. It should be revived.

The second book, I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody by Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi novelist and film maker who now lives in the U.S., was published by City Lights Books in 2007. All things Iraqi fascinate me now, as I have just finished a nonfiction book about the Iraq War and am now writing a novel set in Iraq, too. Iraqi literature has a totally different tone and approach to Western literature, and often seems both experimental and ancient at the same time. This book plays with language and explores politics, but indirectly, as it is told through the voice of a man imprisoned under Saddam for writing an objectionable poem. It feels like reading a fever dream, one that is both meandering and bizarre yet strikingly clear at the same time. At times I was reminded of the formality and floridness of ancient Turkish poetry; at other times of Kafka. But either way, the novel gives you a clear sense of what it is like to seethe and squirm under the brutal hand of oppression.
Learn more about Helen Benedict and her work at her official website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 24, 2009

Whitney Terrell

Whitney Terrell is the New Letters Writer-in-Residence at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His first novel, The Huntsman (Viking) was a New York Times notable book and was selected as a best book of 2001 by The Kansas City Star and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His second novel, The King of Kings County (Viking) won the William Rockhill Nelson award from The Kansas City Star and was selected as a best book of 2005 by the Christian Science Monitor. In 2006, he was named one of 20 “writers to watch” under 40 by members of the National Book Critics Circle.

His non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, Details, The New York Observer, The Kansas City Star, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Recently, he embedded with the 22nd infantry in Baghdad, an experience he covered for the Washington Post Magazine.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Of late, I have been reading Updike, Updike, Updike. This is a jag that began with his death which spurred me, as I suspect it did many people, to go back and actually read his work again, rather than dealing with him as an idea, a “great author,” a brand name. I began with the third and best of the Rabbit books, Rabbit is Rich, and read back from there to Redux and finally to Run. I was shocked and abashed by how much he achieved in these books, how serious and consistent their purpose seemed, and how far they exceeded the achievement I’d granted them in my memory. The fault was all mine, not his. In the encomiums that followed Updike’s death, many spoke of his writing about sex, the titillating aspects of his work, as well as his majestic prose. But in the Rabbit books, he seems to me, more than any writer I can think of, the great American poet of death and loneliness. The novels, in the tone and sensation, recall Hopper paintings and in Rabbit, Run I imagine the down-market Chinese restaurant and the “Club Castanet” -- both places Rabbit visits with his mistress, Ruth -- as Pennsylvania equivalents of the café in Nighthawks. This is not the kind of comment that attracts readers, I suppose, and so perhaps it is best for Updike to be remembered as a sexy virtuoso. But it should be noted that his characters’ plentiful highpoints -- such as the moment where Rabbit claims to find God in a well-struck drive -- are brighter for this infinitely dark backdrop.

In a year where death is touching my personal life more than I would like, I was happy for his honesty. The Rabbit jag has led, of course, to a full-blown Updike review so that you can currently find, piled up under my bedside table, Self-Consciousness, Museums and Women, and his excellent collection of essays More Matter.
Visit Whitney Terrell's website to learn more about the author, his novels, and his non-fiction.

The Page 99 Test: The King of Kings County.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Maile Meloy

Maile Meloy is the author of the story collection Half in Love, and the novels Liars and Saints, shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize, and A Family Daughter. Meloy’s stories have been published in The New Yorker, and she has received The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2007, she was chosen as one of Granta’s Best American Novelists under 35.

Her new book is the story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished The Tin Princess by Philip Pullman. It’s the fourth and last of the Sally Lockhart mysteries, all set in the 19th century with a plucky heroine who falls into the detective business. They’re as wonderful as Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with history (exciting, fascinating history) in place of magic. When I was a kid, I read all of the Trixie Belden mysteries, to my grandmother’s dismay—she thought I should be reading something more edifying—and I loved them. I hadn’t read many mysteries since, so I think Sally Lockhart has answered a deep, forgotten need.

In the first book, The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally is sixteen, and her father has disappeared under strange circumstances connected to the opium trade. In The Shadow in the North, Sally is twenty-two and a financial advisor (bucking public opinion in 1878) and is fitfully in love when she starts tracking a new mystery and a strange magician. In The Tiger in the Well, she has a small child, Harriett, whom someone is trying to steal from her. By the Tin Princess, Sally is too grown up and married to be the heroine, so there’s a new sixteen-year-old girl, Becky, to take her place. The books are classified as young adult, but they’re suitable for actual adults—and who doesn’t like a sixteen-year-old girl detective?

The books are also for boys, in a way Trixie Belden might not have been. I know one boy (who will remain unnamed here) who doesn’t want anyone to know that he loves the Sally Lockhart books, because they’re about a girl. But there’s no reason for embarrassment. They’re full of knife fights and sharpshooting and disguise, and also love and intrigue. They’re an absolute pleasure.
Visit Maile Meloy's website.

The Page 99 Test: A Family Daughter.

Writers Read: Maile Meloy (March 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Greg Robinson

Greg Robinson, a native of New York City, is associate professor of history at l'Université du Québec à Montréal and author of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans and A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
While I like reading many kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction, I have no real system that governs my choices. The only important determinant of my reading is that I tend to study more attentively any book that seems directly relevant to my research or teaching, and take notes as I read. Conversely, I try to find other books to read for pleasure, to avoid too much of a “busman’s holiday.” I usually read two books at a time. One is a hardcover or large paperback that I keep at home, and particularly for unwinding before I go to sleep. I just finished reading (partly in French and partly in English) Claude Manceron’s 5-book series The French Revolution. He paints a really broad canvas, centering on the earlier life, before 1789, of all sorts of characters who will reappear in the revolution. He seems very fair and considered in his judgments. I particularly appreciate that he gives some depth to his portrait, positive and negative, of Marie Antoinette. I get irritated by the latter-day mythologizing and even hero-worship (à la Kirsten Dunst) of this not only frivolous but deeply reactionary and at least arguably traitorous woman.

The other book I generally read is a “light” (in weight, not necessarily content) paperback that I take with me and read on the subway or when waiting. Since there is not time to read more than a little in one sitting, it can sometimes be challenging. I recently read Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution that way. It took me several months. Hobsbawm, for all his unapologetic Marxist orientation, presents a complex and coherent narrative of the ways that the dual revolution—the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in England—shaped the history or Europe, and more distantly the world. He has a lovely eye for little statistics or details that illuminate his thesis, and a rather droll wit.

The new paperback is David Lodge’s novel Thinks… The novel deals with the interaction between a cognitive scientist, kind of neo-Darwinian fascinated by computers and the question of consciousness, and a novelist who has been invited to take a temporary chair at the scientist’s university, shortly after losing her husband to a sudden stroke. I am wary of people saying that I like Lodge’s novels because they are about professors. Actually, my favorite one is Paradise News, where there are none. However, he really gets under the skin of his characters and shows me how they think and feel. More, he makes me think about ideas and about human relationships. He also is madly funny. Like in his earlier The British Museum is Falling Down, part of the fun is some pastiches and parodies of the style of famous writers that he sticks in under the guise of presenting students’ writing class assignments.
Read more about A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America at the publisher's website, and visit Greg Robinson's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nicholas Ostler

Nicholas Ostler is the Chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages and author of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World and Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT, where he studied under Noam Chomsky.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm reading Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, a novel from 1980 written in deformed, but in the end curiously readable, colloquial English, which speculates on Iron Age life in Kent some centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, as humanity is slowly but steadily building up a new path to power and self-destruction.

I grew up in Kent, so I wondered if I should recognize the locales, but it is set exclusively in East Kent, and with a geography deformed by flood, so all I can recognize is Cambry (Canterbury), whose Ardship (archbishop) is one of the characters.

I got into it because I have long known vaguely of its linguistic experiment, and one of the by-ways I am exploring in my new book (on the future scope for English as a lingua-franca) is what might happen if world communications were to break down (as they clearly have in Riddley Walker's world). Hoban experiments with ambiguities that might arise as English words lose definition, and some have theological consequences. So when his culture hero Eusa, dabbling in nuclear research, finds ‘the littl shynin man the Addom’, it is also in some sense Adam, father of the human race.

The language was hard to cope with at first, or just rebarbative. (Language changes are always hard to accept for those they leave behind, I suppose.) But the explanations at made it all much easier to get into.
Read more about Ostler's Empires of the Word at the publisher's website.

Learn more about Nicholas Ostler at the Linguacubun website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Carol Muske-Dukes

Carol Muske-Dukes is author of several essay collections, books of poetry--including Sparrow, a National Book Award finalist--and novels.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm reading Murakami's Kafka on the Shore & re-reading a fascinating book called Comparative Perspectives, which provides several translations of well-known poems in different languages (I used it in a graduate course I taught at USC last semester called The Aesthetics of Translation), re-reading Auden's The Dyer's Hand, and also (for fun) Nora Ephron's books -- the Neck one and others, including Heartburn!

And I want to read next - The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

I'm also reading Fagles' translation of the Aeneid and Stanley Plumly's wonderful Posthumous Keats.
Read online Carol Muske-Dukes' poems "Twin Cities," "An Octave Above Thunder," and "Like This," and visit her website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Michael A. Elliott

Michael A. Elliott is professor of English and American Studies at Emory University. He writes about the literature and culture of the nineteenth and twentieth century United States, with particular interest in American traditions of historical commemoration. He is also a contributing editor at, where he writes about the place of the sacred in otherwise secular spaces. His most recent book is Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
During the summer, I usually try to read some long fiction, both contemporary and not. This summer I started with Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which I had not read since I was a graduate student. James is a writer whose talent I appreciate more every year, and I found myself rereading his long paragraphs just to think about his methods of characterization. I remembered this as a gripping novel, but I think it reads very differently now that I am a little older and, well, a little more married.

Mark Jude Porier’s novels are a delicious treat for me, and so I keep an eye out for anything that he blurbs. That is how I ended up reading The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Poebus K. Dank, by Christopher Miller. The novel is a kind of Pale Fire for the sci fi set. Written as a kind of literary encyclopedia of a prolific (but awful) science fiction novelist -- loosely modeled on Philip K. Dick -- the book is both a satire of and a love letter to the genre. Any science fiction reader with a sense of humor should have it on the shelf. As an aside, I have been reading Dick sporadically over the last five years, and just acquired the Library of America compilations of his works to read as well.

Like so many others, I have been meaning to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for years. And like so many others, his recent, unfortunate death has provoked me to do so this summer. I am about half way through the novel right now, and words are insufficient. Tennis. Drugs. Quebec. There’s really nothing else I can say about it right now.

Finally, one of my reading rituals at this point in my life occurs just before the reluctant slumber of my five-year-old son. Recently, we finished reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. This is a beautiful book in every way possible. Hugo Cabret is an orphan living in a Paris train station in the early twentieth century, and he meets a mysterious toy seller who gradually draws him into the world of early, silent film. But the plot is only part of the achievement of the book, which has a format that is different from anything else that I have read with my son. Some pages of Hugo Cabret have text, and others advance the narrative through enchanting black-and-white drawings. Unlike other illustrated books, the words do not accompany the images, and the illustrations do not visually reproduce the action that the text describes. The format alone makes Hugo Cabret a special reading experience, and it was a real pleasure to observe my son as he switched from hearing me read the story to looking carefully at the illustrations. It is a book about film and magic that manages to be both filmic and magical.
Read an excerpt from Custerology and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

Learn more about Michael A. Elliott's scholarship at his faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: Custerology.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry has published over 30 books for children, including the Newbery Award-winning Number the Stars (1990) and The Giver (1994). Her new book, Crow Call, is due out in October.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually have more than one book going at the same time, and that is true now. I'm reading Rafael Yglesias's A Happy Marriage, which though written in fictional form is really a memoir: the story of his own long and happy marriage. The chapters are interspersed, going back and forth, beginning with his first meeting Margaret, immediately contrasted in chapter two with her last days as he cares for her during her final illness, then back to their courtship in chapter three. It's a -- I began to say "glimpse" but it is much more than a glimpse -- it is a study of a deep and lasting relationship through many years.

At the same time, I too am going back and forth, and my other book is an Anthony Trollope --The Duke's Children -- sixth in his Palliser series, and a good read in a rainy summer. Trollope never disappoints. His keen insights into the social and political issues of the day are still fresh, and his novels, though lengthy, move along at a fast clip (many were serialized, like those of Dickens).
Visit Lois Lowry's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 13, 2009

Arika Okrent

Arika Okrent is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers who tried to Build a Perfect Language.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood. I never would have chosen this novel on my own: the tagline is "A story about love and friendship and Marxism." It is indeed about love and friendship, though not in the trite way the tagline would suggest, and it is not really about Marxism at all. It is about a group of friends who, when they were young and politically-charged Oxford students, agreed to pool resources to support the most brilliant of their group so he could fully dedicate himself to writing an important book about important ideas. Decades go by, their beliefs change, their brilliant friend causes misery in their lives in various ways, but they continue to support him out of a sense of duty to a promise made. My old English professor, a specialist in 20th-century British women novelists, recommended it to me, and I'm glad he did. The plot is engaging and full of drama, and the way it easily and deeply exposes inner lives and shifts in perspective is utterly absorbing. But I've never read a book that left me so unsure of what I was supposed to think about characters and events, and it unsettled me (in a good way). I felt the need to go find and read some criticism on it in order to help me understand my reactions. So, Professor Soule, if your plan was to get me back to the college-days excitement of interacting with literature, it worked.

I also wouldn't have thought to pick up Science from Your Airplane Window by Elizabeth Wood if it hadn't been suggested to me. I wrote about how Mark Shoulson, my guide to the world of Klingon, pulled it out of his bag when we settled in for our flight to a Klingon conference in Phoenix. That detail was meant to add to a portrait of his nerdy pursuits, but I later bought the book, thinking it would be a fun, educational diversion for my son the next time we took a flight. (Here's to the passing along of nerdy pursuits!) I haven't yet remembered to pack it for a flight, but I have been picking it up occasionally to learn a fascinating tidbit about the shapes of lakes, the polarization of light, or the plow lines in farms. It is written in a very simple, direct style that gives you exactly what the title promises. The simplicity is almost poetic; it captures the essence of good non-fiction. It says, "Here, sit by me. Let's look out of this tiny window together. I will show you things you never noticed and change your perspective on the things you have noticed. Even though this window is tiny, through it you can see the whole world."

The language book I have going now is John Baugh's Beyond Ebonics. A fascinating look at a grossly misunderstood linguistic controversy.

And I read The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander a while ago, but I can't pass up an opportunity to recommend it. Though I'm reluctant to play the "he reminds me of" game, I was reading a lot of Primo Levi – one of my favorites – right before I started this book, and the transition to Englander's voice was almost imperceptible. Englander writes with a similar wary wisdom and gentle, humorous absurdity about absolute horrors. Ministry deals with Argentina's "dirty war" but it is really about all wars, all injustice, and the sometimes dangerous compromises people make in order to lead a normal life in abnormal circumstances.
Learn more about Arika Okrent and her work at her official website and at the In the Land of Invented Languages website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Jonathan Tel

Jonathan Tel is the author of the story collection Arafat’s Elephant (Counterpoint, 2002) and the novel Freud’s Alphabet (Counterpoint, 2003). His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and Zoetrope. He has worked as a quantum physicist and an opera librettist.

Tel's latest book is the short story collection, The Beijing of Possibilities.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I have several books on my desk, reading a chapter of one, a chapter of another, as the fancy takes me. I'm going through some books about China, related to my own writing, as well as those about places and times I know little of.

The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu is oral history: a series of interviews with Chinese at the bottom of the ladder. Most of his subjects are elderly, having lived through the turbulence of the last half century. Fascinating stories from a professional mourner, a safecracker, a mortician, a restroom attendant, and more. The interviews are skilfully edited, so that each has the shape of a short story, with the help of Wen Huang, who was also the translator. I like that the translation has a strong Chinese flavor.

There was a tradition of erotic fiction in the Ming dynasty - an entire body of literature most of us know nothing of. Patrick Hanan has translated much of this; now I'm reading his collection, Falling In Love. Fascinating to learn about a culture so unlike our own, yet not as far as all that from contemporary China.

I was a poet before I was a fiction writer. I admire the rare combination of novels in verse, with rhyme and meter, please. So I'm re-reading Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, set in and around San Francisco in the 1980s. Also Equinox by Matt Rubinstein. Taking place over twenty-four hours in Sydney, the lives of various characters intertwine. The book is unobtainable outside Australia, but it was seralized in the Sydney Morning Herald, and I'm reading it on their website.
Read "Year of the Gorilla" and "Though the Candles Flicker Red," selections from The Beijing of Possibilities, at The China Beat.

Read more about The Beijing of Possibilities at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tom Standage

Tom Standage is the business affairs editor at the Economist and the author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses, The Victorian Internet, The Turk, and The Neptune File. He has written for Wired, the New York Times, and numerous magazines and newspapers.

His new book is An Edible History of Humanity.

A couple of days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm reading three books at the moment. On the fiction side, I'm reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem. This is a very large book — so large that it does not fit in my bag — so I have the e-book of it on my iPhone, too. The book depicts an alternative history in which mathematics has become a religion. It takes a while to get going, but it is packed with geeky in-jokes, as Stephenson's books generally are.

On the non-fiction side, I'm reading Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler. It's a megahistory that looks at world history through the prism of language, and it's fascinating, particularly in the way it draws analogies across space and time. I enjoy megahistories a great deal, which is why I have written two myself (looking at world history from the perspectives of drink and food).

Finally, I'm reading Chris Anderson's Free, which I am reviewing for The Economist. It does not have an elegant central thesis in the way Anderson's previous book, The Long Tail, did. So I find it less intellectually satisfying. But much of the criticism of the book seems to be coming from people who have not read it, and who think it says that everything ought to be free. Actually, the book does not say that. What it says is rather more complicated: that some products can have zero as one of their many prices, or something. The fact that I can't neatly sum up what it says is telling.
Read an excerpt from An Edible History of Humanity, and learn more about the author and his work at Tom Standage's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

V.V. (Sugi) Ganeshananthan

Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan, a fiction writer and journalist, lives in New York. She is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College. In 2005, she received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and in 2005-2006, she was the Bennett Fellow and writer-in-residence at Phillips Exeter Academy. In 2007, she graduated from the new MA program at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Bollinger Fellow specializing in Arts & Culture journalism. She has written and reported for The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sepia Mutiny, and The American Prospect, among others.

Her first novel, Love Marriage, was published in April 2008. Washington Post Book World named the book one of its Best of 2008. It was also longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
It’s never occurred to me before, but I approach reading the same way I do writing in that I like to have several things going at once. If I’m not in the right mood to read something, I put it down and pick up something else. I read non-fiction for both research and pleasure; obviously, I also read fiction, and I have recently returned to poetry.

At the moment I am reading:

Beloved by Toni Morrison—I read this many years ago and picked it up again when I was going through old books. I was thinking about what my former Iowa classmate Nam Le wrote about it on The Millions blog. I’ve been struck anew by how painful and simultaneously lovely this book is. How does one make a reading experience out of pain? How does beauty of style and language balance against raw and powerful content? How do the two work together? These are among the most basic questions we ask about writing—form and content—but it’s useful to think about them again in this framework. And I’m concerned with morality in my fiction, and obviously Beloved tackles that. I’m loving reading it again.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer—I still read children’s literature, young adult literature, and fantasy. I’ll read really anything that grabs my attention. I saw the Twilight movie recently—with good friends and good wine—and found it delightfully bad. There is a particular part in the movie in which vampire Edward tells innocent human Bella how he reads people’s minds, and he describes to her what every person they see is thinking. He gives them one word each, and it’s very funny. (I won’t spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it.) But anyway, that line is NOT in the book, which is nevertheless also delightfully bad. Definitely reading the rest of them.

like myth and mother: a political autobiography in poetry and prose by Sivamohan Sumathy—I admire Sumathy a great deal. I was on a panel with her at the Galle Literary Festival, which was held in Sri Lanka in January, and I liked a lot of what she said. Her poems are surprising and forceful, unapologetic and subversive. Of course I am particularly interested in writing about Sri Lanka and by Sri Lankans.

Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani—I couldn’t tell you if I am reading this book for research or pleasure—I don’t know yet. But I am reading an increasing number of books about politics and ethics.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir and The Giant’s House, both by Elizabeth McCracken—(Full disclosure: Elizabeth was my teacher.) The first book here is her latest, a memoir about losing her baby. I am almost done with it. It is fantastically well written and enormously sad. See: Beloved. As to the second, it seems to me that although I have read the whole book, I am never really finished with The Giant’s House. Rather, I am always carrying it around. There is a passage I like to read when I am stuck. It is at the end of part one, when the heroine talks about deciding to love the hero. It’s one of my favorite passages in anything, ever, and it begins: “Sometimes, when your lover does not step from the woods to save you—because how many of us are rescuable, how many would look at some fool in a pair of tights and a pageboy and say, Of course—sometimes you have to marry your tower, your tiny room.”

Maybe that’s what all writers do: Marry our towers, our tiny rooms.
Read an excerpt from Love Marriage, and learn more about the book and author at V.V. Ganeshananthan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue