Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Malinda Lo

Malinda Lo was born in China and moved to the United States as a child. She grew up in Colorado and has since lived in Boston, New York, London, Beijing, Los Angeles and San Francisco. She is the former managing editor of, the largest entertainment news website for lesbians and bisexual women. In 2006, Malinda was awarded the Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for Excellence in LGBT Journalism by the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and has master’s degrees from Harvard and Stanford universities.

Lo's first YA novel, Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, is now available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
One of the books I've recently read that has stuck with me is Fire by Kristin Cashore. This is a companion novel to her first novel, Graceling, which has been a big hit in young adult fiction in general and in the fantasy genre as well. Fire is in many ways a totally different book than Graceling, but it is also another exploration of the idea that a woman could be monstrous. In Graceling, the monstrous woman is a killer; in Fire, she is monstrously beautiful.

I found Fire to be quieter than Graceling, but also more complex. I was intrigued by the way Cashore inserted real-world social issues into her novel through the lens of fantasy. Issues such as access to health care, reproductive rights, sexual freedom and sexual assault all showed up in Fire, and I was impressed by the way she kind of slipped them in without much fanfare. I'd be reading along and suddenly, wow, there was a major political statement that somehow seemed totally normal and not that big of a deal.

I was also interested in Fire as a second novel because I'm currently working on my own second novel. I think I found Fire reassuring, as a writer, because Cashore has certainly avoided the sophomore slump. I saw how certain themes from Graceling traveled over to Fire and were reinterpreted with even more sophistication. It made me wonder if I am doing the same thing with my books — indeed, if many writers do this: revisit certain themes over and over again, each time focusing down on them in a slightly different way.

In fact, now that I think about it, I'm really curious to read second novels in general. I'll have to look for some!
Visit Malinda Lo's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 28, 2009

Wendy Rouse Jorae

Wendy Rouse Jorae is the author of The Children of Chinatown: Growing up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850-1920, University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I enjoy reading non-fiction history books because truth truly is stranger than fiction. One of the most interesting books I have read in the last few years is Mary Ting Yi Lui’s The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City. Lui’s book unfolds like a mystery novel as she details the murder of Elsie Sigel, a white middle-class missionary woman working in New York’s early twentieth century Chinatown. What is most compelling is Lui’s analysis of the larger sexual, racial, and gender issues at play as New Yorker’s struggled to maintain segregated, racialized boundaries in a city experiencing rapid industrial expansion and population growth. Lui's scholarly analysis reveals the tense relationship that existed between native-born whites and Chinese immigrants during the era of Chinese exclusion and the stigmatization of interracial relationships in the Progressive era. I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading historical non-fiction.
Read more about Wendy Rouse Jorae's The Children of Chinatown.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Casey Dué

Casey Dué is Associate Professor, Department of Modern and Classical Languages at the University of Houston, and Executive Editor, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, D.C..

Her recent and forthcoming books include Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary (with Mary Ebbott), Harvard University Press (2009), and Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad (ed.), Harvard University Press (2009).

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Book 10 of the Homeric Iliad. For the past four years I have been carefully reading, thinking about, and writing about this very controversial book of the Iliad, which narrates a night right on the Trojan camp undertaken by the Greek heroes Odysseus and Diomedes. Their actions on this raid and many aspects of this exciting book make modern scholars squeamish, and even in antiquity it was felt to be somehow separate from the rest of the Iliad. My good friend Mary Ebbott and I, however, following closely the methodology of Albert Lord in his path-finding 1960 book on the workings of oral poetry, The Singer of Tales, have interpreted this book as one of the only surviving extended examples of the ambush theme in Homeric epic. That fact combined with an understanding of oral poetics allows us to explain many features of the book that have been objected to by previous scholars. Our book, Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary, will be available from Harvard University Press in a few months.

The Electra of Sophocles. The Honors College at the University of Houston (where I am a professor of Classical Studies) is putting on a production of this play in Spring of 2010. My interest in the play is in its depiction of the songs of grief known as lament and their connection to the cycle of vendetta that anthropologists have shown to have operated in Mediterranean cultures since ancient times. (These were the subject of my 2006 book, The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy.) A fascinating look at a modern vestige of this pattern can be found in "Albanian Custom Fades: Woman as Family Man" (New York Times).

Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin. This book by the noted science fiction and fantasy author is an adaptation of the second half of Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic that narrates the struggle of Aeneas and a group that has fled from the destruction of Troy to found a new home in Italy. Lavinia, reminiscent of Helen herself, is the woman at the center of Virgil’s Italian “Iliad.”

Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje. I’m reading this book because Ondaatje’s The English Patient is one of my favorite novels of all time. Divisadero’s structure and language remind me of that earlier novel, in that the narrative moves through time and from place to place as we slowly come to understand the interconnections between various characters. Because Divisadero is not set in a beautiful Tuscan villa, and the Histories of Herodotus are not a running theme, I have not loved Divisadero in the same way I do The English Patient. But it is a wonderful novel.
Visit Casey Dué Hackney's faculty webpage at the University of Houston.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 25, 2009

Nicola Morgan

Nicola Morgan has written a number of critically acclaimed books for teens, including the Scottish Arts Council Award-winning Fleshmarket, Mondays Are Red, Chicken Friend, The Leaving Home Survival Guide and Sleepwalking, winner of the 2005 Scottish Arts Council Children's Book of the Year Award.

The Scotsman review of Deathwatch, her newly released YA novel, suggested the novel would appeal to readers "who find Twilight and its ilk too wimpy."

I recently asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
There are three books by my bed just now, but I admit I'm not reading them all. One is there because I've just finished it and can't let it go; one is there because I'm reading it; and one is there because it's short stories and I keep it there for those moments when I just fancy a snack instead of a full meal.

Talking of meals, the book I've just finished is Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Bit of a confession here: I didn't start it because I wanted to but because I thought I ought to. It was the YA book that "everyone was talking about" and a) I'm a YA author and feel I should be au fait with what's going on and b) it was being spoken of as a boundary-pusher and I was doing a talk about pushing boundaries in teenage fiction. I didn't expect to like it: though I do have a tendency to like the dark side of writing, this was supposed to be seriously shocking, and a couple of reviewers had said it was gratuitously shocking and unforgivably bleak. I thought it was utterly amazing. Never gratuitous and never bleak - though so many people have condemned the depressing ending that I'm wondering if either I missed something or I'm a heartless beast! If I tell you what boundaries it pushes and what taboos it breaks, it will put you off, so I won't. But Lanagan conjures up (and never was the word "conjures" used more aptly - she's a magician, surely?) a blood-dark Bruegelian landscape oozing richness and an extraordinary imaginary world that that you can almost smell; she deals with magic in a way that makes even this rationalist believe; and she weaves a splinteringly gripping story around very human (sometimes horribly human) characters.

The one I'm reading is Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter. I don't know why I never read this in 1984 when it was published, as it was exactly the sort of ground-breaking stuff I loved, but anyway it passed me by then. I'm loving it now. Haven't a clue where it's going but I'm very happy to be carried along. I bet Carter never plotted it in advance - it looks as though she just kept adding on more and more characters and more and more episodes, each more fantastic than the last. She must have had a ball writing that book! I envy her the freedom of freeform fiction - sometimes it feels that YA is constrained by the boundaries that adult gate-keepers put on it, (though presumably not if you're Margo Lanagan!).

And the short story collection is Tania Hershman's The White Road, published by small press Salt Publishing. It shattered my pre-conception that "I can't get into short stories." Some of it is flash fiction, which is quite new to me, and I'm loving it. And flash fiction really suits the modern need for short and snappy reading experiences. If you only want to read one, read the first story, the eponymous one. It will sear your mind and you won't forget it.
Learn more about the author and her work at Nicola Morgan's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Brian Clegg

Brian Clegg holds a physics degree from Cambridge and has written regular columns, features, and reviews for numerous magazines. His most recent book is Before the Big Bang. He has written eight other science titles, including Ecologic, The Global Warming Survival Kit (Doubleday), and Upgrade Me (St. Martin’s Press). His book A Brief History of Infinity reached #1 on Amazon in Popular Science (General) and Popular Maths, staying at #1 for ten further weeks.

A week ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m usually in the middle of reading a science book for the site, but I like to have a fiction book on the go as well, to get some balance.

At the moment I’m revisiting an old favorite, The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. Of course there’s her familiar expertise with the Cornish countryside, but I particularly love the way she uses the vehicle of a drug that sends the mind back in time to integrate a historical plot with a present day one. Along with the protagonist, we feel that the historical world is increasingly more real than the modern day segments – it’s immersive in a way that a straight historical novel rarely is. Du Maurier also manages to rack up the tension, as the dangers and side effects of the drug become more apparent. Not a jolly read, but engrossing.

I’m also reading a new science book, We Need to Talk about Kelvin, by Marcus Chown. If I’m honest, I don’t like the title, which sounds painfully forced, but I’m certainly not put off by it, as I know Marcus has a great talent for making science approachable. In this book he looks at what everyday things tell us about the universe. Starting from small observations – the heat of the Sun on your face, a reflection in a window, the way things break – he plunges into the science behind the concept. Often the most simple of ideas, like that reflection in a shop window, has behind it the most bizarre and fascinating scientific phenomena. What’s particularly appealing is that this isn’t detached, knowledge-for-the-sake-of-it science – it has a direct connection to the everyday world, yet at the same time it’s often startling and always entertaining.
Follow Brian Clegg at, and visit his website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Carol Kaesuk Yoon received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and has been writing about biology for the New York Times since 1992. Recent stories covered the sensory capabilities of plants and the field of “evodevo,” or evolution and development. Her articles have also appeared in Science, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Yoon has taught writing as a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University’s John S. Knight Writing Program, working with professors to help teach critical thinking in biology classes. She has also served as a science education consultant to Microsoft.

Her new book is Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently finished a book called Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It's the third of his books I've read now, all about the use of meditation and the art of being, as opposed to doing, toward improving a person's physical health. What I really like about his books, especially Full Catastrophe Living is that he takes on the subject of meditation which is often dealt with in a religious, woo-woo, spiritual and mystic manner (which doesn't fit with my personal world view) and he deals with them very straightforwardly, empirically and in a way that I find very intellectually comfortable. Turns out Dr. Kabat-Zinn isn't a medical doctor but a Ph.D. who was trained as a laboratory scientist and I think that's what why his general outlook on the subject consistently works for me, makes sense and never grates. That and he's a really wonderful writer. And because he deals in actual observations, studies and practices and he leaves mysticism and religion at the door, I find the book and its message - that there is a lot of physical healing that can come from working with the mind through meditation - especially hopeful. It's all so logical, it's a wonder to me that so much of this information remains unincorporated in the work of mainstream health practitioners.

The book I am still reading and have been for a long time and will be for a long time is The Tale of Genji, which I had always heard described as the world's first novel. It was written around the year 1000, a tale of Japanese royal and nonroyal love affairs, kind of an ancient Japanese Peyton Place or maybe more like Upstairs, Downstairs. My husband and I are actually reading it together. He reads, I listen. We've attempted this before several times but have always put the book down pretty quickly because it was so unbelievably uninteresting. But for some reason, some months ago, we were stuck without anything else to read and there was nothing for it but to read that, so we did and now, 700 pages in (and plenty still to go), we're hooked. What's been, oddly, most interesting to me is the author's references to other novels and very self-conscious description of her own book in relation to them - particularly since I had always heard it was the first novel ever written. But she says things about how you might expect things to turn out in such and such a way, as they do in novels, and so on. Or makes semi-disparaging comments about other novels, in general. Beyond that what's really interesting is just what she chooses to describe. The sex scenes are, from the modern reader's perspective (or at least ours) hilarious. There's usually the glimpsing of a part of a woman's sleeve by a man, who becomes then wildly amorous as socially important women are typically hidden entirely from view behind screens. And then the man slipping behind the screen during a lapse in watchfulness of the woman's servants, and then there's usually little more than his trying to slip out early in the morning to escape other people's notice, and soon after he sends a "next morning" note. Beyond the historical quirkiness of it, there have been stretches here and there that are just extremely engaging, plot-wise, and in terms of character, and despite all the tear-soaked sleeves (everyone is constantly bursting into tears) and the incessant poetry-reciting that everyone seems to do, I find I really do want to know what happens.
Read an excerpt from Naming Nature, and learn more about the author and her work at Carol Kaesuk Yoon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sarah Wendell

Sarah Wendell is also known as Smart Bitch Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. The site specializes in reviewing romance novels, examining the history and future of the genre, and bemoaning the enormous prevalence of bodacious pectorals adorning male cover models.

She is co-author (with Candy Tan) of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, published in April 2009 by Touchstone Fireside.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
My reading cravings right now are for shorter-length, character-driven romance narratives with strong, autonomous protagonists and emotion-based tension in a contemporary setting. In one word: Harlequin.

People sniff at Harlequin as "dime store throwaway novels," or "bodice rippers" - both of which are such inaccurate representations I can't even begin to argue without my bosoms heaving in indignation. Harlequin, also known as category romance, is an art when it's done well, and an exercise in abdominal-exercising-hilarity when it's done silly and awful. Nora Roberts likened it to performing Swan Lake in a phone booth - and she's bang on as usual. The short length and structure of a category romance force the author to employ words that represent a lot in only a few letters. Sometimes, that's an overladen cliche that makes me giggle. Other times, it's a turn of phrase so evocative and simple, I have to read it again.

I'm craving category romances right now because I'm extremely busy, and Harlequin romances can deliver all the powerful emotional narrative plus the happy ending in an hour's time. It's enormously satisfying.

I just finished a wonderful category, Sara Craven's Ruthless Awakening, which took some standard stereotypes - the brooding, wealthy hero, the misunderstood heroine, the rags-to-pseudo-riches plotline - and subverted them so that every scene I expected to go one way went another, and every character I expected to be simple to understand was more complex and subtle than I anticipated. All that in 192 pages.

When I'm short on time - which is often, and longing for something powerfully entertaining, the tiny powerhouse paperback romances from Harlequin (or Mills & Boon in the UK) are exactly what I'm after. Behind the often silly titles lies a wonderful interlude of entertainment and joy.
Visit Sarah Wendell at her website and the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Christopher S. Mackay

Christopher S. Mackay is a Professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

His most recent book is Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've done a fair amount of non-professional reading this summer, so here are the last four books I've read (with a bit of relief at the end).

Right now I've just started Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country by the journalist William Greider. I have a pseudonymical blog on which I've had a lot of posts since last fall about the financial debacle, and so I've been interested in how we got to this stage in general and about the Fed's (mis)management of the financial system in particular. No idea why I decided to buy this book. It's oldish (1987), and I'm only at the preliminary stage where it talks about figures I would hear of on the news when I was young, like Arthur Burns and Paul Volcker (Fed chairmen in the '70s and '80s). Seems to have a vaguely leftist tinge to it, but I haven't really gotten into the substance of it yet.

Prior to that, I read The Prince of Darkness, the recently deceased columnist Robert Novak's memoirs about his long career as a journalist covering politics from a right-wing perspective. I'm familiar with Novak mainly from his appearances on that pompous ass John McLaughlin's political discussion show back in the late '80s, and boy, does Novak dislike McLaughlin! Anyway, the book refers occasionally to Novak's personal life (esp. his conversion to Catholicism), but for the most part it's about how he viewed important events over the years from his perspective as a reporter. That is, the chapters are chronological, and tend to focus on his coverage of electoral events (e.g., he de-emphasizes things like Watergate and the Iranian hostage situation). I found the book a breezy and interesting read, but I suspect that readers with left-wing sensibilities will find it annoying. Anyway, it was interesting to read his take on the Valerie Plame controversy, since he was at the heart of it.

Then there was A Tale of Two Subs: An Untold Story of World War II, Two Sister Ships, and Extraordinary Heroism by Jonathan McCullough (picked up on a lark at the opening of a nearby big-box bookstore). The two ships in question were the submarines Sculpin and Sailfish, which at various times had a number of prominent US submarine captains serve onboard as officers of various ranks. For those who don't know, the US submarine offensive against Japan was (unlike its German counterpart) phenomenally successful, sinking a large part of the Japanese fleet and pretty much obliterating the merchant marine. In the book, the overall narrative arc at times gets a bit obscured, but the details of what it was like to serve on such a ship are riveting. You'd never catch me doing that! (The submarine service had the highest casualty rate in the US navy, and it must have been awful to go down with one of the ships lost with all hands.) When the Sculpin is lost at the end, there are survivors, so we can experience what it was like to go through such an event. Grim times.

Speaking of which, the book I read before that was Hitler's Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany by Nikolaus Wachsmann. I got this as part of the $400 in books I was paid by Yale University Press for assessing whether they should pick up the rights to distribute some other book in the UK. So this is very much an academic work. The upshot is as follows. The staff of the penal system of Weimar German wasn't too keen on the reforms introduced by the Weimar government, and so they were happy when these were repealed by the Nazis upon their assumption of office. Still, the harsher regime of the Nazis didn't materialize out of thin air, but was consonant with ideas from earlier days (sometimes these notions even had "progressive" origins). The penal regime under Nazis was certainly harsh, but through the early war period, the death rate was very low, and even well into the war it still wasn't particularly high. This is in marked contrast with the very high death rates in the SS-run concentration camps. Basically, even though the rules were harsh and sometimes these were interpreted rather loosely, nonetheless, a regular prison was by definition a bureaucratic institution rather than one of purely capricious violence. Rules are rules (rather to Hitler's annoyance). Still, the judicial system that ran the prisons did tend to become more radicalized over time in an attempt to keep Nazi "radicals" at bay. That is, in order to keep the more Nazi organs of government from taking over the prisons, the Ministry of Justice itself made the prison regime harsher in keeping with "National Socialist notions of justice." In any event, the basically conservative justice system was happy enough to cooperate with the Nazi political leaders to subjugate (and if necessary exterminate) people deemed socially destructive (like those considered habitual criminals).

This was somewhat less than happy reading, so I'd take a break re-reading my favorite H.P. Lovecraft story, "The Whisperer in Darkness." This is the story of a professor at Arkham University in Massachusetts who gets into a correspondence with a man who lives in the hills of New Hampshire (or is it Vermont?) and has had dealings with mysterious beings. As a writer, Lovecraft is something of much of a muchness, but he's certainly good at his shtick. Here we get all sorts of eeriness and foreboding out of sinister adjectives, but the denouement is very vivid and direct. I remember being totally creeped out by the story when I first read it many years ago. The science doesn't really hold up (the story's from about 1930), but with just a bit of tweaking it would make a great movie. Anyway, it's still creepy, and it's fun to analyze how Lovecraft conveys the mood.
Visit Christopher S. Mackay's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 18, 2009

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn's fifty-plus novels include the long-running Daisy Dalrymple mystery series.

A week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
At present I have a great pile of library books, mostly published in the 1920s. You can find out why at Poe's Deadly Daughters, where I blog about the difficulty of changing periods, having just finished writing a book set in the 1960s (sequel to Manna from Hades) and being about to start another set in the 1920s (19th in the Daisy Dalrymple series: the 18th, Sheer Folly, is just out).

Among my library finds:

John Buchan, The Dancing Floor. This is one I haven't read, by the author of the famous Thirty-Nine Steps. I own and enjoy rereading that as well as The Three Hostages, Greenmantle and a couple of others, all great adventure stories. I'm interested to find out what goes on on the Dancing Floor.

PG Wodehouse, several non-Jeeves books, including Jill the Reckless, lovely title! Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are very funny but I'm looking forward to trying some other characters from Wodehouse's vast output.

Freeman Wills Crofts, The Cask, a police procedural from the '20s. There are rather a lot of rail and ferry timetables involved, and I found it easy to guess whodunnit, but the way the police reach their solution (and are proved wrong) is fascinating. I've enjoyed many of his mysteries.

EF Benson, Lucia in London. If you've never met the inimitable, indestructible, abominable Lucia, go and find her immediately!

Gladys Mitchell, The Saltmarsh Murders. I've only ever read one of Mitchell's mysteries. She wrote many, but they're not easy to find. I'm happy to discover the local library has at least a few.

So, wish me luck in getting my head back into the 1920s!
Visit Carola Dunn's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Black Ship.

The Page 69 Test: Manna from Hades.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

James Hider

James Hider was born in London in 1968, and studied at Bristol University and the London School of Economics. He first visited the Middle East as a kibbutz volunteer while still a teenager. He started working as a journalist in Prague in 1991, has since worked as a journalist in the Balkans, the Middle East, Latin America and the United States. He is currently The Times Middle East correspondent and lives in Jerusalem.

His new book is The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War.

A few days ago my query about what he was reading caught up with him in Kabul. Here's his reply:
World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler

I was recently traveling in the Peruvian Amazon and picked up a book at a scientific research station called World Made By Hand, by James Howard Kunstler, a writer I’d never heard of. It was one of those totally unexpected surprises that turned out to be the best book I’ve read all year. It is a beautifully written tale of a small community in New York state after a series of vaguely alluded to disasters, including (rather presciently since it was written a few years ago) a disastrous Mexican flu. Kunstler vividly creates an entire society, bringing to life the ruined and patched-up little town with its characters struggling to cope with the abrupt absence of modernity. The characters are convincingly drawn, little by little, through the daily detail of all the chores they have to accomplish with no electricity, machinery, and with the tension of violence in an unregulated society always lurking not far from sight.

I was fascinated at the way this futuristic parable is more of a sudden return to the past, as experienced by contemporary characters, rather than some post-apocalyptic future. And as a journalist who has covered a number of wars, I was also struck that Kunstler’s story is actually one of the best descriptions of why men fight: wars always look pointless and strange from the outside, but for the people inside them there is always an inevitable logic to them: the violence of others, some perceived past injustice, the need for some kind of tribal identity and the desire to secure whatever scarce resources are there for one’s own group. I loved the fact that the trailer-park bikers had taken over the town landfill and set up a recycling business in a camp run by a violent warlord, while the respectable townspeople had shown no great initiative of their own and had come to be dependent upon their much coarser neighbors. It was also fascinating that rough justice comes in the form a bizarre Christian travelling cult, underscoring the tensions between those who hang on to their individuality, and struggle to get by, and those who form a tribe with a unifying ideology, and derive their power from that.

God’s Favorite by Lawrence Wright

This is an absolute page-turner, the imagined narrative of Panamanian president Manuel Noriega’s last days in power seen through the lens of The Sopranos and I, Claudius, a laugh-out-loud tale of insane statecraft mixed with paranoid witchcraft, with quite a bit of sex thrown in, The blistering finale is the US invasion to finally be rid of a sociopath up to his neck in murder and debauchery. The character of Noriega is so brilliantly written that you can’t help liking him even as he murders and tortures his way through his friends and enemies alike, like some crazed Roman emperor watching his city burn. The story telling is perfectly pitched, and I was surprised that the author is none other than the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Lawrence Wright, who penned The Looming Tower, the definitive history of Al Qaeda and the rise of militant Islam before 9/11. Interesting that the same man can write such an esteemed semi-academic tome as well as a rollicking, sometimes touching, yarn like this.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

I was slightly wary of bringing this book with me to Afghanistan, where I am currently spending a month covering the war, but am glad I did. I knew from his previous books that McCarthy’s pessimism can be a wrist-slittingly relentless, and wasn’t sure I wouldn’t need some light relief while in a country where horrors are being perpetrated every day. But it actually gives you a great perspective on the bloody history that we in the West would rather airbrush out of our memory, but which we are happy to condemn in other parts of the world: the blood-curdling descriptions of casual murder, sadistic massacres and the joyous celebration by the good townspeople of the city of Chihuahua at the return of the Yankie scalp-hunters, covered in gore and festooned with necklaces of human ears. McCarthy explores the boundless capacity of human beings for violence, often without remorse, in a culture where everyone is indulging in unrestricted brutality and justifying in the name of their own civilization, backed up by greed. McCarthy’s Melville-esque writing style demands absolute concentration – this is not an easy read -- but rewards your attention with some hallucinatory, beautiful descriptions of landscape (in fact, most of the book is a poetic description of the US-Mexico borderlands).
Visit James Hider's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bruce Weigl

Bruce Weigl is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, several translations, and the best-selling memoir The Circle of Hanh.

He has been awarded many honors, including the Paterson Poetry Prize, Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Yaddo Foundation, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Poet’s Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
What I’m reading lately has to do with the work I’ve been doing in preparation for teaching Homer’s The Odyssey, a poem I’d also like to co-translate someday. Barry Strauss’ The Trojan War provides the clearest and most inclusive history of the war that Homer based at least one of his epic works on, and he does it with a wonderfully lyrical regard for his writing so that it feels like you’re reading a great adventure story rather than a work of history. What’s particularly interesting to me as a teacher are the ways in which Homer deviated from what Strauss argues was the real history of Troy, evidence that the role of the author was far more important in these early texts than I had originally believed.

I’m also reading Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, Jonathan Shay’s amazing study that argues that Homer’s Odyssey can be seen in part as an extended metaphor for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What’s especially interesting about this book is the way that Shay, a psychiatrist for a VA outpatient clinic in Boston, combines groundbreaking psychological work about returning warriors with some astute and original literary interpretation of Homer’s great and enduring poem.
Read selected poems of Bruce Weigl.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A. Roger Ekirch

A. Roger Ekirch is an award-winning author and a professor of history at Virginia Tech. In addition to scholarly articles in such journals as the William and Mary Quarterly and Perspectives in American History, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and Newsday. His books have included Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775 and the multiple prize-winning At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, a sweeping study of nocturnal culture before the Industrial Revolution.

His new book, Birthright: The True Story of the Kidnapping of Jemmy Annesley, is due out in January 2010.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Believe it or not, I am at this minute reading the final page proofs of a book that I have coming out in January, compliments of Norton. I know that this answer is not in the spirit of the question that you’ve posed, but please indulge me, for I’ve been reading little else of late. Entitled Birthright: The True Story of the Kidnapping of Jemmy Annesley, the book recounts, for the first time, the real-life story that inspired five nineteenth-century novels, most famously Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Arguably, no saga of personal hardship so captivated the British public in the eighteenth century as the turbulent life of James Annelsey, the presumptive heir of five aristocratic titles and scion of the mighty house of Annesley. Kidnapped at twelve years of age by his uncle (a serial bigamist), “Jemmy” was shipped from Dublin to America in 1728 as an indentured servant. Only after twelve more years did he at last escape, returning to Ireland to bring his blood rival, the Earl of Anglesea, to justice in one of the epic trials of the century. So it’s a story about betrayal and loss but also resilience, survival, and redemption.

The last book that I read for pleasure was No Country for Old Men, which I enjoyed as much for the taut prose as for the story itself – a fine example of how writing can still be evocative without adjectives piled one atop another.
--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is a writer who has published essays in newspapers and magazines, as well as an anthology series. After a 30+ year career in marketing and public relations, she went back to college to complete a Bachelor’s degree and graduated Summa Cum Laude in 2005 from the University of New Mexico’s University Studies program with a major emphasis in Creative Writing.

Her memoir Following the Whispers came out earlier this year.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am a voracious reader and have been since I learned to read. Just finished three books in two days: Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion, The Prairie Grass Murders by Patricia Stoltey, and The Ride, by Jane Sutton Kennedy.

I hadn't read murder mysteries in a while and had forgotten what great escape reading they can be. Prior to that, I re-read A New Earth by Eckart Tolle and I'm working with Voice of the Muse by Mark David Gerson, a guide for writers.

At the top of the reading stack is Fearless Confessions and Because I Remember Terror Father I Remember You, both by Sue William Silverman. For fun, it will be The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, then another murder mystery, Pretty is As Pretty Dies, by Elizabeth Spann Craig.
Visit Karen Walker's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bruce Coston

Bruce Coston is a veterinarian and the author of the newly released Ask The Animals: A Vet’s-Eye View of Pets and the People They Love.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
My taste in books is widely variable and erratically eclectic. The following books are ones I am reading or have read in the last three months or so. They include the following:

1) Current read. The One Percent Doctrine by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Ron Suskind, and published by Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. This is a very enlightening, though perhaps acutely angled, inside account of America’s war on terror as prosecuted by the Bush administration. It is based on this reporter’s assembly of data from interviews, documents, and investigative reporting. No previous information I have heard has outlined so succinctly the foundational principles of the war on terror which were elucidated by Bush and Cheney. Within the administration this became known as the one percent doctrine: if there is even a one percent chance that an aggressive event is being contemplated by a terrorist network or rogue state, then America would respond as if the event was 100% reality. This stance was rooted in the perceived need for the public protection of Americans who, after 9/11, understood that potential attacks were possible, if not likely. Suskind posits, however, that the subsequent decisions and actions which arose from this doctrine have undermined the principles and freedoms of a democracy such as ours and has resulted in an unwarranted war in Iraq.

2) Will My Pet Go to Heaven? by Steve Wohlberg and published by Winepress Publishing. Over the years, this question has been posed to me by countless bleary-eyed clients and their children whose beloved pets have been eased into eternity to relieve intractable pain, disease or injury. For Christian believers who also happen to be suffering pet lovers, such a question deserves a reasoned and sensitive answer rooted as much as possible in Biblical teaching. Unfortunately, many people seek an answer from a clergy member who may be overly committed to their own theological “dog”ma or too insensitive to the hearts of their pet-loving parishioners to respond with anything but patronizing platitudes. Wohlberg’s conclusion: The Bible is silent on the specific question of whether our pets will go to heaven. But the Bible speaks volumes about three related concepts. First, animal life is precious is God’s eyes and holds a place of significant value. Second, the Bible is clear that there will be animals in heaven and that they will exist in relationship with us. And third, God loves us like a Parent and we can reasonably surmise that in a perfect world such a loving Parent would derive pleasure from making us happy. These conclusions are presented after careful evaluation of scripture from all perspectives. Bottom line, no one knows for sure, but there is no valid reason to dismiss the possibility out of hand.

3) The Collectors by David Baldacci and published by Warner Books, Hatchette Book Group USA. One of the scions of the mystery, thriller genre, Baldacci continues in The Collectors his ability to keep the reader on the seat’s edge. In this rendition, a group of collectors of rare books and documents has an insidious, but firm, grasp on the power structures in Washington; and, while wielding this power, learns of intrigue and treason that they seek to remedy. Twists and turns to the end. Baldacci’s books have taken on an even greater level of interest for me since I learned that he has a place on the same lake that I do. Granted, his is palatial and mine is postage stamp, but we share a common love of the beauty of the lake. Recently, he was gracious enough to spend an informative half hour on his dock giving me suggestions for making the most of my up-coming book release. Now he’s not only one of my favorite authors and my literary idol. He’s now also an acquaintance.

4) Alex and Me by Irene M. Pepperberg and published by Harper-Collins Publishers. Pepperberg is a behavioral scientist whose interest is in researching the facets of animal intelligence. Alex is an African Grey Parrot that she obtained as a research subject, but who quickly became a beloved companion. Dancing on the knife edge between rigorous scientist and adoring pet lover, Pepperberg documents the amazing cognitive and emotional abilities of this remarkable bird. Alex continually challenges the scientific community’s commitment to the concept that “lower” animals are not able to function on a cognitive level, think from cause to effect, draw logical conclusions or experience emotions such as anger, embarrassment or love in any meaningful way. An eye-opening and interesting book.
Read excerpts and some of the early praise for Ask the Animals, and learn more about the book and author at Bruce Coston's website.

See--Coffee with a Canine: Starr and Bruce Coston.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blake Nelson

Blake Nelson's first novel Girl (1994) has been translated into six foreign languages and was made into a feature film. After Girl, he published two more adult novels, Exile (1997) and User (2001). In 2003 he wrote his first Young Adult novel, The New Rules of High Sschool.

Since then Nelson has published six YA novels, New Rules, Rockstar Superstar, Prom Anonymous, Gender Blender, They Came From Below and Paranoid Park, which has been made into an award winning film by Gus Van Sant.

His latest book is Destroy All Cars.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Right now I am beginning David Levithan's Love is the Higher Law, which I heard him read from about a year ago in NY. It's about 9/11 and the passage I heard had a cool haunting quality to it. I stayed away from 9/11 literature during the first wave of books on that subject. I couldn't really digest it, the reality of what happened or the reaction to the reality.

Now though I am ready to look at it again. And feel it on a visceral level. Sometimes I close myself off to things as they are happening to maintain my "cold and objective" writer's perspective, but when it's time to go there, literature is a great way to experience things.
Visit Blake Nelson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Philip Matyszak

Philip Matyszak teaches ancient history in Cambridge. His books include Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual, Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day, Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day, and The Classical Compendium: A Miscellany of Scandalous Gossip, Bawdy Jokes, Peculiar Facts, and Bad Behavior from the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Last week I interrupted his holiday and asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Usually I have several books on the go at once ... my current crop consists of:

The Breath of Hades by Gregg Loomis - I wanted something light and trashy for reading by the lake, and certainly got trashy. This horribly predictable 'thriller' is riddled with factual errors and bizarre right-wing views. There's a hilarious two-page anti-Canadian rant which is totally irrelevant to the plot, but which the writer evidently needed to get off his chest. It's a library book, but I might still do future readers a favour and drop it in the lake when I'm done.

The Man from Pomegranate Street by Caroline Lawrence - Yes, it's a kid's book, but a fun read for adults too. The adventures of Flavia Gemina and friends combine rock-solid research with a good plot and interesting characters. I count Caroline as a friend, and we often exchange extracts of ongoing projects for comment and review. At the moment Flavia is accused of treason and on the run from the authorities. I can't wait to see how it all ends up. It's my bedtime read, accompanied by Charlie Parker and Johnny Walker.

The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton - British science fiction at its best. This is one of a series of Hamilton's books set several centuries from now in a strange world of long-lived humans, digital personalities, and in this case a race with strange psychic powers who live at the heart of the galaxy. It's an epic read, and best approached by those who have read the earlier books in the series.

Vote for Caesar by Peter Jones - The sub-title is How the Ancient Greeks and Romans solved the Problems of Today. This idiosyncratic little book is by a dyed-in-the-wool classicist who has little patience with the self-inflicted problems of the 21st century. On taxation, water supplies and crime and punishment, Dr Jones has views which are forthright - verging on curmudgeonly - and invariably thought-provoking. For example, after a guilty verdict in ancient Athens, defence and prosecution presented alternative punishments, and the jury voted for the one they thought most appropriate.
Visit Philip Matyszak's website and blog.

See: The Page XCIX Test: Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day.

--Marshal Zeringue