Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lisa O'Donnell

Lisa O'Donnell won the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for The Wedding Gift and, in the same year, was nominated for the Dennis Potter New Screenwriters Award. Her new book, The Death of Bees, is her first novel. A native of Scotland, O'Donnell is now a full-time writer and lives in Los Angeles with her two children.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’m reading The Light Between Oceans but I can’t give too much away without clanging about with spoilers. Needless to say the writing is beautiful.

I’m also reading The Good Women of China - Hidden Voices by Xinran. An unforgettable story written by a journalist documenting heroic, often times tragic stories of women living in China, past and present. These are shared tales from the bravest and strongest of women documented by an extraordinary journalist who risks her freedom in the minefield of restrictions imposed on journalists in China in order to reach women across the world.

Further to this I’m reading How Do Dinosaurs say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague to my kids. Then there’s Julia Donaldson writer of The Gruffalo books. I’ve known many a happy hour reading to my enthralled children her tales of witches and giants. I am also huge fan of Michael Morpurgo who wrote Kensuka’s Kingdom. It is an incredible book. My son loves it. He’s a little older and embracing Dahl right now. Writing for children isn’t easy and not anything I intend to pursue, but I so admire those authors who can.
Learn more about The Death of Bees at Lisa O'Donnell's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Death of Bees.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 28, 2012

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette is an independent historian based in Washington, DC. She is the author of Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television and Science on American Television: A History.

A few weeks ago I asked the author what she was reading.  Her reply:
Familiar feelings: Tired, anxious to return home, in need of one more stretch before boarding a plane. Expectations low, I strolled through the airport bookstore and scanned the shelves. Then I spied two familiar names and a novel I had missed when it first appeared. Purchase made. Electronic reading device stowed. Comfort located within two paper covers.

Thank you Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Your Gideon's Corpse sustained, entertained, and informed me all the way home, just as your other novels (beginning with Relic) have done through the years. The air-hours dwindled as your physicist-hero careened through whitewater and cadged his way into secure government facilities, attempting to derail a terrorist plot. When there was a slight delay reaching the gate at my destination, I could retrieve the paperback from my bag and re-immerse in an imaginary world, remote from the stress and anxiety of the real one.

I have spent the last few years probing the history of how science is presented on television, where the most effectively communicated technical information is now often woven into drama. Series like C.S.I. and Bones create plausible laboratories, conduct experiments to test reasonable (if fanciful) hypotheses, and allow their characters to act as knowledgeably arrogant as some (but not, of course, all) real scientists. When television writers take the time to research the pertinent science--as Preston and Child have done consistently through the years for their books--then audiences are rewarded. We are educated as well as entertained and, especially for illustrating intricate science-related ethical and political issues, we may be alerted and informed. We can absorb a little science even when the flight is long and the traveler weary.
Learn more about Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette's Science on American Television at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sarah Conly

Sarah Conly is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowdoin College. Her book, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

Earlier this month I asked Conly what she was reading. Her reply:
David Hume, The History of England, Volume V, LibertyClassics, (based on the 1778 edition.)

Want to see a vivid display of flawed personalities locked in a bitter struggle for political power? Want to see one where at the end of the book the leader of the losing party gets his head chopped off? I’m reading David Hume’s history of the English Civil War, the one where the Royalists and the Roundheads go at it, where Charles I is ignominiously beheaded. This is Volume V of Hume’s History of England, and no, I did not first read the preceding four volumes. But this is a lively, action-filled book, replete with descriptions that would make a contemporary columnist green with envy. Page 99 is typical. The king is James I, who is distinguished, for Hume, by his lack of distinction. As the chapter opens, Austria has invaded the Palatine, and James would (sort of) like to do something about that. On p. 99 we see that sadly,
To show how little account was made of James’s negociations abroad, there is a pleasantry mentioned by all historians, which, for that reason, shall have place here. In a farce, acted at Brussels, a courier was introduced carrying the doleful news that the Palatinate would soon be wrested from the house of Austria: so powerful were the succours, which, from all quarters, were hastening to the relief of the despoiled elector: the king of Denmark had agreed to contribute to his assistance a hundred thousand pickled herrings, the Dutch a hundred thousand butter-boxes, and the king of England a hundred thousand ambassadors. On other occasions, he was was painted with a scabbard, but without a sword; with a sword, which nobody could draw, though several were pulling at it.
Hume (1711-1776), of course, was a philosopher. He was brilliant, but his major work, A Treatise of Human Nature, was ignored at the time, famously falling “dead-born from the presses.” Rather than despairing, he turned to (relatively) popular writing, with this six-volume history, which, unlike his philosophy, was very well received. Surely some of this reason for this was his uninhibited evaluation of character. While James does not actually start the Civil War, Hume suggests that his sad mixture of enervation and hauteur lay its groundwork. And when the unfortunate king eventually dies, Hume can say no better of him than that:
Many virtues, …, it must be owned, he was possessed of; but scarce any of them pure, or free from the contagion of the neighbouring vices. His generosity bordered on profusion, his learning on pedantry, his pacific disposition on pusillanimity, his wisdom on cunning, his friendship on light fancy and boyish fondness…While he endeavoured, by an exact neutrality , to acquire the good will of all his neighbours, he was able to preserve fully the esteem and regard of none. And upon the whole, it may be pronounced of his character, that all his qualities were sullied with weakness and embellished by humanity. (121)
Top that, Gail Collins! Hume’s history is not the neutral factual account that would be more acceptable as history today, but for this reason it’s an engaging story that, for 17th century history, is surprisingly close to a page-turner.
Read an excerpt from Sarah Conly's Against Autonomy, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Against Autonomy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dan Lainer-Vos

Dan Lainer-Vos is the Ruth Ziegler Early Career Chair in Jewish Studies and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California.

His new book is Sinews of the Nation: Constructing Irish and Zionist Bonds in the United States.

Recently I asked Lainer-Vos about what he was reading.  His reply:
A good friend, nonacademic, gave me a copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s From Animals into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind describing it as one of the best books he ever read. Being I guess a bit of an academic snob, I thought “what can be so good about a book that purports to tell the history of mankind.” But when another friend also recommended it, I decided to give the book a try and it was well worth it. The book is not quite what it sounds like. Harari is not really trying to tell a history of humanity but instead focuses on selected issues in the history of mankind—the agricultural revolution, religion, gender inequality, nationalism, etc. The book makes an exceptionally easy read without “dumbing it down.” Harari is not afraid to make bold statements but, a few lines later, he will admit for not knowing the answer to a particular question. This balance between audaciousness and caution helps him build much needed credibility for a book of this kind. A key theme of the book is the tension between evolutionary success and individual suffering. Over the course of history, humans moved from being a relatively unimportant part of the animal kingdom into the master of the planet—a species that alters the ecosystem like no other and has brought thousands of species to extinction. This evolutionary success, however, did not mean and increase in human happiness. Harari is obviously not the first to say that history is not a matter of progression, but his analysis of this tension is dynamic, fresh, and truly insightful.
Learn more about Sinews of the Nation at the John Wiley & Sons website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Victoria Emma Pagán

Victoria Emma Pagán is Professor of Classics at the University of Florida. Her books include A Sallust Reader, Rome and the Literature of Gardens, and Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History. She also edited the Companion to Tacitus.

Pagán's new book is Conspiracy Theory in Latin Literature.

Earlier this month I asked the author what she was reading. Pagán's reply:
The University of Florida Honors College sponsors an “Uncommon Reading” program, in which faculty can propose to read a book with interested students. I recently re-read Anna Karenina with a group of nineteen women; we finished just in time for a field trip to see the new movie starring Kiera Knightly. After twenty years, I still find the novel compelling and morally baffling. This time, at least, Oblonsky was my favorite character because he is so consistently true to himself. Not a duplicitous bone in his body: he’s worthless and he knows it. Would that all worthless louts were so forthcoming.

In preparation for a three-week trip across South Africa in Summer 2012, I read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. I love autobiographies because they test a writer’s ethics. I’m the world’s most suspicious reader, and I love trying to figure out when an autobiographer is fudging the truth about himself or his circumstances. In spite of Mandela’s remarkable story and his life of probity and integrity, there are places where I found myself wondering whether he was telling the whole truth. A memoir of a different order is Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul. Though I’ve never been and I would surely appreciate the book differently if I had, still I reveled in the way Pamuk’s poetic language captured the genius of the place.

I once picked up a battered paperback of Cry of the Kalahari by Mark James Owens and Cordelia Dykes Owens at a Friends of the Library Sale in Fernandina Beach, Florida. It is a riveting story in itself—but the ending could be a short story of its own, a study in grief and pathos.

I’m slightly OCD, so when I latch on to a good author, I tend to read his every word: Wallace Stegner, Chaim Potok, J. M. Coetzee. I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t have a favorite woman author. That’s probably very revealing.

Like everyone else, I read Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, not least because that fragment of Archilochus is one of my all-time favorites: “The fox knows many tricks. The hedgehog, one. One big one.” I would trade the fourth book of Horace’s Odes for a complete set of Archilochus’ poetry. But that game is so passé.

And like everyone else, I read Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and ended up with an insatiable craving for roast pork. You are what you read.
Learn more about Conspiracy Theory in Latin Literature at the University of Texas Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 21, 2012

Aaron Elkins

Edgar® Award–winning author Aaron Elkins’s creation—forensics professor Gideon Oliver—has been hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “a likable, down-to-earth, cerebral sleuth.”

The latest novel in the series is Dying on the Vine.

A couple of weeks ago I asked I asked Elkins what he was reading.  His reply:
When people ask me that question, they are usually surprised to learn that I read almost no mystery fiction. Actually, I never was much of a mystery fan (with a few towering exceptions, Conan Doyle above all), but in the last couple of decades I've cut back to almost nothing. The thing is, when I read fiction, I'm not really looking to be enlightened or to be made more aware of what's happening in the world, or of what is "true," or to have my consciousness raised. When I open a novel, what I want is to have my consciousness lowered. I want to forget the world for a while and float away on the story and the words. I can't do this any more with mysteries. The authorly devices jump out at me now: the hooks, the red herrings, the planted clues, the sneaky plotting. In other words, the structure gets in the way of the substance. Seeing and analyzing how other people do it is probably instructive for me as a writer, but for me as a reader it's a killer. It turns reading into a hard slog, something closer to chore than to pleasure.

But there are other novelists that I do enjoy, and these are generally master wordsmiths as opposed to master plotters or deep thinkers. Patrick O'Brian's series about Aubrey and Maturin (the first is Master and Commander) is a good example. They are all set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, not a period in which I'm much interested, but the magic of the words carries me away, even when I'm ploughing through a full page or more of nautical jargon about the meaning of which I'm clueless. These books are witty, too, which doesn't hurt. There are seventeen in the series. I've read them all, and I'm in the process, the slow process, of going through them again.

I keep PG Wodehouse on my bedside table too, for the same reasons—words and wit. The plots I can't follow half the time, but who cares?

In the interests of full disclosure: I admit that some of my other favorites are David Lodge, Alison Lurie, Richard Russo, VS Naipaul, and Ann Tyler, even though they're pretty deep thinkers, in my opinion. It must be because they're not so bad with words either.

Non-fiction? At the moment I'm reading two books by Oliver Sacks: An Anthropologist on Mars and Seeing Voices. Sacks is the neurologist best known for Awakenings (the basis for the movie with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

On my list (on my shelf, in fact) are two biographical works: William Manchester and Paul Reid's The Last Lion, the final volume of Manchester's magnificent trilogy on the life of Winston Churchill, and Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (James Garfield). I'm reading the Millard book largely on the basis of the excellent account she wrote of Theodore Roosevelt's post-presidential Amazon adventure, The River of Doubt.
Visit Aaron J. Elkins' website.

My Book, The Movie: Aaron Elkins' "Gideon Oliver" novels.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jennifer Mather Saul

Jennifer Saul is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. She works in Philosophy of Language, Feminist Philosophy and Philosophy of Psychology. She is especially interested in finding ways that philosophical debates (like that over what is said) connect up with real-world concerns (like lying and misleading). And she likes nothing better than an excuse to discuss political scandals in great detail. Her books include Simple Sentences, Substitution, and Intuitions and Feminism: Issues and Arguments. She is Director of the Implicit Bias and Philosophy Research Network.

Saul's new book is Lying, Misleading, and What is Said: An Exploration in Philosophy of Language and in Ethics. Her reply to my recent query about what she has been reading:
Sadly, being Head of Department doesn't leave me much time at all to read books. Most of the book reading I do these days is reading aloud to my 7-year-old son. He has a taste for the oldies, the really oldies, so it's been (simplified versions of) the Odyssey and Gilgamesh. Watching his reaction makes it clear there's a reason these have stood the test of time. He also has a love of Enid Blyton, a very familiar children's writer for the British, but totally unknown to Americans. As an American ex-pat mother of a child born and raised in the UK, it's a new discovery. Lots of other lefty parents avoid these like the plague for their appalling gender, race and class attitudes. I actually enjoy discussing these issues with him, as he's very critical and reflective. And I can't help but think it's better to discuss and criticise this stuff than to simply avoid it, since avoidance simply won't work as a life-long strategy.
Learn more about Lying, Misleading, and What is Said at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Patricia Fara

Patricia Fara is the prize-winning author of Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity.

Here she discusses two books she has been reading recently:
Can it just be coincidence? The last two books I’ve read were recommended to me by different friends yet appeared within a year of one another – and both are historical novels that reflect on national identity. Part of an answer comes from the first of my authors, JG Farrell, who published The Siege of Krishnapur in1973. ‘I preferred to use the past,’ he explained, because ‘people have already made up their minds what they think about the present. About the past they are more susceptible to clarity of vision.’

Drawing on true events and diary memoirs from the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Farrell explores the gradual disintegration of a stranded British community, starving to death yet determined to stave off attacks by Indian troops they have themselves trained. In these strained circumstances, apparently trivial questions assume an overwhelming importance because – like the notorious pig fat for greasing cartridges that eventually drove subordinated Muslims to rebel – they represent crucially important social divisions. Should an English unmarried mother sleep in the ballroom with the ladies, or should she be relegated to the Eurasian quarters? Should the few remaining items of food be distributed equally, or should they be auctioned off to the richest bidder? Should survivors endanger their own lives by burying fallen friends in the Christian graveyard, or should the bodies be tossed over the walls to be picked over by scavengers already bloated from this unprecedented harvest? As the weeks plod by, some seek refuge in the Bible and insanity, while others begin to doubt the wisdom of a western culture based on material prosperity rather than spiritual wealth.

At first sight, Ragtime, an American classic about the early twentieth century by E L Doctorow (why were initials so popular in the 1970s?), seems unrelated. Written in a choppy syncopated style, the story is carried by characters who weave in and out of the spotlight like the instrumentalists of a jazz band taking turns to play solo. Centre stage stand Father, Mother and other anonymized members of a rising New York family whose affluence stems from selling patriotic paraphernalia. They repeatedly encounter real-life men who are also forging a new entrepreneurial nation, such as Pierpont Morgan, Henry Ford and Harry Houdini, as well as the imagined Tateh, an impoverished immigrant Jew who transforms himself through determination and initiative into a distinguished aristocrat worth a fortune. Their lives are disrupted by a black couple with an illegitimate baby: their sudden intrusion into everyday routine initially seems unimportant, yet their actions eventually come to dominate the plot line.

Set half a century and half the globe apart, these two books both explore problems perplexing the authors and their contemporaries in the 1970s. The previous decade had seen explosive challenges to older conventions, but not everybody was willing to relinquish traditional values. Both in America and Britain, questions of race and relationships, materialism and marriage, sex and society were still being thrashed out. Above all – what does it mean to be a nation? Considering modern controversies about a black President and British citizenship tests based on cricket, perhaps it’s not such a coincidence that I found both these books a riveting read.
Read more about Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Magnus Fiskesjö

Magnus Fiskesjö is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University.

His books include China Before China: Johan Gunnar Andersson, Ding Wenjiang, and the Discovery of China's Prehistory (with Chen Xingcan) and The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, The Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantanamo.

Recently I asked Fiskesjö what he was reading. His reply:
Some time ago, almost by accident, I came across a book at the Brooklyn Museum shop entitled Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights by Hans Belting (Munich and New York: Prestel, 2002).

It is an amazing book. It is by Hans Belting, an outstanding German scholar of art, but I was not yet very familiar with his work at the time. I am not an art historian really, but an anthropologist, and bought the book simply because I knew of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) as a tremendously fascinating and also enigmatic painter.

Already as a kid, growing up in Sweden, I remember seeing reproductions in books about Bosch's paintings, including this most famous and strange painting which is the focus of Belting's book, The Garden of Earthly Delights. I remember at a young age marveling at the crowded scenes in these amazing paintings, overflowing with mysterious figures, clearly chock full of significance, but not easy to understand. As a slightly older teenage backpack traveller, I once even saw the original painting, which is a triptych on display in Madrid's Museo del Prado.

When I saw the book on the shelf, I knew that this painting is said to be one of the most difficult to interpret -- what is this staggeringly rich and intriguing "Garden of Earthly Delights", is it Paradise? and how does it relate to Hell, and the other parts of the painting? The painting has four parts, because there is also a painting covering the front of the two doors when the triptych is closed: it shows God at a moment of hesitation, sitting on a small cloud above an Earth that so far has only plants, not animals or people, on the third day of his Creation as imagined in the Bible's story).

And thus I decided to buy the book: To re-live some of the sense of wonder I once had when first faced with this enigmatic painting, and to find out what this unknown author had to say about it. Also, I was spending the day at the Brooklyn Museum with my son, 7 years old at the time, and he was going to get a children's book, so I was going to get one book for myself, as well.

The book is a feast. Even though the font size of the text is a bit too small, and the very rich color reproductions could also have been bigger, the richness of this small book is really striking. It does give full illustrations of the painting, including both the triptych, as well as the front doors. But the mainstay of the book is in Belting's attempt to reinterpret the painting. He presents the results of what is clearly longstanding efforts to think hard about the painting and dig deep into every aspect of it, its creator and his times, his benefactors and patrons, the world he lived in, the things he must have seen and heard.

Belting writes about how Bosch created a new form of art that almost no-one (apart from Pieter Bruegel the Elder) was really able to inherit, despite the attempts of many to copy his fantasy scenes while lacking in that something fundamental that motivated and infused Bosch's near-unique paintings.

Belting emphasized two factors that not many other writers have taken up, or not as fully, even those that go beyond the earlier misguided attempts to interpret especially the middle panel as cleverly masked heresy, or, as a moral warning against hedonism, or in some other such way. On the one hand, Belting suggests the importance of what appears to be a loophole in the Bible allowing for the possibility that Paradise might have continued on Earth (or, in other words, that life on earth might be imagined differently from conventional understandings). On the other hand, Belting highlights the contextual importance of the contemporary discovery of the Americas. Belting suggests that in the window of time before this newly encountered India of the West became better known (and in due course exploited, brutalized, enslaved and colonized) by Europeans, there was a window of opportunity for speculation about the Americas as an alien place on Earth -- and by extension, of alternative worlds. Bosch took up this opportunity, and this is how he imagined the Garden of Earthly Delight, the middle panel. Belting also, through some daring conjectures about the circumstances of the painting, delves into the connections with the political utopianism of the times, such as Thomas More's Utopia.

It is possible that the paradise on earth painting by Hieronymus Bosch is something like an imaginary of what life on earth could be if it was different, even radically different, and that the main point of the painting is to spur this kind of radical rethinking of what is possible. Only that in an era when Church dogma still ruled if not supreme then almost supreme, and heresy might be dangerous, Bosch was forced to deploy the language of Christianity even as he was challenging people to think outside of this dogma?
Learn more about Magnus Fiskesjö at his Cornell faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gil Troy

Gil Troy is  Professor of History at McGill University. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, and other major media outlets. His books include The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, Leading from the Center, Morning in America, and Why I am a Zionist.

Troy's latest book is Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author what he was reading.  His reply:
Right now, I am reading student papers – but as soon as I finish that task, I have two unfinished books waiting – which is rare – and one new book pending. The unfinished work of fiction is Watergate: A Novel by Thomas Mallon. I confess, part of my initial motivation was to be able to say “yes” when I was asked “have you read it?” But I find it fascinating and infuriating all at the same time. I detest Oliver Stone. I hate what he has done in blurring the line between fact and fiction, especially in his contemptible, self-important, distorting JFK and Nixon movies. Mallon is guilty of the same crime, and you read each sentence wondering what is true, what is based on some kind of research, and what is speculative. But, unlike Stone, Mallon’s approach is so endearing, so charming, I remain more entranced than enraged – and am curious to see how it ends. (Please don’t ruin it by saying what President Nixon might do as his administration implodes!) The book, however, is an e-book on my iPad, so I tend to reserve that for plane rides when I do not have too much work. Therefore, it is hanging, but given my familiarity with the characters, it is not difficult to pick up the thread.

The other unfinished book is David Mamet’s The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews. Whereas Mallon’s novel is langorous, Mamet’s book is furious. Mamet has some of the same manic energy that Daniel Patrick Moynihan had – and Mamet’s ire is directed at a favorite Moynihan target, all varieties of leftist radicals who are so busy proving they are tolerant they end up tolerating the intolerable, including the intolerant who don’t tolerate their own kind. Mamet, like Moynihan, is a remarkable wordsmith, and summons all the powers of the English language and centuries of civilization to defend civilization from inner rot, appeasers, doubters, those who, as my mother said, “are so open-minded their brains fall out.”

Finally, the book I am waiting to read is the historian James Patterson’s Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America. I have always been a 1968 man myself. And part of my motivation in writing Moynihan’s Moment was to zero in on a great defining moment. Jim is one of the great historians of this generation, so I am curious to see what he does with 1965, and the first three pages drew me in – the year starts with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society hopes, but it is in many ways, the year that Vietnam escalates out of control, the year of Watts, very much a defining year – so I am intrigued and anxious to learn.
Visit Gil Troy's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 15, 2012

David Hochfelder

David Hochfelder is an assistant professor of history at The State University of New York, Albany.

His new book is The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920.

Recently I asked the author what he was reading. Hochfelder's reply:
I read very broadly, though with definite preferences, if that makes sense. I cycle between non-fiction, usually dealing with economics and technology, and fiction, particularly science fiction. I am fortunate to have a wonderful public library and access to a good university library, so I rarely need to buy books for my leisure reading. I own a Kindle and iPad and love them both, but I really think it’s important to support public libraries.

I am a big fan of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. They take place in a far future in which humanity lives in a post-scarcity galaxy. The Culture is run by artificial intelligences and it’s unclear whether humans are equal partners or merely indulged pets. Perhaps both. I recently read his most recent Culture novels, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata. What I find most appealing about Banks is that he asks serious philosophical questions about what life would be like in a world where leisure, abundance, and immortality are assumed to be the normal state of existence. And what life would be like in a world run by machines.

After Banks, I turned to several books dealing with the future of technology and sustainability. As an engineer turned historian, I oscillate between optimism and pessimism about humanity’s future. So I read widely on topics that help me to understand our mid-term and long-term prospects. On the one hand, I think we are facing some major civilizational challenges—resource depletion and climate change. On the other hand, humanity has progressed considerably in the past 500 years and we may continue to do so.

I began with the pessimism, starting with two titles by Martin Rees. From Here to Infinity: A Vision for the Future of Science is a short book based on Rees’s BBC Reith Lectures. He reflects on what the scientific enterprise will likely look like in the context of these civilizational challenges. After that, I read his Our Final Hour, in which he rates our chances for surviving the 21st century at 50%, thanks to global warming and the increased ability to kill ourselves off with weapons of mass destruction. Rees claims he’s an optimist, to boot! Along the same lines, I read Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species after that.

To balance Rees and Hamilton, I read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Jorgen Randers’s 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. I am assigning Randers for a course on future studies, so I thought I ought to read it first.

After all that, I am returning to fiction with Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Orhan Parmuk, The Museum of Innocence. I’ve wanted to read both authors for awhile but never got around to them.
Learn more about David Hochfelder's The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920 at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 14, 2012

Louise McReynolds

Louise McReynolds is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era, The News under Russia's Old Regime, and Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia.
What am I reading? The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer. A big fan of both murder and espionage, especially The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and George Smiley, the Times bestseller promised the best of both worlds. I'm about half through it, bored, and doubt that I'll finish it. When the reader doesn't care "whodunit"...
Read more about Murder Most Russian at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Marc Myers

Marc Myers is the author of Why Jazz Happened—the first jazz social history that looks at the unlikely social, economic and technological events that caused jazz styles to change between 1942 and 1972, the music’s golden three decades.

Myers is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, where he writes on music and architecture, and he posts daily at, which recently was named “Blog of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Last month I asked the author what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished Sean Wilentz’s 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story. Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University and author of Bob Dylan in America and other books on music and history. It’s a large, coffee table-sized book—which is fabulous, since music history is also about colorful record labels, dramatic album covers, eccentric artists and imposing personalities. You need to see what all of this looked like—from the portraits to the candids—to grasp the importance. But most of all, Wilentz is a first-rate social historian and storyteller who develops a superb narrative. I love music history books that approach their subject as a dramatic work, where the artists and executives are actors in an unfolding story with ups, downs and turning points. This book has it all—with the focus on a single major label that has long dominated the industry back to the earliest days of recording.

I also recently finished Jon Burlingame’s The Music of James Bond, which provides an undercover look at how each Bond film’s theme song and soundtrack came together—the writing and orchestral aspects as well as the intrigue and dirt. Burlingame is a sharp, analytic West Coast journalist and he teaches film-music at the University of Southern California.

Two other books I’ve completed are The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, by Ted Gioia, a breezy history of songs most favored by jazz artists, and Something to Live for: The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur, which was written in 2002 and sheds light on the narrow space between Duke Ellington and Strayhorn, his chief composer/arranger.
Read more about Why Jazz Happened at the book’s official site, and visit

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Melinda L. Pash

Melinda L. Pash received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Tennessee in 2005 and teaches at Fayetteville Technical Community College in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her new book is In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War.

Earlier this month I asked the author about what she was reading. Pash's reply:
Currently I am reading one book and rereading two others.

First, let me start with my rereads. I was born in 1969, only a few years before the end of the American Vietnam War. But, my earliest historical memory is of my dad sitting with me, watching the evacuation from Saigon in 1975 and saying, “This is history being made.” Consequently, despite growing up in a time when nobody wanted to talk about Vietnam, I had a healthy interest in the war. I picked up books like Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, but at 17 or 18, this sort of book just did not speak my language. Then, in college, I found Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. That book changed my life, drawing me vicariously into the world of war and forever interesting me in the experiences of men (and women) in the war zone. Ultimately, that book, and Tim O’Brien’s beautiful writing, led me to interview Korean War veterans and write In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation. I also have to credit O’Brien’s book with desensitizing me to the language of veterans—“Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.” So, I’m rereading the book decades later to see if I still love it as much.

The other book I am rereading (with my 10 year old son) is From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. When I was child, this book made me realize that the past is really a secret and a mystery to be enjoyed. That probably doomed me to become a historian. But, the book is great and has withstood the test of time.

The newest book I am reading is Robert L. O’Connell’s The Ghosts of Cannae. At the college where I teach, I am the primary instructor of Western Civilization I and I have become more and more interested in the Romans. This book caught my eye because Cannae was, of course, one of the worst military disasters ever, with tens of thousands of Romans killed in a single day. But, Ghosts thus far exceeds my expectations, opening a window into the minds and cultures of both Rome and Carthage while at the same time telling a great story.
View the trailer for In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation, and learn more about the book at the New York University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kimberley Brownlee

Kimberley Brownlee is an Associate Professor in Legal and Moral Philosophy at the University of Warwick School of Law. Before joining Warwick in 2012, she was a Lecturer and Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester. She holds a BA in Philosophy (McGill), MPhil in Philosophy (Cambridge), and DPhil in Philosophy (Oxford; Rhodes Scholar). She has held a Canada-US Fulbright Visiting Research Fellowship, Philosophy Department, Vanderbilt University; an HLA Hart Visiting Research Fellowship, University College, Oxford; a Centre for Ethics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs Visiting Fellowship, Philosophy Department, St Andrews University; and a UCLA Law School Visiting Scholar position. She is the Honorary Secretary for the Society for Applied Philosophy and a member of the Executive Committee of the British Philosophical Association. In 2012, she was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize from the Leverhulme Trust.

Her new book is Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience.

Recently I asked Brownlee what she was reading.  Her reply:
Lately, my partner has been reading to me the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley. My mother recommended them to us as heart-warming and funny - which are great traits in books to real aloud. Flavia is an irrepressible and irresistible eleven year-old with a talent for chemistry and crime investigation. The Flavia books are not whodunnits in the sense that the reader could figure out who the murderer is by paying close enough attention, which is a good thing since I occasionally fall asleep while my partner is reading.

The most unputdownable novels I've read over the last few months are The Taliban Cricket Club, Cutting for Stone, and Sweet Tooth. My recent non-fiction reading has included Moonwalking with Einstein and Turning the Mind into an Ally. And, my current reading for research has focused on human rights. Some of the titles I return to again and again are James Griffin's On Human Rights and James Nickel's Making Sense of Human Rights (2nd ed.).
Learn more about Conscience and Conviction at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ed Kovacs

Ed Kovacs has worked for many years as a private security contractor deploying to challenging locations worldwide. He is a member of AFIO, Association for Intelligence Officers, the International Thriller Writers organization, and the Mystery Writers of America.

His novels include Storm Damage and its recently released follow-up, Good Junk.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Kovacs what he was reading. His reply:
I just found a dog-eared copy of Tom Clancy’s eleven-hundred-page thrill ride, The Bear and the Dragon. I’m currently working on a security contract at a remote location in a former Soviet Republic, so Clancy’s Russian settings and characters, and insights into Russian thinking are all very germane, since I liaise with many Russian military, security and intelligence types on a daily basis.

Clancy is simply a Grand Master of commercial thriller fiction that rises above the genre. When I deployed here I had already started writing my 5th novel, an espionage/conspiracy thriller set in Central Asia with a security contractor hero. I can’t do much writing due to the long hours my duty requires, but I found the coincidence of stumbling upon his book in a “hotel” “library” curious (there are almost no English-language books to be had here, unless you have high-speed Internet and can download e-books).

The Bear and the Dragon is almost like a reference work; reading a bit of it here and there helps me stay focused on writing my own book, when I try to crank out some pages in my off-duty hours. Clancy sets a very high bar for the rest of us to emulate.
Visit Ed Kovacs's website.

My Book, The Movie: Storm Damage.

The Page 69 Test: Storm Damage.

Writers Read: Ed Kovacs (December 2011).

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Jones’s debut historical fantasy novel, The Desert of Souls (Thomas Dunne Books 2011), was widely acclaimed by influential publications like Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly, where it was labeled “a splendid flying-carpet ride.” It made Kirkus’ New and Notable list for 2011, and was on both Locus’s Recommended Reading List and the Barnes and Noble Best Fantasy Releases list of 2011. Additionally, The Desert of Souls was a finalist for the prestigious Compton Crook Award, and a featured selection of The Science Fiction Book Club. Its sequel, The Bones of the Old Ones, hits bookstores this week.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Jones what he was reading. His reply:
Because I’m writing in a version of the 8th century, albeit one where magic and dark horrors actually exist, I always have at least one book underway for research purposes. Right now I’m (re) reading the Shahnamah, or Persian Book of Kings, the epic poem written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi in the early 9th century. The recent prose translation by Dick Davis is pretty captivating, and I just finished a section about the adventures of Sekander, or, as we know him, Alexander the Great. It was fascinating to see the Macedonian conqueror depicted as a mythological figure torn between his drive for adventure and his duties as a monarch. Soon I’m going to be re-visiting a long section about the hero Rustam, who is a little like Herakles, complete with a series of labors.

I began the Shahnamah some years ago so that I’d know some of the fables and legends my characters might have heard, but it wasn’t too long before the sheer imaginative scope and pathos captivated me. It’s a book I revisit and think about frequently.

I’ve just finished Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Inferior. I’d heard good things about the book, and, having met Peadar and enjoyed his company at the 2012 Worldcon, decided to give it a go. In some ways The Inferior was a throwback to old adventure science fiction/fantasy of the kind Andre Norton used to write. Yet because of its modern pedigree it was able to take on topics older books could never have tackled. Don’t get me wrong – it’s primarily an adventure novel – but like the best speculative fiction, subtly turns a mirror on our own time, asking us to question conceptions about societal roles as it entertains.

I’ve just finished Killer’s Moon, by Ben Haas writing as John Benteen. A few years back I would have turned up my nose at a western, let alone a 70s series western, but I’m actually getting a little wiser with age. Sure, the Haas Fargo novels have formulaic elements, but Haas was a master with pace and setting. I never fail to take a few mental notes about how Haas works his magic. He knew how to evoke visceral details without slathering on the description, and how to deliver surprises even while writing formula. He also manages to portray the challenges of wilderness living, working with horses, and other details useful to someone wanting to write of an earlier time, west or east. To get to this good stuff, though, you have to look past the 70s sexism and a few other issues. It’s like eating a tasty hamburger made by an excellent cook who insists on using a pickle you don’t like. In the case of Haas I love the rest of the food so well I usually just eat the pickle, even if I normally prefer salmon…

Despite this long preamble, this was my least favorite Fargo title yet. Some sections felt a little perfunctory. Another great strength of these old westerns, though, is that none are longer than 60 thousand words , so they’re quick reads. I wish short books like that were still in vogue.

I’ve just started The Religion, by Tim Willocks, a novel that’s been sitting on my “to be read” pile for several years. It’s devoted to the Turkish Siege of Malta although I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I’ve heard great things about it from sources I usually rely upon, and so far the opening sections are vivid and striking, if harrowing. I’m eager to see what happens next.
Visit Howard Andrew Jones's website.

--Marshal Zeringue