Friday, March 31, 2006

"The Count of Monte Cristo"

Jonathan Freiman suggested a novel that captures what life might be like when the sovereign is unencumbered by habeas corpus protections:
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père.
There’s a useful plot summary of the novel here.

The French Literature Online Library makes available a free online edition of The Count of Monte Cristo here.

If the novel leaves you unmoved about the plight of a man wrongly accused and imprisoned—it’s only a story, after all—consider: Dumas got the idea from an actual case of a Parisian shoemaker who was engaged to be married until four friends accused him of spying for England. He spent seven years in jail before he was freed.

Jonathan Freiman works jointly as a litigator and appellate advocate at Wiggin and Dana and as Senior Fellow and Clinical Advisor at Yale Law School's Schell Center for International Human Rights.

He co-teaches a class at Yale Law School with Dean Harold H. Koh on appellate litigation and strategy, with a focus on the interplay between national security and civil liberties. His legal analysis has appeared widely in journals, newspapers, magazines, radio and television. His most recent publication, "A Brave New World for ADR?: In NAFTA Arbitration, Even High Court Rulings May One Day Be Set Aside" (2005) (with B.Jacoby), was the cover article to a special ADR section of the National Law Journal.

Thanks to Jonathan for the suggestion.

Got a novel that depicts life in a society where the sovereign can toss someone in prison without presenting evidence before a judge? Recommend it—and gives us a short spiel for why it fits that category—and you might win a copy of The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence (SUNY Press, 2006). Details here and here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Early entry in the habeas-related novel contest

Pete Anderson was first to check in with a suggestion of a novel that captures what's at stake in the debate over habeas corpus:
the all-time classic novel in this vein has to be Franz Kafka's The Trial, which unforgettably shows how an innocent man can be unfairly persecuted by a totalitarian state.
As Pete noted, it's an obvious obvious, in fact, that it really doesn't need to be flushed out: we know exactly what he's talking about.

Do you know of a novel of what life is like in a society where the authorities can arrest and detain a man without justifying the jailing to a judge?

Do you know of a novel where innocent lives are imperiled by demanding the authorities have to produce evidence to jail a menace to society?

Mail in your title with an argument to support your choice. There's a reward. Details here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 30, 2006

What's at stake with habeas corpus?

There is a principle in American law that says the government cannot arrest someone and imprison him without a judge reviewing the reasons for the arrest and detention. This pillar of liberty was inherited from English common law, and it came about because subjects of the crown demanded that the king shouldn't be able to jail whomever he pleased, whenever he pleased.

This principle is called habeas corpus, and it is getting a workout in the U.S. these days. See, for example, here and here and here. Habeas corpus ad subjiciendum is Latin for "(That) you may have/hold the body to be subjected to (examination)."

But the popular imagination isn't exactly gripped by the legal debate.

I suspect part of the reason is that while the principle is clear, the details quickly get complicated. Moreover, those detainees who have not gone before an American judge are people about whom we know little (if we even know who they all are), and it may therefore be difficult for many of us to imagine ourselves in their situation.

Or perhaps the public does understand the stakes for individual liberty perfectly well, but they have a greater appreciation for the position of those authorities who maintain that certain individuals should be denied recourse to a writ of habeas corpus.

Anyway.... Faithful readers of this blog know that when I want to make sense of a political issue or philosophical idea, I reach for a novel.

So: what is a good novel that illustrates what life is like when the sovereign/king/president is not subject to the constraints of habeas corpus? What is like when the executive authority doesn't have to explain to a judge why it has someone in prison?

Or, what's a good novel about how things can go horribly wrong precisely because the executive is constrained by habeas corpus? What are the circumstances that make it necessary for the executive to not risk having a judge say a detainee must be released? (The television show 24 did a campy riff or two on the theme last season.)

I know there are thousands of novels about life in societies that don't subscribe to the habeas-related rights that Americans and Britons usually enjoy. There must also be many novels that feature plots about those instances when these rights have been suspended in the U.S. and Britain. And, since the U.S. Department of Justice insists that there are circumstances when it's not required to adhere to normal rules on detaining suspects, surely there must be fictional accounts featuring those kinds of circumstances and exigencies.

Do you know one of those novels? Then send me your title, along with an explanation (not to exceed 150 words) for your choice.

Whoever sends the submission that I find most compelling—compelling as in I’d recommend it to someone who wanted to understand the stakes involved--will almost certainly receive a new copy of Cary Federman's just-released The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence (SUNY Press, 2006). It's a $65 value and perfect for constitutional law enthusiasts and everyone with John Yoo on their Christmas list.

I note "almost certainly" because I fully intend to make the award; but if I promise to do so, then there are all sorts of restrictions and fine print to get into. This not-really-a-contest is open to everyone, everywhere but, if I pick a winner, the prize will have to be mailed to an address in the United States. This not-really-a-contest is not open to residents of states where it is prohibited by law. No purchase necessary. Limit one entry per person. This not-really-a-contest closes on May 15, 2006.

Mail your entry to mazeringue [at] excite [dot] com. Include your name. Make sure you spell everything correctly since I may cut & paste (without editing) your entry if I post it on the blog; you don't want to embarrass yourself.

In a day or two I'll post a couple of sample entries to inspire/challenge you. Or, if I can track down Professor Federman, I'll try to persuade him to write the entries.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

A reader may reveal something about himself by his preference for one writer over another. Or by his preference for one book over another by the same writer.

One of the classic questions is: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? George Steiner made a great deal of the question--more than I'm equipped to get into, or want to get into, here--and wrote a book by that title. From the back cover:
George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky has become a classic among scholars of Russian literature. An essay in poetic and philosophic criticism that bears mainly on the Russian masters, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky deals also with larger themes: the epic tradition extending from Homer to Tolstoy; the continuity of a "tragic world view" from Oedipus Rex to King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov; the contrasts between the epic and dramatic modes, between irreconcilably opposed views of God and of history.
If you are intrigued, pick up the volume. You can also find selected parts of the book in The George Steiner Reader.

Here's a significant excerpt:
Even beyond their deaths, the two novelists stand in contrariety. Tolstoy, the foremost heir to the traditions of the epic; Dostoevsky, one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare; Tolstoy, the mind intoxicated with reason and fact; Dostoevsky, the contemner of rationalism, the great lover of paradox; Tolstoy, the poet of the land, of the rural setting and pastoral mood; Dostoevsky, the arch-citizen, the master-builder of the modern metropolis in the province of language; Tolstoy, thirsting for the truth, destroying himself and those about him in excessive pursuit of it; Dostoevsky, rather against the truth than against Christ, suspicious of total understanding and on the side of mystery; Tolstoy, "keeping at all times," in Coleridge's phrase, "in the high road of life"; Dostoevsky, advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural, into the cellarage and morass of the soul; Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the verge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; Tolstoy, the embodiment of health and Olympian vitality; Dostoevsky, the sum of energies charged with illness and possession.
Heady stuff.

On the simple reader's question--Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?--I prefer Tolstoy.

Oprah, I take it, also favors Tolstoy. (Or does she? She recommended the book to her legions of book-reading viewers but, perhaps, she didn't enjoy the novel. I didn't hear how it turned out for the book club.)

First Lady Laura Bush, we're told prefers Dostoevsky. Asked to name her favorite book, she selected the ''The Grand Inquisitor'' section of The Brothers Karamazov.

I'll leave the last word to Nabokov:
... we might list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy; second, Gogol; third, Chekhov; fourth, Turgenev. This is rather like grading students' papers and no doubt Dostoevski and Saltykov are waiting at the door of my office to discuss their low marks.
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

K. Anthony Appiah on novels about life in theocracies

K. Anthony Appiah offered three books in reply to my request for some books about life in a theocracy.

I thought first, for some reason, of An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, which is set in England in the period of the Civil Wars. The book conveys wonderfully a sense of a life pervaded by the religious authority of the state...and the fear induced by that authority. Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner gives one a vivid sense of the contrast between Afghanistan before and after the Taliban came to power. (And one shouldn't forget Voltaire's depiction of life under the Inquisition in Candide.)
The New York Times reviewer called An Instance of the Fingerpost "a compendious historical pageant set among 17th-century clergymen, scholars and politicians concerned with the natural and the supernatural in roughly equal measure," and praised it as of similar quality and interest as Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

The Kite Runner is Khaled Hosseini's debut novel and has enjoyed wide praise. Click here to read Hosseini's account of how he, like his protagonist in The Kite Runner, journeyed back to Afghanistan from his life in California.

At the time of its initial circulation in Paris, religious officials pronounced Candide "full of dangerous principles concerning religion and tending to moral depravation." Later, the critic Madame de Staël called Candide a work of "infernal gaiety" by a writer who laughs "like a demon, or like a monkey at the miseries of this human race with which he has nothing in common." No one reads Madame de Staël today, but everyone who has read Candide can't help but remember it whenever they hear someone--usually someone not among the victims--claim that a natural disaster happened for "the best."

K. Anthony Appiah is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.

He was born in London (where his Ghanaian father was a law student) but moved as an infant to Ghana, where he grew up. He was educated at Cambridge University. His dissertation explored the foundations of probabilistic semantics; once revised, these arguments were published by Cambridge University Press as Assertion and Conditionals. Out of that first monograph grew a second book, For Truth in Semantics.

Professor Appiah has also published widely in African and African-American literary and cultural studies. In 1992, Oxford University Press published In My Father's House, which deals, in part, with the role of African and African-American intellectuals in shaping contemporary African cultural life.

In 2003, he coauthored Bu Me Bé: Proverbs of the Akan (of which his mother is the major author), an annotated edition of 7,500 proverbs in Twi, the language of Asante. He is also the author of three novels, of which the first, Avenging Angel, was largely set at Clare College, Cambridge.

But his major current work has to do with the philosophical foundations of liberalism. His introduction to contemporary philosophy entitled Thinking It Through was published in 2004. The Ethics of Identity was published last year and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers in 2006.

Of cosmopolitanism he writes:
I am urging that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement but because it will help us get used to one another -- something we have a powerful need to do in this globalized era. If that is the aim, then the fact that we have all these opportunities for disagreement about values need not put us off. Understanding one another may be hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it doesn't require that we come to agreement.
Thanks to K. Anthony Appiah for the recommendations.

For the novels about life under theocracies suggested by Joseph Epstein and Todd Gitlin, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Great Alaska Novel

The playwright-poet-screenwriter Anne Hanley was Alaska State Writer Laureate, 2002-2004.

Here's her take on the Great Alaska Novel:
Even the verbally mighty James A. Michener got bogged down when he tried to tackle all of Alaska in one novel. Michener was able to dispatch whole island chains, states and even entire countries in one volume, but he ran out of gas in Alaska. I don't know anyone, in state or out of state, who ever made it all the way through Michener's Alaska. (I gave up some place around page 525 when he was still following the spawning salmon on their journey.) Michener's is the only attempt at a comprehensive Great Alaska novel that I can think of.

It certainly is not the Great Alaska Novel, but in terms of its influence, I can't fail to mention Edna Ferber's Ice Palace which was published in 1958. Both the book and the movie based on the book captured the public's imagination.

Actually there aren't many novels about Alaska. But there are a great many memoirs, journals, and biographies. In Alaska, the truth is a much better read than fiction.

There are, however, a number of contemporary Alaskan writers tackling fiction. I think the most successful are almost memoirs. Seth Kantner's novel Ordinary Wolves is a good example. Kantner grew up in a sod house in northwestern Alaska. His parents were educated whites who chose to go back to the land and try to eke out a subsistence life style. They were the kind of folks labeled "hippies" in other places. In Alaska they were called "White Eskimos." The protagonist in Kantner's novel has a similar upbringing. His perspective on the world is what makes the book so unique. Kantner grew up about as close to the land as it is possible for a modern person to get. Native people in the village closest to his home had TV, basketball and snow machines. Kantner had nothing. His novel offers a window on another way of looking at the world.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole's new novel Correcting the Landscape draws on her years of growing up in Alaska through several boom and bust cycles. It tells the story of Gus, who owns and edits a small weekly newspaper in Fairbanks. Gus tries to tell the truth and that means he often gets in the way of exploiters and developers who call themselves pioneers and philanthropists. It's complicated and for my money those writers who recognize that it is complicated and tell the stories they know are the future of the Great Alaska Novel.
Anne Hanley is the first playwright to be named Alaska State Writer Laureate. She lives in Fairbanks, where she is the CEO, staff and maintenance crew of Panache Productions. Anne has an MFA in Film from UCLA and is an associate member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Society of Children's Book Writers. She is a founding producer of The Looking Glass Group Theatre in Fairbanks.

Anne Hanley is co-editor of The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North (2005), an anthology of writing from Alaska.

Thanks to Anne for the insights and recommendations.

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great Texas Novel, part 2 click here.
For The Great New York (City) Novel, click here.
For The Great Florida Novel, click here.
For The Great Illinois Novel, click here.
For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, part1, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Two novels about theocracies

Two excellent suggestions have come in responding to last week's post regarding novels about life in a theocracy.

Todd Gitlin suggested Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Joseph Epstein nominated Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Atwood describes her novel:

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopia set in the future, and as such it owes debts to Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and the tradition in general - a tradition that can be traced back to Plato's Republic, through Sir Thomas More's Utopia and the horse's paradise of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and then through the many literary utopias and dystopias of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In it, a totalitarian dictatorship has appeared in the US, now called the Republic of Gilead. It has emerged during a period of disruption: in such times, people are likely to trade in their rights in favour of militarist governments that claim to be able to guarantee their safety.

Once in power, such governments tend to go for absolute power and, like all absolute power, this power corrupts. Such dictatorships gain initial acceptance by justifying their actions in the name of their subjects' most cherished beliefs. Thus the Republic of Gilead is not a Communist state or a monarchy: neither would get a toehold in the US. Instead it claims to be religious, and bases some of its more arcane practices on the literal interpretation of certain passages in the early books of the Bible.

While The Handmaid's Tale is set in the future, The Scarlet Letter takes place in America's past.

Hawthorne set his allegory of adultery, guilt, and social repression in Puritan New England. The Scarlet Letter is a canonical work of American literature that explores the divide between the public and private realms, passion and convention, and introduces Hester Prynne, who develops the strength to confront social ostracism.

To read an excerpt from Kathryn Harrison's introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Scarlet Letter, click here.

Todd Gitlin is the author of 11 books and numerous articles in periodicals ranging from The New York Times to Theory & Society. A regular contributor to, he is currently a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. The Intellectuals and the Flag, a book of his essays, was published in January 2006. To read his essay "All The President’s Friends," click here.

Joseph Epstein edited The American Scholar from 1975 to 1997. He is author of numerous books of essays and short fiction. He also edited The Norton Book of Personal Essays and is a regular contributor to Commentary, The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. To read an excerpt from his book Snobbery: The American Version, click here.

Thanks to Todd Gitlin and Joseph Epstein for their suggestions.

--Marshal Zeringue


A roundup of feedback regarding recent posts:

New Orleans native Ellis Stich said I picked the wrong book as The Great Louisiana Novel:

The great Louisiana novel has to be A Confederacy of Dunces. No book that I have read captures the soul of New Orleans with such great characters.
Pete Anderson weighed in with his choice of The Great New York City Novel:

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. An unforgettable book about a cross-section of NYC lives.
Cary Federman called my attention to a writer who wrote a number of twice-told tales: Kathy Acker, who revisited, among others, Cervantes, Dickens, Rimbaud, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Books on 20th century wars

There is a brief article by Victor Davis Hanson over at the Wall Street Journal op-ed page on "the definitive books on the battles of the 20th century." Hanson is the author of (most recently) A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

Click here to see the five books Hanson selects.

One selection is John Keegan's The Face of Battle, a fine book.

Friend of the Blog Kurt van der Walde once alerted me to the closing lines of the acknowledgements where Keegan reveals why he did not dedicate the book to his "wife Susanne: ...were the title and the subject of this book not so inappropriate, I would have dedicated it to her, for all she has done."

Smart man.

--Marshal Zeringue

"Saturday" & "Mrs. Dalloway"

I'm as interested as the next guy in classic stories re-interpreted by contemporary writers. OK, maybe I'm a little more interested than the next guy.

Sometimes that's not at all what the writer is up to, however. For example:
It seems strange that Ian McEwan's homage to Virginia Woolf in his new novel, Saturday, has not been more widely commented upon. The distinctive structure of the book, which follows one day in the life of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, is the exact structure of Mrs. Dalloway, which follows a day in the life of a housewife, Clarissa Dalloway.
--opening paragraph, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? What critics didn't say about Ian McEwan's Saturday," by Katie Roiphe, Slate, March 30, 2005
"Saturday," as its name suggests, takes place during one extremely long day in the life of Henry Perowne. Like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway before him, Henry is going shopping for a dinner party - only he's buying fish rather than flowers. His party is also the scene of a reunion, a reconciliation between his daughter, a just-published poet, and her grandfather, a literary lion and chronic alcoholic.
--"One wild day in a doctor's life," by Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2005
The real ghost in this novel's machinery, however, isn't Tom Wolfe toting his uproarious brand of comic satire. It's Virginia Woolf, who pioneered the lambent, stream-of-consciousness narrative that Mr. McEwan uses so adroitly in these pages. In fact, ''Saturday'' reads like an up-to-the-moment, post-9/11 variation on Woolf's classic 1925 novel ''Mrs. Dalloway.''
--Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, March 18, 2005
Lenexa, Kan.: By looking at the acknowledgements, one can assume the most challenging part of writing "Saturday" was having to look through a neurosurgeon's eyes. One assumes you much enjoyed doing the research, and the learning. Did you find the fact that the novel had a "Mrs. Dalloway"-kind of novel-in-a-day frame made it any easier?


Ian McEwan: Yes, I enjoyed the research. The 24-hour novel has a long literary provenance. I was certainly not thinking at any point of Mrs. Dalloway though the readers have noticed a correspondence or a parallel. [emphasis added]

--on-line book chat, Washington Post, March 19, 2006
--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 24, 2006

On the Booker and other literary prizes

Earlier on the blog I ruminated on the idea that the (Man) Booker prize might not have always gone to the best novel on the shortlist. Obviously, this is a subjective matter...which makes it all the more interesting to kick around with readers of contemporary Commonwealth fiction. I wrote up my own thinking on the contest for a few recent years and intend to soon follow up with reflections on earlier years.

And I've been asking around about what others think about Booker winners and losers. I've even gone half-way around the world in search of enlightenment on the question.

Kerryn Goldsworthy runs a blog called "A Fugitive Phenomenon" which is "dedicated to the discussion of Australian literature past and present: information, opinions, gossip, hearsay, scuttlebutt etc." She is extremely well-qualified to take up the question about "bad Booker beats" and did so in a thorough post (click here to read the whole thing) from which I pull a few passages:
I checked out available lists of shortlists and winners and was ashamed to discover that I hadn't read a large enough proportion of them to be able to give a meaningful answer to his question. My excuse is that when one reads for a living, one's reading, while reasonably voluminous, is of necessity shockingly skewed. All I could say for sure was that there were a handful of winners I thought would have deserved the prize no matter what the competition was: Coetzee for Disgrace, Byatt for Possession, Pat Barker for The Ghost Road, Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things and Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Day. Even that list is a tad meaningless, as there are many other winners I've not read. (Which of these Titans woud be the über-winner? Could such a choice be made, and if it could, could it possibly mean anything?)
Actually, there is a "Booker of Bookers." Nevertheless, as Kerryn suggests, does it it possibly mean anything? Probably not.

Readers get passionate and writers get vulnerable whenever the topic of prizes comes up. People on judging committees stare at each other in wide-eyed, jaw-dropped disbelief, unable to process whatever mad opinions they have just heard coming out of each others' mouths. Writers who get shortlisted and then don't win are unable to keep up the exultation of getting shortlisted and instead just sulk because someone else beat them.

(Amusingly, sometimes their partners sulk vicariously; you can tell a great deal about what drives a writer's relationship with his or her partner by watching the partner's behaviour on prize nights.)

Are literary prizes a good thing or not? The same arguments tend to get trotted out and rehashed over and over, and I'm usually quite up to arguing sincerely on both sides of the issue. Yes, prizes are bad because they encourage the idea of competition in art (corruptive) as well as the idea that it's possible to come up with an evaluative hierarchy and say with conviction 'This book is better than that book', an activity I dislike. But on the other hand, no, prizes are not a bad thing, because they mean money for writers. Can't go past that one.

Prizes for books are a bad thing, precisely for the reason Kerryn states.

Yet I think they are also a good thing, and that the positive case is stronger than she suggests. For one thing, these contests generate discussion among readers about all the contenders, not only the winners. This argument is strongest for a prize like the Man Booker, where being shortlisted is a blurbable achievement. ("Shortlisted for a Pulitzer" isn't so boastworthy in America.) This added discussion almost certainly means more readers and more sales for the handful of nominated books.

Moreover, readers with too little time--and who has too much time to read?--are made aware of a few books that might otherwise escape their attention. Yes, I realize the greatest injustices are not between the shortlisted and the winner of the prize but rather among the books not shortlisted. But I think the net effect is that more people read more books due to buzz around the prizes.

And that is good for readers as well as for writers.

Kerryn's post has much more to say, particularly about Australian and Southeast Asian Commonwealth fiction. Click over to "A Fugitive Phenomenon" for more.

Click here for a recent post about Booker Prize gossip from the prize's long-time administrator. And click here for my original post about "bad Booker beats."

Thanks to Kerryn Goldsworthy for taking up the question.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Great Texas Novel, part 2

Bryan Curtis helped kick off the blog's The Great [Your State Here] Novel series with his case for The Great Texas novel.

He also suggested I check with the authority on this matter, Professor Don Graham of the University of Texas. I took Bryan's advice.

Here's what Don Graham said:
However interesting Billy Lee Brammer's novel The Gay Place might be, it is not the Great Texas Novel. In my experience it is journalists, mainly, who know and celebrate Brammer's novel, but Texans as a whole do not. Journalists and those who follow politics closely like the book because it's a thinly veiled portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson, it deals with Texas politics, it bleeds liberal, and it's written in a literary style. The book has been kept in print by academics who use it in their classrooms and by twenty-thirty somethings who are excited to find something literate coming out of Texas.

A state-wide poll would reveal, I have little doubt, that Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is the Great Texas Novel. Wildly popular in the mid-1980s, it seems to be less well known among undergraduates today, for example, than it once was, but among what Virginia Woolf called the common reader--and among readers of Texana--it would easily win. For one thing, the novel goes back to the mythic period of Texas history--the cattle drive epic--and brings that world alive with stirring action and memorable characters.

The other Great Texas Novel, certainly the greatest on a scale of high literary artistry, is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. But it too has a smaller following than the popular massive appeal of Lonesome Dove. McCarthy places too many demands on readers, both in terms of style and content, for the book to seize the collective imagination of the state. But it is an absolutely great novel, in the same league, some critics believe (vide Harold Bloom), as the best of Melville and Faulkner. There is nothing quite like it in post-WWII American fiction.

Finally, for all those who stereotype Texas, and hence its literature (or supposed lack of), I would refer them to Lone Star Literature: A Texas Anthology, W.W. Norton, 2006 (paperback), edited by yours truly.
Other Don Graham books include Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire (2003), Giant Country: Essays on Texas (1998), No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy (1989), and Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas (1983).

Don Graham is J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor at The University of Texas.

Thanks to Don for sharing these valuable insights, and thanks to Bryan Curtis for pointing me toward Austin in the search for The Great Texas Novel.

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great New York (City) Novel, click here.
For The Great Florida Novel, click here.
For The Great Illinois Novel, click here.
For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, part1, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Great New York City Novel

The greatest challenge in our The Great [Your State Here] Novel series is almost certainly New York. This one calls for multiple input.

For his insight as well as his wit, I first consulted with Cary Federman--native Brooklynite, Fulbright Scholar, and author of the just published The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence. Here's his take:

What is the best novel dealing with NYC?

It seems a no-brainer that the best novel about New York State (or a city other than New York City in New York State) should come from William Kennedy’s Albany cycle.

But the point of this exercise is not to unearth the Proust of Poughkeepsie. What about NYC?

The list of NYC novels is endless. There's one list here, another one here, and yet another here.

Some guildelines: We’re looking for literary works, mostly, which could include Tama Janowitz, probably shouldn’t include Candace Bushnell, certainly Tom Wolfe. Wharton, James, too 19th century. So let’s say post-WWII novels.

The majority of the novel has to occur in New York City. It could focus only on one borough, like Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude, or Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies, or Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn – the only book about Brooklyn that was the subject of an obscenity trial, in England. On the other hand, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is out, because it’s unclear if that book is about trees or Brooklyn, and a tree growing in Brooklyn is a no brainer. It’s a borough of trees. You want excitement, consider raising pineapples, see here.

Novels that cross the George Washington Bridge are out, pending an update on the best novels of northern New Jersey. We leave books about Newark to Philip Roth.

Novellas, like Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” which evokes great images of upper Broadway, are out, but can be submitted for consideration.

Novels dealing with Staten Island get two extra points, unless, of course, Staten Island is used as a dumping ground for “made” mobsters. The same goes for Queens, near JFK airport.

There's obviously more to be said on the question of the Great New York Novel. Thanks to Cary Federman for suggesting the way.

Cary's new book The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence is the most recent volume in the SUNY series in American Constitutionalism. It traces the history of the writ of habeas corpus and its influence on federal-state relations.

Federman’s scholarship is impressive, and he has successfully mapped out and made intelligible the underlying issues that help make sense of the history of the writ—its patterns of expansion and constriction in the two centuries of its application. He makes a convincing case for dividing the writ into discrete historical periods, and he analyzes the interplay between the dominant narratives and counternarratives in each epoch. This is an important work that accomplishes what no other work has so far accomplished. — Richard Weisman, York University

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great Florida Novel, click here.
For The Great Illinois Novel, click here.
For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Novels about theocracy

What are the best novels about life in a theocracy?

The inspiration for the question came from a post at a blog run by Ross Douthat: he calls out conservatives Kevin Phillips and Andrew Sullivan, as well as a couple of liberal writers, for their fast and loose use of the term theocracy.

The word used to mean a government-by-priests or religious leaders, which is a pretty far cry from the religious right's agenda--unless, as Ramesh Ponnuru has noted, you think that having prayer in schools and laws against abortion is the equivalent of having the mullahs in charge, in which case 1950s America was a theocratic state. But I don't think the people who toss the word around these days think that, so instead they must think a theocracy means . . . what? A society in which politicians and their proposed political reforms are motivated by religious beliefs? Yes?
Now, you can guess at Douthat's point-of-view. And a dictionary can go part of the way in resolving the issue. But Douthat may be unfair in trying to tag the others with a definition of his own making.

It seems that the writers he's baiting mean something else by theocracy--perhaps something shy of the dictionary definition but more at an undue influence of religious persons and institutions in political life. Maybe Cardinal Richelieu and the original éminence grise are closer comparisons than the mullahs of Iran, although Richelieu is better known for his secular leadership than for bringing the Church into French affairs.

Anyway, I'm not trying to wade into that argument. You probably have your mind made up about how large (or small) a role of religious influence in politics constitutes a theocracy, and whether that is a good (or a bad) thing.

But what is it like to live in a theocracy? I invite your suggestions for novels that explore that question. These can be works of fiction that are set in the actual past, in present societies that might be deemed theocracies, or they can be speculations of what it would be like to live in one in the future.

Novels tend to shine some light on these situations when pundits squabble over definitions. Consider Orwell's 1984: we have lots of nonfiction about what totalitarianism is and why it is bad, but it took a novel to really bring the experience home to many of us who were fortunate enough to not experience totalitarianism first hand. (Actually, it took more than one novel.)

My own candidate for a novel about life in a theocracy is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Yet it's smart to remember that, on art and politics, Atwood herself has said, "when you're writing a novel, you don't want the reader to come out of it voting yes or no. Life is more complicated than that."

There must be other novels about life in a theocracy; perhaps set in contemporary Iran or, sticking with the point about Richelieu, during Louis XIII's reign, or in Cromwell's England; or, like Atwood's, the novel could be about a future society.

Email me with your suggestions. Tell us something about the quality of the novel and how it helps to understand what a theocracy is like. Those suggestions with minimal political axe-grinding--or axe-grinding done in an artful way--may be reproduced here on the blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

UPDATE: Todd Gitlin and Joseph Epstein have suggested novels about life in a theocracy. Click here to read about their suggestions.

"The Beginning of Spring"

Yesterday was the first day of spring here in the Northern Hemisphere but the season is not the reason for this post.

Rather I use the vernal equinox as an excuse to promote Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring. (And this pretense is hardly the greatest stretch I've taken in sharing my enthusiasm for her work: see here and here.)

On The Beginning of Spring, from the publisher:
Frank Reid is a struggling printer in Moscow. On the eve of the Revolution, his wife returns to her native England, leaving him to raise their three young children alone. How does a reasonable man like Frank cope? Should he listen to the Tolstoyan advice of his bookkeeper? And should he, in his wife's absence, resist his desire for his lovely Russian housemaid? How can anyone know how to live the right life?
That description hardly does the novel justice. Better to click here and read excerpts from the novel's many glowing reviews. Better yet, if you haven't read it yet, I encourage you to get yourself a copy.

"I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?"--Penelope Fitzgerald, 1998
--Marshal Zeringue

Novels by poets: The Sweet Everlasting

Following up on the theme of novels written by poets, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly recommended Judson Mitcham's The Sweet Everlasting.

For a number of useful synopses and brief reviews of The Sweet Everlasting, click here and here.

Mitcham has an affinity for people on the margins of life and an ability to look at their lives and see the threads common to us all. The simple words of Ellis Burt suffuse The Sweet Everlasting with a tenderness and depth of feeling that will haunt you long after the reading.
--from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's review of The Sweet Everlasting

Brief videos: Judson Mitcham reads from The Sweet Everlasting. On using a pencil instead of a pen. Mitcham reads "Delilah".

Mitcham is also the author of two volumes of poetry and a second novel, Sabbath Creek.

Of his debut collection of poems Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, one reviewer wrote: "Mitcham explores processes of change, particularly 'how things go wrong' in life, everything susceptible to 'the unbelievable sadness of chance' and its aftereffects." Another remarked, "There are no histrionics here, no effort to shock or amuse or seduce; just beautifully realized poetry that uses language as it should be used. "

Three poems from his second collection, This April Day, are available here.

Mitcham's book was recommended by Beth Ann Fennelly, an acclaimed poet in her own right.

Her 2005 collection of poems, Tender Hooks, was praised for showing "that there isn't a subject—no matter how ordinary or domestic—that can't be vitalized by an interesting mind."

Click here for a brief synopsis and reviews of Tender Hooks.

Click here for an interview with Beth Ann Fennelly, and click here to read a selection of her poetry.

The poet teaches at the University of Mississippi and lives in Oxford. Her previous book, Open House, won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize and was a Booksense Top Ten poetry pick.

Her Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother is due out in April.

Thanks to Beth Ann for recommending Judson Mitcham's The Sweet Everlasting.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Great Florida Novel

N.M. Kelby, author of Whale Season, In the Company of Angels, and Theater of the Stars, spent more than 20 years as a print and television journalist before she began writing novels. She moved to Florida after third grade with dreams of becoming a sort of sand-and-surf Nancy Drew.

With credentials like those, how could I not ask for her take on The Great Florida Novel? Here's her case:

Florida, this place that I call home, is vast and impossible and heartbreaking and beautiful and rude and dangerous and gentle. There are many great Florida novels, because they are many Floridas.

There are the tales of our firm-rooted sad history found in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. There are stories that are pre-post Modern, pre-Jimmy Buffett, tropical morality tales like Thomas McGuane’s existential tailspin, Ninety-Two In The Shade, and Harry Crews’ comic masterpiece, All We Need of Hell. And, of course, the righteous, riotous eco-anger of Carl Hiaasen’s body of work, starting with Tourist Season, cannot be overlooked.

However, if you want to understand the heart of this place, the truth of it, Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea is the best Florida novel that I can think of, even though it’s set off-shore somewhere between Cuba and our Keys.

Of course, that’s not much of a surprise. Truth, like everything in Florida, is always a little ‘off-shore’ in one way or another.

Still, this novella about a man and his relationship to the sea really pares us down to our bones. The sea is why we all come here, why we stay, and why those who leave always are filled with regret. Our relationship to the water is what defines us. Of his 'Old Man’ Hemingway says:

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

If you look into our hearts, and our eyes, you will see this too. Despite the hurricanes, the floods, and the fury of summer, we stay. We have to. We have no choice.

That's very well put.

N.M. Kelby's latest book is Whale Season.

"In her first two novels, Kelby dared to ask Big Questions in spare, affecting prose. ...(now she) has taken a break from her philosophical pursuits to journey deep into the whacked-out fantasyland of Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry..." --New York Times Book Review

"Whale Season is purely delightful—rich, clever and crawling with affectionately twisted characters. Nicole Kelby is a natural-born storyteller who manages to be very funny and very wise at the same time." -- Carl Hiaasen, author of Skinny Dip, Hoot, and Tourist Season

For a long list of additional praise the novel has received, please click here.

Listen to N.M. Kelby's Minnesota Public Radio interview and a reading from Whale Season here.

Click here to enter a contest to win a signed copy of Whale Season.

Nicole's first novel, In the Company of Angels, also enjoyed a wonderful critical reception.
"Kelby's lovely language fuses sensuous specificity with metaphoric resonance.... To read Kelby's novel is, in its own words, to fall into a dream, a flying dream. And to paraphrase and summarize such fine spun fiction must inevitably be as inadequate as any attempt to retell your most amazing dream the morning after." --New
York Times Book Review
Thanks to Nicole for her insights on The Great Florida Novel.

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great Illinois Novel, click here.
For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

"Look at Me"

The cover article in today's New York Times Magazine ("Wanted: A Few Good Sperm") is by Jennifer Egan. Click over to the article if the subject interests you: "Tired of waiting for the right guy to come along, more and more women are just looking for the right sperm. But for a woman trying to have a child alone, choosing a donor is only the beginning."

I mention the article only because its author, Jennifer Egan, wrote one of my favorite novels of 2001, Look at Me. Rather than rely on my sketchy memory about the novel's particulars, I'll point you to the review in the New York Times, this listing which includes a synopsis and snippets of praise from many reviews, and Egan's personal website (where you can find an excerpt from the novel).

I highly recommend Look at Me and eagerly await Egan's new novel, The Keep, which is due out in August.

If Egan's article about the quest for conception interests you, be sure to check out "The Ethicist" column in the Magazine. Randy Cohen, who writes the column, recently made an appearance in this blog; click here to read the post.

--Marshal Zeringue

Twice-told tales: a "Tempest" in the Caribbean

From a review by Jennifer Vanderbes in the Washington Post:
In Prospero's Daughter, Elizabeth Nunez's retelling of "The Tempest" set in the 1960s, John Mumsford, a jaded British inspector, is called to investigate a rape on Chacachacare, a small island off Trinidad's coast that is home to a leper colony. Mumsford fears Trinidad's independence-minded natives, so when he learns that a biracial servant has assaulted a white girl, he resolves to carry out justice. Upon arriving he meets Dr. Peter Gardner, a British scientist mysteriously living in exile on the island with his daughter, Virginia. So far as Mumsford can determine, though, no sex act has occurred. The accused, Carlos Codrington, whom Mumsford finds penned and blistering in the sun, simply made the mistake of quoting "The Tempest" while declaring his love for Virginia to Dr. Gardner: "I had peopled else/This isle with Calibans."
The review is a mixed-bag: "Nunez brilliantly sets Carlos's growing ambitions to reclaim his house against the backdrop of the country's independence movement." Also, the reviewer praises the "wonderfully-drawn" setting but complains that the characters lack complexity. Read the entire review.

Learn more about Elizabeth Nunez here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Note: thanks to Kurt van der Walde for bringing this review to my attention.

"...but you see they’re all so good.“

Perhaps the most interesting feature in the Financial Times is "Lunch with the FT," a report from a journalist who has dined with an interesting person. (OK, sometimes the guest is only semi-interesting.)

In the March 17, 2006 installment, Jan Dalley reports on her lunch with Martyn Goff, who has been the administrator of the Booker Prize since 1969, the year after its creation.

Interested as I am in "bad Booker beats," I relished the gossip about outwardly-disappointed Booker also-rans:
Pressed only a little by me, [Goff] revisited the well-known moments of high public emotion - the time Paul Bailey burst into tears at the table when he didn’t win (1986, Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils won), the night when Julia Neuberger flounced out of the grand dinner to express her disgust at her judging panel’s decision (1994, James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late). Then the anatomically unlikely thing Salman Rushdie suggested he do to himself when they met at the door of the gents shortly after the announcement that Rushdie’s novel Shame had not won (1983, J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K) - and how Rushdie got in touch, months later, to apologise. How the famously reticent Anita Brookner ran up and hugged him in a Chelsea supermarket after her win (1984, Hotel du Lac). How Anthony Burgess was waiting in a nearby London hotel on his big night, refusing to attend the dinner
unless he’d won but ready to jump in a taxi just in case (1980, William Golding’s Rites of Passage). After Goff phoned to tell him he hadn’t won, he put it about that he’d been at home in Monaco all the time. And so on.
If some nominees need nerves of steel until the prize is announced, how about the judges? Goff shared a vignette about frustration on the selection panel from a few years ago:
Then the whole question of how the judging panel picks the winner. The year that the Oxford professor John Bayley was chair, voting reached a third round on the final day. One of the panel, exasperated beyond endurance, pointed out to Bayley that their task was to reach a decision by narrowing the field, but in each of the three rounds the Prof had voted for a different book. “Oh yes I know but you see they’re all so good.“
Were you disappointed in a Booker nominee that didn't capture the prize? Email me with your compliant.

For another report of Goff's long goodbye from his post as the prize's administrator, click here.

For the first installment of my take on "bad Booker beats," click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Regarding the post on The Great Texas Novel, Gerry Haslam (who suggested Fat City as The Great California Novel) had this to say:

Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who ever read The Gay Place; I really liked it.... My favorite Texas book, though, is not a novel; I favor Goodbye to a River by John Graves.

"E.S.," a Friend of the Blog who earned a graduate degree from Texas A & M, wrote in:

To me the best Texas novel is McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. The reason why it is so great is because the story is about leaving Texas which any sane person wants to do.

I'll bet you don't hear much of that kind of literary criticism at Aggie reunions.

Pete Anderson, who blogs over at, suggested another contender for The Great Yooper Novel:

Ander Monson's Other Electricities. Absolutely brilliant.
Thanks for the feedback.

--Marshal Zeringue

Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go"

Some first-person novels have narrators with enriched vocabularies, but Kazuo Ishiguro has kept the narrator of Never Let Me Go, Kathy H, away from literary language. From the first page, she is unsuspecting in her ready use of cliché. "I know for a fact"; "it means a lot to me"; "a complete waste of space". She begins sentences with "actually" and "anyway". She does not exactly have an impoverished lexicon: she readily uses words like "languorous", "ambivalent" and "trammelled". At one point she whiles away the time with Daniel Deronda. Yet her narrative voice feels deprived of resources.
--John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, writing in The Guardian
Professor Mullan's short essay is well worth your time and attention--but don't read it if you haven't already read Never Let Me Go.

If you have read the novel--and I do highly recommend it--click here for the Mullan essay.

If you haven't yet read the novel, it spoils nothing (and should help whet your appetite) to share with you Mullan's insightful bottom line about Ishiguro's main characters: "The cleverest, saddest aspect of the novel is the limit upon their imaginings." You'll know what the professor means when you finish the novel.

Listen to Kazuo Ishiguro read the opening passage from Never Let Me Go.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Great Illinois Novel

I asked Steve Rhodes, founder of The Beachwood Reporter, for his take on the Great Illinois Novel. He came through...big-time:
Those with more literary tastes than mine might choose a work by Saul Bellow or Theodore Dreiser as the Great Illinois Novel. I'm much more of a non-fiction reader, and in the rough-and-tumble of Chicago (and Illinois) politics, I think books such as Boss and American Pharoah are the best representations of life here. Our reality is far more inventive than any piece of fiction.

However, I would be partial to Nelson Algren--The Man With the Golden Arm or Never Come Morning--as the Great Illinois novelist because he manages to examine power from the perspective of the powerless better than any other writer from here that I know.

That said, I would go a step further in nominating the essayistic City on the Make as the great Illinois novel, because it isn't a novel per se, but a form that draws heavily on the non-fiction reality of the way this state works, while still being a wholly literary work of the imagination.

As Studs Terkel wrote in his 1983 introduction to a new printing of City on the Make, Algren "recognized Chicago as Hustler Town from its first prairie morning as the city's fathers hustled the Pottawattomies to their last moccasin. He recognized it, too, as another place: North Star to Jane Addams as to Al Capone, to John Peter Altgeld as to Richard J. Daley, to Clarence Darrow as to Julius Hoffman. He saw it not too much as Janus-faced but as the carny freak show's two-headedboy, one noggin Neanderthal, the other noble-browed. You see, Nelson Algren was a street-corner comic as well as a poet."

Hemingway said of it: "You should not read it if you cannot take a punch."

And lest this choice be considered too Chicago-centric, not Illinois enough, I gently remind you that our former governor, a pharmacist from Kankakee who has spent nearly the entirety of his political career in various elected offices in our downstate capitol city of Springfield, is currently awaiting the jury's verdict on racketeering charges that go to the heart of the state's politics.
Steve Rhodes is the founder of The Beachwood Reporter, "an international news-gathering operation dedicated to the proposition that journalism and rock and roll done right are inextricably linked; that truth and comedy are two sides of different coins that, when rubbed together properly, can mutate into a slug that will efficiently disable a parking meter; and that while bad news travels fast, our news travels even faster."

Check out the The Beachwood Reporter. And while you're there, don't miss "today's horoscope" and the "daily affirmation" on the left side of the homepage.

Thanks to Steve for the recommendation and the insights.

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.

Happy St. Patrick's Day

In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, an excerpt from Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization:
Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment--in some ways, a Third World country with, as John Betjeman claimed, a Stone Age culture had one moment of unblemished glory. For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature--everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one--a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.
To read a longer excerpt, click here; to listen to an excerpt via MP3 download, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Novels by poets

Some novelists write poems; some poets write novels. How many do it well?

I know so little poetry--and so little about poetry--that I won't even venture an answer.

But the question came to me recently after reading Nick Laird's first novel, Utterly Monkey. I may do a post on Utterly Monkey in the near future, so for now I'll point you to this review and this review--both give you a reasonable idea about the novel's merits.

As several reviewers have accurately noted, it's clear from many well-turned sentences that the author is a poet.

(Then again, when "eleemosynary" popped up on the page I was reminded that even poets can choose words unwisely.)

A graduate of Cambridge University, Laird is also the author of To a Fault, a collection of poetry, and the recipient of the prestigious Eric Gregory prize for young British poets and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

Another poet who writes novels (and biographies) is Jay Parini. In the coming weeks I will definitely post an item about his 1990 novel The Last Station.

John Harvey, author of the fine "Charlie Resnick" procedurals and other crime fiction, is another poet-novelist. Again, there will be more to say about Harvey the novelist in a future post. Meanwhile, you can get a sense of his poetry here.

The brilliant novelist John Updike writes poems...and essays and art criticism and short stories. As much as I enjoy and respect the Updike novels I've read, I know little about his poetry. Click on the titles to hear him read the poems "Atlanta - Dallas/Ft. Worth, 11:10 p.m." and "A Rescue."

The prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates--I think the excellent We Were the Mulvaneys is her best novel--also pens poems. Click here to read (or hear) "The Little Whip."

And then there's the poem "Pale Fire" within Nabokov's novel, Pale Fire. Brian Boyd, author of a book-length commentary on the novel, writes: "Although many have no doubt that Shade's 'Pale Fire' is major poetry, many have no doubt that it is not." Regardless of who is correct, Nabokov is better known for his novels than his poetry.

I offer these briefly-considered ramblings/musings about novels by poets mainly as an invitation to your input.

I don't doubt that I've left out the more brilliant examples of novels written by poets. What are they? Email me with your suggestions, favorites.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Great Michigan (U.P.) Novel

My candidate for the Great Michigan (U.P.) Novel is John Smolens' Cold.

The "U.P." stands for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which makes up nearly one-third of the state's land area but is home to only about 3% of the population. Residents are colloquially known as Yoopers, and they often identify first as such and second as Michiganders. I include these observations here because the setting is vital to Smolens' very compelling literary thriller.

We know from the opening paragraphs that the characters in Cold are not only severely constrained by the defining events of their lives but by the harshness of the elements.

Liesl Tiomenen saw the man from her kitchen window. It was snowing so hard that he was barely visible, standing at the edge of the woods. He stared toward the house, his arms folded so his hands were clamped under his armpits. He wore a soiled canvas coat and gray trousers, but no hat. His stillness reminded her of the deer that often came into the yard to eat the carrots and apples she left for them.

Liesl went out into the shed and took Harold's .30-.30 Winchester carbine down off the rack, then opened the back door, holding the rifle across her chest. The man didn't move. The north wind chilled the right side of her face; her fingers on the stock felt brittle. He was young, not more than twenty-five, and she could see that he was shivering.

"All right," she said. "You can come inside."

The young man is Norman Haas and he has walked away from the prison where he was serving time for assaulting Warren, his brother, and Noel, his girlfriend, who were cheating on him. He suspects the judge gave him a harsh sentence because he also shot the man who Noel's enraged father sent, Norman believes, to kill him.

Liesl is damaged goods, too: her husband and daughter died in an automobile accident, and she's still trying to get her life together. She knows Norman is an escapee and, after saving his life from the cold and starvation, Liesl attempts to bring him to town through the woods because the roads are impassable. She slips, he escapes again.

Norman collects Noel and their young daughter and they hole up in an uninhabited cabin. Liesl is rescued, after nearly succumbing to the elements she saved Norman from, and she joins forces with the determined Sheriff Del Maki.

With the spare details I've given so far it would be fair to guess that Norman is a pretty vile character. But the fact is, as Liesl and Del surmise, Norman is not some kind of monster: he's simply a guy who has caught some nasty breaks—and may be headed toward more misfortune. Warren, on the other hand, is a very unpleasant fellow. And so is Noel's father. And both of them set out after Norman, Noel, and their child.

And then....

I've told you too much already. Read this fine book for yourself to find out how it all comes together.

As you can see from the opening paragraphs, Smolens wastes no words and yet vividly, almost cinematically, reveals exactly what is going on. Which is to say that while I've given away a small part of the "thriller" plot, you still have the pleasure of the literary experience to enjoy.

John Smolens has generously shared some of his thoughts on the novel that I'll include in Part 2 of this post. Please check back in a few days.

Meanwhile, visit for a look at Smolens' other novels, including Fire Point, which has received strong reviews.

And click here to read the first chapter of Cold.

"Cold is a finely crafted, wild yarn set in the great north. John Smolens gives us a suspenseful tale in a style somewhere between Jack London and Raymond Chandler. A fine read."
-- Jim Harrison (author of Legends of the Fall)
--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist"

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine.

"The Ethicist" responds to individuals who write in with everyday ethical questions: should a D.J. return the records he liberated from the radio station where he worked 20 years ago?; should a teacher report kids whose parents have forged the vaccination records necessary for the kids to attend public school?; may a doctor ethically sell shares in a company using his physician's knowledge of the CEO's serious and publicly-undisclosed illness?

Cohen handles reader's questions with dispatch and insight, and often with humor. Occasionally his answer is not the one that I would have expected (which makes me wonder about my own ethical sense).

In light of my previous posts (here and here and here) about novels that are useful for exploring some philosophical issue, I asked "The Ethicist" if there were a novel or two which illuminated ethical issues for him.

His answer:
I'm afraid I can't think of a particular work of fiction to suggest. Pretty much any good novel does a better job than I do in presenting ethical conundrums, if only because I have fewer than 600 words to respond to what can be quite a nuanced question, but a novelist can take 600 pages to explore the complex relationships, the tangled histories, the mitigating factors that might lead you to the conclusion that in this case, it is right to kill a guy.

But if I'm allowed to suggest something I read for pleasure that presents ethical questions with unrivaled brilliance, I'd pick Boswell's Life of Johnson, which, while not a novel, teems with life.
An on-line edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson is available here. A free eBook Life of Johnson may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg.

Thanks to Randy Cohen for the input.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Great California Novel

Gerald Haslam, a native Californian and author of several books, offers a very interesting choice for the Great California Novel:
I'd go with Fat City by Leonard Gardner because it deals with the state's gritty heartland, where poverty is endemic and toil is the only means of survival. The protagonist, Billy Tully, is a boxer fallen upon hard times in Stockton. He lives in flop-houses and must work as an agricultural laborer to survive. This is an utterly realistic portrait of life in the richest agricultural region in the history of the world (that is also one of three pillars on which the state's economy rests). No movie stars, no beaches, no "doing lunch at Giorgio's" in this book, but more than enough grit.
Gerald W. Haslam has published eight collections of short stories, including That Constant Coyote and Condor Dreams. His 2005 publications include Haslam's Valley and Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California, 2nd edition. His publications include Straight White Male, Jack London's Golden State: Selected Stories, and Manuel and the Madman. A recipient of the Western Literature Association's Distinguished Achievement Award, Haslam is Professor Emeritus of English at Sonoma State University.

Other writers have praised Fat City, too.

The book reveals a vision of a whole stratum of American life which up to now has been more often sentimentalized, exploited, patronized and feared by even those writers who come from it and know it best. . . . The pathetic and yet not ignoble hopes of the boxers, the dead weight of pointless labor, the fragile wisps of feeling fluttering mothlike around people too timid to love and too lonely not to try.

--Frank Conroy

[Gardner] has got it exactly right--the hanging around gas stations, the field dust, the relentless oppressiveness of the weather, the bleak liaisons sealed on levees and Greyhound buses. . . .Fat City affected me more than any new fiction I've read in a long while.

--Joan Didion

The writer Denis Johnson calls Fat City "a book so precisely written and giving such value to its words that I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like Braille." Read Johnson's brief but powerful appreciation of the novel here.

Thanks to Gerry Haslam for his recommendation.

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.

Is Hollywood too liberal?

The problem with Hollywood, according to the writer Annie Proulx, isn't that it is too liberal but that it--or at least its denizens who vote for Academy Awards--is too conservative:
The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that, having been nominated for eight Academy awards, it would get Best Picture as it had at the funny, lively Independent Spirit awards the day before. (If you are looking for smart judging based on merit, skip the Academy Awards next year and pay attention to the Independent Spirit choices.) We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture.
And that's hardly the most bitter and biting passage from her essay in Saturday's Guardian.

Read the whole thing here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Note: My (on-line) dictionary offers no help on what "heffalump" means; Google indicates it's something to do with with Winnie the Pooh. I'm still not sure how to use it in a sentence of my own, however, despite Proulx's repeated deployment.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Judges of the 2006 Man Booker Prize announced

The judges of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2006 were announced last week.

Chaired by Hermione Lee, the line-up consists of poet and novelist Simon Armitage, novelist Candia McWilliam, critic Anthony Quinn and actress Fiona Shaw.

For more information on these judges, click here.

For part one of my inquiry into previous Booker competitions wrongly decided, click here.

And for Michael Kinsley's honest (and witty) admission that he didn't read every nominated book when he served as a judge of the National Book Award--and his suggestion that none of the other judges read them all either--click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Nominees announced for L.A. Times Book Prizes

Nominees for the 26th annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were announced this week.

There are nine categories and I won't list them all. You can find all the nominees here.

In the fiction category, the nominees are The March by E.L. Doctorow (Random House), Veronica by Mary Gaitskill (Pantheon Books), Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Knopf), A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books), and Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (Knopf).

The nominees in the mystery and thriller category are The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown), The Right Madness by James Crumley (Viking), Ash & Bone by John Harvey (Harcourt), Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation by Robert Littell (Overlook Press) and Strange Affair by Peter Robinson (William Morrow/HarperCollins).

--Marshal Zeringue

More Swedish Noir

A recent post gave a nod to Swedish Noir.

Marilyn Stasio, who covers the crime fiction beat for the New York Times Book Review, offers up another award-winning title from Scandinavia.
As we know from the novels of Scandinavian authors like Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum, murder in a cold climate can chill you to the bone. The chill is on in THE PRINCESS OF BURUNDI (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95), which won Kjell Eriksson a best-crime-novel citation from the Swedish Crime Academy for its stunning depiction of the impact of murder on a working-class community in the old cathedral town of Uppsala. Neighbors are shocked and a family is devastated by the savage killing of John Jonsson, a skilled metalworker whose carved-up body is found in a county snow dump shortly before Christmas — "the time of darkness," in the haunting phrase of the translator, Ebba Segerberg. As the son of a construction worker, Ola Haver, a police detective, has a natural compassion for people who live a bit rough but perform their hard jobs with pride. He and his fellow officers couldn't be more sensitive as they probe these marginal lives for clues and reflect sadly on the breakdown of the strong cultural resistance to lawlessness that once made Swedes feel safe. The "homespun theories" of these working-class cops about "the burden of guilt and the inadequacies of our society" lend a melancholy chill to the holiday rituals Eriksson observes with such tender solemnity.
--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 10, 2006

The finest American children's book?

Tunku Varadarajan, editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal, says Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham is "indisputably the finest American children's book," and he emphasizes both the "finest" and the "American" parts of that assertion.

Varadarajan claims there are two ways to interpret the story. One is as a "torture-and-kidnap story," which Varadarajan emphatically rejects. This interpretation may be flawed, but it's a lot of fun and it's the version I will use at cocktail parties.

Varadarajan prefers to see the book "as a formative text in the making of modern American citizens," one that is "a celebration, albeit a mischievous one, of two particularly American traits: salesmanship and open-mindedness." (He also likes that it has a happy ending.)

Read the whole thing here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The 2nd happiest ending in literature

In the London Times Ben Macintyre has an interesting essay about happy endings in literature.

According to a survey commissioned for World Book Day, most readers would rather read a novel that ends happily ever after. To Kill a Mockingbird was voted the second happiest ending in all of literature--and it inspired the sardonic title to Macintyre's article, "To Cuddle a Mockingbird."

Apparently only 2% of the polled readers prefer a novel with an unhappy ending; most respondents thought books like 1984 could benefit from an uplifting ending.

1984 with a happy ending? It's only one man's opinion but that strikes me as moronic.

Or maybe there are two of us with that view. Here's Macintyre's summing up:

No writer worth the name sets out to produce happy or unhappy endings, let alone seeks to alter existing literature to produce one or the other. It is not the mere happiness or unhappiness of fiction that grips us, but the questions it asks, the people and situations it creates, the complexity of emotions it stirs. Some of the greatest endings in literature are neither uplifting nor distressing, but inquiring. Bleak House finishes on an unwritten question mark: “even supposing —”. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses is a climactic affirmation, “his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”, that echoes long after the book is closed.

I am particularly fond of the last line of War and Peace, which, in its very stodginess, makes the rest of the book seem even more wonderful: “In the present case, it is as essential to surmount a consciousness of an unreal freedom and to recognise a dependence not perceived by our senses.”

We should not demand that a last line makes us either happy or sad, but thoughtful; it is this that ensures great literature lives, happily, ever after.

--Marshal Zeringue

Note--The author of the novel voted to have the happiest ending in all literature had this to say about it:
"Upon the whole... I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants [i.e. needs] shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style."