Friday, June 30, 2006

The 1966 World Cup

This week in The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin writes about the World Cup.

Forty years ago, Alastair Reid reported (for the same magazine) from England on that country’s lone—and controversial—World Cup championship. There is now greater awareness of the World Cup in the United States than there was in 1966, but has the gap between the America's indifference and the rest of the world's obsession narrowed that much?

Read the first paragraph and judge for yourself:
In London, as August was beginning, I ran into a friend from New York who had come to England for a kind of cultural dip into theatres, galleries, and the pure tingle of London, which has been much celebrated of late in all manner of periodicals. As we were talking, he confessed to a deep puzzlement. “I’ve felt very out of it all this time,” he said. “Everyone has been crouched over a television set, or else hurrying home to crouch over television set. It’s this World Cup, about which I know nothing at all; but I must say I’ve never felt so out of the swim, anywhere, ever.” How right he was, poor fellow. Out of the swim was precisely what he was, for between July 11th and 30th, not only the British Isles but a considerable part of the world was held in thrall by the World Cup, the culmination of a global football competition which takes place every four years, and for which, on this occasion—the eighth since its inception—England was the host country. The extent to which the attention of the world was concentrated on this tumultuous series of football matches is pretty staggering on reflection At the conclusion of the series, the Daily Mail claimed that one person in five of the world’s population had watched at least a part of the competition, transmitted by satellite; and the statistical systems of British radio and television showed that practically thirty-one million inhabitants of the British Isles—a bit over half the population—gave themselves over to following the Cup, which required a fair hunk of their attention, since games were taking place at least every other day, sometimes four at once, while on off days the British Broadcasting Corporation produced panels of wordy experts, replays of games already over, and a spate of analyses and predictions of every sort. Legions of housewives were apparently converted to the game, leaving three weeks’ worth of dust to gather, and the World Clip proved to be not only the “greatest sporting event ever staged in Britain,” as the shrewder papers had always claimed it would be, and a conspicuous financial success for the Football Association (and, one must assume, for hostelries and merchants of every description ) but also, in the end, a kind of national fairy tale that will take some forgetting, for, as things turned out, it had about it that incredible sporting perfection that always might, but seldom does, happen—a perfection incarnate in events like Bobby Thomson’s famous home run in 1951, yet a perfection much more gradual and intricately devised, a perfection that a goodly part of those who saw it felt they would nod over happily in their old age, smiling a secret, faraway smile.
Click here to read the rest of the article.

--Marshal Zeringue

The least-known major writer in America?

I recently posted Dennis Lehane's take on Daniel Woodrell's newest novel:
"Woodrell is the least-known major writer in the country right now. I don't even know what this novel's about, but I'm going to buy it the day it's published."
I knew nothing of Woodrell before reading Lehane's comment but knew I had to find out more. Fortunately, John Williams of The Independent (UK) trekked to Woodrell's hometown for a visit. Click here for the insightful article about Woodrell and his work that emerged from that interview.

Winter's Bone is due for release in the U.S. later this summer.

--Marshal Zeringue

Time's five favorite mystery writers

Time magazine just named "5 Mystery Writers Worth Investigating."

One of the five:

Death's Little Helpers by Peter Spiegelman

"As a husband, he was a lying, selfish prick," says John March's latest client about the celebrity Wall Street analyst she wants him to track down--not because she misses the creep but because she and her lesbian lover need his child-support checks. The case leads March, a former sheriff's investigator with a dead wife and a shadowy past, into a snake pit of betrayal and double dealing--the paranoid underside of the dotcom boom. Spiegelman worked in financial services and software for more than 20 years before taking up fiction. He knows how thin the air is in New York City's office towers and what breathing too much of it does to your soul.

Click here to see Time's other four choices.

Earlier this year the Mystery Writers of America handed out the 2006 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2005. Click here to read about the winners.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Count on a murderer for a fancy prose style

"You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style." So says Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita.

The line came to mind when reading Scottish writer Nick Brooks' top ten literary murderers list in the Guardian.

Literary killers hold a deep fascination for us, taking grip of the imagination when other forms of writerly voyeurism have long since faded. During the writing of my own novel, The Good Death, a number of the works on this list occupied my thoughts, and I could easily have included many more novels and stories, settling instead for the ones that have been most influential on a personal level, the ones that stick with me still, many years after my first bruising encounters with them. It is no exaggeration to say that the characters who inhabit these works seem to exert an undue--possibly malign--power upon the psyche of the reader who stumbles, hapless, upon them.
A couple of his choice killers:

Patrick Bateman, American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

Bastard offspring of Thatcher and Reagan, Patrick Bateman kills with the same care and attention he might pay to his early morning shaving routine, gym workout or his collection of Huey Lewis and The News albums. Vilified on publication, American Psycho set a new benchmark for horror and humour.

Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Starving and feverish in his yellowing St Petersburg room, Raskolnikov murders a moneylender and her daughter to set himself apart from the venal masses and make himself a superman. Then he begins to have his doubts. Perhaps one of the greatest novels ever written, and certainly one of the most influential.

Click here to read Brooks' other eight picks.

Nick Brooks' The Good Death, says the Guardian, "is a murder mystery with a difference. Less whodunit than who-am-I, the murderer is pursued more keenly by his conscience than by the police." It is not yet available in the U.S. but hopefully that will soon change.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Elmore Leonard's westerns

I first read Elmore Leonard's westerns only after becoming an unshakable fan of his later crime fiction, so maybe I didn't read the oaters with as sharp and critical eye as I might have levelled at a new and unfamilar writer. Leonard's westerns struck me as the same great writing merely removed to another place and time.

Stephen Abell, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, has applied much more critical rigor to these novels in his review of the newly released The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. Click here to read Abell's review. He writes:

Thick enough to stop a bullet from a Sharps rifle at ten metres, the volume contains thirty fine tales of the rough world of nineteenth-century Arizona and New Mexico. Leonard selected westerns as a genre, because he “liked the movies” and could sell stories to the ever-proliferating pulp magazines, while also developing his nascent writing style. It seemed the ideal situation for a young author: earning and learning at the same time.

The earliest stories of this chronological collection show that these two motivating forces can easily come into conflict. Earning two cents a word to help support his family, the author is caught between the twin demands of household and literary economy: a pressure to leave in what should be left out.

Abell notices what I did not:
In the early stories, we can see signs of mercenary haste overriding artistic judgement. There is the accidental jangle of near-rhyme: “de Both didn’t particularly give a damn. He knew he was a man”. Or the relentless description of weather and landscape that--as Leonard noted--merely means “the reader is apt to leaf ahead, looking for people”. In four pages, the featureless background features like this: "wild, rugged rock”; “steep, craggy mounds”; “steep, jagged rock”; “craggy peaks, sharp and jagged”; and “steep, jagged rock” again.
But that's about the sum of what the reviewer finds wrong with these early stories. His bottom line is high praise.
Fortunately, what Leonard comes to recognize--and what The Complete Western Stories predominantly proves--is that “being a good author is a disappearing act”. As each story passes, so the young author allows himself to recede from the text. This offers one model of successful genre-writing, in which the genre is more important than the writer: the development from the exceptionable to the unexceptional. However, this collection demonstrates that Leonard is, in fact, exceptional in his ability to evoke the romantically rancorous world of the American West and to do exactly what all writers are supposed to do: tell a story well.
"[T]he central virtue of The Complete Western Stories," Abell writes, "is its record of the emergence of a real readers’ writer."
As if to emphasize this, we have the publication of The Best American Mystery Stories, a collection of writerly writers – indeed of a writer’s writers: chosen by Joyce Carol Oates. It acts as something of an uncompanion volume to Leonard, demonstrating by contrast everything he does well. Oates is gloomily pompous about crime-writing; instead of welcoming its ability to arouse and involve the reader, she is po-faced: “There is no art in violence, only crude, cruel, raw and irredeemable harm, but there can be art in the strategies by which violence is endured, transcended and transformed by survivors”.

--Marshal Zeringue

Books to comfort the post-divorce soul

What do I know about books that might help one cope with divorce? Very little (though adolescent males of any age may skip to the bottom of this post for my advice).

Elizabeth Buchan, a blurb writer for Penguin turned fiction editor at Random House turned best-selling author of Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and other books, claims to know more about the subject. She shared with the Guardian "her top 10 books guaranteed to give comfort during the ending of a relationship."

I'm suspicious of the soothing qualties of a few of her titles--for example, The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars ("Concentrating on the twilight years before the Catholic church ruthlessly and bloodily extinguished the heresy, this accessible and deeply felt narrative by a professor of English traces the events of those last years in the Cathar strongholds up in the mountains of southern France.)--but, again, what do I know?

Then there's this suggestion:
Finally, of course, there is recourse to the enduring classic. Austen's Persuasion has to be the favourite. The opening chapters, which depict the lonely figure of Anne, the middle sister who has lost her bloom, struggling to live well at time when her future is precarious, have all the melancholy of lost hope and neglected chances. This is a novel in which the spectre of autumn hovers, but as the plot progresses, the spectre is chased away and Anne moves towards a late blossoming. As a young woman she was persuaded to turn down marriage to Captain Wentworth. Now, her good sense, her good qualities and her experience and intelligence persuade her otherwise. The Anne who emerges is hardly passive and she grasps her second chance with both hands. Woven into this portrait of a woman's renaissance is Jane Austen's deliciously acerbic observation, an uncharacteristic tenderness and a deal of sharp, brilliant social comedy. All in all, Persuasion is as irresistible, life affirming and nourishing as chicken soup--which, under the circumstances, is exactly what is needed.
To read about all ten Buchan recommendations, click here.

For heart-broken boys of all ages, see the Vince Vaughn-Jon Favreau movie Swingers.

It's (partly) about getting over a break-up, not a divorce. Yet, as "Trent" says, "There's nothing wrong with letting the girls know that you're money and that you want to party."

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

2006 Miles Franklin Award Winner

Last week Roger McDonald was announced as the winner of the 2006 Miles Franklin Award for his novel The Ballad of Desmond Kale.

The Secret River, Kate Grenville's much-acclaimed novel, had been the heavy favorite.

"Matilda," the go-to blog for Australian literature, has a round-up of reactions to the upset here.

I see no sign that The Ballad of Desmond Kale is available in the U.S. yet. Presumably that will change.

The Miles Franklin Award is Australia's richest and most prestigious literary award. The Judging Panel wrote of McDonald's book:
This is an historical novel in a grand, operatic style, an affectionate and bravura performance by a novelist at the height of his powers. Steeped in the lore of wool and bushcraft, it echoes a clutch of Great Australian and American Novels, from Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer to His Natural Life and Such is Life. It also recalls many of the best-loved works of English fiction, suggesting in its darker moments the mordant wit of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or, in its sunnier moments, the uplifting ethical vision of Fielding’s Tom Jones. It shares something with those novels in its sweeping geographical scope, its rich cast of characters, and the rollicking pace of its events, which take us from the bush beyond Parramatta to the Houses of Parliament in London, from the sheepwalks of Yorkshire to shipwrecks and piracy in the South Pacific, from the chaotic settlement at Sydney Cove to the grim melodrama of the convict system at Macquarie Harbour.
Click here to see a list of past winners of the Miles Franklin Award.

--Marshal Zeringue

2006 Edgar Award Winners

In April the Mystery Writers of America handed out the 2006 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2005.

Edgars went to:

Best novel--Citizen Vince by Jess Walter (Regan Books)

Best First Novel By An American Author--Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best Paperback Original--Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford (Dark Alley)

Best Fact Crime--Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick (HarperCollins)

Best Critical/Biographical Work--Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak (Harcourt)

Best Short Story--"The Catch" - Greatest Hits by James W. Hall (Carroll & Graf)

To see the complete list of nominees for these categories as well nominees and winners in other categories, click here.

Last year Maureen Corrigan praised Citizen Vince in the Washington Post; click here to read her review. The first line of the novel: "One day you know more dead people than live ones."

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 26, 2006

The best novel I read in 2005

Last fall I ran across an article by Chloë Schama in The New Republic titled "An Australian Writer You Should Be Reading." (The archived article is available only to subscribers at TNR's site but seems to be reprinted in its entirety here.)

Ordinarily I bristle at being told what I should do, but I read on:

Tim Winton's career comprises a veritable laundry list of literary accomplishments. He wrote his first novel, An Open Swimmer, when he was only 19 and has continued to write prolifically since. Twice nominated for the Booker Prize, in 1995 for The Riders and again in 2002 for Dirt Music, he has transcended his boy-genius label, gaining a reputation, at least in Australia, as one of the country's most compelling contemporary writers. In a poll conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Winton's novel Cloudstreet was named a "favorite read," trailing behind only four other books: The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird (in that order). Winton's distance from the literary scene--he lives far from the country's capital on the western coast of Australia--and his reluctance to step into the literary limelight seem to convey an appealing humility not always associated with literary wunderkinds, even in their more mature years.

Despite his accolades, Winton remains largely unknown to most American readers.

Published in 1991, Cloudstreet was certainly unknown to me until Schama's essay (even though this article claims Winton is "hugely popular in the US").

It's difficult to communicate the power and magic of the novel, but click here for a brief synopsis and a few short reviews.

In her Los Angeles Times review Carolyn See wrote:
One of the most wonderful things in the world is to see a novelist striving for greatness--not for his ego, not for his career, not because he might get a prize someday--but because he knows he has the capacity for greatness and just decides to go for it, for the sake of the work. For the reader, watching [Tim Winton] glow and spread and grow is like watching one of the Flying Wallendas, except that instead of carefully walking a literary tightrope, Winton prances along for a few steps, then takes a few more, adds a couple more chairs and sticks to his literary burden, then miraculously takes off into the air and flies--all his conceits and devices simply a great blur in the sky. He's a novelist, a great one, because against all evidence and odds, he reminds us what it is to be human, and reminds us to be proud of our humanity.
In 2003 the Australian Society of Authors asked its members to nominate between one and five of their favorite Australian books ever published: Cloudstreet topped the list. (Click here to see the complete list.)

Is there any of the Australian "cultural cringe"--discussed here, here, here, and here--evident in Cloudstreet? Not really, I think. That's partly because Winton seems genuinely uninterested in how he rates and in the book-prize industry--despite, or maybe because of, his success--but more because he's positioned at the (geographic) periphery of the Australian literature scene.

"When you come from where I do, you know when you get published you're good. When you're from the wrong hemisphere, wrong country, wrong part of the wrong country, then you know you haven't kissed any bots to get published," he said in 2002.

Click here for a brief biography of Winton and a bibliography.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Top books on terrorism

David Pryce-Jones, author of the forthcoming Betrayal: France, the Arabs and the Jews, suggested five books about uncoventional warfare to Opinion Journal.

His list includes:

Inside Al Qaeda by Rohan Gunaratna (2002)

This is an authoritative study of Osama bin Laden and the organization he built. Al Qaeda is being steadily ground down, with the result that successive editions of this book have a hard time keeping up, but nonetheless "Inside Al Qaeda" is a useful map of the group and its ramifications. (It is also an Islamist who's who, where information about the latest terrorist in the news can be found.) In terms of raising finance and recruiting throughout the Muslim world, the al Qaeda feat is impressive. Communism and its system of subversion by means of local parties and cells seems to be the only precedent for conspiracy on this international scale. And as Gunaratna says, those living in an al Qaeda Bloc would be just as miserable as were the victims of Soviet domination.

Terror in the Name of God by Jessica Stern (2003)

Jessica Stern's study illuminates the state of mind of those who kill in the belief that they are obeying a religious imperative. She found Christian cultists in the U.S., Jewish zealots in Israel, and Islamists in the Palestinian Authority, Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. Part of the interest here is in the way Stern, a Harvard lecturer, undertakes intrepid journeys to seek out her subjects. These terrorists are by no means simple, she finds; they are often in the grip of complex designs, usually at odds with reality. The secret is to be persuaded that one is doing good by doing evil. Humiliation after some perceived injustice seems a prerequisite. Frustrated nationalism is another frequent motivation. A moral, though: It remains easier to kill people than conscience.

Click here to see Pryce-Jones' other picks.

A year and half ago Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc. as well one of the few Western journalists ever to interview Osama bin Laden, shared his top recommendations on this subject with the Washington Post. Click here to see his picks.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street"

The latest installment from Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel takes up Sinclair Lewis's Main Street; see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for previous entries.

It has been a very long time since I--or anyone I know--has read any Lewis, yet Smiley suggests we may soon see some wider general interest in his work.
Sinclair Lewis may be ripe for a revival; his books raise several interesting issues of art and fashion. Main Street is his most famous book, though certain critics prefer Babbitt as a better novel. Main Street was a tremendous bestseller, published when Lewis was 35, and cited by the Nobel Prize committee as a major reason he was given the Nobel in 1930. Main Street is the story of Carol Kennicott, who graduates from a small women's college in the first chapter of the novel with rather vague aspirations to achieve something or reform something. After a reasonably long (but not very enlightening) courtship, she marries small-town doctor Will Kennicott and moves with him to Gopher Prairie, Minnesota (based on Lewis's hometown of Sauk Centre). She is immediately dissatisfied with the town and her life there, and the rather episodic novel traces the simultaneous evolution of her marriage, her life in Gopher Prairie, and the passing of her youth.

The novel is rather like a Bildungs-roman in that it describes the education of a young person through a series of trials, but Carol's is a domestic education, and it is hard to decide whether she grows or is simply overcome. In the end, under some protest, she manages to agree to life in Gopher Prairie, but not quite accept it.

I'm less confident than Smiley that Lewis will find a new audience very soon, mainly for reasons she outlines herself:

He manages to be intelligent and interesting and even hopeful; his characters are well-drawn and lively. But his plots meander and his tone is unclear. His novels aren't well-made wholes, but nor are they shambling stylistic charmers. In their time, they dealt with issues that Americans wanted to read about--small-town life, the mind of the businessman, revivalist religion--but when those issues seemed to fade in importance, so did Lewis's reputation.

Lewis adhered to a strongly felt social theory that was basically leftist, and he wrote at a time when almost all writers were required to declare their allegiance to the right or the left, at least in America. In Main Street, Lewis's loyalties sometimes come across as simply a democratic sensibility, and therefore aesthetically acceptable, and sometimes as an outmoded and false-seeming programme for building the utopia of the future. No novelist can quite escape the social theories of his time, and in fact must be drawn to them, because the novel is social investigation. So to some extend the reputation of every novelist will rise and fall according to how his social theory holds up.

Click here to read the entire Smiley argument.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 23, 2006

Stephen King's best books of 2005

I just came across "Stephen King's best books of 2005" list. Amazingly, I've not only read seven of the books he names, but at least six of them made my own top ten lists of 2004 and 2005.

His number one pick for 2005 was my number one pick of 2004.

I write that this broad concurrence is amazing not because I would guess that King and I should have strikingly similar taste (or clearly divergent tastes) but because I've compared favorite books lists with people whose taste is somewhat similar and we rarely have much overlap.

Looking forward, will my best books of 2006 list look a lot like Stephen King's?

Perhaps; on the one hand, we both loved this book.

On the other hand, I recently read a book whose cover featured the Stephen King blurb, "One of the best books I've read in a long, long time." (I didn't know of this opinion/blurb when I decided to read the book.) Enjoyable, yes, but it probably will not make my 2006 top ten list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Village Voice's best beach books

The Village Voice rounded up a few suggestions for what books one might pack before boarding the jitney for the Hamptons.

Here are only two of the recommendations:
Double Fault By Lionel Shriver

Photographed kissing the phallic statuette she received when We Need to Talk About Kevin won the 2005 Orange Prize, Shriver wore a look of satisfaction so intense as to verge on impropriety. Now Serpent's Tail has reissued Shriver's 1997 Double Fault, an utterly compelling tale of love and envy in which Willy (short for Wilhelmina) and Eric meet on a Riverside Park court, fall in love, and marry without adequately comprehending the damage their changing national rankings will wreak on this union between two deeply competitive professional tennis players. The short span of an athlete's career means that Willy at 23 considers herself already middle-aged, and a devastating knee injury proves impossible to overcome. Fortunately, making one's mark as a novelist is not subject to the same physiological constraints. Jenny Davidson

The Eagle's Throne By Carlos Fuentes Translated by Kristina Cordero

In Fuentes's 15th novel, which takes place in the year 2020, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. president, has blocked Mexico's access to phone, fax, and e-mail. Delirious and overexcited, the country's most influential men—controlled by seductive women who urge them to be ruthless—are forced to leave a written trail of their indiscretions. In a series of hysterical letters referencing Susan Sontag, Mission Impossible, and Hitler, they all scheme to be the next president. These charmingly sleazy characters take much more pleasure in work than sex: Flirty games and betrayals are mere warm-up for the "prolonged orgasm" of political sway. Rachel Aviv

Those two picks don't tickle your fancy? There are a dozen or so more recommendations from the Voice: click here to read them.

Read about Shriver's Orange Prize--and see her above mentioned kiss--here. And click here to learn about the 2006 winner of the Orange Prize.

About the Orange Prize: Do women really deserve a book prize of their own?

Viv Groskop praised Double Fault--it "is not a novel about tennis or rivalry; it's about love, marriage and the balance of power in relationships"--in the Guardian here.

Earlier this year Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine asked Carlos Fuentes, "How do you explain the public's fascination with [Condi Rice]?" His answer:
She is intelligent. She dresses well. She is capable of nuance. She seems to have something more behind her facade than one would suspect. She has better legs than Bush. And I know what his legs look like because I have seen him falling off a bicycle in shorts.
Yvonne Zipp reviewed The Eagle's Throne here. Tina Rosenberg reviewed it for Slate here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monica Ali's ten favorite books

Monica Ali, wrote Ron Charles in the Christian Science Monitor in 2003, was

having one of those years that will encourage the fantasies of a million unpublished writers. Several months before her first book was published, Granta magazine included her in this decade's list of the best 20 young authors in England. The appearance of an actual book did nothing to quell that premature enthusiasm. In fact, Brick Lane rose to the British bestseller list ... and was included in the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Its arrival in America looks equally auspicious. But there's a risk of crushing this sensitive novel beneath a press of praise, like inciting a mob to pick fresh raspberries.

British critics have called her the next Zadie Smith, presumably because they're both young, nonwhite females who blasted onto the literary scene with Booker-nominated bestsellers about immigrant culture in London. But Ali displays none of Smith's pyrotechnics or her sprawling scope and scale. Biology aside, a better comparison would be with Anita Brookner, that non-young, blisteringly white matron of British fiction whose quiet incisive novels scrutinize the plight of lonely people.

The genius of Brick Lane lies in Ali's ability to make the peculiar universal while making what's familiar comically odd. Though it's a distinctly interior novel, the larger world resonates all along the edges with discordant strains of political and cultural disruption.

Read more of Ron Charles' review here.

Ali's most recent book is Alentejo Blue (2006).

Sometime back she shared her ten favorite books (on that particular day, anyway) with Barnes and Noble. Here are half of her titles:

Emma by Jane Austen -- A favorite from my school days, and it would always hold its place my heart. Austen's characters are always devastatingly good, and Emma is, for me, her best creation.

A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul -- His masterpiece. I love the blend of comedy and tragedy, and every time I read it, I ache afresh for Biswas.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole -- The author committed suicide after failing to find a publisher for this book, which went on to win the Pulitzer after his mother persevered in getting the book into print. It is the funniest book I have ever read.

A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee -- I picked this up from a bookshop display, knowing nothing about it, and bought it on a whim. I started it on the train on the way home and then read it through the night. Lee's beautiful, understated prose is so finely controlled it makes me want to cry with envy.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- Scarcely need to explain this one.

Click here to read Ali's other five titles as well as an account of The Bell by Iris Murdoch, the book that Ali says most influenced her life.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"McSweeney's Recommends"

McSweeney's Internet Tendency is an offshoot of a multimedia publishing project started by Dave Eggers, author of You Shall Know Our Velocity and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

There are various features at the site worth checking out, so check it out.

One feature is "McSweeney's Recommends," where they recommend "many different kinds of things, from films to hairstyles, all of which have been researched, tested, and submitted to a month-long stay at a resort for people who appreciate the finer things in life, before finally being voted on in a democratic manner resembling that of our forefathers."

Here are some of the books and writers recently recommended:
"Discovering" a writer who has already published a bunch of books
We recently became acquainted with the work of Eric Kraft, who is highly recommended, but what makes it even better is that he's published like 10 books, none of which we've read, which means we're pretty much guaranteed a bunch of great reads in the coming months. Same thing happened with Steven Millhauser a few years ago.

U.S.! by Chris Bachelder
Mr. Bachelder is a friend, so take this recommendation for what you will, but his new novel, U.S.!, centered around a perpetually reanimating Upton Sinclair, could be the best book we've read this year.

Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma's Fabulous Flaming Lips by Jim DeRogatis
Really just recommended for fans (or maybe fanatics) of the Lips, but if you are a fan, this book is great fun.

Cobra II by Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor
A "contemporary history" of the planning and execution of the Iraq war. Resolutely nonpartisan (the back blurbs for a previous book by the same authors come from Dick Cheney and Clinton cabinet member William Cohen). Basically proves that the fucked-up situation was caused by Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks's piss-poor management and the complicity of Vice President Cheney and President Bush. Also demonstrates that the actual soldiers who see combat are incredibly brave, flexible, and intelligent. If we'd listened to them, the country wouldn't still be in this God-awful mess.

Anything written by Michael Ruhlman
We previously recommended his book Walk on Water, which is about an elite pediatric surgical unit. We've since read more of his books and they're all good. Even when you think you might have no interest in the subject, it turns out you do.

Click here to read chapter one of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

--Marshal Zeringue

Dennis Lehane's summer reading

Last month USA Today asked a few writers--including Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Sophie Kinsella, Andy Borowitz, and others--what they were reading this summer.

Click here to review the entire list.

Here are Dennis Lehane's picks:

Smonk by Tom Franklin: "Franklin writes like an archangel on a crank binge. I've waited three years for his follow-up to Hell at the Breech so I'm pretty geeked up for this one."

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell: "Woodrell is the least-known major writer in the country right now. I don't even know what this novel's about, but I'm going to buy it the day it's published."

Haven't read Lehane's Mystic River yet? Put it on your summer reading list--at the top of your list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Fiction and futbol

Today's Boston Globe contains an article by Mark Feeney on soccer on page and screen.

The soccer fan's bible is Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. (Yes, through the miracle of Hollywood transformation it inspired last year's Red Sox movie.) But the foremost author with a soccer lineage is no less a figure than Vladimir Nabokov , who has a soccer match figure in his novel Glory, and a soccer ball in his novel Pnin. Nabokov came by his soccer the hard way: As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he played goalie for his Trinity College team.

"I was crazy about goal keeping," he wrote in his memoirs, Speak, Memory. The goalie, he declared, "is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender." He is also an ideal existential symbol, a fact Peter Handke exploited in his novel The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which Wim Wenders made into a film.

To read the entire article, click here.

To read an excerpt from Fever Pitch, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

What book would you save for last?

In the season finale of season two of Lost, the character Desmond says he carries around Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend because he wants that to be the last book he reads before dying.

As with much else on Lost, there's (apparently) more to that story. But I won't know just what that is until after the DVD comes out. If you are current with the show, click here for a New York Times story that delves into the matter.

The Chicago Tribune asked three of its writers what their last book would be. Charles Storch's choice:
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov. I was unhorsed in my first sally at this novel many years ago. It has a dual structure: the final poem by Charles Shade, a Robert Frost-like figure; and the long and loony commentary on the poem that follows by Shade's neighbor Charles Kinbote, formerly of the Kingdom of Zembla. But did the same character write both parts? Is Kinbote really the king of Zembla or is he a figment of a third character's imagination? Had I taken more care with the text and paid more respect to Nabokov's intelligence, perhaps I might have had a clue. Maybe I will go out with the answer.
Click here to read the other two selections.

Our Mutual Friend is available for free online: click here or here to read it.

The opening paragraph:
In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.
--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 19, 2006

William Golding's last night on earth

On this date thirteen years ago William Golding died. Click here to read a brief account of his life and work.

The writer D.M. Thomas attended a party at the home of William Golding on the night the Nobel laureate died.

The two were not close friends, the cause of death was not scandalous (Golding was eighty-two with a heart condition), and no deep personal secrets or astounding insights about the world were revealed that evening. Golding had taken care of the latter with Lord of the Flies, the theme of which he later said was (if memory serves) , "grief, sheer grief, grief, grief."

I don't know Thomas's work--his best known book is The White Hotel (1981)--but the short article he wrote about his time at the Golding house the night the famous man died is worth reading. Click here to read it.

In the presentation speech for Golding's 1983 Nobel prize, Professor Lars Gyllensten of the Swedish Academy noted that Golding once wrote: "I must say that anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head."

Yet in his own acceptance speech, Golding spoke differently: "Critics have dug into my books until they could come up with something hopeless. I can't think why. I don't feel hopeless myself.... I am a universal pessimist but a cosmic optimist." He died a decade later.

--Marshal Zeringue

"Sometimes in literature you go on playing long after the game's over..."

On Saturday I exploited Nick Hornby's obsession to link books and soccer. Today, there's a delightful passage from the Berliner Zeitung excerpted and translated at

Berlin-based Hungarian author Laszlo Darvasi reflects on the Brazilians' love for the irrational element in football and the correlation with writing. "If there's one difference between literature and football, it's that with football, it's clear who's won, and how. Sometimes, it's true, we don't fully understand how the victory came about, but there's always the scoreboard there for orientation. Sometimes in literature you go on playing long after the game's over, and you don't even notice that the grandstands are as empty as a huge forlorn heart. You go on playing even though you've lost ages ago. Or won. In Germany, the novelist Sandor Marai is a player like that. A character of Salman Rushdie's once commented that the most important events of our lives always take place in our absence. Try imagining that in football."
If you read German, click here to read the entire article.

Earlier this year Anja Seeliger, an editor at, was very helpful with the blog's search for German crime thrillers.

Not interested in soccer but love "The Simpsons?" Click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Scott Turow's favorite novels set in the legal world

Scott Turow is no stranger to the blog. Earlier this year he recommended a book for our series on what's at stake in the debate over habeas corpus: to see the title and author of his suggestion, click here.

In Opinion Journal this weekend he shared his five favorite modern novels set in the legal world.

Number one:

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver (1958).

This is the ur-book for much contemporary legal fiction. Traver was the pseudonym for John Voelker, who was sitting as a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court when his novel about a murder trial in the iron-ore country of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan took America by storm. An experienced criminal trial lawyer, Voelker took a new approach to writing about the courtroom, eschewing the melodrama of Perry Mason or the portentousness of the classics in which every case was foremost a symbol for Justice. Voelker contented himself with the workaday details of a trial, believing that the law's very atmosphere of restraint would enhance the essential drama. His narrator, Paul Biegler, is a former prosecutor taking on his first defense. Paul's unsympathetic client is U.S. Army Lt. Frederic Manion, the killer of bar owner Barney Quill, who may or may not have raped Manion's sultry wife. The subject matter was torrid in 1958, but the novel's straightforward approach stands up, and the book still echoes on every page with the authority of a world fully known.

Click here to read about his other selections.

Turow's most recent book, Ordinary Heroes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was published in November.

Alan Furst wrote of Ordinary Heroes:

Ordinary Heroes is a beautifully wrought, finely achieved reconstruction of an elusive, a clandestine life--a World War II life, as it happens--by Scott Turow at the very top of his form. So, be warned, a book to start on Friday night."
What are Scott Turow's favorite beach books this summer? Click here to find out.

Everyone I know has an opinion on the death penalty, but Turow seems to have thought about the subject more than most and, unlike many people, has changed his mind about it. To read how he came to terms with capital punishment, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch"

(UPDATED 6:17 PM: see bottom of message)

In honor of the 2006 World Cup, an excerpt from Nick Hornby's delightful Fever Pitch:

I have learned things from the game. Much of my knowledge of locations in Britain and Europe comes not from school, but from away games or the sports pages, and hooliganism has given me both a taste for sociology and a degree of fieldwork experience. I have learned the value of investing time and emotion in things I cannot control, and of belonging to a community whose aspirations I share completely and uncritically. And on my first visit to Selhurst Park with my friend Frog, I saw a dead body, still my first, and learned a little bit about, well, life itself.

As we walked towards the railway station after the game, we saw the man lying in the road, partially covered by a raincoat, a purple-and-blue Palace scarf around his neck. Another younger man was crouched over him, and the two of us crossed the road and went to have a look. 'Is he all right?' Frog asked. The man shook his head. 'No. Dead. I was just walking behind him and he keeled over.' He looked dead. He was grey and, as far as we were concerned, unimaginably motionless. We were impressed. Frog sensed a story that would interest not only the fourth year but much of the fifth as well. 'Who done him? Scousers?'

At this point the man lost patience. 'No. He's had a heart attack, you little prats. Now fuck off.' And we did, and that was the end of the incident. But it has never been very far away from me since then, my one and only image of death; it is an image which instructs. The Palace scarf, a banal and homely detail; the timing (after the game, but mid-season), the stranger paying distressed but ultimately detached attention. And, of course, the two idiotic teenagers gawping at a tiny tragedy with unembarrassed fascination, even glee.

It worries me, the prospect of dying in mid-season like that, but of course, in all probability I will die sometime between August and May. We have the naive expectation that when we go, we won't be leaving any loose ends lying around: we will have made our peace with our children, left them happy and stable, and we will have achieved more or less everything that we wanted to with our lives. It's all nonsense, of course, and football fans contemplating their own mortality know that it is all nonsense. There will be hundreds of loose ends. Maybe we will die the night before our team appears at Wembley, or the day after a European Cup first-leg match, or in the middle of a promotion campaign or a relegation battle, and there is every prospect, according to many theories about the afterlife, that we will not be able to discover the eventual outcome. The whole point about death, metaphorically speaking, is that it is almost bound to occur before the major trophies have been awarded. The man lying on the pavement would not, as Frog observed on the way home, discover whether Palace stayed up or not that season; nor that they would continue to bob up and down between the divisions over the next twenty years, that they would change their colours half a dozen times, that they would eventually reach their first FA Cup Final, or that they would end up running around with the legend 'VIRGIN' plastered all over their shirts. That's life, though.

I do not wish to die in mid-season but, on the other hand, I am one of those who would, I think, be happy to have my ashes scattered over the Highbury pitch (although I understand that there are restrictions: too many widows contact the club, and there are fears that the turf would not respond kindly to the contents of urn after urn). It would be nice to think that I could hang around inside the stadium in some form, and watch the first team one Saturday, the reserves the next; I would like to feel that my children and grandchildren will be Arsenal fans and that I could watch with them. It doesn't seem a bad way to spend eternity, and certainly I'd rather be sprinkled over the East Stand than dumped into the Atlantic or left up some mountain.

UPDATE: "The Week in Review" section of tomorrow's New York Times contains an article that suggests that even though some see a "link between national character and the ways nations have coped with defeat, the slim catalog of responses—especially to humiliating losses, or those at the hands of geopolitical rivals—probably says more about how similar people are."
The English, says the novelist Nick Hornby, author of the soccer memoir "Fever Pitch," would rather pin blame on an individual on their own team, either a manager or player (David Beckham in 1998 for committing a silly foul in front of the referee; the goalie David Seaman in 2002 for misjudging Ronaldinho's blooping shot—or was that a pass?). But in an interview Mr. Hornby said, "It's been so long since England have won anything in soccer that it feels as though real contenders come from a parallel universe England can't seem to break their way in to."
--Marshal Zeringue

Robert Musil's "The Man without Qualities"

The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil is the subject of the latest installment from Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel; see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for previous entries.

Smiley writes:
This is one of the most prestigious novels of the 20th century; the sort of book no one has read but everyone has heard of. It is well worth reading, even though it is very long, very slow, and was unfinished at the time of Robert Musil's death. The first volume of The Man without Qualities runs to 365 pages, and the dilemma of the protagonist, Ulrich, is presented only on about page 300. Nevertheless, the writing is so precise and the argument Musil makes about Ulrich and his situation so intricate that it is intellectually and aesthetically involving even before it becomes emotionally so.
To read the rest of Smiley's essay, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 16, 2006

"Cultural cringe" and Peter Carey's "Theft"

Before I read the new Peter Carey novel I posted an item on his--and Australia's--cultural cringe. Professor Nicholas Birns and "Dutch," the blog's Australia expert, splashed some more light on the subject here and here.

I recently finished Theft--and highly recommend it--and can confirm that it will be read as a major text on the subject of "cultural cringe."

Birns says that The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is the Carey novel which deals with this subject most explicitly, but I think he said that before reading Theft; he may reconsider.

Now I see that James Wood has taken up the topic in his review of Theft on the London Review of Books. It's a fine review, though it gives away more about the plot than I would have cared to know before reading the book.

Wood writes:
As in [My Life as a Fake], the real subject [of Theft]--Carey’s abiding subject, addressed in novel after novel--is the hoax of Australian identity, and its self-tortured relationship with the rest of the world. The narrator of Illywhacker, Herbert Badgery, is a self-confessed liar and conman who discovers, while in prison, a history of Australia by M.V. Anderson (Carey’s invention). This history, an extract from which is reproduced, seeks to expose the lie of the country’s origins:
Our forefathers were all great liars. They lied about the lands they selected and the cattle they owned. They lied about their backgrounds and the parentage of their wives. However it is their first lie that is the most impressive for being so monumental, i.e. that the continent, at the time of first settlement, was said to be occupied but not cultivated and by that simple device they were able to give the legal owners short shrift and, when they objected, to use the musket or poison flour, and to do so with a clear conscience.
That novel is much consumed with the question of Australian self-hatred. Herbert argues against the Australian ‘cringe’ towards Europe and America, the relationship of ‘a child serving a parent’. But his wife, Phoebe McGrath, rails against the mediocrity of her smalltown Geelong-Bacchus Marsh life, only to reach Sydney, where she starts a literary magazine called Malley’s Urn, a jokey homage to the famous hoax. In My Life as a Fake, the literary hoaxer, Christopher Chubb, ‘came from the dreary lower-middle-class suburbs. I would say he loathed where he came from.’ The motive for his will-to-hoax is laid at the door of this frustrated provincialism--which is to say, at the door of frustrated Australianism.
Then Wood shares this passage from Theft which leapt off the page at me when I read it, primed as I was for explicit references to cultural cringe. It is in the voice of Michael Boone, AKA "Butcher Bones," one of the two narrators, who is an Australian painter, bitterly divorced and much reduced from his once-celebrity reputation.
If you are American you will never understand what it is to be an artist on the edge of the world, to be 36 years old and get an ad in Studio International. And, no, it is in no way like being from Lubbock, Texas, or Grand Forks, North Dakota. If you are Australian you are free to argue that this cringing shit had disappeared by 1981, that history does not count, and that, in any case, we were soon to become the centre of the fucking universe, the flavour of the month, the coalition of the willing etc, but I will tell you, frankly, nothing like this had been conceivable in my lifetime.
Wood adds:
The danger with Carey’s last two books is that the distinction between exploring or dramatising the condition of Australian cultural self-hatred and rather awkwardly embodying it can look thin.... this new novel seems, quite explicitly, to find in Butcher’s devotion to his art an analogue of his own creative drive. Like Butcher, Carey is passionately serious about his work, indentured to the highest standards. Yet he is also the son of the secondhand car dealer from Bacchus Marsh, the raw writer who used to delight in telling newspaper interviewers that he had read no books until he was 18, an Australian incapable of false aestheticism or preciousness, devoted to the hygienic stringencies of scepticism and year-round bullshit-detection.
Click here to listen to an interview with Peter Carey.

For more information on Carey and his work, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Donald Hall interview

Donald Hall, the new poet laureate, sat for an interview with The Paris Review. (Actually, he sat for three separate interviews, published as one in 1991.) It's wonderful stuff: click here to read the entire interview.

Hall talks about how he became a poet, how encouragement--and discouragement--shaped his poetry in high school, and offers a brief warts-and-all portrait of Robert Frost, with whom he is sometimes compared.

He sometimes writes about baseball and has spent time among professional athletes. "Mostly, athletes are quick-witted and funny,' Hall says, "with maybe a ten-second attention span."

Hall was The Paris Review's first poetry editor (1953–1961), and he talks about his own Paris Review interviews with T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound ("He spoke with a melody that made him sound like W.C. Fields."), and Marianne Moore.

Once, he says, "I rejected a good poem by Allen Ginsberg, who wrote George Plimpton saying that I wouldn't recognize a poem if it buggered me in broad daylight."

Above left is a manuscript page from Hall's poem "Baseball."

--Marshal Zeringue

John Banville interview

Chris Boyd, an Australian arts and culture critic, garnered some time with John Banville at the recent Sydney Writers Festival. The resulting interviews appear here at the "Sarsaparilla" blog and here at Chris' "The Morning After" blog--and it really doesn't matter which one you read first.

The interviews are as much about literary interviews as about Banville's work and his views on a wide variety of subjects.

One choice Banville comment from the interview: "An awful lot of women write detective fiction, very few women read it!"

What did I think of Banville winning the Man Booker Prize for his The Sea? Click here to find out.

What did Michiko Kakutani think of The Sea? It's "a stilted, claustrophobic and numbingly pretentious tale about an aging widower revisiting his past." I think she's way off-base, but click here to read the rest of her review.

What does "Sarsaparilla" mean? Click here to find out.

Salon has just initiated a series of travel guides devoted to the literature of places, and Banville contributed the section on Ireland. Read it here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

P.D. James' list of the most riveting crime novels

P. D. James is the author of nineteen books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television in the United States and other countries. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Department of Great Britain's Home Office. She has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC. In 2000 she celebrated her eightieth birthday and published her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest. The recipient of many prizes and honors, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. She lives in London and Oxford.

Her most recent novel is The Lighthouse.

Introducing an interview James did with Salon in 1998, Jennifer Reese wrote: "James peers amiably through thick glasses and uses the word 'dear in just about every sentence. But she also writes razor-sharp observations of British society and coolly graphic depictions of dead bodies."

The Wall Street Journal recently asked James to come up with five riveting crime novels.

Number 1 on her list?

Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare (Harcourt, Brace, 1943).

For me there is particular charm in books written before or during World War II, not least because I find myself engrossed in that very different world. In Tragedy at Law we travel with a High Court judge, Mr. Justice Barber, as he moves in state from town to town presiding over cases. But someone obviously wishes him dead, and twice he narrowly escapes. The amateur detective is a defending barrister, Francis Pettigrew, once in love with the judge's wife and a man of ability and probity who has never quite achieved success. Author Cyril Hare was himself a judge, and the book provides a fascinating portrayal of the judge in court and of the coterie of people, including barristers, who travel with him. Written with elegance and wit, Tragedy at Law is regarded by many lawyers as the best English detective story set in the legal world.

Click here to read about two through five on her list.

In a brief profile at the Guardian, James said: "The greatest mystery of all is the human heart, and that is the mystery with which all good novelists are concerned."

Do you aspire to write a mystery novel? Click here for eight easy mystery writing lessons from the baroness.

--Marshal Zeringue

Donald Hall, poet laureate

Donald Hall is the new poet laureate. He succeeds Ted Kooser, who has been the poet laureate since 2004.

Click here to read his poem "Affirmation." Click here to read (or listen to) his poem "Gold."

In a very positive review of Hall's most recent collection of poems, White Apples and the Taste of Stone (2006), Billy Collins wrote:
Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet. His reliance on simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentence gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority. It is a kind of simplicity that succeeds in engaging the reader in the first few lines. "In October of the year," one poem begins, "he counts potatoes dug from the brown field." Another opens: "Looking through boxes/in the attic of my mother's house in Hamden,/I find a model airplane." Many poems are further stabilized by Hall's love of storytelling, a narrative exuberance that produces anecdotal poems as well as longer, more complex weavings.
Click here to read the entire review.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Science fiction as literature

I recently posted an item on the favorite science fiction books of Ron Moore. That item contained some misinformation and poorly-considered phraseology--mea culpa--that I'll try to make up for at the bottom of this post.

But first, here's an invited essay by John "Dawg" Pickard, an authority on science fiction:

As a co-owner of the Cylon Alliance, which is dedicated to the preservation of classic sci-fi, I’ve been invited to say a few words about Science Fiction, one of the less appreciated forms of literature.

Science Fiction is Literature? Most certainly. You need only read the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, or Robert Heinlein (to name just a few), to find examples of literature that rival the works of any of their most celebrated contemporaries. Complex, exciting, timeless stories that rank–or should rank–as classic literature in their own right.

I know–when someone says “Science Fiction” the first thing people think about (if they don’t think Star Trek or Star Wars) is Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Plan 9 from Outer Space or Santa Claus vs. The Martians. “Sci-Fi” is just not taken seriously. But Science Fiction holds the distinction of being one of, if not the, most versatile literary genres of all. In Science Fiction, we can examine and comment on human nature, societal ills, the depths man can descend or the heights he can climb. And we can tell those tales and make those statements from a completely unique vantage point. In the hands of a knowledgeable and capable writer, we can visit other worlds, find new life out in the universe–or in some unexplored nook or cranny of our own planet. We can indulge our explorer spirit and find wondrous adventure.

With a good science fiction book, we can ignite our imaginations in a way television or film cannot match.

There are books in the “Science Fiction” section of the library or bookstore that transcend genre and are literature in their own right. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a telling commentary on religion and society that is as valid today as the day he wrote it–all within the tale of a human Martian. H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds near the turn of the 20th Century–yet the tale stands up if you read it today, more than 100 years later. His The Time Machine, too. And all three are fun and captivating to read.

So is Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series will make you believe in flying, flaming dragons. And Frank Herbert’s Dune books are nothing short of an epic tale that should be compared with classic literature–yet it will keep you up reading long past your bedtime.

And it can be fun reading, too. There are well more than a hundred books set in the Star Trek universe. Dozens in the Star Wars worlds. For a laugh-out-loud read, try Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books (which include the volumes The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish).

Janet Kagan’s Hellspark is one of my favorites, as is her Star Trek book Uhura’s Song. (The funniest Star Trek book is How Much For Just The Planet by John Ford.) McCaffrey’s Pern books are in my regular re-read rotation. For a real adventure, try The Man Who Never Missed and the following books of the “Matador” series by Steve Perry (who also wrote the excellent Star Wars entry Shadows of the Empire).

And Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game is a must-read for any science fiction fan.

I could go on, but half the fun of reading science fiction is finding an author or particular kind of science fiction that you enjoy most. Search it out. You won’t regret it.

Many thanks to "Dawg" Pickard for such a rich and informative essay--and for the suggested reading.

"Dawg" also shared with me some of his considerable knowledge on Battlestar Galactica, both the current iteration on the Sci-Fi channel and the original series. He directed me to this page:
From here, you can learn as much as you want to know about how the 1978 series came to be, the problems it faced, why the writing was inconsistent (you simply cannot rush creativity)--all those negative issues people love to point out now. We also have comprehensive information on the revival attempts by Richard Hatch, Glen Larson & Tom Moyer, and the ill-fated and much lamented 2001 DeSanto/Singer project for Fox that was scuttled at the last minute by 9/11 and behind-the-back maneuverings by the studio and Sci-Fi.
There is also information at that site on the new series and the controversy tied to it.

And it is a rich controversy. Follow this link to "Dawg's" personal site where he takes on many of the issues in the debate over the original vs. the re-imagined series. Click on the "Dawg's Bark" button for a number of insightful items.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 12, 2006

Christina Stead's "The Man Who Loved Children"

The latest excerpt from Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel--see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for previous installments--takes on The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead.

The novel defies easy summary, so please click here to read Smiley's essay.

And after you do, consider what the poet Randall Jarrell wrote in an introduction to the book: "If all mankind had been reared in orphan asylums for a thousand years, it could learn to have families again by reading The Man Who Loved Children."

What!? I took away from Smiley's account a sense that the family in the novel was so screwed up that it might well have been constitued by people who grew up in very poorly-run orphan asylums.

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, is an admirer of the novel: "This crazy, gorgeous family novel is one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century. I carry it in my head the way I carry childhood memories; the scenes are of such precise horror and comedy that I feel I didn't read the book so much as live it."

For a brief biography of Stead click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Books on the history and use of English

David Crystal, the author of How Language Works (forthcoming), recently named his favorite books on the history and use of English.

Number 1:

The Oxford English Dictionary (1884).

If I were ever asked which book to take to a desert island, I would opt immediately for the second edition of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (1989)--and hope that the island had an electricity supply so that I could download the online version or use the CD. The OED is without a doubt the most comprehensive account of the history of English vocabulary ever compiled. It has gaps and biases, of course--for example, the original editors went through Shakespeare with a tooth-comb, at the expense of some of the other Elizabethan dramatists--but it is still the source I turn to most often whenever I am working on the development of the language. Its process of continual editorial revision provides a voyage of linguistic discovery that, I am happy to say, never comes to an end.

To read Crystal's other selections, click here.

Click here to see a list of the top ten books about the OED.

--Marshal Zeringue

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel"

I've happily followed the Guardian's excerpts from Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Jonathan Bate of the Telegraph has a less generous view of Smiley's book:

Much of Smiley's best fiction is about horses, whereas this non-fiction work is an equine of the pantomime variety. The front half is a series of chapters on the history and techniques of the novel; the back half consists of brief essays on the chosen 100 books.

The problem with the latter is that Smiley seems unable to decide whether they are for the benefit of people who have read the novels and want some critical analysis that brings deeper understanding of their mechanics or whether they are 'tasters' intended to inspire readers to tackle the masterpieces they have not dared venture upon.

He's a little more grateful for the forward-looking part of the book:

the two brief chapters of practical advice for budding novelists are the most valuable thing about the book.

Here is Smiley's advice bound in a nutshell. A command of spelling, punctuation and good grammar must be instinctive rather than struggled for--they are the equivalent of a composer knowing the scales. Solipsism and self-indulgence must be avoided at all costs: better to go out and do some research on the diction that is appropriate to the world-view of each of your characters. Work on the balance between plot and character, action and reflection. Find the right point of view for your story: first-person, third or that lovely technique of writing in a third-person voice but through the eyes of a particular character? Bang out a draft and then get down to some serious revision.

Marjorie Kehe has a more postitive view of the book at the Christian Science Monitor. Click here to read it.

--Marshal Zeringue