Monday, July 31, 2006


Michael O'Hanlon reviewed Thomas Rick's new book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, last week in Slate. "It is not an exaggeration, or at least not much of one," O'Hanlon writes, "to say that [the book] has changed the debate over Iraq:"

Others have criticized much of the decision-making of the Bush administration—on going to war in the first place, on hyping Saddam's purported links to al-Qaida and his progress in pursuing nuclear weapons, and most of all on the shoddy, cavalier preparation for the post-Saddam stabilization of Iraq. But almost all these previous critiques focused on President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other civilian leaders of the Bush administration.

Ricks hardly spares the war's civilian architects, but his is the first major book to take on the U.S. military as well.

Click here to read the entire review.

To read an excerpt from the book, click here; to scan the Table of Contents, click here.

I've not read Fiasco but I have read Ricks' 1997 Making the Corps. Ricks tracked an actual platoon of recruits through basic training in the spring of 1995. He showed us who washed out and why, and taught readers a great deal about the people and the system that determined who made the corps and who did not. It's a fine book. Click here to read an excerpt.

--Marshal Zeringue

The ten best kids' books, ages 8-12

Kate Scarborough of (U.K.-based) CY children's magazine picked the ten best books for children ages 8-12.

Here are her top three picks:

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

I can still remember so much of the detail in this. JK Rowling loves it, and it's being filmed. Perfect for girls who love horses and adventure.

The Switch by Anthony Horowitz

Two boys from very different lifestyles switch bodies. Funny and gripping; good for reluctant readers as they can't help but get involved.

Holes by Louis Sachar

An intelligent story made up of jigsaw pieces that come together brilliantly. A great book for children who love puzzles and mystery.

Click here to read the rest of her list.

Previously here on the blog: classic children's books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 30, 2006

George Pelecanos recommends a few books

I've read every George Pelecanos novel and eagerly await The Night Gardener, which will be released in August.

Pelecanos shared a list of interesting books with The Week magazine; it includes The Great Louisiana Novel and a western by one of America's great comic novelists:

True Grit by Charles Portis

The journey of Mattie Ross, a self-assured 14-year-old girl who seeks her father’s killer with the help of a “one-eyed fat man” in post–Civil War Nebraska. A rousing adventure story, an accurate-to-the-language historical novel, and a blazing good Western in the bargain. The voice of Mattie Ross is a spectacular achievement, as memorable and true as Huck Finn’s.

Click here to read about Pelecanos' other choices.

Pelacanos's turf is Washington, D.C.--and I don't mean the salons of Georgetown--so where better to get the skinny on him than from Stephen Amidon writing in the Washington Post?
Although The Night Gardener has its share of page-turning virtues, Pelecanos once again shows himself to have ambitions far beyond simply creating a first-rate thriller. Like Dennis Lehane at his best, Pelecanos is able to obscure the line between genre writing and "serious" fiction. His evocations of the "other" Washington--geographically proximate but also a world away from K Street, Georgetown and Capitol Hill--are superb. His capital city is a place of illegal dog fights, garbage-strewn lots and crack houses, a place where citizens wear "Stop Snitchin" t-shirts and the cops refer to the murder of a drug dealer as a "society cleanse." But it is also a place where boys dream of being sports heroes, parents correct their children's grammar, and friends gather on porches for a twilight cocktail. Few other writers working today are able to depict both the lurid realm of street crime and the quiet aspirations of domestic life with such a deft touch.
Click here to learn more about Pelecanos and here to read an excerpt from The Night Gardener.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Dava Sobel's popular science books

In my last post I mistakenly suggested that all the science books mentioned there or linked to might be a little challenging for me and other non-science majors. That was a mistake.

My too-hasty assessment may hold for several of the books but it almost certainly is not accurate about Dava Sobel's Longitude.

William Grimes wrote in the New York Times about her most recent book:
Sobel, the author of Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, has aimed The Planets squarely at a mass audience receptive to the romance of the heavens, ready to have its mind boggled by weird and wonderful facts, and eager to coo and trill over verbal baby pictures of peppy little Mercury and seductive Venus.
Click here to read an interesting article about Sobel and her inspiration in Australia's The Age.

Perhaps I'm wrong about the reader-friendliness of the other titles as well. If those books sound appealing, do a little investigating on your own. Or just pick up the book and dig in. The last thing I want to do here on the blog is discourage anyone from reading a good book.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five fascinating science books

The physicist Russell Seitz named five books for Opinion Journal about the quest for scientific knowledge. I have not read any of them but Seitz's descriptions make me want to do so.

Here is a sample from his list:

Bedrock, edited by Lauret E. Savoy, Eldridge M. Moores and Judith E. Moores

How can you comprehend the immensity of the Earth's past? Pick up this inch-thick book. In sections covering everything from "Faults, Earthquakes and Tsunamis" to "The Work of Ice," its six-dozen narratives of action and endurance, stasis and change, convey the wonders of deep time. Some of the geology writing is great, all of it absorbing, taken from the works of a marvelous array of writers. It fast-forwards two millennia from Pliny the Younger's description of his uncle's death in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 to Ursula K. Le Guin's front-porch view of Mount St. Helens blowing sky high in 1980. No less riveting is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's account of landing his plane on a sandy Saharan plateau so remote that his are the first footprints there and the only rocks are fallen stars.

Longitude by Dava Sobel

It's hard to know where you are in a universe where all is change. Once Newton's laws connected the heavens to the Earth, and mariners mastered the art of finding latitude, getting to the New World and back was transformed from an astrolabe-directed dice game into a comparatively routine enterprise. But ocean travel was still by no means simple or safe; determining one's east-west position remained a mystery. Dava Sobel recounts the human drama of a provincial British tinkerer named John Harrison racing for an 18th-century government prize. His invention of the chronometer touched off a second industrial revolution, in precision instruments, that propelled the world from the use of sextants to electronics and the satellite-driven navigation we know today.

Click here to read about the other books.

Fascinating as Mr. Seitz's descriptions read, I suspect he may overestimate my capacity to fully grasp the charms of these books. If you share that sentiment, you might be more comfortable beginning with Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. It's wonderful stuff. Click here to read a brief description of the book, some praise it garnered, and an excerpt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Atwood & Amis on television

Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis recently sat for interviews for a series titled "Bill Moyer's on Faith & Reason."

The interviews were broadcast last night on PBS and may be re-broadcast on your local affiliate. You may also watch them online or read a transcript of the sessions.

Yet, if you're a reader, you may find your time better spent with a book by either author than watching the interviews. Atwood and Amis are both bright and thoughtful people, but the interviews have little to do with their craft or--despite Moyer's establishing that the writers are both agnostic and he is a churchgoer--their particular world- (or cosmological-) views.

If you are interested in knowing just a little bit about Martin Amis, click here for a very brief bio which opens with a quote from him: "I have a god-like relationship with the world I've created. It is exactly analogous. There is creation and resolution, and it's all up to me."

Click here for a similarly brief bio of Margaret Atwood. Her quote: "Some part of me thought that I would always be teaching grammar to Engineering students at 8.30 in the morning. For ever."

Click here for Atwood's page at Random House to find a short bio, an interview, and various other links. For information on and an excerpt from her most recent book, The Penelopiad, click here.

For Martin Amis' official site, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 28, 2006

"I Am Legend" and Stephen King

Stephen King has written a new introduction to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

It is not clear to me when this series will be available in the U.S., but you may read an edited version of King's essay--as well as an excerpt from I Am Legend--here.

According to King,
[Matheson] single-handedly regenerated a stagnant genre, rejecting the conventions of the pulps that were already dying, incorporating sexual impulses and images into his work as Theodore Sturgeon had already begun to do in his science fiction, and writing a series of gut-bucket short stories. What do I remember about them? I remember what they taught me; the same thing that rock’s most recent regenerator, Bruce Springsteen, articulates in one of his songs, no retreat, baby, no surrender. I remember that Matheson would never give ground. When you thought it had to be over, that your nerves couldn’t stand any more, that was when Matheson turned on the afterburners. He wouldn’t quit. He was relentless. The baroque intonations of Lovecraft, the perfervid prose of the pulps, the sexual innuendoes, were all absent. You were faced with so much pure drive that only rereadings showed Matheson’s wit, cleverness, and control.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is one of U.K. publisher Gollancz’s new series “the ten greatest sci-fi novels of all time,” with new introductions by contemporary writers.

The other books in the series are: The Dispossessed, by Ursula le Guin; The Stars my Destination, Alfred Bester; Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes; The Forever War, Joe Haldeman; Cities in Flight, James Blish; Ubik, Philip K. Dick; Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny; Gateway, Frederik Pohl; The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut.

I Am Legend is slated to appear at a big screen near you in 2007. Will Smith will star; the screenplay is by Akiva Goldsman. Originally, a film based on the book was going to be made in the 1990s with Arnold Schwarzenegger starring and Ridley Scott directing. The budget became too expensive and they both left the project to pursue other projects.

Looking for more science fiction recommendations? Click here.

--Marshal Zeringue


Don Mullan is the author of Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, a book critical in reopening the British government's inquiry (over 25 years later) into what became known as Bloody Sunday. Bloody Sunday was January 30, 1972, a day when thirteen civilians were killed by British soldiers during a civil rights march in North Ireland.

Paul Greengrass, perhaps better known to Americans as the director of The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and United 93 (2006), made a fine film (co-produced by Mullan) titled Bloody Sunday (2002) about those events.

Don Mullan's latest book is Gordon Banks: A Hero Who Could Fly. He described to the Guardian what the book is about and what it means to him.
Of the books I have written, compiled and edited, the one I enjoyed most is my latest book--part-memoir, part-eulogy--on the great England goalkeeper, Gordon Banks. The book is a heartfelt expression of gratitude from an Irishman for his English boyhood hero. As a dyslexic boy I thought I was stupid, but after seeing Banks play for England in the 1966 World Cup final he became my inspiration. In 1970, just a few weeks after he became a global icon after his save against Pelé in Mexico, my father magically arranged for me to meet him while he was on a pre-season tour of Ireland. In my book I write: 'Throughout my adult life, I have had the opportunity to meet many notable personalities of the 20th century ... but nothing, absolutely nothing, other than an audience with God, will ever surpass the pure joy my father gave me as a boy, the day we met Gordon Banks.' And it's true!"
Mullan came up with ten books by or about other heroes of his; here are a couple of them:

Quiet Strength by Rosa Parks

I interviewed Rosa Parks in June 1998. En route, at JFK airport, a friendly black TWA duty manager asked me if I was traveling to Detroit on business. When I told her I was going to interview Rosa Parks she took my boarding pass, asked me to wait, and returned a few minutes later with a first class ticket. "If you're going to see Ms. Parks," she said, "We've got to take care of you." Next day, Ms. Parks smiled when I related how her refusal to give up her Montgomery bus seat in 1955 had led, 43 years later, to a black woman offering a first class seat to a foreign white man traveling on a US commercial airline. Quiet Strength is Rosa Parks' inspiring memoir of how her faith, hope and charity inspired her with the courage to confront American racism and set in motion a chain of events that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to the fore and changed a nation--indeed, the world. Rosa Parks, who passed away in October 2005, was a humble woman who altered history.

Pelé - The Autobiography

I saw Pelé from a distance recently in a Dublin bookshop, signing his autobiography. Crowds had gathered through the night to see him; I smiled when I read the promotional poster: 'GOD is a four letter word--Pelé!" and
thought, "If Pelé is the god of footballers then Gordon Banks is the god of goalkeepers." Pelé was the hero of my best friend, Shaunie, who died in 1976, aged 21, in a car crash. We spent many happy days kicking and catching a ball as our alter egos. I'm currently involved in building a monument to Banks' save against Pelé outside Stoke City's Britannia Stadium and, I hope, Pelé himself will come to unveil it. In the days before commercialism contaminated the game, Stoke City's most successful manager, Tony
Waddington, referred to soccer as "the working man's ballet'. I'll drink to that.

Mullan's other heroes include Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, as well as a few interesting surprises. Click here to read the whole list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A few of Curtis Sittenfeld's favorite books

I number among the many fans of Curtis Sittenfeld.

The Man of My Dreams, which was released in May, earned Sittenfeld wide praise. Here's a passage from the USA Today review which--despite calling it a "women's novel"--gives you a pretty accurate feel for the book:

In The Man of My Dreams, Sittenfeld gets inside the man-obsessed motives that strike some women in their late teens and 20s. The result: Dreams could be the women's novel of the summer, the one they talk about, dissect, analyze and compare with their own experiences. In this insightful book, Sittenfeld asks: Does every woman deserve a soul mate? Modern women might cringe at a story about a young woman who, for most of this novel, is looking for the perfect man. Despite the title, Dreams is no frothy tale of looking for love. Hannah Gavener, Sittenfeld's protagonist, is no chick-lit chick.
Click here for more reviews, a plot summary, and an excerpt from the novel.

Prep, Sittenfeld's debut novel, was even more lavishly praised. Learn all about the book and its reception, here.

A couple of months ago she named some of her favorite books for The Week magazine. Among them:

Stop-Time by Frank Conroy

This is a vivid and hugely entertaining memoir about Conroy’s boyhood, originally published in 1967. While describing everything from mental illness to first crushes to a love of reading, it beautifully and honestly reminds you of what it’s like to really feel alive.

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

LeBlanc spent 10 years following two young women—and their boyfriends and relatives—living in poverty in the Bronx. This 2003 book is an incredible feat of reporting. Many of the details are deeply disturbing, but LeBlanc unflinchingly and nonjudgmentally includes them all. The book just sort of gushes forward in a way that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read, and ultimately LeBlanc’s portrayal of these individuals is both riveting and compassionate.

Click here to read the full list.

--Marshal Zeringue

A literary guide to Brooklyn

Phillip Lopate, born and reared and now residing in Brooklyn, is the author of Salon's literary guide to Brooklyn.

"The place to start reading [Brooklyn's literature] is Betty Smith's 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," writes Lopate.

This story of young Francie Nolan, growing up with her family in Williamsburg, is saturated with the routines of daily life in an immigrant ghetto; it bridges the gap between bestseller and literary classic, largely because it is so affecting that it cannot help but win over readers of every age.


Another superb novel about a young girl growing up in a poor, striving family, this time West Indian blacks, is Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones.

Among more recent Brooklyn novels, Lopate mentions Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and The Fortress of Solitude (2003).

Many other novels of note are mentioned in Lopate's essay: click here to read the entire article.

Lopate mentions some of the same novels listed by the Brooklynite Friend of the Blog in our item on The Great New York City Novel.

Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones was discussed on the blog a few months ago: click here to read that item.

Click here to read an earlier post on a literary guide to Miami.

--Marshal Zeringue

Classic children's books

The Christian Science Monitor offers up a brief list of classic children's books it insists are still perfect for summer reading.

One title for ages 9-12:

Arthur, for the Very First Time by Patricia MacLachlan

Ten-year-old Arthur Rasby is having the worst summer of his life--that is, until he goes to stay with his great-aunt and uncle. Things are different--really different--on the farm. Among other things, his relatives sing to a pig and speak French to a chicken. But as Arthur's journal entries reveal, different can be good. In fact, it's just the kind of summer he needs to make sense of the world--and himself.

And here's one for ages 4-8:

Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams

If you can't get out on the river yourself, this story--about two kids, two mothers, and one fabulous red canoe-- is almost as good as a paddling adventure of your own. There are crayfish to be found, a waterfall for a shower, encounters with wildlife, and a man overboard - not to mention a very satisfying journey from start to finish.

Click here to see what other traditional children's books are still recommended.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Happy 150th, George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw was born on July, 26, 1856 in Dublin.

He is the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1925) and an Academy Award (in 1939, for Best Writing, Screenplay, for Pygmalion).

In a very interesting essay in the Times Literary Supplement, the distinguished biographer Michael Holroyd engages the question: of Shaw and Shakespeare, which writer would be more useful in the post 9/11 world?

Holroyd makes the wrong choice, I think, but the argument is stimulating stuff: click here to read it.

A quote from Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Holroyd does not cite that view of Shaw's, yet I think his argument is sympathetic with it. And had I been on hand to see the First World War I might be inclined to agree.

But while that incredibly destructive war was the consequence of decisions by otherwise reasonable men, much of the turmoil we face today is the result of unreasonable men. We don't need yet another unreasonable man now.

Click here for a brief profile of Shaw in The Guardian. It includes this interesting nugget: "As part of his argument for phonetic spelling, he was fond of pointing out that 'fish' could reasonably be spelt 'ghoti' - gh as in trough, o as in women, ti as in station."

Click here to read the Presentation Speech for Shaw's Nobel Prize.

--Marshal Zeringue

What is Francine Prose reading?

I posted an item the other day about Francine Prose's new book as well as two of her novels I've read.

The post linked to an interview with her in The Atlantic.

One question from the interview: "What are you reading these days?"

Prose's answer (on June 28, 2006):
Because I’m reviewing so much I often tend to read books on assignment more than for sheer pleasure, but let me look at my desk and see what’s on it. Okay I’ll just tell you what’s on my desk. The Collected Works of Jane Bowles. A collection of essays by Janet Malcolm. The new book by Daniel Mendelson which I just reviewed called The Lost, about a search for his relatives lost in the holocaust. Huckleberry Finn. A book called Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters, which is a strange and terrific biography of a homeless person. That’s what’s on my desk. It’s a range.
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

“Wizard of the Crow” by Ngugi wa'Thiong'o

John Updike's New Yorker review of Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa'Thiong'o is available online here.

Although I'm searching for a few good African novels, I don't think this is a novel that I'll pick up any time soon.

But Ngugi's personal story and its relation to Africa--Kenya, in particular--is very engaging as related by Updike, so do give the review a look. Or, if you are for some reason nursing an anti-Updike bias, click here to read Maya Jaggi's article in the Guardian on the author and novel.

The publisher's description of the book is much more appealing than Updike's account. As is James Gibbons' review in Bookforum.

Click here to read an excerpt from Wizard of the Crow.

--Marshal Zeringue

Books and their covers

Penguin U.K. has introduced a new marketing campaign for some of its classic titles. They're calling these books "Red Classics."

Although I don't think I've ever read--or not read--a book because of its cover, I can appreciate that many people occasionally do choose a book by that method. And I support Penguin and publishers who bother with getting more potential readers to become actual book buyers.

But some of these new covers strike me as if they were designed by graphic artists who haven't read (even a synopsis of) the books they're selling.

For example: I cannot image what one is supposed to infer from the cover of the great comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Of course, it's no less revealing than the version put out by the L.S.U. Press.

Or Lolita. The cover, with the light drawing (of a young woman with curvy hips that make her appear older than might appeal to the nymphet-obsessed Humbert Humbert) and cursive script, makes me imagine something from the chick-lit shelf...and from among the more insubstantial books of that genre. If a buyer picks up that book without knowing something about the novel, she will be very surprised and likely disappointed.

Other covers in the series do strike me as more fitting for the pages between them. See, for example, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Great Expectations, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Whatever the (de)merits of the cover art, there are some fine titles in the series. If a graphic artist selected the list, I'll bet she's one with great taste in fiction.

Earlier this year Slate asked some designers to come up with "pulp" covers for some classic novels; click here to see what they came up with.

What's crazier than judging a book by its cover? Judging it by its author's photo.

--Marshal Zeringue

PhiloBiblos recommends the "Audubon Reader"

Jeremy Dibbell of PhiloBiblos recommends:
Richard Rhodes, author most recently of the excellent biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American, has edited another very useful Audubon volume, the Everyman's Library Audubon Reader. A collection of personal letters, autobiographical writings, and chosen segments of Audubon's extensive ornithological species accounts, this volume offers an open window into the writings of one of America's greatest naturalists through his own words. Rhodes has edited wisely, drawing from a wide range of materials covering the entire scope of Audubon's life and works.

For any Audubon enthusiast or nature-writing fans in general, this book will happily fill a gap on your shelf. Whether read straight through or dabbled at will, I recommend Rhodes' effort highly.
--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 24, 2006

"We," by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The critic and poet Adam Hill recently reviewed the new translation of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review.

I used this novel in my comparative politics classes a few years back. In many ways it is very similar to Orwell's 1984, which should be no surprise since Orwell read and reviewed it years before publishing his more famous dystopia. (We was completed in 1921.) And it is arguably better written than 1984.

Readers familiar with Orwell are usually astonished by the obvious influence of Zamyatin's novel.

Hill deftly summarizes We:

"We" is set in the 26th century in the land of One State, a society enclosed in glass and ruled by the Benefactor. One State emerged after a war that lasted 200 years, and now all the citizens live under very rigid, authoritarian conditions that are meant to uphold and ensure their "mathematically infallible happiness." Stripped of their individual identities, the citizens of One State are referred to as "ciphers" and go by numbers rather than names. Every aspect of their lives, from sleep to sex, is regulated, and even their food has been reduced to a synthetic form rendered from petroleum. Freedom, even in thought, is considered deviant, and if the central authority decides against executing a cipher who has displayed an imagination, an operation is performed that will prevent any such future displays.

The novel's plot emerges from the records, or diary, of D-503, who is the story's main character and the builder of the Integral, a rocket ship designed with the purpose of interplanetary conquest. All of this might make "We" seem like a run-of-the-mill sci-fi story, but it's much more than that. As D-503 is seduced by the sexy I-330, he is drawn into a conspiracy led by rebels inside and outside One State. Eventually there is an attempted rebellion, but the most powerful rebellion is one that occurs in D-503 himself, as his true human nature is lured out of its prison of conformity and ignorance:

"I became glass. I saw into myself, inside.

"There were two of me. One me was the former, D-503, cipher D-503, but the other one…. Before, he only just managed to stick his shaggy paws out of my shell, but now he has crawled out whole, the shell is cracked open, now shattered into pieces and … and what next?"

D-503's records become a kind of confession, and his entries — often poetically charged — chart the emergence of an individual who feels guilty because his thoughts and actions are illegal but also exhilarated because of how good it feels to actually feel something and to do what one wants.

Click here to read Hill's review.

Click here to read an excerpt from We.

--Marshal Zeringue

An audio interview with Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane died last week at the age of 88.

Terry Gross interviewed Spillane in 1989. Among the subjects they discussed was the time he was shot while riding with the police on a bust. Spillane and some of the cops were behind a stack of tomato sauce when one of the bad guys fired a shotgun at them. Buckshot passed through the cans and Spillane was actually wounded. But everyone was covered with the red sauce and it took an uncomfortable moment to realize that most of them weren't injured.

Another tidbit from the interview: Mickey was a Jehovah's Witness.

Click here to listen to the interview. Spoiler alert: Spillane gives away the ending of his first Mike Hammer novel, I the Jury (1947).

"The Rap Sheet" eulogizes Spillane here and offers links to other online death notices.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 23, 2006

"A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them"

The aptronymic Francine Prose's new book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, is due out in August.

Jessica Murphy interviewed Prose for The Atlantic; the entire interview is available online for non-subscribers. Click here to read it.

Here's one passage from the exchange:

[JM:] At one point in the book you say, “I discovered how reading a masterpiece can make you want to write one.” You’ve given countless examples in the book of places where there’s inspired word choice, brilliant sentences, telling literary gestures and dialogue. I wonder if you could offer up an example of a masterpiece that really made you want to write one.

[FP:] The first time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not that I could ever imagine writing anything that extraordinary myself. But it’s hard to read that without becoming just infected by the joy of storytelling. I mean, seeing what it’s like to create an entire world and have things come back around and characters appear and disappear and what you can do on the page. That was a real revelation for me.

Or reading Anna Karenina, in which on practically every page there’s something that you’ve noticed about character and the world or that you’ve seen someone do, and that you never thought anyone else had ever noticed before. And here’s this Russian nutcase who’s been dead all these years capturing it all perfectly.

I may have to give this book closer scrutiny when it is available.

I've read two of Prose's novels and think highly of both.

The latest is A Changed Man. Here's the publisher's description:
What is charismatic Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow to think when a rough-looking young neo-Nazi named Vincent Nolan walks into the Manhattan office of Maslow's human rights foundation and declares that he wants to "save guys like me from becoming guys like me"? As Vincent gradually turns into the sort of person who might actually be able to do this, he also transforms those around him: Meyer Maslow, who fears heroism has become a desk job; the foundation's dedicated fund-raiser, Bonnie Kalen, an appealingly vulnerable divorced single mother; and even Bonnie's teenage son.
Click here to read an excerpt.

The other novel is Blue Angel, which was a National Book Award finalist in 2000. Here's the publisher's description:

It has been years since Swenson, a professor in a New England creative writing program, has published a novel. It's been even longer since any of his students have shown promise. Enter Angela Argo, a pierced, tattooed student with a rare talent for writing. Angela is just the thing Swenson needs. And, better yet, she wants his help. But, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. . . .

Deliciously risqué, Blue Angel is a withering take on today's academic mores and a scathing tale that vividly shows what can happen when academic politics collides with political correctness.

Click here to read an excerpt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 22, 2006

"A book lives longer than a girl"

Louis Begley has come up with his favorite novels about cheating lovers.

His top two choices:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

Set in rural Normandy in the 1830s and 1840s, Madame Bovary tells the story of a peasant's daughter, Emma, who has had her head filled with romantic notions at the convent school to which she was sent at the age of 13. She marries Charles Bovary, the local doctor, and quickly discovers that this well-meaning man is incompetent, timid and a dullard. His personal habits revolt her; the life she leads is squalid. She seeks escape in two tawdry love affairs, but her passion wearies and frightens her lovers, who abandon her. Humiliated, ruined by the usurer from whom she borrowed for expensive gifts and wardrobe, she dies a suicide.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Anna is married to an irreproachable high government official, Karenin, who is also obstinate, habitually ironic and unable to express emotion. She finds his appearance repellent. Then Anna meets Vronsky, a dashing cavalry officer, and the attraction is immediate. Soon she is pregnant. Karenin offers her a divorce, but a mixture of pride and scruples causes Anna to reject it. Instead she lives "in sin" with Vronsky. Good society ostracizes Anna, forcing her and Vronsky to rely on their own resources. He is bored by this mode of existence. Increasingly jealous and unreasonable, fearing that she has lost Vronsky's love, Anna throws herself under a train.

Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina would top my list, too. Begley's other three nominations--click here to read about them--are formidable, but they would not have occurred to me so readily.

Click here to read my bottom-line view of Anna Karenina.

When lecturing on Madame Bovary, Nabokov told his Cornell students, "A book lives longer than a girl."

Of Flaubert's greatest work, Michael Dirda wrote: "Madame Bovary still stands as the most controlled and beautifully articulated formal masterpiece in the history of fiction."

Jane Smiley examined one of Begley's other choices: click here for her analysis.

There are a number of translations of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina available. The general consensus today is that Margaret Mauldon has better served Flaubert and his readers, as have Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky served Tolstoy and his readers.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 21, 2006

Ian Rankin wishes he'd written...

There's a nice little interview with Ian Rankin over at the blog "Murderati." It includes this exchange:

EE: ...okay, how about--what best selling book do you wish you'd written?

IR: There are many books I wish I'd written, everything from Catch-22 to The Black Dahlia, The Big Sleep to Name of the Rose to A Clockwork Orange...

Click here to read the entire interview.

Rankin's new "John Rebus" novel, Naming of the Dead, is due out in October.

With all due (considerable, genuine) respect to Ian Rankin, his fans would be well rewarded by checking out John Harvey's brilliant "Charlie Resnick" series.

--Marshal Zeringue

More recommended books on terrorism

Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know, and Warren Bass, a former 9/11 Commission staffer, recently rounded up the best of the recent flood of books on terrorism.

They found many commendable books; click here to read their review essay.

One of their recommendations is The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, two former counterterrorism officials. The book argues, according to Berger and Bass, that
the U.S. war in Iraq has not dried up the swamp that produces jihadists but deepened it--giving al-Qaeda time to reinvent itself as a more loose-knit network while boosting its ideological appeal to Muslims smarting with resentment. The authors are also scathing on U.S. efforts to defend the home front against catastrophic attack; if these sections seem dated, it's largely because Hurricane Katrina proved their point all too well.
One contemporary classic they recommend:
Bruce Hoffman, the director of RAND's Washington office, has produced a thoroughly updated, post-9/11 edition of his brilliant Inside Terrorism (Columbia Univ.; paperback, $22.95), which remains probably the best one-volume introduction to the phenomenon.
An earlier item on the blog highlighted David Pryce-Jones' top picks on terrorism; click here to read those recommendations.

--Marshal Zeringue

Recommended books from "normblog"

Norman Geras runs a smart U.K.-based books and politics blog called, sensibly enough, "normblog."

He pointed me to his "writer's choice series [which] features writers writing about books." Click here for the 2005 series and here for the 2006 series.

I haven't (yet) read all the entries in the "writer's choice series," but two offerings I enjoyed were:

Martin Kettle on Eugene Onegin. Kettle, co-author of Policing the Police and Uprising! Police, the People and the Riots in Britain's Cities, lays out Pushkin's classic work in a way that makes it more accessible and inviting than it otherwise might be.

Sophie Masson on Agatha Christie. Whereas the Eugene Onegin entry makes a venerable classic more approachable, Masson elevates our understanding of what's going on in Christie's work. In France, she informs us, Christie

is highly respected, not only as a writer of consummately clever detective stories, but as an artist of rare gifts and distinction, worthy of serious study and acclaim. Not only do Christie's books sell four times as many copies in France as in Britain these days, but her work is championed by intellectuals and writers. Controversial writer Michel Houellebecq--who considers Christie to be one of the finest writers of the 20th century--is only the latest to do that; others have included the late philosopher Roland Barthes and the French-American doyen of literary criticism, Jacques Barzun.
The recommendations are fine stuff; check them out.

--Marshal Zeringue

Pete Lit's "Hemingway-A-Day"

"Pete Lit" is running a series on Hemingway's stories from The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories; Pete reads a story a day and then posts some of his reflections on the blog.

It's a great idea and should be a spur to anyone who always intends to (re-) read those stories but never seems to get around to it.

Pete briefly shares his general impression of each story as well as his qualm(s) with it. Then he throws in a passage from the story to whet your appetite.

Click here for the archive of Pete Lit's "Hemingway-A-Day," and be sure to check for fresh posts in the series.

Click here to read Hemingway's obituary in the New York Times.

Click here to read novelist N.M. Kelby's paean to The Old Man and the Sea.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 20, 2006

"A goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end"

"It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it."

So opens chapter 5 of E.M. Forster's Howards End, which finds Margaret and Helen Schlegel at the symphony.

A few lines later, conversation in the audience ceases:

For the Andante had begun--very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven had written, and, to Helen's mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once, and then her attention wandered, and she gazed at the audience, or the organ, or the architecture. Much did she censure the attenuated Cupids who encircle the ceiling of the Queen's Hall, inclining each to each with vapid gesture, and clad in sallow pantaloons, on which the October sunlight struck. "How awful to marry a man like those Cupids!" thought Helen. Here Beethoven started decorating his tune, so she heard him through once more, and then she smiled at her Cousin Frieda. But Frieda, listening to Classical Music, could not respond. Herr Liesecke, too, looked as if wild horses could not make him inattentive; there were lines across his forehead, his lips were parted, his pince-nez at right angles to his nose, and he had laid a thick, white hand on either knee. And next to her was Aunt Juley, so British, and wanting to tap. How interesting that row of people was! What diverse influences had gone to the making! Here Beethoven, after humming and hawing with great sweetness, said "Heigho," and the Andante came to an end. Applause, and a round of "wunderschoning" and pracht volleying from the German contingent. Margaret started talking to her new young man; Helen said to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

"On the what, dear?"

"On the drum, Aunt Juley."

"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Helen pushed her way out during the applause. She desired to be alone. The music had summed up to her all that had happened or could happen in her career.

Pardon the extended quote, but I find irresistible all that stuff about goblins and elephants in Beethoven's Fifth.

The inspiration to post it here comes from an interesting item in The Independent by the debut novelist Jessica Duchen. She picked a few favorite works in which writers captured the intangible power of music in words.

In addition to Howards End and a few other works, old and new--click here to read the entire list--she selected one of my favorite contemporary novels, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Duchen writes:
During a house concert by a famous American soprano in a Latin American banana republic, terrorists besiege the building and make hostages of all within. But matters don't proceed as one might expect. The difference is made by the singer, Roxanne, whose voice and personal radiance command respect from everybody and the power of whose music lifts captors and captives alike towards a higher plane of existence. Isolated inside the house, the terrorists and their prisoners of many nationalities have only one language in common: music, especially Roxanne's singing. They are gradually inspired by this to evolve a startling modus vivendi based on co-operation and mutual support. Of course, confronting the real world, such bizarre symbiosis can't last. The idealistic story has the power of a fable, almost a myth; and it's a direct tribute to the transformative power of music.
Click here to read about Duchen's other favorite works that express the power of music in words.

Jessica Duchen's novel Rites of Spring is available in the U.K. but not (yet?) in the U.S. Click here to reach her classical music blog.

Howards End is available online here and elsewhere.

Click here for a previous blog post about Bel Canto.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Judging a book by its author's photo

Koren Zailckas chronicled her experiences with alcohol abuse as a teenager and college student in Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, which made the New York Times bestseller list.

Guest-blogging at JANE, Zailckas wrote:

Here's one thing the publishing industry has taught me: books that feature author photos sell better than books that don't. And yet, taking the perfect A.P. is a fine art (and obviously one I haven't mastered).
Click here to see which author photos she liked, helpfully sorted "into categories because I know you don't mind my reducing our literary greats to something out of your high school yearbook's superlatives page."

Ken Kesey, Joan Didion, Julio Cortazar, Joyce Carol Oates, et al make the list.

Click here to read a Zailckas interview with Newsweek in which interviewer Brian Braiker seems to encourage the now-sober author to start drinking again, if only moderately. And, yes, there's a photo there of the author toasting the camera with a long-neck.

--Marshal Zeringue

Ten books about maverick women

Mary Watson, winner of the 2006 Caine prize for African writing for her short story "Jungfrau" from her 2004 collection Moss, writes in The Guardian of books about maverick women.

The book that gave the list its theme:

Maverick Women by Lauren Beukes

The book that inspired this list. Lauren Beukes invites a host of unusual South African woman to a party: there's a stripper who danced with a snake, a woman who maintained a long term, long distance relationship with an alien (they visited occasionally), as well as familiar figures in a the South African cultural landscape like the music diva Brenda Fassie and Helen Martins of the owl house.

Click here for an interview with Lauren Beukes.

Also on Watson's list:

Property by Valerie Martin

Beautifully written, this book stretches taut between two women: one a slave whose sullen sensuality creeps out from between the lines, the other the owner's repressed wife. The elegant, precise prose contrasts with an underlying unease which simmers then eventually erupts.

Laura Miller wrote in Salon:
Property is a ferociously honest book attacking a subject that has long been wrapped in what her heroine calls "lies without end": race in America. So much ink has been spilled on the topic, and so much of it pabulum and equivocation, that you wouldn't think any writer could find a way to make it fresh or show you anything new, but Martin has. Property is the kind of novel that reminds you that literary fiction still has the power to take us where no other art form can, and that in doing so it can remake the way we understand ourselves.
Click here to read an excerpt from Property.

Margaret Atwood also made the list:

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Selecting my favourite of Margaret Atwood's books is a hard task, and The Blind Assassin beats The Handmaid's Tale by a hair's breadth. Which beats Alias Grace only just.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Blind Assassin.

The Blind Assassin won the Booker Prize. Click here to see if I thought the novel deserved it.

Click here to read about all ten titles proposed by Mary Watson.

Nana Wilson-Tagoe, the chair of the committee that awarded Watson the Caine prize for African writing, praised Watson's story:
It is a powerfully written narrative that works skilfully through a child's imagination to suggest a world of insights about familial and social relationships in the new South Africa. It is superbly written and does what a short story should do, by leaving spaces around its narrative into which readers can enter again and again.
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What is T.C. Boyle reading?

Recently, the Christian Science Monitor asked T.C. Boyle what he has been reading.

I'm on a Nabokov kick. I just read Pale Fire for the second time and now I'm reading Lolita for about the hundredth time. It has to do with the novel that I'm now writing. Nabokov's approach, and his language are very important to me at this juncture--it's like a little fix. Contemporary writers: I just read Orhan Pamuk's Snow, which is the first time I've ever read a Turkish writer. I'm very charmed by it. I also read Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. It does something that I like to do: taking an historical figure and wrapping a story around him--in this case, a true story.
Click here to read about what Boyle is listening to and watching on TV.

Boyle's latest novel is Talk Talk. Previous works include The Tortilla Curtain, The Road to Wellville, and Drop City.

Click here for T.C. Boyle's official site, where you will find reviews, excerpts, a bio and more.

"If I could live to 1,000 years old," Boyle told USA Today, "I still could not catch up with all the books that I want to read right now."

This afternoon, Boyle fielded comments and questions about Talk Talk from participants in a Washington Post online forum: click here to see how that went. And click here for the Washington Post review of Talk Talk.

--Marshal Zeringue

Feedback: The Great Michigan Novel

Reader Patience Wieland emailed with some interesting comments responsive to blog items on The Great Texas Novel (see here and here), The Great Oregon Novel, and particularly The Great Michigan Novel.

Haven't read Cold, but the UP is definitely its own unique culture, and not like the lower peninsula. I'm a native Michigander, but have spent some years in Oregon and Texas--I agree with the comments regarding Sometimes a Great Notion and Larry McMurtry's work (interesting that Kesey and McMurtry were such good friends, too).

As for Michigan, arguably the state is too diverse to be wrapped up in just one novel, anymore than a novel about LA could represent all of California. With Michigan, you've got your small towns, including oddball, unique towns like Frankenmuth, Holland, and Hell; you've got quieter Midwest cities like Traverse City or Kalamazoo; you've got the forests and sparser populations of the North; and you've got the partitioned suburbs and empty city streets of "Southeast Michigan" (a euphemism for the metro area, so nervous folks don't have to use the "D" word). Elmore Leonard wrote about Detroit in several books, and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon is also set there. Jane Smiley didn't write about Ann Arbor in Moo, but it sure seems that way.
Others have disagreed with the nominations in the various "The Great [Your State Here] Novel" series. Click here to see the choice of "E.S." for The Great Texas Novel and PeteLit's Pete Anderson's nomination for The Great Yooper Novel.

Thanks to Patience Wieland for the feedback.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five worthwhile memoirs

Richard Lacayo and Lev Grossman of TIME recently named five memoirs worth reading, including:
My Life in France by Julia Child

She loved France. She loved French. She even loved the French. But what Julia Child, all 6 ft. 2 in. of her, loved most was the oddly captivating things the French ate, things that nobody ate where she was from, provincial Pasadena, Calif. When her husband Paul moved them both to Paris after World War II, she learned to cook snails and everything else expertly. Later, in books and on television, she fed those things to Americans, and we duly loved her for it. But this posthumous memoir, written with her grandnephew Alex Prud'homme, is about her years abroad, when she attended cooking school in Paris and co-wrote her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It's--what else?--delicious.

Click here to read about the other four memoirs.

Actually French, but not an authentic memoir, is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, one of my favorite historical novels.

From the publisher:
In her magnificent novel, Marguerite Yourcenor recreates the life and death of one of the great rulers of the ancient world. The Emperor Hadrian, aware his demise is imminent, writes a long valedictory letter to Marcus Aurelius, his future successor. The Emperor meditates on his past, describing his accession, military triumphs, love of poetry and music, and the philosophy that informed his powerful and far-flung rule. A work of superbly detailed research and sustained empathy, Memoirs of Hadrian captures the living spirit of the Emperor and of Ancient Rome.
Brilliant stuff.

--Marshal Zeringue