Saturday, September 30, 2006

Julian Barnes re-imagines "Madame Bovary"

A few days ago I posted a link to Julian Barnes' story celebrating the 150th anniversary of Madame Bovary. At the time I thought the story was available only in French: now the Guardian has published an English version.

Here is Barnes' explanatory preface, followed by a link to the new story:
A hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow, on October 1 1856, the first episode of Madame Bovary appeared in the Revue de Paris. The serialisation was a benign act of nepotism by one of the magazine's editors, Maxime Du Camp, towards an old friend of his from student days, Gustave Flaubert. This debut came at the late age of 35: Flaubert had put himself through a long and silent apprenticeship, working out his youthful romanticism, discovering a harder and more objective way of writing, and discarding - or at least, refusing to publish - almost everything he wrote. When his collected juvenilia finally appeared in 2001 (Oeuvres de Jeunesse, Pléiade edition), they were seen to take up almost as many pages as the subsequent novels of his maturity. Flaubert had always been wary of publication, and said that when it came to finally displaying himself, he would only do so "in full armour".

But there is always an entry-point for an unexpected knife: the first episode of Madame Bovary appeared with the author's name misspelt as "Faubert". The editors of the Revue de Paris also demanded 30 or so pages of cuts to the manuscript: some on aesthetic grounds, many out of nervousness at the state of censorship under Napoleon III. So words like concubine, concupiscence and adultère were removed. As the serial publication continued, and protests from readers in the provinces mounted, Du Camp and his fellow editor demanded more cuts: suppressing, for instance, the famous sex scene in the closed cab between Emma and Léon. Outraged, Flaubert consulted his lawyer, Maître Senard, about suing the magazine for infringing his authorial rights. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and two successive episodes ended with a double footnote: one by Du Camp, explaining how certain passages of the novel had proved unsuitable for the Revue, and the other from Flaubert, coldly dissociating himself from the massacred text. This public altercation probably helped draw the attention of the censors. By the end of 1856, Flaubert had signed a contract for the novel's publication in book form, the authorities had launched their prosecution for "outraging public morals and religion", Maître Senard had some serious work to do, and Madame Bovary was poised to become next year's succès de scandale.
Click here to read Barnes' story.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tom Callahan's book list

Award-winning sportswriter Tom Callahan came up with an intriguing list of books for The Week. Here is half of it:
Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins

A rancid movie was made of this football novel, involving Burt Reynolds, Bert Convy, and several other guys named Burt. They kept in the raunchiness but left out an amazing gentleness that is Jenkins.

Patterns by Rod Serling

An especially valuable little manual for a writer. His most famous teleplays are here: Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Rack, Old Macdonald Had a Curve. But the real benefit is in the candor of the narratives in-between. Serling tells what the idiot producers shouldn’t have taken out and what the idiot writer shouldn’t have left in. And no space is wasted on modesty. “This part here,” he says, “is a hell of a piece of writing.”

Secretariat by William Nack

A horse opera for those of us who barely know which end of a horse eats. When Secretariat comes into the homestretch alone, and he keeps coming and coming, and he’s still alone, the trees sway and a gust of wind hits you in the face. You suddenly are aware that perfection is possible. (Maybe it helps that I was standing at the finish line.)
Click here to see the rest of Callahan's list.

Callahan is a former Washington Post columnist and the author of four books. His biography of Johnny Unitas, Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas, has just been published by Crown.

Click here to read an excerpt from Johnny U.

David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi praised Callahan's book:
If there were a Mount Rushmore of pro football, the craggy face of Unitas would be one of the four figures on it. Tom Callahan is the perfect writer to tell the real story of Johnny U, and he does it with deep reporting and clear writing, cracking a myth etched in stone and bringing back to vivid life the real man.
--Marshal Zeringue

Huey Long, the canebrake Führer

Earlier this week I had my say (here and here) about All the King's Men.

And in the early days of the blog I made the case for why Robert Penn Warren's novel was The Great Louisiana Novel (even if it was not the best Louisiana novel).

Now the New Yorker has had the good grace to make available, free online, its 1949 review by John McCarten of Robert Rossen’s Oscar-winning adaptation of the story.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 29, 2006

Cheltonian books

Sarah Smyth, director of The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, picked six books with a connection to Cheltenham.

Here is half of the list:
Portrait of Elmbury by John Moore
A much-loved evocation of a small English town, based on nearby Tewkesbury and its beautiful surroundings, by the director of the first festival in 1949.

Mad Joy by Jane Bailey
Latest heart-warming novel by the Cheltenham-based writer appearing at this year’s festival, set in a Cotswold village.

Therapy by David Lodge
Set in Cheltenham at the then-fictional (but now real) University of Gloucestershire.
Click here to see the other titles.

Lodge's book is the only one I've read. If memory serves, it's fine stuff.

From his mini-profile in the Guardian:
Did you know?
Lodge invented a literary parlour game called 'Humiliation' in Changing Places, which remains popular at dinner parties. Players name classics of literature that they have not read, the winner being the one who exhibits the most woeful literary lacuna. In Changing Places, Lodge's obnoxious American academic, Howard Ringbaum, admits that he has never read Hamlet - and thus wins the game (but loses his job). Lodge himself owns up to War and Peace.
The profile leads with this quote: "Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round."

Click here to read a brief post titled, "Is it funny to see David Lodge embarrassed?"

--Marshal Zeringue

So Nabokov didn't win a Nobel Prize... least he's got an asteroid named after him.

Take that, Pearl Buck.

Other non-winners of a Nobel Prize for Literature include Tolstoy, Ibsen, Strindberg, Zola, Hardy, Gorky, Freud, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Joyce, Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Garcia Lorca, Rilke, Stevens, Brecht, Lowell and Calvino.

(Hat tip to the NABOKV-L listserv)

--Marshal Zeringue

What is Nigella Lawson reading?

The Christian Science Monitor recently asked Nigella Lawson what she was watching and listening to. And reading:
Just occasionally you come across a writer whose sentences are so perfect, you want to swill them around in your mouth as you read, just to savor their deliciousness. Elinor Lipman is just such a writer. I'm reading My Latest Grievance and, in fact, have almost finished it. And I say that slightly forlornly - when you read a book you love, you both want to gallop through it and yet never finish it. This is anyway a fairly trim book, and I hesitate to give away the plot as the sort of books I like never seem at their best when reduced to plot outlines. What she's about is voice and character. Nominally, the book is about the daughter of a couple who work as houseparents in a girls' college, their personal dramas and the interplay of people in a particular community - love affairs, miseries, and power struggles. Early novels in European literature often had a construct whereby there was a master and servant, and the novel showed that the servant always had the upper hand. In many respects this is a contemporary rewriting, only the servant role is played by the child, the narrator, who is the lynchpin and the central, knowing voice. In many ways, she educates the parents, and the various adults she comes into contact with her. And for a small book, it is bulging with characters: it is something of a comic epic despite its scale. Lipman has been described as a latterday Jane Austen - I'd go along with that.
Nigella Lawson is a Food Network host, author, and columnist. Click here to see what television shows she savors and what she listens to when she can't enjoy her preferred silence.

Some American readers may be unaware that Nigella's father is Nigel Lawson, who was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer (regarded as one of the "big four" government positions) between June 1982 and October 1989.

Foodies can find more eating related items on the blog here and here.

here to read an excerpt from My Latest Grievance. Click here for a conversation with Lipman about the novel.

--Marshal Zeringue

No longer only fiction...?

Yesterday Alan Wolfe posted a depressingly poignant item on the New Republic's Open University blog.

by Alan Wolfe

Did it finally happen here? I've always been a skeptic of Sinclair Lewis's sloppily written novel of 1935--and equally skeptical of all those left-wingers who predict, sometimes with barely repressed glee, a fascist takeover of the United States. But there is no doubting that something finally happened this week. It is not just that Congress is about to give the president the authority to collect anyone, including an American citizen, off the street to be indefinitely imprisoned as an enemy combatant. [Click here to read the rest of Professor Wolfe's post]

Here is a brief item on the Sinclair Lewis book to which he refers.

How many more of these books will prove prophetic?

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Pg. 69: "Calculated Loss"

Calculated Loss is Linda L. Richards' third book to feature recovering stockbroker Madeline Carter, seen first in Mad Money (2004) and then in The Next Ex (2005).

Sarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind wrote of the "Madeline Carter" series:
When I read Mad Money, the series debut for day trader sleuth Madeline Carter, I knew Richards had something special going, but [The Next Ex] confirms this and then some. The mystery -- who's killing off all the ex-wives of noted media mogul Maxi Livingston -- has lots of punch and plenty of surprises, but the best bits are simply Madeline describing her day (and making day trading fascinating and lively) and interacting with a wealth of strong supporting characters. If there's justice, many more people will be finding out how good Richards is, and soon."
I asked Linda to apply the "page 69 test" to Calculated Loss, which is just out this month. Here's her reply:
Frankly, I was slightly astonished to discover just how far off the mark Sutherland--and with him McLuhan--are not when it comes to the whole page 69 thing.

As Sutherland suggests, jacket copy isn’t a good starting point: quite often the author doesn’t get to write that stuff. For instance, the jacket material for Calculated Loss tells you about the story, but the book sounds a lot happier and glossier than what’s between the covers. It sounds like it’s going to be a big laugh riot adventure. And, certainly, there are moments of high humor--life’s like that, after all--but my fiction tends to be somewhat darker than what is indicated by the words on the back cover. And, sure: the book is a thriller and a mystery. But there is reflection, I think, and growth. There must always be growth.

So in the case of Calculated Loss, the McLuhan test works. Because we’re coming across the protagonist, Madeline Carter, in a moment of reflection. And, again, the book is a thriller, so by page 69, we’ve already had a bunch of exciting stuff occur. People have died, things have crashed. But in this moment--this moment of page 69--we’re encountering Madeline obliquely thinking about some of the things that make up her character. And though page 69 doesn’t tell you much about the story, it’s probably a more accurate taste of the journey the reader is considering taking.

from Calculated Loss, page 69:

This is a thing I do, have always done: this testing of the air when I get off a plane. I love that moment, when you first ingest the local air, when you taste it, roll it around on your tongue like a fine wine. It’s only at that moment--when you’ve just left an air-conditioned airport after getting off an air-conditioned plane--that you can truly taste the essential being of a place. Taste it right down to its constituent components. On this day I tasted earth and things growing richly, and I tasted salt and the sharp tang of the sea.

Anne-Marie watched me and smiled. Then she hugged me again and I could see her eyes were moist. “I take it back,” she said. “You really
haven’t changed at all.”

Many thanks to Linda for the input.

Click here for an excerpt from Mad Money and here for an excerpt from The Next Ex. Go to the publisher's page to read an excerpt from Calculated Loss.

Visit Linda's official website to learn more about all three books.

Earlier this month Eliane Flinn gave Linda "the bubble treatment" over at Murderati: click here to experience that special event.

Linda is editor of January Magazine, maintains a blog, and is one of the "usual suspects" posting at The Rap Sheet.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue

Amitav Ghosh interview

Amitav Ghosh, author of The Hungry Tide and other books, recently sat for an interview with Subash Jeyan for the Hindu.

They shared some interesting thoughts on, among other things, what it means to be a writer in a globalizing world where the boundaries of nation states are shifting, but what most captured my interest was this passage:

[Jeyan:] You have said that you prefer fiction because it is a kind of meta form. Could you elaborate on that because the novel particularly is perceived to be a form which privileges very particular ways of seeing the world and the self...

[Ghosh:] I think it became very bourgeois from the late 19th century onwards. But, on the other hand, one of my great hero as a writer is Hermann Melville and if you read Moby Dick, it is a novel about men at work. It is anything but a bourgeois book. It is completely subversive of any kind of bourgeois order. I just reread it and I think it is a magnificent work. It so powerfully identifies this kind of madness in American life. In Moby Dick, at every moment revolt is simmering and you have the figure of this tyrannical, obsessed captain, who is essentially the capitalist who is out to destroy nature. It's absolutely a metaphor for contemporary America in so many ways. I think he perceived the nature of his civilisation in a way that very few people have.

In some sense you could say the written language itself is bourgeois so anyone who deals with the written language in that form too is necessarily bourgeois but apart from that, his engagements, his explorations, his themes are anything but that. So I would say that the foundational forms of fiction are not necessarily bourgeois by any means.

Similarly, another great hero of mine is Balzac and again you have exactly the same kind of engagement — with the working class, the prostitutes...and similarly with the capitalists, the artists, the sculptors. You see this is exactly what I love about the novel. It allows you that range, those different forms of exploration.

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

Ray Taras reviewed Ghosh's The Hungry Tide last month here on the blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

All the King's Men, Part II

Sometime this afternoon, over at Spot-on I will post a few thoughts on All the King's Men, both the novel and the recent film adaptation.

I'm pretty rough on the film, but I always write and talk about movies--even awful ones--with a huge implied proviso: "Given that it's so hard to get a picture made, I sincerely salute the people who made this movie and got it shown on the big screen."

And I have much more respect for writer-director Steven Zallian's All the King's Men than I may have communicated in the Spot-on essay or which is covered by my generic implied proviso. The new adaptation feels like one of those projects that might have been, but for a handful of medium-sized changes, one of the great films of the year.

In fact, I speculate that part of the problem with Zallian's story may be an echo of the way Robert Penn Warren constructed the novel, adding a major character and story device well after he had conceived of the main story.

Click over to Spot-on this afternoon to see what I'm talking about.

--Marshal Zeringue

All the King's Men, Part I

In 1993 the Virginia Quarterly Review published an essay by Harold B. McSween on "Huey Long At His Centenary."

The essay notes that Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, a work of fiction closely patterned on the career of the late governor, shaped the public perception of Long.

Since 1948, Huey's reputation has been acquiring a patina not unlike that noticed also on a bronze likeness in Statuary Hall of the U. S. Capitol. Warren himself found occasion to salute Huey when he recalled the genesis of his novel in an essay entitled "All the King's Men: The Matrix of Experience" that appeared in the Winter 1964, issue of the Yale Review. Warren begins his paper:

When I am asked how much All the King's Men owes to the actual politics of Louisiana in the '30's, I can only be sure that if I had never gone to live in Louisiana and Huey had not existed, the novel would never have been written. ... In the summer of 1934 I was offered a job—a much-needed job—as Assistant Professor at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. It was "Huey Long's university". ...

Warren relates how governmental neglect in Louisiana had incubated Huey and how Huey had inspired Willie Stark's creation. He also recalls LSU classrooms:

Among the students there sometimes appeared, too, that awkward boy from the depth of the "Cajun" country or from some scrabble-farm in North Louisiana, with burning ambition and frightening energy and a thirst for learning; and his presence there, you reminded yourself, with whatever complication of irony seemed necessary at the moment, was due to Huey, and to Huey alone. For the "better element" had done next to nothing in fifty years to get the boy out of the grim despair of his ignorance.


Arthur Krock, who had headed the Washington bureau of the New York Times when Huey was the most despised among senators but the most colorful and gallery-pleasing Senate orator, wrote of Huey in his Memoirs: Sixty Years on the Firing Line (1968). Krock suggests a seminal national influence:

I believe that in the short but stormy era of his political ascendency, before an assassin's bullet ended it in September, 1935, Long established himself as the first important architect on a nationwide scale of what Lyndon B. Johnson programmed thirty years later as "the Great Society."

With the recent release of the second film adaptation of Warren's book, we may see a rekindled interest in the life and career of Huey P. Long. Until then, McSween's essay is a good place to get up to speed on the legend.

--Marshal Zeringue

Two interviews with Pervez Musharraf

Tuesday night Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf visited with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Click here to watch that interview.

Reuters reported on the interview:

Throughout the pre-recorded interview on the cable channel Comedy Central, Musharraf was quick-witted and jovial, while Stewart struck a more serious, respectful tone than he normally does with guests.

Stewart closed by putting Musharraf on the "Seat of Heat" -- surrounded with flashing lights that mimicked flames -- and asking him who would win a popular vote in Pakistan between Bush and Osama bin Laden.

"I think they'll both lose miserably," replied Musharraf to loud applause from the studio audience.

The London Times has a print interview with Musharraf here.

Excerpts from Musharraf's memoir are here and here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

(Still) "Doing Nothing"

Not so long ago I posted an item about Tom Lutz's Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America.

That item had a link to one excerpt; here is a link to another. It opens:

“My father always called me a ‘useless article,’ ” Chris Davis tells me, driving through Bristol, England. “He said it in a rather nice way, of course.” In the midst of my research I had come up to Bristol from London to meet Davis, and he picked me up at the train station in a tiny, beat-up old sedan that was perhaps once green. I had seen his posts on and references to his very elaborate Web site,, in which he lays out his general theory of idleness, a theory that accounts for all phenomena in the universe — physical, biological, social — in terms of idling. He is a slight man, maybe 150 pounds, in jeans, a faded “Galicia” T-shirt and blue windbreaker, topped by a well-worn blue canvas cap. His greenish-grey eyes are the only large things about him, and they beam out of a face that begins wide and tapers into not much of a chin. A slight sag here and there announces that he has perhaps passed fifty, but there isn’t much evidence otherwise. He drives us to a pub, “The George,” just past the edge of town. “I spend an enormous amount of time in pubs just like this,” he says. He doesn’t lock the car, and given its sorry state one can see the wisdom in not making that particular effort. The pub is surrounded by corn fields and stone walls, and except for the cars going past on the macadam, there isn’t much trace of the last couple hundred years.

Inside, we order a couple of pints and some lunch, which he is glad, he says, to let me buy....

Click here to read the rest of this excerpt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Happy 100th, Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson was born on September 27, 1906.

"In a career that spanned over 30 years, Thompson published a string of novels that have come to epitomize both pulp fiction and the allure of noir," writes Stephen Miller at The Rap Sheet. "He is best known for The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and After Dark, My Sweet."

Click here to read the rest of Miller's fine remembrance.

Don't have the time or space to squeeze a Thompson novel onto your reading list? Rent The Grifters, a fine movie adapted by Stephen Frears from Thompson's 1963 novel by the same title.

--Marshal Zeringue

Leonard Cohen's poetry

In May, Leonard Cohen--described by Prince Charles as "wonderful" and Bono as "our Byron"-- published his first book of poems in 20 years. Tom Payne writes in the Telegraph about the poems and the poet.

A dozen of Cohen's poems are available here. Here's a sample:

You'd sing too

You'd sing too
if you found yourself
in a place like this
You wouldn't worry about
whether you were as good
as Ray Charles or Edith Piaf
You'd sing
You'd sing
not for yourself
but to make a self
out of the old food
rotting in the astral bowel
and the loveless thud
of your own breathing
You'd become a singer
faster than it takes
to hate a rival's charm
and you'd sing, darling
you'd sing too

Janet Maslin wrote about the collection for the New York Times:
Book of Longing has exceptional range. It is clear yet steamy, cosmic yet private, both playful and profound. And it is as soulful a credo as he has ever put on paper, which is what will keep on drawing me back to it. Not to mention its priorities. In ''Other Writers'' he describes both a great haiku writer and a monk who is a great teacher. Then he writes about a sexual adventure of his own. ''I've got to tell you, friends,'' says this poem ''I prefer my stuff to theirs.''
--Marshal Zeringue

More excerpts from Musharraf's memoir

The London Times has published two additional excerpts from Pakistan President Musharraf's memoir. Click here for part three, and here for part four.

For parts one and two, click here.

The BBC has a brief profile of Musharraf here.

Click here for a Pakistan history timeline.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

John August's screenplays

The screenwriter John August (Go, Big Fish) selflessly runs a terrific site sharing his knowledge and experiences in the movie business.

In this post he writes about how he adapted Thomas Rockwell’s How to Eat Fried Worms years ago only to watch the project fall apart, and how he feels about the current version--with which he had nothing to do--now on the big screen.

And here John makes available several versions of some of his scripts. ("The best way to learn screenwriting is read a bunch of scripts, so these are intended for educational purposes only.")

--Marshal Zeringue

Dispatches from the evangelical youth movement

Jane Lampman reviewed Lauren Sandler's Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement for the Christian Science Monitor.
In Seattle, a charismatic pastor draws tattooed musicians and other hipster youth to his mushrooming megachurch with a countercultural message that is culturally liberal, yet theologically conservative.

At a Bible class in Colorado Springs, Colo., a first lieutenant teaches Army and Air Force servicemen a fundamentalist versionof the "End Times" (the end of the world depicted in Revelation), and deems the US military God's missionary tool in Iraq.

In Council Bluffs, Iowa, skateboaders on an Extreme Tour put on a half-pipe show for local kids, then tell them about Jesus and a cool kind of church developing in skate parks.

Out in Virginia's horse country, Patrick Henry College shapes young people with an intensely "biblical worldview"; then it sends them straight into internships in the White House and Congress.

Welcome to the Evangelical youth movement. Or what Lauren Sandler calls "the Disciple Generation" - an ever-growing population of young Evangelicals, ages 15 to 35, "who are equally obsessed with Christ and with culture as a means to an Evangelical end."

Formerly a reporter for National Public Radio, Ms. Sandler had encountered many Christian groups during her travels. But as Evangelicals became more influential in politics, she set out to scout in depth the evolving youth movement. What she found surprised and disturbed her, an avowed secularist and nonbeliever who was barely 30 herself.

Her first book not only presents vivid, spirited sketches of a burgeoning subculture, but also a plea to fellow secularists to wake up and proffer an alternative.

Read the rest of the review here. For other reviews, click here.

Click here to read an excerpt from Righteous.

--Marshal Zeringue

"Madame Bovary" at 150

Good news for fans of Julian Barnes and Flaubert (including new Madame Bovary readers like my young friend Camille in Paris), reports signandsight:
A hundred and fifty years ago, on October 1, 1856, a preprint of Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary appeared in the Revue de Paris. To mark the occasion, Julian Barnes, "the most Flaubertian of British writers" has written a story exclusively for the Nouvel Obs, in which Emma Bovary doesn't die but rather tells the story of how her life continued after she and her husband left Yonville. "The mushrooms didn't contain enough poison. I survived. I'm sorry to have botched the story but facts are facts. I don't kill myself out of desperation; rather, I nearly died from my emotionality."
If you read French, click here to read Barnes' story. Don't read French? Then plug the URL into the online translator of Le Nouvel Observateur and you'll come up with...nothing like Barnes or Flaubert would ever write.

--Marshal Zeringue

Adam Langer's list

Adam Langer, author of Crossing California and The Washington Story, came up with an interesting list of books for The Week magazine. Here is half of it:

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

The closest I have ever come to a religious conversion experience as a reader. Really. With the possible exception of Shakespeare, Woolf is the only writer I know who can so completely immerse a reader in a character’s mind, and do so with such brilliant and devastating humor. I could have listed a half-dozen Woolf novels, but this was the first that blew my mind.

Blindness by José Saramago

This novel about a city beset by a plague of white blindness is one of the most terrifying and heartbreaking I’ve ever read. Not even the lame sequel Saramago published this year (it’s called Seeing, and I’d recommend staying far away from it) mitigates my love for this book. Plus, it contains two of my all-time favorite characters, one of them human.

Journey of the Pink Dolphins by Sy Montgomery

Other writers surveying the natural world may do so with more scientific rigor. But I don’t know who else conveys a love for nature with as much passion and humor as Montgomery does in this voyage to the Amazon in search of the magical, titular creatures.

To the Lighthouse is available free online here.

José Saramago won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature; click here to read his Nobel lecture.

To read an excerpt from Journey of the Pink Dolphins, click here.

Click here to read Adam Langer's biography.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 25, 2006

"In the Line of Fire: A Memoir"

Ana Marie Cox writes:
During a joint appearance with President Bush, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf dodges questions about his allegation that the U.S. threatened to bomb his country if it did not cooperate in the war on terrorism: "I am launching my book on the 25th, and I am honor-bound to Simon & Schuster not to comment on the book before that day." Can you judge a book by its diplomatic cover?
The book in question is In the Line of Fire: A Memoir.

This book is his justification for retaining the presidency while being head of the army — and for continuing to do that beyond next year, when the Constitution appears to oblige him to step down. It is a likeable and personal account, woven with details that now sit oddly in the life of the leader of a large Muslim country. He went to Catholic and other Christian schools, because they were among the best, and had a dog called Whisky. As a young man he was something of a hothead. He was forever challenging authority, and crashed through exams because of an early romantic passion.

This is not a modest text, it has to be said. Never was there a better soldier or a more natural leader, he suggests, although he does offer endearing details about courting his wife in unfashionable clothes. There is a great deal of apparent score-settling, including waspish gibes at an army wife who anticipated a promotion for her husband that never came. There are also brisk justifications of his most controversial actions: leading the Pakistani forces’ dash into India at Kargil in May 1999, when he was Army Chief of Staff; and the October 1999 coup itself, when he deposed the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His account of circling in an aircraft with only minutes of fuel left, while Sharif refused him permission to land, is told with such outrage that it almost disguises the constitutional outrage of the coup.

I skimmed the publisher's website and several American newspapers yet could find no excerpts from the memoir. The Times (London) has two--here and here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Pg. 69: "Cast of Shadows"

Kevin Guilfoile's debut novel Cast of Shadows has snagged some very impressive praise.

"The chief ingredients of Kevin Guilfoile's creepy new thriller are the same ones Michael Crichton has used to fashion a hugely successful and lucrative career as a popular novelist...," wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. "What's striking about "Cast of Shadows" is that Mr. Guilfoile, in his first outing as a novelist, does all this with a lot more panache than Mr. Crichton has demonstrated in many years."

Writing in Salon, Laura Miller called the novel "a masterpiece of intelligent plotting, in which almost everything the characters do is perfectly reasonable...but all of it pushes them inevitably toward disaster.... In fact, only the reader ever learns the whole story and the terrible ironies it contains."

I asked the author to apply the "page 69 test" to his novel. Here's his reply:

I think page 69--or any page for that matter--should be representative of a novel. As a writer you shouldn't have to apologize for any page-length part of your manuscript. If you're not ready to stand behind it, then you should be ready to rewrite it. Unfortunately, being representative is not the same as being interesting. Taken out of context, some parts of your novel are going to fare better than others.

Cast of Shadows is a philosophical thriller about a fertility expert in Chicago who decides to clone his daughter's unknown assailant and then waits for him to grow up so he can see what the killer looked like. Dr. Davis Moore operates a clinic specializing in reproductive human cloning for couples who are worried about passing hereditary diseases and defects to their children. An unsuspecting couple arrives in his office at just the right (or wrong) time, and Moore decides to substitute DNA left at his daughter's crime scene for that of the anonymous donor. After Justin Finn is born Dr. Moore secretly follows the child's progress as he grows up.

On page 69, Justin's pediatrician has discovered that the boy's DNA doesn't match the donor's and Davis has to make her an accomplice if he wants to stop her from exposing him. I tried to keep the prose understated and in this chapter (and throughout the book) I hope the tension will be supplied by the reader, who can recognize the high stakes even when the characters sometimes cannot. Although page 69 includes an admiring physical description of a beautiful pediatrician (in novels what other kinds are there?), I don't know a bookstore browser with nothing invested in these characters (or their circumstances) would recognize the subtext here.

But as long as we're applying arbitrary tests, I pulled the UK paperback off the shelf (in Britain Cast of Shadows is called Wicker) and in that volume there are a couple grafs on page 69 that establish the novel's philosophical and emotional playing field rather concisely. The scene is Justin Finn's first birthday and Davis Moore has contrived an excuse to stop by the Finn home, which is preparing for a party.

Standing at the edge of the carpet, Davis studied the boy. He had watched him several times from his car, following Martha discreetly when she took Justin to Costco or the park. He looked like any other kid then, and like any other kid now, his red overalls stenciled with birthday pudding handprints. Justin lifted a giraffe to his forehead and made a curious grown-up face. When his mom laughed, he did it again.

Davis tried to imagine AK's killer at one year--a different house, a different mom, a different time, a different toy--making a face exactly like this. He thought about AK at this age, already having acquired the big green eyes and high cheekbones she would keep through adolescence. Her laugh on the old videos was a close relation to her teenage giggle, and her polite stubbornness was hardwired in the womb. Now he tried, but couldn't extrapolate a killer from those pudgy little hands and thin, blond hair.

Click here to read an excerpt from Cast of Shadows. Click here to listen to an audio excerpt.
Many thanks to Kevin for the input.
Click here for a Q & A with Kevin. The first question and answer:

Q: What was the genesis of this project? Did the complicated ethics involved in cloning strike you as good material for a thriller, or was the inclusion of cloning an afterthought? Did any newsmaking events inspire the premise?

A: A few years ago I saw one of the prosecutors in the OJ Simpson trial on television and I turned to my wife and said, “wouldn’t it be something if Christopher Darden had secretly cloned Nicole Simpson’s killer and fifteen years later he brought out this teenaged boy and said, ‘Does this little guy remind you of anyone?’” I started thinking about it as a concept for a novel and Cast of Shadows evolved from there.

In addition to the novel, Kevin has amassed a great deal of engaging writing, much of it blessedly available online. Click here to dive into his archives.
For more about Cast of Shadows and Kevin Guilfoile, click here and here.

The most intimate of the arts

John Banville reviewed three books of poetry by Robin Robertson this summer for the New York Review of Books. (Unfortunately, this review is available online only to the journal's subscribers.) Its opening paragraph impressed me:
W.H. Auden claimed, and surely he is right, that the poem is the only form of art one must either take or leave. One can look at a painting and wonder what to have for dinner, one can listen to a symphony and think about sex, and still have an artistic experience, albeit distractedly; but a poem read with an absent mind remains lifeless on the page, lacking the necessary inspiration of our full attention. Poetry therefore is the most intimate of the arts, and at its strongest can produce an almost physical reaction in the reader, a shying-away, as from the too close proximity of another's flesh. Rilke observes that 'beauty is nothing/ but the beginning of terror we can just about bear,' and something of the same might be said of the best poetry.
--Marshal Zeringue

Can men write romantic novels?

Can men write romantic novels?

A week or so ago I posted a brief item on the question.

Recently, two Telegraph writers faced off on the issue.

Liz Hunt says men cannot write romantic fiction:

You see, too often male writers get caught up in the story – "Events, dear boy, events" – whereas women writers better understand that they must keep the romance central, that it drives a narrative better and faster than any other device. For women, it is the ultimate reason to turn a page.

The Da Vinci Code, though thinly written (by a man), was attention-grabbing enough with its mutilated curator and self-flagellating albino monk, but I persevered with it because – I'm ashamed to admit – I was curious to find out what would happen between the hero Robert Langdon and his sidekick Sophie Neveu.

And, yes, of course, the fall of Atlanta was an interesting peripheral happening in Gone With the Wind. But my 15-year-old self wasn't interested in the historical context, I just wanted to know if Scarlett would ever understand that Rhett was the only man who understood her and truly loved her and therefore should not possibly be passed over in favour of weedy Ashley Wilkes.

Ray Connolly says of course men can write romantic fiction:
It seems to me that we're all romantics, and the idea that one sex is simply emotionally incapable of understanding the way the other thinks is to deny everything men and women share – and, worryingly from a creative point of view, to deny all authors the possibility of understanding anyone of the opposite sex. And I can't believe that.
In related news, back in April I ruminated on "boy books" and "girl books."

And in this post, the novelist Marcus Sakey speculates on the balance of male and female writers on his bookshelf.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 24, 2006

"Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People"

Graham Sharpe, media relations director of British bookmaking firm William Hill, named his top gambling books for the Times (London).

Five of the titles are almost certainly better known to British audiences than to readers elsewhere. The one exception?

Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People by Amarillo Slim Preston with Greg Dinkin

Memoirs of self-styled “greatest gambler who ever lived”.

From the publisher:
Amarillo Slim Preston has won $300,000 from Willie Neslon playing dominoes and $2 million from Larry Flynt playing poker. He has shuffled, dealt, and bluffed with some of twentieth-century's most famous figures. He beat Minnesota Fats at pool with a broom, Bobby Riggs at table tennis with a skillet, and Evel Knievel at golf with a carpenter's hammer. Amarillo Slim has gambled with 'em all, and left most of them wishing they hadn't.

The memoirs of a living American icon, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People is the story of life as a Texas road gambler and the discovery of the Wild West. It's also the story of how Slim won the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe, became a worldwide celebrity, and brought poker from smoky backrooms to mainstream America. Just let him tell it:

"If there's anything I'll argue about, I'll either bet on it or shut up. And since it's not very becoming for a cowboy to be arguing, I've made a few wagers in my day. But in my humble opinion, I'm no ordinary hustler. You see, neighbor, I never go looking for a sucker. I look for a champion and make a sucker out of him ..."

"I'm fixing to tell you a few things that I've been keeping to myself for a lot of years. If you're not careful, you just might learn how to get rich without ever having a job."

To read an excerpt from Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Richard Ford interview

Phil Hogan of the Observer (London) visited with Richard Ford and interviewed him about The Lay of the Land, the closing novel of the trilogy that opened with The Sportswriter and includes the Pulitizer Prize-winning Independence Day.

This passage about the protagonist Frank Bascombe was one of the more interesting parts of the interview for me:
The three novels are structural siblings, in that each covers a day or two in the company of an ordinary man with things to do - a professional errand to run, a girlfriend to meet, a road trip to embark on. But he's not that ordinary and it's via Frank's ultra-attuned musings - on passing minutiae, on the road ahead, on the struggle of every man to transcend his own anxious circumstances - that the deluge of America itself pours in and expands the book's purpose to bursting point. When we first meet Frank, he has given up writing fiction for a less complicated life, first as a hack on a sports magazine and later as an [real] estate agent. I ask Ford whether he gave Frank a literary background to make him a more plausible thinker.

'I was determined not to write a book about a writer. But yes, I needed something to make him persuasive as the sort of transactive character I wanted him to be. With Frank's speaking voice - the intelligence that that voice implies - he is able to transact the culture for the reader. If Frank were a person, and you met him, and he sold you a house, he wouldn't seem like this guy on the page. He would seem like a totally embedded, insignificant character. But because he is a character in a novel, doing what characters in novels do - having a much more intense intellectual, emotional life than even human beings have - then he becomes exceptional.'

Having said that, Ford doesn't see anything incongruous about the idea of a contemplative estate agent. 'My view, and it's kind of a hopeful, progressive, humanist's view, is that anybody embedded in his or her life - a railroad worker, a ditch digger, whatever the hell - has more to offer us than we think they do. People have rich interior lives. People have possibilities that we don't, on the basis of convention, ever accord to them. Who are we to say someone who works on the railroad isn't going to have a rich interior life? That seems to me to be cynical about human beings.'

And this passage made me think of Alan Bennett's observation about all modesty being false:
[Ford] says if a 'numb nuts' like him can write a novel, anyone can; he thinks he wouldn't have won the Pulitzer if John Updike or Philip Roth had published a book that year (in fact, I discover later, Roth's Sabbath's Theater was shortlisted); he loves the Hallmark greetings cards company (which Frank is sniffy about) for its services to the millions of people who can't express their sentiments very well. 'I think it's wonderful,' he says.
Finally, there's the story about the novel with the bullet hole through it:

I ask him about a story I heard - that a publisher once sent him a novel to read in the hope of an endorsement and that he'd sent it back with a bullet hole through it. He laughs. 'They sent me a book by a writer who had reviewed The Sportswriter rather negatively. It was my wife who took the book out to the backyard and shot it with a pistol. Then by some coincidence, someone else sent a copy. It was so satisfying to watch her that I went out and shot the other one. The book is now on an editor's shelf at Knopf in New York, big hole blown in one side and blown out the other.'

Smiling, he says he can't remember the name of the book. 'But a .38 slug makes quite an impression.'

It would be a better story if we knew the title of the book.

Click here to read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Simon Winchester's favorite books on travel

Simon Winchester named his five favorite books on travel for Opinion Journal, including this one which Churchill claimed "above all was the book that taught him how to write:"
Eothen by Alexander Kinglake (1844)

For any connoisseur of the terror occasioned by the prospect of venturing into the faraway, there can be no finer or more gripping start to a travel story than in Kinglake's classic adventure, which he titled after the Greek for "from the east"--eothen. By passing, against all official advice, through an infection quarantine-barrier into the plague-ridden frontiers of the Ottoman Empire, this 25-year old, short and short-sighted Etonian committed himself to months of wandering, forbidden to return until the infection had burned itself out. He ventured to many still curious and unfamiliar territories (Cyprus, Beirut, the Holy Land, Damascus), describing them in an account, written a decade later, best termed impressionistic rather than reportorial. And all the better for it: "Eothen" remains the primus inter pares of all travel literature--Winston Churchill claiming that it above all was the book that taught him how to write.

Click here to read about Winchester four other favorites.

Chapter One of Eothen opens:
At Semlin I still was encompassed by the scenes and the sounds of familiar life; the din of a busy world still vexed and cheered me; the unveiled faces of women still shone in the light of day. Yet, whenever I chose to look southward, I saw the Ottoman’s fortress - austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube - historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East.
Eothen is available free online.

Winchester, who wrote The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa, is more recently the author of A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.

Read a description of the book here, and an excerpt from it here.

--Marshal Zeringue

"Echo Park" video preview

Here's a new one, or at least it's the first time I've encountered such a thing: a 10 minute video of the opening chapter of Michael Connelly's Echo Park is available online.

Many publishers make excerpts available; clips from the audio-book version, too. But a mini-movie?

Click here to watch the video.

I'm not sure what to make of this marketing tactic. I'm already hooked on Connelly's books and don't need a preview to convince me to read the book. But would a newcomer be convinced by the video? Perhaps.

Also, I now have an image of what the protagonist Harry Bosch looks like--and it's not the mental image I had before.

--Marshal Zeringue

Science, fiction

Reader James Aach wrote in regarding the post about John Sutherland's contention that we can learn about science through fiction. Aach agrees with Sutherland, and so do I. I merely questioned Sutherland's assertion that Michael Crichton's State of Fear was the best example of a novel to introduce readers to the science about global warming.

Aach goes one better: he's an insider from the nuclear power industry who wrote Rad Decision, a thriller--which he says gets the technology right--based on his knowledge and experience.

You can read the novel for free online here.

Aach has also written an essay on the hurdles confronting writers who try to keep the science in their fiction authentic; click here to read it.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 22, 2006

What is Paul DiMeo reading?

Paul DiMeo, carpenter of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," recently talked to the Christian Science Monitor about what he was listening to and watching on television. And reading:

I just finished reading Chronicles: Volume One, by Bob Dylan.

I can't get enough Dylan. I had a hard time putting this book down. I also recently read Angels & Demons by Dan Brown. If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code you won't be disappointed with this book. It was a very imaginative, intriguing, and suspenseful read.

Click here to read about DiMeo's tastes in music, movies, and television.
Click here to read an excerpt--and here to listen to a clip-- from Dylan's book.

--Marshal Zeringue

Will "State of Fear" make you smarter about global warming?

"It is unfashionable to assert it, but the novel does, I believe, still have a socio-educational value," writes John Sutherland in an edited excerpt from How to Read a Novel.

He may be right. My own view, however, is that the greatest "socio-educational value" derived from novel reading is in keeping readers from causing, or getting caught up in, all the varieties of trouble that could result if their noses weren't in books.

Sutherland is more positive:
Fiction can make us better, or at least, better informed citizens. In a technological age, for example, it is important that the population should know something about the machinery that makes modern life possible and how it works. Science fiction has done as much for the factual scientific education of the average reader as all the educational reforms introduced since CP Snow's 1959 polemic The Two Cultures lamented his fellow Britons' epidemic ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics. The fact, revealed in a survey by the magazine Wired in November 2005, that 40 per cent of Americans believe that aliens are in the habit of routinely visiting our planet and taking away sample earthlings for full body cavity probes, suggests that sf may also have a lot to answer for in dumbing down the citizenry.
So far, so good. But then Sutherland reaches for one of the weirder examples I can imagine using to advance his thesis.

Michael Crichton's career is a prime example for those, like myself, who want to believe that sf wises up more than it dumbs down. Crichton's The Andromeda Strain was the first true title in the genre to make it to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, in 1969. The novel's breakthrough is attributable to the fact that its descriptions of space hardware (what computers do, for example) made the concurrent moon landings comprehensible to the American population. Crichton's vastly successful Jurassic Park (1990) later introduced a whole generation, via the beloved dinosaur, to the intricacies of Crick and Watson's Nobel-winning discoveries about DNA and the complexities of chaos theory (something that Steven Spielberg prudently left out of the film version).

How much we can trust fiction, even fiction as laboriously researched as Crichton's, to be our educator, remains a moot question. On the strength of his 2004 bestseller, State of Fear, the novelist was invited to testify in 2005 before a US Senate committee investigating climate change. The book is a techno-thriller based on the premise that the greenhouse gas thesis is a gigantic scam, as fallacious as was eugenics in the early 19th century and alchemy in the 17th. And dangerous. The politicians and oil barons love him.

Crichton is unusual in being a novelist with degrees in medicine from Harvard. Why, then, wouldn't he know more about things scientific than some columnist? The fact is, no one knows the accuracy of what Crichton knows, or thinks he knows. Crichton is as likely to be wrong about climate change as he was about the imminent Japanese takeover of America, as outlined in his "Wake up, America!" novel, Rising Sun. Shortly after its publication, the Tokyo real estate market collapsed and the Japanese economy became a basket case.

Readers can still enjoy State of Fear, whether they go along with Crichton or not. And, whatever else, those who get through the book will probably know more about the issues than they did before and may even be stimulated to find out yet more.

Is State of Fear's contribution to the public dialogue on global warming really the best example Sutherland could come up with to back an argument that fiction makes us smarter?

--Marshal Zeringue

V.S. Naipaul on the achievements of the British Empire

Signandsight summarizes an interview from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung:
Literature Nobel Prize laureate V.S. Naipaul talks in an interview with Moritz Behrendt and Daniel Gerlach about irony, travel, the export of democracy and the achievements of the Empire. "We gained much through the Empire. We Indians got things we'd never heard of before. Courts, binding laws, ideas about the value of man. Achievements of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Before that there was not even such a thing as private property in India. Everything more or less belonged to the kings. India is where it is today because of the Empire."
If you read German, experience the entire interview is here.

That flavor of political argument is not exactly a departure for Naipaul. From a mini-profile in the Guardian:
Naipaul's life and work have been characterised by his status as an outsider, first as an Indian in Trinidad, and then as a Trinidadian Indian in England. His work consistently focuses on themes of exile and belonging, and he is cited as the defining voice of post-colonial fiction. While his novels garnered critical acclaim, his travel writing drew stinging political criticism; he was labelled a reactionary and Hindu propagandist for criticising Islamic culture in Among the Believers and Beyond Belief. His talent for controversy was matched by his former protege Paul Theroux, whose feud with Naipaul became public knowledge following the publication of his memoir, Sir Vidia's Shadow. However, even his fiercest critics admire his technical mastery, with Derek Walcott admitting that he is probably "our finest writer of the English sentence".
--Marshal Zeringue

New books by Florida authors

Rebecca Swain writes Shakespeare's Coffee, the Orlando Sentinel's books blog.

She recently attended the Southern Independent Booksellers Association convention and came away from it some recommendations. See her full list here; and here are a couple of titles from Florida writers:
Bermuda Schwartz by Bob Morris (St. Martin's) and Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey (Morrow), both out in February: These two Florida authors mix quirky humor with thrilling mysteries. In Bermuda, Zack Chasteen winds up in the middle of a series of murders, all connected to a strange underwater discovery. Gotta love anyone who can name check "The Dream of the Rood" and key lime pie within the first five pages. Meanwhile, Hurricane finds Serge A. Storms riding out a deadly hurricane season and dueling with a serial killer. So far it's fun, easy reading with a bit of a dark twist. Plus, making me yen for a good hurricane... the drink, people, the DRINK!
Click here to learn more about Tim Dorsey's Hurricane Punch.

Click here to learn more about Bob Morris' Bermuda Schwartz.

--Marshal Zeringue


Yesterday I posted an item at Spot-on about the film version of Trainspotting as the best anti-drug film around.

I've not read the book, but that won't stop me from scribbling about it here.

The publisher isn't shy about singing the novel's praises:
Trainspotting is the novel that first launched Irvine Welsh's spectacular career—an authentic, unrelenting, and strangely exhilarating episodic group portrait of blasted lives. It accomplished for its own time and place what Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn did for his. Rents, Sick Boy, Mother Superior, Swanney, Spuds, and Seeker are as unforgettable a clutch of junkies, rude boys, and psychos as readers will ever encounter.
And its reception was enthusiastic:
"Blisteringly funny...relatively few writers have rummaged through this particular enclave of British youth culture...even fewer have dug there so deeply."— Mark Jolly, The New York Times Book Review

"Irvine Welsh writes with skill, wit, and compassion that amounts to genius. He is the best thing that has happened to British writing for decades."—Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and About a Boy

"Irvine Welsh is the real thing—a marvelous admixture of nihilism and heartbreak, pinpoint realism (especially in dialect and tone), and almost archetypal universality."—David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest

This bio of Welsh could stand updating.

The Guardian's profile of Welsh is worth checking out. There's this quote from the writer:
"It might just be because I'm fucking lazy or whatever, but I've no fucking respect for the writer's craft. It's a lot of fucking nonsense. It's all application. It's nothing to fucking do with skill."
And this note under "Influences":
Welsh has been much compared to Celine, and although the media has fed the myth of an unschooled natural literary phenomenon, he has namechecked authors such as William Burroughs, Alex Trocchi, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, William McIlvanney and Alan Spence in interviews - while always insisting that music, such as Iggy Pop's, has been his greatest influence.
--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pg. 69: "The Mercy of Thin Air"

Ronlyn Domingue's debut novel The Mercy of Thin Air recently caught my attention.

The book has grabbed considerable praise, including this gem from bestselling author Jodi Picoult: "This is that rarest of first novels--a truly original voice, and a truly original story."

Read a synopsis of The Mercy of Thin Air here.

I asked the author to apply the "page 69 test" to her novel. Here's her reply:

Mr. McLuhan’s page 69 theory sent me into a panic. Forget book jackets and blurbs. Does a book allow a glimpse at its soul on that page? I grabbed some favorite titles from my shelves: The Ogre, To Kill a Mockingbird, Winter’s Tale, Catfish and Mandala. In my opinion, they all passed the test. Oh no.

I fanned through my novel. Ah, well, page 69 is the first page of Part Two. Not a bad place to start. I read the paragraphs, paused, and decided I’d read my own book after all.

The excerpt reveals several recurring elements in The Mercy of Thin Air. (Frankly, I was surprised.) On this page alone, the reader finds a character’s refusal to deal with the past, unusual manifestations of the senses, intimacy and sexuality, and subtle observations of human interaction.

Who knew one little old page could divulge so much?

Set in 1920s New Orleans and present-day Louisiana, The Mercy of Thin Air is about Raziela Nolan, who is in the throes of a magnificent love affair when she dies in a tragic accident. In an instant, she leaves behind her one true love and her dream of becoming a doctor--but somehow, she still remains. Immediately after her death, Razi chooses to stay between--a realm that exists after life and before whatever lies beyond it. Seventy-five years later, in this ghost-like state, Razi takes residence with a troubled couple whose history mirrors her own. Her intervention in their lives forces her to face the truth of what happened to her beloved Andrew and the nature of her very existence.

I often say that my novel is part love story, part “ghost” story, and part exploration of our fragile human lives and memories. Thoughtful readers who’ve shared their comments tend to agree. Although, I have to say, they’ve found more layers in this book that I ever intended or imagined. What gifts they have given me. . .

From The Mercy of Thin Air, page 69

Amy didn’t watch the rest of the DVD Chloe had sent her, but I did. There were only a few minutes left. The footage was taken at a party. People waved at the camera and talked to Chloe, the voice behind the lens. The microphone hummed with music and chatter. The shot moved through a dining room next to a narrow kitchen doorway. On the wall behind Amy was a calendar, August 1992. She hugged the dark-haired young man, and he clearly didn’t want them to be interrupted. They shared a strangely intimate moment for such a celebratory atmosphere. He was talking, but his voice did not come through. I strained through the noise and read his lips--It’ll be okay, he said. We’ll have the whole drive up. Sex in at least one strange bed. He nudged her, and she smiled. Thanksgiving will be here before you know it. This is only temporary.

For several days after she hid the disc, the essence of another man billowed intermittently throughout the house. More often, she snapped her head toward doorways and furniture corners with no discernable reason why. Amy was not reacting to me, I knew: there was another reason for her jitters.

Within that time, Amy stopped watching Scott as he slept before she left for work. Then one morning, and another, and each one after, she didn’t kiss him goodbye. The only habit she kept was to keep him warm.

(c) Ronlyn Domingue, 2005

Many thanks to Ronlyn for the input.

The publisher offers a couple of excerpts--here and here--that grabbed my interest along with the author's comments above; I'll definitely move this novel up on my "to read" list.

Meg Wolitzer reviewed The Mercy of Thin Air for the Washington Post:

Character itself is the focus of Ronlyn Domingue's The Mercy of Thin Air, which, like Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, employs a dead narrator to comment on the activities of the living. But Domingue's Razi Nolan is a more stylized creature than Sebold's murdered Susie Salmon....

Because this is essentially a ghost story, Domingue loads up on atmosphere. She also provides an original and compelling plotline about certain clandestine all-female parties held in the 1920s at which young women are educated about contraception and sexual awareness: "Diaphragms are similar to pessaries but have a spring hinge that folds so they can be properly placed. They are not yet readily available here. You must be fitted by a doctor and taught to use them. If you haven't married yet, get a fake wedding ring. Most doctors won't tell you a thing if you don't have a husband."

Blending the practical matters of marriage with the sentimental, Domingue has fashioned an emotionally satisfying story of love and longing.

For more reviews, click here.

There are a number of print and audio interviews with Ronlyn Domingue available here.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue

Céline's "Journey to the End of the Night"

Chris of "escapegrace," who calls Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night "one of the darkest, most hilarious, bleakest, and most profound books I've ever read," posted a fine item about the book yesterday.

There are choice passages from the book as well as from Will Self's related essay in the New York Times.

Click here to read all about it.

--Marshal Zeringue

“The Greatest Story Ever Sold”

Gary Kamiya reviews Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold in Salon today. It's a review Rich will love.

A better review is Ian Buruma's in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. It's better because Buruma uses his space to point out that it took that august newspaper's former theater critic to write some of the more penetrating and accurate analysis of foreign policy to appear in the paper in recent years (Kamiya makes this point, too), and that the New York Times itself did such a poor job of independently reporting the actions of the White House that led to the war in Iraq.

So much for that canard about the New York Times as a pillar of the liberal media.

Here's Buruma:

Rich’s subject is the creation of false reality. “The Greatest Story Ever Sold” is not about policies, or geopolitical analysis. The pros and cons of removing Saddam Hussein by force, the consequences of American military intervention in the Middle East and the threat of Islamist extremism are given scant attention. The author, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, has his liberal views, which are not strikingly original. I happen to agree with him that Karl Rove and George Bush manipulated public fear and wartime patriotism to win elections, and that Dick Cheney and his neocon cheerleaders favored a war in Iraq long before 9/11 “to jump-start a realignment of the Middle East.” Whether Rich is right to say that this has “little or nothing to do with the stateless terrorism of Al Qaeda” is debatable. The neocons may well have believed that an American remake of the Middle East was the best way to tackle terrorism.

They were almost certainly mistaken. But the point of Rich’s fine polemic is that the Bush administration has consistently lied about the reasons for going to war, about
the way it was conducted and about the terrible consequences. Whatever the merits of removing a dictator, waging war under false pretenses is highly damaging to a democracy, especially when one of the ostensible aims is to spread democracy to others. If Rich is correct, which I think he is, the Bush administration has given hypocrisy a bad name.

Read the rest of the Buruma review here; read the Salon review here.

The Weekly Standard is not so impressed with Rich.

Last December, Bryan Curtis of Slate did a Rich-like analysis of...Frank Rich.

--Marshal Zeringue