Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ten of the best mirrors in literature

At the Guardian, John Mullan named ten of the best mirrors in literature.

One novel on the list:
Dracula, by Bram Stoker

A mirror shows Jonathan Harker that he really is in a fix. "This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror!" Gulp!
Read about the other entries on the list.

Dracula is one of Arthur Phillips' six favorite books set in places that their authors never visited and one of Anthony Browne's six best books. It is one of the books on Mullan's list of ten of the best wolves in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tim Pigott-Smith's six best books

Tim Pigott-Smith is best known in the UK for roles in the television dramas The Jewel In The Crown, The Chief and The Vice. He also writes The Baker Street Mysteries children’s books.

He named his six best books for the Daily Express.

One entry on the list:
The Sign of Four
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have always been a Sherlock Holmes fanatic. I’d devour the stories as a child and I’ve even written books about the street kids who help him solve crimes, a mark of my obsession. This novel about a jewel theft is phenomenally exciting with a fantastic climax. Holmes is the ultimate crime-solver.
Read about all of the books on Pigott-Smith's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 29, 2010

Five books on Afghanistan

Thomas Barfield, an anthropology professor at Boston University, is the author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.

At FiveBooks, he discussed five books on Afghanistan with Daisy Banks. One book on the list:
The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun

[Banks:] Tell me about your first choice, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun.

[Barfield:] Ibn Khaldun began writing the book in 1375 so it’s certainly the oldest on my list. It is also a unique work from that period in its attempt to analyse the context of history by understanding how societies organise themselves and how different modes of organisation can affect the interactions amongst people.

The book has had a really powerful influence on me, in part because I began my work by studying nomads similar to those Khaldun writes about and calls desert people. Although Bedouin nomads are his prime example, he explains that it is a way of life that encompasses all the people who live at the margins, whether that be the mountains, or the steppes or the deserts and he asks the basic question: Why could such people who come from the margins and aren’t particularly sophisticated manage to form so many dynasties of the Arab Near East and North Africa?

He looks at how their form of socialisation in a tough environment gives them a group solidarity that can be a great military advantage in times of conflict, and, when the opportunity is ripe, allows them to conquer more populous regions. But these opportunities are rare because sedentary civilisations, areas of urban high culture and irrigated agriculture, are generally economically more prosperous and politically powerful. People there have weak social solidarity but strong economic integration. They therefore maintain complex political organisations and professional militaries that can fend off these people from the margins. But he notes that their lack of internal solidarity creates a vulnerability when incompetent ruling dynasties become bankrupt – no one is there to defend them from outside invaders. As Khaldun saw it, it was charismatic leaders from marginal regions that restored order and founded new dynasties; dynasties that then also decline in four generations and themselves are replaced by new outsiders. So for a person who looks at Afghanistan, there are some wonderfully interesting parallels that he describes.

So you definitely see echoes of what he was talking about centuries ago still happening today?

There are echoes but it is not entirely similar to his Bedouin groups because Afghan history is also affected by people coming out of Central Asia that have a different model of tribal organisation which is more hierarchical. They are more willing to accept leadership. They have ruling clans as opposed to everybody believing that he can be the ruler and that sets up a different political dynamic.

That is why you get the long-lived dynasties like the Ottoman Empire, which lasted 800 years, and the Mughuls, who lasted more than 300 years. Obviously they lasted for more than four generations. So what I wanted to see is what happens in this interaction zone, and what we find is an Afghan dynasty that lasts for 230 years – which is much more like the Turks. But if you look at it internally you see that it follows an Ibn Khaldun cycle, which is that clans within the royal élite fight and replace each other on a four generation cycle just as Khaldun describes in his book. So we see this interesting dynamic in which the highly egalitarian Pashtun tribes find it easier to accept the legitimacy of a royal clan because they could never agree on who had the right to replace it. It was finally overthrown in 1978 by communists attempting to topple the entire system. After more than two decades of war, it is interesting that the Bonn Accord chose Karzai, whose ancestors first founded the Afghan state. The interesting thing is that Karzai comes out of that descent group. In other words, while thinking we were creating a new democracy we were in fact helping to restore the same sort of ruling dynastic élite that had previously governed Afghanistan.
Read about the other books on Barfield's list.

Also see Ann Marlowe's five best books about Afghanistan.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Five fittest books on animal survival

Bernd Heinrich is a renowned naturalist and emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont. His new book is The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy.

For the Wall Street Journal, he named a five best list of book on animal survival.

One title on the list:
Honeybee Democracy
by Thomas D. Seeley (2010)

In HONEYBEE DEMOCRACY, Thomas Seeley explains how a honeybee colony divides and reproduces: A contingent of 10,000 bees or more communicate among themselves and arrive unanimously at a decision about the best available new home. Building on a lifetime of observation and experimentation, Seeley relates the story with admirable clarity as we see his beloved honeybees—which have been in the consensus-building business for perhaps 200 million years—embark on the establishment of a new outpost. The process begins with a few scout bees and involves a vigorous debate before an agreement is reached. Then, on a signal, the group leaves en masse for the chosen place, likely a hollow tree some kilometers distant that the majority of the bees have never seen before. This spirit of cooperation, Seeley says, has much to tell us about solving complex human problems.
Read about the other books on the list.

Winter World by Bernd Heinrich made Bill Streever's five best list of books on extreme cold.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Top 10 ghost stories

Kate Mosse is the author of Labyrinth, Sepulchre, and other novels, works of non-fiction, short stories and a play, Syrinx, which won a Broadcasting Press Guild award in 2009.

She named her top ten ghost stories for the Guardian. One title on the list:
"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)

From the master of the morbid imagination, this gem of a story blurs the edges between horror and ghost fiction. A murderer's guilty conscience gets the better of him, driving him to confess his crime. The unnamed narrator murders an old man with a "vulture eye". He plans carefully and hides the body by dismembering it, but his guilt will not let him rest. Is he imagining the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards or is there something there? Gripping and horrifying, the perfect mix of horror and Gothic, the forerunner of the psychological ghost stories that were to come into vogue.
Read about the other entries on the list.

Visit Kate Mosse's website.

The Page 69 Test: Sepulchre.

Also see: Brad Leithauser's five best ghost tales, James Hynes' top ten Halloween stories, and Peter Washington's top ten ghost stories.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Nicole Krauss's four favorite new books

Nicole Krauss's new novel is Great House.

She recently named her four favorite new books for The Daily Beast. One title on the list:
by Tom McCarthy

The novel as a form is surprisingly undefined: there’s almost nothing it necessarily need be or not be. This murkiness or flexibility offers tremendous freedom, and it sometimes surprises me that more novelists don’t seize it. Tom McCarthy, author of various literary manifestos, has some strong ideas about what the novel should strive for. I don’t happen to agree with them, but they’re uncommon ideas, and as such they stretch and torque his novels in unexpected ways. McCarthy doesn’t like the word “experimental” applied to his work, nor should he. To experiment is not to know in advance the outcome, and what great art hasn’t, on some level, reached into unknown territory? In a literary moment, at least in America, that feels surprisingly conservative, with much praise for a return to conventional forms after the “high jinks” of postmodernism, reading C was, for me, perhaps not exactly what its author meant for it to be: reassuring.
Read about the other books Krauss recommends.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 25, 2010

15 classic science fiction & fantasy novels that publishers rejected

At io9, Charlie Jane Anders and Michael Ann Dobbs came up with a list of well-known and beloved science fiction and fantasy novels that were rejected over and over.

One novel on the list:
Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

This rejection story's got everything: a crusader against censorship being censored, a Soviet spy, and famous poet T.S. Elliot. When Orwell first shopped the book around in 1944, everyone viewed it as excessively critical of the USSR, while the USSR was helping Britain defeat Nazi Germany. Four publishers rejected Animal Farm, including Orwell's regular publisher. Another publisher accepted the novel, but then rejected it at the request of Peter Smollett, an official working in the British Ministry of Information. Smollett was later revealed as a Soviet spy. Faber and Faber also rejected the book, with T.S. Eliot penning the letter himself. Refusing the book for being "generally Trotskyite," he added, "We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the current time." In fact, the book would not be published until WWII was over.

After finding a publisher, Orwell wrote a preface to Animal Farm, "Freedom of the Press," about self-censorship during the war. In it he stated that, "Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness." The preface was not published. Source: Taylor, David John (2003). Orwell: The Life. H. Holt. p. 197.
Read about the other books on the list. 

Animal Farm is one of Chuck Klosterman's most important books; it appears on John Mullan's list of ten of the best pigs in literature.

Also see: ten classic sci-fi books that were originally considered failures.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ten of the best balls in literature

At the Guardian, John Mullan named ten of the best balls in literature.

One novel on the list:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Kitty goes to a ball prepared to perform the first quadrille with Vronsky. Tolstoy seems to know not only about her feelings of excitement, but also about the arrangement of her tulle dress over her pink slip and elaborate coiffure "surmounted by a rose and two small leaves". Everyone wants to dance with her, naturellement.
Read about the other entries on Mullan's list.

Anna Karenina also appears on Esther Freud's list top ten list of love stories, Elizabeth Kostova's list of favorite books, James Gray's list of best books, Marie Arana's list of the best books about love, Ha Jin's most important books list, Tom Perrotta's ten favorite books list, Claire Messud's list of her five most important books, Alexander McCall Smith's list of his five most important books, Mohsin Hamid's list of his ten favorite books, Louis Begley's list of favorite novels about cheating lovers, and among the top ten works of literature according to Peter Carey and Norman Mailer. John Mullan put it on his list of ten of the best births in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Willie Geist's six favorite humor books

Willie Geist is the host of MSNBC's "Way Too Early With Willie Geist," co-host of "Morning Joe," and the author of the new book, American Freak Show.

For The Week magazine, he named his six favorite humor books.

One title on the list:
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Take your pick of Sedaris’ books. I like this account of his impossibly messed-up family by a nose over Naked. As someone who fumbled through a semester in France, losing just about everything in translation, I appreciate it when the author points to calf’s brains in a shop and asks the butcher, “Is thems the thoughts of cows?” Sedaris is the good kind of crazy.
Read about the other books on Geist's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 22, 2010

Nicholas Farrell's six best books

Nicholas Farrell is an actor who has appeared in films, plays and television shows including Chariots Of Fire and the TV series Foyle's War. He is appearing in Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre, London.

He named his six best books for the Daily Express. One title on the list:
The Cossacks
by Leo Tolstoy

This might be one of his lesser-known novels but I read it years ago and it had a profound influence on me. It’s about a Russian aristocrat who joins the army and is posted to the Caucasus where he falls in love with a local girl.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ten classic SF books that were originally considered failures

At io9, Charlie Jane Anders and Michael Ann Dobbs came up with a list of ten classic science fiction books that were originally considered failures.

One novel on the list:
Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Rayner Unwin, Tolkien's publisher, wrote to his father, Sir Stanley Unwin, that this series could lose their company a thousand pounds. His father responded that if Rayner really believed the books were a work of genius, "then you may lose a thousand pounds." (Rayner was also responsible for dividing the story into three books, but also fought against cutting anything out of it.) In the event, according to Leslie Jones' biography of Tolkien (page 101) The Fellowship Of The Ring's original print run of 3,500 copies sold out within six weeks, necessitating a second printing.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Lord of the Rings also made Lev Grossman's list of the six greatest fantasy books of all time, and appears on John Mullan's lists of ten of the best towers in literature, ten of the best volcanoes in literature, ten of the best chases in literature, and ten of the best monsters in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Top 10 time travel books

Charles Yu's debut novel is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and he has also received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. His work has been published in the Harvard Review, The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, and Mid-American Review, among other journals.

He named his top ten time travel books for the Guardian. One novel on the list:
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

Vonnegut's classic about a protagonist who comes "unstuck in time" is a four-dimensional cross-section (a novel) of a four-dimensional object (a life). A discontinuous, non-chronological examination of Billy Pilgrim's temporal existence, especially his time in the war and the fire-bombing of Dresden. Plus, Trafalmadorians. As Professor Jack Gladney says, in Don DeLillo's White Noise, "All plots tend to move deathward." The truth of this statement is never more clear than in a time travel narrative, and particularly in Slaughterhouse-Five. Even though we are rarely moving in a straight, forward direction in time through this book, we are always, in every story, inevitably moving toward The End.
Read about the other entries on Yu's list.

Slaughterhouse-5 also made Sebastian Beaumont's top 10 list of books about psychological journeys and Tiffany Murray's top ten black comedies list.

Also see Linda Buckley-Archer's top ten time-travelling stories.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

James Franco's six best books

James Franco is an actor, director, screenwriter and artist. His film appearances include Milk, Pineapple Express, the Spider-Man trilogy, Howl, and 127 Hours. His writing has appeared in Esquire, the Wall Street Journal, and McSweeney’s. His new short story collection, Palo Alto, has just been released by Scribner.

Franco told The Daily Beast about his six favorite books. One title on his list:
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

I loved Faulkner’s use of voice in As I Lay Dying. Not just the way the chapters are told by different characters in first person, but the way that the characters’ interior and exterior voices clash. The interior monologues are so much richer and more complex for Faulkner. He gives voice to the characters’ emotions for them. This isn’t a short story collection, but each character has his or her own story and perspective even if they are all linked by the burial of Addie.
Read about the other books on Franco's list.

As I Lay Dying is one of Roy Blount Jr.'s five favorite books of Southern humor.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ten of the best taxis in literature

For the Guardian, John Mullan named 10 of the best taxis in literature.

One novel on the list:
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Narrator Jake Barnes first becomes intimate with Lady Brett Ashley, the liberated Englishwoman whom he loves but cannot sexually fulfil, in the back of a taxi driving round Paris. Hemingway's novel ends in the back of another taxi, driving through Madrid, with Jake and Brett discussing what could have been.
Read about the other titles on the list. 

The Sun Also Rises came in at #6 on the American Book Review list of the 100 best last lines from novels; it is a book that Andre Dubus III frequently returns to.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Five best books on terror in America from another era

Beverly Gage teaches at Yale University and is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.

For the Wall Street Journal, she named a five best list of books about terror in America from another era.

One title on the list:
Death in the Haymarket
by James Green (2006)

A century ago the "anarchist bomb-thrower" was a widely feared specter in American politics. In "Death in the Haymarket," labor historian James Green explores the reality behind the image. Delivering a gripping account of Americans' first major encounter with anarchist violence. On May 4, 1886, a bomb exploded when Chicago police tried to disperse a labor demonstration in Haymarket Square. In the explosion and riot that followed, seven policemen were killed, sparking national outrage. Green vividly recounts the ensuing trial, in which eight anarchists condemned to death (four were eventually hanged) essentially for their beliefs—though the actual bomb-thrower was never found. The book's greatest value lies in its evocation of Gilded Age class conflict, showing how the bombing emerged from, and ultimately shaped, struggles over labor policies such as the eight-hour day. Though the context could hardly be more different, "Death in the Haymarket" touches on issues still at the heart of the debate over terrorism, including civil liberties, immigration and free speech.
Read about the other books on the list.

Visit Beverly Gage's Yale faculty webpage, and learn more about The Day Wall Street Exploded at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Day Wall Street Exploded.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Six favorite Marx Brothers books

Roy Blount Jr. is the author of 22 books, including Alphabet Juice and the new Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, an appreciation of the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup.

For The Week magazine, he named his six favorite Marx Brothers books. One title on the list:
Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers by Simon Louvish

A solid biography of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo. Not to mention their frequent supporting player Margaret Dumont, whose mysterious background Louvish sorts out.
Read about the other books on the list.

Visit Roy Blount Jr.'s website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 15, 2010

Five best books on bibliomania

Allison Hoover Bartlett is the author of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession.

For the Wall Street Journal, she named a five best list of books on bibliomania. One title on the list:
Books: A Memoir
by Larry McMurtry (2008)

Larry McMurtry, the author of "Lonesome Dove" and "The Last Picture Show," grew up in a virtually bookless home. His first encounter with storytelling was listening to the adults in his family gossip on their Texas porch. This was probably to his advantage—certainly to ours: his ear for the seductive rhythm and pace of aural tradition graces this memoir of 50 years of hunting, buying and selling books. While maintaining a substantial used-book business in Archer, Texas, he also added to his own collection—about 28,000 volumes at last report. How he built both is a captivating story populated by legendary bookmen, enterprising scouts and endearing eccentrics. What makes McMurtry different from other book collectors is that his love of acquiring books is matched, maybe even surpassed, by his love of actually reading them.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Top 10 cycling novels

William Fotheringham is the Guardian's cycling columnist and the author of Cyclopedia: It's All About the Bike.

For his newspaper, he named a top ten list of cycling novels. One title on the list:
The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

Magical realist detective story by one of Ireland's greats, featuring a pair of bike-mad policemen, celebrated for the "atomic theory" according to which bike nuts become half-man, half bike and the machines develop human characteristics. "You can tell a man with a lot of bike in his veins by his walk," writes O'Brien. Some may question whether this is fiction.
Read about the other novels on Fotheringham's list.

Flann O'Brien is on Max McGuinness' list of four unjustly overlooked Irish writers.

Also see Matt Seaton's top 10 books about cycling.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Paul Muldoon's 6 favorite recent books

Paul Muldoon is a Pulitzer Prize–winning Irish poet. He told The Week magazine about six of his favorite recent books.

One title on the list:
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick

David Remnick’s revelatory, riveting account of a president whose work is also “about freedom.” Obama is described by an admiring Bob Dylan as being “like a fictional character, but he’s real.”
Read about the other books on Muldoon's list.

Learn more about Paul Muldoon's latest poetry collection, Maggot, and read his poem "Plan B."

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ten of the best wolves in literature

At the Guardian, John Mullan named a list of ten of the best wolves in literature.

One title on the list:
Dracula, by Bram Stoker

As Jonathan Harker is taken to the count's castle he finds the coach seemingly followed by wolves. When he arrives he hears the mountains echoing to their howls. His host delights in the sound. "Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!" They are Dracula's fellow "hunters" and respond to his commands.
Read about the other wolves on the list.

Dracula is one of Arthur Phillips' six favorite books set in places that their authors never visited and one of Anthony Browne's six best books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ten best baseball books

Yankees fan and Christian Science Monitor book editor Marjorie Kehe came up with a ten best list of baseball books.

One title on her list:
The Natural, by Bernard Malamud.

It's almost impossible not to like this dark but poetic novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Bernard Malamud about a naturally gifted baseball player who, outside the ballpark, proves only too human.
Read about the other titles on the list.

The Natural is one of Nicholas Dawidoff's five best baseball novels.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sheila Hancock's six best books

Sheila Hancock first found fame in BBC sitcom The Rag Trade in 1961 and has been a fixture on stage and TV ever since. She played "Grandma" in the 2008 movie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Hancock named her six best books for the Daily Express. One title on her list:
Wuthering Heights
by Emily Brontë

I read this as a child and was madly in love with the book’s hero Heathcliff. I think the last paragraph is one of the best bits of writing in the English language. I love the Brontës, full stop and I still think this is a wonderful book.
Read about the other books on Hancock's list.

Wuthering Heights appears on Valerie Martin's list of novels about doomed marriages, Susan Cheever's list of the five best books about obsession, and Melissa Katsoulis' top 25 list of book to film adaptations. It is one of John Inverdale's six best books.

The Page 99 Test: Wuthering Heights.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Top 10 British memoirs

At the Guardian, Robert McCrum named his top ten British memoirs.

Part of his essay:
What do we expect from a memoir? Gossip, certainly; revelations and characters, yes; wit, please; a whiff of nostalgia, perhaps. Inevitably, there will be lies, vanity and betrayal: that's part of the frisson. Probably the one quality I look for in the author of a great autobiography is that he or she should be as merciless on themselves as on their adversaries. The great memoirist should face themselves in the mirror with an unflinching gaze.

The poster-boy of the self-pitiless autobiography is John Osborne in A Better Class of Person and Almost A Gentleman. Yes, he eviscerated Nellie, his poor old mum, and Jill Bennett ("Adolf"), an ex-wife, but he flayed himself, too. Osborne was a true artist and did not, to paraphrase Auden, confuse art with magic, as some try to do. For Osborne, art was a mirror whose proper effect was disenchantment. Searing honesty was Osborne's calling card.
Read about the other books on McCrum's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 8, 2010

5 best books from Nobel winners who didn't win their medal for literature

At the Huffington Post, Sammy Perlmutter tagged the five best books from Nobel winners who didn't win their medal for literature.

One book on the list:
Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama

President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." He is also the author of three books, "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream" and the soon-to-be-released children's picture book "Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters." Among these, "Dreams from My Father," a poignant memoir written years before Obama began a political career, sheds an uncommon light on the commander in chief.
Read about all five books on the list.

Dreams from My Father also appears on Iain Finlayson's critic's chart of six books on young leaders.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Five best books on Rome

Harry Sidebottom was brought up in racing stables in Newmarket where his father was a trainer. He had a basket saddle on a donkey before he could walk. He was educated at various schools and universities, including Oxford, where he took his Doctorate in Ancient History at Corpus Christi College. In similar fashion he has taught at various universities including Oxford, where he is now Fellow and Director of Studies in Ancient History at St Benets Hall, and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College.

At FiveBooks, with Anna Blundy, he discussed five books on Ancient Rome. One of the titles:
The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins

Probably the most exciting new book on ancient history for years. Unbelievably readable, in a popular style. It takes very complicated scholarly ideas published in obscure places in a range of languages and makes them clear, accessible, understandable and interesting.

Like what?

There has been a trend for about 25 years among American and British scholars arguing that the fall of the Roman Empire was all about compromise, diplomacy and accommodation. It wasn’t about burning and raping and pillaging. It was all actually quite nice. They just said: ‘Come on in you hairy Germans and rule us.’ Perkins has driven a horse and cart through this and shown that it’s not true.

So it was just all rape and murder?

It was all rape and murder. The kind of negotiation that went on was the kind that happens after a huge Vandal army has conquered you. Of course, the leaders who remained had to reach some kind of rapprochement.

And he’s wonderfully anecdotal. He starts with this bit from one of the church fathers discussing the problem of the number of nuns raped by Barbarians and whether or not they still count as virgins. I forget now what the answer was. It also has the virtue of being rather short.

Unlike that huge thing about the fall of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon? Yes. Unlike that. And it’s got really nice pictures, maps and plans. It’s 183 pages long. Some books are too long to read. I can’t say that. It’s the end of my career.
Read about the other books on the list.

Also see Lindsey Davis' top ten Roman books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Top 10 writers on the telephone

Nicholas Royle's first novel, Quilt, is a study of grief in which the news of a father's death is delivered suddenly and brutally by telephone.

For the Guardian, he named a top ten list of writers on the telephone.

One entry on his list:
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)

Perhaps more than any other writer, Chandler established the central importance of the telephone in modern detective stories. It is difficult, indeed, to think of a contemporary crime investigation narrative that doesn't depend on telephones (this is true of TV too, of course: it's the very raison d'être of The Wire). In The Little Sister (1949), Chandler's melancholy loner detective Marlowe expresses a common feeling that has only proliferated in the era of mobile phones: "Let the telephone ring, please. Let there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again..."
Read about the other writers on Royle's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Five best cozy mysteries

At FiveBooks, Sophie Roell talked with author M. C. Beaton about five special cozy mysteries.

Their exchange about one book on Beaton's list:
What about Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson?

Being Scottish, it’s one I can read again and again. I think the difference between the Lowland Scot and the Highlander is really brought out between Alan Breck and David Balfour. It’s very well written, very well done – and I think Robert Louis Stevenson has great charm. He’s very hard on marriage, you know. He seems to be rather sour about marriage, but not in this book.

Isn’t it more of a teenage book?

I suppose it would be, but it still captures my heart – particularly as I write about the Highlands in the Hamish Macbeth stories. The fact that he’s captured the character of the Highlander – which is still a different creature to the Lowland Scot.

Are you a Highlander yourself?

No, I’m not: I was born in Glasgow. We had a croft in the North of Scotland, up in Hamish Macbeth country for a short time. It’s wonderful countryside, a marvellous setting for a murder. The wind just screams from horizon to horizon – it’s like living in a speeded-up nature film. You open up the kitchen door and catch a passing sheep… So that is the attraction of Kidnapped.

When did you read it?

I read it when I was in my teens, of course. I read it again about five years ago, and it still charmed me. It’s the same with Through the Looking Glass, though I haven’t put that down as one of my choices. I think it’s simply because of having lived in the Highlands, and my husband having sheep in the Highlands, and having fallen in love with the better side of the Highland character.
Read about Beaton's other picks.

also appears on John Mullan's lists of ten of the best wicked uncles in literature, ten of the best misers in literature, ten of the best shipwrecks, and ten of the best towers in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ten of the best vendettas in literature

At the Guardian, John Mullan named a list of ten of the best vendettas in literature.

One entry on the list:
Atreides vs Harkonnen

The names sound like a mix of Greek tragedy and Icelandic saga, but this is the sci-fi world of Frank Herbert's Dune (and its many sequels). A feud has raged between these families for thousands of years on the desert planet Arakis, only source of the priceless spice mélange. The politics of this murderous struggle are byzantine, and only for the devoted reader.
Read about the other vendettas on the list.

Dune is also on John Mullan's list of ten of the best deserts in literature and among the best and worst childbirth scenes in sci-fi & fantasy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Six books that made a difference to Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's novels include Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize and was adapted into an award-winning film. Ishiguro’s work has been translated into forty languages. In 1995, he received an Order of the British Empire for service to literature, and in 1998 was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

He told O, The Oprah Magazine about the books that made a difference to him.

One novel on the list:
Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy

When I arrived in England as a small boy from Japan, I promptly became obsessed with cowboys. I never fell out of love with Westerns, and became a huge fan of the great films of Ford, Hawks, Leone, Eastwood, and Peckinpah. But where were their literary equivalents? To an outsider, this is a gaping hole in American letters. But I found one magnificent novel, a work of unambiguously high ambition that takes on the myths of the frontier. The reach of McCarthy's book is such that it goes way beyond America: It stares unflinchingly at human nature itself—at the darkness and violence from which we're built, individually and societally. The story follows a gang of gunfighters who rampage around a Texas already scarred by butchery. Commissioned to slaughter hostile Native Americans, they are paid by the scalp, and soon cease to care where the scalps come from. There are staggering images of savagery, many of them hauntingly beautiful. Not for everyone (my wife always stops at the first massacre), but this is a monumental work of art.
Read about the other books on Ishiguro's list.

Blood Meridian
is one authority's pick for the Great Texas novel and is among Clive Sinclair's top 10 westerns, Maile Meloy's six best books, and FDavid Foster Wallace's five direly underappreciated post-1960 U.S. novels. It appears on the New York Times list of the best American fiction of the last 25 years and among the top ten works of literature according to Stephen King.

Read more on Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The novel appears among the (London) Times' 100 best books of the last decade.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Five best: international crime fiction

Geoffrey O'Brien is a poet, editor, and cultural historian. He is editor in chief for the Library of America. His nonfiction books include The Fall of the House of Walworth, Hardboiled America, Dreamtime, The Times Square Story, Red Sky Café, and Sonata for Jukebox.

For the Wall Street Journal, he named a five best list of international crime fiction.

One novel on his list:
The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum, 2007

'The Water's Edge,' which traces the investigation of a young boy's random murder, is notably free of melodramatic complication and sleight-of-hand: Karin Fossum offers up scenes of rural Norwegian life that could pass as documentary observation. This is crime fiction as transcription of ordinary misery, with the horrors of violent death taking their place among the slower but finally no less destructive malaise of marital impasse, social rejection and children's capacity for cruelty. The degree to which the characters are bound to their milieu is made apparent at every turn—sometimes, in didactic bits of dialogue, almost too apparent. But the sense of place is relentlessly exact. Fossum, who began as a poet, evokes haunted landscapes and claustrophobic interiors with stark precision. Her protagonist, Inspector Sejer, is just the detective for such a book, somber, laconic, almost burnt out by what he has seen.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 1, 2010

Best and worst childbirth scenes in sci-fi & fantasy

At io9, Charlie Jane Anders and Kelly Faircloth developed a list of the best and worst childbirth scenes in science fiction and fantasy.

One novel--from a collection that includes more television shows and movies--among the best scenes:
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The powerful birth scene in this novel makes Atwood's point very clearly. The way this society treats birth is meant to dissolve any connection between the biological mother and her child, keeping her as a brood mare rather than a Wife. There are parallel deliveries: The handmaid gives birth, surrounded by other handmaids, then the infant is handed off to the Wife, surrounded by other Wives. The work of reproduction and child-rearing are split right down the middle, denying the mothers any influence over society's future.
Read the rest of the feature.

The Handmaid's Tale made Lisa Tuttle's critic's chart of the top Arthur C. Clarke Award winners and PopCrunch's list of the sixteen best dystopian books of all time.

--Marshal Zeringue